Now Read This!

I’m enjoying a growing trend in Middle Grade reading: novels in verse.

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These stories have a narrative arc, and character development, and all the things you’d expect from a novel-length work. But, they are told through the medium of poetry rather than prose.

Two of the main things I love about this type of novel are the beauty of the language, and the accessibility of the stories. This style of writing is particularly well suited for people who claim to not like poetry, or kids who are reluctant readers. There is a lot of white space in poetry, which can be very welcoming to readers who feel stuck when they see a page full of words.

Brown_Girl_Dreaming-200brown girl dreaming (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books 2014) by Jaqueline Woodson (newly named Young People’s Poet Laureate) won the 2014 National Book Award.

Through a connected series of poems, Woodson chronicles her life growing up in the 1960s and 70s in both the North and the South. I gained a much deeper appreciation of the landscape of our country at that time while reading her touching, often funny, and deeply personal story.

My favorites were the “how to listen” poems.

how to listen #3

Middle of the night

my grandfather is coughing

me upright. Startled.

***

how to listen #7

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

***

Give yourself the chance to listen to her words. They’re beautiful.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame AlexanderThe Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by Kwame Alexander was this year’s Newbery Award Winner.

The Crossover is a heart-pumping story of basketball phemon twin-brothers Josh and Jordan Bell. But as the jacket flap says: Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him – a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line.

This book is a natural summer reading pick for sports lovers. The word play, especially during scenes that describe basketball games, is really fun.

From Dribbling:

…Be careful though,

’cause now I’m CRUNKing

CrissCROSSING

FLOSSING

flipping

and my dipping will leave you

SLIPPING on the floor, while I

SWOOP in

to the finish with a fierce finger roll…

Straight to the hole:

Swooooooooooooooosh.

FREE Basketball Camp for 3rd & 4th Graders

However, it’s not exclusively for sports fans. There’s a tender story of family at the heart of this novel that will appeal to all readers.

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life

your family is the court

and the ball is your heart.

No matter how good you are,

no matter how down you get,

always leave

your heart

on the court.

***

Happy Reading!

Poems for Your Pocket

Today is POEM IN YOUR POCKET day! How does one celebrate? By carrying around a poem or two in your pocket, and then sharing them with someone else.

My Grandpa Bill had a love of words and an incredible memory. When we visited, he would come to the bedroom door to say goodnight, and without preamble, would recite for us THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT by Edward Lear. I can still see his silhouette outlined by the hall light, and hear his gentle voice. Isn’t that a nice gift to send someone through life with?

One of my all time favorite kid poems is by Ogden Nash:

THE RHINOCEROS

The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farwell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.

There are many fun and funny poetry collections for kids. Here are a few that won’t steer you wrong:

Hilarious characters like Snerry Jake speak a language all their own in this billy sook.

Hilarious characters like Snerry Jake speak a language all their own in this billy sook.

If you like Shel, you'll love Jack. "Watson Watts, upon his legs, balanced forty ostrich eggs..."

If you like Shel, you’ll love Jack. “Watson Watts, upon his legs, balanced forty ostrich eggs…”

Find a kid  to give a poem to today. I sent my seventh grader off with a poem and an eye roll this morning. It is a love poem I wrote just for her. I’ll take the eye roll, she’ll take the poem, and with any luck we’ll meet up on the other side of junior high.

For more information about how POEM IN YOUR POCKET day originated, as well a great selection of downloadable poems, click here!

You may also enjoy visiting the website of poet Jason Tandon. I’m a fan.

PeRsPeCtIvE

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It took me quite some time after graduate school to find my first paid position as a speech pathologist. What didn’t take long was figuring out why my employer, an inner-city rehabilitation center, had used the word “unique” in their help-wanted ad. The majority of patients there were under 50, and missing at least one limb (due to complications from untreated diabetes). An overpowering stench permeated the building. But what really stood out was the volatility that hovered over every interaction. Outbursts were common, and the whole atmosphere was loud and unsettled. Early on, I was charged by a screaming, arm-flailing man because I had turned down his television set (never did that again!).

