Love and Romance

I hope this post finds you all feeling loved on this Valentine’s Day weekend. Here in the Northeast, we are trying desperately to stay warm and snuggly with temperatures in the double digits below zero.

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So do you consider Valentine’s Day to be about romance, love, another attempt by businesses to get more of your money, or a reminder of how we should treat our loved ones all year long? Or a combination of these? As the holiday approached this year and I am knee deep in writing a middle grade novel where two girls discover dating, it made me think about the role of romance and love in children’s literature.

Let’s start with the idea that middle grade novels are about pre-teens testing their boundaries and beginning the journey of self-discovery. And teenagers are focused on breaking out of the system and forging their own paths. So with that logic, experiencing romance is a part of that self discovery. What do I like about the opposite (or same) gender? What do I expect from a relationship? How do I expect to be treated? What makes me happy? What tells me that I am valued, appreciated, and desired? How do I show affection? How do I make a connection with someone else? (As I write this list, it makes me think that romance and love is a work in progress for our whole lives.)

It would then follow that as teenagers (with some of these ideals formed) that they would begin to break out of what society expects. Perhaps they experiment with the content of their relationships, or they choose unconventional partners, or they choose to opt out of the whole “have to have a boyfriend/girlfriend” ideal.

And then to add complexity to the forming of their idea of what love is, we overlay their non-romantic relationships: mom, dad, siblings, extended family, and best friends. Sometimes these relationships are their example/non-example for how to form a relationship, or they use these non-romantic relationships as experiments for what might work in their romantic relationships.

So, despite certain trends to make literature more edgy (YA in particular), I think that a fuller exploration of how young people explore romance and love is much more interesting. And if done correctly and honestly, it will connect better with young readers’ internal experiences, regardless of the time in which the novel is written.

A Sequel to a Classic and a Poll Update!

Many of you may have read in the news this week about Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee is now 88 years old, and the manuscript she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird back in the 1950s was recently discovered, and will be published in June. It takes place 20 years later, when an adult Scout comes back to visit her father.

Besides my curiosity on what this story might contain, what struck me most was a statement that the publisher made. They stated that the story would be published in its entirety (300 and some pages) without revision. Why no revision? Is it because Ms. Lee’s capabilities at 88 aren’t what they were 50 years ago? Because it is so perfect that no revision is required (I doubt it)? Or perhaps as Joanna noted, if it were revised it would be through a completely different lens than she would have had 50 years ago. Her experiences and perspective would have colored and changed how she writes, for better or worse.

I am most interested in a more craft-driven academic comparison of the two works, rather than excited for the story itself. My experience with To Kill a Mockingbird is the reason for my current approach to movies made from books. Back when I first experienced To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw the movie first. Once I read the book, it did not have any chance to be as interesting – how the story played out in my head was completely driven by the black and white images of Gregory Peck that I had already seen. Today, I swear by reading the book first, before I watch the movie. Then my own images are already rooted in my mind, and I can enjoy the movie from the perspective of seeing how the filmmaker might interpret the material. Often my mental images are richer, but sometimes the filmmakers can use technology to create some pretty amazing things (especially with fantasy or sci-fi materials).

Are you interested in reading Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, when it comes out in June?

An update on the poll we ran a few weeks back: There was a glitch in the poll that prevented us from getting complete results. Here’s your second chance to participate! Take a minute to tell us in the comments what type of book is your favorite, and we will choose a winner who will receive a book from a Connecticut or Wyoming author.

Some possibilities:

Funny

Fantasy/ Science Fiction

Realism

Non-Fiction

Mystery/Suspense

Thriller/Crime

Textbook

Other- whatever else might trip your fancy!

Joint Book Review: The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordecai Gerstein

CM_between_towersToday we’re trying something different–a joint book review of The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. This Caldecott Award winner follows the true story of Philippe Petit’s historic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers.

It’s 1974, and construction of the World Trade Center is nearing completion. Enter Philippe Petit, a street performer. To him, the gap between the two buildings would be the perfect place to walk a tightrope. With a beautiful progression of illustrations, including some fold out pages that enhance the height of the towers and of the wire, the story follows Philippe as he faces numerous challenges in attempting his goal.

Joanna: My five-year-old son Karsten frequently requests this book at bedtime, and it is a joy for me to read. Part of the appeal is my connection to New York City and the WTC Towers themselves. Growing up outside New York, they were an iconic part of my childhood. I’ve been up them only once–a few months prior to the 2001 attacks. This book is a wonderful commemoration to Petit’s feat as well as to the WTC tragedy and the spirit of New York. It’s also a great story about having a dream and making it come true against the odds.

Katie: Interestingly, my kids had different reactions to this book. They did not know anything about Philippe Petit, so as he planned his walk between the Twin Towers, the suspense kept building. They were both asking, “Does he make it?” There was a sigh of relief once he did. My four-year-old daughter was a little too afraid of him falling to enjoy the middle of the book, but my son was thrilled to find out how it turned out.

