Saturday, September 11, 2010

Too Busy To Read or Dust

Jill Stuart's The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise has been sitting on my nighttable doing what most things in my house do- collect dust. Do you mind dusting? I despise it. I would rather scrub toilets or sort laundry anyday. Back to the book, it is my book club's pick for this month although our meeting has been pushed from September 23 into October because September is so busy for everyone. Thank goodness everyone else is busy too. I am drowning in school forms, fall sports registrations, homework, internet, and behavior "contracts" my kids and I need to sign, as well as grading and lesson plans for my own students. Who has time to read? But the book, albeit a bit dusty, sits by my bed. My children have asked me when I plan to start reading it to them. The cover illustration makes it look like a children's story and they thought I had chosen it for a family read aloud. I am beginning to feel like they will be adults by the time I find time for nightly reading again!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to School Traditions- Old and New

Since the school where I teach opened on the same day as the schools in my hometown, I missed putting my children on the school bus for the first day of school. It was my first time ever missing it. That was hard for me. Really hard. I had been a stay-at-home mom for years and when I went back to work as a teacher last fall, I started after my kids. I've always sent them off with notes in their lunches, hugs, and a camera at the bus stop. They still got notes in their lunches, but the babysitter did the send off.

I wanted them to start feeling calm, prepared, and loved. They probably did. But what I fixated on was not getting that photo of them all lined up with their backpacks on. That was killing me. Irrational, I know. Luckily, I arrived home before my youngest got off his bus. So I then lined them all up for our first annual "End of the First Day" photo. Sure, everyone looks a little more wrinkled, but I got it. After the photo, as we walked to our house, I heard lots of details about the joys and frustrations of second, fifth, and sixth grades. How, by the way, did I become the mother of a middle schooler? The walk home was followed by well earned ice cream.

In my own classes, I handed out a survey about likes/dislikes, goals for English class, favorite words, and so on. Even though I am in a different high school this year, there were some similarities to last year's responses. Of course, many, many high school girls cite Twilight saga and A Walk to Remember as their favorite books. I was surprised at how many of the boys said Louis Sachar's Holes was the best book they ever read. I heard that a lot from last year's boys as well.

I hope your school year is off to a smooth start!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Welcome to Back to School Season

September has arrived and the school buses are soon to follow. We happened to drive past my daughter's elementary school yesterday, and she said, "Don't you just love the way your classroom smells on the first day of school? I love that smell!" One of her brothers asked what exactly is wrong with her brain and the other mused what it would be like to have a tail. I hope the latter's new teacher is ready for the onslaught of non sequitirs!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

If I Was 13 and Artemis Fowl Was Real, I Would Totally Arm Wrestle My Daughter To Date Him

As usual, it's all thing Artemis Fowl over here at the house of th Book Bench. My ten year old daughter happily, happily, ecstatically got her hands on the newly released latest in the series, The Atlantis Complex. She is parcelling it out, just a few chapters a day to make it last longer. To fill in the gaps of non-Atlantis Complex time, she is reading the graphic novel version of the second book in the series, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident. We have read the original novel and listened to it on CD and it is my favorite in the series. Hayden loves it because she loves the pixie villain, Opal Koboi who is deliciously evil. However, the graphic novel is like a thorn under her saddle because Opal does not look at all the way Hayden pictured her. That is irritating her no end. I'm worried that whenever the movie is made, she (we) will be disappointed

I do not have much time for "fun" books like the Artemis Fowl series because I am busily preparing for the classes I'll be teaching this fall. By the way, "this fall" means this Thursday as that's the day teachers report back to school. Anyhow, I did find a way to sneak a little Artemis in when I teach The Great Gatsby. I plan to do a lesson on Byronic heroes and have the students decide whether or not Jay Gatsby qualifies as one. Artemis is one of the many examples of contemporary Byronic heroes I will present to the class.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Great Gatsby- Love It or Hate It?

I have just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. I will be doing it with my juniors this fall. It's one of those books that evokes strong responses from people even years after they've read it. Responses along the "Favorite book ever!" or "I hated that book lines!" Which camp do you fall in?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Black and White Brought Me Back

Because my parents are the greatest grandparents in the world, they have taken my three children to Maine with them for four days so I can lesson plan and prepare for my new teaching gig. Because I am the world's worst procrastinator, I am posting here on the blog. Don't be frightened by the dust and cobwebs- I know it's been awhile since I've written here. The summer has been an embarrassment of riches- hiking, biking, swimming, job interviewing, reading, and refereeing fights between the kids. Earlier today I did begin to focus on the curriculum for my junior English class which has a unit on modernism and postmodernism and I had an Alleluia moment. For years I have wanted to find a way to bring David Macaulay's picture book Black and White into the classroom. It is nonlinear, challenging, full of puns, and perfect for postmodernism. So now I will take my leave of this blog to go back to lesson planning, but not until I advise you to check out Macaulay's brilliant postmodern picture book. Read it with a kid you like. It will give you plenty to discuss!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Middle Aged Woman Who Sat On The Beach

My children are on our lake community's summer swim team. They are in different age brackets on that team which means they practice at different times. That means I sit on the beach for a minimum of three hours each Monday to Thursday. I know: boo hoo. I'm trying not to micromanage my children- Free Range Kids and all- so once the sunscreen is on, I try to do my own thing without hovering. I've only got so much chit chat, gossip, and complaining to other parents in me, so eventually I start reading. I tried reading for my new teaching gig, but it's hard to focus on Shakespeare with frequent interruptions for snacks and squabble settling, so it's strictly beach reading at the lake now. I'm almost done with Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire. I read his first last year for my book club (it was a big hit with the ladies, by the way), and I think I like this one even better. Honest to God, though, every single character and place name sounds like an item in the IKEA catalogue. That's not even me trying to be funny. While I was reading it the other day, another mom mentioned that she is on the third of Larsson's novels and had I read the review in the Times (NY I assume) that proposes that the main female character, Lisbeth Salander is actually the grownup Pipi Longstocking. I had not seen that article, but the notion has made me happy all week. I think I have written here about how much I loved Pipi as a girl and how thoroughly my kids and I loved reading Astrid Lindgren's book a year or so ago.

