Friday, December 7, 2012

Two—Count 'Em—Picks of the Week

To tell you the truth, I wasn't much of a Roald Dahl fan as a kid. I wasn't a disparager, either, just sort of a disinterested party; I think the deep sadnesses experienced by his young characters stressed me out. But sometime in my young adulthood, I got my hands on this:

And then immediately after devouring it, I went right out and got my hands on this:

I started reading them out loud to Ada a couple of weeks ago, mostly because I wanted an excuse to read them again myself. And happily enough, Ada seems to be enjoying them as much as I did and do. She called BOY "gruesome," but she meant it in the best possible way and her face kind of lit up as she said it. And the book—containing autobiographical sketches of the author's school years, some of which were spent at an English boarding school—certainly does touch on the gruesome. But it is also a kind of amazing and tricky symbiosis of complete self-confidence and self-effacement on the part of Dahl—his way of shrugging off his own bravery or brilliance, and for making his most frightening travails seem, not at all commonplace, but absolutely surmountable. And it's funny. And in addition to all that, there are several terrific "ah-ha" moments throughout, in which the reader gets a glimpse of the author-to-come, and what must have been some rich—and yes, gruesome—material for his later books. 

In some ways, GOING SOLO is even better, although it deals with Dahl's post-school adult years, during which he joined the Shell Company and went off to a life of adventure in Africa, only to be waylaid by World War II. I wasn't sure Ada would be interested in his account of flying fighter planes over Egypt for the RAF. But she is; perhaps it is the recitation of exotic place names, or Dahl's always spot-on tone and ear for pacing—a rival to Tolkien—or the descriptions of places and events that are so distant in place and time as to seem almost magical. Admittedly, though, it was the tales of snakes and other wild animals that had her sitting on the edge of the couch, biting the inside of her lip at the tension. Would the gardener be bitten by the deadly green mamba? Would the lion, trotting off with the cook's wife in his jaws, finally consume her? There is only way for you to find out, of course, and I suggest that you do it, posthaste!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Read-Aloud Pick of the Week

Any day now, Peter Jackson's movie treatment of THE HOBBIT will be upon us. I'm sure I'll like it just fine. But what I love, and loved beyond measure as a child, was Tolkien's riveting novel, which I'm shocked to realize I read to myself only once. I read it out loud to Ada this summer, just before she turned nine. It was one of those rare instances of hitting precisely the right book at the right time, and I'm crossing my fingers that she lets me read it to her again one day extremely soon.

My favorite HOBBIT cover

It's not that Ada, or any book-loving kid of her age, couldn't read this book for herself. But reading it aloud was a total pleasure for both of us, for the simple, crucial reason that Tolkien was a master of language and pacing and suspense—you feel the full force of these gifts when you utter his words out loud (or hear them read to you). There are few writers to match him in this regard, no matter what detractors like Phillip Pullman eventually made of his "simplistic" moralism (which, in fairness, I believe applies more to the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy).

The cover of THE HOBBIT I read as a kid

Once I got started reading, I almost never wanted to stop, even when I began to go hoarse. So it was that I managed to read the entire book to Ada in about four days. I sped through the thing, then was sorry I hadn't made it last forever. And once the book was finished, I couldn't think of another book I wanted to read out loud half so much. In fact, I'm still trying to come up with reasonable read-aloud sequel. I've hit on something pretty close, though—more about that next week.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A New York-Centric Pick of the Week

It's not a coincidence that I selected this week's pick directly on the heels of last week's pick. When Ada and I first read ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY by Sydney Taylor

(shown here – small. Sorry – with its most recent reprint jacket), my first reaction was that it was like a LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE of New York. The book and its four sequels follow the lives and adventures of five – count 'em – Jewish sisters (and eventually, one brother) growing up in the early years of the 20th century, and are heavily based on Taylor's own girlhood. 

Throughout this series, as in the LITTLE HOUSE series, there are illnesses (the dreaded scarlet fever); big moves (from the largest Jewish neighborhood in the world at that time, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, uptown to a more integrated and swank locale); celebrations of holidays (Purim, for one notable example); the saving of pennies for highly coveted candy; detailed and fascinating descriptions of everyday life and various childhood mishaps and triumphs. Here is micro-history, not of the American plains but of urban streets, and every bit as engrossing and unfamiliar when contemplated now, over a hundred years later. There's a dwindling number of New Yorkers who remember, say, street-side pickle merchants, or buying crackers by the pound out of a barrel (broken crackers were cheaper). 

