Getting lost with Frances Hardinge

There are only three weeks of school left! It is coming super fast, and I am counting down with some of my favorite stories from my time here at Saint James School. I will be leaving at the end of the school year to head back to my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and I want to reminisce about the great times I have had here.

This story doesn’t actually take place on the STJ campus, but in the middle of downtown Orlando. I was there for ALA Annual 2016. I was serving on my very first ALSC committee as a member of the notable children’s book committee, and it was my very first ALA conference.

I was having such a great time. I had already been to several of the local independent schools to check out their libraries. I had been so fortunate to receive an invitation to the Newbery/ Caldecott/Wilder presentation dinner (the Wilder award name was later changed), and I had been discussing the books I had been reading all year twice a day all week with my fellow committee members. ALA had been way more awesome than I ever hoped it would be.

I had one more fun event planned, a pizza party with a publisher, and I had an hour and half to get to the restaurant and back for another discussion with my committee. I typed in the directions to the restaurant, and saw that it was about a fifteen minute walk away, so I was pretty sure I could make it work.

Right after I stepped out of the conference center, a lady in a black hat approached a convention worker and asked for directions to Lafayette’s. That was the same restaurant I was looking for. I recognized her as Frances Hardinge, one of the authors that would be at the pizza party. It was kind of funny because I was supposed to be presenting The Lie Tree, one of her books, for discussion that afternoon, and just that morning I had been looking up how to pronounce her last name. (It sounds like Harding. Just ignore the “e.”)

I approached her and said, “Excuse me. I think you’re going to the Abrams pizza lunch? I am going there too. We can find it together.”

So we did. Eventually. I don’t know if you’ve ever used the GPS on your phone for walking directions, but for me, at least, it’s a lot harder and much more confusing than using it for driving directions. We got turned around several times, and eventually I turned off my GPS and we just resorted to asking nearby people.

While walking, we talked about Brexit, which had been voted on by the people of Great Britain the night before and the impact it would have on the UK. We did find Lafayette’s and we were only about 5 minutes late. Overheated and sweaty, we walked into the restaurant, and found the room reserved for Abrams.

It was a great lunch. I couldn’t stay long, but I got to have some nice conversation with a few of my favorite authors. My friend Travis Jonker was there. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was there as a recently signed author and not as a reviewer/librarian.

Getting lost in downtown Orlando with Frances Hardinge is just one of those things I don’t think I’m ever going to forget. Let this be a warning to all of you if I approach you and offer to help you find a place, especially in a city I don’t spend a lot of time in. You’re probably better off going alone, or at least leading the way.

A Slimy Frenzy in a Jar

I am counting down to the end of the school year by sharing some of my favorite memories from my time here at STJ. I’m not sure this one qualifies as a memory as it happened this morning, but let’s not argue over the details.

A few years ago, I discovered this nonfiction book and right away, I had a new favorite read-aloud for 1st and 2nd grade.

It’s a fascinating book about the wolfsnail, a carnivorous snail that eats other snails and slugs. It uses its extra set of feelers that look much like a mustache to follow his victim’s slime trails and his radula, a long, toothy tongue. to reach into a snail’s shell to get the meat out.

I’ve always kind of wanted a wolfsnail to show my students. I found one a few summers ago in my backyard, but the school year was still weeks away and I didn’t think I could keep it alive long enough, so I let it be.

Last week, my dreams came true. All of the enrichment teachers were together eating lunch, and our Spanish teacher mentioned that she found a big snail that she wanted to donate to the science lab. She said she was trying to feed it, but it wouldn’t eat any of the plants she had put in its jar. Then she mentioned that it had a funny little mustache.

I imagine that my eyes got really big, and I exclaimed “YOU HAVE A WOLFSNAIL!”

I explained to her that the reason her snail wouldn’t eat was because it doesn’t eat plants. It eats meat. Other snails and slugs.

She ended up giving me the wolfsnail, so I could read the book to some of my classes, and show the snail to the kids.

I took him back to the library and let him crawl around a bit. It was great.

I knew I had to feed him, though. Wolfsnails can go a while without eating, but I had no way of knowing when he had last had a meal. I had my kids search the backward for snails and slugs, but the most we could find was an empty dried up shell.

Our art teacher came though for me. She and her kids brought me a cup full of little snails and one giant slug. He was almost as big as my wolfsnail. We thought Wolfy probably couldn’t eat him, but that maybe they could keep each other company. We shook them all into the jar together and hoped for the best.

