Archives For Bookstores

Wednesday night, January 13. 82nd Street branch of Barnes and Noble Booksellers, NYC:

After a full morning of delivering professional development to the K-12 grade literacy team combined with an afternoon working with 6th grade teachers, I was getting my literary reward. I was sitting in the second row at an author event, listening to the writer Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Let the Great World Spin) interview the writer Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Amy and Isabelle).

"There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader," said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. "She whispers, 'trust me I m going to take you somewhere' and when we get there..she has told me secrets."

“There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader,” said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. “She whispers, ‘trust me I m going to take you somewhere’ and when we get there..she has told me secrets.”

McCann was interviewing Strout about her latest novel I am Lucy Barton and it was obvious that they both were happy to be having this intimate conversation in a room packed with their fan base.

I slid into a seat saved by my loyal friend Catherine-traveling  2 hours and 40 minutes after the aforementioned teacher PD- to hear McCann begin the interview with the question:

“Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“Yes,” replied Strout, and for a brief and worrisome moment it seemed as if the interview would end with that response, but McCann pushed a little more on the relationship writers have with their readers….and proved to be charmingly deft at teasing out ideas:

  • On writing a narrative: (McCann)“There is a agreement that the writer will tell you some thing you sort of knew… you knew that you sort of knew, but now you know it.”

  • On telling secrets:( McCann) “Any good story teller is saying to the reader come with me, and I’ll tell you something….an intimacy.”

  • On writing about a writer: (Strout) “I don’t know how I do what I do, that’s why writers are boring…”

  • On the process of writing: (Strout) “We just don’t know what we are doing…but I know who is charge.”

  • On how we know we are writers: (McCann) “I don’t think what we know what we are going to do…until we do it it’s only when people tell us what we’ve done that we know what we have done.”

As I listened, I thought of how all the effort I had expended that afternoon (from train, to shuttle, to subway, and run) had been worth it. So many of these statements by contemporary authors might seem oddly disconcerting for middle and high school students, and I began to wonder what was the best way to share what they were saying.

Teachers know that many students are convinced that novels spring, “Athena-like”, fully-formed from the mind of the author.
There is little regard for craft. The idea that authors say that they “don’t know,”and are waiting to hear from readers to know what their writing means strains credulity.

Paradoxically, many of these same students also believe that some readers -or at least all English teachers-make too much of what the author meant: too much of the symbols and motifs and themes in literature. They are quick to contend that maybe the author “did not know” and just wrote without a plan. They reject the notion of craft.

The conversation I was hearing suggested that that the relationship between a writer and the student does not need the English Teacher filter…and that teachers need to get out of the way. Whether or not students will find it…author’s craft is there.

But, I digress…and so did they.

Strout spoke of the experience of having her book Olive Kitteridge turned into a film:

McCann: “Directors come and actors come….and they put a language on what you have done…is that odd…? Do you think, Like T.S. Eliot That’s not what I meant at all?”

Strout: “No…they did a wonderful job. When I saw the character Henry, I thought,’I know that Henry…I made that Henry…'”

McCann: “And are there Lucy Barton’s walking about?”

Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”

Fiction aside, Strout commented on how she intentionally writes about people struggling with an real obstacle…and one real obstacle she includes is class.

“How do people fit into the world?” she asked. “I like to write about class…The poverty that does not let people belong to a community. They exist more now; They are hungry. So much of our literature does not want to talk about poverty.”

Her sentiment, I suspect, is what initially frustrates students when they complain about the steady diet of what they consider “depressing literature.”

Both Strout and Mcann saw the issue of class differently, and spoke about the power of literature in developing empathy.
“We know what it like in a world without it,” Strout responded to an audience member’s question, “Literature can make us understand briefly for a moment what it is like to be another…. than that would be a wonderful wonderful thing.”

The audience murmured their agreement, and Mccann echoed his opening question:

“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“I am,” she responded.

We all were.

“I find people confusing.” 

That particular quote is spoken by Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” Christopher lives in Swindon, England, and his behavioral difficulties are more along the lines of Asberger’s or high functioning autism or savant syndrome. This diagnosis explains his attitude towards his peers, 

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are.” 

