Sunday, November 21, 2010

Joseph Bruchac, author of Code Talker and so much more

Code Talker and more by Joseph Bruchac
A funny thing happened to me on my way to Ms. Jones' Reading class. I was preparing a book talk, which is a short talk about one or several books for students as a way of introducing them to titles they may be interested in reading. As I was preparing a list of books to talk about tomorrow, I noticed a book titled Squanto's Journey in a book display I arranged for November. Ooooh. I thought, this is the week before Thanksgiving I should include that book. It's a beautifully written picture book of the Thanksgiving story told through Squanto's point of view. The perspective is interesting and historically accurate. Then, I was cataloging some donated books and saw the author of Squanto's Journey's name, Bruchac, again on The Dark Pond. I picked it up and read it. It was a great story….a bit scary but centered on a Native American character from upstate New York.
Since I'm a native New Yorker and fascinated by Native American tales, I thought I'd look up this author, Bruchac, and find out what other books he's written as I enjoyed the first two books so much. I was wowed by the author's official website. Joseph Bruchac is the author of Code Talker and 70 additional books for children, teens and adults. All of his books are related to the Native American experience. Bruchac writes these books with the authority of being born of Abenaki, a Native American tribe from New York State's Adirondack region.
I immediately picked up Code Talker and couldn't put it down. The story is told through the narrative of a fictional grandfather Navaho code talker in World War II to his grandchildren. The story begins when the main character, Ned Begay, is six years old and sent away to a mission boarding school where he is instructed to forget about being Navaho in every way. Historically, Native American children such as Begay
were indeed punished for speaking or connecting to their native culture while living at white boarding schools all over the US.
Ned Begay survives his years of schooling by being smart, quiet and polite until during the early years of World War II when Navaho Americans were recruited by the US Marine Corps to use their native language for military code during the Pacific Island Hopping campaign. Begay lies about his age to join the Marines and becomes part of the secret code talking Navaho force.
Despite the irony of being called upon to save the lives of thousands of Americans through mastery of a language they were forced to forget as children, real code talkers during the war served with incredible distinction and bravery. The historical detail in this novel written for Middle to High School students is thorough and enthralling… far more interesting and in depth than any Social Studies book I ever taught from as a Social Studies teacher years ago. This book is equally captivating for adults and should be read by anyone wanting to understand how the US was able to win against the formidable war machine that the Japanese empire was during the war.
Notes from the author at the end of the book about Bruchac's inspiration for writing Code Talker are amazing….more than amazing but I don't know the words to adequately describe the awe I am in for this author's passion for researching and preserving Native American history, culture and society through his gifts and talents as a writer. It is an honor to read this book and absorb this part of Navaho and American history. I will enthusiastically encourage Middle Schoolers to read it and find out more about the importance of Code Talkers in defending and preserving our nation. I recommend it for high school and adult reading as well.
Two websites are worth mentioning for further learning about this author. The first is Joseph Bruchac's official website that describes more about him and how his life is work and his work is his life. I highly recommend a visit there:
The second site is a 2005 interview of Joseph Bruchac by Cynthia Leitich Smith about his journey in writing Code Talker:
Joseph Bruchac has won numerous awards for his novels, picture books, non-fiction works and poetry. He is definitely an author to explore! I can't wait to get my hands on another one of his books.
Bruchac, Joseph. Code Talker. New York: Penguin Publishing, 2006. Print.

Friday, November 19, 2010

All of the Above

All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall
I am not much of a sports fan. When I watch a game, I tend to pick a team to win after I have started watching the game. I'm not fussy but I do have a love for the underdog player(s) that can beat the bigger, wealthier, stronger (you name the adjective) opponent to win. I think that's why I enjoyed All of the Above. The characters in this story are very likeable underdogs.
All of the Above is a contender for this year's Virginia Reader's Choice in the Middle School category. It's a multi-voice novel about how a rather non-impressive math teacher and a group of students known for being disadvantaged set out to make the largest tetrahedron known to man….quite a math lesson for them and readers.
What I love about this school story is that each character's story, entwined with the others, gets me to cheer for each person through their challenges, fights and tragedies. At one point in the story all seems lost….I mean ALL seems lost. But the support of key adults for the hard luck kids and the fierce determination of the students to achieve changes them from underdogs into victors….and this last sentence is NOT a spoiler!
Recipes from one of the character's all through the book carry the tone and emotion from chapter to chapter in a fun way—and kids might even try making some of the tasty sounding dishes. I recommend this book for boys and girls in grades 5-8.

Pearsall, S. All of the Above. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2006. Print.

Monday, November 15, 2010

London Calling

London Calling by Edward Bloor
The thing about wars is at their outset, one doesn't know how they will end or who will be the victors. Good people can unexpectedly act dishonorably. People of poor or mediocre character can just as surprisingly behave nobly and courageously. Who will be noble or dishonorable, however, cannot be known as the first shots are fired or as the first bombs fall. In the end, the victors write history, determine who the heroes are and what the books record.
J. Martin Conway is a distinguished diplomat in the year 2019. His seventh grade experiences and memories are largely what shaped him into the man that he became. What's so different about Martin's path is that in seventh grade he traveled back in time, over the radio waves of a vintage World War II radio to the days of the London blitz of 1940—before America's entry into the war.
During the blitz, Hitler's Germany sought to break the will of the British people by bombing London into dust. Responding in their finest hour, British citizens stood up to the bombings with a heroism that shocked the Nazis and the world. Martin discovers truths about people known as heroes in his own time and unnamed heroes of 1940s London that are intertwined not only with the history of his nation of America and his snotty private school,All Soul's Preparatory, but of his own family.
Martin finds himself awash in questions that can only be answered by living the history. Slowly, his list of questions about the war, people that fought, died and survived are answered through his time travels and we readers learn a bit about how history is simultaneously remembered and unrecorded. Readers think about what the meaning of the title of hero.
London Calling is a provocative read (or listen as I listened to the story on CD). I recommend it for middle school age boys and girls that enjoy a historical novel that includes problems to think about as well as ghost stories. The first third of the book is much about Martin's middle school difficulties…which does take some time to get through but is worth the time when learning how he resolves all troubles. Adults who read this book come away from it humming bars of the 1940's pop song We'll Meet Again or their money back.
London Calling was a contender but not a winner for the Virginia Reader's Choice Award in 2010.
Bloor, Edward. London Calling. New York. Random House, 2006. Audio.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever

Niagara Falls, or Does it?

What's great about Niagara Falls, or Does It? is that it's not just a funny story. Yes, main character Hank Zipzer is plenty funny. It seems that Hank is one of those "if I'm not laughing I'm crying" kind of kids. He's bad at all subjects in school and worse yet, trouble seems to follow him everywhere. He even has to visit the principal on the first day of school!

When Mrs. Adolf assigns Hank the dreaded "what I did over summer vacation" essay, also on the first day of school, Hank feels doomed as he cannot make himself sit still long enough to read or write anything any teacher would want to read. Hank is sure his year will be a failure until he's saved by a brilliant idea. Instead of writing his essay, he will bring his essay about a family trip to Niagara Falls to life for his entire class. After much creative work to construct a portable running waterfall, trouble sloshes downstream and right onto Hank's head as Ms. Adolf is drenched by the assignment and the principal calls Hank to the office as a trouble maker, again.

