Saturday, September 17, 2016

Celebrating both Balance and Unbalance - #celebratelu 9/17/16

I've been absent from this celebration community for quite awhile, but I want to thank Ruth for so graciously hosting this platform for celebration each and every week.  Check out all the celebrations at Ruth's blog.

Saturdays are usually the day I work with my trainer, but today she was out of town, so I decided to investigate a yoga class I had never attended in place of training.

The yoga instructor started our class by reminding us that this week will be the fall equinox, and how that reminds her of balance because there are only two days in the entire year that have a balanced number of daylight and non-daylight hours. The fall equinox and the spring equinox.

She went on to say that, if only two days are totally in balance on our planet, then we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves when our own lives aren't perfectly in balance. This was a huge aha! moment for me.

I've strived for balance through the recent years and when that didn't happen, I just assumed I needed to work even harder at getting to balanced living. But what if life isn't meant to be totally balanced? What if parts of my life take precedence at times, only to have the pendulum swing at some point to a different focus? I like that idea a lot.

In fact, as I reflect back on the first few weeks of this school year, I realize that daily, my life shifts from a balance leaning heavily toward school to a balance leaning heavily toward time with family and friends, to a balance of taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No one day or week has been the same.

So, today I'm celebrating the balance and the unbalance of my life. My goal will be to focus on and totally enjoy whatever activity is currently taking most of my attention, knowing that eventually, the pendulum will swing another direction.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Courage Test - #IMWAYR - 9/5/16

I can't speak for all blogs, but here at Literate Lives, back when we were just launching our blog (and yes, back when we were writing more regularly!), we had two authors who befriended us early on because of reviews we had written about books they had written.

I love that life has come full circle: we now have reason to celebrate these two amazing authors again, 8 years after this blog started. So, "Happy Book Birthday Year" to two authors who found our reviews of their books 8 years ago, commented, and became our friends and regular readers of our blog over the years! Congratulations to two of our favorite authors - Barbara O'Connor and James Preller!!!!!

I already reviewed Barbara's latest, and today it's time to share Jimmy's latest book with our readers.

The Courage Test by James Preller is a great read that starts with the front cover. I have an ARC, so I'm not sure what the final cover art will look like, but what a great opportunity for a reader to look at the illustrations on the front cover, and begin thinking about what the story might be. So many clues live there - in some ways, it reminds me of the clues on the cover of another favorite, When You Reach Me. It's a cover you would come back to time and time again as the story unfolds.

I say "the" story, but truly this is a book with multiple story lines contained within the adventure the main character, Will, goes on with his father.

There is the story of Will and his father, somewhat strangers to each other after Will's dad left him and his mom for a "shiny new life" complete with a new girlfriend. In the story, Will's dad takes him on a trip to replicate the adventures of Lewis and Clark. Will's dad is a college professor, a fan of American history, and is trying to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Will would rather stay home and play baseball than go on a trip with a dad that he feels is no longer a real part of his life. The main story line follows them and their rocky relationship as they try to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

There is the summer assignment writing Will has - writing about something interesting that happened to him that summer. (To help the reader discern the different story lines, the summer assignment is the part written in italics.) I found myself mesmerized by all the historical detail Will puts into his writing assignment. So many, many facts about Lewis and Clark about which I had no idea! And having those facts written from Will's perspective was brilliant on James Preller's part - it makes reading history so interesting, and in some cases, quite surprising. I think student readers would enjoy the perils they faced as much as I did! This would be a perfect read for a student interested in history, adventure, and survival.

There is the relationship between Will and his mom. They became quite a team once Will's dad left, and now she is practically pushing him out the door to take this summer trip with his dad. Will feels a bit hurt by that, but we learn even more history in the postcards Will continually sends his mom, with great details about places on the Lewis and Clark trail they've seen. In addition, we hear the voice of a boy who just wants contact with his mom.

