Friday, May 6, 2016

Walk Two Moons

I first read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech when I was in fifth grade. A few classmates had read and recommended it, and my mom had eventually bought it for me at a Scholastic Book Fair, most likely after some relentless begging on my part. Walk Two Moons gave me my first flashlight-under-the-covers experience as a child-- staying up late and unable to stop turning pages, willing to suffer the tiredness that would follow the next morning if it meant I could discover what happened to each beloved character. Of course, as soon as I had turned the last page, my face became doused in tears. Having recently lost my own grandmother to a stroke, I could relate to the grandfather and granddaughter’s sorrow as they said goodbye to their dear Gooseberry. That night as I dried my eyes with a Kleenex, my mother came in to check on me.
“You okay, Pipe?” I remember her asking from my doorway, her hair rumpled from sleep, an old t-shirt draped over her small shoulders.
            I told her it was just my book, that had a sad ending, but it was very good and that she would have to read it. She smiled, told me she would, that she loved me, and we both went to sleep.
I remember splashing out of the pool, pulling my goggles off of my eyes and onto my forehead, swiping the water off my face and onto the deck, and plopping down on a towel in the chair next to my mother’s.  She was leaning back in her reclining lawn chair, a towel under her head, her skinny-framed sunglasses resting on her nose.  The sun shined down against my mother’s black tan-kini, an attempt at covering the long scar that travelled from her belly button to her chest line.
            “Where are you? How many pages do you have left?” I asked her, picking up her iced tea to have a sip.
            “I’m close. They’re in the hospital. It’s sad. I knew this was gonna happen.”
            “You did?! I didn’t! I know, it is sad. But it’s so good, isn’t it?!”
            “Yeah it is. She’s an incredible writer,” my mom declared. And with that, my twelve-year-old, skinny legs were running back to the water to catch a tennis ball my brother had just thrown at me.
            My mom and I had talked more about Walk Two Moons that night at dinner. I remember it had made her sadder than I’d expected. I figured it was probably because of Grandma Jean’s stroke, and Hida, my grandfather, being on this vacation with us. When we got home from our trip, she had kept the book on her nightstand for a while. She eventually put it back on the bookshelf in my closet.
That’s where I found it this fall.
I pulled up to campus, rushed and running a little later than I would have liked, but grateful that I had at least found a parking lot next to the building that would hold my class. Well, I’m doing it, I thought as I walked up to the building after parking and paying the ridiculous fee. I’m going to grad school, like I thought I never would, Mom, like I always thought you were so crazy for doing. But here I am doing it, and you aren’t here to see it.
I was bitter when I sat down. I tried to put those thoughts aside and listen as my professor introduced herself and started to run through the syllabus for my Children’s Literature class. She mentioned that for our final we had a number of options, one of which was to read one of our favorite books from our childhood and look back on it as an adult. She quoted Edmund Wilson, saying “No two persons ever read the same book”. I liked this idea, that a book would be different with each reading. I ran through the options, Because of Winn Dixie, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Number the Stars, Holes. Somehow, from somewhere, Walk Two Moons came to mind. Oh! That would be a good one, I thought. I remembered laughing as the main character told her grandparents about the crazy next door neighbor and her first kiss. I remembered crying about the grandmother’s stroke, but enjoying the book immensely. I decided it would work. Class continued, and I left feeling a little bit better than I had when I’d walked in. I would be able to do this. I would like this. My mom would have been proud of me for doing it. Pulling out onto the road, I realized the lot I was parked in was called “Holly”, my mother’s name.
I started the book that night, choosing it over Motherless Daughters or another New York Times article about grief. Little did I know, it was about to be the best thing that helped me cope with losing my mother. Thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle, who goes by Sal, would be someone I would describe as “wise beyond her years” if she was a real person. And she seemed to be just that—a real person. Sharon Creech’s development of each character makes them so real that you cannot help but believe their every word, feeling, and emotion. She brings her characters to life, making them friends you visit every night before bed, or check in with over lunch. Creech, through Sal, makes the reader laugh when she describes Phoebe’s father as “playing the role of Father, with a capital F” (31), or mentions that her grandparents keep shouting, “’Gol-dang!’” (70). They can feel Sal’s anger at her father for moving them to Euclid, Ohio, and can understand her confusion surrounding her mother’s departure: “When my mother first left for Lewiston, Idaho, that April, my first thoughts were, ‘How could she do that? How could she leave me?’” (74). Every word that Sal utters, the reader believes. As explained by James S. Jacobs and Michael O. Tunnell in their textbook Children’s Literature Briefly, “If a book is truly well written, the words between the covers are arranged in almost magical patterns that stir deep emotional responses in readers. The words do far more than relate the events of the story. The words make the book by defining character, moving the plot along, isolating theme, making the story believable” (22). Creech does all of these things with her words.
