Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

After The Mysteries of Harris Burdick poked and prodded the imaginations of countless readers over the years, now comes The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Fourteen award winning authors were invited to create their own stories based on the original images. (Or, if you take Lemony Snicket’s introduction to heart, each author has now come forward with one of Mr. Burdick’s original stories, placed in their care for various reasons. This theory, however, has been denied, dismissed, or avoided by all of the included authors.) Each image is reprinted at the beginning of its corresponding story, and each story is as imaginative and mysterious and adventurous and horrifying as the personal stories created by readers over the past twenty-seven years.

Except for one thing. These stories, while incredible and wonderfully written, are personal only to their authors. Each story comes from one author’s imagination, not from the imagination of the readers. This reader was let down by the stories, not by the stories themselves, but by the fact that they didn’t match my stories.

Also, I always imagined Harris Burdick’s pictures and captions to be from carefully worded picture books, not longer works of fiction. I pictured fourteen books for the fourteen images, with each page of each book dominated by another incredible Burdick image and similarly carrying a one or two line caption to advance the narrative. In my mind when the mysteries Harris Burdick were eventually solved and released to the public, they would include picture upon picture, not paragraph upon paragraph.

Now that I’ve got my personal feelings out there, let me be fair. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a wonderful collection of stories based on equally wonderful images. These short stories have the potential to inspire more stories from readers - additional chapters and sequels and more detailed accounts of what’s Under the Rug or who else must play The Harp or what happened to all of The Seven Chairs.

But beside all that, readers of the original book who have wondered and imagined for all these years will certainly want to read how other readers imagined these stories. Sure, they are all award winning authors, but they were all readers and wonderers first. Just like us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

The introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick explains how a mysterious man - Harris Burdick - arrived at a publishing company one day many years ago and shared fourteen images, each with a caption and each from a different story. Mr. Burdick explained that there were many other pictures for each story and was curious if his work was of any interest to the publishing company. The man Mr. Burdick spoke with, Peter Wenders, said he was indeed interested in the stories based on these phenomenal and fascinating images. Leaving the fourteen images, Mr. Burdick promised to return the following morning with the complete stories.

He never arrived, and Mr. Wenders never heard from Harris Burdick again.

Eventually the fourteen images, the story titles, and their captions were published as this book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. But without the complete stories, readers are left to fill in the ginormous gaps with their own imaginations. In the twenty-seven years since it’s publication, readers have done just that, creating adventurous, horrifying, mysterious, touching, mystical - and wholly personal - stories of their own based on Mr. Burdick’s incredible images. Many people have written them down, but most stories live only in the imaginations of the readers, free to evolve with each reading and each imagining.

Teachers and parents will love this book. It moves the imaginations of students and children, inspiring creative writing and storytelling for a long time after reading.

Now comes The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Fourteen award winning authors were invited to create their own stories based on the original images in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Click here to read my review of this new collection based on Harris Burdick’s original work.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

When Conor awakens at 12:07, seven minutes past midnight, he should be thankful. Sort of. Waking up from a recurring nightmare brings a merciful end to the nightmare itself, but it also leaves the dreamer with new, fresh memories. Alone, and in the middle of the night, no less. Then Conor realizes why he woke up, and it’s not simply to escape the nightmare. No. Someone called his name. Conor.

At 12:07.

Conor looks out the window and sees the normal sights: the church on a small hill, the nearby train tracks, and the ancient yew tree rising from the center of the graveyard. Clouds temporarily obscure the moon, but when its light returns, Conor can once again see the yew tree. Which is now in his backyard.

It is the monster.

The monster tells Conor it is “everything untamed and untameable. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.” Conor asks what the monster wants from him, but the monster responds, “It is not what I want from you, Conor O’Malley. It is what you want from me.”

Conor’s mother is terminally ill, and Conor is no better at navigating the emotions that come with the prospect of losing a parent than any other 13-year-old. But facing that daunting future helps explain why a monster in his backyard isn’t too scary. It helps readers understand why, when a monster says he’s come for him, Conor can nonchalantly respond, “So come and get me then.” It’s why Conor can shrug off a monster’s roar with “Shout all you want. I’ve seen worse.”

Yet despite the title A Monster Calls, the monster insists he’s only responding, that Conor called him. The monster informs Conor he will return on further nights to tell him three stories. “And when I finish my three stories, you will tell me a fourth. You will tell me a fourth, and it will be the truth. Not just any truth. Your truth.”

This is the truth from the nightmare, the truth that Conor has vowed to never tell anyone.

A Monster Calls is a powerful novel and memorable for many reasons, but two things come first to my mind. The interaction between Conor and the monster is one of the book’s strengths. A monster who could destroy Conor in a heartbeat patiently responds to Conor’s questions and demands and lack of respect. Second, I love the fact that the monster’s stories are not cut and dried parables with obvious morals, that these stories cause Conor to explode, “That’s a load of crap!” and the monster to demand, “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?”

But as the monster says, “Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

A Monster Calls is a wild creature. Let it loose. Watch the havoc.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A New Family Experience

This column appeared in last Monday's local newspaper. The intensity has been turned up a notch or two at practices, or so the boy tells me, to prepare for the meets in the new year. We're not sure what the parents should do to prepare for the upcoming meets, however.

Thanks for stopping by the site. You can view the original article on the newspaper's website here.

Kids now days participate in a wide variety of activities, and our children are no exception. From games to tournaments, recitals to meets, our family has been there. We've sat on bleachers, folding chairs, cushioned seats, and God’s green earth. We've walked for miles, stood for hours, and bought (and sold) more than our share of licorice whips and walking tacos.

But recently we added a new and thoroughly unique experience. A swim meet.

This is our first year with a child on swim team. Now, at six weeks and two meets into the season, we’ve realized that this youth activity is like no other we’ve experienced.

