Saturday, April 14, 2018

Author Visit: Erin Soderberg Downing

I remember when I first sent Erin Soderberg Downing the message that Oxford Elementary School would be reading The Quirks: Welcome to Normal for OES Reads, our whole-school community book this year. Erin's excitement about this news matched mine. I remember she almost immediately started thinking about how she might be able to make the trek from Minneapolis to Maine to meet these to-be OES Read-ers in person. 

This week we concluded OES Reads 2018, and Erin was in Maine, at OES, to wrap it all up.

All through our conversation leading up to her visit, Erin insisted it was important to her that every OES Read-er have the opportunity to have their book signed. It made for a very tight and full day, but soon after the students had arrived and the Pledge of Allegiance had been said, we set out to meet the rigorous challenge. Twenty-two classrooms (PreK-6), roughly 400 students, and just about four hours to do it.

Erin was incredible.

Erin made every classroom we went into feel she was there specifically for them, flexibly adapting to whatever was happening in the room when we dropped in. She personalized book after book while fielding questions from bouncy, excited kindergarteners through thoughtful, curious sixth graders. And, she delivered bookmarks for everyone so that no reader went home without a souvenir of the day.

Reserving time for lunch would have been tough if not for a lunch date we made for Erin to meet with several fifth grade students who have had a chance to read the advanced reader copy of the first book in her next series, The Daring Dreamers Club: Milla Takes Charge (June 5, 2018). The students were all ears as Erin told stories of the writing process, changes that have happened in readying the book for publication, and gave hints about what is to come in books two and three. They asked questions and shared their first impressions with Erin.

The day closed with a whole-school closing assembly for OES Reads, our whole-school community reading initiative. This year, the assembly culminated a six-week window in which readers and their families read The Quirks: Welcome to Normal, completed some activities from our activity calendar, answered trivia to win prizes, and attended a Quirks-themed Family Literacy Night.

Even though Erin had already answered a lot of questions throughout the day in her classroom drop-ins, the students were attentive to Erin's presentation about how The Quirks came to be and the stories she shared from writing The Quirks and Puppy Pirates. OES Read-ers were treated to an outtake chapter from The Quirks as Erin talked about revisions that mean big changes to the book. And, they had the chance to ask more questions (and did!).

Together, we listened to Erin read the Epilogue from The Quirks: Welcome to Normal, celebrated a few second grade writers who had written haiku inspired by The Quirks, and sang a quirky little tune written by one of our regular substitutes.

The students and staff at OES loved Erin, with many remarking later that day and the next about how terrific she had been and how much it meant to the students to meet her. 

Truly, it is the most important magical work to make it possible, and I'm so grateful to Erin for sharing such enthusiasm about OES Reads and her generosity and willingness to make this day a reality for our school community. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bat and the Waiting Game Blog Tour

I love the idea that readers make friendships with characters they meet in the books they read. Sometimes when I read a book, I meet a character who I think would enrich the lives of all of my students.

I think all of our readers should be friends with Bat.

Bat is Bixby Alexander Tam, a charming, animal-loving, younger brother and friend in Elana K. Arnold's chapter book series with Walden Pond Press. In the first book, A Boy Called Bat, readers meet Bat and learn about his family including an older sister (Janie), his veterinarian mother, and his dad, at whose house he spends Every-Other Weekend. Readers experience Bat's love for all animals as he begs to keep and care for a bitty skunk kit, and his determination to arm himself with research and deep knowledge of this new skunk by seeking out expert advice.

In the newest release, Bat and the Waiting Game, Bat is back (and Thor, too!). Janie gets a part in the school play that involves daily after-school rehearsals which necessitates change in Bat's after-school plans, too. These changes mean spending more time with new people and new places and new situations which can be tricky to figure out.

The things I love most about Bat and the Waiting Game can be summed up in three words:
Character, Perspective, and Heart.