Or his obsession with truth:

“Metaphors are lies.” 

Or his appreciation for math:

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

Christopher’s observations are also what make him interesting to our students who read the novel in literature circles in grade 10. Students at this age connect with the author, Mark Haddon, and his belief that the novel is not about a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, but rather,

“…a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. It’s as much a novel about us as it is about Christopher.”

CIDNT coverWe have well over 100 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime in our book room. They are a collection of books purchased at book sales ($1-$3 a copy) throughout the state of Connecticut for the past five years. These copies are most likely the discards from book club members who, 10 years after its original publication date (2003), donated their used copies. The only problem in locating  copies of the text at a book sale is determining on which genre table the copies will be shelved. The novel is classified as a mystery, but it is also considered a young adult novel or trade fiction, and was published in England simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children.

Fortunately, I can see that iconic bright red cover from a distance, the same one with the dog cut-out onto the shiny black cover underneath. When I distribute the texts, no matter how I threaten to make sure the book comes back in pristine condition, there are students who will trace and retrace that cutout until the die-cut shape of the dog becomes the shape of a blob.

The students read the novel independently first, usually during a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, before coming together in literature circles. I would like to think that the character of Christopher would enjoy being paired with Shakespeare’s murder and intrigue since he is uncovering a sinister killing of a neighborhood dog. Students are given time in class to read the novel as SSR, and the literature circles begin once the play is concluded. The students are organized into smaller groups, where they work together to choose a “big idea” that can be found in the novel. The “big idea” can center on large concept words such as bravery, fear, change, determination, trust, or belief. Once a big idea is selected for the day, each group has several tasks to complete, with each member of the group completing one task. The students receive one grade for the completion of these assignments, and disputes are resolved through peer review feedback sheets. The roles for the literature circles are fairly traditional:

  • Group leader/discussion director/writer: leads the discussion and writes the response that answers the question with contributions from the other members.
  • Notes taker/quote maker: keeps notes during the discussion, finds, and writes the passages that support the group’s conclusions about the big idea.
  • Artist: draws a series of cartoons or a particularly important scene that represents the big idea.
  • Poet: creates a found poem of at least 20 lines that supports the group’s conclusions.
  • OrganizerGets the paper, plans the poster, keeping everyone on task and contributing to the overall success of the assignment!

Because we are a BYOD school, we have on occasion also included some “digital” tasks where group members can use a software platform to create an Animoto or a Voice Thread as a way to illustrate the big idea.

The literature circles usually meet four or five times covering different sections of the book depending on the big idea selected. At the end of each meeting, students their findings to the class with each member explaining the contributions from his or her role.  The rubric is centered on Common Core State Standards that require the inclusion of evidence to support a position. For an exemplary rating, a group will produce the following:

POSITION: clearly addressed task, purpose, and audience

  • One page that answers question about the big idea
  • Found quotes in novel to support a group’s position; wrote them on the chart paper
  •  a cartoon or illustrated scene that supports big idea
  • Creation of a “found” poem of at least 20 lines, using words from the novel.


  • Response answers the question; it has a thesis, and at least two quotations for support.
  • Poster displays the quotations you have found; they are written carefully & cited.
  • Art work is neat and colorful and expresses the big idea
  • The poem is of required length and is expressive and creative.


  • Response has no more than two errors in mechanics, spelling, capitalization.
  • Quotations are blended.
  • Quotes have no misspellings, etc.

As they read, many students become curious about Aspergers and autism, so we have incorporated video supplemental materials including a speech on the inspiration for the novel by Mark Haddon; a film on autism activist Temple Gradin; and a quick 6 minute video on another savant Stephen Wiltshire: The Human Camera.

Sometimes, if time allows, we have included mysteries from Christopher’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For the honors students, we have added the text of the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for independent reading (audio text) . On other occasions we have used adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries in short audio texts (Story Nory site).

