It’s Monday And Here’s What I’m Reading:Pablo and Birdy, Armstrong & Charlie


Alison McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy is one of those lyrical books you cannot bear to stop reading, even though you’ve read it twice already.  I picked it up right after having the same experience reading Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, and so I count myself a lucky reader these days when we have such gifted writers gifting us one memorable read after another.

The island town of Isla was already famous for its talking birds and for (perhaps) being one of the few places where the mythical Seafaring Parrots come home to roost, when baby Pablo washed ashore strapped to an inflatable swimming pool and guarded over by a fiercely loyal lavender parrot.

Rescued and raised by Emmanuel, Pablo and Birdy are loved and protected by the birds and people of Isla, which he has come to look upon as his home.  But, happy as he is, as Pablo nears his tenth birthday, he begins to have questions about where he came from, and who he really belongs to.  And Birdy, well Birdy can neither fly nor talk, unlike every other bird on Isla…or anywhere else.

And, as Pablo nears his big double digit birthday, Birdy, too, seems restless.  The “winds of change” that stirred up the seas so violently the night Pablo arrived are beginning to rustle up again, and there is a feeling that some of the truth of Pablo’s story, and Birdy’s too, will finally be revealed.

This lyrical, fable like story was such a delight to read, and I loved Ana Juan’s gorgeous illustrations which made it all so much more believable, for, with stories like this, one wants to believe.

Steven B. Frank’s Armstrong & Charlie is such a fun read, even though it touches upon tough issues: death in a family, race relations, and depression.


Armstrong Le Rois and Charlie Ross are not looking forward to sixth grade: Armstrong’s parents have seen fit to sign him up for an opportunity to be bussed to an all-white school in fancy Laurel Canyon where he will know no one, and most of Charlie’s friends at his Laurel Canyon school are leaving just because these new kids are being bussed in.

Both boys have a lot to learn about getting along and seeing that people who seem different on the outside are more alike on the inside than they will ever know unless they take the time to know each other and to learn.

At times laugh out loud hilarious and then deeply moving, Armstrong and Charlie is a wise book, perfect for our troubled times.  For, even though it is set in the tumultuous early seventies,  many of the questions this story raises about race and prejudice are just as relevant today.  This would make a wonderful readaloud or book club selection.



It’s Monday, And Here’s What I’m Reading: Wishtree & Patina

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#IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

I have been hearing so much about Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, so that when my copy finally arrived I set aside everything else I had planned to do and sat down to read it.  Of course, having loved The One And Only Ivan, I knew that I would be in for another lyrical reading experience, one that would pull at my heartstrings and give me hope for humanity…which is exactly what it did.

Red is a northern red oak tree, two hundred some years old, who houses an entire community of assorted birds, creatures, and, every May Day, the wishes tied to her many boughs by people hoping for all manner of things.  Although much of the world Red remembers from her earliest days has passed into history, she still casts shade over two homes that go back to her earliest days, in one of which lives a girl who has become close to Red’s heart.

Samar is about ten, with “the look of someone who has seen too  much.  Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.”  She finds comfort under Red’s branches, especially late at night, and when she sits, all the creatures around make their way over to join her. Red, of course, takes note of this.  One night, Samar wishes for a friend, and Red wants to make her wish come true.

But someone scrawls an ugly word intended for Samar’s family on Red’s trunk, and the neighborhood becomes a world divided between those who wish for newcomers to stay, and those who want them to leave.  Francesca, who owns the land Red’s roots have dug deep into, and therefore owns Red as well, decides that it’s time to cut the tree down, who needs the bother of all the leaves, critters, acorns, and wishes that come with Red, after all?  For that matter, do wishes ever come true?

Wishtree is a journey into believing in wishes, and in people, too.  I loved every moment of reading it so much, that the moment I came to the end of its last page I just had to read it again.

Jason Reynolds’ Ghost was our final read aloud last year, and my ex-students still talk about how much they loved it and how they can’t wait to get their hands on its sequel, Patina .  Well, they will be glad to know that the copy I ordered is finally here, and that it was worth the wait.


Patty is Ghost’s track team mate.  She is just as fast as he is, naturally, but with her own compelling story.  Patty has seen a lot of loss for someone in middle school: her father died suddenly when she was quite young, and then her mother lost her legs to diabetes, which meant that Patty and her sister Maddy had to live with their aunt who was better able to take care of them.  Even though Patty sees her mother every weekend when they can all go to church together, she misses the family she life she once had, and her old school, too.

