Tag Archives: family

Holy Unanticipated Occurrences!

28 Oct

In 1984, I read Blaise Pascale’s  Pensees in ny 17th century French lit class, and I learned about Pascale’s wager. Now, young people everywhere can learn about it simply by picking up Kate DiCamillo’s newest book


They can also learn about cynics, superheroes, poetry, love, and finding your way home. Holy bagumba!

The story is simple. A young girl rescues a squirrel, whom she names Ulysses,  that has been sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, only to discover that the experience has transformed him into a poet and a superhero. She must save him from his arch-nemesis (her mother) and learn to embrace the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart(her father).

Complementing DiCamillo’s text are K. G. Campbell’s black & white drawings.



I liked this book a lot, although not as much as I liked  The Tale Of Desperaux  or  The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  I think it would make a great read aloud. It is fast-moving, and the vocabulary is wonderful. I will add this to the list of books for my teacher read aloud book club, if we ever get it going again. It would also be fun to see how the Kids could take a superhero story of their own, write part, and illustrate part.

Stop and enjoy the day, the moment, the minute

23 Oct

Everybody is tired at work. We have new report cards, new math targets, a new evaluation system that has us writing smart goals, and we are providing ESL services in a new way. Everyone’s plate is very full.  It makes me want to shout some Wordsworth from the rooftops.

The World is Too Much With Us
by William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
If Wordsworth isn’t your style, I suggest reading The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dušan Petričić.

This book is based on the true story of Joshua Bell, the American violinist,  who played  anonymously in the Washington D.C. subway on January 12, 2007. More than a thousand commuters rushed by him, but only seven stopped to listen for more than a minute.  Every time a child passed, he or she tried to stop, but the adult they were with pulled them along. In The Man with the Violin, bestselling author Kathy Stinson has woven a heart-warming story that reminds us all to stop and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.

Dylan is someone who notices things. His mom is someone who doesn’t. So try as he might, Dylan can’t get his mom to listen to the man playing the violin in the subway station. But Dylan is swept away by the soaring and swooping notes that fill the air as crowds of oblivious people rush by. With the beautiful music in his head all day long, Dylan can’t forget the violinist, and finally succeeds in making his mother stop and listen, too.

So take a little time today to be still today and enjoy something beautiful, just for beauty’s sake.

Zero tolerance

22 Oct

In 1997, when I was teaching ESL at Meadow Park Middle School, I accidentally got an 8th grade boy suspended. He was sitting in my ESL class and suddenly his pants exploded. It wasn’t a big explosion, but it was loud. He had caps in his pocket, had stuck his hand in to play around with them as an old man might play with coins in his pants. He accidentally set them off. I sent him to the office because he’d burnt his hands a little and he ended up suspended for having explosives at school. I learned my lesson.

A few years later, I’d moved to the elementary school I now teach at. I taught 4th grade out in a portable. I had a scatterbrained gifted kid who showed up one day with a toy knife. It was very realistic. I knew exactly what had happened before he even told me. He’d been playing with it at home, Mom told him it was time to go to school and it just travelled along. I took it from him and told him he could have it back when I saw his mom at conferences. I called Mom to let there know about it. He came back the next day and told me that his mom said he had to than me and say I was the nicer teacher ever. We all knew that if this incident had made it to the office, he would have been suspended.

In this zero tolerance world, kids aren’t allowed to make any little  errors of judgement. No little mistakes to learn how to keep from making big mistakes.


Enter Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills.  When perfect student  Sierra Shepherd realizes she has her mom’s lunch with a paring knife, she tries to do the right thing. She tells the lunch lady who takes her to the office. There, she is put into in school suspension (ISS) pending an expulsion hearing. It seems so ludicrous, but the school policy is clear.

Mills totally nails Sierra’s voice.  The book is narrated in the 3rd person, but it really feels as though Sierra s telling the story. As she spends time in ISS she gets to know kids she hasn’t really spent much time thinking about. She understands that everyone doesn’t love school or have a supportive family. She learns about the real world and herself. I imagined her growing up to be a laser like her father, but fighting for the little guys. A solid read for middle grade students.

What are your demands?

