Best Books of the Month

Here it is, the end of another month and time for us to blog (both you, my readers, and I) about our favorite books.

As usual, I can’t narrow my selection down to just a single title so I’ll give you two, one old and one new.

In the category of women’s fiction, I highly recommend Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers. I realize this book has been out for some time. Both friends and writing teachers have recommended it. This book broke my heart. I used to be a crier, but I’ve noticed over the last ten years or so that I don’t cry as much over books as I used to. This book, however, made up for the decade. It’s set in Gold Rush California and plays off the Old Testament Book of Hosea. The things that happen in the protagonist’s life before she even reaches the age of ten were almost unbearable to read. However, the novel is worth weeping your way through. Remember the title. When you feel like your heart is going to break if you read one more word, it will encourage you to read on.

In the category of young adult fiction, I finally read Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings. I have been dying to get my hands on this book ever since I learned it was coming out and I guarantee you, I was not disappointed. It is the fourth book in a series that began with the Newbery Honor book The Thief. I stayed up way too late every night I was reading this book and finished it way too soon, but I could not leave it alone. The narrative is fascinating and presents mysteries within mysteries in a world that echoes with similarities to the western and eastern civilizations of our past. I highly recommend this book. However, if you have not read the preceding books, read them first. The string of four reveals a fabulous unfolding of story. You don’t want to miss a moment of it.

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Some Thoughts on Creativity

Loving to read as I do, I sometimes get oversubscribed to magazines. I try to read every magazine for each month that month. If I can’t, however, I don’t throw it away. Instead I toss it into a pile and try to get to it eventually. That’s how I ended up reading an article about Creativity, “Who Me, Creative,” by Jane Rubietta (Today’s Christian Woman, March/April 2007, taken from her book, Resting Place)).

I am very interested in the nature and characteristics of creativity. After all, that’s what fuels my own call to write. A few points Rubietta makes are worth sharing.

First, she identifies creativity as a quality that is expressed by using old things in new ways, and asserts it is a trait all people possess to some degree. “Resourcefulness, ingenuity, and inventiveness” (Rubietta 33) are all characteristics of creativity.

And, yes, she acknowledges, creativity can be employed in the crafting of works of art, but you don’t have to be a professional artist, musician, or author to exercise it. The creativity it takes to put your thoughts into words and write a letter of encouragement to a friend can be more uplifting to his or her spirit than the finest novel.

The degree of creativity we exercise impacts how we handle our lives, how we deal with limitations, and how we rebuild after setbacks. Creativity can make a budget work better or the performance of a task more productive.

Rubietta writes, “So much of creativity is choosing to look for—and celebrate—life in the midst of what feels like death. Attitude converts limitations into actions and creativity.” And, she observes, “the deeper our need or the more desperate we are, the more creative we tend to be” (Rubietta 34)

Practice creativity in your life. Look at familiar situations with new eyes. Ask “What if?” That question was the beginning of Set in Stone, a middle grade novel for which I am now seeking publication. It’s also how I’m going to deal with my double-paned French door that’s become all fogged up between the glass. What can you apply a little creativity to today?

New Day for Writing Prompts

Starting next week, writing prompts will be posted on Fridays, shifting the Literate Lives blog schedule to a Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday configuration.

Reading Response posts will continue to appear on Sundays, so that parents and teachers who wish to use them that week with their kids will have a new one available at the beginning of each week.

Monday will be a writing blog day, where I will touch on various aspects of writing ranging from writing for yourself, school, and publication.

Wednesdays will be reading days. These posts will focus on reading for both pleasure and information.

The first Monday or Wednesday of each month will still feature a Teacher’s File Drawer post—an assignment that can be adapted for school, home, or homeschool to further develop young peoples’ language arts skills.

The first Friday will be the new day for each month’s poetry prompt.

The third Friday will be the day for art-based writing prompts. (Didn’t you just love Christopher Bibby’s painting featured a week ago! He has so many cool paintings on his site. If I didn’t have so many other business cards for artists I met this summer, I could just feature him for a year!)

