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.

Christmas decorations

Review: Silver Packages – An Appalachian Christmas Story

Silver Packages Cover
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!).

TeacherMonsterDropShadow

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

Chowder

Flight of the Dodo

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

Review: The Dot (AKA Step One on the Path to Creativity)

Creativity is an intangible thing. It can’t be held in your hand or bought with money. Each of us knows (or is!) someone who claims, “I’m not creative.” Yet I would argue that creativity is accessible to all of us. Maybe we just need a little help getting there.

Part One: The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Art class is ending and Vashti’s page is blank–she’s convinced she can’t draw. Her wise teacher suggests she “make a mark and see where it takes [her].” Vashti jabs angrily at the paper–just once–and an artist is born. As the story progresses, Vashti experiments with her own creative expression and is given an opportunity to guide another “not creative” person on the path to creativity. Her story is charming, making this book perfect for, well, everyone! Vashti is so likeable, and her artwork so simple, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Artsy kids will love it immediately, but the message is accessible to all types, even adults. The first time I read this book, my son hadn’t been born, but I want to share it with him now and talk about how Vashti’s experience can be applied to all kinds of situations in life–from building with Legos to experimenting with different sports as he discovers who he is.

Part Two: Creativity in Life

As Vashti’s learns, creativity starts with one action–any action–and expands with the opportunity made by that choice. “If I can make little dots,” she realizes, “I can make big dots, too.”  From this point, creativity can travel in so many directions. One podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Sara Zarr’s This Creative Life. She interviews various creative people about their creative process, and I always find it freeing to see how diverse that process can be. That makes space for me to try whatever I want. But what if you need a bit more help? If you’re a writer, you might enjoy Sarah Selecky’s Daily Writing Prompts. These are short writing exercises designed to help spark out of the box ideas.  If you’re not a writer, or if perhaps you’re one of those “not creative” types (said lovingly), Vashti’s journey still might apply to you.

Either way, make a mark and see where it takes you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am finally sitting down after a long day of food, family, and blessings. I am thankful for so much in my life that makes it joyful, loving, and full. And I am thankful for all of you readers of our blog! I hope you each had a few minutes today to reflect on all you are thankful for.

Review: Joy in Mudville

Joy in Mudville by Bob RaczkaJoy in Mudville

Written by: Bob Raczka

Illustrated by: Glin Dibley

Carolrhoda Books, 2014, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Gender, Perseverance, Being Unique

How We Discovered This Book: When my writing partner Joanna was here for a visit, she entered my children in a drawing at our independent bookstore. My daughter Elizabeth won an autographed copy of this book.

Summary:

It begins where the famous poem “Casey at the Bat” ends (it’s in the back for reference if you need to refresh your memory). A girl pitcher is brought in to restore the team’s reputation, and she has some unorthodox methods for saving the day.

What I Liked:

I like this book because a girl is the hero in a traditional boy’s sport. She comes to the rescue, but with her own way of doing things.

What Did My Kids Think?

Both my kids love this book, and it is on frequent rotation for reading before bed. It’s about a girl and baseball, which keeps them both interested.

Resources:

Read “Casey at the Bat” aloud – for the first time, or once again!

Check out the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown. If you’re nearby, plan a visit.

Read the amazing recent story of Mo’Ne Davis, the female Little League pitcher who was the first girl to throw a shut-out game in Little League World Series history. She is also the first Little Leaguer on the cover of Sports Illustrated.