I loved every short story in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, which wasn’t a surprise considering the authors: Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Pena, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, Jacqueline Woodson and debut author Kelly J. Baptist. These are stories about fitting into new schools and neighborhoods, reaching for basketball dreams, discovering first crushes, and learning about one’s place in the world and how one can rise above it. But, the characters in these stories were what I loved best: they are funny, confused, honest, and true. They represented voices from diverse backgrounds and experiences, all trying their best to figure out issues that were often beyond their own powers to fully resolve: a mother having a hard time coping with tragedy and shifting responsibilities onto their shoulders, or a father seemingly unable to be supportive and empathetic to a son who wants to play basketball in spite of his disability.
The rich variety of characters, issues, and resolutions makes this collection perfect for middle school in particular, and the short story format is perfect for read alouds and class discussions.
Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness is the remarkable (and true!) story of Jim Key, a horse that could read, write, spell, and do math thanks to the kind patience of the man who rescued him, William “Doc” Key.
Doc was born in Tennessee and into slavery, but had the good fortune to be allowed to learn alongside his masters’ children. From an early age, he displayed a yearning to learn and a gift with animals. Before long, he he had gained a reputation as the one to seek when animals were injured and sick, and he travelled far and wide across his state tending to animals and helping to nurse them back to health.
Jim required all of Doc’s talents to nurse him back to health, but he proved to be more than just a brave and resilient horse. It was fascinating to read about how Doc came to realize just how intelligent Jim was, and heartening to hear of how their traveling show challenged the racial assumptions of their time as well as promoted the cause of treating animals humanely. Donna Janell Bowman tells this story beautifully, and Daniel Minter’s illustrations are just stunning. I also discovered that Donna Bowman has created a marvelous author’s page with ideas for bringing this story into our classroom reading and writing workshops.
The story of refugees enduring great dangers in order to seek a better life is an old one, sadly, and we are certainly living in a time when we see this happening more and more all across the world. Calling the Water Drum is a poignant picture book which tells the story of Henri and his parents who set out from Haiti for America at the invitation of Henri’s uncle. A storm capsizes their little boat, and Henri’s parents are swept away. Although he is rescued and sent to live with his uncle, a kind man who tries to do his best, Henri feels nothing but loss: in losing his parents, he has also lost his voice. How, after all, to speak of what he saw and felt that stormy night on the ocean?
But, Henri discovers that he can drum, and that the rhythm and sound he learns to make can lead him back to his voice. LaTisha Redding tells this gentle story with great tenderness, and Aaron Boyd’s illustrations are just lovely. This is an excellent book to share with our students and open discussions about refugees, their plight, and what we can do to be empathetic in response.