AOAKF was another book that captivated Ada so thoroughly that she could not tease out her favorite parts. As for me, I loved the sisters' Friday visits to the library (a perfect happenstance, since the book was originally recommended to me by a librarian). The highly anticipated recurring event is a thread that stitches some otherwise anecdotal chapters together. It's also a great reminder of the beauty and importance of books, which were once so rare and valuable that, for all but the privileged, owning one was almost unthinkable. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A (Late) Pick of the Week

It was another strange and dire week of weather as a Nor'easter blew through the five boroughs, dumping snow on an already beleaguered landscape. You know who else knew from extreme weather? The Ingalls family. 

Of all the seven books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have two favorites (I can't speak for Ada; I just know that's she's read the entire series three times):

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (this is the original cover), and 

ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK (another original cover here).
It's a testament to the incredible vividness of Wilder's writing that when I first read these books aloud to Ada about four years ago, I remembered certain passages almost scene for scene from when I'd read them to myself as a child. Oddly, two of them have to do with the weather. 

The first is the passage in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE in which Mr. Edwards braves raging rivers and freezing rain to bring Christmas to the Ingalls girls: 

When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (But you crossed it, Laura said. "Yes," Mr. Edwards replied, "but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn't make it, where a long, lean razorback like me could do so.") And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn't cross the creak, likely he would come no further south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie only to be turned back? Of course he would't do that!

So Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. ("In the rain?" Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. ("In the daylight?" Laura asked She hadn't thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)

On and on Mr. Edwards goes with his story and at the end of it, there are stockings full of Christmas for Mary and Laura and the contents are so overwhelming to them that they can't quite believe their eyes, or their luck: tin cups, peppermint candy, white-sugar cakes, and to top it all off, a penny for each. And 72 years after the book was first published, this still, thanks to the pacing of the words on the pages, seems like the most incredible bounty.

The second weather-related passage is in ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK, when Pa is expected back from town during a raging, blinding snowstorm. He's been missing for three days – as it turns out, camped practically right beside the house, which he couldn't see through the driving snow. He's had to eat the oyster crackers he'd been bringing home for Christmas dinner, as well as all the girls' Christmas candy, in order to survive. Not that anyone begrudges him.

There's plenty more weather in all the books: searing heat, choking winds, snow and rain storms by the dozens, in addition to drought, plagues, and fires. But the passage that haunts me, in the best possible way, and which I could barely read aloud all the way through because the emotion of it was so great, is not weather-related in the slightest. It's the long-drawn-out scene in LHOTP in which Laura, after weeks of being kept awake by "Indians" crying for war down by the creek, watches them finally depart the region in a long stream, by horse and by foot, right past her house. 

The pony was very near now, and Laura's heart beat faster and faster. She looked up at the Indian's beaded moccasin, she looked along the fringed legging that clung to the pony's bare side. A bright-colored blanket was wrapped around the Indian. One bare brown-red arm carried a rifle lightly across the pony's naked shoulders. Then Laura looked up and saw the Indian's fierce, still, brown face. It was a proud, still face. No matter what happened, it would always be like that. Nothing would change it. Only the eyes were alive on that face, and they gazed steadily far away to the west. They did not move. Nothing moved or changed, except the eagle feathers standing straight up from the scalplock on the shaved head. The long feathers swayed and dipped, waving and spinning in the wind as the tall Indian on the black pony passed on into the distance.

There is the most palpable longing in Laura, who wishes to be one of the passing throng and who is left with a sense of tragic emptiness once they've gone. But more than that, the reader can't help but realize, in flashes, that this is not fiction; it is, in fact, history, laid out richly before us as though the moment were still upon us, by someone who experienced it herself. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pick(s) of the Week for a Little Reading Pick-Me-Up

Here in Brooklyn, it's been a sad, strange and highly inspirational week. Sad, of course, because a large number of neighborhoods in this borough and others were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, including Red Hook, the neighborhood just adjacent to ours. Inspirational, because so many members of our community (including tons of kids) have come together day after day after day to help where help was needed and the efforts continue, virtually unabated. And strange, well, for a lot of reasons, one of which has been the unprecedented closing of public schools for the last five days. In addition to volunteer work, this has meant a lot of READING.

