Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Letter - The Mysterious Benedict Society

On Wednesdays, my posts will focus on my correspondence with a group of eighth graders and their teacher, Lisa Herschberger, who teaches English at Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana. We will be writing about the books we are reading, and Lisa and I hope to model how to talk about a story in more ways then just summarizing what happened. We hope to post our letters to and from each other, as well as letters from the students.

Dear Callie,

I was so excited to get your letter. I enjoyed reading the poem by Sara Lewis Holmes, as well as the excerpt from her blog. The part about eating cupcakes and painting her toes was a great example of “showing” instead of “telling” the reader an idea. We’ve been studying that in class, so it was a good reminder for us.

Letters from Rapunzel sounds like a fantastic book, and I have added it to my list of books I want to read. When you mentioned that you love to read books in letter form, I thought of Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, which is one of my favorite historical fiction novels. I loved it because the letter form helped me connect with the character, even though she was from a different time period. It’s been a long time since I read it, so I won’t go into detail here, but I highly recommend it!

The book I want to talk about today is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I had heard about this book from a few of my students last year and added it to my “Someday” list because I was really intrigued. When my daughter brought the book home from school one day a few weeks ago, I decided to read it along with her.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is one of the most unique books I have ever read. It’s about a boy named Reynie Muldoon, who responds to an ad in the newspaper recruiting “gifted children looking for special opportunities”. He is asked to complete a series of tests and challenges to see if he qualifies for this “opportunity”. Reynie passes the tests, along with three other kids. The four are sent to see Mr. Benedict, who informs them that he needs them for an important mission: to go undercover to the “Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened” and foil the plan of the evil Mr. Curtain, who is plotting to take control of society. During their quest, the kids are presented with a series of puzzles and mysteries to solve. One of the things I like about this story is that I was able to try to solve these right along with the characters. I love brain-teasers, and this story was full of them.

This book reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, with its quirky, mysterious characters. For instance, one of the characters, who administers the test to the kids, is called the “Pencil Lady”, because she is tall and skinny and wears a yellow dress, making her look like a pencil. She gives mysterious non-answers when she’s asked a question, just like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory. At one point, when Reynie asks her if she is lying to him, she answers, “That’s a perfectly reasonable question, Reynard. A perfectly reasonable question.” But she doesn’t answer him, which just adds to the mystery.

I also enjoy the subtle word play that is used throughout the story. I appreciate that the author respects his audience enough to trust that we will “get” the underlying jokes. At one point, the Pencil Lady tells the kids, to their horror, that “if any child is caught cheating, then he or she will be executed . . .”, only to later reassure them that she meant to say they would be “escorted from the building.” As another example of word play, one of the settings is “Nomansan Island”. This highlights one of the themes of the story: the fact that ‘no man’s an island’ . . . all four of the main characters must use their individual strengths together as a team in order to have any hope of solving the mystery, or even of surviving.

That brings me to what I like the best about this book. It explores the idea that intelligence comes in many different packages. The characters have very different strengths, and none of them would be able to complete the mission without the help of the others. One of them has a great memory for facts; another can perform almost any physical feat; still another is great at solving puzzles and “thinking outside the box”. They are all smart in their own way. It takes them a while to figure that out, but once they do, the results are astounding. This reminds me of a favorite quote of mine, by Albert Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I need to look for the unique gifts of my students, even if I have to dig a little sometimes. I wish every parent and teacher would do that!

I think a lot of middle school students – boys and girls – could really enjoy this book. As I was reading, I was asking myself which of the characters I could best identify with and which ones I would probably like the best. My answers kept changing as I was reading, which makes me think that a lot of different kids could relate to the story. It is a great mix of mystery, humor, and even a little science fiction. Many times as we were reading side by side, my daughter or I would laugh out loud or say, “I can’t believe that just happened!” and then go on to talk about our thoughts. My husband would ask what we were talking about, and we couldn’t explain it – we were together in our own world, with our shared understandings. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks for reading my long letter. I tend to have trouble stopping myself once I start talking about a book I love. I’m looking forward to hearing about what you’re reading next!



Friday, September 24, 2010

Washington DC Doesn't Know It, But It's Fall!

My book club this morning focused on Linda Glaser's story It's Fall!, a lovely story about the observations a young child makes as he's playing outside.  I think the illustrations in the book are quite impressive.  The artist, Susan Swan, used cut and hand painted paper to create the pictures.  This method seems to really make the pictures pop out of the page.  I almost felt cold while reading the story.


As I'm typing this on the second day of Autumn, it is 97 degrees in the Washington DC area.  We didn't get the memo that it's time to put away the flip flops and turn off the A/C.  But that didn't stop my little book club from enjoying the book and doing a few activities to go along with it.

