Free as a bird: Summer Picture Book Reviews

books2017School is finally out here in Maine — we’re a bit late to the party, but it sure is nice! This past Saturday, my husband and I also celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary with a dinner date which included a visit to a bookstore. So, naturally, I took the opportunity to catch up on my picture book reviews.  Through sheer coincidence, I found several of them had a similar theme: birds and flying. So freedom fits naturally as a theme for today.

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Guest Post: Ted Manzer on “writing what you know”

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My brother, Ted (left), me (in the boat), my brother Jim (in the  back) and my sister, Margie, playing in the waters of Big Lake, Princeton, Maine.

When I was in grade school, my big brother Teddy graduated from college and went on to graduate school in West Virginia. As his car drove away, I bawled:  despite the fact that he’d often teased me mercilessly, I idolized my big brother.  Years later, that hasn’t changed much: I’m still amazed by him and the way he captures the hearts of his students, his skills in everything from home repair to fly fishing, and now I’m proud to promote him as an author. His first novel, Never Alone, was released last month and is now available on eBook as well.  It’s easy to be biased as his sister because the book includes descriptions which clearly hint at family members and describe familiar places such as our family’s camp in eastern Maine. But there’s more to “writing what you know” than just putting your surroundings on paper. I asked Ted to share with my readers just a bit about the process of crafting this story, which is part of a larger saga, and about what he loves and hates about the writing process:

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“Never Alone has been a part of me for a long time. I began writing it back in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series. The book has evolved tremendously. In fact, it has split into three books. Strange Courage and Second Chances have peeled off from the original (Originally titled Forgotten Virtues). Two more books now follow (Promises Kept and Grandfather’s Way), so it has evolved into a 5-book family saga. I felt it necessary to split things up to add more detail. Part of it was originally told by a father to his son. I didn’t think that worked very well.

I originally got the idea for the survival book from a dream. I dreamed I was the only survivor of a plane crash in a desolate rugged snow covered place. After that, I thought a book might be in the works and Carl Shae was born. He was a big Carl Yastrzemski fan, but young Carl was born before Yaz became a member of the Red Sox. I don’t really consider myself Carl. I’m more of a composite between Carl and Red. I have Red’s corny sense of humor.

The only character who is a true replica of my family is Carl’s grandfather, Ernie Murphy. Ernie Murphy is Frank (Lawrence) Robinson through and through. Although some of Carl’s experiences closely match things my family did when I was young, Carl’s siblings don’t really match up with mine very much. I figured if they did I might offend someone.

In the thirteen years since I first started writing this I have seen my writing skills evolve. Still, I don’t consider myself some kind of wordsmith, nor do I really wish to be. I like to write manuscripts that are easy to read. If I have to read a sentence three times to understand it I have no desire to continue. Reading should be fun. Back in 2010 I began writing a weekly newspaper column. It started as a foraging column but seven years later I’ve have to expand things a lot. I think the newspaper experience has helped me to become a better editor. It’s made me tighten  my writing and make my words count.

Being a teacher, I’m inundated with writing material every day. Several of the later books are peppered with my teaching experiences. Names have been changed to protect the innocent of course. I also plan to use many of my columns to write a series of practical suburban foraging books called Backyard Treasures. I want to break things out into different geographical regions. My biggest obstacle right now is taking additional pictures. I’ve also written a tragic love story (Virginia) set in rural West Virginia just to prove to myself I can be versatile.

I think if I had to encapsulate the whole process, writing is the fun part. Enjoy that and never let the rest of the process make you quit. Submitting manuscripts is tedious and frustrating. I hate it.

I’m a storyteller. I’ve come to the conclusion that I write a better story than I do a query letter. If Never Alone and the books that follow are successful I’ll be thrilled. If they aren’t I’ve had a wonderful time writing them.”

-Ted Manzer


Never Alone is available through Amazon and other booksellers. You can read Ted’s newspaper columns archived on his website and blog: https://tedmanzer.com/.  He is also on Twitter at @TedManzer.

 

So, I gave a little speech yesterday…

AATGTea2017cThis spring I was voted in as president for the Maine chapter of the AATG (American Association of Teachers of German).  It’s work I’m proud to do, but it’s not quite as glamorous an honor as it sounds, since ours is a small chapter, so there are few of us to do the work. Nevertheless, it puts me in touch with German teachers across the state and it’s a wonderful way to develop in my profession.  Yesterday was an annual event we hold at the governor’s mansion (called the Blaine House) to honor the achievements of our German students. Our main speaker was Dr. Jay Ketner, the World Languages Specialist for the Maine Department of Education, but I gave a few remarks before his speech and seeing as this blog is all about a love of writing AND languages, I thought I would share it with my readers.

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Mother’s Day PB Reviews: Inspirations

booksmay2017One of my Mother’s Day gifts today was time: a few uninterrupted hours by myself including time to read a slew of picture books at the local bookstore. Although it’s been a while since my last PB Review blog post, I have been reading a lot of picture books, I just haven’t had time to immerse myself in them enough to write quality reviews. So my family’s gift to me becomes my gift to you.

There’s a theme to these books:  they are all written by people I consider as inspirations for my writing, two of whom I’ve actually met, and all of whom I follow on Twitter. I’ll say a little more about those connections in my reviews, so let’s get right to them:

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When the “reluctant reader” is your kid…

RobbieReadsWhen I was about 12, my parents and I went on a 3 week road trip across the country to visit my older sister in Colorado. In addition to my suitcase, I had a “carry-on” sized bag which was FILLED with books. I slowly went through them all on the course of the trip, reading my way though Indiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, etc. As a teenager, I remember staying up until 2am finishing a book one New Year’s Eve. Years later, I still consider myself a book lover, even though I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to. (I’m a teacher, so it’s really hard for me to find time outside of summer vacation).

