Monday, May 25, 2020

MMGM: The Hippo at the End of the Hall

I picked up this book when our library was still open. I was immediately taken with the illustration and knew from the description that it would appeal to my animal-loving 15 year old. I was right. He loved it, especially the talking animals.

It took me awhile to get to it myself. First, I had to read through my whole TBR list. (One good benefit of the libraries being closed is that I can’t keep checking out more and more books.)

I loved it. It’s been compared to Edith Nesbit, and the description is apt. This is good, old-fashioned British fantasy with a modern twist.

The invitation was delivered by bees. It wasn’t addressed to anyone at all, but Ben knew it was for him. It would lead him to an old, shambolic museum, full of strange and bewitching creatures. A peculiar world of hidden mysteries and curious family secrets . . . and some really dangerous magic.

Filled with her own wonderful illustrations, The Hippo at the End of the Hall is Helen Cooper's debut novel. (from Amazon)

What I loved:

1. Illustrations: The illustrations by the author-illustrator added a lot of whimsy and fun to the story. Who can be scared of a witch when she’s so tiny? The illustrations of the animals and their expressions made this story come to life.

2. Talking animals with distinct personalities: Usually I’m not a fan of talking animals, but these animals had personality and drive and agency of their own. This is how talking animals should be done.

3. An involved parent: So many children's books make parents the enemy. I loved how this mom was involved in this story (even in the climax!) in a way that was realistic, yet did not take away from the main character’s ability to solve his own problems.

4. Layers of mystery: I loved how the book started with a strange invitation, which led Ben to find a very unusual museum, which led to…There’s a lot of layers to peel back in the story, which kept me engaged as a reader.

5. Whimsical/lyrical writing: The metaphors and images in this are so kid-lit and unique. It’s always nice to see an author who can straddle unique metaphors without lapsing into purple prose. I also loved the little details that reminded us this story is written by a British author and set in England.

Have you read The Hippo at the End of the Hall? What books or movies do you think do talking animals well?

To participate in MMGM or find more MG reviews, please check out Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.

Monday, May 18, 2020

When You Can’t Travel, Dream

In Vermont in 2017--my first plane trip in over 20 years!

If you look at my bio, you’ll think I’m a world traveler. But most people don’t know that most of my world traveling was done in my 20s. After I returned from Honduras, it was over 20 years before I got on a plane again.

I know a lot of people are feeling disappointed about not being able to travel right now. If you’ve had to cancel plans, what to do?

Here are a few things I’ve done over the years when I wanted to travel, but couldn’t for one reason or another.

1.    Explore your own town: Right now, it may not be possible to do much locally, except walk local trails. We are taking in all of our city’s parks, which are still open. Getting take out treats from our favorite bakeries and ice cream stores can feel like a vacation.

2.    Do research for your next vacay: Make a Pinterest mood board or an old-fashioned collage or idea journal. Before all this happened, I was planning a trip to the Redwoods. I can still read travel books and collect ideas, even if the trip is not as soon as I hoped.

3.    Read a travelogue: Some of my most memorable reads have been travel accounts.

How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger—A book about a family who takes their children to England to explore all the settings of their favorite children’s books

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severi—A story of a man who builds a boat trying to replicate the voyage an Irish monk took to the new world.

4.    Watch a travel show. I’ve always loved Rick Steve’s European specials, but I’ve recently discovered Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. All three seasons of her PBS specials are free on her website. She travels to other places besides Europe, and I really enjoy watching her travels in the U.S. as well.

Have you had to cancel any trips due to the current crisis? What do you to quell the travel bug when you have to stay home?

Monday, May 11, 2020

Teaching Writing to Nonverbal Students Online

What I love about my day job as a teacher is that every year holds a new challenge. Often it is how to teach a particular student or a particular subject. It has been an ongoing challenge to teach students who are nonverbal or have low language skills. Especially online.

A few months ago, one of our speech and language pathologists recommended this resource. What struck me about this series of videos on teaching language arts was one phrase: “Writing is communication.”

Now as a writer, I know that’s true.

But I forget that my students are trying to tell me things too, even if they don't always use words. Once I focused on writing as communication (instead of just a rote skill to be learned), my ability to engage and reach my students greatly improved.

Here are things that have worked for me:

1. Make writing engaging, even writing your name: Since so many of my students are working on this skill, I have them practice it often. But now I’ve started making it more exciting by have them sign their name to answer a question.

2. Enjoy books with your students. Sometimes teachers—and parents—forget that reading is supposed to be fun. Peppering students with questions can overload students who struggle to communicate. Instead make comments. Notice things. Get excited. You are modeling for them what it’s like to enjoy reading.

An example of a book my students and I wrote together.

