Take a moment to remember a great teacher in your life

When I graduated from high school, I was cocky enough to think that I could take an upper division course in French Literature in college. After all, I had won the French Award.

But the thing about taking a literature class in another language is you have to read a lot of stuff in another language. I adored my high school French teachers, and they gave me great confidence in my language skills. But I really had no business sitting in that class with upper classmen pretending I could read a book in French without constantly consulting a dictionary. Nor could I keep up with the discussion—again, en français, s’il vous plaît!

But I was lucky. Madame Saigal was my teacher. She was encouraging and never made me feel stupid. When she saw me struggling, she called me into her office and helped me choose an appropriate topic for my paper, one that didn’t require huge amounts of reading and wouldn’t completely overwhelm me. She got me through that class even though I never should have signed up for it.

In academia the saying “Publish or perish” is too often the norm when the primary responsibility for professors really should be teaching. Monique Saigal was first and foremost an educator, and I was lucky to have her. She’s retiring now, and it makes me think back to my freshman year, when everything was harder than I thought it was going to be, but she reached out and made it a little easier.

Merci beaucoup, Mme Saigal, et félicitations!

What do you say to one of your idols in the bathroom line?

Thacher Hurd was the scheduled speaker for Kid Lit Salon. I arrived a few minutes early and bought his newest book, Bongo Fishing, which is his first middle-grade novel. I’d seen the book trailer a few weeks earlier, and I can tell I will enjoy reading it. I have to admit I was pretty excited to see him again.

I say again because when I taught 1st grade at Branciforte Elementary in Santa Cruz, CA back in the spring of 1987—oh, my god, I’m old—he was a visiting author. I remember having him sign my copy of Mama Don’t Allow. It was the first book I ever got signed.

I told him back then that I loved reading that book aloud to my students,  playing the song on my guitar, and singing it with them. I even told him how I had made up my own tune to accompany the “Lullaby of Swampland,” which is the song the band sings in the book to put the alligators to sleep so they can escape being eaten.

And there he was 24 years later at Book Passage just ahead of me in the bathroom line. I tried not to play the part of a gushing fan, but it did feel strange making small talk with the author of one of my favorite children’s books.

Thacher’s parents were big in kid lit (his dad Clement Hurd  illustrated Goodnight, Moon, which is only one of the greatest children’s books ever written) and were chums with its author, Margaret Wise Brown. So he began his presentation with some interesting facts and photos from his  childhood. 

He and his parents visited “Brownie,” as they called her, at her home in Maine that was accessible only by boat. He had great anecdotes of that visit, including the special fur room created just for him by the childless legend of children’s literature. (Apparently Margaret Wise Brown had an idealized vision of childhood and was into fur.)

What was fascinating to me was how openly he shared his process with the dozen or so of us who attended that night. We saw all stages of the creative mind at work, including the plateaus in which he got stuck. Creating is not a smooth, steady process but an unpredictable journey where, more often than not, one finds oneself just spinning one’s wheels. He was also refreshingly honest, in that he was not terribly encouraging about the current state of publishing children’s literature.

But he loved writing, whether his books continued to make money or not. And that’s really what it comes down to: if you love to write, then you write. And hope someone else is there to pay the bills.

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 3


4:10 p.m. Someone found a backpack on Jackson “with Tinkerbell on it” containing electronic equipment. The person was referred to another agency.

Sorry, Albany police only handle backpacks with Hello Kitty and superheroes. For characters from children’s literature and/or Disney movies, they have to hand it over to Berkeley police.


10:43 a.m. A baby deer was hit by a vehicle on San Pablo. The deer was found to have minor injuries. Berkeley Animal Control responded.

5:42 p.m. A woman came into the police department to see if a police officer could speak to her 5-year-old daughter “as a reminder” about “Not good behavior.” Log note only.

Really? Scared straight in kindergarten?


10:14 a.m. A caller reported a dead young deer deceased in the back yard. The caller was referred to Berkeley Animal Control, which was notified to collect the remains.

So it was dead and deceased? Was this the same deer deemed only to have minor injuries the day before? Someone needs to be more careful about releasing patients too early…

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 2


1:25 p.m. A man near Madison and Castro streets reported he was “concerned because there is a swarm of bees near the corner.” Police gave him the phone number for Vector Control. Log note only.

I would be concerned too—if I didn’t have two legs to walk away from them.

5:28 a.m. A man was reported near Santa Fe and Solano avenues “dragging trash cans all over the street” and “making noise.” Log note only.

You mean you want those poor sanitation workers to lift them soundlessly?


7:14 p.m. A man turned in a wallet he found on Jackson Street, but didn’t want to give police the exact location “or have the owner know who turned it in.” Miscellaneous public service provided.

So this thief took out the money and credit cards but felt guilty keeping the wallet itself?


10:30 p.m. Someone reported that a cat on Kains Avenue had been locked in a car “crying for (the) last hour.” The car’s window was down with a screen covering it. No police action warranted at this time.

I’m glad the police didn’t arrest that poor cat—it was probably the only private place it could find to cry, and we all deserve a good cry now and then.

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 1

These are actual items from the police desk in Albany, CA.  My comments are in green.

Albany Police Blotter


2:04 p.m. A man in his 40s, “wearing only long underwear,” was reported in front on Rendez-Vous Cafe Bistro. Police spoke with the man who “did not wish assistance.” Reported situation checks out OK.