Character. Bat is such a likable character. His adoration of Thor, the skunk kit, is so sweet. What's not to love about his enthusiasm about growing a garden of vegetables for Thor to eat and his desire to involve his classmates in the project, too? Even Bat's blunt and honest take on things (like Janie's obsession with the play) contribute to making him an endearing character. And, as the narrator of his own story, Bat's feelings are transparent to the reader, making him both engaging and relatable.

Perspective. Bat is a character on the autism spectrum, and Arnold beautifully portrays Bat's personality and preferences. Without making autism be the focal point of the book, Bat's point of view provides us this lens through which we read and "see" the world differently: his classroom, the baseball field, someone else's house, a sleepover. Bat's story is fertile ground for building empathy and understanding.

Heart: The relationships between the characters in Arnold's writing emanate love. The care Bat's parents have for him pulses off the page in scenes where his closest adults help him process hard feelings. The portrayal of love between Bat and Janie, even in the most trying of times (What happens when a skunk shows up to a school play?) is big and honest. It is heartwarming to be privy to the development of Bat's friendship with Israel as he works out kinks and misunderstandings. Heaping examples of love and compassion radiate in this book, and can't we all stand to grow more loving and compassionate?

Bat and the Waiting Game publishes from Walden Pond Press on March 27, 2018. Gift your readers a friendship with Bat.

Walden Pond Press has generously offered to giveaway a copy of Bat and the Waiting Game to one lucky blog reader.  Use this form to enter
(Giveaway will end at midnight EST on March 27, 2018.)

Congratulations, Susan Dee!


About Elana K. Arnold:
Elana K. Arnold grew up in California, where she, like Bat, was lucky enough to have her own perfect pet — a gorgeous mare named Rainbow — and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She is the author of picture books, middle grade novels, and books for teens, including the National Book Award finalist title What Girls Are Made Of. Elana lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She calls the “Bat” series for Walden Pond Press “books of her heart.” You can find her online at www.elanakarnold.com.

And, for more good stuff about Bat and the Waiting Game, be sure to download the Educator's Resource for Bat and the Waiting Game from Walden Pond Press. You can also visit these other stops on the blog tour for more reviews and chances to win:
3/12 For Those About to Mock, @abouttomock Sam Eddington
3/15 Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook @knott_michele Michele Knott
3/15 @iowaamber Amber Kuehler
3/16 The Hiding Spot @thehidingspot Sara Grochowski
3/18 Educate*Empower*Inspire…Teach @guerrette79 Melissa Guerrette
3/19 Maria’s Melange @mariaselke Maria Selke
3/20 Nerdy Book Club post by Elana
3/20 Writers Rumpus @kirsticall Kirsti Call
3/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl Nicole Levesque
3/28 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders Kellee Moye
If you haven't already, get caught up on the first
Bat book, now available in paperback!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Nibbles of my First Book Tasting

Preparing food for other people makes me nervous. I worry about everything, from taste to presentation. Will they eat it? Will they like it? Will I be bringing home an empty dish licked clean or a platter that has hardly been touched? (Believe me, I've been on both sides of that one.)

I had a similar feeling recently when the ADK chapter I belong to was looking for program ideas. I knew of this new "recipe" for promoting engagement with books that I really wanted to try out. Only, I wasn't sure how it would go over with the crowd. Will they eat it? my worry began. Will they like it?

They put me on the calendar though, and this week, I tried out that new recipe with my colleagues. I hosted my first-ever Book Tasting. My colleagues ate it all up, and I brought home a very full heart (and a cupcake topped with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, too).

Book Tasting is not an original idea. I have heard others' accounts and seen pictures of Book Tasting events done with students and adults in many other settings. The short what of a Book Tasting is that participants have the opportunity to sample several books in the course of the event, giving them just enough to taste to decide if they want more. Beyond that, there seem to be a great variety of ways a Book Tasting could be tailored to the audience and their needs or your purpose.

