Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Writer's New Blog: Book! Book!

Years after she originally set it up, The Writer has finally activated her LiveJournal account. She told me she wants to say things herself and so she has her own blog.

What about us?

Just wait . . . The new blog is called "Book! Book!", a term used in Appalachia in the olden days. Teachers would stand at the door of their one-room schoolhouse and call, "Book! Book!" until they got a bell.

Book! Book! will be more personal and more writerly, as she says. The column "Writing Monday" on our blog will be discontinued and--are you ready, Winchester?--will be replaced with "Winchester's Kibbles and Bits."

My very own column! Oh, boy! I'm going to get busy right now on my new op-ed!

And you can find The Writer's new blog on LiveJournal. But don't forget most of the action still takes place here.

Dear cats of America . . . remember the Million Mom March a few years ago? Well, suppose we got a million cats to go to DC . . .

Friday, November 21, 2008

Winchester's National Book Awards Protest

Why are we crammed under the bed? What is this about?

We're protesting the National Book Awards results. The judging wasn't fair.

I know we were rooting for The Writer's friend's Kathi Appelt's book The Underneath. And we're really disappointed. But how can we say the judging wasn't fair?

Because they didn't have a cat on the jury! The Underneath is an animal story. It's got a dog and cats in it. The committee was biased--they didn't have a cat or even a dog as one of the judges!

Hmmm. That's a good point. I think you're on to something, Winchester. If a book is nominated with a horse in it, one of the judges should be a horse. If a book has a stuffed animal in it, well, it's only logical I should be one of the judges.

There you go! Now . . . while I have you all gathered here, here is my Christmas list . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Winchester's Thanksgiving Panic

Ellie! The Writer's calendar is still turned to October!

I know. She's behind, as usual.

She doesn't know that Thanksgiving is a week from today! Next week! The stores are all full of fixings and trimmings and those great big really good chickens. What are we going to do? She's going to miss the whole holiday. We'll be the only family in the world eating corned beef hash and eggs or something!

Well, for one thing, only Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November--

Don't get all encyclopedic on me! This is tragic! I wait all year for The Writer to turn the oven on and bake that great big really good chicken. If we miss it this year, we'll have to wait another 365 days!

When The Writer came back from Texas, she actually figured out that the holidays are coming. In fact, she thought Thanksgiving was today. So she went out and bought all the fixings and trimmings and the great big really good chick--I mean, turkey. See? There it is in the freezer.

Look at that great big really good chicken . . . come to mama. Hey, Ellie! Let's tell The Writer that today really is Thanksgiving and she'll cook the dinner and then she'll have to cook another big dinner next week!

Give The Writer a little credit and be thankful she's cooking at all.

That's right. Last night she undercooked the pasta because she was reading and The Writer's Husband had to fix a frozen spaghetti dinner--

Don't tell all the family secrets.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Report from TSRA

The Writer had a great time at the Texas State Reading Association conference in Austin. She always enjoys meeting reading teachers and getting their ideas and views. The weather was lovely and everyone was so nice. Texas is one friendly state! The best part of these conferences is that everyone has the same goal: helping children read.

This time, though, The Writer experienced an undercurrent of concern, of something wrong. A girls' basketball tournament was going on in town and the teams were staying at the hotel. One morning The Writer rode the elevator down with a group of young girls. They were all reading--their cellphones.

One of the speakers, Dr. David Chard, talked about the New Media reader, the kids who do most of their reading on the Internet and cellphones. Parents and teachers used to say, when kids read comic books or series books, "Well, at least they are reading," and it was true. Often they moved on to more challenging literature.

But readers of cellphones and the Internet are reading fragments. They aren't likely to move on to books where they can't select the content as easily. So now the challenge is to help readers at the very beginning levels, to hook them early on books. Hmmm. While The Writer was skimming across TV channels (she does not have TV at home), she saw a commercial for a hand-held computer for the youngest children, to help them "learn." It seems as if new products--shiny and dazzling and techy--spring up constantly to undercut the already difficult job of getting kids to enjoy reading.