3. Make writing meaningful. There is a place for worksheets at times, but don’t forget to think outside the box. Recently, I’ve been doing patterned books with my students. I come up with a sentence frame (ex. “I put on…”) and provide pictures or show objects to give the students choices. Students communicate the ending of their sentence in various ways (orally, by pointing or holding up an object, or by writing). We put these sentences together to make a book and read our class book.


Tarheel books: A great website for finding books with lots of visuals (They even have a version of Holes by Louis Sachar!). You can also make your own books as a class and add photos.

Project Core Professional Development Videos: Videos about teaching language arts to students who have low language and/or use a communication board.

How are you surviving virtual education as a parent or a teacher? For writers: how do you communicate as a writer? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

ISWG: How To Get in the Zone

I wish I had a recipe for getting in the zone as a writer. More often than not, I am surprised when my writing flows.

And with my busy, crazy life, it’s hard for me to keep a strict schedule or cultivate a perfect atmosphere. I don’t have an office or a writing space. I’ve learned to write in the midst of a lot of distractions.

Yet here is my ideal:

1. A quiet space: Often this is a corner of my bedroom, but I used to go to our cultural center to write in the lobby on Saturdays. I cannot write in coffee shops. It’s too tempting to listen in to conversations (a.k.a. research).

2. Writing longhand: I have discovered recently that I write better if I write in longhand. I’m less distracted, and a notebook is more portable than a computer. Right now I’m mostly working on my computer because I’m revising, but longhand is ideal.

Longhand draft of this post

3. Music: I’m not a huge fan of listening to music while I’m writing, but I do use it to inspire me or get me immersed in my setting. (Ex: Celtic music while writing about Scotland or Renaissance instruments for a historical.) But if I want to get pumped and inspired, it’s the La La Land soundtrack all the way. Especially this song:

4.  Beverage: If I have a big mug of chai next to me, I feel like writing is a treat. Which it is. It seems the busier I am, the more I cherish my writing time. And when I see it as a gift, not a burden, I tend to focus better.
One of my favorite places to walk: Herbert Hoover actually swam in this pond as a boy.
5.  Walks: Walking, which I don’t do often enough before writing, helps me write better. It’s amazing how many plot holes can be solved once you step away from the computer.

But other than that, the only secret I’ve discovered is that getting in the zone only happens when you show up. I love that moment when plot points come together or a character does something unexpected but just right for the story. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when those moments will happen. But they are more likely to happen if I write as often as I can.

This month's question: Do you have any rituals for getting in the zone as a writer? Please share in the comments!

To find out more about Insecure Writer's Support group or to sign up, go HERE.

Video of "Audition: The Fools Who Dream" from Fandango via Youtube.
Photos are my own.

Monday, April 27, 2020

MMGM: MG Comfort Reads

With all that's going on, I thought I'd post some links to some MG books that either make you laugh or take you to another world. Books can heal. They can also take you to other worlds when travel is not an option. I've also added a few classics at the end of this list that are in the public domain should you not be able to access your library.

Funny MG:

Alvin Ho--This kid who is afraid of everything will appeal to the younger middle grade set. My favorite is his book about traveling to China.

Ungifted--I've enjoyed all Korman's books I've read so far, but this one about an ungifted boy who ends up in a gifted school is especially hilarious.

Watsons Go to Birmingham--This is a serious book about the civil rights movement, but it has many funny moments. I especially enjoyed how this family dealt with their teenage son. :)

A Whole Nother Story--I'm always surprised this title is not more well known. How can you not chuckle about this family with their ever changing secret identities, a pet sock puppet, and a narrator doling out unsolicited advice? A favorite of my senior in high school when he was in late elementary school/middle school.

Take Me Away MG:

Penderwicks: I've enjoyed this whole series. This is a great title for anyone who likes to live with a family who's creative and intelligent and has adventures in our ordinary world. Great inspiration for ways to have fun that's not digital.

Gail Carson Levine Books--This link will take you to The Two Princesses of Bamarre review, my favorite, but all of her books take you away to another world with intricate languages, customs, fairy tale elements, and cultures.

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place--This series about children raised by wolves and their governess reminds me of The Series of Unfortunate Events, but not as dark. It has a lot of literary humor woven throughout by the omniscient narrator. And its settings include the seaside, London, the English countryside, and Russia!

Bloomability: I don't have a review posted for this book yet, but it's my favorite Sharon Creech. A girl unwillingly goes to a Swiss international school and learns to "bloom." If you have had to cancel travel plans due to the epidemic, this book might help ease the pain.

Classic MG:

Railway Children or The Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

Nesbit was one of the first writers to write for children. These are my two favorites. Railway Children, like the Penderwicks, will inspire you to find fun in the ordinary. Five Children and It is a fantasy about a creature who grants whatever you wish with hilarious results! (However, I don't recommend the movie. The book is so much better!)

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I include this one, because Sara is a great example of how to keep your dignity when your life is turned upside down. She acts like a true princess, being kind to everyone no matter her circumstances or how she is treated.The ending of the book is different (and more believable) than the movie.

