Tag Archives: books

Elementary School “Book Swap”

This month I hosted a “book swap” for my child’s elementary school. It’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my mind for quite a while–I initially thought it would be great to have a book exchange party in which my kids and their friends could swap books they liked. But one thing led to another . . .

The book swap was much easier than I expected, and a lot more fun! Here’s a quick recap of what I did and how I went.

First, I approached the principal and the PTA with the idea. They suggested that I do the book swap in conjunction with a PTA “family partnership night.” Those happen regularly and involve games and free pizza. So I signed on to host the family partnership night and got some help. Then I sent out communication to the school well ahead of time, including both online and paper announcements. I was hoping for lots of people and lots of books!

Then I found some books to prime the pump. It turns out that there are usually tons of books for lower grades, but not so many for higher grades. I went to a thrift store and found some appealing upper-grade books for about a dollar each. It would alternatively have been a good idea to solicit donations from middle-schoolers. I also reached out through my local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group and left a box in the office so people could donate books early. Finally, the kids and I worked on clearing our own shelves.

The day of the event, I showed up early to order the pizza and to put out signs on the cafeteria tables, so that the people who brought in books could organize them roughly by grade level (pre-K through 1st, 2nd & 3rd, and 4th & above). I didn’t have to do the organizing myself because the kids were all over it.

We had a gorgeous spread of books by the time we were done! It was heavy on the picture books and light on the books for fourth graders and above, but there were at least some.

Kids were allowed to take 2 books each to start off with. Once everybody had taken two books, it was more of a free-for-all. When we were done, about half the books had been taken and half remained.

And that was it! Really fun and easily manageable.

I asked other people on the Soup for Teachers Facebook page if they’d done anything similar, and people have. Here were some of the responses I got:

  • One school hands out “book bucks.” Kids who bring books get one “book buck” for each book they bring in. But every student gets a “book buck,” whether they brought books or not.
  • Another school takes donations and then uses volunteers to sort them. Each student then gets the same number of books.
  • Another school does the swap during school hours, classroom by classroom. They get books from a variety of places, from the thrift store to the spring library sale to Goodwill. Then students visit, one classroom at a time, and each student takes one book.

Has anybody else done a book swap for a school? How did it work? Would you do it again?


image from modernreader.org

Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow

A couple months ago, Wired magazine came out with a truly dreadful article on the history of science fiction — one that suggested diversity is new to SF. I wrote my own response to that, and in the comments another blogger suggested the author Leigh Brackett, who wrote in the 1950s but is now largely forgotten. (Thank you!)

I checked the library and found her novel The Long Tomorrow. It was part of an anthology of the best works of the 1950s, and I accidentally started reading it halfway in. And that didn’t spoil it one little bit. On the contrary — it heightened the suspense, because I knew where the characters were headed, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what would happen when they got there.

It’s an amazing postapocalyptic novel set in a rural New Mennonite town. In the novel’s history, nuclear war took out all the cities, which in turn demolished our technology. Mennonites survived, because they only used technology they could make themselves. And New Mennonites, and others, copied their culture because it made practical sense. This is a well-thought-out scenario, and the New Mennonite communities and surrounding countryside are richly drawn. Brackett really takes her time to let you get to know the people.

The people in this world are terrified that nuclear war might return, and this fear has extended to technology and cities. They’ve built a cultural narrative that says the cities were destroyed because God didn’t like them, and they punish anyone who might remotely appear to be bringing them back with stonings and fire.

And then, of course, the main character and his friend, Len and Esau, find ancient technology and go looking for a fabled city. They are two teenage boys brought up in a strict Biblical tradition who now question their community, but for slightly different reasons.

The story of Len and Esau is a coming-of-age tale, a story about growing up, a story about discovering and understanding the world they live in, and an exploration of a complicated moral problem.

I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, but this one stands out because of its depth and breadth, the strong characterization, and the way it makes you think. It’s one of those books that will stick with me for years.

