"Find the Right Book"

Chapter 10_edit
I was recently introduced to Sarah, a local educator and author of the new book Spell Shaper, which she wrote specifically with kids with learning differences/dyslexia in mind. 

GGC: Let's talk Spell Shaper. Can you tell me a little bit about your book and how it came to be?

Sarah: I had been teaching in the middle and upper elementary grades (2 to 5) for several years in some wonderful schools where parents were just as passionate as we teachers were about encouraging their children to love literature.  Of course, our children don't always develop according to all our plans, do they?  

It turned out that every year I had several students I affectionately referred to as my "wanderers," because of the way they meandered through our classroom during reading time - going to the bathroom, poking other kids with pencils, and namely doing anything but reading. Some of Girl's Gone Child's readers may have one or two in their homes: these are the children whom you have to bribe, cajole, assign, and otherwise nag to open a book and turn a few pages.  They can even insist on being timed during the whole experience, and when that alarm goes off, the book is slammed shut with a dramatic thud.  Some of my "wanderers" had learning differences like dyslexia, but others were just navigating a tricky transition in their reading development.

Since I am also a trained reading specialist, my families looked to me for guidance.  In virtually all cases, I found that these children were reading books that were just plain too hard for them. They were reading classics and huge exciting fantasies and books that their well-meaning had parents remembered fondly and passed on.  The solution was simple: find the right book.  I had seen it so many times before, and studies have confirmed it: when children  find books that are engaging and "just right" for them, they finally get lost in a book and realize what all the fuss has been about.  I just needed to find That Chapter Book!  

Easy peasy, right?  Except not.

So I decided to write what I hoped might be That Chapter Book. Spell Shaper is a fantasy story that traces the journey of a young elf boy named Finn from helplessness to empowerment.  At the start of the story, he bitterly resents his magic-based learning disability, as well as the fact that his younger sister is an amazing spell caster.  Over the course of the story, as he devotes himself to improving his skills, he realizes that the very learning differences that make some things so challenging also make him special in ways he could never have imagined.

GGC: What was your process like while working on the book? 

Sarah: Originally, it came to me very quickly and organically as a kind of tribute to my students.  Over the next year or so, I read my class sections and revised with their feedback to model authentic ways that writers revisit and alter their work. Then I put it on a metaphorical shelf, but when I found myself pregnant last year, I realized that if I wanted to publish the book, this was my chance.  
spell shaper front cover
GGC: Can you tell me a little about your co-editor and illustrator? 

Sarah: When I met my student Zivia Avelin, I immediately knew that she would be the perfect person to bring Spell Shaper to artistic life, since she truly embodies so many aspects of the main character.  Like my protagonist, Finn, Zivia has a learning difference that has often frustrated her deeply: in her case, dyslexia.  When I met Zivia as a third grader, she announced matter-of-factly, "I can't read." This is a child, by the way, whose parents own a bookstore and whose spoken vocabulary far eclipses mine.  And yet, also in parallel to the main character, Zivia's learning difference and unique brain wiring also gives her many cool abilities.  

One of them is that she is an amazingly passionate artist, and so was eager to design all of the characters based on her vision.  At the same time, she functioned as a readability editor for the book: when we came to a particularly difficult word, she and I brainstormed how to communicate the same idea using a more accessible word or phrase.  Zivia lives one of the book's messages, which is that we all struggle with something, but that these "flaws" don't need to hold us back from being our best selves and coming into our own power.  

Zivia and I are really clear that Spell Shaper isn't a "book for struggling readers."  In fact, children who are "advanced" readers have still loved the story and didn't realize at all that we put so much time into the readability.  Some children identify with the learning differences theme, others with Finn's journey from a resentful and jealous sibling to one who really learns how to appreciate and care for his sister.
GGC: Do you have any advice or insight to share with parents who may have a child that is struggling to read?  

Sarah: Reading problems crop up at different times, sometimes even for early readers and children you wouldn't expect to struggle.  I would say the number one mistake parents (and even teachers) make with elementary-aged children is to try to rush reading development.  I always tell parents that reading is so much more than pronouncing words.  In the middle grades some children can "read" just about anything you put in front of them, and at this age they often want to impress others, so they may lug around thick tomes and proudly pronounce all the words, only to come away with a hazy understanding and little enjoyment. 

