Marketing, feh.

M. T. Anderson is one of my favorite authors, young adult or otherwise.  His serious works, like Feed or The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, will radically alter the way you perceive what you thought was established reality. His comic works, like Whales on Stilts and Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, are gaspingly funny.

Since I’ve been retired from checking out books to kindergarteners for six years now, I’m often behind on when YA authors have written something new.  So it was with Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, which I ordered as soon as I stumbled across it.

It’s a slim volume, only 149 pages, but it is an incredibly tough read.  Not because it’s densely written, but because of the world depicted in the book.

Quick summary: it’s earth, in the future near enough that we can recognize our society, and the aliens who have been buzzing us since the last century have finally revealed themselves to us, bearing amazing technology which they are perfectly willing to share with us.  Our narrator, teen Adam, is an artist.

Here’s my complaint—and it’s not with the book, which is brilliant.  My complaint is with the marketing department: the inside of the dust jacket gives us a plot summary without giving away the nexus of the story, and then it says this:

“M. T. Anderson, winner of the National Book Award and author of Feed, returns to future Earth in this sharply wrought satire of art and truth in the midst of colonization.”


That’s not what this book is about.

I mean to say, it’s right there in the title, marketing department!

The aliens—called the vuvv—are perfectly willing to share their amazing technology with us,  for a price. They can cure any disease if you can pay them. They can raise food and manufacture goods cheaper and better than any Earth company, which promptly puts Earth companies out of business, with a staggering loss of jobs and income for most of the citizenry.

The rich, of course, are unaffected: they are able to invest in vuvv technologies.  They live in floating homes/apartment complexes that block out the sun below. Their lives go on much as they do now.

The vuvv are not cruel.  They are simply intergalactic capitalists unconcerned about anything but trade.

And that’s what the book is about: unrestrained capitalism, colonization/imperialism, and the impact it has on the powerless.  Anderson’s socioeconomic logic is relentless and inescapable, and Landscape is one of the more frighteningly disconcerting books I’ve ever read.

But I think there’s more here than meets the eye. Here’s my question to M. T. Anderson: there’s more to come, isn’t there?  We’re actually following Adam’s radicalization, aren’t we? That bucolic ending in Asheville was false hope, wasn’t it?  Jebus.

The Fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars

Last Friday I had occasion to visit Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta and meet their president Margaret Quinlin.  She gave me a copy of their newest big publication, Fault Lines in the Constitution: the framers, their fights, and the flaws that affect us today, by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson.  It is a triumph and this is a rave review.

The book is aimed at the middle reader, but as far as I’m concerned every sentient being in this country[1] should read it and discuss it everywhere.  The authors are thorough, honest, and more than a little skeptical about the solidity of our governing document.  They have reason to be.

A little background: back in 1987, at the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society asked the Newnan Community Theatre Company to come up with some kind of presentation/performance for them that addressed this epochal moment in our history.  It fell to me as artistic director at the time to devise the entertainment.

That summer, at GHP, I read the complete The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, compiled and edited by Max Farrand.  Even though the delegates worked in absolute secrecy and the recording secretary burned all deliberations, James Madison kept copious notes (which he edited selectively later in life).  To this document, Farrand added all other diaries/letters/correspondence that he could find, and the result is a fascinating read.  Those men argued over everything: every word, every comma, every idea.

The point is that the Constitution we ended up with was by no means foreordained.  In fact, the eventual performance piece NCTC came up with asked the audience members (seated in groups relative to the size of the thirteen colonies) to decide the nature of the Executive, and both nights they dumped our current arrangement in favor of a single executive elected for a single term of six years.  Expecting a worshipful experience of a perfect document, they were surprised and delighted to be shown there was more to it.