So, that's what I'm reading at the beach. Have you got a juicy summer book? Do tell.

Friday, June 25, 2010

If Only I Could Fit Into Their Jeans

I am just like a fourth grade boy. I have spent my days at our local lake this week, swimming, jumping off the dock, eating ice pops and reading The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. Two fourth grade boys there told me they are reading the same book. The mother of a third fourth grade boy told me her son is reading it as well. I am reading it (actually I finished it yesterday) at my daughter's urging. She has read the entire series and pushed me to read at least the first so we can discuss it. I'm glad I did. It is a fun read and has helped me get in touch with my inner ten year old.

The Name of This Book is Secret is the story of eleven year olds Cass and Max Ernest, misfits in their elementary school, who discover a dead magician's notebook and something called The Symphony of Smells. They end up trying to solve a mystery and save a classmate. The book is filled with riddles, word play, suspense, and much silly humor. It's the perfect beach reading for kids like me.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Father's Day Question

Who is your favorite literary father? Atticus Finch? King Lear? Papa Bear? I am partial to Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter books and the main character in Gilead.

Friday, June 18, 2010


We are moving right along in our reading of The Adventures of Ulysses ( akaThe Odyssey). Not surprisingly, the chapter with the blinding of the cyclops was a great big gruesome hit over here. I thought I would post about that today, maybe something about my boys and their bloodlust (at least in fiction), but then I found this image and it made me chuckle so much, I think I'll just leave you with it:


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pen Pals

I have said no to all offers to substitute teach these last few weeks and have immersed myself in conspicuous parenthood. I have accompanied the fourth grade on its hiking field trip to a state park. I have attended band concerts, barbecues, and class parties. I handed out ice pops at the first grade field day, ran the scooter race station at the fourth grade field day, and ran something called "Water Works" at fifth grade field day. If it's possible, I think I have clocked more hours in elementary school than my kids have. There was one event that I missed however. In fact, parents were not invited, but what I wouldn't have paid to be a fly on the wall. It was yesterday when my daughter's fourth grade class met with their pen pals. My daughter had the great good fortune to have a creative, clever, and hard working teacher this year who brilliantly paired her students up with residents of a local retirement community as pen pals. It was a huge success for my daughter who I've always said is an old woman trapped in a little girl's body. She and her pen pal Marcia sent each other long detailed letters about their mutual love of cats and poetry. They learned that they each have a best friend named Susie. They shared details of their hobbies. Marcia sent Hayden a cd of big band music and Hayden sent Marcia a key from her key collection. That exchange went over a little better than the one in which a boy in Hayden's class received coupons clipped by his pen pal. But all in all, I think the whole program was a success. I just would have loved to watch their meeting. Luckily, the teacher took a photo of Hayden and her pen pal. The two plan to keep up their "correspondence." The whole thing makes me happy. I know receiving the letters has thrilled my daughter and I hope Marcia has enjoyed it too. I suspect she has.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bedtime Reading Selections

So I've got them listening to The Adventures of Ulysses which I will be teaching in the fall, what are the odds my kids will also want to hear Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, and Introduction to Journalism? I'm thinking the odds are pretty slim. However, one of my boys would probably love "The Most Dangerous Game." Do you remember that story? It's almost like a Twilight Zone episode. I will be teaching that in the fall too. Hmmm...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We Quit A Book

For the first time ever, we have quit a bedtime reading book. I have quit many a book on my own, but as a family it has never happened. Sure, we've plowed through some clunkers but we've always seen them through. A few months ago, we decided to read Katherine Paterson's Newberry Medal winning Bridge to Terabithia. It should have been a hit. As I said, it won a Newberry. It is read in elementary schools across America. It references Free to Be You and Me ( the soundtrack of my elementary school years). It was popular enough to be made into a movie a few years back. Despite all of that, the BookBenchers threw in the towel on page 32. I think I knew for sure it was not for us when my youngest son left my room while I was reading, saying "Keep reading. I'll be back soon" and went to his room and fell asleep.

That was a few weeks ago. The kids and I have been doing our own things for bedtime reading for awhile now, but they asked me to pick out a new bedtime read. Ever happy to kill two birds with one stone, I chose Bernard Evslin's The Adventures of Ulysses. I have to read it with freshmen in the fall so I figured I would dry run it at home. Bingo! We have a winner!

It has soldiers and sailors and lots of action. My boys are content. It has Greek gods and goddesses and cleverness. My daughter is on board. It is only 172 pages of short chapters and written on what I would guess is like a sixth grade reading level. That makes it easy on my voice. We are back in the family read aloud game! In case you care, tomorrow's installment will bring us to the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Questions from the Backseat

Even though my son still has a little over a week left of fifth grade, the summer reading list and assignment has come out for incoming sixth graders. My wonderful neighbor and friend, armed with the list and library cards, brought my son and her daughter to our public library over the weekend to get a jump on checking out the books. As they have to read two each, she saved me a good thirty bucks by getting the books before they are all checked out of the library.

From the short stack he brought home, my son asked me to pick out the one I thought he would like best. I was shocked but leaped into action and selected Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts. Apparently I chose well because he is moving through it at a pretty fast clip. On the drive to his allergist's office the other day, my son read in the backseat and peppered me with questions such as

"What is a phonograph?"
"What is a radio cabinet?"
"What is an asylum?"
"Tell me everything you know about Alcatraz."

