Naomi Shihab Nye‘s latest novel, THE TURTLE OF OMAN, came out last week, and our friend Connie Rockman, former librarian and all-around children’s lit expert, has prepared some treats for you. Keep reading for a book talk and some suggestions for using this powerful book to meet Common Core standards.
Aref is frightened to think about leaving home for three years and moving to the United States from his native country, Oman. Everything will be strange—the climate, the people, the food! Aref spends his last week before the move saying goodbye to friends and to familiar places. The three years he will spend in Michigan while his parents complete their graduate studies seems like an endless time to him. During the last week at home, Aref spends time with his beloved grandfather, Sidi, who leads him in subtle ways—with gentleness and humor—to pay attention to what the land and the animals have to teach him. Sidi gives Aref stones from various parts of their country to take with him and remind him of home. On an overnight trip to a desert camp, they encounter a falcon trainer and pass by a beach where the majestic sea turtles return to lay their eggs. They talk to people along the way in all walks of life, and, slowly but surely, Aref approaches his upcoming journey with a positive outlook. He knows now that like the birds, the butterflies, and the turtles, he will always come back home after migrating miles away.
This quiet and powerful story has great emotional depth for upper elementary students and, through the eyes of Aref and Sidi, they will become familiar with a faraway land and culture. Common Core connections include searching for actual pictures of Oman and the exotic place names that Aref visits and talks about with his grandfather. Drawing a map of the region will help students place Oman within its Middle East setting. Looking up the food that Aref eats will help them understand his culture and compare it to their own. Studying the wildlife that is mentioned in the book, they will learn why Aref draws connections between himself and the migrating reptiles, birds, and butterflies. Reading about Aref’s joy in making lists and collecting stones can lead to writing prompts about the activities that students enjoy in their own lives. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetic prose provides a lovely insight into life in another part of the world.
Thank you very much, Connie!
When I was in my teens, I kept certain memories secret, even (as best I could) from myself; otherwise, they would scald me from the inside out, boil me up in my own shame. For instance, when I was seventeen some stuff happened in a car with a stranger. I didn’t mention that stuff to anyone—and I mean not a soul—for at least ten years.
In my new novel, Rabbit Ears, I give that one awful experience in the car to my character Kaya, who is largely based on my sister, Sarah. Sarah started running away from home when she was thirteen, and ended up selling sex to survive and struggling with addiction in Vancouver’s inner city. In 1998, she disappeared. In 2002, her DNA was found on a serial murderer’s property.
In the story, Kaya doesn’t tell about what happens in that car. Unlike me, but like my sister, she is already holding bigger secrets. Those secrets—that killing silence—led me to tell Kaya’s story.
A few years ago, a woman I knew only a little bit emailed to ask if she could meet with me. She had a secret, she said, a secret about my sister.
“Yes,” I said, dreading what she might tell me.
She came to my house, a friend in tow for support, and told me that when she was a kid, Sarah was sexually abused by a neighbor. It went on for years, she said. It went on until puberty. This woman knew, because it happened to her too.
It was shocking news, horrible to learn that Sarah had suffered in that way when she was small, and that she never told us, to realize that her suffering began so much earlier than we knew. I found myself haunted by this new information, trying to take it in, to understand this new part of my sister’s experience, and her silence. Rabbit Ears arose from that haunting.
The story is fiction, but the Sarah in the story is real.
It was a joy, for me, writing my sister to life so long after her death. There’s a scene on a swing set that is drawn straight from a story a woman told me about her and Sarah. I changed its location. The little grey house where Sarah lived, at Princess and Hastings, is in the story as is the corner where she, and, in the story, Kaya, worked. When Kaya goes into Sarah’s house, she sees spilled pudding that comes straight out of my memories. And a scrawny kitten. And, outside, a glorious garden.
My book was always called Rabbit Ears because the older sister loves magic. I’ve only recently made the association between the ears and listening, paying attention. Then, while I was working on revisions, I saw an old video of my sister, and, for the first time in my life, saw that she had a Playboy Bunny tattooed on the top of her left breast. Rabbit ears. Thank you, Sarah, for your blessing!
I wanted to tell a story about a girl who went through what my sister went through, but survived, a story about a girl who broke the silence that was holding her prisoner, a story about a group of girls who paid attention, who reached out.
I believe in these possibilities for Kaya and for each one of us.
Maggie de Vries’s latest novel, Hunger Journeys, won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize and was called “historical fiction at its best” by CM Magazine. She has written six other works for young readers, as well as one book for adults, Missing Sarah. A former children’s book editor and writer-in-residence for the Vancouver Public Library, she now focuses on teaching creating writing at the University of British Columbia and her own writing. She lives in Vancouver.
