WILL’S WORDS: Interview with children’s author Jane Sutcliffe

Welcome today to author Jane Sutcliffe, who, as luck would have it, graciously agreed to answer some questions about writing for children. Jane has written over two dozen non-fiction books for young readers, and is an experienced presenter. Her school visit … Continue reading

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.

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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!

George Clooney and First Book

I think about George Clooney a lot, but it’s not what you’re thinking.  Well, sometimes it probably is what you’re thinking.  Because, really. But honestly, most of the time it is because of his philanthropy work, and specifically something he said in an interview a few years ago.

Really, I'm only in it for the philanthropy!

Really, I’m only in it for the philanthropy!

The reporter asked him how giving back came to be such a large part of his life. And George (I’m assuming he’d want me to call him that) said that from a young age, his father always took the kids with him whenever he was volunteering for something.  When the reporter asked if he’d enjoyed this, George answered honestly and said something like, “No, he dragged me kicking and screaming.” But he admitted that those early experiences helped influence how much he commits to philanthropic endeavors as a grown up.

I think of this every time I drag my own kids on do-gooder adventures.  It would be SO much easier to leave them home.  And it might even be more productive for whatever group I’m trying to help if they weren’t there.  But little by little, I see them moving into the asset column, and being less of the kicking-and-screaming liabilities they once were.  And always, I hear George whispering in my ear, “this is going to pay off later.”  (No, he doesn’t whisper other things…get your mind out of the gutter!)
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Recently we had the opportunity to help out an organization based in our town called hawkwing. From their website: “hawkwing is a Native American Federal non-profit 501(c)3 organization created to offer cross-cultural education while assisting the people of the Lakota (Sioux) Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota meet their basic human needs.  Each year, we conduct a major collection drive in order to bring basic need items to some 3,000 children and 500 Elders on the Cheyenne River.”
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The scale of this effort and the way it is organized is astounding.  We showed up at a warehouse that was packed with supplies and well-trained volunteers, and were greeted by hawkwing founder and president, Rochelle Ripley.  Each year in the late fall, Rochelle oversees the organizing of supplies and packing of a large truck, which then makes its way out to South Dakota for distribution.
Rochelle Ripley, the brains and heart behind hawkwing

Rochelle Ripley, the brains and heart behind hawkwing

As volunteers, we were given a sheet of paper which detailed the needs of a specific family group.  We then took an empty box and worked our way through the warehouse, picking out personal care items, toys, clothing, and sometimes shoes for specific people.
New toothbrushes went in every box

New toothbrushes went in every box

My kids had a lot of fun in the toy section, being directed to pick out “a toy for a 5 year old boy,” or “something for a 12-year-old girl who likes to draw.”  This made the idea of who we were helping very tangible for them.
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Donated clothing items and outerwear were brand new, and each area had a trained volunteer that helped make sure we were picking out the correct sizes and items.

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Many of the hats, scarves, and mittens were handmade

Many of the hats, scarves, and mittens were handmade

And then we came to MY toy area, the books!  It was just so thrilling to pick out books for the children, especially after learning that some areas of the reservation do not have libraries. 

Look at all the books!

Look at all the books!

The “book corner” volunteer had everything sorted according to age and reading level, and gave advice with the wisdom of a librarian (she probably was one!).  I saw many new books that I’d have loved to have gotten my hands on myself.

Middle grade/YA books

Middle grade/YA books

Picture books

Picture books

Knowing what kind of shape my children’s books are in when they get around to being donated, I asked where so many pristine, new books had come from.  The answer was that several of the books were purchased, at drastically reduced rates, from the organization First Book.

From their website: “First Book provides access to new books for children in need. To date, First Book has distributed more than 100 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the United States and Canada. First Book is transforming the lives of children in need and elevating the quality of education by making new, high-quality books available on an ongoing basis.”

And while I’m tooting First Book’s horn, as many of you know there are other equally great programs that are working to get new books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise have access to them.  Some of my favorites are: Book Train, which works to “[help] foster children discover great books – and keep them!” and Reading is Fundamental.

Rochelle pointed out that it is especially helpful when people donate money to hawkwing, because she can use that money to get so many more books through First Book than she can if the same donor bought books from a traditional retailer.

There are so many organizations and people using their powers for good in this world.  Pick one and get involved! Donate or volunteer!  You might just meet George Clooney!*

Also, if you are interested in current Native American culture,  I encourage you to check out Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  It’s a fantastic and eye-opening read.

*This is probably not going to happen. Sorry.

Blink

I’m at the park, waving a tissue like a flag, running after a drippy-nosed toddler.  I’m sweaty, fuzzy with exhaustion, and have a vague headache.  My other toddler has left my field of vision, causing my heart to fling into spasms, even though the kid is probably just behind the next slide.  I’ve  had about two sips of the now lukewarm coffee in my travel mug.  I’m longing for the moment I can return us all to our beds, and it is not even 9:00 a.m. yet.