By the end of the book, a special and understanding teacher together with Hank's parents figure out that Hank has learning differences that need to be taken care of to help Hank be the best student that he can be. It's a hopeful ending and readers will certainly want to read the rest of the series to see what happens to Hank next. Readers just can't help caring about and liking Hank.

What's best about Niagara Falls, or Does It? is that it's written by Henry Winkler who played 'The Fonz' on the 70's TV show Happy Days. In real life, Mr. Winkler learned that he is dyslexic when he was helping create a documentary about the condition in which makes reading, spelling, handwriting and arithmetic very difficult for students. Instead of allowing his challenging school days ruin his life, the talented Winkler became an acclaimed actor and now author. With the help of Lin Oliver, Winkler gives credibility to the character of Zipzer who struggles with learning differences.

The Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever series contains at least 17 books and Winkler continues to write new ones. He's an inspiration to students who learn differently as well as parents and teachers. These books are super for boys in grades 3-8.

Winker, Henry and Lin Oliver. Niagara Fall, or Does It? New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 2003. Print.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

American Revolution

Times were different in the days before America was an independent nation. America was a group of thirteen colonies that belonged to Great Britain. Some colonies tried to pass laws prohibiting baths—and this was in the days before showers! Can you guess which colonies? A common kitchen utensil familiar to all was a "mush stick"—what would that be used for? And, any school students were given hornbooks to learn from? Can you guess what a hornbook was?

By the time the colonies were ready to break free from England new Americans were involved in many rebellious events…you may have heard of The Boston Tea Party and Boston Massacre. By 1774, a Continental Congress was formed to debate and vote on what the colonies should do about their troubles with England. Virginia's Thomas Jefferson was drafted to write a Declaration of Independence with help from other colonial leaders. It took Jefferson seventeen days to write the famous Declaration of Independence…..and, he did something every day before he sat down at his desk to write. Do you know what it is?

American Revolution by Mary Pope Osborn and Natalie Pope Boyce is a non-fiction companion to the book Revolution on Wednesday by Mary's Magic Tree House series. It's a book that anyone can read for information about Revolutionary War times. And, you can find out the answers to some of the more interesting questions about life in the America before it was the United States of America such as the ones posed above.

American Revolution is a great book for readers in third grade or above….or, for parents needing to brush up on American Revolutionary War history before helping kids with homework.

Osborne, Mary Pope and Natalie Pop Boyce. American Revolution. New York: Random House. 2004. Print.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer

In the pages of The Mailbox, you'll meet Gabe. That's Gabe for Gable not Gabriel. Gabe has spent all but two years of his life surrounded by more unknowns than anything known….including information about his mother, father and entire life history. After living in a string of foster homes, Gabe is finally placed with long lost Uncle Vernon, a veteran of the Viet Nam War. However, Vernon himself is a mess of unknowns. Forced to own a telephone to become Gabe's guardian, he won't connect it because he doesn't like to talk to people. Fortunately for Gabe, despite Vernon's oddities and gruffness, Gabe has found a stable place to live put down roots until he arrives home from his first day of 6th grade to discover the unthinkable.

Forced into action, Gabe must save himself in a way that no one could have predicted. Gabe finds much needed help in unexpected places: stories from English class; Of Mice and Men, Tarzan, and even The Call of the Wild. Overnights at the home of his best friend hold Gabe together better than anyone guesses and then there is the help of a big furry dog named Guppy. Gabe's biggest help, however, arrives randomly on unsigned notes in the mailbox at the end of Uncle Vernon's driveway which fill him with fear, hope and aid.

Like Gabe, The Mailbox is a difficult book to label. It's simultaneously a mystery, story of relationships and a Viet Nam War story. Will Gabe find out who is writing the notes left in the mailbox that help him survive? Can Gabe trust his best friend, favorite teacher or other adults with his scary secret? How does Uncle Vernon's experience from the Viet Nam War guide him from his most difficult days into a safe and secure future? Read The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer to learn the answers to these questions and so much more.

This book comes with a "tissue alert" for those moments in the book so full of emotion a reader's eyes just well up and leak a little.

This book was a contender for the 2009-2010 Virginia Reader's Choice Award. It didn't win...but is a winner of a book!

Shafer, A. The Mailbox. New York: Delacort Press. 2006.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

Meet Dit Sims. Dit is thirteen years old, one of ten children, and lives in Moundville, Alabama……in 1917. During the dry, hot days of summer vacation Dit's best friends are away from home and he holds out hope that the new postmaster's children will be the friends he needs for a full and happy summer. When the new postmaster arrives, his one child is the exact opposite of everything he ever imagined a new friend would be, starting with the fact that the family's one child is not a boy but a girl named Emma! It seems as if Dit has hit a patch of bad luck for sure.

There are many more differences between Dit and Emma that make it impossible for them to become even over the-fence-friends. Slowly but surely, Dit and Emma do become friends, even best friends just as Doc, Moundville's only barber is accused of an unthinkable violence. Moreover, Dit and Emma were at the scene of the crime and know that Doc, who is black, did not commit the crime he was accused of committing against a white man in the thorny culture of Jim Crow South--the bedrock of ugly racism and segregation. Together, Dit and Emma combine clever thinking and the strength of their friendship into a plan to save Doc from certain execution. Will they succeed in saving Doc and remaining friends for life? Read, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristen Levine to find out where their friendship leads them, Doc and the whole town of Moundville.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had is a contender for a Virginia Choice Award in 2011 in the Middle School category.

Levine, Kristen. The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. New York. G. Putnam and Son. (2009) Print.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Breathe: A Ghost Story

Jack is used to danger. His asthma has nearly killed him more than once. Jack is used to tragedy. His father has recently died from a sudden heart attack. Jack is not afraid of death. Whenever he touches objects owned by dead people, memories of the person tingle into his fingers and brain so that he understands past lives. Jack's mother has moved them into a new home for a fresh start to life after his father's death…away from Jack's unusual closeness to death. But, Jack's new home has a danger he's never known before—spirits of the dead. The spirits can't breathe….but in his house they can chase and hide and scream. Only Jack can hear and talk to them as he does on pages 226-227:

"Jack's inhaler was in his bedroom. The biggest (asthma) attack of his life was coming…..'Don't hurt her anymore,' Jack managed to whisper. 'I'll do anything you want.
I'll……..anything you want.'
'You'll never love me.'
'Please….I will….'
'No. I am done with you now, Jack, done with you.'

The Ghost Mother rubbed her lips dry to improve the contact, then clamped herself to Gwyneth again. Jack couldn't do anything to stop her. He gasped, trying to get more air into his lungs. I'm going to black out, he realized. If I do, the Ghost Mother will be able to do whatever she wants. I can't let her…."

Can Jack persevere through crippling asthma attacks to learn secrets of the ghosts in time to save himself and his mother from what even spirits are scared to death of? Read Breathe: A Ghost Story to find out who survives in this world and the next.

McNish, C. Breathe: A Ghost Story. Minneapolis. Carolrhoda Books Inc, 2006. Print.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

I began interning as a Library Media Specialist in a middle school this week. One of the interesting tasks that I learned was how to process books to be shelved. I couldn't resist checking out Chasing Lincoln's Killer over the weekend. The beautifully crafted end papers portray historical primary source documents and photos that establish the book as non-fiction. The author also states:

"This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during
the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic.
In fact, all the text appearing within quotation marks come from
original sources….What happened in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1865,
and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and
Virginia during the following twelve days, is far too incredible
to have been made up."

