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Reading

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When asked to name my favorite activity, I have to narrow the selection down to perhaps five. One of them is certainly reading. I have always loved to read and begged my mother to teach me to read well before I started elementary school. One of my favorite destinations, as soon as I was old enough to cross the New York City streets, was the neighborhood public library. The librarians knew me by name and regularly recommended books. They sometimes even bent the rules and let me take out more books than the normal limit at any one visit, and I devoured them all.

This revelation is probably not so surprising considering the job I hold. My guess is there are many millions more like me. So it is no wonder that the PBS series started last spring, “The Great American Read,” in which viewers rank their favorite novels, has drawn such an enthusiastic response. This week the winners on the list of 100 favorites were announced. The finalists were: “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Lord of the Rings,” the “Harry Potter” and “Outlander” series and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee won.

“One of the best-loved stories of all time, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been translated into more than 40 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture and was voted one of the best novels of the 20th century by librarians across the country,” according to “The Great American Read” website. “A gripping, heart-wrenching and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father, a crusading local lawyer, risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”

The PBS website continued, “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ led ‘The Great American Read’ voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting, despite strong competition from the rest of our five finalists. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina (who went for ‘Outlander’) and Wyoming (who preferred ‘Lord of the Rings’). Such widespread support from readers across the country make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a worthy winner of ‘The Great American Read.’”

Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, 1926, and died in her sleep at her hometown in an adult care residence in 2016. She was named after her grandmother, the name turned backward, and the family pediatrician, Dr. William W. Harper. She used the name Nelle but took Harper Lee as a pen name.

Her father was a former newspaper editor who then practiced law and was a member of the Alabama State Legislature for 13 years. He once defended two black men, a father and son who were accused of killing a white storekeeper. Both men were hanged. This clearly influenced the plot of “Mockingbird.”

Lee studied law for years at the University of Alabama, where she also wrote for the university newspaper, but she did not earn a degree. In 1949, she moved to New York City and found a job as an airline reservation agent, writing fiction in her spare time. Then, in November of 1956, she received a gift from friends. It was a year’s wages with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

The following spring she brought a manuscript to an agent, and it wound up with a J.B. Lippincott Company editor named Therese von Hohoff Torrey. Tay Hohoff, as she was called, worked with Lee for two years, turning what she called “a series of anecdotes” into the finished book. During that intense time, Lee once threw the pages out the window into the snow, then called her editor in tears. She was told to go out and pick up the manuscript immediately. Fortunately for all of us, she did.

Members of the Carol Putahl Literacy Foundation have access to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which is a collection of classic childhood books. Photo from Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation

Students in the Middle Country Central School District’s Universal Pre-K program are receiving the gift of literacy from the Long Island-based Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation. 

Thanks to state funding secured by the office of State Sen. John Flanagan (R), the foundation is providing free, age-appropriate books each month to the children, in keeping with the foundation’s mission to increase early childhood literacy. The grant will help offset the cost of the program.

The literacy foundation delivers what’s known as the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to each child enrolled in the UPK program as part of a system that includes access to books and family literacy. Founded by the country singer in 1996, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a set of books beginning with the children’s
classic “The Little Engine That Could.” Each month, a new carefully selected book is mailed directly to the home of children enrolled in the program. Registration is free, with no cost or obligation to the family.

“Studies clearly demonstrate that early literacy is the key to academic and lifelong success.”

— Roberta Senzer

The Middle Country UPK is the largest program on Long Island, serving more than 400 youngsters from Centereach, Selden, Lake Grove, Lake Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson Station and Farmingville. Participating family members have been overwhelmingly positive about the program’s impact on their children since it was first introduced last month.

“My son gets so excited to open the mailbox to look for and get his monthly book,” said mother Jennifer Capinigro. “Thank you.”

Flanagan is a long-standing education advocate, having previously served as the chairman of the New York State Committee on Education.

“It is my pleasure to be able to assist the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation in its mission of providing children in our community with a strong educational base,” he said. “By delivering books directly to young children in the Middle Country school district, the foundation helps ensure that these children enter school already acquainted with reading. This will help them reach their full potential and allow them to succeed in the coming years.”

Research has shown that children raised in homes that promote family literacy grow up to be better readers and do better in school than children raised in homes where literacy is not promoted. This is also supported through the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation’s Family Literacy workshops, which teach families how a child can be an active participant, rather than a passive one while reading with parents.

