Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Boy + Vehicle Book = Successful Reading

My 6-year old son LOVES vehicles! No matter the variety ... Hot Wheels, Legos, NASCAR, you name it ... if it has wheels, it's the BEST thing ever. And, if it's hauling a trailer ... well, it's just heaven on earth!

He wakes up at 6:30 in the morning and begins playing with his trucks and cars ... he drives them around the console; he carries them in his backpack to school; he carries them in his pockets; he sleeps with them safely parked on the bookcase above his bed.

By the time he was three, he could name nearly every make and model driving by on the road. Even at the tender age of two, he could identify any Chevy and Acura on the road, thrilled that those were the same makes driven by Dad and Mom.

And, don't even get me started on Rescue Vehicles! We stop everything to listen for where the siren is coming from and, oh, to see a fire truck/ambulance/police car whiz by on the way to a rescue ... that's just the epitome of excitement. Thankfully, he also always adds that he hopes the accident isn't bad and everyone is okay! :-)

So ... I shouldn't have been at all surprised by Braden's choice of book at our last school book fair. Here I was, trying to pick out some early readers that might appeal to him ("Henry and Mudge"; "Dinosaur Cove", etc.), and suddenly he had disappeared from my side and I was talking to myself.

I turned to see him being pulled by some invisible force to a bookshelf down the hall. I then saw that another boy was coming from the opposite direction, clearly being pulled by that very same invisible force, with a look of both awe and focus on his face. Even though I could only see the back of his head, I imagined that Braden probably had that very same look.

Then I saw the invisible force ... sitting on display on the top shelf - "MEGA RESCUERS". A book with a large picture of a fire truck on the front, and the caption, "The most exciting rescue vehicles in the world!"

I followed Braden over to the shelf, where he immediately started pleading his case. The mother of the other boy had arrived at about the same time as I, and was hearing a similar storyline.

I wasn't sold at first ... "What about these fun chapter books that will be so good for your reading...?" I tried to reason.

But, as I watched Braden page through the book and listened to his "OH, COOL!!!" and "Look at THIS!" exclamations, I couldn't help but think this book would have the same impact on his reading that those other books would. If he wanted to learn about mountain rescuers, sea rescuers, rescue helicopters, and all the other rescue vehicles in the book, he would have to read what was written about them. So, the book was purchased.

The outcome? We not only read the book during our scheduled daily reading time ... we often find him reading the book voluntarily, on his own ... sometimes during the day, sometimes at night with his little booklight hooked over the book. Yes, he definitely enjoys all the amazing pictures ... but, he's also reading all the captions and paragraphs that go along with those pictures. And, isn't that really the point ... to enjoy reading so much that you do it when you don't have to?!

So, the "Mega Rescuers" book has done its job well. Another lesson learned by the parent of a 6-year old. And I'm just fine with that!

Happy reading (and writing)!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sprechen sie Englisch?

For some reason, I can't find any of my photos of Liechtenstein. I think this one, taken by Volkmar K. Wentzel, will suffice. Actually, it does much more than that ... it pretty much sums up all you need to know about the Principality of Liechtenstein ... it is stunning!

Have you heard of it? Liechtenstein is tiny ... 15 miles long from north to south. It is the sixth smallest country in the world, tucked right in between Switzerland and Austria. It may be small, but it packs a BIG punch! I'll spare you the general facts, and share with you some of the things I found fascinating.

My trip to Liechtenstein was the most relaxing part of my study abroad experience. I was finished with school, my finals were behind me, my bags were packed, my friends had flown back to the U.S., and it was almost Christmas. I had several days to kill before my flight home, and just happened to know of a family in Liechtenstein (I'd met two of the brothers through my step-sister the previous summer!), who had encouraged me to contact them if I was 'ever in the area'! So ... I summoned up my courage, and did just that. And, I'm so glad I did.

