Ten “Must” Books: Four New Favorites & Six Next Reads

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As spring break nears, I am building my traveling book pile. When my husband and I travel we tend to pack more books than clothes (see above – my husband’s book stack in a hotel on a recent trip!)

Here is a list of ten books — four current favorites and six books I am packing for spring break:

RECENT FAVORITES

  • The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham — a beautifully crafted collection of seven short stories. Last fall I saw Ann Patchett and Tom Hanks in conversation and they raved about The News from Spain.  Wickersham’s prose is exacting and elegant. The book is dazzling in its nuanced revelations about human frailty.
  • The Belles by Dhoinelle Clayton — a highly anticipated YA fantasy book. Clayton focuses on society’s obsession with outward appearance. She disguises her commentary in a fairytale-like fantasy. I was bowled over by her two-page author note at the end of the book.
  • Far from the Tree by Robin Benway — At first I did not want to read this National Book Award winner YA novel. Teen pregnancy and the search for a biological connection are at the heart of this tale. However, Benway crafts strong characters you will find yourself rooting for throughout the story. She also hones in on the meaning of family in a way that feels modern and fresh. Highly recommend.
  • Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy — this powerful biographical free verse novel is a quick read. Written by a niece, Yellow Star tells the story of one Jewish girl’s remarkable survival in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. The opening say it all: “In 1945 the war ended. The Germans surrendered, and the ghetto was liberated. Out of over a quarter of a million people, about 800 walked out of the ghetto. Of those who survived, only twelve were children. I was one of the twelve.”

NEXT READS

  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi – This book is number one on The New York Times teen bestseller list. My students were more impressed Kobe Bryant tweeted his love for the book. I saw the author a couple of weeks ago and she likens Children of Blood and Bone to Black Panther, with magic. Can’t wait to read it.
  • The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins – I find it useful to always have a volume of poetry at hand. Billy Collins’ recent collection is the perfect size for a large pocket or a small bag. I adore Billy Collins and smile just thinking about his gracious, insightful poems.
  • The Creativity Project edited by Colby Sharp – This new book gathers a stellar collection of shining lights in children’s literature. As Sharp notes, the idea for the book came about when a group of book creators made up writing prompts to spark the imagination. Therefore, every entry begins with a prompt by one prominent writer/illustrator and the prompt is followed by a story from another luminary. The Creativity Project is every writing teacher’s dream!
  • The Turner House by Angela Fournoy & Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff – A National Book Award finalist, The Turner House is described as an epic family saga set on Detroit’s East Side. On the other hand, Pulitzer-prize winner LeDuff digs deep into the actual roots of Detroit to figure out what destroyed his hometown. I am still going back and forth between these books. Both are supposed to be powerhouses – I will probably use the poet’s choice and pack them both!
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – If you have never heard spoken word poet Elizabeth Acevedo, stop reading and get on it! The Poet X is Acevedo’s debut novel and early reviews promise a virtuoso verse performance.

 

Good Things Happen When Teachers Write

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As I sit staring at a blank screen and a flashing cursor, I am struck with a cold realization…this is what writing feels like for many of my students.

The English teachers I know love to plan strong, authentic writing experiences for students. We work hard to identify mentor texts, build scaffolds and conference with students.

However, when I am not writing myself, I lose some of the empathy that exists among fellow writers.

What is hard about the particular project?

Where do I need more support?

Would it help to talk to another writer about the sticking points?

I believe I am a better teacher when I write alongside my students.

The wise and wonderful Penny Kittle wrote, ““What power–what importance–lies in the blank lines of an open notebook. Go and fill yours. Then share.”

Time to start filling my blank pages.

Making Space for My Writing in the Classroom

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In November, my eighth grade students took on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. They wrote furiously every day for a month. I marveled to look across the classroom day after day and see students buried deep in thought or talking to a neighbor about a challenging story point.

