This morning I recorded a “spooky storytime” for my library to post to our website. We’re offering some live programs and some recorded ones, because as all caregivers (and program planners) have figured out by now, you can’t always get kids to show up at a certain time, even if it doesn’t involve leaving the house.
It wasn’t quite the real thing, but I pretended some of my usual “Step Into Storytime” kiddos were there and brought my best storytime energy.
Back in March, I began checking out WAY more books than usual to prepare a stockpile for when the library closed – and I was glad I did. I was able to refresh my stash of library books once while the library was operating with very limited in-person staff, and since August I’ve been going to work in the building twice a week, so I have more or less regular access again.
But while I love reading books one-on-one with my kiddo, I miss doing storytimes for two- and three-year olds! And we’ve read some picture books that I can’t wait to read to a live audience of kids.
Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley (2015): And what’s the best cure for hiccups? A good scare! Maybe you can help… [Note: your fake hiccup game has to be on point.]
I Love My Fangs by Kelly Leigh Miller (2020): What happens when a little vampire gets a loose tooth?
I Can Be Anything by Shinsuke Yoshitake (2020): Fantastic if your audience has even the most basic grasp of charades.
Nothing Rhymes With Orange by Adam Rex (2017): Poor Orange feels left out of the rhyming fruit game, but when the others see they’ve hurt Orange’s feelings, they find a way to include them. Full of snarky commentary and even a Nietzsche reference.
Bo the Brave by Bethan Woolvin (2020): Turns classic fairy tale tropes on their heads in a most delightful way.
Unstoppable by Adam Rex (2020): Animals who envy/admire each others’ abilities (flying, swimming, etc.) team up, and then work together to save their habitat. Environmentalism and civics with a huge dose of humor.
Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton (2019): This instantly became one of my favorite summer books, along with Jabari Jumps and There Might Be Lobsters. Little Crab is excited about leaving their tidepool and going to the ocean, but once they see the ocean, they aren’t so sure….and then, once they’re there, they don’t want to leave!
This Is A Dog by Ross Collins (2019): My kiddo loves what she calls “cross-out books” – books where part of the title is crossed out and written in differently – and this scene-stealing dog was no exception. See also Z is for Moose.
No Ordinary Jacket by Sue Ellen Pashley (2020): This definitely has echoes of Something From Nothing: a beloved jacket is passed down from elder sibling to younger.
Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali (2020): At the beginning of the school year, a teacher asks each student in her class to share about their favorite day of the year, so everyone learns what is special to their classmates. A cut above regular show-and-tell, especially in the way that holidays are introduced and made familiar.
The House Full of Stuff by Emily Rand (2020): Beauty – and usefulness – is in the eye of the beholder.
Under the Lilacs by E.B. Goodale (2020): A little girl, failing to get attention from her mother and sister, runs away to the lilac in the yard and recreates her home there.
Trees Make Perfect Pets by Paul Czajak (2020): Her parents probably expected her to choose a cat or a dog, but Abigail defends her choice beautifully. An especially good choice for older preschoolers in springtime, around Earth Day.
Goodnight Veggies by Diana Murray (2020): Do you have an evening storytime at your library? This is a unique take on a bedtime book, set in a rooftop garden in Brooklyn.
Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy (2020): Repetition is used to great effect in this story of how friends hurt each other, apologize, and forgive – but it’s an up-and-down journey.
Only A Tree Knows How to Be A Tree by Mary Murphy (2020): If you like to incorporate yoga into your storytimes, there are natural opportunities here.
Play in the Wild: How Baby Animals Like to Have Fun by Lita Judge (2020): This is a nonfiction picture book with primary and secondary text, and great big illustrations of the baby animals at play. For a storytime with younger kids, I’d stick to the primary text and make it as interactive as possible, acting out the different animal behaviors.
Lifesize by Sophy Henn (2018): Henn shows animals (or parts of animals) life-size in this large trim book. Try on a toucan’s beak, compare your toes to an elephant’s, look through the eye of a giant squid!
Imogene’s Antlers by David Small (1988): OK, I’m late to the party on this one, but I saw that there’s a sequel coming out this year and I had to read the original…and it’s wonderful. Imogene’s mom has fainting fits, but Imogene cheerfully rolls with the sudden appearance of her antlers – and the twist at the end is priceless.
