Pennsylvania Books

pennsylvania books

Three rivers, hundreds of stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready for a reading list of Pennsylvania books?

Last summer, I came up with a “Reading Road Trip” article that described the real places in the U.S. featured in some of my favorite books. As a kid, I dreamed of visiting the places I read about, everything from Prince Edward Island to Manzanar and Helen Keller’s Alabama home.

I’ve been shopping the article around and looking for a publication or magazine to buy it, but in the meantime I thought I’d work on a list of books that were based closer to home, right here in Pennsylvania.

I have my own Pittsburgh, PA based stories in mind, but my first two middle grade novels are based in Maryland.

Pennsylvania Books

  1. Maniac MageeJerry Spinelli. Not based in Pittsburgh, but includes a visit to Valley Forge. It also tackles the tough topics of race and class.
  2. Criss CrossLynn Rae Perkins. I picked this up because it was a Newbery winner, and fell in love. It’s so lyrical and really captures a feeling and moments rather than a strict storyline. I loved that style. And it’s based in the steel town suburbs up the Allegheny river, some of my favorite parts of Pittsburgh. I plan to read her first novel, also based in PA, called All Alone in the Universe.
  3. EchoPamela Munoz Ryan. This novel follows three characters and one is based in eastern PA.
  4. Hitty: Her First Hundred YearsVirginia Ann Heyerdahl. Not the best book I’ve ever read. It’s a Newbery but fits into the Gay-Neck category, unfortunately. It’s about a doll who travels the world on random adventures and at one point lives in Philadelphia.

In the comments, my friend and fellow writer Amy suggested two more Pennsylvania books.

Macaroni Boy, Katherine Ayers This book is based in the Strip District of Pittsburgh and is also a period piece and a mystery. My kids read it for school and enjoyed the classic banana explosion story.

I’ve read Macaroni Boy but not her other book Voices at Whisper Bend. 

Any more suggestions?

What real live place from a book would you love to visit?

Pig Out for Reading

I remember falling in love with reading.

I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade books the past year, because that’s what I want to write. I want to write books like the kind I read from fifth to eighth grade, the kind I re-read and re-re-read. They were the books that really stuck with me as I grew older and looked for new books to read. I loved the books, I loved the writers, I loved reading.

I have trouble remembering authors and titles sometimes, but I can remember how my books looked in my room. I didn’t have a traditional bookshelf in my room, but I had shelves in my closet and I can still picture the books stacked in there. I even remember keeping some books in the open shelf on my night stand.

Remembered Reading

I remember reading Dreams of VictoryA Dog Called KittySasha, My Friend, and Six Months to Live. And of course all of the Little House books. And a book series from the grocery store called Grandma’s Attic.

But I have forgotten the titles of other books I loved reading. I could only remember snippets.  I remembered I read about a woman who gets a young puppy as a companion for her older dog and the older dog dies on an adventure. Or something like that. And I remembered reading a book about a girl who’s mother went vegan in an attempt to be happier.The mom had recently gotten divorced. The daughter hated the new diet and tried to sabotage her mom. The two big scenes I remember reading involved the daughter drinking mustard and milk and finding mice eating the junk food she had hidden in her drawer. The mom and daughter finally come to a truce and a healthy balance of good food.

(I think that book may have influenced my current eating habits more than I realized.)

I wanted to find these books. I searched all over the internet using as many descriptive words as I could. I searched websites like BookFinder for out of print and old books, I searched Amazon for keywords. I searched Goodreads.

Buried Treasure

Goodreads was useful because users create lists like “kids books that were popular in the 80s” and that’s just what I was looking for.

On Goodreads, I was delighted to find some covers of one of my favorites!

reading

Six Months to Live was my first exposure to childhood disease. The main character has leukemia. Funny, maybe this book influenced me more than I realized, too, because I worked for the American Cancer Society for eight years before I moved to writing full time.

On a Goodreads list I also found a book that I know I read, but had forgotten. This was like discovering buried treasure.

But I still couldn’t find the book about the mom going on a health food kick, or the young puppy and old dog. I let my search fade while the rest of life took over, but I didn’t forget about it. Every once in awhile when I visited the library or an old bookstore, I’d poke around and see if a title or cover jogged my memory.

