Teaching, Reading, and Workshops: Or is The Book Whisperer Enough?

Because I'm hoping to get back into teaching soon, I've been reading a lot about education lately. It's been a long time since I was surrounded by teachers, and times, and methods, have evolved. Of course, all the new governmental regulation is changing the face of education yet again -- for better or worse. But those are conversations for another day. For now, I've been reading, marking up, and taking notes on about a dozen books, mostly about language arts. Specifically, I've recently read four books about teaching reading. Yesterday I read The Book Whisperer by Miller, and today I'm into The Art of Teaching Reading, by Calkins.

Miller is a woman after my own heart. Bring them into a classroom rich with wonderful books, and have them read, she says. Time spent reading makes readers better, and the best readers are the best writers, communicators, students, and test-takers. But Miller teaches 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies, so students are coming to her with at least some rudimentary ability to read. She doesn't need to wrestle with phonemes or phonics, letter formation or spelling sight words. What would she do differently if she taught Kindergarten or First Grade, I wonder? Has she ever had a student who can't read or write? I'd like to know how she would deal with the need to provide appropriate books and support to a non-reader who had already been held back once or twice, or a foreign student with no English. Perhaps these situations haven't come before her. If they have, I wish she'd write about them. (I know she has a website, but I haven't visited it yet.)

Two of the books I purchased, (see below), are specifically about Reading Workshop, a method of organizing reading instruction with a large group lesson, small groups, mini/strategy lessons, book partnerships, book clubs, reading journals, individual conferences and independent reading. (As you can imagine, not a small part of these books is spent discussing planning and organization.) At the center of a Reading Workshop is supposed to be the child, reading a book of their own choosing, hopefully at their independent reading level. We know from many studies that when kids have plenty of time to read books they want, they become better readers. But looking at sample schedules, I see that of a 90 minute block, independent reading is often only 20-25 minutes, and kids are being pulled out of it for small groups and one-on-one conferences with the teacher. Also, while they're reading, they are often armed with sticky notes reminding them to stop and predict, question, or record their reactions to something they've read. So I wonder, how much time are these students actually spending inside their books? Are they able to get caught up in the story, knowing that at any moment they might be called for a meeting, interrupted to discuss theme or strategies to sound out words they don't know? Again, grade level matters here. Twenty five minutes focusing on books is quite a while for a five year old who may not have had any experience with books before coming to school, but perhaps not enough when you're eleven and desperate to finish Harry Potter. Miller's contrasting attitude, leave them alone and let them read, is appealing. She relies on a weekly response journal, and talking with her kids about books to gauge comprehension. They also do occasional book commercials and recommendations. I just wish I knew more about the level of the students who come into her room.

Calkins also advocates the workshop approach. "During independent reading, teachers confer with children individually and in partnerships. A teacher may also gather a cluster of children together for a strategy lesson around a shared text.... A teacher may also gather a small group for a guided reading session.” p73. I can’t help but wonder what message this sends our kids about reading -- that it’s something to do to stay busy till the teacher is ready for you? Yet I totally understand the fact that teachers are dealing with a limited amount of time to teach, a great number of demands on that time, and a wide range of abilities within one classroom. When I was in school, (back in the old days...) we had USSR or DEAR, Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading, or Drop Everything and Read, in which even the secretaries and janitors were encouraged to curl up with a book for 20-30 minutes every day. Now we seem to have Read Until Some Thing Interrupts, (RUSTI?)

Any decent teacher will tell you that instruction depends on grade level and the individual needs of the students. I know that. But I can’t help but wonder, as I read these books on reading instruction, how much of what we do to teach reading is still based on what we think kids need, as opposed to what will actually help them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. I wish I knew. I guess I’ll keep reading, in hopes of finding out.

Read Well, Friend

The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy McCormick Calkins
Making the Most of Small Groups
, Debbie Diller
The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller
Teaching Reading in Small Groups, Jennifer Serravallo


In Flanders Field

Ypres, 1915
Although he had been a doctor for years and had served
in the South African War, Canadian Major John McCrae became overwhelmed by his experience in his 17 days as a surgeon near Ypres, Belgium. He later wrote of it:

"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."

While there he scribbled these lines:

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

-- Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

I salute those who have lived, and died, for their country.


More Edu-speak

"Show me a kid who understands that he is 'synthesizing, analyzing and evaluating the validity and reliability of information from multiple sources,' and I’ll show you a wise, old owl, aka curriculum writer."
- Melinda Ehrlich, in response to this article in Education Next, Data-Driven and Off Course.

More on it later. Until then,

Vote and Read Well, Friend


This is Teaching?

