Raising a Passionate Reader

Please welcome Alina Sayre, my guest blogger for today. Here’s her post.

IMG_0189I’ve loved books since I was old enough to chew on them. I learned to read early and sometimes got in trouble for reading while doing chores or reading under the covers by flashlight. But not every kid has the love of reading so hard-wired into them. As an educator and middle-grades author, I’ve worked with some students who find reading prohibitively difficult, and others who just find it boring or pointless. But I believe that with guidance, encouragement, and strategy, any student can learn not just to read well, but to love reading. Here are ten tips I’ve found effective for baiting, hooking, and reeling even the most reluctant kids into a lifetime of passionate reading.

  1. Start them a little below their reading level. A student may technically be capable of reading a 5th- or 6th-grade-level book, but if you want to get them to love reading, there’s nothing like the experience of mastering a 3rd-grade-level book to encourage them to repeat the experience.
  2. Find books on subjects that interest them. If your student can forget about the vehicle of words and get lost in a fascinating story, they’re well on their way to passionate reading. I start a lot of my reluctant-reader students on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl because really, who wouldn’t be interested in a lifetime supply of chocolate? Some other popular choices, especially for boys, include Holes by Louis Sachar, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.
  3. Read aloud with them. Almost every kid loves being read to—even if their personal reading level is low. It gives you an opportunity to dramatize the story and help grow their imagination. It also offers auditory learners a leg up in content retention.
  4. Bring books to life with firsthand experiences. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came to life in a whole new way when I bit into a piece of real Turkish Delight. One of my students took a trip to Europe, during which her highlight was seeing the real Baker Street of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. Try visiting the ruins of Jack London’s Wolf House near Napa or making Laura Ingalls’s maple syrup candy.
  5. Let them see you reading. Recent research shows a correlation between a child’s attitude toward reading and how much they see their parents reading. If you want to raise a passionate reader, be one.
  6. Have books available in your home. Stock up your bookshelves and your Kindle library. If money is tight, check out a little red wagonload of books from the library. Research also shows a correlation between the number of books in a child’s home and their attitudes toward reading.
  7. Read books with movie adaptations. Read the book, then watch the movie. Discuss the similarities and differences. This works especially well for visual and auditory learners, who process the sense stimulation of movies differently than they do books.
  8. Remember that all reading is reading. While comic books may not be your ultimate goal for your student, they can be tools for growing language skills and sparking interest in reading (see tip #2). Imagination is a muscle that must be developed, so there’s no shame in starting small.
  9. Try audiobooks. Auditory learners and kids with learning challenges such as ADHD or dyslexia may fall in love with a story once the bothersome impediment of the visual page is removed. (For more resources specifically for dyslexia, check out https://www.learningally.org/). Audiobooks are just different vehicles for communicating the same stories.
  10. Take your student to see a real live writer. Author events abound at libraries, bookstores, and schools. (I’ll be a guest at Village House of Books in Los Gatos on 12/13! http://villagehouseofbooks.com/) Meeting the person behind a book can inspire a student to dive into reading—or maybe even to try making up their own stories.


About Alina:

Alina Sayre is a Bay Area author and educator who began her literary career chewing on board books and has been in love with words ever since. Her fantasy series, The Voyages of the Legend, helps kids ages 9-14 (and sometimes their parents) get excited about reading! Book 1, The Illuminator’s Gift, was a silver medalist in the 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and has been a guest at a number of schools and literacy events. On December 1 it was joined by Book 2, The Illuminator’s Test, now available on Amazon.com. To invite Alina to speak at your school, homeschool group, or literary event, please visit her website: www.alinasayre.com. When she’s not writing, Alina enjoys photography, collecting crazy socks, and reading under blankets.

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Let’s connect!

Website: www.alinasayre.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alinasayreauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlinaSayre

E-mail: alinasayreauthor@gmail.com

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Illuminators-Test-Voyages-Legend-Book-ebook/dp/B00QDDOA18/

Take Your Seat White America

8850-lOnce, in a city, on the way to an appointment that was “not in my neighborhood,” I boarded a bus when whammo. Immediately I felt it. “What did I feel?” you ask?

