Mapping Out Choose-Your-Ending Novels

The excitement around using Choose Your Own Ending novels in two of my classes continues (and some complaints from the other classes as to when they will get a chance to read them, too). Yesterday, many students began their second (or third) book, and I had them working in small groups to begin mapping out the storylines in one of their books. It was an interesting process, with lots of discussions and page-flipping. This lesson is to geared towards having them get a real sense of how the books were written, so that when they start writing their own next week, it will be easier to jump into.

Check out some of their maps:
Story Map3

story map2

Story Map


Peace (along the branches),

Picture Book Review: Brothers At Bat

Our house is gearing up for baseball, with all three boys playing in three different leagues (the oldest just made his high school team last week and the other two had Little League evaluations on Saturday). So, at the library, we’ve been bringing home all sorts of baseball-themed books. Brothers at Bat: The Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick is a perfect companion to all the stats books and baseball cards, and resonated in our house of three athletic boys. The book centers on the Acerra family from New Jersey, and the boatload of kids they had (12 brothers and four sisters).

They not only literally had enough kids to field a team. They did. In the 1930s, there were more opportunities to create your own semi-pro baseball teams and hit the circuit, and the Acerra boys did that. This true story of the band of brothers playing baseball — with interruptions for military service and other factors of life — is nicely done, and Vernick did her own research by interviewing one of the surviving brothers. She really captures the spirit of family and the spirit of sports. And the illustrations by Steven Salerno were spot on, too.

Brothers at Bat is a book I would highly recommend for the start of Spring Training.

Peace (on the plate),

PS — Vernick shared some silent footage of the brothers on her YouTube account. Interesting.



Book Series Review: The Baseball Card Adventures

Given our boys’ interest in baseball, I am not sure why it has taken me so long to discover Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure series of books (which begins with Honus & Me). You’d think this series would have been a natural read-aloud fit for me over the years. My middle son has read a few, but it with my youngest son (8) that we have really dove into the series with great gusto and interest. In less than three weeks, we have devoured Honus & Me, Jackie & Me, Babe & Me,  Shoeless Joe & Me, and Mickey & Me. Next up: Abner & Me.

The stories revolve around a boy, Joe Shoshack, who discovers that he can use baseball cards to travel back in time, and begins a series of adventures to meet famous players and/or attempt to change history. The structure of the books is fairly consistent throughout the series, which is great for discussing writing a novel with my youngest, and Gutman does a nice job of bringing those old ballplayers to life for us. I really have appreciated the Reader’s Note that Gutman leaves at the end of the books, where he talks about his research and about the lines he has drawn between fiction and non-fiction.

I am also enjoying how YouTube is part of our reading experience. When we were reading about Honus Wagner’s famous baseball card, we gathered up some information about the auction that brought in so much money for the rare piece of baseball memorabilia history. When we read about Jackie Robinson and racism, we watched  a short documentary about the legendary ball player who changed history. When we were thinking about Babe Ruth’s “called shot,” we pulled up television footage to actually watch Babe in action at the plate as he hit that homerun (the results were inconclusive, we agreed.) And I now have Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary in our Netflix streamining account, ready to go.

I might soon tire of Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure series, but my son is fully intrigued. And he is considering entering a local writing contest, where the prompt has them imagine going back in time 50 years. He has this idea now to use the Gutman books for the model for his story, finding a famous ballplayer from 1963 and writing about using one of his baseball cards to travel back to meet him. I love that.

Peace (on the ball),
PS — here is a cool video of Gutman being interviewed by a kid.



Book Review: Good Prose (The Art of Nonfiction)

What I wouldn’t give to be in the room as writer Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd hash out ideas for books and magazine articles, and go through the entire process from start to finish, when they read out the work together in a final run-through before publication. In reality, it would probably be boring. I know that. But as captured in their new book — Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction — the partnership between writer and editor is so pitch-perfect, and so collaborative, that one feels sad to realize that that not every writer probably has that kind of relationship with an editor.

While Good Prose does center on advice for writing non-fiction — ranging from topics of telling the truth to structural decisions around longer narratives to the ways writers use language for effect — I found the sections where Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer (for Soul of a New Machine, about the very beginning of the computer revolution), and Todd, his editor and a writer himself, share words about their relationship as collaborators over four decades, and offer an insider’s glimpse into the way Kidder writes, to have been the best parts of an excellent book.