First ... imagine the kindest German family you can ... living in a wonderfully cozy home, eating traditional German food, trying with all their might to make a semi-vegetarian (at the time) foreigner feel like part of the family. The mother greeted me with a joyful hug I can still feel, then led me to my room. (Keep in mind ... I'd been sharing a flat in Austria with three other roommates. And, while the flat was lovely, we all slept in the same room. For a light sleeper, that can make for very long nights!) I can still remember walking through the doorway to my room ... it was like I was being serenaded by angels as a ray of sunlight splashed onto the bed ... a vision in white fluffy down. I was in heaven. Unfortunately for Oliver - who was my primary host and travel guide during my visit - it was his room. Poor thing ... I have no idea where he was banished to during my stay. I felt kind of bad ... but, I still slept like a baby.

At this point, I had been taking intensive German for a semester and had been living in a German-speaking country. So, I was fairly confident in my ability to converse in German. Oliver spoke English ... but his parents only spoke a little. I wasn't worried. But, then we sat down for a meal. And tried to communicate. I was baffled ... I could only make out every few words. Even when they spoke s-l-o-w-l-y ... no clue. Just quick glances at Oliver to indicate a need for him to save me. How in the world had I forgotten all my German over the course of a train ride from Austria to its neighboring country?!

The next day, I was ready for a drive across the country. Yes ... across the country. It took exactly 34 minutes ... with stop lights.

They have an actual lived-in castle ... Vaduz Castle. Liechtenstein is governed by a prince who lives in the castle with his family. Actually, the way I understand it ... he has some power, but he also appoints a Prime Minister who, along with some other ministers, make up the government. And, the castle ... it's actually more like a medieval fortress. Incredible!

We took a chair lift up into the Alps at Malbun ski resort. Breathtaking! OK, I know I mentioned that I would leave out facts ... but I just have to include these because they're about the Olympics ... and I LOVE the Olympics:
  • With nine medals overall (all in alpine skiing), Liechtenstein has won more Olympic medals per capita than any other nation.
  • It is the smallest nation to win a medal in any Olympics - Winter or Summer.
  • Vaduz (the capital of Liechtenstein) is considering a bid for either the 2018 or 2022 Winter Olympics. I am so there!

We even attended a rousing game of bingo. It seemed like the entire town was there, and it was quite fun. I was excited because I thought that, despite my inability to converse with Oliver's family, I could certainly still do my ABC's and 123's. OK ... not so much. I think it went something like this:

Bingo Person: "A-34."

Kelly: "Oliver, did he just say D-45?"

Oliver (with such patience and a very kind smile): "No ... A-34."

And, so went the ENTIRE evening. I felt like a complete idiot.

So, here's the secret. Liechtensteiners speak German ... with an Alemannic dialect. I later learned that this particular dialect is 'highly divergent' from the standard German I'd been taught. For me, that dialect changed the language so much that they might as well have been speaking Italian.

So ... if you ever get to Liechtenstein, drive 'across' the country, take in the Alpine beauty, view a fairy tale castle, and visit with the friendly and hospitable locals ... and most definitely become familiar with the phrase, "Sprechen sie Englisch?"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Vas the Vod-Ka?!

Last month, I wrote about a funny little incident involving a certain famous gazebo in Salzburg. That, of course, sparked a million other memories of my exchange student days in Austria.

One of my favorites involved a trip to Innsbruck, Austria. Admittedly, I’d label the majority of Austrian towns as ‘gorgeous and amazing’, but … oh my … is Innsbruck ever cool. It’s situated right in the midst of the Austrian Alps, which makes for great hiking, especially when you’ve been blessed with stunningly beautiful weather!

Just so you can impress your friends and family with your vast knowledge of international Olympic trivia, here’s a few interesting tidbits about Innsbruck:
  • The Olympic Winter Games were held in Innsbruck twice, first in 1964, then again in 1976. The 1976 Winter Olympics were the last games held in the German-speaking Alps (Austria, Germany, or Switzerland).
  • Along with St. Moritz (Switzerland) and Lake Placid, NY, Innsbruck is one of only three places which have hosted the Winter Games twice. (It also hosted the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics.)
  • And … this excited me quite a lot … on December 12, 2008, Innsbruck was chosen as host of the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games to be held from January 13 to January 22, 2012.

