“This Is Not My Hat” Wins the 2013 Caldecott Medal

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A couple of years ago, I was going about my Sunday chores and listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.  A writer of children’s books myself and a lover of children’s literature in general, my ears always perk up when Daniel Pinkwater comes on the show to discuss a new children’s book.  The one he selected for this program was I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

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I was captivated by the deceptively simple story and delighted in Simon and Pinkwater’s animated reading of the book and their descriptions of Klaussen’s illustrations.  It seemed to me to strike the right balance of humor and a bit of angst, just right for the 4-to-8 year old set.  (You can listen to that broadcast here.)

Of course, I wasn’t alone in my delight. Klaussen’s book went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller, winning a place on its list of “Best Books of 2011, and also nabbing the Theodore Geisel Honor (Dr. Seuss) that same year as well.

This year, Klaussen followed his runaway hit with This Is Not My Hat, and again found popular and critical success, ultimately winning the Caldecott Award, the highest honor for an illustrated children’s book.  In this story, a tiny fish comes upon a round top hat which fits him perfectly…and all will be well, unless the enormous fish to whom it belongs wakes up.

Hats and children’s books have a long history.  Here are some examples which you might also recall fondly:

Read the rest of this entry »


Remembering Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Oscar Hijuelos, Dead at 62

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“Oh yes!…The sweet summons of God to man.  That’s when He calls you up to His arms.  And it’s the most beautiful thing, a rebirth, a new life.  But, just the same I’m in no rush to find out.” ― Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love , died yesterday of a heart attack while playing tennis, according to his agent, Jennifer Lyons.  Hijuleos was 62.

Hijuelos was the first Latino writer to be awarded the coveted prize.  The novel traces the journey of two Cuban brothers who leave Havana for a life in New York to pursue a career in music. In 1992, the novel was adapted into a film starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.

Although the Pulitzer brought the author fame, it also brought hardships.  Hijuelos felt labeled as an “ethnic” writer.   In an interview on NPR’s Newshour in 2011, Hijuelos  discussed his memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes.  He told interviewer Ray Suarez that he

 sometimes felt like a freak, simply because the level of my success and traveling around the world as — quote — “a Latino writer” as much as anything, was sort of wonderful and also very strange for me at the same time, because, indeed, I’m — I came up as but one version of many potential versions of Latinos that there could be.

And I have never — as I say in the memoir, I have never intended to represent myself as a spokesman for anybody but myself. And yet I would be in a roundtable in Sweden, in Stockholm, Sweden, at a live television show, and the host would come on and look around trying to figure out who the Latino guy was in the group. That kind of thing was both interesting and alarming at the same time.

Here is the complete interview. Rest in Peace, Mr. Hijuelos.


Should Everyone Go to College? New Studies Suggest the Answer is… Probably Not

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I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on my commute to go teach my classes this morning. Diane’s guests were Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institue, Nina Marks of Collegiate Directions Inc, and Robert Lerman, professor of economics at American University.

I wasn’t surprised that the answer to the question, “Should everyone go to college?” seemed to be a qualified no. I have been a community college professor for more than a decade.  Please don’t misunderstand. I believe anyone who wants an education should  pursue one. But I also see many incredibly gifted students who have skills that they are actively discouraged from mastering because they are supposed to have a Bachelor’s degree.  I see young people who have no real interest or desire to stay in school another four years who are miserable and many who are racking up debt when they could be doing something they enjoy, avoiding debt, and making money.

The reasons many students embark on a college career is that society expects them to do so. High schools now are heavily invested in Advanced Placement classes; this push to be “college ready” actually begins in middle school, where Pre-AP classes are not the exception, but the rule. Gone, for the most part, are offerings that used to be alternatives in high school electives, like shop classes. One of Diane’s guests remarked that kids go to college because they have no idea what else to do. They know simply having a high school diploma is not enough so they enroll in community colleges or universities, with no clear idea why or what they truly want to do with their lives.

Of course, not being sure about one’s career path in their late teens or early 20s is not unusual, but some students never settle on a true choice and a fair percentage drop out by their junior year. Now they have little to show for their efforts (“some college” doesn’t say much to a potential employer) and most have debt to boot. Ironically, trades in this country, like welders, mechanics, and plumbers, are sorely lacking skilled people yet we continue to insist that everyone go to college.