“Studies clearly demonstrate that early literacy is the key to academic and lifelong success,” foundation CEO Roberta Senzer said. “The Imagination Library is one way our foundation is working to foster a child’s love of
reading and to put books in the hands of all Long Island children to ensure they have the advantage they need when starting kindergarten.”

To learn more about the foundation or to make a tax-deductible donation visit www.cpliteracyfoundation.org.

Comsewogue Library Director Debbie Engelhardt, third from left, and Port Jefferson Free Library Director Tom Donlon, second left, with others, cut the ribbon on a Free Little Library in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Steering a community institution as it crosses the half-century mark in its existence is an enormous responsibility. But when the institution has the inherent added degree of difficulty associated with morphing to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, fulfilling that responsibility likely feels like threading a needle. As the third director in Comsewogue Public Library’s 50-year history, Debbie Engelhardt has gracefully and masterfully threaded that needle.

Engelhardt got her start in the library world as the director of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton in the early 2000s. She was also the director of the Huntington Public Library from 2009 to 2012, before being selected as just the third director in the history of the Comsewogue Public Library.

The Comsewogue Public Library’s only three directors — Richard Lusak, Debra Engelhardt and Brandon Pantorno — in front of the newly dedicated Richard Lusak Community Room. Photo by Alex Petroski

In October 2017, Engelhardt played a vital role in planning, organizing and conducting a 50th anniversary celebration for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community staple. The day, according to many of her colleagues, had fingerprints of her enthusiasm, one-track community mindedness, and passion all over it, though that can be said about every day she’s spent at Comsewogue’s helm.

“Very rarely do you find anybody as dedicated to her profession and to her community like Debbie,” said Richard Lusak, Comsewogue Public Library’s first director from 1966 through 2002. The Oct. 14 anniversary celebration included the dedication of the building’s community room in Lusak’s honor, an initiative Engelhardt unsurprisingly also had a hand in.

“Those who come to know her quickly value her leadership ability and her insight into things,” he said. “She never says ‘no,’ she says, ‘Let me figure out how to do it.’”

The director tried to sum up her feelings about the anniversary as it was still ongoing.

“The program says ‘celebrating our past, present and future,’ so that’s what we’re doing all in one day with the community,” she said in October.

The event featured games, a bounce house, farm animals, crafts, giveaways, snacks, face painting, balloon animals, music, a historical society photo gallery and tour, and a new gallery exhibit.

“We thought of it as a community thank you for the ongoing support that we’ve had since day one, across all three administrations,” the library director said.

Engelhardt’s vision has been a valuable resource in efforts to modernize the library and keep it vibrant, as Amazon Kindles and other similar technologies have infringed on what libraries used to be about for generations. As the times have changed, Engelhardt has shown a propensity to keep Comsewogue firmly positioned as a community hub.

“I think she’s done a superb job with respect to coordinating all of the interests of input from the community as to what services are being requested by the public, whether it’s the children’s section, the adult reference and the senior citizens, including all of the activities we offer and the different programs,” said Edward Wendol, vice president of the library’s board of trustees who has been on the board for about 40 years. He was the board’s president when Engelhardt was selected as director.

Wendol credited Engelhardt with spearheading efforts to obtain a Free Little Library not only for Comsewogue, but for several other area libraries. The program features a small, outdoor drop box where readers can take a book to read or leave a book for future visitors.

“Anybody can use it as much as they want and it’s always a mystery when you open that box — you never know what you’ll find,” Engelhardt said during its dedication over the summer. “There are no late fees, no guilt, no stress. If you want to keep a book, you can … we are pleased to partner with the historical society to bring this gem. The books inside will move you and teach you. We say that libraries change lives and, well, little free libraries can too.”

The Little Free Library, a free book exchange, is located near the playground, alongside the shack at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Fred Drewes

Wendol said she also played a huge role in reorganizing the interior structure of the library. Engelhardt has created reading areas on all levels, placed popular selections near the entrance of the building, and taken an overall hands-on approach to the look and feel of the library. He also lauded her role working together with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, an organization dedicated to serving the 56 public libraries in the county and assisting them in sharing services, website designs, group purchases and other modernization efforts.

“She’s great at what she does and seems to be having a great amount of fun while she’s doing it, and it’s kind of infectious,” said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and a friend of Engelhardt’s for more than 20 years. “She is one of the leaders in the county, not just in Port Jeff Station and Comsewogue, but somebody who other library directors turn to for advice and for leadership.”

