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Stinky Cheese Man author reveals all November 26, 2008

If you have a kid, you probably know author Jon Scieszka, or have seen his work — he’s behind The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs — and has two fingers on the pulses of child readers, especially boys, like no one else.

Now, Scieszka does us the kindness of letting us into his colorful life with the new juvenile autobiography Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, which readers ages 8 and up will devour… well, like stinky cheese.  And an autobiography is appropriate. Scieszka, a former elementary school teacher who now also enjoys the title of national ambassador for children’s literature, is a big proponent of nonfiction and humor for children, especially those who have become disillusioned with typical reading fare.

In fact, he’s behind the website, which was created as an outreach project to connect boys with books they actually want to read.

”Let them read funny books, let them read nonfiction, instead of lecturing them and testing them to death,” Scieszka says in a feature for the Miami Herald. “Teachers have told me they are leaving teaching because they don’t want to be test monitors. It’s killing us, and it’s killing reading.”

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Dedicating to the ones you love November 22, 2008

Many of you booklovers know the value of inscribing a book as a gift to someone. I remember several childhood book gifts in particular that I cherished all the more because of the neatly scripted notes scrawled on one of the first pages of the book. One of my favorites was a now long out of print book called “Ten Stories,” mostly fairy stories with whimsical watercolor illustrations, given to me by an older woman who lived in my neighborhood, who had an unforgettable and wonderful name I’m glad is inscribed forever in ink: Garnet DuLong.

The only thing really better than inscribing a book yourself can be having the author sign it. But for that to happen, all the planets have to be in alignment — it’s probably a new book, you’re in the right bookstore at the right time, and the book you’re having signed really is perfect for its intended recipient. This doesn’t happen very often. I think the only book signings that were worth my time as a consumer were for Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses, and Georgia story-spinner Bailey White’s Sleeping at the Starlite Motel: and Other Adventures on the Way Back Home. Both were held at a funky, now-defunct Atlanta independent bookstore called Oxford Books. The authors were perfect, and the recipient was perfect: me. Those were very happy occurrences.

But one of my The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever customers recenty came up with a terrific “non-signing” idea I’d never thought of, even after publishing two other books. This customer lives in Alabama, and ordered three copies of the book from Amazon to give her three grown children for Christmas. Naturally, I can’t hop over there to sign them, much as I’d like to, but she had it all figured out.

She asked me if I’d sign three holiday cards, inscribing one to each of her children, including a date and my signature. A lifelong professional educator, my customer explained what a serious book-signing fan she’d always been and wanted something personal from the author tucked in the pages of the books. So she’s going to tuck in my cards.

Not only is this an awesome idea, but this is truly a “next best” solution when you can’t have the author actually sign a book. It might not last as long, but I don’t know — I’ve retained cards for more than 20 years. They make great bookmarks.

Speaking of bookmarks, you can dedicate favorite books in much the same way, even when the author can’t be tracked down to sign a card (say, if the author is deceased or there’s no getting past the publisher or there’s no book signing tour or the author is Madonna). You can inscribe your thoughts of what the book means to you directly in the book (going a little farther than the basic “To Violet, Love Rose, Christmas 2008”), or on a card or bookmark. The recipient will gets a precious memento along with the book, and never forget the meaning it held for you, the giver.

Incidentally, anyone who has my book on their Christmas list this year and who wants to copy my smart customer’s idea and have me jot an inscription on a card is welcome to contact me at You can send me your personal cards to sign or I’ll send my own.

I may not be hitting your particular Barnes and Noble but I’m learning that proxy signing works just fine.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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“Spring forward, fall back” — changing times October 31, 2008

The time change is this weekend, and I just realized how fuzzy I am about the origin of daylight savings. I’m always proud to remember “Spring Forward, Fall Back.” Josh and I talked it over the other day and I said I always thought it was so we could simply enjoy longer summer days, and so the schoolchildren didn’t have to stand in the dark at 7 a.m. waiting for the schoolbus in wintertime. Josh — who is from the part of Indiana that doesn’t observe time change, and is baffled by it — thought it had to do with conserving electricity.