Fault Lines covers this concept of argument and compromise brilliantly.  Each chapter follows the same outline:

  1. Introductory story of some recent foofaraw which illustrates a problem springing from the Constitution as written
  2. “Meanwhile, back in 1787…”, in which the debate over the problem is discussed and the reasons given for the final decision
  3. “So what’s the big problem?”, which details why the compromise has unraveled or caused problems, often because of vagueness in wording or the founders’ astonishing lack of prescience for 200 years in the future
  4. “There are other ways”, outlining how the states and other countries deal with the issue (spoiler alert: there are other ways)
  5. “The story continues” with the authors looping back around to the introductory story and giving us the upshot

The final section is the most agitating, in every sense of the word.  The authors grade the Constitution and how well it has delivered on the promises in the Preamble.  (It gets an overall C+.)  Then the authors, responding to James Madison’s comment that “it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate it,” list some very uncomfortable ways we might go about doing that:

  1. Change Senate rules (i.e., get rid of the filibuster)
  2. Pass new laws (mostly about the structure of representation)
  3. Develop work-arounds to the Electoral College
  4. Amend the Constitution, with a long laundry list of items derived from the discussions in the rest of the book

Finally, the authors have a one-on-one debate as to the wisdom of going full Leeroy Jenkins with a Constitutional Convention to upset the entire apple cart.  It’s enough to keep you up at night, which at this point in our history is saying something.  (I should say that the book is very current, referencing the current administration and some of its actions.  The section on the 25th Amendment is particularly pointed and reflects some of my own writing, here and here.)

So, teachers, want a resource to celebrate our annual MANDATED CONSTITUTION DAY LESSONS COMRADE[2] on Sep 17?  Requisition a classroom set of this bombshell and watch the children’s minds crack open.  And probably their parents’ heads explode.


[1] I am aware this does not include everyone in this country.

[2] I’m actually in favor of requiring the study of the Constitution, just probably not in the way that the über-patriots who have mandated it intended.

A brief and frightening book

Recently fellow Lichtenbergian Daniel gave me a copy of George Saunders’ The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

Do not even read the rest of this.  Go buy a copy now.

It’s only 130 pages long, and the pages are small, but you will not be able to read it in one setting.  It will gut-punch you over and over, with the the beauty of its writing and the horror of its prescience.  You will have to stop to let your soul absorb the shock.

It was published in 2005, but it could easily have been published on Nov 9, 2016.  The rapid and easy rise of the evil, hate-driven megalomaniac Phil gives you a sickening jolt of familiarity, even as Saunders’ loopy and surreal subworld creation leaves your brain  scrambling to reconfigure its comprehension of what it’s seeing.  Trust me, it’s weird and wonderful.

The premise is simple: in the midst of  the country of Outer Horner, there exists the country of Inner Horner, a country so small that only one of its citizens can live in it at a time.  The other six citizens have to huddle in the Short-Term Residency Zone right outside, surrounded by the unfriendly Outer Horner.  Spurred by an unrequited love of Inner Hornerite Carol, the odious Phil jacks up his fellow Outer Hornerians to suspect, tax, and eventually disassemble the hapless minority.

And then Phil’s brain slips out of its rack.

Trust me.  You want to read this.  (There is a website, of course.)

Yippee (not to mention Heigh-ho!)

Look what came in the mail today, you guys!

I haven’t really blogged about M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series, and so now I shall.

M.T. Anderson is a whiz of a young adult author whose range is fearsome: the dystopian classic Feed (you will never ever again think that Google Glass is a good idea); the alternative Revolutionary War history of Octavian Nothing; and on a completely different level, the awesomely silly Pals in Peril books.

It began with Whales on Stilts, and I was hooked.  Anderson took on the world of children’s book series and scored a direct hit. Lily, our heroine, is nothing special (although her dad obliviously works for a semi-cetaceous evil genius), but her friends Jasper Dash and Katie Mulligan lead such exciting lives that they’ve had whole books written about them.

Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, seems permanently suspended in 1930s brio.  (Think Tom Swift.)  Katie lives in Horror Hollow and is always having to deal with creepy supernatural goings-on.  (Think R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.)  All three save the world from whales on stilts (with lasers!) in the first book, and from there it gets really silly.

Anderson is very funny, with the potshots at children’s literature and popular culture embedded so cleverly that most young readers will never see them.  But for adults of a certain age (mentally 9-13, I’m thinking) his wit is devastating.  Here’s a simple descriptive passage of their hometown:

Pelt—where Jasper, Katie, and Lily lived—was not a very exciting place… To pep up business on Main Street, store owners had put mannequins out on the sidewalk, advertising dusty sweaters or pillbox hats, but the mannequins were just assaulted by gulls.

No kid could possibly recognize the reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, but the discerning adult will already have laughed out loud.

