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Going Solo

5 Nov

Most teens question their parents’ decisions and lifestyle. Blade Morrison, the protagonist of Solo  by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess has a very complicated relationship with his father, a famous musician, who has made many questionable life choices.

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This rich novel in verse is full of the music that is so important in Blade’s life. Lyrics from Blade’s songs and  references to songs from Lenny Kravitz, Metallica, and others let reader’s understand what Blade is thinking and feeling, in the same way that teens find music and analyze lyrics that reflect their own state of mind.

Publisher’s Summary: From award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander, with Mary Rand Hess, comes Solo, a YA novel written in poetic verse. Solo tells the story of seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison, whose life is bombarded with scathing tabloids and a father struggling with just about every addiction under the sun—including a desperate desire to make a comeback. Haunted by memories of his mother and his family’s ruin, Blade’s only hope is in the forbidden love of his girlfriend. But when he discovers a deeply protected family secret, Blade sets out on a journey across the globe that will change everything he thought to be true. With his signature intricacy, intimacy, and poetic style, Kwame Alexander explores what it means to finally come home.

 

Another snowy day

11 Jan

I started kindergarten in 1969. I have few memories about it, but this I have are very clear. One of those memories is encountering Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.

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The book spoke to introverted little me, who loved making snow angels.

So, here I am, almost 50 years later, sitting at home after a huge snowfall in Portland, enjoying our 6th snow day of the school year. And I read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s  A Poem for Peter,  which tells the  Ezra Jack Keats biography, focusing on how he created The Snowy Day.

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It is a beautiful, poetic tribute to a man and a book. And the perfect thing to read on this snowy day. Pinkney’s poetry fits Portland today:

But when it snowed,

oh, when it snowed!

Nature’s glittery hand

painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.

She connects snow to equality.

Snow made opportunity and equality

seem right around the corner.

Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty

or greedy or nice.

Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.

Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep

over a poor lady’s stoop.

That’s Snow’s magic.

Snow is magical and it is especially so for children. I hope kids of all ages  in Portland get out and enjoy the snow today. Play, throw snowballs, make snow angels.

But be a snow angel in another way, if you can. Four homeless people have died of exposure in Portland in the last 10 days. Think about them, too. Act if you can. Donate if you can’t act. But do something to help the homeless feel that the snow brings Magic to them, too.

Why we read

2 Oct

In 2013, Neil Gaiman delivered a speech entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” to The Reading Agency in London. You can watch the speech on Youtube,  listen watch and read the text on The Reading Agency’s website, or simply hold the text in your hands and read it, along with many other essays, in Gaiman’s recent collection of essays, The View From the Cheap Seats. 

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I highly recommend that you make the effort to see what Gaiman has t say on this topic. You will nod your head in agreement because, if you read this blog, you are a reader.

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston clearly believe in the same power of books and reading. His new picture boo, A Child of Books,  says the same thing as Gaiman, though in simpler language.

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Publisher’s Summary: New York Times best-selling author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers and fine artist Sam Winston deliver a lyrical picture book inspiring readers of all ages to create, to question, to explore, and to imagine.

A little girl sails her raft across a sea of words, arriving at the house of a small boy and calling him away on an adventure. Through forests of fairy tales and across mountains of make-believe, the two travel together on a fantastical journey that unlocks the boy’s imagination. Now a lifetime of magic and adventure lies ahead of him . . . but who will be next? Combining elegant images by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s typographical landscapes shaped from excerpts of children’s classics and lullabies, A Child of Books is a stunning prose poem on the rewards of reading and sharing stories—an immersive and unforgettable reading experience that readers will want to pass on to others.

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Where will your reading take you today?

Books to save your life

25 Jul

My dad died a year ago today.

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I got a little weepy at my niece’s high school graduation when I read in the program that she had won an award from the local Masonic Lodge. My dad was a lifelong Mason and he would have been so proud to see her get that award. I like to think he was looking down on her that day.