Need a little dose of positivity and acceptance today? We’re here to help you out!
Watch this trailer for PETE THE CAT AND THE NEW GUY, which is on sale today. We guarantee it’ll make you feel groovy!
And here’s another little bit of grooviness to take with you into the coming school year: a Common Core-aligned teaching guide to all of Pete the Cat’s picture books and I Can Read titles!
“Keep walking along and singing your song. Because it’s all good.”
Looking for some recommendations for a middle grader who loves fantasy? Well, we’ve got just the list for you!
Here are some stellar picks for the kid looking for magical powers, mysterious forests, heros, and villains to take to the beach with him.
THE THICKETY, by J. A. White, is the start of a new fantasy series set in a world where magic is forbidden but exists in the dark woods called the Thickety. This book would be a great recommendation for fans of the Septimus Heap series, and here’s a book talk prepared by librarian, author, and Common Core workshop presenter Kathleen Odean:
How would you like to have the power to summon amazing creatures to do your will? When Kara finds a book in the Thickety, a dangerous forest, it awakens her magical powers. Local villagers view magic as evil but for Kara, it’s a connection to her mother, who was executed as a witch. The spells thrill Kara until the magic starts to change her in frightening ways. Is Kara in control of the magic—or is it in control of her? If she doesn’t figure it out soon, she could lose everyone and everything she loves.
There’s even a Common Core-aligned discussion guide with activities written by the author, J. A. White—an elementary school teacher! (You may not want to send this to the beach, though. Maybe save it for September.)
THE CASTLE BEHIND THORNS, by Schneider Award winner Merrie Haskell, is a magical adventure set in an enchanted castle that will appeal to fans of Gail Carson Levine, Karen Cushman, and Shannon Hale.
When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. Everything in the castle—from dishes to candles to apples—is torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs to live. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending, granted by the saints who once guarded this place? With gorgeous language and breathtaking magic, THE CASTLE BEHIND THORNS tells of the power of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.
Thinking ahead to the new school year, Common Core applications include: Comparing and contrasting texts in different forms or genres; determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; and analyzing the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.
THE DYERVILLE TALES, by M. P. Kozlowsky, tells the story of a young orphan who searches for his family and the meaning in his grandfather’s book of lost fairy tales.
Vince Elgin is an orphan, having lost his mother and father in a fire when he was young. With only a senile grandfather he barely knows to call family, Vince was interned in a group home, dreaming that his father, whose body was never found, might one day return for him. When a letter arrives telling Vince his grandfather has passed away, he is convinced that if his father is still alive, he’ll find him at the funeral. He strikes out for the small town of Dyerville carrying only one thing with him: his grandfather’s journal. The journal tells a fantastical story of witches and giants and magic, one that can’t be true. But as Vince reads on, he finds that his very real adventure may have more in common with his grandfather’s than he ever could have known.
If you’d like to bring this one into your classroom next year, Common Core applications include: Determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text; analyzing the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone; describing how a particular story’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes; and describing how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.
Prince Liam. Prince Frederic. Prince Duncan. Prince Gustav. You think you know those guys pretty well by now, don’t you? Well, think again. Posters plastered across the thirteen kingdoms are saying that Briar Rose has been murdered—and the four Princes Charming are the prime suspects. Now they’re on the run in a desperate attempt to clear their names. Along the way, however, they discover that Briar’s murder is just one part of a nefarious plot to take control of all thirteen kingdoms—a plot that will lead to the doorstep of an eerily familiar fortress for a final showdown with an eerily familiar enemy.
And Common Core applications for this one include: Explaining how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text; comparing and contrasting texts in different forms or genres; and analyzing how differences in the points of view of the characters and the reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.
We’re so excited to share with you I AM A WITCH’S CAT, available this week, written and illustrated by Harriet Muncaster.
We in the HCCB School & Library department are pretty huge fans of tiny things (dollhouse food, figurines, these amazing things . . . you name it), and we couldn’t be more delighted to have found a kindred spirit in Harriet Muncaster. Harriet’s book tells the story of a little girl who believes that her mother is a good witch and that she is a special witch’s cat, and it’s illustrated with photographs of handmade miniatures—characters, furniture, accessories, and details, all lovingly crafted and composed into scenes. We just love it to pieces.
Harriet was kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes looks at her process for creating the fantastic art from I AM A WITCH’S CAT.