Then I got involved in cleaning out our basement. I wanted to get rid of our excess belongings for several reasons. I abhor hoarding. The thought of it gives me anxiety. Also, I wanted to move our workout equipment into our larger storage room so I could get more done. My cleanup was ruthless. If I had kept something in the basement so long I didn’t go looking for it, I didn’t need it. As a means of farewell, I did do a sweep through all the papers before I recycled them, and that’s when I found my real buried treasure. My Pig Out award.

Pig Out on Reading

reading award

I love to read.

In fifth grade, I wrote 86 book reports to help my class win a reading prize. While it was wonderful to win the prize thirty years ago, it was even better finding these book reports today. I was so, so grateful to my mom (and then me) for saving them until just this moment. (This is not a reason to horde things. Only keep stuff related to your passionate dream.)

I found the titles of those missing, beloved books. Here are some of my favorites:

Behind the Attic Wall

A Wrinkle in Time

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Helen Keller

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great

I wrote reports on tons of Nancy Drew books and way too many Sweet Valley High books. Remember, I was going for quantity.

The Bunnicula series is in here, lots of Beverly Cleary books, some Choose Your Own Adventure and a book that gives me an unsettled feeling called The Twits, by Roald Dahl.

But the one about the mom and daughter and health food? It’s called Fifth Grade Secrets. Did you ever read it? I’ve got to find it.

I didn’t find the new dog/old dog book, but that might have been a story in my classroom SRA box. Did you have one of those?

 

New Books at Our Little Free Library

Our Little Free Library is really getting a lot of use! We get thank you notes frequently. I love seeing the books change over, noting which ones have found new homes, finding new ones that I didn’t add to the library appear. I do admit I feel a little bad for some books that never seem to get picked from the library.

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First Books

Did you ever write a book when you were a kid? Even a short one? As you can guess, I did. And so did a young writer in our neighborhood. The best part is that this young writer was able to put their book in our Little Free Library! It was incredibly inspiring to find this book by a young author in our library. I pictured how excited this little storyteller was when they placed their book in a real library for others to read. I hope other young writers share their books, too.

first books

NaNoWriMo

Speaking of writing books, it’s November. And you know what that means. Time to write a novel. Earlier in October, I shared some information about NaNoWriMo in the library. Only one person took a tear-off tab, but I’m hopeful that maybe some others visited the website and attempt to write their first (or second?) novel.

nanowire mo

I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. I know what kind of work it takes to “win” and write 50,000 words. Maybe in a few years one of my novels will be in a Little Free Library. But it won’t get there if it isn’t written, so it’s time for me to get to work. Let’s write!

 

Let’s Close the Word Gap

Ready to learn about the Word Gap?

I love to sneak learning into all parts of life. I’m a curious person, I can’t help it! My son asked if we could go on one vacation without learning things, and I answered with a maniacal laugh and a deep, sonorous NO. In this family, we love to learn!! And we talk about what we learn!!

Seriously, learning does not have to be boring. Learning can be fun if you do it the right way. And the right way is to make it into a game.

On car trips, when our kids were very little, we played rhyming games. They are all now school age so we will often play ‘Spelling Bee’ and give our kids funny words to spell at their grade level. We also keep a small but mighty trivia book tucked in a seat pocket and take turns passing it around and answering questions.

But let’s say you’re not on vacation and want some fun learning games for young kids. My first recommendation is BINGO. Yes, the classic game of Bingo is perfect to start playing with young kids (and older kids).

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Learning Numbers

When my oldest started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to volunteer and help out. So as we neared Halloween, his wonderfully patient and experienced teacher invited me in to play a game with the class. I brought in our Bingo game set, complete with rolling ball and playing cards and red plastic markers. I started calling out letters and numbers and my son (and maybe a few other students) marked their cards. But most of the kids didn’t know what I meant when I called out double-digit numbers.

I felt embarrassed, but I also knew these kids could learn these numbers and that a game like Bingo was the perfect way to help them. We had been playing Bingo with our kids for a long time. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I could have written the numbers on the board and helping the kids look at their cards and match them up. I also could have done peer teaching and paired kids up.