So why do so many still go? Statistics like this are indeed compelling:

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Well, because most kids haven’t taken statistics yet, they are blinded by that number at the end. But what they miss is that key, determining word… “AVERAGE.” Many of us, (and I have far more than a BA), earn FAR LESS.  Three factors, studies show, greatly affect on what end of that average you will be: school selectivity, college major, and graduation rate.

If you do decide to go to college, considering what to major in ought to be a part of your process. For me, I love literature and writing and I wholeheartedly pursued advanced degrees in those fields. But now… well, I do not regret for a minute what I learned BUT I do wish I had pursued something with higher earnings potential that would allow me more free time to indulge my passion rather than being dependent on it. Ya feel me?

So take a look at this, The Cold Hard Facts.

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I wonder if it’s too late for me to become a plumber. I’ve got the perfect pair of pants…


Letters to Juliet: A Project of Love for the Lovelorn

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One of my favorite things that has been going around the internet for some time is the EMO person who posted, “What if he’s your Romeo, but you’re not his Juliet?” The lightning-fast response was, “That means you’re his Rosaline and you survive the friggin’ play.”

Despite the reality of what happens to the “star cross’d lovers,” the persistence in thinking of them as the romantic ideal lives on.

See?

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Most people, even those who have never read or seen the play, are more likely to conjure up this image, or something close to it, than gruesome deaths:

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I didn’t know, however, until I heard a story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday, that men (mostly, I guess) have been penning letters to Juliet for centuries.  Initially, shortly after the play’s performances, people left notes at what was thought to be her tomb. The numbers of letters left became so great that the post office of Verona established a special office to handle the volume. 

The remarkable thing about the letters left for Juliet is that she actually answers. Well, understudies for Juliet do. Dozens of volunteers in Verona, who call themselves “The Juliet Club” answer, by hand, each of the 6,000+ letters addressed to Shakespeare’s heroine each year.  All of the letters are retained in a massive archive, to which more letters are regularly added.

The job must be tough but many of the volunteers have been at it for ten and twenty years, some even longer. What do they say to these heartbroken people? Here is one of their answers to someone who was driving herself crazy asking, “What if?”

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if? I don’t know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it’s never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn’t it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart. I don’t know what a love like Juliet’s feels like – love to leave loved ones for, love to cross oceans for but I’d like to believe if I ever were to feel it, that I will have the courage to seize it. And, Claire, if you didn’t, I hope one day that you will. All my love, Juliet”

You can read more about the long history of the Juliet Project in Lise Friedman’s study,  Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love


Woody Guthrie’s Posthumous Novel, “House of Earth” Finally Published

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What do Woody Guthrie, Johnny Depp, and historian Douglas Brinkley all have in common? Guthrie’s only known novel, House of Earth. Brinkley, in one of those moments of discovery that scholars live for, stumbled across a reference to the work while doing some research. He, along with Guthrie’s daughter Nora, were the first to read the unpublished novel. The manuscript was taken to Brinkley’s friend and publishing partner, the actor Johnny Depp, who has created the new imprint “Infinitum Nihil” at HarperCollins.

Guthrie wrote the the novel in 1947, when he was very well known, so it may seem surprising that his novel remained tucked away for 66 years. There are probably a couple reasons the book was never published. First, as his daughter Nora was surprised to find, there is some sexually explicit material, quite racy for its day, as Nora remembered to Lynn Neary on NPR’s Morning Edition“The opening chapter was so sexy,” she said, laughing. “I just went, whoa, Dad, where are you going with this?”

The other reason Guthrie likely could not find a publisher is because of the political climate of the time. The “Red Scare” was in full force and the book,  “both a love story and a polemic against the bankers and businessmen [whom] Guthrie blamed for keeping the poor, poor” was not a message that would find a buyer.