Her community leadership efforts cannot be contained by Comsewogue Public Library’s four walls however. Engelhardt is a member and past president of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club; a member of the board of trustees at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital; and vice president of Decision Women in Commerce and Professions, a networking organization dedicated to fostering career aid and support, and generating beneficial community projects.

When she finds time in the day, she participates in events like the cleanup of Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches, a facility for children with special needs. This past November she helped, among many others, clean up the camp with  husband, John, and son, Scott.

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Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

With the yearly rise in the number of Mount Sinai students who refuse to take standardized tests — in relation to a statewide movement against Common Core — district administrators have rolled out new ways to assess and strengthen learning skills. So far, three months into the school year, school leaders believe students are reaping the benefits.

“We’re doing things differently than we’ve ever done before,” said Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal during a Nov. 15 board of education meeting.

Brosdal said the district has implemented new literacy-based assessment programs to fill a great need to measure the academic abilities of elementary and middle school students. Since the 2012-13 school year, more and more students have opted out of the state’s English Language Arts and Math standardized exams, which are administered to evaluate those in grades three through eight, Brosdal said.

“I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

— Gordon Brosdal

“We went from a participation rate of 97 percent down to 40 percent,” he said, pointing to the uproar among members of the community over the adoption of Common Core as the main cause. Those against the tests criticize the pressures it places on students and teachers. “I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

Joined by district principals — Peter Pramataris of the middle school and Rob Catlin of the elementary school — Brosdal showcased the growth of students at both schools as a result of the newly implemented programs. Fountas & Pinnell, which started in September, gauges the reading and comprehension level of individual
students by having them read a book with their teacher three times a year. It’s a more relaxed form of testing that serves to measure a student’s progression throughout the year while also encouraging them to find the fun in reading.

When the student demonstrates overall reading ability and understanding of the text, he or she graduates to more challenging books. Books are organized into letter-based levels, “A” books being Dr. Suess and “Z” books being “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

In a demonstration of the district’s Columbia Writing Program, which was put in place three years ago as a
result of weakness in the subject across the elementary and middle schools, Pramataris compared a middle school student’s writing assignment from the second day of school to a writing assignment in October. As he pointed out, the second assignment was lengthier, and the student’s narrative skills were punchier.

Academic Intervention Services — help offered by the state at schools to help  students achieve the learning standards, monitors and helps those falling behind.

“We see weaknesses and we want to make them stronger and really work at it,” Brosdal said. “I believe our students have become better writers and readers and they will only get stronger. We’re going to see a lot of good things.”

Catlin, who was hired as principal of the elementary school over the summer, came to the district already well versed in the new programs and was determined to help initiate them.

“We’ve really developed a district wide action plan this year,” Catlin said. “The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

— Rob Catlin

Catlin said in the first Fountas & Pinnell session performed by the district, teachers observed that 45 percent of students in lower elementary grades (first and second) performed at or above grade level. In the upper elementary grades (third and fourth) 22 percent of students performed at or above grade level.

“There are many reasons for this,” Catlin said. “As they say, data doesn’t answer questions, it just opens up questions and makes you think more about why things are happening.”

He explained that while students at these grade levels may have understood the books they were reading, they aren’t used to answering the high level of questions about it, and aren’t engaging in enough independent reading to practice these skills.

Now that teachers have that information about the student, they will be able to directly address their needs before the second session, which takes place in January. In the meantime, the elementary school librarian has started leveling books in the library and Scholastic money from the PTO, totaling $4,000, is being used to purchase more leveled books, Catlin said.

“Now we can use resources to really target their needs,” Catlin said. “And we’re able to see progress quickly, which is nice, and not have to wait until April when the state tests are taken.”

Deena Timo, executive director of educational services and another integral player in bringing the programs to the school, said of the state tests: “We’ve always viewed them as just a little snapshot in time and not the be all, end all to assess a child. It’s that, taken with a lot of things done in the classroom throughout the year that give you a good picture of a student.”

While Brosdal said he wishes more students took the Common Core tests in order to prepare for Regents exams once they reach the high school, he agreed.

“When you have to push the state stuff aside you ask, ‘Now what do we have to measure our kids?’” Brosdal said. “In the classroom, are we seeing growth? Are they engaged now where they weren’t earlier in the year? We are reacting to what we’re seeing, trying to put better things in place. I believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

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New Mount Sinai Elementary School Principal Rob Catlin, Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and Executive Director of Educational Services Deena Timo discuss how to incorporate new reading programs into the school district. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

It’s not as easy as A-B-C for some. That’s why the Mount Sinai school district recently rolled out new reading programs that will help K-8 students who struggle with the subject find success.