            The plot of this story also makes it a quality book. Children who have not experienced grief first-hand can grasp to the story Sal tells her grandparents as they travel: it is filled with mystery, humor, and relatable characters. Sal tells her grandparents about her next door neighbor Phoebe Winterbottom, whose mother goes missing for a couple days. Phoebe, an anxious child, is convinced that a “lunatic” has kidnapped her mother, despite the fact that her mother left a note stating that she’d return in a few days, along with prepared meals in the refrigerator. The reader can’t wait to figure out where Mrs. Winterbottom has gone and can’t help but find Phoebe’s paranoia a bit comical, making this portion of the story completely page-turning. While this part of the plot keeps the reader enchanted, the reader also finds themselves concerned for, and curious about Sal’s inner thoughts as she “prays to trees” along the drive (7). Sal feels rushed to arrive in Lewiston before her mother’s birthday, although Sal and the reader are unsure of her reasoning until the end of the book. This rushed feeling reminds the reader that there is a bigger plot-line with deeper emotions to be considered than just the entertaining story concerning Phoebe and Sal’s schooldays in Ohio. Having this dynamic structure of a story within a story makes the text more accessible and fascinating to children, young adults, and grown adults.
            Walk Two Moons is also filled with unexpected insights tied to theme, another quality of good children’s books, according to Tunnell and Jacobs. “We live with characters as they work their way through problems, but may be delighted suddenly by an eye-opening insight about the human experience that comes from their struggles” (29). These insights were exactly what made this book so appealing for me as a child, and so healing as an adult.
            My mother had been treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was in her late twenties. In the 1980s, radiation was considered the best treatment to burn these cancerous cells. Now, however, doctors realize that these high amounts of radiation burn not only the cancerous cells, but everything else around them. Throughout my childhood, my mother had to go to the hospital: her pericardium was removed way before I came into the picture, followed by her appendix, gall bladder, continued by thyroid problems, sinus and ear problems, a knee surgery, a hip surgery, reactions to medications causing extreme inflammation. Five-foot-six and a hundred pounds, she looked tiny, but everyone knew she was fierce—she had the scars to prove it. Unfortunately, the last surgery, one she knew she couldn’t avoid, was the biggest one. She had two values replaced in her heart, another thing the radiation had attacked. She fought and she fought, but she died four months before I picked up Walk Two Moons.
            Although Sal and I lost our mothers in different ways, Creech’s approach and insight on grief was so authentic and spot-on, that I feel it would be of great help to anyone, at any age, going through a loss of a loved one. Sal’s feelings are so real, that most of the pages in my copy of Walk Two Moons are now dog-eared: reference points for me to go back to when my grief strikes up. Sal describes her grief and all of its parts: anger, guilt, sadness, happiness, and confusion.
“I was uneasy because everything that happened at Phoebe’s that morning reminded me of when my mother left. For weeks, my father and I fumbled around like ducks in a fit. Nothing was where it was supposed to be. The house took a life of its own, hatching piles of dishes and laundry and newspaper and dust. My father must have said ‘I’ll be jiggered’ three thousand times…. When my father said my mother was not coming back, I refused to believe it. I brought all of her postcards down from my room and said, ‘She wrote me all these, she must be coming back.’ And just like Phoebe, who had waved her mother’s sweater in front of her father, I had brought a chicken in from the coop: ‘Would Mom leave her favorite chicken?’ I demanded. ‘She loves this chicken.’ What I really meant was, ‘How can she not come back to me? She loves me’” (133-134).
“As the days went on, many things were harder and sadder, but some things were strangely easier. When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy. If she was sad, I was sad. For the first few days after she left, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn’t know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel.
One day, about two weeks after she had left, I was standing against the fence watching a newborn calf wobble on its thin legs. It tripped and wobbled and swung its big head in my direction and gave me a sweet, loving look. ‘Oh!’ I thought. ‘I am happy at this moment in time!’ I was surprised I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry. I said to myself, ‘Salamanca Tree Hiddle, you can be happy without her.’ It seemed a mean thought, and I was sorry for it, but it felt true” (38-39).
As I read Walk Two Moons after losing my mother, I constantly thought, “So I’m not crazy! Someone else has felt this way! This is normal!” It was amazing how a fictional book had the ability to contain these “eye-opening insights”, something the non-fiction, technical, self-help books had time and time again failed to do. I realized that having a fictional middle-school-aged friend who understood was better than having the advice of scientists and doctors.
One of my favorite parts of Walk Two Moons happens close to the end. Sal remembers when her dog, Moody Blue, had puppies. She mentions that initially following the birth of the puppies, Moody Blue “kept her sharp eyes” on the puppies, “herding them back”, but eventually, she starts snipping at the puppies and pushing them away. Sal finds this behavior terrible and tells her mother how appalled she is.
            “’It’s normal. She’s weaning them from her.’” Her mother tells her.
            “’Does she have to do that? Why can’t they stay with her?’”
“’It isn’t good for her or for them. They have to become independent. What if something happened to Moody Blue? They wouldn’t know how to survive without her.’” (258)
Now Walk Two Moons rests on my nightstand, not my mother’s. I now understand why she had kept it close to her bedside after losing her own mother. Her bookmark was still tucked between its pages when I picked it up. I’d like to think it was her way of reminding me what Moody Blue wanted her puppies to know: I have shown you how to do this without me.