Right away, the giant slug went for Wolfy. They got all tangled up and stuck together and they both started wiggling back and forth vigorously.

I did some quick googling and learned that some slugs are also carnivores and will eat other slugs and snails. I didn’t know for sure that this slug was, but something was going on, and it seemed that Wolfy was trying to get away.

I was worried that before too long, I would just have an empty shell to share with my students. I went into action, picking up Wolfy by his shell and using the eraser end of a pencil to separate the two hungry invertebrates. I put the slug back into his cup, and Wolfy back into his jar with the other little snails.

Hopefully, he will get some nourishment and will last the week, so I can set him free this weekend.

So far, it’s been great, My first graders this morning were super excited about meeting him. They’ll never know that I almost accidentally fed him to his cousin.

A Lumpy Coin Mass

I am counting down to the last week of school and the end of my time here at STJ with some anecdotes of my favorite memories in this place.

This is the third one, and I’m starting to realize that a lot of my favorite memories center around the book fair, which is strange because book fair week has not exactly been my favorite week of any particular school year.

After a few of these book fairs you kind of know what to expect. Kids are going to spend every last coin they can find in their couch cushions at home to get an eraser or a pencil or something like that. They just want to spend money. I don’t think it even matters what they are getting.

Sometimes, though, a kid will surprise you with their chosen method of payment.

On this particular afternoon, I was feeling a bit frazzled. I had a long line at the register and a kid had just tried to pay with an eraser from the book fair that was made to look like a dollar bill. I informed him that was the third time someone had pulled that joke that week and that next time, maybe he should wait until the line wasn’t so long.

The next girl walked up with a book to purchase. She told me that she had money, but that there a problem with it. I asked her what kind of problem. I was thinking maybe she had Canadian quarters or something like that or that maybe she was trying to pull the eraser dollar bill joke like the last kid. She handed me a lumpy metal mass, and smiled sheepishly. “My brother hot glued all of my quarters together this morning.”

I threw back my head and let out a big laugh. I knew her little brother well, and that was exactly the type of thing he would do.

I rang up her book and got a pen. I made a fist around it and smacked it down on the blobby coin mass. A few coins came loose. I did it again and then again until we had enough quarters to pay for the book.

I handed her the book, her receipt and what was left of the coin sculpture.

“Give your brother my regards.” I told her. “I’m very impressed with his work.”

“Yeah, you don’t have to live with him.”

That was a good point. I nodded my agreement, and started ringing up the next customer.

There’s a “Hole” in the Bottom of the Sea

My plan was to share these anecdotes from my time at Saint James one a week for the next six weeks counting down to the end of the school year, and the end of my time here at Saint James.

I’m too impatient for that. I want to share them now, and if last school year taught me anything, it’s that we can never plan on tomorrow. We don’t know what’s going to happen.

I’m just going to share these stories as I get to them. There could be six or there could be more depending on what I remember.

The first story took place during my first year here, back in 2012. Today, we’re going to fast-forward to this school year, to just a few months ago.

Let me tell you. I’ve seen some things as a children’s librarian. I’ve had a kid throw up in the middle of a story time. I’ve seen gushing nosebleeds while we were singing a song. Teeth have fallen out while I was sharing a story. I’ve had a kid come to the story time rug without pants. I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I could deal with the issue in the moment and carry on like a professional. The show must go on and all that, right? I’m really good at carrying on.

Until the time I couldn’t.

The star of today’s story is the youngest of my four, Theodora. She is a funny little four year old with lots of personality. She’s always trying to keep up with her big brother and sisters, and she is super smart.

This was her first year at Saint James, and she loves library time. Every Friday morning, when she first wakes up, she greets me with, “It’s library day!” She’s always giving me suggestions on what book to read and what songs she thinks her class will like.

On this particular Friday, we were singing “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”

I always do this song with my felt board. I start out with a big black hole, and as the song progresses, I add the log and the frog and all of that.

(If you really must hear it for yourself I did a little ukulele tutorial a while back.)

So I put the big black hole on the board, and asked the class. Does anyone know what this is?

Theo, who very much knew what it was, but wanted to be funny yelled out, “IT”S A BUTTHOLE!”

I don’t know if her mask muffled what she said, but I heard her clearly because I’m her dad, or what, but her class did not react at all to what she said. It was almost like they didn’t hear her.