For me, choosing the books was the hardest part. I knew the guests at my Book Tasting encompassed a wide range of positions in education. I would be entertaining six teachers (PreK through grade 6), a librarian, two literacy coaches, four elementary principals, and the curriculum coordinator. My goal was for every guest to taste a smattering of books that would expand their repertoire, books they might find useful in their work with students or that they would be able to recommend to others with whom they work. I wanted the featured books to represent fiction and nonfiction, picture books through middle grade. For this reason, selecting the books for my tasting was tough. I had to accept that I wouldn't be able to include every book I've loved and want everyone to know about. I helped narrow my selection for this tasting by deciding to showcase new releases, only books published in 2017. I could have picked all picture books, or all nonfiction, or all professional texts. These were all ideas I considered but put aside.

I also thought about having several small tables of four and seating my guests according to who they worked with (primary students, intermediate students, teachers). I considered serving each table their own platter. I ruled this out for this particular tasting because I wanted the coaches and administrators to see a range of books rather than be limited to one group. This lead me to seat everyone at one big table. I created a spreadsheet with each guest and seat number and laid out the rotation of books so I could "see" which five books each guest would taste. Ultimately, this set up and book passing showed the potential of the same book across different audiences.
The placemat at each place setting was my own creation. I peeked at several other educators' ideas on the internet before making my own. There are lots of resources to be found, many that prompt students to record information about the title/author/genre of the books they taste. Because my audience were colleagues in assorted roles, I wanted the 11x17 placemat to serve as a sheet for note-taking about what books they saw, their ideas and impressions of the book, and who they might tell about the books they tasted. I also knew that my guests would only taste five of the fifteen circulating titles, and that others would talk about titles they did not see, so I included a sixth box for recording other titles mentioned that piqued curiosity. When I created my placemat, I made my prompts specific to my guests and my purpose for hosting the event. I am happy to share a version of my placemat, but this is a really simple way to tailor your Book Tasting to your needs or purpose. Consider rewriting the prompts so that guests are thinking about your teaching point, using language that you use with your readers or learners.

Aside from the books, the most talked about element of the Book Tasting was the environment. I knew I would be hosting the event at school, but I also know it would be evening time and everyone would have already worked a full day and likely been to a staff meeting, too. My classroom library was the perfect place to host, but I wanted it to feel different: warm, homey, special. So, in addition to rearranging the physical space, I brought in lamps to change the lighting and purchased inexpensive red and white checked tablecloths. My colleagues helped with refreshments, including a to-die-for coffee punch and sweet cupcakes adorned with even-sweeter fondant classic book covers.

On the evening of the Book Tasting, my guests prepared their snack plates and found their seats at the table. They were treated to five "courses," and had three minutes with a book during each course. Then the book was passed to the guest on their right. When all five rounds had been served, I asked my guests to share if any of the books they tasted really stood out to to them, or anything in general they thought all of the guests needed to know about the books they sampled. Many books were widely recommended, like Matt Tavares' Red & Lulu. Others were debated. The two most talked about books were Two Truths and a Lie: It's Alive! (for it's appeal to a wide a range of readers) and After the Fall (because, well, have you read it?). In fact, the need to talk about After the Fall lead to an impromptu read aloud because we didn't want to spoil it for anyone.
This book nerd was the giddy-type of happy to listen in on other readers' initial discoveries of books I know and love to recommend. While I hated to be the bearer of bad news as the timer signaled it was time to pass the book on, I loved listening to the audible, involuntary responses as my guests turned pages, peeked under jackets, admired art, and stole nuggets of did-you-know from the acknowledgements and back-matter of the books they sampled. Their temptation to begin talking about their books to the guests around them about the books they held was all the assurance I need that they were enjoying their time."This makes me wish I still had a classroom," said one guest. Another, "All I want to do is keep reading." Guests went home with titles to share with their teachers, colleagues, and even a few titles for Christmas gifts. Before the night was done, my principal--who was one of the guests--told me she'd like us to do a Book Tasting as a whole-staff in the spring. Obviously, I agreed.

