Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an altogether fun read!

Don’t hold the fact against him that Mr. Grabenstein used to write in James Patterson’s book factory. We found this book to be an absolutely delightful, engaging read. Grabenstein is clearly big on libraries as centers of discovery, learning and community. Twelve twelve-year-olds, who have never been in a library due to their town’s library being torn down twelve years ago, compete to go to the grand opening of Mr. Lemoncello’s library. Once there, they find themselves locked in and are told that their goal is to use the library and all its resources to discover a hidden exit for a grand prize. Mr. Lemoncello is a great game-maker and some of the clues come from his games, while others come from the ten Dewey Decimal Rooms, a holographic librarian and holographic creatures, and pictograms hidden in books.

Grabenstein cleverly reinforces the idea that reading is, itself, a rewarding activity, and those who take time to focus on the process are rewarded more than those who try to take short cuts. He also emphasizes such values as loyalty, team-work, and respect. Titles of many famous children’s books are sprinkled throughout Mr. Lemoncello’s conversations and the clues. There is also a puzzle not in the story that can be solved and sent into Mr. Grabenstein for a chance to win two libraries of books. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a fast read. Mr. Grabenstein also does a very good job of creating distinct characters. None of the kids feels like a carbon copy of the other; they’re all fleshed out in ways that help you get a sense of what motivates them.

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Happy 2012!

Well, Joe and Amy, my two older children, are finally quiet in bed after staying up to welcome in the new year. My younger son Josh gave out around 10, and my youngest, Lauryn, made it to 11. Of course, the four dogs zonked out as soon as the food stopped flowing.

I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging during a really busy fall semester–lots of work projects going on in addition to my regular teaching load, and the kids had a busy fall school schedule with homework, projects, and performances. We stuck around town this year for Christmas, and I’ve been slowly “rediscovering” our house, getting caught up on laundry and clearing out the clutter that accumulates over a semester. There have been a lot of topics I’ve wanted to write about, but just haven’t had the time. I’m hoping to get back into a regular shedule of posting in 2012.

For a quick snapshot, here’s what I’m watching and reading:

Book–The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. A wonderfully written first novel, sort of about baseball, mostly about life. Funny and poignant.

Movies–I’m on a Martin Scorcese kick these days. Watched The Aviator and Gangs of New York on DVD and saw Hugo over Thanksgiving. Love his eye–the guy just knows how to tell a story in pure cinematic language. Saw Hugo with the kids and was impressed with how riveted they were to the Harold Lloyd sequences: good film doesn’t have to have lots of special effects; intelligent humor will grab an audience every time. I also just watched Midnight in Paris and Beginners and liked both.

TV–I finally decided to sample Downton Abbey on Netflix and ended up watching all seven episodes of Season One in a single day. The multi-layered plot involving multiple social levels hooked me immediately. I also got interested because I’m not as well-versed in the years leading up to World War I as I’d like to be. The series begins the day after the sinking of the Titanic and ends with Britain declaring war on Germany. Season Two starts up this month and covers the war years.

Oh, and I’ve been playing on the Wii a lot in the past few days with the kids–getting creamed mostly but having fun.

Reading for Fun

image A friend recently put a great article from The Chronicle of Higher Education in my mailbox at work.  “On the Pleasures (and Utility) of Summer Reading” by Rachel Toor talks about the value of reading for pleasure, which is frequently an occupational casualty for folks like myself who read so much for work (books I like–usually–but books that I’m also supposed to like).  Toor lists her “guilty” pleasures and reminds fellow academics that it’s a good thing to have them.  One of mine this summer was Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which chronicles her childhood, her early years with Second City, and her shapeshifting experience of becoming Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.  I laughed out loud while reading her chapter on how not to learn the facts of life.

What have been your guilty reads this summer?

Poetry on Pennsylvania Avenue?

In his editorial column from today’s New York Times, “I Yield to the Gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon,” Bill Keller recommends that Congress add regular poetry readings to its extra-curricular activities.  He argues for the humanizing effects of reading poetry, as well as the skills it develops in “open-ended thinking.”  To all of this, I had a hearty “Yea,” although I have as much confidence in something like this as I do in the newly commissioned Gang of 12.

A poem that has come to mind repeatedly this summer as I have observed the embarrassment in Washington is Ben Jonson’s wonderful epigram from the early seventeenth century:

On Something, That Walks Somewhere.

At Court I met it, in clothes brave enough,
To be a courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great face; I asked the name.
A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood,
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none: Good Lord, walk dead still.

’nuff said.

Tony Awards Predictions

Sutton Foster in a revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes"

This Sunday night, the Tony Awards will air live from New York’s Beacon Theater.  In contrast to the film world, this is an area I have to observe from a frustrated distance.  It’s probably a good thing I don’t live in New York: I’d be tempted to spend the light bill on plays.

Patrick Healy, one of The New York Times theater critics, listed his predictions for this year’s winners, out of a particularly strong field this year (also one of the most profitable years in recent history)  You can check them out at “Book of Tonys: Anything Goes?”

You can also see a few moments from some of the nominated shows in the following video:  Tony Awards Preview.

Ranting About Books Redux

Last summer, as we were preparing for our older son to begin middle school, we first came in contact with the “Summer Reading Requirement.”  Students have to read two books over the summer (no problem), and one of them has to come from the list of nominees for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award—a prize that students vote for from among books nominated by librarians.

