#IMWAYR: Rainbow Weaver, Mama and Papa Have a Store & Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

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Linda Elovitz Marshall’s glorious picture book Rainbow Weaver is a delightful read on two counts: the story is hopeful and uplifting, and Elisa Chavarri’s illustrations are a feast for the eyes.

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Ixchel lives in the mountains of Guatemala, where Mayan women have woven beautiful fabrics for thousands of years.  This is something she would love to do, as well, but her busy mother has no thread to spare.  Undaunted, Ixchel tries a number of substitutes from blades of grass to  the wool sheep leave behind as they make their way through hilly pastures, but the results are dull and disappointing.  About to give up, Ixchel notices the multitude of plastic bags littering the pathways of her village; their vibrant colors spark a brainwave – she could cut these into the long strips she needs to weave!  Ixchel’s weaving sells at the market and she earns a doubly gratifying reward: she can help to pay for her school books AND she can help to tidy up her village.

I loved that each page had its Spanish translation, too – a great benefit for language learners.

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In the preface to her book Mama and Papa Have a Store, Amelia Lau Carling writes: “As a young couple in 1938 when World War II was beginning, my parents fled the Japanese invasion of their village of Nine Rivers on the lush Pearl River delta in Guangdong, China. Like other paisanos, countrymen from their own land, they settled in Spanish speaking Guatemala”.  Her picture book tells of one day in the life of this store and their family, both of which embrace the traditions of two cultures:

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The young narrator weaves a joyous story of the way many traditions come together to make their village life one of cultural acceptance and celebration.  Carling’s vivid illustrations add so much to this beautiful story of immigrants making a new life for themselves, adapting to their new homes, and seeking to preserve their cherished memories and ways of life.

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Nikki Giovanni’s Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate is a must-have book for every classroom library.  In it, Giovanni shares a selection  of poems by African Americans from the Harlem Renaissance to today.  What I loved about this book was the way Giovanni wrote about each poem to explain its context as well as its personal relevance and connection.  Here, for instance, is Robert Hayden’s poem :

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

which is illuminated and given such rich residence by what Nikki Giovanni has to say about it:

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I thank my good friend Julieanne Harmatz from the bottom of my heart for the gift of this book  – it will add so much to our classroom explorations of poetry.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

Truth to tell, I was afraid to read Dan Gemeinhart’s new book Scar Island.  Both his previous books, The Honest Truth and Some Kind of Courage, were wonderful reads, and I feared that (perhaps) this third book would fail to live up expectations.  Thankfully, I was wrong.

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Here’s the jacket copy:

Jonathan Grisby is the newest arrival at the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, an ancient, crumbling fortress of gray stone rising up from the ocean. It is dark, damp, and dismal. And it is just the place Jonathan figures he deserves. Because Jonathan has done something terrible. And he’s willing to accept whatever punishment he has coming. Just as he’s getting used to his new situation, however, a freak accident leaves the troubled boys of Slabhenge without any adult supervision. Suddenly the kids are free, with an entire island to themselves. But freedom brings unexpected danger. And if Jonathan can’t come to terms with the sins of his past and lead his new friends to safety, then every boy on the island is doomed.

Gemeinhart is able to create Slabhenge in such vivid detail that it becomes another compelling character in a cast filled with compelling characters.  I was completely transported to this place, ghastly and troubling though it was, and I know that my sixth graders would be even more drawn to imagining its storm tossed walls and mysterious nooks and crannies.  One of the literary elements my students have focused on this year has been the way in which setting influences story, and Scar Island is the perfect book through which to explore this idea.

Jonathan’s “crime” and the way in which this is revealed makes for the heart of this story, Gemeinhart creates the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that my sixth graders will love. But, Scar Island  is also a story about how to stand up to bullies, and how fear and peer pressure can get in the way of even the nicest kid’s best intentions.  Scar Island has a touch of Lord of the Flies, which is a good thing for our kids, they need to be reminded of these lessons time and time again.  

I have a long list of students clamoring for this book, and I know that each will say: Dan Gemeinhart has done it again! And  I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

#IMWAYR It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading:Cloud and Wallfish & Counting Thyme

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.I

Last week was a great reading week, for I managed to squeeze in two middle grade books I had heard so much about.