Basically, my rule is that if they aren't reading for pleasure, if they aren't actively seeking out books on the weekends and during the summer, things should be tweaked so that they find That Book. Do whatever you need to do for that to happen.  Get them graphic novels, magazines, whatever. It may just take just one perfect match, or may take a few, but eventually, those experiences will transform them.  Check bookstores, libraries, flea markets, and hey, while you're at it, check out Amazon. I would be thrilled if Spell Shaper is That Book for your child, or even just a Really Good Book.

Sarah has three copies of Spell Shaper available for giveaway. To win, leave a comment below and I'll pick three winners next week! Happy Friday, everyone!


Notes from NYC: Things We Did and Saw

I had all kinds of plans for us in the city. We were going to do The Natural History Museum and The Met, Central Park (Belvedere Castle and The Shakespeare Garden), The 9/11 Memorial Ponds, The Highline (we had big plans to walk the entire thing. HA!)

I wanted to hit up the The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, revisit Top of the Rock, which was the crowd favorite last time we were in NYC as a family. Archer remembered the view fondly but Fable did not. Fable was 2 1/2 then and I was entering my 2nd trimester with The Twisters. (Bo coined the term "Twister" on this trip i.e. twin + sister = twisters, which, YES. YES YES YES. Twisters, my girls are. Little tornadoes. And I am the storm chaser...)
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Bo and Revi had a hard time in the city. Bo was clearly overwhelmed and Revi matched her intensity by asking Bo if she wanted to "run away with her" or "hide behind a bush" or "throw a rock off the top of a castle." I longed for the days when I could strap both girls to my body and carry them around with me. I also longed for the days of strollers... Those were the days.
Our first day in the city, we took the advice of Ms.Andrea.Shaw on Instagram (thanks, lady!) and hit up Broadway in Bryant Park which was SPECTACULAR fun. The kids played Chinese Checkers, rode the old Carousel and I danced by myself to Phantom of the Opera which is my favorite Broadway Musical of all time probably because it was the first one I ever saw as a kid and I am still reeling from the experience.

We spent several hours in the park, hit up the Public Library for bathroom breaks. And after lunch, took the subway to The Met.
The kids marveled at the knights and their armor, the Egyptian artifacts and their mummies and the instruments in the instrument room. They adored the sculptures and then...  the little ones decided they wanted to climb all the things.
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We lasted an hour and a half before we had to bolt, but it was totally worth it. The kids got to see some American art, including the epic George Washington piece that both Hal and I remember fondly from our own childhood trips to the Met...
We did most of our dinners/all of our breakfast eating at home. But, besides the snacks I packed in my humongous backpack every day, lunches were always eaten at whatever restaurant we happened to be next to when hungry. ED: As for eating out with kids, here is my trick for knowing if the restaurant is appropriate for kids: Crayons. If a restaurant has crayons, you're clear. If the restaurant does not have crayons -- go elsewhere. (This is a tried and true method that has never steered me wrong in ten years.) For example, this restaurant (which name I do not know) had crayons:  
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We got smart by day #3 and used ice cream as a bribe for making it through the day relatively unscathed. (There is an ice cream truck on every block which proved incredibly difficult because NO WE CANNOT HAVE ICE CREAM IT'S 10AM.) This place (pictured below) was two blocks from our apartment. And they had "child size" cups which I appreciate. (Smalls are NEVER small when it comes to Ice Cream. What is up with that, America? What is up?)
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For our second day, we spent the morning in Central Park... We toured Belvedere Castle and marveled at the butterflies in The Shakespeare Garden. It was beautiful. A string quartet played and the girls danced and we ate tortillas and apple slices and sprawled out in the shade.
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We searched out the nearest bathroom and listened to some jazz musicians play on our way back through the park. We sat on benches, chased each other around, looked for another bathroom. (And another.) And then, after stopping for lunch (which resulted in a disastrous meltdown), we headed back to our apartment to sit quietly and play Scrabble and cry.

