On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”


Poem in your pocket

“Every day is some kind of holiday with librarians.”  My partner says this or some variation on it whenever I mention that it’s National Whatever Day or Whatever Awareness Day, which I do fairly often.  I can’t really argue.  There’s always something to celebrate, and you can always count on a librarian or a teacher to do just that. I don’t think it’s just me.  :)

Today happens to be one of my favorite celebrations: Poem in Your Pocket Day.  It is the day I choose a small poem for each member of my family to carry with them.  The Academy of American Poets encourages people everywhere to carry #pocketpoems on Poem in Your Pocket Day.  The organization has lofty goals like promoting art appreciation and getting poetry into the media.  I think that’s wonderful, but my intention is more down-to-earth.  I just want to bring my family into my world.  I fell in love with poetry a long time ago, and it is very important to me.  I don’t read it or write it as much as I would like anymore, but I still feel a strong connection to the art.  It’s a connection that I want to share with my partner and my daughter.  Even if they don’t take their poems out of their pockets all day, they are there.  Maybe the words will seep into their souls just by being close to them.

The best holidays are the quiet ones, in my opinion.  Poem in Your Pocket Day is just right.

Of course, any day might be a good day for a pocket poem.  For kids’ poetry, check out The Poem Farm in which poet Amy Ludwig Vanderwater shares poems and other fun stuff.


A Thursday 3 for National Poetry Month

There was a time when I lived and breathed poetry, but somewhere along the way I seem to have lost track of it.  Here is my attempt to re-connect with a lost love: discovering new poets.


  • Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke –  This poet landed in my inbox via the Poem-a-Day email from the Academy of American Poets, and I was intrigued enough by what I read to seek out more of her work.
  • Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability – I’ve perused much of this collection, and the poet that stands out to me is Ona Gritz (also a picture book author and columnist).  She doesn’t just write about disability.  Her work is about parenting, stories, and relationships as well as her experiences as a person with cerebral palsy.
  • Real Karaoke People by Ed Bok Lee – I believe I became aware of Lee through MPR, perhaps it was this story from Euan Kerr, and I’ve been meaning to read more of his work for some time.

Are you doing anything for National Poetry Month?  I particularly like Poem in Your Pocket Day, especially for kids.  Hennepin County Library has poetry related events all month long for local readers.

Of course, it is also Autism Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a good month to challenge your preconceptions.

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Now Available: October Mourning

Leslea Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies, happened to be a guest speaker for the Gay Awareness Week celebration on the University of Wyoming campus in October of 1998.  In horrible coincidence, that was the week that Matthew Shepard was killed as a victim of a hate crime.  Now all these years later, Newman has written about her connection to this incident in an affecting book of poems: October Mourning.

She wrote on the Huffington Post:

“It is my wish that October Mourning will carry that message of hope, born from a horrific act of violence, to our youth. Those entering college this fall were only four years old when Matt Shepard was murdered. Those starting high school were only infants. But Matt’s legacy will live on, and I intend October Mourning to be a vehicle for that legacy, to help our youth remember the lesson of his life and death: That all of us, no matter how old, no matter where we live, deserve to be free to be who we are. Hatred ended Matt’s life, but love can unite us.”


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If you like… Tree of Codes

I have long been infatuated with the possibilities of books as art.  Book artists have created landscapes and origami and all sorts of other interesting pieces out of books that create something new from something old.  Jonathan Safran Foer did this with his book Tree of Codes, which took an already existing book and carved a new story from it.

In I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, illustrator Ramsingh Urveti brings an old poem to modern audiences by breaking from the usual.  Though this is a picture book technically speaking and it will certainly find a place in classrooms, it is not just for kids.  This is a book for poetry lovers of all ages, for design geeks, for artists.  It is a truly lovely look at what a book can be.

Read (and see) more about the book on Brain Pickings.

Want more reader’s advisory?  Check out previous “If you like…” posts.

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Seasons Go ‘Round (Picture Book Preschool)

Leaves are falling from the trees outside my window as I type.  We have been watching summer turn to fall, and now fall will be winter soon.  It seems like a good time to talk about seasons with my little one.

It’s a great opportunity to share one of my favorite picture books: Red Sings From the Treetops by Joyce Sidman.  It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. I said,

“I loved the way this book pulled me into the details.  It reminded me to notice the things that I am often too busy to see.  It was a lovely invitation to see each season as something new to explore.  I can’t recommend it enough.”

We read it along with the sorting activity you see in the photograph and talked about the things we like to do in each season.  We focused on fall since that’s what we can see now.  Sidman’s fall gives way to spring like this,


Green is tired,


crisp around the edges.

Green sighs with relief:

I’ve ruled for so long.

Time for Brown to take over.”

Perhaps more important, to me, than exploring seasons is the opportunity to introduce my daughter to poetry and wonder.  The book Playful Learning is a great resource for parents who want simple activities and crafts to explore the wonder around them–including an activity that has kids observing a tree throughout the seasons.

There are, of course, many many good books about the seasons for kids, and I have a few of my favorites listed here.

Since it’s a favorite of Ladybug’s, I’m also including a video of Caillou’s seasons song.  Enjoy!

See my Parents & Educators page for more Picture Book Preschool posts.

The Poetry of Science (Books for Secular Families)

The Tree That Time Build: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination is one of my favorite poetry collections for young people.  From the book:

“Both poets and scientists wonder at and about the world.  Out of that wonder, scientists devise experiments to see whether they can verify what they think might be true, while poets craft language to examine and communicate their insights.”