Many daycare, preschool, pre-K, and elementary school teachers have their own classroom libraries. They usually develop these libraries out of pocket, or through donations; adding a new book is a way to build that library and increase the number of books kids have ready access to.
Here are a number of relatively new books that would be great additions to classroom libraries – and the majority of the authors and illustrators are BIPOC. I’ve separated them into categories by age, but please don’t treat that as a hard-and-fast rule.
Hello, Hello by Brendan Wenzel
Carrot & Pea by Morag Hood
Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora
Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin
A Parade of Elephants by Kevin Henkes
Rain! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer
Saturday by Oge Mora
Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham
Hank’s Big Day by Evan Kuhlman, illustrated by Chuck Groenink
Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love
Ralph and Rita’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Pete Oswald
The Adventures of Beekle: the Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Lift by Minh Le, illustrated by Dan Santat
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Owen by Kevin Henkes
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
The Someone New by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EJ Keller
Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed, illustrated by Anoosha Syed
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua
World Pizza by Cece Meng, illustrated by Ellen Shi
Unstoppable! by Adam Rex
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
First Day of School
The Class by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kimberly Gee
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex
Truman by Jean Reidy
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Teachers, please chime in on the topic of classroom libraries. Do you welcome donations? Do you keep a wish list? Do you (or your students) have favorite titles, either for read-alouds or reading alone? What else should parents/caregivers/guardians/volunteers know about classroom libraries?
This afternoon I listened to a conversation between author David Mitchell and interviewer Heather McCormack of Bibliotheca. David Mitchell’s books are some of my all-time favorites, and I inhaled his new one, Utopia Avenue, as soon as it came out. In the “Mitchellverse,” a common thread runs through his books, connecting them, so new books are a chance to catch glimpses of familiar characters, fill in puzzle pieces, or add to the mythology/theology of the fantasy element in his work. (I am always on the lookout for the “moon-gray cat.”)
Here are my notes on the conversation.
Q: Why were you compelled to write a rock ‘n’ roll story?
“There is essentially only one story”: the cliche is a band’s rise from obscurity to riches, then down the other side. But a cliche can also with something to work within and against. Take “the tendency of something to splinter” and play with it. The manager [Levon], instead of being crooked, “wants to make an artwork composed of musicians.” The band, instead of being all men, of a common background, has Elf for female energy, and each of the musicians has “different reasons to make this work (dignity, self-respect, a way out of poverty, a way to grasp on to sanity).” They’re very different kinds of people.
In the book and in the conversation, Mitchell uses the quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This band didn’t exist, you can’t “hear” their music because it doesn’t exist. “A near-impossibility” “You can use cliche as a strategic weapons…you can deploy the reader’s expectations”
Unlike Cloud Atlas‘ overlapping sextets, Utopia Avenue’s structure is built around three LPs, though each character’s sections may include past or present times in their lives.
Utopia Avenue is about “disparate souls coming together.” The band is more than the sum of its parts.
Q: Are writers jealous of musicians? What kind of larger effect did you want to create for the reader, reading about musicians making music?
Mitchell envies “the speed with which a song can be written, and the feedback loop between the musician and the audience.” Authors are “rarely present when our work is consumed.” At best, they get the “afterglow” (at book festivals, author events, fan mail, social media, etc.). He’s also envious of collaborative aspect. “When musicians are working, they are the coolest things to look at on the face of the earth….There is nothing photogenic whatsoever about a writer at work….Writing a book is the closest I can get to being [a musician].”
Q: Characters, including real life figures, included in the book [I didn’t catch this question because I was needed to help with a jigsaw puzzle]
Writing about a British band in the 1960s, it would be impossible to avoid other well-known musicians on the scene at that time. Mitchell’s “utility rule” to achieve the “Goldilocks spot” was “Not make the cameo so small it’s like bird-spotting….They need to be substantial enough to change the direction of the scene.” (I particularly liked that we encountered Bowie twice, literally on his way up the stairs and on the way down.)
Q: Do you write with [genre] restraints? Is Jasper the spiritual center of the novel?
“Jasper is the porthole into my other novels…he’s something of a door.”