And then later, in Chelsea... 
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ED: What happened to Chelsea? When did it become a mall? 

I felt similarly about The Highline. Which was beautiful and much adored... But also... a little... I don't know... sanitized? Los Angeles gets skewered for its propensity for phony but I felt completely blindsided this trip by a very different kind of Manhattan. Everything felt new and shiny... brick and stone replaced with metal and glass. Dirt replaced with tiny rocks...  trees with bamboo... LA does that, too. We knock down our historic homes and replace them with eco-friendly boxes with gray stone yards. But LA is a child in comparison. LA is a new city -- its oldest structures 150 years old. NYC is an old soul, made of stone and poetry... but now?

My brother in law, a New Yorker, sent me the link to this piece by Zadie Smith, which echoed a lot of what I felt. (He agreed that the city has transformed quickly over the last several years.)

...For three whole blocks before I gave up trying to shepherd our crew forward and sat down, bare feet in the water feature (lovely) and watched my kids soak their clothes from heel to shoulder until dinner time happened and we hightailed it home. 
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ED: I really wanted to do The Statue of Liberty this trip but it didn't happen. Next time, I hope. Ellis Island, too. (My kids' names originated from Ellis Island... when Isaac's son, Wolf exited the boat from Poland, just two short generations ago... But I was far more excited about it than the kids were... in a few years, I'm hoping that will change.)

In the end, though, Central Park was the highlight. I realized this trip, we are park people. We like gardens. All of us are at our best in a shady spot surrounded by plants. Maybe because gardens are our go-to destinations here in LA but there's something about the garden lyf that appeals to all of us. It always feels like home. It's where we find our family zen.
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(Thank you, Ashley for recommending The Shakespeare Garden/Belvedere Castle. It was magic.) 
And so, on this ye family vacation, 2015, one of the many takeaway lessons was this: when in doubt, find a garden. 
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What about you guys? Where do you take your kids in NYC? I would love to hear from the New Yorkers in the house and also those of you who have traveled there with small children. Where do you recommend? 

"Lift your voice. And sing."

A couple months ago I posted a video of Khamal Iwuanyanwu who scored perfect 10s on his Classic Slam performance with original poem, Sepia. Recently several new videos from the Get Lit Classic Slam have been uploaded, thanks to Button Poetry and I wanted to share a few more with you, today. As always, I stand behind these teens in awe and gratitude. The future is mighty with truth.

ED: The way The Classic Slam works is this: Teenage poets first recite a famous work by a known poet. And then they respond with their own personal work.

"...Our fathers who married white women who got hassled by the police, chased down the streets, thrown up against cars just for being out with them... do not let your melanin be your melancholy... We are black diamonds. The more pressure you put on us the stronger we become. Lift your voice and sing. Let the sound ring out so they can hear you. Over the cries of their own deafening hate. Even though the melodies can get muddled... Even though our flutes are failing and our trumpets are trembling and our organs are out of tune. Lift your voice and sing."

"My parents hopped the border, chased the train, hid in crates, all to arrive in this country to shape it to what it is today. A future on their shoulder and hope in their veins. They went through so much torture, now it brings me pain to let city streets define me. I never gave the north star a chance to guide me. I listened to Martin's Dream and now I have one of my own to allow all people to come together and yes I know, Lord forbid a Mexican even stand beside your kid. Lord forbid harmony should ever even exist... " 

"My right to enter a conversation shatters with the shyness of Asberger's syndrome. I am terrified of people... And yet. I secretly appreciate a swingset all to myself. A conversation just for me. The wind blowing in my face from a mile away. I have resigned to the fact that I will essentially never be normal and started searching for an identity. After all, few people would have the willingness to stand up for their weaknesses. But me, I make them willpower. Happiness is obliged to trample over insecurity. Thus, a loud cry for help becomes a soft declaration: I am terrified of people. I am terrified... of you." 

"I heard most guys like their girls BBW. So thick everybody in the room is uncomfortable. But I am not a pig you can throw into a contest at a county fair... prizes included: my virginity, bragging rights to your homies, you deciding my self worth... I'm worth first place. DEAR GIRLS. You're worth FIRST PLACE... "

"This is my introduction to the truth. The kind that drips off the end of your tongue because it's been stored for 16 years and you never knew how to say it..."


