Stacked in Our Favor

Thoughts about libraries, education, children's literature, writing, art and being connected

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reupholstering an old friend

One of my favorite children has a bunny. A soiled and worn bunny. The child is now a teen and the bunny is now a senior citizen. I’m thinking that the rules that apply to dogs’ ages must also apply to stuffed animals. The time had come for that makeover which was long overdue. I knew the job needed doing last year, but I couldn’t find the right fabric for the job. When the bunny was new, her fur was pink and fuzzy. She had developed a coffee colored patina. One day as I slipped my Land’s End angel fur fleece over my head a light bulb went off. The fleece jacket was so soft and just the right kind of pale pink for the job. I promised myself that I could buy a new one someday. The stuffing coming out of pink bunny’s feet meant that she could wait no longer.

So the last two weekends I spent giving Pink Bunny a makeover. Why do this? Pink Bunny is a great comfort to her friend. She is also the object of many stories. Stories which are important to not only my young friend, but also to me. Communal storytelling has its own rules.

So on a Friday night I began dismantling Pink Bunny. Carefully I slipped the pointed blades of my German sewing scissors into a seam that was starting to wiggle free. I freed the beginning of a seam and gently opened it to the end. As each piece was detached, I pinned a label onto it as a reference for later. Each label included all information needed “Right leg, right side”. Each piece was then washed by hand to rid it of grime and germs. Though I had planned to iron the pieces, I found that they felted when I did so. In the end, letting them air dry made more sense.

Meanwhile I cut apart my Land’s End sweater and ironed lightweight interfacing to it. It gave it just enough body to make it more manageable. I made patterns of each and every piece (just in case). Then I basted each piece to the new fabric and cut around the edges. It was VERY important that the old Pink Bunny be encased in the new one. Finally, the pieces were sewn together. Sewing through that many layers of fabric was a daunting task for my old sewing machine. The sewing machine had to be cleaned several times. Between the fuzz that shed into the machine during the process and the shear thickness of the pieces, the machine needed a bit of TLC. It took two weeks, but I was able to finish the project. The eyes were a challenge to remove, but easy to restore.

The restored Pink Bunny is much firmer than before. She is soft, solid and no longer soiled. You hear stories of people doing this sort of operation only to have the child reject the item for its lack of authenticity. So with fear and trembling I passed Pink Bunny back to her owner. I need not have feared the rejection, nor the need for the extra stuffing. Pinky is already considerably flatter than when I handed her over. There was a lot of hugging to catch up on.

Pink Bunny is ready to star in many more adventures to come. The stories, whether they are written down or spoken into the wind, will continue to amuse and delight.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Success or Failure?

I have just started reading I’d rather be in the studio: The artist’s no-excuse guide to self-promotion by Alyson B. Stanfield. A quick flip through the pages gives me the feeling that it will be a book full of information to underline and apply. For now I am contemplating page 2. She asks “Are you more afraid of failure or success?”

What if I answered that question myself? What if I asked my students to answer that question? What if I could know how a student who challenges me might answer that question? What if I have a character in a story ask this question? Would the way I approach my work/my life/my writing, change?

It’s a variation on a theme I’ve heard before. Yet the way Stanfield embeds it in her message is powerful. For the writer, the artist, the teacher, the librarian, the family member that I am, this question can transform me. Will I let it?

I have to ask myself how the fear of success may play into how some of my students deal with learning. Peer pressure is intense. Last week, I watched a group of boys groan when they heard we were going to read Cinderella. Some of the same boys were nearly jumping out of their seats minutes later to have a chance to tell what happened next in the story. When I had them vote by a show of hands, more boys indicated they enjoyed the Cinderella variation we read than those who felt differently. Not only did they feel they weren’t supposed to enjoy the story or know the answers, they certainly weren’t supposed to want the pair of glass slippers cut from paper. And yet one boy, oblivious to the scolding of the rest of them, openly showed he liked the whole thing. Boys aren’t supposed to remember fairy tales and girls aren’t supposed to be good at putting things together. Or so I have been told by the under 6 crowd lately.