Many youth sports are played at the mercy of the weather. Sun and heat, wind and rain, cold and snow - as long as there’s no thunder, lace ‘em up. Some youth activities occur under controlled conditions. Basketball and volleyball are inside (but some gymnasiums are infamously arctic), hockey is also indoors (oddly, in rinks often warmer than gyms), and dance recitals are held in beautiful theaters (but there’s never enough light to read the program).

Swim meets are the only sports where the conditions are controlled to be miserable. It’s August in the Caribbean minus the beach, sun, palm trees, and pina coladas. Which leaves two things: hot and damp. But since it’s still winter outside, every open door brings an arctic blast. Wearing a tank-top and mukluks would be appropriate. Maybe recommended.

Volunteering at kids’ events comes with certain perks. Keeping the score book at a basketball game earns court-side seats. Assistant coaches are privy to lineup changes and secret strategies. Even the mom who brings the orange slices to the soccer match gets to hang out with the team.

Parents who volunteer as timers at swim meets certainly get great seats: right behind the starting blocks. Swimmers’ starts are meant to be fast, not necessarily pretty, and splashing will occur. Frequently. In your direction. Recording times becomes rather challenging. Pencil, meet wet paper. Swimmers enter the pool on your right, exit the pool on your left, and lean over your shoulder to ask, “What was my time?” If the splash doesn't get you, the swimmers will.

Even casual fans share the timers’ experience. Cheering for swimmers from the first three rows of bleachers is like an afternoon at Sea World, minus the killer whales. Makes the front row on Splash Mountain feel like the Sahara.

All kids’ activities have their own version of whistles, cheers, announcements, horns, starting guns, and “Stee-rike three!”

At first glance the sounds of swim meets might appear similar. Each event begins with a whistle, a “Take your mark,” and a horn. Our son’s last meet had 141 events all occurring in a room constructed entirely of tile, glass, and echoes. Every whistle-istle-istle and “Take your mark-ark-ark” and HONK-onk-onk reverberates long after splashdown. All 141 of them.

But swim meets, in all honesty, aren’t completely unique. Regardless of the activity, the smile of a medal- or ribbon-holding child makes the heat, humidity, and loss of hearing small prices to pay. You’ll be smiling every step of the way back to the car.

Every squishy step.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Real-Life Lessons

This article appeared in last Monday's newspaper. In the week since its original publication, I'm sorry to report, there are no updates to the story. Not that I expected anything different.

When you boil it down, a great deal of parental instruction falls into one major category: responsibility. Children need to know that it is their responsibility to brush their teeth, finish their homework, behave in an acceptable manner, and put on clean underwear.

As parents we keep on our kids about such things so that as adults they have their own teeth, achieve the tasks set before them, and behave as civilized contributors to a peaceful society. And wear clean underwear.

Yet we know that children aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, and mistakes lead to more lessons about responsibility. I’ve got no problem with that.

But what frustrates me to no end, makes me want to throw up my hands and yell something unsavory, is that even when a parent’s lesson is taken to heart and a child does exactly what has been taught, the outcome can still turn sour.

I’m not talking about getting cavities. That happens. Even completed homework can get eaten by the dog. It’s the bigger stuff.

Our daughter wanted her own iPod. Her mom and I discussed it. What are the positives? The negatives? Most importantly, has she demonstrated sufficient responsibility to warrant such a purchase?

Yes, she had, we agreed.

She responsibly saved her own money. She diligently bypassed short-term trifles for a long-term purchase. Basically, she proved us right.

She got her iPod.

She took care of it. She asked us before purchasing music or installing new apps. She designed and purchased her own iPod cover using a photo she took of a palm tree and printed “Palm Tree Girl” across the top. She used the alarm, took notes, read the news, and even read ebooks.

And then it got stolen.


What do you say to that? Where is the lesson in this? “Sweetheart, sometimes even when you do everything right, someone else’s shallow actions and irresponsibility can take away something you’ve worked so hard for.”


Welcome to the real world where not all people value responsibility, where a person’s long-term achievements can be crushed by another’s short-term greed, and where doing the right thing can still result in frustration, anger, and disappointment.

In all of this, however, I can give thanks that it’s a stolen iPod, not a missed meal. I can give thanks that my daughter has shown such responsibility and that the employees at the doctor’s office were empathetic.

So I’m thankful.

And through it all I have faith that the lessons my daughter has learned - and the lessons we’ve learned from her - will not be forgotten. She’s handled herself well, which brings joy to her mother and me. And we’ll all certainly take more care of our belongings.

So one might say I’m faithful, joyful, and more careful.

And I hope that maybe there’s a parent wondering why their child went to a doctor’s appointment and came home with an iPod. I hope someone will follow the request that appeared on the iPod’s screen to return it to the office where it was stolen. I’m hoping a friend or relative might question the appearance of an iPod where there wasn’t one before.

But honestly, I’m not hopeful.

Sorry. Just being truthful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Guys Read: Thriller edited by Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka, children’s book author and the nation’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, founded Guys Read to “to motivate boys to read by connecting them with materials they will want to read, in ways they like to read.” The Guys Read mission lists six points, the first of which is “Make some noise for boys.”

Despite the fact that boys tend to need no help making noise, I wholeheartedly concur.

Guys Read: Thriller is the second volume of the Guys Read Library, following the excellent Guys Read: Funny Business. These books (sports and nonfiction are upcoming subjects) are compilations of short stories from a variety of authors who all share one common trait: Boys read what these authors write.

Scieszka writes in the introduction to Thriller,

“Why is that shady-looking character lurking in the dark alley? What’s he doing with that crowbar? Is that something in his other hand? What is he doing? What has he done?  
That is the mystery.”
Guys Read: Thriller is full of the mysterious. There are ghosts and haunted houses. There are wishes that come true and a bumbling detective. There are pukwudgies, pirates, a missing copperhead snake, and a body on the train tracks. In other words, there’s everything a guy might want in a thrilling book.