Our house, even in a usual sort of week, sees a lot of binge reading of books by favorite authors, especially if there are sequels to be had. The current top of the heap is Grace Lin, first for her highly autobiographical Pacy Lin trilogy:




in which young Chinese-American Grace (Pacy) struggles to come to terms with what it means to be neither one thing nor the other, or maybe two things at once, or maybe something in between. 

And also these two, slightly more advanced novels:



These are fables that veer frequently off to present even more fables.  They function very well as read-alouds, especially to children who are crazy for all things Chinese (as my daughter is), and have the patience for breaks in the central story. And also for children, and grown-ups, who are ready for a little reminder that even the smallest, youngest, most seemingly inconsequential person can triumph over adversity. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Travel with Me Through Time for: My Pick of the Week

My first reaction on completing this book was awe. It's not easy to pull off sci-fi for middle grade readers – at least, not that they can read to themselves; the potential for confusion in the face of complicated story lines and leaps of readerly faith seems extremely high. And in retrospect, I think what makes When You Reach Me so successful is the fact that it actually doesn't come off as sci-fi at all for most of its chapters. Rather, it's an engaging tale with a vividly (and tenderly) rendered heroine that has a lot of the trappings of a mystery.

Ada read it first, in fits and starts because certain parts she found so "creepy" she wasn't sure she could go on (I remember having that same reaction at her age, reading Hardy Boys mysteries at bedtime: shutting a book in terror and vowing never to pick it up again; re-poening it minutes later; shutting it; opening it; and finally, triumphantly, making my way to the dénouement). But go on she did. Toward the end she could be heard muttering across the apartment: "Oooooh, that makes sense now. I get it, I get it, it's all coming together!" And when I finished it, I had the same delighted reaction. 

When I realized this morning that I'd managed to pick a book this week that hadn't been written over 40 years ago, I was mightily pleased with myself. Until I realized, it takes place in the '70s, on the Upper West Side. So my quest to choose a thoroughly contemporary, non-urban middle grade novel that both Ada and I love remains unfulfilled. Not that I care, if you don't.

Friday, October 19, 2012

(Trumpet Trill Please): Book Pick of the Week

Characters that are at once noble, flawed and hilarious – HOW DOES E.B. WHITE DO IT? This is what I wondered as I re-read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little as an adult. And it's what I wondered in spades this summer as I read yet another classic:

The story of a swan born mute, it chronicles young hero Louis's attempts to make money to pay for the trumpet his vain, endearing father has stolen to be his voice. He triumphs, of course, in more ways than one – love, friendship, monetary gain. But I'm not sure the story would be nearly as appealing to kids if it weren't also humorous. E.B. White was a master of cheerful, casual dialog that is full of sentiment, never cloying, and laugh-out-loud funny. "I've got a trumpet, I've got a slate, I've got a chalk pencil; now I've got a medal," says Louis at one point. "I'm beginning to look like a hippie." When she got to that line, Ada snorted milk out of her nose.

As with Anastasia Krupnick, I was late getting to this book, too. I started it as a read-aloud; halfway through, Ada commandeered it to read to herself because I couldn't read it to her fast enough – or at all, say, while I was driving the car. She's re-reading it now. Which, of course, is praise of the highest order.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Today I'm trying something new. For an indefinite period of time (read: until I run out of stamina, interest, or opinions), I will be posting a Book of the Week pick here in the newsletter. The picks will be for middle grade readers to read themselves, or in a few notable instances, to have read to them - still (and I hope, forever) a favorite family occurrence at our house.

What inspired this decision was the dearth of interesting "Just Right" leveled books in the bins in my daughter's classroom. As the school year began, Ada was bringing home books she'd read already (not a bad thing, in and of itself, if you really WANT to re-read a certain book), as well as books she was distinctly hostile towards reading. So, with her teacher's blessing, I started trolling library shelves for stories that were gripping, just the right amount of challenging, and fun. A few people have asked for the list I started to compile. But not all these books are created equal and frankly, I just can't resist putting my two cents in. I'm sure there will be dissenters out there. Go ahead and dissent - and let me know about it! Meanwhile, I'm kicking off the picks with:

I'm embarrassed that I'd never read the work of fellow-journalist Lois Lowry before – I mean, she's written, what, something like 40 books and won zillions of awards. Nevertheless, ANASTASIA KRUPNIK – a recommendation from Ada's teacher – was an amazing way to begin to get acquainted with her books. I snatched it off the library pile before Ada got to it and read it straight through. It is, quite simply, a book about almost everything; at least, almost everything that's important to a girl of almost any age. Further explanation would only sound bland. The best books have a way of defying tidy accounting.