I'm glad that the author included the above statement….because the book reads like a fictional story and it would be easy to imagine that the author filled in some of the details with historical guesses. However, all the details of the story including the description of the bullet hole in Lincoln's head, the savage attack on Secretary of State Seward and the words of J.W. Booth as he breathed his last words are recorded in sources verified by the author. I love this book for the history it presents to young adults and the spinning of the story in a way that holds a reader's attention. This book is author James L. Swanson's first for young adults and is based upon his best selling adult book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. It's true that fact is more often than not, stranger than fiction. This book is great for tween to teen boys and girls, interested in history and drawn to non-fiction….and those that would be enjoy studying the map at the end of the book find all the points of intrigue described in the tale.

Swanson, J. Chasing Lincoln's Killer. (2009). Scholastic Press. New York.

Blown Away!

Oh my goodness…..what a book! I picked up Blown Away because it is a contender for this year's Virginia Reader's Choice Award in the Elementary category. I was happily reading through a sweet story of a boy named Jake, his friends Mara, a mule named Jewel and her best dog friend Ruby and an old man named Sharkey. Jake's life revolves around his family and his friends in the 1930s Florida Keys. Not surprisingly, the story paints sunny mental pictures of sand, shore, fishing and sweet life in a small, remote town until……the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 blows through and gives the story its title. By page 148 I was so convincingly wrapped up in the monster hurricane that I couldn't put the book down until I finished it on page 250. Wow! This is an incredible story about a "storm of the century", government response and the combination of fate, circumstances and "grit" that enable people to survive the strongest forces of nature. I was impressed by and touched by the role poetry played in this story…a very nice way of integrating emotions of the characters in good and challenging times.

After the hurricane, Jake must do what he can to save his family with some unusual help from his friends. The author thoughtfully provides readers with details that are true about the history and facts the story were based on. Blown Away is a great book for boys as the main character is a thirteen year old boy. I'll be waiting to see if Blow Away wins a prize in Virginia this year.

Harlow, J. Blown Away. (2007). New York. Aladdin Paperbacks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Catching Up ….. post vacation thoughts

Whew! I needed a vacation from my vacation. Since last writing, my family went to Colorado for a vacation and our cousin's wedding. We slid into home the night before school started. Thank goodness my kids are well versed in the "drill" of our school routine and had backpacks packed before we left the state. While on vacation I finished a great book and returned home to start another. Both books are worth talking about.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a fabulous book….I loved it even though from chapter one, I knew I would need a box of tissues to get through it. I laughed out loud many times as the story of a family was told through the eyes of the family dog from puppy hood to old age and "evolution". The story of the crows was so funny that I'll never be able to look at the birds in quite the same way again! Even though this is a fictional novel for adults, it would make a great YA book in a high school collection. My eleven year old read it ahead of me after our Nana suggested that she might like it. By the end of the book there were definitely some scenes that I thought were beyond her maturity level….but we talked about them and she doesn't appear to be warped or damaged by reading them. She's actually more mature than I'm ready for her to be anyway! Because of the aspect of race car driving and the dog narrator is male, this is a super book for teen boys. And, despite the need for a box of tissues, there is a very satisfying ending to the story that isn't cliché or predictable.

Nothing But the Truth by Avi is a book that my eldest brought home from her first day of 7th grade as a Language Arts assignment. It's an older book….published right around the time that I remember stories told by multiple points of view was a popular method of novel writing. The story does indeed present a middle school controversy surrounding the singing of the Star Spangle Banner through the viewpoints of students, teachers, administrators, parents and members of the press. The ending is purposely left open for the reader to decide what will happen…which is perfect for discussion of facts and opinions among middle school students. I was very glad to have read this novel. Avi is a major author in children's literature and I haven't read much from Avi yet. I will definitely read more.

Stein, G. The Art of Racing in the Rain (2009). Harper Paperbacks. New York

Avi. Nothing But the Truth (1993). Harper Collins Children's Books. New York

Thursday, August 26, 2010

TED…Ideas worth spreading

I have to admit, I'm in love with TED…..the non-profit organization devoted to spreading worthwhile ideas globally. TED began in 1984 with a combined effort of geniuses in the fields of technology, entertainment and design. Presenters can be famous authors such as Amy Tan, gurus in the field of technology such as Steve Jobs or lesser known people with amazing ideas. TED talks can be anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and accessed at the TED website. The website is a great place to browse for topics on innovation, invention, technology, literacy….all speakers are cutting edge or "out of the box" thinkers in their fields.

90% of the time, TED Talks are for grownups. However, every once in a while a TED Talk is great for kids. For example, Jim Toomey: Learning from Sherman the Shark is a talk about how cartoonist, Toomey, uses his genre to create awareness of the ocean and issues that affect its health and survival. His talk is great inspiration for those kids that draw and draw and doodle their way through the day….it can actually lead to not only a career but one that can impact a cause.

Take 14 minutes to watch Learning from Sharks with a young person today and get to know TED. I'll bet you will love TED too.

Toomey, J. Learning from Sharks {TED Talk}. Retrieved from TED Talks website:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chester by Melanie Watt….er Chester!

I had a cat named George who was very large in the life of my family. Physically, George was large. And, George had a way of impacting the script of daily life. If I was in a mad dash to get out of the house, sure enough, George would be padding down the hall in front of me at his slow and steady pace. For the life of me I could never charge past or over him without being tripped by a fat, purring cat. Because I've known George, I feel like I know Chester of the picture book Chester so very well. Melanie Watt, author and Chester's owner sets out to write a book about her cat when the big guy himself interrupts the entire book from the jacket cover, every page of text and credits with this fat red marker. This cat is equally full of himself, and there's a lot to be full of, and naughty in the funniest of ways. My six and nine year old children chortled all the way through this Virginia Reader's Choice nominee for 2010-2011 at the primary level.

Melanie Watt has written other great books for primary readers such as Scaredy Squirrel and Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend.

Have a laugh with fat cat and a fat cat lover – pick up Chester for fun reading.

Watt, M. Chester (2007) Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco has done it again! In an amazing autobiographical story, she's redefined what it means to be "special ed". I love Polocco for how she writes inspirational and complex picture books to read aloud to young children or motivate very young but strong readers. Now, if only I could get through her books without a tear in my eye! I need to read these aloud to children without choking up.

A delightful quote from Junkyard Wonders:

"Genius is neither learned nor acquired.

It is knowing without experience
It is risking without fear of failure
It is perception without touch
It is understanding without research
It is certainty without proof
It is ability without practice
It is invention without limitations
It is imagination without boundaries
It is creativity without constraints
It is……extraordinary intelligence!"

This is a must read for parents, teachers, administrators and anyone that has ever experienced learning differently. Viva la difference! For grades 3 and up.

Polacco, P. Junkyard Wonders New York: Philomel Books. 2010. Print

School Library Celebrations!

Gotta love the American Library Association's list of reasons to celebrate a library and in a library!

American Library Association. (July 2010). Library Promotions and Events 2010-2011. Retrieved from:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Virginia's Reader's Choice Award

Each year, young readers from across Virginia vote on their favorite book in four categories: Primary, Elementary, Middle School and Young Adult. Books, noteworthy and published in the last five years, are nominated by a committee. Book lists from past years provide outstanding titles for children and families to choose from when looking for a great new book to read.

