The Composer Is Dead

composerdeadSnicket, Lemony. The Composer Is Dead.  Carson Ellis, Illustrator.  Music by Nathaniel Stookey.  New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

This week the Georgetown Symphony Society season begins.  The Round Rock Symphony opens the season with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, E flat Major, K.543, Haydn’s Cello Concerto, C Major, and Shostakovich’s  Symphony No. 9, E flat Major, opus 70.

Do you know one thing that Mozart, Haydn and Shostakovich have in common?  They were all great composers, but now they are decomposing¹.  Orchestra everywhere play their music.  Do they make or murder the pieces?  Go to a symphony and see for yourself.

An excellent book to celebrate the beginning of symphony season is Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead.   It is his contribution to the corpus of work on the orchestra instruments and how they sound. What a tutorial it is! He has written this ode to the orchestra with the same droll cynicism that you find in his A Series of Unfortunate Events.  As you might suppose, the story begins with a dead composer. Here’s the opening salvo.

The Composer Is Dead.

“Composer” is a word which here means “a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.” This is called composing.  But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming.  He was not moving, or even breathing.

The police are called and an inspector arrives to detect.  This fussy inspector declares he will find the Composer’s enemies “wherever they are lurking.” He interrogates the strings, the brass and the percussion. As he does, each instrument is described. Each instrument has a story about its contribution to an orchestral piece.

I was enchanted the first time I read this book.  While the language is lyrical at times and the descriptions are amusing, without musical examples the book would not be useful as an orchestra tutorial. The author had an excellent plan and insidious plan.  He collaborated with the live, not decomposing, composer Nathaniel Stookey to provide the musical information needed to make this book complete. A CD provided with the book has the author reading the book in performance with the San Francisco Symphony.

Does the inspector catch the culprit?  You will have to read the book to see.  Here’s the end of the story.

“Those who want justice,” said the orchestra, “can go to the police.  But those who want something a little more interesting …should go to the orchestra!”

Here is a YouTube video featuring the author, composer and orchestra.  It is a teaser to recommend this book to you.

If you are looking or an orchestral adventure to find out how orchestras are treating composers, here is a listing of local symphonies.

¹Snicket, Lemony. The Composer Is Dead. New York: Harper Collins, 2009, p. 3.


Happy Autumnal Equinox

People with binoculars & a telescope looking at the starsGibbons, Gail.  Stargazers.  New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1992.

Today is the first official day of fall.  It is the Autumnal Equinox¹. Here in central Texas, it was a mite cooler this morning (68° F) and not quite so hot this afternoon (93° F).  For us, fall is an astronomical event not a meteorological one.  Eventually the leaves will change and the temperatures will be milder, but that time is still many weeks away.

My Backyard. First Day of Fall. September 22, 2016.

From now until the winter solstice, the nights get longer.  With longer nights, we have a more opportunity to stargaze.  I love to look up at the stars.  Tonight when it gets dark, here’s what I might see overhead: Pegasus, Andromeda or Hercules¹.  These are sometimes hard for me to locate.  There are others I can find more easily. They are the Big Dipper, Cygnus, and Cassiopeia.   The three brightest stars in the overhead sky will be Altair, Vega and Deneb. If you are here in the northern hemisphere you can use this map to help you locate these constellations and stars in our autumn night sky: Beckstrom Observatory Sky Map.

So on this autumnal day, I offer you this book about stargazers. In this time when schools are stressing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), it is a good resource to have on your bookshelf.  It is packed with information for anyone interested the stars and the night sky.  Gail Gibbons uses bright, visually appealing pictures to present basic information about stars and space in ways we can easily understand.  What are the tools a stargazer can use?  Do you know the difference between a refracting telescope and a reflecting telescope?  Have you ever visited an Observatory or a Planetarium?  With colorful pictures and careful language, she explains these wonders to us.

In this fall season, take advantage of our longer nights . Go out and enjoy the night sky.  Be a stargazer!