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Anne Nesbet’s Cloud and Wallfish was one of those hard to put down books. For one thing, it is set in the East Germany of 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to come crashing down, which is an unusual and little written about time period in YA novels.  It is a time period rife with spies, double agents, and double speak – the reader is always on the edge of his seat wondering who is really who, and whether there is anyone at all worthy of trust (including one’s parents).  Here’s the jacket copy from the publisher’s website:

Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now “Jonah Brown”—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.

Slip behind the Iron Curtain into a world of smoke, secrets, and lies in this stunning novel where someone is always listening and nothing is as it seems.

Cloud and Wallfish is a thoughtful, complicated story, because living behind the Iron Curtain was a complicated affair: you could trust no one, not even your closest family.  Noah’s persistent search for answers, and Claudia’s need to believe in hope make for compelling reading; their parallel journeys take them to unexpected places, and leave the reader with important questions about what is happening in our country today as we sort through our own morass of “alternative facts” and “fake news”.

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I so loved reading Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme, that I found myself deliberately slowing down my reading just so that I could prolong the pleasure of this story.  Here’s the jacket copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Thyme is such an endearing character – she is all heart, which makes her deeply empathetic to her brother’s suffering inspite of the fact that his illness has upended and uprooted her entire young life.  But, Thyme must also work through all the issues a kid her age faces: making friends, fitting in, sorting through the “popular kids” and the “losers”, having crushes, and being embarrassed about having a crush.  Conklin is able to weave together the many threads of Thyme’s life to create a powerful story about the way a family must love each other and sacrifice for each other in difficult times.  As much as I loved Thyme, I also grew to have much affection for the other characters in the book – from the neighbor who had an illustrious career as a stage hand, to Thyme’s overwhelmed but supportive parents.  The only thing that made coming to the end of Counting Thyme bearable was the fact that I could pass it along to a student, and sit back to watch their pleasure in reading this marvelous book.

The other thing that has helped, of course, is that this book arrived the day I finished reading Counting Thyme

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#IMWAYR It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: Some Writer & Witness

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

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Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White is one of those books you just want to carry around with you all the time, just so that you can have the pleasure of reading it over and over again, savoring the words and glorying in the artwork.  Here, for instance, is one page I return to time and time again:

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What I love about that page (apart from the fact that it centers around one of my favorite passages from Charlotte’s Web) is what I love about this book as a whole – it is such a magical celebration of E.B. White’s life, work, and brilliant imagination.

Melissa Sweet tells the story of White’s life, tracing the arc of his boyhood through his years  at the New Yorker and to the writing years that gave us cherished books like Charlotte’s Web.  I loved learning how White worked through his ideas, and what inspired those ideas in the first place.  Sweet shares snippets from letters and journals, as well as photographs and sketches; these are exquisitely woven together with Sweet’s text and art work.

As a life long admirer of E.B.White, I’ve read his books (Here is New York is a personal favorite), letters (such fun!) and his short pieces and essays for The New Yorker.  I’ve loved his humor and his extraordinary ability to write profound truths in simple, direct ways. Sweet’s book allows young readers, also,  to appreciate the writerly life of one of their most beloved authors – it’s a window into his writing life, as well as the life he lived.

E.B. White loved the power of the written word and understood its craft, and Sweet’s book will be windows to the craft of writing for our students; I will be looking for ways to weave its pages into our writing workshops.

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Here’s a wonderful interview with Melissa Sweet, in which she shares her thoughts about the creative process:

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I’ve been on the hunt for a historical fiction read aloud to open our genre study, which is no easy task – so many fabulous choices!  But, this year, I brought a different kind of focus to this hunt; I want our read aloud to connect to historical events that have a particular resonance to America today – race relations, social justice, and the search for truth in a time of hysterical falsehoods.   As I rummaged around in my classroom library, I found Karen Hesse’s Witness.  Re-reading it this weekend, I knew that I had found the book I was in search of.

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Here’s the synopsis from Scholastic’s site:

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Witness is a powerful story, and the beautifully crafted voices of each character tell the story with compelling nuance.  I was moved by the way in which this book, written in 2001, connects to conversations we are having today about race, prejudice, and standing up for the truth.  Witness reveals the best in us and the worst in us, it is a deftly told cautionary tale of how easy it is for good people to be swayed by evil, or to look away when evil comes, as it often does, in the guise of patriotism and religious fervor.  It is an important book to share and discuss with our students, especially now.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: Flying Lessons, Step Right Up, & Calling The Water Drum

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

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.