OK …back to the story …

We decided to visit the Alpenzoo first. Situated 727 meters above sea level and nestled into the mountain, it is the highest zoo in the world. And, as its name would indicate, it is home to animals that originate from the alpine region, showing them in their natural habitat. The Alpenzoo, in and of itself, could be considered a hike for many.

After visiting the zoo, our group split into two and my dear friend, Rachel, and I decided to hike up into the Alps. It was my absolute favorite day in Europe … exhilarating and incredibly beautiful. Halfway up the mountain, we were joined by Marco from Germany. We had no clue who he was, but he stayed with us for the remainder of the hike. He seemed nice enough, as did all our fellow-hikers that day … and, I guess back then crazy stalkers weren’t as prevalent on our minds. I’m still quite certain he was a bit enamored with Rachel!

We made it above the tree line and, after a few moments of sitting and taking in the beautiful view and brilliant blue sky, decided to commence the joint-pounding trek down the mountain!

At the end of our descent, we passed another hiker who was headed up the mountain. As he passed, he greeted us and asked, “How vas the vodka?” Well … that’s what we thought he said.

You know how you respond when you don’t really know what someone has said, but you still want to reply in a friendly and jovial way … you kind of do a hearty laugh and throw your head back like you ‘get’ the joke or the funny comment … even though you haven’t a clue as to what they actually said?

That’s what we did. And, I think we added something like, “Gut … sehr gut!” (Good … very good!).

We giggled as we tried to figure out what had possessed him to ask us about vodka. I mean, we knew these particular hills were alive with music, but not vodka-drinking hikers.

It wasn’t until a few laughter-filled minutes later, that it dawned on us what he had really asked.

“How was the walk up?”

Rachel and I still laugh about that story to this day. And, it just goes to show that the hills are alive … with music, yes … but also with fresh air, exhilarating views, and very friendly German-speaking hikers. No vodka required.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It Appears My Ban is Over

I had a secret plan to not allow them into my house ... you know, the children's books ... written by celebrities.

OK, I admit ... I've stood in the corner at Barnes and Noble once or twice ... maybe five times ... and read a few of them. But, from what I'd heard, I was pretty much not supposed to admit to liking them (even though I kind of sort of DID like them).

After all, how can someone like me compete with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Madonna, Katie Couric ... and the list goes on ... and on. I mean, really ... it seems like every time you turn around, a celebrity has written a children's book. And, why wouldn't publishers jump all over that?! Their books equate to instantly successful marketing ... just like that! These people can easily land an interview on the Today Show and sell gazillions (OK, maybe a little less) of children's picture books in the blink of an eye. It's quite amazing ... and a bit daunting!

So, I figured I would keep plugging away at my own efforts, and - in the mean time - not contribute to the mass purchasing of said children's books.

Then, it happened ... my children were given two celeb-authored books for Christmas. One by Jamie Lee Curtis ("Big Words for Little People"); and the other by Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. "Goodness," I thought to myself as I watched wrapping paper fly across the room, "now I'm competing with celebrities AND a DUCHESS!"

So, I'm here to admit that I like them. The stories are adorable and the illustrations ... well ... they're just phenomenal and bright and cheerful.

My daughter's favorite is "Tea for Ruby" (that's the one by the Duchess!). The story line is very simple and sweet. But, oh my ... the illustrations ... I just stare at them and wonder how long it took Robin Preiss Glasser to complete the intricate, detailed drawings. They're amazing.

So, I guess my ban on celebrity-authored books is officially over. I probably won't purchase any, but I will allow them to enter my house. :-) After all, while their books may have taken some of ours out of the running ... they've also done a huge service to the industry by turning the spotlight on children's picture books. And that's a good thing for everyone ... especially the kids for whom we write!

In the mean time, I'm going to re-read "The Non-Celebrity's Guide to Getting a Children's Book Published" by Jon Bard, Managing Editor of The Children's Book Insider, LLC (http://www.write4kids.com/). It's a refreshingly straightforward look at how to get published when you're only a celebrity in your own small circle of the world!

Happy writing!