Category Archives: Book Lists

Pocket Poetry for the Poetry Deficient

I, the World’s Worst Poetry Spokesperson, invite you to celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017 on April 27th. If you aren’t familiar with the event, the experts from the Academy of American Poets have an excellent explanation and links to downloadable pocket poems at their website.

Poetry reminds me to keep an open mind about things. It reminds me to give things I may not seem to like an honest chance. It reminds me the best horizons are the ones which expand the experiences. Put a poem in your pocket and a smile on your face for this special day.

In celebration, I like to rehash this personal poetry story for Pocket Poetry Day.

Back in sophomore honors English, my teacher, Mrs. Goheen, gave us the assignment of memorizing and reciting a poem in front of the class. I was not a huge fan of poetry to begin with, even though this IS getting better as I mature, so this was an assignment akin to flossing and brushing the dog’s teeth. When I saw poetry in books, the words got fuzzy and began to dance around in a deadly vortex. I readily admit now there are several poems and poets I really like: Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Greg Pincus, Poe, Frost, etc.

Well, anyway, completely true to my young academic form, I forgot all about the memorization assignment until late evening the night before we are to be thrown to the wolves. I searched frantically through our home bookshelf, listening to the “I told you so’s” from my dear mother and the taunting coming from my brothers. All in the Hays House went to bed that night thinking old Mike was toast in the morning when English class rolled around.

I sat in class the next morning waiting to be called to the gallows. When my name was finally called, I could feel Mrs. Goheen anticipating my impending epic failure like a hawk eyeing a lone field mouse in the pasture. Honestly, I was probably the last over the cut line to get into honors English. I was a seat filler, a butt in the seat. The dumbest kid in the smart group. And, let me tell you, being a decent athlete did not help me one bit with the “honors” class teachers.

So, there I am, standing in front of the class trying not to make eye contact with anyone. I cracked my knuckles and cleared my throat for a little slapstick comic relief, took my best Shakespearean stance, and began…

The Duck
by Ogden Nash
Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

I can’t remember what grade I received on the project. The audience seemed entertained and Mrs. Goheen unexpectedly seemed satisfied with the selection.(Note: She saw me as a dumb jock up at this point in our relationship, and I didn’t really do anything to convince her otherwise until my late year cutting-edge, incisive book report on a Bob Dylan biography.). I am sure it was probably a B+. I do recall Mrs. Goheen asking why I picked that particular poem. I lied. I told her it was my favorite poem. But in all reality, the poem fit when written on my tennis shoe. You know, just in case I got stage fright.

It’s probably fitting “The Duck” became my favorite poem and, to date, the only poem I have burned to memory. In its 30-word entirety!

Thank you, Ogden Nash.

Do you have your own personal version “The Duck”? A poem that holds a special place for you.

What poem do you carry around in your pocket and in your heart?

Please share in the comments and/or write a one-line poem to celebrate the day. 

Happy Poem In Your Pocket Day to one and all!

Poetry gives us a different lens through which to view and/or try to explain the world around us.

Speaking of Shakespeare

Well, technically no one was speaking of Shakespeare, but maybe we should have been speaking like him. The reason: yesterday was officially Talk Like Shakespeare Day.

If you weren’t aware of this auspicious holiday and missed the occasion to impress your friends with quotes from Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, here is an opportunity to celebrate in a way that might be more fun. Get your Shakespeare on and take a look at these middle-grade books inspired by the Bard.

To read or not to read? What? Of course you should read these fabulous books!

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive!) at Last by Avi

Star-crossed love. Betrayal. Death. Comedy? Peter Saltz (Saltz to his friends) and Anabell Stackpoole like each other, but they’re too shy to do anything about it. Thank goodness for Saltz’s best friend, Ed Sitrow, who masterminds an eighth grade production of Romeo and Juliet-starring none other than Saltz and Stackpoole as Romeo and Juliet. But getting the two reluctant lovebirds together is a bigger task than anyone anticipated, even with Shakespeare’s help. What ensues is the most hilarious, disastrous, and unprecedented rendition of Romeo and Juliet in history!