El Deafo

El Deafo book coverBell, Cece. El Deafo.  New York: Abrams, 2014.

I thought this book would be interesting to read for a number of reasons.  First of all, it reminded me of my colleagues Elaine and Eden and their work with students with deafness or auditory impairments.  Second, it was a Newberry Honor Book in 2015.  Third, I thought it was on this year’s Bluebonnet Master list. It was a trifecta of good reasons to read it. When I sat down to write this blog posting, I was highly disappointed to learn that I had confused lists and it is not on this year’s Bluebonnet list.  It is a great book so maybe someone will recommend it for another year.

I didn’t have a copy of this book in my collection, so I ordered it online.  I was surprised to find that it was a graphic novel.  It is Cece Bell’s attempt to capture her memories and feelings about the loss of her hearing and its impact on her life.

An emerging fashionista at age four, Cece was a normal, happy girl.    Her life changed drastically one day.  She developed meningitis.  Once recovered, her hearing loss was discovered and she was fitted with hearing aids. Even with hearing aids, she had trouble understanding all the speech around her.   At a school for students with hearing loss, she learned how visual, context and gestural cues could help her better understand what the people in her life were saying.

At the end of that school year she moved and was enrolled in a typical school.  Would she have friends?  Would she be able to understand?  The change was not an easy one. It is hard being different.  A chance remark from the television caused her to coin her own nickname, “El Deafo”.  Her difference was her superpower.  In her new school what would happen?  Would she have any new friends?  Would El Deafo find her superhero sidekick and best friend?  Read this book and find out!

With her sense of adventure and courage, Cece learned to live in our hearing world.  She grew up to be an author and an illustrator!  Here’s a link to her website, you can read more about Cece and the other books she has written:

One more fact, I did get more than a trifecta and more for this book.  It was really fun to read!  And for all you comic book/graphic novel lovers, it won an 2015 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12).  The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are considered the “Oscars” of the comics world. Named for the pioneering comics creator and graphic novelist Will Eisner, the awards are given out in more than two dozen categories during a ceremony each year at Comic-Con International: San Diego.


Happy 100th Birthday, Roald Dahl!

jamespeachDahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach. Lane Smith, Illustrator.  New York: Puffin Books, 1961 & 1996.

100 years ago today, Roald Dahl was born!  This splendiferious author with his fertile imagination gave us darksome, dreadly, vermicious knidand other monsters. He gave us terrific tales about Matilda, Charlie, James and other brave, intrepid, smart, kind children.

To celebrate this momentous event, I revisited James and the Giant Peach.  This was not the first children’s book that Dahl wrote, but it was his first famous book.

I know that it may trouble some, but I cheer for Dahl’s children, who are smart, sometimes smarter than the adults around them.  I applaud when they learn to protect themselves against the adult fizzwigglers in their life (A fizzwiggler is someone who is mean and cruel).

In the beginning of this story, James Henry Trotter is sad, lost and alone. He is very sad as the death of his Mum and Dad has left him in the care of two very nasty aunts. They were fizzwigglers of the first order! As the story begins, you can scarcely imagine that James will become the hero of this story.  He is humble, intrepid and brave.  He works hard to save himself and his new friends.  He keeps his head and triumphs!

And James Henry Trotter, who once, if you remember, had been the saddest and loneliest little boy that you could find, now had all the friends and playmates in the world. And because so many of them were always begging him to tell and tell again the story of his adventures on the peach, he thought it would be nice if one day he sat down and wrote a book. So he did. And that is what you have just finished reading. —p.126

So I celebrate this magnificent author!  If you want to continue to celebrate look for these Wondercrump Weekend Celebrations.