For more on Get Lit, go here. You can also subscribe to the Get Lit Youtube channel, here. 


Notes from NYC: Part One, The Apartment

The following post is in partnership with HomeAway.com. Thank you for the NYC digs, HomeAway! 
IMG_8738  Honey, I'm home!

When I first spoke to the ladies over at HomeAway.com, the plan was to rent a house in Mystic, CT. (This was the house we had our eye on. Beautiful, right? For 2-3 families to share? I mean... ) Then, after looking for hotels that could accommodate 6 people in NYC (we would have to get two rooms which.... Hi, $800-1k a night hajkhdakjhsd) we realized that renting a house in NYC and doing a motel in Mystic was the way to go. Eating out with kids, especially in cities, is my LEAST favorite part of traveling. For six people to eat out, it can cost between $60-$100 a meal. Bo and Archer eat adult-sized portions these days so kid menus only work for two of our four kids at the moment. And besides the cost, eating out with small children is the opposite of relaxing. I always end up spending the entire meal giving the twins tattoos with markers and/or trying to lure them off a booth with "I spy" which only sometimes works.

Needless to say, eating in is ALWAYS preferable. Which is why renting a home/apartment as opposed to a hotel, when possible, is the way to go. For us, anyway. ED: We rented an apartment with my parents and sister in Montreal last summer and the summer before that, when we celebrated my brother's PHD graduation in Provincetown, Cape Cod at a beach house we rented for a week. We cooked our own meals and drank our own coffee and rocked on our own porches before adventuring out into the afternoon... 

In the end, we decided to rent a motel room in Mystic for one night and stretch our NYC trip to three nights instead of two. 

We searched the HomeAway website over the course of several days before settling on several residences that fit our criteria -- space/location/proximity to a subway line (my kids LOVE the subway) and settled upon a beautiful two-story garden apartment on W. 84th street, half a block from Central Park West. It was a dream -- roomy enough to sleep 8 comfortably, and the price, relative to the size/space/location was extremely fair. 

The apartment was immaculate and yet completely child-friendly and comfortable.
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There were even two bathrooms which, I mean... in NYC? Come on...
Bedroom #1: Ours
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Hal and I picked the bedroom without the toddler bed, which seemed like the master. It was fresh and clean and beautiful. Very home-y and good vibes for days... 
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The bigs got the room with the view (and the extra toddler bed: not pictured) and, actually, all four ended up sleeping here our first night. (Bo had the toddler bed and the other three shared the big bed.) The second and third night, Bo and Revi agreed to sleep downstairs.(I actually fell asleep with them down there both nights. I am narcoleptic when it comes to lying down with my kids before bed. I fall asleep before they do and then I end up crawling out of bed, discombobulated an hour later.)


Here is where the twins slept...
It is also where all four kids pretended they had their own apartment NO ADULTS ALLOWED.
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IMG_8710 the staircase downstairs
As far as the rest of the apartment went, the kitchen was stocked. There were games for the kids. Cribs, strollers and various childproof-y items for those with small babes, umbrellas just in case AS WELL as a washer and dryer. (We were desperate for one.) Basically, everything one could possible need/use/ask for. There was also a YARD which was THE MOST EPIC part of all... I mean, we were in Manhattan. With a YARD. A BEAUTIFUL yard. 
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Also, this chair which was a huge smash sensation:
The highlight of our NYC stay was this apartment. We hosted friends and family in the evenings to hang with us in the audience of the kids' theatrical productions. (Archer, Bo and Fable put on a Broadway Review. Fable even made playbills.) We ate chocolate and sipped wine and chilled on the patio and laughed and cried and marveled at the beautiful NYC nights...
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And then, when everyone left we passed out in THE MOST comfortable beds. Zzzzzzzz-licious. Thanks again, HomeAway. And thank you Debra Jo for your kindness and hospitality and delicious lemon poppyseed muffins that I will dream about for the next several months.
...And Lotte, Line and Sophie for the sign. 
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The Isaacson/Woolfs
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