Original Cover
Paperback cover
Recent cover

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Freedom Maze

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman is a wonderful story about a young girl named Sophie living in the 1960s. Sophie loves to read and hates to dress up. When her mother sends her to live with her Aunt Enid and grandmother in Louisiana for the summer, Sophie finds herself exploring the bayou, devouring books, and exploring the old maze in the garden. It is in the old maze that Sophie comes across a spirit that teases and taunts her. Sophie reflects on the spirit: "She knew the animal she'd chased into the maze wasn't just a cat or a rabbit or a muskrat. The more she thought about it, the less she believed that the voice she'd heard belonged to a real child. Which meant she must have been talking to real ghost" (p33). The spirit continues to visit Sophie, and upon coming to her after a fight with her mother, Sophie tells the spirit that she wishes she wasn't herself. She tells the spirit, "'I want to be like Ann and Roger and Eliza. I want to travel through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me" (p53). With that, Sophie is off. She opens the door to her room and is flung back in time to 1860, when her grandmother's house was part of a plantation.

Although Sophie starts out as a bit of a tom-boy, not afraid of getting her dresses dirty or her hair wet, going back in time quickly makes her miss the comforts of her clean grandmother's home. Even more so than the cleanliness, Sophie soon realizes that she misses fitting in. She is mistaken for a slave immediately upon arriving back in time, and is threatened with a beating when she's caught holding a hair brush that belongs to her new master's daughter. Sophie quickly realizes that this adventure is not going to be the one she planned on-- she is an active participant, and she is unwelcome.

Sherman's work around creating a Historical Fiction text that covers two different time periods-- both 1860 and 1960-- and shows the changes made over these 100 years, is simply incredible. She flawlessly illustrates the true struggles of the slaves during this time period and the manipulative behaviors of their masters, along with the continuing racism in 1960 despite the abolishment of slavery. The reader feels as though the author herself was able to go back in time-- she captures the littlest details that would be easy to overlook without extensive research, which it is very clear she conducted.

Sherman also does a wonderful job touching on the themes of family: both blood-related and those we adopt as we go through life. Each character is strongly portrayed and developed, making them genuine and believable. She also writes about the themes of social justice and liberty-- showing the different mindsets in these time periods through characters' dialogues and interactions.

I would use this book tied with Revolution, Brown Girl Dreaming, and Freedom on the Menu. All of these books lend themselves to conversations and learnings around civil rights and civil liberties. As a teacher, I would use The Freedom Maze before these other books, as it does a great job introducing the history of slavery and the importance of the Civil Rights Movement following this time period. The author does an excellent job of showing how although slavery was abolished, racism still exists in 1960 and the fight for true freedom still needs to continue. This would be useful for students to understand the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and the idea that changing the world is more than just making laws, but rather mindsets, too.

The Freedom Maze could be used as a read aloud or as a book study. I would use it with grades 4-10. It has controversial elements, such as violence toward the slaves, but I would not shy away from reading these portions of the text to students as they serve as an important history lesson. I also enjoy this book because although it has the fantasy element of time travel, it primarily deals with very real aspects, making it a mix of many genres.

The very engaging and well-written Freedom Maze would lend itself to wonderful student discussion surrounding events in history, standing up for what is right, and self-discovery.

This is a link to Delia Sherman's website where she offers more information about her process in writing the book, a downloadable first chapter, and links for teachers. It is extremely useful: Sherman's website

The Freedom Maze

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Me... Jane

Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell is a beautiful biography about Jane Goodall's life. The story starts out by explaining how as a young girl, Jane, accompanied by her chimpanzee stuffed animal, Jubilee, would spend her days discovering the world around her. She wanted to know where eggs came from, so she and Jubilee hid in the chicken coop to find out. She wanted to climb trees and smell their sap, so they did that, too. McDonnell's illustrations show Jane dreaming of a life in Africa, swinging along vines and helping animals. McDonnell makes this transition from dreams to real life beautifully through his illustrations and words. He says, "At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers, and fall asleep... to awake one day.. to her dream come true". On this final page, a photograph of Jane Goodall and a chimpanzee fills the reader with hope and joy. 

This book qualifies as a Well- Illustrated book because its pictures establish the mood of an imaginary land turned real, and since the illustrations develop the plot so well. The colors are soft and warm, and make the reader feel happy and inspired.

This book would be wonderful for introducing students in primary grades to the genre of biography, along with the idea of following your passion and dreams. I would use it as a read aloud, since I would love to watch the look on the class's face upon seeing the photo of the real Jane Goodall, and because the development of the story is great for a whole group.