If you are thinking about hosting a Book Tasting, here are some questions that might help to guide your planning:
  • Who is your audience?
  • What books do you want to introduce them to?
  • What do you want to help them learn or notice about books?
  • How will you structure the time spent with each book? Note-taking? Reflection/sharing?
  • How will you design the space for your Book Tasting? How will your guests be seated?
  • How will you reflect on the success of your event?

My first Book Tasting was a big hit, and it was eaten right up. I'd encourage you to try it. As with any recipe, you can borrow mine, but you'll want to season yours to taste. I'd love to hear how it goes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What Happens at the Campground...

...becomes rich story material for Maine author Tamra Wight's Cooper and Packrat series. 

Today marks the release of Mystery of the Bear Cub, Book 4 in the series.

The ecological mystery-adventure series, published by Islandport Press and illustrated by Carl DiRocco, features Cooper Wilder and his family who own Wilder Family Campground. In each book, Cooper's campground responsibilities or his love for exploration and geocaching lead him to a moral conflict wrapped up in a mystery to be solved. In Mystery at Pine Lake (Book 1), the friends are on a mission to identify the person responsible for harming the loons' nest on the lake. Cooper and his friends find evidence of poaching in Mystery of the Eagle's Nest (Book 2). Mystery of the Missing Fox (Book 3) has the growing group--alert to trapping--coming to the rescue of the stolen fox kit.

In writing the Cooper and Packrat series, Tamra draws on the experiences of her family-owned campground, Poland Spring Campground. Her own wonders and curiosities about the wildlife in her backyard and the campers who visit the campground provide her with plenty of realistic inspiration to write her fictional stories.

Life at the Wilder Family Campground becomes a real mess in Book 4 when the town makes a shift towards recycling more waste at Cooper's recommendation. Cooper's inspired and eco-friendly idea comes with unanticipated challenges for the campground and other small businesses in the area. Before long, someone is dumping trash illegally in the area around the campground and trouble arises with foraging bears. Cooper's sense of responsibility to solve this problem kicks into high-gear, and he and his friends resolve to make things right: for the town, for the campground, and for the bears.

For my readers and me, "Wilder Family Campground" is a particularly familiar setting. Last year, when our summer program featured academic programming to support the part of the curriculum about state history, we read Mystery of the Eagle's Nest. In a truly special and unique arrangement, Tamra hosted our group for an author visit at Poland Spring Campground down the road (literally) from where we read and grow and learn every day. Tamra took time away from writing and serving campers to treat our readers to a tour of the campground, and in an instant, the Cooper and Packrat books came to life. We hiked the trails of the campground, looked out at the campground's own eagle's nest (and strained to try to see evidence of eaglets), and heard Tamra present about writing, wildlife photography, and the research involved in writing the series. The students settled in for lunch in the fire ring and a read aloud with the author herself. The experience of stepping inside the setting of a series the students love is one they still talk about and has made them eager to continue reading.
There is a spot in our classroom library ready and waiting for my copy of Mystery of the Bear Cub, but I know it will likely be empty a while longer because my readers will be anxious to get their hands on this next adventure. And with big ideas and tough questions for them to grapple with alongside Cooper and Packrat, I'm anxious for them to read on, too.


I'm anxious for you to meet Cooper and Packrat and read Mystery of the Bear Cub, also, so I'm giving away a signed copy of one of Tamra Wight's Cooper and Packrat books. To win, comment on this post and include the title of the book you would most like to have and an email/Twitter handle where I can contact you. I will randomly select a winner the day before Tamra's book launch event on October 18 and will have your book signed to whomever you choose. Happy Reading!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Author Visit: Writing Workshop with Linda Urban

I sit at a table in my classroom, side by side with my students. Our workspace is layered with notebooks and index cards and black Flair pens and their covers. The students hands--and mine--scrawl a memory onto our pages. I'm finding myself transported to Barcelona, 1995; I'm sitting down to dinner with my high school Foreign Language Club. And while I'm about to sample that first ringlet of calamari again, I'm also keenly aware that my classroom is still and busy, humming with an aura of writers at work. 

