Monthly Archives: March 2008

SMART LIST #11: Flights of Fancy

tuesday.jpgskybreaker.jpg amelia.jpg

I’m a nervous flyer, but give me a book about flight, and I’ll be happy for hours. So many wonderful flight-themed books have been written for kids, and the topic can be stretched in countless directions so it’s possible to match some form of flight story to just about any child. Think dragons, airships, famous pilots, inventors, kites, hot air balloons, WWII fighter planes. Teachers could easily create dynamite integrated units on flight, incorporating fiction and nonfiction works: science, history, poetry and fantasy.

So here’s a list of a bunch of my favourite flight books, a smattering of fiction and nonfiction, picture books and chapter books. There are some captivating adventures stories here, some imagined, some true:

Fiction – Chapter Books
Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space – Philip Reeve
and Skybreaker – Kenneth Oppel
Airman – Eoin Colfer
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment – James Patterson
Flight from Big Tangle – Anita Daher
The Desert Hawk: The Story of Stocky Edwards, WWII Flying Ace – Barbara Hehner
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik

Fiction – Picture Books
Wing Shop – Elvira Woodruff
Tuesday – David Wiesner
The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot – Alice & Martin Provensen

Non-Fiction – Picture Books
Kids’ Paper Airplane Book – Ken Blackburn
Animals in Flight – Robin Page
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride – Pam Munoz Ryan
Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot Air Balloon Ride – Marjorie Priceman
Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright – Mary Collins

Author Interview: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

514pfgzjejl_ss500_.jpg 41f7dtka99l_ss500_.jpg514pfgzjejl_ss500_.jpg

OK gang. You came to the right place today. I’ve got the best interview with Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen and The Off Season. On offer: a peek at her writing space (and her cat), the author she’s addicted to, and an actual snippet of her upcoming new title, Princess Ben. Onward!

What inspires you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?

Everything. I really do find all sorts of things inspirational, as in giving me ideas. I’m increasingly of the opinion that curiosity is one of the most important traits a writer can have. This got me in serious trouble in the past – as a kid I stuck my nose in everything – but wondering about things and people and how the world works certainly pays off in all sorts of ways.

In terms of inspiration with a capital I . . . hmm. Not sure. Although the promise of book tours (two weeks alone in hotel rooms? No refereeing children? Bliss!) can get me out of bed when nothing else will.

Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work. (Pictures also welcome!)

I work in many different places – God bless laptops, although I’ve been advised that an actual desk might help with the back issues. So here’s a picture of my office complete with the dangerously alluring guest bed and kitten Millie on my lap. And, yes, that’s a MacBook Air, which I raced out and purchased without an iota of guilt because I lug my laptop everywhere, and those back issues need all the help they can get.

I also work in the den, which truly is a place of loveliness in the winter because it’s the only warm room in the house. I’ve worked in hotel rooms (see above), airports, Starbucks, libraries . . . As long as the folks around me can control their imbecilic cell-phone conversations, I’m okay anywhere there’s heat.


Name 2 writers you admire – one writer for grown-ups, one writer for children / young adults.

Garth Nix, and Garth Nix. Last week a man I met in a bookstore said to me, rather plaintively, “I never meet Garth Nix fans; I just meet Garth Nix addicts.” Yep.

Given your comments in previous interviews, it sounds as if you actually like to read your own books and write them (imagine that!), and that you don’t find the writing life especially torturous. So what’s your secret to enjoying both the writing process and the result?

Yes, I really do enjoy writing, which is lovely, because it means I get paid to do what I adore. I think the most important “secret,” if you will, is never to look too far down the road. First ideas, then outline, then first draft, then revision, then readers’ comments, then second revision, then more comments, then third revision, then copy editing . . . I can’t tell you how many times I have said, aloud, as I stare at the computer screen and realize that a good 30% of the 50,000 words I’ve just composed will end up discarded, “Don’t think about that!” Because if I do, I’ll get so depressed that I’ll quit. There’s a description in Dairy Queen where D.J. describes bailing hay and how you can’t ever think about how much work you still have left . . . That came from life. From my life. And it applies to writing just as much as farm work.

I also truly enjoy editing, even more than writing, which makes me psychotic, I believe, or so I’ve been told by other writers. Perhaps it’s due to the fact I enjoy puzzles so much, because revising a manuscript is really solving a puzzle (the one I’m working on now, the third D.J. book, really was a puzzle – the document looked like a patchwork quilt for a while there as I moved all the different chunks around, I’m still amazed I didn’t accidentally delete it all). If I approach it as a puzzle, then it’s fun. If I say, “But I’ve worked so hard on this already,” then I might just as well go downstairs and play with the cats, because I sure won’t be getting anything done in the office.

