Monday, November 29, 2010

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

I just thought I'd take a minute and do a quick posting about the book that first introduced me to M. T. Anderson: Me, All Alone, at the End of the World.  The first sentence of the book says just that:  “I lived by myself at the End of the World.”  At first, you might think that's a sad thing!  However, as the young male protagonist narrator goes on to list the activities that fill up his days, including listening to the wind blow through the pines, reading, eating simple foods, and whistling dance tunes to the mule, you realize this was exactly where he wanted to be.  When I first read the book, I could feel my body sinking into my chair as I relaxed.  I was proud of this boy for being so independent and happy with simple things.   He says “I was happy there all by myself, alone at the End of the World.”

But we all know that that was not going to last!  An understanding of fiction dictates that conflict is created when a character holds something dear and then something comes along to threaten that something.  One day, Mr. Constantine Shimmer, a Professional Visionary, shows up and questions the boy’s idea of having fun.  Wouldn’t you know it, that plants a seed of doubt for our young man. 

Mr. Shimmer develops the land, building a huge inn and installing all sorts of ‘real’ fun activities for everyone, and draws huge, happy, noisy crowds of people.  Our young protagonist participates … for a while.

It’s a lovely book, both visually (illustrated by Keven Hawkes) and in spirit.  The story is a reminder of the joy to be had in simple activities while also asking the question “What is fun?” and making the reader wonder if there might not be more than just one correct way to answer that question.  In its own way, it is a book about diversity and acceptance, and it makes me feel peaceful.  I hope you end up liking it as much as I do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

M.T. Anderson and The Game of Sunken Places

M. T. Anderson
I’ve now read three of M.T. Anderson’s young adult novels, and one thing I can tell you for certain: I will forevermore pick up ANYTHING he writes.  He just keeps me on my mental toes, while weaving riveting stories.  There always seems to be something unusual in his stories, and The Game of Sunken Places is no exception.  Before or after you read what I have to say about this book, you should click on the book title above to check out what he says about the writing of it – very interesting, and very encouraging for teen writers.  You should also watch this little video, in which Anderson discusses the mountains of Vermont, the setting for the story.  He is one fascinating person, and I can't wait to meet him in March.  I think I've said that before, come to think of it.

In a nutshell, two teenaged boys from Boston (Gregory and Brian) end up in Vermont at the invitation of Uncle Max, who is related to Gregory, sort of.  They have two weeks in the Green Mountains in a huge old house, with nothing really to do (at first), since Uncle Max “…lives in kind of a different world from the rest of us” (page 3 – and what foreshadowing that statement is!)  Here’s how Gregory describes Uncle Max’s world:  “The kind of world where electricity is a lot of invisible spiders.  The kind of world where there’s organ music that gets louder when he eats refined sugar”  (also from page 3, spilling over onto page 4). This gives the reader a bit of insight into the character of Uncle Max while also giving some insight into M.T. Anderson’s writing. 

A truly unusual and creepy stranger approaches the boys on the train to Vermont, and later, when they are picked up at the station by horse and buggy, you know something’s amiss.  When they arrive at Uncle Max’s and are required to wear knickerbockers and ties (Uncle Max describes the boys as ‘tatterdemalion’ because of their contemporary clothing – who uses that kind of language?!) and are served dinner by the maid, Daffodil, by the light of gas lamps, well … you know this is going to be one strange vacation.  And then there's what the butler does with their baggage ...

The actual ‘game’ has its genesis in an old, water-damaged game board that the boys find in the nursery – yes, it’s that kind of big old house, and as there is no television, they are sent to the nursery after dinner to entertain themselves.  The title on the game board is “The Game of Sunken Places,” and it includes a detailed illustration of Grendle Manor, the house in which they are staying.  They can find no directions, and most of the game board is smeared from the water damage, but later, they do find an hourglass timer that goes with the game board.  When Gregory turns it over …

“And out in the woods, a trumpet sounded.  It was a high, strange note that  smeared downward, losing breath.” (Page 38)

They look back at the game board, and suddenly, some of the water damage is lifted from the board and they can see spaces that they could not see before, spaces that are labels for places in the woods:  “the Stony Path, The Dark Wood, The Ring," and my personal favorite, “The Club of Snarth.”

Then the reader is taken away from the boys' perspective for a moment:

“Out in the gazebo, Daffodil was standing in a drab gray shawl.  She heard the dying trumpet note on the autumn air.  Facing the forest, she raised her hand.  She waved it once.

When she was certain she had been seen, she turned to go inside.”  (Page 39)

And the game is on, whether they know it or not.  They will encounter all sorts of strange beasts, places, and circumstances on this most unusual of vacations, and you, dear reader, will be sucked into it right along with them through Anderson’s amazing skill as a writer.

I have to make sure you know, too, that even though the game is quite serious, Anderson sprinkles enough humor throughout the story to keep the reader amused as well as intrigued. Much of this is accomplished through the boys’ characters and their relationship with each other.  Here is an example of an exchange between the two of them, when they discover a small secret room in the top floor of the old house:

Gregory paused, then thoughtfully strolled over to the window in the closet, a reflective expression on his face.  He pressed his fingers to the glass.

“Idea?” said Brian.

“Yeah.  How’d you like to explore the roof?”

“Explore the roof?”

“No, no.  I said, ‘Strap goats to our shoulders.’”

