Best books of July 2010

Here we go, it’s the end of another month. So, what is the best book you read this month? It could be fiction, nonfiction…any genre. What book did you really enjoy? Or, what book made a major impact on you? Please use the comment space to share the title and author and to tell just a snippet about your book to whet our readers’ appetites.

For me, my best book for this month is one that has been most meaningful. I’ve been going through a transitional period in my life and working through a number of issues including questions of what I’ve accomplished, my value as person, and coming to terms with the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish  in my past and personality. So this month (actually this whole summer) I decided to reread the workbook to Beth Moore’s Bible Study of Isaiah, Breaking Free: The Journey, The Stories. There was a particular set of lessons, week 6, entitled “Beauty from Ashes” that I just yearned to revisit. And it was such a blessing!

Moore’s gift is to help women comprehend how precious and beloved we are to God. I tend to be the kind of person who picks on myself, and the vision these chapters give of God’s passionate love and gracious good will toward me were spring water to my thirsty heart. I am so loved, and so are you!

In the fiction arena, I’ve just begun reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, and I knew from these words in “Chapter 2” that this is going to be a book I will thoroughly enjoy. Funke writes:

“Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange. They were familiar voices, friends that never quarreled with her, clever, powerful friends—daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventurers who had traveled far and wide. Her books cheered her up when she was sad and kept her from being bored (Funke 15-16). ”

I have not found myself bored yet, and I am up to chapter 16.

So, what is your favorite book you read this month?

What Might You Read With Your Kids?

Last post, I suggested you might want to take advantage of the summer evenings to read aloud with your kids outdoors. But what should you read? There are always award-winning books—The American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott’s being the best known of an interesting range of awards.

However, the children’s literature field is far deeper than the handful of books that receive awards each year. Another option for reading as a family might be books that are presently popular with your kids’ peers. Your child can likely tell you what these are.

Or, perhaps you might want to share some favorites from your youth. My youngest son and I had a blast with Edward Eager’s Half Magic Books, and when my daughter and I read the wedding chapter in the final book of the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, she had to take the book out of my hands and read it to me because I was crying so!  If you can’t recall any favorites, here are some tried and true selections that I think you and your kids would enjoy.

With younger children, you might want to bring out a handful of picture books. Miss Rumphius, by Caroline Cooney is one of my favorites, but my kids faves were any Berenstain Bear book they could lay their hands on. And don’t forget nursery rhymes and poetry, particularly with preschoolers. My son loved their bumping, tumbling cascade of sound and as a result took pure pleasure in finding rhymes on his own.

If you have elementary and middle school kids, treat them to some classics from the past. Any Beverly Cleary book is great for sharing as a family, and Beezus and Ramona is out in theaters this summer, although it reverses the title to Ramona and Beezus. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles are some of my very favorite books, but if you’re up for something a little more contemporary, any of Andrew Clements’ books make great reading, and all three of my kids (both my sons and my daughter)enjoyed Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, Bloomability, and Chasing Redbird .

YA novels are hot even with adults this year, and you don’t have to love vampires to find something to read. There are contemporary selections, other types of fantasy, even historical fiction. Roseanne Perry’s Heart of Shepherd is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up about a boy whose father is fighting in Iraq. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books are perennial best-loved books. I particularly love Megan Whalen Turner’s series beginning with The Thief, which she has finally followed up with a fourth book,  A Conspiracy of Kings. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

You don’t necessarily even have to read novels with older kids. There are great collections of short stories grouped around a wide range of topics. And, my particular love, collections of folktales from every corner of the world.

If you can’t find anything you like on your own bookshelves, check out the local library or bookstore. Maybe subscribe to Cricket, or one of the other Carus family of magazines. Then stretch out with your family on the lawn, catch that gentle evening breeze, and read. Together.

Summer Evening Read-Aloud

You don’t have to go camping to enjoy a good book with your family in the great outdoors. Take advantage of the beautiful summer evenings and begin a peaceful ritual that builds togetherness, provides pleasurable entertainment, and invests in both a love of reading and an increase in reading skills for your child.

In short, take a blanket and a book out to your lawn (or with you to a local park), kick off your shoes, and you and the kids get comfortable for a great read-aloud. You don’t even have to do all the reading. Pass the book around and let everyone have a chance at both the reading, and relaxing and enjoying.

Although it may not seem so, listening to literature read aloud is a great means for building kids’ literacy skills and is something teachers often don’t have the time for in test-driven schools. It gives children the opportunity to practice visualizing what is read. It allows them to enjoy the story without what for some might be a good deal of labor. It provides practice at following a plot line, connecting cause and effect. And it helps build your child’s vocabulary.

Furthermore, if you vary your fare, it can introduce kids to a variety of genres. It has been my experience that sometimes reluctant readers are not truly reluctant at all, but merely haven’t found their genre yet, and when they do, just watch them soar!