Have you seen any movies lately with screenplays you wished you’d written?

Michael Clayton. That script was sheer brilliance. I’m still in awe. I also very much enjoyed Hot Fuzz, which is deliciously referential.

In one of the zillion interviews posted on your website, you wrote that grad school is the best method for destroying any love of reading. (Betcha you don’t even remember saying that!) I remember some exquisitely painful undergrad afternoons slogging my way through Clarissa or some similar Doorstop Classic. Are there any “important works of literature” that you feel very guilty about because you’ve never read them?

Oh, trust me, I very much remember saying that. And it’s true! As far as important books I’ve never read, I think it would be easier to list important books that I have because that list would be much, much shorter. Remember, I was never a lit person – I studied architectural history in college and American history in grad school, when I was supposed to read Moby Dick (skimmed it at best) and Last of the Mohicans (never opened it), but even those were to be analyzed historically rather than artistically. And these days I far prefer – can I stress how much I prefer? – children’s lit to grownup books, which I tend to find long-winded, depressing and lacking in resolution. This says an enormous amount about my emotional development and attention span.

What books do you wish you had not yet read, so that you could experience the pleasure of reading them now for the first time?

If I dwell too long on this, I’m sure I’ll get weepy . . . My kids are at great reading ages, 9 and 12, where they’re discovering so many amazing books, so the thrill of vicariously living their reading journeys is good enough. I paid my son $5 to read the first chapter of Watership Down, and $10 for the first chapter of Trickster’s Choice — he would never have touched them otherwise as they didn’t have boys with swords on the cover. Each time he’d then disappear for a week, emerging from his bedroom glassy-eyed to report on how good one particular scene was. (Did I not know this?) Last week my daughter read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, and we had a great conversation about important the book was to me when I was her age because it showed me what it feels like to be afraid of water (a completely foreign notion to the two of us).

In The Off Season, when a whole whack of things start to go wrong for D.J. and the Schwenk clan, she fights it all before realizing that some things are beyond her power to control. D.J. discovers that while she might never have chosen the journey she’s on, she can choose how she behaves in her situation. Do you believe that things happen for a reason in life, that life leads us towards experiences through which we learn and change?

Oooh, big question. I guess I would say that while I don’t believe things happen for any specific reason, I believe it’s immensely important to ponder well each fork in the road. In other words, yes, life very much leads us toward experiences that change and educate us, but we are our own masters. Which is very sobering but also very empowering.

D.J. learns a lot of tough life lessons in The Off Season. What’s one lesson you wished you’d learned in high school that you now know?

Lemme get out my list . . . One of the big ones is that socially, high school is irrelevant to life. I suppose if I were in some Survivor episode, or worked in, I don’t know, fashion, all that backbiting and insecurity would relate to late adolescence, but out here in the real world no one cares what your shoes look like, not enough to gossip about it behind your back. If they ever in fact even did.

(Spoiler Alert!)
At the end of the story, D.J. thinks about the kind of guy she deserves to be with. She wants someone who acts with integrity in tough situations. If you were going to set D.J. up with a character from another book, who would you choose for her, and why?

Another good question. I’d originally envisioned D.J. ending up with Aaron, but then I realized how weird it would be from his perspective, to be a college sophomore – an important football player at that – dating a high school student. Even though we all know she’s worth it, it would still look inappropriate. Whoever D.J. ends up with, he has to make her feel good about herself. That’s the main thing, that all of us need.

Genie in a bottle time. You get 3 wishes (but not all for you):
a) What would be your wish for yourself?
b) What would D.J. wish for herself?
c) What would be your wish for D.J.?

Hmm. I don’t have much to wish for personally – that’s always dangerous – but I have some strong views on the ’08 election. Let’s just hope the majority of voters agree with me. Given her insecurities, I have a feeling D.J. would wish that she survives college classwork. I’m much more interested in her finding a guy who’s worthy.

Dairy Queen takes a good look at communication, in families and relationships. You show how the Schwenks become better communicators. Part of the reason why D.J is attracted to Brian is his ability to express his feelings with openness. In The Off Season, you take the theme of communication in new directions. Could you explain how communication features in this book, specifically as it relates to D.J.’s growth as a character?