These themes appear in some fashion in all of Guthrie’s vast repertoire of songs, including the much-beloved, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” While many people happily sing along with its patriotic message, many express surprise when they truly read the lyrics and understand some of its subversive content:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

“Woody believed that the people that lived on the land should own the land,” says Brinkley. “So he was outraged at what bankers were doing, and when people were struggling and they couldn’t pay rents and were being forced off the land. And so ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and House of Earth are both aimed at people being able to say if you grew up on a property it should be yours, and you should be able to live on it.”


		

Shakespeare? It’s in the DNA

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Are you old enough to remember when floppy disks were actually floppy? Or maybe when disks were 3″ wide? (Yes, kids, that’s what that little icon to “save” your work to your hard drives and flash drives represents, a hard little disk that held approximately two Word files or a half a dozen pictures (but not at the same time).

Maybe you think data storage has reached its pinnacle. It is rather startling to realize you carry more technology in your pocket on your smart phone than was available for the moon landing (but with considerably less LOL cats).  But when you understand that there is now over one trillion gigabytes of information in the world, not even the iPhone 204 can keep up with that pace. (Here’s what 10 trillion gigabytes looks like in numbers: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000…. ten plus twenty one zeroes).

Every method of storage we have thus far employed has had long-term storage problems. CDs and DVDs scratch and wear out, as do magnetic tapes. But what about DNA, nature’s storage system? DNA is compact and durable. We can extract DNA information from bones that are millions of years old.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually science-in-action. Nick Goldman heads up a research team at European Bioinformatics Institute in the U.K. Goldman and his fellow scientists are studying DNA data storage and Goldman has written a paper on the process which appeared  in the journal Nature last week.

In an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s “Science Friday,” Goldman explains that DNA utilizes a storage system much like computers use ones and zeroes so “[w]e wrote a computer program that embodied a code that would convert the zeros and ones from a hard disk drive into the letters that we use to represent DNA, and then we – our collaborators in California  – were able to actually synthesize physical DNA.”

Once the scientists realized this was possible, they decided what they would first try to encode and store:

[W]e chose a photograph of our own institute because we’re sort of self-publicists at heart, I guess, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream,” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a PDF that contained in fact the paper, the scientific paper by Watson and Crick that first described the structure of DNA itself.

All of this information, Golman says, is saved  on the equivalent of a speck of dust. How large of an area would contain all 10 trillion gigabytes of the world’s information? It would “fit in the back of a station wagon.”


Young Adult Classics “The Giver” and “Tiger Eyes” as Major Motion Pictures

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There is good news for young adults (and parents) who are tired of lifeless, often commercially-oriented films. Two classic novels for young people, Lois Lowry’s The Giver  is in production and Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes was released in 2012.

Winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, Lowry’s The Giver is often required reading in junior high and it is one novel that most students enthusiastically embrace.  Set in the future, Lowry’s riveting tale revolves around Jonas and his “community.”  When Jonas is selected to be the new “Receiver of Memories,” he discovers that the idealized life his community has created is horrific. Little by little, Jonas becomes increasingly aware that everyone he knows and loves, and everything he has been taught in his engineered, perfect world is evil.

For the film version, (the making of which has been rumored for some fifteen years) actor Jeff Bridges will play the lead. Auditions are still underway to fulfill the role of Jonas. You can listen to an interview with Lowry and the upcoming film based on her novel on NPR’s Studio 360 here.

(Have you been assigned The Giver in school or do you want to learn more? Here at eNotes, not only do we have a comprehensive study guide for the work, but also individual quizzes for each chapter of the novel!  Test your knowledge before your exam or just for fun!)

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Another  teen favorite which made its debut on the big screen recently is Judy Blume’s classic novel Tiger Eyes. Tiger Eyes is about  teenager Davey Wexler dealing with her father’s sudden and shocking death. Like all of Blume’s work, (which has won over ninety awards) the author treats real world concerns of teenagers with deftness but also includes her trademark humor which keeps even the most sensitive of topics from becoming overbearing.  Tiger Eyes was released in April 2012. You can listen to an interview with Blume on NPR’s Think with Krys Boyd here.

Want to learn more about Tiger Eyes? Check out our study guide and stay tuned for upcoming chapter-by-chapter quizzes for the work!

Readers, what other Young Adult novels would you like to see given a cinematic treatment?


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