Nine Things from NYSRA

I spent Thursday and Friday at the NYS Reading Association Conference in Saratoga Springs.  Here’s a roundup of the highlights…

1. The Authors Progressive Banquet was fun and stress-free. I didn’t even spill anything.  I was a little concerned about how the logistics would work, because the authors start the evening at one table and then rotate, switching tables for each course. Turns out you got NEW silverware every time you moved and didn’t have to take it with you.  That worked out well, though I think I might have been drinking from another author’s water glass at one point. It’s hard to say…

2. I found out about four minutes ahead of time that all the authors would be giving a brief, two-minute talk to the ENTIRE group in the ballroom during that banquet, which caused me to panic momentarily, but not for long because there just wasn’t that long to worry about it. I think I said something coherent.

3. I was on a quilt!


 NYSRA had authors sign quilt squares and put them together into three gorgeous quilts for a raffle. Wasn’t that a great idea?

4.  I got to meet Eric Luper (

) and hear his presentation about his YA novel Big Slick and his journey from reluctant reader to novelist.

High school teachers, take note:  Eric is smart and engaging and funny, and I predict that pretty soon he’ll be booked solid for school visits because he’s going to connect with teen boys in a big way.  Plus, he has wicked-cool poker chip key chains as giveaways. What more could you want?

5.  I spent some time chatting with Susan Goodman, who writes children’s non-fiction and has a funny book about elections called See How They  Run coming out this May. My students are going to love this one!

6.  I met Mitali Perkins and got to tell her in person how much I liked Rickshaw Girl.

7. I heard Anita Silvey talk about current trends in children’s publishing.  She said fantasy and science fiction are still strong, historical fiction is on the rise,  publishers are looking for “no-blush” MG and Tween books that families can enjoy together, and this is the age of the graphic novel.  Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is now on my must-read list.

8. I gave a presentation called “Historical Fiction as a Bridge to Content Area Literacy” and got to share bunches and bunches of my favorite HF titles.  We talked about dozens of titles from different time periods — some well known and some that flew under the radar.  I shared excerpts from Spitfire, Sarah Miller’s Miss Spitfire, and Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold (March, 2008), which is a shining example of how historical fantasy can be used to introduce students to a time period (in this case, the Industrial Revolution).

9.  Not exactly conference-related, but still a highlight… I had perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie of my life at Four Seasons Natural Foods in downtown Saratoga.  It was really, really crunchy….a sweet ending to a fantastic two days of talk about reading, writing, and why we love stories so much.

Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller

“My heart is singing for joy this morning.”
-Anne Sullivan to Sophia Hopkins, March 1887

So begins one of the chapters in Sarah Miller‘s debut novel Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, and her quote from Annie Sullivan describes just how I felt when I finished this magical book.

Last spring, I issued an invitation to authors of historical fiction, to send me information about their books for a presentation I’m doing this fall at the New York State Reading Association Conference.  I heard from wonderful writers — some whose works I knew and some who were new to me.  But one title REALLY caught my eye:  Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller.  First, it got my attention because the titles of our books are so similar.  When I opened it up to start reading, it got my attention in another way — a sweep-you-away-in-the-story kind of way.

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller tells the story of Annie Sullivan, the young woman who battled beliefs of the time and fought with every ounce of energy she had to give Helen Keller the gift of language.  Sarah Miller tells the story in Annie’s voice — and tells it with a passion that speaks to the depth of her research and her pure love for this historical figure.  Miss Spitfire not only tells the story we see in The Miracle Worker — the story of Annie’s time with Helen — but also plunges into Annie Sullivan’s past, and in doing so, provides a deeper understanding of the commitment and determination that led to her success.

The portrayals of Annie’s emotional, psychological, and physical struggles with Helen were so vivid that I found myself reading with my brow furrowed in determined solidarity with Annie as she plunked Helen back into her seat at the dining room table for the tenth time.  Truly, Annie had to be a spitfire to survive this monumental challenge when she was little more than a girl herself.

The minor characters in this novel sparkle, too.  One of my favorite scenes brought Helen together for a lesson with the Kellers’ servant boy Percy.  I felt like I was about to burst with pride right along with Annie when Helen began to turn from a student into a teacher, helping Percy with some of the letters.  Mr. & Mrs. Keller, too, are painted with a tremendous depth of understanding.  It would have been easy to portray Helen’s parents as one-dimensional characters who got in the way of Annie’s work, but instead, Sarah Miller helps us to see their complexity and feel some of their anguish at having a beautiful, broken child. 

Early in the book, Annie tells Helen’s mother why her lessons are so vital to Helen. 

“Words, Mrs. Keller, words bridge the gap between two minds.  Words are a miracle.”

Indeed, they are.  And Miss Spitfire will have you believing in that miracle all over again.

Coming soon on my LJ…an interview with the author of Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller!