Friday, June 25, 2010

Magical review for Magic Up Your Sleeve!

I woke up this am to a CM magazine review, sent to me courtesy my fabulous Scholastic Canada editor, Jennifer Mackinnon. It gave Magic Up Your Sleeve four twinkling stars!!
Here's a snippet:

"If you know any budding prestidigitators, you’ll want to make sure that this fabulous new book by Helaine Becker appears in their hands as soon as possible. Because as fast as you can say abracadabra, they’ll be on their way to amusing you with new tricks, as well as amazing you with facts about the science behind the magic."

Read the whole review at CM Magazine on line!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yes, We're Airlifting Books to Needy School Libraries in L.A. - from Canada #airlifttoLA

 Good morning!

I’m so excited to tell you about a project I’ve been cooking up over the last week.

Many of you will know how passionate I am about the issue of school libraries, and how poorly funded and staffed they are across North America. During a recent trip to Southern California, I was completely shocked by how bad the situation was there. 

A shelf marked "scary stories" in
Cesar Chavez Elementary School's library

Yes, we have problems here in Canada, but the way US schools are funded, through property taxes, makes the situation in poor school districts exponentially worse. In schools in Long Beach, for example, library shelves were literally empty. Teacher-librarians are stretched past the breaking point.

I had organized a  mini, ad hoc book drive while I was there to get books from more affluent communities into those schools. In a few days, we collected about 650 books; these were distributed on the last day of school to kids at Barton Elementary in Long Beach. Most of the books went on the shelves, and the ones that were not up to scratch but which were still good were given out to the kids themselves to take home. I have some lovely pics of the kids receiving the books; I’m waiting for the librarian's ok before I post them here on my blog. They are so moving, I tear up whenever I think about them.

I described this event to my friend Nancy at our recent book club dinner. She said in passing, “you should airlift them books from Canada. That might embarrass them into action….”


Well, guess what. That’s EXACTLY what we’re going to do.

I connected with some wonderful can-do folks while in California. One, Sandra Tsing-Loh, is a NPR columnist and local celebrity in the LA area.

She is well known for being a huge supporter of public education. and yeah, she's absolutely hilarious as well.

My other new partner in crime, Rebecca Constantino,  is a real angel. Oprah even says so! (See the video, below) She even got the big bucks for doing good works on Oprah's TV show Oprah's Angels.

Rebecca is the founder of Access Books, which organizes book drives and funding for underserviced school libraries.

Together, we developed a plan to arrange and promote a book drop into a needy LA area school---with books coming from Canadian authors.

Why should we – and by the word 'we,' here, I mean Canadian kids' authors and supporters of Canadian literature – participate in this project? i.e., why should You?????

Here’s my thinking:

1. Because there are kids that need books. Period.

2. But Helaine! Aren’t there kids who need books closer to home? Yes. Of course. But by sending books to LA, we can get LOTS of publicity for the dire straits school libraries are in. Rebecca has appeared on Oprah, on NBC, and has had tea at the White House with Laura Bush (whom she asked why W wasn't sent to another bedroom for what’s been allowed to happen in US school libraries). My hope and expectation is that this story will get picked up by major news outlets across the hemisphere.

3. We can also get lots of publicity for us, for Canada, for Canadian children’s authors, and Canadian children’s publishers. In Canada and outside of Canada. I will be writing a press release that will go out all across North America (and Sandra and Rebecca will write their own, with slightly different slants) that will present our points of view and list all of the contributing author’s names, book titles contributed etc.

If you send me short snappy quotes about how you feel about this topic, I can include them in the release and maybe they’ll get included in articles that get written. You never know.

So now I know you want to join this project. Here’s what you need to do. It’s practically nothing!!!!

1. Choose a current Canadian book that’s in new or almost new condition and is appropriate for inclusion in a school library (up to high school).

2. Sign it (if you wrote it).

3. Take a digital photo of it before you mail it, or email me a picture of the cover. We will post this on the #airlifttoLA Facebook page.

3. Mail or drop off the book(s) to me. Email me at for delivery instructions.

4. Please mark the outside of the package with the genre of book – YA, Picture book, middle grade chap, nf, what have you. I’m going to pre-sort the books to make them easier to catalogue at the other end.


I know, that’s not a lot of time, but we have decided the best time to do this event is AUGUST 30, the first day of school in Compton, California, where the books are destined. We need to make sure the books have arrived in California for that date.

Please please please consider joining me in this endeavour.

Please forward this email, tweet, facebook update etc. to everyone you know who has an interest in books, equity, school libraries, literacy, reading, writing, children, education….Remember, the delivery of the books to needy kids is the #1 point. But point #1a is the publicity we can generate for the issue of school libraries in trouble. By sending books to LA, my hope is we can also help improve the situation right here in Canada.

Thanks in advance for your help!!!


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A funny thing happened to me on the way to my Presentation...

When you work with kids, you get used to the fact that pretty well anything can happen. If they don't like your shtick, they just lie down on the floor and go to sleep. Or, as one kid did last year at an otherwise  perfectly pleasant  public school, they shout out, "Booooo-ring!"  

I really enjoyed the time when I asked kids which country's scientists they thought might have conducted the fart experiment described in Science on the Loose. I got the answer, "Chile? Because they like beans?"

That stopped my act cold.

On my recent author tour in California, though, it was neither my own wit nor a kid's chutzpah  that brought the house down. It was the grade 6 teacher.

I often conclude my shows with a recital of "The Ode to Underwear," a real crowd pleaser. Since kids usually want to know why I write about such silly topics,  I introduce the poem with a fairly standard answer.

"Well, I think underwear is OVER-looked and UNDER-appreciated. My underwear, after all, is among my favorite things. I love mine so much, I never go anywhere without it!"

I sometimes then turn to the teacher in charge and ask, "Do you?"

The reply has always been a resounding, "Noooooo! Of course not!" or words to that effect.

Except this time.

When I asked the teacher - let's call him 'Peter' - if he ever went anywhere without his underwear, he opened his mouth to answer. Then he promptly closed it. And his face turned a brilliant shade of fuschia.

Clearly, Peter was not wearing any skivvies - and the mental image this revelation conjured up was not a pretty one! I promptly burst into fits of giggles, shocked and thrilled by this unexpectedly naughty knickers- twist to my routine.

I wasn't the only one. The grade 6 kids, all sharp as tacks, gasped as one. With eyes the size of Jupiter, their hands flew to their mouths to cover their horrified, delighted, unbelieving whoops of laughter.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the other teachers in the auditorium - there were more than 200 kids and at least 6 teachers -  turning their faces from their students and trying to suppress their own sniggers. But once the fifth-graders caught on and began laughing too, it was game over.

Mass hysteria ensued, and continued unabated for at least 5 solid minutes. Just when things would start settling down, a peal of giggles from a corner of the auditorium would set everyone else off again, over and over.

Finally, I caught my breath. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I read my now anti-climactic Ode.

I'm sure this one will go down in history as one of the funniest presentations ever, thanks to that painfully honest commando of the classroom. I imagine poor Peter will also be the "butt" of many jokes for years to come!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Open letter to the National Post update


Last week I sent a letter to Lorne Gunter, columnist for the National Post, on the subject of school librarians.

Today, a shortened version of the letter was printed on the Letters page. Amusingly, the print edition featured a giant pic of a school librarian, complete with middle aged hair and reading glasses. Not quite the look of the young, hip, tattooed and pierced librarians I know (ok, not all the librarians I know are pierced but they are still freedom fighters!).

But hey, I'm not complaining. Perhaps with this wee bit of attention, we can spark some wider support for school libraries across our fair land.

Friday, June 4, 2010

I'm kvelling. And blowing my big fat horn too.

You remember when Sally Fields accepted her oscar saying, "They like me! They really like me?"

I heard her loud and clear.

Many of us find it hard to believe that other people think we are ok. Good even. Forget about terrific.

I admit it - that's me. Which is why I'm a praise junkie. That's why I work so hard, trying to create something people will like enough to say, "Good on ya, girl!" Flatter me, and it will get you everywhere.

So when a little bit of praise came my self-doubting way, this morning, it was like the gates of heaven had opened up. Gladness, nay, euphoria, shone down upon little ol' me. For a few translucent moments, I felt worthy.

But then my kids kicked me to the curb ("right, mom, we know, they like you, they really like you" --they've heard this spiel before), and I returned to my normal self - obsessively-compulsively typing away, trying to keep from disappearing into my comfy, familiar pit of self-criticism.

So forgive my shamelessness in sharing with you the source of my ephemeral joy: a glowing reference letter from a satisfied customer at Niagara District School Board.  I presented the keynote speech at their Silver Birch festivities (see my earlier blogpost on the subject) last month.

