Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yes, I'm Still Moved!

So to learn about my Picks of the Week—and all my other news—please come visit me at! Don't forget to "follow" me over there by clicking the link at the top of the page!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Yes, I've Officially Moved!

Yes, this entire blog! For all the news this page has previously provided, please hop on over to my  website. You can find this week's Pick of the Week, and all future picks, on my website's "News & Picks of the Week" page. Can't wait to see you, and while you're over there, don't forget to hit the "follow" button!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I'm moving!

Dear friends of Lela Nargi News:
I'm moving this page! Starting with this weekend's Pick of the Week, I'll be posting reviews over on my website, on a page dedicated to News & Picks of the Week. Find it here. And so you don't miss a single installment, make sure you "Follow" the new page! It's easy as pie—just press the little button on the top left bar. See you over there!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Belated Mother's Day Pick(s)

As I was way too busy being adored by my family yesterday, I put off posting the thoughts I'd had in mind all last week for this page. And those concerned what is possibly my daughter and my favorite activity, reading aloud together. More specifically, my reading aloud to her. For the past few weeks we've been working our way through these:

Ada thought that I should wait to post about them until we'd finished the last book in the trilogy, THE AMBER SPYGLASS. But whether Ada likes the third book as much as the first two is slightly irrelevant to the purpose of this post. Which is to extol the virtues of reading to the kid(s) in your life. 

I'm moderately aware of what literacy experts have to say about the matter: that it increases vocabulary and stimulates language development; that it creates positive associations with reading generally; that it introduces kids to books they might not select on their own, and helps them learn to sit still and listen. All of these are terrific reasons. But they're not any of them the reasons I started reading to Ada in the first place, and they're not the reasons I continue to read to her now.

I guess my reasons are selfish. Reading some of my own favorite books to Ada lets me visit them again,  and also to appreciate them from her perspective, since she almost always has some observation that I'd missed, or that never occurred to me. Reading out loud also helps me understand, as a writer, what works and what doesn't in written language—I can hear when passages are too verbose, or when they  are paced just right (and in Philip Pullman's books, there are a lot of passages like the latter). And I can figure out, from Ada's reaction, what is fun and engaging and what is completely lame and boring.

Ada accuses me of not liking to play and I'm ashamed to admit it, but she's right; I'm good for putting together a puzzle, or arranging dollhouse furniture, or hauling down the sewing machine and practicing making seams. But the imaginative play as well as the board games—well, my husband really has to pick up the slack there. When I read to Ada, though, she accuses me of nothing. Pretty much for as long as I'm able to read—and sometimes we have marathon sessions going on two hours—she's able to sit and listen. I love watching as, when we come to a particularly tense scene in which Mrs. Coulter and her monkey daemon are up to their nasty old tricks again, she shoots up her head to look at me with wide eyes and to groan, "Oh, no!"

A lot less often than when she was younger, Ada will sit curled up with me on the couch as I read—as opposed to sitting and drawing at the coffee table, or glueing beads to something, or rolling around with the dog. When she does, I notice that she's reading along and I think how great that is, that she's getting to see how some big words are pronounced and building her vocabulary, and all those important educational things. But mostly, I'm just enjoying the feel of her soft, warm head tucked under my chin.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Picks of the Two Weeks, and a Tribute, of Sorts

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading as much E.L. Konigsburg as my local library shelf provided. Even before the sad event of her passing on April 19, I was well through my fourth reading of all time of her Newberry Award-winner, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was trying to determine if my third reading of all time (about three years ago, out loud to my daughter), in which I found myself vaguely disappointed by the story, was really a case of not-in-the-mood, or let-down due to Ada’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, or just of a once-beloved book—through no fault of its own—not being able to live up to the adoration in which it was once held. In short, I wanted to know if I plain didn’t like the book anymore. And more broadly, I was also considering the question of whether certain books seem out-of-date after a generation or two. Also in the back of my mind was The Wind in the Willows, my absolute favorite book of childhood, the one that made me want to be a writer in the first grade and which I plagiarized heavily for a story I scribbled in the notebook my mother bought me for my first day of school. When I tried to re-read it in adulthood, it seemed so dry and slow I could barely find my way out of the first chapter.

My 4th grade teacher read From the Mixed Up Files…out loud to us, way back in 1976. I was completely, unutterably entranced. So much so that when she finished the read-aloud, I asked her if I could borrow the book, so I could read it again at home. “What do you want to read it again for?” She asked. “We just finished it!” I wanted to read it again, of course, because I wanted to savor it all on my own, without having to listen to the tittering and commenting and breathing of my classmates—the scenes of planning and organizing to run away; the scenes of choosing where to sleep in the Metropolitan Museum, and those in which Claudia and Jamie have free run of it afterhours. In retrospect, it’s obvious why I loved these as much as I did. I grew up a few blocks away from the Met and my parents and I spent every Sunday afternoon there, wandering the Egyptian wing, and the Arms and Armor, and those rooms full of furniture. The book was like my own private fantasy written into life.