Last fall, Superintendent Gordon Brosdal was concerned the elementary school’s standard reading program did not accommodate for the fact that all students learn at different levels. So those challenged by reading tended to fall behind while their classmates soared, he said.

A closer examination of the district’s overall reading results, through assessment programs such as aimsweb, showed plenty of room for improvement to meet the school’s academic standards.

So this year, three widely used and proven effective programs designed to sharpen literacy skills  — the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention System, the Sonday System and the Wilson Reading System — were implemented in the elementary and middle school reading and writing curriculum. Training sessions on the ins-and-outs of each program took place over the summer for district educators, including English as a second language and special education teachers.

“We focused on how we could do more to target those students who are not making progress and are stuck at a level or falling behind as they get older, and the work gets more difficult.”

Deena Timo

Throughout the year, new elementary school reading teacher Lindsey Mozes, who has extensive experience with the three programs, will work with students and train teachers to use them.

“We’re increasing our teachers’ toolboxes so they can handle the individual needs of each student better,” Brosdal said. “Kids have more challenges today — the population’s more diverse, some don’t speak English, some speak very little English and some can’t read. We have to address those individual challenges.”

By starting it at the elementary school, Brosdal said the district is building a solid foundation, especially if it wants to maintain its Reward School status, which is given to schools that demonstrate either high academic achievement or most progress with minimal gaps in student achievement between certain populations of students, according to the New York State Education Department.

“We want to remain a Reward School, but we’re not going to have that if kids aren’t being more challenged in reading and writing early on,” Brosdal said.

Deena Timo, Mount Sinai executive director of educational services, worked alongside the superintendent to bring the reading programs to the district.

“We focused on how we could do more to target those students who are not making progress and are stuck at a level or falling behind as they get older, and the work gets more difficult,” Timo said. “We’re looking at the individual student’s needs and adjusting to meet those particular needs.”

She explained the Wilson and Sonday systems are based on the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach, which commonly consists of a one-on-one teacher-student setting and is targeted for those with more severe reading issues, such as students with learning disabilities. The programs focus mostly on word pronunciation and expression, Timo said, while Fountas & Pinnell is more comprehension based.

“As a parent, you don’t want your kid reading books that are too hard or too easy, you want them reading books that are just right, and this makes it really clear.”

Rob Catlin

During a Fountas & Pinnell session, a student simply reads a book with his or her teacher. As he or she reads, the teacher takes note of overall reading ability and then asks questions about the book to gauge understanding of the text, whether it’s a “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” book. If the student understands the book well, that student graduates, moving on to a book with a more challenging reading and comprehension level.

Beyond expanding the student’s literacy understanding, the program allows for teachers to grasp exactly what learning level a students is at — which can then be easily communicated to parents.

“As a parent, you don’t want your kid reading books that are too hard or too easy, you want them reading books that are just right and this makes it really clear,” said Rob Catlin, the district’s new elementary school principal. “It’s helping parents and teachers become a team to help that kid.”

Catlin taught Fountas & Pinnell for years as an educator in New York City before arriving at his new position. He is also well versed in the Columbia Writing Program, which enters its third year in the Mount Sinai school district and has aided in strengthening students’ writing scores on English Language Arts exams.

As a principal, he said his goal is to see students progress throughout the year and believes these reading programs will help with that.

“I want to see that no matter where you were in September, you’re at a different point in June,” Catlin said. “Each kid is getting differentiated instruction based on what they need and we’ll find the right program for them. Maybe they do need Wilson, maybe they don’t. Regardless, we’ll figure out the best approach.”

He said he doesn’t want to see kids continue to fall through the cracks.

“Good instruction is never one-size-fits-all,” he said. “We’re equipping our teachers with options when a student is struggling and making sure they have the skills to address the individual needs of every kid in their room. I feel like this district was on the precipice of doing really great things and I happened to just come in at the perfect time.”

More to come as next location is planned for Rocketship Park in Port Jefferson

Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society Vice President Antoinette Donato unveils the new Little Free Library in front of the William Miller house in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Outside the oldest house in Miller Place sits the newest public library on the North Shore.

What might initially appear to be a newly installed, red-and-white mailbox in front of the William Miller House at 75 North Country Road is actually a Little Free Library, where residents of all ages are encouraged to pick up or drop off a book while on the go.

