Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Faraway Places

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Women In Need, an organization that houses women and children (and fathers!) throughout the city. I have been working with them for a few months, bringing Nurturing Narratives to the children in their shelters.

I set out to Brooklyn with a friend and fellow associate committee member in tow. With us we brought How I Learned Geography and Where The Wild Things Are. I decided I wanted to do a lesson on faraway places and get the children, quite literally, outside themselves.

They were a rambunctious batch but as soon as we started reading they were completely captivated. Their eyes were glued to the pages and they were transported to that magical place I call Reader's Anywhere.

See the thing about books is that they are vehicles. We use this world a lot but I have only recently started to really understand what it means. They have the literal power of transportation, to move us from one place to another. To elevate us.

After we were done reading I asked the children to choose a faraway place they'd like to tell a story about. I explained that the little boy in the book used his imagination and traveled to the farthest reaches of the earth simply through his thoughts and that we, too, with the help of some colored pencils, could do the same. Some children chose the beach, others places like Jamaica and Mexico. One little boy, however, chose Coney Island. I applauded his efforts but when I asked him why he chose Coney Island he said, "because you said to pick a faraway place and it is very, very far away."

I was so touched by his words I had to briefly look away. Now I'm not saying every child has to envision an African Safari or a Moroccan desert tour, quite the contrary. Every child has their own, unique imagination which is what makes each of them so special and spectacular. But this is just my point. I saw in that little boy not joy in the prospect of Coney Island but complete lack of an alternative... he simply did not know any other place existed or that it was within his right to call upon one.

I asked him a series of question about why he liked Coney Island and with each one I could see him getting a bit more excited. Something very interesting was happening. He was applying the excitement he felt in reading the books and thinking of faraway places to a place he had been. He was feeling ownership over this exercise and as he began to remember the place, I saw that he was traveling there, too.

When we expose children to books we not only enhance their literacy skills but we also cultivate their own abilities to dream beyond themselves. I was amazed during that class that two picture books had the power to transport these children outside their circumstances and into another reality, a different way to live. By the end of the session the little boy had stuck with Coney Island but boy, was it an imagined version. Full of bright, neon colors, ice cream machines and blue beaches it looked like a paradise to me, too. He didn't write about Egypt but he dreamed up Coney Island with passion, and joy.

Read and Dream,


Sunday, January 24, 2010

That Magic Age

I am working on a new book with a particularly quirky concept and a few weeks ago I asked my friend Kate Tempesta if I could go up to St. Thomas More Playgroup where she works and observe/ do some activities with the children (ages 3-5).

I headed uptown with my notebook in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. I was greeted when I walked in the door by about a dozen smiling faces, excited chatter, and lots of coats and boots. I wound my way around their fabulous library and downstairs to where Kate teaches. A big, open area with lots of room for creative movement.

Without going into what my book is about (I am constantly talking too much about things I shouldn't...or so says my agent), we had a very playful morning doing lots of fun, silly things. It took everything I had in me not to constantly snatch those little ones up and hug them (I refrained as this is frowned upon).

There is just so much joy in that room. There is so much joy in that school! Kate told me after classes had finished that if she's not around children for a few days she starts to feel agitated. That, as they need her to educate, she needs them as well. I get that. I completely get that.

Lately I have found myself working with older children, which I am really enjoying. It is wonderful to get to explore writing with them and have serious and meaningful discussions on words. But, I realized yesterday, I miss the little ones. I miss their playful laughter and puffy-cheeked smiles. I miss the way even the simplest of activities completed correctly brings tremendous triumph. I miss their runny noses and tiny little toes and fingers. I miss that magic age before reality has been completed cemented, where everything and anything is possible.

My program was created for children 3-6 but has since been opened up to include children as old as 12. I welcome the growth and am excited for everything that is happening with Nurturing Narratives and the unexpected yet delightful progress we have made. I am blessed to get to be in the presence of children and each age brings specific challenges and extraordinary joys. Someday soon I hope to return, at least partially, to that magic age. Until then, I suppose I will have to be content writing about it. Fair enough.

*Note: I am working with Women In Need doing storytelling/ narrative-building in their shelters with children 5-8. If you live in the New York area and would like to get involved please stop by their website. They are a truly wonderful organization doing great things in the city.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For the Love of Libraries

I had to return some books today at the public library and stopped by to say hello to Betsy Bird, infamous children's librarian and blogger. Unfortunately Mrs. Bird was not in but I decided to wander around the children's section anyhow, it had been awhile. I try to get up to the library when I can and do just this: walk around. There is something so magical about not even reading all those books but simply being in their presence. The sheer magnitude of titles is exciting. Old friends and new ones. Recognizable covers and perfect strangers.