“My skin color,” I say, prominent, exposed, obvious, but not unprotected.

Usually I don’t notice my skin. I rarely notice it has color. My skin is just, well, there. I’m just, well, me. But that moment on the bus shined a spotlight. All eyes on me, I was the only white person on the bus.

There was a seat. Was it in the front or at the back? Not sure. No need to think about that. Probably, after a moment, no one was looking at me. But in my mind, my skin color wore neon lights.

Embarrassing to admit, but, when I see an African-American person in, say, a Whole Foods market near me, I have the impulse to smile, as if to say, “I’m one of the nice ones.” And I wonder what planet I think I live on that the person passing me by really gives a hoot whether I’m smiling or not.

I just watched the video of Eric Garner who died after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer as he struggled to breath. “I can’t breath, I can’t breath,” his voice panicked as he lay on the city cement. Remember how when you were little and you’d wrestle with your siblings  or your dad, and you’d get in a hold and say, “I can’t breath.” And they knew to stop sitting on your stomach. They didn’t hesitate. They got off. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Mr. Garner in a chokehold did not stop. And now Mr. Garner is dead. I want to panic, hold my head in disbelief, but I must do more.

I struggle about what to teach my children about racism and their place “on the bus,” and “in their neighborhood.” What do my two kids, my two white boys growing into white men need to know so they can be part of a solution to eradicate racism in the United States of America?

They need to know their history, deeply. They must know what we did. I’ll stop for a minute to define we. Who are we? Any white person whether we explicitly did something or not. Just  being white in America makes us responsible for our history. Here are a few subjects:  Slavery — African Americans were enslaved by white people in our country for 400 years. Did your eyes just roll. Did you think, “You’re bringing that up again?” Until tangible reparations are made, we aren’t done dealing with slavery. Further, my kids must know that African Americans fought slavery. There’s more; I want them to know about reconstruction; that for a time after the civil war, many black men were in elected office. I want them know about suppression of voting rights, Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, mobs, job discrimination, racism on sports teams, among many subjects.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  History is repeating. Consider the new version of disenfranchisement in Texas where laws require Texans to show identification to vote. I explain to my kids why this is discriminatory. I want them to know this is a new form of the voter suppression that occurred in the 1960’s when African Americans in the south were not able to vote unless they passed a history test. I want them to know.

I want them to know how many African American men are in prisons today. I want them to know that the cost of incarcerating someone is greater than the cost of attending college.

Seated at dinner last night, we discussed the protests against the grand jury’s decision not to indict a Police Officer Pantaleo in the death of Mr. Garner. Peaking their interest, my kids asked questions. They need to know.

We all need to know, and we need to feel uncomfortable. White Americans are not entitled to  live without acknowledging ourselves and our history. When one day one of my kids says, “I felt uncomfortable because I was the only one, “ I will reflect to him, “Yes, I know that feeling.” We all have a lot to talk about. Dear White America, what would you like to discuss today? Let’s start, again, and again, and again.

Just “Us”? Justice and Drought Drops

IMG_1105A poster pasted to a fence near a used-to-be pond on Highway 85 at Almaden Expressway in San jose, California says,

“You’re looking at the drought. It’s Real. Save Now.”

Judging from the hand turning off a no longer gushing faucet, water flowing out of homeowners’ taps are the greatest drought causing problem.

Recently, I received a Public Notice from the San Jose Water Company.

  1. Don’t wash your car without a shut-off nozzle.
  2. Don’t let “runoff” water run onto roadways, parking lots, etc.
  3. Don’t clean your driveway or sidewalk with drinking water
  4. Don’t use drinking water in an outdoor water fountain.


“Violations of any of these four prohibited or restricted water use activities may be punishable by a fine of up to five hundred dollars for each day.”