“You want to?”

“Strap goats to our shoulders?”

“Explore the roof.”
(from pages 34-35)

Another example is their first (amicable) encounter with the troll who had not been quite as welcoming toward Brian when they had previously met.  The boys have brought a weathervane to the troll, for purposes that you’ll understand why if you read the book – you didn’t think I was going to explain EVERYTHING in this blog, did you?

Brian walked forward and handed the weathervane to the troll, who scrambled to his feet.  "You’re in the lead," said the creature.  He handed the weathervane back to Brian.

Brian asked, "What am I supposed to do with it?"

The troll shrugged.  "I don’t need a weathervane," he said.  "You could give it to your friend, for one thing, if he wants to cross the bridge."

Gregory came forward.  Brian handed him the weathervane.

"There we are," said the troll.  "All nice and legal.  You want to come in for some mulled cider and funnel cake?"

"No," said Gregory, incredulous.  "You swung an ax at my friend."

"It’s my job," said the troll.

"We’ll – we’ll take the cider," said Brian.  "If we can ask a few questions."

"You don’t like funnel cake?" 
(from pages 85-86)

I don’t know why this troll makes me picture Billy Crystal, but he does.  (Maybe it’s residual from Billy Crystal’s role in The Princess Bride, a movie I highly recommend.)  And speaking of movies, a film based on The Game of Sunken Places is ‘in development’ by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies; IMDB gives it a ‘date’ of 2011, but I don’t know if that’s a release date or not.  We’ll have to ask him in March.  If it is, I’ll be one of those crazy people who goes to the theater at four in the morning to wait in line, whether or not I need to.  I can’t wait to see if the pictures that the movie folk try to put out are anything at all close to the fabulous pictures M.T. Anderson has put in my head from this incredible book.   I also can’t wait to read the sequel, Suburb Beyond the Stars, and the next sequel, The Empire of Gut and Bone, which is slated to come out in 2011 as well.  Hopefully we’ll have copies hot off the press at the conference!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

First Light

I haven’t talked about Rebecca Stead’s book First Light yet, or M.T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places, so that’s what I’ll devote this entry to.  I really do have to get better about posting; I’m reading faster than I thought I could, and I have a lot of great books to catch you up on!

Okay, so First Light was Stead’s first published novel, and it is truly a remarkable work of what I would call subtle environmental science fiction.  The story opens with the science fiction when a boy is exploring his mother’s drawing table; we are ‘educated’ right away to the fact that paper is scarce and valuable.  And then the boy finds an envelope that has a color photo in it, something he has never seen before.  So we are introduced to the notion of a protected society, much like the movie The Village, by M. Night Shyamalan.  The next few chapters transport the reader to New York City and the point of view of one of the two main characters, Peter, who is 12 and the son of a professor / glaciologist (his dad) and a molecular biologist (his mom).  Through the generosity of a philanthropist interested in global warming, his father is sent to Greenland to study the glaciers for six weeks, and Peter and his mother accompany him.  The next main character (Thea) shows up when chapters three and four are told from her point of view.   And guess where she lives?  Not where you’d expect.  Greenland, yes, but not in one of the cities, such as Nuuk, Paamiut, or Upernavik.  Not even above ground.  Thea has never seen the sun --- but she sure wants to. 

The book is told, as you can imagine, from these two characters’ alternating points of view.  I really like books written in this kind of format.  The first book I read written this was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.  That was some time ago, but I remember appreciating getting the variety of points of view on a common theme / topic / plot.  Granted, The Martian Chronicles was quite different; it was not limited to two characters’ points of view.  But nevertheless, the idea persists for me.

Peter and Thea’s worlds end up colliding, and the journey to their meeting is nothing short of amazing.  I am always impressed when a writer can create another world that is so credible, and First Light is no exception.  Any society is unfailingly complex, and Stead has crafted the subtle details that embody Gracehope, where Thea lives, with extraordinary yet casual detail.  The story has an underlying theme of global warming without being preachy; it gives just enough for young readers to make some connections to science issues and be able to have conversations and ask questions about environmental issues.  At the same time, readers can have marvelous conversations about what they might take for granted about the society in which they move and breathe daily and what is considered ‘normal’ for different groups of people.

Something that sets this book apart is the way the special web site for it was constructed (   It ‘scrolls’ to the side rather than up and down, as most web sites do.  Along with the expected content (information about the book itself and the author), there are links for readers who become interested in how scientists work in Greenland, or some of the seemingly random mentions in the book that they might question. (Volkswagon testing sites?  Really?)   Check it out – you won’t be disappointed!  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t figure out why it didn’t also win an award, just like Stead’s second novel, When You Reach Me – more on that one later!

Okay, so I didn’t get to The Game of Sunken Places today; that one will be next, I promise!  And what a wild book it is!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preliminary Programs are Here!

Wow, am I a slacker!  almost a month since my last post!  And since then I've finished Anderson's Game of Sunken Places AND an entire series by Carman (the Atherton series).  I will write more about the authors and books later (hopefully this weekend), but for now I just wanted to give you a run-down on the schedule that happens in the fall in terms of conference preparation.

September 1st:  Folks who want to present at the conference must have their presentation proposals submitted by this date.  We had over 300 this year!

