Monday, August 4, 2014

Summer Reading is over, and I am so done with it.

Well, my schedule got shot all to hell with the advent of Summer Reading. Have you heard of it? When the kids get out of school, things get lively over here at the public library. We have a series of activities for the children and teens. Those activities are designed to keep our youth learning and engaged over the long summer break, and to keep them reading. This is supposed to keep kids from forgetting quite so much while they are on vacation, and incidentally to keep them out of their parents' hair.

Summer Reading is very good for the children. It keeps them excited and motivated to read and participate in activities over the summer, when they might have just plopped on the couch and watched TV. It is also, however, pure hell for all but the most psychotically enthusiastic librarians. We have one of those, by the way. She's totally awesome.

I am not noted for my enthusiasm in general. Unless, of course, we're talking about betta fish. Somehow Mr. Kitty survived my initial mistreatment and is now flourishing, and two more betta fish have joined my family. The neons, sadly, did not make it.

I digress.

This year at my library branch we did the following for kids and teens:

1-4 special programs a week
Summer reading game boards & prizes
Summer of Learning digital badges
Passport to Success
and...
*drumroll*
Feeding lunch to the children.

Yes, really. Lunch. It's fun, but way out of my job description. Except there's this little line at the bottom of the page that says "other duties as required," and I guess that's it.

We signed up 71 teens and 359 children this year. My teen numbers are down from last year, which disappoints me...I'll have to try harder next year, which is a shame, because I'm freaking exhausted already!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The fish keeping adventures continue.

I love our Betta so much that I ended up joining a Betta enthusiast website. It's kind of scary how quickly I fell in love with that silly little fish. He's fun to watch while I'm out at the reference desk, and the kids ask all sorts of questions.

Thursday I'll put live plants in the tank - the plants are in a quarantine tank right now, to make sure there's no snails or other pests before I add them in. The tank will look nice with some real greenery in it, and the soft plants will be safer for Mr. Kitty's fins. He tore his fins on something - probably the plastic grass, which I've thrown out.

Summer Reading is going well. We have a ton of kids and teens signed up. It looks like this year will surpass last year at a walk - and last year was a BIG year!

Fun times. Still too stressed and busy to think of anything imaginative.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Unnamed Story - Part 5

Oh, there it was, on the floor behind Jonas. A sludge demon too small to even be graded. The little creature was trucking along at a snail's pace, leaving a glittering trail of slime behind it. If it weren't black, it would have looked like nothing quite as much as a gigantic, mobile booger.
"I don't see anything, so they must have already left," Jonas said. "The other invocations weren't as big. Not even humanoid sized. Maybe the demons slipped out with the tenants."
"No, there's one right there," I answered, and pulled the generic banishing rune from my pocket. A quick underhand toss, and the goober went back to the nether, accompanied by a surge of alien disappointment.
"Oh, quiet. I'm not going to shoot something that can't fight back," I said.
"What? I didn't ask you to," Jonas said.
"Never mind," I said.
Jonas shook his head, and began the work of scrubbing the chalk lines off the floor with a rag from his pocket, starting from the inside and working his way out. I stood watch, still wary, and keeping alert in case the third demon showed up.
About halfway through, Jonas stopped. He turned his face up, and sniffed. I copied him, wincing as my ribs protested.
"Do you smell smoke?" he asked.
"Yes. Hurry," I answered.
Hunger boiled in my belly, accompanied by a possessive surge - only the first emotion was aimed at me. Was the gun talking to someone?
"I think we need to have a discussion about who owns who, mister," I said, still scanning the piles of junk for intruders. No source of the smoke was apparent, yet.
Jonas paused, looked at me, and then resumed scrubbing.
The weapon was puzzled by my comment, and quieted for a moment. Then my vision blurred, acquiring an overlay of color. The entire garage floor was laced with trails of green. A red point of light was dancing along the pavement, tainting whatever happened to be in its path. It intersected with one of the glowing green trails. The red turned from a tiny spark to a blinding wash of color.
My vision snapped back to normal. I fought back a surge of nausea, staggering, and then gasped. The faint hint of smoke in the air was strengthening.
"Tess, your nose is bleeding," Jonas said.
"Nevermind that, run!" I shouted.
On cue, fire arrived at the end of the trail of slime. Sparks flew to the concrete ceiling and extinguished, but some of them fell into the cardboard boxes that were stacked in a pile nearby. The dry, dusty fuel ignited.
"Shit!" Jonas exclaimed, dropping his cloth.
I turned, trying to run, and the floor bucked and heaved. Jonas grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet, hustling me towards the exit. The ground seemed out of sync with my feet, and I couldn't tell where the concrete ended. It was covered in a gray mist.
My weapon muttered an apology, but that didn't help worth a damn. I still couldn't see where to put my feet.