This leads me to wonder what other things my students may be pulling back from engaging in. What cultural pressures make them fear to achieve? What personal experiences have made them feel unable to succeed and therefore not a player?

Sometimes I have to pry the answers from some of my students. I meet with success only when we are at the check-out counter and the room is too noisy for them to be noticed by others. What if those students were not afraid of either success or failure? What chances would they take?

If you are intrigued by Stanfield’s book you can find out more at I can’t wait to see what is in the rest of the book!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sharp Scissors

I cut my hand last week. How, you may ask? Well, I was doing a librarian thing. I was telling a story. You see, I find that kids love those fold and cut stories. I devised, quite cleverly if I do say so myself a series of folds and cuts which would tell the story of Cinderella, show her dress in beautiful detail and then fold out to be a crown which could be worn on a child’s head. How clever I thought myself! The paper had to be folded multiple times. Well, just when I was about to unveil the beautiful dress I cut through the paper and into my hand. Having elected to use the “big girl scissors” the slice was clean and swift. I was able to finish off the item before my hand bled too much. Lucky for me, the school nurse is a gem. She showed no hesitation in bandaging me up multiple times that day. The cut was positioned in such a way as to make it near impossible to keep a bandage interested in staying put.

For the rest of the week I had to explain the large bandage or the rubber glove I wore over my liquid bandaid. It kept my wound safe from the inevitable germs which must be braved if you work with little ones who still put their hands in their mouths. So I turned my lesson to one of safety. Worried that the students be afraid of the glove or the wound, we discussed both and took the opportunity to discuss safety issues. I showed them the “big girl scissors” I had used on that fateful day alongside a pair of children’s safety scissors. We compared and contrasted their features. We discussed their safety features. And we voted. Guess which pair they wanted me to use?

Needless to say, I gave up the crown - at least for this week. I also gave up trying to be neat. Now I let the paper fall to the floor and pick it up later. Trying to hold, cut and catch simultaneously is what gave me this wound. So I dreamed up another fold and cut which requires me to cut through just the two layers of paper. As I wanted to read variations on the Cinderella theme, I chose to recreate the slippers. Students identified elements of the original story through prompts. The paper was then cut to produce a shape to represent each element. Finally I asked what Cinderella left behind to help the prince find her. They were delighted to see the paper cut into the glass slipper.

They were even more delighted to see me open the paper to unite the two slippers so that the prince could realize he had found the girl of his dreams. Watching the amazement on their faces was a joy. Even boys who had groaned when they heard we would be reading a variation on the Cinderella theme were jumping up to participate.

Ways to add value to your fold and cut story

1. Don’t worry if each cut doesn’t really graphically represent the story element. The kids don’t really care. If I want to cut a triangular shape I do think about ways I can reflect that in the story or visa versa. Still, students will be anxiously trying to guess what you are cutting. They will be too busy to critique your matching skills.

2. DO NOT try to hold the paper and catch it with one hand. That is how I got my wound. Let it fall to the floor and pick it up later. Better yet, don’t stop the child who is picking it up for you. You can also position a recycling container near your seat if it doesn’t get in the way of the visuals of your storytelling.

3. Tell the children that you will be folding the paper in half. Ask how many times you have to fold to do so. Ask how many sections you will have if you fold in half. Ask what will happen if you cut one side. Introduce/reinforce the word symmetrical. By doing this you will be working on geometry skills. Our kindergarten students know the word symmetrical. Yours can too.

4. Be creative. Sometimes I tell the story. Sometimes I ask questions and make a cut for each answer. In the case of Cinderella, I asked leading questions about the storyline. “Who was the person who helped Cinderella?” We then went on to read other variations on the Cinderella theme. Comparing and contrasting the versions made this more than a simple reading session, though that would have been just fine with me.

5. Use safety scissors. Really do try to avoid bleeding on the prize.

6. If you feel so compelled, you can double up the paper to make two prizes at once. I don’t recommend this for several reasons, but you can if you need to. If there are too many layers you are more likely to cut yourself. I stand as proof. Also, the paper tends to slip a bit and the figures don’t always come out the symmetrical works of art you are looking for. Also, there is magic in winning the prize which is unique and made just for you.

7. Vary your paper color for some fun.

8. Use books to get ideas, but once you have run through the ideas you CAN start to make your own patterns. Really. You can.

9. Do not think that you are wasting time. Children really enjoy these stories. I used them successfully one year. The next year I was so worried about covering other things that I let them go. Students who had them the year before were constantly asking for them. One day I decided to do one and I realized how much they got from them and how to make them value added. In addition when I started doing them after the hiatus, the adults clapped their hands and told me it was their favorite part of library. Anything which makes people really want to come see you adds value.

10. Make it enjoyable.

What was the magic for me? Spring fever has hit. Yet students were on their best behavior hoping to win that piece of paper. That’s the best thing I could ask from any fairy godmother.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Spine Poetry

What a gas! Travis Jonker posted this hilarious and inspiring idea on his blog 100scopenotes. See his post at

The idea is to use the spines of books to make poetry. I am not terribly confident about having my young students try this out, but it was irresistible to me. If I hadn’t been absolutely swamped this week I imagine I would have spent much time looking for poetry in the stacks. Here are the first two I could muster (with notes in case the photos are hard to view):

A Perfect Day

Today I will Fly

Thump and Plunk

No Fighting, No Biting

Tug of War

Don’t be My Valentine

What a Mess!

This may become an obsession. I find myself checking the spines as students bring books to the check out counter. “Don’t worry about putting that one back. I’ll keep it right here…..”

Monday, April 5, 2010

NaPiBoWriWee – Picture Book Challenge

Ever thought you’d like to try your hand at writing picture books for children? You can be sure you aren’t alone. Well, in May you can test the waters during NaPiBoWriWee. For those of you who look at all those letters in total bafflement, NaPiBoWriWee stands for National Picture Book Writing Week. Sponsored by Paula Yoo, NaPiBoWriWee is a challenge to write a picture book a day for 7 days. While you are sweating away at the keyboard, or using the time honored pencil and paper, you will find the camaraderie and support of others taking the same journey. Starting April 1st, Paula Yoo is posting daily words of encouragement, inspirational and informational writings on her blog. So far I’ve found these daily postings to be little gems which I feel I’ll need to go back to again and again to reap their full value. Guest writers offer words of experience and encouragement. Trained as a journalist, Paula Yoo includes many resources for the would-be writer. Even if you don’t participate in this year’s NaPiBoWriWee, I highly recommend that you read her blog posts.

If you are wondering why an already overbooked, overextended school librarian would get herself involved with these sorts of challenges, I’ve made a list of reasons why doing this is a good idea. So here goes:

What school librarians and classroom teachers might get out of trying NaPiBoWriWee:

1. The act of writing a picture book is likely to help one gain insight into the nature of picture books. This may help us think of new ways to introduce picture books to our students.

2. As people who are constantly asking our young charges to write and write meaningfully using correct sentence structure, taking this challenge will put us in the positions our students find themselves day after day. We may be more sympathetic to our students when they are writing.

3. After feeling the pressure of writing on demand and to a schedule, we might find that our writing prompts change in nature. We might find that we become better coaches for our students.

4. Our students will see that we, too, write.

5. Writing 7 books in one week should make us really appreciate the books we have and what went into to their creation.

6. Writing picture books may make us more aware of how the illustrations add to the book.

7. We might find ourselves delighted, transported, inspired and full of joy.

8. We might find that the process is much more difficult than we imagined. This is also good to know.

9. We might bond with each other as we tease out stories we didn’t know were lurking in the recesses of our minds.

10. Some of us harbor dreams of writing a picture book, but never take pen to paper. The doing of it challenges what we thought it would be like. We find out how it is for us.

Hope you will join me. Happy writing!