These residential water uses comprise only 5 percent of total water use. Fifty-five percent of the water used in the U.S. is for animal agriculture. See http://cowspiracy.com/fact-check/#.VBThmxR2JbI.facebook

In our family we turn off water between teeth brushing, take short showers, and water the garden in the early morning or late afternoon, among many water-saving measures. Occasionally I even lug pasta refuse water outside to hydrate potted parsley.

According to Cowspiracy, (http://cowspiracy.com) the new documentary dispelling the disconnection between what we think is the greatest water use and what is actually the problem, producing one pound of beef takes 2500 gallons of water. One pound of beef. That water use is, well, hard to swallow. Makes my bucket of pasta water look well, like a drop in the bucket.

Cowspiracy found we could take shorter showers for 2 months before we used the amount of water needed to produce one pound of hamburger.  If my one family stops eating hamburgers once a week for one month, we would save 10,000 gallons of water in one 30-day period.

Curious about how much water one family actually uses in a month, I looked up a bill from our heaviest watering time, July and August. During these 57 days, my family used 262 gallons per day or 14,934 gallons. That water use is equivalent to 6 pounds of hamburger meat.

So, here’s a few questions:

is the faucet the right image for the poster?

Is that Public Notice sent to all water consumers?

Does the water company post on ranch owner’s fences images of cows consuming corn, grass, and soy telling them, “This is what drought looks like” forcing them to take measures to save water? Does it fine ranchers for not properly or efficiently using our precious natural resource – water? Again, Cowspiracy, “Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56 percent of water in the U.S.”

While I’m not suggesting every Californian become a vegan, I do think it’s time to rethink the family dinner menu. To that end, I’ve pulled out once again, Forks Over Knives, a documentary and cookbook that makes compelling health arguments for eating plant-based meals. (http://www.amazon.com/Forks-Over-Knives-Cookbook-Plant-Based/dp/1615190619/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1410898733&sr=8-3&keywords=forks+over+knives)

Don’t worry, we won’t start letting the water run wild while we brush our teeth, take showers, and water the garden. And I won’t hound you to stop eating meat. But we can do more.

To start let’s learn the facts about water use. Got words you can share about water? Please tell us. There’s a lot we can do. We just need to do it.



Hire Power

IMG_8174I think I’ve found my hire power, and I hope you won’t find me too haughty when you hear that,

It’s me.

Here’s the story.

For years, in addition to a happily developing vegetable garden, I’ve had a disorderly hodgepodge of poppies, yarrow, nepeta, and Bermuda grass. The first three are my choice, the last is not.

Here’s how I tried to remove it:

1. Make it a school project. Send my kids out front for 15 minutes every day. Works, well sort of. Something always comes up (usually more weeds).

2. Make it a family affair. Designate Thursday a family yard night. The combined hour is potentially four hours of work in one evening. See idea one.

3. Assign myself the 15-minute per day commitment. (see Mother’s Day Advice‎) That solution worked the best, but it’s not sustainable and well, it  might build strong weeding arms, but it built resentment too.

This year, during a mid-summer dreamy inspiration, I decide to hire someone else to do my weeding.

Starting local, I ask my landscaper friend. She refers a man who’s been working in her neighbor’s yard. He pulls out sour grass, which I appreciate, but leaves the Bermuda grass.

Trying again, I phone our neighborhood hardware store. They direct me to an employee/landscaper. That very day, he drops his red work apron and meets me at my house. Like Name That Tune, he tells me, “I can weed this whole yard in eight hours.” Thrilled, we arrange the work for the following Tuesday. Tuesday comes and no weeder. We reschedule. Next Tuesday arrives, and again, no one. Too trusting, and hopelessly romantic, I reschedule again for Friday morning. At 4:30 p.m., a truck pulls to my curb. Wondering, I watch, after 30 minutes, the truck drives away. Bermuda grass remains.

Since three’s a charm, I consult a third friend’s landscaper. We arrange a time. He calls once to reschedule. The next day, he gives me an estimate and promises to call back in a few days. The phone does not ring.