Virginia State Reading Association. (June 2010). Retrieved from.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Classroom and School Library--What's the Difference?

I was reading through some of my library school material recently and came across this passage. It helps explain the special role of a school library....and, I think, why they need to be supported.

"A school library and a classroom collection of reading material both support the school reading program. One cannot substitute for the other. One--the school library is a collection of resources that are organized according to a standard system with materials catalogued and classified for universal accessibility. The other--the classroom collection of reading materials--is organized and leveled to service the individual classroom.........

By providing proactive support for in-class reading instruction, school library media specialists demonstrate their commitment to helping schools meet reading goals. For teachers, they provide catalogued sets of material in searchable formats and data on material use. For students they provide collections for research, skill building, and pleasure that support reading motivation."

Roscello, F. and P. Webster (2002). Characteristics of School Library Media Programs and Classroom Collections: Talking Points, Albany, NY: Office of Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education, New York State Education Department.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When You Reach Me

Last week, my kids and I took an 8 hour van ride and while my "littles" watched Disney movies, my eldest and I listened to When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. My daughter read this in the spring and begged me to read it too. I never got around to it until we picked up the CD set at the library before our trip. What an incredible, suspenseful, mysterious, sci-fi…yet big life emotional questions kind of story! I loved it. And, I really do think that this book is better listened to than read. My 11 year old daughter agrees with that. She appreciated the complexities of the story much more after listening to it on our trip. We had so much to talk about. How much we loved how main character handles challenges, how mysterious Sal's part was in the story and how each of us arrived at our conclusion about who the time traveler was in the story. We also both want to know more about time travel theory…it's all so fascinating.

I also enjoyed When You Reach Me because the story was set in 1978……just about the time I was in sixth grade as the main character was. If you are a fan of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, seventies kitsch such as the game show Twenty Thousand Dollar Pyramid and smart writing, this is a must read. I recommend it for advanced readers in grades 4-8 for a satisfyingly challenging book.

When You Reach Me is the very worthy recipient of the 2010 Newberry Award for Children's Literature.

Stead, R. When You Reach Me (2009). New York. Listening Library

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Word After Word After Word by Patricia McLachlan

Today I made one of my favorite annual trips – to the teeny, tiny library in the village where I grew up. Even though my kids are accustomed to a large county library with multiple branches, they love Bell Memorial Library too. The display of books in the children's room is always inviting and up to date and we can make ourselves comfy for an hour to browse and read in a building made of old stones that cast a that special library hush. While visiting, I picked up Word After Word After Word, by Patricia McLachlan from a new book display. The story is of a group of elementary school children transformed by the power of creative writing when a famous author visits their class to conduct a writing work shop. Little by little, each child in the group of friends "hears" the words they are supposed to hear to tell their story – in the form of poetry or essay or short story.

Word After Word After Word, a fictional story, is based on McLachlan's experiences as an author (1986 Newberry winner for Sarah Plain and Tall) who discusses stories and the craft of writing with young audiences. The poems shared by the characters in the story are refreshing and add depth to the story. The ending of the story is surprising and creative, one that brings a smile and a hooray from readers that also enjoy writing! This would be a super book to share with creative writers, especially girls, in grades three through six. There are lots of good ideas about where to get writing ideas from and how writing affects the author and their audience. I'm so glad that a trip to a far away but loved library led me to this lovely, lovely story.

McLachlan, P. Word After Word After Word (2010). New York. Katherine Tegan Books.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mao and Me by Chen Jiang Hong

I cannot think of a time in the lives of American children when they will be expected to learn about modern day China. Yes, high school students are required to study world history and geography….but to understand the complexities of China during Mao's Cultural Revolution is not expected of American youths. Possibly, young people in college will learn about Mao if they take courses that specialize in modern Chinese history.

I know many Chinese American young people adopted into American families. Many of these young people have a natural curiosity about China's culture and history. Many do not. Many have parents that have a curiosity and interest in Chinese culture and history. Many do not. Many will travel to China on heritage tours….and many will not. However, in all of these cases, these young people will "meet" Mao in some way during their lives and be challenged to understand why he is important to China. As a parent, that does have an interest in Chinese culture and history; I find it difficult to explain Mao Tse Tung in simple terms. Hong's picture book, Mao and Me, is as good an explanation as I can give to young people from ages 8 to adult. I found this book in the Juvenile Biography section of my local library.

This book is two autobiographical stories in one. The first story is of how the author, born in 1963, enjoyed growing up as a typical kid in Shanghai…lots of illustrations show depictions of everyday life that I have seen in China from the architecture, style of clothing, living in an extended family, writing tablets in school, crowded buses and city streets, holiday traditions. However, the author is three years old when Mao's Cultural Revolution begins and it shapes his entire world from what he eats, or doesn't, how he is educated and programmed to become a part of Mao's revolution.

Throughout the weaving of both these stories, lines of the illustrations, colors and text all bear witness to a trying time of Chinese history. After my nine year old Chinese born daughter read the book her comment was: "This is so very sad". I'm ok with her reaction. I want her to know that there was a leader in China named Mao who was very famous when he was alive and still is after his death. Mao's leadership both inspired the people of China to strive toward greatness and was very difficult for his people to survive. In some important ways it was a sad time for China.

If a child is mature enough for Young Adult books (those written for an 8th grade audience and up), I would pair this picture book with the outstanding YA novel: Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Yin Chang Compestine. Also autobiographical, this story is a gripping account of life as a teen during the days of the Cultural Revolution in Whuan, (Hubei Province) China. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party has won numerous awards including an ALA Best YA Book in 2008 as well as a 2008 Best Social Studies Trade Book Award. The combination of Compestine's in depth description of 1970's China as well as Hong's picture book would be an excellent launch into a true study of the time period for young and adult students of this period of Chinese history.

Hong, C. (2008). Mao and Me. New York: Enchanted Lion Books

Compestine, Y. (2007). Dinner is Not a Revolution. New York: Square Fish Books

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees

I told my facebook friends that I was reading this book and a response from a friend was that her son was encouraged to read this book as a ninth or tenth grader for summer reading. Her observation that it was not a book designed for young teen boys. I have to agree with her on that. This book is heavily laden with woman's thought, woman's love, loss, grief, gain and power. I would never expect a young teen boy to connect with this book in a meaningful way….I wouldn't expect my forty-something husband who's been trying to figure out "girl stuff" for fifteen years of marriage now to really connect with this book. The Secret Life of Bees, in my opinion, is also the secret life of women. If a young man reads it and enjoys it, more power to him…..but I'd never force it. That being said, I would definitely include The Secret Life of Bees in a high school collection. My favorite line from the book is one that would do all the world good to understand: "And when you get down to it, Lily, that's the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love—but to persist in love."(p. 289).

Add Secret Life of Bees to your summer reading, girls. It's a book to be enjoyed in hot weather with a teaspoon of honey mixed into your tea.

Kidd, S. (2002). The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reasons to Read Elijah of Buxton

Ten Reasons to Read Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

1. The story is based on the real history of the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission of Ontario Canada. This is a place established by a white minister for escaped and freed slaves in the 1850s. Much of the novel is based on the true facts of this place. The history itself is rich and interesting. The book is dedicated to the first twenty inhabitants of the town. Elijah, a fictional character, was the first child born free in Buxton.

