Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As Memorial Day weekend wraps up, we head into the final days of the school year and the beginning of my somewhat quieter period at work. It's a time of reflection and, ultimately, regrouping. I'm very excited about the phase ahead, mostly because the phase that is coming to an end has been particularly strong. It has been a busy and productive time in many ways but, as those of you who are parents can surely understand, my greatest highs and lows are generally tied to the highs and lows of my kids. All three of our daughters have had fabulous years academically and socially and they are each in an emotionally strong and healthy place. That's no small statement and not something to be taken for granted. It's actually deserving of a big "WOO-HOO" but I think I'd ruin the mood around here if I shouted it out the way I'd really like. Instead, I will quietly celebrate the wonder of kids. defines "wonder" as "rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience". I am constantly struck by the mystery and newness of experiences with our daughters. I am endlessly challenged to find best practices for dealing with those mysteries - mysteries that are at once new to each one of us within our own experiences and yet shared by parents through the ages. Indeed, I am wonderstruck! Newness can be terrifyingly challenging and, at the same time, exhilarating. 

On an unrelated (yet, given the nature of this blog, quite obviously related) note, the newest thing I have seen or experienced in the world of children's books lately is Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck. Two stories are told on parallel planes in this book - one set in 1927 and told through illustration and the other set in 1977 and told through text. The two stories seamlessly intertwine and merge in both illustration and text at the end, to the reader's delight. The illustrations are awe-inspiring on their own (and at a breakfast during Book Expo America last week, Brian described his creative process and showed a room plastered in the illustrations that would become this book). But it's the transition between illustration and text that makes this book so unique and powerful - and the amazing detail. On top of everything else, Brian is a masterful storyteller - this is ultimately a mystery novel that's perfect for middle graders. It is also a warm and wonderful tribute to New York City. Curiously, some of the characters in this story are deaf and, as a reader, I found my own senses of sight and comprehension heightened while I experienced this book. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

His name was Mr. Scott

My 9th grade English teacher told me I was  good writer and could be a great writer and I believed him and, ultimately, in myself. He encouraged me to enter writing contests and to dream big. When a teacher genuinely believes in you as a student, sees your potential and helps you reach and maybe even exceed it and, above all, helps you believe in yourself (no small feat if you happen to be a teenager at the time!), that is a great gift. Those are the teachers who teach so much more than they've included in a curriculum or syllabus.

As parents, we, of course, want only teachers like that for our children. Sometimes we forget that it really only takes a few phenomenal teachers to rock your academic potential. Jeff and I feel very fortunate because each of our daughters has more than one such teacher this year. One of our daughters has a history teacher who called us early in the school year because he was so excited about something she had written that he wanted to make sure she read it aloud to us. She also has a public speaking teacher who had her participate in a model congress last week where she discovered her voice and confidence. One of her sisters has a drama teacher who recognized genius when our daughter performed a monologue as the Easter Bunny (declaring her the cutest Easter Bunny ever - so true!) and encouraged her to participate in the school play and enroll in a drama intensive when school breaks, before camp starts. In an earlier post I wrote about this daughter's English teacher who assigned a book project on historical fiction and then allowed our daughter to convince her that Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero qualified as historical fiction for the purpose of the assignment because she wanted to encourage our daughter's excitement about readng the book. One of our daughters has a Mandarin Chinese teacher who, in less than a year, has taught her to think in Chinese and fall in love with the language and culture it represents; she has a history teacher who is teaching what seems to me to be a college level survey class and who has sparked a determination to excel that blows me away; and she has a piano teacher, with whom she has worked for several years now, who has enriched her life with music, support and a meaningful connection. As the school year quickly comes to a close, it's time to reflect on the gifts those great teachers have bestowed on our kids and how lucky we all are.