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

Pollyanna gets a bad rap for being too perfect at times. But personally, I needed this book to remind me to play the “Glad Game” and count my blessings right now.

I hope that you are finding solace in stories right now. What are your favorite comfort reads? What you watching right now? Let me know in the comments!

To join the MMGM fun or read more MG reviews, go to Always in the Middle.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Why Best-Tacy Books are Still Relevant 80 Years Later

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy series, which was published in 1940, but the books are set at the turn of the last century. The series is loosely based on Maud Hart Lovelace's experiences growing up in this time period.

I fell in love with these books as a child and can still read them with the same wonder. I related to Betsy and her desire to be a writer from a very young age. And like Betsy, I have a friend like Tacy, a kindred spirit I met at six. We're still in touch (through snail mail, of course!), though we live miles apart.

If you’re looking for a comfort read, don’t look any farther. And since it’s Lovelace’s birthday on Saturday, I thought this would be a great time to revisit her.

But apart from the nostalgia and the desire to read about a simpler time, what makes these books relevant now?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. Betsy is a woman of her times, yet before her time. I love that Betsy never questions for a second that she can be a woman and a writer. A wife and a writer. She is a trail blazer, yet she doesn’t think family and a creative passion are mutually exclusive (unlike in the most recent Little Women.)

2. Betsy has wonderful, strong female friendships. It is so rare to see strong female friendships in  middle grade and young adult fiction. Boy-girl friendships are far more common. Maybe authors are trying to appeal to both boys and girls. But as some of my best memories of my childhood were with my girl friends, I’d love to see more of this in modern kidlit.

3. Betsy grows with you. Lovelace did something groundbreaking with her books for that time. The books when Betsy is young are simpler in language and plot for the younger middle grade reader. The books about her teens are geared in language, themes, and complexity to readers in what we now call the young adult genre. 

4. Betsy has adventures. One of my favorite books is Betsy Tacy and the Great World. This novel is loosely based on Lovelace’s travels in Europe. Who can forget the scene when Betsy is in England waiting to hear if England will declare war (WWI) on Germany? Betsy is the kind of character who goes places.

5. Betsy has the best family. It’s lovely reading about a family that has so much fun together as Betsy’s family with their music nights and Sunday suppers and muffins on the first day of school. Although think I might skip Dad's onion sandwiches myself. 

These books are rich in the details of ordinary life. And that’s why we love them. They make us feel like our lives, however ordinary, can be exciting too.

If you'd like to celebrate Maud Hart Lovelace's 128th birthday next Saturday, here more information about the virtual celebration: Betsy Tacy Society Page.

What kind of book to you like to read for comfort? Have you read any Maud Hart Lovelace? What is your favorite? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, April 13, 2020

MMGM: Restart

I picked this book up because it was my Goodread's Middle Grade book club’s choice for February. I have enjoyed every book I've read by Korman. He captures the middle grade voice and angst so well. The premise reminded me of Liane Moriaty's What Alice Forgot, and if you don't take it too seriously, you will enjoy it. 

From Amazon:

Chase's memory just went out the window.

Chase doesn't remember falling off the roof. He doesn't remember hitting his head. He doesn't, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

He knows he's Chase. But who is Chase? When he gets back to school, he sees that different kids have very different reactions to his return.

Some kids treat him like a hero. Some kids are clearly afraid of him.

One girl in particular is so angry with him that she pours her frozen yogurt on his head the first chance she gets.

Pretty soon, it's not only a question of who Chase is--it's a question of who he was . . . and who he's going to be.

From the #1 bestselling author of Swindle and Slacker, Restart is the spectacular story of a kid with a messy past who has to figure out what it means to get a clean start.

What I liked:

1. Chase gets a second chance. While this plot point is a little unbelievable—most amnesia plots are—it was fun to watch Chase realize who he used to be and want to change.

2. Multiple POV. I’m not normally a fan of multiple POV, but it really worked well in this book. Hearing from the bullied characters built sympathy for them and showed us what Chase was like before.

3. Lots of humor. There was a really fun subplot about a boy obsessed with becoming a You Tube sensation. My son and I laughed ourselves silly over some of those chapters.

4. Redemption. What can I say? I love a good story where a character gets redeemed.

5. Pace. This was a fast-paced read that was hard to put down. Korman really knows what appeals to kids and gets inside their heads. He’s certainly popular at my house, and pacing is part of that.

What I didn’t like as much:

The jocks and the artsy students were a bit stereotypical. Not all jocks are jerks, and not all art students are nerds or bullied. And I couldn’t believe that the administration took the side of the jocks. But I did like how the Dad (a former jock) had some glimmers of change.

What do you think? Are jocks always the bullies and art students the bullied? Have you read any Gordon Korman? Let me know in the comments!

Want to get on the MMGM fun?  Go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle  to sign up.