“All art forms are influenced by other art forms.” Mitchell believes that long-form television drama is the most ascendant art form right now, but “demise [of other forms] is not inevitable…the novel is still going strong.” He admires that long-form TV is “not embarrassed about using ‘backflash’ or ‘foreflash'” (flashbacks, foreshadowing, etc.). That’s why there’s so much “back-and-forthing” in Utopia Avenue. “When working on a character, it’s not enough to think about their relationships with other characters” – you need a top 5 or top 10 (you need to know about them as individuals). What’s their relationship with time?
Q: What’s your writing process?
“Writing is largely editing” Will leave gaps – sometimes there’s something you can’t get over; leave a space and go on, maybe you’ll find a key and you can unlock it from the other side.
“Genre’s a useful map”: it’s useful for bookshops, book shoppers, publishers…they are cartographical devices, however…genre should only be a guide, not a boundary – it shouldn’t keep people from reading a book. He made an analogy to colors for an artist (“Well, I’m not using purple…purple is only for people who like purple”). Dogmatism can keep you from reading “timeless, beautiful books.”
Q: Do you have tunes in mind for the songs in your books?
Avoided writing lyrics for a long time, thinking they wouldn’t be as good as the imagined lyrics in the reader’s head, but eventually realized he would have to. Wrote 5-6 songs in the book. “I was about to say no….” Would take an existing song and write completely new lyrics to fit that melody. (“Wedding Presence” was written to Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz”)
Q: Do you imagine your stories taking place in our world or a parallel one?
“Complex question…it’s both. I committed an original ontological sin with Luisa Rey; she exists in a manuscript with Cloud Atlas…unless I go back and fix that, which I intend to do, [and make it nonfiction]…” Other issues: In Ghostwritten, the world ends by comet smashing into the Earth in 2000-2001, which it didn’t… “If you write about the future, the near future, then of course as our timeline catches up with the literary timeline, there are divergences” (e.g. no mention of 2020 pandemic in Bone Clocks). “I’m going to be playing a game with this in about two novels’ time – hang in there and it will be explained.” (!!!)
Q: What’s your connection to Gravesend, which has showed up in a few of your books?
Went to University of Kent at Canterbury, lived in Whitstable. “It’s a haunted, desolate, strange, ghost-laden, politically curious, ancient part of the country” “How to describe? It’s beautiful, it’s poor” [poorest area in richest region], it’s Roman. Echoes of Dickens, Conrad. “There’s something about the place that gets me.”
No one would argue that 2020 has been a pretty rough year so far. We’re facing the effects of climate change and the very real and immediate specter of worse to come; we’ve got a global pandemic; and here in the U.S., we have a president who refuses to lead a coherent, science-based, national response to either the COVID-19 pandemic or the epidemic of racism our country is also battling.
I’ve done a lot of reading about all of these things, but less writing about them. I compiled most of the anti-racism resources below in early June, but at the time, the internet was flooded with similar resources; did I need to create a selected bibliography of them? (I didn’t, really, but my instinct is always to take notes, document, and share, so if they are useful to you, fantastic.)
On June 15, the New England Library Association (NELA) published a statement that reads, in part, “Let us all stand together, build coalitions, and be each other’s accomplices in the struggle to end internal, interpersonal, and systematic forms of racism and all other forms of oppression….Racism, in all its forms, destroys our communities. We must all proactively work on eradicating racism anywhere and everywhere it exists” (emphasis added).
I have been thinking – as a white parent and librarian – about how to do that, and what advice I can share about how to be anti-racist and how to raise anti-racist kids. I’ve boiled it down to a few points, for now:
White parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians need to normalize talking about race. Though some of us were taught to be “colorblind” in the ’90s, what we really need to be is “color conscious.” If talking about race is taboo, that makes it seem uncomfortable, and shameful, and then we arrive at the point where even mentioning race is considered racist. But if we refuse to recognize the racism around us, and can’t talk about it, we can’t work to dismantle it. (Note that even the option to talk about race or not is part of white privilege.)
Books provide an entry point to discuss many topics. If you’re involved in selecting books for kids (if you’re a parent, caregiver, teacher, librarian), make the effort to choose books that show all kinds of people. Don’t let white be the default. Don’t let animals be the default (as much as we may love hedgehogs and bears). Most of us live in communities that are effectively segregated; if kids don’t see diversity around them, at least they can see it in picture books.
If you’re seeking books that show Black characters, make sure you are not just getting biographies of civil rights heroes or stories of enslavement. Select books that show Black joy as well. There is a wealth of contemporary Black stories – enough for every month of the year, not just Black History Month. Seek out and read #ownvoices books.