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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.

#MustReadin2017

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When I first read Carrie Gelson’s invitation to share a list of must reads for the new year, I was skeptical.  After all, I have stacks of books piled on either side of my desk – both at home and at school – and they are all calling out to me to pay attention to them: pick us up, already, and READ!

But, I loved the idea of thinking about those stacks of books in a more manageable way: books I must read, and books I would like to read.  Carrie’s invitation was to include books I wanted to read as a teacher, and also books I was interested in just for myself which addressed topics outside of my teaching life.   And so, here they are, my compilation of books I must read, in no particular order:

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Carrie has suggested the following check-in dates, as well, which I love…I can mark them on my calendar as another reminder to keep my reading life fresh, and goal driven:

Spring update: Thursday April 6th, 2017

Fall update: Thursday September 7th, 2017

Year end update: Thursday December 28th, 2017

Thanks, Carrie. Now, to check out what others have on their #MustReadIn2017 lists!

#IMWAYR:The King of the Birds, Preaching To The Chickens, & Ghost

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

Winter break gave me the chance to dive into the box of books I had had shipped home from NCTE, which was just the kind of vacation activity I enjoy most: reading!

The first book I reached for was The King Of The Birds, Acree Graham Macam’s delightful picture book:

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Natalie Nelson’s gorgeous cover had caught my eye as I was wandering through the maze of book displays at NCTE, and I remember stopping to leaf through it even though I had promised myself that since I had already bought too many books already and blown the book budget, I would absolutely NOT buy this book.  It took just one page to break that promise, for how could I resist the glorious story of how Flannery O’Connor came to add to her collection of birds (it was news to me that O’Connor even collected birds – lots of them – when she was a young girl) with a peacock?  Unfortunately, this is a peacock who refuses to preen, until O’Connor wakes up in the middle of the night with a solution:

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This is the perfect book to share with my students on a bleak winter day when they are tired of school and everything about school and need a jolt of color and diversion.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis led the iconic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama and has continued to lead us in our march towards a more just society. His story is now also told in a three volume graphic novel, which is a wonderful way to keep it alive and part of the conversation in classrooms.  One of my favorite anecdotes from March was the one about how Lewis discovered his love and gift for preaching, which is the basis of Jabari Asim’s new picture book Preaching To The Chickens:

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Jabari Asim’s poetic telling of Lewis’ story resonates because we know the great work that was to come from this humble beginning:

Like the ministers he heard in church, John wanted to preach, so he gathered his chickens in the yard.

John stretched his arms above his flock and let the words pour forth.  The chickens nodded and dipped their beaks as if they agreed.  They swayed to the rhythm of his voice.

John’s henhouse sermons became so regular that his brother and sisters took to calling him Preacher.  He didn’t mind.  He knew that someday he’d speak before thousands. He hoped that his words would stir people’s souls and move them to action.

E.B. Lewis’ exquisite paintings allow the reader to linger and savor the power of this story all the more:

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I had heard so many amazing things about Jason Reynolds’ Ghost, that I knew I would love it…and did.

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Castle Cranshaw prefers to be known as “Ghost”, on account of his amazing ability to run, and run fast.  Ghost does not see himself as a team player for any sport, not even basketball (which he loves). That’s just not who he thinks he is, a team player.  But then he comes across a track team led by a cab driving coach who seems more than just a cab driving coach.  And, as he is drawn into the team and its ethos, he comes to learn about himself, about the anger that boils up inside him when he thinks of his father, and how he came to be so fast in the first place – running away from his father.

Ghost is one of those rare books that one reads and connects to on so many deep and important levels: it’s a story about discovering one’s true self, and about confronting one’s darkest secrets; but it’s also a story about perseverance and having faith, and how important it is for children to have adults in their lives who can nurture their desire to persevere and to have faith in people.

Late in the story, coach tells Ghost, “…you can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”   Ghost is a powerful reminder that our kids need adults in their lives who can help point them towards what they want to be.