I know I've been out of education-speak for a while, but what does this mean? "...a constructivist design process should be concerned with designing environments which support the construction of knowledge, which...provides an Intellectual Toolkit to Facilitate an Internal Negotiation Necessary for Building Mental Models"? I posted this lovely bit of edu-speak on Facebook a while back. I'm studying to take a Principles of Learning and Teaching (Praxis II) test to get re-certified to teach, and found this "explanation" on a university website.

Why do college professors and researchers, (and politicians, I might add), so often think that big words and complicated phrases are a sign of big intelligence? I know that special areas of knowledge need specialized vocabulary, but shouldn't that vocabulary help clarify, not obscure, meaning? To what degree does language like this serve as some sort of group marker -- "If you can talk like this you're one of us and if you can't you're obviously not, you inferior, teeny-brained life form."

What particularly kills me about this is that it's taken from a site designed to help explain these topics to education students. I got my degree 30 years ago, so I've been out of the "research talk" loop for a long time, and I'm not surprised at finding myself needing to make an effort to wrap my head around some of the vocabulary again. But if someone who claims to be a teacher can't explain their point more clearly than this, I think there's a problem. What is teaching but, on some level, the quest to make the currently unknown knowable to our students? If those who teach our teachers can't or won't do this, then why are we so surprised that people aren't learning?

Communication should be the foundation of teaching. If I have the background needed, and the desire to learn, and you can't explain it in a way that makes sense to me, then guess what? Maybe YOU'RE NOT A VERY GOOD TEACHER! That goes for my college Calculus teacher who thought writing the answers to the practice problems on the board and then walking out of the room was teaching. And to my Tae-Kwan-Do teacher who kept telling me I wasn't holding the baton-thingy wrong, but wouldn't tell me how to correct it. If you can't explain constructivism to me in a way I can grasp and apply, then there's a problem. Maybe you don't really understand it yourself. Maybe it's a very vague concept, and thus probably not all that useful to some fourth grade teacher in a real classroom anyway. Or perhaps you're not really trying, but using lazy thinking and regurgitated phrases. But it's also possible that you're not good at explaining things so others can understand them. In that case, perhaps you shouldn't be teaching, and certainly not teaching those who will be teaching our young. If you can't lead by example, then maybe it's time for you to get out of the classroom and let in people who can.

Back to the flash cards. "Constructivism is a theory of learning based on the idea that..."

Read Well, Friend


It's All Moot Anyway

It came up first on Says You!, that PBS radio game of "words and whimsy, bluff and bluster" that's always entertaining. When they asked their panelists to define the word moot, you just knew there had to be a catch. It means not worth talking about, right, a moot point being something that's already been decided? Not exactly. It turns out moot is a bit like inflammable -- it does and it doesn't, if you get my meaning. Yes, one definition of it is "of no legal significance," probably because it's already been decided. I always thought that's what a moot court was -- law students sitting around arguing cases that had already been decided, just for the practice. But it turns out that the word moot is also defined as "arguable or open to debate, as in 'that's a moot question.'"

It got worse when I turned to Merriam-Webster online for help. There it's considered perfectly fine to use moot as a verb meaning to bring up for discussion, i.e. "broach", but it's obsolete to use it in terms of a legal debate, though a moot court is still one in which law students argue hypothetical cases. Oh well. Glancing further down I see that Merriam-Webster thinks that the words moot and mute rhyme, which they clearly do not, so I now feel justified in throwing their opinion out all together. The baby and the bathwater approach works just fine for me, thank you. However, I still have two pretty contradictory definitions using moot as a adjective -- 1. Debatable or 2. Not worth debating because it's already settled or has no meaning.

By the way, the word moot comes from the Ole English gemot which was a meeting of freemen where various affairs and legal issues were discussed. That comes from the Germanic word motam, also meeting. So though the word-pure among us consider that moot actually means worthy of holding a meeting and discussing, it seems we in the US, at least, have taken the legal idea of a hypothetical debate, and turned moot into a word not worth talking about. Thus my frustration while watching Law and Order: SVU yesterday when I informed the actors, "Who cares who gets jurisdiction, you just proved he was insane at the time of the crime so it's a m--t point!" Help! I obviously need a new word for the second meaning of moot. Any suggestions? I suppose I could say hypothetical, but it just “ain’t got that swing,” you know?

Oh, and if you’re looking for some help rhyming, please don’t turn to Merriam-Webster. Moot and mute, indeed.

Read Well, Friend


Rules for the Aspiring Detective, Part Two

Here are the last five of Robert Knox’s 10 Rules for Detective Fiction from the Golden Age of Mysteries.