As I browsed the shelves and picked up a few favorite titles I was all of a sudden incredible humbled. Humbled to be in the presence of so much remarkable literature, certainly, but also humbled by the hundreds and thousand of writers who have decided to commit themselves to the craft of writing for children.

I was not always a children's writer. In fact all of my published work to date is in the adult sphere. But there was always something about children's that spoke to me, something that promised writing could be challenging, tough, problematic, frustrating, and also incredibly joyful. That is what I feel when I write for children: joy. And in my little corner of the library, all alone and quite as a mouse, I imagined that other writers feel that, too. That there is something about writing for developing minds and hearts that is just, well, downright fun.

Don't get me wrong, a picture book may look like a breeze but believe me, it's not. Choosing the right words, knowing how to challenge and how not to patronize, is a poet's craft. It is a demanding and difficult process but it is, far and away, the most fun I have ever had while writing.

I was reminded of why I write today at the NYPL. That's the amazing thing about libraries that bookstores just don't seem to have. What I'm talking about is dialogue. Dialogue between author and reader and the knowledge that one is, without a doubt, in the presence of shared magic. Because doesn't a book become that much more important, that much more exciting, when there is someone to discuss it with and someone who has come to those same pages before?

Take some time out of your week and visit your own public library. Browse the shelves or sit in a little quiet corner and take it all in. Even without the talking, there is much to be heard.

Enjoy the week!


Winter Reading Series, Part 2- Children

Somewhere in my envy-induced haze of all the peeps at ALA this weekend I sat down and created a list of my most beloved children's books from when I was young and now old (I just celebrated a birthday, it does feel that way). It was a very fun endeavor indeed and a few made the cut that I just plum forgotten about over the years. Below is my list narrowed down into my top five picks for winter reading. Some are picture books, others are not, all are loved dearly.

Hope everyone has a wonderful week and all you conference-goers are back home safe and sound!

1) Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers. A strange first pic? Perhaps, but this book marked a turning point in my own reading trajectory as a child. I absolutely adored this book about a mother and daughter who switch bodies for the day. It was one of the first novels that got me to realize narrative could be darn near anything you wanted it to be and that story was downright magical.

2) The Runaway Bunny by Wargaret Wise Brown. Funnily enough, neither my mother nor myself remembers reading this book when I was a child but it did make it's way under the Christmas tree this year. I gave it to my mom because, well, is there anything more appropriate? A story about a mother whose love will follow her little bunny to the ends of the earth. I cried (balled) in Barnes and Noble when I read it again in November. A must for any new mother.

3) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. This book is a true pillar of children's literature. It was exciting and wonderfully rich when I read it all those years ago and still holds up today. A classic, to be sure.

4) The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. I read these books with my father when I was a child and devoured each one. They are perfect for the cold, winter months. Cuddle up with your youngster or just gift them the book to read on their own. Don't be surprised if by April when the weather warms they are through more than a few! I am a sucker for the originals (only the first 19 were written by Warner) so try to start with those if you can.

5) Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. As one of my trusty readers and friends pointed out about last week's post...can you really have a winter reading list and NOT include Harry Potter? The answer is most definitely no. If you are one of the baffling few who have yet to read the books (there must be one or two, no?) please PLEASE pick them up asap. As I told one of my friends ten years ago when I was beginning my own journey with HP, "if you don't read them, you are only punishing yourself." I still feel that way today. And if you, like me, have been a constant reader, why not start the series over and brush up on your Potter Plots? The next movie will be out before we know it...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winter Reading Series, Part 1- ADULTS

If you live anywhere remotely close to where I do (well, except for maybe Florida), it is likely that winter has set in by now, and how. It is cold, sometimes too cold to even snow, and, if you again, like me, live in a city, space is cramped. What is one to do? Read, of course!

I have found that a good book on a cold winter's night can be just what my mood ordered (plus, Glee is on hiatus) and since I do feel the winter has a tendency to get adults down more than children (those of us who are past our snow-angel prime...I know, I know, never too old!) I have decided to, just this once, make this blog about grown-ups. In my mind the winter is the time for meat, for length, for a novel that will work it's way into your heart and spend some time with you. Below are my top five book choices for winter reading. Enjoy! And stay warm.

1) The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud.