It’s always so interesting when someone discusses my books. It’s like living in a house for years only to have a guest mention the view of the firehouse from the kitchen window – holy cow, you can see the firehouse from the kitchen?

In other words, I haven’t really given communication in The Off Season that much thought, not like I did in the first book. But you’re absolutely correct, communication does matter. There’s no way that D.J. could have initiated so many important conversations near the end of the book without having grown up so much. I’d say that in Dairy Queen D.J. learns that communication matters, and in The Off Season she learns to have faith in her own communication ability.

Give readers a teaser for your Spring-release book, Princess Ben.

Love to! This ships in April, by the way. This scene is from fairly late in the book – normally I don’t like to give so much away, but I just adore this conversation.

Across the room, Queen Sophia was observing me closely; if nothing else, I must do her proud. Suppressing a groan of frustration, I assembled my questions, formulated this afternoon, on the proper cultivation of fruit trees. The king led me to the center of the dance floor. He bowed; I curtsied; we began.

“Sophia is a most handsome and capable woman.” Renaldo said. He must have witnessed our wordless interaction.

“Indeed she has every possible attribute a woman of her position could require.”

“And several more. She is, I have heard, quite adept at military architecture.”

This feint caught me quite by surprise, and for a moment I could manage only a laugh. “Is not the fairer sex best equipped to recognize the harmonious union of esthetics and practicality?” I considered this response quite brilliant, particularly as it neither confirmed nor denied his statement.

“So, you believe fortifications to have an inherent beauty?”

“Certainly – when they succeed.” I paused long enough to allow this jab to sink in. “Of course, even their failure would not faze our queen. Were the castle under attack and without defenders, she would yet stand on the ramparts launching arrows at her foes.”

“And you, Princess, where might you be found? In your chambers attending your needlework?”

“Oh, I have no skill whatsoever with a needle! No, without a doubt you would find me at her side, boiling oil.” I smiled sweetly, revealing the teeth behind my lips. “But such talk of warfare has no place here. Tell me, your majesty, do you happen to know if a plum when intended to become a prune is left on the vine or plucked ripe?”

If you could be amazingly good at something in addition to writing (which would be totally unfair BTW), what would it be?

Healing. I would definitely want to be good at healing. In fact, I’d be tempted to exchange completely writing prowess for the ability to repair my own cartilage.

Did I lie? Was that not a completely lovely interview? Thanks so much to Catherine for her brilliant answers, and for agreeing to hang out a while here at Shelf Elf. It was a treat. Visit Catherine’s website to find out anything and everything else about her and her books. Oh, and introduce D.J. Schwenk to everyone you know.

Poetry Friday: Behind the Museum Door


I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to museums. I love wandering and looking and wondering. I could spend days in the right museum. I think my fascination lies in the fact that museums are full of stories, real adventures and histories and endless possibility for invented tales of mystery.

I was not a museum-lover as a kid. In fact, show me the kid who really and truly loves a day at a museum with mom and dad, who would choose it above a visit to a theme park, a movie theatre or even a science centre. When we were in Paris last summer, I joked that we could find our way to the Louvre from anywhere just by following the sounds of screaming children.

And yet so many gorgeous and inspiring children’s books have been written about museums. Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonders of Museums is one of them. This collection offers poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, and there are some impressive names here: Jane Yolen, Myra Cohn Livingston, Kristine O’Connell George. Lots of the poems will urge children to think about the secrets from the past locked inside artifacts. Stacey Dressen-McQueen’s illustrations are striking – warm and full of fun and very much focused on children. They blend beautifully with each poem.

My favourite poem is The Moccasins by Kristine O’Connell George. I’ve always loved to imagine the person connected to an ancient artifact, and somehow, shoes are objects that beg you to think about the long-gone wearer. I just visited Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum this week, and they have a whole exhibit devoted to Native North American footwear that is breathtaking. Here’s a bit of The Moccasins:

A pair of tiny moccasins
standing in a neat straight line,
standing quietly behind glass.
On display, a child’s small shoes,
buffalo hide, beaten soft,
faded brown, a whisper of dust.

Once, one fell off when she ran,
she tucked them under her arm
when she waded in the stream.
She curled her toes up inside
when she crouched to see what was
inside a ground squirrel’s hole…

Wow. Now I have this idea to take my students to the shoe museum and get them to write a poem about a pair of shoes and the person they imagine might have worn them. I think Behind the Museum Door is one way to help kids connect more personally to the museum experience. More looking and wondering, less wailing.