Rule #6. “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” Personally I don’t mind the occasional accident helping to unmask a killer. After all, bizarre events do happen in real life. (Just ask me about my last two years, for example...) I’ll also accept some intuition, mostly in amateur female sleuths. We’re rather known for it, after all. But it must be born out by the facts of the story, which the detective must unearth before the end. What I personally don’t like is smugness on the part of the detective who has a perfectly good reason for suspecting someone, but refuses to reveal it. That's is another reason Sherlock Holmes will never be my favorite guy, though I like some of the stories about him a lot. The Speckled Band, for example. Come to think of it, there is a kind of a secret passage in that story, and another favorite, Hound of the Baskervilles, appears to have a supernatural element to it, (rules #2 and 3.) There may be a trend here...

Rule #7. “The detective himself must not commit the crime.” I like this rule, because it keeps me from feeling the need to peek to the end of the book, just to be sure I can trust what I'm reading. I did once read a book where the criminal turned out to be the sleuth, and I was thoroughly disgusted when I realized I had been tricked that way. Without trust between the writer and audience, reading becomes too much of a mine field for me to enjoy. I’ve never been a big fan of the kind of speculative fiction that keeps me off balance while I’m reading. Too much like real life, perhaps? No, part of the appeal of a mystery is the sense of write and wrong in these stories. Just like in a real western, there must at least one good guy, and I want to know who he is.

Rule #8. “The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.” No more scenes of the detective slowly unfolding a piece of paper, turning it to the light to read it more clearly, then -- folding it back up and sticking it in his pocket. A real man, or woman, shares his clues!

Rule #9. “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.” Now these are Robert Knox’s words, not mine. But let’s admit it, Watson can be very dense sometimes. I used to worry about his patients, wondering if a man as slow as he was could really be a decent doctor. Fortunately, his physician/neighbor spends so much time covering for him, is patients were probably pretty safe.

Rule #10. “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” Or even then. I mean, really. What kind of self respecting mystery writer relies on a body double, twin, or long-lost relative to make their case? In the same vein I dislike undisclosed marriages, innocent looking people who turn out to have worked for the SS or MI-5, and secret wills. In Ngaio Marsh’s The Final Curtain, Sir Henry Ancred has the details of his new will read aloud. When his subsequent death is explained by the existence of a quite different version he had drawn up at the same time, I always cry “Foul.” Mysteries are supposed to be full of lies, cheats, and trickery -- but that’s supposed to be the criminal, not the writer or the sleuth. After all, it can be a scary world out there, and a girl needs to have someone she can trust.

Read Well, Friend


Visit My New Blog

I get frustrated sometimes at only being able to post snippets of poems on this blog. I don't want to overwhelm my posts, and a sidebar can only hold so much. So I've taken advantage of the the ease of designing new blogs in blogger and added another one -- A Few Reasonable Words. It will contain the full text of poems I reference on A Book With a View, and probably other bits and pieces that strike my fancy, too. You can get to it from my sidebar, or with this link -- A Few Reasonable Words.

The title comes from this quote, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." Goethe

Stop by for a visit, please.

Read Well, Friend


Rules for the Aspiring Detective, Part One

The 1920s and 30s, commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Stories, saw the rise of many of our most famous mystery writers. Among them were Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Josephine Tey and Raymond Chandler. Mysteries moved from primarily being the sphere of the short story to novel length, and different styles developed. The cozy mystery, the English country house, hard -- boiled, and locked room stories emerged, for example. It was during this period that, in a preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, priest, mystery writer and editor Robert Knox laid down the 10 Rules for Detective Fiction. These rules are often referred to as the corner stone of mystery writing in the Golden Age of Detective Stories. Did he mean them to be taken completely seriously, or were they given tongue -- in -- cheek? Honestly, I can't tell. It's very hard to assign motive and intent to something done years ago. Whatever his attitude, the rules do promote the idea of fair play between the writer and reader, something many of us still appreciate today. Here, with my thoughts added, are those 10 rules.

Rule #1. "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know." Thus the innocent sounding narrator can't turn out to be the murderer in disguise. The inverted mystery is an exception to this rule. In this type of story we know who did it, how and why. The fun is in watching the detective unravel the clues and track the miscreant down. For some reason, I think these inversions work better when seen than read. Examplers are TV’s Columbo and Law and Order: CI. Is there anyone who doesn't get a secret thrill every time Columbo turns to the bad guy and says, "Oh, just one more question..."

Rule #2. "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course." This eliminates Gothic novels, generally defined as a combination of horror, mystery, and romance, which is fine by me. I'm not a fan of them, I don't even like Jane Eyre. (Sorry, April.) While I generally prefer to avoid anything smacking of the supernatural in my stories, Knox only asks that any such elements eventually be explained by rational means. Georgette Heyer's Footsteps in the Dark is one such book that I do enjoy; it's long been one of my favorites. A husband and wife, brother, sister and their aunt all move into the Priory, where strange noises and a ghostly monk soon begin to unnerve some of them. I like the common sense attitude of the other characters, the descriptions of the house, the humor, and the relationships between the everyone in this book. The final explanation may stretch my credulity a bit, but I still enjoy every reread.