I was shocked by how much I know about Alcatraz Island, which is where the book is set in 1935. The main character is the son of a prison electrician.

I hope we have as much luck with the summer math packet he has to complete!

Monday, June 7, 2010

We're Back!

The Book Benchers have returned from Europe, our bellies full of Mars bars, fish and chips, lager, wine, cheese, croissants, chocolate croissants, almond croissants, and baguettes, our pockets full of Underground and Metro ticket stubs, Mars bar wrappers, foreign coins, croissant crumbs, and dirt, and our laundry room filled with a lot of filthy clothing. Actually, we've been home for about two weeks now and I've been too busy processing the laundry, helping the kids catch up on missed schoolwork, and getting a job for September (alleluia) to post.

It was a fantastic trip, the "best week of my life," according to my seven year old son. He is the one sporting a beret in the picture above. At seven, ten, and eleven, my children are the perfect ages for a trip like this one, which is a good thing too as it was probably a once in a lifetime event for us. It was magic, and fun, and immensely educational. The London highlights include Westminster Abbey, riding the London Eye, and Stonehenge. As an English teacher, I have to include Shakespeare's Globe Theater on this list as well. Having my family sing "Happy Birthday" to me on top of the Eiffel Tower was of course a highlight, but all three kids cite Notre Dame as one of their favorite things we toured in Paris. I am so glad we read The Hunchback of Notre Dame as preparation. Three hours in the Louvre was just about right for all of us. From the photo above, you can tell that we enjoyed biking around Paris. If you are ever there, I cannot sing the praises of Fat Tire Bike Tours loudly enough.

We brought some great guidebooks with us. Here is my shout out to Fodor's. If you are planning a similar trip with kids, Fodor's has Around London with Kids and Around Paris with Kids which were invaluable when planning ahead. While on the trip, Fodor's London's 25 Best and Paris' 25 Best which come with pull out maps were very helpful.

For the plane ride and downtime (there was none, by the way), my ten year old daughter packed only books set in Europe. I was inspired by that and brought Chris Cleave's Little Bee which is largely set in contemporary London. It was a real page turner. More on it soon.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I am supposed to be gone fishin' or at least gone sightseein' as of this evening, but who knows as it seems my family and I are in a race against a new volcanic ash cloud to see who can reach London first. Hopefully I will be absent from The Book Bench for a week and will come back with tales of European books and such.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Question for You

Imagine you are going to be on an airplane for seven to eight hours. What book (or other reading material) would you bring?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Nominee

Ok, this isn't really about books, but it is big. Moreover, I plan to read lots more about Elena Kagan in the coming days. I love that she praised her late mother and brothers, all public school teachers, today when President Obama introduced her as his nominee to the Supreme Court.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Thief Lord

Here is a book I've recently finished and passed on to my ten year old daughter. I'm pretty sure she is going to love it. In all honesty, I did not pass on to her the actual copy I read since I listened to the audiobook on my drive to and from work, and I checked a paper copy out of the library for my daughter. Do you consider listening to the audiobook "reading"? I know some book clubs scorn it. It makes good sense to me as I can't stand overly political or overly hyuk hyuk silly talk radio in the morning.

Back to the book. The Thief Lord, written by master German storyteller Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, Igraine the Brave, and so on) tells an adventure story of two orphaned brothers who run away to Venice after the younger one is about to be adopted by an unloving aunt and the older is to be sent to boarding school. Once in Venice, the brothers, Prosper and Bo, meet up with other children on their own and join forces to survive. They also become involved with Victor Getz, a kindhearted private detective the aunt has hired to search for the brothers. Victor is easily my favorite character in the book, which is saying something as this is a very character driven book. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of plot going on as well. There is a lot of adventure, a touch of mystery, and even a tiny bit of magic. And even though it is written for young people, this old lady learned a good bit about the city of Venice from the pages of The Thief Lord.

Apparently the book was adapted into a film a few years back, but I was unaware of that. I am quite glad I "read" the book, and I think my daughter will soon be as well. It is a good choice for fourth through I'd say seventh graders who like a bit of adventure.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two More Bits of Horseradish

If this irritating Icelandic volcano cooperates, the Book Bench family will be heading to Europe soon. There were flight restrictions in Ireland yesterday and in Spain and southern France today. Aaargh! If nothing else, my kids are learning their European geography and some volcanology out of all this worry. I am trying very hard to ignore all of my anxiety and pretend that the trip will go off without a hitch. I've been told that emphasizing the "if" as in "if we make it to Paris," is a bit of a downer. I am trying to cut back on that and am proceeding as if we will be following our itinerary. That involves buying granola bars and gum, dragging suitcases down from the attic, and searching for the passports. The passports put me in mind of another funny bit of Horseradish from Lemony Snicket:

A passport, as I'm sure you know, is a document that one shows to government officials whenever one reaches a border between countries, so the officials can learn who you are, where you were born, and how you look when photographed unflatteringly.

Another Horseradishism my daughter feels applies to overseas travel and all of life for that matter is:

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Lemony Snicket is one popular guy in my house lately. My kids have been moving through and giggling at his Series of Unfortunate Events for the last month or so. On a recent library run, they picked up a book of his sayings, wit, and wisdom entitled Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid. It would make a good coffee table book if tweens had coffee tables in their bedrooms.

One of my favorite lines from the book is:

If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglascuyt[bn[pasdlgkhasdfasdf.

I love this one as well because it seems to agree with a long held suspicion of mine about royalty (well, the only royalty I ever had contact with):

One of the world's most popular entertainments is a deck of cards which contains thirteen each of four suits, highlighted by kings, queens, and jacks, who are possibly the queen's younger, more attractive boyfriends.

Come to think of it, I believe I will move the library's copy of Horseradish to my living room coffee table for awhile.