Cicada Summer


Andrea Beaty’s first Middle Grade novel, Cicada Summer, is sure to please many young readers. It seems just the right book for girls who may not yet be convinced they are great readers, and at the same time, the story has enough depth to hook serious bookworms too.

Lily is crazy about Nancy Drew and fancies herself quite the sleuth in her tiny hometown. She secrets away all of the Nancy Drew mysteries from her school library, keeping them in “protective custody” to read late at night when the mood strikes her. In fact, secrets are Lily’s specialty. She has been working on keeping a big secret for some time, and is doing a pretty good job of it until sneaky, not-very-nice-at-all Tinny Bridges shows up in Olena. Tinny makes trouble wherever she goes, and it seems that Lily’s the only one to notice. Two mystery threads run through this book, one related to Lily’s past and the other to Tinny’s. As the summer passes, both girls find that what’s in the past sometimes has a way of creeping into the present.

So there’s some good mystery here. A little humour. Broken and on-the-way-to-mending hearts. Some great girl gumption. I was reminded of Deborah Wiles and Joan Bauer’s books because of the homey tone and atmosphere, the quiet lessons learned, and the quirky small-town characters. I suppose you could say that a read-alike might be Each Little Bird that Sings. Cicada Summer is a story about the choices kids make, and how those choices can create powerful changes in many lives – good and bad.

One eensy quibble/idea. I felt this book needed a recipe in it. I can’t really explain why. Perhaps it was Beaty’s convincing evocation of a sweltering summer that made me want to find a Lemonade recipe tucked in the back of the book. How ’bout Old Lady Blackberry Cobbler?  Cream Soda Floats?  (I wonder if I could find work as a story recipe consultant? There’s a dream job…) I picture Cicada Summer in the hands of many hammock-bound children this summer, and a tall stack of Nancy Drews within easy reach.

Cicada Summer is available May 2008.



If you don’t like East, I’ll have to recommend you get your head examined. Epic journey. Romance. Magical artistry. Dangerous enchantments. Betrayal. Yum.

This is one absorbing read. I’m always skeptical when I see the words “saga,” “epic” and the like used to describe a book (especially when they’re tossed around on the front cover). Right there, my expectations get jacked up, and rarely does the book meet them. Not so with East. Pattou based her novel on the gorgeous Norwegian fairy tale, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” For those unfamiliar with the story, run out and get the version with P.J. Lynch’s awesome illustrations. This was one of my favorite books when I was about 10 years old. I used to go downstairs to my bookshelf in our basement and read it in a secret sort of fashion, feeling that I was really too grown up to still be enjoying a fairy tale picture book. It only took a moment after I opened the cover for me to forget my shy embarrassment, as I was drawn into the wild, cold, romantic world of the white bear and the farmer’s lass. (Sigh) So I wasn’t sure how East could possibly measure up. It did.

I think that I enjoyed Pattou’s book so much because it stayed true to the tale I loved as a girl. Rose, the youngest daughter of a struggling farmer, is given the opportunity to rescue her starving family when one evening, a giant white bear comes to her home and offers health and prosperity to the family in exchange for the girl. Rose agrees and travels with the bear to a distant, mysterious castle within a mountainside. She finds in this journey a destiny far beyond her wildest imaginings. Pattou offers a fairly straight up retelling of the fairy tale, adding elements that enhance the richness of an already satisfying story. For instance, the history and art of mapmaking as well as the symbol of the compass rose are important threads in the story, and Pattou develops these elements in a way that begs readers to learn more about these fascinating subjects. This is a fantasy that you will sink down into and sigh over when you’re finished. Promise.

So here’s the plan. If you know a girl, say about 8 or 9, buy her this book:


And you might consider pairing it up with this:

(Mapping the World by Sylvia Johnson)

Then when she’s about 14 or so, she’ll be all set for East – and she won’t be disappointed.

Book & Weather Pairing

Everyone knows about the fine art of Food & Wine Pairing, yes? (Matching just the right wine to a particular meal, to bring out and improve the flavors of both).

So how about Book & Weather Pairings? Today, it looks like this in my corner of the world (except even whiter):

And I am reading this:


Now all I need is a great white teddy bear to snuggle up with (and a groovy cloak).