The mini library, which is shaped like a tiny schoolhouse and currently holds between 15 and 20 books ranging from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Goodnight Moon,” stands as the most recent free book exchange program to sprout up on Long Island, with others installed at West Meadow Beach and Heritage Park in Mount Sinai last year.

Books inside the new Little Free Library in front of the WIlliam Miller House in Miller Place were donated by the Port Jefferson and Comsewogue libraries. Photo by Kevin Redding

The idea for the book-sharing movement, which has spanned more than 70 countries around the world since the first little library was built by Todd Bol of Wisconsin in tribute to his mother in 2009, is that with a quick turn of a wooden latch, it can increase book access for readers of all ages and backgrounds and to inspire a love of reading and community connection.

Members of the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society unveiled their new addition Aug. 9 to a large crowd of smiling faces, which included residents, elected officials and representatives from Port Jefferson Free Library and Comsewogue Public Library. The two libraries partnered with the historical society to buy and sponsor it.

“I woke up this morning and I had the Mister Roger’s song in my head, ‘Oh what a beautiful day in the neighborhood,’” said Antoinette Donato, vice president of the historical society, during the ceremony. “This little library is symbolic of how our community comes together … and a community is strengthened when all the different organizations work well together. So when you reach into that box to put something in or take something out, please remember that you’re also reaching into your community. I hope it’s a very active library.”

Tom Donlon, director of Port Jefferson Free Library, said when he and Debbie Engelhardt, director of Comsewogue Public Library, decided to partner up to bring the program to the Miller Place community, they immediately knew the perfect place for it.

Jack Soldano, who has been selling his comic book collection this summer to raise money to help fix the historic William Miller House, was the first to add to the new Little Free Library’s collection. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Right away we thought of the historical society,” Donlon said. “The society really meshes with our libraries’ goals of education, entertainment, enlightenment and lifelong learning and investigation. We love that it’s here, it’s a great spot and I think it’s certainly going to serve the community very well.”

Engelhardt called little free libraries a beautiful concept.

“Anybody can use it as much as they want and it’s always a mystery when you open that box — you never know what you’ll find,” Engelhardt said. “There are no late fees, no guilt, no stress. If you want to keep a book, you can … we are pleased to partner with the historical society to bring this gem. The books inside will move you and teach you. We say that libraries change lives and, well, little free libraries can too.”

She added that these mini libraries have also proven to energize the spot they’re put in. For the historical society, whose William Miller House is nearly 300 years old and needs between $18,000 and $28,000 to renovate a collapsing roof and a total $100,000 for a full-house repair, any amount of attention to their cause is welcomed.

“What this does for us is it puts us in the limelight again, so that people are aware of us, they come and visit us and are sensitive to our needs,” Donato said.

Fittingly, although the box was stocked with books already donated by the libraries, the first batch of reading material from the public came from 12-year-old Jack Soldano, who spent the summer raising more than $1,000 for the historical society with his very own comic book stand.

Soldano contributed issues of Captain America, Star Wars and Power Rangers comics to join such titles as “Leaving Time” by Jodi Picoult, “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “The Stranger” by Harlan Coben and the Grimm fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Over at Heritage Park, next to the Shack concession stand by the playground, the red-painted little free library currently contains more youth-oriented reads. Several books within “The Babysitters Club” series and Walt Disney’s “Fun-To-Learn Library” collection, as well as “Sable” by Karen Hesse, are available for the taking.

Manorville resident Megan Murray, who was at the park with her young daughter, said she’s been a fan of the initiative since a few popped up in her area.

“The concept is great because it’s for everybody, rich or poor,” Murray said. “It’s really sad that so many kids don’t have access to books and I think it’s wonderful.”

Currently there are plans for a little free library to be installed at Rocketship Park in Port Jefferson next month.

have hundreds of new friends I’ve never met, and a profound appreciation for the people who created them or shared their lives.

I recently attended my first BookExpo at the Javits Center in New York City, where I was surrounded by booksellers, librarians, agents, book publishers and authors including Stephen King, James Patterson and John Grisham, with numerous budding luminaries in the mix.

A highlight for me was a panel of children’s book authors, which included actress Isla Fisher, who has starred in movies including “Wedding Crashers” and “Definitely, Maybe.” While I was intrigued to see Ms. Fisher in person, the other authors owned the stage, as Fisher readily admitted that she wasn’t a writing peer to her fellow panelists.

Jason Reynolds, an African-American writer for middle-grade and young adult novels, electrified the audience.