In addition to these story lines, there are additional supporting character story lines that help move the story along:

  • A friend of Will's dad, Ollie, shows up at one point on the trail, and stays with them awhile.
  • Will and his dad find an "illegal girl" - in fact, that is the name of the chapter where they first encounter her.
I tend gravitate toward reading books where relationships are explored, and that could not be truer with this book than its examination of the relationship between Will and his dad. James Preller had each new situation, each new adventure, each new moment of survival share just a bit more about that relationship. It was like slowly peeling back layers of an onion to get at what's really inside. I thought it was masterfully done, especially when, by the end of the book, Will and his dad grow to know and understand each other, but everything is still not perfect. That felt incredibly real to me, and I appreciated it as a reader.

All these stories, slowly but surely, wrapped themselves around my heart and tugged at my heartstrings. I found myself caring a great deal about Lewis and Clark, Will's mom, Will's dad, and most definitely, Will. But, I also have to say, there were some breath-taking, scary moments as well - think bears and white water rafting. I have experiences with both, so I found my heart pounding at these intense moments.

Finally, I'm a sucker for a circular story, so I loved that this story began and ended in the same place, with the same words. 

Be on the lookout for this gem - it is due out next Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. If you're a teacher, I guarantee there will be readers in your room that will be very thankful you added this book to their reading choices!

Thanks so much, Jimmy, for sending this my way. Happy almost-book birthday to you!!

And a huge thanks also to Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers for hosting the kid lit version of "It's Monday, What Are You Reading?"!!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

3 Middle Grade Titles to Know!

It is quite rare that I read 3 middle grade chapter books in a row, and love all 3 of them. But that is most definitely the case with the three books I'm reviewing today.

As I thought about how each of these books drew me in, and had me expectantly turning each page, I wondered what elements exactly made these reads so enjoyable. After pondering for awhile, here are the commonalities that I think appealed to me:

  • Point of view - two of the books are told from a different character's point of view, shifting the point of view frequently. The third one (Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story) shifts between characters, but the character is not the narrator, as in the other two.
  • #WNDB - each of these books will provide a "mirror" for many students in our classrooms. In each book, diverse characters are the focus.
  • Great stories for grades 4 - middle school (in my humble opinion). I love these kinds of books that involve the transition from one level to the next. That plot feature alone could be explored forever, but in these books, it is the perfect backdrop.

So, what are the books I'm loving right now?

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Nine, Ten is a story about four different characters living in four different places. Naheed is in Columbus, Ohio; Sergio lives in Brooklyn, NY; Will lives in Shanksville, PA; and Aimee is in Los Angeles, CA. Their stories begin on September 9, each working on a transition of their own when their lives overlap at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Will's father has died, Aimee has moved to California because her mom has taken a new job that involves her being all the way across the country during the move, Sergio's dad disappoints him once again, and Naheed is trying to embrace her Islamic heritage in midwest Ohio.

Already knowing that 9/11 is coming, I found myself racing through the book to find out the effects this tragic day had on each of these characters.  Baskin does a brilliant job of making each child's story matter, and I love how, much like in the beginning where lives intersect at O'Hare, the ending find these 4 lives intersecting once again.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary has eighteen very diverse characters/narrators, and one fabulous teacher who really makes a difference. For their entire fifth grade year, these characters write poems about their thoughts and feelings. Through these poems, the reader learns so much about each character, and how they evolved over the course of the year.

This is a story about friendships and how they change. It is a story about finding a passion and becoming an advocate for that thing. It is a story about finding your voice. It is a story that embraces poetry on each and every page. It is a story about transitions and dealing with them.

Shovan has added to the back of the book some great reference materials for all readers - the first is a list of the types of poems found in the story - both descriptions and the pages to find examples. The other thing I love was that the teacher in this story kept a "Poetry Prompt Jar" in the class if needed - some of those prompts are found in the back as a resource. I could see this being incredibly helpful when working on stamina with students throughout the year.