September 25-ish (around the third weekend of the month) - the IRC Board of Directors meeting happens, and that is when the President-elect and select others go through the proposals and decide which ones should be accepted, which ones can be accepted with some changes, and which ones belong with which strands.  Once this is done, the Executive Director can put the abstracts into a draft of the Preliminary Program book.

Mid-October:  the Executive Director and President-elect must finish up reviewing drafts of the Preliminary Program book so that it can go to the printer.

About a week later:  The Preliminary Programs arrive from the printer and can begin to be distributed to those who contact the office and request them.

mid-November-ish:  Preliminary Programs are distributed at the Board of Directors' meeting in Bloomington.  (Getting them ready for this time is why it's so crucial to get them proofed and sent to the printer quickly.)

I will receive a box of them in the mail shortly, probably tomorrow, and I can't wait to see them!  We're really on our way now, folks!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading, Reading, and More Reading

In the two weeks since my last post, I've finished Riordan's The Lightning Thief, Gerstein's The Old Country, and Stead's First Light, and am almost done with Anderson's The Game of Sunken Places.  

Ha, ye of little faith, who do not think I will reach my goal!  Actually, I am quite worried, but I'm having a good time doing it.  I have yet to run across a 'miss' in any of the books by these authors, which just reinforces my joy at having them come to the conference in March.

At least a quick bit about each of these books is in order.  First of all, I picked up The Lightning Thief, oddly enough (and truly unplanned), the day after my husband and I had watched the remake of Clash of the Titans.  I have to say - that really enhanced my enjoyment of the book, although I would have loved it otherwise as well.  I was just already in 'titan' mode, I guess, and really liked connecting the dots, so to speak, as I read about the beings that I had just seen in the movie.  I'm sure everyone knows about this book by now, especially since it was made into a move (I need to see that, too).  But bear with me as I add just a few notes for those few folks who may not be familiar with it.  First of all, this book has GOT to appeal to middle school boys; the main character is a boy about 12 years old,
one who has spent most of his life sent away to boarding schools.  He has dyslexia and does not necessarily enjoy school.  Turns out there's a perfectly good reason for the boarding school bit, and it has nothing to do with the dyslexia.  He also has a creepy stepfather.  That said, I can also see the book appealing to girls.  There are a few girls who figure into the plot, but that shouldn't matter, as far as I'm concerned.  I don't think the gender of the main character of a story should necessariliy impact anyone's enjoyment, but maybe I'm being naive.  Anyway, as with other fabulous reads, the author creates wonderful mind-pictures so that the reader can connect easily with what's going on in every scene.  Anyway, it turns out that this middle school boy, who is not very successful in school, and isn't happy about the fact that he doesn't have a lot of friends, since he goes to a different school every year, is in fact quite significant to the fabric of the world.  He has a quest to complete that has tremendous implications for humanity.  I love the fact that the underdog, someone who is not the most popular kid in school, suddenly gains remarkable importance.  I also like the fact that there are factors worked into the story that might seem trivial but that really do have a point, like the fact that Percy's mother is married to a creepy stepfather.  There's a reason.  But to return to the reason I am reading this book in the first place, I want to remind you that this author is NOT coming to the conference, but the illustrator, John Rocco, is.  I found a site with lots of illustrations he's done about the Percy Jackson series.  They're beautiful and you can purchase them from that site.

On to Mordicai Gerstein's The Old Country.  I picked this up not long after finishing the last book in Patrick Carman's Land of Elyon series, and found an immediate connection between the two.  First of all, a bit of a plot summary: a young girl unwillingly changes places with a fox.  And when I mean changes places, I mean her heart / soul / personality / spirit goes into the body of the fox, and vice versa.  Yup.  And this is not something that makes the girl happy, but it sure makes the fox happy.  Much of the story is devoted to the girl-in-the-fox trying desperately to get back to her family.  The connection with Carman's series is that there exists an ability to communicate between animals and humans.  Whereas in the Land of Elyon, one must have possession of a Jocasta stone, in The Old Country the communication must take place in a certain meadow.  There must always be a condition for such a magic to happen, and these two authors just used different conditions.  But on to the story.  For me, there are two characteristics of this book that make it special.  One is that it was told in a fashion close to "Once upon a time," set in 'the old country,' although the reader never knows what country that is, specifically.  This is done purposefully, I'm sure; that kind of anonymity is part and parcel of fairy tales of old.  The other is that it really does require the reader to consider "...the question of what it is to be human" (quote taken from the back of the book).  I'm an animal lover, so there you have it.  And of course there's a surprise ending - love those!  But truly, this book was a joy to read.  While The Lightning Thief kept me on the edge of my seat a lot, this book made me snuggle into the covers at night, in anticipation of joining Gisella in her quest to return to her family.

I've written far too much for one entry, so I'll save First Light for the next one, when I'll also talk about The Game of Sunken Places.  But I did want to post a picture here, too.  It's of the Conference Shirts and my display for the 2011 Illinois Reading Council Conference!  While I don't love pictures of myself, I love the shirts and the display and wanted to share them with you.  Don't forget: you can order shirts online!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Required Reading for Elementary Teachers

Just a quick aside before I talk about what I'm supposed to be talking about here ... my husband found this walking stick on our property the other day - just look at him!  he's about five or six inches long: I wish I'd measured him to see if he set a record!

Okay, on to the reading.