One day I sat across from a middle-aged, toothless man. We were working on his expressive language skills, including speech intelligibility, after a mugging had left him brain damaged. Just before our session, I had learned he would be heading to his mother’s house the next day.

“Are you excited about getting out of here?” I asked him. After all, I cried in my car every morning before walking into work, and assumed that actually having to stay there would be a horrible experience. But his answer surprised me.

“Oh, I hate to leave,” he told me. “The bed is so soft and clean. And the food is so good. I’ll be back on the streets soon, and I’ll be hungry again now.”

After we finished, I wished him well and then escaped into the dark back staircase, one of my regular hiding spots. I stood on my tip-toes so I could see out the cinder-block sized window, and I cried. But this time it was not because I was scared and overwhelmed, but because I hadn’t seen any goodness in this place before that. I had assumed this was the bottom – the worst case scenario. And that man’s words showed me how naive I was, and how much worse things could be.

IMG_1130Years later, I was teaching an introductory speech and language course at The University of Connecticut. I was my first college teaching experience, and I was very anxious for everything to go smoothly. When I walked into the building on the first day, I noticed a large group of students standing outside the classroom I’d been assigned to. I immediately panicked. It was an 8:00 a.m. class, and I didn’t have a key. I had no plan B! Then, I noticed a second door to the room, further down the hallway. I walked over to it, opened it, and went inside. The students followed behind me and the class proceeded. On the way home I laughed at how thin the line can be between student and teacher: the teacher is sometimes just the person who tries the second door!

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It seems that where we are on life’s journey often determines our perspective. Don’t we all, at some point, feel like we’re at the bottom of the heap? During those times, all we can do is look up, and see others who have achieved what we had hoped to by now. But don’t forget, there are people behind you, wishing they were as far along as you are. Reach back with encouragement, and look forward in hope. Take some time to adjust your perspective: maybe where you are right now is where you are supposed to be.

So, appreciate what you have. But, don’t forget to look for that second door. It’s probably sitting there, unlocked, waiting for you.

Little and Often Makes Much

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I don’t run. But I am fascinated by people who do, especially marathoners and other long distance runners. It took me a while to figure out what all those “26.2” bumper stickers meant. Honestly, I briefly thought it was something political (26.2 more days of so-and-so in office?). Then a friend started training to run a marathon and…Oh! That’s what that means.

Of course runners do not start with marathons. Consistent training sessions with gradually increasing miles, over a long period of time, are what lead to success on race day.

And so many worthwhile things in life are like that. Sometimes a far away goal looms so large, and seems so unattainable, that we stop trying before we begin. That will never happen is a refrain that keeps us in place. But what if you do start trying?

LittleandOften

 

What if you did one thing every day that got you closer to your goal? One cookie left on the plate. One closet organized. One chapter of a book written. Over time, the little steps start to add up. It’s like seeing someone else’s child after all long time: we are amazed at how much they’ve grown! But to the parents, and to the child themselves, it was incremental. Tiny, everyday changes that go unnoticed in the moment can add up to something huge.

MeasureGoal

Today I am celebrating a “my how you’ve grown” moment: finishing the first draft of my second novel. As I was working on it, I sometimes felt like a chicken looking for grain – peck, peck, peck. And then one day I realized I was past the half-way mark. Then I wrote the climactic scene. Then I was working on the last chapter. Step by step. Page by page. Line by line.

 

I'm also obviously a lover of Chinese food.

I’m also obviously a lover of Chinese food.

What will you choose to take one step towards today? It may not be a marathon. Or a novel. But whatever it is, you have the power to get there. Go for it!

 

Destiny

Retreat! Retreat!

 The Writing Retreat

A tricky plot, I’ve lost my thought

I need to clear my head

My characters stink and I can’t think

My muse needs watered and fed

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So I’m off, down the road, take a right at the lane

To a fireside ‘cross the bay

Gonna clear my noggin, and quick my sloggin’

Gonna breath, and write all day

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Good friends, good food, and a bottle or four

Close the door, shut it tight, lock and latch it

The first draft needs words, and a problem to solve

The revision just might need a hatchet.

