The Elephant’s Girl by Celesta Rimington: A 2020 Middle Grade Must Read!

The best way to survive a tornado? In the Elephant’s Girl by Celesta Rimington, Lexington knows how to endure a storm better than most. If only she could feel as confident on the calm weather days when she ventures away from her home base, the zoo. She rarely leaves the zoo due to her special connection to one of the zoo’s elephants and close relationships with the zoo staff. Rimington portrays Lex’s ache to have a family of her own, the impressive loyalty of her friendship with Fisher, and her strong desire to find confidence to overcome her anxiety. Any reader will root along with Lex for the adults in her life to honest and make morally just decisions. This mystical adventure will satisfy readers who love animals, baseball, trains, storms, geography, restoration of antiques, and wandering spirits! 

After reading a description of Pine Manor’s Plotting your Novel class instructed by Brandom Kiely, I was inspired to map out Lex’s motivations and how Remington raises the stakes as she moves the plot from one chapter to the next. Writers of middle grade will appreciate Rimington’s ability to raise the stakes chapter after chapter, weave enthralling backstories for main and side characters, and connect their conflicts masterfully. The use of personification of weather and description of visual communication will inspire writers to create unusual characters and rethink which character should reveal information! The use of setting as a boundary for safety plays an important role in this novel and the impact of this boundary shifting over the course of the story mirrors Lex’s growth as a character. This idea of tying setting to conflict is definitely a writing move I want to try as I revise my own MG WIP!

All in all, I highly recommend The Elephant’s Girl to readers who love treasure hunts, stories of friendship (whether between people or people and animals), and stories of finding where you belong!

Pugtato Finds a Thing by Zondervan and Sophie Corrigan

To say that my niece is obsessed with pugs is putting it lightly. We have read countless pug books together, with many pug stuffies tucked into enjoy the story. So naturally when I came across this picture book I knew I had to review it with Samantha.

The thing we found when we literally gobbled up this delicious read, was pure joy. Joy in the vibrant, fun illustrations. Joy in the goofy activities Pugtatos “spuddies” tried with Thing. Mostly though, joy in the unexpectedly adorable nature of the vegetable animals. Samantha emphasized Corrigan’s entertaining cast when she said, this story is “different because it combines vegetables and animals.”

Page by page Samantha and I went back and forth guess what Thing could be. “It looks like…” she pointed at the illustration. Page turn. “No wait!” we burst out on more than one occasion. The mystery of Thing as it was misidentified throughout the story (by us and the “spuddies”) propelled the pages forward with such speed that we were almost sad when the book ended.

Almost sad, but not actually sad. How can we say we were sad when Samantha’s first words after reading it were “Pugtato is the funniest.” Not only that, but the ending also has the two key components of every great picture book. Pugtato manages to solve the mystery all on his own, and once the mystery is revealed, it seems obvious, even though we didn’t foresee the answer. Samantha sums up our thoughts beautifully. “At first, Pugtato didn’t really believe in himself, but in the end he figured it out on his own. It was a good ending. I liked the whole book.”

So that’s our take on Pugtato Finds a Thing. A definite must read for pug lovers everywhere and for anyone who wants a good laugh wrapped up in a satisfying story.

Don’t judge a book by its topic. An MCBA Post.

January 2020 has arrived and I can’t wait to vote for my favorite MCBA book! For those of you who don’t live in Massachusetts, or just don’t know about MCBA, it stands for Massachusetts Children’s Book Award. Children around the state have the opportunity to vote for their nominated favorite book. It’s an award powered by kids’ choice!

As a teacher, I also read the books nominated. I loved every book which means I need time to think long and hard before voting. There are two books that stand out to me for opposing reasons: I knew I would love the one about the dog, but I didn’t expect to like the ‘basketball’ book.

I knew from the title that I would love Patricia Maclachlan’s The Poet’s Dog. Even with my high expectations, the communication between Teddy (the dog) and the two children exceeded all expectations. I laughed at dog antics. I cried over Teddy’s loss. When I was done, I gave my own pups an extra squeeze.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander was a book I avoided as I made my way down the list. Maybe I didn’t want to read it because of my terrible experience during a fourth grade P.E. basketball skills class (which is a story for another time). But the basketball loving students in my current classroom devoured this book. They passed it to other kids. They held it high above their heads’ and claimed that I had to read it. So I did…and I was wrong. This book is about so much more than basketball. The father-son relationship and the use of verse to tell the story makes me want to read it again, and then pass it along to the next reader echoing my students’ insistence: “You have to read this.”

Voting hasn’t happened yet and you only need to have read 5 books from the MCBA list! For more information, check out:

http://massachusettschildrensbookaward.blogspot.com/

Happy reading, happy writing, happy sharing!

MCBA Book List 2020

Five years ago, in the middle of a math lesson on a snowy day in January, our school librarian sprinted into my classroom and interrupted (read saved) the kids from having to finish simplifying a mixed numbers problem. She handed out a list of books and said “If you’ve read at least 5 then vote for your favorite book at lunch tomorrow!”