This novel is one of the most fascinating character studies I have read in awhile. Set in New York directly before the fall of the twin towers and with a cast of characters, the book asks that age-old question that has been the underbelly of human existence since the beginning: what is truth, and what does it mean to be an authentic human being? I loved it.

2) The Last of Her Kind by Jenna Blum.

Ms. Blum is not only a sensational writer but a remarkable researcher. The book, chronicling the lives of two German women during the Nazi occupation, is a heartbreakingly accurate account of war and the things we do to survive. I especially liked the emphasis on the idea of "remembrance" and how we all bear the burden of our past in different ways. A truly fantastic novel.

3) Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik.

This memoir holds a special place in my heart and I revisited it this winter when I gave it to my father for Christmas. Gopnik, as some of you may know, is a beloved New Yorker writer who moved his young family to Paris in the 90's. Through his expat eyes, one encounters the very real diversion (and subsequent marriage) of the odd, unpredictable nature of the French Life and the timeless romanticism of this beloved city. It is funny, quirky and incredibly lovely. *Read with a glass of red wine and a warm blanket.

4) Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins.

This is another classic favorite of mine and a book I recommend again and again. It is a tale about science, love, and the questions that lead man beyond the realms of human control. It takes place mostly at a research facility in the states during WWII where radioactivity was being explored and tested.

5) My French Life by Vicki Archer.

I was gifted this book last week for my birthday and tore through it. The gift-giver knows I am painfully in love with all things French and came across My French Life thinking it would make a nice coffee-table adornment for my apartment. It does, indeed, but it's also a delicious written window into French life. Meaty perhaps it isn't but divine it definitely is. With rich, edible descriptions of French food, poignant anecdotes about French lifestyle and sensibility and enviable examples of French fashion it is a book to read and re-read. Paired with the delectable text are wonderful photographs by Archer's longtime friend and colleague, Carla Coulson. Enjoy with a cocktail and drift away along the Seine.

How about you all? Any favorite winter reads?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Books and Birthdays

As some of you may know from my website I do Nurturing Narratives birthdays. Part of the mission of my program is to foster a LOVE of literacy and what better way to do that than to bring books into the birthday realm?

I was talking to a client earlier today about a party for her daughter (we are planning something special with a poetry theme) and it got me thinking that I have yet to share some birthday suggestions on the blog here for you all. So, candles and cakes aside, here are some ideas for a fun (and educational) birthday party.

- An Eloise Party. What little girl doesn't love Eloise at The Plaza? Throw a Eloise-themed tea party where you read Eloise, pretend you are at The Plaza and create your own Eloise adventure. Feeling adventurous? Eloise in Paris also works.

- Move to the beat of the book! This is especially fun for younger children. Get your child's favorite storybook out and asked the children to act it out. You can do everything from symbolic movement (let's all be trees in the forest!) to assigning each child a character to play.

- A Poetry Party. Cut up a bunch of fun words---adjectives are especially great!---and put them all in a paper bag. Have each child choose 10 and create their own poem. Afterwards play "poetry puzzle" and guess whose poem belongs to who...the birthday child can be the reader and get the first guess.

- Storybook Swap. Buy some inexpensive writing journals and give one to each child. Tell them to describe one person or thing in the room is the most descriptive and unique language they can without naming what it is. Then pass the journals to the right and have each child try to draw the object or partygoer based on the description. Then, if it's not already obvious, guess who and what is on the page!

And be sure to spread the literacy love! Sticking to the theme of the party, give out party-favors of your child's favorite book and let each child go home with the poem or writing journal they have created.

Happy Birthday to anyone who is celebrating out there!


Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Children's Ambassador

OK. I know I am a little late in posting this (the news broke 4 days ago, really) but I have just touched back down in New York and, I suppose, better late than never.

As many of you know Katherine Paterson has been named the new national ambassador for young people's literature. She succeeds Jon Scieszka as the second writer to hold the post. Paterson is best known in my book for "The Bridge to Terabithia," a novel I absolutely adored as a child first coming to literature and "Jacob Have I Loved." Perhaps Mrs. Paterson is not part of the youth culture but vetted she most definitely is. She has an impressive resume that spans decades of writing (both novels and picture books) as well as an elementary teaching career. Her books can be dark and a bit dangerous which is probably why she appeals so much to children. She is not afraid of going to places that are not all sunshine. And as we know from watching beloved author J.K. Rowling at work, children respect the honesty of darkness far more than the false reality of endless light.

I am looking forward to Paterson's rein and the twinkle-eyed spirit I hope she will bring to the job post. Some notes to come on winter reading soon but in the meantime, stay warm and happy reading!