Resiliency is my weak point, so I call one more contact. We arrange the wages and work. It’s good money. He does a great job in one small area. We arrange a second visit. He doesn’t show and he doesn’t call.

So I face reality. No one wants to pull my weeds.

I consider the job qualifications: someone strong, conscientious, and reliable, and then I realize, whom I can hire.

It’s me!

I have the hire power. And,

I hire myself.

Starting at sunrise, I set up a beach umbrella. I fill a plastic pitcher with ice water. Ready with gloves and weeder, I start my project. As I weed, I relax. Finally the weeding is getting done. And I dream about my wages. How will I spend my extra money? Take a trip, buy new clothes, order takeout? I didn’t pay myself yet, but knowing I can is empowering.

If you offer me a job to weed your yard, I won’t accept. But if you can’t find someone to help you with your work, hire yourself. Like me, you’re probably responsible, reliable, and conscientious.

Any project you want to hand over to your hire power? I bet you my wages, you have hire power too.


IMG_8221A tangled web of fishing wire, silver chain and black rope sits and stares  from my dresser. Day after day it calls to me, and I energetically ignore it, sort of. Ignoring takes energy.

On Tuesday, when the call shouts, I take the mass of chains to the table and begin to unravel knots. At the first pull of string, a voice weighs. “Why?” I wonder, “am I untangling jewelry?” But the meditative pacing, the slow thoughtful focus, is alluring. Each link I undo, every chain I free calms me like no cup of chamomile ever did. Time creeps to a near stop as my fingers carefully pull apart the links.

Slowly emerges an old blue stone unworn for years, a smooth maroon rock necklace gifted long ago.

The energy used to convince, “No, not today you have no time to untangle that mess today,” shifts to the art of untangling. Soon the strings are separated and hung. Sparkling chains and shiny stones align my wall. The jewelry looks pretty.

I do have time to untangle these webs, these strands, these chains, to find the clear crystal at the end of the fishing line. I breathe easy.

Got a small tangle of a project calling you? It’s worth the effort and time to unravel it. You never know what (thoughts) you might find.

Author Community Gathers at the Village

On May 3, I joined 14 authors in Los Gatos at Village House of Books to talk about writing and sign books. It was lovely to be surrounded by a community of authors and people who enjoy books and book stores. At left, I’m signing MOM ME for mom to Alina Sayre, author of The Illuminator’s Gift. At left, I’m signing for A.R. Silverberry, author of Wyndano’s Cloak. At bottom, book store visitor Susan Miller, Rayme Waters, author of The Angels’ Share, and I discuss writing and teaching.

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Lemonade Stand


When I see a kid selling lemonade on the corner, I stop and buy a cup. If they’re like me, when I was 10, it will make their day. When I witness the happiness evident by the swing in their arm pouring my kids and me a glassful, while happily accepting my $1.50 cents, it makes my day too. Let’s adjust the slogan, “Drive like your kids live here,” to “Support your small local business like your kids are selling.”

Maybe you remember your small business ventures as a child? I do. Laughing now, I am shopping at Gristedes Market in New York City. My sisters and I would buy apples along with lemons and quarter them. We set up our market next door to the Guggenheim Museum. If location, location, location rings true, we had it, because the museum was around the corner from our apartment on 4 East 89th Street.

But apples? What were we thinking? How did we keep the sections from turning brown while waiting for customers, which In my mind’s eye, created while standing in line at Gristedes, imagined hoards of crowds lining up for our lemonade and fruit stand.

Alas, I think we may have had one or two customers, likely a mom or office worker buying a cupful because they felt sorry for us. Usually those afternoons turned into roller skating and scraping together some odd cents for the least expensive Good Humor bar. How come he captured all the business? He had a name brand.

In Lawn Boy, by Gary Paulsen, a twelve-year old boy, lands a lawn care business while practically falling off a log. When a neighbor joins his enterprise and encourages him and explains how to expand, he quickly becomes successful. In real life, starting a business usually is not that easy, but supporting and encouraging our kids now may pave the way for a lucrative future. If nothing else, believing in them will give them the confidence to try.