My favorite excerpt from this book celebrates teachers:

fifth grade was the best
and you are my all-time
favorite teacher.
Think about it. Some poor kid
is packing up his house,
getting ready to move,
nervous about starting
fifth grade at a new school.
Please don't retire.
Out there, there's someone
like me who needs
a teacher like you.

And in addition to all of this, I LOVE the front cover illustration!!!

Save Me a Seat is a two author collaboration that again is told from different points of view - this time only two characters. Ravi and his family are new to America; he excelled at many things in India, and is having difficulty with the transition to his new school and having people understand his gifts. Joe is a big guy, bigger than most in his grade, and he has an auditory processing disorder - outside noises interfere with his ability to understand things being said. He gets support from Miss Frost this year. But in addition to feeling different from others, his mom is now working at his school as the lunchroom monitor. It adds another layer to the teasing he gets already.

This is a story of two boys who learn to embrace and celebrate who they are; it is a story of growing up, and some of the hardships and joys that go with that process.

And another brilliant cover design that makes more sense after reading the book.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Wish - #IMWAYR - 6/13/16

A huge thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers for hosting us for the kid lit and YA version of #IMWAYR!!

I read a book this past week that made such an impression on me I want to devote my entire #IMWAYR post today to the upcoming book, Wish, by Barbara O'Connor (due out August 30, 2016 from Farrar Straus Giroux)

Wish is the story of Charlie, a girl that is thrust into situations she didn't want - her dad is in jail and her mom won't take care of her. It becomes so bad that social workers become involved and take Charlie from her home in Raleigh to the small town of Colby, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains to live with her aunt and uncle.

The storyline captivates, but for me what Barbara O'Connor does in this book with characters, setting, language, and insight into humanity are the real reasons this book is such a delight.

When Charlie gets to Colby to live with her aunt and uncle what she sees are "... the sorry sights of Colby. A gas station. A trailer park. A laundromat." And at her neighbor's house what she noticed  - "Next to the front door was a ratty-looking couch covered with a bedspread. Wilted yellowing plants and dried-up flowers planted in coffee cans lined the edges of the porch." Charlie considers all the people in Colby beneath her, nothing more than hillbillies. Sights like these just support her thinking.

As Charlie's time in Colby continues, she comes to see these same things in a different light. The subtle language shifts about the environments and settings through Charlie's eyes is truly masterful. It reminds me a little of the saying about not judging someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Charlie began the judging game early on, and had a hard time letting go of being judgmental because letting go might make her see Raleigh and her "home" life more clearly. But when she does let go of that judgment, her eyes see her surroundings differently.

The simplicity of the book tugged at my heart as well, bringing back so many fond childhood memories, and not one having to do with being glued to a screen of some sort. Designing fort plans, gathering materials for the fort, riding bikes everywhere, working crossword puzzles, playing games, selling things from the end of the driveway, learning to crochet, going fishing. The list goes on and on, but this book really celebrates those small moments of childhood pleasure. In that way, Wish reminds me a bit of The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and why I love that book so much. The simplicity of life is celebrated.

And then, there is the title of the book. Wish is an apt name as Charlie makes it her job each and every day to make a wish (and the same one each time). It reminded me again of my childhood, and how we got to make our wishes - seeing a white horse, getting the long part of a chicken wishbone, first star of the night. I wasn't as persistent as Charlie with my wishes, but I did love having the opportunity to make a wish. I would love to know how Barbara O'Connor came up with all the different ways Charlie got to make her wishes. I tried to tally the different ways, and had to give up because counting was getting in the way of the story. But I do know she's listed at least 30 (at my last count before giving up) different ways of wishing. What a delightful thread to weave throughout the story!