First, we talked about what seasons are.  Hadley right away described a time when it snows and we get really cold.  Another member of the group brought up the Fourth of July.  We talked about the differences in weather in these two times of year, and I told them we go through four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.  I told the group that I would be reading a story about Autumn because that's the season we are in, despite how blasted hot it is outside.  (Sorry.  I think that's the last time I'll say something about the weather.)

So we read the story, and because one of the things it focused on was the changing of the leaves, we made 3-D trees. 
I cut paper plates in half for the tree part, then had the kids dip a cotton ball in water, swirl it in some paint (we tried to encourage the kids to use "fall colors"), and dab it on the plate.  For the trunk, I cut two slits in toilet paper rolls, and slid the "tree" part in the slits. 
I think they turned out pretty cute.  Of course, Hadley and Harper were using them later to fan themselves due to the extreme heat, so I guess they could be used as fans as well.  (Sorry.  Maybe that will be the last comment about the weather.)

After our tree project, we went outside on a little nature walk to see if we could find some of the things that were mentioned in the book we read.  I gave each of the girls a bag, and they walked all over collecting pinecones, leaves, and a few acorns.

After we collected several items, we sat down outside and decorated some pinecones.  We painted them with glue, and dusted glitter over them.  Sort of Christmas - y, I know, but I get confused in the extreme heat.  (Sorry.  That's probably the last comment about the weather.  Except if I make another one.)

We also did some leaf rubbings with the leaves we collected.
 We finished our time together with a festive snack of cinnamon applesauce, and homemade cookies in the shape of trees and pumpkins.  These were made by a very generous mother and the kids thoroughly enjoyed them!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wednesday Letter - Letters from Rapunzel

On Wednesdays, my posts will focus on my correspondence with a group of eighth graders and their teacher, Lisa Herschberger, who teaches English at Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana. We will be writing about the books we are reading, and Lisa and I hope to model how to talk about a story in more ways then just summarizing what happened. We hope to post our letters to and from each other, as well as letters from the students.

Dear Lisa,

For my first letter, I want to write about a book called Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes. I wanted to read this story for a few reasons. First, I read Ms Holmes' blog, and I like her writing a lot. The other day she wrote a post explaining why she hadn't been blogging lately. Instead of saying something like, "I haven't been blogging because I've been living my life.", she talks about making root beer float cupcakes and painting her toes "every color from Russian Navy to Diva of Geneva." What a lovely picture. I wonder if she ate the cupcakes while she was painting her toes?

I also love Ms Holmes poetry. Here is a poem of hers that creeped up on me, softly spoke to me for awhile, and left too soon, taking a part of me with it.

The Bones of January

I love the plainness of January

when I have taken down my Christmas

finery, and in the shock

of my home stripped bare, I see

the corners of my rooms

again. And outside, all is

stark, gray, glorious

with no false beauty to help me

pretend that I am satisfied.

In January, I kneel beside my children’s

sleeping faces, and let them break

the leafless branches

that cage my chest.

And outside, all is

undone. Roots rend

the earth like bones.

How did this happen?

That all should be taken


and that love,

love should be plain

as January?

---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Letters from Rapunzel arrived at my door last week, and I was excited to get started because I love books that are made up of letters. I think the first book I read on my own was Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and I stuck with it because I felt like I was reading someone's personal letters. I guess that makes me sound like a snoop, but really, I think letter writing is fantastic. What a lovely thing to sit down with a favorite pen, some nice stationary, and the confidence to know that the person you are writing wants to hear from you.

Cadence is the main character in the story, and she writes letters to Post Office Box #5667, signing them all "Rapunzel." She calls herself Rapunzel because she is trapped. Not so much like Rapunzel in the fairy tale, but she finds herself in an after-school homework club that feels a lot like the tower Rapunzel was trapped in. She has to spend time here now because her father is no longer at home in the afternoons to pop popcorn, drink root beer, and write poetry while she works on homework. Cadence believes he is under an evil spell and when she finds a portion of a letter he wrote to P.O. Box #5667, she decides to write letters to the person at this PO Box too, in hopes of finding out more about her father.

I liked this book a lot. First, I liked the observations Cadence makes. In one of her letters, she says that she prefers hand writing her letters to typing them. "Somehow they'd feel different if I were typing them. Why is that?" I like to hand write better then typing, too. I seem to think more carefully when I write my words out.