Patty knows two things for sure: that her family counts on her to be strong , and that she is fast as the wind on the track. But, Patty is also just a kid trying to negotiate being one of the only African American girls at her school, being a role model for her younger sister and a cause of nothing but pride for her mother, and being part of a track team filled with big personalities.  That’s a lot for one kid.

I loved that Patty is a strong young lady, her sassiness hides a big heart and a vulnerability which makes her an interesting character to follow through the book. Reynolds writes with an understanding of a kid’s perspective on life, and with a genuine love of all the quirkiness that (especially) goes into  middle school aged kids.  These are my people, too, and I loved being immersed in their world through the eyes of Patty.


#IMWAR: The Unicorn Quest & Jabari Jumps

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 


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Generally speaking, I tend to stay away from fantasy series, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying  Kamilla Benko’s The Unicorn Quest,   the first book in an exciting, brand new series.  

Claire and her family move into Great Aunt Diana’s treasure-stuffed mansion for the summer, hoping to box its contents up for an estate sale.  No one knows what happened to Great Aunt Diana, who spent her life traveling the world and collecting beautiful and rare things for her home, Windermere Castle.  Claire hopes that this time together will help restore her close relationship with her older sister, Sophie, who has just recovered from a serious illness.  But, their summer gets off to a terrifying start when Sophie convinces Claire to climb up the ladder hidden within a fireplace in one of the mansion’s most daunting rooms.  That ladder leads to another world – one that is both enchanting and terrifying.

Sophie and Claire barely escape from their first foray into this world, so when Sophie is missing Claire knows that she must travel there, too, and rescue her sister.  Claire discovers that Arden, the name of this magical land, is in the midst of great troubles: the Unicorn Harp has been stolen and her very own sister has been accused of the crime.  But, where is Sophie? And how can Claire, who knows nothing about the complicated customs. laws, and geography of Arden, find her?

I love the way Kamilla Benko is able to write the world of Arden into existence, so that bit by bit it becomes very real to the reader.  I know that my sixth graders will love the twists and turns in this story, as well as the engaging and well crafted characters.  They will be looking forward to the next book with just as much anticipation as their teacher!

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Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps is one of those  lovely picture books one can read at any age and fall completely in love with.  Jabari is not quite ready to jump off the diving board.  His father reassures him that it’s okay to feel a little scared when trying something new, and that sometimes trying something scary can feel like a surprise.  That convinces Jabari to try, because he loves surprises…and he learns that he loves diving, too! 

This sweet story is enchantingly illustrated,  and I can see reading it aloud in classrooms of all ages and extrapolating on the central idea: we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.

we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.



It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: The PS Brothers, and Be A King

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

I had a varied reading week – two very different books:

Maribeth Boelts’ The PS Brothers is a hilarious read, and yet it is a story with tremendous heart.  Russell and his best friend Shawn are tired of being at the bottom of the pecking order at their middle school…but they have a plan.  Having a big, fierce looking dog, they think, one they could train to protect them, would guarantee safety and peace of mind…but they have no money.  Russell has been living with his Uncle Cory ever since his father was jailed for robbery, and Uncle Cory barely scrapes by.  Shawn’s father is disabled and his mother has a hard enough time juggling two jobs to keep a roof over their heads.  So, neither boy has two spare cents with which to purchase a puppy, step one in their game plan.  Not to be deterred, the boys come up with a Pooper Scooper business plan (hence the P.S. Bros.) which gets off to a great start until the boys make a discovery that puts their whole project into jeopardy.

There’s lots of fun to be had in reading  this book, but underlying all the hilarity are some thoughtful lessons about honesty and what really makes up a “real family”.  This would be a wonderful read aloud or book club book – lots to discuss!

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Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You  is an unusual and beautiful call to action for children who have grown up learning about his place in history and are searching for ways to live his words of compassion and justice.  Each stanza opens with the words, “You can be a King”, followed by a form of action to speak out and stand up for what is right.

James Ransome’s evocative paintings weave scenes from Dr. King’s life with those of a classroom preparing to honor his legacy making the past, present, and future come together in a moving and powerful way.  This would be a wonderful book for any classroom to share aloud and discuss; each of  Carole Boston Weatherford’s stanzas would also be meaningful writing prompts for students to ponder over and write about.





#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: She Persisted & Our Story Begins

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

The last of my summer reading included two important new books for my classroom library:


I loved Chelsea Clinton’s anthology of women who had the courage to persist every bit as much as I’d hoped I would.  Although these women came from many different backgrounds and chose different career paths, they all encountered the same resistance from the powers that be that women have faced from the beginning of time: they were told that their womanhood was enough to preclude them from their dreams.  But, they persisted…and they succeeded.  The artwork is stunning, too, and I loved the way Alexandra Boiger concluded each woman’s story with a gorgeously illustrated quote to linger over.