Rule #3. "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable." Alas for Nancy Drew! I'm certain she broke this rule many times, and I so glad. I grew up in a very straightforward farmhouse -- no secret passages there. Even Grandma's old Victorian only ran to a damp cellar and a few oddly shaped closets. I think there's something enticing about a house with hidden panels and winding passageways. Come to think of it, Footsteps in the Dark has some of those, too. Even C. S. Lewis used this idea for the wardrobe in his Narnia books -- not mysteries, I know -- but if it's good enough for Aslan it's good enough for me. (Is the tesseract in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time the modern equivalent the old fashioned secret passageway? It's something to ponder...)

Rule #4. "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end." How about nixing any ending which requires a long drawn out explanation? I love Christie’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, but it does bog down a bit when Miss Marple begins to explain the railway timetable, curves in the track, and exactly how dear Elsa McG. saw what she did. On the other hand, I should be perfectly honest and admit that I don’t really care exactly how it happened, and I always just skip that part of the story, since I’m willing to take it on faith. She sat in one moving train and saw the murder being done on a different one, all right? Who cares how British rail allowed it to happen.

Rule #5 "No Chinaman must figure in the story."
This reference to a Chinamen really alludes to any of the mysterious foreigners equipped with weird, often animal like powers that could be found skulking around many mysteries of the age. I wish Conan Doyle had obeyed this last point. In my opinion The Sign of the Four is ruined in part by his interjection of a mysterious aborigine climbing up drain pipes, hiding in the attic, and shooting poisoned darts with his blow pipe. The unfortunately bizarre and unhuman characterizations of these foreigners is often embarrassingly bigoted to today’s readers. In fairness it should be pointed out that this rule does not, of course, apply to mysteries actually set in China, Chinatown, or a foreign country. In that case Knox would presumably rule out mysterious bands of Englishmen instead.

These are the first five of Robert Knox's rules. What do you think of them, in reference to your favorite mysteries, or any other books for that matter?
The rest of his list will be in my next post. In the meantime...

Read Well, Friend


You Call This Cozy?

I was sitting innocently in my living room,
a PBS Masterpiece Mystery video spinning away in the DVD player, when Diana Rigg said something that shocked me. She introduced an episode of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mystery series as a "cozy mystery", based somehow on the idea that it took place in an English country house. At first I was prepared to defer to Dame Diana and the experts at PBS, who surely must know their mysteries. However, the more I watched the more my mind rebeled at calling Inspector Lynley, Superintendent Havers and the many miscreants they've uncovered "cozy".

I've tried off and on over the years to enjoy Elizabeth George's novels and never succeeded. They are mysteries, which I do like. And she sets all of them in England, a country I've visited and love reading about. They're also thick books, well-researched, and the Lynley ones at least follow a set of ever evolving characters -- all characteristics that I look forward to in books. Still, I've never managed to become a fan, and it's purely a matter of taste, not a comment on her skill as writer. I just found the books I tried too dark and too convoluted. So much so, in fact, that I'm glad I didn't realize this series was based on her books, because I might not have bothered to watch them. Perhaps because I often wrestle with my own psychological demons, I've never enjoyed taken much pleasure in such books or movies. Instead I'm an admitted sucker for an uplifting, feel good story. It's one of the reasons I enjoy cozy mysteries -- at least I thought it was. Yet here we have Lynley -- and George -- with stories about incest, abandonment, child stealing, suicides real and faked, school bullying, drug use... well, you get the idea... all gathered under the "cozy" umbrella simply because a man died in a country home. It just didn't sit right, Dame Rigg, CBE, DBE, or not.

So, what IS a cozy mystery?


And Ladybugs?

For all the mysteries, engines, instruments, wherewith the world is filled, which we are able to frame and use to thy glory.

For all the trades, variety of operations, cities, temples, streets, bridges, mariner's compass, admirable picture, sculpture, writing, printing, songs and music; wherewith the world is beautified and adorned.
       Much more for the regent life,
               And power of perception,
                      Which rules within.
       That secret depth of fathomless consideration
               That receives the information
                      Of all our senses,
       That makes our centre equal to the heavens,
               And comprehendeth in itself the magnitude of the world;
                      The involv’d mysteries
                              Of our common sense;
                      The inaccessible secret
                              Of perceptive fancy;
                      The repository and treasury
                              Of things that are past;
                      The presentation of things to come;
                              Thy name be glorified
                              For evermore.