Monday, May 3, 2010

We Are Not Responsible For The "Sleeper" Part

In the last few weeks I've been reading about how the animated kids' movie How To Train Your Dragon is turning into a real sleeper hit, gaining momentum and box office draws over time. Not to be all "I was into that band before anyone ever heard of them," but I did take my kids to see How To Train Your Dragon the first week it opened. Therefore, I am only responsible for the hit description, not the sleeper bit. We were inspired to see the film after reading several of the books in Cressida Cowell's How To Train Your Dragon series. Our favorite, by the way, is How To Be A Pirate. In our post-film discussion, held while grocery shopping, all three of my children found it impossible to say which was better, the book or the film adaptation. That allowed me to explain the "comparing apples and oranges" analogy. The plot of the book is quite different than that of the film. The main character is still Hiccup, the scrawny but plucky son of Stoick the Vast, leader of a band of Vikings. Please allow me to mention that Stoick is voiced by Gerard Butler in the film and somehow his Scottish burr is just as handsome as his Scottish face. It wouldn't be a punishment to have to share a box of Lorna Doones with him if you know what I'm saying. Back on point, there are new characters introduced in the film, and the 3D effects are quite good. That brings me to one advantage of the book. I didn't spend half our time reading the book pausing to wipe popcorn butter of 3D glasses. Anyway, if you haven't experienced them yet, I recommend How To Train Your Dragon, both the book and film. Once you've enjoyed one version, check out the other because both are appealing to kids and nothing is revealed in one the spoils the other. There is something in each for both boys and girls from about ages six to twelve.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Another Thing I Am Too Old For

My precious bibliophile daughter turned ten this past week. Ten! I can hardly believe it. She had a pajama party here at the Book Bench house with a bunch of lovely but high spirited girls on Friday night. I am still tired. Her friends know her well and several gave her books and gift cards to the bookstore. We were in the aisles of our local Borders spending one of those cards by noon on Saturday. With a fistful of coupons, she was able to do some damage to their stock. Currently, Hayden is reading three books, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, Mary Poppins Comes Back, and The Magician's Elephant. She is also reading a book in school with her class. I don't know how she keeps the plot lines straight. I can't even remember where I put my book down half the time. It's good to be young!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cultural Exchange

Two of my children will read a book or try an activity because I suggest it. My youngest child, on the other hand, is more likely to avoid something because I have suggested it. In terms of getting him to read certain books, I have resorted to reverse psychological warfare, you know, suggesting that a book might be too difficult or scary for him. He is beginning to see through that though.

Luckily, this seven year old free thinker of mine is influenced by his friends. I understand that may be a problem later in life when cigarettes and graffiti or the like are in vogue with his peers, but right now it is working to my advantage. He just came off a The Adventures of Tin Tin bender. Do you know who Tin Tin is? I did not; he came highly recommended by a fellow first grader from the Czech Republic, or as my son likes to call it, The Czech. Apparently, Tin Tin is a Belgian reporter and hero of a comic strip that first appeared in European newspapers in the late 1920s. My son loves his adventures, and is even picking up some French phrases from the books he reads. Who ever could have predicted that? I am pleased to report that it has not been an uneven exchange. My son introduced his friend to The Boxcar Children series, another unlikely hit for seven year old boys if you ask me, but as I made clear already, my seven year old is not asking me for suggestions.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Travel Prep

The Book Bench family has a trip to Europe planned for later this spring. We are preparing feverishly. Mostly that consists of hoping for the Icelandic volcano to behave and reading guidebooks. A little advice to parents out there: Fodor's and Let's Go guides are great as are the Rick Steeves travel guides and anything with "Kids" in the title. I would not recommend allowing your eleven year old son to check just any old guidebook from the travel section of your public library. If he checks one out published by MTV Books (you read that right), he might be able to tell you how many grams of marijuana you can carry without being hassled by local police and how to ask where to buy condoms in French. This will result in your having to explain to him what a condom is, not the most fun conversation imaginable.

My daughter is taking a much more enjoyable approach to travel prep. She is hoarding candy in case she doesn't like the food in Europe and she is reading novels set in London and Paris. Currently she is reading and loving Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Musical Gifts

I risk sounding like Sue Sylvester when she claimed that Madonna's "True Blue" album was released on her sixth birthday, but here goes. I remember only one present from the 1984 combined celebration of my birthday and eighth grade graduation. My brother Sean gave it to me. It was Madonna's debut album on cassette. I played the bejesus out of that tape. I still have it in fact. Perfection. Fox gave me a gift tonight with the Madonna episode of "Glee." It was genius, fun and thrilling. True, this has absolutely nothing to do with books. I haven't even read those English Roses picture books penned by Madonna, but I plan to listen to everything she ever sang again in the coming days. Every finger and toe I've got is now crossed for a Springsteen episode. Can you imagine?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Love is...

Remember the "Love Is..." cartoons from the 1970s? In case you don't, Homer Simpson's description might ring a bell. According to Homer, they're "about two naked eight year olds who are married." I loved them back in the day with their Kewpie doll bodies and pithy definitions of love. "Love is... taking one day at a time." "Love is... turning his head."

I've got a new definition of love. My nine year old daughter checked out a Judy Moody and Stink chapter book from the library for my seven year old son. She loved that series when she was in first and second grade and was excited to share the experience with him. A few days later I saw him reading it with a resigned look about him. I asked if he liked it and he dropped his voice to a whisper and said, "It's horrible, but I don't want to hurt Hayden's feelings." That is love, my friends! Anyone can wear an ugly shirt or tie, spritz on stinky perfume or use an unwanted appliance that was given as a gift, but it takes someone special to read a book he does not like all the way through. I am so impressed with my son's selfless act of love I feel like letting him go pick out one of books he loves about superheroes or farts. Loving behavior needs to be rewarded after all. Let me tell you, sitting through him reading those is an act of love as well.

