Archive | February, 2014

What’s Your Favorite Animal?

27 Feb

In their interactive journals,the 4th graders often ask their correspondent about their favorite animal. I usually answer “otter”, because I like their playfulness in water and the nimbleness of their hands. And they are cute.

Imagine the answers if you asked book illustrators! Here’s what you’d get:


Eric Carle, Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter  McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems all answer the question. Each draws their animal and tells a little bit about themselves and the animal of their dreams.

Some are simple


some more complex


but all are delightful.

Aside from the obvious “draw & write about your favorite animal” lesson, this book has plenty of classroom applications: author/illustrator studies, art lessons, genre writing lessons…..

All the royalties from book sale are planned to be donated to theEric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Puppy Love: A Slice of Life Story

25 Feb

I am a volunteer with Oregon Basset Hound Rescue. In that capacity I do a number of things including home visits for potential adopters or fosters,  intakes of dogs being relinquished, and meet & greets, where families meet a new dog they are thinking of adopting.

Many people who apply indicate that they want a young dog. I get to tell them that we rarely get puppies and mostly get adult or senior dogs. This week was different though. We have three 3 month old puppies. Mom was a big girl, a 60 lb basset. Dad was a chihuahua. That makes everybody smile as they try to figure out the logistics of how that happened. In any case, a good Samaritan in Eastern Oregon contacted us and brought them to the Metro Portland area so we could find them homes.

We didn’t post them. We would have been flooded by well-intentioned people. Instead, we all thought about our previous adopters, especially the ones who, instead of getting the young dog they’d hoped for, took in an older dog. It was payback time.

Yesterday I went to see the puppies with a young couple who adopted from us in November. I got there a little early and had snuggle time with the girls. Here they are in order: Biscuit, Big Girl, and Trixie.




The couple brought their dog, Benny, who is possibly the most laid back basset I’ve ever seen. They met with the puppies for almost 2 hours, knowing they could always say no, yes, but not today, or take one home. They tried each girl out alone with Benny. By that time I knew they’d say yes to someone. In the end they took Biscuit home for a trial period. We always tell people to give it a few weeks before we make things official. So, Big Girl and Trixie are left together, waiting for just the right people to come along. and make them part of their family.


Anna Was Here: Author Interview with Jane Kurtz

24 Feb

Some people are uncomfortable with portraits of Christianity in children’s literature. To my way of thinking, we should be no more uncomfortable with Christianity in kid lit than we are with portrayals  of Judaism, Islam or any other religion.


Anna Was Here by Jane Kurtz is a beautifully written novel that shows  the faith of a family in an honest way.

Ten-year-old Anna Nickel’s worst nightmare has come true. Her father has decided to move the family back to Cottondale, Kansas–where he grew up–in order to become the minister of the church there. New friends, new school, a new community, and a family of strangers await, and what’s even worse, it’s all smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. Anna has always prided herself on being prepared (she keeps a notebook on how to cope with disasters, from hurricanes to shark bites), but she’ll be tested in Cottondale!

Author Jane Kurtz lives in Portland and I had the opportunity recently to have an e-mail interview with her, in which she talked about the book, her life and her writing process.


What planted the seeds for Anna Was Here?


A friend says, “I remember sitting in the car looking out at my second grade friends and bawling my heart out.”  I can’t even remember leaving Portland for the first time—but I remember plenty of other times of bawling my heart out. Also, when my kids were about Anna’s age, we also moved…from Colorado to North Dakota, stopping for a couple of weeks in Kansas, with the cat under the seat.


We all know it can happen. Of course we do. But somehow we also think it won’t. In 1997 when flood waters caught up with our family and our whole neighborhood was destroyed, I learned that most things we lie awake at night and worry about don’t happen, but some do.

Anna thinks moving is the most massive disaster of her life—of course that’s before she faces a water balloon in the face and starts seriously preparing for tornadoes, blizzards, and feral hogs. It’s before she lives through a tornado. Anna is partly me and partly my friend who says that when she read The Cat in the Hat, she always identified with the fish.

Some kids are born intense and others probably get that way when the ground starts shaking under them. For me, I imagine it started when my idealistic dad decided he could do the most good in this world if we moved from Portland to Ethiopia. He and my mom had a four-year-old, a two-year-old (me), a one-year-old…and although they didn’t realize it when they made the decision, another baby on the way. I believe I knew (in that way kids do know) that they were in over their heads. Somebody had better be in control. Clearly that somebody had better be me.