One important note to mention is that this book mostly covers Jane's life as a young girl. We do not learn much about her work with animals, aside from the fact that she was passionate about them. There is a small portion of text at the end of the book that explains more detail about Jane's work, but this information is not included in the story itself. When introducing biography this would be important to point out, along with the idea that biographies can focus on any given part of someone's life in order to serve a specific purpose. This element of Me... Jane, would probably leave readers inspired to learn more about Jane Goodall's life.
Me... Jane is inspiring and sweet story that kids in early elementary grades would love to read.

Image result for me... jane
Jane and Jubilee dreaming of Africa

Here is a link to the story being read aloud:

Here is a link to a webpage with lesson plans surrounding this text:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is a wonderful story about two Mexican-American boys who don't feel like the fit in with the world around them. Aristotle, who goes by Ari, narrates the story from the time he turns fifteen until he's seventeen. The reader watches as he grows from a sensitive, insecure, and lonely boy, to a caring, aware young man. The story starts when he meets Dante at the swimming pool one day. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim and the two become fast friends. Dante shows Ari poetry and a variety of books, teaching him about birds, and the world around him. Ari protects Dante and shows him loyalty-- something only his family has given him in the past. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe discusses the themes of family, love, growing up, and right vs. wrong. Ari has a unique home-life in which his father rarely speaks, haunted from his time in the Vietnam war, a caring mother who teaches high school, two much older sisters, and a brother in prison, who Ari's parents never mention. Ari feels out of place and constantly wonders if that's just part of being fifteen, or if he is different. He eventually learns how to work through some problems with his family, who help him work through discovering himself and his true love for Dante, who has already openly admitted he's not interested in girls. Dante's family also plays an important role in the story: his father a successful professor, and his mother a social worker, adore Dante and Ari. They provide Ari and Dante with hope of what they could become and want to become in the future. Alire Saenz weaves through different emotions and scenarios beautifully, making the reader quickly turn the pages, hungry for more.

My one criticism of this book is that it is a little slow to getting started, in fact, I checked other reviews of the book to see if I was the only reader who had felt that way-- I was not. Ari is pretty grouchy through the beginning of the book; it can be difficult to read his monologues. However, around half-way through, this book really picks up momentum and hooks the reader.

As a teacher, I would use this book in a high school English class. It does a wonderful job painting a picture that although we all have differences, all humans have the same universal emotions and care, in general, about the same thing. I think it would be a really great book study for high school students, although, possibly a bit controversial, but only because it's a little non-traditional. This book would also probably be relateable for any teenager who has just "come out" or is trying to figure out how to (and has confided in the teacher or whoever is sharing the book-- one wouldn't want to make assumptions, in my opinion). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe also discusses some of the issues with hate crimes and lack of acceptance. These themes are hard to swallow while reading, but would be important pieces for discussion in a high school classroom.

I like that the main characters in this book are Mexican-American and homosexuals, since these groups can be so under-represented in books. The characters both seemed very genuine and authentic to me. Benjamin Alire Saenz himself is a Mexican-American who is gay, giving his characters even more credibility.  All characters also show power-- the mothers both play a traditional Hispanic mother role of being "over-protective" (something Ari and Dante constantly joke about), but also successful with good careers that their sons look up to them for. I found these characters to be real and inspiring. I also liked that the story took place in El Paso, Texas. The description of the desert and the night-sky added a really beautiful element to the book.

Pick up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by  Benjamin Alire Saenz if you're looking for a different, refreshing point of view. The book has won the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre Award, Lambda Literature Award, and the Michael Printz Award for Excellence-- Young Adult Literature, and it's easy to see why.

Here is a link to a book trailer for this book:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel

All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino is a cute story about immigration and family. Yaccarino writes about his family's history, starting with his great-grandfather and his decision to leave Italy for America. When his great-grandfather, Michele (renamed Michael upon his arrival in the USA) leaves his native country of Italy, his parents give him a small shovel. This shovel ends up playing an important role in each generations' lives and careers. For example, Michael uses it to measure out dried fruit and nuts. Later, his son uses the same shovel to measure out beans, noodles, and olives. This son passes the shovel onto his son, Mike, who uses the shovel to spread rock salt. Ultimately, the shovel ends up in the author's hands, who chooses to use it to grow a garden on his family's small terrace.

I would use this book to introduce the idea of immigration and different family structures, cultures, and values. Although the book holds no dialogue and has a very basic story-line, the reader is drawn to the characters through the vibrant illustrations and steadfast family values. This book would be great for showing younger students in primary grades that although we all may look different and have different backgrounds, family is a constant in everyone's life in one way or another.

Here is a book trailer for the book:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a mystery that keeps you guessing until the last page. It is so very engaging, that I can see why it won the Newberry Medal in 1978. The story starts by introducing an array of characters who live together in an apartment building. They are all very different: a Chinese family who owns a restaurant upstairs, a wealthy doctor and his wife, a secretary who fakes injuries, and other characters-- all of whom have distinct personalities and voices that can be heard and recognized through Raskin's lovely writing style. The plot thickens when a millionaire who lives nearby is "murdered" and his will claims that one of the apartment building tenants is the murderer. The tenants are paired up and given clues to help them solve the murder, which is when the reader finds themselves bent over laughing at the characters' various antics and turning the pages quickly, hungry for more.

