Thursday, October 31, 2013

Smack-dab-in-the-Classroom Interview with librarian Katie Mitchell

Teen librarian KATIE MITCHELL from Saline Library shared some wonderful ideas when I asked her how to use middle grade books in the classroom. From Book Blind Dates to Reader's Response Journals, read on for ways to engage young readers.

DIA CALHOUN: What tips do you have for getting a group of kids actively engaged with the same book? Kids who might have different interests?

KATIE MITCHELL: As a librarian in a public library, this has been an area that has been very challenging. The kids in my teen book group often ranged in age from 11-15. That’s an amazing time of growth and the levels of maturity are all over the map. Knowing your group is the first main step. I would always emphasize to the kids that all opinions were valid, all feelings to be respected. And I would tell them that if they *didn’t* like a book, I really wanted them to feel welcome, because figuring out what you don’t like in a book helps guide you to genres and writing styles that you like.

Reader's Response journals are great; as they help young teens make strong connections between their lives and the lives of the characters. Another great connector is having the kids themselves booktalk the titles. If you do rotational reading with your class, you can have the group that just finished the book talk it up to the next group to get it.

Finally, this is a group that still really enjoys having people read to them. Reading aloud, or having the audio book playing as they read can help your auditory learners and connect the students who have more challenges with reading. (But, please don’t make kids read out loud if they are uncomfortable. I know adults who stopped reading for pleasure in middle school due to extreme embarrassment in English classes.)

DIA CALHOUN:  Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids' imaginations on fire?

KATIE MITCHELL:  Book trailers! Particularly 90 Second Newbery trailers. (See this one of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND) I think it’s the blend of costuming, acting, playing together (when “play” time is really falling off the radar for these kids), and using technology that makes this an activity that reaches kids across the board. So many teachers use book trailers, sharing the student produced ones is a fantastic connector!

DIA CALHOUN:  Have you ever done something "outside the box" that worked really well?

KATIE MITCHELL: Book Blind Dates. Our middle school is directly next door to the library. Once a trimester, the Language Arts teachers bring their students over for booktalks and some other activities. One of the best ones is the Book Blind Date. We set up groups of tables for 4-5 students, with 7-8 books on each table (I usually do it by genre, so they get a fuller experience). Then when I blow the whistle (apparently, this is hilarious in a public library), they have to grab a book and just read for 3 minutes. After three minutes, they need to record it on their playlist and write down an few keywords and write it from 1 (it’s a match!) to 5 (see you never!). We usually do about six tables. The kids love it and it’s a great way to push some of the older titles that you still love.

DIA CALHOUN:  If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be?

KATIE MITCHELL: This is such an incredible age group. While you will have readers who are at both ends of the spectrum in terms of reading ability, these are all kids who can be engaged with middle grade fiction. Always look for the connections. If you have a reader who seems too “jaded” for books about middle grade characters, this can be a chance to give them a time where they don’t have to try so hard to be grown up. For kids who are still finding their place in the middle grades (and frankly, who isn’t), these stories are touchstones for feeling normal. As they are growing and changing and their world is expanding, it is so imperative that they have some books that reflect their experience. We get to bring them that! Don’t ever forget how cool that is!

DIA CALHOUN:  Wonderful ideas, Katie. I want to try Book Blind Dates myself! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. Katie Mitchell works with the amazing AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Burano Blues

This blue house on Burano, with its blue sheets fluttering in the wind, enchanted me. When I visited the island, a short vaporetto ride from Venice, I’d wanted to see the exquisite lace in the lace museum. (The island was once a historic lace making center.) But I didn’t know the island was also famous for its brightly painted houses. How simple, I thought, to make something utterly beautiful out of something so simple as paint and bedsheets. The bells rang.

Then, the bells began fading, because I suspected that the blue house with its blue bed sheets had been staged for tourists. That whoever who lived there didn’t really arrange her domestic life with such artistic sensibility.

Then I realized that the intent behind the blue house didn’t matter. Paintings and sculptures are staged in museums for tourists. If I’d seen this scene as a painting titled “Burano Blue House with Blue Bed Sheets Blowing,” I’d had loved it. The scene before was a piece of living art. And I didn’t have to wait in line to see it.

And so the bells rang on.

Embrace the enchantment that comes

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

7:30 BELLS: A Challenge from the Bell Tower

As part of the 7:30 BELLS series, I will occasionally write about the essential Bell Tower. For without the Bell Tower’s support, the bell couldn't ring ring with life.

I need two seemingly contradictory things in my Bell Tower to produce my best creative work, to allow the bell to ring most beautifully.

First, Concentrated Sustained Attention: time each day to focus on my story, time sustained over months. This may be only two hours a day, but it must happen nearly every day.

The second thing is Creative Drift: time each day for my mind to play with my story. The best place for this is the hammock at the Farm under the maple tree, or in the winter, a rocking chair facing a window. I swing or rock, proposing questions like . . . what happens when Eckhart is halfway up the mountain? Possibilities drift through my mind. The trick is to be directed enough to keep my thoughts from drifting away from my story altogether, yet loose enough to allow in new images and ideas. Creative Drift is the most important  practice for producing good work.

