Monthly Archives: April 2012

Book Twins: Linking Fiction and Nonfiction

In the midst of an avalanche of end-of the school year projects, one caught my eye.

Book twins—comparing and contrasting fiction and non-fiction books.

Book Nerd Mom is so excited.

This is an angle I hadn’t seen before and  is a great way to merge the strengths of fiction and non-fiction while keeping them both relevant and interrelated.

As a writer, parent and school employee, I can’t ignore the importance of schools and libraries in developing readers. There’s a strong push in the classroom toward non-fiction, which as a NF-loving girl I don’t mind—too much. (Click here  to see a chart on page 5 showing the  recommended distribution of reading in the Common Core Standards)

I have to admit, I worry about fiction getting lost in the move toward informational text. Tying fiction and non-fiction together in the classroom is a way to ensure that fiction remains relevant in the current test driven, funding- compromised school climate. Because believe me, not every child has a Book Nerd Mom, Dad or Grandparent at home encouraging them to read.

This project is a great way to help kids break out of their mold if they gravitate strongly toward fiction or non-fiction but don’t really enjoy the other. My son has to do a PowerPoint presentation which also adds technology to the mix.  At home or with younger kids, you could remove the PowerPoint feature—and maybe add a collage, photo album, chart or graph—whatever it takes to keep your reader excited. Or you can simply read and discuss which I have found that even my older kids will still do. Actually, it is one of the few ways I have found to get them to talk to me about things other than what’s for dinner and my chauffeur-related duties (which they usually text to me in a barely comprehensible code anyway).

If I were doing a book twin project, I would choose to compare and contrast Chuck Close: Facebook with Sharon Draper’s Out of my Mind. I choose these two books because I can relate to them personally. Sharon Draper was a teacher in the same district where I currently work as an occupational therapist. My work as an OT also made the subject matter of both books personal which always strengthens a book project.

Single sentence summary: Out of My Mind  is the story of  Melody, an extremely bright girl with cerebral palsy who is also non-verbal, and her struggle to communicate and fit in. Out of My Mind will be released in paperback tomorrow, May 1, 2012.

Chuck Close: Facebook is an interactive biography of the American artist and how he used his unique artistic perspective to overcome dyslexia, learning disabilities, facial blindness and a later stroke that partially paralyzed him. I found this book on April’s MUF New Release page and had to check it out.

How These Book Twins are Alike: Both books show the power of overcoming obstacles with strong main characters who weren’t defined by their disabilities. Melody and Chuck both had supportive families and eventually found ways to use technology and creative thinking to overcome their difficulties. Both Chuck and Melody were focused and disciplined and subsequently outperformed those around them.

How These Books Are Different;  Melody’s disability prevented her from communicating and was apparent to everyone who met her. Chuck’s early struggles were invisible. Melody was a genius trapped by her physical limitations. She had strong verbal skills, but couldn’t express them. She had a photographic memory that allowed her to learn quickly since she was often underestimated and had to learn from her environment. Her disability was visible but her skills were hidden. She had to figure out how to get people to know what she was thinking.

Chuck used his art—a focus on faces–  to make sense of his environment and to help him to remember faces. His art allowed him to clearly show his abilities in a striking way and allowed him to better connect with people. Many of his subjects were friends or fellow artists which he used subjects for his art. This process helped him to better recognize who they were. He used grids in his art as a means to provide external structure due to his difficulty with focus and organization. Later Chuck, like Melody, became confined to a wheelchair and had limited control of his hands. He then had to consider even more unique methods of creating art.

Food for Thought: Melody and Chuck had every reason to give up but chose not to. What would I choose?

“In life you can be dealt a winning hand of cards and you can find a way to lose, and you can be dealt a losing hand and find a way to win. True in art and true in life: you pretty much make your own destiny.” –Chuck Close

In my to-be-read pile:  Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Let’s Talk:  If you were doing a Book Twins project, what books would you choose and why? What other ways can people who love books support the importance of fiction in developing important analytical skills in the current test driven, STEM-focused educational environment? How can fiction and non-fiction work together to deepen knowledge of a subject?