At the end of the introduction, Scieszka leaves readers with these words. “What happens next? You read to find out. And don’t look now, but the guy in the alley is turning your way.”

It’s good advice. Get the book. Get reading. And move quickly, before the guy in the alley sees you.

The first book in the Guys Read Library had a great video introduction featuring all of the book’s authors. No such luck this time, but I did find this little gem on YouTube. Enjoy!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking by Philippe Coudray

The latest entry to the ever expanding and impressive Toon-Books collection is Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking from author Philip Coudray. While the format is slightly different - a series of one page comics rather than the longer stories that make graphic novels - some things remain the same. Just like his predecessors Little Mouse, Benny & Penny, Silly Lilly, Mo & Jo, and others, Benjamin Bear is engaging, age appropriate in reading level and interest, and flat-out funny.

As the title indicates, some folks might describe Benjamin Bear’s thinking as fuzzy. Others might see it as outside the box. Kids won’t care. They’ll be too busy laughing. When Benjamin Bear doesn’t have enough courage to hang glide off a cliff, rather than find a way to build up the needed bravery, he instead gets an angry dog to chase him … right off the cliff. In another scene he gets lost in a giant maze carrying nothing but an apple. Rather than eat the apple to get energy to find a way out, he just sets the apple down and waits. When the ants come for his apple, he follows the ants out of the maze.

Traditional graphic novels and comic books tell stories - longer narratives sometimes broken between issues or separated into episodes in one book. Benjamin Bear is a series of unrelated one-pagers. Think Sunday comics. More than the three-panel weekday comics, but much less than a full graphic novel.

On each page Benjamin Bear faces a problem or challenge. Apple too high in the tree? Pets want to visit the ocean floor? But in a matter of moments, a period of panels, by the end of the page, Benjamin Bear creatively figures out a solution.

All thanks to his fuzzy thinking.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cold Case by Julia Platt Leonard

As Chapter One opens, Oz Keiller laments the blaring six o’clock Saturday morning alarm clock. By page four he’s grumbling about having to spend the day cleaning the kitchen in his family’s restaurant. On page five Oz complains to readers about his bossy older brother, Dave. Page six brings a broken light bulb outside Chez Isabelle’s door - more mess to clean up.

At this point readers might be thinking of dropping Cold Case back in the book return.

But when the blood appears on the prep table at the top of page seven, readers will find good reason to continue. And if that’s not enough to hook them, the dead body in the freezer on page eight will have them moving quickly to Chapter Two.

Julia Platt Leonard has written a great murder mystery filled with pretty much every ingredient needed for a great murder mystery for younger readers. For example:
  • Mom is out of town. In Paris. She won’t be back anytime soon.
  • A suspicious relative. Why wasn't Dave’s car home when Oz woke up Saturday morning, and why did the dead man have a note that read “D. Keiller Fri night-midnight. Use back door.”?
  • Shifty employees. One guy “disappears” for a while. Another is named Razor. You know that’s suspicious.
  • An interesting back story. Oz’s father died of a heart attack before Oz was born, but Oz learns that his father was caught stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  • Present day connections to the interesting back story. The dead guy? He’s the journalist who broke the story on Oz’s dad.
  • A good friend. Rusty is Oz’s combat boot-wearing friend, and she has agreed to help solve the murder.
  • Oh yeah, and there’s a politician involved. Nothin’ more suspicious than a politician in a murder mystery.
So basically everyone is a suspect and the closer Oz gets to the truth, the more suspicious everyone seems and the more danger he is in.

Some readers with more distinguished tastes (read: grown-ups) might complain that Cold Case is a formulaic and predictable mystery. Maybe. But the young readers who double as literary connoisseurs are few and far between.

Most young readers just want a good book. And Cold Case will give them just that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Random Meeting, Questions, and the Milwaukee Brewers

Bedtime comes before prime time TV games end, and as I type this morning my son is still asleep. He doesn't know yet that the answer to the question at the end of this article - despite our prayer for the affirmative - is most certainly negative. For this season anyway.

My deadline for this article was last Tuesday. Our Milwaukee Brewers were tied 1-1 with the Cardinals in the NLCS, and despite a Game 2 loss, we all were confident the Brewers' season would be extended. At the very least there would be a Game 7 tonight, giving the article a feel of hopeful anticipation.

I really didn't think the season would be over.

Nevertheless, thanks for reading. Here is the article on the newspaper's website.

It’s a proverbial butterfly flapping its wings question. What happened on that April day in 2009 that led our family to Milwaukee for back-to-back Brewers’ postseason victories in 2011? What if our bus to Milwaukee that day had been delayed? What if the grill had taken two matches instead of one? What if some tailgater had wanted another bratwurst? What if...?

Who cares?

Whether a butterfly wanted a bratwurst or not, our family ended up in the right place at the right time when, shortly after entering Miller Park, we were asked one simple question. “Where are you sitting?”

When you attend a Milwaukee Brewers’ game on a church bus trip, there are limited possible answers. Most include words like “deep left field” or “upper deck” and all include the phrase “family section.”

I answered appropriately.

“Well, here,” the inquisitive young lady responded while holding out tickets. “We have some extras people couldn't use. Front row, right field bleachers. Bring the kids down if you want.”

Over the past two years, that random meeting and simple question has led our family to numerous Brewers’ games right back in the front row of the right field bleachers.

And that one question has led to more questions, all of which have given our family amazing experiences and a wealth of new knowledge.

For example, my son chose to wear a hat that he felt was unquestionably awesome. My daughter, however, felt that the hat was unarguably hideous. This hat, a mid-eighties gem from the days of Harvey’s Wallbangers, was formally worn by me and recently found stored safely away at Grandma’s house.

This led to a question: Is this hat awesome or hideous? We asked the people walking into the ballpark.

My daughter learned a nearly unanimous lesson. Anything that conjures memories of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers is awesome. She did take solace in one guy’s vote. “That hat,” he said, “is hideously awesome.”