One more note about those sappy comics. John Hodgeman once stated on The Daily Show "Love is... a quasimental illness prompting the bizarre sexualization of genital-free infants into a daily cartoon strip." That leads me to my last definition of what love is. It is my husband staying up later than he wants to allow me to watch The Daily Show in bed all the way to the closing credits just so I can giggle about stuff like that the next day.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Forget All That Teaching Career Talk!

Forget everything I said about longing for more time in the classroom. I've seen black bears in my yard on each of the last three days. On Wednesday, my eleven year old boy and his friend were playing in our woods and an adult came so close the boys felt they could have touched it. Wisely they chose to run to the house instead. So now I am dreaming of a career as a marksman (markswoman?)/ sharpshooter. It's very red state of me, I know, but that mama bear hasn't cornered the market on wanting to protect her cubs. SWAT team here I come. Don't tell them that I need a magnifying glass to read the account number on my credit card bill.

These Two Have A Lot in Common

So September 2009 was when I returned to teaching after a nine year absence. I landed a nice maternity leave replacement job, worked like the dickens, and all was right with the world. The teacher I replaced returned, I started subbing with a stack of resumes to mail out for a job for this September. Only now New Jersey public schools are facing crazy big budget cuts resulting in program cuts and layoffs galore. It's looking like this very enthusiastic English teacher with a massive hole in her resume might not be able to find a job for September. It is all pretty frustrating and demoralizing especially when I am also concerned about the cuts being made in my own children's schools. What I ought to do is ignore my troubles with some good escapist fiction: science fiction, chick-lit, English mysteries, but no, instead I am reading books about teaching that make me excited about the imaginary job I probably won't find for next year. Or worse, everything I read that is not about education specifically makes me think about education anyway or about how I would use that material in a classroom. I guess I just like salt in my wounds or a big fat pity party.

Here are two examples: I just read Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion after reading about him in the NYTimes earlier this year. Lemov works in charter schools and has observed many successful teachers working in inner city schools. He has come up with a taxonomy of 49 techniques he has seen these teachers employ to help their students achieve. Some of it is common sense. Some of it is a fresh new way of doing things. Some of it bucks trends in education. All of it interested me and made me wish I had a book like this when I was in school to become certified. If you know someone in a teacher education program right now, I highly recommend this book. It made me think about how I use time, my voice, and the physical space of my classroom. It will remain on my desk as a reference if I should be so fortunate as to have one.

I also recently finished Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and could not help but notice the ways stand up comedy is akin to high school teaching. Both deal with controlling the audience. Both require the person at the front of the room to be entertaining, quick thinking, and reflective. I love Steve Martin from The Jerk to his SNL and Muppet Show appearances to LA Story and his novella The Shopgirl. His cleverness and embrace of the absurd delight me so of course I enjoyed this book about the development and demise of his stand up career. He writes about the stand up act with great affection but also the knowledge that that is over for him. I am still so affectionate about teaching; I certainly hope I do not have to put it on hold due to the economy. So what can I read that won't put me in mind of it? Sports Illustrated? Nope. I have a hundred ways I could use that in an English classroom. Cookbooks? No again. They make me think of Frank Mc Court's Teacher Man. I may have to take up home improvement magazines or nudie ones as there doesn't seem a book out there I can completely escape into at present. So I'm off to get some copies of Playgirl and Popular Mechanics. Just kidding.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What and Why I'm Not Reading Right Now As Planned

For their birthdays back in January and February, my sons were given tickets to a professional hockey game. The game was for five pm today. The boys have been looking forward to it for months. It is the last regular season game for the NJ Devils and it is Fan Appreciation night which apparently means free hot dogs and soda. For my little Devils fan chowhounds it was shaping up to be a great night. My daughter and I had big plans of our own. She wanted us to go to Borders, spend a gift card that had been burning a hole in her pocket. Then she wanted us to come home and read our books on the couch while eating "a simple dinner like garlic toasts and carrots." She is my kind of girl; a little old lady that is. Oh, it was gong to be heaven.

Unfortunately, my seven year old woke up in the night with a stomach bug. After a lot of vomiting, he spent the rest of the day in bed in his pajamas. He, of course, could not go to the game, but was pretty brave about it, even generously offering his jersey to his sister to wear. She wore the jersey, a grim expression, and a book tucked under her arm. Rather than bookstore meandering and reading, I've made toast and Jello, played board games, watched Scooby Doo videos galore, and took a walk around the block with a cross between Alfalfa and Hugh Hefner as my boy insisted it was fine to walk around the neighborhood in his way too short pajama pants, no shirt, and bathrobe. I hope my daughter is enjoying her free hotdog and having at least as many laughs as the neighbors had when they got an eyeful of my walking companion.

What would I have read, you ask. Well, I'm in the middle of two autobiographies, Frank Bruni's Born Round and Tracy Morgan's I Am The New Black. Honestly, neither book is really thrilling me. I am, however, looking forward to The Irresistible Henry House which I plan to read the minute it is delivered via interlibrary loan.

Okay, it's back to Scooby Doo now.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In My Nest

In a radical break from tradition, the Easter Bunny did not deliver any books to any baskets in our house this year. Easter baskets past have had board books and chapter books, easy readers and cookbooks nestled beside chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks. Weird. I guess the Easter Bunny never got her act together enough to organize a trip to the bookstore. I, however, did give one book as an Easter gift to my adorable baby nephew. It was Susan Gillingham's adorable In My Nest which comes with the cutest little finger puppet bird and ends with that cute finger puppet bird in his nest with his parents. They put me in mind of a bird family version of my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. There are others in the series like In My Pond and In My Tree. They would make precious new baby or shower gifts.