I have always been fascinated by tiny things. When I was young I spent my time making miniature houses and clothes and writing minuscule fairy letters. That love of tiny things has never left me, and so, when I took illustration as my degree at university, it felt almost natural to start making my pictures in 3D. I create dollhouse-sized scenes (or sets, as I call them) out of cardboard and fabric and then photograph them to make a flat picture.
In these photos, you can see some of the process I go through to make the scenes. If it is a room, I usually start with a box-like shape and then put in the flooring and wallpaper. I either paint the wallpaper on or make it on the computer and stick it on as you would proper wallpaper (like in the bedroom scene below)!
The furniture is made from card stock. It gives me a lot of freedom to make everything from card because I can literally make it into any shape I like. I can use the card to make something really fancy or really plain and in whatever style I like.
I also like the way one can use lighting when creating a 3D picture. It is possible to really set the mood by using different sorts of atmospheric lighting. My favourite bit of lighting in the book is the scene where Witch’s Cat is saying goodbye to her Mom at the door and the coloured glass in the door is shining against the wall in a rainbow pattern. I got this effect by using coloured cellophane sweet wrappers and then shining a light behind them.
The hardest thing to make in the book was the trolley in the supermarket scenes. It took me absolutely ages and was extremely difficult and fiddly to make! It’s definitely the most delicate thing in the whole book.
One of my favourite things to make in the book was the patchwork quilt on the bed. I just love the colours in it, which are quite autumnal. I tried to incorporate a lot of autumnal colours into the room scenes, as it is a Halloween book.
It feels very magical when a scene becomes finished and you can look right into it and touch it. It’s a real, tiny little world of its own with its own atmosphere and feel to it. I love how tangible it is!
Thank you so much, Harriet!
Check out Harriet’s great blog for a whole lot of miniature inspiration, including a post about how she created the cover art for I AM A WITCH’S CAT. And in case you haven’t quite had your fill of tiny for the day, here are some bonus photos:
Today we celebrate the birthday of Ida. B. Wells—activist, educator, writer, journalist, suffragette, and pioneering voice against the horror of lynching. Born on July 16, 1862, Ms. Wells used fierce determination and the power of the pen to educate the world about the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”—Ida B. Wells
Back in 1992, I decided to try writing a children’s book for the first time. I had two powerful reasons…
1. My son, Sam, was two years old.
2. My books for grownups had all bombed. So had all of my newspaper articles, magazine articles, and screenplays. I’d received countless rejection letters. I wasn’t making a living as a writer. I thought I might have to give it up and get (gasp!) A REAL JOB!
So after ten years of failure, I figured, “What the heck, let’s try writing for kids.” And as soon as I started writing for kids, I felt: THIS IS WHAT I’M GOOD AT! THIS IS WHAT I SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING ALL ALONG!
In my new My Weirder School book, Miss Klute is a Hoot!, a dog comes to Ella Mentry School to help the students with their reading. A lot of kids are self-conscious about reading out loud in front of their class, but they have no problem reading to a well-trained therapy dog, who listens patiently without laughing or making fun of them.
I wish they had therapy dogs when I was a kid! I hated to read, especially in front of people. But for some reason, writing always came naturally to me. And when I started writing for kids, I found that I could relate really well to reluctant readers. I knew what turned them on, and I knew what bored them.
Reluctant readers don’t like page after page of beautiful, flowery writing describing people, rooms, scenery, or the weather. They like short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters. They like dialogue, action, and cliffhangers. They like it when one sentence, paragraph, and chapter leads naturally to the next one. They like it when each chapter is a self-contained story. They like killer openings, and surprise endings. And they like to laugh.
What I try to do is write stories that are so compelling that a reluctant reader will look up after an hour and think, “Wow, that didn’t feel like reading! It felt like I was watching a movie in my head!” That’s what I try to accomplish in my books.
Now, almost every day I receive an email from a parent who has a reluctant reader or a child with a learning disability who got turned on to reading after discovering my books. Just the other day I got this from a mom in Indiana…
Dear Mr. Gutman,
You have no idea how much your work has meant to my family. Our oldest son, Aidan, is in 2nd grade. He was surrounded by reading and books his whole life, but he would prefer to play hockey, baseball, soccer or do almost ANYTHING else BUT read! There were fights, tears and strong resistance.
The tide turned when we discovered My Weird School. The sense of humor and perspectives mirror Aidan’s, and since he started reading your books, we have actually had to turn off the light in his room after we thought he went to bed because he was secretly reading ONE MORE CHAPTER!
Just this week, he passed the 250,000 word mark- which he has accomplished in just ONE semester! the majority of those words were from your books. His father and I are amazed, overjoyed and so grateful to you for your work and your passion.