The pinnacle of the series so far is the third, Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, in which Anderson’s world-creation is so supremely loopy that to this day it is one of the funniest books I have ever read.  It’s as if the absurdist anarchy of Green Acres were translated onto an earnest children’s adventure tale: much to the astonishment of Lily and Katie, every goofy thing that Jasper mentions turns out to be true in spades, up to and including the monks who live in grand seclusion in the mountains of Delaware.

[Our heroes are in Jasper’s Gyroscopic Sky Suite (because of course they are) heading to Dover to begin their trek to the monastery of Vbngoom in the mountains of Delaware.]

“Okay,” said Katie, “I really am only going to say this one time… [list of incorrect things Jasper has been saying about their destination] …and there are no—hear me—no no no mountains in—”

“Behold: Dover.  Capital of Delaware,” said Jasper.

Its domes and minarets lay before them, glowing gold in the sunlight amid the hanging gardens, the pleasant palaces, the spired roofs of ancient temples; in the harbor, the purpe-sailed ships of Wilmington plied the waves, and the dragon-headed prows of the barbarian kingdoms to the south dipped their oars in wrinkled waters while plesiosaurs turned capers at their sides.  The Zeppelin-Lords of frosty Elsmere drifted above the city, their balloons gilded with the tropical sun, eating sherbet on their porphyry verandas.  Huge tortoises fifteen feet across lumbered through the widest avenues, carry nomads’ tents upon their backs.  Processions wandering through the streets glittered with gold and ancient costumery.

Grand silliness, and yet at the end of the book I found my eyes quite moist as Anderson describes the monks of Vbngoom flying joyfully from trampoline to trampoline between the crags of the monastery, celebrating their victory over the robot gangsters.

But here’s a weird thing: I thought I had a copy of Jasper Dash, but I must have given it away—so I ordered a paperback copy, and Anderson has changed the ending.  It no longer includes that passage, with its boom camera pullback and pan up to sky and fade to black.  Instead, the writing fades into a montage of adventure themes before fading to black.  There’s a new appendix with the “state song” of Delaware, plus a copy of the letter the actual governor of Delaware wrote to Anderson, deliciously funny itself.  (Early in the book, Anderson excoriates writers who spend a couple of weeks in a country and then write books about the place as if they truly understand it.  He assures us he’s not that guy; he’s never even been to Delaware, so he’s completely untrustworthy.  However, since Simon & Schuster value accuracy in their books, Anderson instructs anyone who finds an “error” in his geography, etc., to put that in a letter and send it to //page turn// the Office of the Governor, followed by the full address of the Delawarian governor.)

I may have to go find a library copy to see if I’m completely inventing this memory of the ending of the book.

Still, you see why I’m excited about the newest Pals in Peril book.   Something fun without deep meaning to crack open—that’s the ticket!

An odd memory

I don’t know why I thought of this last night, but I was meditating out by the fire in the labyrinth, and for some reason Summer Reading Clubs came to mind.

You  might think that my childhood bedroom was plastered with Summer Reading Club certificates, but you would be wrong.  I rarely earned one.

That is not to say, of course, that I didn’t read in the summer.  Au contraire, I read voraciously, hitting the Carnegie Public Library on the Court Square regularly all summer.  We would even walk or ride our bikes to downtown to get new books.

I read all the time, devouring science fiction series and nonfiction books about science and theatre.  Lots of art books, tons of “how-to” project books.  I even haunted the reference section which had art history books with actual tipped-in illustrations, and even at a young age I was put out that someone (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Wood) had cut out the Rubens nudes with scissors.  Seriously—just rip the entire tipped-in reproduction out if that’s your inclination; why go in and cut around the naked ladies?  (It occurs to me that it might not have been censorship, but porno-vandalism.  Simpler times.1)

So what was the problem?  I dutifully got my little Reading Club flyer at the beginning of each summer, and I dutifully noted which books I had read, often filling up the form.

But I didn’t read the right kinds of books.

That’s right, my sweetlings, our Summer Reading Clubs were severely prescriptive in what you were “encouraged” to read.  You had to do so many nonfiction books, and so many fiction, and of those you had to read certain kinds, and if you didn’t, you didn’t earn the certificate.