In other Easter animal news, on Good Friday, my son who is in the first grade played at a friend's house. They were playing by the pond in the friend's yard, and reported that they found "a dead snake and a lizard that passed out" in the grass near the pond. How they could determine the difference between dead and passed out, I don't know, but I've been laughing about the description ever since.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Best Possible Scenario

I know I have mentioned on this blog how much my kids (and I) love Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. It was with much glee and anticipation that we recently went to see the movie in the theater. It was funny and we laughed and elbowed each other at the good parts throughout. The best part for me, however, was as we walked out of the theater and the kids told me that although it was great, the book was better. I love when they like the book better!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Seven Things That Made Me Smile Today

1. It is 73 degrees and sunny outside.
2. I played charades with a group of high school juniors today. I played it with them during the last period of the day on the day before spring break. All that separated them from a sunny spring break was 50 minutes and me. Instead of being cranky, distracted, or too cool for school, they threw themselves into the game of charades with abandon, and we had a lot of laughs.
3. During library duty I squeezed in a few pages of Kate Atkinson's latest Jackson Brodie mystery, When Will There Be Good News?
4. This afternoon, my son who is in the first grade informed me that he "is moving on from Flat Stanley to The Boxcar Children."
5. I ate a few marshmallow Peeps.
6. Anticipating a new 30Rock. I'm hoping The Office is new tonight too. What the heck. If you're gonna dream, dream big.
7. Rolling down my window and belting out Jackson Five tunes in the car.

I hope you had much to smile about today.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It Comes in Like a Sufragette and Goes Out Like a Lamb

Earlier this week, my children were dong their homework. Big pat on the back to me because for once they were doing it at the kitchen table rather than in my car while I was driving to some sport or activity. One of the boys was working on spelling and the other was dealing with fractions. I tried to avoid eye contact with that one hoping he wouldn't call on me for help. That trick doesn't work any better now than it did back when I was in the fifth grade. My daughter did ask me for help with her homework. That should have alerted me to something strange afoot. She never asks for help. On that particular evening, however, she said she had to interview me. I figured I could answer a few questions while grilling cheese sandwiches and opening cans of soup. ( Don't judge!) After a few questions along the lines of, "When you were a girl, what career did you aspire to?" and "What is the most challenging thing about being a woman?", I had to ask what kind of homework this was. She informed that it was for Women's History Month. How did we get three weeks into Women's History Month without my realizing it I wondered and isn't it Black History month my son wondered aloud. Back to the interview questions. I had a problem with the one about what I find challenging about being a woman because I don't think my daughter's teacher really wants my honest response. Does she truly want my daughter to read aloud her homework to other fourth graders, telling them about her mother's issues with her period, approaching menopause, body image, and the high cost of bras? I didn't think so. So I lied or at least gave a wishy washy answer, but I didn't feel good about it.

Interesting to me, is the fact that I have read two great books this month about the challenges of being a woman. For my book club, I read Maggie O'Farrell's novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It is set in Scotland and is the story of an elderly woman released from the mental hospital she was committed to as a teenager. She is released into the care of her grandniece who previously had no knowledge of the woman's existence. The plot held me in its grip from start to finish. I read about Maggie O'Farrell and her inspiration for writing this book, as the protagonist has been put in the mental institution on the flimsiest of causes. In one interview, the author cited other examples from history. It was sad and horrifying and an addictive read. I cannot wait to hear what the ladies in my book club have to say about it!

Speaking of the ladies in the book club, several of them also suggested Kate Walbert's novel, A Short History of Women. Mmm hmm; I was reading a novel with that title without realizing I was dead in the center of Women's History Month. Although I didn't enjoy this one as much as The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, it is quite good. It follows four generations of women in one family beginning with a suffragette who dies as a result of a hunger strike in England during World War I to her great granddaughters in the United States post 9/11.

So nobody can say I failed to provide a Women's History Month post. And for the fourth graders, I would much rather recommend a good book, such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate that I have written about on this blog, than to give them some half truths about the challenges I face as a woman.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Questions, questions, questions!

On Saturday, I took my eleven year old son to his ice hockey tournament an hour's drive away from our home. At one point in the day, we had about three hours to kill between games so we headed down the road to Rutgers University, my alma mater. Actually it is my husband's alma mater too. We attended and graduated at the same time but never met then, but that's a story for another day. So my son and I enjoyed a lovely, sunny and unseasonably warm afternoon on a college campus. If I had known how many questions I would have to answer, I might have opted to stay at the rink and give my son quarters to kill brain cells on arcade games all afternoon. Here are some of his questions:
1. Why don't we see any war protests at home?
2. What are those things in the window of a "smoke shop?"
3. Hookah pipe?
4. Why would they sell those bong things if it is illegal to buy the drugs to smoke in them?
5. Why are there so many liquor stores around here?
6. Why would a Qdoba restaurant open right across the street from a Chipotle?
7. Pointing at a piece of particularly salacious graffiti,"Is that possible?"
8. Where do you think we can find a clean bathroom?
9. After using the bathroom in an art museum, "How much do you think it costs to tour the museum?"
10. While looking at exhibits, there were several questions about naked bodies I'm blushing too hard to type here.
11. What do you think could be in an exhibit that prohibits children if children are allowed to see the naked statues?
12. Can we get some ice cream?
13. Can I use a bathroom again?

I could go on, but I will spare you. The questions I kept asking myself were when did they start admitting thirteen year old girls to college because that's how old they all appear to me and why are they all dressed like Ugg wearing prostitutes?