                              O miracle
                                     Of divine goodness!
                      O fire! O flame of zeal, and love, and joy!
               Ev’n for our earthly bodies, hast thou created all things.
                                                 { visible
               All things    { material
                                                 { sensible


"Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home"

I woke to a perfect morning. For the first time in quite a few days the night temps had stayed in the 40s, and today -- high of 71, or better. (Better, as it turned out. I’m sitting outside right now enjoying a breezy 74.) The light and heat of the sun streamed into my bedroom as I woke. Stretching, savoring warmth on my skin, I opened my eyes to the morning, gazing toward the window seeing -- Ladybugs? Ladybugs filled the top half of my window, crawling over glass and curtain. The swarmed around the wall beside the window, and over the ceiling. Twenty, maybe thirty small, round, black and orange bugs, greeting the morning sun. Just like me. Unfortunately.

I have always been a fan of ladybugs. Even when I was really little and creeped out by almost anything that had more than four legs or moved unpredictably. Still, I was a farm girl, with one of those obnoxious older brothers who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, and never let me forget it. So I faked it, accepting spiders, frogs, crawdads and an innumerable parade of crawling, jumping, bizarre creatures.  I don’t know if I ever fooled anyone -- my brother, I was sure, saw through me. Fortunately I didn’t have to fake it when it came to ladybugs. Easily identifiable, ladybugs seldom flew around you trying to get into you face or hair. They didn’t have long appendages sticking out in odd places, and they never, never jumped out of nowhere into your mouth. You may laugh, but we had three to four inch long grasshoppers. I kid you not. Some of them were probably longer, and they weren’t skinny little guys, but husky, well equipped with thighs that could fling them from a weed a yard or more away directly into you face or hair. And they were everywhere, leaping on me from all directions, clinging to my clothes and skin. Taking the nightly scraps to the compost heap was my own personal nightmare. I understood why locusts were a Biblical plague, even if they hadn’t eat anything.


Carpe Diem, Lovers

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.


Almost a Masterpiece

 Why would an accomplished artist enter the Nat’l Gallery, pass by one exhibit after another, only to suddenly pull out a knife and attempt to destroy a beautiful painting? That’s the question put before psychiatrist and amateur artist Andrew Marlow. Who is the mysterious dark haired woman Robert Oliver draws compulsively, and will finding her identity help Marlow heal his patient? 

The Swan Thieves moves seamlessly from the age of early impressionist painting to the modern psychiatric hospital, from the New York art scene to a small North Carolina college. 


Big Brother is Watching

I just finished rereading Sense and Sensibility. John Dashwood, the eldest brother who, in his greed, impoverishes his stepmother and sisters got me to thinking. Of all the men I’ve encountered in my reading, which ones would I actually choose to call big brother?

The hero Ulysses is my idea of a great older brother -- much older. The amazing gifts he would bring on his infrequent trips home! His stories of exotic locations and fantastic adventures would fuel one’s dreams. I can see him -- huge, well-muscled, rough and unshaven -- sitting back to the fire, weaving tales of his adventures for a crowd of listeners. There he is, trapped in a cave by the huge Cyclops Polyphemus. The cleverness and daring by which Ulysses and his remaining men escape would make him a larger-than life hero for any girl to worship. From afar. He’d be much too wild and out-of-control to live with day in and out.

If you had a biggest brother like Ulysses you'd want someone steadier to stay home and watch over your interests. A responsible older man with good judgment. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice comes to mind first, or Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. (Until he married Marianne. She’d be a tough pill to swallow as sister-in-law, while Elizabeth Bennett would be a slam dunk.) But those are the easy choices. What about Sir Percy Blakeney, otherwise known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, dashing, intelligent, organized, with a tremendous capacity for compassion? He’d do whatever necessary, even risking his own life, to rescue you from trouble; going out on any proverbial limb when you needed help. Maybe sometimes he’d go TOO far, though. Were his amazing cleverness and luck to fail him he could end up losing his head to Le Madame Guillotine. Where would we be then? What a difficult choice.

I don’t see myself going to Mr. Darcy for advice on love. Here you need an older brother who knows his way around the dating world --  knows who to consider marriage worthy and which men you’d better not follow into a dark corner or empty carriage. He'd have to be a young man who's familiar with all the tricks, (probably because he’s used them himself at one time or another.) Young Laurie Laurence from Little Women might do. Brought up strictly, with a rebellious streak that got him into some real trouble, he knew the vices young people could fall into. He expected better from the four girls  next door, however. That protective streak led him to scold Meg during her one foray into the world of society. Her dress was cut too low, there was rouge on her cheeks, and what would her Mother or sisters think of her now? A bit hypocritical, yes, but his heart was good, and you could trust him to keep you on the straight and narrow. (Assuming that was where you wanted be.)

On a more modern vein, John Farrel is a roguish international spy who always manages to take good care of Mrs. Pollifax, be it in Albania or South Africa. He’d be a useful big brother if your romantic adventures tended to result in you being kidnapped or held at gunpoint.

