Friday, June 28, 2013

The Challenge: 100 Books this Summer

Summers in my childhood meant lazy days, trips to grandparents for special adventures, and lots of books.

This summer, our little family has agreed on a challenge: 100 Books before Labor Day.

Our daughter's preschool sent us a list of recommended books which we will use as our launch pad, but by the end of this experiment, I hope we will have many new book-friends to share with you, less screen time, and a whole host of new things to discuss.

I invite you and your family to join us in committing to reading together this summer.  Visit your library often, exchange books with your friends, download new books to your readers - whatever feels best to you.  But enjoy more time together, more time snuggled, and be sure to talk about each book after you are done.

No child is too young and no child is too old to participate.  Older children can read to younger children.  Grandparents, Aunties, Family Friends can all help you meet your goal!

If you need suggestions, there are a million sources, including this little blog here!  I'll post some links soon to help!

Happy Reading!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

For Mommy and Daddy - A book review of Blessed Sons

As parents, a very important role we hold in our children's lives is modeling good behavior - including reading books that are just for us.  In that vein, I'll take a first-time ever break from children's literature to share a recent interview:

I was very fortunate to have a conversation with author Eric McKinley about his debut novel, Blessed Sons this week.   Blessed Sons follows an ensemble of characters through the complicated scenario leading up to and following the shooting death of a star high school athlete.   The characters seem simple enough: the boy and his family, the shopkeeper, and the lawyer who is assigned to the case.  But the emotional relationships that McKinley creates for each character are fascinating and nuanced –  and the characters are forced to examine some of the most difficult things that life holds – race, class, violence, death, and the consequences that go along with each.  When I sat down with McKinley, I tried to ask him some meaningful questions.  Often I was reduced to just gushing about my favorite parts of the book, but here are the highlights of the interview:
Mrs.O:  In this book, the protagonist is a lawyer named Jon, you happen to be a lawyer, how often do people ask you about the lawyer component of this book?

McKinley:   Sure, even people that don’t know I am a lawyer ask me about the detail of the trial and want to know if I have personal experience with the plot line.   But I don’t want people to get bogged down in making comparisons.   I don’t want people to think this is the only thing I write about – or that I will write about in the future.

Mrs. O:   You do convey a great bit of detail - like how the lawyers talk to the judge and how the whole legal process goes, even down to the details of the rooms they are meeting in and how they differ from one another. 

McKinley: Yes, but being a lawyer is not a monolithic experience.  Some judges are casual; some lawyers are too, stylistically.  Some are more talented than others.  Not everyone will be the same.

Mrs. O: At the reading you did today, you spoke of intentionally making the city of Philadelphia a character in the novel.  You did so beautifully.  Even though I live here, I felt that I was really getting an insider’s view of the city – and was transported to each locale with you, in the same way that I am in books that take place in far-away locales. 

McKinley:  First of all, thank you for the kind words. Yes, I was very intentional in making the city part of the ensemble.  Places like Bob and Barbara’s and Cookum’s are real places, although Cookum’s has closed down now.   I wanted to include the detail of the city because this story might be different in a different city.

Mrs. O: You acknowledge that this story has an eerily similar context to the Trayvon Martin case, do you think that would have been a different scenario, had that tragedy happened in Philadelphia?

McKinley: I think it might.  Philly is different.  We have an African American Mayor and an African American Police Chief, and obviously a large population of African American residents, so I think the reaction would have been different.  George Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested until some of his bizarre post-shooting behavior happened.  And his bail was set rather low.  I don’t know that that would have happened here because our public leadership contains so many people of color.

Mrs. O: What about Music?  You use music in a very theatrical way in this novel – I could so easily see it translated into a screenplay – but did you intend for Music to be another character?

McKinley: Music is not meant to be a character in the same way that Philadelphia is an intentional character, but I did imagine the scene and what kind of music would be playing, because that is part of the experience of being in Philadelphia.  Most places would have a jukebox or a band, so I did think as I was writing about what would have been playing.