21 Oct


Did I mention I got an autographed ARC at my conference? Reality Boy  comes out tomorrow, October 22nd. You should go get it.A. S. King takes a damaged kid with a broken family and  lays it bare in her  raw  and edgy way. The story is incredibly heart-breaking.

Gerald was the star of a reality TV nanny series, famous for pooping in inappropriate places. No one listened to him then and now, no one sees him as he really is. What makes this terrible story beautiful is Gerald’s awakening. When things get hard, he disappears to a fantasy world he calls Gersday (rhymes with daresday), where he eats strawberry ice-cream and Snow White is his guidance counselor.  As he gets to know Hannah, a girl he works with at his afterschool concession stand job, he struggles with trying to make his first true friend, and perhaps girlfriend, and what that means if he truly opens up to someone. As he approaches his 17th birthday he realizes he has demands and needs to voice them if he is ever going to survive.

A powerful, beautiful novel.


19 Oct

Two new lovely books for train fans!


Brian Floca’s Locomotive is a look at a family’s 1869 journey from Omaha to Sacramento via the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad. This is a wonderful piece of historical fiction that gives readers tons of information from the sights and the sounds to the machinery and the people who work on the locomotive.


Watercolor, ink, gouache, and acrylic illustrations give readers a variety of views from up close details of the locomotive to vignettes of the different stopping points along the trip.  The endpapers give details about the trip and steam power. Notes at the end provide information about the sources Floca used. Clearly train enthusiasts will love this book, but so will kids interested in history, historical fiction and westward expansion.

More amusing is How to train a Train written by Jason Carter Eaton, and illustrated by John Rocco.


Essentially this is a how to book for kids who don;t want a puppy, kitten or goldfish. This is a guidebook on how to catch and train a train. Told in a very straightforward manner, you can’t help but love Mr. Eaton’s  dry sense of humor the way Mr. Rocco captures it.


The opening pages describe different types of trains and suggest  how to get one.  The book  then describes ways to make the new train feel comfortable and earn its trust. We also learn that there are others who lean towards other modes of transportation, like planes, trucks or submarines. You can all meet up on the open road and make new friends.

It gets me thinking of  other things kids might like to have as pets, and the stories they can write to teach others how to have an unusual pet.

On thing leads to another

18 Oct

In 1983, the year I turned 19, the British new wave band The Fixx released an album called Reach the Beach. 


This album had a chart topping single entitled “One Thing Leads to Another”. This very singable song has been swirling around my mind in connection with 2 books I wrote about yesterday: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. Saints connects, in my mind, to another book and to an event.

First, they connect to The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong by L. Tam Holland.


The Asian connection is obvious. But both books deal with Asian culture bumping up against Western culture and about family history and connections. Holland’s book is funny and poignant. When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart. After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined. This is a great debut novel.

The other connection is driven by character. Doctor Won in Saints, is an acupuncturist. Today, my 12-1/2-year-old basset, Fiona,


had her first acupuncture treatment for arthritis. We tried her on Rimadyl for 2 weeks, but her liver numbers went up, so that wasn’t an alternative. Fiona’s vet, Dr. Karen Davies, suggested other medications, but, knowing she was a veterinary acupuncturist, I asked if we could try that instead of more meds.

Fiona did pretty well. She didn’t object to the  needles, and she stayed pretty still until Dr. Davies came to pull them out. We go again in a week, and once a week for 4 weeks. Dr. Davies says that we should see some improvement by then. If we don’t we probably won’t and can think about another treatment.

Fiona is sleeping right now. She always does after a trip to the vet. Maybe I will take a nap, too.

Be yourself: Standing out or blending in

4 Oct

Tigers. They are significant features in two new picture books about being yourself. They both remind me a little of Mo Willems’ Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, which is my favorite Mo Willems book.

In Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown, the situation is quite the opposite of Naked Mole Rat’s dilemma.


All the animals wear clothes, walk on their hind legs, mind their manners and act, well, civilized. Mr. Tiger feels the need to cut loose a little.  He takes baby steps at first.


Then he really runs wild.


Well, haven’t we all felt a little constrained sometimes? Maybe you’ve never wanted to run naked on all fours, but I bet you get tired and just want to ROAR once in a while. I do.