Miracle of Miracles. They liked me! They really liked me!


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Deets from the Booklist on line review of Magic Up Your Sleeve!

Here's what Booklist says about my latest science book:

“You control the forces of the universe!” begins this upbeat introduction to magic that slyly folds science and math concepts into clearly explained tricks with lively names, such as “Give It Up for Gravity!” Each lively spread, illustrated with digitally rendered cartoons, begins with step-by-step instructions for carrying out the tricks, most involving common household items; and the added script suggestions for what to say, as well as what to do, are particularly welcome. Also included on each spread are “What’s Going On” text boxes that discuss concepts (“Geometry is your secret assistant in this trick”), as well as interesting related facts, often displayed in colorful text balloons. Becker shows that young people’s ingenuity has long contributed to magic history: in 1869, for example, a 16-year-old American discovered that lemon juice could be used to make invisible ink. Teachers may want to borrow ideas for interactive classroom fun, while a closing “Magician’s Survival Guide” offers tips for putting together an independent show. Fun and instructive for a wide age range of aspiring illusionists.

An Object Lesson in Literacy Education Part II - What NOT to do

My recent post of the open letter regarding school libraries and the serious lack of funding is the perfect jumping off point for my sad story of how NOT to build literacy in schools.

The week after the great Silver Birch festivities here in Ontario, I shlepped down to Southern California (and it was a shlep - drive to Buffalo, fly to Newark, then take a second plane to John Wayne airport) to speak at the Festival of Women Writers sponsored by the Orange County Literacy Guild (I'll tell you about my experiences at the festival in another post, but I can assure you right here it was awesome!)

My hosts, in addition to my festival appearances, had arranged for me to present at three area schools - two in Long Beach and one in Westminster  (That's Tincher Preparatory School in the picture).

I had been to several of Long Beach's schools back in October, when I had been in SoCal for the Children's Book Festival. I was shocked by what I saw at those schools.

Nina Wool, the librarian who kindly chauffeured me from school to school, was practically dead on her feet. With the Long Beach School District in terrible financial straits (like the rest of California, apparently), teaching staff had been cut to the bone. Nina had been given the responsibility for three elementary schools. Her task - to help kids learn to read and love reading, and to develop information literacy skills - had become practically impossible. Yet Nina, like so many of the school librarians I meet, had not given up. She was soldiering on, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Which was why she was expending energy and time on arranging and supervising all the author visits she could - e.g., bringing me in.

Long Beach has some seriously at-risk students. Many come from low-income families that speak no English. In the majority of the schools I visited, many, I was told, had almost no access to books, except those they could borrow from the school library. Their families didn't have the wherewithal or cash to get them to a public library or to buy them books of their own; as Nina pointed out, a large percentage of these kids - living in a coastal town called Long Beach, mind you - had never seen the ocean.

But alas. Alas. The school library's shelves, like Mother Hubbard's, were practically bare.

Here's what I found at Cesar Chavez Elementary, a brand-spanking new school (only 6 years old):

Nearly empty shelves. I can't think of a sadder sight.

And here's an image that brings it home for me. It's a closer peek at the shelf alotted to "scary stories." That's what the neat little label visible in the picture says.

There's not a single book on that whole shelf. Not one. Zero.

If that's not a scary story, I don't know what is.

Now no kid can learn to read if there are no books to read from (and don't think these children are bopping around town with iPads).

And don't think, either, that the poor little underprivileged children aren't really capable of reading, or of learning and loving books just as kids do in hoity-toity Orange County, across the county line. They can read just fine, thank you, when given the chance. And they want to read Percy Jackson and Twilight and Junie B.Jones just as much as kids in Laguna Beach or Brentwood do. But public schools in those places can raise about $400,000 a year from their students' families to keep popular books on the shelves. I'm not making that figure up - that's how much one Newport Beach public school took in last year.

Chavez's parents can't come up with private cash to fund their public school. But remind me, folks - wasn't the whole idea of public school that all kids could get a solid education, no matter who their parents were?

The day I presented at Chavez, Nina was handing out books to the grade one kids from the Reading is Fundamental program (Founded in 1966, RIF is the oldest and largest children's and family nonprofit literacy organization in the United States. RIF's highest priority is reaching underserved children from birth to age 8.).