"And, stop," a voice cuts the quiet. "Who has something they would be willing to share?" 

Half a dozen hands go up, and Linda Urban proceeds to move from one student to the next, signaling the students' moment, each reading aloud with confidence and pride the writing produced from an image conjured up through the selective questioning of the visiting author.

This week Linda Urban returned to OES to lead writing workshops for my 5th graders, enlisting their help in co-researchers about writers notebooks. Each workshop began with a glimpse into Linda's own notebooks and notebooks of other creators of kidlit, emphasizing the imperfect and the importance of writing in our notebooks for ourselves first. Then, my students and I participated in exercises selected from Linda's own study of and with comic-artist Lynda Barry (What It Is, 2009, and Syllabus, 2014). The curated exercises Linda facilitated were geared towards engaging writers and quieting their critical mind while using their writing notebooks as a place of play. My students were enthusiastic workshop participants and co-researchers, many producing more writing in short spurts of time than they typically do in our regular writing workshop and complaining when time had run out.

After school, Linda presented a third writing workshop session, this one for an audience of district colleagues and staff members. The adult audience wrote through many of the same exercises, and Linda shared her message about the importance of play in writers notebooks with research from numerous leaders in the field of education.

I am not new to the inspiration of Linda Urban. Linda and I collaborated in a long-term partnership a few years ago that shed light on Linda's process while revising Milo Speck: Accidental Agent and influenced me to strive for as much authenticity as possible in my classroom writing instruction. I've hosted Linda Urban at OES twice before, in both a classroom visit and a whole-school visit with assemblies designed for primary and intermediate audiences. I've witnessed her interactions with individual students and groups of almost 200 and know first-hand that Linda Urban's energy, sense of humor, and genuine nature contribute to her highly-engaging and phenomenal way with students.

And yet, I will never turn down an opportunity to be reminded.

Linda Urban's writing workshops were a terrific success. Here's why:
Linda builds quick and easy rapport with writers--both students and adults. In her willingness to share her own examples, Linda's model of vulnerability invites her workshop participants to take safe risks, also. Linda's interest in and respect for students has them eager to embrace their writer-selves.
Linda's suggestions are practical in practice. Each of the exercises and ideas Linda shared can be done in little time, making the commitment to "try it out" feel doable in and among all the other constraints we face in the classroom. Many of the ideas and practices Linda shares will require small shifts in the work we already do with students.
Linda's presentation is well-balanced between sharing her own story and examples, those of other writers, and issuing an invitation for student (and adult) writers to play and write. Our sessions were close to two hours long, and the participants could have gone for longer.
Linda's message about using notebooks and making time for play is important. And sometimes we need these important reminders to revisit, or we need the chance to slow down and experience the truth ourselves in order to recommit to doing what is best for students.

My week has been spent picking up little gems that my students and colleagues are putting down from our time with Linda Urban. It has been gratifying to overhear students make reference to their time spent with Linda, to incorporate small bits of what we shared together into the last few days in the classroom, and to bump into colleagues who attended the afternoon professional development session and hear them express how meaningful that time spent writing with Linda was to them.

We're thankful to have shared a day writer-to-writer with Linda Urban, and her words and encouragement will last through the year and beyond.

You can have Linda visit your school or classroom, too. (And honestly, I don't know why you wouldn't...) Send an inquiry or find out more.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

10 Reasons You Need It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk

The students at my school--and their teachers, too--have been waiting anxiously for a new picture book that publishes today.

Today is the release day for It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk, a hilarious new take on a traditional fairytale, written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Edwardian Taylor, published by Two Lions.

In June, the students at Oxford Elementary School were lucky to be visited by author Josh Funk. While here to celebrate the sequel to his well-known Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, Josh treated the students to an early look at It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk. With a little help from a few other "characters," Josh brought his story to life for our students, projecting a digital version and sharing the reading readers theater style. It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk brought smiles to students faces and--most certainly--laughter.