Learning Words

It’s really important that kids learn their numbers, but it’s also important that they master our language and learn the parts of speech. Having a strong and varied vocabulary increases our ability to explain ourselves and understand others, to express complex thoughts and build connections between concepts and create new ideas. And that’s where Mad Libs comes in.

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Yes, Mad Libs. That old school paper book (not an e-device) that asks players to write in verbs, adjectives and nouns. The one where you couldn’t resist writing “butt” and “poop” at least a few times. It works.

My friend took a Mad Libs story into her son’s fourth grade class as a part of a holiday party and she was surprised how few kids could provide suggestions for the parts of speech. Standards in third grade already covered adjectives, adverbs and proper nouns! By fourth grade, students should be able to provide appropriate suggestions for those parts of speech. But even if they struggle, Mad Libs is a fun, non-academic way to encourage them to think about what kind of word is both grammatically logical but also hilariously out of place.

The Word Gap

Thinking about Mad Libs brings me back to the Word Gap. Simply put, kids from low income families are hearing and learning fewer words than kids from high income families. By age 3, kids from low income families are hearing 30 million fewer words. 30 million. And the discrepancy only increases as the kids age. It impacts these kids in terms of school success, which in turn impacts their chances of continuing education, job readiness, and the cycle of poverty.

A lack of words? It’s totally unfair.

It seems so bitterly unjust to me, someone who loves to talk and learn, that these children are already behind due to a lack of words. I try never to talk ‘down’ to children (or adults). But lots of people aren’t aware of this and say they aren’t sure what to say to kids. And sometimes when I take my children’s writing to more general critique groups, I get comments that my vocabulary is too high and I need to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it more kid friendly.’

But now you and I know being kid friendly means offering them more words, not less.

There are some amazing ideas out there. People are working to increase the number of words kids see, hear, read, learn and say. I’d love to contribute in some way to reduce the Word Gap. I’m going to keep thinking about it and I’m going to ask my kids what they think would work.

How would you reduce the Word Gap?

 

A Little Free Library – Finally!!

We finally have a Little Free Library in Tyler Park! About a year ago, I was in Minneapolis, MN, for a volunteer conference. While I was there, roaming around the very flat city, I walked by my very first Little Free Library. I had heard of these delightful book boxes, but never seen one.

As you can guess, I was incredibly inspired by the idea of sharing books with the community. I promised myself then and there I’d get one in our park. And it happened. Sure, it took over a year, but I never said I’d do it fast.

The Dream

First, I mentioned the idea to my neighbor on the board of our neighborhood association. Then I emailed the info to the board. After they approved the idea, they got approval from the township to install it in the park. Then I selected the design and ordered the LFL. It arrived in early June…and sat on my back deck for several months. I was sad about that, but there wasn’t much I could do. I’m not skilled with digging holes and pouring cement and I did not want this to be installed poorly.

I dreamed of the day the LFL would be ready. My husband and I visited the park often and debated where the best place would be to put it. We settled on a spot near the playground and the driveway. I often looked across the park and pictured it. But every time I tried to line up installation, scheduling or weather got in the way.

So at the bus stop one morning, I mentioned my dilemma to some other families, and a dad volunteered to help me out. And that Friday, we met at the park and dug in!

Installation

We had a little helper who loved to measure.

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While the LFL shipped with basic installation instructions, the steps were a lot more involved than I could implement at the park. We didn’t have electricity for sawing wood. So I purchased the installation materials based on a useful blog post I discovered at Hugs and Kisses and Snot. Their idea was genius in my opinion. All we needed was two mail box posts, cement and screws. I did a very good job holding the mailbox posts in place.

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It was so great learning tips and tricks from my very skilled neighbor. After we leveled the posts, I assumed we’d have to mix the cement in the bucket, but he pointed out it was just as easy to mix it right in the ground. That smoke is like magic!!

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We let the cement set for a day. Bright and early Saturday morning my neighbor secured the LFL onto to the posts with a kind of construction glue and screws. Then the kids, my husband and I hustled over there with our big box of books and loaded it up.