The last Monday or Wednesday of each month will continue to be “Favorite Book of the Month” day. I will probably continue to have trouble narrowing my reading down to one favorite book. And please, I so want you to contribute your favorites and those of your kids. My hope is to build up a resource to help people to find excellent books to read themselves or to share with children of any age. So…it’s coming up soon. I’m counting on your contributions.

Write First!

Ten years ago, just as my writing was beginning to sell, I took a break from my writing life to earn my masters degree in education and teach English/Language arts first in high school level, and then, where I had really wanted to be, in middle school.

When my youngest son graduated high school, I decided it was time for me to graduate as well and return to writing. I have spent this last year and three months learning about the changes that have occurred in the children’s publishing industry, polishing up manuscripts that had been neglected for nearly a decade, studying markets, going to conferences, and submitting to publishers and agents. And I’ve felt frustrated. My writing just didn’t seem to be moving anywhere with any speed.

And then I came across Leonard Marcus’ The Wand and The Word. It contains a series of interviews Marcus conducted with a number of well-known, highly regarded writers of children’s and young adult fantasy. Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, and Jane Yolen are just a few of the many beloved authors included.

In putting together the interviews, Marcus asked each author a similar series of questions, and as I read interview after interview, it finally came clear to me what my own pursuit of a writing life is lacking.

The answer is so obvious! I am embarrassed to confess it had eluded me for so long. The answer is to write. To write first. Almost every writer said they wrote daily.

I had been working at writing—learning about the impact of social networking on the business, researching publisher and agents to whom I might send my work, submitting manuscripts and resubmitting manuscripts. Not only had I worked at it, I’d carved out a weekly schedule so no area of the writing business got neglected.

What I forgot to do is make sure I have time to write.

Well, thank God it’s September, my new year. And this month I am turning over a new leaf. All my little plans and schedules have been revamped. This month I began writing first. Every workday, I get two hours for writing before I dedicate myself to any of the business of writing. I cannot tell you the joy I feel. I love to write! At last I have given myself permission to do it.

Why Write?

Ever since I began writing for publication, I have collected quotes about writing. Why? For inspiration, to learn from those who have gone before me, and to help justify the huge expense of time being a novelist requires me to invest in this endeavor.

Now it is a pleasure to look through my collection, savoring the words of writers on this craft we love. And sometimes as I browse, quotes appear in interesting juxtapostion with each other. Here is one such set of three:

“We have art so we shall not die of reality.” – Nietzsche

“You have to follow your own voice. You have to be yourself when you write. In effect, you have to announce, “This is me, this is what I stand for, this is what you get when you read me. I’m doing the best I can—buy me or not—but this is who I am as a writer.”— David Morrell

“Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom.

“That is why we write.” – Neil Gaiman

That is a very good reason to write, because someday my story or your story will reach a person who needs it. And maybe that story will not only help this person survive reality, but empower him or her to move forward into the future with a little bit more wisdom, a little more hope, and maybe even a desire to help someone else with their own overwhelming reality.

Play with Your Words for Preschool Age Children

Sometimes I am concerned that my blog might frustrate potential readers. Family literacy may seem like a pretty focused topic, but it encompasses a large number of subtopics and audiences of various ages.

Literate Lives is about reading, but it’s not just for book lovers. It’s about writing, but it’s not just for writers. It’s for parent’s, but addresses issues that might interest younger and older people, alike. It’s for students and teachers, yet they too do not compose the sole audience.

There is one age group in particular whose needs I do not address as frequently as their families’ might wish, yet whose concerns form the foundation of a literate lifestyle. I’m talking about non-reading, non-writing preschool age children.

Thursdays’ Play with Your Words posts have primarily targeted those who can write. However, I’d like to suggest ways you can adapt Play with Your Words into a meaningful activity for you and your younger child.

Generally, use the Play with Your Words prompt as a stimulus for conversation.

More specifically Play with Your Words exercises, the art prompts in particular, can be used to help your pre-reader to make the connection between the thoughts in their minds, the words you and they speak, and words on a page.