Friends, let me tell you. I did hear her, and I lost it.

I tried to carry on. I tried to sing the entire song, but every time I got to the word “hole.” I would start giggling uncontrollably and couldn’t finish the line.

I thought that after I got through the song, I would be ok.

I wasn’t.

I remember clearly the book I was reading to the class. It was this one. No holes, butts or anything like that to trigger the giggling, so I thought it would be fine.

I wasn’t even a few words in before I started losing it again. The class assistant knew what I was laughing at and she was working hard to keep a straight face. Seeing her struggle only made it worse for me.

It was a cycle. I would start laughing, compose myself, and then see her face or Theo’s face (who was still grinning at me) and I would start laughing all over again.

The rest of the class was just staring at me like I had lost my mind.

I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I got through that book.

I have retired that song for the time being, though. I don’t think I will ever be able to sing it with a straight face again.

The Definitive List of Things you Can Do While Listening to an Audiobook

I’m in the middle of my second year on the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee. We’ve been listening to a LOT of audiobooks. I’ve discovered a lot of different things that I can do while listening to a good story.

1.Walk The Dog

I try to do this every weekday morning. It’s a nice way to start the day.

2. Do the laundry.

Laundry piles up in my house. Audiobooks can help with the tedium of folding and ironing.

3. Drive

Anyone with a long commute will tell you that audiobooks are great way to pass the driving time. I recommend using the aux cable instead of headphones, though. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings, people!

4. Clean the House

This is what I always think my weekend will look like.

Here’s what I actually look like.

5. Play a video game

I have found this works for me, but only with games that don’t require me to follow the story or do any kind of problem solving. Tetris is one of my go to games for playing while listening. Mario Kart works too.

6. Mow the Yard

You gotta turn the headphones all the way up, and try to find a pair that doesn’t make your ears get too hot.

7. Shelve some Books

This one seems very specific to me and my job, but I do shelve a lot of books while listening to audiobooks.

8. Exercise

I don’t do nearly enough of this (I guess walking the dog kind of counts), but if I did, I would definitely be listening to a book.

9. Prepare a Meal

I’m not the best cook in the world, but I have definitely gotten some listening time in while boiling noodles for mac and cheese.

10. Attend a Zoom meeting

Who’s gonna know?

That’s all I have. What do you like to do while listening? Leave me a comment and I will add it to the list!

My First Book Fair. …or a Screaming Toddler, a Police Officer and the Fire Department

There are six weeks left in the school year.

Since, it is my last year here at Saint James, I thought it would be fun to share my six favorite stories from my time here, one a week for the next six weeks. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say my favorite stories because the story I’m sharing today is not one that I enjoyed while it was happening or one that I even like sharing today, even after all this time. I guess these will be the six anecdotes that I think make the best stories.

Let’s jump in.

The year was 2012. I had just finished my very first STJ book fair, and let me tell you. I was beat down. I had heard that the book fair was a big deal here, but I was not prepared for how big it was.

The previous librarian had run the thing with volunteers, but I was new to the school. I had only been in town for about two and a half months, and I didn’t really know anyone. It’s hard to recruit volunteers if you don’t know anyone, at least it was for me.

So, I just did it all myself. My wife and I (and Harper, who is in 4th grade now, but was a toddler at the time and is the focal point of this story) came into the school the weekend before the fair started and set it all up. I manned the register myself, from 7 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening all week, while also having my usual weekly library classes come in and doing my usual story times. I knew the fair was popular here, but man, were those early morning and after school lines long. By the end of the week I was exhausted. I had gotten a bit of a cold, so I wasn’t feeling that great.

It was a Saturday morning and Ashley and I were trying to hurry and pack the book fair up, so we could just be done with the thing and salvage what was left of our weekend.

We were just about finished with the packing up, and I decided that I would count the fair cash drawer down one final time while Ashley finished cleaning up.

Let me tell you something about myself. I’m not great with numbers. I don’t mean math. I can do math and I’m pretty good at it, but I can not remember numbers for longer than a moment. You can tell me your phone number, and if I do not write it down, it’s gone in an instant. Same with dates. I have to associate the number with a word or an idea to remember it. This makes counting change in a cash register challenging. I cannot do it without extreme focus and absolute concentration. I find myself having to start over a lot if I am distracted even a little.

That’s what I was doing when baby Harper toddled into my office.

“25, 30 35, 40 ….” He picked up my keys off of my desk. “45, 50…”

“Hey!” I called out to Ashley who was in the main part of the library packing stuff up. “Can you get those keys from him? 55, 60, 65 70.”

She didn’t hear me.

I kept on counting, and Harper took my keys, wondered into the library work room and slammed this door., locking himself and the keys inside.

I don’t quite remember how long it took for us to realize he was locked in there. It may have been when the door slammed, because I knew he had the keys, or it could have been when he started crying. Because he did cry. A lot. He came to the door, realized he was stuck and stood there crying.

My first thought was to find a different set of keys. All of my coworkers had keys to this door, but it was Saturday and there was no one else on campus. I called some people, but I couldn’t get anyone to answer. It was time to move on to the next idea.

Break the glass. That’s where my mind went, but with Harper standing right there on the other side of the glass, it didn’t seem like a smart idea. He could be hurt. He was already scared and crying his head off.

I had no other ideas.

Then something crazy happened. The police showed up.

Let me back up a bit. I have a wonky school key. It opens a lot of the doors here, no problem, but for some reason it will not work consistently on the front door. Because of that, I always come in through the first grade pod. It works like a charm on that door.

That weekend, the alarm was set, and there is not an alarm keypad in the first grade pod. I set off the motion detector coming in, and the alarm started going off. I ran to type in the code on the keypad, and it stopped. I thought that was the end of that and didn’t think anything else of it.

Several hours later, ( I’m still not sure why it took hours for them to show up, but I’m glad it did) the police showed up responding to the alarm. I explained to them who I was, why I was there, and how I set the alarm off, and then showed them my ID.

They said thanks and they were about to leave when I was like, “By the way, I’m a really great dad, and I locked my baby in my workroom. Do you think you could help with that? “

The officer, who was a female, went to the door and tried to talk to Harper to help calm him down. Something about this lady’s voice though, set him off and he went from crying to all out screaming.

The officer asked if I had anything in the workroom that could hurt him, and I couldn’t think of anything other than a pair of scissors. That was enough, though. She decided we needed the fire department.

She made a phone call, and the fire department arrived within a few minutes.

I expected them to have a glass cutter or some other cool contraption that would get us into the room without hurting Harper. Instead, the fireman pulled out this huge key ring with a lot of keys on it. SO many keys. He started trying them, and before long, one of them worked!

“We try to keep keys to all of the local schools on hand, in case of emergencies.”

“Emergencies like this?” I asked. He laughed. “Yeah. I guess. For something like this.”

Harper ran out and we scooped him up.

He was unharmed. He had just gotten into a stamp pad. (For the “Property of Saint James Elementary School Library” stamp) and was covered in ink.

We handed him a book fair pen to calm him down.

We were happy, relieved and grateful.

Then I had to start all over counting down the cash register.

Like I said, I don’t like telling this story very much. I was mortified when my principal showed up a bit later. The police had called him, and he was checking to make sure everything was ok.

I’m sure he was thinking “Who is this guy that we hired? Are things like this going to be happening all the time?” He didn’t vocalize those thoughts, if he did have them, though, and was very gracious.

Needless to say, I never had another book fair quite like that first one.

To this day, I have never locked that work room door again, for any reason. It stays unlocked.

Saying Goodbye to a Room

It’s weird. I never knew a person could get so attached to a room, but when I walked back into my school library for the first time after a few months away, back in May of 2020, it felt good.

I looked around, taking it all in. We had gone virtual kind of abruptly, so I hadn’t left the place looking perfect. Books were leaning over on the shelves. There were lots of books on the carts that needed to be re-shelved. It looked like it always looked in the middle of a busy school week.

“I’ve missed this place.” I whispered to myself.

I’ve always loved this room. It’s got huge bay windows and high ceilings. The collection is enormous.

When I first walked into this room, in 2012, after my interview, I knew that I had to work here. I knew it was the library of my dreams.

Physically, It’s a great space, but I know that’s not what has me so attached, now.

Without a doubt, it’s the memories.

There have been so many spectacular author visits.

There have been some great book fairs.

There have been so many ukulele lessons in here, so many Christmas carol sing alongs, some great easter egg hunts and end-of-the-year faculty parties.

But the days that I have loved the most, are the every-day, average days when I got to witness a kid finding that perfect book. A book that I knew would enrich their life, maybe make it a little better or easier, or a book that would make them laugh or fill them with wonder. That magic is something I got to see and be a part of every day.