As I sat by the fire last night, I just marveled and chortled at how stupid that was—but that’s the way education used to be (AND LARGELY STILL IS) through and through: the Way It Spozed to Be, as it were. (The linked title was published in 1969.  Nothing much has changed.  WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE??)

Why not provide alternative forms or checklists for different kinds of readers?  Given that boys gravitate towards nonfiction, why not tilt their requirements in that direction?  Why not let girls read nothing but Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley High?  Why not just say, “Hey, kid, read 25 books in these eight weeks, and you’re golden!”?

But no: a well-read young person reads broadly, not necessarily deeply.  Boys like nonfiction?  Girls like romances?  That is a deficiency which we must correct through our Summer Reading Program.  The whole thing was prescriptive: Thou shalt… and Thou shalt not…, with no thought to the inner life of the reader.

Ludicrous bullshit, of course, and I would like to think that summer reading programs are a little better set up here in the 21st century.  However, I don’t want to go find out.  I’m going to pretend that fifty years later, we’re doing it right.


1 Actually, not simpler at all.  If you wanted to gaze upon naked ladies, you had to jump through some serious hoops and cover some serious tracks.  Titian and Rubens might be your best bet to see a booby, and who am I to judge those who managed to excise their very own Sleeping Angelica for their prurient delights?  And God help you if you preferred naked men instead.  These modern times are much simpler, and better, and so say we all.


Here are a couple of books I have read recently and can highly, highly recommend: Autobiography of Red, and Red Doc>, both by Anne Carson.

They are amazing.  They were recommended to me by Daniel Conlan, a hardcore reader, during a discussion of Seven Dreams of Falling and its use of myth. Carson uses the mythical characters of Geryon, a red-winged monster, and Herakles, who kills him as one of his Labors.


In Carson’s story, Geryon is a boy, still red and winged, who struggles through his autobiography to come to terms with who he is, both as a human and as an artist.  Herakles comes into his life as a teenager, a ne’er-do-well, only to part after a brief affair.  Years later Geryon, now a photographer, re-encounters Herakles and his new boyfriend in Buenos Aires.

It is gorgeously, sumptuously written in prose poetry, and your head spins with the imagery and music in the language.  You come to love and pity and admire Geryon while not quite hating Herakles nor his boyfriend.

Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.


Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.

They were two superior eels

at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.

(Autobiography of Red, p. 39)

And then I ordered Red Doc>, the sequel.  It just came out last year.

From the back of the book:

“Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles.  Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life.  Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style and with changed names.

“To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”

Well, that’s an understatement.  If Autobiography was gorgeous, there are no words for Red Doc>.  Hallucinatory, perhaps.  Hallucinogenic, even.



photographs he had them
out the other day spread
all over the floor I said
who cut out the faces. He
said I can’t sleep I can’t
remember what to think
about when I’m sleeping I
said why think just sleep.
He said I found her bloody
eyeglasses in the grass
after nothing else was left
not even.  Not even what I
said. Not even the
stupidfuck white plastic
shopping nothing her
family could. Bury
identify keep turn. One
lens smashed the other.
Why cut I said he said
they needed more shadow.
Okay.     The    other
okay.      The     other

(Red Doc>, p. 94)

The beauty, it burns.  I’m about halfway through Red Doc>, and I’m taking it slowly.  Otherwise I emerge gasping for light with no clear idea of where I’ve been.

How is it possible to create something this beautiful?

Harry Potter

Recently I found myself with some free time but without the willpower to make my brain work, somehow, and so I set about re-reading the Harry Potter series.

First of all, the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in 2007.  Seven years ago.  The first book was released in 1997: seventeen years ago.  Wow.

The good news is that they still hold up.  They’re still terrific reads, still funny and exciting and clever.  Harry is still an annoying twerp and Dumbledore is still my role model.

In fact, I enjoyed them even more this time around because it was fascinating watching the entire plot—not just the plot we thought we were reading—unfold through the seven books.  I remember thinking when we got to the third book (Prisoner of Azkaban) that we were watching something larger happen . Then Jo Rowling said in an interview that she had plotted all seven books ahead of time and that she had seven shoeboxes into which she put index cards of every spell, person, event, object, everything, spreading them across the Potterverse with meticulous care.  I knew we were sunk.