Joanne Prushing Johnson would like to acknowledge her fellow occupational therapists who work to see potential and possibility in their students, clients and patients. April is National Occupational Therapy Month. Photo from Book cover photos from

Do Childhood Books Influence Us?

So I’ve been “thinking” the past few months . . . (“A dangerous activity!” my husband likes to tell me!)  Since I’m a sloooooow learner it’s taken me many years to realize something about myself, and I had an epiphany of sorts after the recent launch of my newest middle-grade ghost story, Circle of Secrets (Scholastic), and the manuscript I just finished editing last week, When the Butterflies Came (April, 2013, Scholastic).

Both of these books have elements of magical realism. (Well, maybe not *that* magical because ghosts are actually real, aren’t they? I like to think so! Does anybody remember the movie, Ghost with Demi Moore and the late Patrick Swayze? Oh my! )

I digress.

In these stories, I write about charm bracelets and secret notes in a bottle tree and old porcelain dolls and keys that unlock mysterious doors, and it suddenly occurred to me that the books of my childhood—the books I read over and over again—have influenced me more than I ever realized. Because as a kid I *loved* books with these kind of magical and mysterious artifacts. OR is it that all of these elements are things I already loved so I gravitate toward books with those elements in my reading—and now I’m writing books with those elements? Sort of a chicken and egg phenomenon . . . but still.

How much do our favorite books as a child influence what we read as an adult? Have your tastes changed much? I do find that I read more widely and eclectically as an adult, and I like to try unusual books I’ve heard good reviews about. I mean, I don’t *just* read books about magical dolls!

And for the writers out there, how have your childhood favorites influenced you in the topics you choose to write about now?

But here’s the thing: As I was writing Circle of Secrets and When the Butterflies Came, I never consciously added the various elements of dolls, charm bracelets, and old-fashioned skeleton keys to the story. After all, I haven’t actually perused my childhood favorites in many years. (Too busy reading all the fantastic new books in the children’s lit scene!)

No, my story ideas evolved as I was first thinking about complicated mother/daughter relationships. Girls and their moms who were carrying secrets and hurts and guilt that keep them apart. And I was thinking about what it was like live in a small town on a bayou. Or an island in the South Pacific. And I was thinking about families and sisters and forgiveness and love and how complicated people are and our relationships. And my brain was doing things like, “Ooh, what if this happened? Or this! Or that!” as I furiously scribbled notes, having small epiphanies, and getting excited as a kid when all those elements start clicking into a real story with twists and turns.

It hasn’t been until AFTER I plotted, drafted, revised and copy-edited that the final epiphany came—that I’m writing the kind of books I loved to read as a child. And that’s been a really satisfying epiphany. So now that we all feel warm and squishy, here are three favorite books from when I was a kid (not counting Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy!):


MAGIC ELIZABETH by Norma Kassirer is about a girl named Sally who has to stay with a cranky old aunt for a few weeks. Feeling lonely, she finds a mirror in the attic that transports her to the past where she sees the life of a girl unfold—a girl who lived in this very house long ago. Sally experiences what the girl from the past, Sarah, experiences over a period of strange, dreamlike weeks—including the disappearance of Sarah’s beloved doll named Elizabeth. As Sally becomes embroiled in the events of the past—she eventually figures out the clues that will lead her to finding Elizabeth, the lost doll from sixty years ago.


THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE by Elizabeth Goudge

Who says Moms can’t find great books for their kids to read? My mother read a review of this book in a kid’s magazine when I was about ten-years-old and thought I’d like it. Oh, boy, I LOVED it! Read it over and over again. Set in what I used to call the “olden days” about an orphan girl going to stay with her unusual Uncle at Moonacre Manor;  in parts both realistic and magical. In fact, this book has so many unusual and wonderful characters and plot threads it’s difficult to summarize.