I was afraid that part of what I loved about it was the style of writing – so distinctly of the '70s and my own urban childhood – and that Ada wouldn't share my enthusiasm for it. She read half of it in one sitting last night, barely looking up to grunt when I announced that dinner was ready. It's the kind of book I wish were still written for grownups: hopeful, exploring the grey areas that make up our existence, direct. It's still in print after 35 years, so you can order a copy from your local bookseller. Alternately, the one pictured above will be back at our neighborhood library, probably by tomorrow.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Visit to LBYS

A few weeks ago, long before the swelter of summer had set in for good, I hopped the F train and headed into Manhattan for an evening at Lion Brand Yarn Studio.

Before I talked to all the lovely assembled folks about the making of ASTOUNDING KNITS and KNITTING AROUND THE WORLD, I talked to Patty. About the making of ASTOUNDING KNITS and KNITTING AROUND THE WORLD.

Make sure you're sitting in air conditioning to watch it; otherwise, the sight of me wearing long sleeves and a sweater might make you break out in hives.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Where I've Been

The lovely public library in Chatham, NY. Every weekday morning, I drop my daughter at camp, then drive along the lily-strewn fields of the Hudson Valley to get here, where I do things like post this blog, browse the card catalog (!):

and plod along on various manuscripts. For company, I've got this guy, John T. Wheeler, MD one of the original founders of the library:

as well as Fern, Betty, and the children's librarian, Becky:

who has been kind enough to organize a reading of THE HONEYBEE MAN next Thursday at 1:00. Come heckle me if you're nearby!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Spiff-ify - With Stickers!

Yes, you, too, can spiff up your copy of THE HONEYBEE MAN with a Cook Prize Honor sticker! I've got three left. Leave me a message on this here blog that tells me something amazing about honeybees; I'll send out a sticker to the author of each of the three best comments. Bonus points if your (or better yet, your kid's) comment is a fact I never knew before, or if it involves a personal story about bees. Bonne chance!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The View from Bank Street

Well, no - not exactly. Because the day was so jam-packed I forgot to take pictures. Except for this one, capturing active resistance by an award-ceremony date, en route inside our deluxe ride:

The highlight for Ada was Paul O. Zelinski's hilarious PowerPoint presentation on the making of his latest book (with Kelly Bingham), Z IS FOR MOOSE, during the keynote address for the Black Prize. "But yours was the next best speech after that," she assures me. (This is why it's critical to have daughters on your payroll.)

There were multiple highlights for me: getting to the last word of my speech without crying or throwing up; receiving this beautiful certificate:

receiving, too, this original bee drawing by Ada Grazia Cowan to accompany my certificate:

And really, being asked to be a part of this incredible day to begin with. So, so many thanks to all the Bank Street committee members who chose THE HONEYBEE MAN as a finalist; to all the super kids who read and voted on it; and to librarian extraordinaire, Lisa Von Drasek for, well, beyond "everything," her incredible support and enthusiasm.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How I spent my morning

With librarians: hundreds and hundreds of school librarians. Here they are at the NYPL...

...shortly before they descended on the Bank Street table, where winners and honorees of two prizes – the Irma Black Award, and the Cook Prize – were on display. (Yup, there's THE HONEYBEE MAN, right there on the left, resplendent in its new silver medallion).

And here is the (blurry but) excellent Fiona Robinson, whose hilarious book, WHAT ANIMALS REALLY LIKE, is the winner of the Irma Black Award.

Tomorrow: my report from Bank Street!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What's Up?

So much going on in the land of books these days! For starters, this coming Wednesday, I'll be talking to bunches of librarians at a DOE Exploratorium about THE HONEYBEE MAN. If you're a librarian, or just wish you were, stop by the main branch of the NYPL on 42nd Street in Manhattan and have a chat, try some honey. Thursday, I'll be attending the awards ceremony for Bank Street's Cook Prize, for which THM is an Honor book - check out the swanky silver medallion created by Brian Floca!