My son learned that a question is sometimes all that’s needed. See, when you’re a nine-year-old Wisconsin boy, and the people parked next to you have a genuine championship belt on display, you want to wear that belt.

That twenty pounds of sparkling metal and black leather blessed my son with valuable lifelong knowledge. He now knows that if a man wants to wear a championship belt, he’s got three choices: A. Win a cage match. B. Win a Super Bowl. C. Ask nicely and say please.

He wore the belt.

My wife, planner extraordinaire, takes great pride in her organizational skills. But even the best tailgating list-makers can misplace the paper plates.

The solution was simple. Ask. “Excuse me, would you have any extra plates?” When enjoying a grilled meal with 45,000 of your closest friends, neighbors are more than willing to share plates.

Of course, similar questions occasionally came our direction. People around us have asked for buns, matches, and even charcoal. Makes paper plates seem insignificant.

And now, with games to be played after the author’s deadline but before the article’s publication, one question (and one prayer for the affirmative) remains: Will our family’s adventures continue to more Brewers’ postseason games?

Update: For the record, we had tickets to Game 6 of the World Series. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

By the title of the book, you can probably guess the featured Star Wars character in Tom Angleberger’s sequel to The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. If not (and because I think it’s awesome) here’s a clue. Cue the music!

On the first day of seventh grade, Harvey, the one person who maintains a deep-seeded, Dark Side hatred of Dwight’s Origami Yoda, arrives at school and announces, “Sorry, this isn’t the year for Paperwad Yoda.” Then as he sings “Bom bom bom bom-ba-bomb bom-ba-bomb” (see movie, above), he pulls out an origami Darth Vader from his pocket.

Darth Paper challenges Origami Yoda at every turn during the first month of school. But things take a turn for the worse when Origami Yoda says, “Zero hour comes. Prepare to meet your doom!” to a seventh grade girl. Dwight, of course, insists he didn’t say it. Origami Yoda did.

Unfortunately, those words make their way to the principal, and before the end of the day, Dwight is kicked out of school. On his way out of the building Dwight meets Tommy and holds up Origami Yoda who says, “The truth for the school board you must write. Another case file is needed.” So Tommy once again compiles stories and artifacts into a case file, this time meant to prove Dwight and Origami Yoda haven’t gone over to the Dark Side and to get them back into school.

Readers (and the school board) learn how Origami Yoda helped Kellen deal with an annoying brat at the skate park over the summer. They learn about Origami Yoda’s perfect non-video game solution to the stricter computer policy in the library. My favorite bit of wisdom comes when the class is supposed to sell cans of popcorn as a fundraiser. “Sell nothing you must,” says Origami Yoda. When Quavando offers to sell his grandmother nothing for $5 - half the price of a $10 tin of popcorn - she’s so happy to not get stuck with crappy popcorn that she buys $25 worth of nothing!

After the evidence is presented and the case file ends, Tommy and Kellen explain the rest of the story, including what happens at the school board meeting. Of course I’m not giving away the ending, but I will say the final chapter of Darth Paper Strikes Back is titled “A New Hope” and that Origami Yoda’s last quote, to delight of readers, is:

“The End... …This is not!”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Imagine a typical middle school. It’s morning, before classes, in the library. Sixth graders congregate to finish homework and play on computers, but mostly they gather to talk. Boys tables, girls tables. Okay, now find the tables with the kids that don’t really fit any typical middle school stereotypes. Got it?

Now add an Origami Yoda, perched atop the index finger of one of the boys, offering sage advice to those who seek the wisdom of a Jedi master.

Yeah, I know. I had you until that last part. But trust me. It works.

Origami Yoda makes his first appearance at the April PTA Fun Night school dance when his advice, “Rush in fools do,” apparently saves Tommy from mortal embarrassment. (It involves a girl.) Origami Yoda’s next words of wisdom, “All of pants you must wet,” help Kellen make it to class on time without looking like he has an unfortunate stain on his khakis.

And that’s only the beginning. Origami Yoda also offers the students of McQuarrie Middle School the following tidbits:
  • “Let go of your feelings. Hate and revenge to the dark side only lead.” 
  • “The Twist you must learn.” 
  • “Stinks movie does.” 
  • “Mulked learn to spell you must. Forget not the T.”
There’s more, all of them equally cryptic yet amazingly accurate. And Tommy, Kellen, Lance, Mike, Quavando (but not Kellen) and even some of the girls are eager to believe in Origami Yoda’s power. Except for one thing. Origami Yoda sits on Dwight’s finger, and his advice comes from Dwight’s mouth, albeit in a mediocre impression of Yoda’s actual voice.

Dwight is the guy who wipes up juice spills at the PTA Fun Night with his shirt - while he’s wearing it. He gets stuck in the P.E. closet and blames squirrels, wears the same shirt for a month, and once wore a cape and insisted everyone call him Captain Dwight. As Tommy, the boy compiling everyone’s Origami Yoda stories, says, 
“You can never decide if [Dwight] does these things to be funny or if he’s just totally nuts. Nobody ever laughs WITH him, so how can he think he’s funny? But if he’s totally nuts, then how come he can have a normal conversation some days or fold origami or get straight A’s in math (but nothing else)?”
Author Tom Angleberger begins The Strange Case of Origami Yoda with a question: “Is Origami Yoda real?” Tommy and the rest of the friends each share their encounters as part of this case file and leave the final decision to the reader. Even Tommy isn’t completely convinced at the end, despite what may seem to be overwhelming evidence. You’ll have to make up your own mind, but let Origami Yoda’s words help.

“The Force - always may it be with you.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Boy and the Bed of a Pickup

Not our truck and not our dirt, but you get the picture.
When I was a kid, riding in the back of a pickup truck was, if not a regular occurrence, certainly not out of the ordinary. Not so any longer. Maybe it's because there's no anchor for a car seat and no airbags back there. Not to make light of automotive safety, here's my latest newspaper column. It combines a job to be done, a boy, his imagination, and the back of the truck. Here's a link to the newspaper site, and thanks for stopping by.