I began to read every book like a mystery: what were the clues she was so blithely throwing in our way?  She always withheld something essential, but there was enough in every book to at least tip you off to the possibility of the ending of that book.  But it meant that you had to read ever so carefully; I began keeping notes on each book, noting “insignificant” details and writing questions that I thought should be answered.  She still fooled me every time.

Except for the big one.  When we got to Half-Blood Prince, I began to suspect that what she was leading us to believe about Severus Snape was not, shall we say, the Truth.  While we waited for Deathly Hallows, I went back and re-read the series again, and one sentence jumped out at me:

“And what the ruddy hell are dementors?” [asked Uncle Vernon]

“They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban,” said Aunt Petunia.1

“How d’you know that?” [Harry] asked her, astonished.

“I heard — that awful boy — telling her about them — years ago,” she said jerkily.

“If you mean my mum and dad, why don’t you use their names?” said Harry loudly…

Indeed, Petunia, why not call “that awful boy” by his name?   This was classic Rowling misdirection, and that meant that Petunia was not referring to James Potter.  It didn’t take a lot of thought to come up with the idea that Severus Snape must have been a part of the Evans family landscape, possibly before Hogwarts even.  Was it possible that Snape was in love with Lily Evans?

If so, that explained nearly everything: his hatred of James Potter and his son; Dumbledore’s continued trust in Snape; the constant references to Harry’s having Lily’s eyes; Snape continually saving Harry even though he hates him.  It all clicked.

And so the big reveal in the last book was not a complete surprise to me.  Since I had been playing Snape in GHP’s annual Hogwarts Night, I was gratified to have it confirmed that Severus was in fact the hero of the series; we Slytherins get so few attaboys…

In sum, the books were not just a fad at the turn of the century.  I think they will stand the test of time and will still be read in another 50 years, just like all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.


1 The summer that Half-Blood Prince came out, I was visited at GHP by my son and the two other teens.  Even though they were all of driving age, they willingly sat down to have Story Time.  I read the first two chapters to them, and when Petunia let slip that she knew what dementors were, they literally jumped up and screamed in astonishment and delight.  Fun times.

I hate it when this happens

I have to stop reading for a moment.

I am tackling once again after a long hiatus The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell, a marvelous little novel (?) that consists of nothing but questions.  To wit:

image“If you had enough money to live on, could you see yourself retiring to a small village in France and never being heard of or from again, and not speaking French when there, mostly because you can’t, but also because you have nothing to say and you’d have no one to say it to if you had something to say, and mostly just sleeping in your quaint medieval stone cottage?  Could you make do with a little exercise once in a while and a piece of Beaufort of very high quality?  And maybe a look-in on the pigs?  What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor?”

And that’s where I had to stop reading.

I am in Beaufort, SC, and the Writer’s Almanac email this morning heralded R. Crumb’s birthday, noting that he had retired to a chateau in France.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time, and it’s unnerving.  Usually it’s with the crossword puzzle: this morning I read that Slawomir Mrozek, the Czech playwright had died, and I mentioned it to my lovely first wife, who was doing the crossword puzzle.  I reminded her of the the production of The Cuttlefish for which we had had to work on costumes at UGA—I was mistaken: Cuttlefish was by Witkiewicz—and she immediately said, “The clue I’m looking at is ‘cuttlefish kin.'”

Reading Caves: theory & practice

On the Nature of Reading Caves

At Newnan Crossing Elementary, we’ve been celebrating Read Across America, as is our wont, with our Reading Caves event. I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the theory and practice of this curious cultural artifact.

First a photo of this year’s caves:

As you can see, teams of teachers come in and transform the media center with bulletin board paper and fripperies. The idea is that students will come in and secrete themselves in one hidey hole or another and read for a short time. It’s just something out of the ordinary and fun.

But why? Why don’t I bring in multitudes of volunteers to read books, usually something by Dr. Seuss, to classes all over the school?

I used to do that, actually. As the school got larger, however, it became more and more of a problem to line up the number of volunteers needed, then match their availability to our insane patchwork schedule all over the building.

And then one year, I forgot. I looked at the calendar, and it was February 25, and I had done nothing about Read Across America Day on March 2.

I panicked.

But then, somehow, I remembered a thing I had read years before.

