Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Hooray, I finally have my new blog up, "Hit the Ground Running," especially for new and high-spirited pedagogues! I will have a giveaway a week there for copies of HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING for a while, so please visit and spread the word.
In celebration of the launch, let's have some more back-to school books...this time, especially for older kids. The first pick especially belongs in every intermediate classroom!

EXTRA CREDIT by Andrew Clements, spot illustrations by Mark Elliott (Atheneum)

Rereading the letter, then looking more carefully at each picture, Abby felt ashamed of the letter she had sent to Afghanistan. As near as she could recall, she had spent about ten minutes on it. The letter she'd gotten back was so much...more...

But Abby's feeling of shame didn't last. It was replaced almost instantly by determination. Because she decided that her next letter was going to be even better.
Athletic and distracted, Abby Carson has been a flop at school, and it's a serious possibility that she'll be held have to repeat the sixth grade unless she can get B's on every single bit of her remaining schoolwork. She also must agree to complete an extra-credit project: an exchange of letters with a student in another country, and a display of the correspondence. Half a world away, hard-working Sadeed has been given a special assignment by his teacher: help his little sister answer the letter that has arrived at the school from an American girl. After all, having a boy answer her wouldn't be proper, and his little sister does not know English well enough to represent the village. But the urge to personally communicate and connect overwhelms Sadeed, and he soon abandons his role as his sister's ghost writer and enters into a secret friendship that could prove dangerous to the people he loves the most.

From the man often considered the master of the "school story" and author of the much beloved FRINDLE comes, in many ways, his most daring offer to date. While I can't attest to the cultural accuracy of the depictions of Afghanistan, there is an ambitious shift in the artist's craft here, not unlike when Beverly Cleary moved from writing her sunny RAMONA series to undertaking the more serious tone of DEAR MR. HENSHAW. Honest but never heavy-handed, this exciting and realistic read-aloud probes deeply into the decisions of the children as they drift away from the constraints of their assignments, and the story line offers so much to thoughtfully discuss. The mores of Sadeed's village conflict with modern values, but for how long? To what extent are children entitled to privacy? Abby learns to look at her Midwestern world with new, more appreciative eyes, and eyes that learn the hard way to hone in on the biases and agendas of others as she is forced to remove a part of her display that represents the faith of her faraway friend. Is this decision right or wrong? Both children are striving to find--and to articulate--their intentions of peace in a world of forces that circumvent their efforts in ways large and small, sometimes deliberately, sometimes thoughtlessly. This is a book about choosing battles, and patiently waiting for the world to change even when the change has already occurred inside of you.

Most interesting of all, though, might be the revisiting of the topic of old-school "snail mail" in an age of digital communication; besides setting gears in motion for geopolitical conversation in classrooms, it's also pretty sensational to use for starting off a unit about conventional letter writing. There was a time before IM-ing when the hard work of creating correspondence and tucking treasures in an envelope were representations not only of ourselves but of our cultures, inducing us to put our better foot forward, as the characters in this book soon discover. Even in the age of highly homogenized e-mail, letters still create connections by which empathy can come to fruition like Abby's cornfields in the sunshine, or, as Sadeed might put it, with the warmth of "the smile of God."
He stared at Abby's face, trying to connect the words he had just read with this girl he saw looking straight at him. At that very moment, gazing at her picture, Abby became a real person to him--someone who was intelligent, someone who loved being outdoors, someone who noticed the beauty of nature and the shapes of words. And her favorite color was green. And it struck Sadeed that right now he probably knew more about this Abby Carson in America than he had ever known about any other girl in his whole life, including his own sister.
Expect to well up with tears more than once from the sheer poignancy of this very good book. (10 and up)

Other penpal picks, old and new:
  • The sadly out-of-print but worth-finding-used COSMIC COUSIN by Nancy Hayashi, in which a girl exchanges letters with a mysterious classmate using library books as mailboxes (7 and up);
  • DEAR MAX by Sally Grindley and illustrated by Tony Ross, the refreshing boy-centered book about a fellow who pursues a long-distance friendship with an author, and in the process discovers how to deal with a bully (8 and up);
  • LONGER LETTER LATER, a realistic back-and-forth between two characters separated by a move and orchestrated by two great authors: the marvelous Ann Martin and the late great Paula Danziger (9 and up);
  • And! The latest installment in the trendy Mother Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick, DEAR PEN PAL, in which a group of eighth grade girls dive into Jean Webster's classic novel Daddy Long Legs via post.
Also of interest:
There's room on the shelf for more classroom fiction. Here are a couple of new books that are too cool for school (almost).