Another speaker mentioned the inspirational book Three Cups of Tea, about a young man who began building schools in remote areas of the world. The Writer was reminded that there are still places in the world where people can't read, where they want to learn, where they don't have books.

The Writer had a fleeting thought that reaching our children today is almost like going to remote villages and teaching people to read. The difference is, the villagers are willing to put down their tools and pick up books. Will our kids be so willing to put down their techy toys and pick up a book?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vintage Wednesday: Foxy Squirrel in the Garden

This time of year the squirrels in our yard are extra-busy, scurrying and hurrying to bury nuts from our hickory tree.

Did you like writing that sentence? It's very showy.

There's nothing wrong with writing a poetic sentence now and then. I found a book on The Writer's bookshelf that goes nicely with the hustle and bustle outside. It's called Foxy Squirrel in the Garden, by Clara Ingram Judson, illustated by Frances Beem. The book was originally written in 1921, but The Writer has a 1935 edition with an inscription, From Your Teacher, Miss Martha Brubaker, Xmas 1935. (The Writer loves books with inscriptions).

Lots of people know about the Little Golden Books, first published in 1942, but other companies jumped on the inexpensive children's book bandwagon, too. Golden Book expert Steve Santi has a new guide to those other publishers like Whitman, Rand McNally, and others. Rand McNally's Elf Books first appeared in 1947.

The Writer's book doesn't look like the Elf books from her childhood. The story is much longer, 64 pages, with black and white decorations and three-color illustrations and very small type. On the copyright page is a stamp(colophon?): a picture of an elf reading a book, with the words "R Mc Book-Elf." Maybe this storybook was a forerunner of those later Elf books, which were easier to read and had lots of full-color illustrations.

Foxy Squirrel is similar to the animal books of Thornton W. Burgess. The characters talk but don't interact with humans. Foxy and his wife have just built the perfect home when a man chops down the tree. The squirrels hunt for a safer place to live the first half of the book. They find a perfect garden and the rest of the book is about the adventures of other birds and animals who also live in the garden. The story may be uneven, but the illustrations are wonderful, rendered in gold, dark green, and orange.

Winchester, what's out the window? Your tail is thrashing and you're making that weird chattering sound.

That squirrel is making a face at me! If I could get outdoors, I'd show him a thing or two!

I have sad news for you, Winchester. You're way too big to run up a tree. The squirrels around here are quite safe.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Writing Monday: Thinking About Audience

This week The Writer goes to the Texas State Reading Association conference in Austin. She'll give a speech and present on transitional readers. Transitional readers have learned to read but haven't yet crossed the bridge to fluent independent reading. The Writer wrote Time Spies and other books for 7 to 10 year olds to help those readers cross the bridge. Most of the time she has her audience in mind when writing a new book.

Years ago, she was friends with a well-known (now deceased) writer of humorous fantasy. He told her once that he wrote only for himself, never read other children's books, and, for fun, read his own published books. The Writer wasn't sure which of those statements floored her more.

Reading her own books. Obviously. Why else does she keep her old books out of sight?

The Writer believes some audiences need books specifically for their needs. She's glad to be going to TSRA. As much as she loves attending IRA conventions, the real work is accomplished at the state-level conferences. She's looking forward to meeting the Texas reading teachers and learning about the problems they face. After all, teachers, librarians, and children's writers share the same goal.

What, pray tell, does all this have to do with that swan picture?

Mute swans carry their babies on their backs to protect them. The Writer thinks of herself as a protector of young readers--

Oh, please! Even you don't believe that!

Okay, The Writer finally learned basic Photoshop last night. She practiced on this picture her husband took of these beautiful swans on the Potomac River. She corrected the lighting and cropped it--

Photoshop! At long last! Does this have anything to do with the picture she had taken for one of her webpages?