Sometimes I run across a book that I swear offers a window into understanding children - well, okay, people in general.  But children are often trickier because after they get to a certain age, many of them don't feel they have the right to explain their thinking out loud to us adults.  So every elementary teacher and preservice teacher should pick up Sara Pennypacker's Clementine series and read, read, read!  Not only are these books hilarious, they do help to explain what's going on in that brain; not that every third-grader is thinking along the same lines as Clementine (yikes!) but Pennypacker's take on the third-grade psyche at least reminds us that what we suspect or assume might be a student's motivation is not necessarily the case, and we need to keep open minds ourselves ... and ask them what they're thinking.

Here's a picture of the three I've read - there are five in all, and I'm so looking forward to reading the other two!

Here's a snippet of the hilarity: first, you need to realize that Clementine spends A LOT of time in Principal Rice's office.  One day, while her teacher is planning a talent show and she is privately lamenting the fact that she thinks she has no talents, she raises her hand in class ---

"Yes, Clementine?  Would you like to be in the cooperative group for refreshments?"

"No, thank you," I said, extra politely.  "What I'd like is to go to Mrs. Rice's office."

"Clementine, you don't need to go see the principal," my teacher said.  "You're not in any trouble."

"Well, it's just a matter of time," I told him.  (page 3, The Talented Clementine)

Something else I like about these books is the way Pennypacker characterizes the parents.  Mom is a work-at-home artist, and Dad is the building manager for their apartment building.  Not the most glamorous jobs, and ones that are not often included in children's literature.  It reminds me of 'blessing a book:'  for young folk anyway, if the teacher reads a book, especially to the whole class, well, then it must be good.  If these two occupations are good enough to be included in a book, then they really are attainable occupations.  The more occupations we introduce our students to, the more options they realize they have in life.

In looking for reviews for the Clementine books, I ran across this web site that reviews children's books for parents (and of course teachers).  I have not delved in too deeply, but what I see up front looks quite helpful.  The site rates books on several criteria, including content, sex, bad language, violence, etc.  I'll have to explore a little more, but I decided to include it here for now so that you could explore it as well.

Right now I'm over half way through Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief (from the series Percy Jackson and the Olympians), NOT because Riordan is coming to the conference (he is not), but because John Rocco is the illustrator, and HE IS!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Armageddon Summer

While my husband and I were 'vacationing' for the last two days, I had some reading time, so I finished up another of Jane Yolen's books.  This one is Armageddon Summer and was co-written with Bruce Coville.  The copyright date says 1998; how did this one slip by me?  I had never heard of it until I started trying to read all of the author's books by conference time and picked this one up.  Okay, I hate to keep gushing about these books I'm reading, but what a great book!  If you want to read what Jane has said about getting the idea for the book, you can click on this link.  If you'd like to read the first bits of the book, you can read a preview here.

The general gist of the book is this:  Marina (nearly 14) accompanies her mother and multiple younger brothers to the top of a mountain with her mother's preacher and several others who refer to themselves as 'Believers.'  Jed also goes, to accompany his father.  Jed's not a Believer, but Marina is.  Both of their parents have been separated (not amicably) from their respective spouses, so Marina and Jed are in somewhat similar positions in their young lives.  So of course they're going to get together somehow on this mountain.

Armageddon Summer

What do I love about this book?  Well, three major things.  One, it's written so that alternating chapters are from Marina's point of view and then Jed's point of view.  Books that are written this way really help the reader get inside the characters' heads and understand multiple perspectives.  Since religious cults typically are quite sensitive topics, multiple perspectives really do help the reader make sense of what's going on.  Second, it's very easy to visualize what's happening in this book.  When an author creates people, settings, and action that are easy to picture, the story lives more deeply and specifically inside me and is more plausible, whether it is historically accurate fiction or there are unicorns gamboling across a meadow. I appreciate that kind of writing.  But what really blew me away about the book was that it represents just how a 'good' thing can go so terribly awry.  We 'hear,' through the characters, about how perfectly intelligent, well-meaning people can be led astray, even by someone with the best of intentions.  For example, Jed, who really does not consider himself one of the true Believers, says of Reverend Beelson ... 

     "I have to say that even when he was spouting nonsense there was something fascinating about him.   His voice was rich and powerful, and the rhythm of his language rolled over you until you were caught in the surge and the pull of it, strong as a tide, carrying you out into the sea of what he believed."  (page 134)

Something else that is amazing about this book is that I don't believe the authors' intent was to 'bash' religious cultism; the story actually helps to explain any faction's possible genesis.  We know that many cult leaders simply have a yearning for power and dominion over others, but that is not necessarily always the case.

Whew!  Serious stuff there!  But the topic of the book truly is serious.

Anyway, I have more books to write about, too - I've been a BUSY reader!  But this is all til next time.  It is dusk on Labor Day Saturday, and I have labored enough for now.  Time to relax by a camp fire with the neighbors'!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Rooms!

Hey, folks, we got to see some of the newly renovated rooms at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel this week, and they are beautiful!  Last year during the conference, there was an easel in front of the registration desk showing the fabrics and colors they were going to use, and it looks like they are going to have most of that beauty installed in the guest rooms by the time our conference rolls around next March.  So once registration opens, I'd suggest you get yours in quickly, and request one of the rooms at the A.L. if you can!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And now, for something completely different ...