I also like Cadence's thoughts on Rapunzel and the other fairy tales like "Princess and the Pea" and "Cinderella." In one letter she wonders why Rapunzel never gets any older, but her hair keeps growing. Cadence notes that hair grows about six inches each year. "In the pictures, Rapunzel's hair is always about ten feet long, which would mean she'd have been in the tower about eighteen years (assuming her hair's already a foot long when the witch locks her in at thirteen years). She never gets any older in that tower, but her hair does! How weird is that?" Cadence also renames the title of a few fairy tales and I think they're so funny. She calls Cinderella, "The Complete Chronicles of Cinderella, from Fireplace to Fame, and All the Juicy Details in Between." My favorite is the tale of Goldilocks - "The True Tale of Goldilocks; and Her Adventures with Three Nameless Bears and Assorted Bowls of Porridge."

I think what I like the most about this book is Cadence's journey "into the woods." Cadence writes that "whenever one of us (she or her dad) is scared to try something new, we dare each other to go 'into the woods'", to a place where things might be scary or sad. I might be wrong, but I think I remember that in some fairy tales, the woods served as a place where the main characters shouldn't go. It's where bad things happen; things we shouldn't know about. But Cadence writes about going into the woods despite being scared or sad, because she wants to know the truth about what is going on with her father. In one scene when she learns what's happened with him, and she is truly in the thick of "the woods," surrounded by fear and sadness, she remembers something her dad wrote once: "You must be willing to have your heart broken in order to live." Cadence says that despite having her heart broken, she would do everything she did again. "Because otherwise I'd just be a silly princess, waiting for rescue."

I think Letters from Rapunzel is a great book for any of your eighth grade girls to read. Cadence is a strong, witty character and someone who I would want to be friends with if I were an eighth grade girl. If I were in the after school homework program with her, I would try to sit next to her, and after slyly passing a piece of bubble gum to her, I'd ask if she'd want to write a story together. Or maybe just talk about poetry for a little while.

I am looking forward to hearing about what you and your students are reading!



Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where I'm From

I stopped by The Book Chook yesterday and tried my hand at the writing prompt she had on her post.  It was fun and I ended up on her post.  Check it out!  (Follow the link in this post.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Doesn't Everybody Like A Story?

I got scolded once for reading outloud to my middle school students.  I was told that they should be reading for themselves, and my reading to them was simply enabling them.  I nodded my head and probably said something like "Thanks for your input", but it didn't stop me.  I loved to read out loud to my kids.  I remember once during a unit on Walk Two Moons the class and I could barely get through the scene where Sal's grandpa keeps taking those "darn snakes" out of his car to fix the "car-bust-er-ator."  The kids were giggling so much, and I couldn't keep a straight face either.  Or when, in the book Holes we meet the Warden for the first time.  The anxiety was almost palpable. 

The beauty of reading outloud, for me anyway, was that once I hooked the kids it didn't matter what was going on during the day with them.  I could pick up the book we were reading and the room would grow silent.  "Shut up!  She's gonna read!"  I loved that no matter who it was: shy girl, popular girl, bully, sports nut, they all lost themselves when the story started.

I thought about that tonight when Hadley and I read our stories together before she went to bed.

We talked a lot about Foo Foo the Snoo, and crocodile collars this evening.  We practiced reading with one eye shut, and talked a little bit about why the Cat in the Hat is in the book I Can Read With My Eyes Shut.  Before we started reading, Hadley wasn't super excited about going to sleep.  We had a little argument and it was a disruption, but once we started to read stories she and I got to share a few moments being in another world. 

I love the scene in "You've Got Mail" where Meg Ryan says, "Once you read a story it becomes a part of you."  Is it identifying with a character?  Is it being in another place for awhile?  Is it the ability to see your problems or life in a different light?  Whatever it is about reading, I agree.  The stories become part of us.  And reading them with friends, children, students, etc. seems to form a tight bond too.  I am thankful that no matter what has happened during the day, Hadley, and now Harper will have stories read to them before they go to bed.  I love sitting with them, pointing out objects with Harper, or discussing what, exactly, a "snoo" is with Hadley.  I know the stories they read are becoming part of them.  I hope they help us to remain a part of each other as well.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Summer's End

There is a great section in our library with seasonal books that I like to look through when I have a chance (read: I'm not running around after my kids stating over and over, "You need to be quiet in a library! Sshhh!!  Sshhh!  SSHHH!!!!!").  A few weeks ago I perused the fall section and found Summer's End by Maribeth Boelts.  It is now my official "favorite book of Summer 2010," and perhaps will be one of my favorites of the year. 