He talked about how he used to visit his great Aunt Blanche in South Carolina, where the sun was so scorching it burned his neck. His aunt, who was 85, sat on her hot porch, smoking cigarettes and watching the children.

Aunt Blanche planted a pecan tree — as he said, a “pea can” — when she was 4. The tree had become enormous by the time Reynolds was a child, providing shade for the younger crowd.

Reynolds, a 2016 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature with “Ghost,” suggested that books offered the kind of shade he desperately needed, providing relief from the heat.

Reynolds asked himself, “What if I get to be the pecan tree?”

Jennifer Weiner, meanwhile, has ventured from the world of adult fiction and “Good in Bed” to writing for a younger audience, which includes her recent book, “The Littlest Bigfoot.”

Weiner said she does much of her writing in the equivalent of a large closet in her home, although she completed “half of a book waiting in a carpool line.”

Dutch author Marieke Nijkamp shared some insights into her latest book “Before I Let Go,” which is about a girl named Corey who loses her best friend Kyra.

Nijkamp, with fans waiting in a long line for the blue-haired author’s signature, said she “definitely goes for a walk right after I kill a character.”

While circling the Javits Center exhibits, I bumped into Owen King. He is the son of acclaimed author Stephen King, and is promoting a book he wrote with his father called “Sleeping Beauties,” in which all the women but one in a small Appalachian town become wrapped in a cocoon when they go to sleep. If someone awakens them, they become violent. That leaves the men without the civilizing and calming influence of women. It sounded to me like an adult version of William Golding’s classic “Lord of the Flies.”

In describing the novel, Owen King said he enjoyed the time writing and editing the book with his father. He described how a King dinner time activity includes coming up with story ideas, many of which never see the light of day.

I asked Owen, who was clad in an untucked plaid shirt and looks remarkably like his father, what caught his eye at the Expo. He highlighted a book by Steve Steinberg about a Yankees pitcher named Urban Shocker. King said he loved the name and found the story compelling, about a pitcher who went 18-6 in the Yankees’ famous 1927 season despite battling heart disease. I picked up a copy, which was autographed for my son, and I look forward to learning about Shocker’s world.

Children's book review: "Simon and Sedef: A Seal’s First Adventure" by Sheree Jeanes

Image of the cover of ’Simon and Sedef’ from author Sheree Jeanes

By Melissa Arnold

Sheree Jeanes has always loved animals, and last fall she channeled that passion into a captivating new children’s book. Jeanes, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Huntington, published “Simon and Sedef: A Seal’s First Adventure” in November. A portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Jeanes about her book and what’s in store for the future.

Tell me a little bit about your background.
I’ve worked in marketing for close to 20 years now. I’ve also done grant writing, and I have my own copywriting business called Redwing Copywriting.

Have you always been interested in writing?
I always wanted to write children’s books. I have a collection of children’s books at home that inspire me, and I finally found the courage to do it.

Huntington author Sheree Jeanes/photo by Pat Dillon
Huntington author Sheree Jeanes/photo by Pat Dillon

Briefly summarize the plot for us.
“Simon and Sedef: A Seal’s First Adventure” is about a young seal who gets swept up in a sudden storm and is separated from his mother, Sedef. He needs to tap into his own resiliency, to see what he’s capable of, and learn to lean on others with trust.

What inspired you to write “Simon and Sedef”?
My mother-in-law lives in Rockaway Beach, which is a part of the story. Several years ago there was a story in her local paper, The Wave, about a little seal that got washed up on the beach, and it sparked my imagination. Simon’s story grew around him. When I got the idea for this book, I could see where it was going. I knew how it would end and that there could be sequels. I was able to enlist a friend who very generously edited and story boarded the book for me, and we went from there.

There are so many ways to write about marine life conservation efforts. Why did you choose to write a children’s book?
Honestly, I love to learn through stories. Historical novels are a great way to learn about different periods in history, for example. I did a lot of scientific research for the book, and when I do readings, I always bring someone from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. They always have an incredible wealth of knowledge to share and are able to answer additional questions about marine life while sharing how important it really is to all of us.

Who is your favorite character in the book?
My favorite character is Rita, a little girl that Simon meets on the beach. She’s actually named after my mother-in-law. Part of the book is about connection and being sensitive and kind to animals. She embodies what kids are able to do (if they encounter an animal), to engage them with respect on (the animal’s) own terms. She reflects the connection that humans and animals share and the animal part that exists in all of us. It’s a really beautiful part of the story, and she’s a lot of fun.