We recently removed several old tree stumps from our backyard. Eleven holes to fill, level, and seed, and the toil fell to my two hands. Unless I could wrangle up some family help.

Needing to haul black dirt, I commandeered Grandpa’s pickup, and the truck became my prime negotiating tool. I approached the boy. “Want to help me fill the stump holes? Haul some black dirt? Plant some grass seed?”

No response.

“We’re taking Papa’s new truck.”

That got his attention.

“Can I ride in the back?”

“Not on the road, but you’ll need to be back there to help shovel.”

“Okay. I’m in.”

Having doubled my labor force, I grabbed a second shovel and we headed to the landfill for fresh compost. Upon arrival, and before my foot even hit the ground, I heard a familiar query.

“Can I get in the back of the truck?”

“We need to shovel the dirt into the truck, and the dirt is down here.”

So we shoveled compost. It worked like this: I’d shovel from one side, he’d dig holes on the other. “You’re supposed to put the dirt into the back of the truck, Buddy.”

“Yeah, I know. But, see, I’m trying to make the pile collapse.”

“Excuse me?”

“Collapse. See, if I dig under here, then it’ll be cool ‘cause everything up there will collapse down here!”

“But WE’RE down here. You want us to get buried?”

“Dad. Seriously?”

I kept shoveling. He kept digging, unconcerned that his ongoing efforts brought us steadily closer to premature burial. Shovel-full after shovel-full, and to be clear, these were my shovel-fulls, the bed of the truck filled. And the pile never collapsed.

“Can I ride in the back of the truck now?”

“Sorry, bud. Not on the highway.” So he dragged himself back to the front for the trip home.

As I prepared to back into the driveway, around the garage, and to the soon-to-be-filled holes, the boy interrupted with a sudden revelation. “Hey, I have an idea. How about you drop me off in the driveway, and I’ll ride in the back?” he asked.

“How about I drop you off, you grab two rakes and the tamper, put them in, and then ride in the back?” I suggested.

“ about I just ride in back?”

So I got the rakes and the tamper and he, finally, climbed on the compost pile in the back of the truck.

Looking over the tailgate, using unique and animated hand motions, he directed me to each hole. His third base coach impression did get me into position, but it proved to be the last - and only - time his hands aided in the day’s work.

The bed of the truck became his play land, his battle ground, his junkyard. He slid down the pile. He threw dirt-clod bombs. He searched for nails, plastic, and other non-compostable treasures. I tried to teach him the meaning of “decomposed organic matter,” but rot and decay are no match for a nine-year-old’s imagination.

Eventually, the holes were filled, the grass seed was sown, and the job was completed.

One day his willingness to be present will transform into a willingness to participate. Until then I’m happy to let his imagination run unrestrained.

But he still can’t ride in the back of the truck.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson

I was recently given the honor of reviewing The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson for The Rabbit Room, a website started by musician and author Andrew Peterson. The Rabbit Room is described as "a place for stories. For artists who believe in the power of old tales, tales as old as the earth itself, who find hope in them and beauty in the shadows and in the light and in the source of the light." Additional information about The Rabbit Room can be found here, and my reviews of Andrew Peterson's books can be found here.

Below is my original review of The Dragon's Tooth. It's longer than most of my reviews, but I thought I'd post it in its entirety anyway. The Rabbit Room version is slightly different, includes an extended conclusion, and if you are interested, can be read here.

Fantasy novels are sneaky. At first they whisk readers away to a foreign land with an honorable family determined to rule justly or where hard-working folk live under a tyrannical ruler. Next come fantastical creatures, great flying beasts and smaller beings with mystical powers. Then there’s the tension-filled build up to an epic battle where good triumphs over evil.

Readers know what to expect… Or rather I know what to expect... Okay, honestly, I think I know what to expect when it comes to fantasy novels. But just as I’m prepared to escape into a world where dragons breathe fire or fairies cast spells or inexperienced youngsters unexpectedly save the kingdom, that’s when fantasy novels get sneaky. Suddenly, amidst all the fires and spells and savings, I find characters facing the same issues I thought I was escaping.

And I never see it coming.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan Smith live in and run the Archer Motel in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and it’s not much to look at. Paint peels, walkways rust, and thistles fill courtyard cracks. Twelve-year-old Cyrus filled the pool with tires. Thirteen-year-old Antigone avoids the Archer’s cigarette graveyard / mold farm smelling reception area. Twenty-going-on-thirty-year-old Dan runs the Archer’s restaurant - one table, a toaster, and a waffle iron. Even the motel’s neon namesake, a once proud lady archer on a pole out front, now aims her bow carelessly towards the sky away from her motel.

For two years the Smith kids have run the Archer by themselves. Ever since their father died and their mother went into a coma. Two years away from their home in California. Two years in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin of all places.

Until the evening William Skelton - Billy Bones - arrives, demanding room 111, Cyrus’s room. Before the night is over, the walls have been torn off Dan’s room revealing mounds of important yellowed papers, the Archer is torched, Dan disappears, Billy Bones is dead, and Cyrus and Antigone are left with a pot-bellied lawyer talking about Acolytes, godchildren, heirs to an estate, and the Order of Brendan.

None of which makes any sense to Cy or Antigone. What is clear, however, is simple. Their brother has been added to the list of missing loved ones. The Archer has been added to the list of homes where they no longer live. People wanting to kill them are close. And all they have left is each other.