 As a book lover, I turned to literature for some help. Shortly after his passing, I read H is for Hawk  by Helen Macdonald. Last Christmas, my twin sister gave me They left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s memoir about coping with the houseful of mementos and memories her parents left after their deaths.

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Publisher’s Summary: After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father, and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers have finally fallen to their middle-aged knees with conflicted feelings of grief and relief. Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, twenty-three rooms bulging with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum thought: How tough will that be? I know how to buy garbage bags.

But the task turns out to be much harder and more rewarding than she ever imagined. Items from childhood trigger difficult memories of her eccentric family growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, but unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships, with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued.

They Left Us Everything
 is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past, and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future.

I can think of many friends and colleagues, all middle-aged,  who might benefit from reading this book, who also have aging parents.

Earlier this year I read an excellent New Yorker article entitled “Can reading Make You Happier?” which was all about bibliotherapy. It turns out my local public library actually had the book mentioned in the article,  The Novel Cure  by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

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In my pursuit of this topic, I also came across this gem:

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There are many other similar books out there. I hope that you can find some solace, support and hope in whatever books you choose to read.

Playing with language

7 Jun

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Bosom, breast, hell.

Titters erupted as each of these words were uttered as we began our study of A Midsummer Night’s DreamNot everyone laughed. Some remained quiet, but eyes grew large. You could see the wheels turning behind those eyes, wondering if these were bad words.  I almost laughed as I interrupted two girls arguing over whether or not virgin was a cuss word. Really???

Words have changed meaning within my lifetime. When I was young we didn’t wear flip flops, we wore thongs, but I never use that term because it has taken on a whole new meaning.

Several years ago, I was discussing My Side of the Mountain with a lit circle. They giggled when Jean Craighead George wrote about the crotch of a tree. They only knew one meaning of the word crotch and it was another unmentionable.

I recently learned that troll no longer refers to a mythical being or a person who sows discord on the Internet. It is also an adjective for a bad thing, as in  That test was really troll. Who knew? There are fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but no trolls.  The closest thing to a troll in Shakespeare, is Caliban from The Tempest. I wonder what Will would make of these evolutions of the English language?

 

 

A heavenly evening

5 Feb

Marissa Meyer came to Powells yesterday to promote  Stars Above, a Lunar Chronicles story collection.

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My teaching partner, Nina, and I had told the kids about the event and announced that we’d be there. Knowing the event would be busy, we arrived about 45 minutes early and it was already packed. One of our students had beat us there. She and her dad were sitting in the second row. The Powells personnel were busily handing out tickets for a drawing and setting up more chairs.Three more of our students arrived. Then a fifth. We caught sight of a sixth in the stacks. By the time Ms. Meyers arrived, all seats were filled and the stacks along the sides of the seating area were packed with fans and their parents. There was an excited buzz in the air.

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She began by talking about The Lunar Chronicles and her love for fairy tales. She told the audience about her love for the Disney movie The Little Mermaid. This made Nina and I laugh. We might not have been the oldest people there, but we are a lot older that Meyers, who will turn 32  later this month.

Because of her love for fairy tales, her grandmother gave  her a collection and she had us laughing at how horrified she was when she read Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of her Disney favorite. Then she told us his version, with some funny commentary.

I had my question ready when she opened the floor for questions. I don;t often ask questions in large gatherings like this, but I had a good one and I was thrilled when she called on me. I told her that I thought she’d created a fantastic villain in Levana and how much I disliked that character. So, I told her that because I disliked Levana so much, I didn’t want to read Fairest  and feel sympathy for such an evil queen. So, I asked  her to tell me why I should read it.

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She queried the audience to see how many people had read it. Then she asked them how many felt sympathetic for Levana after reading it. Not many hands stayed up. She went on to explain that her intention had not to make readers feel sympathy for Levana, but to explain what happened to her and the bad choices she made, that turned her into the evil queen I hate so much.