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I’ll wrangle and tangle my story until

A thin ray of hope starts to rise

And that night I’ll drink deep from the well of content

My eyes will be back on the prize

*****

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Far from a cry of defeat, the word retreat actually can mean a purposeful movement towards sanity.

Making a conscious effort to give your goals a solid chunk of attention is a very powerful way to tell yourself, and others, what is important to you right now.

For the next four days, I’m off to the Fireside Retreat – a writing getaway of my own design. I’ll be surrounded by peace and quiet and the occasional laugh from the talented friends who are joining me. We’ll also be meeting with Newbery Award winning author Cynthia Voigt who has graciously offered to share her time and insights with us. And all of this is because I had an idea, and asked for some favors and some help.

Maybe it’s time for you to plan a girl’s or guy’s weekend so you can focus on treasured friendships. Or, perhaps you crave a prefab or self-designed retreat for writers, crafters,  fitness junkies, spiritual seekers, or whatever is your current passion.

Make the time, make the arrangements, make you a priority! Retreat!

I’m Thinking of You

 

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My husband never talks about his patients with me. (He’s the poster boy for the HIPAA law.) But when a call from the hospital comes in at night, sometimes I am privy to his side of the conversation. I might hear snippets such as the person’s age, or what tests they need to have done. I’ve learned which key words will lead to me sleeping alone that night (ruptured, perforation) and which will keep him snuggled next to me (elective, antibiotics).

Within thirty seconds of the phone call ending, my husband will be back to sleep. It’s a self-preserving skill he learned in residency.  But for me, it’s not that easy. Now I’m up. And now I’m thinking about this person who I know nothing about, beyond the fact that they are, say, 66-years-old and have a high fever and need an ERCP, whatever that is. Now that I know about them, and I’m awake, I do what I can for them. Which isn’t much, but I hold them in my mind, and I wish them well. I like to envision a little bit of the comfort I’m sending to them actually finding it’s way to the ER, or the ICU, or their room. It’s improbable, but it’s possible. So I go there.

Many, many nights, phone calls or not, I hold my husband’s hands in mine and offer a straight-up prayer. First it’s a thank you for all the times his hands have been safely guided to help in the past, then it’s a prayer for continued guidance and strength in the future. If my husband knew any of this, he’d be doing an eye-roll/gagging noise combination. He’s a man of hard logic and science. We’re quite a pair.

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Sometimes, one is on the receiving end of good thoughts. Two years ago this weekend, Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT experienced the unthinkable. The news trickled first into our local consciousness and then onto the national and international stage. And while I struggled with shock and fear and that sickening too close-to-home feeling, something strangely comforting started happening.

First, a phone call from my sister, 3,000 miles and two time zones away. When her first patient of the day asked, “Isn’t it terrible about what happened at that school in CT?” her stomach dropped, and she thought of me. Then a steady stream of friends, from all over the country, from all phases of my life, started checking in.

I heard the news, and I thought of you. Are you okay? Are the kids okay? 

I heard from people I hadn’t been in touch with for years, from close friends, and from Christmas-card-only friends. All wished me well and expressed relief that today, this time, the tragedy was not ours. In the weeks that followed, sadness would wash over me in waves. But the comfort of being thought of and wished well by so many always pulled me to a safe shore.

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We can never know how many people are thinking of us, maybe right now, and wishing us well. It doesn’t take an anniversary for me to think of the Newtown families. A face, a name, or an image will come to mind, and in that moment I’ll wish them love and comfort. Imagine, for every time someone pops into your mind, or you hold someone in prayer, meditation, or good light, someone else could be doing the same for you!

Maybe the husband or wife of the doctor you visited last week is at home, doing chores, and sending you strong, positive vibes. And if you’re reading this, consider yourself pinged with positivity, because at this moment I could very well be thinking of you, and wishing you all good things, including….

best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season.

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The Book Aunt’s Gift-Giving Guide 2014

If you’re casting about for gift ideas for your friends and family, I suggest you consider giving BOOKS! You might not steal the show at the holiday gathering, but later, when you have tired kids who want to curl up with the original hand-held escape, the glory will be yours. When the mid-winter relatives have cabin fever, and the book you gave is their salvation, you will be thanked. (If you’re worried about giving books as gifts in case they’ve already been read, just be sure to include a gift receipt!)