I could go on and on about the language I love in this book, but I am going to focus on just three things that really stuck with me - one phrase and two words. When Charlie first meets her neighbor, Howard, at school, she noticed he had an "up down" walk. That phrase comes back multiple times in the story. Two such simple words, but put together, quite descriptive. One of the other words I enjoyed was "Scrappy", her dad's nickname because he gets in so many fights, landing him in jail eventually. It's a great word for an unfortunate circumstance. And then there is the word "pineapple." Charlie is a bit of a hothead also, so Howard tries to convince her to say "pineapple" when she gets upset instead of lashing out physically or with other inappropriate/unkind words. I chuckled at how many times Charlie tried to make "pineapple" work for her, not always with the greatest of success.

And we can't forget Wishbone, the name of the dog that also connects with the title. Without giving too much of the story away, I will say that as humans, we all need someone to love us unconditionally. That is what Charlie gets when Wishbone becomes part of her life. With that said, it brought me great delight when Charlie realized that unconditional love can also come in many different packages.

As I reflect on some of the horrific things that have happened this past weekend, I find that reading Wish came at a good time for me. I think about how Charlie stereotyped the people of Colby, North Carolina, as hillbillies until she got to know them personally, spending a great deal of time with them. How time and effort can shift a perspective. How I wish more people could take the time and effort to understand those "different" from them.

But mostly, I love the simplicity of this book. While I'm sure it wasn't at all simple to write, reading it was like dangling my feet in a cool mountain stream or sitting on my screened porch - effortless and delightful.

Monday, May 16, 2016

#IMWAYR - May 16, 2016

A huge thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers for hosting us for the kidlit version of #IMWAYR!!

With a huge apology to my favorite independent bookstores, recently, my favorite place to look at books for a first read is the public library. The new book shelves for chapter book fiction, picture book fiction, and nonfiction are some of my first stops when walking in the door, and they are always brimming with titles I want to read.

Two of my favorite children's books in the last few weeks are incredibly different in the audience they would have, but I loved them both.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban is a wonderful story that has Japanese internment camps as its historical backdrop. It's the story of Manami, a ten year old girl, and her family. Like Japanese families in many places, Manami and her family are uprooted from their beloved home on Bainbridge Island and sent to an internment camp during WWII in an arid desert area of California. 

When Manami tries to sneak her dog into the camp with her and fails, she becomes "mute". This is a story of the strength of human nature, and it will tug at your heartstrings. 

It would be wonderful to pair Paper Wishes with a book like Baseball Saved Us.

The Last Boy at St. Edith's by Lee Gjertsen Malone has an entirely different feel to it.

St. Edith's is an all-girls' private school that tried to increase enrollment by expanding their student population to include boys. However, for multiple reasons, over the past few years, the boys have been dropping out of St. Edith's like flies. Every boy hoped he would not be the last boy left on his own, but that wasn't going to be the case for Jeremy Miner.  He has become the "last man standing", and he is now on a campaign to get himself kicked out of the school.

On the flap, it says this book is about "fitting in, standing out, and finding the place where you belong." I couldn't have said it better. One of the threads of this book I enjoyed the most is noticing the natural friendships that can occur with boys and girls before the hormones get in the way.

I hope you have a great week of reading!

Monday, May 2, 2016

#IMWAYR - May 2, 2016

A huge thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers for hosting us for the kidlit version of #IMWAYR!!


I was recently listening to a podcast Penny Kittle did with Donalyn Miller. I love to hear Donalyn talk about books she loves, so when Penny asked in this podcast what Donalyn has read and would recommend, she immediately shared about Dumplin', a book by Julie Murphy.

Donalyn shared many reasons to read this book in the podcast - Texas beauty pageants, friendship, can the big girl get the cute guy, tiaras, quirky characters, just to name a few. She was spot on. It was a delightful romp - at times funny, at times poignant, at times infuriating. But at the center of it all was Willowdean, known as Dumplin' to her mom, a former beauty pageant winner.

I took a personal day this past Thursday, so knowing that I could sleep in a bit more than usual, I went to the library to pick up the copy of Dumplin' I had reserved Wednesday night, I began it after dinner, and I didn't put it down until about 1:30 AM when I finished it. What a lovely evening that was!