Which leads us back to the sneaky part. Just when I’m prepared to learn what an Acolyte is, the amount of the inheritance, the purpose of the Order of Brendan, and to continue this explosion filled adventure, in sneaks family, choices, and the very real possibility dying. Soon.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan’s father was killed in a storm, lost at sea and drowned off the coast of California where they used to live. Their mom swam into the freezing sea to find their father. Dan pulled her out. She never woke up and continues to lie in a coma. When Dan disappears, Cyrus and Antigone face losing another loved one and must rely each other - for strength, support, encouragement, and love - to face the oncoming challenges without losing sight of saving their mother and brother. But is the challenge worth it? Is the struggle to remain strong, to keep focused, and to stay alive worth the risk of losing another family member? Each knows the risks they take could cost them their last sibling. Wouldn’t it be easier to say no? To turn and run away from the Order of Brendan and Ashtown? To accept their losses in order to prevent further harm?

Which brings us to choices. Cyrus and Antigone face the age-old choice of doing what is easy vs. doing what is right. Turning away from the Order of Brendan would allow them to grieve for their family, remain safe, and stay together. But Dan has been given the Dragon’s Tooth, the Reaper’s Blade, with the power of death. Immortals can die and the dead can be raised with the tooth’s power. Enemies want it and will kill to get it. At one point Cyrus is offered his family in return for the tooth. Give the tooth (and all personal risk and responsibility) and save his family. Or keep the tooth (and the risk and responsibility toward a greater good) and possibly lose his loved ones. Easy? Or right?

And death. Dying. Billy Bones asks Cyrus, “How do you feel about Death?” (and can that question ever be asked, whether in real life or fanciful fiction, without personally contemplating the answer?) to which Cyrus responds, “How do you think I feel about it? Death sucks. I don’t like it. How do you feel about it?”

But William Skelton’s reply is the opposite of Cy’s. “People say you can’t run from Death. People lie. Running’s all you can do, kid. Run like Hell’s on your heels, because it is. And if you’re still running, well, then you’re still alive.” Later he continues, “You know what happens when you run too long? Death becomes . . . a friend, a companion on the road, a destination. Home. Your own bed. The place where your friends are waiting. You stop being afraid. You stop running.” That night Billy Bones stops running, giving the Dragon’s Tooth to Cyrus.

Now Cyrus and Antigone are the ones running.

N. D. Wilson draws on mythology (Jason used the Dragon’s Tooth to fetch the Golden Fleece) like author Rick Riordan in the Percy Jackson series. He also weaves in history (Amelia Earhart, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ponce de León were all apparently members of the Order of Brendan) like The 39 Clues. In The Dragon’s Tooth Wilson has built a solid base for the five book Ashtown Burials series. The book has its share of action, but it isn’t nonstop. Wilson takes the time necessary to properly flesh out Ashtown, the Order of Brendan, and its history. Readers will get frustrated along with Cyrus and Antigone every time they hear “I’ll explain more later,” but significant gaps are filled by the end, and sufficient gaps are left open for subsequent books.

And if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you won’t be surprised when the choices and issues faced by Cyrus and Antigone hit so close to home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Camp Season - New Column Today

Preparing for summer camp can be a stressful experience. Getting to camp, putting all that preparation to good use, and actually leaving a child in the in the Wisconsin Northwoods with 150 other kids can take the stress to another level. My latest newspaper column tells how one family dealt with it this summer. Click here to see it on the newspaper's website.

The summer has nearly passed, and while no one is eager to see it go, our family is thankful we have successfully navigated summer camp season.

A child’s annual trip to summer camp begins weeks before departure and continues well after addresses are exchanged. Parents guide the pre-camp preparations. (Yes, really, you do need to pack underwear.) Parents tiptoe around the post-camp, down-off-the-mountain doldrums. (Why are you just lying there, staring, with your duffle bag as a pillow?)

Now, the at-camp part in the middle is nice. The peace. The quiet. The uninterrupted trips to the bathroom. Unless, of course, you enjoy sibling squabbles and brother-sister bickering.

So you got your before-camp (ugh!), your during-camp (ahhh...), and your after-camp (woe!). But the highest peak to scale for every week at summer camp is the time after leaving home and before arriving at camp.

The drive.

Especially when it’s the boy’s first time attending for a full week. Sure, there were some short father/son excursions and a couple weekends with friends, but for our youngest this was his first time away for a whole week. We spent three anxious hours in the van. Three hours fraught with worry, angst, and at times, raw panic. We heard it all, from homesickness to horrible, bloody death and digestion by wild animals.

“I miss you when we’re not together.”

“Maybe we should turn back. Maybe next year would be better for a whole week at camp. You know? Another year older, another year of experience.”

“There might be storms. Is camp safe when it storms?”

“What about the food? Do campers get enough food? Will it be good? What if it’s not good?”

“There are animals in the woods. Dangerous animals. Bears! And wolves! Bears and wolves eat people!”

“Who will tell me, ‘Goodnight,’ and ‘I love you,’ each night before bed?” Those are a lot of issues to deal with on one drive to camp, let alone the fact that we had already discussed most of them in the weeks prior. We’d been planning the boy’s trip to camp for months. How could we turn back now?

“We’ll only be apart for one week.”

“After all those weekends, anything less than a week would be a let down.”

“Camp has emergency plans in place for extreme weather.”

“No camper has ever starved at summer camp, and to the best of my knowledge, no camper has ever prevented a wild animal from starving.”

We repeated all the assurances previously shared in the days leading up to camp.

Results were mixed.

It wasn’t until we reminded her that husbands can say “Goodnight” and “I love you” just as well as little boys that Mom finally believed she’d make it through the week.

She let the boy stay.

And he loved every minute.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

The big out-of-town, extended-time-on-the-beach, time-to-read vacation week fell during July. Add to that some reading I needed to do for a committee I was honored to be a part of and I ended up with a fairly long list for July's Five O'Clock Friday post. Mights as well get after it ...