Finally, no ideal family could be complete without the typical trouble maker for a  brother. He’s the one who cracks a bad joke when things get too tense at the dinner table and keeps all of you, including your dates, from taking yourselves too seriously. Not Tom Sawyer, though he’s the first scamp to come to mind. Actually, I can’t think of anyone to fit the bill in the classics. I have to go with Fred and George Weasley. Life is just more interesting with them around. Seldom malicious, their practical jokes are doled out equally, no one person exempted or immune. Genuinely affectionate and fond of their family, they can be counted on to come through in a pinch. And isn’t that what a real family is about?  

So here are my choices, a motley crew of literary guys I’d like to put in my family. Now that I look at them all together though, I suspect I’ve assembled a group of brothers guaranteed to drive any girl crazy. I may have to revisit this list. What do you think?

Read Well, Friend     

Sense and Sensibility insight edition, Jane Austin, Bethany House
The Odyssey, Homer
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling


Medieval History/Mystery Hash

As far as nouns go, I’m not certain of the definition of mush, but it sounds noxious and unappealing. Mash, in the same form, makes me think of  whiskey, (sour), or the leftover scraps of food used to swill pigs. So I’m using the word hash in my title, as I certainly don’t mean to imply repugnancy, only something mixed together, unordered, messy.

My mystery/history hash began in the Newport News, VA airport. I usually can’t read books in crowded planes or noisy airports, but I knew I might have to wait an hour or so to be picked up on the Memphis end of my trip, and trust me on this, the Memphis airport at 9:00 pm is as deserted as they come. So I picked up a book. Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwall. I love his Sharpe books, love history, and knew nothing about Agincourt. (I’ve never even read Henry V.) I thought it was a no brainer. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

Agincourt revolves around Nicholas Hook, an archer of exceptional skill. It seems that archers were the deciding factor in the small English army’s victory against a much larger French force in that battle in 1415 France. Those archers didn’t use just any bow, but the famous war bow, known today as the longbow. That rang a bell. I remember the longbow because my Granddad Richards was from Wales, and the Welsh were known to be the best longbow archers in the British Isles. (I read this somewhere, so it must be true.) According to Cornwall, the longbow was widely used in the 1300-1400s in certain parts of Britain. What we commonly call medieval times.

reminded me of another book I’d been wanting to re-read, set in the same time period, The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb. It’s the first in a series of mysteries about Owen Archer, a Welsh bowman turned spy. He too shot the longbow. It turns out, these books are set in the 1360’s, about 50 years before Agincourt. I decided to check if Brother Cadfael, a Welsh soldier turned monk, was solving his cases at the same time. But, no. Ellis Peters set her books over two hundred years earlier. That surprised me, because I'd always imagined that when Owen Archer was out of York, unable to consult apothecary Lucy Wilton or Brother Wulfstan for a salve to soothe his disfiguring scar, he might turn to Brother Cadfael instead. That idea was blown, since neither of these novels include time travel.

I realized I had made hash, Medieval History/Mystery Hash -- a confused, messed up understanding of British history gained from assuming all medieval mysteries covered basically the same time period. I did study British history in college about uh-hum decades ago, but obviously things have gotten murky since then. This was driven home when I compared dates from other books on my shelf. Sister Fidelma -- mid 600s. Ursula Blanchard -- 1560. Brother Athelstan -- 1360s. Robin Hood I knew was earlier -- last half of the 1150s,  Sister Frevisse -- 1430s. Robin Hood and Cadfael reference the Crusades, others allude to various kings, queens, and factions. But besides knowing Edward III had to have been born sometime after Edward II, that didn’t help me much. And, oh yes, where does Braveheart fit in? It includes a King Edward, as do the Owen Archer books. The same one, perhaps?

Now I’ve made hash a couple of times. I don’t care for finely dicing all the roast beef and veggies to get what is basically a pot roast with fixings. But sometimes I just crave an excuse to pour ketchup over everything and be done with it. So I have made it. On purpose. This most recent hash I had made inadvertently and it didn’t please me at all. When was the medieval period, anyway? And what about the so-called Dark Ages? Where in the world do my mysteries fit in?????

It didn’t surprise me that there are no hard and fast rules for when those historical time periods are considered to begin and end. History is fluid and rarely  fits into neat boxes. It turns out  medieval and Middle Ages are the same; the Dark Ages may or may not be included. (Merriam-Webster doesn't capitalize medieval, BTW.) In Britain the Dark Ages generally run from about 476 to 1066. The 1066 is obvious -- William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion of England, against which all British history may be measured. England’s 1776, if you will. But 476? Of course, my daughter said, wasn’t that the fall of the Roman empire? She was right. Show-off. So that means the Middle Ages begin roughly at 1066, but when do they end and the Renaissance begin? That depends. It depends on what country you’re looking at, for one thing. After that, take your pick. Perhaps it ends with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, or the end of the Hundred Years’ War, both 1453. You might prefer citing Gutenberg’s movable type, 1455, Columbus and 1492 or the beginning of the Reformation in 1517. To name a few. Oddly, the end of the Middle Ages in England is often cited quite specifically, August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard III is killed and the Tudors take control of the throne. Cool. Now I know exactly where Richard III fits, at least.