Oxford Elementary students got a sneak peek of It's Not Jack
and the Beanstalk
 when Josh Funk visited in June.

The students' warm feelings about Josh Funk's new release stayed with them, and when I pulled It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk off the shelf for a quick reread last week there were immediate cheers and comments from the students about how much they love this book. And then came the begging.

"Can we please read it again?"

So we did.

And then, they responded. I asked them to help me think of reasons why teachers need It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk for their classroom. Here's our compiled list:

10 Reasons Why Teachers Need It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk

10. It's written by Josh Funk. (Daeson)
9.  The characters' voices and personalities make this book a lot of fun to read aloud. (Ms. Guerrette)
8.  For kids who are learning to read, it can be a play. (Kenadie)
7.  If you are having a bad day, you need to read (It's Not) Jack and the Beanstalk. (Gracie)
6.  The narrator is a part of the story and interacts with the characters. (Brady)
5.  The illustrations are playful and bright, adding to the larger-than-life personality of the characters. (Ms. Guerrette)
4.  It's a happily ever after story. (Kaedence)
3.  You get to like it really easily because it is so funny! (Logan)
2.  Even the title is funny! (Cecile)
1.  You will laugh. (Lauren)

And after all, isn't that really what's most important?

My students and I are happy to celebrate the book birthday of It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk and we're already looking forward to It's Not Hansel and Gretel coming in the spring of 2019. We wish you and your classes many happy reads (and rereads)!

Friday, May 12, 2017

York: The Shadow Cipher Blog Tour


Sometimes you get an invitation that feels like a privilege.
That's how I feel about being the last stop on the Blog Tour for York: The Shadow Cipher, the upcoming alternate-history middle grade novel by Laura Ruby that publishes May 16.

I'm thrilled to add my voice to those who are already recommending the book widely and share with you the Educator's Guide for Classroom Use I created for York: The Shadow Cipher.

Here's the publisher's synopsis:
It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher — a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction. 
Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house — until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo, and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From the first lines, The Shadow Cipher had a hold on me, and I was thoroughly captivated through all 448 pages of the novel. (In fact, I'm ready to keep reading and will eagerly await Books 2 and 3.) I marvel at the way Laura Ruby has taken a city so well-loved and familiar and twisted the past just enough to force readers to suspend what they think they know and consider just what they maybe don't know with certainty. With twin characters, Tess and Theo (who compliment each other in all the right ways) and their neighbor Jaime (who carries an emotional story of his own) readers will be transported and absorbed in their resolve to solve the Old York Cipher.
My copy of York: The Shadow Cipher, tabbed with potential
discussion points after rereading to create the Educator's Guide.
The layers of York: The Shadow Cipher are deep, and Laura Ruby incorporates many themes and big ideas that can be explored through the lens of Humanities and/or STEM. With moral and ethical questions that are as modern as they are historic and brilliant bits of wisdom woven throughout the adventure, the possibilities for discussion and extension to present-day are plentiful.
For sure, Laura Ruby's York: The Shadow Cipher is a 2017 release not to be missed.


You can win a signed copy of York: The Shadow Cipher 
by filling out this form.
Giveaway will be open until midnight (EST) on Friday, May 19.

About Laura Ruby:
Laura Ruby is the author of books for adults, teens, and children, including Bone Gap, a National Book Award finalist and Michael L. Printz Award winner, among dozens of other accolades. Her other books include the Edgar-nominated mystery Lily’s Ghosts, the Book Sense Pick Good Girls, and the acclaimed novels Play Me and Bad Apple. She is on the faculty of Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program and lives in the Chicago area. You can visit her online at www.lauraruby.com.

Also, don't miss the Educator's Guide to Classroom Use and Activity Guide provided by Walden Pond Press. Be sure to visit the previous stops on the Blog Tour for more thoughts about York: The Shadow Cipher and more chances to win.
May 1
May 3
May 4
May 5
May 7
May 8
May 10
The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia
May 11
May 12