So grab that book and that blanket, and enjoy some family time outdoors.

Books: Lighthouses on the Sea of Time

Sometimes as a writer, particularly as a novelist who has not yet found a publisher for my novel, I get discouraged. I wonder why I am still putting in the hundreds of hours I have already invested in the writing.

Then I stumble on a quote in my reading that comforts, reassures, and empowers me to take up my mechanical pencil once again.

Such is the following, written by the historian, Barbara Tuchman, and included in Leonard Goss and Don Aycock’s The Little Handbook to Perfecting the Art of Christian Writing, page 8.

Here are Tuchman’s thoughts on books:

Books are carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature is dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasure of the mind. Books are humanity in print.

Don’t you love it! The phrase “lighthouses erected in the sea of time” captivates me, and inspires me to create a work that will be a light for my readers.

Of course, nowadays, it is not just paper, cloth, and leather books that serve this purpose, it is plays, newspapers, magazines, e-books, videos, websites, and blogs as well. Yet at their heart, all require the same thing—someone who had an idea, thought about it, considered its pros and cons, imagined new variations of it, and wrote it down.

I like that as a historian, Tuchman included literature in the realm of vital words we would be missing without books. And I am energized and inspired to serve well in the literary realms to which I’ve been called.

Questions to Consider When Selecting Art for Writing Prompts

I had such a great time at the art fair last week. I walked up and down every aisle and peered into every booth. And for once, in addition to being there to feast my eyes, I was also on a mission to seek and find…art, for you.

As I looked at each artist’s creations my questions moved beyond “Do I like this? Why or why not?”

Instead I was admiring things like the sweep of energy in a piece. I was looking for characters young people might find interesting to write about, situations that might stimulate their imaginations, environments that could frame a flight of fiction, or artifacts that could reflect on the kind of person or creature that would use them or the circumstances in which they would be employed.

It was so fun!

Although the first artist I spoke to turned me down flat when I asked if she would be interested in having her art appear as a writing prompt to stimulate literacy in the home, (and it took me two rows of booths to get my courage up to even ask again!) everyone I finally spoke to was enthusiastic. Many of the artists possessed a strong commitment to young people and literacy. One said yes because he “had been a kid once.”

In all, I collected enough contacts to feature an art prompt every month, maybe twice a month if you, my readers show interest.

So, happy reading and writing! We’re going to have some fun!

Writing With My Granddaughter

       I had a great time at the art fair and have much to report, but not today.

My two-almost three-year-old granddaughter spent the night last night and we’ve been too busy having fun. (She’s napping right now, but since it’s not at home in her own room, I’m not so sure how long it will last. )

We’ve had a good time–making Valentine birds (a favorite activity ever since I sent her the pieces to make some for Valentine’s day), reading, doing puzzles, making oatmeal cookie bars, and writing. Yes, I said writing.

As you can see, we engaged in a fun pre-writing activity. (In this case not a planning to write activity, but an activity for young people who do not yet know how to read and write–preschoolers–like my granddaughter.)

What you do is cut out a shape, in silhouette, from colored paper. Make it large enough for you to write a couple of sentences on. Then ask your preschooler what she would like to say about your subject and write her words down as she speaks them.

You should have seen how fascinated Grace was to see what she had to say about pinecones appearing in print as she spoke. When done, of course, read your preschooler’s words back to her, let her decorate the shape, or tell you more. It’s a great way for young people to experience the way words and writing reflect what they may think and say.

Grace just got back from the family trip to Yosemite. I have a tall ponderosa pine tree waiting for us to record her vacation memories after she wakes up :-)

I’m Going to the Art Fair

I am going to the Salem Art Fair today, one of my favorite local events (my other favorites being the two or three fireworks displays shot off each summer). I love art. My learning style is decidedly visual, so wandering the booths of the art fair just feeds my creative spirit.

I will be taking a sketch pad, pencil, and a handful of colored pencils (as well as a hat to keep the sun off my head—this is an all day adventure—and sunscreen and money for lunch).

What I love to do is walk the rows of booths, every row! And I love to look at every piece of art on display. If I find something particularly striking I’ll sit down at one of the many picnic tables interspersed in the grass between each row and either describe it (practicing my descriptive writing skills) or sketch it just for fun. Sometimes an object or picture might inspire a snippet of dialogue between two characters. I’ll jot it down along with any story background that occurs to me. Or it might inspire a setting I’d love to someday fill with a story. I’ll take the time to write that down too. I pick up business cards, which often have inspiring pictures of the artist’s work on them, brochures, etc. and come home with a wealth of material to inspire future writing.

Because my way of enjoying the fair is so idiosyncratic, I go alone. Occasionally, I think, I should invite a friend, fearing a day amongst people who are both socializing and looking might make me feel a bit lonely. However, once I am there, I am glutted with visual beauty and the words they inspire, and the voices in my head and those I capture on paper are company enough for a lovely summer afternoon.