By the time I was Anna’s age, I had moved from Addis Ababa to a remote village in southwest Ethiopia and then, when I was seven, to a house near my grandparents’ farm in eastern Oregon, where I went to school for the first time, back to the Ethiopian village that felt like home—to get ready to leave for boarding school in Addis Ababa. Sure I knew that God watches over sparrows. But that didn’t seem too comforting when I wondered what would happen if I got chased by a wild boar or when I watched my dad dangling by a waterfall or on our grass roof as he tried to put a tarp over the grass on an extremely windy day.

Those are the seeds that grew into Anna Was Here.

Tell me about your life as a reader.

Books and stories got me through that somewhat chaotic and confusing if very interesting childhood.  My mom—an avid reader—taught me how to read taught me that books were precious. Books showed up every Christmas and birthday.  Stories grounded me and thrilled me and still do.

What is your favorite childhood book memory?

I got to read aloud at the dinner table one evening.  I think the book was Caddie Woodlawn, and I remember that I proudly mispronounced the word beau because it was obvious looking at it that it was related to the word beautiful.  Another powerful memory is reading Charlotte’s Web to my brother Chris. He cried when Charlotte died—it sticks with me because I saw so vividly that stories make us empathize and make us feel things.

Did you always plan on a writing career? Did a teacher or mentor influence you in pursuing a writing career?

I never met any authors when I was young.  I’m sure if I had, I would have wanted that more than anything.  As it was, I thought I’d be a teacher—and I’ve taught at the elementary, high school, college and now masters level—or a storekeeper.  (Since I was growing up in a place that didn’t have any stores, the latter goal didn’t have much of a chance.) It was really reading aloud to my own children and watching their delight that made me determined to publish a book, and then I drew on my mom’s passion for reading and writing, my dad’s passion for telling stories, and everything I learned about books and stories from a string of teachers after that.

Are you in a writer’s group? If so, how does that work?

Before I moved back to Portland, I wasn’t in an area that had a lot of published children’s book authors. The writing group I’ve been part of for about 15 years consists of authors who don’t live near me. We meet for a retreat somewhere near Boston once a year, when we write all day and take turns reading to each other at night. Just before Anna Was Here went to copy-editing, I read the entire manuscript out loud to a friend on one of those retreats.

I’ve also reached out to authors from that group when I need someone to read a chapter or an entire middle grade novel—it’s hardly ever easy getting feedback but it is crucial to a story’s becoming what it could be. Here in Portland, I love seeing other authors occasionally to talk about where we are with our work or about the publishing life.

 Tell me about writing and collaborating with your brother, author Christopher Kurtz.

I first admired Chris’s writing when he was in Ethiopia as a young teacher and writing letters about his experiences. When he returned to the U.S. we wrote two picture books together that were rooted in his recent experiences in Ethiopia, Only a Pigeon and Water Hole Waiting. Then we wrote a trilogy about three sea-faring brothers. It was under contract until the editor moved to a different publishing house and our book was orphaned. I still want to get back to it someday. I’ve never laughed as hard in my writing life as when I’m working with Chris.  I love seeing him take risks and try new things—and visiting his third grade class to interview kids or try out an idea or hear what he’s reading aloud.

Do you have any writing tips for kids?

When I do author visits, I like to talk about the power of details. Even though I was a good writer when I set my goal of getting published, I didn’t really grasp how to hunt for and find a vivid, surprising detail. I also thought of writing as something that came out of a place that was mysterious…which is somewhat true, but somewhat not. Now I realize most of my details come from memory, observation, or research.  The final thing I never learned how to do as a kid is revise. I thought the point of being a good writer was to do it perfectly the first time. My drafts have gotten looser and messier as I publish more and more books.

What are you working on now?

My new middle grade novel is almost finished (at least its first draft) and this time it’s set in Portland, so I’m getting to look around me for the details. I’m also writing some new ready-to-read nonfiction books about four states and loving all the research.

You can read more about Anna Was Here  and jane Kurtz at her website.

2014 Hub Reading Challenge check-in #3

22 Feb

One of the good things about the HUB Challenge is that it is chock full of graphic novels and audiobooks. I can listen while I drive and whip through graphic novels quickly. So, although I only have one novel on my list, I read 4 books! The two graphic novels were rereads, but the other two were new.

Can I just say, Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner blew my mind.