Just another quick post of some people who have made an amazing career of thinking outside the box ... have you ever heard of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers?  Well, mix rock and roll with bagpipes and you have a truly amazing experience!  My sister posted a clip on Facebook, and when I looked at their schedule, I found out that they will be in Peoria August 27 - next Friday - so guess where I will be?

It also made me think about the genesis of big things --- who knew, really, when these guys took up their traditional instrument, that it could and would turn into something so far from the original, traditional idea?  What are our kids doing in school - or NOT getting to do in school - that could eventually turn out to be something amazing, especially something that no one had conceptualized before?  I really think the educators and parents of today need to fight to retain a place for creative and divergent thinking in the schools.  I was watching an episode of Boston Legal the other night, and one of the cases was about the mother of a high school student suing the school because of the amount of pressure put on kids these days. Points were made about how the need to succeed has pushed kids to become test-taking machines just to get into the best colleges, and how cheating has become so rampant in our colleges and universities, for much the same reason.  Learning itself has been pushed out of much of school, and I find that very sad, and very limiting.

What a downer!  So if you want a little lift, click on that link and listen to some of the most amazing music I'll bet you've heard in a long, long time.  And get those proposals in for the conference!

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Really SMART Conference!

Okay, just a short posting, but a very important one - we have Smartboards for the conference!!!  So get those proposals in, folks!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

M.T. Anderson's Next Novel

I finished M.T. Anderson's book, Feed, on the flight home from Grapevine Texas today, and I have to say, I loved this book. (I don't know if my roommate would concur, though, as I interrupted her own reading several times with something along the lines of "Oh, I just have to read this one part to you. Is that okay?") And my apologies to Mr. Anderson: in an interview with him at the end of the book, he disagrees that the book is futuristic, but he says something much more astute. I'll let you know what that was tomorrow, but I'm not going to unpack tonight.

So my point is this: while I liked the ending, it also left me wanting something in particular, and I think if you read the book, you might want the same thing. I would like to request that M.T. Anderson write, as his next novel, a sequel to this one titled Feedless. Read Feed - you'll understand.

I'm going to post a couple of pictures from the I.R.A. leadership workshop here. Of course, if you go to Texas, you MUST have honey cornbread in the shape of the state. And Susan Cisna and I wore t-shirts from one of our local councils, Northwestern Illinois Reading Council, so a big shout out to our reading professionals in northwestern Illinois! We also had the opportunity to meet with I.R.A.'s president-elect, Vickie Risko, and spent some wonderful time collaborating with her and exchanging information about our two organizations. I love these meetings, when we can be really productive and enjoy ourselves with fabulous people!

Can't Stop Reading It

Hello Folks,

In my quest to read every book by every author who is coming to the 2011 IRC conference, I'm in the middle of M. T. Anderson's Feed, and all I can say is that it is the furthest thing from a yawn banquet you can imagine!

I feel an explanation is in order. First of all, why am I 'greeting' you from Grapevine Texas? Well, those of you familiar with the Illinois Reading Council may know that the local council leaders have an opportunity every summer to attend a leadership retreat at Grand Bear Lodge in Utica, close to Starved Rock State Park. The state level organization organizes this so that local council leaders may learn more about their positions and have some dedicated time to plan out their year's events. I mentioned this in the previous posting. Well, guess what? The International Reading Association does the same thing for state level organizations. This year they brought us to Grapevine, Texas, just outside Dallas, and we are spending time setting goals and making plans for the rest of the year ourselves. It's great to get to interact with folks from other state and provincial councils, to share ideas and try to problem-solve collaboratively, and we greatly appreciate the opportunity that the I.R.A. provides us to do so.

Now for the explanation of the yawn banquet. Feed is futuristic, and in this future, the internet is implanted into people's brains, I believe at birth. And it's proactive. If you go to a store and look at soccer balls, it will automatically send your brain ads for soccer balls and personalize the sales pitch. Spooky, huh? Well, the story is told from the point of view of a teenage boy, and as you can imagine, teenage boy 'language' is an entity unto itself. Anything boring is referred to as a 'total yawn banquet.' If a girl is pretty, she is 'youch,' and if she is REALLY pretty, she is 'meg youch.' And even though the topic is serious, this is a hilarious book. M. T. Anderson slips in just enough humor to make the reader look forward to the rest of the humor while still being able to concentrate on the story line. I can't wait to meet this author in March!

The opportunities for talking about vocabulary are rife in this book, though there is also some language that would be deemed objectionable by some folks. But I can't help myself - I can't stop reading it! I have to go attend another meeting in a few minutes, and I am so tempted to slip Feed into my bag and slip it out when no one is looking.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Annual Leadership Retreat

Just got back from the IRC Leadership Retreat that we hold each summer in support of our local councils' officers. From what I could see, everyone had a wonderful time and got lots of planning done for the upcoming year. Local councils were able to come up with some great ideas for increasing their memberships and involving more people in their events as well as planning the events themselves. AND I got to give away two books by authors who are coming to the conference! Some lucky person will receive a free copy of Bad News for Outlaws, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, and another will receive a free copy of When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. The local council representatives who won these will give them away to a new member who has never been to the conference; those two people will present their tokens at registration (at the conference) and receive their prizes. I know it may seem a little complicated, but there are three reasons for doing it this way: providing door prizes for local councils to give away helps them with their events, a door prize that can only be collected at the conference might encourage someone to register (I know - it's just a book, but hey! It's a great book, and it's free!) and giving away these books promotes the authors who are coming to the conference.