Today's book-pick is my choice for the the 2012 Newbery Medal. The Newbery is awarded to the year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The medal is presented by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Of course, I have nothing whatsoever to do with selecting the Newbery winner but if I did, I have to believe this would be it! The book is Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now and it is one of the 4 best books I have read this year (children and adult books, included)).  The protagonist was a friend of the protagonist in Schmidt's earlier novel, The Wednesday Wars, which was a 2008 Newbery Honor book. This book, however, stands on its own. I can say this with certainty because, I will admit, I never read The Wednesday Wars and I absolutely loved this book (needless to say, I now fully intend to go back and read The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and everything else Gary Schmidt has written). Okay For Now is the tragic but hopeful story of a skinny eighth grade thug-in-the-making named Doug Swieteck. His dad is an abusive alcoholic and his brother seems to be heading in that same direction. The people of the New York town where they move at the beginning of the book quickly size up Doug's brother as a criminal and Doug's teachers seem to have it in for him, strictly by associating him with his brother. This book covers more issues and topics that I'd have ever thought possible in a single book and yet does so seamlessly and remarkably. As mentioned, there's abuse and alcohol; there's also art, Vietnam. Broadway, illiteracy, friendship, illness, perseverance and teachers who make a difference. After receiving nothing but scowls and a frosty reception from every other teacher at his new school, Doug meets Mr. Ferris, the science teacher, who tells him "in this class, you are not your brother". I cried and cheered all at the same time. This teacher and Mr. Powell, the amazing librarian, saw Doug more clearly than he saw himself and invested themselves in his success.

I think that in addition to the amazing storytelling and the spellbinding story, I loved the fact that it was set in 1968 because I was born in 1966 so the temporal references really struck a chord. I also loved the fact that the author subtly takes the reader on an amazing journey through great children's literature, offering enough hints but not divulging titles so you can play a great guessing game of the books Doug reads to the kids he babysits. I love the amazing amount of detail and the crazy rides I went on as a reader following new paths in the story and I admired the way it all came together. SO WELL DONE!!

When books are published for young people, publishers are encouraged by retailers to identify the age group for whom the book is most appropriate. Publishers would prefer to keep the age recommendation as broad as possible but, at the retail level, it's easier to sell a book that defines its potential customer. I provide this background so that when you note that this book is recommended for children ages 10-14, you'll know to ignore this "guideline". I think 10 years old sounds like a great starting point but I think it's a book that's like those games for people ages 9-99. I firmly believe this one will be enjoyed by older teens and by grownups too. LOVE IT!!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Run run run run... run away

I remember the day I ran away. I must have been about 7 and though I can't recall the injustice that set the wheels in motion, I do recall that it was grave enough to send me on my way. I remember packing a bunch of stuffed animals in a garbage bag and then sitting in the driveway of my home, by the garage, and waiting. That was my runaway spot (I was not a big risk taker as a kid!). I think I was waiting for that moment when I would hear my parents and brothers shout, "Where is Robin? Have you seen Robin?" and I imagined they'd run outside to look for me and run right by me in a panic. I expected them to find me after a long search, apologize for whatever had happened and that we'd exchange lots of hugs and kisses and eat cookies. The end. But that's so not the way it went down! I never heard any shouting and I never saw any panicked scurrying. Eventually I got bored and tired and hungry and went back inside. And that was really the end. So overrated!

So what is it with kids romanticizing the prospect of running away? Maybe the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have something to do with it. I only know that I had not shared my own little story with my kids and was surprised when one of them let me know she has selected a runaway spot. I suspect she has a whole plan in place because when faced with grave injustice, you may be so enraged that you are not be able to think on the spot so having a plan is helpful. I've tried to ask some questions and glean some details but all I really know for sure is that a spot has been selected and that it's safe. Safe is good. I haven't been able to shed any light on the appeal of running away. though. I think it might have something to do with the appeal of coming back home.

For a sweet, funny and colorful story about running away, consider Elanna Allen's Itsy Mitsy Runs Away. The grave injustice in Mitzy's life is bedtime. She doesn't want to deal with it anymore so she decides to run away. But Mitzy quite clearly does not have a sound plan in place. Lucky for her, she has a very helpful father. This is a charming picture book that should not be restricted in terms of audience but I think it might be a particularly nice one to be shared by dads and daughters. Hmmmm... maybe a nice Father's Day present.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

To your health!

The 1986 film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is, arguably, the quintessential, not to mention beloved, statement on faking sick. Ferris told kids precisely how to fake sick. He was a genius and legions of young moviegoers left the theater to see if his charm and savvy had rubbed off on them. One of our daughters rivals Ferris in his faking sick prowess. Except that she doesn't always realize she's faking. And some of the time when we're sure she's faking, we get it completely wrong! I'm ashamed to say that on more than one occasion we've insisted she go to school only to have the school nurse call less than an hour into the school day, letting me know she had a fever and needed to be picked up. The problem is that an embarrassingly high percentage of the time, we let her stay home only to have her suddenly spring back to good health just a few hours later. As you can well imagine, this has lead to repeated boy-who-cried-wolf kinds of lectures.