So yeah, of course I’m attached to this place.

When this school year started, I had no idea what it was going to look like. I knew we would be wearing masks. I knew I would start most days outside the school taking temperatures. I knew I would be traveling to the classrooms for a while, pushing a cart of books to the classrooms for the younger students to choose from. All of this was true, and we got through it, making more great memories along the way. It was different, but everything I loved about my job was the same. I was still working hard to get the right books into the right hands.

What I didn’t know when this school year started, was that it was going to be my last one in this room.

Most of you reading this probably already know from social media that this summer, my family and I will be leaving Montgomery and will be heading back home to Tuscaloosa. We left over a decade ago, and the time is right for us to return.

I will be the new K-12 librarian at Tuscaloosa Academy. I’m very excited about this. I grew up in a neighborhood right next to TA, and I’m fortunate have the opportunity to return home while remaining in my profession and serving an even wider age range of kids. (I’m going to have to change the name of my blog! Maybe I’ll be able to keep up with it more) I’m excited to dig back into YA since I will be serving high schoolers. (I have some catching up to do! Leave me book recommendations in the comments!) There’s so much new in the future to be excited about.

Right now, though, I’m also very sad. Sad to be leaving this school, these kids and these coworkers. I’m sad to say goodbye to this room. It’s been my favorite room on the planet for almost 9 years. I’ve had nearly all of the best professional moments of my life in this room. Heck, all three of my daughters were crawling and toddling through the shelves in this room before they could walk. I’m attached to this room, and it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

A Pokemon Story in two TikToks

This was before school yesterday morning, right before I released these two books into the collection.

@mrbenjimartin

I don’t think they will last a single 2nd grade class. #schoollibrarian #librariansoftiktok #pokemon

♬ original sound – Benji Martin

A few hours later, one of the books was checked out. About an hour after that, a teacher brought me the book back.

It IS a cute Caterpie isn’t it?

The First Month of School has Passed

It’s hard to believe that a month of school has come and gone. The days can seem long. (I think wearing a mask all day has something to do with that.) but the month flew by very quickly, especially after being home for so long.

If there’s anything I’ve learned this month, it’s that kids are so very adaptable. I’m amazed at how they have handled the changes in school so far. They’ve been wearing their masks, for the most part, like it’s no big deal and they seem to understand that this is all necessary and hopefully temporary. Kids are the best.

Here are the books that checked out the most during the first month.

I’m so proud of all my students and all of our teachers and how they are handling all of this.

Hopefully, when we look back at 2020, we’re going to say, yeah it was hard, but what a good school year it was. And what good books we read!

A Quick Check-In

Hi guys, sorry to have been so quiet, recently. 2020 has shaken us all up, and blogging kind of fell to the bottom on my list of priorities. Things are going well, though.

In March, when COVID made its loud, obnoxious entry into the United States, we moved to virtual learning. For me that meant that I was conducting all of my story times through YouTube videos. That was a lot of fun, but I missed seeing the kids’ reactions to the books I was reading. The hard part about it all was that I was not able to physically put books into my students’ hands, which is one of my favorite parts of my job. Around April, I started getting emails from a few students asking for books and I was able to deliver to their homes.

Summer came, and since ALA ‘s annual conference was not happening in Chicago, (thanks, COVID) we did all of our Notable Children’s Recordings discussion through Zoom. It was different, but that’s the way the world works right now and I feel like we got some good discussion in.

Summer was over before you could blink, and Saint James made the decision to return to in-person school, with the option of virtual learning. Things look a lot different this year. All of the kids and adults in the building are wearing masks. Several of the kids are Zooming into the classrooms from home. I start most days outside taking student temperatures. It is kind of nice seeing them all first thing in the morning, being able to offer a smile (although, behind a mask ) and a word of encouragement first thing in the morning. I am starting to look forward to it every day.

I am traveling to the classrooms right now, and we are having the story time in there, then I bring the class to the library to check out books.

Let me tell you guys, it feels so good being able to take them to a book that I think they will love, and seeing their eyes light up. I have missed that part of my job so much, and I don’t think I will ever take it for granted again.

This year is going to look like no other school year, ever, and it is going to be unpredictable and at times, chaotic, but we are going to teach them, and I’m going to give them the best books, hoping to inspire them to become lifelong readers, just like every other year.

To close things out, here’s a book I read today that is AMAZING!