Imagine my surprise to read this by J. K. Rowling: “The Little White Horse was my favorite novel as a child. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.”



TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE by Carol Ryrie Brink (Yes, the author of Caddie Woodlawn fame!)

This is the story of two best friends during the turn of the 20th century who receive a pair of dolls for Christmas and together begin writing a story about the dolls, letting them experience adventure and danger and romance—as the girls grow up and deal with school and friendship and family. The dolls show up again decades later when the two girls are old and widowed—with a surprise for the reader.


So I’m curious about all of YOU. What were your fav books as a child? Do you read the same kinds of books you did as a child? Have you found that those books have informed you and your life in any particular way?

Kimberley’s busy trying to avoid the candy aisle at the grocery store and prepping for IRA THIS weekend in Chicago! If you live in Chicago and/or are attending IRA (International Reading Association) please come say hello to me THIS Monday, April 30th at the Scholastic Booth from 3-4 p.m. I will be signing books and chatting up a storm.

Y’all are also invited to a fantastic pre-conference workshop Sunday from 9a.m. – 5 p.m. with NINE authors! Pretty cool, eh? IRA Institute 12: Rekindling the Reading fire – Author Panel – Using the story strategies of Professional Authors to Inspire a Love of Reading and Writing with Carolee Dean, Caroline Starr Rose, Esther Hershenshorn, April Halprin Wayland, Carolyn Meyer, Kersten Hamilton, Lisa Schroeder, Uma Krishnaswami, and Moi!

Indie Spotlight: Hanging Out with the Eight Cousins

Mixed-Up Files continues to find marvelous children’s bookstores all over the country, and we’re eager  to share our discoveries with you.  This month we’re talking with Carol Chittendon of The Eight Cousins Children’s (& Grown-Ups) Books in Falmouth, Massachusetts, now in its 26th year.


MUF: What can children and their parents (and their dogs) expect when they visit the Eight Cousins?
Carol: On arriving at 189 Main Street in Falmouth MA, things get interesting even before you come in the front door, especially if you’re a dog.  There’s a water dish every day, and first thing in the morning we put out dog biscuits.  Apparently local crows wear wristwatches or read the sign at the bank, because they often show up right around 9:30 and help themselves to the dog biscuits.  We know they’re smart, and we hope to teach them to read books before long.
But if you’re not a dog, you might want to have a look at our Alphabet Throne.  Or maybe you’ll save that until later, pass through the foyer without even looking at the notices of upcoming events, and enter the cheerful bookstore itself.  Chances are someone will say hello but let you browse in peace, unless it appears that you’re on a mission and in a hurry.  You’ll find an open area near the door, with round tables displaying current topics, and walls stuffed with beautiful, fascinating books.  Toward the front of the store are science and beach books, the small but rich adult section, and regional books about Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.

Raison d'etre

A little farther back you’ll find a big triangular area surrounded by shelves and shelves of picture books, and a certian number of related toys and games. Around the walls there’s a sequence that begins with early readers, and extends around the room through emerging readers, middle grades, early teens, and young adults.  There are also areas for art, music, sports, folk and fairy tales, foreign languages, history, biography, puzzles, horses, and more.  It’s a chore to squeeze them all in.  Throughout the store you’ll find friendly, well-read staff buzzing about, putting books on shelves, looking for a requested item, checking stock on a computer, offering help, making suggestions of good books for each age and interest.