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Little Free Library Opening Day

We didn’t have a huge Opening Day celebration. But the Little Free Library worked like a charm. My kids saw books that looked interested, grabbed them out of the LFL, and cracked them open. Perfect!lfl3It was very hard and very easy to make this dream come true. The Little Free Library is open in Tyler Park. I’ve checked on it every day since it opened. (Yes, I’m over eager) It’s exciting to see that people have taken books and left new ones! We even got a thank you note! It’s pretty thrilling.

Little Free Library

It’s funny, when I saw that Little Free Library in Minneapolis, I didn’t even open it. I remember I gazed at it longingly, but didn’t open the door or take out a book. I could have, of course, because the books in Little Free Libraries are available for anyone. But I realize now I thought those books were only for Minnesotans. So I declare now, if you visit  Tyler Park from you are allowed to take books from our Little Free Library!

Summer Reading Fun with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

All school year I help my young kids log books. Our school has a program called Ross Reads and as the kids read books and pass quizzes online hosted by Scholastic, my kids earn prizes. They get colored rubber bracelets that signify their total of books read. They earn coupons for yogurt and local attractions. My kindergartener even earned tickets to a Washington Wild Things baseball game this year!!

And the reading doesn’t stop in summer. There are dozens of programs out there encouraging kids to read for rewards. At the library. At Half-Price Books. All summer I’m supposed to help them log books. When do I get a chance to earn rewards for reading??

Now.

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Bookmarks Up!

Finally, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh heard my woeful cry and offered a program for adults to earn prizes for reading. Their Summer Reading Log for 2016 is all online. That is perfect because it’s time consuming to drive across town to turn in a paper log. And I love that I am entered to win prizes for something I totally rock at doing: READING.

The program even offers suggestions for books I might like, but I don’t really need that aspect because my “To-Read” list on Goodreads is already a mile long and doesn’t even include the books that are stacked on my nightstand waiting to be read. I’ll read them all, I promise!

I really felt this program was designed just for me, but it turns out Carnegie Library wanted it to be easy for the whole city to read books and log their reading for rewards, so they challenged Pittsburghers to read 90,000 books before August 31, 2016. And we did it. I helped in my small way.

We Win!

We Win!

 

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Why Did This Book Win a Newbery Medal?

I’m working my way through the Newbery Award winners, and while I’ve read some books I really loved, there are some serious duds in the list. So far I have to say Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon and Ginger Pye are real disappointments compared to some of these books.

While I gave both of those books three stars on Goodreads, you should know I give almost every book I read three stars, unless it’s truly terrible or offensive. I guess I don’t feel the need to give a book one or two stars because I tend to find merit in at least one chapter, paragraph or sentence. But neither of these earned four or five stars. Neither one excited me. Passages may have entertained me and I certainly learned something to use in my writing, but honestly, neither of these books would stand a chance with my kids. So I wonder what earned them the award?

Gay-Neck is a gentle but somewhat confusing story of a boy raising a pigeon. I don’t know anything about the boy who is the narrator. I learned some things about pigeons, but after reading reviews on Goodreads, I’m not sure what I learned was true. I learned about an Indian hunter experiencing the trauma of World War I. Yet each chapter felt like a separate anecdotal entry, not a story. The writing wasn’t bad and much of it was poetic and painted a beautiful mental image, but the characters didn’t captivate me at all.

I started reading Ginger Pye to my middle son a few months ago and he was bored by the first chapter. I forced myself to push further into the book. I learned a lot about the life of white people in a New England town and their attitudes towards girls and transients. I also felt disappointed that the title character, Ginger the puppy, was missing for most of the book.

Ginger Pye was published in 1951, Gay-Neck in 1927. Were librarians more interested in boring books those years? Were no other good books for children published?

Let’s look.

There were two Honor books the year Gay-Neck won. I haven’t read either, or even heard of them, but I had never heard of Gay-Neck either.

gay neck newbery

The summary of Downright Dencey looks interesting, and overall Goodreads readers give it 3.76 stars compared to Gay-Neck’s 3.23. I’m actually eager to pick this up and give it a try. Still, was Gay-Neck the best we got in 1927? This was the year of Sherlock Holmes, Death Comes for the Archbishop and To the Lighthouse (all books I’ve read). There had to be better children’s books out there. Luckily, Goodreads lists indicate Now We are Four and Emily’s Quest are proving to be a lot more popular.  Yay for L.M. Montgomery!