Enter older, well-meaning, I’ve-been-there type person:  “Ohhh, what a precious time!  Enjoy every minute! It goes so fast!”

Social convention and my inner dialogue compete to see whether my response will be “I know, I am so blessed and grateful, thank you”  OR “are you bleeping kidding me?”  (I don’t swear a lot but the bleep in this case would so be a real one).

It took me awhile, but I finally reconciled with all the people who made that comment to me over the early-childhood years. (There were A LOT.  So many, that I had to finally admit there was probably some truth to this ‘it goes so fast’ business).  I honed my response, sans profanity, to be, “Yes, the years go fast, but each day can be so painfully long.”

Now I’m the slightly older one, and my kids wipe their own noses (for the most part).  I’ve promised myself never to tell a haggard young mom to enjoy every minute, but I do see now, poignantly, what those sages were trying to warn me about.

For me, nothing shows the passing of time more succinctly than the book choices on my kids’ nightstands.

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While I was finishing dinner dishes, Ferdinand  somehow fluidly became The Magic Treehouse.  Suddenly,  Alexander’s bad day is seems really lame compared to Harry Potter’s time under the cupboard.

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And now – blink- my daughter’s middle grade novels are slowly becoming covered in a fine layer of YA reads.  In the time it took her to change from a one-piece bathing suit into a new sassy tankini, Anne of Green Gables has been one-upped by Bella from Twilight.

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Lucky for me, I write for children.  So instead of donating old books, I just move them to the shelves in my writing nook.  Then stealthily, gleefully, when the kids have had a long day, I casually ask, “Do you guys want to snuggle in and hear me read Blueberries for Sal?”

For now, the answer is still yes.

What is it about underpants?

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I’ve been reluctant to admit that I am raising a reluctant reader.  At two months old, my kid was bapping the pages of board books to turn them faster than I could read.  Look at that, I thought smugly… So clever! As a kindergartener, he would follow along when his older sister poured over early readers, and blurt out words if she stopped to sound them out.  I’d look over at my husband and arch my eyebrows as if to say, Pretty good, eh?  

As he advanced in grades, reading remained a strength.  I thought that “getting my boy to read”  was one of those battles I wouldn’t have to fight.  I made the mistake of assuming that because he was able to read, he would want to read whatever I got for him from the library, book store, community book sale, you name it.  So many great books!  Hey, MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli, he’ll love that!  Oooh…TREASURE ISLAND, what boy could resist?

"No thanks"

“No thanks”

But time and again, my son would look at the cover of a book, read the first paragraph, then shrug his shoulders and pass the book back to me, saying, “no thanks.”  The latest blow came after I’d made a special trip to a fantastic indie bookstore.  Carefully, I selected Gary Paulsen’s HATCHET.  Cool title.  Invokes violence.  He’ll bite.  

“No thanks.”

A week after that I was at a big box store and saw a stout volume of the first three books (Super Burp, Trouble Magnet, and World’s Worst Wedgie) in the George Brown, Class Clown series by Nancy Krulik.  Nearby was book #7 in the series: the picture on the front was of a boy in underpants, of the tighty-whitey variety.  My son had loved that other famous Captain of the unmentionables, so I sighed and put the collection of the first three stories in my loaded cart.  It just wasn’t what would pick.

That night I handed it to him the way you would hand a banana to a hungry ape.  Hoping it will satisfy.  He checked out the cover, and nodded seriously.  He opened the front page and read one, two, three, paragraphs.  He looked up at me, and clutching the book to his chest, said, “YES.  This is the perfect book.  This is the kind of book you should be getting me.”

"Yes please"

“Yes please”

I hadn’t even realized I how harshly I was judging the underpants, diaries, and other graphic novels he gravitated to.  There is a place for stories that simply seek to be silly and fun.  And apparently one of those places is on my son’s nightstand. I had to just get over myself and my vision of what were the right books. The right book, it turns out, is any one that makes a kid run up to his room after school so he can get back to the story.

I have to remind myself that maturity level and style of humor have a lot to do with what works right now.  I haven’t given up on to Treasure Island, Maniac Magee, or Jerry Spinelli.  But for the time being, here are some that have worked for us:

1) George Brown, Class Clown (Series by Nancy Krulik) “Mom, did you know a lady wrote this?”  Yes, and I thank her!

2) Captain Underpants (Series by Dav Pilkey) “I love letting the funny seep into me.”

3) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Series by Jeff Kinney) The “Do-It-Yourself” books in this series have the added benefit of encouraging creative writing.

4) Horrible Harry (Series by Suzy Kline)

5) The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Darth Paper Strikes Back, and The Secret of the Fortune Wookie, all by Tom Angleberger.  Bonus side effect of son taking an interest in origami.  (At least when the end result is a Star Wars character).

There are many other fantastic graphic novels out there that are kid favorites.  If you have suggestions that have worked for the reluctant reader in your life, I’d love to hear them!