(photo © ComputerHotline for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)

Raising a Foodie Through Reading: My A to Z Recipe Box

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by my Granny’s recipe folder. Her beautiful, spidery handwriting and strangely perfect printing led me through such 1950s treasures as: 7-layer bars, Six-in-a-pan and Orange-glazed sponge cake. There were clippings from magazines and recipes from friends written on scraps and notecards, and every so often, a strangely cryptic note that said something like,”1 can tomato soup, ground beef, lettuce.” During one summer when I was 13 or so, after my Granny had passed away, I spent days writing all of the recipes in her collection into one recipe book in my girlish script. It is one of my mom’s most precious possessions.

I would have gone crazy for this fantastic little box of recipes when I was starting off as a cook: My A to Z Recipe Box by Hilary Karmilowicz. Just check it out:


Karmilowicz is a former chef from Manhattan and now she teaches cooking to kids and adults, so she knows what works in the kitchen with little guys. First of all, what kid doesn’t love things organized in alphabetical order? I would have whipped these cards out of that box in a heartbeat and then put them all back in again, one by one. (Ah, the obsessive organization begins early, doesn’t it?) Second, I like how each card is set up in 3 stages: Stop, Look, and Cook. This helps the kids to practice the planning and reading involved in cooking. Finally, did you notice who illustrates? MELISSA SWEET! Melissa Sweet rocks! She is the most beautiful illustrator – whimsical and homey and wonderful. Forget the recipes, you want this little box of delights for all of the illustrations. Of course, I love that the box comes with blank cards so that the kids/cheflets can build and add their own recipes. Guess I know what my niece is getting for her 4th birthday!

Poetry Friday: Love that Dog


Love this book.  (I actually hugged it when I pulled it from the bookshelf this morning).

Makes me want a yellow dog to go with my red one. 

Makes me cry.

Makes me smile.

Makes me want to teach poetry to small children who have pets.

My yellow dog
followed me everywhere
every which way I turned
he was there
wagging his tail
and slobber
coming out
of his mouth
when he was smiling
at me
all the time
as if he was
thank you thank you thank you
for choosing me
and jumping up on me
his shaggy straggly paws
on my chest
like he was trying
to hug the insides
right out of me

Note to self: Sharon Creech deserves her very own shelf in my home library (not for Sharon… for her books).

The Off Season


I’m beginning to feel like I’m really a YA lit blog pretending to be a general kidslit blog. For someone who used to read very little in the YA department, 2008 is proving to be a YA-rich year thus far. And if I keep finding teen titles as jaw-droppingly good as Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Off Season, I don’t imagine my YA kick will end any time soon.

When I read a book I love as much as I love The Off Season, I am almost reluctant to write about it at all, because nothing I write ever captures how completely satisfied I am with that particular book’s wonders. It seems enough to just say, “Go out there. Buy this book. Read it.” The Off Season will more than speak for itself, but I do have a few gushy things to mention. For those of you who’ve been living on a submarine for the past while, Murdock is the author of Dairy Queen, in which the story of the D.J. Schwenk, farm girl and football player extraordinaire, begins. Murdock won the 2006 Borders Original Voices Award for this debut, and you should most definitely begin there as The Off Season picks up right where Dairy Queen ends.

When the story starts, everything is looking good for D.J. Schwenk. She is the first girl linebacker in the history of Red Bend (and perhaps even Wisconsin). She has a sort-of boyfriend (who happens to play for the rival football team – but you can’t have everything). Her family is a bit bonkers, but that’s only normal. She and her best friend Amber seem to be figuring out where their friendship is headed. Then, ever-so-gradually, in the way that so often happens, everything starts crumbling all at once. The novel is mostly about how D.J. faces and grows through this intense period of change, when a lot of what she knows turns upside down. You will not be able to stop reading, and the reason? The voice.

In just about all of the reviews I’ve looked at, everyone mentions “the voice.” D.J. Schwenk is as real a character as you will find in any YA novel. You will feel that if you could just find the right small town, and the right family farm, you could easily find D.J. shooting hoops in the yard or heading out to the barn to get started on the milking. That’s how real her voice sounds. There is something deeply satisfying in reading a true character. This takes you away as much as (or more than) any escapist fiction ever can.

It’s also funny, in a more understated way than Dairy Queen. The whole Schwenk clan is a riot, though never ridiculous or purely comical. This book is about looking for a way to make sense of life when bad things happen, little and big. There’s so much you could dig into with a book group, or in the classroom: family responsibilities, the complexity of sibling relationships, first love, changing realities on family farms, honesty and secrecy in families, friendships and relationships…

So enough already. If you must, spend a minute or two more (but no longer) checking out a few more reviews of The Off Season. Then read it already.

Becky’s Book Reviews
Emily Reads
Jen Robinson