As part of the effort, I told my students I would write every day with them. I was nervous about sharing my story ideas and rough drafts. But in fact, sharing my writing made us all brave.

Each morning, I arrived early and wrote in the calm before the school day storm. As the writing days added up, I found myself irritated if someone came into my room with a question while I was writing. My early morning writing space was vital.

Unfortunately, I let the joy of a morning routine fall by the wayside. I thought wistfully about the morning writing time but I did not make adjustments to restore the practice.

The March Slice of Life Challenge provides the same spark NaNoWriMo offered earlier in the year. I think about my posts walking the dogs, on my way to work, chatting with students and driving home. Oh, and my students are “slicing”! It is beautiful to see students select moments to share.

Bottom line: sharing my writing life with other teachers and students made me vulnerable. But, sharing my writing made me a part of a writing community.

Writers I Follow

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I was asked recently to share a list of writers I follow online. One of the beautiful things about writers who blog or post short writings is you get to see these writers outside of the published world. Anyone participating in the Slice of Life Challenge knows that writers express themselves in all kinds of formats — poems, lists, narratives, questions, etc.

Some of my favorite writers to follow:

Two Writing Teachers — This website is a mecca for writing teachers nationwide. During March, the site is filled with links to people who are blogging daily as part of the Slice of Life Challenge. Throughout the year, this website offers wonderful writing about craft, teaching and life.

Spoken word poets (Elizabeth Acevedo, Sarah Kay, Daniel Beatty & Kwame Alexander) — All of these spoken word poets have videos of their work online. I am not sure there is anything more powerful than the spoken word. Check out each author’s sites for moments of heart-piercing brilliance. Even better, see them live if you can!

Kate DiCamillo — I frequently share Kate DiCamillo’s Facebook posts with my students. She can take a walk down the street and describe the scene with such spectacular clarity that not only can I see the setting, I can feel the breeze. Kate DiCamillo is so busy her posts are short, but scroll back through her Facebook feed and you will find some lovely gems.

Jacqueline Woodson — Powerful, giving, reflective, unflinching — all these words can describe Jacqueline Woodson. Her verse memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, is on my “top ten books of all time” list. Read her work, see her when she comes to town, follow her on Twitter/Instagram.

Nerdy Book Club — Every single day, I get an email alerting me to a new post on the Nerdy Book Club website. Guest blog posts from authors, teachers, students and all kinds of readers offer different views of the kid/YA reading world. This rich resource is at turns funny, touching and empowering. I was honored to provide a couple of posts and highly recommend you add your voice to the Nerdy Book community.

Kate Messner — Another prolific author I admire (as a writer and a human being) is Kate Messner. Kate’s blog is filled with posts about travel, her take on issues of the world and her writing. When you read Kate’s blog, you feel as if you have her journal in hand — sketches, notes and all. I learn a lot from reading Kate’s posts.

Jason Reynolds — Visit Jason Reynold’s blog and you will notice that the last post was in 2014. He is a very busy man these days. But, take some time to scroll through these older posts and you will see an intense artist burning bright before much of the world caught on.

Pernille Ripp — This woman is a fierce speaker. In addition, her writing life touches on a host of critical topics of today. As founder of the Global Read Aloud, Pernille brings people together around books. She is not afraid to speak her mind — a blessing for the rest of us!

 

 

 

 

Denial

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Lazy days of summer: a list

 

Screened-in porch

Jazz music playing

Dogs napping on the rug

Iced tea glass sweating

Warm heavy air made gentle by rotating fan

Trees overhanging the porch

Birds chatting

Book in hand

Shorts, tee shirt & bare feet

 

As forecasters talk about a cold front and snow, I will live in my summer list.

Bookstore

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Thoreau stands beside Hunter S. Thompson.
Picture books spill onto the floor,
left in mid-sentence by a child.
Lives lived, dreams shattered,
mountains climbed, hearts broken.
All these stories simply wait
for the reader to come
through the door.