The other answer she gave that I really liked was to the young person who asked how to become a writer like her. Yes, she encouraged  them to read and write. What I found most significant was that she also encourage them to let themselves daydream, let their minds wander. She told them to take a walk and not think about what they are writing. She encouraged the to keep with a hobby or activity they enjoy so that, while they are engaged in it, their brain can rest from working on the story,letting the story swirl about in their subconscious so they come back to it with fresh eyes. Amazing!

Finally, it was autograph time. I can hardly wait to read my new book. And yes, I put Fairest on hold at the library. 

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Wayfaring Strangers

1 Feb

One of my favorite NPR shows was The Thistle and Shamrock, hosted by Fiona Ritchie. I’ve learned about all kinds of great performers of traditional Scots and Irish music as well as music with Celtic roots. And Fiona has a lovely burr. Here she is, talking with Dougie MacLean.

Unfortunately, my local NPR station no longer carries it. Fortunately, there are podcasts or you can listen to an audio stream of the ten most recent shows.

Fiona has a book out, co-authored by Doug Orr, entitled Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

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Publisher’s Summary:Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African-American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. In Wayfaring Strangers, Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

From ancient ballads at the heart of the tradition to instruments that express this dynamic music, Ritchie and Orr chronicle the details of an epic journey. Enriched by the insights of key contributors to the living tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, this abundantly illustrated volume includes a CD featuring 20 songs by musicians profiled in the book, including Dolly Parton, Dougie MacLean, Cara Dillon, John Doyle, Pete Seeger, Sheila Kay Adams, Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, David Holt, Anais Mitchell, Al Petteway, and Amy White.

This is a lovely book full of pictures that will take the armchair traveler on a wonderful journey.

Not such a modern girl

27 Jan

I was always sort of  a nerdy kid who liked school and did the right thing. I was never a rebel, or anything close to alternative. In fact, when the word “conformist” came up in a grade 10 English class, Alan Giagnavova, the rebelish odd duck who sat in front of me,  turned in his seat, pointed at me and said, “You are a conformist.”

I never listened to really cool bands or followed the music scene.  I am still not that person, but I’m trying to read outside my usual box. As a result,  at 51, I have a number of memoirs by or about musicians on hold. Some are musicians I didn’t really listen to, and whose music I don’t necessarily like. Nonetheless I am interested in what they have to say and how they say it.

I can’t recommend Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl  enough.

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She was, still is, a member of Sleator-Kinney. I first became aware of her on Portlandia. I’ve heard her interviewed on a couple of local programs and I was intrigued by the interviews and impressed by the memoir. The writing is all that I love in memoir: intelligent, honest and emotionally vulnerable.

Publisher’s Summary:Before Carrie Brownstein became a music icon, she was a young girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest just as it was becoming the setting for one the most important movements in rock history. Seeking a sense of home and identity, she would discover both while moving from spectator to creator in experiencing the power and mystery of a live performance. With Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her bandmates rose to prominence in the burgeoning underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s. They would be cited as “America’s best rock band” by legendary music critic Greil Marcus for their defiant, exuberant brand of punk that resisted labels and limitations, and redefined notions of gender in rock.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is an intimate and revealing narrative of her escape from a turbulent family life into a world where music was the means toward self-invention, community, and rescue. Along the way, Brownstein chronicles the excitement and contradictions within the era’s flourishing and fiercely independent music subculture, including experiences that sowed the seeds for the observational satire of the popular television series Portlandia years later.

With deft, lucid prose Brownstein proves herself as formidable on the page as on the stage. Accessibly raw, honest and heartfelt, this book captures the experience of being a young woman, a born performer and an outsider, and ultimately finding one’s true calling through hard work, courage and the intoxicating power of rock and roll.

I think what I like best about the book is that it gives a real sense of what it as like to live in a world so unlike my own and it also clearly demonstrates the bands creative process. I don;t have to be a fan of her music to appreciate this fantastic memoir.