So how was Cadfael’s England different from Brother Athelstan’s or Nicholas Hook’s? I’ve decided to make a timeline using each historical mystery series I read to help me get a clearer picture of what happened when. I expect that to take me a while, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Read Well, Friend

Main Character and Author --
Dark Ages
Sister Fidelma, Peter Tremayne
Middle Ages/medieval
Robin Hood, Howard Pyle first and foremost
Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters
Brother Athelstan, Paul Harding
Owen Archer, Candace Robb
Nicholas Hook, Bernard Carnwall
Sister Frevisse, Margaret Frazer
Richard III in Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
Ursula Blanchard, Fiona Buckley
(Anyone know where I can find a good book about the Battle of Bosworth? I don’t know anything about it, either.)


Welcome To The World!

William Lauren Kelsey
1/13/2010 @ 2:01 pm 
8lb 9oz, 20.5" 
Langley AF Base hospital
Newport News, VA  

Congratulations Calvin and April
Aunt Betsy
Great Aunts Sue and  Beth
Grandma Teri Kelsey (That's me!!)
Great Grandparents Don and Jean Kelsey 
                                  and Joan Quiggle
And all the rest of the family

And Thank You, Lord, for Your Grace and Blessing on our Lives.


What in the World is Going On Here?

One of the best books ever written in the English language is Dickens’ story of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. You can disagree with me if you want, but you'll never persuade me to change my mind. I first read it in 6th grade, horrified by Madame Defarge, seated at the foot of the guillotine, knitting and knitting, splashed over and over in blood and gore from decapitated heads rolling at her feet, day after day endlessly knitting a secret list of those doomed to die as traitors of the French people. My heart broke at the cruelty of a young child run over by an aristocrat’s racing carriage. The only reaction --he  cursed the boy for being in his way. The sweet, delicate nature of Lucie Manette blew like a rose-scented breeze over the squalid atmosphere. Is it any surprise Charles Darnay became the hero of my young dreams? Or that Sydney Carton’s final sacrifice and dying utterance thrilled me for years? (OK. It still does.)

The thing is, other than the gruesome details and high romance of those few characters, I really had no idea what was going on. Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety were vaguely familiar, but didn’t interest me one bit. I skipped huge portions of text while searching for the names of my favorite characters so I could just read those parts. So I missed a lot -- I did know that A Tale of Two Cities was a sweeping adventure full of pathos, tragedy and romance. And I knew I wanted to read it again. The next time I picked up Dickens’ tale I had the basic plot down so I understood more of what was happening, read more slowly and picked some of the subtleties. By the third reading the phrases were coming alive, and the depth and scope of the book became clear. But it definitely took time.

My summer between seventh and eighth grade I picked  a two volume set of Les Miserables from Grandad’s shelves. Don’t ask me why. I think I was impressed by the size and red leather binding. Not to mention the mysterious title. It was definitely a grown-up book. And, oh, poor Jean Valjean, suffering for 17 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Fortunately he’s taken in by a kindly bishop, who lies to keep him from returning to prison for stealing again. He promises to go straight, and go straight he does, becoming an inventor and the mayor of Montreuil, rescuing Fantine from imprisonment for prostitution and saving her daughter Cosette from abuse. During all of this time, the relentless Inspector Javert doggedly pursues Valjean for theft. All of that, and I still had another volume to go!

I wanted to ‘get’ this book, but it was too much for me. Part way through the first volume Valjean changed his name and went into hiding. His new name? Madeleine. My brain turned to mush trying to remember that no, Madeleine and Montreuil were not women, nor was Fantine someone’s last name. To top it all off, by the end of the first volume it seemed that almost all of the characters I’d been following were dead. I read half-heartedly to the end, unable when I finished to give any but the most basic explanation of plot. Who could blame me -- Les Miserables is hardly Middle School reading. When I heard they’d made a musical of it, I was flabbergasted. Singing bishops and police officers? Betrayed women and dying prostitutes? I couldn’t imagine how in the world could they hope to portray that sprawling story in a stage play. I still don’t know because I haven’t seen it yet. At least I’ll have some idea what’s going on, though, having waded through it once. And I have put Les Miserables on my read-again list. I just need to find it in bigger print!