Show your preschool age child the art prompt. Discuss it. Ask your child to point out things he or she observes in the painting. Finally, ask your child to tell a story about it and write down what he or she says. If your preschooler needs some encouragement, maybe suggest a start like, “There once was…” or that old fairy tale gem, “Once upon a time.” You can also help your child by taking turns adding sentences to the story. If he or she gets stuck, ask questions like, “What happened next?” or “How did that feel?”

Also, collect your child’s stories in a binder or portfolio. Encourage him or her to draw pictures to go with them. Reread them together as you would a published book.

Make this a fun, cozy time for you and your child. The pleasure and comfort of this time you spend exploring literacy will remain an association when your child begins to read and write for him or herself. Embrace the reading writing lifestyle. Remember it is not just about an important life skill but an activity that can bring pleasure and expand the mind.

New! New! New! Play with Your Words Art Prompt

At last, my first art inspired writing prompt is ready for upload.

Once a month, I will post a piece of art as an inspiration for writing. With the art, I will include a writing prompt, information about the artist, his or her work, the title of the piece–spelled backward and in small print for those of you who don’t want your writing swayed by it, and contact information so you can browse the artist’s website and explore the full collection of fabulous pieces.

This week features a painting by Christopher Bibby.

Spend a few minutes examining this painting. What kind of place do you see? What kind of person might find him or herself here? What kinds of stories might take place in a setting like this? Does anything in particular catch your eye? Now write. Create a story that launches from this landscape. And, please, share your work with each other and post it to share with the readers of this blog. Be sure to compliment family members strengths in writing and enjoy each other’s creations.

Artist Statement

Ever since I was very young I have had a strong emotional sense that we are all one. Though we appear separate and alone, we are in fact all from the same place; made of the same stuff. The presence of this vision in my life helps me understand the play between the real and abstract worlds within my paintings. Painting the same patterns in a building, in a city, on the street, and in a distant skyline is important for my need to express what I see and feel as a person in the world.

At times I find myself exploring, in an unconscious fashion, those same rhythms and patterns in an effort to make sense of their place in a more complicated world of chaos and change. These feelings of separation and unity are brought into a joyful place by my use of rich and stimulating colors. Colors awaken the experience, transforming what can be a deep and often overwhelming feeling of loss into a place of exaltation and contentment . My paintings, I hope, express in a knowing way what a wonderful role we play in this beautiful world.

About Chris’ work (entitled: swodinW gninruT)

By adding layers of oil paint and wax mediums to the canvas, I fashion an involved and intimately textured paint surface.

I etch off the layers of paint with various mark making tools revealing what is underneath. Then I repeat this process over and over until the painting has more of a sculpted surface. This method produces paintings that have a texture, depth and character of color that is unique to each piece.

Bio

Christopher Francis Bibby’s life as an artist began as a small child growing up in Cheshire located in Northwest England. Having been creatively drawn to the lines and angles of geometric shapes as far back as he can recall, Bibby began bringing squares and rectangles to life in the sketches and painting of his earliest years. However, it wouldn’t be until he moved to Glasgow, Scotland, at the age of twenty that Bibby would discover the inspiration to seriously pursue painting as a career.

A buzzing metropolitan of warmth and vibrancy sprinkled with lush parks and stunning architecture, Glasgow evoked a sense of passion and fascination in Bibby. Endlessly influenced by the dynamics of the city—the movement of its buildings, the weaving dance of its vehicles, the spirit of its citizens and the energy that merged them all—Bibby spent his early twenties developing and honing the distinctive patterns and patchwork designs that would become the signature element of his entire body of work.

After five years of artistic and commercial success, Bibby endured a severe injury to his right hand. Determined to continue his work, he turned what may have been a career-halting accident into an opportunity for ingenuity, training himself to paint with his left hand throughout the six-month healing period. In 1999, eager to resume his work and suddenly anxious to explore more of the world’s great cities, Bibby set off on 18-month tour of Europe and the United States, documenting his adventures on canvas each step of the way.