I had checked this out from the library earlier this year, but the first page didn’t grab me, so I returned it and never checked it out again until the Challenge began. I’m glad it was on the list because this is an amazing book. While reading it, I had visions of 1995’s Richard III with Ian McKellan,


set it an alternate fascist England. And that is where this book is set. Dystopian historical fantasy is the genre category I’d give this book. Standish Treadwell lives is Zone 7, a terrible place where where outcasts and political anarchists are sent.  So when Standish and his only friend and neighbor, Hector, make their way to the other side of the wall, they see what the Motherland has been hiding. And Standish has to decide if  he is willing to risk everything to expose the truth.

I listened to  Etiquette & Espionage  by  Gail Carriger, which I wrote about last week. I enjoyed it so much, I downloaded the second book in the series,  Curtsies & Conspiracies.

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The two graphic novel rereads were  Relish by Lucy Kinsley and Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang.

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Poor Little Rich Girl

20 Feb

At 5 feet tall, I have trouble finding jeans that I don’t have to hem or roll up. I never used to have this problem, but petite pants have gotten longer over the years. All that bovine growth hormone, I suppose. For several years I didn’t wear jeans, but I recently discovered that Gloria Vanderbilt jeans come short enough for me. That got me thinking of the time, decades ago when she first launched her clothing line and my mother told me abut her “poor little rich girl” life.

Tonya Bolden’s newest book,  Searching for Sarah Rector, the Richest Black Girl in America


is the story of an eleven year old who inherited a fortune and then disappeared.Born in 1902 as a freedman in the Creek, Indian Territory, Sarah was not destined for any great fortune or wealth. Her parents were farmers and grew corn and cotton. Being born in the Creek before March 4, 1906 meant that they were eligible for land allotment for the members of the Creek Nation. At the age of 11, however, Sarah was worth more than a million dollars. She now lived in Oklahoma, the 46th sate of the Union. The money came from the 160 acres under her name, which was bought for $556.50. The land was rough, chock-full of rocks, and required payment of about $30 in taxes. Fed up with the useless land, her father, Mr. Rector, leased the land to an oil drilling company. By 1913, the well on her land began to yield dividends. Newspapers estimated the output to be about a whooping 105,000 gallons a day and predicted that Sarah would soon become a “Plute.” A ‘plute’ is slang for plutocrat a very wealthy person. When a child went from poor to plute, the courts insisted on appointing a guardian for managing the affairs for the minor. T. J. Porter, a cattle rancher, became Sarah’s legal guardian. Every penny spent on Sarah’s welfare was to be accounted for to or permitted by the court. The public pressure on Sarah became so intense that she ‘disappeared’ for a while in 1914.

This is both her story and that of children just like her: one filled with ups and downs amid bizarre goings-on and crimes perpetrated by greedy and corrupt adults. From a trove of primary documents, including court and census records and interviews with family members, author Tonya Bolden painstakingly pieces together the events of Sarah’s life and the lives of those around her.
The book includes a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Mysterious travelers

19 Feb

The snow is gone, but the wind and rain are back with a vengeance. I don’t often long for hot summer days, but I’m getting close to it. I travelled to a warm land last night, while reading Mysterious Traveler 


by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, with illustrations by P. J. Lynch. It’s not a tradition folk tale but really feels like one. It was beautiful from start to finish. Picturesque language  and lyrical prose evoke  the sights and sounds of a time and place far away,conveying the gentle love between Issa and Mariama, and the desert in all moods from calm and beautiful at sunrise, to angry and dark in a sandstorm. P.J. Lynch’s beautiful  illustrations, all done in earthy, desert tones, are both realistic and dreamlike.

Goodreads Summary: Already an old man, desert guide Issa has seen thousands of dawns. One particular morning, however, the desert reveals something new; something that changes his life. Tucked away in a narrow cave, shielded from a treacherous dust storm by a faithful camel, a baby girl lies wrapped in fine cotton and wearing half of a star medallion around her neck. Issa names the girl Mariama. As years pass, Issa loses his sight, and Mariama becomes his eyes. So Issa doesn’t see the pattern on the robes of a mysterious young traveler who comes through their village, or the medallion he wears. Who is this young stranger, and what does his arrival mean for the life Issa and Mariama share in the desert?