The Theory of Reading Caves

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, et al., is a tome published in 1977, and it bears every hallmark of the sensibilities of the 1960s and their aftermath: utopianism, rejection of urban/corporate life, respect for older ways, optimism, etc., etc. Large parts of it belong to the “isn’t it pretty to think so?” school of planning, but a great deal of it is not only heartfelt, but valid.

The book is essentially a grammar of design for living spaces: towns, buildings, homes, neighborhoods. More than 250 ‘patterns’ in this grammar are presented, hierarchically listed and interlinked. The patterns are derived from the authors’ observations about how healthy cultures live(d), and many are precisely archetypal.

Late in the book, p. 927-929, we are presented with a detail pattern: 203 CHILD CAVES. I will quote the pattern in its entirety:

Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.

In the course of their play, young children seek out cave-like space to get into and under, old crates, under tables, in tents, etc. […]

They try to make special spaces for themselves and for their friends, most of the world about them is “adult space” and they are trying to carve out a place that is kid size.

When children are playing in such a “cave”, each child takes up about 5 square feet; furthermore, children like to do this in groups, so the caves should be large enough to accommodate this: these sorts of groups range in size from three to five, so 15 to 25 square feet, plus about 15 square feet for games and circulation, gives a rough maximum size for caves.


Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves ” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural left over spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low, 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet, and the entrance tiny.

I don’t think I need to provide a lot of proof or defense for pattern 203: who among us has not thrilled at the receipt of a refrigerator box? I remember that one reason I looked forward to school being out each summer was that I could prevail upon my father to go to Maxwell-Prince Furniture (“Drive a little and save a lot,” a slogan necessitated by the fact that they were not on the Court Square but, gasp!, nearly a whole mile away out on Hwy 27, at the Hospital Road intersection) and get me a box. It would become my Fortress of Solitude for weeks.

So, in my panic and desperation at having not scheduled a single reader for the school, I boldly announced a new initiative: Newnan Crossing Reading Caves!

That first year was more than a little desperate. I pulled the thing together literally overnight, bringing in sheets and swaths of fabric; lamps; pillows. I turned over tables and enveloped them in bulletin board paper. I turned the book aisles into long, narrow enclaves. I borrowed the parachute from the gym and draped it over tables and the couch. I borrowed materials from teachers. The whole thing was quite lame.

And it was a huge hit. The kids didn’t see the tape and bulletin board paper, nor did they see how desperately cheesy it was: they saw CHILD CAVES, and they were ecstatic.

At that point, Newnan Crossing was pushing 1,000 students, and it was clear to me that Reading Caves was a much more practicable solution to Read Across America Day than the nightmare that scheduling volunteers had turned into. We went with it.

Reading Caves in Practice

Since that first year, I have invited teachers to join in the fun. Those who choose can volunteer to put up a Reading Cave, and they choose their theme. On the afternoon beforehand, they come into the media center and transform it. For the next two days, media center traffic comes to a standstill: it’s silent reading time in here, and besides, most of the shelves are covered by the caves.

After the teachers have set up theirs, I’ll go around and do the table thing to fill in the gaps. (I also have my own major Cave to put up.)

We run Reading Caves for two days so that most classes have a chance to come in and spend a while reading. After each class comes in, I give them four minutes to explore, and after a one-minute warning, they have to sit and read. (This year, I created two sound files, one with an introduction, and the one-minute warning, followed by a “sit and read”; and a 20-minute loop that had nothing in it but a chime to end the session about three minutes before the end. During the entire day, I play quiet music, this year all space music. Drove me nuts.)

The four minutes are insane: we usually have two classes at a time, and they go nuts as they explore one cave after another. And then when the one-minute warning sounds, it becomes bedlam. Now they have to choose which cave to sit in, and the friend/clique factor kicks in, and lo! there is much squealing and running.

And then it’s quiet for about ten minutes as they settle in and start reading. For the little kids, that’s enough time. For the older ones, I need to find a way to have longer sessions, because they’re just getting into it when the chime instructs them to close their books and “return to real life.”

They leave on a high, chattering about how much fun they’ve had. It’s pretty neat: a really big response for not a lot of work.