There is a documentary called Man On Wire about Petit’s extraordinary feat. Comprised of interviews with the people involved, including Petit, it’s quite interesting. Petit might come off as self-centered and perhaps a touch crazy, but what he accomplishes is nothing short of amazing. Not sure I’m ready to show it to my young son yet but I definitely will in the future. (Note: it received a rare 100% from Rotten Tomatoes!)

If you want to delve even deeper into Philippe Petit’s life and his accomplishments, a full length novel is available. In the current printing it is called Man on Wire, and before the documentary it was called To Reach the Clouds. Philippe Petit himself penned several books about his life as well.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a lesson plan from Scholastic. Or if you watch BookFlix (available through your public or school library), there is a nice read aloud of the book.

Welcome to the new and improved blog!

After almost three years writing at A Life Spent Reading, we’ve learned much about what we like to blog about, what our readers enjoy hearing about, and what it takes to maintain a blog (even if it is a labor of love!)

Last October, we asked you what you most wanted to see on the blog. A third of you told us you most enjoyed the book reviews, with interviews and writing advice coming in a close tie for second. Joanna and I also discussed what we liked about other blogs and investigated some updated features.

So today we are proud to announce the re-launch of A Life Spent Reading! We’ve begun incorporating your feedback on content, added new functionality and updated to a fresher, cleaner look. We hope you like it! If you are an email subscriber, click over to the site itself to have a look.

To celebrate the re-launch of our site, we’re holding a contest! Tell us your favorite type of book, and we will randomly choose a winner from the participants. The winner will receive their choice of one of the following books, chosen from the local authors section from each of our towns’ independent bookstores:

Connecticut:

Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Yona Zeldis McDonough

The Serpent’s Curse, Tony Abbott

Wyoming:

Ice Whale, Jean Craighead George

How to Babysit a Grandma, Jeanne Reagan

The contest ends on Friday, January 29th.

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

51YuPuZ0efLChains follows Isabel, a young slave, on her quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I admit it took me a few chapters to embrace the story, but once it picked up (or once I wasn’t distracted by life, really) I was entranced. Anderson made the American Revolution come alive through her attention to historical detail and skill at weaving believable fictitious characters and desires with historical events. I loved the characters–especially Isabel and her sister Ruth. Isabel is looking for freedom, and she’ll side with whomever she thinks might help her attain it. This wonderful middle grade novel would provide ample opportunities to talk about race, freedom, and our nation’s history.

Chains is the first book in Anderson’s Seeds of America Trilogy. The second book Forge received this review from Kirkus. Some readers might find it “one of the best novels they have ever read.” What a statement. I’m heading to the library today! The third installment in the trilogy, Ashes, has not yet been published (as far as I can tell).

For readers capable of appreciating mature topics such as PTSD or eating disorders, Anderson has a wealth of novels, including Wintergirls, Speak, and the recent The Impossible Knife of Memory. All amazing.

New Years Follow-up: Katie shared her goals and inspirational word for the new year in last week’s post. My word is courage. Now that I’ve finished my MFA (!) I need to take some risks. Whether it’s finishing the revision of my current work in progress or submitting said revision to agents, I’ll need to adopt an assertive attitude toward what comes next. Here’s to a courageous 2015!

Congratulations Joanna!!

I am pleased to announce that Joanna has officially graduated with her Masters in Fine Arts from Lesley University! She has invested 2 years of hard work, which went by amazingly fast (she may disagree with that last part).

The other member of our critique group, Anne, and I are so proud of her. We are excited to see where her writing career goes next – it will certainly be to wonderful places.

Congratulations Joanna!

One Word Can Change Everything

Happy New Year! We are now 9 days into 2015, and most of you have probably thought about resolutions, goals, or other plans for this brand new year.

Happy New Yearr

I love the idea of a fresh start, even though it’s a bit arbitrary. Spring also feels full of new opportunity to me, so perhaps in March if you look back and find that things have not gone as planned for the first few months, you can update and tweak your plans.

There are many ways to approach your planning – some people make resolutions (lose weight, finish that novel, be nicer, smile more). Conventional wisdom says that resolutions are not effective for most people, since there is no measurable plan for how to get there. (What are you going to do to get your novel finished? Write each day for 10 minutes? Set a deadline with a friend to read your draft?)

I am a believer in setting goals. Not too many, because then I will get overwhelmed and try to focus on too many things at once. I have three main categories for my goals – writing, fitness, and personal. In each category, I have 3-5 goals. I try to make them as measurable as possible, so I can legitimately celebrate when I get there. Some of my goals include Get an Agent (= rewrite the first chapter of my finished novel + send out my manuscript repeatedly), learn/re-learn to knit, and earn a 5K race time of under 30 minutes. Wish me luck!