Definitions are important. Racism is structural, historical, and present-tense. We live in a racist society; it’s “the water we swim in.” As the song from Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes,” even if our intentions are good. But white intentions don’t matter as much as white actions. So…
Listen. Speak with care. Have humility. We will make mistakes; don’t let fear of making mistakes keep us from doing the work. Apologize, repair, listen some more.
A selected bibliography of anti-racism resources, June 2020
All industries have been affected by the massive economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Publishing and bookselling are certainly not immune, so I thought that one very small thing I can do is to champion the books and authors I’m excited about this year. Books are still being published (and written and represented and acquired and edited), and people are definitely still reading.
Libraries’ physical locations are closed in most places – or if they’re not, they should be – and while some staff are working from home and being paid, others have been furloughed or laid off, or forced to use their PTO or do unrelated (and sometimes risky) jobs (for no hazard pay). If you are in a position to do so, please consider supporting your local library by donating to their Friends group, contacting Town/City management to express your appreciation and support, or donating to the EveryLibrary HALO Fund (or any of the EveryLibrary initiatives).
Okay, on to the books! It’s looking like 2020 might not be the best year (politically, pandemically, planetarily, take your pick), but there are always good books being published. Titles in italics are those I’ve already read and would recommend; the rest are those I’m looking forward to reading in the coming months.
19 Love Songs by David Levithan
You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy
The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan
Weather by Jenny Offill
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
Go to Sleep (I Miss You) by Lucy Knisley
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey
Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery
A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Or What You Will by Jo Walton
On the Horizon by Lois Lowry
The Thief Knot by Kate Milford (Greenglass House)
The Night Country by Melissa Albert (sequel to The Hazel Wood)
Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern
Go With the Flow by Karen Schneemann
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
Almost American Girl by Robin Ha
Chirp by Kate Messner
Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker
Show Me A Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
We Dream of Space by Erin Estrada Kelly
The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins
Music from Another World by Robin Talley
Goodbye from Nowhere by Sara Zarr
Catherine’s War by Julia Billet
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Mohamed Omar
Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Wink by Rob Harrell
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
Folktales for Fearless Girls by Myriam Sayalero
Beehive by Jorey Hurley
The Only Woman in the Photo by Kathleen Krull
In A Jar by Deborah Marcero
World So Wide by Alison McGee (this would make a great gift book for any family with a new baby!)
My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano
Charlie and Mouse Outdoors by Laurel Snyder
Just Like A Mama by Alice Faye Duncan
The Oldest Student by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
Only A Tree Knows How to Be A Tree by Mary Murphy
The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee
One Little Bag by Henry Cole
I Can Be Anything by Shinsuke Yoshitake
What About Worms?! (an Elephant & Piggie book) by Ryan T. Higgins
The Next President by Kate Messner
Lift by Minh Le
Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey by Lori Mortensen
Things That Go Away by Beatrice Alemagna
What If Soldiers Fought With Pillows? by Heather Camlot
In My Anaana’s Amautik by Nadia Sammurtock
Under the Lilacs by E.B. Goodale
You Don’t Want A Dragon! by Ame Dyckman
Looking even further ahead: Alix Harrow’s new novel The Once and Future Witches comes out in October of this year, and Kate Milford’s The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book comes out in 2021. Still waiting on the final chunk of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, and the rest of Alba De Tamble’s story from Audrey Niffenegger…
Remember that you can borrow e-books and digital audiobooks for free from your library, and most indie bookstores are offering local delivery or some sort of contact-less pickup option. Keep calm, wash your hands, and read on.
Last Monday we were closed for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and next week I get to do a double storytime (2- and 3-year-olds on Monday as usual, preschool storytime on Tuesday), but this week was a regular Step into Storytime session. Attendance was on the low end to start with, about seven kids (all boys, coincidentally), but a few more came in during our initial songs and first few books.
Welcome and announcements (including “storytime is my favorite part of the week.” I borrowed this lovely phrase from a librarian at the library in Arlington said this at her storytime last week. It is 100% true for me as well, as long as we’re talking about the work week)
“Hello Friends” with ASL
Name song (“___ is here today”)
Goose by Laura Wall
There’s A Dragon in Your Book by Tom Fletcher (this book encourages plenty of interaction: blowing out fire, popping a water balloon, etc.)