After my fourth read-through, I still wasn’t sure what I thought. Except for this: kids don’t really talk like that anymore. And also this: the story requires patience, which contemporary kids aren’t asked to dredge up very often when they read these days—they are thrown right into the action of a story, right off the bat. I had never read another book by E.L. Konigburg, so I checked out Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, her first novel; The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World; The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place; and Konigsburg’s second Newberry winner, The View from Saturday.

These books span four decades. And still, after reading them, I thought, kids don’t really talk that way anymore, and also, these stories require patience. And I also thought: these two observations are irrelevant. Because what was obvious on considering these five books all together were Konigsburg’s real talents. She had a true and deep understanding of the emotional complexity of relationships—the kind and savage ways we treat each other, and the place where those disparate sides of ourselves meet. And she was a master of the chaotic coincidence—the narrator who turns out to mean much more than the reader (or the protagonists) bargained for; an incidental, never-introduced character who holds the key to a grand mystery; four teenagers whose friendship hinges on a seemingly random wedding in Florida.

To enjoy the results of these talents, it is worthwhile to overlook quirks in dialog, and also to have patience.  And as a parent, and a late-arriving fan of some of these books, perhaps I should have patience, too. Ada may not have been ready for From the Mixed Up Files… as a six year old; and she might not be ready for it now, as a 4th grader; but perhaps one of these years she will discover this book and the others all on her own, and find them just right for the moment. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

My New Pick of the Week—Now With Extra Newness!

It’s not easy to pull off a story whose core has potentially maudlin proclivities, with no trace of sentimentality or the author’s own pity for her character.  If I hadn’t first read WONDER by R.J. Palacio for myself, though, I might have been alarmed to hear my daughter chuckling as she read the opening chapters of this book about boy with no real ears to speak of and a severely misaligned, surgery-scarred face; might have worried that she was sociopathically lacking in empathy.

But laughing your way through is a good impulse (albeit one I didn’t have, probably because I’ve already lived through middle school, the backdrop for WONDER, and remember precisely nothing amusing about the experience). It not only serves to honor the efforts of the protagonist, August, and those around him to muddle through adversity—living with your own impossible face or living with a person who has an impossible face—but negates the corniness of an inevitable happy ending. Not that a book like this shouldn’t have a happy ending. In fact, one thing I realize I’ve been enjoying about middle grade novels is their absolute unabashed conviction in happy endings; it’s always a joy to reach the last page, when you feel fulfilled by what’s come before.

WONDER begins in August’s voice, as he grapples with the idea of going off to the terrifying world of school for the very first time, and all the angst, fear and bravery that entails. A few chapters in, it switches its POV to August’s various family members and acquaintances, then eventually circles back to August. Initially, I wasn’t sure I liked this devise. It snaps the reader out of the carefully-constructed world of the story, which is a little bit dangerous—the reader may never come back around. But because of it, the book achieves a broader, more complex and compelling understanding of the workings of empathy. It also recognizes that some people who cross our paths are just jerks, beyond the reach of empathy; a happy ending is happy, too, to leave them behind. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Holiday-Week Pick

Are you and the kinder driving each other crazy this break? In the spirit of d├ętente, I offer up a Pick of the Week that my own kid and I agree on: 

This novel by Marie Rutkowski is the first in a trilogy that Ada devoured in short order. I've only made it through the first two, but find the inaugural book to be a lot more compelling (for the record, Ada disagrees). As it turns out, Ada and I not only agree that we really like this book, we agree on the reason why. 

"It's weird," my daughter enthuses. "I mean, how many people have a metal spider?" (This is a reference to the protagonist, Petra's, pet, made by her magic-wielding metalsmith of a father, along with a whole metal menagerie.) "Or can steal eyeballs?" (I'll refrain from elaborating here, in the interest of not spoiling the rest of the plot). "And I love that it happens in a real time" (the Middle Ages), "in a real place" (Bohemia, now the Czech Republic), "and that fake stuff is mixed up with the real stuff." To which I can only respond, "Exactly." 

It's this mingling of the historic and the fantastical that makes the book a success—and Petra's spider, Astrophil, affectionate despite his cold exterior, and also a voracious reader, is only one small part of the equation. The world that Rutkoski has created holds true even though we know that it is punctuated with non-realities. In fact, it is all of its charm. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Next week, I'll be celebrating Agricultural Literacy Week by reading The Honeybee Man to 2nd graders at PS 29, PS 3 and PS 41. As an added bonus, I'll also be spending Earth Day with 1st and 2nd graders at the United Nations International School. Can't wait to meet you all, and to find out what you know and love about honeybees!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Next Big Thing: Blog Tour

“The Next Big Thing: Blog Tour” has landed here! Thanks to Michelle Edwards for tagging me and for helping to keep this thing going. Here are my answers to The 10 Questions:

            1. What is the title of your book?
The Honeybee Man, written by me, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker

        2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
From a jar of Brooklyn honey I found in a local teashop. Beekeeping was still illegal in NYC at that time (about 5 years ago) and anyone who was keeping bees was doing it extremely quietly. Until I found that honey, it had never occurred to me that anyone could or would keep bees in an urban environment, or that there city flowers would make for edible—let alone tasty—honey. Immediately, I wanted to know all about it.

