Monday
Feb202012

There's a Name for That

I am elated. I have recently learned the name of a phenomena that I have experienced for many years. During my peripatetic life in many places, I’ve always attended choir practice on Wednesday nights. After I get home, one of the tunes usually inhabits my head and plays itself over and over and over, often ruining my night’s sleep. I have recently learned the very appropriate name for this. It is called an ear worm.

The ear worm is not confined to nighttime. Nor is it confined to a single day. It may last one night or one week or anything between. I usually get a new one at the next choir practice.  

The ear worm may sing itself as I take a walk or as I pull weeds in my garden. On the days when it is a pleasant tune that I like, it saves me the price of an iPod. Other days, when it is the least liked song from choir rehearsal, the more I shake my head to rid myself of it, the deeper the worm seems to crawl, looking for a permanent home. The experts say the only way to get rid of one ear worm is to replace it with another. However, so far as I can tell, there is no way to control or foretell which new song at the next rehearsal will be the replacement. You might think it would be the one we practiced the most often, the one we worked on the hardest, or maybe the last one we did. Not so. I have about the same chance of choosing my weekly ear worm as I have in deciding which day this week it’s going to rain. Sometimes I get a new one attending an event such as Saturday night’s concert sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi School of Music where the choir sang a rousing rendition of “Down to the River to Pray.” Now the ear worm is repeating, “O, sisters, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.” I will say this is one of my better worms!

Obviously, I have not learned much about how to regulate or predict this phenomena, but I am ecstatic that I have learned its name. One of the good things about being a nerd is that it doesn’t take a whole lot to make you happy. Since I love this term, I have adopted it as my ear worm of the week – or is that redundant?

Friday
Feb172012

Reading on My Age Level

My comments on choosing books by looking at age level in my last blog seems to have either struck a raw nerve, especially among capable and competent librarians, or brought back wonderful library memories. To follow up, I’ve listed my last stack of books checked out from our excellent Oak Grove Library. To make my choices, the question I asked was not, “What age level is this book?” but “How much fun would this book be?”

By the calendar, I’ve been considered an adult for some time now, but one might have a hard time guessing my age from the bag I toted out of the library. On this trip, it contained books from the easy reader to adult, from fiction to non-fiction, from prose to poetry:

•    War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
•    Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin
•    Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
•    Never Knowing – Chevy Stevens
•    The Forest Lover – Susan Vreeland
•    Drawing from Memory – Allen Say
•    Built – David Macaulay
•    The Underneath – Kathi Appelt
•    The Battlefield Ghost – Margery Cuyler
•    Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet below the Chilean Desert – Marc Aronson
•    The Poet Slave of Cuba; a Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano – Margarita Engle

A couple of days later I added the other books they had to order from within the Lamar County system:

•    Secrets of a Civil War Submarine – Sally M. Walker
•    Tracking Trash – Loree Griffin Burns
•    Grandfather’s Journey – Allen Say

You might ask which are for business and which are for pleasure. I would answer, “All of them.” For business, because a writer must be a reader. For pleasure, because I don’t have a specific reading list and can read whatever excites my fancy. At this point, I’m sure you are wanting my job, but that’s before I get into rejection letters. I’ll save that for a different blog.

Even if you have been a grown-up for a while, I hope you ask my second question when you go to the library. I also suggest spending some serious time with Jerry Pinckney’s picture book The Lion and the Mouse, which has not a word of text or find Mo Willems’s book to learn why he doesn’t want to let the pigeon drive the bus. Moving into more text, read some books by Richard Peck, Gary Schmidt, or Kimberly Willis Holt, who know how to tell a good story. There’s no way to make a complete list of good books written by excellent authors so just troll through the children’s, middle grade, and young adult sections of your library. Your librarian can match you up with books you will enjoy. The secret that some of the best artists today are painting for picture books and some of the best writers are doing their work for children and young adults is far too well kept.

Libraries have come a long way from the days when I waited for the bookmobile that came every two weeks – except when it didn’t – and limited me to two books at a time. My library’s limit is 30 books, and they seem to have no concern for my reading level. They have never even looked at me funny for checking out picture books.

Monday
Feb132012

At War with Librarians

As a rule, I love librarians [including daughter Anna and sister Beth] and hang with them every chance I get. But there have been two that brought out the crusader in me. The first, who shall remain unnamed, ran a very efficient operation in the elementary school where I taught second grade. Each of the thirty-five or so second through fourth grade classes had a specified weekly time in the library. Children were allowed to check out two books. If they finished their books or were absent on the appointed library day, they had to wait for the next one.

The contrast to my previous school took me aback. My second graders in that school had haunted the library before school and at recess and my reward to them for good behavior or outstanding work was a ticket for free time in the library. The librarian knew the students and their interests and “hand-sold” them books they would enjoy. She also recommended great read-alouds to teachers.

However, my adjustment to the new librarian’s system was nothing compared to my reaction when I saw the labels confining my second graders to the right side of HER library because those books were “on their reading level.” I figuratively mounted my steed and took out my sword. With the support of a wonderful principal, I convinced her that my students knew the five-finger test and could wisely select from any shelf in the library. [Five-finger test: Open the book on a normal page in the middle and read. For every too-difficult word, put down one finger. If five fingers are down at the end, the book will be hard to read. Notice I still did not say they COULDN'T read it, just that it would be hard.] Her concession, such as it was, allowed MY students the privilege of using all the shelves in HER library. The other eleven second grade classes remained confined to the right side shelves.