Off to see what else she’s written . . .

P.S. Here’s a link to a more in-depth but more spoilery review by author Nicola Griffith. She points out the limitations in a novel that’s a product of the age, but all in all likes it even more than me.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The House With a Clock in Its Walls

This book by John Bellairs scared the dickens out of me when I was a child, so I’ve been hunting for a while now. Only I had forgotten the author’s name and got the title mixed up with  Bell, Book, and Candle, maybe because it has  books and lights and noisy things in it, or maybe because the same author wrote The Bell, The Book, and the Spellbinder. But it was one of the books from childhood that I remember deeply.

Then one day I went to a new library branch and the book jumped out at me. The House With a Clock in its Walls. And I’ve just finished it. Sometimes when you reread a book you loved as a child, by the time you reach adulthood you’ve grown so much that the book is now dull. But this one did not disappoint.

This is a deeply scary book. Not just because of the clock hidden somewhere in the walls of a creepy old house, not just because it’s a doomsday clock set to end the world, and not just because the illustrations were done by Edward Gorey. It’s scary mainly because the main character, a boy named Lewis, made a serious ethical mistake, and he nurses his fear and guilt through much of the book.

I bet every child can identify.

Bellairs is quite gentle on Lewis, and on the reader as well. He’s careful to mention that Lewis’ uncle would understand, and he’s also considerate enough to mention that Lewis will make it to adulthood. Bellairs is also kind to all the characters in the book. (Well, the living ones, at any rate.) Even the bully.

And the prose is lovely – expressive, surprising, and smooth. Here’s a short excerpt:

Lewis got up, wiped his hands on his trousers, and tugged at the enormous cardboard suitcase that hung out over the edge of the metal rack. Lewis’ father had brought the suitcase in London at the end of World War II. It was covered with ripped and faded Cunard Line stickers. Lewis pulled hard, and the suitcase lurched down onto his head. He staggered back across the aisle with the suitcase held perilously in the air; then he sat down suddenly, and the suitcase landed in his lap with a whump.

“Oh, come on! Don’t kill yourself before I have a chance to meet you!”

There in the aisle stood a man with a bushy red beard that was streaked in several places with white.”

All in all, it’s a hard read but a good one. I’m glad to have read it. (Twice.)

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The pleasures of reading, viewing, and listening

I’ve been AWOL from this blog for a little while, but I have been busy elsewhere! Check out my post on the Aqueduct Press blog, “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014”. I talk about The Theory of Everything, Maplecroft, Doctor Who (of course), Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” and more!

Last night’s reading by Charlie Jane Anders


Every year, the Clarion West writing workshop hosts six readings, one per week for the duration of the workshop. I attend as many as I can manage. My mom is in town, so I asked her to come along. In the car, she asked the entirely reasonable question, “Who’s reading?”

The week was especially busy so I hadn’t actually checked. I only knew that I’ve liked every single Clarion West reading I’ve gone to. So I shrugged and said, “I don’t know!”

I hit the bathroom on my way in, and was really surprised to see a woman in a TARDIS dress. Clearly, this was someone who was at least as much of a Doctor Who fan as me. I gasped or made some kind of squee noise — I don’t remember which — and she looked really taken aback, and I realized I had just been terribly gauche, so I said, “I love your TARDIS!!!”

And she said, “Oh, thanks. Are you coming to the reading?” Which of course I was. I had a sneaking suspicion she was the person reading . . . which of course she was.

She was pretty amazing. Her story was hilarious, a post-apocalyptic comedy with a theater critic as the “genie in the bottle” ready to grant three wishes. But her delivery was fantastic as well. And she radiated curiosity and energy. I think I know what the term “reader crush” means now.

Per the flow chart on her website (http://charliejane.com/) I see that she does podcasts, which means that I really and truly need to figure out how to make podcasts work on my Ipod. (Been listening to them on my Kindle, which is just . . . ridiculous.)

