Never say never…

I grew up the youngest of four kids in my family.  When I was little, my parents and older brothers and sister used to wake me up to celebrate New Year’s with the grownups at midnight.  I thought it was the coolest thing ever.  I didn’t know any other eight-year-old who got to get back out of bed at 11:50 to ring in the new year with carrot sticks and cheese and crackers.  We’d all shout “Happy New Year!” and clink our glasses and sip sparkling grape juice.  Then I’d go back to bed.  I LOVED being awake at midnight. 

That routine faded once I was old enough to stay up without a nap, but I always thought it was just the greatest tradition.  One day, home from college for a family Thanksgiving, I mentioned how great it was that they always woke me up at midnight.  My sister looked at my mother.  My brother looked at my sister.  My mother looked at my father.  They all looked like they were trying not to laugh.

“What?”  I said.

“She doesn’t know,” my sister said, holding her hand to her mouth.


Turns out, it was never really midnight at all.  They put me to bed at eight, got into their pajamas, set ALL the clocks ahead, and dragged me back out of bed at 8:20.  We partied, and I went back to bed at 8:30, happy as could be.  I was livid when I found out and swore I’d never, EVER do something like that to a child of mine.  From the time J and E were five years old, they’ve been allowed to stay up as late as they want on New Year’s Eve.

But then this year rolled around.  For the past week, a stomach virus has been raging through our house.  My husband got it today.  The rest of us are on the mend but still run down.  There was NO WAY the kids were staying up.  None.

“Hey!”  I said.  “I have a fun idea.  Since none of us can really stay up that late tonight, let’s pretend.  We’ll set the clocks ahead to say midnight when it’s really eight o’clock, and we’ll count down and have sparkling grape juice and confetti and everything!”

The kids were in bed by 8:30.  I’ll be headed there soon.

Happy New Year, everyone!

(And stop laughing, Mom.  At least I told them it wasn’t really midnight.)

Whose woods these are, they didn’t care…

I heard something on the radio this afternoon that made me so, so sad. 

Vandals trashed Robert Frost’s summer home in Ripton, Vermont last night.  Underaged kids — police think maybe up to fifty of them — broke into the historic site and had a party there.  They smashed windows.  Broke his furniture and burned it in the fireplace.  Then vomited on the floor.  CNN ran a story with more details here.

Robert Frost is my favorite poet, one of the writers who taught me to love words and the way they go together.  Our family visited that summer house a few years ago and hiked the  Robert Frost Trail nearby.  The building is nothing fancy — a simple two story farmhouse in the Green Mountain National Forest  — but you can feel Frost’s spirit when you step onto the property.  A feeling of simplicity and peace.  What happened there is so ugly and so wrong.

Recipe for a Cybils Finalist List

Middle Grade Fiction Delight
(serves an unlimited number of readers)

Take 7 panelists (must live in several different time zones for appropriate challenge level).
Add 75 middle grade fiction titles.

Allow many hours for reading.

Now stir in 601 email messages.
Pepper with impassioned pleas for personal favorites.
Add generous helping of humor.
Sprinkle in guidance from Liz, our beloved organizer goddess.
Shake vigorously.

Yields one list of finalists (though not necessarily a “short” shortlist).

And guess what?!  We’re DONE!!!!  Finalists for Middle Grade Fiction will be posted at the Cybils page tomorrow!  I’ll also post the list here and probably crow about it some more because I’m so excited about how many great titles we read over the past few months, and I’m thrilled with our final list.  I’ll be posting more reviews, of finalists and of some of my personal favorites that didn’t quite make the list, over the next couple weeks.

I loved serving as a Cybils panelist . It was an absolute joy to read so many great books, share them with my kids (my home kids and my school kids), and discuss them with brilliant, fun people like Little Willow, Erin, Sherry, Jocelyn, Amanda, and Kerry.

2007 was a very, very good year for middle grade fiction.  Be sure to look for our list tomorrow!

December Guest

I’ve been waiting and waiting to see this guy…

Every winter, when the ponds in the Adirondacks freeze over,  a bald eagle moves into our neighborhood.  We first spotted him on New Year’s Eve two winters ago, in this very same tree along the shore of Lake Champlain, near a state park close to our house. 

A few days before Christmas, I was sprawled out on the couch reading (ahh…vacation…), and I looked out the window while a big bird was flying past over the water.  A really big bird.  With a white head and white tail.

“Eagle!”  I jumped up, scared the dickens out of the family, and ran to the porch.  We could tell the bird was a bald eagle and guessed by the direction he was flying that he was headed to his old favorite perch.  Sure enough, when we drove by the park on the way to visit family the day after Christmas, there he was in the tallest tree. 