(He refers to the time change as “changing time zones.” I tell him over and over it’s not changing time zones — if it were, then our favorite TV show House might come on at 7 p.m. like in Central Standard Time, which would be even more family-inappropriate than its current time slot of 8 p.m. [at our Eastern Standard].)

I know the boys will inevitably raise the question of what Daylight Savings Time is all about, so I thought we needed to be ready. Here’s the answer, in case you wind up in the same fix.

Fact is, the hours in a day are pretty much even nearest the equator; but the farther you get away, the less daylight you will get in the winter. So we turn the clocks back an hour to gain an extra hour of daylight. But it took lots of tinkering and political maneuvering to reach this seemingly simple solution. (My source is an article from Associated Content.)

It turns out Josh, who hadn’t even had benefit of Daylight Savings Time or stayed late at the pool enjoying the longer day his whole life, was closer to the real reasons behind it: proponents wanted it to conserve artificial electricity (which was in its infancy back then — and which, incidentally, bore you-know-who’s inventor’s stamp as well).

Benjamin Franklin invented many things. Has there been a visionary like him since? Turns out, he’s also behind Daylight Savings Time. But though it was originally Franklin’s idea (what wasn’t?), it was a man named William Willett who began pushing it with his pamphlet “Waste of Daylight” in 1907. The first proposal was to advance the clock 20 minutes once a week in spring, and push it back 20 minutes in the fall.

But those of us who could barely master “Spring Forward, Fall Back” twice a year would be in a tizzy over that, don’t you agree? So in 1925, it was decided that Daylight Savings Time should begin on the day following the third Saturday in April (or one week earlier if that day was Easter Day). The end date for Daylight Savings Time was set for the day after the first Saturday in October (tomorrow). It means we get an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning.

There are many other, more complicated factors involved. If you want to delve deeper, check out David Prerau’s very well reviewed book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.

And for those whose children, like my husband Josh, are hung up on “time zones,” here’s an excellent juvenile title that offers a colorful world tour of time zones: Stacey Schuett’s Somewhere in the World Right Now (Reading Rainbow Book), which happens to be featured in my book The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever.

Happy Time Change, and if you are in participating territory, enjoy that extra hour of sleep this weekend! 

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



What do Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash have in common? October 29, 2008

Well, one’s a late, beloved story-spinner, songwriter, musician and poet (heavy on the children’s fare, with Where the Sidewalk Ends 30th Anniversary Edition: Poems and Drawings and A Light in the Attic (20th Anniversary Edition Book & CD)) and the other is a late, beloved country-western singer, songwriter and entertainer.

What they have in common is the smash-hit novelty song A Boy Named Sue, the most popular version of which Johnny Cash recorded live for his acclaimed 1969 At San Quentin (Legacy Edition) album. Back in the days when there was much country/pop/folk cross-over and we didn’t have satellite radio to whittle down our music into narrow, super-specialized categories, we all knew A Boy Named Sue. I remember an early elementary classmate’s family had an organ that fascinated me (a then-fledgling pianist) with the color-coded sheet music to the song.

Now that I hear the song not infrequently — my husband listens to The Legend of Johnny Cash
quite a bit — I wonder how they managed to set that mostly-spoken ditty to music, but that’s another matter. What I really marvel at is my very recent learning that Silverstein was much more than the writer of witty, often nonsensical verse — that he also penned A Boy Named Sue (and co-performs it in a rowdy duet with Cash in the YouTube video above).

When my younger son tripped off to school just this morning with Silverstein’s Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back, I decided this fascinating bit needed to be the blog topic today.

Here’s another dash of trivia: the song A Boy Named Sue was reportedly inspired by late humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein who himself took his share of ribbing from having a feminine-sounding name. (Are you familiar with the neo-Christmas classic, 1983 TV movie A Christmas Story [HD DVD]? That’s based on a Shepherd story, with his own voice narrating.)

Wikipedia  further suggests the title A Boy Named Sue might have been inspired by male lawyer Sue K. Hicks, a prosecutor in the historic Scopes Trial. He was reportedly named Sue after his mother, who is said to have died in childbirth.

But if you’ve read any of Silverstein’s work at all, you know his amazing, crazy imagination didn’t necessarily need outside inspiration. I hope you enjoy the video above for a rare glimpse into the wild persona who was Shel Silverstein.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



Kids need REAL real-world experience October 20, 2008

My sons’ entries into a library-sponsored Wii tennis tournament on a recent teacher workday off from school only reinforced my decision to continue to limit electronic gaming in our household.