While the addition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has richly enhanced our curriculum of World Literature, the price was not expensive, roughly $250 for the entire set of books. This contemporary novel by a British writer allows us to connect the reading to other fiction (mysteries) and informational texts including speeches and documentaries. In the beginning of the novel, Christopher explains,

“In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them. It is a puzzle. If it is a good puzzle you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.”

By the end of the novel Christopher comments on the mystery as a “good puzzle” saying, “I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” That assessment is a powerful reason to share Haddon’s novel with students…if they can draw from a character like Christopher the inspiration that they too can do anything.

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2013 but to pay tribute to Canadian author Margaret Atwood? Poet, novelist, lecturer, inventor, tweeter, and celebrity ice hockey goalie, Atwood’s achievements in each of these roles is accomplished with wit, grace, and aplomb.

Handmaid's tale

There are other earlier covers, but this one is my personal favorite.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class just finished reading her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in the dystopia of Gilead, where in response to political and ecological upheaval, a quasi-Christian theocracy is organized in the eastern section of the United States. Astute Sparknote writers, graduates of Harvard, recognized many of the landmarks in the novel’s setting (the brick wall, the gymnasium) as that of their alma mater, an indication of Atwood’s wry sense of irony. In the novel, fertility is an obsession. Rituals and “ceremonies” are enforced; offenders and outliers are publicly executed or sent to labor in toxic waste dumps. The main character Offred, who had a daughter before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, is valued only for her ability to reproduce.

Because of the mature themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in senior high school classes. The title is often suggested on the exam for the open-ended Question #3 on the AP Literature exam which means other schools assign the book. There are always plenty of copies available in the secondary market. Our classroom library has over 60 copies from a variety of library book sales and thrift stores. I have spent under $100.00 in adding this title to our curriculum; I’d like to think that Atwood might be pleased with this “ecological” way to have students read the text despite her loss of possible retail revenue. However, if one wanted a new copy, they are available at Amazon for $10.20 paperback or an audio recording by Claire Danes is available  at  for $24.95.

When we discuss the clothing that marks the different “castes” of people in Gilead,  I always use the endpaper story Atwood published in the New York Times Magazine published “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”

Six years after our trip, I wrote ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” a speculative fiction about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nuns’ costumes, partly from girls’ schools’ hemlines and partly — I must admit — from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, but also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is freedom to and freedom from. But how much of the first should you have to give up in order to assure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own — as we are now seeing — is no exception. Would I have written the book if I never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

Dutch Cleanser

The combination of the Dutch Cleanser girl with the chador is the inspiration for Offred’s clothing; the story and the visual always sparks a discussion on the symbolic effect of clothing.

My students always argue about the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. This year there were a number of votes for political science book, others for a dystopian love story; no one said science fiction. Atwood would be relieved; she has always drawn the distinction between science fiction and her writing which she calls “speculative fiction”. Several of my students also read the other books Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood that are speculative fiction.

Here is Atwood with her take on the genre of specultive fiction.

The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an allusion to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice:

“We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.”

After we finished the novel, the class read Atwood’s poem Eurydice. I asked them what they thought.

  • “There is a sense of longing in both.”
  • “The language is so similar. There is the white curtain…the gauze.”
  • “‘It is not through him you will get your freedom’ is just like
    from and freedom to…that is Offred’s problem”
  • “We could have just read the poem! They’re almost the same!”

One other area of speculative fiction where Atwood has shared her thoughts is on the topic of modernity…and Zombies. In an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, Atwood was quite clear on the limits of Zombie stories:

“No zombie story is ever told from the zombie point of view… they’re not narrative…they don’t have language and that impedes one from telling a story.”

Outside of fiction, Atwood has also written about debt. Her non-fiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came from her 2008 Massey Lectures. Not surprisingly, her interest in debt began in from her study of Victorian Literature. In an interview with Suzanne Ellis, CityLine “Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt”  Atwood discussed how the Victorian stories that are on the surface about love and romance are really all about financial arrangements:

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

The book was made into a documentary and released in the spring of 2012. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott opens his film review with the premise of the documentary:

A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system.