I’ll also have to keep my eye out for the publication of her story. She read the first half, leaving the fate of the postapocalyptic world in the hands of a failed screenwriter. Talk about cliffhangers!

– Kristin

Signal-boost on Inclusive Book Reviewing

Strange Horizons magazine ran not one but three articles on inclusive reviewing of books. I tried to read and digest them all, but it feels rather like a boa constrictor eating a mouse whole. (We once fostered a boa constrictor who did that.)

I have some thinky thoughts about these articles but nothing fleshed out enough to make into a proper blog post. In the meantime, all these things are worth reading. Plus, Shakespeare in the Bush.

Anyhow, I’ll keep at it.

On reading three books at once

I’m in the middle of three books. This is kind of a problem, actually, because when I read books like that I have trouble finishing them, which would be a shame, because they are all wonderful.

Orientation by Daniel Orozco

Everybody who has ever had a job in an office needs to read the title story. Here’s a link! I just finished the second story, which is sad. I’m not prepared for sad right now, which is why I picked up . . .

Creating a Life by Corbin Lewars

Wit, comedy, and heartwrenching honesty. I first read Corbin Lewars’ work when she was putting out the Reality Mom zine. I found it on the newsstand at my local bookstore and fell in love because it exactly described what I was going through with my own kids, who were the same age. What it’s like: your brain takes a bit of a vacation, and you have to sell your angel wings to the pawn shop. In Reality Mom, she shamelessly details all her mistakes, and nobody else has ever told the story of early motherhood with quite the same honesty and humor! Well, Creating a Life is the story of how she came to be a mom in the first place. Just started it, and am much enjoying.

 But then I went to a reading and heard Eileen Gunn read about Love Sasquatches in . . .

Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn

From the blurb:

Good intentions aren’t everything. Sometimes things don’t quite go the way you planned. And sometimes you don’t plan. . . .

The Love Sasquatch was a hoot, and the ending (which she didn’t get to in the reading) was even better.

I just finished the story about Christmas and the elves, and I’m going — wait, what? It’s the kind of story you keep on thinking about and thinking about.

Oh yes, and the Spock and Kirk one, oh my . . .

But what are we changing into?

Yesterday I talked about coming to grips with the rapid pace of technological change. But today I’ll take a step back and ask: what are we changing into? What are we gaining? What are we losing?

Our brains are changing. Scientific American recently published an article, “How Google is Changing Your Brain,” pointing out that quick access to the cloud is changing the way we think. We use the Internet to get information we used to get by asking friends and family — essentially, as an external hard drive. Yes, indeed. I bought a Kindle Fire because my kids keep asking me questions, and although I don’t know the answer, I can get it in just a few seconds. Yesterday my daughter asked me what a Rube Goldberg device was. It was right at bedtime, so I gave her the accelerated version with hand gestures: “Ping, ping, roll, crash, clatter clatter pop — ding!” But then, once their teeth were brushed, I googled it, read Rube Goldberg’s biography, and showed them two youtube videos of Rube Goldberg devices.

Whoops! That violated our house rule of “no screen time just before bedtime.” And sure enough, bedtime was late and everyone woke up groggy. Screens are so very tempting.

The kids use computers way more than I’d like them to. Sure, I set limits, but they’re higher than mine were when I was a kid, and it’s easy to slide. Even easier if I’m on the computer when I didn’t mean to be. The temptation’s higher, too. When I was a kid, “screen time” wasn’t a word. It was “TV.” And it was broadcast TV, which meant that it had a predictable beginning and end. When the Muppet Show was over, we turned the TV off.

On the flip side, what the kids are doing with their screen time is a bit mindblowing. They’re playing Minecraft, a game that’s a lot more than a game. At its core, Minecraft is a 3D building program. They make buildings, trains, you-name-it. Their spatial skills probably already exceed mine. And very likely, they’re learning stuff they’ll need in tomorrow’s world. They’re also programming in Scratch, a language designed especially for kids.