I would give The Westing Game to students in grades 4-9 who may need a little extra push to get reading. The mystery aspect makes this book very engaging, and it has many words that could be good for increasing a reader's vocabulary. This book could be used as a read aloud, but I would recommend that the teacher (or reader) read the book once alone before reading it aloud so that they can practice the various character voices to avoid confusion among the audience when listening to this story.
Turtle, one of the main characters, is a young female who could be described as a "tom-boy". She is wildly smart and funny. Turtle ends up proving herself to be the wisest character in the entire book, despite the fact that she is surrounded with a judge, a lawyer, a doctor, and entrepreneurs. This strong character could be inspirational to young females, especially those who feel less interested in stereotypical female notions.
One aspect of this book that I would caution readers of is that it is not always perfectly politically correct. One of the boys in the story is in a wheel-chair, and he is often referred to as an "invalid". Although I think the author did this to show some character voice and, therefore, character ignorance, it can be a little distasteful and made me cringe every time. This piece also reminds me that this book was written in 1978.

    Overall, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is well-worth the read.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Me and Earl and The Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews was constantly checked out at the library. It took me about three weeks to finally get a call that the book had made its way to the hold shelf-- for me this time. I quickly realized why.
Book cover

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a wonderfully well-done story narrated by Greg Gaines, a senior in high school, whose mother forces him to start spending time with Rachel Kushner, who has just been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Greg knew Rachel from Hebrew school at a younger age, and had hurt her feelings when he had rejected her invitations to spend time together, saying his "foot was stuck in a toaster", or "I'm digesting an entire wombat right now". Now, Greg is forced to reconnect with Rachel and, without even realizing it, makes it his personal mission to cheer her up-- discussing the most ridiculous concepts and ideas with Rachel ranging from the thought that his parents won't buy him throw pillows for his room since they fear he will masturbate with them, to deciding a polar bear is a regretful animal since it eats all of its friends. The reader is hooked by Greg's outlandish thoughts and ideas and his underlying caring heart that he doesn't even realize he has.

Not only does the reader want to hear everything Greg has to say, but the other characters are developed just as well. His dad eats cuddlefish and kale chips, his sister is going through puberty and storms around the house, his mom periodically checks on him to make sure he's okay, which drives Greg insane, and his cat is named Cat Stevens and brings a few laughs himself. Earl, Greg's friend who comes from a rougher neighborhood than Greg and swears like a sailor, immediately hooks the reader since behind his dirty mouth is a huge heart that sees the all of the world's imperfections and beauties.

The characters in this story make it very genuine and believable. Also, Greg tells you from the start that he and Rachel do not fall in love, and that she dies. The reader is struck by how honest this is-- they do not elope into the sunset on a white horse; this book is too real for that. Greg also struggles with the fact that he doesn't feel like a great person throughout the story. He wonders if he really is a good friend because at times he doesn't want to see Rachel and doesn't really think he's making a difference in her life. He claims that he just wants to make her laugh because it's something he's become good at doing. His viewpoint of himself and his questions about his worth strike me as questions so many high schoolers wonder about themselves and those around them. This book leaves its reader thinking, "Okay, so I'm not the only one who does that sometimes! Good!".

About halfway through reading of this book, I decided to pick up the audiobook and film versions to see how they compared. The audiobook did a magical job of making the characters even more real and hilarious. I would definitely recommend it. The movie was also good, but very different from the book. I would say about half of the plot is altered, including some of the funnier, and at times vulgar, sections. Watching the movie, I was happy I had the background on each character that I did from the text, because some of these little back-stories and dialogues that really showed the characters' personalities were lacking from the film. However, the same ideas of friendship, differences, growth, and self-discovery were nicely presented in the movie. It is definitely worth a watch, as well, just with a less critical eye in regard to comparing it to the book.

Audio-book cover

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (film) POSTER.jpg
Movie Cover

I would recommend this book to high schoolers. It is a little to vulgar at times (many references to drug use, alcohol. sex, and swearing) for middle schoolers (perhaps 8th grade would be okay). The ideas and themes about the cliques in high school, the various socio-economic situations of different students in a high-school, and the self-discovery through friendship, classes, and obstacles, would be perfect for this age group. At first I worried that the book may be too profane to hand to a high schooler, too, but I think students would appreciate its message and would connect with the story well since it is real and not  at all sugar-coated. After much back and forth, I decided I would certainly hand this book to a group of high schoolers for a book study. Also as a teacher, I would let the students analyze the film after reading the book, It brought up a lot of questions about writing style and development, in my opinion, and could lend itself well to a lesson surrounding author's

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is worth buying at the book store-- don't wait for it to be on the hold shelf, just go get it-- you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pick Me Up

