Book Review: Celebrate National Novel Writing Month with Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Published by Doubleday, 2011.

Happy National Novel Writing Month! Even though writing can be a fun form of self-expression for kids, teens, and adults, motivating yourself to write can often be challenging. Novels in particular require a great deal of self-motivation over a long period of time. Since 1999, the organization and movement known as “National Novel Writing Month” has encouraged amateur and professional writers to push themselves. Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo, which asks participants to write a 50,000 word manuscript in a single month, between November 1 and November 30. That means an average of 1,667 words per day! NaNoWriMo helps writers across the country and beyond by providing “pep talks” from professional authors, and meet ups in real life so that writers can take a break from this solitary pursuit. Read the rest of this entry »

YA Book Review: Back to School for the First Time in This Girl is Different

This Girl Is Different by J.J. Johnson. Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2011.

For lots of kids, parents, and young adults, September signals time to re-adjust to the schedule and lifestyle of school. For a homeschooler attending school for the very first time, this transition is much more difficult…and exciting! J.J Johnson’s young adult novel This Girl is Different centers around Evie, a homeschooler, entering school for the first time as a high school senior. This book flips the typical high school narrative on its head. Evie has to beg her mother to go to school. She wants to meet more people and experience a lifestyle she has only seen in movies. Before school even starts, Evie happens to befriend kindhearted Jacinda and Jacinda’s cute cousin Rajas, both seniors. But Evie quickly discovers that she knows less than she thought she did about the rules and cut-throat culture of public school. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Being Creative With Your Old Books

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Playing with Books

Books support literacy and learning. And when you have too many books in duplicate and falling part, they can even support creative-free play!

We might have a book problem at our house. Some are read over and over. Some are just collected such as the various printings of Moby Dick. Some gather dust. I am not sure where that yellowed copy of How to Use a Microscope came from but we have never opened it. Books are everywhere. All of my art history, theory, design and teaching manuals line one wall of the bedroom. The fiction and garden books are packed into the bookcase turned headboard. Sewing, knitting and books on art for kids fill the shelf under the bench. Current reads by both of us are scattered about the living room. Cookbooks belong to the pantry. And my daughter has arranged her library by subject and book series. She is a series reader and collector. How many versions of Harry Potter does one need? We might be book hoarders. Or maybe we aren’t because we recognize a problem developing.

Books just find their way into our house. We love to browse the local book shop and our neighborhood used bookstore. Book fundraisers are always good for a bargain. We often check the book share-and-take corner in the school lobby. Grandma feeds the addiction. Books are everywhere and hard to pass by without at least a peek.

Brainstorming here on what to do with the extras. There are the ones we start and a chapter or two in realize there is no interest. And there are old ones aged and crumbling. Those 20 year old copies of college textbooks are not needed. There must be some way to use these for play purposes. So here are some ideas! Read the rest of this entry »

Little Free Library in Wilbraham

Little Free Library in Wilbraham Honors Neighbors & Remembers Tornado

Little Free Libraries are a way of promoting literacy and exchanging reading material. However they quickly become more than that. They provide a neighborhood with a way to share common interests and a place for ideas and people to meet. (Photo credit: Steve Fratoni)

Well, it is little, and it is a library, and, yes, it is free… so it must be a Little Free Library.

The first Little Free Library appeared in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009 and now they can be found in every state and at least thirty-two countries. This one on Pomeroy Street in Wilbraham,  Massachusetts is the creation of Steve Fratoni in honor of his former neighbors Ted and Jane Gebeau. Ted and Jane started living on Pomeroy Street in 1947 when it was still just a dirt road through a field of strawberries and asparagus. Ted was instrumental in the founding of the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham and Jane was a librarian at the Town’s Library for over thirty years. Both were forced to move away in 2012 for health reasons. This Little Free Library represents their continued service to the Town and to their neighbors.

On a broad scale these Little Free Libraries are a way of promoting literacy and exchanging reading material. However they quickly become more than that. They provide a neighborhood with a way to share common interests and a place for ideas and people to meet.

Another aspect of community is the use of recycled building materials for the project. This library uses plywood scraps from a neighbor’s kitchen remodeling, wood from tornado broken trees, and lengths of ripped-up invasive Bittersweet vines.

So how does it work? If you see a book inside that interests you, take it, read it, and enjoy it. When your done return it to this library, or pass it on to a friend, or place it in any other Little Free Library (see list below). If you own a book that you have finished and think that others would like to read add that to the Library, too. Even better, write a few notes to tell others what you liked about the book.

(Photo credit: Steve Fratoni)

As for what kind of books are in this Little Free Library, that you will have to find out for yourself. It is something that changes from day to day and maybe even minute to minute. Since this Library opened during National Poetry Month, its first patrons will find poetry books ranging from a picture book of hand rhymes for children to the complete poems of Emily Dickinson among other fiction and non-fiction titles.

So don’t be frighten by this Little Free Library on Pomeroy Street, after all it is not really a house swept up in a tornado. Plus it is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to everyone who walks by.

– Submitted by Steve Fratoni

Other Little Free Libraries in Western MA include:

  • Easthampton: Located on the Man Rail Trail, west of Union Street, built by Williston Northampton School & the Manhan Rail Trail. Bruce Simons is the Steward.
  • Northampton: In the front yard of 82 Washington Ave.  Marjorie Senechal is the Steward.
  • Pittsfield: At the Pemble Farm Stand located at 787 Pecks Road. Caitlin Pemble is the Steward.
  • Russell: Located at 6 Blandford Stage Road. Bruce Miller is the Steward.
  • Williamstown: Located in the front yard on 74 Linden Street. Justin Adkins is the Steward.

Add your Little Free Library to the map at

The Little Drummer Boy: A Story of Humanity & Kindness

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Keats’ The Little Drummer Boy Hits All The Right Beats

Okay, I’ll admit it – I have a real soft spot for the song, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Some of you may cringe every time you hear it, and if you’ve been walking around stores this holiday season you’ve probably heard any number of the hundreds of versions by different artists – some rocking, some soulful, and some just overly synthesized and dramatic. But I can’t help it, the song has drummed its way into my heart ever since I was a little girl. The simple lyrics, potent imagery, and rhythmic beat pull me right into the essence of the song’s story, which for me revolves around the spirit of giving, shared experience, and the power of music to transcend language, race, religion, and economics.

Though I always associated the song with Christmas and the birth of Jesus, I never thought of it as a “religious” song. My experience with the song has always been more about humanity and kindness. There’s a child-like wonder to it, embedded in the child’s perspective, the presence of animals, and the honesty of emotion. The rhyme, rhythm, and repetition in the lyrics and in the constant drumbeat of “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” have always pulled me into the song’s story. And all of this makes “The Little Drummer Boy” ideal to put into book format for young children. My favorite illustrated version is by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Macmillan in 1968. Keats brings the song alive, fills it with patterned, graphic collage and muted hues of paint. He gives faces to the characters and places them in an emotive, desert landscape with a moody sky that changes throughout the span of the day and reflects the breadth of the boy’s emotions.  Read the rest of this entry »

New Book by Louise Erdrich Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

New Book Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

open sesameIt is 1866. Chickadee and his twin brother, Makoons, have been together every day since they were born. Eight years old and living with their family in a birchbark house in the remote woods near Lake Superior, the brothers must endure a brutal separation when Chickadee is kidnapped by members of his own tribe and taken far from home.

The story, named for the main character, intertwines Chickadee’s escape from his captors and his family’s search for him as they journey from their north woods home to the strange flatland of the Great Plains.

Author, Louise Erdrich, weaves a beautifully written story that portrays a family’s love and their willingness to risk everything for each other against a backdrop of 19th century Ojibwe life.

Chickadee is the fourth book in The Birchbark House series, which will eventually chronicle 100 years in the life of Omakayas, Chickadee’s mother. The series started when Omakayas was just a young girl in The Birchbark House (Hyperion, 1999), a National Book Award finalist, and was followed by The Game of Silence (Harper Collins, 2005), winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and The Porcupine Year (Harper Collins, 2008). Chickadee starts a new branch of Omakayas’ story, with the focus of this book moving away from her and toward her son.

Steeped in detail and authenticity, with Ojibwe words knit into the narrative, and glossary and pronunciation guide in back to help readers navigate through the Ojibwe language, Chickadee displays Erdrich’s mastery of historical fiction. And her delicacy and sensitivity with issues of separation and loss, sadness and fear, joy and faith, are expressed in the characters’ struggles and triumphs.

And what a terrific cast of characters Erdrich has assembled. The multi-generational family members have very distinct personas, from the gentle Omakayas to the fearsome huntress Two Strike, and when woven together form rich and dynamic relationships.

Chickadee is an especially likable character. He is earnest and brave, and though he is at first disheartened with his namesake, a tiny bird without claws or teeth, Chickadee comes to know the truth of what his great-grandmother, Nokomis, assures him – that chickadees are small but powerful. The birds stay around all winter, can survive on the smallest seeds, take care of their families, and stick together like the Anishinabeg people.

And true to its nature, the tiny bird appears when Chickadee needs him, guiding the boy to food, protecting him from harm, and in a critical moment, even giving Chickadee a song. “I am only the chickadee/Yet small things have great power/I speak the truth,” resonates throughout the book, and gives Chickadee strength and courage when he needs it most. His simple song resonates off the page too, as young readers may relate to feeling small in a big world, or for this adult reader, being human in an immense universe. And yet, like Chickadee’s song insists, we have our own great power.

  • Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper, New York, 2012.  196 pgs. ISBN: 978-0-06-057790-2

Louise Erdrich, is the best selling author of many acclaimed books for adults, including the 2012 National Book Award winner for The Round House, (Harper, 2012) and The Plague of Doves: A Novel (P.S.) (Harper Collins, 2008), a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Q&A: 19 Children’s Books on Food Security/Scarcity


Do you have a favorite children’s book that touches on the topic of food security/scarcity you care to share? Hilltown Families is collaborating with The Food Bank of Western MA on compiling a list of kids books that have to do with fighting hunger, soup kitchens, food banks, etc. for their Youth Action Hunger program.


Publicly post any titles you’d like to recommend below, or submit it privately here:

Read the rest of this entry »

Q&A: Would You Give Your Child the Gift of an E-Book Reader?


Nancy Blake Webb writes, "I'm thinking my kids can get one for college if they can download textbooks so they don't have so many to carry around."

Would you ever give your children an e-book reader as a gift?

  • Amanda Saklad writes, “If I had the extra $150 plus to spend, sure! A trip to the library would be little more affordable, though. My 11yo wants one for Christmas.”
  • Karen Bayne writes, “If I had one, and I had the money, I would. I can’t quite wrap my head around giving such a cool thing to my kid before I get my hands on one myself! Same rule applies for the often sighed over imaginary iPod Touch that I would lend them….”
  • Emily Gonzalezoh writes, “Yes…but what Amanda said.”
  • Jenni Haley writes, “My step-daughter’s much older sister is giving her one for Christmas. She is 11, but we would not have thought of it, but she will love it. I’d much rather she had an e-reader than an iPhone, iPod Touch, whatever. It’s so single purpose – better reading than texting or gaming!”
  • Vickie Riggs Selleck writes, “If, if they would read more by using it (and you could afford and they were responsible enough to own it).”
  • Aime DeGrenier writes, “I don’t think so, especially only days after my kids put the iPod Touch in the tub–ahem, the full tub, and although I had told them NEVER to bring the Touch into the bathroom, I really had never told them not to put it in the tub…”
  • Diane Hinze Kanzler writes, “”No. Mine can read books the traditional way. If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for her.”
  • Dawn Kim writes, “Absolutely, I love my Nook. But my kids are only 7 and 4 so they’ll have to wait a while. Maybe a hand-me-down nook when mom is ready for a new reader?”
  • Nancy Blake Webb writes, “I’m thinking my kids can get one for college if they can download textbooks so they don’t have so many to carry around.”
  • Julie Gouldman Russell writes, “I like the college idea. No need to get all of those heavy, over-priced college text books – that always seem to be outdated by the next semester so you can’t resell them to anyone. However, it is a few years off for us, so who knows what type of technology will be out by then.”

[Photo credit: (ccl) Sean Kelly]

GIVEAWAY: A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade

A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade
By James Preller, Illustrated by Greg Ruth
Win an Copy Inscribed by Illustrator Greg Ruth

Deadline to enter to win is Monday, September 27th 2010.

Local Hilltown artist Greg Ruth has released a new children’s book titled Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and Hilltown Families has an inscribed copy to giveaway to two lucky families.  Deadline to enter to win is Monday, September 27th 2010. Details below.


Arr! It’s the first day of first grade, and it’s all hands on deck for a young pirate and his crew. How much trouble can they get into? What will they do at recess? And, most important, what treasure awaits them at school?

Written by James Preller, and illustrated by Greg Ruth, Pirate’s Guide to First Grade is a story of the first day of school. “This rambunctious first day tale is fit for any young buccaneer… Preller’s buoyant pirate-inflected storytelling and Ruth’s illustrations, which have a decidedly vintage flair, form an exuberant tribute to imagination and a spirit of adventure,” writes Publishers Weekly.

“Young would-be buccaneers facing their own first-day jitters will enjoy this droll title, which ends with a cheer for libraries. A great choice for sharing on September 19th, International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” - Booklist

The Wall Street Journal recent review writes, “Greg Ruth’s retro illustrations for James Preller’s story adhere in a satisfying way to piratical convention—his buccaneers have flowing beards, eye patches and gnarly expressions—but he adds witty modern-day touches, too, like the vaporous juice box in one man’s hand.”


Photo credit: Jen SmithGreg Ruth lives and works in Western Massachusetts with his wife and fellow artist, Jen Smith, and their two boys, Emmett and Nathaniel. He has been known to craft graphic novels, children’s picture books, music videos and illustrated novels and currently does not own a parrot. Yet.  You can find out more by visiting his website:


Meet the Illustrator

  • Elmer’s Store in Ashfield, MA be celebratin’ National Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sunday, September 19th with a special book signin’ and readin’ by t’ artist, Greg Ruth o’ A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, written by James Preller from 10am till 1pm. Come by for good food, pirate goodies and a signed copy o’ t’ book. There be only a few copies port o’ t’ first edition, so make aye t’ come early! Orders will be taken for signed, personalized books as well. – This event be rated “Arrrrrrr!”
  • Later that day, Greg will also sit down for a signin’ at T’ Old Creamery in Cummington, MA as part o’ their tenth anniversary celebration at 3pm. Copies o’ his first sprogs’s book, Our Enduring Spirit, written by President Barack Obama will be available.


Your chance t’ win an inscribed copy o’ Pirate’s Guide to First Grade by local illustrator Greg Ruth be as easy as 1-2-3 (4)! T’ win simply:

  1. POST A COMMENT BELOW IN YOUR BEST “PIRATESE(one entry per family) and be sure to tell us your
  2. FULL NAME (first/last) and where you
  3. LIVE (TOWN/STATE) must include your town to be eligible.
  4. ACCURATE EMAIL (we never share your email address).
  5. We’ll randomly draw two winners and will share the results below.

IT’S THAT SIMPLE! — Deadline is Monday, 09/27/10 @ 7pm (EST).


Win Three Seasonal Titles From Storey Publishing (Deadline 10/21/09)

Win 3 Seasonal Titles: Pumpkins, Cider and Apples
From Storey Publishing

Hilltown Families and Storey Publishing have partnered up to offer a chance to win three seasonal titles:

  • The Perfect Pumpkin: Growing, Cooking, Carving by Gail Damerow
  • Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider (3rd Ed.) by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols
  • Apple Cookbook by Olwen Woodier

Find out how to enter to win below.


Storey Publishing is a local publisher based out of North Adams, MA.  They have been publishing wonderful how-to books on do-it-yourself titles that are down-to-earth and always inspiring for over 25 years!  Topics range from gardening, cooking, crafts, nature science, animal care, farming, traditional skills and home improvement.

Over the years my personal library has included many of their titles that are now dog-eared and well worn from reading and referencing; including: Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal, Gail Damerow’s Barnyard in Your Backyard, Mike & Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellering and Phyliss Hobson’s Making & Using Dried Foods.  All great titles I’ve referenced either for family minor illnesses, the best way to raise our small backyard flock of chickens, how to put up onions and cabbage from the farmer’s market for the winter, and advice on dehydrating culinary herbs and locally picked apples. Discover their upcoming releases here.  Each title is packed with fresh new ideas about gardening, horses, cooking, crafts, livestock, building, and more!


    Gail Damerow has written a great book for harvesting and growing nearly 100 varieties of pumpkins!  I had no idea there were that than many!  Her book, The Perfect Pumpkin: Growing, Cooking, Carving, includes advise on how to grow and harvest pumpkins (including those gigantic ones we see at the county fairs!), step-by-step craft and carving projects, delectable recipes (like pumpkin brioche and pumpkin ale!) and even tips one how to put up pumpkin for winter storage.
    How do you make great cider? All you need is an apple. And a few other things … Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols offer thorough coverage of every step of cider making, from choosing and planting the best apple varieties to enjoying the finished product in their book Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider. Recipes include sweet and hard ciders, sparkling cider blends, and cider-based foods. In this book you’ll also find directions on how to build a working apple press, and bits of history and lore.
    Want to turn your apples into gourmet cooked dishes to accompany a glass of hard cider? Olwen Woodier offers over 140 apple recipes for to serve up apples for breakfast, lunch and dinner in her book, Apple Cookbook. She also offers descriptions of the general characteristics of many popular and heirloom varieties of apples along with a diagram that charts their best uses.


Your chance to win these three seasonal titles from Storey Publishing is as easy as 1-2-3 (4)!  To win simply:

  1. POST A COMMENT BELOW (one entry per household) and be sure to tell us your
  2. FULL NAME and where you
  3. LIVE (TOWN/STATE) You must include your town and state to be eligible.
  4. ACCURATE EMAIL (we never share your email address).
  5. We’ll randomly draw a winner and will share the results below.

IT’S THAT SIMPLE! — Deadline is Monday, 10/21/09 @ 7pm (EST).

To check out other fine titles by Storey Publishing, visit them on-line at

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