A few days ago, two of our daughters complained they were sick. One was burning up with a fever and was the very picture of illness. The other... well... you can imagine who that one was. We took both girls to the doctor because they were both complaining of terrible sore throats and since one needed to go, why not take both? They each had strep tests. One clearly needed it and the other, well, not so much. I got the feeling that even the doctor didn't take her complaints seriously. The tests were negative; no strep. The girls came home, took some Tylenol, drank some tea and were told to rest. We agreed that the daughter with the fever would stay home from school the next day and we would just have to see how her sister was feeling. Needless to say, when I woke her up for school, she moaned, "I'm too sick to go to school today". I repeated the boy-who-cried-wolf story, I lectured her, I nagged, I pleaded - but she wouldn't cave. So I did. And wouldn't you know it; at 10:30 a.m. I answered a call from the doctor's office letting me know both girls had strep throat. I was at work when they called so I called home to tell my daughters and she who was not crying wolf after all answered the phone. "Guess who has strep?" I asked. "Who?" she asked back. "You both do," I answered. Silence. "Hey, are you there?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. "You got quiet. What were you doing?" I asked. "Smiling," she said. Sweet smell of vindication!

It's a tough call. Tough and frustrating. How do you know when your child is really sick? Quite honestly, if there's no fever or projectile vomiting, then it's anybody's guess. Parental instincts only get you so far! Maybe the trick is to remember that if your child stays home an extra day or two, it's not the end of the world. Or conversely, if you have to pick your sick child up from school early on account of illness, disaster won't strike.

Sometimes far-fetched kid stories actually turn out to be the truth - at least in kids' books! Consider The Boy Who Cried Ninja by Alex Latimer. Tim's outrageous excuses that turn out to be true would make my daughter proud. You can guess what story this one is based on but you've never heard or read it told quite this way before. This book is actually on display in my office now and every time I look up and see it, I can't help but smile - I don't know if it's just the word "ninja" or if it's the cover that just cracks me up or it's the fact that I know this is a book that would please my sweetheart of a daughter. If you or your child loves ninjas, time-traveling monkeys, sunburnt crocodiles and astronauts – then this is the book for you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Just say what?

 As parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to arm our children with information, values and good sense so that they are able to deal with whatever life throws at them. Our ability to follow through on this responsibility is compromised when the game changes and we no longer have a clear picture of the risks and dangers involved. This is typically the way I begin a rant against the use of Facebook by kids but today I'm focusing on a different subject. How can we prepare our children for the dangers that lurk ahead in the guise of drugs and alcohol when we don't really know what's out there and what could happen to them? The answer is the same answer to most parenting concerns - we can and must make every effort to be as informed as possible and we need to develop and maintain strong lines of communication with our kids.

The latest "danger" to hit my radar is Four Loko. It is marketed as an alcoholic energy drink that comes in fruity flavors and colorful cans. It mixes caffeine and alcohol and has had terrifying, even fatal effects. The caffeine initially masks the effects of the alcohol leading the drinker to consume more alcohol than they ordinarily might, with disastrous effects. Several states have banned the drink but, not so surprisingly, people have managed to purchase it on ebay and off Craigslist. I realize that I cannot shield my kids from every danger that lurks but I can share what I learn in the hope that informed kids are more likely to make good choices.So we've talked about this poison that masks itself as fun.

My ever-so-helpful oldest daughter walked in earlier this evening to ask the subject of today's post. When I told her, she nodded (knowing that I had only recently learned about this toxic "drug" and the fact that it unnerved me) and asked what book I would tie this post to. She then answered the question for me - "You could recommend the Ellen Hopkins books". Ellen Hopkins had a daughter who became addicted to crystal meth, or "crank." In 2002, her struggle inspired Hopkins to begin writing her debut novel, Crank, to express the horrible influences of drug abuse and addiction. Ellen describes it as an honest portrayal of a "good girl's" fall from grace. She has since written several verse novels on teenage struggles. Take a look at her website and consider reading some of these books with your teenager - you'll both learn a lot!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Friends, friends, friends... we will always be...

I spent the last two weekends celebrating special events in the lives of the children of dear friends of mine. First, I attended the Bat Mitzvah in Westchester of the daughter of one of my closest friends since I was 5 years old. Then I flew to Montreal to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of the son of one of my closest friends since I was 12. It would have been easy, in each case, to let my friends know that we just couldn't make it and they would have understood. We're all so busy and caught up in the chaos of our own lives that it's generally easiest to maintain our focus and to politely decline any invitations that cause the schedule to deviate. I am so glad that I didn't take the easy way out! I was so moved by each of the events I attended and so overjoyed to be part of the celebration. When the children of your childhood friends attain adulthood, it's surreal (when it's your own kids, you're just in denial) and so much fun!