         3. What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a picture book that’s what I guess you’d call a non-fictional fiction story.

 4. What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie?
Walter Matthau, if he weren’t dead. I’d probably pick Walter Matthau to play the role of any man of a certain age, in any movie at all.

         5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A story inspired by a real Brooklyn apiarist and his delicious honey

        6. Who is publishing your book?
It was published by Schwartz & Wade.

          7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About a week, although later revisions seemed to take forever.

          8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?
There are certainly some terrific picture books about bees out there: The Beeman by Laurie Krebs and UnBeelievables by Douglas Florian, for example.

         9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Anything I write for kids I write for my nine-year-old daughter. And the topics that interest and inspire both her and me are the ones that often fall beneath the radar in a big and busy city such as New York.

        10. What else about this book might pique a reader’s interest?
        Along with Laurie Krebs' The Beeman, it was recently chosen to be read to 2nd grade New Yorkers as part of the Cornell Extension Service’s Agricultural Literacy Week. I’ll be reading it at schools around the city the week of March 18.

Thanks for stopping by and learning a little more about the book! And now, I’m tagging Lesley Alderman and her newly released book, which I can’t wait to read:

"The Book of Times is an endlessly fascinating survey of time. Packed with compelling charts, lists, and quizzes, as well as new and intriguing research, the book examines a wide swath of life—love, war, crime, art, money and media—through the unerring meter of the clock."

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Honeybees in the Classroom!

No pick of the week this week, but I'll share some fabulous news: Cornell's Cooperative Extension has chosen THE HONEYBEE MAN to teach 2nd graders in NY State a little something about urban honeybees, as part of its Agricultural Literacy Week. It all happens the week of March 18, and hopefully, I'll be hopping around town, reading at schools throughout the boroughs. Find out more about this excellent program here, and stay tuned for reading datse—I'll be posting updates as I know them.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Right Book! (That Wasn't)

This time, I was sure I had it. Thanks to the excellent book-sleuthing skills of Louise and Sue, librarians at the children's collection at the NYPL's main branch, British author Helen Cresswell's Moondial was delivered into my waiting hands for on-site viewing. In the brief minutes I could spend that day in the reading room, I sped through the first 44 pages.

All sorts of familiar details sprang out at me: the "icy gusts" that Minty, the protagonist, experiences as she nears the sun/moondial; the garden "waiting for her;" the boy from another time clad in his rough jacket and woolen trousers. Never mind that I didn't remember Minty's mother having a car accident, or anyone owning a microwave oven. I went right home and ordered an old copy of the book for 1 cent, certain that the rest of the details I'd been reading fast to find would emerge beginning on page 45.

Well, they didn't. The back-and-forth between eras that Minty experiences at the moondial is too swift and easy (in the book I remember, the protagonist has to unlock the mystery of the sundial in order to figure out how to use it for time travel). There is none of the riddle-solving or potion-making that stuck so fast in my memory. And that microwave...well, that was a big clue, if only because it prompted me to look at the publication date. Which was 1987. The year I was a sophomore in college and so, needless to say, an unlikely year for me to have been reading a middle grade mystery novel.

And so the search continues! Thanks to all who've been helping in the quest and please keep writing in with your suggestions!

Friday, January 11, 2013

This Is Not the Book I'm Looking For

Every several years, I embark on a fruitless search to find a particular book I once read and enjoyed when I was about my daughter's age (9). The search renews whenever I have a new crop of librarians and/or children's book specialists of one stripe or another available in my life—in the most recent instance, a week ago, the amazing former Bank Street librarian, Lisa von Drasek. Sadly, the search always ends in failure. 

This is not the book I'm looking for (although, LVD, please know it was a noble guess, the closest yet):

Neither is this—not even close, not by a long shot:

And neither is this:

Although honestly, this one didn't come as any shock at all, since the book I'm looking for must have been written in the '60s or '70s and Annie Barrows is a thoroughly contemporary author. It was just a dream, the wisp of a hope of a dream, persistently unrequited. 

I'm not sure why it's so important to me to rediscover this book. It couldn't have been one of my favorites, seeing as how I can't even remember its title, I never owned it–just took it out of the library, once–and this means I never re-read it. The only thing I remember about it is one critical scene, in which the protagonist brings a concoction of herbs to a sundial in an overgrown garden, in order to travel back in time. I'm guessing it wasn't otherwise much of a book (how else to account for the ignorance of whole teams of kid lit experts?). But still I persist; I hate a lingering literary mystery and plus, my daughter is a dedicated potion concocter–something tells me she'd love, if not this whole book, at least that one potion-related scene in the weed-filled garden. 

Anyone? Anyone?

Meanwhile, unrelated to magical gardens and time travel, I offer this book as my pick of the week:

It's probably not the greatest book ever written, and it's certainly dated. But in its favor are a tiny, magical talking dog; a covetous collection of miniature bejeweled wind-up animals with various abilities; and yes, as the title pretty much screams, flying in the house. After 45 years of living, I still wish I could do that.