As I did not have a Frisbee or hacky sack, we eventually sat on a bench in the sun with our books for the last half hour before heading back to the ice rink. I clocked many hours on the very same bench ages ago as an undergraduate. I loved it back then, but it was sheer bliss with my own boy beside me, especially when the questions ceased for awhile.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Shortlist on St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day is one of my favorite holidays. As a lover of carbohydrates (soda bread, potatoes, green bagels) it's a no-brainer. I also like to affect a brogue and green is one of my better colors so it makes sense. There are also many great picture books based on Irish myths and legends that I've enjoyed with my children over the years. Our favorite is Tomie dePaola's Finn McCoul which I mentioned here a few weeks ago when deciding on a read aloud book for my son's fifth grade class. dePaola's Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato and Jamie O"Rourke and the Pooka are also fun reads for the three to nine year old set.
For older readers, eight to twelve years old, Marie Heaney's The Names Upon the Harp is a lovely book of Irish myths and legends illustrated by P.J. Lynch. P.J. Lynch is worth an Amazon search of his own as everything he illustrates is beautiful.

For contemporary Irish fiction for that same age group I of course recommend Eoin Colfer. I think I have made it clear in this blog that his Artemis Fowl books are utter brilliance. His Half Moon Investigations about the somewhat inept twelve year old private investigator Fletcher Moon, set in a modern Irish suburb, is great fun. I've read that the BBC made a TV series of this book, and I'm curious to view it.

For adults looking for a compelling story wrapped up in the history of twentieth century Ireland, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture is perfect. My book club read this one in the fall and I have not stopped thinking about it or giving it as a gift. It is sad and wonderful at the same time, telling the story of Roseanne (Clear) McNulty an Irish woman sent to a mental institution for the bulk of her life. The book begins as the institution is about to close and her doctor needs to place her somewhere. Her story and their relationship grow from there. Roseanne's personal story and fate are tangled up in the national story and fate. Loved it!
Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 15, 2010

No Time for a Long Blog Post

I have no time for a long blog post today as I am trying to think up ways to get a copy of this book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, into the hands of every nine to twelve year old girl in America. It is fantastic. I'll have you know that I cried on page 47, page 181, page 252, and on page 323. It was more of a lump in my throat than full on sobbing, but I was moved and it wasn't the perimenopause talking. It is a lovely book and Calpurnia's love for her brothers and grandfather reminds me of how I felt about my own brothers and grandfather at her age. More on that later; I'm off to at least convince my own nine year old daughter to move this book to the top of the pile on her bedside table.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Coincidence in the Graveyard

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my favorite novels, so I had looked very much forward to her next book, Her Fearful Symmetry. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It tells the story of a British woman who dis and leaves her London apartment to her two American nieces with the stipulation that they must live in the flat for a year in order to inherit it. Interestingly, her ghost resides in the flat and eventually makes contact with the twins and her former lover who lives downstairs. The premise is great; the book just didn't deliver. What did interest me, however, were all of Niffenegger's descriptions of London's Highgate Cemetery. Guess who else was inspired by that cemetery? Neil Gaiman when writing The Graveyard Book, which, if you've been reading this blog for the last month or so, you know I love. I imagine you are getting tired of hearing about it. Sorry. Reading Her Fearful Symmetry did give me more insight into Gaiman's graveyard. It inspired me to look up Highgate Cemetery's website which was helpful to my son for visualizing Gaiman's setting. It looks like a beautiful and fascinating place. Finally, exploring the website has me trying to figure out if we can squeeze a visit to Highgate into our upcoming family trip to London. Karl Marx is buried there after all. So I guess I did get a good deal out of a book I did not like too much.

Friday, March 5, 2010

We Have A Winner!

Today was the big day. I went in for my turn as guest reader in my son's fifth grade class. After much hemming and hawing (I hear you; I need a hobby), I chose Lane Smith's brilliant picture book, John, Paul, George & Ben. It takes hilarious liberty with snippets of history about John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It met the requirements of being short, entertaining, and not at all babyish. Since my son's class has been studying the American Revolution in social studies it seemed like the perfect choice. There were giggles and laughs and audience participation at the end when I quizzed the students with the true and false questions Smith provides to set the record straight. In it we learned that while Benjamin Franklin did invent bifocals and the Franklin stove, he did not invent PlayStation76. This book is a lot of fun for kids who know a bit of American history. Without that bit of background, the humor is lost.

In other business, I know that I have not done a Foodie Friday post here in months. I'm not sure if I will start it up again. It is worth noting, however, that I am currently reading Ree Drummond's The Pioneer Woman Cooks cookbook. Last night I was inspired to make her "Comfort Meatballs" (pages 172-173). Some people sing for their supper; last night I sang to my supper. To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you... Delicious! Next up from The Pioneer Woman Cooks: "Simple, Perfect Enchiladas" (pages 176-178).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oh The Pressure!

Looking at that title, you may be wondering what kind of pressure I am experiencing. Or maybe you are not wondering, but I plan to tell you. First, there is water pressure. Glorious, wonderful water pressure has been restored in my home. I've been flushing toilets with abandon for at least an hour now. Apparently my water will be running brown and dirty for a few days, but at least it's running.

That settled, I can worry about more bookish matters. Here is the other pressure in my life: I have been invited to be Guest Reader in my fifth grade son's classroom this Friday. I have twenty minutes to read to the class. What do I choose? Keep in mind, he will be in middle school next year and there will be no more guest reading. What should I choose to entertain this audience?

Last year Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Duck! Rabbit! was a huge hit. It inspired conversation and doodling.

Several times in the past I have read Tomie De Paola's Fin M'Coul. It is the perfect choice for March and I love to lay it on thick with the Irish brogue.

I am looking for something different this year. My son's teacher told me I will be reading immediately before phys ed class (I've been informed by my first grader that "Gym is a room and Physical Education is a class.") Maybe I should read about an inspirational athlete. David Adler's biographies of Lou Gehrig and Gertrude Ederle might be good selections. What to choose? Any suggestions?

Monday, March 1, 2010

What's The Difference Between a Hockey Blogger and a Pit Bull?