Pick Me Up.. Stuff You Need To Know...
Pick Me Up book cover.gif
Pick Me Up, created by David Roberts and Jeremy Leslie, is a really wonderful book published by Dorling Kindersley, the same producer of the Eye Witness books. It is a modern-day encyclopedia formatted in a unique way. It is almost a stream of consciousness, helping it to serve the short attention spans of our current technology-driven generation. Its pages also hold bright visuals that the reader can feast their eyes upon as they browse through the array of pages. The catchy headlines like "Why Are We All Puppets?" and "Why Are We All So Obsessed with Celebrity Culture These Days?" grab the reader and pull them in. When I first picked this book up, I had the intention of reading one or two paragraphs and then moving onto the next thing-- before I knew it, an hour had passed and I had read about everything from relationships between males and their mothers, school structure in Japan, and why the potato is white. The 351 pages of this book are filled with everything from DNA to Democracy, Ancient China to Insects, and Rock Concerts to Teenagers. It is jam-packed with information and reminds me of a coffee-table book for kids that never runs out of new learning.

This book could be useful for teaching about specific topics or themes, for example the Ancient China unit could be used in a history lesson about Asia. This book also could serve to help engage readers who can tune out during silent reading. It offers so many opportunities to become interested and can hold almost anyone's attention. That being said, I would not recommend this book to anyone younger than about 10 years old (4th grade, maybe?). It is so packed with information that it would be overwhelming to a new reader, and covers some topics they might not even know exist, such a colonization, Nagasaki, and puberty. Although I wouldn't recommend this book to young readers, anyone over that age would be bound to love at least some part of this book. I think it might become an addition to my coffee table quite soon!

Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is about a little girl named Willow Chance who is just entering middle school. The reader quickly realizes that Willow is a genius. She knows everything there is to know about medical conditions, every plant known to mankind, and all about current events. However, Willow knows nothing about being a middle-schooler. She is excited to start middle school, but upon being mistaken for the custodian on the first day, dressed in her gardener outfit, she quickly realizes she does not fit in. When Willow is sent to a social worker, Dell Duke, after a mix up on a test, she meets Mai and Quang-ha at Dell Duke’s office, who she eventually befriends.
Unfortunately, middle school is the least of Willow’s troubles. The reader knows as soon as they finish the first chapter that Willow’s parents die in a car crash. However, after the author introduces this idea, she backtracks to prior to the event. This transition was a bit confusing to me, initially—I couldn’t understand the timeline. The reader gets to know Willow’s family a little bit prior to the accident, so they are more invested when tragedy hits.  Willow is scooped up and saved by her new friends and her odd-ball social worker after her parents deaths. She has to rediscover herself and her hobbies.
I liked this story as a whole, however, it took me a long time to get fully interested. The story started off kind of slow for me, and Willow could be kind of frustrating at times.  However, the other characters really bring the story to life. They each have distinct personalities that the reader can’t help but like. They also understand and learn to love Willow for her whole self—smart, nerdy, and compassionate. The heart of the story lies in this friendship and new sense of family that develops.

I would recommend this story to a child who may struggle due to being very smart and standing out. I would not give this book to a child who was grieving. Although everyone grieves differently, I was surprised when I found very few similarities between myself and Willow Chance. Losing my mom five months ago, I have been going through the grieving process myself. I thought that I might be able to relate to this main character quite well, however, she rarely mentioned her parents at all. Willow was very focused on her situation and finding her new normal—two aspects of her situation that did seem realistic and releatable. She also felt very sad, which made great sense, however she didn’t mention her parents’ names, hobbies, memories at all. She mostly just seemed sad and quiet. I understand having these feelings and not wanting to think about hard times. Also, as I already mentioned, I know everyone grieves differently, but I could not relate to Willow’s experience very much at all. At times her reactions seemed unauthentic and distracted.   Since I struggled to make these connections as an adult, I really wonder how well a middle-schooler would relate. They could surprise me, of course, but I would be hesitant to hand a grieving teenager this book.

Overall, this story is heartfelt and about accepting everyone for who they are, despite their differences. All of the characters are extremely different with regard to their appearances, native language, hobbies and financial situations. The book has some laughs and cute moments. It left me crying at times, but smiling at others. Although it wasn’t my favorite book of all time, I did enjoy it.


Book Trailer provided on Youtube

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Malala Yousafzai: Warrior With Words

Malala Yousafzai: Warrior of Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya and illustrated by L.C. Wheatley is a beautifully written and illustrated biography of Malala's life and the obstacles she has overcome in her life. The story starts by giving a brief explanation of who Malala is and why she is so important, and then explains the beginning of Malala's life and the achievements she has had despite so much resistance.