The fire, which was growing to a conflagration faster than we could move, had eyes. They watched us with malice. Paws swiped at us, and licks of flame snapped at our heels. At times, the fire lifted away from its fuel to reach for us, tearing at our clothing and leaving blisters in its wake.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer Reading, and New Fish

Sorry for the long silence. Summer Reading is kicking my butt.

We decided to have a little fun with Summer Reading this year, and get a pet fish in honor of our theme, "Paws for Reading."

I volunteered to take care of the little guy. Little did I know what this would involve.

We started with a pretty blue betta fish. They are beautiful, and don't need much in the way of complicated care. Technically, he's named Nemo - but he was quickly dubbed Mr. Kitty. Yes, it's a strange name, but we're a strange bunch.

Mr. Kitty was soon joined by two neon tetras, which can peacefully coexist with bettas.

That's when the trouble started.

Betta fish are supposed to be jerks, right? They aren't known as Siamese Fighting Fish for nothing. Right? RIGHT? So, when one of the two neons got her back fin chewed off, naturally we would blame the betta.

Nope. He's totally chill. He likes to swim figure eights around the fake grass and sleep on a leaf. Sometimes, he blows bubbles.

The bully was the other neon. Immediately, I scoured the internet. What could be causing the strange aggressiveness? Two potential reasons came to my attention: Too few fish for a proper school, or perhaps an even number of fish - according to some sites, an odd number often works better.

Reassured by fish care sites that the injured tetra would regrow her fins as long as I kept the water clean and dosed the tank with Melafix, I went to the pet store and bought a third tetra.

Overnight, the bully killed the new fish. I found its broken, bitten body on the bottom of the tank in the morning.

Grimly, I took the little murderer back to the pet shop, and replaced him with two new neons.

Peace reigned.

But wait! Why had the water turned cloudy? I was doing small water changes EVERY DAMN DAY to keep it clean for the hurt fish!

I had never heard of the nitrogen cycle before this week. Innocently, in the way of new aquarium owners, I had put my victims into what would turn into a cesspool of their own waste. By sheer luck, I've been doing the right things to keep everyone alive - my big mistake has been vacuuming the gravel.

I STRONGLY recommend reading up on the nitrogen cycle for aquariums before you dive into buying your kid a fish. Brand new, uncycled tanks are a big killer of fish. The simplest resource I found for someone who has a new tank filled with live fish was here. If you're starting up and have no fish yet, this is a more humane solution.

I went back to the pet store to buy ammonia and nitrite testing kits. I'm now topping something along the lines of $60 worth of equipment for $15 worth of fish. It's a good thing that they're pretty.

Now to keep them alive until the tank chemistry settles.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Unnamed Story - Part 4