In case you don't have hockey fans in your home, yesterday was a big day in ice hockey. There was nail biting and screaming and dropped jaws in my house yesterday as the Canadian team beat the US team in overtime yesterday afternoon. If "our team" had to lose, at least it was Sidney Crosby who scored the game winning goal. My boys really admire him. In fact, last February I posted an entry about a Crosby biography here at The Book Bench. I don't generally rerun posts, but I will provide the link in case you are interested. It is That said, I would be much happier today providing the link to a book about Zach Parise or Ryan Miller. Ah well, good for Sidney!

If the link above does not work, my original Sidney Crosby post is from February 3, 2009.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Husband Went to Massachusetts and All I Got Was This "I Told You So"

I believe I have 28 inches of snow on the ground now. My driveway is shovelled enough that it is just barely maneuverable and my arms and back ache. Oh, and I have no running water. My well and/or well pump went kaput! in the middle of the big snowstorm meaning no toilet flushing unless I pour buckets of melted snow into the bowl. No dishwasher! No washing machine. No hot water and soap after dumping the buckets of melted snow into the toilet. Thank the Lord my daughter and I have extensive hand sanitizer collections! And my husband is in another state until tomorrow night. But I'm not complaining. People all over the world have it much, much worse. Okay, I am complaining a bit, but I am trying to keep it all in perspective. And, I have a "you were right" for consolation. I checked the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book out of the library for my husband's roadtrip even though it is fiction and not strictly written for adults. By cell phone this afternoon he reported that I was right and it is really good. Do you know what? I like being right about as much as I like indoor plumbing. Believe me, that's saying something. If only I could have both!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

No Book Reports Today

We haven't read a single page of a single book today. It's not really a fiction kind of day. This is the snow we had at breakfast time. Now at suppertime there's a good 14 inches on the ground. Today's snow had a kind of melancholy beauty to it. People we care about have received bad news and sadness this week. That made it difficult to feel lighthearted and silly in the snow. We did, however, enjoy taking a walk on our quiet snowy street and in the woods near our home. It felt kind of like being on another planet, a cold, quiet, intensely white planet. The kids are all lounging around now, drawing and playing with blocks. Stay warm and safe and hug the people you love if you can.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Words I Never Thought I Would Hear

"I think this book might be better than Harry Potter," said my nine year old daughter last night of Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer. Gobsmacked I was!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Little Shakespeare on This Thursday

At a recent holiday party, the elementary school aged son of my school's principal asked one of the English teachers present to tell him a story. All she could come up with off the top of her head was Shakespeare's Hamlet. I believe she was in the middle of teaching it at school. She kept him happily entertained. I love that story. Actually, I love both stories- the one of the Christmas party and Hamlet. I do not love everything the Bard wrote, but I can see the influence of the storyteller. In the hands of a good storyteller (teacher, director, reader), it is easy to see why Shakespeare's works have stood the test of time. In the hands of a bad storyteller (ie the nun who taught my junior and senior years of high school English), studying Shakespeare's plays can make a student fall asleep, cry, or fantasize futilely about worse tortures. In the hands (or camera or mouth) of a good storyteller, Shakespeare's works can thrill and delight. For example, I read King Lear in high school and thought it was awful and boring and made little sense. Two years later in college it was taught to me by a professor visiting from England. He wore a big knitted scarf everyday, knew all of the play by heart it seemed, and loved it like it was a baby. I'll never forget him or how he made me see King Lear as a fabulous and heartbreaking family story. I've really liked the play ever since, although I haven't read it in about a dozen years. Then Gareth Hinds' graphic novel version came across my desk this week. I like King Lear even more now and would definitely use this book with my students if I ever have occasion to teach Lear in the future. First, I know that graphic novels can be a bridge, a way in, for many students. Secondly, the artwork is great and much of Shakespeare's language is kept. Finally, there is something about the way Hinds positions the characters on the page that makes the experience feel as much like viewing a dramatic production as it feels like reading a book. I am now curious to check out Gareth Hinds' version of The Merchant of Venice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Too Busy to Read?!

This is a ridonculously (as the kids say) busy week in my house. In addition to the usual homework, sports, activities, laundry, and so on, we've got a few big holidays of the religious and ethnic variety, two birthdays, and a fourth grade poetry celebration. If we had tshirts printed for the week, they would read something like, "Happy Valentine's Day. I Cannot Tell a Lie. Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez. Happy Birthday Times Two. Poetry Rocks and To Dust You Shall Return."
How about that? Catchy, right?

In all of the madness, books are going unread around here. I've been trying to get in a chapter of How to Train Your Dragon (or as one seven year old I know likes to gigglingly call it, How to Drain Your Dragon) and the kids are completing their required minimums for homework, but that's about it.

I have been listening to Twilight on CD in my car. I figure it's necessary for my job as teacher since just about every teenage girl in America has read it and for my job as mom since sooner or later my own nine year old daughter is going to jump on that bandwagon. She even received some Twilight valentines in school this year. My opinion: it's okay, but not fantastic. It certainly is chock full of frequently tested SAT words. That's a plus. I can see why all of those girls love it though. Edward is dreamy, dangerous, brilliant and mature. He desires Bella but doesn't want to "violate" her. She is independent but doesn't mind being protected. It has all of the classic bodice ripper elements with no actual sex. I can't decide what I will say if my daughter wants to read it in the next year or so. Luckily, I don't have to decide for my son. He heard about five minutes of chapter nineteen in the car yesterday on the way to ice hockey practice and said, "No offense, but your book isn't very good."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vancouver or Bust

Is it just me or do you find yourself thinking,"Wow, Vancouver would be great for our next family vacation"?

Darn NBC and the Today show! They make everything look so good! Anybody know any good books set in or about Vancouver?