I should note a few things here. First, I have met Kidder before. He lives in our neck of the woods, and when he was doing research for his book, Hometown, he was sitting in the same meetings and watching the same news unfold as I was, in my role as a newspaper reporter. I won’t say he would know me if he saw me (he wouldn’t) but I have had a keen interest in Kidder for a number of years, as one often does with local authors who have won the Pulitzer Prize. That said, I have not always found his writing to be my style. There’s something about his books that removes the reader from the emotional center of the story, in my opinion. Even the book I thought I would love – Among Schoolchildren — didn’t quite touch me the way I thought it would. I did enjoy Mountains Beyond Mountains, however, and I realized as I read Good Prose why that is: Kidder injects himself into a first person narrative in the story of Dr. Paul Farmer. By doing that, he brought me, the reader, into the story with him. He closed the gap between reader and story. And I have met Richard Todd, too, as he is the father of a friend of mine, whose son (Todd’s grandson) is one my son’s best friends. We’ve never spoken more than a few words, however, and I never even knew he was Kidder’s editor.

My own difficulties with connecting to Kidder’s writing (and most people have nothing but praise for Kidder’s style) were not an issue here, as the vignettes and stories of researching and writing stories forms the heart of this book, and the two men do a fantastic job (Todd, in particular, has a fantastic way of telling a story with humor and English-style reservation, it seems to me). The craft of non-fiction goes deeper than I imagined, and I admire the kind of research and writing/revising/rewriting that Kidder undergoes to pull together a story from his notes. He admits he can spend a year or more rewriting draft after draft, trying to get it right. Todd’s role as arbiter of ideas, supportive friend, attentive reader is a crucial part of this relationship, as he guides Kidder forward along various paths.

If you are writer, or wish to learn more about the art of non-fiction, (or teach non-fiction writing) I’d suggest you go no further than Good Prose. It will invigorate you, and remind you that the act of writing — writing well, anyway — is a craft all unto itself, with decisions that will stake out a path forward for the story. The amount of dedication (and, as Kidder reminds us, sheer luck) it takes to succeed is difficult, but a worthy journey to undertake if you need to tell the story.

Peace (in the book),


Book Review: Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind

“Why is this written like a poem?” was my son’s first question as he scanned the book that we were going to do as read-aloud. He always flips through the books we are going to read together, scanning the pages for clues of the story. Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind by Gary Ross (with illustrations by Matthew Meyer) was not what we expected when we ordered it through our library’s loan system, but that’s OK. It is different for us, so used to reading novels together, and this verse-style picture book for older readers about a boy who decides to catch the wind one night and fly away worked just fine for us. (See excerpts from the book at NPR)

With echoes of Seuss (the character’s name alone had my son asking about it as he remembers Bartholomew from the Oobleck and other stories), the story takes off as the boy soars in the sky, with his bed sheet as a sail, and goes off on adventures, making new friends, cavorting with pirates and then getting stuck inside a canyon with other flying wayfarers (including Amelia Earhart) before finding a way out. As most stories of adventurers do, Bartholomew makes his way home by the end, changed by his experiences and appreciative of things he did not appreciate before.

I wish there had been more illustrations from Myers, whose depictions were a wonderful addition to the couplets of the story by Ross. There is a high level of vocabulary in the verse here, which is not a bad thing but something to know, and I wonder how the story might have been different if told in prose. I never really answered my son’s question about why the book is written as a poem, other than to say that the writer chooses and the reader reads, and maybe the poem style was how the writer best saw the story in his head. (I later found an interesting backstory by Ross, who is a Hollywood director, on how he came to write the story.)

As it is, the book was a nice different kind of reading for us (we’re back with a novel), and so I appreciated the surprise of it in form and content. I’ll let the next wind carry it back to the library so that some other adventurous reader can enjoy the journey.

Peace (in the very big wind),


Book Review: Three Times Lucky

The back story of Three Times Lucky grabbed me (baby gets washed up during a Hurricane and then grows up to be adoptd child detective in small town where everyone knows everyone’s business … or so they think). And I liked the character of Mo, the girl who helps solve the mystery in her town. She’s all spunk and intelligence. But I wasn’t all that engaged with the writing, for some reason. It rang false to me (I say this as a a northerner not attuned to southern dialect, so take that comment for what it is — it still felt like I was reading stereotypical dialogue). And I could not ever shake that feeling as I read the story, even as I wanted to find out how it all ends.

It ends well, and Mo’s intuition and detective skills rise up to the surface, redeeming the book for me. Writer Sheila Turnage wisely brings another storm into focus as the plot thickens, and Mo and her best friend try to solve a kidnapping, a murder and an old robbery. You cheer for Mo, a “rising sixth grader” with a huge heart and worry about her birth mother whose presence is only felt in the message-in-a-bottle missives that Mo sends forth into the world from her adopted home.