Replay this scene every year. And every year, I am mad at myself because I didn’t read five. So this summer I jumped straight in. This vote won’t sneak up on me this January.

Here are the books I’ve read so far:

  1. Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon. I absolutely loved the hamster humor in this book and admired Harriet’s strong, fearless adventure. The illustrations in this graphic novel are beautiful.
  2. The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. As a writer and pet lover, this book tugged all my heart strings. The flashbacks and the distinctive voice of the narrator, Teddy, made this a book that I will love reading again and again. It’s a great example of how a ‘short’ book can still carry the biggest of life’s themes.
  3. Ancient Egypt by Ken Jennings.  Jennings talks directly to the reader right from the first page. His clever description of time travel and ability to frame the setting in a way that kids can relate to is going to make this a read that everyone can learn a lot from! I’ll report back with my favorite fact when I am finished.

I hope you will join me in this year’s MCBA adventure! Here is the website for more information:

http://massachusettschildrensbookaward.blogspot.com/

Happy reading, happy writing!

Rehearsal in a Digital Age

Time for…Rehearsal! No, no, I am not in theater. No, no I am not playing an instrument. No! I am not singing. I am writing!

Thanks to Andover Public Schools funding, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend Teacher’s College’s writing institute at Columbia University for the second time. Whenever there is talk about teaching writing, there is talk about the process…which of course starts with rehearsal.

You know what I noticed this week, though? Whenever authors talk about rehearsal, it is usually paired with something. Jack Gantos talks about rehearsing as he is climbing the stairs in the library. Leslie Connor talks about her morning walk with her dogs in the woods. Educator Meghan Hargrave spoke yesterday about rehearsing as she runs. And I know you’ve heard people say, “I do my best thinking in the shower.”

Why? My hypothesis is that these tasks are automatic. We don’t have to think about them so our minds are freed up to wander, plan, and consider new ideas. In these situations, our minds are not distracted by advertisements, TV, facebook, news, or twitter. They are just free to dream, explore, rehearse.

Now picture where you are in your writing process. Where do teachers ask kids to do brainstorm? I ask my fourth graders to talk out loud to their partner, sitting down, in a timed, pressured situation. But what if I told my class about a writing skill before P. E., recess, or if during morning work I gave them five minutes to do a few laps outside and think about their writing and goals.

I must have this discussion with the kids I teach. We should talk about rehearsal and discuss where they feel most comfortable rehearsing for their own writing.

Let me know your rehearsal routines. I’d love to dig deeper into this pattern.

A Book Review: I don’t like Koala

The book I wish I wrote:

“I don’t like Koala,” written by Sean Ferrell and illustrated by Charles Santoso is a picture book worth reading. It is creepy. Not what you’d expect from a picture book right? But as I read through the book, I couldn’t help not liking Koala either…there’s something not quite right about that Koala!

Now, don’t get me wrong, this picture book isn’t all creep. The unexpectedness of the creep factor is witty and will have you laughing out loud. It is crafted magically and is fun to read aloud. It is all the things I hope my book will b.

How I’m using this book as a mentor text:

I received a thoughtful critique of a manuscript I am working on that recommended I bring the story back around to the way it started. Have you ever been attached to an ending? Too attached? That’s how I felt about this ending. I was convinced I would rather change the beginning of the story to match the end rather than revise the ending.

Enter: “I don’t like Koala.” From a wording perspective, the ending comes full circle. On the other hand, from a concept perspective, it is literally a cliff hanger.  (I told you, creepy!) I have never thought to try out a cliff hanger at the end of a picture book. In fact, a cliff hanger doesn’t really fit the manuscript I’m working on now. Still, Ferrell’s ending made me rethink the predictability of coming full circle and inspired me to begin revising that ending I thought I loved. Some day soon, maybe my current work in progress have an ending worth reading too.

A Sunday at a NESCBWI Conference

Last Sunday I attended the final day of the 2017 NESCBWI conference. It was my first year attending, and after a single day I can confidently say I will never miss another again. I met dozens of writers and illustrators from all over New England. Writing can be an isolating activity. Just you, your story, your words. Not a the conference; at the conference I connected. Here were over 700 other people who choose to spend their time crafting, creating, revising. I felt like I belonged.

I learned from experts in the field. I left with ideas, I left with inspiration. Mostly though, I left with homework.

  1. Create an author’s website. Check!
  2. Map out my most current polished work. Check!
  3. Follow new connections on twitter. Check!
  4. Find teaching with text sets and Betsy’s blog. In Progress.
  5. Submit work to Editors and Agents from the conference. In Progress.
  6. Record yourself reading your work and play it back to hear how it sounds.
  7. Show up. Just write. An every day goal.

I am so thankful to NESCBWI for all of the connections I made and all of the learning I will do because of the conference. Keep connecting writers! It’s worth it.