Perhaps goals or resolutions don’t work for you, or you want to take a different approach this year. Perhaps you are looking for an overarching theme for everything you do this year. When Joanna and I were discussing this subject, she proposed taking a One Word approach. The idea is to use one word as your guiding principle – words like Believe, Forgive, Dare, or Simplify. It could even just be Write! If I were to choose one word to guide my year, I might choose Soul. I want to focus my choices on those things that feed and nurture my soul. While there are things that I have to do that are neutral on my soul (certain kinds of work, perhaps?), it gives me permission to get rid of those choices that are life-suckers and drag me down. Why make time for that?

What are you goals, resolutions, plans or one word for 2015? Please share in the comments! We’d love to hear them.

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who celebrate Christmas like we do, we hope you have a peaceful, joyous, and blessed Christmas with your friends and family. Whatever your traditions are, and whatever the day may bring, may you enjoy the little moments that cause us to celebrate the good in the world.

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Review: Silver Packages – An Appalachian Christmas Story

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Silver Packages – An Appalachian Christmas Story

Written by: Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated by: Chris Soentpiet

Scholastic Books, 1987, Softcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Caring, Dreams, Self-Determination

How We Discovered This Book: Since Christmas is nearly upon us, I felt compelled to look through our favorite Christmas books. Some of the books are sweet, some are spiritual, and some have a powerful message. This book is sweet and has an important message slipped in.

Summary:

A rich man has an accident in the Appalachian hills, and after he is nursed back to health by the residents, he feels compelled to repay the debt. Every December 23rd, he rides a train into the town and tosses a silver package to each of the children. A boy named Frankie wishes for different toys each year, but he doesn’t get what he wishes for. He gets a nice toy along with something more important – something he needs. The story comes full circle when Frankie is grown and decides to return to the town to repay his own debt.

What I Liked:

The book has a straightforward plot, with expressive and rich illustrations. Ms. Rylant manages to get across the key details without being too overt – how poor these children and families are, how to be grateful for what we are given, and how to share our blessings with others.

What Did My Kids Think?

My kids found the train and the silver packages to be magical, and couldn’t wait to find out what Frankie got the next year. The Polar Express is another one of our favorites – my, the fun things that trains can bring.

Resources:

Brainstorm with your kids or students on what they would wish for if a train came through their town.

Find a service project to do with your kids or students. It’s not too late- there are needy people across the world at all times of the year. I find it’s most impactful if it serves a group they can identify with – other kids, people in their own town, etc.

 

Some other Christmas favorites:

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore: There are tons of versions of this classic story, but we have a version illustrated by Bruce Whatley that is full of texture and unexpected depth.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner: What do your snowmen do at night while you are sleeping?

Jingle Bells by Kathleen N. Daly, illustrated by J.P. Miller: This is a favorite of mine from my childhood, originally published as a Little Golden Book in 1964 (for the record, I have the 7th printing from 1976). It has Richard Scarry-esque illustrations, and there is no way to read the book without singing.

The Legend of the Candy Cane by Lori Walburg, illustrated by James Bernardin: Check out the review we posted in early 2013.

What are your favorite Christmas books? Please share in the comments!

Author Review: Peter Brown

Instead of selecting one book this week, I thought it would be fun to talk about an author. Okay, so Peter Brown isn’t only an author–he also illustrates. And not just any illustrator–the 2013 Caldecott Honor winner for Creepy Carrots! I first heard him speak at the 2012 SCBWI winter conference in New York City. I hadn’t read any of his books prior to that, and while he seemed like a nice (and kinda hip) guy, I can’t remember running out to get any of his books after the conference. Then, while browsing at our local library, I found The Curious Garden. I’ve been enjoying his brilliance every since. Here are a few of my favorites.

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The Curious Garden follows a young boy who discovers a pocket of bright green plants growing in his otherwise dull gray city. He cares for the plants, training himself in gardening. Under his attention, the garden expands, transforming the city. I suppose, it’s kind of a true story, in a way. NYC’s High Line Trail is an elevated railway converted into green walking space. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is also being developed. So cool! All making The Curious Garden a poignant tale for showing what can happen with just a little bit of love.

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Mr. Tiger lives in a pseudo-Victorian world where all the animals are uptight. It’s no fun, so Mr. Tiger Goes Wild! The illustrations here are simply gorgeous–and they won Brown a Bull-Bransom Award, a yearly award for the best in children’s book illustration that focuses on nature and wildlife (given by the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in my hometown of Jackson, WY!).

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When my five-year old started kindergarten this fall, I got him Brown’s latest book, My Teacher Is A Monster! (No, I Am Not.) Bobby is convinced his teacher is a monster, and retreats to a park to unwind. But what happens when he runs into his monster of a teacher in the one place he can be free? Bobby learns that people can be quite surprising.

Here’s a few of Brown’s other titles, but the list isn’t exhaustive.

Creepy Carrots! (written by Aaron Reynolds)

You Will Be My Friend!

Children Make Terrible Pets

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Flight of the Dodo

If you haven’t already enjoyed Peter Brow’s creative brilliance, do it now!