I’ve received hundreds of these letters. As I said, I didn’t start writing children’s books to save the world. I just wanted to make a living. But I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to make my living by writing some silly words on a page that make kids laugh and have such a positive impact on his their lives. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Dan Gutman is the author of over one hundred books for young readers, including the Baseball Card Adventures, the Genius Files, and the My Weird School series, which has sold more than eight million books around the world and is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this month.
Oscar Wilde once said that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” If he were alive today to witness our novel’s origin and road-to-publication, he would’ve seen his theory confirmed!
When we first decided to write a book together, we tossed around themes and kept circling back to the same topic: the large amount of time people spend with their electronic devices. Teens in particular are using them as a way to connect with friends and escape from the pressures of life. How many times have we seen a group of teens together yet alone, everyone focused on their phones?
We both thought the subject was intriguing, and before we knew it, intrigue turned into OBSESSION. We couldn’t stop researching technology (which was strange since neither of us are super tech-savvy) and talking about the effects it has on children, families, and relationships. We started having long discussions (over Skype, no less!) about how our virtual lives can actually threaten our real lives. Naturally, all of it inspired us to write our novel as an allegory for today’s society (though we set ELUSION in the near future, when people will be even more dependent on their devices.)
Before we actually sat down to write though, we asked ourselves the big “what if” questions that helped us shape the story. What if there was an app that offered users an opportunity to visit a virtual world of their choice, a place where they could even meet up with friends and have adventures together, without the complications—or consequences—of real life? And what if the virtual reality app is not quite as wonderful as it appears and rumors surface about the potential for addiction, especially for teens?
Those are the questions we pose in ELUSION. Our heroine, Regan Welch, has the important and dangerous task of uncovering the secrets hidden in a virtual world created by an Equip: a device that uses a special type of hypnosis and technology to transport people to beautiful, seemingly-utopian landscapes.
While ELUSION was clearly inspired by what’s happening in our lives today, neither of us were prepared for what happened next. Just one week after ELUSION was published, Life began to imitate Art. Facebook announced they had paid two BILLION dollars for OCULUS VR, an up-and-coming virtual reality company. According to Mark Zuckerburg: “When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people.”
Almost instantaneously, there were concerns about how much time kids were spending with their devices and the danger of addiction to a virtual reality.
We couldn’t believe it. The type of device and reaction that followed the announcement was almost identical to what we had written in ELUSION. But the similarities didn’t stop there. The young man who created Oculus V.R. is only 22, just slightly older than Patrick Simmons, the boy Wunderkind who helped Regan’s father build the world of Elusion and desperately wants it to succeed.
What had seemed like a far-off, fun premise for a novel had become reality overnight. Would we soon be able to immerse ourselves in a virtual world, much like the one in ELUSION? And would teens be especially vulnerable to dangers that world might present?
The sequel to the book—ETHERWORLD—comes out next March, and as excited as we are, we are also a little hesitant. The plot takes an ominous turn and the characters lives are at stake, so in that respect we don’t want Life to imitate Art again! But there are thrilling, unpredictable moments in ETHERWORLD, and we hope readers are waiting with bated breath to see how their lives are reflected in the conclusion to Regan’s story.
Claudia Gabel and Cheryl Klam are the authors of Elusion and Etherworld. They met when Claudia edited Cheryl’s previous novels, Learning to Swim and The Pretty One. Claudia works as an editor in New York, but she’s also the author of several books for tweens and teens, including the In or Out series and the mash-up Romeo & Juliet & Vampires. They liked working together so much that they decided to write a bunch of things together, including movie proposals and TV sitcom scripts. And then one day they had the idea for Elusion, and the rest is the future.
The lovely Lisa Ann Scott, author of the enchanting debut novel SCHOOL OF CHARM, stopped by recently to answer our “opening the book” questions. In case you missed it, here’s a little intro and sneak peek of the book from earlier this year. And now, without further ado . . . Lisa Ann Scott!
Which was your favorite book from childhood, and what are you reading right now?
I am reading fellow Class of 2K14 member Rebecca Behrens’ adorable middle-grade novel, When Audrey Met Alice. Can I claim the entire Little House series as my favorite book growing up? [WE SAY “YES!”]
What is your secret talent?
While I tend to kill most indoor plants, I have beautiful outdoor gardens and a koi pond. People tell me I should design gardens for a living. But then I wouldn’t have time to write!
Fill in the blank: My two kids always make me laugh.
My current obsessions are . . .