Mrs. O: Yes!  I was so happy to see a mention of one of my favorite artists – Mos Def – in a description of Jon.  I immediately thought – oh now I can get an idea of this person – he is probably my age, and is thinking about music in a way that is not necessarily following trends.

McKinley: He is not a trendy guy.  And the song choices were very intentional.  Part of my desire for this novel to be an ensemble piece was to include things like music in that way.  Food is another component that was meant to augment the story.

Mrs. O: I find myself very drawn to the psychology of Jon – he is so apathetic in so many ways – and particularly to the women in his life – in his relationships with his wife and his mother, he is so stuck.

McKinley: I think of him not so much as a protagonist but as an anti-hero.  So much of what he is doing is just trying to survive.  He is not a white knight swooping in to save anything.  In some ways he is just a guy trying to keep his job, trying to keep his marriage together.  But he does have a baseline competitive streak and at a certain point he gets interested in winning; in winning his cases, in trying to ‘win’ his marriage.  He is trying to do the right thing.  But, he has a definitive threshold for how much he is willing to give a shit.  At a certain point the effort becomes too much of a struggle and turns into a blockage.  He loves his people, but there is a limit to his emotional reserve. He loves, but not unconditionally and not without limits. Jon’s relationship with his mother is the best illustration of this. 

Mrs. O: Tell me about the great bartender character – Cook – he seems to be such as great father-figure character.  Was he intended to be?

McKinley:  That is an interesting question and a characterization that I had not thought of before.  He certainly represents a refuge for Jon.  Cy (the best friend) and Cook (the bartender) both fulfill that role of providing a safe place for him to go amidst the madness.  Look, there is a lot of judgment coming at him from all angles.   Judgment of whether he is living up to his potential or not.  Men don’t get that kind of judgment from other men.  The idea is, “Okay, fine, my boy is going to cheat on his wife, or he drinks too much, but he is still my boy.”
Mrs. O: But the relationships with women are more judgmental?

McKinley:  Yes, for Jon, the women in his life don’t need to do anything. They have been accepted by him.  They are already at the standard needed for his engagement.  And of course this is vast generalizing, but women have a more project-based attitude toward men.  They want men to be more, to be what they think is better.  The men are fine – saying: “That’s it, this is my guy, whatever happens.” Conversely, men become apathetic or compartmentalize because they have already made the decision to commit to the relationship and they are in it for whatever it is.
For instance, there is a scene in the book where Jon is looking around his marital house and he is seeing that the d├ęcor is fundamentally his wife’s.  He accepts it and is comfortable within it, but it would be different if it was just him.  It is clearly her house.  But he is okay with that.  He knows he will stay and try to make it work.  She is going to have to be the one that leaves him – even though it is obvious that they have evolved away from one another.   He would stay forever.  Just like he would never leave his job until he reaches a true breaking point.

Mrs. O: I guess women have more rules than men do about their close relationships – a code of conduct maybe?  But I feel like there is such a strong male tone to the book.  Even the narrator has a male tone and an urban tone.

McKinley: Interesting, I meant for the narrator to be omniscient, but you might be right.  Men – and again I am generalizing – don’t have the same rules toward their close relationships.  They can have conflict without analysis – they just accept whatever happens – with or without explanation or resolution.  They just keep going. 
This is true with Jon’s marriage – he’s in it.  He is at a point where he doesn’t feel like he has a choice, so then he honors his commitment.  He is not intentionally trying to push Cheryl away.  He doesn’t want to be an island but he doesn’t want to be domesticated either.

Mrs. O: I want to be sure I’m not providing any major spoilers, but there is a moment when Jon finally breaks down.  Can you tell me more about what is going on to finally bring out this emotion from a character that has been so stoic up to this point.

McKinley: He is not a guy that feels like his life belongs to him.  It’s not his house, it’s his wife’s.  It’s not his marriage, it’s on her terms.  It’s not his job; his colleagues take much more ownership of the firm.  It’s not even really his case, it’s Saul’s and Jerrel’s.  So when something that he really owns and loves is finally touched by this situation, he reacts.  Because he has so little stake in the rest of his life, this becomes an even greater violation.
And I think it important to note that there is a lot of pressure coming from his community.  They know him and they know the implications of him defending this person.  He had been able to remain detached, but then all of a sudden, it’s all there in his face.  He’s there in the maelstrom of crap.  

