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!).

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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

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.

The First Page

Attend virtually any conference on writing and someone will insist the first page is paramount. You must hook the reader. I’d heard the idea enough, and struggled with nailing a great first page on many a project, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I took the time to analyze what I thought was a good first page. While doing an editing internship with Hunter Liguore, editor at American Athenaeum, I was charged with reading 34 first pages (without knowing the author or title) and deciding which ones I would accept, as an editor, and which I would decline. It was very informative, and I encourage you to try it out. Discovering what magical recipe for first page elements I was most hooked by has helped me figure out what my own first pages lacked. Here’s a sample of questions that I came up with from a few of the samples:

Is there too much emphasis on setting?

If the character isn’t very fleshed out, does the story premise fill in the gaps?

What kind of tension was there?

Were the questions raised unique and so enticing I had to read on?

Does the description feel connected to the character?

Is there dialog? What does it show about the characters?

Ultimately, I learned that I connect most with the people, the characters. Any other element had to serve them. If it didn’t– for example, if there was a lot of description about a ritual but not about the characters–then I wasn’t interested. I writes stories about people (arguably every writer does), so I need to make sure each of my first pages highlights the characters and their struggles, their connect to place, their sense of the world.

Try this exercise with books you’ve already read. Or take ten books from your to read shelf and read only the first pages. If you could only pick one to read further (pretend you’re an editor with a limited list), which one would it be and why? Or read the latest Flogging A Pro, a post on Writer Unboxed that takes first pages from a variety of genres and analyzes them in a similar same way. I imagine most of you read or write picture books, but I think the exercise can be helpful there too. It’s a lot of fun!

If you’re a reader, and not a writer, asking these questions can help you discern what it is you’re looking for in story, in general, and help you find better books to read for ourselves and your children.

Floppy-eared rabbits

For PiBoIdMo, I decided to keep a small journal with me at all times, something I’d often considered, but had never done before. One page per idea. And I’d look to my own life for the seeds. Over the past few days, I’ve found that being attentive to, well, life and all its ridiculousness (or wonder or awkwardness or or or) is the best way to access interesting concepts for picture books. After I got my notebook, the ideas started coming like hot-cakes. Not all of them seem immediate winners.

A recent favorite: I just returned home from dinner with friends, one of whom shared a story about a bush airstrip in remote Alaska covered in floppy-eared rabbits. Now, it might take a more creative person than me to turn that into a viable picture book. But what a fantastic image! I wrote that one down, but if it inspires you, go with it. (Please send me your draft, if you do.) On a more serious note, my son has developed a fear of riding the school bus–there are so many angles to take on this theme. Katie once said that she’s got too many ideas, and I see what she means. The ideas are really every where. We just have to take them and run.

Registration for PiBoIdMo has passed, but I encourage you to check out the daily posts. I’ve gotten something from each of them, and maybe, just maybe, there might be something to help me write my book about the rabbits on the airstrip.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween everyone! I hope you all had a day (and evening) that was just a touch of spooky, and sprinkle of sweet, and a whole lot of fun.

Over on Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog, she’s sponsoring her annual Halloweensie contest. We are challenged to write a 100-word Halloween story for children using the words pumpkin, broomstick, and creak.

Every year I find the 100-word limit VERY challenging, but here goes:

WHERE’S THE TRICK?

Witches, wizards, living down my street

Why do they pick tonight to come and trick or treat?

Skeletons, ninjas, knocking on the door

I give them each a candy but they try to get quite more.

Pieces, handfuls, candy quickly gone

Running up and down my street and traipsing ‘cross the lawn.

One has a pumpkin head and one flies on a broom

One makes a creaking noise and howls up at the moon.

I think I’ll skip this holiday until I’m big and tall

I hope I’ve grown a little bit around this time next fall.

Head over to Susanna’s site and check out all the great entries!

Interview: Alice Hutchinson of Byrd’s Books/ PiBoIdMo Kickoff

This week, we have the pleasure of welcoming Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books, an independent bookseller in Bethel, CT. Alice has been involved in the world of literature for over 30 years, beginning with roles as buyer and manager for her mother’s New Age bookstore. Alice has held several leadership roles within the Bethel community, and holds a Masters of Arts degree in Teaching with a concentration in Young Adult literature. Byrd’s Books was founded almost 3 years ago, and expanded last year into a larger location. If you are in the Bethel are, you can certainly stop in for a visit, but online ordering is also available.

Byrd's Books Logo

 

KDC: Alice, thanks for taking time to give us your insights into the book industry. Tell us what inspired you to open an independent bookstore?