But what’s being lost? Easy. Exercise and reading. Exercise was already in trouble, because most kids don’t roam the neighborhood freely. Too many cars and too many parents afraid of child molesters. But screen time is so tempting, they get even less. As for reading, my kids read, yes, but not as much as I did.

In fact, I don’t read books as much as I used to. I read blog posts, Facebook entries, and links from the Facebook entries. This gives me less opportunity to just cuddle down with a book and lose an hour in pleasant concentration. In fact, when I do have that opportunity, my mind races a bit. It’s used to speedy browsing. I have to always remind myself to slow down, unplug, enjoy the life right in front of me. And teach my kids to do it too.

There’s some kind of balance to be struck here, but I don’t know what it is. How can I? Our world, and the people in it, are changing. Into what?

I don’t have an answer. Do you?

Bedtime reading for the kids

We’re still reading bedtime books to our kids, ages 8 and 10. And we plan to keep it up as long as they go for it! Choosing books has gotten tricky, though. Some books are too scary for one, and some are too filled with girly stuff for another. Others drive me up the wall. Here’s a quick list of books we’ve done successfully, starting about 2 years ago:

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings (twice)
  • Harry Potter, books 1 – 7
  • Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Series (partway through)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Jupiter Jones and the Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot
  • Half Magic
  • George and the Big Bang (and other books in same series by the Hawking family)
  • Wayside School
  • Percy Jackson (too scary)
  • The Roman Mysteries (through book 3)

What to do next???

I’m thinking A Wrinkle in Time. But one of the kids already read the graphic novel version. Might fly, might not!

Here are some of the suggestions people have given me: Wringer (Jerry Spinelli), Journey to the River Sea (Eva Ibbotson), The Phantom Tollbooth, The Brave Little Toaster, The Streets Are Free, Brave Girl, The Witches (Roald Dahl), all of Roald Dahl’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and books by Garth Nix, Susan Cooper, and Phillip Pullman.

Year’s Roundup: 2010

For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to the series Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening at the Aqueduct Press blog. What’s that? Well, it’s a bunch of blog posts written by Aqueduct Press authors showcasing shows, music, and what-have-you that we enjoyed. Want some fine recommendations from geeky, smart, creative, well-read feminists? Check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be reposting my essays on this blog.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010

(originally posted here)

This year, I absorbed a lot of works that upset my understanding of the world around me. If I ever thought my identity – or anything else, for that matter – stood on solid ground, I was mistaken. On what does it rest, then? An abyss, the roll of a die, or a cantering horse? I’m really not sure.

 The Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz


Okay, so the author made up fukú – the deadly curse wrought by the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, after the interference of Europe and America in the country’s affairs. It doesn’t matter if it’s made up, doesn’t matter if you believe in it. It’ll get you just the same.

But on the other hand, there’s also a counterspell: zafa. And Oscar Wao is zafa. He exists in the intersection of oppressions, at home nowhere. He is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. In a small but important way, and with geeky panache, he resists a dictatorship.

Oscar Wao suffers. He suffers a lot. But when he takes damage, he takes it Dungeons and Dragons-style, with hit points from the funny-shaped dice. Roll that die. Ooh – maximum hit points.

I can relate.

The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss


Meet Martha Lessen. She’s the Western hero that you’ll never see in a Louis L’Amour novel or a spaghetti Western – she’s unassuming and she doesn’t shoot people. Instead, she rides into town and gets a job “breaking” horses. She’s learned horsebreaking from a “horse whisperer,” winning a horse’s trust rather than forcing it into submission through violence and fear. She fits neither the stereotype of horsebreaker or woman, but she gradually finds a place in the community through her quiet competence and love of horses and people alike.