“Simon and Sedef” is full of vibrant, lifelike illustrations. Were you involved in the art development?
I’m not an illustrator, but I was a part of the process. I went onto (arts and crafts sale website) Etsy and put out a job request. I got a bunch of responses and spent a lot of time looking through portfolios. The artist I chose worked with these brilliant watercolors, and she was able to paint animals with so much expression and sensitivity. I ended up choosing her to do the illustrations — her name is Luminita Cosarenu and she’s from Romania. She was just lovely to work with. I told her what I had in mind and we went back and forth for a while until it was just right. She started with pencil drawings and finished with watercolor. They are just magnificent.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation plays a big part in your story. Can you tell me a bit about what they do and your decision to work with them?
The foundation would have rescued Simon in the real world and they do such incredible work — it only seemed fair to include them in this way. We’ve been working together from the early stages of the publication process to figure out how to best promote the book and all of the great things they do. They do a lot of animal rescue, particularly of seals and sea turtles. They’re also affiliated with the Long Island Aquarium, where some of the rescued animals will remain for a while or even their lifetime if they can’t be released.

Is there a recommended audience for “Simon and Sedef”?
I think the littlest of kids should probably have the book read to them, but there’s nothing inappropriate for them in there. I did make it a little scary, but even younger children really tend to enjoy that.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Every human character in the book is kind and also respectful to animals. That’s really the central message of the book — living and treating others with compassion.

What are some things we can do right now to help preserve marine life?
We can pick up after ourselves! So much garbage ends up going out to sea, where animals end up being choked or swallowing things that can impair their digestion or kill them. As for the bigger picture, go and experience the wildlife that’s all around us. Bring your kids. Lastly, really support the people who are out there doing the work of preserving marine life, whether that’s the foundation or another organization you care about.

What’s next for you?
I’m really enjoying the adventure of self-publishing and self-promotion right now. There is a sequel for Simon in the works right now that will be coming out soon — as you might expect, he has plenty more adventures to go on!

Where can people learn more about you or purchase the book?
My website is www.shereejeanes.com. I also have a Facebook page and an Instagram account to keep people up-to-date about the latest developments in my writing.

In celebration of World Oceans Day, Sheree Jeanes will hold a book launch on Wednesday, June 8, at the Long Island Aquarium, 431 E. Main St., Riverhead from 3 to 5 p.m. “Simon and Sedef: A Seal’s First Adventure” may be purchased online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as at Book Revue in Huntington.

Judy Blundell writes under the pen name Jude Watson. Photo from Blundell

She may often write about a galaxy far, far away, but Judy Blundell does so from a home in Stony Brook residents’ own backyard. Blundell, also known as Jude Watson, is a best-selling author of fiction for children and young adults.

She has written somewhere around 70 books since she began writing in the mid-1990s, though she said in a phone interview last week she lost count. More than 40 of those are “Star Wars” novels written in the time that falls before, after and between the stories depicted in the seven films released to date.

Blundell, as she’s known when writing historical fiction stories for young adults, lives close enough to Stony Brook Harbor to hear seagulls and ferries while she sits in her office. She also spent time living in California, New York City, Florida, Washington and Delaware, among others.

“Coming back to Long Island is a place I know really well, and it has really been a joy to wind up in this beautiful place, Stony Brook—it has been wonderful,” Blundell said. She was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens.

Her mystery and adventure stories for children, usually in the ages 8 to 12 range, get the byline Jude Watson. The scenery in her hometown coupled with her own curiosity are her major sources of inspiration, she said.

“I think the world around me is a varied and fascinating place,” Blundell said. “I’m always interested in people, overheard conversations, things I witness on the subway if I’m in New York or in Target or wherever. Writers are always looking for characters. And very often, books, for me, start with a character rather than a situation and then you sort of write your way into figuring out what the story is.”

Blundell conceded she has had plenty of days with no inspiration, but her remedy is to power through. She offered that as advice to aspiring young writers: Even if you think what you’re producing is terrible, you have to keep writing. “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working,” Pablo Picasso once said, and Blundell said she shares that philosophy.

Blundell has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list several times in her career. In 2008, she received a National Book Award for young people’s literature for the first story she ever put her real name on: “What I Saw and How I Lied.”

Blundell’s husband of more than 30 years, Neil Watson, executive director of the Long Island Museum, said he’s her biggest fan.