The caves can be elaborate, or they can be simple as pie. Here are some from this year and the past:

Charlotte’s Web, complete with bales of hay, the web, troughs, and a fence of yarn (that no one could see and which we finally had to take down for safety’s sake). If you look in the trough on the right, you can see a little brown Templeton. Kids climbed up on the tables inside, somehow managing to not knock off all the chairs that were perched up there with them, holding up the roof.

The fifth grade’s Iditarod cave. Simplicity itself, but because you entered from one aisle and had to crawl all the way down and around (in a U-shape), it was very popular. Also popular, and pictured up at the top of the post, was a Twilight cave. How do kids this young even know about that accursed phenomenon? That cave was actually two: a cave and a den (for the werewolves.)

My 100 Book Club cave. Not very flashy, but it was comfortable. More than a few kids found it cozy:

I have these large pieces of cardboard that were donated several years ago by Multec, a local company that makes packaging. I’ve saved them and use them every year, so my cave has actual walls. I’m thinking of ways to make it more complex and interesting next year. And I hold them together with Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets, a wonderful, wonderful invention.

One year, I did a Hogwarts. Here’s the Slytherin common room from that cave:

Above that was the Gryffindor common room. You entered the cave by crawling under a table; that table had the Great Hall on top. I had house banners hanging, and great portraits all over the walls.

Here’s a glance at the exterior, beyond the Three Little Pigs houses:

The houses of the Little Pigs were made of PVC pipe, covered in fabric. Each would hold one child.

My all-time favorite was the year 5th grade did Narnia. You entered through the Wardrobe, of course:

There was a stretch of Narnia in winter:

Then you turned the corner, and there you were in Mr. Tumnus’s house:

Pretty spectacular.

Some practical considerations: since we turn out the lights, you will need to consider how the children will see to read. There are outlets nearly everywhere in the media center, so power is not really a problem. I made that mistake with the “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way” cave two years ago: the all-black and black-light lit space was very cool, but no one could see to read.

You have to consider supervision. Make sure there’s a way an adult can see into the space and check on things. We had to cut a flap in the Iditarod cave this year for that reason. Otherwise, the more closed in, the better. One reason the 100 Book Club cave was not as popular as it might have been was that it was largely open.

Seating is an issue. This year’s Magic School Bus looked great, but was not very popular because there were no cushions. The same went for the secondary parachute cave. There was just bare carpet, and not many kids found it appealing.

Like A Pattern Language suggests, room for more than one student is good, but more than five is just not cozy. Still, most of the one-kid caves were occupied, because there are some students who are serious about the reading part and don’t want the distraction of other kids.

The cave does not have to be elaborate:

This one, just a table on its side draped with paper, was occupied more than half the sessions. If I had gone a little more origami on it and closed the front a bit, it would have been even more popular.

I’m already planning next year’s Reading Caves. Let me know if you’d like to join in.


I’ve written about this before, but I’ve refined my ideas and wanted to write about them.

Here’s the basic idea: I print a poster about once a week to show what I’ve been reading. It shows what I’m reading now, what I’ve just finished, and what I plan to read next.

Since I started this, about a year ago, I’ve beefed up the “What I’ve Read Recently” section. I’ve added the star ratings and the reviews so that they mirror our catalog software. Kids can write reviews and rate books in the catalog; I do the same with the books I feature on my posters.

I’ve also added little tags to inform the kids (and teachers) further. There’s the “100 Book Club” tag, which lets the kids know that it’s one of the “best” books in the media center. The “New!” badge is self-explanatory, as is the “Grown-Up Book” tag.

The main purpose of the poster is to show the kids what a really good reader does, the pattern and flow of a life of reading. They can see that I’m looking ahead to what I want to read (and do the same themselves with their personal pages in the catalog). They can see that I may have multiple books going on at one time. They can see that some books move through quickly, while others will hang around a long time. If they’re clever, they can see that I may abandon a book, and that it may return at a later date.

Each time I put up a new poster, I clip out the little Recent books at the bottom and staple them across the top of the bulletin board as a kind of reading record:

I also clip the Recent books and their reviews and put them over to the side for the life of the new poster. After that, I take them out to the shelf and tape them up where the book itself resides:

That way, my insidious plan to lure kids into a lifelong habit of reading has a longer shelf life. Ha. See what I did there?