His travels eventually led him to Portland, Oregon. Here, motivated by the natural beauty and culture of the Pacific Northwest, Bibby established a studio and began introducing new mediums and scale into his art. Today, utilizing oil paints, wax, pencils, crayons and a number of mark-making tools in the production of his work, Bibby is able to communicate through the textures and dimensions unique to each piece of art.

Christopher Bibby’s work has been featured in galleries and showrooms throughout Oregon and the U.K. including the Portland Art Museum Rental Sales Gallery, Dragonfly Gallery, Mary Lou Zeek Gallery, Portico, Edinburgh Arts and Art Forum. Never one to stay put in one place for too long, Bibby happily splits his time between Portland and his native U.K.

Selecting books for Babies and Toddlers

The Horn Book Magazine ran an article last spring titled, “What Makes a Good Board Book?” In it, author Viki Ash prefaces her list of characteristics of good books for infants and toddlers by highlighting the value of reading to the youngest children. She says, “Sharing books with young children can:

  • “Nurture a love of books and reading
  • “Provide sensory stimulation in support of brain development
  • “Develop language
  • “Impart knowledge of the world and how it works
  • “Create a joyful and loving connection between babies/toddlers and their grownups”

Being the grandmother of three-year-old and three-and-a-half-month-old granddaughters, this message caught my eye. So, what makes a good board book for infants and preschoolers?

Well, when you think book, you naturally think words, text. A good board book may contain a very short, simple story, that generally takes place in baby’s own world. Other text options characteristic of good board books are ones that provide “’point and say’ opportunities’” for little ones to develop an understanding of and ability to identify any of a variety of concepts ranging from names of objects, numbers and colors, to relative locations and abstract concepts.

Naturally, illustrations are also important. Board books can be illustrated with drawings, paintings, collages, etc. or by photos. Photographs, in particular, provide an easy first step in helping small children make the connection between real objects and the depictions of objects. However, don’t let this discourage you from sharing many of the delightful illustrated books as well.

A collection of good board books will address the many moods of babies and preschoolers. Look for books that “Through skillful use of text, illustrations, typography, color and layout…establish a mood” which you can play up as you read to your little one.

Also, in building a strong board book collection, don’t ignore small childrens’ delight in sensory exploration. Board books can be manufactured from a variety of materials and can contain textures to be savored, flaps to lift, and tabs to pull.

And don’t forget content. Infants and toddlers are engaged in the process of figuring out themselves and their world. Encountering familiar objects, routines, and events in their story time can be not only educational, but “both reassuring and delightful.”

And last, though not mentioned in Ash’s article, a little rhyming cannot hurt. I know my kids loved the bouncy rhythms of rhyming text and the payoff of that end rhyme. With these books, even the nonsense of Mother Goose was a delight. I savor to this day the dancing rhythms of “diddle, diddle, dumpling” and “Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle…” and the memory of my youngest son’s chortles of delight.

I started reading to my kids when they were about nine months old. My daughter started from day one, and the first thing my three-year-old granddaughter does when she comes to my house is grab a book and her little rocking chair, and ask me to read her a story. That is one request to which this grandma will never say, “no.”

A Quote About Reading: Neil Gaiman

In Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech, published in Horn Book Magazine, for the 2009 Newbery Medal awarded to his novel The Graveyard Book, he reflects on the guilt he used to experience when people thanked him for books he had both enjoyed and found personal satisfaction in writing. He says: “I felt almost dishonorable accepting people’s thanks. I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library: fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner deals with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it.

          And I remembered I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am—the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first.

          It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.”

          Books for me have been just the kind of wonderful escape Gaiman talks about, yet as for Gaiman, they have been so much more. I love the way books allow me to live alternate lives. I love the way some characters come alongside me and illuminate my struggles by the manner in which they have dealt with their own. Books are companions who broaden and enrich this life I have been given. And I so long to write fiction that, like Gaiman’s, will do the same for others.