Once again, we set up the BOX display that my husband had made for the IRC conference last spring, and my thanks to all of the good folks who helped with any aspect of this -it's always quite an undertaking, but so worth the effort. Also, HUGE thanks to the IRC office staff, who did all of the collating / printing / packing / organizing of materials (and candy!) and especially to Bobbi Sjenost, our intrepid IRA Regional Coordinator, who planned the whole thing, right down to the last detail. A wonderful time, and a productive one as well. A terrific addition this year was a session on technology - Tracy Turasiak helped local councils create Facebook pages in order to add a level of communication with their membership, and I believe some folks also started blogs and web pages. This will bring our communication further into the scope of reaching more members than we might have been doing before.

Anyone reading this blog who might be considering running for office for your local council, please go right ahead and take that step. And when you do, mark your calendars for next July for the IRC Leadership Resort at Grand Bear Resort in Utica. It's a great chance to get your questions answered about your office and to get your council's events for the year all planned out. Oh, and did I mention Membership Grant money? And the motivational speaker? And the book sale? And the indoor water park? Really, the guidance that this organization provides to new leaders is phenomenal. New officers understand their roles much better after attending Leadership, and all it costs you is your time. (Unless you stop at one of the wineries down the road.)

As for the conference, there are a few speakers who were not included in the printed version of the conference preview distributed at the conference last March, but within a few weeks, their information should be included in the online version of the preview. I'll post something in the blog when that's been amended.

I would encourage you to submit those proposals for presenting at the conference. I know the deadline seems years away, but it's only September 1st!

Did I mention that at the book sale at Leadership I purchased a copy of Harrius Potter? Yes, that's Harry Potter in Latin!


Monday, July 5, 2010

Love and Leadership

Well, the past few weeks have been a blur because my stepdaughter was just married this past weekend! Even as a stepmother, I had lots to do to get ready for the event, and it was even more wonderful than I'd imagined it could be. So today I've been trying to ready myself for the annual Illinois Reading Council Leadership event for this week - I need to leave tomorrow afternoon in order to be at the Grand Bear Lodge in Utica Illinois and will be there until next Friday. Leadership is always a fun event, though it's full of hard work! Local council officers have the opportunity to learn more about their offices and to plan events for the year as well as get ready for the annual conference in March the following year. Here are a couple of photos of some of the folks who attended last year.

Anyway, in a previous post I indicated that my goal would be to read EVERY book by EVERY author who will be at the 2011 conference. I've been balking at that a little bit, I will admit - quite a lofty goal I set for myself! And I'm not sure how to keep track of it - but I'm sure something will come up. Meanwhile, I'll just let you know in this blog about the books I'm reading.

Tonight I read Jane Yolen and Mark Teague's How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? and what an adorable book! I know Jane and Mark have teamed up for an entire series of "How Do" dinosaur books, and I do intend to read them all, but this one will really make you fall in love with it immediately. The dinosaurs in each illustration are different from each other, which at first I didn't understand, but then I realized that ... yes, our little 'dinosaurs' can seem like entirely different beings from moment to moment. And the wonderful thing about the different dinosaur illustrations is that each is identified on the page (and the inside of the front jacket). You and your students will learn a lot of new dinosaurs - I had never heard of most of them. Neovenator, Ouranosaurus, and Kentrosaurus, to name a few. At first I thought maybe Jane and Mark had created them out of their own imaginations, but I looked them up - so can your students!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Managing a Blog (and a self!)

Okay, I have been really bad about keeping up this blog, and I apologize. But I've learned something valuable over the last two months, since I've been absent from posting. I'm sure you are aware that there are often unintended consequences with whatever it is you undertake, and that's what's happened here. First of all, my two purposes for this blog were as follows: let people know more about the speakers coming to the 2011 IRC conference, and let potential other vice-presidents know about the process of planning the conference so that they can decide whether or not it's something they want to undertake. So here's the third thing that has happened that I did not expect: I have learned just how much pressure it can be on a person to maintain a blog.

Now I know some people think it's no big deal; you just hop on your computer and 'talk' away. And it's certainly not that I have a problem with writing - I could write all day, if need be. It's just that this blog is supposed to be serving more of a purpose than just to be an outlet for my chatting. I feel that what I post here should have some substance and serve one of the two initial purposes I set for the blog, and to tell the truth, I have not had time lately to pull together the kind of information that should be posted. I am a Department Chair at a University, so I work during the summer, and I also try to have a garden (a HUGE one), and this spring and summer have more landscaping areas to put in around our home, and my stepdaughter is getting married in a few weeks. Add all the storms to that this summer (which means I have to unplug my computer, hence no internet) and guess what else? Jury duty next week!

So I have felt guilty about not posting more on the blog, and today I feel guilty for not having good information for whoever happens to be following, but I figured that anything would be better than nothing. THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED BLOG! That's the most important thing I can post today.

When I met him at IRA, Frank Serafini said I should send him the link to this blog and he would tweet it (or whatever you do with twitter), but at the moment I'm too embarrassed to do so. (More pressure.) I'll do that after I actually get something of substance posted.

And those storms? I hear thunder now, even as I'm typing. Gotta unplug the computer. So long for today .....