2. Even though Elijah, the narrator, is only eleven, he deals with very complex and adult related situations. Some of the situations are "bust-a-gut" funny and some are deadly serious. Throughout it all, Elijah has to think smart and as grown up as he can to keep himself and others safe in his world. Kids today of any age can relate….especially kids in grades 4-8.

3. The chapter 'Familiarity Breeds Contempt' is the best lesson I've ever encountered on why no one in their right mind should ever use the "n" word. It starts out funny, ends up serious and satisfying.

4. The end of the story has fantastic suspense. Read this…"When you first walk into a room in a house, or into a stable, they have a way of telling you they know you're there. It ain't nothing particular noticeable, but the air inside of 'em changes like it's saying, "I'm watching you." But I got into this stable so quiet and sneakish that nothing knowed I'd cracked open the door, held my breath and took a step inside." (p. 289-290).

5. There are descriptions of slave life re-told by characters that escaped from slavery or who are attempting to escape are appropriate for juvenile readers but carry horrors in a way that the reader feels like they understand slavery in new way.

6. Even though the narration and dialog are written in the dialect of the times and group, it doesn't make the story harder to read.

7. The characters of the book are believable, loveable and funny. Even though living in Buxton isn't easy, it's full of people anyone would want for family, friends and neighbors.

8. Elijah has one of the coolest talents described in a story—chunking.

9. The author, Christopher Paul Curtis has written many other GREAT books. His writing is so rich and descriptive that it makes the reader want to read all his books. Books by Curtis can be found at his official website:

10. As with several of Curtis' books, Elijah of Buxton is an award winner. It was a Newberry Honor Book in 2008 as well as winner of the 2008 Coretta Scott King Prize.

Curtis, C. Elijah of Buxton 2007. New York: Scholastic Press

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

Years ago, when I taught high school, there was a teen girl from Pakistan in my US History class. She wasn't a great student. She and I didn't seem to click. Today I don't even remember her name. But, one day she mentioned that soon she would return to Pakistan to marry. Her Muslim girlfriends assured me that she wasn't kidding and they were worried for her as there was no way she was getting out of the marriage. "Her parents are strict," they would tell me. I only half believed or understood this talk at the time. After all, she was a very social and American acting teen with a boyfriend. She dressed western and in a way I would call provocative and what other students would term "slutty". How could parents of a girl like this be strict?

I've thought of that student many times as I've read books such as Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen. However, the memory of this former student haunted me as I read Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez (2007 Random House).

Rodriguez, a beautician from Michigan with a textured past as a twice divorced single mother finds herself in Afghanistan in 2005 working to establish a beauty school for Afghan women as a means to empower that nation's women as independent, thinking contributors to their society. None of the story is easy from Rodriguez's personal journey to the lives of the women she wishes to make a positive impact on. However, Rodriguez's experiences living in Afghanistan as an American woman are fascinating. She really does get "behind the veil" to learn what life is like for women in Afghan culture…what is difficult, what is impossible but better yet what is possible given the right attitude, the right friends and connections and a compassionate heart.

I have just a tiny bit of experience as a volunteer for a humanitarian organization that seeks to improve lives of vulnerable and cast off members of an Asian nation. Working with an in another culture and society is difficult to say the least. I appreciate that the author shared how difficult it is to learn a culture, successfully live in the culture and work to improve the lives within that culture all at the same time. It seems impossible the whole time until one looks back and sees the work that has been accomplished. It reminds me of a term that I learned working to improve the lives of orphans in China:"baby steps". Progress can be accomplished but at a much slower pace than what we westerners understand. Furthermore, we westerners can learn a thing or two by slowing down and understanding what does work in another culture. It can often be enlightening to us if we give it a chance!

School Library Journal has given a solid positive review of this book at for high school students and adults:

I think that older teens able to handle the descriptions of cultural differences related to marriage and sexual relations between western and Afghan culture could learn a lot from this book. Additionally, I found myself considering the advantages and power that have been afforded beauticians in my own culture that I had never give thought to before. Beauticians for generations have been independent business women that make decisions, bring home the bacon and often raise children in the midst of it all. Virginia's own Maggie Walker earned a kind of fame as an early beautician for the African American community in a similar way that Rodriguez seeks to do for Afghan women.

My Pakistani student from a decade ago was not Afghan….so I cannot know her experience from reading this book. I do have a broader understanding for what life as a woman in a Muslim culture entails thanks to Rodriguez's generous sharing of her experience in Kabul Beauty School.

Additional photos of Rodriguez's life in the Kabul Beauty School and Afghanistan can be found at her non-profit Oasis Rescue website:

The Kabul Beauty School is not without controversy….certainly controversial in Afghanistan where beauty shops are suspected of being "fronts" for brothels but also in the west where there are grumblings between the school's founders and the author of the book about who did what and when for the school. Despite the grumblings which can easily be found in Google searches, I felt that I learned a great deal from this book. It's a great read!

Rodriguez, D. (2007). Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. New York: Random House.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hooray for Flickr and CC

Today is July 4th. I'm a pretty patriotic gal so I changed my facebook profile pic to the American flag. One small problem for me is that I don't have a photo of an American flag to use. To solve my problem I visited Flickr. Flickr is a website that hosts images and video for members. Flickr offers services for free up to a certain amount of digital storage space. Customers willing to pay a fee for more space can store many more photos and videos at the site.

What's fun about Flickr is that the site contains endless images that anyone can use. I've gone to Flickr for images to complete lesson plans, documents such as invitations, letters and creative writing pieces. Images on Flickr are protected by copyright and Creative Commons licensing. If you've not heard of Creative Commons, CC is a non-profit organization that provides licensing alternatives to creators so that works can be shared and built upon easily without infringing on the rights of the creator. For example, if I take a photo of daffodils in my front yard and upload the image to Flickr. I can choose to keep the image private or share it. If I share the image I can decide how someone else may use the image. The choices are

Attribution: Others can use, copy and change the work as long as they cite me as the creator
Share Alike: Others can use and change my work so long as it's under the same license my work is under
Non-Commercial: Others can use and change my work so long as it's not for profit (this is a great one for teachers)
No-Derivative Work: Others can use my work on in its original form only

Considering the above license options and my quest for a flag photo, I navigated to Flickr and signed in (with my yahoo account password as Flickr is associated with I searched for American Flag with an advanced search so that my results were ONLY for images licensed under Creative Commons. On the second page of results, I found a flag photo that I liked taken by crazyemt in 2006. The license link on the bottom right side of the page leads me to a page that states that I am "free to share, copy and distribute" the image so long as that I do not change the image or make money from using it. Ta da! A free photo of a flag for my facebook profile on the Fourth of July that is legal for me to use. Thanks crazyemt – whoever you are!

Flickr and CC are great sources of images for young people to use for school projects and mash-ups. However, adults and educators must understand that Flickr is wide open in the type of content stored there. Because anything and everything can be found on Flickr, I recommend working with a young person to find images either with one on one attention or creating a gallery of photos that a young person can choose from to use in their project.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A funny pairing of boy-ish books

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka

By Jon Scieszka

During sixth grade volunteer reading time, one class in particular responded great to slightly "weird" humor. I discovered this when presenting the two books titled above simultaneously. I have to admit, the humor tickled the funny bone of boys quicker than it did the girls…..but it worked for both. I especially appreciated the teacher's positive response to the humor I was reading because sometimes Jon Scieszka's writings are a tiny bit irreverent if not slightly naughty—so sixth grade!