THE MAGICAL MS. PLUM by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Amy Portnoy (Knopf) Well, I've gotta hand out the gold star right away for most outstanding and evocative description of a teacher classroom set-up right on the first page, starting with "Ms. Plum had the best class in Springtime Elementary" before any of the kids even set foot in the room. That's the spirit! Ms. Plum isn't worried, because when she sends her students into the supply closet, they emerge with an animal "familiar" who will help guide them to a better version of themselves. A squadron of squirrels helps classmates see that awkward Darma is really someone special, a little donkey inspires Becky to unburden herself of her constant complaints, while a parrot induces Eric to let folks finish their own jokes. The author does a good job of creating tension amidst the formulaic by focusing in on Carlos, who doesn't seem destined to ever get to the supply closet at all. These magical, behavioral modifying vignettes bring to mind Betty MacDonald's 1957 classic MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE with a splash of Sachar's Wayside School. By the author of the bestselling picture book A VISITOR FOR BEAR, this book has high appeal for early chapter book readers who will wonder: what animal would follow me out of the closet? (7 and up)

THE HOMESCHOOL LIBERATION LEAGUE by Lucy Frank (Dial) Katya has come home from summer wilderness camp a changed girl. She has fallen in love, after all, though not with a boy... instead, she has a new passion for nature, which cannot be sated solely in her spare time. She runs away from school the way one might run away from home, and her parents reluctantly allow her to give homeschooling a try. The depiction of the parents is believable as they try to accommodate Katya's yearning toward learning, however, struggle with a the lack of tools to really make it work. Also a standout is the strangely effervescent tone of the writing; where the Katherine Hannigan's pensive, sensitive writing style has for a long time made IDA B the homeschooling queen bee (followed by Spinelli's shining STARGIRL for older readers), Katya will create her own buzz with a voice that has more in common with the writing of Ann Brashares' SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. Well-intentioned, Katya has a manic, impulsive streak, still cares about her circle of friends enough to lie about the "league" that doesn't exist (yet), she has crushes on boys, and makes a marvelous, well-meaning mess of her lesson plans as she and her family learn the hard way to differentiate between homeschooling and unschooling (curious grown-ups can discover the difference by examining Dayna Martin's RADICAL UNSCHOOLING and Nanda Van Gestel's THE UNSCHOOLING UNHANDBOOK and the movie SURFWISE). This book does an outstanding job of not relying on stereotypes of children attending either traditional or alternative schools; Katya has friends happily attending public school, while her homeschooled beau is ready for another path. On a level, this might be less of a school story than a survival story; it's a chronicle of a girl who is trying to defend her own love of learning from being quelled by the shortcomings of a system that has stopped feeding her particular spirit. Many children fantasize about being homeschooled, or going to "regular" school. The grass doesn't seem greener on either side of the fence in this thoughtful book. The message is clear: either way, getting an education is hard-earned...so why not have fun while you earn it! (12 and up)