Mrs. O: Right, that is a great part of the story – this all hits very close to home for him on so many levels.

McKinley: His role provides even greater scrutiny because he is from the same community where the pivotal action occurs.  He has considerable talent and good intentions, but he is in a difficult situation. 

Mrs.O: The book really has such interesting topics for discussion.  Race, gender, class, mobility are all strong themes.  I see why you have offered to attend book group discussions because there is so much fodder for discussion!

Still with us?  I know that was a long interview, but I have to thank Eric McKinley for indulging my many questions.   You can find the book through the author’s website, the publisher’s website:, and on Amazon

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tricks, Traps, and Transitions: Getting Your Toddler to Read

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the parent of a toddler say “He won’t sit still to read!” I would be typing this from my own private island.  Toddlers and their capricious ways, Toddlers and their lack of focus, Toddler and their toys - Yes, those can all be barriers – or speed bumps if you will – in journey to helping your child becoming a lover of books and learning.  BUT, there is hope!  There are ways to work around all those things to remind your child that they really do already love to read.

Lowering Expectations:
When I think of a reluctant reader, I usually first imagine a child and a parent that are overwrought.  So if the first problem with your child’s interest in reading is that you feel overwhelmed by the task, then I’m here to help.  First, not everyone is comfortable reading aloud.  Don’t worry, your child is not your second grade teacher, correcting every missed word and embarrassing you in front of the class.  Your voice is soothing to them.  They LOVE to hear you read, even if it is not your favorite task.  Next, while there will be moments when you are snuggled together in a quiet, Norman Rockwell moment of familial bliss it is not a necessity when reading.   Finally, and I've said this before, you as the reader should be kind to yourself.  Yes, you may need to read a book you hate once a day, but if that is the case, choose other books to read that you love.  If you get resistance from your child, see below.

Pushing past resistance, tricks for capturing your child’s interest in reading:
Start without them.  Open the book, begin to read as if it is the thing you most want to do in the world.  9 times out of 10, the child will slowly notice that they are missing something interesting going on in the room. 
Don’t expect them to sit still.  Allow them to wander and play while you read.  Most often, they are still listening. 
Sneak attacks: One of my daughter’s favorite things is when I give her a “horsey” ride on my back.  Well at least once a week that horse takes a little break by the bookshelf and my girl gets the treat of a reading session from her favorite perch.  This also works when at parks and playgroups.   They are expecting to play, but I bet you would be surprised at how amenable those kids are for a little reading break.  Even just a small change of scenery can change your child’s interest level.  Lie down on the floor and begin reading.  Put a little pillow next to your head and I bet before you know it, the apple of your eye will be looking skyward at that book.

Whatever you do, don’t stop.  Children need to be read to even as they begin to read themselves.  If you can remove their distractions and find a way through the developmental challenges, then your efforts and creativity will be returned in spades.

Photo evidence:

Dad Starts to Read...

Child begins to show interest.  Dad, unfazed, continues.
Engagement!  And a happy story time is had by all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New Feature: Books for Older Children

It's no secret I have a toddler, but that doesn't mean that we cannot occasionally fast forward to find meaningful and wonderful children's literature intended for a school-aged child.

Enter The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith.

I quite liked the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books, and I was not disappointed with this prequel.  It has similar feeling - slightly predictable, but none-the-less enjoyable plot-lines, simple enough language that it could be a good read-aloud book for a patient preschooler or kindergartner (though a chapter book, could maybe even be a one-night read-alouder!) or a book for an no-longer beginning reader.  Alexander McCall Smith in his Note To Readers calls it a book for children under 10.

There are some moral lessons intertwined with the plot, but my favorite part - of this book and the Ladies No. 1 books is the very lovely way in which Alexander McCall Smith describes the simple, but exotic to us, life of this girl in Botswana.  I challenge anyone to resist the story of a father confronting a lion or of the river that flows in the wrong direction.  They are charming.  I am charmed.