Whatever series I’ve found on Netflix, HBO GO etc. that I will binge watch. (Game of Thrones and Dexter are recent addictions.)
Any gem of advice for aspiring writers?
Never give up. (See story below.)
Finish this sentence: I hope a person who reads my book . . .
. . . looks for real life magic in their world, and remembers all the wonderful things about themselves that make them unique and special.
How did you come to write this book?
Grab a snack and sit back for this answer. The seeds of this story came from a dream. I woke one morning with the image of a lovely older woman standing in a clearing in the forest. She was surrounded by a small group of girls and it was clear she was teaching them something, but she had a very knowing look on her face, like there was a secret they had yet to learn. Now most people would have shrugged and thought, hey, weird dream. But when you’re a writer, something like that tugs at the imagination. So I walked around with this story in my head for a while, trying to figure out who was there and why they were there. I wrote this during my lunch breaks when I was working as a news anchor back in 2007. In 2008, I started the query process, looking for an agent. But then I lost my job, and that grief on top of the inevitable rejection that comes with the query process was just too much to take. So I set the book aside and actually stopped writing for a while. It wasn’t long before I was writing again (romance!) and in 2011, took another look at the manuscript. I thought, hey this is pretty good, and a writer friend urged me to send it out again. So I did. To one agent. And then I remembered how much I hated the query process and stopped. But that one lovely agent, Jennifer Unter, loved the book and sold it a few months later.
Thanks for visiting, Lisa!
THE ISLANDS OF CHALDEA, a new, stand-alone novel of magic and adventure, is the last book from the beloved Diana Wynne Jones. Almost finished upon her death in 2011, the manuscript was completed by Diana’s sister Ursula Jones, a popular author and actress.
Read on for some lovely thoughts from Ursula on growing up with such a talented storyteller for a sister and on the challenges of finishing her sister’s work . . .
When I first read this lovely, searching, last novel by my sister, Diana Wynne Jones, it stopped short where she became too ill to continue. It was a shock: it was like being woken from sleepwalking or nearly running off the edge of a cliff. It had elements of a much happier time in our childhood, too.
Diana wrote her first full-length novel when she was fourteen years old. It filled a series of exercise books, and she would read the newest section to us, her two younger sisters, in bed at night. When she suddenly stopped reading, we would wail, “Go on, go on. What happens next?” and she’d say, “Don’t you understand? I haven’t written any more yet.” And we would go to sleep, agog for the next section. It always duly turned up the next night, which is where the present day diverged so unhappily from our childhood past. This time, the next section couldn’t turn up. Her book had ended without an ending.
Diana Wynne Jones was such a masterly storyteller that it was impossible to imagine where she planned to take it. She left no notes: she never ever made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page, and she never discussed her work while it was in progress. There was not so much as a hint of what she was up to, and it seemed The Islands of Chaldea was lost to its readers.
Then the family suggested that I might complete it. I was nervous. Diana was my big sister, and big sisters notoriously don’t like kid sisters messing with their stuff. Particularly when the big sister in question is very good at her stuff. Nevertheless, her family and friends had a meeting to pool their ideas on how the story might continue. We were all steeped in her work. We’d all known her well. Everyone was sure that, by the end of the afternoon, we would come up with something. We didn’t; she had us all stumped. Eventually, Diana’s son closed the session with, “Well, Ursula, you’ll just have to make it up.”
It took months. I scoured the text for those clues that Diana always dropped for her readers as to where the narrative was headed, and which I’d always unfailingly overlooked until I’d read the final page. I hadn’t changed. I found nothing.
Initially, I was working at the National Theatre in London, too (I’m an actress when I’m wearing my other hat), and the play I was in was full of eerie happenings and second sight. I would catch the bus home across the river after the show and dream weird and often frightening dreams as I tried to break into my sister’s thinking. I believe I got even closer to her at this point than I was during her lifetime. But although I hunted and pondered, nothing came to me. Then, just as I was beginning to feel like a sous chef, endlessly producing flat soufflés under the slightly disapproving gaze of the Chef, I found one of her clues. I found it near the beginning of her manuscript. And we were off!
When I started to write, it came easily. It was almost as if Diana were at my elbow, prompting, prodding, turning sentences around, working alongside—and then it was finished, and she was gone again. That was a terrible wrench. But her book was there—complete.
So far, no one who has come to The Islands of Chaldea freshly has spotted exactly where Diana Wynne Jones left off and I begin. Perhaps you will be able to, perhaps you won’t. It doesn’t really matter. It is intrinsically and utterly her book, and I hope you and all its readers love it as much as I do.