There are SO MANY great choices out there. This is a small sampling of some I’ve come across in 2014. In each case, I suggest a “pair with” gift and a profile of who the book may be best suited for. Happy shopping!

Picture Books (ages 0-5+)

Flora

FLORA AND THE PENGUIN by Molly Idle. This is a seriously adorable wordless winter tale of a friendship on ice. Young kids will enjoying “reading” it themselves, over and over. Great for kids who like interactive (lift-the-flap) books, ice-skating, and/or penguins. Pair with a stuffed penguin or a coupon to take the recipient ice skating.

Novak

THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES by B.J. Novak. On the flip side to Ms. Idles wordless book, this book is pictureless. Perfect for the “little devil” on your list, the book goads the adult reader into saying silly sounds and words because “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say.” Pair with a whoopie cushion.

Middle Grade novels (ages 8-13ish)

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THE DIRT DIARY by Anna Staniszewski. The first in a series, this book introduces us to Rachel, whose imperfections make her perfectly lovable. Rachel is a girl who loves to bake, but to help out her mom, must clean toilets instead. Great for the kid who always seems to have good intentions that lead to bad results! Pair with a cookie sheet and baking mix.

Hattie

HATTIE BIG SKY by Kirby Larson. Another first in a series, this is perfect for Little House on the Prairie type fans. Hattie is a 16-year-old who leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim near Vida, Montana. Pair with a pair of warm socks and/or a cat.

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DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, THE LONG HAUL by Jeff Kinney.  Kids simply can’t get enough of this series! A natural choice for reluctant readers, text and pictures intertwine to tell the latest adventure of Greg Heffley and his family as they set out on a road trip. Pair with one of the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID book journals – a combination of blank pages and journalling suggestions – to get kids writing as well.

Young adult novels (ages 12 +)

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THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey. This book is perfect for your older sci-fi loving kid. In brief, it’s a classic “alien’s attack and take over the world” scenario, with fantastic pacing and lots of layers. I read it because I was vetting it for my own kid, and was surprised how much I liked it. There is a smattering of profanity, but it is used as needed, not gratuitously. Pair with an air-soft gun.

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ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry. I thought this was going to be another sci-fi story, due to the setting being a town called Roswell Station. But this haunting book is actually historical fiction. The main character, Judith, is unable to speak, yet you will never forget her voice. Perfect for older kids who will understand the nuance of mentally imbalanced adults, and the importance of sometimes sharing secrets. Pair with tickets to a local colonial village.

Fiction and Non-Fiction for the grown-up set

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UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the incredible story of olympian-turned WWII Lieutenant Louis Zamperini. Recently made into a movie, this book will appeal to the avid runner and/or history buff on your list. Pair with a WWII documentary, or movie tickets to see Unbroken when it opens.

CastingOff

CASTING OFF by Nicole R. Dickson. This book tells the story of Rebecca Moray, who comes to an island off the coast of Ireland to research a book on Irish knitting, and how she and her daughter interact with the people there. Perfect for the knitter on your list. If they’re Irish, extra points. Pair with knitting needles/yarn.

I’m sure you know of several more books in each category that you’ve loved and could give as gifts! This year, I encourage you to do just that. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

A TIME TO DANCE – Interview with author Padma Venkatraman

 

ATTDance

 

Have you ever read a story and wished you could ask the author questions about it? That is what happened to me while reading A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman. And guess what? My wish came true! A hearty welcome today to Ms. Venkatraman, who graciously agreed to give us a behind the scenes peek at how this beautiful book came to be.

First, a bit about the story itself. Here is an overview, from Goodreads:

Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.”

Bharatamatyam is a classical dance form of South India. Here’s an example:

As I read A TIME TO DANCE I was especially carried away by the description of the dancing itself. So, the first question I asked was:

Nancy: What is your experience with Bharatanatyam dance? As I was reading, I was guessing you must have personal experience. Am I right?

Thank you for your time and for sharing your process with us, Padma! I encourage all readers to make time for A TIME TO DANCE. It’s gorgeous.