And much like the adult series, it was over too soon and I was left wanting more.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

How to Heal a Broken Wing, by Bob Graham (with Spoilers)

Several months ago I had an embarrassing thing happen.  My favorite librarian became convinced I was pregnant again.  It is no secret to our friends and family that another child is not in the cards for us, so this
was more than just a workout wake-up call, it was a peculiar, private insult to me.  Of course, the librarian was always very upbeat about the whole thing, but I never found a way to tell her without major embarrassment that she was wrong, that she had me confused with someone else, that there was no way, no how.  So instead, I just disappeared.  For months.

This week we went back.  She was chipper as usual, but asked no questions, made no mention of anything, but instead went marching right on with what we love about her, she told us of lovely books.

Her suggestion this week was to read the books of Bob Graham.  She picked How to Heal a Broken Wing off the shelf and hesitated.  "This might be too sad, too emotional for your girl" she said.  I know my girl, and I perked up, "She loves sad!"  The librarian smiled, "Yes, she does have an empathetic vein to her, doesn't she?"

And off we marched with this book.  Simple in words, but complex of emotions, a boy finds a wounded bird and wants to help.  There is something so evocative to me about this book.  The entire wounding goes completely unnoticed by the teeming masses of adults, until our compassionate little protagonist enters.  Will.  The definition of his very name holding the intent for something wonderful to happen.  Miraculously, his parents are equally concerned and they nurse the bird back.

Normally, I don't like to give away the whole plot, the punchlines, and thus the magic of the books I review here, but this one is so sweet, I must quote it.  Over many pages of beautiful illustrations, the following lines unfold: " A loose feather can't be put back, but a broken wing can sometimes heal.  With rest, and time, and a little hope... a bird may fly again."

And so it is with life.  We are wounded by it.  We watch people struggle.  Sometimes we help and sometimes we do not.  But if we are lucky, someone comes along at the right time and nurses us back without even a mention of repayment or even acknowledgement.

And yet after all that watching and worrying - if our intent has been in the right place all along - only the feeling of finally watching that bird fly again gives our own spirit that enviable sense of soaring.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Construction sites, Trucks and More.

For months, my daughter has been slightly obsessed with Truck Party! by Tammi Salzano.  A sweet little truck is celebrating his birthday (another of her obsessions - birthday parties) and is surprised with a fun party.  This would be a GREAT gift-book.

So I've started paying more attention to truck theme books while out and about, and one that is consistently recommended by mothers of truck-lovers is Good Night, Good Night Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker.  It did not disappoint.  Just informative enough that the truck-obsessed will appreciate the vocabulary, but also with a good, relaxing tone and a nice cadence while reading.  Adding this to my wish list!

Maudie, Olivia, and other feisty young ladies.

This week, we have been reading Maudie and Bear by Jan Ormerod and Freya Blackwood.

Maudie is a spirited young lady with grand emotions and great ideas.  Bear is the archetypal, anthropomorphized parent figure.  If Maudie is fire, Bear is cool earth.  Their interactions are delightful.  And the illustrations are layered, complex, and interesting for all ages.

I also quite like the formal tone of the language used.  We have been reading it before bed, when that type of deliberate, slow speech and tone are exactly right for calming and centering before our bedtime routine.  My daughter loves to mimic my tone.  "One moment, please" she has been saying throughout the day - because in one of the chapters of this book, Maudie must prepare herself properly before their outing.

Even though Maudie is a tough cookie, the tone of the book makes her behavior more palatable for me.  I chafe a bit at Olivia's attitude in Ian Falconer's books, perhaps because his books are a more dramatic read. Ian Falconer is to a roller-coaster what Jan Ormerod is to a nice walk in the forest.

Jan Ormerod is new to me, but is a well-published, Australian author.  I'll check out some more of her work in the next few weeks - she may be an upcoming author alert!  Stay tuned!

The other book we have been enjoying this week is Lizette's Green Sock by Catharina Valckx.  A totally different book, but quite fun and funny.  We were on a sock-theme.  We also read New Socks by Bob Shea.  What a funny guy that Bob Shea is!