Allison's Book Bag

Saturday Snapshot invites bloggers to share photos. Two years ago, for my first photo, I introduced everyone to my husband. Now you’re about to see more couple photos!

There’s nothing like stress to test a relationship. ;-) For those of you who follow my Six-Word Saturday posts, you’ll know that my husband and I have faced plenty this spring.

This got me in the mood to share more photos of us. To start, I have one from winter. How long ago I don’t know. All I know is it shows us out walking in the cold and enjoying the snow. In contrast to it, I have one from summer. We took our two dogs out for a walk and got caught in the rain. Somehow we managed to laugh about it.

CoupleWinter

A long-standing joke about our relationship is that Andy loves movies and I love books. As we’ve grown together, these two interests have blended. Others not so much. I have stopped caring about football and computer games. Andy still doesn’t like to garden or draw. I love both our shared interests and our unique passions.

CoupleMovies

Writing is a passion of mine for which Andy has shown incredible support. Not only does he take me to see author sites, but he spends hours helping me revise my manuscripts. In the first photo, we’re outside the spooky Stephen King’s home. In the second, the two of us are talking about changes needed in a story. The latter become samples I use with my writing students.

CoupleAuthor

Andy and I enjoyed sorting through our couple photos for this meme. One of his favorites is the one where we’re wearing the 3-D glasses. Mine is of him at work, displaying my photo and missing me. I love you, Andy, through all the bad and good that comes our way.

CoupleKissPhoto

 

 

Once upon a time, a middle-aged lady walked into the children’s section of a bookstore. As she browsed books, one title stood out to her: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Or rather the subtitle caught her eye: Being the story of a mouse, some soup, and a spool of thread. Immediately, this lady knew she must buy this book with its fanciful title. And so she did. She also never regretted it. :-)

Of course, a cover can deceive one. In this case, however, the inside content is just as enchanting as the title. DiCamillo likes to consider herself a storyteller and she has rightfully earned the label. Her style is simple, sweet, and magical: “This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive….” In every paragraph, DiCamillo transports me back to my childhood days when adults spellbound me with reading aloud and when I devoured fairy tales from all over the world. Indeed, The Tale of Despereaux is a perfect book to read to restless students, doting pets, and everyone else for that matter who likes fantasies. A gentle tale full of adventure and warmth and heart, I can imagine being told around a campfire. It’s also a most mesmerizing narrative to read when thunder claps overhead or sleep alludes: “Have I mentioned that beneath the castle there was a dungeon? In the dungeon, there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats. Despereaux was destined to meet those rats.”

Superlatives aside, let me focus on the characters in The Tale of Despereaux, all of whom entrance me. Consider first our main character. Despereaux is not only the last and smallest mouse to be born, but he’s born with eyes open and ears too big. Even more alarming, Despereaux shows no interest in the things a mouse should such as food. Instead he shows interest in the things a mouse should avoid such as humans. Then there’s Roscuro, a rat, who believes the meaning of life is light. Unfortunately, every other rat despises light, as well as mice and people. Instead, every other rat believes the meaning of light is to bring suffering to mice and to people and anything else that crosses their path. Are you noticing a pattern? Rarely will you meet such oddball heroes and villains! Finally, there’s Miggery Sow. She was five when her mother died and her father sold her. Just as bad, her name comes from the family pig, of all things. Mig proves instrumental in getting our mouse hero and our rat villain to meet, along with being part of a diabolical plan to imprison the princess.

One of my struggling readers picked The Tale of Despereaux to read as his independent choice book with me. I enjoyed talking about themes with him, especially that of conformity. My student will enter middle school next year and so is at the unenviable stage where he wants to belong. Some days this meant he acted silly in my class instead of paying attention to my instruction. Other days this meant he tried to talk tough or feign interests that didn’t really come natural to him. There were also those rare days when my student would remove himself from the crowd so that he could focus on his assignments. Some days he even admitted to liking to read and to other tastes that caused his peers to shake their heads. The thing is my student has dreams. Just like Despereaux, who wanted to serve and protect the princess. That means my student sometimes found himself unable to follow the crowd. But this also means being super brave because, as Despereaux comes to realize, “an interesting fate waits almost anyone who does not conform”.

There are many more themes I could talk about, many more characters I could discuss, and many more superlatives about DiCamillo’s style that I could share. I love The Tale of Despereaux as much now as I did in 2004 when I first read it. DiCamillo has said that stories are light or in other words bring hope into darkness. May The Tale of Despereaux shine into your world today.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Here are a few more facts about me: I am short. And loud. I hate to cook and love to eat. I am single and childless, but I have lots of friends and I am an aunt to three lovely children (Luke, Roxanne, and Max) and one not so lovely dog (Henry). I think of myself as an enormously lucky person: I get to tell stories for a living.