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

I love Kirby Larson's writing, and her fascination with embedding history in what she writes. The period she focuses on in this book is when President Taft lived in the White House.

I like the character of Audacity because she is spunky, willing to take on challenges, and has a never give up attitude, which must be difficult at times because she is an orphan.

Part of this reminded me of a female version of The False Prince - an orphan taken to help a bad person trick others for their own personal gain. And like Sage in The False Prince, once the plot is discovered, Audacity does her best (with the help of some friends) to rectify the situation.

This was a fun, fast-paced read, and the last line leads me to believe there will be more fun from Audacity in the future!

Have a Look, Says Book

This fun picture book written by Richard Jackson and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is a playful look at how a read aloud time with a dad and his daughter leads into a journey inside a book. Great describing adjectives accompany each sentence.

What a fun way to play with words and adjectives as the dad/daughter pair make their way through the book. A wonderful opportunity to enrich vocabulary with children and appeal to their tactile sense.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cousins, Friends, A Marathon - #Celebrate 5/1/16

It is the weekend, and even though most people post their celebrations on Saturday, I'd like to post mine today. Thanks so much to Ruth for hosting all of these celebrations and giving us a forum.


I read recently that cousins are some of your very first friends. I'm not sure if that is exactly true, but I do know that from an early age, my cousins were a huge part of my life. My mom came from a family of eleven brothers and sisters, most living within an easy 45 minute car drive from our house. I have incredibly fond memories of much time traveling to and from cousins' houses for family visits, or to have overnight stays. As fun as those early memories are, it is even more sweet when those cousin relationships continue to grow into deeper friendships as we are now adults.

I'm sad to say that, with the deaths of both of my parents in the last 18 months, and all the grieving and issues that needed to be dealt with, I have only seen these special people at my mom's calling hours, her funeral, and then again, last July, at my father's calling hours.

I am celebrating that the drought of not seeing them has come to an end. A group of those adult cousins gathered at a Mexican restaurant this past Friday. There was laughter, oh yes, there was lots of laughter. There were hugs given multiple times, but definitely as we gathered in the beginning, and then again, as we left. There was talking, sometimes multiple conversations at one time. There was a lot of catching up to do; it was difficult to know which topic to tackle next. There were tears as we shared about health, children, worry about parents, loss, and much more.

But, most importantly, there was love. And that love is both a gift and a celebration.


I took a personal day this past Thursday, and spent the day with my friend from college. We began at the newly renovated art museum in our city, did lunch, and then browsed in the North Market, a space filled with a bounty of specialty foods.

At the museum, we made it to each and every exhibit, making time to discuss works of art that spoke to each of us, and allowing ourselves to be awestruck by the genius of the various artists. The exhibit of the featured artist, Melvin Edwards, is an area we spent a lot of time, reading about each of his pieces, and then bringing our life experiences to each piece to help us understand. I was amazed at his use of welding iron materials, chains, and barbed wire to make statements.

We had a delicious lunch at the new museum cafe, and then strolled the courtyard to discover even more wonderful pieces of art.

The North Market found us sampling, tasting, and buying many things. No plans for dinner that night?? -- no worries! We had it covered with our samples of this and that!

But, as fun as the art experience and food browsing was, much like with my cousins, it was the time to be together that made this a spectacular day. And it is a huge celebration that, almost 43 years after we first met, we are the kind of friends who are family. Another gift in my life.

A Marathon

Our youngest daughter ran the Nashville marathon yesterday, and got a Personal Best Record for her time. She had worked and trained with diligence. And then yesterday, she had to overcome some obstacles along the way - a delay of the start for 40 minutes due to lightning in the area, rain (heavy at times), humidity, and hills. If you've ever been to Nashville, you know there are hills everywhere, and over a 26.2 mile course, she ran many of them.

So, I'm very proud of her, and this accomplishment. I am celebrating for her diligence, her perseverance, her strength, and her PR.

I look forward to this next week, and whatever celebration awaits!