Song cube: “The Wheels on the Bus”
Pirate Jack Gets Dressed by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Allison Black: This is such a fabulous book to talk about colors (and getting dressed). I made a set of felt shapes to correspond to each item of Jack’s clothing and placed them on the felt board as we got to their page in the story. Before starting the book, we also took a look at what colors we were wearing.
Mouse house game (by request). “Little mouse, little mouse, are you in the [color] house?” Apparently this never gets old!
Song cube: “Zoom zoom zoom, we’re going to the moon” (twice)
Make A Wish, Bear by Greg Foley: I had A Parade of Elephants with me too, but decided to save that for next week and made Bear the last book of today’s storytime. We noticed the star shapes on the cover and in the book, to tie in to our craft project.
“Goodbye Friends” with ASL
Invited questions, and one boy raised his hand and said, “I have a question! Will you put the paper out now?” (Later, a grown-up came up and asked for books for her kindergartener who likes funny books like Elephant & Piggie and Pigeon, so I helped her find several funny picture books.)
Craft: Butcher paper taped to the floor, pre-cut colored construction paper stars, glue sticks, crayons.
And when I was finished cleaning up from storytime, the ALA Youth Media Awards had been announced! I was so excited to see that New Kid by Jerry Craft won the Newbery AND Coretta Scott King, and that Dig by A.S. King won the Printz, and Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez won the Pura Belpré. Many other winner and Honor titles were books I’ve liked or loved this year:
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Newbery Honor)
Bear Came Along by Richard Morris and LeUyen Pham (Caldecott Honor)
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (Coretta Scott King Honor)
What Is Given From the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack and April Harrison (Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award)
The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (Schneider Family Book Award Honor)
Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya (Schneider Family Honor Book)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz (Alex Award)
The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (Alex Award)
Children’s Literature Legacy Award to Kevin Henkes
ALSC Children’s Literature Lecture Award to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (if you’re heard of mirrors, windows, and doors in children’s literature, she is why)
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka (Odyssey Award for best audiobook, though I read the print edition)
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorrell (Odyssey Honor; American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book Honor)
We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey (Odyssey Honor)
¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raúl Gonzalez (Belpré Illustrator Honor Book)
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar (Belpré Author Honor Book)
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal (Sibert Award; American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book Honor)
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy (Sibert Honor)
Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis (Sibert Honor)
Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! by Cece Bell (Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor)
The Book Hog by Greg Pizzoli (Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor)
Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed (Asian/Pacific American Picture Book Honor)
Stargazing by Jen Wang (Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature)
Frankly in Love by David Yoon (Asian/Pacific American Young Adult Literature Honor)
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell, cover art by Marlena Myles (American Indian Youth Literature Middle Grade Award)
…and naturally I added several others to my to-read list this morning. Congratulations to all the authors and illustrators, thanks to the committee members, and happy reading to everyone! | School Library Journal ALA YMA announcement
Tonight, seven of the eleven members of the Chunky Monkeys writing group spoke on a panel at Belmont Books. I’d seen Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light, speak once before (at the Arlington Author Salon) but hadn’t had a chance to hear the others speak, even though they’re all local (they meet in person) and many teach or have taught at Grub Street.
The group started in 2012 with Jennifer DeLeon (Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From) and Adam Stumacher, and expanded to nine members, then eleven. When the group started, none of them had yet published a book; the goal was that, within a decade, all of them would. Grace Talusan (The Body Papers) said she believed in all of the others, but “I didn’t necessarily believe in myself – but all of you did.”
Grace, Jennifer, and Adam were on the panel tonight, along with Whitney Scharer, Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere), Sonya Larson (who just won an NEA grant), and Calvin Hennick (Once More to theRodeo).
They started by discussing tenets of an effective writing group (noting that, of course, the exact same rules won’t work for every group):
Discuss and agree on expectations and hopes for the group, and level of commitment, at the beginning
Specific systems in place (more rigid at first, more flexible now)
Ongoing experiences together
Relationship with each other and each other’s work (“they know how to give feedback in a way that you can hear it”)
Inspiration and integrity; mutual admiration and “healthy intimidation”
Respect each other as readers and as human beings
Make decisions by consensus
Sonya described the “standard workshop”: a writer submits 20-25 pages, and receives a written letter and line edits. The group meets once a month for three hours on a Sunday, planned 5-6 months in advance (they use a Google calendar and a Doodle poll to set the dates). Hosting rotates, and they workshop three writers’ work each time, but there is not a strict rotation.