AH: I believe a bookstore creates community, and it becomes a special place where people can support the arts. In our area, there was a vacuum when Borders closed, which I felt created a hole for the book community. There was an opportunity to fill that void, and I had a theory that people still wanted books along with their e-readers. I initially opened in a small location, and found that my theory was correct. So far, this community appears to want to support a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and we moved into a larger location to expand our ability to provide quality literature and book-related merchandise. People realize that when you buy from a local bookstore versus looking in person and then shopping online, you support a business that will then return more funds and involvement to the community itself. We put an emphasis on Connecticut authors, and actively support them through signings, consignment of self-published work, and other events.

KDC: What trends are you seeing now in both the publishing and consumer buying of children’s books?

AH: At Byrd’s Books, our most popular section is Connecticut authors, second most popular is books for ages 9-12, and third is books for 4-8 years old. Parents are looking for chapter books as well as books in a series that their children can get engaged with in order to improve their reading ability. We don’t carry most of the more populist book series (like those from Disney) – I strive to find series with more literary content like those from Kate DiCamillo. Bookstores are responding to the changes with education and the Common Core requirements, and the best way to do that is to carry great non-fiction including science books, good biographies of interesting people, and stories about people and topics that are fun and compelling. Non-fiction is on the rise, which is a good thing for literature anyway and fun to buy for.

KDC: How do you decide what books to buy for the store?

AH: We read Publisher’s Weekly, and we are very active members of the American Bookseller’s Association. We get advance copies of books from both the Association’s division Indie Bound and from publishers, and we do our best to review many of them to find those that are high quality and would be the right fit for the store. Most catalogs from publishers are on a system called Edelweiss, where reps add markers that allow us to see if books are trending on Goodreads, Publisher’s Weekly, or other sources. We do a lot of special orders for customers, which sometimes helps us discover interesting new books.

KDC: If a 5 year old and a 10 year old asked you for book recommendations, what would you tell them?

AH: I would ask them, “What’s the last book you read that you loved?” I listen carefully to how they talk about the book, and that will give me a jumping off point to find them books with similar topics or tone. At 5 years old, children often want chapter books but secretly are still interested in picture books. It also depends on whether they are reading, or they are being read to. If they are reading to themselves, you want to encourage their sight recognition of the words. At 8 years old, children are right on the edge between the 9-12 and 4-8 categories. If they are exceptional readers, you still may find good content in the 4-8 category because it is so wide. I will often take a strong 8 year old reader over to the Newberry section or introduce them to some classics like Mr. Popper’s Penguins, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These books are fun to read, and are an important part of cultural literacy. Often a parent will tell me what they want their child to be reading and that they are bright, but that does not necessarily translate into reading ability or maturity. Your average 11 year old with above average reading ability will come in and ask for books in the teenage section (like The Hunger Games), when there are plenty of great books at the 9-12 level that provide challenge without getting into the issues with social relationships and violence that a high schooler is better prepared to grapple with. Helping match a person with a special find is one of the great joys of book selling.

KDC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AH: As we discussed before, our online ordering capability allows you to get the book you want 24 hours a day. We also have a lot of great events coming up, including a children’s writing workshop in February with Gail Carson Levine, and in late November is an opportunity to support your community bookstore through Small Business Saturday. Like ours, many bookstores will be having authors selling books right within the store on that day.

Thank you Alice for your great perspective on the book selling industry. We appreciate your time.

Make sure to support your local bookstore and if you are looking for a place to order your next book, give Byrd’s Books a try!


From Joanna’s desk:

Attention Picture Book Writers! November is Picture Book Idea Month–or PiBoIdMo, for short.

Tara Lazar, who hosts one of 2013’s Top Ten Blogs for Writers, has organized this fun event for quite a few years. The basic premise is to come up with 30 new ideas for picture books, all within November. You could do one idea a day, or all 30 ideas on the last day of the month–that’s up to you. Each day, there will be a special post of encouragement from various peeps in the kid lit world–I’m especially excited about Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Ammi-Joan Paquette. There are books to win, even critiques from published authors, agents and editors. Katie participated a few years ago; this is my first time.

Registration is open until Nov. 7th. Sign up here.

 

The Next Step for A Life Spent Reading

From the desks of Joanna and Katie

Hello faithful readers! We’ve been writing our blog for 2-1/2 years now, and have learned so much about ourselves, our readers, and the field of children’s literature. 2015 is just around the corner–and feels like the perfect time for us to upgrade your experience of the blog with more varied content, an improved look, and increased opportunities for us to interact with you.

Over the next few months, we will slowly integrate new types of content, including interviews. We want to make sure the content remains fresh, interesting, and encourages you to share the blog with others. To do this, we need your help! Please take a minute to complete the poll below, or click over to our site if you are an email subscriber. The poll will remain open until Friday, October 31st. Your feedback will help us make the updated blog a great one.

We appreciate your time and input!