–Kate DiCamillo, About Kate DiCamillo

Two-time Newbery award-winner, Kate DiCamillo likes to think of herself as a storyteller. Writing for both children and for adults, her novels often confront themes of death, separation, and loss. She won a Newbery Medal in 2014 for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures and earlier in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, a book I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: May 22!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

DiCamillo was a sickly as a kid, and suffered from chronic pneumonia, which is why the family moved to the warm southern climate of Florida when she was five.  Actually, according to Britannica, her mother and older brother to move with her to Florida when she was five. Her father, an orthodontist, was scheduled to follow the family in due course but he never did.

People apparently talked more slowly in Florida than her birth home of Pennsylvania and said words DiCamillio wasn’t familiar with such as: “ain’t” and “y’all” and “ma’am.” Everybody also knew everybody else. It was all so different from what she had known before. DiCamillo tells Scholastic that she loved it.

DiCamillo also shares with Scholastic that she considers being ill contributed to her development as a writer. She learned early on to entertain herself with books. Reading everything she could, DiCamillo learned to rely on stories as a way of understanding the world.

She also grew up with a black standard poodle named Nanette whom she loved and might have inspired Winn-Dixie. DiCamillo spent a lot of time dressing Nanette up in a green ballet tutu and then later like a disco dancer. To Scholastic, DiCamillo praises Nanette as a “wonderful, very accommodating dog”.

After majoring in English at the University of Florida, DiCamillo took on various short-term jobs. Britannica reports that in 1994, she moved to Minnesota, where she worked in a book warehouse and became drawn to children’s fiction. Her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, was published after a young editor spotted it in the “slush pile”. In ten years, DiCamillo has come a long away as an author. 2014, DiCamillo was named to a two-year term as the national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress.

WRITING BACKGROUND

Writing her own stories had always been one of her dreams, but DiCamillo didn’t start until she was 29. DiCamillo’s warehouse job not only made her fall for children’s literature but, notes Scholastic, also taught her how much time and work goes into creating stories. In college, teachers had often complimented her on her writing, but DiCamillo believes talent isn’t everything. Discipline is important too. So five days a week, DiCamillo made herself get up to write. She required herself to write two pages a day. Dicamillo never wants to write, but is always glad that she has done it. It takes her about a year to finish a book.

According to Scholastic, DiCamillo wrote Because of Winn-Dixie because she was homesick for Florida and because she wanted a dog but lived in an apartment building that didn’t permit them. The story allowed DiCamillo to go home and to spend time with a dog of the highest order. As for the other characters, she doesn’t know where they came from. “I just feel happy and lucky when they choose me to tell their stories. India Opal Buloni seems so real to me, I don’t think I could have made her up. Rather, I feel like I discovered her.”

Scholastic quotes DiCamillo as saying that the most rewarding part of being a writer is when people say that her stories have meant something to them. Also, she’s gotten letters from kids who say they didn’t like to read until they read Because of Winn-Dixie, and now they like books. It makes her feel like the stories she tells matter.

Spend a night in a haunted house. Sounds like a typical adventure for young people. Plan a robbery that involves getting past a menacing guard dog, utilizing a high-security tech team, and torching a safe. Sounds a little more like a typical adventure for adults. Swindle by Gordon Korman is a fast-paced read about which I have mixed feelings.

A popular pick of my reluctant boy readers is the Swindle series by Gordon Korman. When I ask them to tell me about the plot, first they tell me it’s about Griffin who discovers a valuable baseball card. Griffin asks a collector how much the card is worth and he lies about the card being worth millions. Then they tell me it’s about how Griffin decides to steal the card back. To do that, he needs a plan and a team. My students don’t remember much else about Swindle except the security dog, which incidentally is featured on the cover. Most young people love animals and so having a dog on the cover woos them. Many young people also enjoy movies like Mission Impossible and so the lure of a heist keeps them flipping pages. So far so good.

For me as an adult, I appreciate how much Gordon Korman understands young people. From his earliest days of writing the Bruno and Boots titles, Korman knows that pranks lay at the heart of young boys. As do wisecracks and rebellion. And so immediately in Swindle, Korman introduces us to Griffin and his friend Ben, who are planning an overnight sleepover at a house slated for demolition. Ben rambles about the house is haunted, while Griffin stoutly talks about how the adults should have listened to their plan for a Skate and Roller Park. In true form, when the wrecking ball hits the house, the two boys give no thought to the wrongness of trespassing, but instead applaud the speed and stamina of their escape. After this, comes the card appraisal and the planned heist.

The latter is where as an adult, I start to feel a little unease. In the series that launched Korman’s career over thirty years ago, the main characters of Bruno and Boots commit relatively harmless pranks against an arch-rival hockey team and later against a headmaster in retaliation for him separating them as roommates at a private school. It all feels like innocent fun, reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In contrast, in Korman’s newest series, our heroes of Griffin and Ben plan an actual crime. Their rationale is that because property was stolen from them, they have the right to steal it back. What concerns me most is we’re not talking about petty theft here, which even this would be wrong, but rather about breaking into a real store and a locked safe to steal a million-dollar card. It feels a little too much like sophisticated crime, reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven and other movie crime fare. That said, none of my students have given me the slightest indication that theft is acceptable. For them, Swindle is harmless fun.