The Stinky Cheese Man has been around for a long time (published 1992) and is a favorite of many older kids that grew up with sweet fairy tales such as The Little Red Hen, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Pea and The Little Gingerbread Boy. Sceiszka gathered all of these tales, fractured and reassembled them into a jumbled up compilation that makes kids who don't necessarily enjoy reading push on to the end. As with all great picture books, the illustrations of Lane Smith further "tell" the story so that the book is best if the reader searches out the illustrations too. The book is a Caldecott honor book.

Knuckleheads, published in 2008, is a fantastic autobiography of the author's life growing up with five brothers. Scieszka explains that he's been asked so many times about where his stories come from that he thought an explanation in the form of his autobiography would be a good start. Each chapter is super short and either funny or touching in a very boy kind of way. Yes, there is bit of potty humor and story about throwing up but, the book makes the reader laugh through universal experiences of boyhood from any generation. Knuckleheads is, in my opinion, a fantastic way of introducing the genre of autobiography to younger readers. My boys ages 6 and 7 read and giggled through several of the chapters that I read aloud to them. The black and white photographs show the author and family members from an earlier time giving the book a definite "old timey" (in terms of today's kids) feel. For sixth graders, I read a few pages of Stinky Cheese Man and then a chapter of Knuckleheads….asking students if they "got" how Scieska's childhood experiences shaped his humor as a writer. At first, students showed me faces with the "huh?!" expression and then little by little were giggling with me toward the end of our reading session. We all had fun.

Scieszka is an outstanding children's author and was named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the US Library of Congress in 2008. His mission to engage young people, especially reluctant readers and boys, in reading is obvious. Another one of his works that I intend to check out soon is his edited compilation of essays: Guys Write for Guys Read (Viking 2005). Many wonderful details can be learned about Scieszka can be learned at his child friendly website Jon Scieszka Worldwide: That's What It's All About:

Scieszka, J. (2008). Knuckleheads: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka. New York: Viking.

Scieszka, J. (1992). The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. New York: Viking Juvenile.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Queen Bees & Wannabes—the missing parenting manual

Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, And the New Realities of Girl World by Rosalind Wiseman.

My first impression of Queen Bees and Wannabes is that it's "the" missing parenting manual for teen girls. What's great about the book that is that Wiseman begins with the foundation of what makes girls act like girls at the early ages of five and up. She connects how and why girls, raised in the context of their families seek out relationships with other girls as they get older, how these relationships turn into cliques that either adhere to our society and culture's vision of what a woman should be and not be or don't.

By the time girls are in the teen years, the idea of what a woman and thus a teen growing toward womanhood should be is so strong that it drives how girls behave. Wiseman, through thousands of hours as an educator of children, teens, parenting, social justice and ethical leadership, gives readers a true inside look at "girl world". She includes hundreds of quotes from girls that have participated in her courses and workshops to back up what she is saying. Wiseman also compassionately provides a few chapters on "boy world" and how boys view and interact with teen girls. Even if you have years and years of experience with young people and teens, you will learn much from this book.

One idea that Wiseman presents right at the beginning of her book is that life as a teen today IS different than it was ten years ago. She lays the foundation for how technology in the form of cell phones, e-mail, social networking and electronic gaming has changed the rules for how young people interact with other humans. This is crucial for today's parents to understand when making decisions for and with their children. Additionally, Wiseman validates the good parenting that so many of us have been slogging through and cheers us into continuing. Wiseman is all about how to send the values a child's family has already established out into the world through the guided choices a teen girl makes. It's tough work but Wiseman provides strong tools. After reading Queenbees, I feel good about what my family has done and empowered to carry on into what so many consider "the difficult years" of teens.

Although this is not a book to leave around for younger kids to pick up and read, there are some sections I will be prepared to allow my children to read when they are ready so that we can talk about how to deal with maintaining their dignity and the dignity of others in the wide array of experiences they will encounter in their lives before leaving home.

I could write on and on about how necessary this book is. However, I realize that when someone such as myself blabs too much about a book, a movie or anything that is a "must see" it can be a turn off. I will be purchasing multiple copies of the book and giving it as gifts to family and friends because I believe that the information provided in this book can be life changing and even life saving. Wouldn't it be great if a generation of us and then our children joined Wiseman in her quest to "create cultures of dignity?"

For those interested in learning more about Wiseman's work and connecting a teen to her continuous advice on her blog and social networking sites, please see: . Wiseman's latest book is a YA Novel, Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials (2010) Putnam Publishers. You can be sure that I'll be checking this one out too!

Happy Reading!

Wiseman, R. (2009). Queenbees & Wannabes:Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, And The New Realities of Girl World. New York: Crown Publishing.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

GON by Masashi Tanaka, great series for reluctant and ambitious readers

Ah, summer when the reading is easy. My family enjoys a series of books titled: Gon by Masashi Tanaka that is worth sharing. These books are super for reluctant readers and new readers because they are wordless books. However, even my super reader becomes completely absorbed in the Gon stories and enjoys retelling them in detail.

Gon is a dinosaur, a feisty dinosaur, which escaped extinction and now roams the world saving small and defenseless animals from bigger and meaner creatures. Despite some suspenseful violence, many, many scenes are comical and I often hear my kids laughing out loud as they read.

I've wondered as I see how much my children love these books of pen and ink art, are they reading? And, I've come to the conclusion that they are. Gon is divided up into episodes that are read from the back of the book toward the front as many graphic novels and manga books are designed. In order to understand the story of each episode and how each episode of the book is part of the larger story, readers must understand who the characters are, what the action is and where the scene is taking place. The title page for each episode includes sometimes one or two words or a couple of paragraphs. This is great for kids that don't enjoy reading….because by the time they get to these few words they are hooked enough by the story to read to the end. I also love how the ending to each Gon novel is "to be continued…" so that the reader is already looking forward to the next book in the series.

Gon is published by CMX publishers, a trademark of DC Comics. CMX kindly includes a "Know What's Inside" label inside the back (in this case front) cover of the Gon books for adults so that they can decided if the reading material is appropriate for their reader. Gon is rated T for "teen" as opposed to "E" for everyone, T+ "Teen Plus" for ages 16 and older or "M" for mature. Since I am very new to the world of graphic novels and manga, I appreciate this label description. The "T" for the books my children, who are not yet teens, covers the violent nature of some drawings. None of the drawings that I've read are more suspenseful or violent than the Spiderman, Hulk, Star Wars or other action/adventure comics we've checked out of the Juvenile section of our local library. Gon is shelved in the Juvenile comic book (Dewey numbers 741) section of our library alongside our favorite Marvel and DC comics for kids.

Gon books are fun….definitely different than what I grew up with but appealing to today's kids.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lin Yi’s Lantern: A Moon Festival Tale

For all my friends that keep up with Chinese lore and tradition, there is a lovely new-ish (published in 2009) picture book to add to your collection. The story is of Lin Yi, who must go to the market to purchase items for the upcoming Moon Festival….however, money is tight and he might not be able to buy a lantern he has his heart set on. Lin Yi passes through the Moon Gate on the way to the market for good luck. At the market, a typical farmer's market of rural China, Lin Yi bargains his hardest and stops to look at lanterns. Sure enough, he doesn't have enough money for the lantern….however; there are special surprises that wait Yin Li at home for being such a good boy doing the family's marketing. The story is sweet but what I liked even more was an additional re-telling of the 'Moon Lady' tale as well as directions for how to make one's own Chinese lantern. The book is a picture book but very appropriate for children ages 8 and older. I found this gem at my local library.