When I left at the end of the day, I saw one of the boys who had received his free book walking home with his dad. He had the book open in front of him, and his nose was buried in it as he walked. It was a heartwarming sight to a kids' author like me. Or rather, it would have been heartwarming if my poor pump hadn't already broken.

What makes this sad situation  - gutted, non-functional libraries - so much worse is that it is repeated all over North America, in school after school after school. Despite the lip service given to "building literacy," barren, understaffed school libraries like those in Long Beach are becoming more and more common.


In part because of what appears to be to gross administrative incompetence. Long Beach is broke. Well no wonder, if you saw the unbelievable bureaucratic red tape they unwound to arrange for my visit.

I do hundreds of school visits. I'm at schools all over the place, and usually, in the immortal words of the Jackson Five, things go as easy as 1 2 3. I email or bring in an invoice, the teacher or school secretary hands me a check. Done.

But not Long Beach. I got at least ten calls (long distance, though I suppose it doesn't cost as much as it used to, but still --long distance!!!) from their contracts department. Then repeated emails. And then, I received a fat envelope from Long Beach containing a 9-page contract, in duplicate. A few weeks later, I got a second, identical package, this time for the second Long Beach school I'd been booked at. And then a third package, another 18 pages of paper, saying they had not yet received my reply to the first set of dopey documents.

I figure that contracts person must have spent 5 hours minimum on this file - for no purpose to my eye. Remember, most of my presentations require nothing but a single emailed invoice to get a check cut. But that's not how it's done at broke, broken Long Beach Unified School District.

I wish I kept their original envelopes so I could check how much they'd spent to get those fat envelopes to me. But even without the hard figures, I can tell you this: the postage alone could have put at least 3 books into one of Long Beach's libraries (As a point of reference, it cost me about $4 to mail the dopey signed contracts back, even after removing all the boilerplate junk they'd sent me).

The devil, they say, is in the details. If my pathetic tale is repeated over and over again, as I'm sure it is in Long Beach, think about how much money the district wastes a year.  Meanwhile, Chavez's shelves display nothing but dust, and the day I was there, 600 teachers were fighting the pink slips they'd received because the school district can no longer pay their salaries.

So that's my story of how not to build literacy.

But it's not the only story, nor the most important one. That story is a society that really doesn't give two hoots about any kids but their own, and one that doesn't really value books, education, or the people who love them.

Sad Story Addendum:

To date, I have not yet received my checks for my Long Beach presentations. I am certain they will come, in separate envelopes, and with lots of unnecessary stuff attached.

There's one bit of good news, although it's not much. There are now a few more books in Long Beach's school libraries --658, to be exact. That's because a few friends and I, with the assistance of Nina the librarian, did an ad hoc book drive and collected the books from Orange County and Camarillo families. Much thanks are due to Sherri and Juliana W., The H. family, and Louise, Shane and Dylan S.

I've enlisted a few more volunteers  to help expand the book drive next year.  With a little luck, we'll be able to get a few more books into the hands of kids who want to read, who deserve to have the chance to read, in a properly run school library.

A truly uplifting innovation...

Talk about great inventions! (Ok, I was talking about great inventions, since What's the Big Idea? got on an award long-list recently.)

Now here's an idea that's so great it sizzles!

Check out this incredible skyscraper fire escape system built by an Israeli company. Wouldn't you want one installed in your office or apartment building, like, yesterday???

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An Open Letter to National Post columnist Lorne Gunter regarding School Librarians

I sent this letter to National Post columnist Lorne Gunter today. I thought blog-readers who are supporters of school libraries might find it of interest too!

Dear Mr. Gunter,

I was enjoying your analysis of Easy Rider in this morning’s National Post (“Getting over Easy Rider, ”June 2,2010) when I was caught short by this sentence: “The teens who were prompted by its anti-establishment message to pledge themselves to change the world are today school librarians and public broadcasting technicians living in suburban bungalows, looking around the next bend at pensionability and wondering whether to open a B&B in Niagara.”

Yikes! There’s a sweeping stereotype there!

I know you were trying to humorously make a point about becoming the essence of establishment self-focus. But clearly, you have not met many school librarians, nor do you fully appreciate what they do every day. (I can’t speak for the broadcasting technicians.)