Back to the fact that Swindle is a popular pick of my reluctant boy readers. Although my students do eagerly push their way through the first title, they do tend to get more confused by later titles. In those, the cast starts out not with just Griffin and Ben but instead includes all their friends. Also, while they might like titles that read like adult action stories, it doesn’t mean they really understand them. Listening to my reluctant boy readers talk about the Swindle titles has been enlightening to me. They really do like the dog, Luther, who actually figures in the rest of the series. I like Luther too. He’s a Doberman who has been trained to protect, and therefore seems vicious, but really wants to love and be loved.

I’ve long been a fan of Gordon Korman, ever since being introduced to Bruno and Boots as a young person. Several years ago, I even got to hear Korman speak at a literary festival. Despite mild qualms about Swindle, Gordon Kormon remains a fun author whose books I do recommend.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Welcome to the wonderful world of a regular guy who just happened to write 80-something books for kids and teens.

–Gordon Korman, About Gordon Korman

A manuscript Gordon Korman sent to Scholastic while serving as the class monitor for Scholastic Book Orders launched his writing career. Seriously! This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall was published by Scholastic when Gordon Korman was only a freshman in high school. Now he’s been writing for more than three-quarters of his life. According to Scholastic, Korman’s trademark storylines of slapstick humor, madcap adventures, and high-spirited characters have helped make him a favorite author of school-age readers across Canada and the United States. His books have also been translated into close to 30 languages and been sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

A Canadian by birth, Gordon Korman grew up mostly in the Toronto area. His father worked as an accountant and his mother wrote an “Erma Bombeck-type column” for a local newspaper. Biography reports that in elementary and middle school Korman was always fond of writing—especially his own brand of zany stories and scenarios. “I wasn’t a big reader for some reason, but I always tried to put in creativity where I could: if we had (to write) a sentence with all the spelling words for that week, I would try to come up with the stupidest sentences, or the funniest sentences, or the craziest sentences I could think of.”

Korman’s writing career began at the age of twelve. It started by his writing a story assignment for his seventh-grade English class. The big movies at the time were ‘Jaws’ and ‘Airplane” and, according to Biography, everyone in his class were going to write action stories. “It was my mother who brought me down to earth. She told me to write about something a little closer to home.”

From this little push, Korman created the characters Boots and Bruno, whose escapades create havoc in their small private school, Macdonald Hall. The track and field coach had to teach English. For creative writing, he gave us total freedom to work on whatever we wanted for the rest of the year. It was February. That added up to a class period per day for more than four months. Biography quotes Korman as saying he kind of got carried away and accidentally wrote the first book. The characters became real people to him.

“The class had to read all the assignments at the end of the whole business, and a lot of people were coming to me and saying how they really liked it. I suppose anyone who writes 120 pages for class is going to attract a certain amount of attention anyway—and I just got the idea of seeing if I could get the book published.” Korman sent his manuscript to the publisher Scholastic Canada and, at the age of fourteen, witnessed the publication of both his first book and first best seller, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!

WRITING BACKGROUND

After his initial publication success, Korman published books at the rate of one per year, writing them during summers when he was on vacation from school. At age eighteen, he was voted the Most Promising Writer under Thirty-five by the Canadian Author’s Association. Besides his Bruno and Boots titles, he has also created several other popular series. Korman has also created memorable characters in standalone novels

According to Biography, Korman strives to write stories that provide a healthy dose of humor for his young readers. Like many authors, he writes the kind of stories he wanted to read and couldn’t find when a young person. “I think that, no matter what the subject matter, kids’ concerns are important, and being a kid isn’t just waiting out the time between birth and the age of majority. I hope other kids see that in my work.”

What else is the secret of Gordon’s success? “It’s a combination between real life and pure imagination,” Korman tells Scholastic. “I always start off with something real, but then I unleash my imagination to make it more exciting, funnier, or a better story. To be honest, by the time a book is done, you can’t recognize much of the real-life part. It’s been changed too much. But I never could have gotten there without it.”

Gordon Korman now lives on Long Island, outside New York City, with his wife and family. When not writing, he’s usually driving one of his kids to some practice or rehearsal or game. Otherwise, he’s on the road, appearing at schools, libraries, and bookstores, meeting his readers. Nickelodeon recently brought Gordon Korman’s New York Times bestselling Swindle series to life in a made-for-TV movie. I’ll review the first of the latter tomorrow. Save the date: May 20!

Don’t miss out on Scholastic’s #IReadYA week! #IReadYA is a celebration of all things YA lit. Take part in the fun and enter in for a chance to win some great prizes. Join today at: #IReadYA

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June: Diversity Selections

June will be the fifth anniversary for Allison's Book Bag! It'll also be the start of my summer vacation. As normal for this time of year, I'll review a few novels set in Canada. I'll also feature reviews of books for our multicultural committee and our local pet club. Enjoy!

  • The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp
  • Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance
  • The Night Wanderer by Drew Taylor
  • Shannen and the Dream for a School by Janet Wilson
  • Summer on the Short Bus by Bethany Crandell
  • Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
  • Waiting for Unicorns by Beth Hautala

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Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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