Those Middle School years -- we called it Junior High back in the old days -- were a time of adventurous reading for me. The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, The Leatherstocking Tales, everything by Sir Walter Scott I could get my hands on ….  I know I didn’t understand all I was reading. I raced through one story to get to another. But you know what? I don’t think that was a bad thing. I developed a taste for great literature -- good writing, real characters and excellent plotting. I learned not to be afraid of thick books, or writers with names I couldn’t pronounce. Most of all, every time I encountered these books somewhere else they were already friends. I didn’t have to figure out who was who and what in the world they were talking about at the same time I took true/false and short answer tests too. I got the chance to fall in love first. Even if I didn’t know what was going on.

Read Well, Friend

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper


Book Goals, 2010

Forget diets and exercise and keeping in touch with Uncle Morty. Here are the resolutions that really matter....

1. Discover one new-to-me great mystery series.
    For years mysteries were my favorite genre. I was introduced to them by some Agatha Christies at Grandad G’s house. He was an avid, very intelligent, serious reader, and his library was the gateway to many fantastic writers: Sir Walter Scott, Thoreau and Emerson, Dickens, Coleridge, classic poets, etc. The Christies were the only genre books I ever saw on his shelves. Reading them introduced me to a long line of detectives. like Lord Peter Whimsey, Albert Campion, Roderick Alleyn, and Ellery Queen. Over the years I’ve found new writers to enjoy. Anne Perry, for example, and J. D. Robb. As I read, historical and cozy mysteries became my favorites. Unfortunately, the new series books I’ve read in the last few years have disappointed me. In some of them I knew who the killer was in the first few pages -- before anyone had even been killed. (I‘m serious.) Speaking in generalities, it seems that all a cozy needs these days is a weird hook -- and recipes. They no longer require plot, characterization, or an actual puzzle. I can only re-read so many books before I go crazy, so I’m on the prowl to discover a truly good mystery series writer, not a one-hit-wonder or someone who’s all gimmick and no substance. Any suggestions?

2. Read something new by Charles Dickens.
     I’m ashamed to admit I’ve really only read A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers all the way through. This year I’m determined to read at least one more. The problem is, I don’t like books with cruelty in them, and his bad guys are really really bad.

3. Memorize a poem a month.
     I love poetry -- you may have guessed that already. But my memory’s lousy these days. I want to work on it and enjoy some of my favorite poems, so a-memorizing I go! I haven’t decided what to start with.

4. Read a non-fiction book a month.
     I love non-fiction, I adore non-fiction, and there’s a long list of books I want to read. The problem is, I tend to not pick them up. I’m not sure why. However, I just bought The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester, subtitled The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name. I don’t usually spring for hardbacks, they’re too expensive and take up too much room on my shelves. I broke my rule for this one, though. I love history, I love maps, I love gorgeous antique style books with deckled edges. How could I resist? I'm eager to get at it.

5. Continue to build up my collection of Newbery award winners and read the ones that are new to me. 
    (Truth to be told, I'll probably re-read all my favorites as well. Fortunately I'm a fast reader.) I recently started adding to my personal Newbery winners collection. I want to build up a library of great young peoples books for my grandkids to read when they come to visit. (As my first grandchild isn’t born yet, I should have some time to work on it.) Or maybe I'll read them out loud. One of life’s best pleasures is reading wonderful books to those you love.  As I’m collecting them, I’m realizing how many I never read, and I want to correct that.
BTW -- I’m making the same collection of Caldecott winners which are harder to find and thus more expensive. But it hardly takes any time at all to read them!

6. Blog twice a week.
    This will be the hardest resolution to keep, as time slips by me. I always seem to be about 10 days behind everyone else, which is why I miss hair appointments, and church training meetings (oh, what a pity), and occasionally birthdays. Also, this blog is fun tro write, but sometimes pretty challenging. There are days when it's a lot easier to think about what I read than to write about it! I definitely want to keep it up, though. To be honest, I need this blog for me. I appreciate that so many folks have decided to follow it, and I hope I don’t waste your time, and I love comments and conversations, but really I write here for me -- my very own personal reading journal on-line for all to see. Go figure.

7. Keep track of how many books I read next year.
    This is for my own enlightenment, not as part of a challenge or anything. I’m just curious to see when I read the most, and how many books it will really add up to. This will be hard, too, as I tend to put things off, thinking I’ll do it later. Then I forget, of course. (see #6)

So, this is my list of book resolutions for the new year. What about yours? I'd love to see them.

Read Well, Friend

Click this for link to reading classics.
This site even lists mystery series by character name. Let's see, who did write those books about...
Read Dickens for free.  
All the Newbery and Caldecott books are here.


Welcome Elie Wagner!!

Welcome to the World, Elie Jane Wagner. 
Born today, Jan. 1, at 9:02 am. 5lb 4.2oz. 
Congratulations to Mom and Dad, Brad and Julie, and Lucy and Joshua.
"You formed my inward parts; you wove me together in my mother's womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made...
My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret...
Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed."
Psalm 139;13-14 
(Brad is my husband's nephew.)