My instinct was to find books about starting school since Hadley will be in preschool this year.  However, Hadley isn't anxious at all about going to school.  If there is anything she's concerned about it is that she won't be able to return to school, or that she won't stay in school for as long as she likes.  I didn't want to read a book to her that might focus on someone being nervous about school, but I do like to read stories that mark time, and Summer's End describes the end of summer beautifully.  "The locusts are back, buzzing, and Great-Grandpa says that it means six weeks until the frost comes, and that means summer is almost over, and that means school is almost here." It always seemed that when the locusts came around it was August, the hottest part of summer, and I remember thinking as I heard them buzz that school would be starting soon.  And even though the main character, Jill, is not particularly looking forward to starting school, she marks the end of summer and the preparations she makes for school in a peaceful, nostalgic way. 

Jill mourns the fact that she has to wear new shoes, "black ones with the gold streaks of lightning" and would rather run around with her "summer-tough" feet.  Her new school clothes are uncomfortable, and she's not looking forward to making sure she is careful in them.  She gets a haircut and school supplies and has to clean her room before school starts.  She tidies up but keeps things she's collected over the summer like shells from the beach and "a snakeskin that the boa constrictor at the petting zoo shed."  I stop for a second and ask Hadley what she will remember about her summer.  She tells me, "Going to the Blue Mountains."  She's talking about the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I agree that was a fun time. I ask her if there is anything else and she says, "Fishing with Grandpa and eating ice-cream." 

On the last day of summer, Jill has her friends over and they "swim until the pool is full of grass, and have a war, and play three innings, and eat a root beer popsicle, and by then it is only noon. We sit on the porch and slap at flies and watch how carefully the man across the street mows his lawn.  There is nothing left to do."  So they begin talking about school. I love how the author subtly writes that Jill and her buddies are getting bored.  It reminds me of how I felt at the end of every school year in high school and college.  I would be so excited to "just have a job" and no school work, but by the end of the summer I would be itching to use my new pens, and mark up my new notebooks.  Even though there is anxiety about what the year would bring, there is excitement, too.  And I like how Summer's End shows this.

Jill's little sister is a little apprehensive on the first day of school, so Jill tells her all the neat things her teacher will do with her that year.  When they get to school, the girls see their groups of friends and dash over towards them.  Jill tells us that she runs "just as fast and as sure as my lightning shoes can carry me."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Several months ago I read a blog post by a mother who took her children outside one afternoon with a stack of books.  She laid a blanket down, and the children spent the afternoon reading.  She posted a picture that I can't get out of my head.  She'd taken a shot of her coffee cup, which was a beautiful teal and in it the coffee looked delicious.  The coffee had just been poured because it still had the bubbles in it, so I knew it was fresh.  Next to her coffee was something that looked like a knitting project she'd been working on.  And of course, there was a book next to that.  Lovely picture.  (I know it's a big no-no not to link back to a person's blog, but I can't remember what blog it was.  But woman with the teal coffee cup, the knitting, and the reading children: your picture was pretty cool.)

I looked at the picture and thought, "Hey!  I want to do that with my kids!"  I mean, I don't knit.  But I love coffee and I love to read.  So why not give it a try?  One afternoon after the girls woke up, I packed a little bag of books for them, and some reading for me and we headed outside.  It didn't work too well.  The girls wanted to play and I wanted to read.  They ended up running around while I read Vogue (I figured I should bring out something light since I wasn't sure how much attention I could give to my reading).

I tried again after I read a post about a "Book-nic" in Booklights.  Basically, instead of food, you put books on a blanket and read them.  The day I planned to have a "Book-nic" it was sweltering hot and I didn't want to sit outside, so I set it up inside.  This time, I took out not only reading books, but activity books I thought the girls would like to work on.  My sister-in-law, Shani, gave Hadley a book called The Scribble Book by Herve Tullet that is so much fun so I assumed it would be a hit.  And I took out a Sesame Street Sticker Book that Harper has enjoyed from time to time, too.  I figured having a variety of literature would work well.  Oh, and I made snacks.  Snacks go with everything, right?

My "Book-nic" didn't really work out so well.  Hadley kept asking to watch TV, and Harper ended up putting stickers all over her legs and arms.  Neither of them was in a reading mood, I guess.

That's Hadley underneath the blanket. 
Harper was into the Elmo's Big Lift and Look Book (another winner from Auntie Shani).
I tried, but it wasn't the warm-cup-of-coffee-peaceful-reading-afternoon I was hoping for.

However, I have noticed that the girls do choose to read during the day from time to time.  We read to them every day before bed and naptime, and I love that, but I also love that they like to pick up books and take a look at them by themselves.

Perhaps it's the modeling of reading that is important and not so much the activity.  That's fine, but I'm still dreaming of an afternoon of reading quietly with my girls and drinking a nice cup of coffee.  Maybe that'll happen when I learn how to knit.