Then, next Saturday, May 19 at 11:00, I'll be reading the book to celebrate Love Your Library day, at my own beloved branch in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Finally, I'll be a guest speaker at Lion Bran Yarn Studio on Thursday, June 14 at 6PM, talking about "knitting inspiration" in my books ASTOUNDING KNITS and KNITTING AROUND THE WORLD. Hope you signed up early because the event is already booked! And as always, I hope to see you all out there somewhere.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

THE HONEYBEE MAN is a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year with Outstanding Merit. Yippee! (Still no word on the Cook Prize...holding my breath in Brooklyn...)

Monday, April 30, 2012

About Hummingbirds

As a child, I loved to pore over the pages of illustrated guides to just about anything: trees, flowers, clouds, the more detailed the better. Truth be told, though, I usually ran out of steam for the exploration about half-way through, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of variety that existed in the natural world.

Maybe this is why, even at this late stage in my existence, I'm so delighted with the "About" series by Cathryn and John Sill - one recent installment of which, About Hummingbirds (Peachtree, 2011), is a finalist for Bank Street's Cook Prize. Its illustrations are intricate and accurate in the best field guide tradition, showing all sorts of hummingbirds in all sorts of environments. And there's just the right number of them - 18 plates, highlighting 26 species in all, doing things like building nests and escaping from predators. The accompanying text is similarly selective, keeping what could have been an overload of facts to an easily-digestable minimum. Possibly my favorite feature (but I concede that this might be the adult in me speaking) is the afterword that gives expanded detail about what is shown in each plate, and the scientific marvels – did you know that hummingbirds beat their wings 80 times per second? – that make hummingbirds such exceptional creatures.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) - one of the four finalists for Bank Street's STEM prize - is a book that fills me with nostalgia. Not that I remember the years when lions and other animals from the Central Park zoo "marched" in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (that preceded me by several decades). But I certainly do remember a time before the marketing-driven frenzy of the event. A time when the parade was closer in feel and intent to the heartfelt way it was depicted in Miracle on 34th Street than to some Disney-driven spectacular, designed to make your kids covet mountains of souvenirs and character-driven memorabilia. But I digress.

This story follows the career of puppeteer Tony Sarg. He's literally the man behind the parade - a German immigrant who was initially hired by the great New York department store to design a "puppet parade" for its holiday window displays. Eventually, he was tapped to create the life-size parade as well, meant to cheer up Macy's host of other immigrant employees who were missing home around Christmastime.

It's a terrific subject for a kid's book, and a fun, easy-to-digest history lesson. It's chock-full of engaging collages composed of toys recreated by the author - not to mention several pages straight from Sarg's Marionette Book. And it'll have more than one kid wishing that the days of the lion procession were still with us.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Honey to Cure What Ails Ye

I snapped this perfectly rotten photo last week on a visit to the newly installed Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum. (Here's a link to a far superior photo of it on the Met's site.)

Leaf from an Arabic Translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, 1224
It depicts medicine being made from honey in an ancient pharmacy. Which of course got me to wondering, what sorts of curative properties were ascribed to honey in the Middle Ages? Apparently, lots. Hot plaster spread with honey and pigeon dung was used to treat kidney stones. A similar plaster smeared with goat dung, honey, and rosemary was used for gout. "Excess humors" were treated with an enema of herbs, honey and water inserted into a clyster pipe, itself fashioned from a pig's bladder. Surgeons daubed honey on wounds, already aware that it acts as a minor antiseptic. And a latter-day snake oil called "treacle" – honey mixed with some 64 herbs and other substances – was touted as a cure for fevers, heart trouble, epilepsy, plague, and many other ailments.

But honey's curative renown stretches much further back than medieval times. About 2700-3000 years further, in fact, to various Egyptian documents – the so-called Edwin Smith, Hearst and Ebers papyri – which are among the oldest extant medical texts. In them, Isis herself is said to have prepared a headache poultice for Ra out of coriander and honey. Cough was treated by having the patient inhale a mixture of honey, cream, milk, carob, colocynth, and date kernels. And a recipe for the treatment of diarrhea instructed the maker to boil together green onions, freshly cooked gruel, oil and honey, wax, and water. Drink up!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

UnBEElievables by Douglas Florian

I went to my local bookstore last week to have a look at Douglas Florian's new picture book, UNBEELIEVABLES. "We don't have it in stock," Molly told me. "People don't buy books of poetry." This statement depressed me for the rest of the day. I've been trying not to think about it ever since, because it will just continue to make me depressed off and on forever.