Williams, B. and Lacombe, B. Lin Yi's Lantern (2009) Barefoot Books.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Picture Books that illustrate 6th Grade US-VA History

I had a fantastic opportunity to volunteer at Mayfield 6 this spring. Since the school was without a library for the second half of their year, Mayfield librarians found ways of bringing library to their students—a remarkable feat—but that is a story for another day.

One teacher asked me to bring books to read aloud to her students that fit with their 6th grade Standards of Virginia Learning: The SOLs. Since Social Studies is my "thing," I found this assignment more than just a little fun.

All of the books below are picture books—a GREAT way for students of any age to learn about history. However, these books are especially helpful to reluctant readers/learners. If you have a fifth grader looking ahead to 6th grade US History, give some of these books a look over the summer. All of these books were borrowed from the Prince William County Library.





The Escape of Oney Judge

Amy Arnold McCully

E = Easy Reader

Oney is Martha Custiss Washington's slave. George Washington frees his slaves upon his death…but Martha's family doesn't. Oney must escape to experience freedom. True story.

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story

Janet Halfman


Robert is a slave that achieves the rank of ship's captain in the Confederacy until he escapes to the Union. Smalls goes on to greatness after. True story.

The Story of the H.L. Hunley and Queenie's Coin

Fran Hawk


The development of submarine warfare…astoundingly good and true story.

Daniel Boone's Great Escape

Michael Spradlin

J Bio

Exciting picture book biography of Daniel Boone. Kids LOVED it.

January's Sparrow

Patricia Polacco

J fic

We can teach facts about slavery and escaping to freedom but cannot give the feeling of it like Polacco can. Based on a true story

Pink and Say

Patricia Polacco

J fic

We can teach facts about fighting the Civil War but cannot give the feeling of it like Polacco can. Based on a true story.

Mississippi Mud: Three Prairie Journals

Ann Warren Turner


Poems of the journey west to Oregon from the points of view of 3 children in a family.

The Legend of Blue Jacket

Michael Spradlin


Incredible story of a young American's kidnapping and adoption into the Shawnee tribe….Blue Jacket's life is intertwined with Daniel Boone. Based on true stories.

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek

Deborah Hopkinson


Not an SOL book….but oh, so much fun to read. Will have kids giggling and thinking about a different side of Abe Lincoln and his buddy.

Don't Know Much About the Pioneers

Kenneth C. Davis


Author of the fun "Don't Know Much" series…Davis presents lots of interesting facts about pioneer life. This one is not one that I got to read aloud…would of if I had the time.

Duel of the Ironclads: The Monitor vs. The Virginia

Patrick O'Brien


I left this book for the teacher to read aloud. It's a wonderful story about the making of the first ironclads—true story but reads like a fiction book with amazing illustrations.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

American History Graphic Novel

The Dreamer: The Consequence of Nathan Hale

What a fun read! The Dreamer: The Consequence of Nathan Hale by Lora Innes is a YA graphic novel that leads readers into America of 1776 when patriots were fighting for their lives against the British war machine. Dreamer, opens with a great two page summary of the American Revolution, "which brings us to the events described in the following pages…" Modern teen Beatrice Whaley is in love with the man of her dreams, literally. Every time Beatrice falls asleep she dreams of hunky Alan Warren a historical figure from America's Revolution who rescues her from being held hostage on British General Howe's ship in Long Island Sound. Soon after, Warren tries to engage historical figure Nathan Hale into delivering her safety to Boston just as British troops invade Long Island and General Washington is retreating with the entire Continental Army to Manhattan.

As in any good action story, Beatrice lands right in the middle of a battle in the Jamaica Pass as it was fought in Revolutionary War times. Rescue of the Damsel in distress by Hale, additional historical figure Thomas Knowlton and Warren all become parts of the exciting plot as guerilla warfare and life behind the Continental Army lines are portrayed.

In life between dreams, Beatrice cannot convince her friends of the conflict that is ongoing for her which complicates friendships and a new romance with a boy that she's had a crush on for years who is finally showing interest. By the end of the novel readers are offered a link to learn more about the story and characters of Dreamer which looks to be the beginning of a series. Hooray! At the site, the author also sells additional historical short stories that look interesting—although I did not buy any. Innes maintains a blog that fans can read in and participate in. The author has a true passion for this historical period.

Dreamer is a true YA graphic novel (look in the 741 Dewey numbers of the library for graphic novels) which means it has the look of a comic book but all the elements of a novel: the story is carried in chapters with consistent setting, characters and plot from beginning to end. What I enjoy about Dreamer is its appeal to female teens who may be reluctant readers of American History. There are a few words, and artwork that seats this novel securely on the YA shelf and not in the Juvenile section– be aware if you offer this novel to younger, high-level readers. I would say the content is similar and even a bit tamer than that of a daytime soap opera as far as age appropriateness. The love story is definitely "girl-ish" in nature…but a great way of making history more interesting than a typical text or even difficult to read 18th century primary sources for young women. I look forward to seeing more from this author. Additional helpful reviews can be found at

Friday, June 11, 2010

The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John

It's always interesting to me when my eleven year old daughter and I read the same book at the same time. Simultaneously, one of my daughter's favorite teachers and a different teacher friend of mine sent Lauren St. John's, The White Giraffe for each of us to read – unbeknownst to any others of us. I began reading the story yesterday during a break in my reading schedule for sixth graders at Mayfield 6. I had about an hour and sped through the first sixty pages.

My first impression of the story is that it is very, very familiar…..much like one of my childhood favorites The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgeson Burnett. A young girl survives a terrible tragedy that takes the lives of both her parents and is sent to live with a grandmother she's never heard of. Grandmother is cranky and emotionally distant doesn't appear thrilled with guardianship of Martine. Furthermore, she lives in South Africa and is the owner of a wild game farm and exotic animal refuge that she forbids her granddaughter to enter. There is much updating of the story with the addition of many characters—not the least of which is Jemmy, the white giraffe. Despite the fact that the plot is incredibly implausible, I found myself really seeing South Africa, especially the animals of the game farm in my mind. The descriptions in the story invite every sense to participate in the lush and wild land—especially at sun rise and sun set. By the end of the story, I was satisfied with the happy ending and glad to have read the book.

My daughter's experience with the book made me chuckle. Never one to be "beat" at anything; she finished the story about ten minutes ahead of me at the breakfast table. If I weren't responsible for getting three of her siblings off to school—I would have beat her to the end handily. Oh well! My daughter loved the story. The parts of the story that I, as an adult, cannot picture really happening didn't matter to her. What mattered to her is that the main character and the giraffe have the ending that she was wishing for. She also loved the descriptions of South Africa….especially as the World Cup Soccer games are beginning now and my daughter is a big fan of the game. She wrote a note to the teacher who loaned her The White Giraffe to say that she LOVED it !!! She can't wait to also read Dolphin Song by the same author.