Sometimes, in order for the group to thrive, and to be useful to every member of the group, they do things differently. (“Ask the group for what you need on this project right now.”) In fact, the name Chunky Monkeys doesn’t come from the ice cream flavor – it’s because they referred to “chunks” of writing, sometimes asking for the group to review a “double chunk” (twice the usual length) or asking a few members of the group to form a “side chunk.”
They are also connected via e-mail, daily (though this isn’t a formal requirement for group membership). They share “yay-ables” and occasionally have family get-togethers. After many years together, they have a high level of trust, and Sonya said, “with high trust comes high freedom,” which is reflected in their feedback on each other’s work. And being in a group with other writers you admire makes you “up your game” in a way that is positive, not competitive. “All boats float.”
Celeste also talked about the high level of trust among group members: not only do they workshop each other’s writing, but they offer support in “meta-writing” activities, like practicing Q&As before a book tour, helping each other with book proposals, helping each other find agents (“and break up with agents”), and figuring out how to ask for an honorarium. Because they’re at different stages of their writing careers, and have different areas of expertise (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, short fiction), it’s useful to compare notes.
When bookstore employee and moderator Miriam Lapson asked, “How many of you are in multiple writing groups?” the reaction was almost comical, with everyone looking around at everyone else, asking, “Who’s cheating on us?!” (Only one admitted to being in another group, but others said they sometimes asked other people to read their work to get “fresh eyes.”)
Moderator Miriam asked the group how they manage conflict; Jennifer replied that there’s usually something underneath, but “there’s a level of maturity – it’s our passion, but also our profession.” Adam reiterated the group norm of decision by consensus, which means they have to talk through big decisions (such as whether to allow members who move away from the Boston area to stay in the group, or whether to add a new member). It can be a long conversation, but everyone gets heard. Celeste said, “All of us are very invested in making sure everybody’s voice gets heard.”
Once the Q&A time opened up, I observed that every member of the group had a background in teaching writing – how did that inform their workshop process? (At the beginning of the panel, they had said that any writing group could have their kind of success, which I thought was a tiny bit disingenuous, since all of them had taken and/or taught classes at Grub Street and some had MFAs.) Adam replied that when the group started, they’d had a facilitator/moderator for each session, and that, as teachers, they had a specific way of thinking about craft. Celeste added that their feedback is focused on the intent of the writer; they don’t read a piece and say, “You should do this,” but rather, “It seems like your intent is _____, here are some ways you can do that.” (As someone who hasn’t taken creative writing classes or done any formal workshopping, I found this particular piece of advice really helpful.)
Another person asked what the group members did when they had a complete draft ready for submission. Enter “side chunks”! Three or four people read the whole manuscript and critique it. This is also a point at which “fresh eyes” from outside the group may be helpful.
Thanks to Belmont Books for hosting, and to all seven of the Chunky Monkeys for sharing their time and expertise on a freezing Thursday night.
Using data from my LibraryThing account, my total number of books read in 2019 was: 779. Which seems stratospheric and/or false, but remember that some I didn’t finish (16), and more than half were picture books (452) or early readers (46).
Partially read / started-didn’t-finish: 16. Sometimes it’s a case of right book, wrong time, or right book, wrong reader. Whatever the case, if you’re reading for pleasure, and you don’t like the book – put it down and find another!
Picture books: 452
Early reader: 46. If you haven’t read the Charlie & Mouse books by Laurel Snyder, please check them out immediately. They have a Frog & Toad / Bink & Gollie vibe that is just – as Mary Berry would say – perfection.
Now we’re down to 265 books, which is still, even in librarian circles, respectable. I’ve broken that down into categories below, but math-minded folks take note: there’s a lot of overlap within those categories (particularly between chapter books and middle grade, middle grade and YA, audiobooks and pretty much everything except graphic novels, graphic novels and fiction/nonfiction).
Chapter books: 22. It’s been such a pleasure to revisit Ramona Quimby and Clementine, and to meet Ivy & Bean. Nate the Great, Anna Hibiscus, and Princess Magnolia are good, too.