While the film did not receive critical acclaim, Atwood’s ability to connect herself and link to the world through Twitter is often lauded.  She is an avid twitterer with 383,430 followers and over 15,000 tweets of her own. She links to political issues, comments on travels, and gives recipe advice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.06.17 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.07.07 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.08.58 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.09.56 AM

She also is the inventor of the “long pen”, a device that allows her to attend book signings from distances and sign books “virtually”. When she is tired of traveling to sign books, she can now meet her adoring public in virtual space and provide them with an authentic signature. Fortunately, I saw her before the “long pen” at a Barnes and Noble reading/book signing for her short story collection Moral Disorder. She was amazingly articulate; in the 40 minute talk, she never hesitated or once said “um”.

And just when you thought that Atwood could not be more accomplished, she starred in a video explaining “How to Stop a Hockey Puck” for the comedian reporter Rick Mercer. I put the video below. (Too bad her “Dance Party Video” was removed from YOUTube for copyright violations.)

So, on this International Woman’s Day, let’s hear a cheer for Margaret Atwood!

She writes. She tweets. She scores!

In keeping my classroom libraries filled with books, the trends I notice are not necessarily trends in book buying, but trends in book discarding. After exams, midterms or finals, assigned titles are discarded to make room on a bookshelf or in a school locker for new required reading. Following trends means knowing that three to four months after the curriculum unit ended, an assigned title begins to crowd its way onto the bookshelves of thrift stores such as Goodwill or St. Vincent’s or the Salvation Army.

Three copies of "The Scarlet Letter" on the shelf at Goodwill. All new; never opened!

Three copies of “The Scarlet Letter” on the shelf at Goodwill this past week. All new; never opened, bearing their $1.00 each price tags.

Since Puritans are usually up for discussion in September in American History coursework, many English departments turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter for their Advanced Placement or college bound students as a complementary read. Therefore, I was not surprised when, during this last week of January, copies of The Scarlet Letter began appearing, not in single copies, but in droves. I expected as much. The Scarlet Letter represents the “not keeping” trend. While a student may hesitate for a millisecond before placing The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye in the “throw away” pile, I imagine there is universal delight in discarding The Scarlet Letter, a delight only exacerbated by discarding its equally loathed curriculum companion, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The mention of The Scarlet Letter may set off groans. Woe to the teacher who attempts this book without the iron cast-backbone or the determination of an evangelist. Readers of The Scarlet Letter will need to be converted, and it is only the fear and damnation of another scarlet letter that keeps them plodding on, the scarlet “F”!

The tone of the book is set immediately with the opening line:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

Looking further down the page for some relief from the gloom, the reader should notice that he or she is being directly addressed, as if from a pulpit delivering a parable or allegory:

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

Yes, Hawthorne will be delivering this sermon for 192 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition ($3.15).

Students are aware that this classic will improve SAT scores with the challenging vocabulary and complex structures of 19th Century prose, but they still seek help beyond the classroom. There are Sparknotes, Schmoop notes, E-Notes, Cliff Notes, and Bookrags available for this text, so as a result, the paperback text on the thrift store shelf may never have been opened. The copies available at thrift stores are generally pristine copies. I imagine they were purchased by parents who dutifully picked up the book because of a syllabus of some sort. Maybe this was a summer reading choice, a particularly deadening assignment. Actually, the effort in purchasing this text could have been avoided, because the text itself is online at no less than six places:

And there are free audio versions at:

But we still teach The Scarlet Letter, and our paperback collection of The Scarlet Letter distributed in class is comprised of at least 10 different editions. No student is on the same page number when the text is read aloud in class in order to share the conflicts between Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Chillingsworth. Interestingly, what seems initially complex to the student is eventually understood as a really a ripping good love triangle of sex, intrigue, and irony. Once they see Hawthorne laying out hypocrisies of the Puritan society, they are more genuinely engaged. Plus, there is the lovely child Pearl, and they grow to sympathize for her.