Warming my heart with tea and books

7 Dec

Yesterday was the first day of Hanukkah. Last night’s tea from my advent calendar was Glitter and Gold.

Looking for a little star power? This sweet, spiced black tea is filled with pretty little gold star-shaped sprinkles. Take a sip and the slow suggestion of cinnamon will warm your body. Your toes will tingle and your mind will turn to fireworks, falling stars, late-night seduction. It’s basically magic.

Ingredients: Black tea, lemon peel, sugar sprinkles, sugar, cloves, natural and artificial flavouring.

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My sister, the giver of the advent calendar,  was the one who explained to me that this tea was to celebrate the first day of Hanukkah. I love this cultural cross-pollination of the Advent calendar!

And that thought brings me to one of my favorite holiday books by Patricia Pollaco,  The Trees of the Dancing Goats.

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Goodreads Summary: Trisha loves the eight days of Hanukkah, when her mother stays home from work, her Babushka makes delicious potato latkes, and her Grampa carves wonderful animals out of wood as gifts for Trisha and her brother. In the middle of her family’s preparation for the festival of lights, Trisha visits her closest neighbors, expecting to find them decorating their house for Christmas. Instead they are all bedridden with scarlet fever. Trisha’s family is one of the few who has been spared from the epidemic. It is difficult for them to enjoy their Hanukkah feast when they know that their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate their holiday. Then Grampa has an inspiration: they will cut down trees, decorate them, and secretly deliver them to the neighbors, “But what can we decorate them with?” Babushka asks. Although it is a sacrifice, Trisha realizes that Grampa’s carved animals are the perfect answer. Soon her living room is filled with trees — but that is only the first miracle of many during an incredible holiday season.
Based on a long cherished childhood memory, this story celebrates the miracle of true friendship.

This book will warm your heart more deeply than a cup of tea.

блокада Ленинграда, or The Siege of Leningrad

23 Nov

From September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, 872 days,  the city of Leningrad was under siege by Nazi German forces whose mandate from Hitler was to wipe Leningrad off the face of the Earth. It is estimated that over a million people died, mostly from starvation, stress and exposure. The perseverance and defiance of the people of Leningrad was remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that Dmitri Shostakovich decided to dedicate his 7th symphony to the city of Leningrad, his hometown.   The work remains one of Shostakovich’s best-known compositions.

In Symphony for the City of the Dead, long listed for the National Book Award, M. T. Anderson weaves together Shostakovich’s life, work, hometown, and the siege.

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The book is told in three parts. Part one tells Shostakovich’s story. Born in 1906, he was really a child of the Revolution. A prodigy who embraced the art and music of Russian futurism and the avant-garde. Eventually, though, he fell foul of Stalin and feared that he would be swallowed up in the purges of the 1930’s banished to exile or to the Gulags. Eventually, he regained his footing and, by the time of the outbreak of what the Russian;s call the Great Patriotic War, he was more or less safe.

Part Two covers the period of the war and the composition of the 7th symphony. Anderson provides excellent background information to the war and, although I consider myself fairly well read on the subject of WWII and the Soviet Union, having read a lot of Solzhenitsyn in my youth, I learned facts about Stalin I’d never heard before. We see Shostakovich composing as the situation in Leningrad deteriorates, composing the first three movements in besieged Leningrad. Eventually he, along with his wife and children and other  important residents of Leningrad, are evacuated and we see him struggle to finish the 7th symphony in exile while he worried about family members who were left behind.

Part three covers the post war period and the rise of the Cold War. Shostakovich found himself once more a victim of Stalin’s criticism and denounced by former friends and colleagues. Stalin’s death in 1953 saw Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as a creative artist.

The book includes extensive photo, notes and a bibliography. It is an excellent piece of research and shines a light on the importance of the arts in a world gone mad.

Publisher’s Summary: In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

 

 

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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