I let her win a second regulation since it did have some logic and justice. My practice was to read aloud only one book per author with the idea that children who liked the book could find more by that author in the library to read independently. After the first Ramona book, the children swarmed the Beverly Cleary section on their next library visit and cleared it out. The librarian soon made a rule limiting the number of Cleary books that could be checked to my class at any one time so there would be some left for the other second graders. I left that alone, but my clever second graders figured out their own way around the regulation. The checked out the limit and exchanged among themselves until the next library day.

In the same school, I began to get reports from parents complaining about the post librarian. That one also belonged to the Reading Level Police and refused to check out big books to pint-sized readers. The insinuation of the parents who dumped the problem in my lap was, “You’ve taught them to read well and turned them onto books. Now that you’ve made this problem, you need to fix it.”

So I mounted my trusty steed, shined my sword, and headed to the post library. In her defense, the chief librarian assured me she had no idea such an atrocity was being committed by one of her workers and that it would not happen again.

My next move to junior high school brought me back to the kind of librarian I expect and love. Students freely came in and out of the library. The librarian stayed involved in helping them with research and book selections – and even checked to see what I was teaching so she could coordinate her lessons at their regular library time.

It scares me when I hear that librarians and libraries are among the first targets in budget cuts. These two with whom I waged war are an anomaly. The degree that good libraries and librarians increased my effectiveness as a teacher over many years is truly immeasurable. If you should hear of a threat to cut back on library services to schools or communities, I hope you have a reliable steed, a sturdy sword, and a willingness to do battle.

[And I do know that they are called Media Specialists these days, but that really doesn’t have the warmth and personality of “librarian.”]   

Friday
Feb102012

The Butterfly Cabinet

I can like a book if it has a compelling story, polished writing, or nuggets that make me think. The Butterfly Cabinet scores on all three. Told in back and forth chapters between a old woman clearing her soul of a lifelong secret and the prison diary of her mistress, one might stop to admire the writing if the story were not so compelling.

A quote about old age in my friend Martha Ginn’s blog put me onto the book to start with. “You'd think the way people go on that if they stand too close to old age and loneliness they'll catch it themselves. I suppose that's true in a way, because you do catch it, if you stay around long enough. But you don't get it from other people; you don't get it from anybody but yourself.”

But I have found more quotes of my own that have left me thinking as I read the book.

On death: “There was a wake and the neighbors came and told stories I’d never heard. Why do people wait till a person is dead to do that?”

On wages: “I was to have five shillings and two pounds of soap a month and every Sunday afternoon free.”

On bedtime stories: “That’s what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.”

On justice: “There’s much to be said for a vision of a world in black and white: it is so much safer than having to consider shades and variations of color and tone.”

On freedom: “This is not my prison. I carry it with me. We devise cages of our own choosing.”

Irish author Bernie McGill tells a fine tale with beautiful words and leaves her reader pondering some of its hidden wisdom. Perhaps there really is something special in the Blarney Stone.

Monday
Feb062012

Who the Dickens?

Totally unaware that it was happening, my dairy farmer grandfather introduced me to Charles Dickens as a child. An eavesdropper on adult conversations, I’d hear him say, “Well, he’s a lot like Mr. Micawber.” That usually ended a discussion drifting toward gossip. I assumed Mr. Micawber was someone they knew in Sturgis, Mississippi since the adults would murmur sympathetically and move to another topic. Imagine my surprise when I read David Copperfield as a high school senior and discovered Mr. Micawber in the book! Now I understood Papaw’s reminder that the party in question was a likeable ne’er-do-well with good intentions and a weak work ethic.

Dickens began his semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield with the words, “I was born.” That would be 200 years ago on February 7, 1812. Mr. Micawber’s character was based on his father, a likeable man who never managed the work ethic that would keep him out of debtor’s prison. Other Dickens characters have also become iconic. We know Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Fagan, Tiny Tim, and Sydney Carton. This week’s Word-A-Day from Wordsmith.org has gone so far as to do their vocabulary from words we use that are based on Dickens characters.

The current Smithsonian Magazine [February 2012] features tributes to him in England and the new biography that I just read by Claire Tomalin – Charles Dickens: A Life. I recommend reading the biography only if you are willing to have an idealized vision of Dickens tarnished. A telling quote rests on his love of acting and the theater as well as his writing, “…being himself was more exhausting than impersonating a stage character, who would run on predictable tracks, whereas Dickens did not always know where he was going next.”

The biography pictures a man with an obsession for work and making money. Perhaps this came from his early years of embarrassment by his father's stay in debtor’s prison and the deprivations of poverty. He made a lot of money from his writing as it was serialized, again when the work was bound into books, and added large fees for his popular public readings. That money supported his father and brother, his children – only one of whom managed to support himself, a number of widows and orphans of friends, and others he felt responsible for.

The book pictures a man with a social conscience in real life as well as in this writings. Underfed and unhappy children touched him. He said, “We should be devilishly sharp in what we do to children.” He engaged in a lifelong crusade against all forms of human trafficking from deprived children to women forced into prostitution. Claire Tomalin writes a well-researched book giving a balanced picture of a workaholic philanthropist who was a poor father and a worse husband.

Dickens was compulsively working on yet another novel when he died – perhaps having worn himself out at age 58. He left more words behind than many writers who lived much longer with a legacy that continues unabated. Coincidentally as I write this blog, my local paper has an account of second grade students at Petal Primary School who used a production of A Christmas Carol to raise $770 for a local children’s home. I think this would please Dickens more than with his burial at Westminster Abbey!

I found the biography almost as entertaining as his books and came away sympathetic toward this flawed man with high ideals. His imperfection has not changed my enjoyment of his work. If you read this blog often or know me well, you already know my penchant for reading A Christmas Carol every Christmas – preferably aloud with listeners. And should I be marooned on a desert island with but one book to read for pleasure, please make it A Tale of Two Cities.