So, let me begin by making a pitch for poetry: you should buy it. You should read it. Your kids will love it. We've got the whole oeuvre of Shel Silverstein sitting on the bookshelf in my daughter's room. When we read it, we read it aloud - sometimes 20, 30 poems in a night. Sometimes the poems are funny enough to cause us to burst out laughing. Sometimes the sheer delight of feeling words tumbling off the tongue is what sets us to giggling. We compare favorites. We re-read the ones that we can't shake out of our brains. We purposefully and accidentally memorize stanzas. If there's a more lovely, likely way to get your kid to feel the true power and magic of literature, I don't know what it is.

Florian's COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS (Harcourt, 2007) and INSECTLOPEDIA (Harcourt, 1998) are two clearly-themed books of poetry that have enjoyed a lot of reading, re-reading and memorizing around here. Which is why I was so excited for the publication of UNBEELIEVABLES - not to mention, it's also about bees, a subject near and dear to my heart (I finally got a look at it at Barnes and Noble today). About a dozen short poems touch on such topics as drones, pollination, the queen, the waggle dance, and even CCD. Accompanying text offers more in-depth explanation for the science-minded. But the real treat, as ever, is Florian's artwork. A mixture of gouache, pencil and collage, his paintings are at once sweet, visually descriptive, and beautiful - the perfect accompaniment to the poems themselves. The picture below doesn't even begin to to them justice. Obviously, I'm a fan.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bees in the Movies

A couple of years ago, we were hit with a wave of movies about bees. Alas, most were uninteresting to, or otherwise unsuitable for, kids. Seinfeld’s BEE MOVIE was just junk, from a factual standpoint. VANISHING OF THE BEES and COLONY both sought to address the terrifying issue of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), but wound up sounding like propaganda (and poorly organized propaganda, for grown-ups, to boot).

Still, there are some pleasant and informative (and free!) options out there for the kindern. Here are a few of my picks:

NEW YORK CITY BEEKEPER, a 3-1/2 minute film hosted by two young boys who visit a Manhattan beekeeper on his rooftop. It’s the perfect length and slant for the very wee. 

CITY OF BEES, a mini-mini-documentary of 1-1/2 minutes that visits a country beekeeper. Also suitable for the extra-young. 

PBS’s excellent 50-minute documentary SILENCE OF THE BEES, observes the life of the American honeybee, and discusses how it’s crucial to our existence. While it also touches on CCD, it does so in more measured tones, suitable for older kids with broader attention spans who won’t freak out at the implications of crop loss to humanity. You can find excerpts of it on youtube – an 8-minute version, and a couple of 2-1/2-minute versions about the waggle dance and “the importance of bees,” are perfect for medium-size kids who can grasp medium-size concepts.

Finally, my friend the beekeeper John Howe was featured in a 15-minute documentary a few years ago. Titled ROOFTOP BEES, it’s available for purchase from the filmmaker. 

Know of another bee flick that’s great for kids? Write in and let me know!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Knitted Bees to Cheer this Dreary Day

The knitted bees of Hannah Haworth make me smile. Maybe it's the lace wings. Maybe it's the vision of their profusion (50 in all). I imagine, if they were buzzing about Brooklyn right now, they'd be on the lookout for knitted magnolia blossoms - some real ones are just about to bloom down the block.

Photos courtesy of Hannah Haworth
Want to knit some bees of your own? Find Haworth's pattern here; and a cute bee kit from our old friend Anna Hrachovec here.

PS, answering my own question from Wednesday, hummingbirds can indeed be found (although not yet by me), in Brooklyn. The ruby throated hummingbird is apparently a frequent visitor to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

And Now, a Few Words from our Favorite Beekeeper: John Howe

As many people learned after the publication of THE HONEYBEE MAN, the story was inspired by two Brooklyn apiarists. One of them, John Howe, spent a lot of time talking to me about the habits of honeybees, and introducing me to his colonies on his Fort Greene rooftop. Yesterday, I asked him a few questions about what bees and beekeepers are up to around these here parts.

It was an warm winter and seems to be an early spring. Does this have any affect on the bees?

“Most people’s bees survived the winter. But otherwise, the warm weather is bad. The bees are more active, but they don’t have enough food in their winter stores. I heard warnings to FEED YOUR BEES all over the internet. There was a hairy period in January and February when there was warm weather but no flowers blooming.  Everyone started freaking out and feeding their bees syrup and fondant (home-made bee candy) like mad in February.

