Why Read Fiction?

 “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” –William Carlos Williams

In  a hard economic world, where classrooms at every level seem increasingly designed to be vocational training grounds and little else, where the three RRR’s (which included reading and writing) are being replaced by the hot new acronym STEM, where the new Common Core language arts standards insist on a shift away from fiction into non-fiction (and by non-fiction they include maps, and menus and manuals), in a world where the man who spearheaded the Common Core notes that employers are not apt to ask someone to produce a “compelling account of his childhood” before tackling that market analysis…In such a world, why should fiction be a part of a child’s education?

Because fiction, as William Carlos Williams notes, provides life-giving sustenance:

It can be a friend when we’re lonely, a refuge when we’re overwhelmed. And children are often lonely and often overwhelmed.

It supplies the pleasure of recognition—wow, someone put my own thoughts into words—as well as wonder at the new: who knew?

It takes us inside ourselves. It takes us outside ourselves.

It makes us explore, as nothing else can, the most intriguing question of all: What if?

It makes the strange familiar—we don’t ever have to have lived on a farm to know exactly what Wilbur and Charlotte’s barn looks and feels and smells like.

And it makes the familiar strange: a boy’s bedroom becomes a kingdom of wild things.

It makes us stretch our minds and use our imagination and ask uncomfortable questions. It comforts, inspires and reassures. It scares and stimulates.

Absolutely, it’s important to be able to read maps, and menus, and manuals. And market analyses. It’s also important to be able to journey to where the wild things are, and back home again.

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Email of the Week

224028-LDear Amy
,

My husband Jim was curious where you learned the math trick that Aunt Mattie and Uncle Philbert talk about in the book [No More Nasty, p. 91]?  Do you know if it has an official name?  He was curious how the 3-digit method works.  My husband is good with numbers and my daughter was amazed that she could put the numbers in the calculator as quickly as her dad could solve them on paper using this new method.  Any information would be appreciated.

Thank you, Kim

Dear Kim,

The official name is “Multi-Qwik, Uncle Philbert’s Patented Homework Reducing Time Saving Three Step Multiple Digit Multiplication Method.” Really. It was invented by a friend of mine when he was in grade school, and it really does work. He figured out that he could do his math homework quicker that way, and he actually DID get in trouble with his teacher for doing his math this way, instead of how the book said to do it.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And it really is patented.
Yours,
 Amy MacDonald
P.S. Click here for Classroom Activities related to the Multi-Qwik math trick.

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Nice Review of “Big Front Tooth”

Review of “LIttle Beaver and the Big Front Tooth”

In the Daily Mail (gulp). Huge circulation but not my favorite newspaper.

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Little Beaver Illustrator Shares Her Sketchbook

Sarah Fox-Davies, illustrator of Little Beaver and the Echo as well as the just-out (in England) Little Beaver and the Big Front Tooth, shares some of her process in illustrating the new book. Read about it here.  Several sketches and a finished illustration are below…

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Thanks, Sarah! It’s a beautiful book!

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World Book Night & Early Childhood Authors Celebration

 

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I recently completed a residency with Melissa Pellin’s Early Childhood Education class at the Region Two School of Applied Technology in Houlton, Maine. We worked over the course of the year on writing and illustrating a children’s book. The books were published in hardcover form,two copies each, complete with ISBN’s, and we celebrated on Friday with a book launch party, combined with a book give-away to each young author, courtesy of World Book Night. (The book: “local author” Steven King’s “The Stand.”).

It was an amazing experience for all involved, and kudos are owed to first-year-teacher Ms. Pellin for her hard work, and to last-year-Principal Michael Howard (he’s retiring) for his vision in making this happen. And, of course, to the authors and illustrators for their hard work and creativity.

I’m sure the future holds good things for Melissa, the graduating students, and Mr. Howard. Bravo!

Pictured here are eight of the authors with their books, and the gift they gave Mr. Howard to celebrate his retirement: a canvas covered in famous Maine children’s books, along with their books.