If past years are any indication, he’ll be our neighbor for a few weeks, until Lake Champlain freezes over, and then he’ll move on.  For now, we’re awestruck and thankful for this New Year’s tradition that’s flown into our lives.

Novels in Verse…Not just for girls!

Many of the 7th grade girls I teach LOVE novels written in verse.  They devour anything by Sonya Sones, and then I usually steer them to Karen Hesse and others who seem to capture that same magic but in different ways.  Novels in verse, well written, pack a lot of punch with few words, and they usually offer lots of white space on the page, so they’re fantastic for reluctant readers.  I haven’t found too many that appeal to boys, though, which I why I was so happy to read these two standouts in the books nominated for the CYBILS.

G. Neri’s CHESS RUMBLE is appealing to reluctant readers, especially boys, on a number of levels.  Neri nails the voice of a boy growing up in the inner city in a way that’s reminiscent of Walter Dean Myers.  Neri’s main character, Marcus, is a young man dealing with family troubles and fights at school, until he meets a powerful mentor and learns to fight his battles on a chessboard instead.  This novella in verse is full of language that’s vivid and accessible, and Jesse Joshua Watson’s illustrations in shades of black, brown, and gray help to set the mood.  This one has serious kid-appeal — not just for the kids who already love to read but for those who don’t often find books on the library shelves that seem to be written for them. This one is.

Katherine Applegate’s HOME OF THE BRAVE is another novel in verse that will appeal to boys as well as girls.  It may help that plenty of middle grade readers already know Applegate from the ANIMORPHS series, but this book has a completely different feel to it.  HOME OF THE BRAVE is about Kek, a Sudanese immigrant who recently arrived in America after witnessing the death of his father and brother. He left his mother behind and wonders every day if she is alive.  The poems that explore Kek’s emotional state are poignant and accessible to young readers, and the more traumatic scenes are set alongside lighter stories of Kek adapting to life in America and experiencing new things, from snow to washing machines.  This is a kid-friendly story (those who love animals will have an additional connection) that explores a dramatic issue in current events in a manner that is personal, sensitive, and hopeful.

Five Things

I’ve been tagged by

 to share five things that most people don’t know about me.   When I joined the LJ Community last spring, I had no idea what this sort of thing was all about.  What’s a meme?  And how do you say that?  Meem?  Mame?  Meemee? Maymay? (Maybe it’s French?)  All the tagging business seemed a little cultish, though in a friendly, not-dangerous way.  Anyway, I get it now and will happily share, since being tagged is a nice included feeling, like being picked for a kickball team in gym class.  I’ll share five little stories from my first career — as a tv news producer & reporter.

1. In 1992, I interviewed Bill Clinton while he was campaigning in Vermont.  Okay, interview is a strong word.  My camera person and I chased him down.  I got to ask him a question, and he answered it.  He walked off into the crowd to shake hands, and as soon as he was gone, I realized that my wireless microphone had been turned off the whole time.  I caught up to him, explained that I was a technological idiot, and asked the question again.  He was kind enough to answer again without making any snarky comments at all.

2.  In the same campaign year, I covered a speech by vice presidential candidate Al Gore.  It ended late, and the photographer and I were rushing to get back to the car to get tape back for the 11:00 news.  Except there was a problem.  The car was gone. Turns out it was parked a teensy bit illegally and got towed away.  We flagged down a passing car and somehow, though hand gestures, explained our situation and convinced the driver, a recent immigrant from Russia who spoke almost no English, to give us a ride back to the tv station.  He took several wrong turns, went the wrong way on the highway, made an illegal u-turn, and got us there at 10:55.  We made the deadline.

3.  While shooting a story at the New York State Fair one summer, I did a stand-up holding a 12-foot python.  We had to stop taping four times because the snake kept wrapping itself around my leg.

4. I was doing a live shot from the newsroom once when a photographer came running into the room behind me with a late tape.  By the time he realized he was running into a live shot, he was going too fast to stop, tripped over a chair, and landed at my feet in the middle of my report.  I kept talking as if nothing had happened, even though all the viewers had clearly seen a running man fall to the ground over my shoulder.  I did pause just for a second, and in that break, if you listened carefully, you could hear a whispered curse from the floor.

5.  I used to wear suits, high heels, makeup, and hair spray.  (If you know me now, this one is really funny.)

I tag anyone who wants to play, since I can’t be responsible for tagging someone in particular and created added holiday stress while you’re trying to finish baking nut bread or something. 

Pippi is back!!