4:18 p.m. A man was said to be lying down on the sidewalk, again in front of Rendez-Vous, “with his foot hanging off (the) sidewalk, he appears to be in bad shape.” Assistance refused.

My question is did he appear to be in bad shape after eating at Rendez-Vous? And was it the same guy wearing only long underwear?

5:12 p.m. A neighbor reported a 12- or 13-year-old blond girl in a purple t-shirt and blue shorts “going around” an apartment building “and turning on faucets.” The caller wanted police to speak with the child’s parents. Unable to locate source of the complaint.

Were these faucets inside other people’s apartments? If so, didn’t people stop her when she came in uninvited and headed for their sinks and tubs?


7:09 p.m. A neighbor reported “loud drumming” from a beige house on Kains. The caller “works at home (and) has spoken to subject’s mom,” but the issue had been going on for several months. Miscellaneous public service provided.

I’m interested in knowing what “miscellaneous public service” was provided—ear plugs?

Albany is a small town situated a few miles north of Oakland and a few miles south of Richmond—two cities considered to be serious crime capitals.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be at Guilford…

On our whirlwind tour of small liberal arts colleges in both the Central and Eastern time zones, I was most impressed by the students themselves.

In a sparse Quaker meeting room where most parents were drenched following the short walk from the admissions office because of an unusually ferocious rainstorm, three current Earlham students shared with us their separate journeys arriving at and going through this gem of a school in Richmond, Indiana. They engaged us all as they spoke candidly and enthusiastically about their experiences, despite our soggy socks and concerns that our children, having not had the foresight to pack proper rain gear, were somewhere on campus soaked to the bone and in need of dry clothes.

These were friendly, interesting, articulate young people who I could picture alongside my daughter in the dining hall, discussing current events and debating which was tastier—the snickers pie or the chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

Surely these were extraordinary examples of students, handpicked to represent the school. But every student who crossed my path and my daughter’s was a person worthy of representing the school, from the generous roommate Kylie spent the night with (she mailed us the iphone charger my daughter left behind) to the young man who shuttled us back to the airport almost an hour away in Dayton, Ohio.

And that was only the first school on our stop. Having survived a tornado warning and thunderstorm that took out much of the region’s power—but mercifully not the Days Inn in Greensboro where we stayed—we arrived early for our appointment at Guilford, luggage in hand. Our student tour guides were delightful, as was the admissions intern who showed Kylie to the class she was observing and held down the fort in the admissions office during an all-hands staff meeting. I was mildly concerned for the health of Kylie’s assigned lunch buddy, who ate dry Froot Loops and a piece of cake for lunch, but overall I was impressed with how helpful and positive students were.

The information session at Goucher was led not by the admissions director or one of the staff but by a knowledgeable and perky student, who breathed life into what could have been just another pitch for small liberal arts schools. (By the third information session, it becomes more difficult to get excited by the programs offered, despite how marvelous they are. Yes, I’m glad that all these schools offer study-abroad experiences, small class sizes, and a challenging yet nurturing academic environment, but the distinctions among admissions directors do begin to blur the tiniest bit…) Trusting this important piece of  p.r. to a student showed confidence not only in her abilities to represent the school in a good light but also in the program itself.

Goucher campus

But wait, there’s more! Goucher allowed us to choose which tour guide to follow after they introduced themselves—a female senior whose major was one of the sciences, I believe, and a male freshman who was interested in peace studies. I never would have thought that a freshman could be so knowledgeable about the school, let alone have the confidence and charm he exuded while walking backward all over the sizeable campus and answering  our questions.

While he was responding to my daughter’s comment on the professor she’d observed earlier with a humorous anecdote involving condoms, the president of the college walked by and greeted our guide by name. After a moment, the freshman said to our little group, “Okay, the president just heard me talk about condoms to a group of prospective students and their parents…” Then with skilled comic timing, he shook his head and continued with the tour.

At that point I was smitten, both with Goucher and our tour guide.

Knox students

But the point is that every student I met at Earlham, Guilford, Goucher, and Knox was someone whose company I enjoyed, someone who gave me hope that the next generation had it covered, and most importantly, someone I would feel comfortable leaving my only child with.

Cereal lit—the new frontier?

Puffin books announced that through a deal made with Roald Dahl’s estate and U.K. supermarket chain Asda, it will soon be excerpting such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, and The Witches

On cereal boxes.

Someone figured out that children look at cereal boxes while they eat breakfast in the morning, so they might as well be reading quality literature. They aren’t publishing them so that a child could read a whole book 200 words at a time—the excerpts are more like teasers to whet the interest of someone who might not pick up the book under normal circumstances. Imagine the cliffhangers that might arise:

“I think I’ll have just one more of those candy bars…” Charlie picked it up and tore off the wrapper…and suddenly… from underneath the wrapper…

Will Charlie find a golden ticket? Find out by picking up a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today at the library or your local independent book store!

It just might work.

But is this just the beginning? What about adults? Roald Dahl is great for kids while they eat  their fruit rings, but what can Mom read with her granola—a romance or maybe a mystery? Will Dad read thrillers on the back of his muesli box? And what about big sis? Will her corn flakes excerpt paranormal, dystopian YA?

 The cerealization of literature is only the first step. The boxes that house happy meals could have beloved children’s poems. You could read bits of War and Peace on napkins at the Russian bakery or some James Joyce on the side of a pint glass at a pub. The possibilities are endless.

So your challenge, dear readers, is to come up with a good pairing: what to read on the appropriate vessel. And write them in the comment section, so all can see. Good luck!