Monday, May 31, 2010

Object Lessons in Building Literacy - What to do, and what not to do. Part I

May has been an unbelievable Kansas-esque whirlwind for me. Like Dorothy, I have no flipping idea where I've been, and boy am I glad to be home. Back to back to back events did a number on my cosmic sense of time and place. I am only now, safely back in my comfy backyard chaise, remembering to blink on a regular basis.

The first half of May was dominated, for me, with events surrounding the Silver Birch Awards, an Ontario children's choice reading program for kids in grades 3-6. It's part of the umbrella program, the  Forest of Reading Awards, run by the Ontario Library Association.

The combined Forest of Reading programs reach readers from Kindergarten through adult, with selections chosen for reading level, quality, age appropriateness and variety. (Click here for deets of how it works) Only books pubbed in Canada qualify for inclusion in the program, but this is not a limitation; every year, the offerings are uniformly stellar, and are a powerful showcase for the talent that exists here in the Great North.

My 2009 book, The Insecto-Files, was featured in the non-fiction category this past year. What did this mean to me as an author?

First of all, with more than 57,000 kids participating in 2000-2010, the chances of my book actively being read soared as soon as the nominations are announced. From an underappreciated drone labouring in the anonymity of my basement, I became an instant celebrity. My inbox began filling up with requests for school visits (I did well over 100 last year, and probably a similar number this year, but haven't counted 'em yet!).

Another great result was that my bank account began filling up with royalties, because a nomination for this prestigious award boosts sales *significantly.* In other words, authors whose books get the first nod for the shortlist get to eat for a year.

The best part, though, came in the spring when I got to go to kazillions of schools and  meet with kazillions of my readers. As has happened in the past, I was shocked by how influential a "real author" can be on young people. They listen to my trite words (reading is the true superpower! believe in yourself and you can do anything! If my dreams can come true, so can yours!) as if they come directly from the mouth of the Almighty. I'm a Role Model! A Star! A Good Influence! Who would have thunk it? (Mom - check it out!)

I have also been able to see firsthand how a well-designed and well-run reading program can turn non-readers into readers, and turn book-likers into passionate book lovers. Kids DO read, and enjoy it, but like that field of dreams, you got to build it first before they can come. A program like Silver Birch is the true field of dreams, and anyone who cares about literacy really will take note and recreate this program in other places. It's simple, people! Show kids that reading matters, make it fun, make books available to them, and they will fall in love with the art of the word. It won't even cost a fortune. 

The highlights of the program are the various award ceremonies that take place during Children's Book Week in May. The "official" award ceremony, held annually at Harbourfront in Toronto, attracts 1500 kids to each of the Forest of Reading presentations. They scream, they wave banners, they have a blast. They learn that loving books is cool, is fun, is natural, because look how many of their peers do it too! Thousands!!!

Left: At the 2006 Harbourfront Award ceremony, where Boredom Blasters, won in the non-fiction category.

Participating in the program really is rewarding, because who wouldn't find an all-day party that gets you out of the classroom a terrific reward? The only downside to the Harbourfront event is it no longer has the capacity for all of the would-be attendees.

To make up for the space shortage, school boards across the province have organized their ow awards day events, for kids in their districts who can't get to Harbourfront. This year, I attended spin-off award ceremonies in the Niagara region, Aurora region, Uxbridge region and Peel region. I had to pass on Durham region's great event because of a time conflict, but have attended that one in the past.

                                                                           Above: At Niagara's Silver Birch Day, where I gave the keynote address
                                                                           and presented two hands-on writing workshops. Over 700 kids
                                                                           enjoyed the event.

All the satellite events are just as good, if not better, than the bigmama event downtown. Each hosts several hundred - or several thousand - attendees! There's great entertainment, food, and most importantly, authors galore to sign books, present, and answer questions. In Uxbridge, kids dressed up as characters or symbols from a variety of my books and presented a little skit about me.

Left:At the Uxbridge event, kids presented a skit about yours truly! Here I am with my actors. Notice the butterfly who portrayed The Insectofiles,  the scientist who represented Science on the Loose, and the spy who depicted Secret Agent Y.O.U., which won the award in 2008.

I've got to say that my favorite event of them all, though, is the one put on by the Peel Board of Education in Mississauga. They fill a STADIUM with 3-5000 kids and put on a show like you wouldn't believe!!!

This year, more than 3000 kids enjoyed step dancing shows, hip hop performances, and comedy in an all-out extravaganza that can't help but drive home the literacy message. Reading rocks, for sure, and rocks HARD.

Above left: Who doesn't love a book-shaped cake? Above right: a view over the audience toward's the day's end, when everyone was wiped. In the center is author Harry Endrulet, who wrote the very moving picture book A Bear in War.

All in all, the Forest of Reading program is a model of how to encourage literacy. It's proof of the magic that can happen when educators, librarians and individuals get it right.