The book lends itself well to teaching about social justice, standing up for what is right, the importance of education, and ideas of terrorism in the Middle East. I really liked the way the book addresses the darkness of terrorism and the Taliban, while still making it accessible and appropriate for children. For example, the text says, "The Taliban ordered everyone to obey very strict rules. They said that girls should not be educated and women should not work outside their homes. Malala wrote that this was a very dark time. 'We have some people who are afraid of ghosts and some people who are afraid of spiders, and in Swat we are afraid of humans like us.'" This shows how the text models this darkness, without being too graphic.

This book has wonderful illustrations that mix paint, photographs, and other textures that create a beautiful collage on every page. The text appears to be written on notebook paper, making it seem as though it is from Malala's very own diary.

I look forward to using this book to talk about different cultures and beliefs. I think, as teachers, we so often want to discuss problems in the news, but are unsure of how to do so. Malala Yousafzai: Warrior of Words gives teachers a way to breech tough subjects in an honest, yet still guarded way. The story also could be helpful in reminding students how important schooling is, and how school is not easily accessible to everyone in the world. Malala holds the power in this book, so it could be a very encouraging book to young females, especially those of minorities.

The book also has a great map of Pakistan in the back and a general overview of important need-to-know facts. It also has a "You Can Help" page that gives kids ideas of how they can help encourage positive change in our world and help everyone go to school. It could be great for getting kids involved.

Here is a link to the ebook trailer:

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Journey by Aaron Becker is a wonderfully drawn wordless picture book. Without a word, it tells the story of a lonely girl who draws a a magical world for herself using a red crayon. The red crayon takes her to castles, onto giant ships, atop a magic carpet ride through the desert, and back into her world where she meets a friend with his own purple crayon.


The story's illustrations have clean lines, crisp colors, and beautiful color contrasts that leave the reader floating through each scene alongside the main character. The book clearly values art, imagination, and animals. When the little girl stands up to adult soldiers who have captured her special, purple bird, the author clearly makes a statement that children, their creativity, and animals are to be valued and treated with kindness.

The story does not make much reference to the outside world, but rather takes place in a fantasy world where skies are blue, buildings are coated in gold, and trees are lined with floating lamps. Therefore, this story does not make much of a statement regarding equality, race, or family dynamics. However, it does show that being yourself can lead to finding friends with similar passions and perspectives, just like the character meets her friend who also prefers to draw the world around him.

This book would probably engage all students, but would be especially wonderful for elementary grades. I would also probably use this book with ELLs to practice writing a story in their second language, since the story itself is already created, but just needs words.

Journey by Aaron Becker is just that-- a beautiful journey through a  awe-striking land that makes the reader want pull out crayon and draw the world around them, too.

Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen is an adorable picture book about a kind little girl who knits colorful, warm sweaters and wraps for people and things in her town. The story starts with an  illustration of a dark, snow-covered town that the author describes as "cold" and covered with "soot from chimneys". Annabelle, the main character, finds a small box of yarn. She knits herself a sweater, and then one for her dog, Mars. Afterwards, she still has extra yarn. Annabelle begins to sew for her neighbors, her family, her classmates and teacher, and the animals in her neighborhood. Two leafs of the book show the town still covered in snow, but now with colorful houses wearing sweaters. At one comical point, Annabelle is actually knitting a sweater for a pick-up truck. Later in the story, the evil archduke arrives to Annabelle's town, offering to pay a large sum of money for her ever-refilling box of yarn. She politely rejects his offer, leaving the archduke to steal the yarn box. However, once he steals the box, he realizes that it is empty. Enraged, the villian tosses the box into the ocean, shouting that the child will never be happy again. The story, nonetheless, ends on a happy note, with the box landing on Annabelle's shores, a smile on her face.

This book is wonderful for teaching about goodness and the power of a simple, small acts of kindness. It models how doing one nice thing can bring joy to others and encourages the recipient to keep giving; a lovely lesson for children to realize.

Extra Yarn is a quality picture book due to it's simple colors and lines that highlight the idea of the simple message. It also is quality literature due to its cute moments that make the reader laugh, like when Annabelle knits the pick-up truck's sweater, and also due to its empowering message.

This book would be wonderful for teaching students in grades PreK- 3 about kindness and following your passion. It's message is simple, yet powerful. It also emphasizes the power of children, especially young girls, and shows that even the smallest of people can make a big difference in the world around them. When Annabelle stands up to the archduke, she holds complete power and the reader feels pride for the little girl. She models strength and integrity even against the most intimidating figures. I also like that Annabelle's message is about warmth and giving to those around you without spending money or showing off-- she has a thoughtful hobby.

Extra Yarn is perfect for putting a smile on a child's face and reminding them to be compassionate, genuine citizens.

Annabelle busily converses with the archduke

El Deafo

  • One of my favorite books I have read yet this semester is one that I least expected to enjoy. When I heard, "graphic novel", my first thought was, "ugh". I was shocked when I ended up turning each page of El Deafo by Cece Bell before bed with the mindset of "just one more page. Okay, one more chapter." 