Now Ginger Pye came out in the 50’s. Lots more competition. And more Honor books.

ginger pye newbery

Unfortunately I haven’t read or heard of any of those books, either. But thanks to Goodreads I know it’s the year we got The Catcher in the Rye, Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, two Narnia books and Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary.

Now, it shouldn’t always be a popularity contest, but we also know that the best book doesn’t always win. So the Newbery Award isn’t always going to the best book. I knew that already, thanks to my local librarian. At least I’m branching out and finding books I haven’t heard of before and learning a lot about different ways of writing and telling stories.

Here’s a good article from the ALA that lists other books that should have won the Newbery but didn’t. I know my oldest son loved Frindle, because he also tried to invent new words. I plan to read several of the books listed there.

What award winners do you think really lived up to the hype and what didn’t?

Does Watching the Movie First Make Kids Better Readers?

Lots of parents don’t let their kids watch the movie versions of popular books before their children read the books. I’ve heard this about Lord of the Rings, Divergent, Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and more.

I totally see the logic of this. Parents are worried their children won’t read the books if they’ve already seen the movie.

I want readers in my family, too. But we probably sound a little crazy and lazy to other families, because I let our kids watch the movies before they read the books. In fact, I often encourage it. I think it’s a great way to for my children to find stories that interest them and that it actually encourages them to read more instead of reading less.

Recently, I let my kids watch entire collection of Harry Potter movies. And you know what? Watching the movie first might have made my kids better readers, because after the movie they only wanted to read the books more.

harry potter spell

Imperious doesn’t work when it comes to making kids better readers

My oldest son, who is 11, had already read the first four a few months ago but after the movies he was even more motivated to read the final three. He was so interested, he actually went back to the beginning and plowed all the way through the entire series of books. My middle son, who is only eight years old picked up the first book and is now almost finished the fourth book. My middle son was actually more excited about reading the books after seeing the movies because he wanted to know more of what happened. Instead of going from the rich, detailed book world to the skim-and-dip experience of a two-hour movie experience, he went the other direction. He went from the brief, delightful movie experience and dove into the fully fleshed out magical book world of Harry Potter with extra scenes and extended dialogue and an imaginative setting. He loves pointing out things he didn’t understand in the movies that are now clear to him because of the detailed book.

Movies Before Books

I did try it the reverse once, with the classic book The Last Unicorn. I read that book out loud to my sons over the course of many weeks. They were transfixed and captivated by the unicorn’s search for her lost people. When we finished, I announced that we could now watch the movie. At the end of the ninety minutes, all they did was talk about the parts of the book left out of the movie.

“If I watched the movie first,” my middle son declared, “I would want to read the book right away to learn what I had missed.”

I totally think the books are always better than the movies. Truly. And I want to reiterate that I get that parents are looking for ways to make their kids better readers. But parents might not realize their well-intentioned plan can backfire.

Look at this way: Did you ever play a sport as a kid? Did you ever have to run laps as punishment for something you or your team did wrong? Did it make you love running? Sure, it made you stronger as an athlete but it became a punishment, not a reward. Many adults still think about laps with loathing and dread running. Reading shouldn’t be the same thing.

It’s possible that when parents say kids must read the books before getting to enjoy the “more desirable” result of viewing the movie, parents are turning reading into a chore. If they make it task or duty to be suffered before getting to the fun movie, parents should think about whether they are really encouraging a love of reading or sabotaging their own goals.

Were you allowed to see movies before books as a kid? Did it make you more or less of a reader?

What other ways do you find helps make kids better readers?

Protagonist v. Main Character v. Antagonist

protagonist

A bumble bee, cousin to my characters, hard at work

 

Protagonist v. Main Character

I’m struggling with characters in my story and their jobs. I think I have one main character and one protagonist. But I was thrilled to find this post from elements of cinema that provides great examples of stories where the main character isn’t always the protagonist, or the protagonist isn’t clear until deep into the story, or even complex stories with an ensemble cast  each going through their own struggle.