Jonas pried open the demon's beak, and I tossed the banishing rune into its mouth. It swallowed, single eye bulging, and then imploded with a loud bang, returning to the elemental plane where it had been summoned from.
I holstered my weapon, who whispered his contentment.
"You all right?" Jonas asked.
"Bit my tongue, and I think I have some bruised ribs," I answered.
"Let's wrap up here, and I'll take you to get something hot to eat. That was some shooting, by the way. New gun?" Jonas asked.
"Yeah, I passed the sixth mastery," I answered. "Master Dan gave it to me as a present. Looks like it packs quite a punch."
Jonas grunted.
"Haven't been able to pass the third," he said.
He would have to let go of his hatred, for that. There was no point saying anything. Our mutual master of Discipline had told him often enough, and I didn't want to spoil Jonas's good mood.
"Our orders indicated the complaint originated in the basement," I said, avoiding the subject. "Let's see what bass-ackwards mistake the summoner made. Maybe our missing tenants will turn up while we're at it. Management is going to want that in our report."
Jonas nodded and led the way. I followed, keeping silent. The stairs sent a jolt of pain through my torso with every step, and only an effort of will kept my gasps inaudible. If Jonas realized how hurt I was, he would try to send me out, and he wouldn't make any extra effort to find the missing people.
We found the summoning circle in what had once been an underground garage. It had been converted into a storage area when magic came and the inevitable horde of imps made vehicles useless. I could still smell the tang of oil, but it was overpowered by cold concrete and dust.
The apartment manager had cordoned off spaces for the tenants using ropes and orange traffic cones. Clutter abounded. Old cardboard boxes vied for space with bicycles, musty furniture, and an assortment of random junk.
Someone had shoved the belongings out of four sections, swept the floor clean, and drawn their invocation using white chalk. I looked it over. The lines were precise, perfectly drawn and without the signs of the smudging or screwy spelling that would indicate an amateur mistake. I turned on my phone and took a picture, recording the inscription for study.
"Tess," Jonas said, his tone uneasy. "Is it just me, or are there three invocations in that thing?"
My weapon was in my hand without conscious thought. Free of the muffling influence of his holster, he roared in my mind, furious and possessive.
His ire didn't appear to be aimed at me. I spun on my heels, searching for the target of his anger. My ribs screamed with the motion, making me falter, and I pressed my free hand against my side. That didn't help, so I used it to steady my gun, instead.

The weapon hummed in my hand, dragging at my attention. I couldn't spot his target. A nudge, almost a tugging feeling, turned my head toward my partner.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Destroy Your Child's Love of Reading

Summer break is about to begin. The kids have less than a week until they're free of classrooms, and schoolbooks, and homework. For a few, precious months, they'll be able to do as they like with their time.
One lingering bogey remains: Required reading.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for kids doing something over the summer, and reading books for pleasure is right up there with "optimal things kids should do to retain knowledge and improve vocabulary."

But let's face it: Required reading sucks!

There's something horrible about having a vacation with something hanging over your head. If the kids have savvy parents, they'll get taken to the library right away to get the book (or two, or three), and the kid will be stuck reading a few pages a night for the rest of the summer. Sometimes they'll even like it, and read the book in one huge gulp right away, then spend the next two months forgetting about it.

Usually, though, they come to me in the last week of summer vacation with a list of books that were written 20 years ago, and are out of print. They'll be difficult to find, but somehow I'll dredge up something for them, and they'll spend a few miserable, frantic evenings trying to read a book they didn't want and aren't interested in.

I actually have no problem with requiring the kids to read something over summer. As a matter of fact, having them write a mini book report - maybe one per month - seems like a fantastic idea. The kids forget so much over summer break. A little brain exercise isn't going to hurt them, and they need to understand that sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do.

What I have a problem with are the reading lists and reading levels. Lexile levels, AR categories, and all those other sorting gimmicks are just that - gimmicks. They've been developed to give parents and teachers some kind of tool to guide them, and "incidentally" make money, because these tools and other things like them come with a slew of quizzes and evaluations. NOTHING IS FREE, people!

Reading lists throttle children's choices down to a few that have been judged "worthy" by some higher authority. They are often out of date and irrelevant. I have come across a few that have had nice choices in them, but those aren't common, and they still restrict the child to a miserable few - implying that books that aren't on the list are unacceptable. I've seen parents refuse to permit their child to check out books that weren't on the child's required reading list. I haven't seen it just once or twice, I've seen it happen over and over, both during the school year and in summer.

What does this tell the child?
"Those books you want are unworthy, unacceptable, dirty, simple stories for stupid children. Therefore, you are a stupid, simple child who cannot make his own choices about what he should like."

Yeah, that's going to encourage him to read for pleasure.

Lexile levels are the most common "sorting" tool that I've been presented with, and let me tell you - they are bizarre and inconsistent, and too often used as a bludgeon to force children to read harder and harder material, far beyond their grade level or emotional tolerance.

Much like with reading lists, parents frequently refuse to allow their child to take books outside of the roughly 50 point window that is "acceptable" for the child to read. Unlike with reading lists, the policing more commonly comes from the child. By the time they've hit Lexile levels in school, they've learned that their own instincts on what they should be reading are inadequate. The cycle has hit full swing - reading is never for pleasure any more. If the book does not fit the assignment, it is discarded.