I am not a school librarian, but in my career as a writer of children’s literature, I have had the great privilege of meeting and spending time with hundreds of school librarians across North America – from Nunavut to New Brunswick, from the Jane-Finch Corridor in the GTA to the rural communities of Manitoba, Alberta and Yukon; in Texas, California, New York and Lima (Peru). Virtually every single one of the people I met are still honoring that pledge to change the world.

Don’t be fooled by the prim reading-glasses-on-chains cartoon image. Teacher-librarians are true revolutionaries, trying to change and improve society by empowering the most vulnerable members of society: children.

Their working conditions: abysmal.

Their weapon: literacy.

Their opposition: entrenched bureaucracy that gives lip service to literacy and equity, but shows its true colors by gutting schools of books and trained staff.

Meet, for example, Nina W., a school-librarian in the great State of California who currently has responsibility for three inner city schools, virtually no support from administration (when I visited with her two weeks ago, nearly 600 teachers had just been let go and were engaged in costly and divisive legal hearings instead of teaching in the classroom). Yet despite being stretched nearly to the breaking point, Nina still managed to administer a Reading is Fundamental book program for Kindergarten and grade 1 students, organize author visits to inspire hundreds of children, and facilitate delivery of books to needy schools that were collected on an independent book drive.

Or meet Fabienne T., who works in a remote Northern community. Her student body contains a high number of kids who come to school hungry, tired and unprepared to learn because of upheaval at home and in their community. For these children, literacy is truly a foreign concept – their own culture did not even have a written language 40 years ago! Many elders there are actually suspicious of reading as a form of learning, since their own educational system involved a more active approach, being out on the land. Yet Fabienne cheerfully strides from school to school, bringing books and enthusiasm and a desire to help improve the opportunities available to her charges. Those opportunities will only open to them when they possess the skills needed to “make it” in the contemporary world, so with her copies of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “Twilight” in hand, Fabienne is truly managing to change their worlds.

Or why not let me introduce you to Jenny E., who teaches in a tough primary school in one of Toronto’s most challenging neighborhoods. To see what she has done with these old-too-soon kids is nothing short of miraculous, and she’s been doing it for more than 20 years, day in and day out (I’m sure the number is higher than that, but I don’t want to embarrass her!).

The crisis facing school libraries today is an issue that has not yet surfaced in the Canadian consciousness. Yet let me assure you, it is very real, pervasive, and will have long-term consequences. Only a tiny percentage of Canadian school libraries meet the minimal standards (Set by the Canadian Library Association ) required to achieve learning objectives in all curricular areas, not just literacy.

A fully functional school library is the heart of a school, providing necessary sustenance and support for teachers and students. It is at the vanguard of “best practices,” incorporating information literacy into school culture, and it the avenue through which students learn how to do research, analyze sources and interpret media messaging.

School librarians are professionally committed to freedom of thought and speech, and to the notion that teaching kids how to learn is the root of all education. If that’s not progressive, I don’t know what is.

I know, I know, you didn’t really mean to disparage school librarians – yours was a throwaway comment designed for a laugh. But it perpetuated a lie, and was a disservice to some of the most revolutionary members of our society. But! Here’s the good news! You can easily correct that disservice!

Let me suggest that, next Fall, you accompany me to some representative school libraries in the GTA. Let me show you how we are letting down Canadian students by underfunding our school libraries. Let me show you how the mouth-noises that insist “we support literacy” are a lie when in fact the school libraries in our country are short of books and staff.

On a personal note, it was in a school library that I first fell in love with books. That early exposure and support has enabled me to live a full and productive life as a literate citizen.

When I speak to kids during my school presentations, I often ask them, “Why are you learning how to read?” The typical response is, “so I can get a job one day.” “So I can get good grades.” Or simply a shrug of shoulders – we are made to read and write because the grownups want us to.

I tell the kids that all of those answers are all acceptable ones, but are not the best reasons. Do you really want to learn to read just so you can grow up to become an obedient worker bee, or to boast a meaningless A on meaningless report card? No.

No, The real reason you should want to learn how to Read well, Write well and Speak well is because these are the tools that give you power – both the power over your own life, and the power to persuade others to make improvements to our world.

School librarians are bringing power to the people, every day. Please give them their due.


Helaine Becker

Newsflash - What's the Big Idea? nomination!

I just learned that What's the Big Idea? has been longlisted for the Information Book Award from the Victoria Children's Round Table.

You can see the entire list here.

The shortlist will be announced June 15th, so watch this space for future news!

Because: Science!