It just goes to show me… matter what I or any adult thinks of a story, to really know how it reads with kids….it has to be read by kids. Don't get me wrong, The White Giraffe is a lovely story, fully deserving of the positive reviews it has received by many adults and kids, especially pre-teen girls, around the world. I found the plot a little too fanciful for me but did enjoy the trip to South Africa immensely.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bud, not Buddy

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

I just finished reading Bud, not Buddy. What a gem of a story….which is not a surprise. Bud, not Buddy won the 2000 Newberry Award for Excellence in American's Children's Literature. The story, written for readers as young as eight, is about a boy named Bud who lives in a Michigan orphanage in the mid 1930's. Unfortunately, Bud has difficulties in yet another foster home and is forced to go "on the lam." While on the run, Bud meets up with kind friends and strangers that unknowingly help him survive, travel to and get acquainted with his new family. Along the way, Bud suffers the difficulties of being parentless and penniless in the Great Depression—despite the fact that he is never, ever without his suitcase containing precious items that no one else would consider valuable. We get to know about the orphanage, a soup kitchen, a Hooverville, attempting to hop a train and Jazz bands with outlandish names. I adore Bud's description of the library and librarians that help him in all kinds of ways as he tries to figure out his next moves. The description of the smells and feels of the library put me right back into the little hometown library that I grew up with.

Bud, not Buddy is such a celebrated book that there are lots of places to read about the story and how to make meaning of it with young people. I like how Common Sense Media rates books and movies. Their description of the book was helpful to me. .

If I were teaching with this book and could focus on any questions I wanted I would ask readers to figure out what Bud has and what Bud doesn't have at various points in the story. During the 1930s and today there is much made of those who "have" and those who "don't have". What might people "have" in abundance even if they lack material possessions? How is 1930 the same or different from the times we live in?

The author of Bud, not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
has written several more critically acclaimed books. I will also read The Watson's Go to Birmingham and Elijah of Buxton over the summer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How do I find books about…?

How do I find a book about……spider monkeys, pentominos, scuba diving, oil spills, Pokémon, award winning books? There is any number of topics that any one of us could want a book about. Or, better yet, there are books on topics we'd love for our kids to read about. How to find just the right book? Novelist is a great place to start looking.

Novelist is a reader's advisory database that allows users to look for book titles from many different angles: age of reader, titles of books, author of books, plot descriptions, non-fiction and fiction books. Better yet, once a book is found there is a way to find "books like these" or, "read-alikes" that will lead the searcher to new titles. Novelist is also a fun place to browse for: Award winning books, Recommended Reads for differing age levels, Author "read-a-likes". There are also book discussion questions, talks and extension activities to engage readers in a whole new level of reading. Novelist is a database maintained by EBSCO who offers subscriptions to libraries. If your public library has "e-sources" or databases for patrons to take advantage of, it likely has Novelist.

Give Novelist a try to find some new titles. Here's how:

If your library allows you to access its databases via internet, navigate to the main page of your library system and find the link that connects you to the databases. My local public library has a link on its main page titled "electronic resources". I can click on that and be taken to a list of dozens of databases that my library subscribes to.

If your library does not allow internet access, you will need to find the database on a computer in your library. Ask a librarian at the information desk to help you out. Librarians love databases—so much information all in one spot!

Once at the electronic resource page, find Novelist and click on it. You will likely need to enter your library barcode number and a possibly a password to enter the database. Once in the database, it is easy to find the search bar and the categories of searches you would like. Novelist also connects to your library's electronic card catalog to let you know if the books you have found there are available at your library.

Recently, my friend Sandy asked me about "best friend" books for her daughter. I don't know too many of this type of book off the top of my head to recommend….but Novelist presented me with a list of over 5,000 "best friend" titles for older kids and teens. Her daughter could browse this list and pick out some interesting books to read over the summer. If she finds a book she enjoys she can also use the "find books like these" finder of Novelist to find more books.

Give Novelist a try and let me know how it works for you.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Summer 2010 Young Reader High Reading Level Books

Books I've recommended to teachers, friends and family as good books for young readers with higher reading levels. I categorize the books the way my local public library does: Juvenile Literature content is generally for grades 3-7. Young Adult Literature content is generally for grades 8-11. Of course, with all books there are tremendous exceptions to these categorizations—which is so much fun for librarians to play with. For example, Patricia Polacco's wonderful picture books, January's Sparrow, Pink and Say, and The Butterfly are beautifully illustrated picture books….but are categorized as Juvenile literature, as opposed to the Easy Reader/Picture Books, because the content would be emotionally difficult for children younger than third grade to grasp. Fiction books are labeled Fic. Non-fiction books are labeled Non-fic.





The Magician's Elephant—and all by this author.

DiCamillo, Kate

Juv Fic

Kate DeCamillo's incredible and poetic writing in a beautiful literary story. Would appeal to literary girls. My daughter and I think it moves too slowly for most boys. A GREAT read aloud for parents and teachers.

Chasing Vermeer

Blue Balliett

Juv Fic

FANTASTIC who- done-it story about a stolen Vermeer painting, coincidences---or are all events really related, pentominos—math puzzles, logical thinking. First in a GREAT series.

Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam

Cynthia Kadohata

Juv Fic

A wonderful story about a service dog in Vietnam. There is one or two scenes of battle that are tough—but ok, especially for boys ahead of peers in literary maturity and can handle the topic of war.

Carver: A Life in Poems

Marilyn Nelson

Juv Non-Fic

Book in verse about George Washington Carver. Lots to learn about this amazing African American inventor and innovator but in poems.

Home of the Brave

Katherine Applegate

Juv Fic

A Somali teen boy refugee comes to the US—Minnesota in the midst of winter and learns what it means to live in US. The book is great and ALL in verse

Pictures of Hollis Woods

Patricia Reilly Giff

Juv Fic

An artistic girl in the foster care system goes through the challenge of allowing herself to be loved and to love an adoptive family….more of a girl's book.


Cynthia Rylant

Juv Fic

Teen girl has an autistic brother but wants to make friends with a new neighbor….just as she makes friends with another special needs friend. GREAT book

The Sniper

James Riordan

YA Fic

The youngest sniper in the Russian Army during WWII is actually a girl….an amazing story that will keep both boys and girls turning pages…based on a true story that is detailed at the end of the book.

A Time of Angels

Karen Hesse

YA Fic

A young girl leaves Boston during the great flu epidemic of 1914. Incredible story

Out of the Dust

Karen Hesse

Juv Fic

The story of a girl living through the dust bowl days of the Great Depression. Winner of the Newberry Award and all in verse—great poems—emotionally challenging but informative.

Aleutian Sparrow

Karen Hesse

Juv Fic

The story of a village of Eskimos relocated during WWII. Emotionally challenging but an incredible story. The story is told all in verse.

The Wednesday Wars

Gary D. Schmidt

Juv Fic

Young boy in 6th grade gets stuck with his teacher every Wed. After some funny interactions they begin to study Shakespeare together and what the boy learns mirrors what's going on in the world at the time 1968.

Counting on Grace

Elizabeth Winthrop

Juv Fic

Young Grace goes to work in a factory in the early 1800's. Story about factory life. Grace eventually leaves to become a teacher.

F*E*G* Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children

Robin Hirsch

Juv Non-fic

Great poems that fit the "rules" of various types of poetry—but take poetry to the limit! Clever stuff

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

Berlin, Eric

Juv Fic

Great story for puzzle lovers—solving the puzzles helps solve the mystery. This author used to write crossword puzzles. Readers can go on-line to download puzzles if they don't want to cover their books with pencil marks.

The Potato Chip Puzzles

Berlin, Eric

Juv Fic

Second book of Winston Breen mysteries.