  • El Deafo is about the author's journey with deafness as a young child. Since the story is her own, the reader believes her every word and is hooked by her credibility. The story starts when Cece contracts meningitis and loses her hearing at only four years old. The reader immediately likes her, not because they feel sorry for her (although her sickness is sad), but because she is so relatable with her personable corks-- like preferring to wear a swimsuit everywhere she goes and making goofy jokes with her friends.

  • We watch as Cece goes through Kindergarten up to fifth grade. We learn of her different friends (some of whom she loves and some who drive her mad), different teachers, and different feelings from grade to grade. Although Cece stands out, she is also just like the other kids in her class with her desire to fit in and make caring, true friends. 

  • Not only is the story itself relatable, but Bell's choice to tell the story in graphic novel form makes the story accessible to a variety of readers. The pictures aid in understanding and since the story is mainly told through dialogue, the reading goes quickly and is not very difficult.

Cece's Kindergarten class has students just like her.

  • When I first started reading this book, I thought it might be good to suggest to some of the hearing impaired students I know in my school. However, the more I read, I realized that, as Bell notes in her afterword, not all hearing loss is the same, and people approach it differently. I realize I would want to be mindful about suggesting this book to a student with hearing loss, and would want to preface them with the fact that it might not be exactly like their situation, but could give them a sense of comfort, and if it doesn't, that is okay, too-- they do not have to like the book or even finish it. However, I think if my hearing-impaired students did like the story, they would find Cece to be empowering, especially with her super-hero-self, "El Deafo".

  • After going through these thoughts, I realized that this book might even be better for students without hearing loss. Just as I learned more about deafness and how it works, my students could benefit from learning more about it. I would hope they would realize how similar these kids are to them and how "normal" they are.
Like any kid her age, Cece has a crush on a peer.

  • I considered reading this book aloud to my third graders since I enjoyed it so much, but I realize it is better to read individually since the pictures and thought-bubbles are so essential to every moment of the story.

  • I think all students in grades 2-6 could benefit from picking up the heart-felt and approachable El Deafo by Cece Bell. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Great Frog Race

The Great Frog Race and Other Poems by Kristine O'Connell George and illustrated by Kate Kiesler is a wonderful story of poems from Kristine's childhood.  The book won the 1998 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and for good reason. The poems draw a picture of a childhood spent outdoors discovering the beautiful surprises of nature. The author describes simple aspects of nature like "falling stars" and "weeping willows". She uses language that kids can relate to and grab ahold of. For example, in her poem "Garden Hose", she claims that the hose "dozes/ in the/ warm sun/ and wonders/ what to/ be when it/ grows up./ It imagines fat black/ irrigation pipe/ aqueducts,/ transcontinental/ pipelines". These personified ideas appeal to the viewpoint of a child, and leave the reader wanting more.

The Great Frog Race is an excellent choice for introducing poetry to a class. Some poems rhyme, some do not. Some poems are long, some are short. The poems exemplify how poems differ, but also are all very relatable making them accessible and welcoming to children. This book does not discuss many relationships between people, but rather relationships between children and the world around them. The illustrations bring the world to life, although my one criticism would be that all of the children in the illustrations are Caucasian. However, people are not shown in every illustration, so a teacher could be thoughtful in choosing which poems to read aloud to their class. The Great Frog Race clearly values the small moments in the world around us. It holds a positive outlook on discovering nature, and recognizing little details-- like getting lost on a "Sunday Drive with Mom", or watching a crow steal the ice cream cone someone dropped on a sidewalk.

I think children and adults can relate to and enjoy this book of poems due to its light-hearted nature and recognition of simple, everyday passing moments.
An example of a poem in The Great Frog Race, courtesy of  Kristine George's website

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Boy, Were We Wrong About the Dinosaurs!

Boy, Were We Wrong About the Dinosaurs! by Kathleen V. Kudlinski is a non-fiction book that explains how scientists have learned more and more about dinosaurs and other ancient creatures by finding new fossils. The story models the idea that science is an ongoing process with open-ended questions that are sometimes left unanswered. This text goes through recent discoveries about dinosaurs, versus previous thinking. It has wonderful illustrations that leave the children laughing and engaged.

In my third grade classroom, I used this book to explain the importance of fossils and using different types of fossils to learn about different parts of dinosaurs' lives. For example, we discussed how the outline of feathers on fossils showed how dinosaurs' bodies might have felt and looked, and how the size and shape of dinosaur leg bones suggest that they were fast and graceful much like deer today. It was neat to see the way students considered the thinking of the past, versus the thinking of today. I think it showed them how important inquiry can be, even for adults!

A great illustration showing the textures of the various dinosaurs

This book is great for read-alouds, due to its brilliant, vibrant illustrations. I would recommend breaking the reading up into two days, as it is a bit of a long book for students to sit through for its entirety. They are certainly interested in the information, but having the information stretch over two days could prove the most meaningful. I would also be cautionary of the fact that the text assumes that children already have some background on how dinosaur bones and fossils are found and handled. Providing a mini-lesson on this idea would be helpful prior to reading this text to a class.