So as you drive around town this spring and summer, support your local lemonade (or plum) stand and consider this:  What other small kid (and adult) businesses can you support? Maybe shopping local at a kid’s small venture will lead to their starting a business as an adult. Have any thoughts or memories about your small businesses? Share a story or two!

MOM ME Fills The House

village pics

MOM ME found a village at Village House of Books on April 24, when I returned to the Los Gatos bookstore for a debut reading of Thought Full, on jenncastro.com. Thought Full is a series of blogs about parenting, homeschooling, chickens, underground pests, stop signs, and other daily encounters.

Shared posts about mom courage, cooking quandaries, and time management. Also read MOM ME and answered questions about writing and reaching personal goals. Enjoyed talking with friends, kids, and friends of friends, from many of my walks of life. Thank you for coming!

My next author event is 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday, May 3, also at Village House of Books, 326 Village Lane, Los Gatos where more than 13 fellow authors will be visiting for conversation, Q&A, and book signing. Come say hi!


What Does Mommy Do For You?

IMG_0426Batman, baseball players, princesses, and bedtime stuffies were among the 33 kids and adults who last night, laughed and giggled at silly stories, listened and learned about how to make short paper books, and munched on cookies and drank milk at the Wooden Horse Toy Store  monthly pajama party (796 Blossom Hill Road, Los Gatos).

Homeschool mom Jenn Castro read MOM ME, her children’s picture book and Alum Rock School Teacher Carolyn Bowman read Mommies Are For Catching Fireflies, Harriet Ziefert.

Asked to share what their mommies do for them, one girl grinned and said, “My mommy does everything for me”

That made moms smile.

“My mommy goes to work to make money so she can buy things for me,” said another. That made adults laugh.

“My mommy plays hide and go seek with me,” offered a little boy. That made moms smile knowingly.

“My mommy brings my lunch to my school every day,” shared another child who has an allergy and eats a special diet. That made moms smile too.

Before the evening ended, 33 kids and parents also learned about Screen-Free Week – May 5 – 11 , and a make your own book kit.

Now it’s time for this mom to find a pillow and get some rest.


Tennis Balls and Connect Sticks

IMG_0260All old objects are useful at Rock-it Science even tattered tennis balls that are cut open and mashed onto the bottom of chairs so they can slide easily across the floor. Who needs furniture pads?

Rock-it Science is staple science for kids in Silicon Valley, and for our family too. Kids meet weekly, hear a silly story and then investigate a fun and,  in my son’s words, dangerous experiment.

No minutes are wasted at Rock-it Science either. Arrive early and you’ll hear the seemingly unplanned part of class.

John McChesney, Mr. Mac, founder and teacher at Rock-it Science, who at the end of class tells kids to “wander wherever you wander” begs this writer to wonder if Mr. Mac wanders around his own classroom until he lands on a seemingly spontaneous story.

Consider connect sticks.

The story goes that college kids were trying to figure out how to make a circle with straight lines. Turns out that’s how connect sticks were invented. Connect Sticks are those plastic rods that when linked together form spheres that can be contracted and expanded into spiky and hollow balls.


Mr. Mac’s invention story made me wonder (not wander) about what other lessons young kids learn when they hear about college students who invent circles from straight sticks and from a teacher who re-invents many things including furniture pads manufactured out of old tennis balls.

  • That everyone can invent.
  • That every idea begins with a vision, even if it’s not yet defined.
  • That straight lines can be shaped into circles.
  • What else?

What do Rock-it Science and other open-ended science class graduates invent? Are they sitting at university tables pondering shapes and straight lines and then churning them into something no one thought was possible? Rock-it Science and Mr. Mac’s stories are a precursor to youthful inventing.

Click below to read about Zome, a word invented in 1968 by Steve Durkee. Learn about a toy inventor whose ideas began while studying math in Switzerland. In graduate school there, he explored the possibilities of building structures using polyhedron shapes rather than rectangles.


Got an invention to pass along? Share your link at jenncastro.com