Monday, May 3, 2010

Some Special People

This year the I.R.A. convention was held in Chicago. That turned out to be especially fortuitous for the I.R.A. members from Illinois for two reasons: first of all, more of them could go to the convention because travel was less expensive; also, the Illinois Reading Council won five I.R.A. awards this year, so more Illinois members got to go to the awards ceremony to see the awards bestowed! Way to go, Illinois - you continue to be top-notch in your dedication to professional development! The I.R.A. convention will return to Chicago in 2012, and I'm sure the Illinois Reading Council will be big winners again!

The I.R.A. convention boasted some of the same speakers we will have in 2011: Jane Yolen, T.A.Barron, Diane Barone, Cindy Middendorf, and Frank Serafini were all there. (Honestly, check out Dr. Serafini's page - is there anything that man can't do?) I didn't get a chance to talk with Diane and Jane, but I did get to talk with both Frank and Tom for a bit. Whenever I'm in a position to speak with someone 'of greatness,' I feel like I shouldn't be taking up their time, but these two were awesome in their kindness! I had spoken with Jane Yolen last year at I.R.A. and Diane Barone this year at the Michigan Reading Association conference, and they were both wonderful as well. (I have not met Cindy Middendorf yet, but she's got a great first name!) It's always good to know we have nice people coming to our conference, isn't it?

Remember my last post? If not, scroll down and give it a skim - it refers to my cousin and his daughter, Sophia, who is giving us her 'librarian look' in the picture. Anyway, she woke up one morning and wrote a poem about a dragon about whom she had dreamt. So when I met T.A. Barron, who has a Merlin’s Dragon Trilogy, I wanted to show her poem to him. That’s what I’m holding in the picture here. I was going to ask him to sign it, but I had already asked him to sign two books for Sophia, and there were others in line, so I nixed that idea. Maybe another time, like next March, in Illinois!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

That's What I'm Talking About!

Okay, now that the 2010 conference is over, I'll be adding to this blog about once a week. And what a wonderful conference we had in 2010! I hope you got a chance to go. Susan Cisna identified fabulous speakers to invite; as usual, the office staff did an amazing job of organizing and facilitating the conference; and the teachers, authors, and other professionals who led sessions were nothing short of remarkable.

For this blog, I have to share with you something that happened last week. It is predicated, unfortunately, on the passing of my legendary uncle, Richard "Uncle Buddy" Nitsche. He and my aunt and their children lived most of their lives in Lake Bluff, and a trip to their house was always fun for us as kids. Those trips were also punctuated by a drive through the beautiful Lake Forest, and also by Uncle Buddy's chuckles. That's what comes to mind immediately when I think of him: chuckles leaking out around the sides of his pipe. He was an amazing sailor and won repeated awards for his skills in the Regatta. So his passing prompted my brother Mike and I to make a quick drive to Collierville, Tennessee, where my aunt (his wife) and cousins Rick and Sue and Sue's husband now live. Other family members joined us, including my cousin Chris and his lovely wife, Mel, and their fifth-grade daughter Sophia.

Just a few days prior to this trip, I had made a goal for myself of reading every book that every author comingto the 2011 conference had written (with the possible exception of Jane Yolen - do you KNOW how many books she's written?) and I had just begun Patrick Carman's
The Dark Hills Divide. My brother and I had a chance to have Sophia in our car for a short drive to the coffee shop, and I asked the question I ask most kids: "So what are you reading these days?" She gave me a whole list of books to investigate, explaining to me how much she loves reading. Sophia is an adorable wisp with an adult vocabulary and logic that surpasses most people three times her age. I asked her if she had ever read Patrick Carman's The Dark Hills Divide, and her animated reply was that she and her family had listened to the audio book version during their drive from Savannah to the Memphis area! After some discussion about the characters (I was not far along enough in the book to know anything about her favorite character - the squirrel, Murphy, but she made me look forward to meeting him), we decided that it would be a good idea to take her picture with my copy of the traditional form of the book and her copy of the audio book - and she offered what she calls her 'librarian' look to top it off. Isn't she adorable?
Anyway, one part of next year's conference theme, "Literacy Outside the Box," refers to differing formats of 'reading' and 'writing.' Although Sophia and her family experienced what happened with Alexa and Bridewell through a different medium than I did, we still experienced the same story. I'm not advocating doing away with written text - rest assured of that - but there are different cognitive requirements for decoding through listening than there are through making visual contact with symbols on a page. We've known for a long time that the right listening skills can make a huge difference in what we 'get' from what we 'hear;' now that technology is expanding how much listening we do, do we need to identify those skills even more specifically? And what are some new ways in which we can utilize audio resources with our students? I'd love to see some conference proposals related to this topic.

And I'd love to find out what happens with Alexa in her next adventures in the land of Elyon, so I'm heading to the bookstore today!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Deadlines, and Speakers Outside the Box

It's Saturday night, and I have spent the entire day writing and revising material for the Conference Preview. It is February 13, 2010, and this conference is scheduled for 13 months from now, but we advertise the upcoming conference at the current conference. That means the materials have to be done earlier than you might expect; they have to be sent to printing in time to be ready to distribute at the conference the year prior. My deadline for materials to be done and sent to printing is four days from now.