In order to engage students in assessments, our Grade 11 teacher has organized “self-directed” projects for students to choose  and some of these have included:

  • Create a song telling the ballad of Hester Pyrnne.  You may compose the song, or write new words for an existing melody.  Share the song with the class either live or via audio or videotape.
  • Think of a sin associated with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.  Create a badge that uses a letter or other symbol to represent the sin.  In addition, use art, needlework, or some other craft to make the badge reveal something about the man’s character, interests, or profession.  Write an explanatory caption or paragraph to accompany the badge.
  • Choose music to be the score for a film version of the novel.  Choose music for at least five major scenes.  Write explanatory notes for each selection

The harvesting of The Scarlet Letter texts from thrift store shelves is best from January-March. I can add as many as 10-12 copies during these months. Competition for the title grows during the summer, and the books are often more dog-earred by then.

But with all the negativity, why teach The Scarlet Letter? Because Hawthorne provides a bridge from this historical period to ours by using the empathy that is generated in fiction. Our brains are wired for stories more than facts, and reading The Scarlet Letter helps our students identify with characters in order to understand the politics and policies of this turbulent time when our nation was still in its infancy. Additionally, his story serves as a springboard for other stories. According to Canadian author Margaret Atwood, “The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century. The Scarlet Letter is not that far behind [the novel] The Handmaid’s Tale, my take on American Puritanism.”

Oh, and yes. We also assign The Handmaid’s Tale.

If you happen to find yourself in Boise, Idaho, as I frequently do, and you need a used book, check out Rainbow Books at 1310 West State Street. My family lives in Boise, and I have driven past Rainbow Books for about 20 years. I am sorry it took so long for me to discover this little  book store.

Rainbow Book Store in Boise, case you are ever in Boise!

According to its website, “Rainbow Books was moved to its current location at 1310 West State Street in 1993 and continues to add more shelves for more books all the time. Rainbow Books was chosen ‘Best of Treasure Valley’ in 2003 not only for its incredible selection, but also because of the staff’s unbelievable knowledge of its stock.”

On this very hot afternoon, the store had several “browsers” including a young couple canoodling in the air-conditioned book stacks. They were quite preoccupied and paid little attention to me as I crawled along the expansive classic section. The store is a reconverted house, and there are many different rooms to explore; all are well lit, and there is no musty odor one sometimes associates with used books.

I found the shelves very well organized by genre. The children’s literature was appropriately divided into sections: picture books, chapter books and YA literature; and there were many “finds” for my classroom. The military section was small, but there was an entire room shelving unit devoted to Westerns. Should I discover that my students would like to read Westerns, I will certainly be in touch with Rainbow Books! The biography and memoir section also had a wide range of titles. I did ask if they had a copy of October Sky by Homer Hickam, but I was informed that if there was a copy available, it would be shelved under a section called “Men’s Books”; apparently, most people do not look for this title as a memoir, so the staff adopted a genre change!

There were nearly all of the trade books I pick up at used book sales (The Bean Trees, The Road, The Kite Runner), but since I am traveling, all  purchases will be mailed to the school, so I was careful to select books that were both “hard to find” and in excellent condition.

What books go into the used book classroom? I found a copy of Feed by M.T. Anderson (9th grade), Nothing but the Truth by Avi (8th grade), and Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo (summer reading). All these titles are hard to find.

Books purchased at Rainbow Books for $44.30

The best discovery was locating four copies of the newest edition of  Night by Elie Wiesel which is a required reading text in grade 10. I also picked up three copies of Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore to add to the independent reading selections for the 12th grade memoir class.

These 10 books cost $44.30 with a 10% teacher’s discount, or a little under $5.00 per book. I will have to spend $7.99 in postage (USPO media mail), bringing total expenses to $52.29. What did I save by shopping at Boise’s oldest, friendliest, and most generous used bookstore? Well, the retail price for these texts $108.60; so, including the postage, my total savings $56.31.

There are buying, trading, and selling policies listed on the Rainbow Books website; a sign at the register also indicated they sell through Amazon as well.  However, shopping online means you miss a great opportunity to shop in this pleasant used book store….or buy doughnuts next door….or ice cream up the street!