I’m working on my bee story and I want my protagonist, the one who chooses, to be my queen been.

I loved finding this post online outlining the differences between MC and Protagonist. The post author says that the main character of The Great Gatsby  is the narrator, Nick (who isn’t even mentioned in the Amazon review!!!!) while the protagonist is of course, Gatsby.

What is the job of the main character? Is just it the narrator? Not exactly. According to another writing blog I found, the main character is the one through which the reader experiences the story. The protagonist is pursuing the story goal.

So with that distinction clarified, I have decided I want my main character to be a worker bee, one who has the job of Forager. She can do tasks that set my protagonist up for the choice that is essential to the story. My main character will also have a choice or two.

Ensemble Cast

I love the idea of an ensemble cast. I’m not looking to create anything as epic as Game of Thrones, but I think I could possibly produce something approaching the Breakfast Club, where the different honeybees come together to save their Hive, which is sort of a character on its own.

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2014/02/17/tips-for-creating-an-ensemble-cast-of-characters/

Antagonist or Villain

Now I have a problem when it comes to antagonist. I had several problems facing my sweet sister honeybees:

  1. Winter
  2. Food source disappearing
  3. A strange new kind of bee that is out to destroying them

But I didn’t actually develop a character as antagonist. I have nameless foes. I have internal conflict and external conflict, but no villain. I’m thinking I need one.

I found this site gives three good elements: vulnerability, believability and invincibility.

Part of me is thinking a drone might make a good villain. A drone would want the natural order of the hive disrupted. A drone is born only to mate with the queen and then lives off the food produced by the workers and then kicked out to die as winter arrives. A drone who likes the sweet life might not want to be kicked out to die as winter arrives. He might look for a queen who is willing to change the way she lives so that he can live his lazy, luxurious life a little longer. He might feed her desire to make her own decisions. I think he could be a good tempter who tries to entice her to give in to her selfishness…which would lead to the end of the Hive. Ok, I think I have my villain.

For more lists about villains, here are five elements. I like intelligent.

Read All the Newbery Medal Books, March 2016 Update

We’re into March of 2016 and I feel like I’m finally starting to tackle my “read all the Newbery Medal Books” project. I was stalled at the beginning of the year because I wanted to finish Ulysses. While that book is an excellent but very long read. Then in the process of researching the biology of the Sargasso Sea, as well as the migration of eels and monarchs, I stumbled across an amazing book of Rachel Caron’s writing called Lost Woods.

If you’re interested at all in nature, science writing, or the power of the written word to influence public policy, I highly recommend this book. There are passages in there that are still relevant today, even though they were written half a century ago.

But then I finally started those Newbery Medal books I’ve been collecting! So far this month I read King of the Wind, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I’m almost finished with Julie of the Wolves.

I enjoyed King of the Wind for its sensory details and historical and cultural information. I started with this book because I am working on an animal story myself and because I’ve read Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and have fond memories of that book.

I knew I’d love Julie of the Wolves because I loved Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I recently re-read that book last year and still love the idea of leaving civilization for the wilderness and living off the land and in tune with the natural world. I don’t think it’s quite the lifestyle for me, but I love the escapism offered by these books. Julie of the Wolves offers even more as she lives in the tundra. It’s a world so foreign made so real by Craighead George.

Picking up The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an emotional moment for me. This book represents some tough coming of age experiences for me. Like a lot of kids, I struggled in my sixth grade year. I went to a small school and unfortunately my sixth grade teacher was the mom of a girl in my class with whom I didn’t quite get along with at the time. We had been friends in second grade, but by sixth we weren’t. Anyway, for some reason or another I was put in the lowest reading group that year. Me! I wasn’t good at a lot of things in middle school, but I was really, really good at reading. I have no memory of what book my group read, but I know the highest reading group read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was very bitter about this unfair grouping. I held a grudge against this teacher and this book. Now that I’m 40, I decided it was time to read this book and move on with my life!! I did enjoy it and now I want to visit the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

newbery books

I miss the Book It program! (But books are their own reward.)

More Newbery Award books to come!