I read this book after hearing Molly Gloss give a profoundly thought-provoking talk on the myth of “Shane,” the gunslinger who rides into town, saves the townfolk by shooting the bad guys, and rides right out again. That’s our great the Western myth that has done incalculable damage to the world. But, as Gloss argues, it’s a total lie. The true story of the West was about ordinary people homesteading and ranching, making home and community.

Her essay on Shane, “Desperado,” appears in Serving House Journal. (http://servinghousejournal.com/GlossDesperado.aspx)

The Tao Te Ching

by Ursula Le Guin


Le Guin spent hours on end reading her father’s copy of the Tao Te Ching, and is grateful to have discovered it so young so she could live with it for her whole life. Most versions are written to emphasize masculinity and authority, but she makes this one “accessible to a present-day, unwise, and perhaps unmale reader . . . listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” It’s practical and funny, and it will teach you to be like water. I get the biggest kick out of her commentary on Chapter 53, “Insight” – “So much for capitalism.”

Cheek by Jowl

by Ursula Le Guin


This book surveys children’s chapter books with animals as characters. But not the kind of animals who are really humans prowling around in a lion suit – animals who genuinely act and feel like animals. It’s a reminder of what humans have lost as we’ve set ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world. After I put the book down, I couldn’t feel superior any more.

The Man Who Lost His Shadow and Nine Other German Fairy Tales

by Gertrude C. Schwebell


There’s nothing like going into a used bookstore and finding a great collection of fairy tales. What happens to a man who sells his shadow? Does a boy with no morals ever get a second chance? These are rich, meaty, and imaginative, and the characters all get their just desserts.

Pippi Longstocking

by Astrid Lindgren


If my young daughter walks into my neighborhood independent bookstore and heads toward the children’s section, she’ll come across a couple of book spinners. They’ll be irresistible. Who cares that there are other books just a few steps away? Because these spinners have great books for girls, just the kind she craves, the kind you find at the school bookfairs and the Scholastic catalogs, the kind you even get as a prize for completing the library’s summer reading program. Yeah. Disney princesses and Barbie.

But soon . . . maybe one more year . . . she’ll be ready for Pippi. Strong, quick-witted, and owner of a large chest of pirate gold, Pippi could beat Walt Disney with one arm tied behind her back.

And then go back home, gobble up a bag of candy, and fall asleep with her head under a blanket and her feet on the pillow.


by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, and Annie Di Donna


This graphic novel tells the story of the search for truth in the foundations of pure logic, intertwining the lives of famous mathematicians with the mathematical quests and political turmoil of the early- to mid-twentieth century.

Logicomix centers on the story of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell had madness in his genes and parents nobody would talk about. Lacking stable foundations for his identity, he sought them in mathematics. Euclid’s geometry gave him “the promise of certainty in total rationality” and a “dream of a perfect cosmos.”

It was a lovely dream, the Enlightenment belief that mathematics pointed the way to a final and absolute truth.

Only thing was . . . Euclid’s geometry was based on axioms, which were unprovable. Russell set about trying to rectify it, spending ten years trying to prove the obvious, that 1 + 1 = 2.

He failed. And to the shock and horror of not only Russell but also mathematicians everywhere, his failure led to an even crazier mathematician, Goedel, mathematically proving that truth is not provable and that every system based on arithmetic is incomplete.

Who cares? What did this quest do to Russell? His wife? His son? And what does it have to do with World War II, the rise of Hitler, and anti-Semitism?

Usually, after you finish a book, you know more than when you began it. But if you dare to crack open this most remarkable book, you’ll know less.

Catching the Moon

by Myla Goldberg, illustrated by Chris Sheban.


When an old fisherwoman casts her net all night long, the Man in the Moon is intrigued and decides to pay her a visit. But he accidentally lets in the tides and upsets her tea set.

“My heavens,” cried her guest. “I’m afraid I’ve caused a mess.”

This picture book is short, sweet, and lovely.