My best work comes from combining Concentrated Sustained Attention and Creative Drift. However, when the inevitable vagaries of life intervene—crisis, illness, other business—the first thing I abandon is Creative Drift. Why do I abandon it first if it’s the most essential element for good work? Because Concentrated Sustained Attention gets the pages written, the project DONE. To many people, Creative Drift doesn't seem essential.

I forget that getting the project done has no relationship to how GOOD the project will be. Creative Drift does. Our culture has conditioned me to believe that getting something done, is more important than how it is done, or even its result. This is a blind, wrong following of the Protestant Work Ethic that haunts me from cold, northern climes. It’s the idea that the hours spent working are more important than what the work produces. A story that takes ten years to write must surely be better than one that takes two. Every artist knows this is false.

Remember too, Creative Drift can actually save time by leading down better roads.

So from the Bell Tower, I challenge myself and all writers out there: The next time your writing time is pressed, prioritize Creative Drift in your Bell Tower. See if that results in not only a better, but even a more swiftly completed, work of art.

Allow creative winds to drift over the bell
and hear what beautifully rings.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Poetry Friday: THE DEMON SNAG

This poem by Eva Dehart, the hero of my middle grade novel, EVA OF THE SKY, was inspired by a snag in the canyon behind my father-in-law's orchard in the Methow Valley. This is an extremely zoomed in photo of the snag, which is high on a hill above the canyon.


Halfway up the canyon,
the blackened snag on the hill
looms like a demon,
conjuring and cackling
evil dreams of the wild--
cougar teeth and bear claws and being eaten alive--
until fear cripples my heart.

I sharpen Dad's ax--
but a demon felled would be a demon still.
I call for a wizard,
but they are too busy fighting dragons.

If I were Joan of Arc,
I could defeat the Demon Snag myself
with a shining sword.
But I am only Eva of the Farm,
armed with a shining imagination
that makes me run home fast.

--Eva of the Farm
(This poem can be found on page 20 of the novel)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

7:30 BELLS: At the End of Wilderness--New Bells

Hearing author Jane Kirkpatrick speak at PNBA (The Pacific Northwest Bookseller's
Conference) inspired new insights on the bells. Kirkpatrick said that after bad news--an accident, diagnosis, loss of a friendship, loved one, or beloved place--we long to go back to life as it was. In my terms--we want the bells to ring as they did before.

But they don't. And we can't. Our life becomes about how we move through the "wilderness state"--the unknown that our life has become, usually against our will. 

So I wonder. If the bells can't ring the old melody, can they ring a new one? Finding the new melody is the process of moving through the wilderness--clanging discord, false starts, and sudden stops--before we find a new melody that makes us feel alive again.

Move through the wilderness to find a new melody

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

7:30 BELLS Guest Post: Listening for Birds by Kirby Larson

I am so pleased to offer a 7:30 BELLS guest post by Kirby Larson, lovely person and fabulous author of DUKE and HATTIE BIG SKY, awarded the Newbery Honor Medal.

Dia listens for bells; I listen for birds. I’ve been blessed to luck into a cozy Washington beach house near the Canadian border, and I take myself there as often as I can. It’s a tall, skinny place and my office is on the 3rd floor, eagle eye view. Literally. 

On occasion, I’ve flinched as a bald eagle seemed to aim its talons at me, while I was sitting at my desk. So grateful for the window! From my perch, I hear owls hoot, loons wail, belted kingfishers chitter, gulls bark and herons squawk. 

No matter where my story brain is, my ears are straining to hear the birds. To hear that reminder that flight is possible. I may not have feathers, but I can spread my wings and fly across the page.

Listen and take flight

Kirby Larson is the author of ten books for young readers, including the 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, and its sequel, Hattie Ever After. In addition to her historical fiction (The Fences Between Us; The Friendship Doll; Duke), Kirby has partnered with Mary Nethery to write two award-winning nonfiction picture books, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle. Kirby also owns a tiara.

Friday, October 4, 2013


This poem by twelve-year-old Eva DeHart, from EVA OF THE FARM, was inspired by an old abandoned outhouse on our family orchard in the Methow Valley.

Grandma Helen built
an outhouse with a view
of the sagebrush hills.
"Sitting pretty," she called it.
"Why not?"
She slapped white paint
on the boards,
carved a smiling moon
on the door,
and planted violets
on every side.

Last year, Grandma Helen died.

Now the outhouse door creaks
in the lonely wind.
The metal roof rusts
in the weeds
on the ground.

But sometimes,
in the moonlight,
through glimmering spiderwebs,
I think I glimpse
Grandma's ghost--
sitting pretty.


p 14

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

7:30 BELLS: When Falling is Mighty

We’re all afraid to fall. Falling is linked with failure, as in “a fall from grace,” or “how the mighty have fallen.” But standing before this waterfall near Mount Rainier brought new ideas about falling.

Falling makes this waterfall beautiful. Falling water plunging in torrents of grace. Falling water wearing away the very rock that brings about its fall. And who could say a waterfall isn’t mighty? It pounds, roars, rushes. And, as this next picture shows, falling water goes somewhere. Through this canyon it streams, then bends beyond my puny sight.

So I need to trust in falling, in fallowness, in what lies ahead that is impossible to foresee. I need to let my fixation on a pre-determined destination be silenced by the roar and grace and might of falling—and open my heart to whatever waits around the bend.
Fall in might and grace, 
toward the bells ringing around the bend.