Art Fair Scavenger Hunt

The Salem Art Fair opens on Friday. I’ve had it marked on the calendar for the last two months. I love the art fair. However, I do not love dragging bored kids through the art fair. So if you have kids and you love art fairs, here’s an idea that might make it fun for all.

Check out your art fair in advance. Usually they are promoted in local papers and many have their own websites. Find out what kinds of artwork will be on display. Then make a scavenger hunt list for your kids (maybe make each unique by not putting all the same items on each list).

You can have your kids hunt for things by medium—watercolor, pastels, stained glass… In addition you can have them hunt for objects—a ceramic mug, a picture of a forest, a beaded necklace…  And you can even focus on colors and taste—something red, something blue, your favorite picture, your favorite yard ornament.

If your kids have cameras, or if you want to invest in disposable cameras for each, they can snap pictures of each item as you tour the fair. But even without cameras, they can check each item off their list and mark down the booth number and artist’s name.

For an extra bonus, once you’ve viewed the entire fair, let each child return to his or her favorite piece of artwork. Have them look at it a second time, write a description of it and a paragraph explaining why they liked it so much. Then go buy an ice cream or a slushy, sit down in the shade, and ask them to share their responses. Be sure to praise a good description or well-turned phrase.

You can even participate in the hunt, too and share your own response with your family. It makes for a day of art appreciation, family fun, and building of writing skills. It’s a great three-in-one.

Story Writing Postcards

The school year keeps family members busy—between schoolwork, homework, jobs, sports, music lessons, and other enrichment opportunities. So busy in fact that even kids who love to write fiction really don’t have time to indulge in creative writing.

But summer… Ah, now there is room. I can remember how the days of summer seemed to stretch forever, a rich treasure to be savored and enjoyed. Now that your child has a little of this precious time on his hands, here’s an activity that can keep her happy and writing into the school year.

Buy your child a stack of index cards—4×6 or 5×8 inches, depending on how wordy he is and how large or small she writes. Help him to choose and invite a friend or family member (this is a great opportunity for long-distance grandparents) to participate in her story writing venture.

Then, have your child begin to write a story on the lined side of the card, but not end it. Tell him to leave his reader hanging with some action yet to be resolved. Then address and stamp the blank side and put it in the mail to her writing partner.

The partner is then to read the story, write what happens next, also on an index card and also not completing the tale, and send it back to your child. This exchange can go on as long as the two of them want to keep exchanging episodes. The nice thing about the index card format is that writing and responding never becomes too huge or onerous a task.

I remember how much I loved to get mail when I was a child, and this is a fun and different way for your child to maintain a regular correspondence. As I’ve said before, the more time your child spends reading or writing, the better reader and writer she becomes.

So why not help him or her embark on little summer writing fun?

Family Reunion/Yosemite Reunion

Most of my mom’s side of my family is in Yosemite this week. It’s a tradition that started in the early 70’s when we all lived in California and has continued unbroken, as a family tradition at least, until today. Although I am not with them this week—the journey is too long and the costs too high for the modest lifestyle my husband and I have chosen—I am there nonetheless in my heart.

I try to go at least every other year because this reunion provides a wonderful opportunity to get to visit with a lot of people–aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends all day and into the night, all in one place for a week. I love my California people and miss them still, despite having lived in Oregon for over twenty years.

And I also love the place. It is a precious thing to have a history with a place. I know Wawona, our particular corner of the park, when the water in the swimming hole is high, icy, and foaming, and when it is low, placid and warm amongst the rocks. When I cannot sleep at night I close my eyes and I am floating on a gently bobbing raft, with the silvery-granite Wawona Dome watching over me.

I have two favorite walks, both along the river. One is a short walk to the “Broken Bridge” where wild honeysuckle grows to one side of the path and sectioned reeds to the other, with ponderosa pine providing dappled sun and shade. It was the first “hike” I ever took my children on, and last year I enjoyed sharing it with my granddaughter, Grace.

My other favorite is “The Island Walk,” which, as my name for it implies, is along an island, long and narrow so the water sings to both sides of you. Tall pines make it like the walk through a gothic cathedral with all those fluted trunks reaching up to support the sky. It is a place I go to be peaceful, a place that comforts me.

As it is located alongside a river, our Wawona home changes subtly over time. We’ve been going there long enough that trees, no more than three feet tall when I sketched them in the late seventies now tower over our gathering spot. The sandwich shop has opened and closed. The school has tripled in size.

Yet in the end, Wawona is always Wawona, and just the scent of mountain misery takes me to my summer home. My life has been enriched because of this tradition and this place. Thank you, Jim, who got us started going there, and thank you to all the generation that came before me to make it a tradition.

What about you? Does your family have a special reunion tradition? Do you have a place you love and return to again and again and again? Tell me about it. I am eager to hear your traditions.