I went on a bit of tear regarding the nominated books (see Ranting About Books), almost all of which seemed to me to be rather morose, traumatic, or “therapeutic.”  Well, this summer we have two middle schoolers, and last week we received the list for this year’s nominees.  I’d like to say I like it a lot better, but, again, we have a series of stories dealing with death, murder, disorders of various kinds, and genocide.  Now, I do remember that when I was that age (hmm, think 1970), one of the teen bestsellers was Go Ask Alice, a novel about teen pregnancy and drug use, and we also had A Separate Peace, which involves the death of a young boy, so maybe I’m compartmentalizing here.

So you look over the list and tell me what you think.  As a teenager, would these titles and descriptions appeal to you?  One friend last year, who is a librarian and was familiar with several of the books, defended them as better than they sounded, blaming the descriptions for the sensational tone.  Use that grain of salt as you form your opinions.

Kentucky Bluegrass Award Nominees 2012
Grades 6-8
Hero/Mike Lupica.
Philomel Books, 2010.
Zach Harriman is devastated when his dad, a globetrotting troubleshooter for the president is killed. Not knowing that he has inherited “special powers” from his father, Zach discovers the same people who murdered his father are now after him.
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous/Georgia Bragg.
Walker & Co., 2011.
This nonfiction book shares the eerily gruesome details of the deaths of nineteen famous historical figures, among who are King Tut, Pocahontas, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Marie Curie, and Beethoven.
Leaving Gee’s Bend/Irene Latham.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.
Ludelphia Bennett, a determined, ten-year-old African American girl in 1932 Alabama, leaves home in an effort to find medical help for her sick mother, recounting her adventures in a quilt she is making.
Liar, Liar: The Theory, Practice, and Destructive Properties of Deception/Gary Paulsen.
Philomel Books, 2009.
Fourteen-year-old Kevin is very good at lying and doing so makes his life so much easier. When he finds himself in big trouble with friends, family, and teachers, he must find a way to end his bad habit and make amends.
The Line /Teri Hall.
Dial Books, 2010.
Living close to “The Line,” an invisible border of the Unified States, Rachel feels she and her mother are safe. Then she gets a message asking for help from a boy who lives across the line.
A Long Walk to Water/Linda Sue Park.
Clarion Books, 2010.
When the Sudanese civil war reaches his village in 1985, 11-year-old Salva becomes separated from his family and must walk with other Dinka tribe members through southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya in search of safety.
Scrawl/Mark Shulman.
Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
When eighth-grade school bully Tod and his friends get caught committing a crime on school property, Tod’s “punishment” involves serving detention with the school guidance counselor and keeping a journal revealing aspects of himself that he would prefer to keep hidden.
Sean Griswold’s HeadLindsey Leavitt.
Bloomsbury, 2011.
Angry after discovering that her parents have been hiding her dad has multiple sclerosis, Payton begins counseling sessions at school. Her assignment – a “focus exercise” to distract her –leads her to an interest in a boy she’d never really noticed before, problems with her best friend, a new interest in long-distance biking, and eventually allows her to come to terms with life’s uncertainties.
A Tale Dark and Grimm/Adam Gidwitz.
Dutton, 2010.
This eerie tale follows Hansel and Gretel as they walk out of their own spooky tale and into eight more frightening adventures, encountering some helpful folk and several wicked creatures along the way.
Virals/Kathy Reichs.
Razorbill, 2010.
When Tory Brennan and her three best friends are accidentally exposed to a canine parvovirus while snooping around a top-secret government facility, their senses become heightened, and they must use these new powers to stay alive and solve the cold case murder of a young girl who disappeared years ago.

Brave New World: Teaching Online for the First Time was the first day of the online class I’m teaching this summer.  It’s Western Classics, a survey of world literature that is part of the liberal arts core at Asbury.

What can I say?  It was quiet–very quiet in class.  Which is not to say it wasn’t busy.  Students were posting various introductory assignments all day long and asking questions about books, how to do certain things on the website, and even starting in on the first work we’re reading, Homer’s Odyssey.

I’ll try to reflect on this experience as the summer goes.  I think it will be similar to learning a new language or traveling to a different country or region.  You suddenly become aware of how your own culture works because you’re somewhere foreign, where they do things differently.  I’m no stranger to being online, and I actually use a lot of online technology in my regular teaching.  But I’m also accustomed to using my mouth a lot–literally–I’m one of those profs who looks at students packing up and says, “What are you doing? We’ve still got 30 seconds here.”

Instead, I’m having to take content that I would normally communicate verbally and communicate it through videos and discussion forum postings.  We will try a few times to use the virtual classroom–Big Blue Button–which lets us video chat in real time.  I’ll have to pick a time when they kids and dogs are quiet–or else go to my office.

That, of course, is the other surreal aspect of all of this: me sitting at my desk at home, drinking coffee and replying to students while my kids are asking for more cereal or letting me know the dogs need to go outside.  My wife’s been good to tell them, “Not now, Daddy’s teaching,”

Just glad the video’s not on then.

Debating the Value of College in America

At Asbury, we have been having strong, deep discussions this year among our faculty as we have been evaluating our expectations for our liberal arts core curriculum–the “major that everybody majors in” at schools such as ours.

As such, I’ve been attuned to how many articles and editorial pieces have been published this year related to this very subject.  In this week’s The New Yorker, Louis Menand lays out some of the major issues in this discussion in a very readable essay.  It’s titled “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”  Check it out.

Irrational Optimism?

Published: May 14, 2011
Why are college grads irrationally optimistic about the future?

I also read this column today in The New York Times, which talks about the human habit of embracing optimism in the face of pessimistic statistics.  I found it especially interesting, given that a recent class of mine read Candide, or Optimism, by Voltaire. Candide  is itself a satiric reflection of the philosophical optimism popularized at the time by Gottfried Leibniz.