Wondercrump Weekend – A Weekend to Celebrate Roald Dahl

Here in Austin on Saturday, September 17, Alamo Drafthouse Village is remembering both Roald Dahl and Gene Wilder with their Ultimate Willy Wonka Party:

You might also want to check out what they are doing at VooDoo Doughnut on 6th Street in Austin (September 17-18).  According to the Roald Dahl Website, “Iconic Voodoo Doughnut is hosting a weekend-long party filled with doughnut contests, children dressing up as Roald Dahl characters, crafts, Billy Taylor (Thieving Weasels), Book People pop-up (10% of sales going to Partners in Health), and more.”

Have a scrumdiddlyumptious celebration!!!

Roald Dahl

Since today is the anniversary of his 100th birthday and a movie that was based on one of his books has just been out in the cinema, you can find a lot of information about this author.  Here are a few things I found interesting.¹

  1. He was named after the famous Norwegian Polar Explorer, Roald Amundsen.
  2. He didn’t like school all that much.  He decided not to go to university went adventuring.  He worked for Shell Oil in a number of countries.
  3. In World War II, he joined the RAF and became a fighter pilot. He wrote a book about his adventures.
  4. He was married to actress, Patricia Neal (one of my favorites)
  5. He contributed to the development of the ventricular catheter and shunt values.
  6. He wrote for adults as well as children.
  7. He wrote the screenplays for You Only Live Twice  and Chitty-Chitty Bang, Bang.  

Here are some more places you can read about Roald Dahl



In Celebration of National Grandparents Day

songanddanceAckerman, Karen. Song and Dance Man.  Stephen Gammell, Illustrator. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Today is a day we celebrate our Grandparents!  It is a recent holiday, established in 1978 to be the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Although there are plenty of cards to send to your Nana and Grandpa, the holiday has three specific purposes¹.

  1. To honor grandparents
  2. To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children (I didn’t know you needed a special day for this!)
  3. To help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance older people can offer

This book is a loving remembrance of a Grandpa. How the children in this story will remember their sweet Grandpa. He was a vaudevillian!  An old soft shoe man!  He showed his special love for his children’s children by providing them with his story.  He shared with them the old songs, the old dances, the stories and jokes. As they grow, they will remember.

grandmas2Here is a picture I found this morning when I was getting ready for this post.  I am in my Mom’s arms.  Standing with us is my Grandma and her Grandma.  We are Robin, Geraldine (Jerrie), Genevieve and Edna posing for a photo in 1954. I remember my Nana.  She was wonderful. I remember walking to the corner bakery with her to pick up pastries for breakfast.  I remember climbing up in her bed and discussing the day with her.

She and my Mom loved fashion.  I think my Nana would have like to be an interior designer.  I remember she and my Mom drove all over Dallas to find just the right lights for Mom’s bedroom.  They had such fun.

I have a memory of my Nana sitting at a desk talking on the telephone in her house. It was the desk where she did her business and kept her bills. I have this desk and I think about her whenever I pass it.

I hope that all of you have good memories of your grandparents.  Please remember to share those memories with your children.


Some Grandpas dance and some Grandmas sing,
I always thought they could do anything!
Some Grandmas are serious, some Grandpas are silly,
They come in all sizes and temperaments really.

I loved my Nana, her hair white with blue,
She watch me grow and loved me too.
My Grandpa was quiet and humble and sweet,
Our trips to the zoo were a special treat.

I honor their memories with stories I share,
With Alexis and Sarah and told with some flare.
From them flowed wisdom, guidance and grace,
I remember them lovingly here in this place.


Reflections on Summer Reading

reflections4During the drive into work a week or so ago, we were listening to an article on Morning Edition on summer reading. Jim turned to me and asked, “Why are they talking about summer reading?  It is almost September.  School has started.  What’s so special about summer reading? What? Do people quit reading in the fall?”  All these questions posed in rapid fire succession.

His questions got me to thinking about summer reading.  Here are my thoughts.