One of my favorite parts of each of the weekends was the unmistakable, palpable joy and pride on the faces of people who mean the world to me. I was so happy for them. Another one of my favorite parts of these two weekends was the fact that the importance of these forever friendships was not lost on my daughters. Their own lives are changing every minute and I think they found some comfort in the reminder that some friendships can and do last a lifetime. I think they shared my excitement over the fact that I was able to attend both events and I think they were pleased that I made sure to make the time. It's so important to make sure our kids know that no matter how busy we get, we can and must make time to celebrate the good times with loved ones. If we don't, we run the risk of getting together only when tragedy strikes - and our friendships deserve so much more!

Today's book selection is about two friends and is selected in honor of my lifelong friend Rhona, whose son celebrated his Bar Mitzvah this past weekend in Montreal. Rhona is an exceptionally talented artist, inspiring the selection of David Wiesner's Art & Max. This happens to be the book that earned David the Illustrator of the Year award at the Children's Choice Book Awards two weeks ago. I particularly love that fact since I read one review that questioned whether kids would like this book. Well, more than 500,000 kids voted for their favorites in this year's Children's Choice Book Awards and they made their favorites known. This book is not only spectacularly beautiful, it's also clever and compelling - just like my friend Rhona!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thank you Jon and Jarrett

I am very fortunate to have a job that I love. I look forward to going to work every day and to creating programs that encourage children to find the joy in reading. It is very rare for me to have a bad day at the office. Lo and behold, today I had a bad day at the office. The reason for the bad day is not important. The focus, as I always tell one of my younger daughters, should be on the positive you can extract from a negative situation. My silver lining today was woven by the amazing people around me - my brilliant staff and two beloved children's book authors - Jon Scieszka and Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Jon and Jarrett are incredibly talented authors and, in Jarrett's case, artists, who are equally incredible people.  They are both very smart and very funny as well as compassionate, kind and community-minded. Jon created Guys Read, a web-based literacy program for boys and as the country's inaugural National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, his platform was "Reaching Reluctant readers". Jarrett is one of the organizers of the MELTDOWN, The River’s Family Music and Book Fest and, as host of the 2011 Children's Choice Book Awards, he reached out to every finalist and every presenter on Twitter and Facebook and helped raise awareness of the program to a whole new level (not surprisingly, his book Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown won the award for 3rd-4th Grade Book of the Year). These are two guys who think beyond themselves and give of themselves regularly. We can all learn so much from them both.

By way of thanks to Jon and Jarrett, this post is dedicated to them, with my profound gratitude. Please take time to visit Jon's website and Jarrett's website. Each has created an astounding collection of books for little ones and middle ones. Each can be counted on to make you smile and laugh out loud - no matter how old you are! I'm truly honored to know them both.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

All the world's a stage

I'm constantly amazed by the wealth of opportunities available to our kids. There are more after school activity options and sports leagues than I remember existing when I was younger. Though I'm not one to drown my kids in after school activities, I am a big believer in encouraging them to find activities, interests or hobbies that they can get excited about, connect with and in which they can immerse and invest themselves. For many years, I tried to convince my daughters to get involved in drama but nobody seemed interested. I went to a small school with no drama program when I was younger and realize that I might have romanticized the whole experience I never had but I was convinced that youth theater would be a good thing for our kids. Theater experience would enhance comfort with public speaking; kids could bond with their cast-mates; and the audition process meant taking chances and risking disappointment. Theater could be a testing ground for life - you know, all the world's a stage...

Finally, over the last two weeks, our two younger daughters both performed in their middle school plays. Each loved the experience so much that they're already planning the next audition. I am so proud of them both and thoroughly enjoyed seeing both plays, several times. I am so pleased that they tried and delighted that each saw it through. I can't wait for the next play!

I strongly believe that we need to encourage our children to take chances and to develop interests to which they commit themselves. I grew up in Montreal where all the little boys would go to hockey practice in the wee hours of the morning - when I think of the choices our kids might have made (not to mention those activities they tried and got over), I'm so glad that they've chosen piano, art, swimming, basketball, horseback riding and, now, musical theater. Whatever the interest of each might have been though, I'm just so glad each of our daughters has been willing to take chances and try things out.

A most delightful new book that's right on topic is If I Never Forever Endeavor by Holly Meade.The illustrations are outstanding and when they connect with the simple but meaningful text, they convey the message we all know to be critical: spread your wings and take a chance, see what you can do and where you might go and what that might mean.  Endeavor to fly!