“But then the flowers all started coming out freakishly early and the bees started bringing in the goods – people told me their bees were bringing back pollen, which means they’re probably bringing back nectar as well. So we have averted disaster.”

What are beekeepers in Brooklyn doing to get ready for the warm months ahead?

“They’re inspecting the hives, making sure the queens are okay. They start laying eggs in February, so there should be plenty of brood by now. If not, and the queen is old, she might be out of eggs, so people may be ordering new queens.”

How does that work?

“The new queen gets put in the hive in a box about the size of an iPod. The bees could kill her, but you want to make sure they’ll accept her. They know she’s a queen, but not their queen. So you put her in the hive in this wood-frame box that has screening on the sides and a hole in the bottom that is plugged with fondant. By the time she’s eaten her way through the fondant, she’s free [of the box], and the bees are used to her, and 99% of the time, they accept her.”

Anything else beekeepers are looking for?

“They’re also checking to make sure there are no swarm cells in the hives: if there’s a new queen [that was born in the hive], that means the old queen will  take off with about half the hive to a tree somewhere and scare the daylights out of people.”

Is there any reason to be afraid when bees swarm?

“It’s not dangerous at all. In fact, bees are the least dangerous when swarm. Bees are territorial; they defend their hive. But they don’t consider a temporary home defensible. You can even touch their temporary home and they’ll be passive. And actually, even in the hive they can be gentle. But when people see swarming, they get this ‘killer bee’ mentality.

“When bees swarm, that means their  hive is overcrowded. To find a new home, they send out scouts, who report back. They’re looking for place that’s dry; is of a certain size, like the inside of a refrigerator; and with a small defendable entrance, like in a hollow tree or a crevice in building.

“People wonder, well, different scouts go different places; how do the bees decide which place is the best? How do bees make decisions? They’re very democratic. And bees are very honest. They vote, and there’s no ego involved. A bee that’s found a great location will do a vigorous dance, and  all the other bees will sit up and take notice. If she’s found a mediocre place, she does a less-great dance, and not that many bees will gravitate to her. They gravitate to the bee that does the longest and most vigorous dance – they will move physically around to that bee. Then the scout leads them off to the new location.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bank Street or Bust!

Yester-warm-sunny-day, with my thoughts already skipping toward bees and spring, I got word that THE HONEYBEE MAN was a finalist for Bank Street College of Education's first annual Cook Prize. I'm so thrilled and honored, I thought I'd take the opportunity to launch a week of posts about children's books, science, and bees. I hope you'll join me here in the days to come!

I'll start with a look at the prize and the three other excellent finalists (winner to be announced on May 17). The Cook Prize is meant to honor picture books about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the eight-to-10-year-old reader range. Apparently, it's the only national children's choice award to honor a STEM book, which makes it doubly (triply?) exciting that three of the four finalists have local (New York) settings.

Of course, THE HONEYBEE MAN is set on a Brooklyn rooftop. BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY (Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin 2011) traces the history of the floating puppets we all know and love in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. MEADOWLANDS: A WETLANDS SURVIVAL STORY (Thomas F. Yezerski, FSG 2011) is a love story, of sorts, to the polluted New Jersey marshland's fragile ecosystem. The fourth book, ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS (Cathryn Sill, Peachtree 2011), explores the life and times of the tiny birds, in all their various habitats. (I've never seen one in Brooklyn, but I'm always on the lookout - we've got bees, after all. Why not hummingbirds?)

Monday, February 27, 2012

This came in the mail today:
It's the March issue of Keitodama magazine, hot off the press and then the airplane from Japan. It's my favorite kind of eye candy - beautiful handmade things to look at on every page (including some made by friends like Ruth Marshall; and Annemor Sundbo; and Kazekobo, who's got a whole spread featuring her Fair Isle and Shetland lace knitting).

But my favorite thing about the issue is this:
That's right, for the very reasonable price of 3500 yen (about $46), you can now order this book and have it delivered to Japan. Yippee!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


...Ada's Fair Isle! It took a far sight longer (with a final 5-hour push on Sunday to finish the second sleeve and and weave in all those %&^$%#$@&?**%! ends) than I bargained for. But hey, at least it's still winter.
I will attempt less-blurry documentation at another time. I felt fortunate this morning that she consented to photos at all. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012


For the past decade, knitting has been such a part of mainstream American culture it's hard to believe it hasn't stitched its way into a kids story before now. EXTRA YARN by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Balzer + Bray 2012) remedies the deficiency.