On a personal note: A love letter to letters
I have to share my own enthusiasm for the subject of "pen-pals" that Clements brings up in his new book. Before finding my passion for children's books, letter-writing was definitely my thing! Sticker collecting was also a hot hobby when I was growing up, and I combined those interests to start a national sticker and pen-pal club called "The Best Friends Sticker Club," where for $5 and six self-addressed stamped envelopes, I would send cheerful newsletters and a handful of cool stickers to add to member collections. The initiative was picked up by the uber-80's-fabulous Stickers & Stuff Magazine (yes, there was a magazine, I even wrote regularly for it as a junior columnist!). My mailman was amazed when I received literally hundreds of beautifully decorated letters a week, pouring out of my little Chicago apartment building mailbox. I was amazed, too! I received hilarious audio tapes from Texas, loving little tokens from friends in California, envelopes written in sweeping, regal calligraphy from New York City, and marveled at a newsletter created by a buddy in Minnesota. By the time I was fourteen, I had hundreds of penpals from every corner, hill and vale of the country, and my little club took up so much of my time that I found it necessary to stay home from school on some days to keep up (thanks to Mom and Dad for being so awfully flexible; I think they must have been homeschoolers at heart).
In high school, I was connected to many friends even farther across the miles through the amazing, now defunct International Youth Service (IYS) (read the comments on this blog for a small taste of what a difference this service made in the lives of so many). There is a lot of lip service given to all that we have in common as people, but nothing brought that truth to light in my childhood the way those letters did. One penpal from the Congo would send me wish-lists, often requesting barrettes; I didn't appreciate her need at the time and fell out of touch, and can only shudder when I think of what her fate might have been, given the nightmarish conditions of her geographic area. A boy from Turkey sent me amazing letters of how he and his friends would torment a teacher by letting animals loose in the classroom. I have kept those letters, and they still make me (and the children I share them with) laugh out loud. After maintaining correspondences through my teenage years, I was able to travel all through Western Europe on my own when I was twenty, staying with my distant "sisters," experiencing lifestyles from the POV of people who really lived there. Later, one of my penpals from India came to live in the United States, eventually earning a Ph.D in molecular biology and becoming my son's godmother and holding a special place in my heart for twenty-five years. What wonderful adventures and friendships I have enjoyed thanks to pen-pals!

The pace of my modern adult life has been too dizzying to write letters they way I used to (and my parents are no longer in a position to write me a note of excuse from work). But even now, as I compose convenient e-mails with a zip and a zap, I know deep down there's a difference between that and trying to say something in your best handwriting, or choosing things from your life to write about with the care of arranging flowers in a bouquet to offer a new friend (though I still do try to do some of that here on this blog). There's something incomparable about seeing that stamp in a corner from a world away, and knowing, just as Sadeed and Abby discover, that you are about to receive something very, very rare and personal. This hobby led me come to appreciate what it means to be a citizen of the world in a whole new way, and taught me that everywhere you go, you are liable to find people that are good. Though IYS is no longer, you and your children can still check out International Pen Friends to start an adventure of your own.

What's the best letter you have ever received? Did you have a penpal growing up? Please share your stories in the comments section!

Hello: Know Other People Poster by Open for ReadyMade Magazine. Rights reserved by artist.
Pictures of stamps, coins and letters from Esmé's collections.
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to
support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.


Heidi Rabinowitz said...

I think Andrew Clements is a true genius and I can't wait to read this latest book. As to the long lost art of letter writing: my parents recently became snowbirds, and when they moved they kept a box of my old correspondence and shlepped it to their new house in Florida for me to look through when I visited. They knew that letters were too important to just throw away. When I went through the box I was completely blown away by the amount of time and effort that my friends and I used to put into writing. Sometimes we spent a whole page apologizing for the lateness of our letter or explaining that we had nothing much to say, but it was still worthwhile because it was friendly contact. One particular friend wrote incredibly clever, intricate, semi-fictional letters (sometimes in rhyme) that could only be understood by those few of us who shared the same in-jokes. Can you imagine taking the time to write a letter like that now??? I had a great time looking through these old letters - and yet, sadly, it didn't get me back into a letter writing groove. I am now a Facebook girl through and through, for better or for worse.

Amber Mann said...

I also had an overseas pen pal when I was in school. It was lots of fun for me. Thanks for sharing this big list of pen-pal books!

Unknown said...

I love your pen pal story! Perhaps there is a book in you about that subject. Can't wait to read Extra Credit. Sounds fantastic.
Congrats on the new blog!

McDonnellDoodles said...

What a great, great post -- and very timely for me! I just recently reconnected with my Canadian cousin through Facebook. We were reminiscing about being pen pals as kids. She says she kept my letters, and they have drawings all over the margins (I'm an illustrator now). How I wish I still had hers! I'm not sure what happened to them, but I DO vividly remember a diagram she drew explaining exactly how "Spin the Bottle" is played. (She is a year older than I and very generous with her wisdom.)

Brian said...

Great post.


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