Monday, May 9, 2011

All hail the queen!

As a mother of daughters, I've always considered it important to show my girls that strength and warmth are not mutually exclusive. I think I'd probably consider this an important message to convey to boys too but with girls, it's been somewhat of a mission. Jeff and I were committed to instilling all possibilities and many layers in our children before they were ever born. In fact, our oldest daughter was named, in part, after a strong and beautiful character named Eliane played by Catherine Deneuve in the film Indochine - a film we had seen years before I was pregnant, featuring a character we'll never forget. We wanted our Eliane to be similarly strong and equally soft. Those of you who know our Elie will surely agree that she is a breathtaking blend.

Like many women, I have always been drawn to strong female characters in real life as well as in books and movies. I am currently half way through a book with a strong female character that I am absolutely loving. It's Vicky Alvear Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon, which will be published in August of this year. Our daughter Elie, looking over my shoulder moments ago, objected to my discussing a book that's not yet available but this one is so good, you should put it on your list and make sure you pick it up as soon as it's available.

The story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony is familiar to many but this new twist focuses on their daughter Cleopatra Selene. It's historical fiction with a hefty dose of historical reality. One review I read compared it to the Luxe series and I don't particularly care for that comparison. In fact, comparisons like that and the current cover concern me because they seem to suggest this is a girl book and that really ought not be the case. Fans of the Percy Jackson series should read this. The respect paid to culture, beliefs and the role of the gods will be familiar to them but the story is completely new, incredibly exciting, very well written and totally captivating. This is a YA book recommended for kids 13 and up and it's compelling no matter what your age. I'm enjoying this book so much that I'm planning to follow it up with Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life because I'm finding myself hooked on the ancient world and these complex and colorful characters and I want to know more. I'm also a sucker for pairing an adult book with a children's/young adult book and this pairing is too good to pass up!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The 92nd Celebration of Children's Book Week Comes to an End...

Children's Book Week, the longest running national literacy initiative in the country, was celebrated May 2-8, 2011. The two organizations I have the great fortune to lead are the main sponsor and administrator of this week. Every Child a Reader (ECAR) is responsible for the planning and organizing of this week that celebrates children's books and reading and the Children's Book Council (CBC) is the anchor sponsor of the week. Throughout the week, official events were held in more than 25 cities across the country and local celebrations in libraries and schools were held in many more. One of the highlights of the week was a big gala at which the winners of the CBC's Children's Choice Book Awards were announced live. And what a gala it was! The NYC event was hosted by the charming and wonderful Jarrett J. Krosoczka who also turned out to be one of the evening's big winners - for Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown, winner of the 3rd-4th Grade Book of the Year. We were really all winners that evening because Jarrett was such a delight and brought so much of himself to the program. Presenters like Hilary Knight, R.L. Stine, Walter Dean Myers, Laurie Halse Anderson, Claire Vanderpool and Erin Stead, all leaders in the world of children's book, bestowed awards on Johanna Kerby (Little Pink Pup), Jarrett (Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown), Rick Riordan (The Red Pyramid and The Lost Hero), John Green and David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) and David Weisner (Art & Max). Both the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Katherine Paterson, and the former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Jon Scieszka, participated in the program and so did LeVar Burton!. Among the amazing authors and illustrators in attendance were Jeff Kinney, Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, Rebecca Stead, Raina Telgemeier, Tad Hills, Wendy Mass, Nick Bruel, Peter Reynolds, Nancy Tillman, Philip Stead, Erica Perl, Margery Cuyler, Casey Scieszka, Steven Weinberg, Katherine Paterson's husband and sometimes co-author John Paterson and more! It was a who's who of children's book creators. And I'm happy to report that a good time was had by all! After a delicious cocktail and dinner reception, attendees were escorted to the theater where the awards presentation was kicked off with an original music video created by the amazing Hewitt School in New York City. The students took attendees on a musical journey about the magic of books and reading and set the tone for the rest of the program. After the awards were presented, host Jarrett Krosozcka and LeVar Burton led attendees in a sing-along of the Reading Rainbow theme song, from the television show that LeVar hosted for 26 years. Attendees were then invited to partake in a delicious dessert reception. Great night, great week - the 93rd celebration of Children's Book Week will be here before you know it.

Tomorrow night I will go back to blogging the way I did before Children's Book Week overtook my life. And have I got a teen/YA book to recommend to you!!