Middle grade: 96! I’ve been reading more middle grade novels since I’m working more hours in the children’s department, and MG has some of the most amazing characters. (There’s setting and world-building and all that, too, but what sticks with me is the characters.)
YA/teen: 38 (including 14 that overlap with middle grade. For the uninitiated, “middle grade” does not mean “middle school”: it usually refers to upper elementary, but it can also include middle school territory.)
Adult fiction: 46 (approximate genre breakdown, keeping in mind that there is plenty of overlap between genres: 47 fantasy, 13 historical, 11 sci-fi, 6 mystery, 4 romance)
Nonfiction: 29 adult (including 11 how-to), 117 total (children’s/teen/adult). Kids’ nonfiction is often presented attractively and is really informative! Together with my kiddo, I learned a lot about ladybugs, the Northern Lights, and outer space this year (that “a universe of stories” summer reading theme was influential).
Graphic novels: 49. My appreciation for this format continues to grow. Standouts this year included Good Talk by Mira Jacob (adult, memoir) and New Kid by Jerry Craft (MG/YA), plus new books from Shannon Hale, Raina Telgemeier, and Ben Hatke. My standard line for adults who hem and haw about their kids reading graphic novels instead of “real books” is: Graphic novels ARE real books. Kids develop visual literacy along with print literacy, and they might read them fast, but they re-read them often. If they’re developing a love of reading by reading graphic novels, fantastic.
Short stories: 8. There’s some incredible speculative short fiction out there: see Kelly Link, N.K. Jemisin, and Ted Chiang for a start.
Audiobooks: 52. See note for graphic novels: audiobooks ARE books. In fact, they have one specific advantage over print: the narrators pronounce words correctly! There are so many words that I can spell and define but not pronounce confidently because I’ve never heard them out loud…until audiobooks. Also, many narrators bring so much talent and expression to their performance – like Jessica Almasy’s reading of the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks: 92. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center collects statistics about diversity in children’s publishing. Looking at the infographic comparing 2015 with 2018, what struck me is that while the percentage of books featuring white characters dropped from 73.3% to 50% over three years, the percentage of books featuring non-human (animal/other) main characters rose from 12.5% to 27%. So, we still have a ways to go before our children’s literature reflects the actual children reading the books. More diverse books, more #OwnVoices.
Five star ratings: 26. The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Secret Commonwealth, Invisible Women, City of Girls, Wordslut, Good Talk….See my “Great books of 2019” post.
Re-reads: 24. Mostly picture books, but a few others as well: Slade House by David Mitchell, because I bought the beautiful UK paperback at No Alibis in Belfast; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, because it had been ages; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlotte’s Web with the kiddo.
Although I’m not setting any particular goals or reading resolutions for this year, I’m looking forward to more wonderful books. I’m already in the middle of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez (fun!) and Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg (not fun).
How was your reading year? What are you looking forward to? I’m always adding suggestions to my ever-growing to-read list…
It’s the future now, no question. 2020! Well, whatever else happens this year, at least we can count on books. Here are some titles slated to be published in 2020 that I’m looking forward to:
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: Finally, the third book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
The Thief Knot by Kate Milford: Another Greenglass House book. Rejoice!
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven
Go to Sleep (I Miss You) by Lucy Knisley
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Chirp by Kate Messner, author of Breakout
The Night Country by Melissa Albert, author of The Hazel Wood
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir by Rebecca Solnit
There are also a couple from last year’s list: The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (After reading reviews and talking with several people who had read it, I elected to skip The Dreamers.) And a couple that have been lingering on my “currently reading” shelf: the short story collection Ghostly, edited by Audrey Niffenegger, and Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, both of which I started and then set aside intending to go back to.
There were (more than) a few published in 2019 or earlier that are still on my to-read list, a few of which my book club is considering:
Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (YA, historical fiction)
Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins (YA contemporary)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (adult fiction)
The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu (adult fiction)
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (adult fiction, Booker Prize)
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri (memoir)
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (fantasy/horror)
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby (YA, historical/ghost)
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire (adult fantasy)
Falter by Bill McKibben (adult nonfiction), climate)
And if we’re really, really lucky, Philip Pullman will publish the final Book of Dust, and Audrey Niffenegger will publish Alba, Continued (or whatever it’s going to be called), and David Mitchell will publish…anything at all. Fingers and toes crossed.
Obviously this is more than ten. But who’s counting?