I remember loving Pippi Longstocking when I was seven or eight years old.  I was a rule-follower, but there was something about Pippi’s attitude that absolutely enchanted me.  I loved that she slept with her feet on the pillow.  I loved that she had a monkey for a pet and threw dishes out of a tree.  I loved that she told the teacher exactly what she thought of those math problems with all the apples that came and went so quickly you couldn’t keep track of them.

I still love Pippi, and so I was thrilled to see this new translation of Astrid Lindgren’s story in a big, beautiful, illustrated package from Penguin.

Pippi’s story is the same (happily, no one has gone through to make her more politically correct), and I predict this new translation by Tina Nunnally will be irresistible to young readers.  Lauren Child’s illustrations in this oversized hardcover are bright and playful and full of Pippi’s spirit.  My six-year-old daughter put a bookmark in this one after breakfast yesterday and said, “I can’t read any more right now.  I’m saving the rest.”  I understood exactly what she meant. Pippi’s stories are worth saving and worth sharing all over again.

Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam

Certain books should come with a warning label:  Do not read in a room full of 7th graders (unless they’re already used to seeing you sob your way through middle grade novels). Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam is one of those books.

I know what a gifted writer Cynthia Kadohata is, but I still wasn’t expecting to fall in love with this book the way I did.  I’m…er…not exactly a dog person.  There are certain dogs I really like, but I don’t like it when strange dogs come bounding up and jump on me during my morning run.  Anyway, I thought this might be a book for dog people, but it’s much more than that.

Cynthia Kadohata does a remarkable job letting us inside the minds of Rick, an angry young man who is sent off to Vietnam as a new dog handler and his dog, Cracker.  When  the narrative slips into Cracker’s point of view, it does so seamlessly and convincingly.  Not surprisingly, Rick is changed dramatically by his experiences in Vietnam and by the relationship he forges with Cracker.  Cracker, too, becomes a different kind of dog – more in tune with her instincts and committed to the job she has been given.

Cracker’s story is compelling and eye-opening, and this novel provides a realistic look at what went on in Vietnam while remaining appropriate for older middle grade readers.  This is probably one for the 10-14 crowd, and it’s not a book that’s just for boys.  The 7th grade girl I loaned it to this week returned it with a glowing review the next day.

Meanwhile, I’m still wiping my eyes, but in a good way.  Cracker, Rick, and Cynthia Kadohata won my heart with this one – a historical novel and dog story that’s not just for dog lovers and history buffs, but for all of us.

Something to think about…

Did you know that the average American will consume more energy between New Year’s Eve and midnight on January 2nd than the average person from Tanzania consumes in a full year?

(Turning off the upstairs lights now…)

I’m borrowing this stat from environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben, who spoke in my community today.  McKibben, author of The End of Nature,  is an amazing leader promoting action on global climate change.  I didn’t even know he was in town until I saw a tiny little blurb in the newspaper while I was having my coffee.  I threw on my jeans and flew out of the house at 8:50 to catch his 9:00 presentation.

His talk came just hours after the United Nations Conference reached its agreement on a global warming plan.  McKibben discussed the earlier disagreements between the United States and the European Union over the worldwide response to climate change.  Why the tension?  The average European (we’re not talking about Tanzania here)  uses HALF as much energy as the average American each year.  Seriously…something to think about.

McKibben also wrote the introduction and annotations for a 2004 release of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  (I’m re-reading Thoreau right  now because he’s involved in a new historical novel that’s taking shape in the dark corners of my brain.)  McKibben makes some great points, suggesting that Thoreau was a conservationist, if an accidental one, because he consumed so little, much like people in third world nations like Tanzania today.  McKibben suggests there may be answers to our modern crisis in Thoreau’s 19th century reflections on getting by with less.

We have more than a foot of snow expected in the Champlain Valley, thanks to a big nor’easter arriving early tomorrow morning.  I think it’s time to power down the computer and stereo.  The idea of lighting a candle,  sipping hot tea, and reading Walden sounds just about perfect.

Thankful Thursday

I’ve been waiting.   I started checking out the back window every morning as soon as it got cold this week.

Today, the sea smoke showed up.

On the first really, really cold, calm morning of  winter, plumes of cloud rise up from the surface of the lake and drift in the pink light of sunrise.  

Sea smoke (lake smoke, I guess, in this case) forms when very cold air passes over warmer water.  The air right at the water’s surface is warmer, so it rises in a plume.  As soon as it gets away from the water, though, that air cools, and the moisture in it forms condensation that we see as fog.  Icy wisps of fog in the morning sun.

That’s what the meteorologists say.  But really, I think it’s the ghosts.  Lake Champlain has ghosts.  You can only see them in these cold, quiet moments, and only if you remember to look. Pretty soon, the wind comes and chases them away.  I am thankful that I wasn’t too busy to greet them this morning when they came.