Enjoying the Alphabet Throne

MUF: Tell us more about the Alphabet Throne out front.
Carol: We occupy a space that was once the telephone company.  In fact, above the front door the keystone is the head of a young woman wearing earphones.  During WWII, this was the eastern-most telecommunications node for the war effort, and the operators had a dormitory next door, a canteen where they received special rations, and there were steel shutters, now rusted, that could roll down over the windows.  And there was a concrete pad out in front that held a couple of phone booths, long gone when we moved in in 1992.  I always thought that concrete pad would be a nice place for a sculpture, but the idea of a chair made out of letters of the alphabet didn’t come to me for a couple of years, when thinking of appropriate ways to celebrate our 15th birthday in 2001.   I asked Sarah Peters, a sculptor and customer, if she knew anyone who would be interested in trying to do it, and about 10 minutes later she said yes, she would.  It was her own brilliant idea to give each letter a surface texture of some object that starts with that letter.  Until you can come and sit in it yourself, you can see her results online.  I asked Sarah to make it big enough that an adult would feel a little bit childlike when they sit there, and wide enough that an adult and child could share the space.  In fact, two adults can share it, if they’re reasonably good friends.  It thrills me no end that people enjoy it daily, puzzling out what’s on the surface of each letter.  In warm weather, they often sit in it to read, or wait for a friend, or enjoy their ice cream before entering the store.

MUF: You’ve described your collection as a “unique grouping of books.” What do you mean?  How do you choose the books you carry?
Carol: I always tell new employees first thing, “There’s nothing here you couldn’t buy elsewhere, and much of it you could find cheaper somewhere else if you searched.  The one thing we have to sell that you can’t find anywhere else is our particular collection.”  In choosing books I seek some kind of balance among culture, fun, beauty, insight, and knowledge.  Since everything could conceivably fall under one of those umbrellas, I have given myself pretty free rein, checkbook willing.  But I do also judge for global interest, quality in content and production, and a price I deem a fair investment for the customer.   And then I keep my antennae out every waking minute for recommendations, customer requests, sales history, new titles, hot topics, intriguing manuscripts, trade press, and tips from colleagues.  After the light goes out at night, I listen to NPR and the BBC just in case I wake up long enough to hear about another book.  On a bad day, when people seem to ask only for schlock and we gladly sell them the raciest or grisliest book at hand, I think of the whole thing as a peculiar form of prostitution: forget what you care about, just give ‘em what they want.  But that’s only a couple of times a year, and my respect for the variety of taste is reinforced every month when I sign the rent check.

MUF: In a time when there’s a lot of gloom in the media about the survival of children’s bookstores, Eight Cousins appears to be going strong.  What’s your secret?

Carol:   Oh, pish.  There was a time when nylon was going to replace cotton and wool, and microwaves would kill off ranges and ovens.  Now they’re all busy, all useful, each in its own way.  Humans need information and stories.  They often need free giftwrapping, it turns out.  And a clean restroom, welcoming staff, interesting events, reasonably convenient parking, and the time to enjoy any of those.  That said, we are now the town’s only bookstore, so we have added about a thousand adult titles, which are selling well, but have required squashing some of the children’s books together a bit.  I never take it for granted that we’ll be in business for more than the next six weeks, but the six weeks has gone almost 26 years at this point, so I guess the secret of extending it is to provide people a friendly, interesting experience.

Game Night at the Eight Cousin

MUF: We at From the Mixed-Up Files write for Middle Graders, so we’re curious to know what fiction and nonfiction titles you recommend most often to kids this age. Are some of them favorite books that are not big sellers but deserve to be better known?
Carol:  Oh, we have so many, many, many.  And I think the middle grades are the very core of childhood, the time when children absorb their lifelong impressions of the world outside themselves, and get acquainted with their own internal identity.  After all, the major task of childhood is to discover the true self – and the ages from 6 to 12 are when that happens.  Before that, they’re getting the mechanics; afterward they get busy acting upon their identity and the outside world.  Here* are our summer reading lists of fiction for the middle grades, and they reflect the ones we think give back the most to their readers.   I don’t generally make specific recommendations for non-fiction, because individual interests dictate so strongly that readers usually find the sports or biography or helicopter book they want with little staff involvement – though given a chance, I’ll always press a Jean Fritz or Russell Freedman book into a reader’s hands.  A book I love that’s not on the lists because it’s still only in hardcover is Chicken Feathers, by Joy Cowley.  I’m lobbying Penguin to get it out in paperback ASAP!