“I have the highest respect for her and as a writer, I think it’s tremendous that she has gotten the critical and popular acclaim that she deserves,” Watson said of his wife in an interview. “She is a wonderful writer. She’s a very generous person with her craft and with her ideas.”

Together the couple has cultivated a love of the arts in their 15-year-old daughter Cleo, who is a talented artist in her own right. She is a member of the National Junior Art Society.

“It’s just a part of our house,” Watson said of art in their Stony Brook home. “It’s the home of a museum curator and a writer. Music is constantly on—all types.”

Blundell spoke fondly of her foray into the world of Star Wars, but also mentioned she had fun writing her last novel, “Sting,” which was a follow up to a story she wrote called “Loot,” about a successful jewel thief and his son.

“It was difficult to write because it was a ‘heist’ book, so the plots are very tight and obviously I’m not a jewel thief, so there’s a lot to figure out,” Blundell said, laughing. “But they’re meant to be fun to read and they can’t be fun to read if they’re not fun to write on some level, as hard as they are.”

Blundell said one of her goals is to write stories for kids who view reading as more of a chore than a pleasure.

“I consciously wrote [Loot and Heist] for kids that don’t normally like to read, what we call reluctant readers,” she said. “So the chapters are very short, there’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of fun; there’s a lot of jokes for that reason.”

Blundell said she is currently working on a novel that will be geared more towards adults, though that’s the most she wanted to divulge about it at the moment. To learn more about Blundell and her work, visit her website: www.judyblundell.com.

Caroline Woo, above, plays with therapy dog Beau. She named her black Labrador stuffed animal after her regular reading companion, Malibu. Photo by Giselle Barkley

A book and a calm canine companion are all Caroline Woo needs to practice reading.

Every Thursday afternoon, this 11-year-old from Setauket visits the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library for its Books Are Read to K-9s program. Caroline joined the program and fell in love with it last November, after her mother, Eydie Woo, learned of the club. But BARK didn’t just allow her to interact with a calm canine, it also improved her reading skills.

Last month for her birthday, Caroline asked her friends and family to make a donation to the program instead of buying presents. The $270 she received went toward training more dogs for the club and other therapy dog-related programs. For Caroline, reading to Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy certified dog Malibu, a black Labrador, helped her tackle the big words she struggled to say when reading out loud.

“Malibu, she’ll … just sit down and they’ll kind of listen and it is better because the dogs, they mostly maintain one expression,” Caroline said. “It’s easier since she’s less judgmental than people”

According to Malibu’s handler and owner Fred Dietrich, the program hasn’t only helped her reading skills, but it’s also boosted her confidence. He added that he’s seen Caroline become more outspoken since she joined BARK.

Her mother agreed with Dietrich, saying Caroline “feels comfortable with Malibu and it’s translating into other settings.” The fifth-grader met Malibu when she started the program and they’ve been regular reading partners since. Malibu, like all eight dogs involved in the reading program, is PRAAT certified.

Stony Brook resident Jo-Ann Goldwasser established the Doggie Reading Club program, which is called BARK at the library, three years ago after learning about a similar program in Chicago. The Windy City’s Sit Stay Read program has served kids in Chicago’s inner-city schools for several years. Goldwasser wanted to help children overcome their reading difficulties with this program. Her club started with Rocky Point Middle School’s sixth-grade students and has expanded to the Comsewogue school district, two schools in Brentwood as well as the library. She plans to establish the program in Hauppauge school district.

Goldwasser said the school and library programs are somewhat different.

“Children who generally like to read, who go to the library, think it’s kind of a fun thing to come to the library and read to a dog,” Goldwasser said. “In the schools however, we go into … the same classes … every other week. It’s more academic in that we listen to the same children read week after week; we know what they’re reading [and] we know how to help them.”

Fellow therapy dog handler Linda Devin-Sheehan said it’s hard to track the program’s success in the library because the club is only three-years-old. A lack of regulars like Caroline also makes it difficult to monitor a student’s improvement.

Parents must register their children to participate in the library’s program, which is held every Wednesday and Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the library’s kids’ section.

According to the handlers, a dog’s patience and calm demeanor are helpful to students like Caroline. While the program has helped Caroline in the past few months, she simply enjoys being around dogs as they come in various shapes, sizes and dispositions.

“You can see [a dog] on the street and pet it and get to know it for a short minute but … you can already tell that they’re such a sweet dog and it’s nice getting to meet a ton of different dogs,” Caroline said.

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