In this simply-told picture book, Annabelle discovers a box of yarn, with which she knits sweaters for herself and her pup. These two sweaters morph into four, then forty; soon, Annabelle has wrapped everyone in town, and the town itself, in her yarn-y creations. And still, miraculously, the box of yarn shows no sign of running dry.

Subtle references to the hot topic of yarn bombing, as well as the not-at-all subtle messages of the enlivening aspects of generosity and of making something with your hands, will appeal to knitting- and non-knitting kids alike.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

We Have A Collar

And not much else to show for the weekend, unfortunately, since I couldn't seem to pick up enough stitches around the armhole in order to follow the pattern. Maybe I'll try over a cocktail later. Cocktails may be the secret to Fair Isle. We'll see how this hypothesis holds up as the sweater-knitting (hopefully) draws to a close.

Meanwhile, a big thanks to Carla Meijsen of Sampler M fame, for her mention of Knitting Around the World. Unfamiliar with the Sampler M knitalong? Find it here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Behold the Steek!

I steeked my first sweater yesterday at my beloved LYS, Brooklyn General. The mighty and excellent Heather stood steadfastly by my side as I brandished the scissors. (A special thanks to Cricket for snapping a couple of pictures).

I know a lot of people suffer angst at the idea snipping something they've been working on for months. But honestly, the steeking itself wasn't the least bit terrifying. I'm not sure why. Maybe I was having a counter-reaction to another would-be-steeker at the shop, who was experiencing a mild freak-out just before I began to cut; maybe I'd just listened to Heather telling me that all would be well for long enough that her words finally sunk in. At any rate, the Fair Isle between the blades yielded perfectly smoothly; actually, it felt kind of good - physically, that is - to cut it. Now I just have to finish the thing up: neckband today, sleeves hopefully by the end of next week.

"It," for the detail-minded among you, is the Child's Panel Gansey from Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Only, as usual, I've switched out the pattern to suit what yarns I had on hand: Green Vale Alpaca 2-ply in undyed natural brown and cream - a gift from a very generous friend - and a variety of Schoeller & Stahl DK weight wools from the stash. Wish me fortitude in wrapping this up quickly! I'm seriously ready to be done and to see my daughter wearing her sweater at long last. She's been patient since September - no mean feat for an eight-year-old.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Nice Review in the Trades

Thanks, Nanette Donohue and Library Journal! (December 1, 2011):
The history is the heart of [Knitting Around the World], but there’s so much more here, including interviews with well-known knitting experts, descriptions of unique yarns and techniques, and projects focused on each region’s styles and traditions. This excellent – and very readable – reference to global knitting traditions belongs on the bookshelf of any knitter interested in the history and development of knitting.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

(Sigh) – KAW Errata

There comes a time in every book's life when the mistakes pebbling its pages have come to the fore. And this time has now come to pass for Knitting Around the World. No matter how diligently a book team strives to put out an error-free tome - well, let's just say it rarely happens. The mistakes in KAW follow an interesting theme: most goofs seem to have occurred in the captions. So, in case you were worrying that you'd lost your mind and couldn't distinguish a mitten from a glove, or a sheep from a goat, worry no longer. Below, a list of the most obvious errata:

Page 17: You're not reading wrong; a caption that belongs to a photo on Page 30 is wedged in here. The offending, displaced text: “French knitting project realized for Crafts Council (England) with the London-based Somali Women’s Group”

Page 21: A little bit of a copyediting glitch here. The sentence should read “They’ve engendered many speculations about who KNIT..."

Page 99: The Napoleonic Wars started around 1803

The caption for a Sami mitten (page 109) has changed places with a Gotland-related glove (page 129)

Page 125: Of course, the entrelac sock pictured here was knit with 2 colors, although 3 or more could be used

Page 135: Yes, those are soft-soled SHOES shown here

Page 136: And yes, those are GOATS, not sheep

Page 147: The two glove captions are transposed - the fringed gloves are wedding gloves and the plainer were made by Ann Magiste

Page 157: in the top photo, those are hand-knit socks and HATS for sale

Page 195: The Prince of Knitting is named MITSUHARU Hirose

Page 243: The differentiation in language names for these hats is: ch’ullu (in Quechua) and chullo (Spanish)

Those are all the significants mistakes I've found to date. Give a holler if you've got questions about anything else in the book!