Peace (in the mire),



Book Review: The Future of Us

The hook to Jay Asher and Carolyn Macker’s book – The Future of Us – is intriguing. Two teenagers log into AOL in the mid-1990s, only to discover something called Facebook bookmarked on their computer, which allows them to view their futures through Facebook status reports and friend  networks.  They are lurkers in their own futures.

Built on the science fictional concept that what we do today changes our futures tomorrow (so be careful what you say and which friendships you make and break), the novel balances the angst of the high school years with worries about the futures ahead of us. As Emma and Josh, two best friends from childhood now having a strained relationship as teenagers, view the future through the lens of Facebook, they scrutinize every move, every word, every relationship, in hopes that they will be happy someday. (They also make snarky observations about the future where everyone shares every little thing to the whole world.)

We never do learn why the AOL CD-ROM they use provides them a glimpse into Facebook (nor do they ever really use AOL for anything other than looking at Facebook), but the cultural and pop references (the emergence of Dave Matthews, for example) in the lives of Josh and Emma brought me right back to those mid-1990s, and I remember distinctly the first time I sat down at my friend’s computer and logged into AOL, and began an online conversation with a stranger around William Gibson’s novels about the future. It was eye-opening that a computer would connect me to a community.

The plot of The Future of Us moves along at a nice clip, alternating between the first person narratives of Josh and Emma. It’s nice that they come to understand one of those universal truths of life that Saul Bellow once used for his own famous novel: Seize the Day. Live in the day, not in the future or past.

Peace (in the here and now),



Resource Review: My Fantastic Words Book

I don’t know about you, but I am always searching for interesting ways to introduce and explore/understand new vocabulary with my students. It’s not easy, and exposure is not enough. The students need to be engaged. So I was intrigued by this little book by Ken Pransky called My Fantastic Words Book. On one hand, it is billed as a “young student thesaurus.” On the other hand, the visual elements of this small book for breaking down and extending words could easily become a model for a classroom activity around new vocabulary at any grade level.

Pransky almost views the words here as visual templates, and then expands them along realms of synonym/antonyms, degrees or meaning, and other framing ideas. It’s hard to describe but the concept of word clouds is what comes to mind here, although each page has different shapes to them, depending on the word. For younger students, this book might be just enough of a thesaurus for stretching out their writing (although the number of words in the book are limited to common ones, such as say, go, mean, sad, etc.). For older students, it could become a model for how we often try to add nuance to our language by choosing other words along a synonym trajectory.

I am going to bring this book by my co-teacher and see if we can’t brainstorm a creative way to approach some vocabulary words, as Pransky has wisely situated this book (in a one-page teacher’s guide) as a strong way to approach vocabulary development with students who have learning difficulties and ELL students. The graphic element is a key piece. And I am already thinking of the technology possibilities here — either with a simple drawing program or maybe some word cloud generator, or maybe something else altogether. It might be that a site like Visuwords is a companion to My Fantastic Words Book.

Peace (in the words),


Book Review: Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

We waited for almost three months for our library to get a copy of the third book in The Guardians of Childhood series. This one is called Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, and like the other books in the series by William Joyce (who is developing a cross-platform franchise for The Guardian idea: books, movies, games), it has its up and downs.

The story revolves around the continuing development of the team of Guardians (which include Nicholas St. North and Bunnymund and Oombric the wizard, along with Nightlight the boy of pure energy and light, and the Man in the Moon) and their attempt to rid the world of Pitch, the king of nightmares who feeds on the bad dreams of children. A main human character, the orphan Katherine, gives the stories a childlike wonder and point of view, as she is part of the Guardians and sees more than evil in Pitch.

(Note: my son and I are reading the series together. Well, I am reading it out loud. He’s an active listener.)

Here, we meet Toothiana, and her origin story was the most interesting part of the novel, although she does not make an appearance until almost halfway through the novel. I won’t give it away but it involves a monkey king, a ruby box of magical teeth, a flying elephant, and tragedy. She also looks like no other tooth fairy you’ve seen before. Joyce depicts her as a beautiful warrior, armed to the teeth, and ready to protect children at any cost. She also has an army of mini-Toothianas that are smaller versions of herself (thus, the army).  In this depiction as a warrior, she fits in perfectly with the other stories, where Joyce has begun reworking our conceptions of idols connecting to holidays.

Even though the writing ebbs and flows (in my opinion), the plot kept us both interested (my son wasn’t all that concerned with the writing, to be honest.) And this book left off with an intriguing cliffhanger in which a mysterious and powerful figure, who may be Mother Nature, enters the fray and steals away Pitch and the human girl, Katherine.

And now, we look forward to the next installment in the saga (not due out until September): The Sandman and the War of Dreams.

Peace (in the magic),