A funny note: the original British cover has 2 l’s in Traveller, the American only 1.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Ms. B’s Movie

18 Feb


One of our 4th graders, let’s call him E,  was seriously hurt in a sledding accident during last weekend’s snow storm. He was hospitalized Sunday for a lacerated liver (!!!) and just got out on Saturday. His home room teacher, the counselor & I dropped by to visit him at home yesterday. I think the highlight was viewing the video his teacher, Ms. B. made for him.

It should have been simple project: shoot some video at school, toss it into iDVD and voila!

The kids really like E, who is smart, funny and nice to everyone. So when Ms.  B found an Oregon Ducks doll, they all agreed it would be fun to put the doll in E’s seat and let him participate in what E was missing. They had a blast with the project. They asked the doll questions, took him to PE and recess, and walked him in the hall. The glitch came when Ms. B., who had recorded the day on her iPad, tried to transfer it to her laptop to create the movie. Our school iPads require an administrator’s password to initiate conversations between devices. We don’t have anyone in our building with the password. Ms. B. asked our tech guy. He saw no way out, contacted IT and was still waiting two days later.

Friday afternoon, I had an idea. Our iPads all have the Dropbox app. Couldn’t we create an account, upload it and then open our Dropbox account on the laptop? So, I spent most of the Valentine’s Day parties working on this. I don’t have a homeroom, so it was possible for me to mess around with things. It turns out that, I could download Dropbox onto my own school laptop, assigned to me, but not on Ms. B’s, so I made an account for her too.

She had the movie finished & burned to a DVD to give to E on Sunday. It took a village to get the project finished, but the end product made E and his family laugh. And, in a way, maybe that’s what Valentine’s day should be about.

Into Overdrive

17 Feb

Up until this week, I have only listened to audiobooks on CD, usually in the car, but occasionally at home while knitting. Last week, desiring to listen to an audiobook that Multnomah County Library (MCL) only had as a downloadable audiobook, I decided to download the OverDrive Media Console so I could listen to  Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger.


It was incredibly easy and completely wonderful. This feels like one pod those life changing tech moments. I’ve been scouring the MCL catalog for others I can download. Here’s the downer part: I can;t download it onto my school laptop or iPad because it requires an administrator’s password. No one at y school has one, so I have to wait until the right authority is present and gives me permission.

I’m listening to Etiquette & Espionage for the HUB Challenge, so I’ll talk more about it on my next check-in.

2014 Hub Reading Challenge check-in #2

16 Feb

Thank goodness for the snow! I was able to finish 4 books for the Challenge. Two were new to me, two were rereads.

The first new book was  Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox. It’s the only one I will talk about in depth today because I have blogged about the others.


It is a graphic novel that tells three stories about dogs during three different wars: World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. Each story is a little different and  tells the remarkable adventures of a soldier and his service dog. The fictional stories were  based on the real-life roles of military dogs that served as Red Cross rescuers, messengers, scouts, search-and-rescue teams, sentries, and mascots.

“Boots” takes place during World War I, with a dog who was involved in the famous Christmas truce between the British and German soldiers.


“Loki” is a sled dog in Greenland during World War II, where he helps his trainer survive being tracked by Nazis.


The final story, “Sheba,” shows how the dog helped troops detect Viet Cong threats and the impact on her trainer after he was sent home without her and is trying to recalibrate to normal life.


The three other books I read were War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon McKay and Daniel  Lafrance, The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal, and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

Finding your soulmate

14 Feb

I don’t really enjoy Valentine’s day very much. Too much hype & candy at elementary school. Too much commercialism.  I guess I’m just getting old & jaded.

On a side note, I have an acquaintance who has been married for 27 years, I believe. Since their first Valentine’s Day, she & her husband have made Valentines for each other. I wish you could hear her tell it because they have become more & more elaborate over the years. They sort of restore my faith in the whole thing.

A beautiful gem of a picture book came out in 2012,  Oliver by Birgitta Sif.


Here is the opening two-page spread. The text throughout the book is simple. Here, it simply says, “Oliver felt a bit different.”


You have to search bit to see that Oliver is the boy in the bus window, with only his toy dragon for company. The book goes on to show that he loved books and considered the books, puppets and toys, his friends. One day, however, something happens that sends Oliver and company out beyond his comfort zone. In the end he meets Olivia, who is also a little bit different. The end of the book shows the two of them, performing a puppet play for toys. The words “The End” are crossed out and replace by  “The Beginning”. And, As Rick says to Louis at the end of  Casablanca, 


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