We don’t have a Wii, so I thought getting to play it outside a friend’s house would be novel. Well, competition was stiff. I mean, cutthroat. You could immediately see the lay of the land in that fluorescent-lit library multi-purpose room amid the gray metal folding chairs.

There were the jocks — the winners — those who had their own Wii’s at home and played so much they knew they were good. In typical self-satisfied A-team jock-style, they punched each other’s shoulders and snickered at the frightened little kids dotting the rest of the room. Then there were the in-betweens — those who had some experience, weren’t great, maybe, but comfortable with the game. They were OK.

Then there were the perceived losers, the Wii “have-nots” — excitedly yet nervously warming the little row of chairs in the very back. My boys, ages 9 and 11, fell into this group.

My younger, athletic and competitive son made friends quickly with the middle-level kids, trying to reassure himself. My older one, more sensitive, hung back with the other bench-warmers and, sadly, cried bitterly after two losses in the double-elimination format. (It was the pressure that got to him, I think. He’d actually done pretty well — he was a leftie playing with a right-handed setting, and he won one game in a set.)

I did question myself later if we should have even entered this little exercise, which had seemed harmless and fun the day I signed them up. I did tell them I’d have been more impressed with the hoody-wearing tournament winner if he hadn’t been such a braggart. I told them I’d have been a whole lot more impressed by him if he’d won a real tennis tournament, not a virtual game he obviously invested so much of his free time into to get that good.

But in the real world, the cliche is really true: you win some, you lose some.

Here’s the question: is a Wii tournament the “real world”?

I’m not really knocking Wii. I realize we that have no Wii are kind of rare, and this blog entry really isn’t about Wii anyway — it’s about making sure kids get real-world experience. We have Nintendo DS handhelds and lots of games, the boys’ dad has a Game Cube for them — heck, my mom has a Game Cube. We’re already nervous about the (engineered?) Bokugan “shortage” this close to Christmas.

But I don’t want every minute of my boys’ days wrapped up in electonic, or otherwise faddish, pursuit. I think some of the virtual games are super clever — my older son loves Guitar Hero — but I’m sorry, they’re just not real. So after homework every day and every chance I get on the weekends, I shoo the boys out in the yard or wave them off on their bikes, or insist they walk the dog they begged for several Christmases ago.

Reading books instead? Well, I’ve never seen more so-called “reluctant readers” created so fast as with the advent of the ever-intensifying gaming that takes up increasing amounts of time. But as long as parents insist time is made for reading, I believe they’ll read. The bulk of my book The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever is devoted to helping parents find exciting, challenging, meaningful books their children will devour, whatever their reading level, age, or interest.

For today’s purposes I have some book suggestions for kids who don’t quite know what to do with themselves in this “real” world. Scouting, state park Junior Ranger programs, and other groups devoted to exploring the natural world can be great in this area. Family activities like camping that force an electronic break (which is why I love it) help reel the family back to earth.

Check out these favorites from my own kids’ shelf (and, where desired, alternatives for girls):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden is a gorgeous hardback volume with nostalgic-style illustrations, and just crammed with the ever-elusive Things to Do. This is cool stuff, like building a fort, cracking a code, and, if in a particular pinch, escaping quicksand. Maybe there’s no quicksand in your backyard but boys (just like their adventure-deprived dads) eat this up!

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan, in the same style and vein, contains not only projects and practical applications (how to play hopscotch, tie a sari, build a swing) but also snippets on influential women and literary characters like tomboy Jo from Little Women (Unabridged Classics). And for those who find the suggestions too sterotypical (although I think the average girl would like them — I would have), there’s no reason not to buy the boys’ edition for girls.

Then there’s How To Be The Best At Everything (The Girls’ Book) by Juliana Foster, and How To Be The Best At Everything (The Boys’ Book) by Dominique Enright. Both are self-explanatory and have lots of fun stuff for kids to master, like juggling with one hand, analyzing handwriting, making a boomerang — and maybe challenging an indoor-type bully some day.

