07 Jun

My 18 days in Singapore

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Until the very end of April, I’d never been outside North America, but I corrected that in a big way when I took a 14-hour flight from Dallas to Doha and then another flight — this one a mere seven hours — to Singapore.

The occasion was my 12-day stint as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School. I conducted two-day writing workshops for the second- through fifth-graders and got to read a book or two to the schools first-graders, kindergartners, and pre-K students.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

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Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home -- a copy of Sarah Bird's A Love Letter to Texas Women -- without having any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home — a copy of Sarah Bird’s A Love Letter to Texas Women — without have any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

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One of the students laminated my autograph!

One of the students laminated my autograph!

The school days were full, but there was much I wanted to see in my downtime, so I got out and about a lot. Besides, I figured I could sleep on my long flight home. (This turned out not to be true.)

On my first Saturday there, I had lunch in Little India, visited the Sultan Mosque —

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— took a break for Japanese ice cream and coffee, went to a festival at the Thai embassy, and ended the day with an IMAX screening of Captain America: Civil War with Chinese subtitles.

Singapore offers a marvelous mix of cultures, history, natural beauty, and adventurous architecture. Here are a few of my favorite sights:

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

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(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

I picked the right day to follow my mom's suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

I picked the right day to follow my mom’s suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

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What else? Let’s see — there was a wet market:

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The MacRitchie Reservoir Park, with Kate Brundage…

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…and monkeys:

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The Singapore Botanic Garden, with an Evolution Garden that I especially liked:

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Though this guy was also a highlight:

But my favorite place to photograph was, without a doubt, Haw Par Villa:

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The centerpiece of Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell, the representations of which are a bit extreme. There are serious punishments for more infractions than I knew existed. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of misusing books.

But I can’t end there. I’ve got to go back to SAS and one of the campus cats. Because campus cats.

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23 May

Whoosh! (or, What’d I Miss?, part 1)

I just got back from teaching for twelve days as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School (yes, there will be photos here).

And that stretch was only part of the nearly four weeks that went by between my previous two posts, thanks to a technical issue that was tough to fix from afar for someone like me who has, well, technical issues.

All in all, I’m feeling a little like this guy:

So, what all was going on over here while I was over there teaching writing workshops to second- through fifth-graders?

Whoosh!The biggest thing is that Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions had its publication day on May 3.

I’m super-proud of this second collaboration with my friend Don Tate. Previously, Don and I teamed up for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, a biography set a century before Whoosh! and a couple of states over.

(John Roy Lynch spent his early life in Louisiana and Mississippi, and Alabama native Lonnie Johnson now lives and works in Georgia.)

Don commemorated the occasion with a pair of blog posts — packed with sketches and examples of his attempts at finding the right illustration style — about the research and revision that went into this book:

Our publisher, Charlesbridge, celebrated by sharing my author’s note for Whoosh!:

I loved talking with Lonnie Johnson for this book. I have never laughed as hard during an interview as I did when we discussed his work on Linex and how his family “put up with” his efforts—or rather, how they encouraged him.

School Library Journal included the book in its roundup of titles about “Tenacious Trailblazers“:

Readers follow the many obstacles and setbacks Johnson experienced as he tirelessly worked to launch his invention. The narrative … adeptly captures the passion and dedication necessary to be an engineer.

Booklist had this to say about Lonnie Johnson and Whoosh!:

The text emphasizes the continuing support he received from his family, and the vibrant illustrations are especially effective at capturing expressions and mannerisms that bring Johnson to life (as when Johnson and his fellow Tuskegee Institute students party to a sound and light system constructed from leftover electronics). This upbeat tribute makes an engaging and inspiring addition to STEM collections.

Scholastic named Whoosh! to its list of “50 Sensational Books of Summer“:

The brisk storytelling and pictures transport us from the ’60s through the ’80s, as Johnson invents everything from rockets to robots to the Super Soaker water gun.

Whoosh! has also been featured on A Year of Reading:

I love so much about this book. I love that it expands the scientists our children know. I love how it ties into the maker movement with all that Lonnie Johnson has created. And I love that we can continue to follow his work.

And on Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook:

Recently, the Makerspace movement is getting a good push. Makerspace, defined as a DIY space where people gather to create, invent and learn, has become popular in libraries and classrooms. There were several times when I stopped and marked pages or sentences that reminded me of the Makerspace ideals. What a perfect book to use when talking about what the spirit of Makerspace is all about.

And on Readin’, Ritin’, But Not Much ‘Rithmatic:

The team of Chris Barton and Don Tate missed the memo that nonfiction is dry and boring. Together again after The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, they … use words and illustrations woven seamlessly together to add child-appealing humor without compromising the struggles Lonnie faced to fulfill his dreams.

And on Kid Lit Frenzy!

Chris Barton is in his element when writing picture book biographies and his newest biography of Lonnie Johnson is a fascinating and informative read.

Finally, in its guide to summer reading, the Austin American-Statesman led off with Whoosh!:

“Whoosh!” provides an important counterweight to the traditional image of scientists as exclusively white, Einstein-like figures.

Wow. I’m so grateful for all the attention this book received while I was away. Maybe I should (be forced to) take a break more often…

24 Apr

Weekend backpacks — and books — for students in need

Until I visited Charles Haskell Elementary in Edmond, Oklahoma, recently, I’d never heard of the weekend backpack programs that some schools and local food banks use to provide students from low-income families enough to eat on Saturdays and Sundays.

Charles Haskell Elementary's all-school photo during the nationwide Great Kindness Challenge in January 2016.

Charles Haskell Elementary’s all-school photo during the nationwide Great Kindness Challenge in January 2016.

And until I met Becky Walderbach, Haskell Elementary’s librarian, I’d never considered the lengths that one in her profession might go to in order to ensure that those same kids also have something to read on those days.

In the library after my presentation to Haskell’s students, the backpacks came up in my conversation with Becky and local Barnes & Noble representative Michelle Mauk. Becky and Michelle filled me in on the basics of the program, and I asked Becky if she would tell me more via email.

Below, I’ve posted a slightly edited version of my ensuing exchange with Becky Walderbach.

If you know of a similar program — or think you might want to get one started at your school — I’d love to hear about it in the comments section that follows.

Chris: What can you tell me about the weekend program before you and books got involved?

Becky: The perception of Edmond is that we are very affluent and that there aren’t any poor people here. At one time, many years ago, this was close to reality but not anymore. I’m sure you’re familiar with the federal free and reduced-price meal programs. The participation in this program is traditionally a good indicator of the poverty level in your school population; Charles Haskell has about 30% of our students enrolled in the program. For some of the children in this program, our cafeteria meals provide the majority of their nutrition. It has become apparent that those students often go hungry on the weekends.

Because of the very high poverty level in some areas, someone came up with the idea of sending home backpacks of food with these children every weekend. In the spring of 2012 our counselor started the program here at Haskell. Our community is very fortunate that we have a wonderful food bank and they supply the food to put in the backpacks each week. [Note: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma serves Edmond and the surrounding area.]

Chris: How did the idea come about to start including books in the food backpacks at your school?

Becky: The idea of putting books in our backpacks began about the time we started sending backpacks home. When I first became librarian at Charles Haskell in January 1999, our socioeconomic level was much different. Our attendance area was more affluent, we had many stay-at-home moms that were able to volunteer at the school, and the majority of our students were able to buy books at our book fairs.

Over time, the area around our school that had once been open farm land had small starter homes and apartments built on it. Although we still have several upper-end neighborhoods in our area, we now have a large number of families that live in these modest homes. We still had students that walked into the book fair with a twenty dollar bill to shop, but we had many children who had no chance to shop at the book fair at all. It was a classic example of “Haves” and “Have-Nots.” I found this very upsetting!

We still had students that walked into the book fair with a twenty dollar bill to shop, but we had many children who had no chance to shop at the book fair at all. It was a classic example of “Haves” and “Have-Nots.”

As I thought about what I could do, it occurred to me that our “Backpack Kids” were an obvious place to start. If their families were struggling to put food on the table, it made sense that there could be very little money to put books in their children’s hands.

The next question: What books would I give them? That answer came to me quickly. Our families that do have means are wonderful about donating books to our library once their children have outgrown them. We had always supplemented our library collection with these donations, but you only need a finite number of copies of any one title. We had a small collection of these extra books available; those were my first “Backpack Books.”

Chris: How has your Backpacks Books program grown or changed in the four years that you’ve been doing it? Have there been improvements or things that you’ve learned to do differently along the way?

Becky: When we first started adding books to the backpacks I was a little less organized. I kept track of the books distributed more as a grade-level group. I realized I wasn’t sure which child got which book, which made it difficult to avoid duplicates.

I now have a list of backpack number, grade, and gender for each child. I keep a log sheet for each one and record the book I send home each week. I have post-its that I put on the books so they are placed in the correct backpack. We have fifth grade students that help the counselor assemble and distribute the backpacks each Friday and they actually put the books in as part of their routine.

I had a small stockpile of donated books that helped me begin. Over the years I have supplemented the donations with books I buy on the Half Price Books clearance shelf, used-book stores, garage sales, and the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. As you are aware, I have recently started sharing the program with others (like Michelle Mauk at Barnes & Noble) in hopes that we can have a good variety of books donated. As I mentioned to you when you were at Charles Haskell, I’ve tried to quietly share the need for book donations but not publicize it to a degree that it gets back to the students that are recipients in any negative way.

Chris: How has the Charles Haskell Elementary community — the recipients themselves and their parents, but also other students, families, faculty, etc. — responded to Backpack Books? The program has depended on your involvement, and it’s obviously no small thing. What has encouraged you to keep your efforts going these past four years?

Becky: To be honest, I’ve not ever had much feedback from the students and parents that receive the books in backpacks. I’m sure that’s in large part because I’ve never publicized that I do it. It is probable that they don’t realize it isn’t just a regular part of the program. One time the counselor told me that a particular child always opened her backpack immediately to see what book she got that week. That story alone will keep me going for a long time!

One time the counselor told me that a particular child always opened her backpack immediately to see what book she got that week. That story alone will keep me going for a long time!

The parents that are aware of the program (ones that are part of our parent organization and help secure books) have always been excited about the idea and VERY supportive. Each fall our school does some type of activity to support the community. We’ve done several food drives, collected supplies for the Infant Crisis center, items for the homeless, etc. In the fall of 2014 one of our moms organized a used book drive. Not only did it supply books for the backpack program, we put additional books in our teachers’ classroom libraries and donated some of the books (those outside our needed age range) to other charities. Our school community is made up of many wonderful, caring families that are very aware of the dichotomy of the population we serve. In short, anyone I’ve ever told about this is very supportive!

I’m attaching a few pictures I took during the process this week and one of me and two of our fifth graders putting a book in one of the backpacks.

You have no idea how flattering it is that you have found this of interest and are writing about it. I’m often amazed that others see the value in something that has become a personal passion. I’m very blessed that I have an opportunity to try to make a small difference for these Haskell Rascals.

Backpack Books log

Backpack Books basket

Backpack Books new selection

From top to bottom, photos from the backpack-preparation process this past week, culminating in Becky Walderbach and two Charles Haskell fifth graders putting a book in one of the backpacks.

From top to bottom, photos from the backpack-preparation process this past week, culminating in Becky Walderbach and two Charles Haskell fifth graders putting a book in one of the backpacks.