  • The Thumb in the Box by Ken Roberts
  • Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book by Nikki Grimes
  • Star in the Forest by Laura Resan
  • What Really Happened to Humpty by Jeannie Franz Ransom
  • Loon Summer by Sandy Gillum
  • Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Reread)
  • My Papa Diego and Me by Guadelupe Rivera Marin and Diego Rivera
  • Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson
  • Tap Dancing on the Roof by Linda Sue Park
  • Thomas and the Dragon Queen by Shuta Crum
  • Keeper by Kathi Appelt
  • Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon
  • How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Chrystal Allen
  • Cold Case by Julia Platt Leonard
  • Sidekicks by Dan Santat
  • Fantasy Baseball by Alan Gratz

Friday, August 5, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

It's the end of the week and time for another Five O'Clock Friday update on books read but maybe not reviewed. Looking back, June was an odd month. You'd think that once summer starts for a teacher it would be time to get reading, but June is a little thin on titles. The end of the school year was crazy busy (no surprises there) and I didn't record my first book finished until June 17.

But it's looking like July more than made up for it.

  • Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (reread)
  • Horton Halfpott OR The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor OR The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset by Tom Angelberger - Yes, that's the actual title. Yes, the book is as enjoyable as the title would lead you to believe. Yes, that's the author of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper.
  • Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail - I got this book because Justin Case is the name my daughter and I suggested to my sister-in-law for her baby if it was a boy. She was convinced it was a girl and had a name already picked out, but we encouraged her to be prepared. (It was a boy. She named him Alex.) Turns out I liked the book almost as much as I like my new nephew.
  • The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander - You need a reason to read this book? Check here for an offer you can't refuse. (Okay, not exactly. But you'll get what I'm saying.)
  • Theodore Boone: The Abduction by John Grisham
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (reread)
  • Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan

Friday, July 29, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

Back on track with Five O'Clock Friday and the May update.

  • 3:15 Episode #2 by Patrick Carman
  • 3:15 Episode #3 by Patrick Carman
  • 3:15 Episode #4 by Patrick Carman - The 3:15 app is short stories. Each one is told in 3 parts and meant to be finished in 15 minutes. There's an audio introduction, a written story, and a movie that shows the conclusion. Each episode is $0.99, and all episodes will be released in book form this fall.
  • Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt - Phenomenal.
  • H.I.V.E. #3: Escape Velocity by Mark Walden - A great, high action series. All books will soon be released in the United States, if they haven't already. Here's my review of Book #1 and Book #2.
  • Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson - Get on board, people! Readers should be lining up for midnight releases of the series conclusion when it's released, dressed as Artham P. Wingfeather, Throne Warden of Anniera or Grandpa Podo with his peg leg.
  • Trackers Book #1 by Patrick Carman
  • Trackers Book #2 Shantorian by Patrick Carman - Another multimedia series similar to Skeleton Creek with part of the story told online in movies.
  • The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall - The Penderwicks series is now in its third installment, and each is as good as the last.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

Three weeks into this grand blog experiment called Five O'Clock Friday and I've already missed a post. And I can't even remember why I missed it. I'm sure there was something of great importance.

Three weeks ago when I introduced Five O'Clock Friday I wrote, "Over the next few weeks I'm going to catch everyone up on the first half of the year, month by month. Then it will become a summary of each week's reading. At least that's the plan." I still think it's a good plan, but missing a week is strike one. Three strikes and ... time to come up with a better plan.

So let's backdate this post to last Friday, have a new post this Friday, and see how it goes from here. Thanks for stopping by Help Readers Love Reading.

  • Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham - Reads just like you'd expect a Grisham novel to read. It will introduce kids to how the courts work and keep them turning pages at the same time. 
  • Scorpia Rising by Anthony Horowitz - A satisfying conclusion to the Alex Rider series.
  • What Would Joey Do? by Jack Gantos (reread)
  • I Am Not Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos (reread) - After reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key with a group of fifth graders, I was reminded how much I like Joey and had to read the rest of the series.
  • Patrick in a Teddy Bear’s Picnic by Geoffrey Hayes - A new series from the author of the Benny and Penny series.
  • Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today by Agnes Rosenstiehl
  • Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnes Rosenstiehl

Monday, July 18, 2011

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Readers were introduced to Doug Swieteck in the 2008 Newbery Honor winning book The Wednesday Wars. He’s mentioned by name seven times in the first two pages as Holling Hoodhood explains all the reasons why their teacher, Mrs. Baker, should hate him. This includes Doug’s list of 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you, a list containing strategies that became illegal around #167 and where #6 earns a two week suspension.

Yeah, that Doug Swieteck. Remember him? He’s back in Okay for Now, Gary D. Schmidt’s latest book, which features eighth-grade Doug as the main character. And instead of Doug’s 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you, Okay for Now is 360 pages to get a reader to love you.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s the same Doug Swieteck. But as readers learn about Doug’s abusive father, his oldest brother in Vietnam, his next brother a bully, and his kind and gentle mother smothered by her family situation, readers begin to understand Doug Swieteck as a person rather than just an antagonist.

Okay for Now opens with Doug’s father announcing that the family is moving to Marysville in upstate New York. The Swietecks move into The Dump in Stupid Marysville. “I hate this town,” Doug declares not long after arriving.

And now is where the reviewer generally gives an overview of plot. But I don’t want to. Instead, I want you to read Okay for Now based on my highest recommendation alone, to savor this book, to tear up and laugh and cheer at Doug’s actions and circumstances. I want you to share the same emotions as me as you discover more about Doug and appreciate how Gary D. Schmidt has constructed this masterful novel.