She's still looking for a tool or brush that will give her a neck.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday: Rachel Field

Rachel Field is one of The Writer's favorite children's poets. She will pay tribute to Ms. Field's work this November. Field is best known for her 1930 Newbery-winning book Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. Rachel Lyman Field was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, educated at Radcliffe, then split her year between New York and Maine.
Those are the facts, but Rachel Field was a joyous spirit who wrote poetry, children's books, and books for adults. She even illustrated, with cut-outs, a little book of poetry called The Pointed People.

The Writer wishes she could have known Rachel Field. She believes they would have been good friends. Here is a poem The Writer found in a children's reader, Friendly Stories, a Work-Play Book (1930--The Writer is convinced those older children's readers were more about play than work and were much more interesting than her Dick and Jane books).

Elf Buttons
by Rachel Field

If ever I should find
An Elf button bright,
I'd sew it on my coat
With strong thread and tight,
I wouldn't take it off--
Not even at night,
For there'd be no telling
When that wee Elf might
Come for to whisk it
Out of my sight.
But if he did,
I'd tell him true--
"Wherever that button goes

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Vintage Wednesday: The Wonderful Land of Up

Among The Writer's collection of old children's books is an odd book that she values more than anything--The Wonderful Land of Up by Olive Roberts Barton with illustrations by Neely McCoy. It was published by Doran in 1918, the year her mother and stepfather were born.

Olive Roberts Barton was a school teacher in Massachusetts who wrote several children's books (if you happen to find the rare Cloud Stories (1917) with illustrations by Milo Winter, snap it up!) and, in the 1930s, contributed articles to the Fitchburg Sentinel and Lowell Sun on subjects like children of divorce and getting children ready for school after an idle summer.

The Writer's book is orange with a paste-down illustration on the front of a richly-dressed boy and girl watching two balloons sail in the sky. The line-work is delicate, the palette is orange, gray and black with lots of white. Did I mention the gray cat?

So many of these odd, early books are awful, usually too sugary or too simple, but here's the first paragraph of Chapter One, "The Apple Tree Elevator":

Rose, Dick and Jim Dandy had run off, that is, Rose and Dick had run off and Jim Dandy followed. Jim Dandy was a cat, a great grey creature with a tail as large as a fox's, long soft fur that you wanted to rub your cheek against, solemn blue eyes, white whiskers, and a tiny bunch of white hair on his chin (if cats have chins) which made him look more solemn than ever. It may seem queer for a cat to have long hair and blue eyes, but Jim Dandy was a Persian cat, whose real name would almost reach around the world it was so long, at least it would takek kup a line on my typewriter, I'm sure; but as nobody has any time to waste these days he was called Jim Dandy for sure--sometimes just Dandy.

The Writer didn't buy this book. She wasn't sure how she got it, but it came into her hands many years ago. It was the only book owned by her stepfather, the man who raised her and, as she will tell anyone, saved her life. Inside the cover in fine penmanship reads this inscription:

"Howard Lightfoot, from his teacher Lilian W. Millan, as a reward for attendance & scholarship, Legato, May 18, 1928." Turn the page and there is a second inscription: "Samuel Howard Lightfoot, from his teacher Lilian W. Millan as his reward". . . it's obvious that 10-year-old Howard wrote the second inscription, correcting his name, practicing his own penmanship, and reliving words he seldom heard, "as his reward."

Years later at her first secretarial job, The Writer stood in the window of the 15th floor of the Fairfax County government building and watched the old one-room Legato School slowly and carefully brought down the road on a huge flatbed truck to its new site next door. She was glad her stepfather's old school had been saved.

Samuel Howard Lightfoot was a hard-working man with little education. Yet he taught The Writer about birds and trees and wild things and that cats were much more than they appeared. He has been gone more than 20 years now. The Writer is sure he is in The Wonderful Land of Up with all of the old cats they had loved.