One way I think about summer reading has to do with school.  Libraries and schools run summer reading programs to encourage children to read for fun.  Hopefully we are encouraging them to select the books they like with the insidious side effect of helping to maintain and improve the skills they learned during the school year.  Should summer reading be an assignment?  I don’t think so, where is the joy in that?  I think back on long summer days lazing on the sofa or by the pool with a great book.  I always thought it was a wonderful way to spend my time.

As an adult, I still have a special feeling about summer reading.  I don’t know that I have any more time to read, but somehow I look forward to the books I’ve chose specifically for the summer.  Maybe I get to read a little later as the day is longer?  Maybe I change the kind of book I read?  I have vacation so I look for a special book to carry along with me.  Sometimes libraries run summer reading programs for adults in conjunction with the programs they run for children.  I remember the summer we spent in Virginia.  Our library had a board where you could post reviews of the books you read.  It was very enjoyable.  Somehow there just seems to something magical about the whole idea of summer reading.

As I was looking for information about summer reading, I found an article in the Boston Globe titled “How America Learned to Love Summer Reading. In the early 1890’s, Boston librarians noted a shift from loans of books on mostly history, science, and biography to a checkout of mostly light fiction during the summer months.  Summer reading became more popular as summer breaks and vacations became available to more people not just the elite.  Early on summer reading was intended to be light and escapist.  In the early 1900’s, the idea of summer reading changed and it was suggested that these summer reading hours should be devoted to self-improvement.  In another change along about 1915, it was allowed that if a person enjoyed a history or a biography or a novel in the winter he/she could enjoy them in the summer as well¹.

Here’s their final thought on summer reading and it is one I can get behind.

But summer reading has come to offer an ideal space in the middle, equally accepted as a way to escape the pressures of work or as a course in self-improvement. As you plan your reading for these last days of summer, there’s no longer a need to be defensive. Instead, you can be pleased to be joining a venerable, beloved American tradition—the right to relax with a book in the sun¹.

Summer Reading

Summer reading is a pleasure to me,
An indulgence to be savored.
An afternoon with my current book,
Relaxes and sustains me.


Harold and the Purple Crayon

HaroldPurpleCrayonJohnson, Crockett. Harold and the Purple Crayon. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1959.

This classic story is making a comeback! I was wandering the aisles at Target looking for a baby shower gift and this little gem was nestled in among the other books on the shelves.  I hadn’t seen it in a long time.  Here is a book I remembered from seeing it on Captain Kangaroo. The simple lines and movements were enhanced by the filming technique they used on that show. With simple lines, Crockett Johnson shows us Harold’s imagined journey. The clean, minimalist drawings allow a reader to travel along and add their own details.  With a child it would be simple to have a discussion on “what will happen next” or “where will Harold go?”

This is a story of adventure and soaring imagination. Here’s the opening line, “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” Harold proceeds to walk down the path and across the fields of his imagination. With his trusty purple crayon, he takes care of his needs (he draws the moon to light his way), rescues himself (he draws a boat so he does not drown) and when he has had enough adventure he figures out how to draw himself home (a view of the moon through his window).

After you read this book to your child, don’t hide the box of crayons get a large roll of newsprint!  Let your child draw his/her own adventure, just not on your walls. Pick your favorite color crayon, pen or pencil and with a large pile, roll or stack of paper let your imaginary adventure begin.

Crockett Johnson

Crockett Johnson is the pen name for David Johnson Liesk.  Crockett was his childhood nickname. He was a cartoonist, child book author and painter.  His comic strip Barnaby ran in papers from 1942 to 1946.  He was friend and mentor to Maurice Sendak, who illustrated books for Crockett’s wife, Ruth Krauss. He wrote and drew during the McCarthy era and at one point he was under investigation by the FBI¹.

In his late life, he was fascinated by the pythagorean theory.  He created a series of pictures based on proof of geometric theorems.  In 1980 he had an exhibit at the National Museum of American History titled “Theorems in Color”.  Take a look at this picture titled “Square Roots to Sixteen” an excellent example of his work².

You can read more about this author and see some of his art work at these websites.