The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood

Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare’s play Hamlet--or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.

William’s Midsummer Dreams by Zilpha Keatly Snyder

From three-time Newbery Honor author Zilpha Keatley Snyder, “an adventure story with a lot to say about identity, ambition, and character” (Kirkus Reviews). After a year living with Aunt Fiona, William is off to audition for the role of Puck in a summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But getting the part is just the beginning. Now William has to deal with a jealous rival out to sabotage him, a not-so-secret admirer, and the way the Baggetts still haunt him in nightmares. William’s summer is filled with acting and costumes and applause, but he still worries sometimes that he and his younger siblings will never be able to shake off the past. But when the Baggetts show up again, William realizes that he is braver than he thought, and that all will turn out okay.

All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts by Gretchen Woelfle, illus. Thomas Cox

Suddenly a hand gripped the back of his neck. “Cutpurse!” Kit is caught! Twelve-year-old orphan Kit Buckles, seeking his fortune in Elizabethan London, has bungled his first job as a pickpocket at the Theatre Playhouse where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are performing. To avoid jail, Kit agrees to work for the playhouse and soon grows fond of the life there: the dramas on–and offstage. Things get truly exciting when Kit joins the plot to steal the playhouse from the landlord who has evicted the company.

Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave by Deron R. Hicks, illus. Mark Edward Geyer

Twelve-year-old Colophon Letterford has a serious mystery on her hands. Will she discover the link between her family’s literary legacy and Shakespeare’s tomb before it’s too late? Antique paintings, secret passages, locked mausoleums, a four-hundred-year-old treasure, and a cast of quirky (and some ignoble) characters all add up to a fun original adventure. Readers will revel in a whirlwind journey through literary time and space in real-world locales from Mont St. Michel to Stratford-Upon-Avon to Central Park.

Tower of the Five Orders by Deron R. Hicks, illus. Mark Edward Geyer

Colophon Letterford’s life changed overnight when she uncovered Shakespeare’s lost manuscripts. Now the authenticity of those manuscripts is in question and the family publishing business is in danger. In this exciting mystery, thirteen-year-old Colophon travels from Oxford’s lofty Tower of the Five Orders to the dank depths of London’s sewers in her pursuit of truth and honor. But the stakes are high. Budding cryptologists, Shakespeare fans, and mystery lovers alike will revel in the twists and turns of this fascinating middle grade sequel to Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave.

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

All Hamlet Kennedy wants is to be a normal eighth grader. But with parents like hers –Shakespearean scholars who actually dress in Elizabethan regalia in public –it’s not that easy. As if they weren’t strange enough, her genius seven-year-old sister will be attending her middle school, and is named the new math tutor. Then, when the Shakespeare Project is announced, Hamlet reveals herself to be an amazing actress. Even though she wants to be average, Hamlet can no longer hide from the fact that she — like her family — is anything but ordinary.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Holling Hoodhood is really in for it. He’s just started seventh grade with Mrs. Baker, a teacher he knows is out to get him. Why else would she make him read Shakespeare . . . outside of class? The year is 1967, and everyone has bigger things than homework to worry about. There’s Vietnam for one thing, and then there’s the family business. As far as Holling’s father is concerned, nothing is more important than the family business. In fact, all of the Hoodhoods must be on their best behavior at all times. The success of Hoodhood and Associates depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has Mrs. Baker to contend with?

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Only in the world of the theater can Nat Field find an escape from the tragedies that have shadowed his young life. So he is thrilled when he is chosen to join an American drama troupe traveling to London to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a new replica of the famous Globe theater. Shortly after arriving in England, Nat goes to bed ill and awakens transported back in time four hundred years — to another London, and another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Amid the bustle and excitement of an Elizabethan theatrical production, Nat finds the warm, nurturing father figure missing from his life — in none other than William Shakespeare himself. Does Nat have to remain trapped in the past forever, or give up the friendship he’s so longed for in his own time?

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing–and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.
As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama. In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.