And then we have the strange case of Maude Shrimpton in Lauren Child’s Maude The Not-So-Noticeable-Shrimpton.


She is a quiet soul, surrounded by a flamboyant family. Can you see her? Second from the end.


Instead of getting her the quiet, calm goldfish she wanted for her birthday, her family got her a tiger. Oh my!


Let’s just say, it doesn’t go well for her flamboyant family members. Maude ends up OK because “Sometimes. Just sometimes, not being noticeable is the very best talent of all.”

It would be fun to read these to your class, then have them write a story about a person who ran wild or didn’t stand out.

Boys and Eating Disorders

25 Sep

Did you know that 10% of 10 million people in the US with an eating disorder are male? I had no idea until I read A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger.


I had to reread the first two pages because I was confused about who was narrating the story. Then, I realized it was being narrated by his eating disorder! How wonderful and terrifying. It was an effective way to write the story because it gave enough distance from the main character, Mike, who had a great life.  He was on his high school baseball team. His grades were good, although he was quiet in class, and he had a good friend who was like a brother.  Then his family fell apart. Mike self-confidence fails and his self-image becomes distorted. We can see that he is surrounded by well-intentioned people who miss the signs of an eating disorder or try to help, but stop short of really helping. And, the eating disorder warps how Mike perceives. them. The voice sounds caring to Mike, but it is creepy to me, making it really powerful.

The book is short but packs a punch. The only other book that really helped me understand a bit of the world of eating disorders is Laurie Halse Anderson’s  Wintergirls. 

As an adult who works with kids, A Trick of the Light made me reflect on the many ways we talk to kids, but fall short. We walk up to the line, but are afraid to cross it.  As a specialist in a school, I don’t have homeroom teacher responsibilities and sometimes it is hard to tell a colleague that they might be missing something.  I need to see all kids as my kids and make the homeroom teacher, counselor and administrators aware of what  see. And I need to be sure I call kids on what  see, letting them know there is one more adult in their life who cares.

In Mike’s case, we learn that his friend Tamio, one of his teachers, his coach and others kept calling his mother to let her know they were concerned. It took all of them for her to finally realize Mike had a problem so he could get the help he needed.


The voices in my head

10 Sep

Many years ago, I checked in with my class after having a substitute. Their verdict was that she did a good job, but didn’t  read voices they way I did during the read aloud. I thought that was odd because I didn’t think I made up voices for characters while I read.  Now that I’ve listened to hundreds of audiobooks, I think I know what the students meant. In my humble opinion, the best readers don’t always make a voice for a character, but they do alter slightly the way they read in another’s voice. It’s much more subtle than making up  a voice.

I reflected on this as I began reading The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt. It just screams READ ME ALOUD!


I sooooo want to read this one because the voices are so compelling. It is a magical tale, where raccoon Scouts listen for information from the radio of an abandoned De Soto. There is a legendary Swamp monster. There are bad guys, too: a sounder of feral hogs and 2 greedy people out to convert the swamp into an amusement park. There is the story of a boy who has lost his beloved grandfather. And they are all connected by Bayou Tourterelle.

It reminded me a little of Carl Hiaasen’s novels because it combines humor and environmental awareness, and it felt a little bit like The One and Only Ivan  in the way animals are portrayed. A definite Newbery contender.

Written in Stone

7 Sep

I’ve taught at William Walker Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon since 2002.


I am now an embedded part of the community but I am also aware of the history, tradition and stories that precede me. Interestingly, author Rosanne Parry is an alumnus of William Walker. She came for a visit a few teas ago, just after the release of  Heart of a Shepherd.

Her new book, Written in Stone, has a similar feel.


 It draws on Parry’s experience living and teaching in the Olympic Peninsula and honors the history, tradition, stories and culture of the Makah.

The book is set in the 1920’s, a time of great change for the Makah. After an unsuccessful whale hunt, in which her father dies, Pearl tries to find her place in her family and community. In the end, Pearl draws on her own creativity and ingenuity as well as the wisdom she has learned from her parents and grandparents to stay true to her heritage while forging a path for the future.

This is a sensitively written book with a string female heroine, set in a time and place not often visited  in middle grade fiction.

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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