I must admit that I am more of a poet than a scientist, so the poems in this collection are the perfect way for me to connect with science in a way that reinforces the idea that wonder doesn’t go away with explanation.  The poems are organized thematically to cover our origins, dinosaurs, plants life, animals, insects, and genetics.  The accompanying CD  includes many of the poems being read by the poets.  The book & CD would make a great gift for a family with an interest in nature.  Perhaps pair it with a tree planted in their name or other gift from the Arbor Day Foundation store.

This book will be a family treasure and a classroom favorite.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Thank you, Dessa

As Kerri Miller’s interview with Dessa started playing, I quickly reached for paper and pen.  I found myself scribbling quotes, notes, and ideas throughout the interview.  I was doubly grateful for the songs.  I wanted to hear them, but I also needed a moment to catch up.

I was particularly struck by what she had to say about authenticity.  She came from slam poetry to rap, and she felt like she was faking it for a while.  Her journey–her attempt to find a place for herself in music–is fascinating and inspiring.

photo by Stacey Schwartz

She asked, “How many times can you tell a secret and mean it?”   It’s an interesting question for performing artists searching for originality and a way to communicate with their audiences.  Musicians perform the same songs again and again for different crowds (or local artists often end up playing over and over to basically the same crowd), and they have to bring as much energy to each performance as they can.  I am impressed by this.  I’m not sure I could.

She also spoke to her own creative process.  I was fascinated by her coffee table inspiration: Aesop’s Fables, a guide to Greek and Roman myth, and a King James Bible.  She’s not religious, but she is searching for stories in these texts that connect people to one another, our pasts, and our cultures.  I have been thinking about where I get my stories, what texts might be behind what I write.  What is on my creative coffee table?

Read more about Dessa:

“Dessa’s CD-release party at the Fitzgerald Theater on Friday night was about as far from a rap show as you could get. Backed by an excellent chamber group and back-up singers, and with her Doomtree pals tucked neatly into one of the balconies overlooking the stage, Dessa took the opportunity to cast aside all of her other titles — writer, poet, teacher, rapper — to to focus squarely on her expanding talents as soulful singer and engaging, downright hilarious storyteller.”
“I write slowly, with great effort, and lots of cursing. The feeling I get from crafting a perfect metaphor, or planting a clever seed of subtext is a very powerful feeling. There’s the thrill of personal accomplishment and there’s also a brand of awe—the recognition of a connection that had been previously hidden. But it’s not easy and it’s not really fun, at least for me.”
Thank you, Dessa, for reminding me to take creative risks.

Finding a World Greater Than Ourselves

“I take of my hat on the walk

down to the park

because it feels like a church

and I want to feel

connected to the sky, and I realize

it is a church–

it contains my religion:

the trees, the birds, the air so smooth

into my lungs. This is my cross,

my prayers, my communion.

I take off my hat because the trees

tell me to. They say, you

walk in a greater world than yourself;

show respect to this powerful world which you

might leave at any time.”


This excerpt of a poem by Nicole Guenther is from the anthology Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25.  The anthology is full of youthful passion, but this thoughtful meditation on religion is the poem that stood out to me the most.  I am not an “outdoorsy” person by any stretch of the imagination.  I feel like a bit of a fraud acting as though I have this strong connection to nature when the closest I get to nature are my long, meditative walks during which I get all my great ideas and inspiration.  And even that doesn’t feel right to say–I’ve hardly made the time for such walks since Ladybug was born (she’s almost four now for those keeping score).  Perhaps that’s why I haven’t had as many great ideas lately….

In any case, I hope to experience a greater connection to the trees and the sky and to share this sort of “spirituality” with my daughter.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Creating Something Out of Something

Speaking of mixed reviews, which I was last week when I posted about Steven Pinker’s new book, I’ve been meaning to post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes for a while now.  Everything I have read by Foer has immediately found a place on my favorite list, so when I heard he had a new book coming out, I put it on hold at the library right away.  I didn’t know much about it except that he was doing something “unusual” with it, which was to be expected.

Tree of Codes is easily the most unusual of his books.  The concept here is that Foer has taken one of his favorite books, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and created a whole new story from within it.  As you might imagine, some people find this to be a brilliant way of showing rather than telling that the story is layered and there is much that we (readers & the characters in the book) don’t know.  Other people find it annoying and pretentious.  Here is a video about the concept:


It isn’t a completely new idea, though.  A couple of years ago, I ran across Nets by Jen Bervin in which Shakespeare’s sonnets are put through much the same process at Schulz’ novel to produce new poems.  I actually think it’s an interesting way to re-imagine the work.  Read an excerpt of Nets in Conjunctions to see what I mean.

I think that it works better as poetry than it does as a novel.  For me, the “erasure” format put a distance between myself (the reader) and the story.  It was hard to keep plot and characters straight, and I found myself wanting to wander through the book the way I would wander through a poem. The holes and spaces spoke as much as the words that were left, and I focused on the emotion and the language while the details of the story faded to the background.

That may read like a bad review, but it isn’t.  What was left was beautiful & interesting, and it makes me endlessly curious about the work from which it came.

I must confess, I was fascinated by this work.  Of course, Foer is a favorite of mine (as mentioned in this post), and I have also been long quasi-interested in cut-up poetry.  Perhaps I was predisposed to some sort of affection for this book.  Certainly that hasn’t been true for everyone.