What's making it so difficult to meet these deadlines? Well, work, for one. I have a very demanding job, as most educators do, and it takes a lot of time. Another problem - and one that I hadn't anticipated - is that many authors and other featured speakers will not commit to a booking more than a year away from the event. Of course as you just read, we need to have them lined up earlier than that. And that conference preview is a great marketing tool for us, so it is best to have all of the big names in it. I've checked out the conference previews for the past three years, and they all have around 30 people's pictures and biographies in them: so far I have 15. I'm not overly worried about it: we can still get great people to come after the printing deadline, and add them to the Preliminary Program, and I can tell you all about them in this blog. But it would make me feel a little odd to be the one Vice President who had to go to a four page conference preview instead of an eight-pager!

Speakers Outside the Box
One of the practices we like to follow at IRC is to not discuss the next year's conference until the current year's conference is over. That way people won't get confused (and possibly let down) about when which speakers will be attending. By the time anyone discovers this blog and starts to read it, though, the 2010 conference will most likely be over, so I can go ahead and let you know right now about a few of the exciting speakers we will have scheduled for 2011. Should I tell you about them all right away? Nah. I won't. But I will tell you about one in particular tonight because I have discovered even more about him myself today and am even more excited that he will be joining us. His name is T.A. Barron, and he hails from Colorado. He writes mostly fantasy books for young adults - he has a series on Merlin and a trilogy on The Great Tree of Avalon. He says he has written most of life, but didn't get serious about trying to do it for a living until he was already the president of a company. He had a sort of epiphany one day and walked out of a board meeting to go be a writer. Cool, huh!

This year he is going to be a featured speaker at the International Reading Association's annual conference in Chicago at the end of April, and I am going to do my best to get to meet him and chat with him. But I already know what sets him apart from others and why he represents someone who is 'outside the box' on his own terms: he believes there is a hero in all of us, and that includes every kid. That feeling of the potential for heroism permeates his work. On top of that, he has created an award in honor of his mother, who was his hero. Every year, he gives out ten awards, the Barron Prize for Young Heroes, to young people who demonstrate heroic leadership in service projects. You can watch a short video in which T.A. and one of the recipients are interviewed here. I am looking forward to having someone with such a positive outlook about today's youth join us in 2011.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Literacy Outside the Box

Greetings, All!

The purpose of this blog will be to track the progress and development of the Illinois Reading Council's 2011 Annual Conference. I happen to be the Vice President, which means this conference is my responsibility. The conference theme - upon which I should have decided long ago - will be "Literacy Outside the Box." In the past, the other conference chairs have come up with their themes at least three months sooner than I did, but I have a problem, sometimes, with making decisions, when it is something that is a big deal like this. The possibilities are endless, and I really wanted to make sure the conference theme reflected the kind of conference I wanted to help develop.

Several months ago, the Executive Director came to my house to meet with me about getting started in all of this. She seemed surprised when I told her I wasn't worried about the planning of the conference, even though that is probably the biggest responsibility I'll have in the next four years. The reason I don't worry about it is that the organization itself, the Illinois Reading Council, is such a well-run organization of fabulous people - all volunteers except the four office staff - that I have every reason to have confidence that it will come off without a hitch.

My list of potential speakers was huge from the very beginning, and even though it was hard to winnow it down to what I felt was a workable, affordable group of authors and reading professionals, the only difficult thing about that process was deciding who should speak at which meals and who should be considered a 'featured speaker' instead of a 'meal speaker.'

The most difficult process by far has been landing on the theme.

The concept that I want to promote through this conference is that we need to expand what we consider 'literacy' and where it can be found; literacy exists in so many places other than just books, even though I almost duck my head in shame in saying that, since books have always been so important to me. We all know that there are different things to read these days: blogs, web sites, Facebook, Twitter, Wiki's, etc. Like it or not, those means of communication are a part of our world, and they aren't going away, unless it's to be replaced by something else more technologically slick. I thought about a couple of other ideas before landing on "Literacy Outside the Box." "Expanding the World of Literacy" was a possibility that I thought got across the idea, but when I envisioned the logo, all I could see was an exploding earth, and that just seemed a little violent. Then I thought about a puzzle theme, something along the lines of "Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces of Literacy," but it just felt like it would be more limiting than I wanted, since it would focus more on putting things together to create a whole, and I wanted people to be encouraged to think outside of the whole.

My intent is not to try to diminish the importance of good literature; rather, it is to help us all become even more aware of the literacy that exists in today's world. I want educators to think outside the box, especially at a time when they are forced more and more to try to compartmentalize teaching and learning and stick to almost script-like teaching; in other words, it seems that we are being asked to box ourselves in. Our schools are producing kids who don't like to read, for the most part, and it's not the fault of the teachers.

From what I've been told about blogs, one is supposed to take ownership and post what one wants - so this is my blog, and I get to post what I want in it. I guess that's why you see the particularly unattractive picture of me in this post - but I had just completed a hike up to Manoa Falls outside of Honolulu, and sweaty and disheveled as I was, I was happy to be in such a beautiful place.

It is my hope that this blog will serve three purposes: to let others know some of what goes on behind the scenes in developing a conference, to explain some of my crazy ideas about literacy, and to let readers know about the speakers who will be joining us for the conference. If you follow this blog for the next year, you should come to the Illinois Reading Council 2011 Conference feeling like you know the folks who will be speaking there and working there to get things ready for you.

Here we go, folks!