How to get it wrong, however, seems to be both easier and more pervasive. To find out about that, you'll have to refer to my next post: Object Lessons in Building Literacy, part II: What Not To Do - the truly Scary Story.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Great Review for The Quiz Books for Boys!

This is exciting - at least for me. :) A mother-son reviewing team at Good Reads gave my Quiz Book  five twinkling stars!
Here's what Jennifer and Jake had to say about the book:

"Read in April, 2010

Jake's Review: Mom, you are not going to donate this one to the Spina Bifida raffle are you, because I really like it -- and I broke the spine anyway (yup my 8yr old IS trained to be careful with books, much to book hating hubby's dismay) I can't wait to do these quiz's with all my friends at school. Some of the quiz's were weird, but I still liked them. This would be a great book for a long car ride instead of those stupid word games you make me play. Are there any more books by this author?

Rating: 10/10

Mom's Review: The whole family had so much fun with this one -- well except for Jesse - who just wanted to eat it. The quiz's are short and fun to do and in many cases made us laugh our butts off. It actually took a long time to get Jake's opinion on it, because he just kept wanting to do the quiz's with us, instead of telling me what he though of it. I love this author's work, because she truly understands what boys are like and what makes them interested in reading. BTW, the quiz's are fun for GIRLS too, thank you very much! Jake told me I liked it because I was a mom and not really a girl -- I think that was a compliment. My only complaint is that I would have liked it to be bigger, with far more quiz's to keep my boys entertained. What was really nice about this type of book is that Dad gets involved too.

Mom's Rating: 9/10

If you want to check out a sample quiz, here's one for your enjoyment: What Kind of Cheese Are You?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Porcupine in a Pine Tree?

Keep your %^&* partridges. In Canada, we have porcupines. And moose. And beavers and Mounties and Tim Hortons doughnuts and hockey.

Which is why I wrote  A Porcupine in a Pine Tree: A Canadian Twelve Days of Christmas.

Award-winning illustrator Werner Zimmermann did the pics, and boy are they great. FUUUUNNNNY! Expect to see Beavers juggling Stanley Cups and Red Squirrels juggling Maple Leafs. Yes, there are loons too.

I can't wait to get my author's copies, sometime in August, when the book will be available in stores across Canada (as will my Halloweenie book, The Haunted House that Jack Built).

Two guesses what everyone I know will be finding under their tree in 2010!

I want my own Action Figure Writer Doll with Book-Throwing Action.

After all, it's not that often that a "product" so matches my desires and inclinations. I don't want a swiffer, or the latest stilleto gladiator slave sandals. I  don't want pink ruffled undies that itch and creep to wear while pole dancing in my bedroom, no matter who thinks they're both a good idea.

But I DO want intelligent feminist, book throwing dolls that have laser vision and transform into mega-dinos.

So marketers, take note! I will not buy your stupid slap chop. I will not buy your stupid old-lady flowery bathing suits. I will not buy your tacky gnome lawn ornaments or a fancifully patterned dustpan or your beyond stupid giant SUV. But I will shell out cold hard cash for these - and would love to see this ad run during the superbowl.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hear me, Hear me!

Usually you don't have to try very hard, since I have such a big mouth. But that's the subject for another post.

Today's post gives you the op to hear me articulating my very own name in my dulcet tones.

Listen to it now!

Now wasn't that fun?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Courage and Writing

You need courage if you want to be a writer.

Then again, you need courage if you want to be a human being.

It only seems easier to cave in, lie low, go along with the crowd.

But remember back in junior high when you tried that?

They still didn't like you, did they? Even when you twisted yourself into The Human Pretzel to try and fit in. Real friendships only came about when you took off the salt-speckled mask and showed yourself.

So that's the life lesson of grade 8 - you can't hide. Not for long, any way. Otherwise the boogeyman comes to get you. As self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-delusion.

Or maybe you'll just get beaten up behind the school parking lot.

Given the choices, you might as well step up. Figure out who the heck you are, what you like and dislike, what you stand for. Then own up to it.

You might still get beaten up at the back of the schoolyard, but at least it won't be for being a phony pretender wuss.

Being yourself saves a ton of energy. You can then use that energy to bolster your courage when you need it. Like when you decide to become a writer.

Because putting yourself out there, totally naked on the page, is not for the faint-hearted.

And looking for a publisher is not for the thin-skinned.

You need mental toughness. Resilience. Utter disdain for the laws of probability. And disdain for the disdain of others.

That takes courage.

Courage, however, is completely "uncool."

It presupposes commitment and engagement, then tosses in a headlong, screaming dive into catastrophe.

Courage will undoubtedly leave you looking foolish. So very, very uncool, that.

Courage will undoubtedly make you enemies. Bullies, after all, hate people that push back.

But if you become a writer with courage, your words will sear the page with truth.

With courage, you will say what needs to be said, and the intensity of your voice will force people to listen.

Through courage, you may discover the gift of difference-making. You will just, maybe, become the one to repair your small, broken corner of the world.

And you will truly be a writer.

Because: Science!