If your children’s eyes are becoming a little glazed, or you’re always peppered with the “what can I do?” question, do check these out, and their counterparts in the recommended book titles that pop up (like The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It (Nonpareil Book, 29) and American Girls Handy Book: How to Amuse Yourself and Others (Nonpareil Books)).

Maybe your kids, like mine, get whipped at virtual golf, but they’ll know how to do the important stuff: like fend off a crocodile and spot poison ivy.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



Need an audience? Read to the dog! October 14, 2008


I’m always interested in new read-aloud exercises to help improve children’s confidence and reading skills, and believe wholeheartedly in the ideas of school reading buddies, and reading to siblings at home (which is a relationship booster too).

But here’s a new one on me: reading to the dog?

OK, I’m listening…

Starting this evening, the Great Falls, Montana Public Library and the Great Falls Animal Shelter are slated to begin their “Read to an Orphan” program, which promotes reading and pet adoption in tandem.

What does reading have to do with pet adoption, you may ask? Well, say organizers, the “Read to an Orphan” program “aims to reduce the number of dog bites through education and interaction, while also promoting reading and pet adoption.”

Reports Montana’s KRTV station, a CBS affiliate, an animal control officer will bring one orphaned dog from the animal shelter to the library, featuring a new dog each month. “Children will then be able to read to the dog – and other attendees – to foster better reading skills and promote healthy interaction with both people and pets.”

Organizers hope people will come to the library to see the dogs, and afterward visit the shelter to see who else may need a home.

I think this is a great idea — but reading to a dog (or cat, for that matter) need not be just a novelty. You can try it at home. Can’t you picture your young budding reader eager to share some skills with a quiet and ever-attentive listener?

My two older children read mostly to themselves these days. But with our twins on the way, and my clamping onto this novel idea, our dog Gypsy may be able to look forward to more literary exposure than the average dog experiences. And I think she’ll love it.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



My first Christmas book review of the year – with good reason October 13, 2008

So when is it OK to unleash the Christmas stuff? I don’t know about you, but I get a little offended when the Christmas merchandise hits the drugstores along with, say, the back-to-school merchandise. It reminds me of the TV special It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (remastered deluxe edition), when the Christmas pre-sales overshadow the Easter baskets.

And even though my children will break out a Christmas DVD or book mid-summer (we watched Eloise at Christmastime about two weeks ago, and I admit I was game as anybody), I usually have a rule of thumb about when the whole stash comes out.

OK, so today I have a brand new Christmas book to introduce — for what I think is good reason. It’s the type of book you have to have before December 1, because it’s meant to be interactive with your children, kind of like an Advent calendar but requiring a little more parental guidance than making sure the children don’t open all the little windows on the first day. (Or turn it backwards and hold it up to the light to cheat and see all the pictures — wait, that was me when I was little.)

Secondly, you have to have this book even before that because it can be a two-parter, depending on how you order, and you’ve got to be a bit ready for the aforementioned interaction.

Jingles, by mom-of-five Chrissy Smith, may ring a little familiar to those who’ve done the mischievous “Christmas Elf” hide-and-seek game with your children, but there’s more story behind Jingles than most versions I’ve seen. And the rhyming book, with its whimsical illustrations — Smith did both writing and illustrating –make it more fun and tangible.

You also get the cute, well-made, appropriately jingly plush doll of Jingles the Elf. You can see him at Know that if you order the book through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, you’ll have to flip to the back and order the plush elf separately, which is free with shipping and handling. But it takes 2-4 weeks to receive. So I’d go straight to the source and get them both at once.

You need the plush because you’ll be tucking it into a cute new hiding place every night. As a parent, I can tell you one of the best side-effects of this fun assistant to the “how-on-earth-will-we-make-it-to-Dec. 25” parental issue is that constant reminder that little elves have big eyes and ears with which to make sure every child is behaving, of course.

But my favorite part of the book is the family activities — with recipes for cocoa, crafts, decorating a “Giving Tree” for the animals of the community, a book-a-day activity, suggestions of websites to visit, etc. My older children would have literally eaten this up had we had this little set when they were younger. But I have two more on the way, for whom I look very forward to creating some Christmas magic with Jingles.

And remember, there are only 72 days, 15 hours, and 57 minutes ’til Christmas.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever