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My Favorite Picture Book of 2011


I love picture books that are simple and charming. In automobile terms, they're Mini Coopers. In food terms, they're BLTs.

Jon Klassen's I WANT MY HAT BACK (Candlewick, 2011) is just such a book. Modest and delightful, it charts a bear's search for his hat. Much like the bird in P.D. Eastman's ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, the bear must investigate different possibilities. My favorite page shows the bear putting two and two together and, literally, seeing red. He knows where his hat is.

The New York Times Book Review awarded I WANT MY HAT BACK one of its Best Illustrated Children's Book Awards for 2011, and that's no surprise. I loved it. I think you and the small people you know would too.


The Tomato Cage Christmas Tree


In December, Christmas trees are lovely. In January, they're tragic--laid out curbside, the neighborhood a graveyard of fir and pine.

So this year, inspired by a friend, I tried something new: The tomato cage Christmas tree. First, I hauled a metal tomato cage and large red plant pot out of winter hibernation. Next, I pruned a pine tree that desperately needed reshaping. Finally, I bought some brown pipe cleaners.

To assemble the tree, I stood the cage on a table, then built the tree from the bottom up, starting with the longer branches and tapering to the shorter ones. I positioned each branch at a slight angle, then tied it with cut pipe cleaners onto the metal cage at two different points. The top of the tree looked a little messy, so I camouflaged that with a Santa hat. Finally, I fit the cage into the planter, and we decorated the tree as we would any other.

I don't "craft" a lot. Crafting can make me cranky. But this was fun, and I know I'll be happy come January 2, with one less tree in the neighborhood graveyard.

(Warning: I'm not sure this tree could survive cats, toddlers, or crawling babies. It may also dry out quickly. I made it with less than two weeks until Christmas, but if it starts to look less like a live tree and more like kindling, I will have to toss it.)

CityLit Kids


(Photo credit: click from

I have spent a lot of mornings with the fictional fifth graders of GENIE WISHES, but today I spent the morning with some very real, very cool fifth graders at a Baltimore elementary school. I was there as part of the CityLit Kids project, in which various Baltimore-area writers guide students through reading and creative writing exercises.

It was my second time observing this group of fifth graders, which contains some ambitious young writers. Nobody's pieces are perfect at first, of course--whose ever are?--but all the pieces have at least a nugget of greatness. With the help of the CityLit Kids instructors, the kids are learning not just to create but also to workshop and revise.

Sometimes the kids knock it out of the park, or maybe I should say rink. Two weeks ago, one student wrote, "Skateland tastes like pizza but smells like feet." How great is that?

If you'd like to learn more about CityLit Kids, a group I'm planning on working with more often, check out this recent article.


Breathing Ghosts


This morning Baltimore woke to a damp, warm fog. My son and I drove to school through it, switching as always between his favorite two pop stations. At some point, after the Party Rock Anthem played for the bajillionth time this month, the morning DJ mentioned the fog. It felt like breathing ghosts, he said.

Breathing ghosts! William Faulkner himself could not have described it better.

The fog has vanished now, leaving behind the regular outlines of a world that is, I am once again reminded, full of poets.

That Cytoplasm Needs More Vanilla

cell tart

GENIE WISHES follows a group of kids through fifth grade. Like kids in schools everywhere, these fifth graders have projects to complete, everything from constructing bridges out of toothpicks to wrapping holiday gifts for homeless kids.

This week, the students in my son's seventh-grade science class had to build a model of an animal cell using any materials they wanted. Edible materials were a popular choice, of course. The photo above shows my son with his finished animal cell--a tart made from scratch. The pineapple ring is the nucleus, a strawberry the nucleolus, some kiwi bits the Golgi body, and so on.

I didn't get to taste the tart before it left for school, but I tried the leftover cytoplasm. It was delicious.