Silence is not required
but reverence for the writer
and the arduous task
of telling one’s story
keeps the room hushed.

Beautiful covers entice
the hopeful reader.
Maybe the story that
can save a life
is hidden in these creamy pages.
Perhaps a new perspective
resides in the last line,
on the last page
of a new adventure.

Bookstores are filled with hope.
hope for understanding,
hope for connection,
hope for renewal.

The magic of a bookstore
waits just beyond the glass door.

 

The Fox

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For the second morning this week, my dogs and I were not the only denizens of the sidewalk in the predawn hours. On Monday, we were about a block from home when the dogs stopped to smell something in the grass. I glanced up and there, across the street, less than 25 feet from us was a fox. For a glorious moment or two, the fox and I stood transfixed. My dogs were still oblivious to the wild creature so very near.

Georgia’s head popped up quickly. Perhaps she caught the scent of the fox or she was done with the smell in the grass. Max was quick to react. My dogs growled and pulled at their leashes as they lunged in the direction of the fox.

The fox, while startled, did not move immediately. He considered the dogs and then trotted up the street away from us. About half way up the block, the fox stopped, turned and regarded us with curiosity before venturing into a neighbor’s yard.

This time of year we often see a fox at a distance down the street in the evening. Sometimes the dogs pick up the fox’s scent in the dewy morning grass of our own yard. However, there is something thrilling about a close, unexpected encounter.

Today’s walk was brisk, thanks to a chill in the air. Thus, it was especially surreal to look across the street and see our friend the fox watching us. I wonder if he looks at Max and Georgia as long lost relatives? Is it coincidence or curiosity bringing us together in the early morning?

I cannot wait for our walk tomorrow.

In the present

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It was drizzling when I walked out this morning. The day promised to be full of activity. Thinking too much about it may exhaust me. But, one thing I love about my mornings is the trip in.  Teri Gross on the radio, Northside Social for coffee and then time by myself to write, prepare and organize my thinking.

Jazz music helps to settle and center me in the morning. Something about the rich tones and the way jazz envelops the room that makes being present so much easier.

Our brains whirl away at a hundred miles a minute: the grocery list, the pet store, tomorrow’s lesson, tonight’s dinner, the novel in my head and the harrowing story on the news. So many competing interests for attention. No wonder it is hard to stay in the present! I imagine most of us spend half of our lives living in the past or future.

I find when I am in the present, my vision is crisper, my senses more attune and my shoulders relax out the perpetual hunch a hectic day can produce. My goal in these busy days: deep breaths and centering myself.

My 3 Favorite Outdoor Spaces

Inspired by my friend Sally, who just listed her 10 favorite spaces, I have created a list of my 3 favorite outdoor spaces. There is something special and reverential about  sacred outdoor spaces. Each of my three spaces holds personal memories. I can literally step back in time just by looking at an image or catching the scent of a cool fall morning or a warm summer day.

  1. The New Jersey Pine Barrens

My grandparents were founding members of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. In fact, author John McPhee included the story of a walk through the woods with my grandparents in his book, The Pine Barrens. My childhood was filled with canoe trips, searching for spring peepers at dusk and walking through the woods near cranberry bogs.

 

 

2. Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park, London

When I was 21 years old, I lived in London for a short while. I loved ambling through the parks and catching different views of the city I love. Fast forward 20+ years and I returned to London to visit my son who was living in London for a semester. One beautiful morning, we walked to Regent’s Park. In a corner of the park, not far from the London Zoo sits Primrose Hill, a gentle rise ending with gorgeous views of the city of London. I love the spot so much, this photo is the screen saver on my phone!

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3. Lake Michigan, Chicago

Oh how I love Chicago. Another city that has come in and out of my life through the years. There is nothing better than walking along the lakefront in the early morning. I could sit by the lake for hours.

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Thanks for the inspiration Sally!