MUF:   Having recently joined the very small ranks of puppet-novelists, I’m fascinated that you feature a full line of hand- and stage puppets in your store in addition to your books.  Do you sometimes have puppet plays or story-telling performances at the store?
Carol: We carry the Folkmanis puppets, and we joke that the staff has to socialize each of them before we put them out on display, because we enjoy playing with them.  While we haven’t tried doing any puppet plays with them (lacking a proper puppet novel up to now!) they do often make appearances at our storytimes, and they often come down to talk to a fussy young customer while a parent shops.   However, we try hard to keep them sanitary, fresh, and new so they’ll sell.  I must tell you that giftwrapping a large shark is a challenge – but it can be done.

MUF: What do you like best about operating Eight Cousins?  What keeps you going?
Carol: Humans are a problem-solving species, and I love the business side, the problem solving side, of Eight Cousins as much as I love the books.  I love figuring out where to put a display, how to make an author welcome, how to say no to authors whose books won’t sell here, which computer to buy, how to bring out the best in each staff person, how to connect with the community, how many copies to order… the list is absolutely endless.  So when that wears me out, I dive into a promising book, or pick up an old favorite, and that makes everything new again.
HOWEVER, I do hope to sell the store in the next few years, while it’s a strong and vibrant business, before I lose the energy necessary to keep it all bouncing along merrily.  I’d love to continue working here, but would like to cut back to 30-40 hours per week.  And I’m keenly aware that a new owner would bring new strengths, improve things that I don’t do so well, and see the world with a younger eye.

MUF: We encourage families, especially those whose towns don’t have a children’s bookstore, to make shops like yours a memorable day-trip destination and bring home books as souvenirs!  If out-of-towners visit your store, is there a family-friendly place nearby for them to get a bite to eat after book browsing?
Carol: Oh yes!  We’re in a lovely village area where there are many little shops and restaurants, a village green, a wonderful library, a fascinating science playground, a weekly Farmer’s Market, band concerts in summer, and interactive historical society exhibits, all within three blocks one direction or another.  If you’re up to walking 8-10 blocks through a pleasant neighborhood, you’ll be at a kid-friendly public beach.

MUF:And if they can stay the whole day or even the weekend, are there other unique family activities in or around Falmouth that they might enjoy?
Carol:Cape Cod is renowned as a place to vacation, so it makes a special effort to welcome visitors for any length of time.  Within that, Falmouth has a 12-mile bike path (almost level, so it’s an easy ride) that goes through varied environments, and ends in Woods Hole at the ferry landing for Martha’s Vineyard.  The scientific institutions in Woods Hole offer an aquarium, frequent lectures and displays.  Our local land preservation group maintains a number of natural open spaces, and they offer prepared materials on where to go and what to look for.

Elise Broach talks about how the writing dovetails with the illustration

Tom Angleberger signs books for his readers

MUF:  Have middle-grade authors been guests at Eight Cousins? Do you have some events coming up that you are excited about?
Carol: We have been honored to host many, many fine middle grade authors, such as Elise Broach last summer.  We’re currently working on our calendar for this summer, but it would surprise certain publicists mightily to hear that this or that author was definitely coming.  The best way to find out what’s happening is to sign up for our e-mail newsletter at





Readers, if you’ve visited the Eight Cousins, or if reading about it makes you think you’d like to go, be sure to leave a comment here.   Also tell us if  you know another great children’s bookstore we should feature!

Sue Cowing, author of You Will Call Me Drog, lives in Honolulu, two thousand miles across the Pacific from the nearest children’s bookstores.  One of those is Hicklebee’s in San Jose, California, our Indie Spotlight feature in May.