The point here, is that when I hear people say they “don’t read” or “don’t like to read,” my heart sinks. I hear that from my students a lot, and it is like a punch to my gut, but since I don’t teach English, I try not to take it too personally.

When it’s your own kid? It’s a whole different story.

Thankfully, I haven’t yet heard the “I don’t like to read” line from my boys (they are 8 and 11), but the truth is, they are not yet truly “readers” in the way I would like.  Up until recently, getting them to read was a real chore and there were many afternoons when I had to cheat a bit when filling out the dreaded “reading log” for school. It hurt.

Mind you, reading aloud before bedtime was different– from picture books to Harry Potter to our obsession now with Percy Jackson, they love hearing me read to them. They clearly have respect and interest in storytelling, so that helps.  But a passion for the feel and smell of books? An addiction to grabbing the next book in a series and devouring it in a sitting? Not so much.

Until now. Without wanting to jinx anything, I can share that I’m starting to see the beginnings of a real love of reading in my boys, and for that, I am truly grateful to the authors of several fantastic series:

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While you were out…

John Lennon once said “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I have been pretty busy lately, so I guess a lot of life has happened. I apologize for the lack of picture book reviews to those following my blog– they will have their triumphant return, I promise! I’ve been reading plenty of them, but the posts take a long time to put together. In the meantime, my literary life has been pretty full of other things (above and beyond my day job which right now involves scrambling to get grades in for the end of the quarter):

  1. My first “open-mic night”: Tonight I was a guest reader at my local public library’s annual “Community Poetry Night” to celebrate National Poetry month. I read five of my poems — forgot how much I love performing!
  2. Coaching my school’s Speech & Debate team: I am the assistant coach for our team and the past two months were filled with state competition and national qualifiers. Our small school is sending three competitors to nationals! I love working with these talented students and encouraging their love of words!
  3. Entering a writing contest!  I am excited to announce that I was named a finalist in Michelle Hauck’s “PB Party”!  My picture book “The Great Holiday Cookie Fight” and 26 other finalists will be going in front of agents on April 5th! Wish me luck!

And finally…

4.  Sparking a love of reading in my sons!! That’s hands down the biggest accomplishment of the bunch! Both of my boys are quite bright but reluctant readers and BOTH have managed to find series they are thrilled with. Max just finished up the “Wimpy Kid” series (Jeff Kinney) and has read the first book in the Origami Yoda series (Tom Angelberger).  Meanwhile, Robbie (8) can’t get enough of Ursula Vernon’s “Dragonbreath” series. All three are great, creative, unique creations and I’m thrilled.

And in the category of not specifically literary, but definitely linguistic, I’ll be traveling to Germany and Austria next week with 20 of my German students. We will spend 12 days visiting the sights and spending time with our sister school outside Stuttgart.  Introducing these kids to the magic of travel and watching as they interact with a new culture is the best part of my job and a definite inspiration for future writing.

So, watch this space! I’ve got some great things planned once life slows down a little!WimpyKid

Your turn…Game play as writing inspiration

gamepicMy sons got several games for Christmas and I bought another one at a recent after-Christmas sale. We love playing games at our house, and I realized during our gameplay this vacation that not only am I spending awesome quality time with them, but I can also consider it an important writing exercise. While strategy games like chess or Parcheesi may not be particularly inspiring linguistically, there are plenty of games which exercise the imagination.

Our newest game, “Pickles to Penguins” is an excellent example. This game is played with a huge deck of double-sided cards containing photos of everyday objects such as a kitchen sink, a lion, or a beach ball. Two cards are face up on the table and each player has a stack of their own cards. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards by drawing connections between one of your cards and one of the cards on the table.

For example, in the photo shown, one of the “community” cards is a playground slide, and one of “my” cards is a banana. I could say “Sometimes people slide on a *banana peel* like they slide on a *slide.*”  You are not allowed to make the same connection twice (such as stacking animals on top of each other) or to connect things by simply their starting letter or background color. The remaining cards before me in the photo are “polar bear,” “ball,” “cello,” and “tiger.” Which of those can somehow connect to “banana” or “earrings”? The easy play is probably “ball”, the same round shape as the circles on the earrings…but you can see how making connections with words quickly leads to innovative thinking!

When I played with my 11 year old, we kept the pace relaxed and basically took turns, but the game could easily become frenetic with more equally matched competitors. (And if you try to make a connection which is too far-fetched, your opponents can penalize you!) Meanwhile, it was great mental gymnastics for me as I tried to force myself to make creative connections, and it was an equally useful learning experience for my son, who went from “they’re both animals,” to “they’re both mammals,” to “They’re both things you use on vacation.”

The title “Pickles to Penguins” might remind you of another classic party game which involves making creative connections:  “Apples to Apples.” Aside from being pretty hilarious, a few rounds of that game is bound to remind you of ways you can combine nouns with unexpected adjectives to make your writing more fresh and less cliché. Even a quick look at a finished Scrabble or Bananagrams board is a good way to brainstorm a new story or plot twist.

There are many other lesser-known games which can inspire writers, however. Some of my favorites are those with inherent story-telling characteristics. Three great examples to look into are “Rory’s Story Cubes,”  “Nanofictionary,” and “Once Upon a a Time.” In all of those games (which I highly recommend you check out), you create a story using elements on cards or dice either cooperatively or competitively. And of course, there’s also the world of Role-playing games (probably worthy of a separate post entirely), which are by their very nature, cooperative storytelling and a phenomenal way to work out a story. Dungeons & Dragons is one example, but there are many, many other systems out there to let you create just the kind of story world you would like to immerse yourself in.

So, don’t feel guilty about game night! Get out there and spend some quality time with friends and family– just think of it as another form of professional development!

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