The best experience the kids are getting by the time they hit middle school is neutral, if they've been repeatedly hammered with reading lists and Lexile levels. They do not read for fun, and they will continue to not read for fun once they're out of school.

As a society, we complain about the education system and the literacy rates of our children. We fear how the current generation is reading less for enjoyment than the previous ones, and rightfully so.

Making the child afraid every time he picks up a book is not the answer.

How about we let the kids make their own choices? I'm not saying we need to get rid of To Kill a Mockingbird, or anything - by all means, have a few gems that they'll be required to read throughout their school career - but by and large, let them pick their own books! Let them do their book reports on what they want to read, and evaluate them on the quality of the report, not whether the book was at least 110 pages.

The vast majority of kids aren't going to deliberately cheat an assignment by reading a baby book, and if they do, the reading level they chose is the least of your concerns. That kid has other, more serious problems.

Kids will pick up more vocabulary words by reading at or below grade level, and they'll have fun doing it, too. They'll build positive emotional ties with books, because reading won't be a struggle every time. The establishment of success will encourage kids to explore other, harder books.

Want your kid to stretch? Have them pick out something that looks interesting, and read the first page aloud to you. If they stumble just a little bit, the book's perfect. If they breeze through it, encourage them to find something a bit bigger, and remind them that if they want that easy book, they can have it, too.

Let them read comics. Comics are fun.

We don't need reading lists, AR levels, Lexile scores, or any of that nonsense. All we need is a bit of parental involvement. Take five minutes with them at the library. Read them a story at night.

Make them happy when they pick up a book. Problem solved.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Unnamed Story - Part 3

At the sound of our voice, the whole mass of tentacles jerked and retreated. A basketball-sized eye peered out of the door to 213, and then disappeared. Sloshing and crunching noises, followed by a thud and a squeal, echoed through the hall.
"Shit," I said.
Dinner, the gun whispered.
"You don't think it ate them, do you?" I asked.
"Maybe," Jonas answered. His indifferent tone reminded me, again, that the well-being of the residents wasn't high on his list of priorities.
There was no point in dithering. I moved from the potted plant to the opposite wall, pressing my back against its surface. Weapon pointed at the ceiling, I inched sideways until I was a foot away from the open door, and then stopped. Jonas was close behind.
Inside the apartment, something slurped. I peered through the doorway, sure that the creature would hear the sound of my heart beating or the breath that whispered through my mouth one slow inhale at a time.
The demon was staring back at me.
I grabbed for the banishing rune in my pocket. My sudden motion must have startled the demon, which shrieked and flung a half-dozen tentacles at me. Two wrapped around my waist, pinning my arm to my side, and two more wrapped around my legs. The last pair reached up towards my gun arm, but when demonic flesh touched enchanted metal, the rubbery limbs sizzled and jerked away.
A sudden, hot burst of excitement from my gun, and then I was pulling the trigger. I didn't so much aim as point and click at the seething mass of black, rubbery limbs that were wrapped around my body.
BOOM!
I missed. I couldn't believe that I missed, but a hole the size of a dinner plate in the floor attested to it. The demon screamed and crushed me in his grip, clutching and twisting me like a rag doll. White streaks crawled through my vision.
My partner tore after the still-shrieking demon, chasing it into the apartment. My knees buckled and I fell to the ground, landing next to the severed, steaming ends of the tentacles that I thought I'd missed. Saltwater was leaking out of the wounds like air from a punctured tire, and the iron grip around my body slowly relaxed.
I took a breath, tasting blood, and pushed myself to my feet. My gun was still clutched in my right hand, humming with satisfaction. Thuds and squeals echoed from the interior of the apartment. There was no time to waste; Jonas probably had the creature well in hand, but he couldn't banish it.
The rune was inscribed on a smooth, polished glass sphere about the size of a silver dollar. It fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. I fished it from my pocket, switching my gun from my right to my left hand in the process, spat out some blood, and went to find the fight.
"Little help, here?" Jonas asked.
He'd ripped a twitching tentacle off the demon's body, and was punching the demon every time it tried to move. His blows left noticeable purple marks on the demon's body. I was starting to feel sorry for it; the poor thing had never stood a chance, and Jonas was being particularly ruthless.

"Open it up," I said.
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