Doug likes statistics and often lists them for certain situations, so as Doug would say, here are the stats for what all readers should experience one their own, without a reviewer’s perspective. All readers should:
  • learn how to drink a really cold Coke from Lil, the first person and classmate Doug meets, outside the Marysville Public Library. 
  • hear Mr. Powell’s art lessons in the Marysville Public Library. 
  • feel the tension between the members of the Swieteck family. 
  • understand what makes Mr. Ferris set Clarence, the toy rocking horse, rocking. 
  • follow Doug on his grocery deliveries for Mr. Spicer, Lil’s father. 
  • see how Doug becomes the test subject for Miss Cowper’s County Literacy Unit. 
  • meet Mrs. Windermere and the god of creativity that sits on her desk. 
  • slowly recognize how John Audubon’s paintings in the library parallel Doug’s life as Doug learns more about the birds, the paintings, and art. 
You see? There’s so much … too much … okay. Try this:

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt is about the year Doug Swieteck moves to Stupid Marysville, New York, how he slowly discovers the difference between the external persona he has created and the internal person he truly is, and which one he decides to be. It is at the same time heart-breaking and heart-warming. It demonstrates both the fragility and strength of human character. It will build within you an appreciation for birds, art, horseshoes, and the New York Yankees.

It is the best book I’ve read in some time and, quite simply, a book you must read.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

We're up to March in the look back at books I've read but might not have reviewed yet. (See more information here.) It was spring break month, so I enjoyed some extra reading time.

(And on an only slightly related tangent, why do I find reading even more enjoyable when I can look up and see palm trees? Do people in Florida find reading more enjoyable if they look up and see this? What about this? Actually, now that I think about it, if I was seeing those views one would mean it was summer and the other would probably mean a snow day. Either way I'd have more time to read. I guess they'd make reading more enjoyable to me as well.)

  • The Legend of the Golden Snail by Graeme Base - Amazing pictures and magical story. 
  • The Lightning Thief (Graphic Novel) by Rick Riordan
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson (reread) - One of my favorite series.
  • Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen - An interesting combination between fiction and nonfiction. There's much here to learn and much to enjoy in this book about the American Revolution.
  • Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos (reread)
  • North! Or Be Eaten! by Andrew Peterson (reread)
  • Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm (reread) - I had a great time visiting Key West and several places where Turtle is set. 
  • Bless this Mouse by Lois Lowry
  • Wildfire Run by Dee Garretson
  • 3:15 Episode #1 by Patrick Carman
  • The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor

Monday, July 11, 2011

Coaching Kids - New Column Today

"You're killing me, Smalls!"
The official youth baseball season has ended and along with it ends my coaching stint for this year. Our team had our ups and downs, wins and losses, sunshine and rain, but there are some constants that remain true. Constants that are not in the rule books but hold true to coaching kids. Here's my latest newspaper column full of advice for grown-ups who coach kids. (Take it for what it's worth, and with a grain of salt, of course.)

Here's the original column on the newspaper's site.
Coaching baseball is more than creating a line-up, standing in the dugout, and offering the occasional word of encouragement or correction.

But coaching Little League baseball?

Sure, you got your line-ups, dugouts, and positive words, but working with kids brings a whole 'nother dimension.

The Little League coaching recipe starts with instruction. Add a handful of inspiration and a dash of imagination. Allow for imperfection and inattention. Use imitation as desired.

And hope it doesn’t end with indigestion.

The 2011 Edition of Official Baseball Rules is 130 pages and over 50,000 words. I checked at The Official Little League Rule Book comes in at a total of 125 pages.

Yet these are incomplete documents. Coaches flipping through these books can find their fill of instruction, but the remaining coaching ingredients are severely lacking within their pages.

So I’m offering an unofficial rule book addendum -- not rules necessarily -- but guidelines. It's information needed by grown-ups to successfully coach kids, all conveniently concentrated to 1 page and 500 words, and all available free. With my compliments.

Guideline #1: All equipment besides a player’s hat, glove, and cup is provided by the team and available in the dugout, yet batters will occasionally enter the on-deck circle without a helmet or bat.

Guideline #2: Players can lose their hat and glove in less than half an inning.

Guideline #3: Players never lose their cup. This is due to its proximity to other valuable possessions and the tendency for players to repeatedly demonstrate their cup’s effectiveness with their knuckles.

Guideline #4: The outfield is little more than a prairie. Prairies have grass, weeds, holes, crickets, moths, and the occasional squirrel. In this environment baseballs will drop from the sky unnoticed.

Guideline #5: Nobody understands the infield fly rule, and simple misdirection will help you avoid explaining it to an inquisitive youngster. Try replying “How many outs are there?” or “Have you seen your hat?”

Guideline #6: A squibber that travels halfway to first and barely stays fair can be more significant than a screaming line drive to the gap. It all depends on the player who hits it.

Guideline #7: Never be comfortable when your pitcher has an 0-2 count on the hitter. Balls are like parade candy -- readily available and freely given.

Guideline #8: Any player who hits a weak ground ball to shortstop, is safe at first and advances to second on an overthrow, takes third when the pitcher drops the ball, and races for home when the pitcher’s throw to third goes into the dugout, will claim to have hit a home run. Mark it accordingly in the score book.

Guideline #9: Support the concession stand. The money is needed for extra hats.

Guideline #10: Sunflower seeds are not only a cheek-filling, spit-inducing, baseball snack, but make great rapid-fire artillery to launch at unsuspecting teammates in the dugout. It’s best to just stay out of range.

Guideline #11: All’s well that ends well. As long as there’s ice cream. And everyone leaves with their hat.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

As the summer progresses, I'm letting readers know what I've read earlier in the year before I start a weekly "Other Stuff I Read That I Didn't Post (Yet) On the Website" feature. (Here's the January post.) And after looking at February's weak list (weak in quantity, that is), I'm wondering why I promised such a thing.

Nevertheless, here is the February update.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder
Kid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout
I Beat the Odds by Michael Oher
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller - Highly recommended professional book.
Big Nate in a Class by Himself
by Lincoln Peirce.

Quite an eclectic list. There's realistic fiction, fanciful fiction, nonfiction, a professional book, and a graphic novel. But I did notice that 4 of the 5 authors are on Twitter.

Looking at this list, maybe Mr. Peirce wishes he was on Twitter too.