One Book that I Didn’t Read Because It Didn’t Exist

by nobody

Wouldn’t it be great if somebody wrote a book about Lily Potter? After all, it was her magic that defeated Voldemort – twice! Were they just magically bestowed on her because she is a Woman and a Mother, or did she get busy sneaking around in the invisibility cloak with her gang, reading ancient magical history, having conversations with Dumbledore about how to keep this Snape guy in line? Yeah. Somebody write that.

The Polymath, Or The Life And Opinions Of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

directed by Fred Barney Taylor


This documentary grabbed my attention off the video shelf with the most basic of hooks – sex. Rent me, it said, and you’ll find out how novelist Samuel Delany managed to have 5,000 partners in his lifetime. Exciting? Extraordinary? No, to listen to him talk, that’s just what life was like for him in the seventies. “You felt like you were having a very ‑ a fairly interesting life,” he says matter‑of‑factly. And just as matter‑of‑factly, he shows us the world we live in, a world we think we know but don’t.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Were the porn theaters romantic? Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge.

The easy argument already in place to catch up these anecdotes is that social institutions such as the porn movies take up, then, a certain social excess, are even perhaps socially beneficial to some small part of it, a margin outside the margin. But that is the same argument that allows them to be dismissed and physically smashed and flattened. They are relevant only to that margin; no one else cares.

Well, in a democracy, that is not an acceptable argument. People are not excess. It is the same argument that dismisses the needs of blacks, Jews, hispanics, asians, women, gays, the homeless, the poor, the worker, and all other margins, that, taken together ‑ people like you, people like me – are the country’s overwhelming majority ‑ those who, socioeconomically, are simply less powerful.”

I could listen to him for hours on end.

Doctor Who, Seasons 4 and 5

The tenth Doctor, a rather Shane-like figure, blows it toward the end of Season 5, turning into an anti-hero. (I loved this moment so much I wrote an essay on it for Strange Horizons: “The Fall of the Superhero: Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars” at http://strangehorizons.com/2010/20100301/king-a.shtml)

Fortunately, the Doctor can regenerate into a new body and personality – sort of reincarnating without having to go through childhood again. But at the beginning of Season 5, the eleventh Doctor takes a Tigger-ish moment to relive childhood. He turns up at the house of seven-year old Amelia Pond demands an apple, takes a bite, and spits it out. Yogurt, beans, bread and butter all go the same way – thrown or spat. Finally, just as Tigger finds his favorite food in Kanga’s Strengthening Medicine, the Doctor finds fish fingers dipped in custard. Perfect.

The eleventh Doctor’s companion, grown up Amy Pond, is the epitome of what the media requires out of girls and women in twenty-first century. She models empowerment by looking sexy, dressing in miniskirts, and having a voracious sexual appetite. Something about this is worse than, for example, the Wonder Woman who fought bad guys while satisfying the urges of the male gaze. I think it’s because Amy Pond has internalized her stereotype.

Still, Amy Pond has her moments, and my favorite is at the end of “The Beast Below” when she thwarts the Doctor, and forces the Queen of Starship Britain to abdicate.

And a Weekend of Revelations

In February I attended the Fishtrap Winter Gathering in Oregon, with a weekend of talks, readings, and workshops by Molly Gloss, Ursula Le Guin, and Tony Vogt. I wrote a little about it on the Aqueduct Press blog (http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2010/02/fishtrap‑winter‑gathering.html) but there’s a lot more to say and think about. I’ve been absorbing what I heard all year long. Just a few takeaways:

  • White people are largely unaware of the ways that white privilege shapes everyone’s day-to-day life. Go to the store and get a box of flesh-covered band-aids. You’ll see.
  • We need to dismantle the myth of Shane.
  • Human beings are animals who use technology. (Does this make my computer part of the natural world?)
  • Technology makes us human, and capitalism makes technology destructive by forcing it to be always bigger and better. (I have to wonder, though: isn’t capitalism just one of our technologies? And what does that mean?)
  • The words that we use matter. It’s time to ditch the war metaphors.

pencil and notebook3