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The Right Word: or Eschew that Thesaurus

When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)

I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.

Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.)  The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list:  Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.

Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.

Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.

So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?

PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration?  And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?

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Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak

Readers of this blog know how much I adore Maurice Sendak and his work. (See previous post, and the one linking to a very moving Terri Gross NPR interview on death and children’s literature.) He was wise, funny, and biting, right up until the end, and in honor of that, I now post a link to  his interviews with Stephen Colbert in which he speaks his mind (sadly prophetically) about e-books and many other things. (Warning: salty language, bleeped out!!)

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“He saw it. He loved it. He ate it.”

Why you should always write to your favorite author:

Source: Shaun Usher, Letters of Note

 

 

 

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“I like words”

Uncle Philbert & Aunt Mattie

“I like words.”

That’s how a would-be screenwriter once started a job application letter. “I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady…. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.”  Aside from landing the author a job, the wonderfully witty letter (here)  is a testament to the amazing richness of English, a language that combines the best of Anglo-Saxon’s bluntness (ooze), Greek and Latin’s multi-syllabic gravity (mortician), and the Romance languages’ elegance (demi-monde).

I too like words. For years I collected strange words: words I heard old-time Mainers use; words I gleaned from reading the dictionary (yes, I read dictionaries for fun; how else am I going to find a word like fubsy?); archaic phrases no longer in use; or nonsense words my mother’s family invented. My file bulged with weird words.

When I started my chapter book series (No More Nice, No More Nasty, Too Much Flapdoodle), I found the perfect use for them. I had created eccentric characters—Great Aunt Mattie and Great Uncle Philbert—and I wanted them to have distinct ways of speaking.  Mattie was somewhat refined, so I had her use my favorite archaic words, like Pecksniffian or rodomontade.  Philbert was a farmer, more earthy than Mattie,  so it was natural for him to use the old-fashioned Maine terms, like jizzicked.

Lastly I had Mattie and Philbert use some whimsical made-up words. Like Mattie, my mother used to greet her children each morning by asking “How does your corporosity seem to gashiate?” To which the answer was: “Very discombobulate, great congruity, dissimilarity.” I didn’t know what the words meant, it was just what you said in the morning. (Nor did I suspect that ours was the only family to greet each other this way.

   Favorite 5th grade words

Children, too, like words. Many children’s book writers are afraid to use language that is above grade level, but during school visits I’ve found that kids love the challenge of strange new words.  In fact, they liked the obscure words so much, they were doing things like searching dictionaries to find their own weird words (above).

The strange vocabulary did create some problems. I had to do battle with Flapdoodle copyeditors who insisted on changing downstreet into ‘down the street’ and putting a would in front of druther. I’ve also gotten lots of queries from readers about what the made up words mean (not to mention from the German translator having a, well, conniption, over how to translate gashiate). To all of whom I say: you’ll have to discombobulate an answer yourself.

Some favorites from Too Much Flapdoodle:

Flapdoodle: nonsense.

Fub: mess up or mess around.

Weewaw: crooked.

Muckle: grab.

Whiffet: a small, unimportant person.

Hole in the snow: worthless (like a hole created by, well, whatever).

Teakittle up: tidy up.

Gormy: slow-witted, clumsy.

As in: That gormy cuss has been fubbing around with my fence all morning  and it’s still weewaw. He’s a real hole in the snow. As for you, you young whiffet, cut out the flapdoodle, muckle onto that mop, and help me teakittle up.

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New Arts Integration Resource from the Kennedy Center

As a Teaching Artist for the Kennedy Center, I’m happy to let you all know that the Center has just launched a new online resource about arts integration. It draws on more than a decade of work clarifying arts integration principles and implementing best practices.

The ArtsEdge website explores the what and why of arts integration, gives examples of arts integration practices, provides a wide range of resources, and has  info about their arts integration program in schools, called CETA (Changing Education through the Arts).

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