I am always on the lookout for books about writing by authors my students adore, and so I was thrilled to discover this book:

our story beginsBeloved authors such as R.J. Palacio and Rita Williams-Garcia have dug into their old storage boxes for drawings and stories they created as children, and shared how these early  efforts grew into their life long passions, and their careers.  These thoughtful snippets of wisdom would be so meaningful to share with the young writers and artists in our classrooms, as they begin to explore the power of storytelling in all its forms.  Here, for example, is what the writer and illustrator Eric Rohman has to say:

I have always made pictures. I drew what was around me, what I liked, and what I cared about. Drawing was how I found my way in the world. That’s because drawing requires looking closely, so closely that you begin to see details you’d never see in a glance. You begin to see variations in color and shadow. You begin to see patterns and connections. But as I drew more and more, I discovered something else. Drawing isn’t just about seeing. It’s about feeling. A picture is not just a description, but a doorway into my thoughts and emotions.

I can imagine sharing this with my students and discussing the way writers and artists take notice of the world around them to find those doorways to important stories that need to be told.  Our Story Begins is a must have for every writing workshop.

#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Picture books and poetry

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

AndreaLoney tells the interesting and historically important story of the photographer James VanDerZee in Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee.  Born in small town Lenox, Massachusetts, James was artistically inclined but had difficulty expressing his ideas through drawing. When the only photographer in Lenox brought the only camera in town to take a family portrait of the VanDerZee family, James was captivated by the instrument and immediately began to save up for a camera of his own.

He taught  himself how to both take as well as develop photographs, practicing on his classmates and his family.  The call of Harlem, then in the midst of an exciting artistic and societal renaissance, eventually brought James to New York City, where he continued to hone his craft in a studio of his own.  Over the decades, James took thousands of pictures of middle class African Americans and their pride in the lives they were working hard to make.  These photographs, many years later, became the focus of an exhibition called “Harlem on My Mind” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a moving and important historical record.  Andrea Loney tells this meticulously researched story beautifully, and Keith Mallett’s vibrant paintings made this book visual treat, as well.

In Martí’s Song for Freedom , Emma Otheguy writes about the Cuban poet, revolutionary hero, and journalist José Martí.  Having witnessed the cruelties brought by Spain when they colonized Cuba as a young boy, Martí began writing poetry and thinking about ways in which he could use his words to fight for justice.  Exiled because of his activism, Martí travelled the world with his message about equality and Cuban independence, eventually settling in New York.  But his homesickness for his beloved homeland, and its continued fight for freedom brought him back home.  Martí was killed in the Battle of Two Rivers early in this new war for Cuban independence, and did not live to see it succeed, but his poetry and writings inspired his people then and continue to inspire all those who believe in freedom, equality, and justice.

I loved the way Emma Otheguy wove Martí’s verses into this story, and I loved Beatriz Vidal’s stunning illustrations.  This will be a wonderful addition to my classroom library of picture books dedicated to social justice.

I found this anthology of interviews Bill Moyers conducted with poets presenting at the annual Mabel Dodge Festival of Poetry in New Jersey.  Moyers is an insightful and informed interviewer, and I learned so much from each of these conversations with some of my most  favorite poets – what the act of writing means to each, how they go about practicing their craft, and what they hope their words will inspire.  I especially loved the way each poet spoke about specific poems, analyzing their process and sharing thoughts about what brought these poems about.  This will be a fabulous book to draw from in the new school year, and to share with my students.

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Mary Lee Hahn had blogged about Bob Raczka’s Lemonade some time ago, and I finally got around to reading it last week – what great fun!  The idea is, literally, squeezing poems from a single word, which is quite challenging, I must say (after having tried and failed multiple times).

I’m going to share this book with my kiddos at whichever point in our poetry year that calls for something completely different…something fun to take a swing at.  I can just imagine the classroom when I project Raczka’s word gymnastics up on our screen – I just know that after all the oohs and ahhs, my kiddos will want to take a crack at creating single word poems, too.

#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Refugee by Alan Gratz

   #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

Refugee by Alan Gratz was the most important book I’ve read this summer; its powerful story is timeless, mainly because we don’t seem to be able to heed its message or behave in ways which create unceasing wars that lead to waves of refugees seeking sanctuary from danger and devastation.

Here’s the jacket copy summary:

Three different kids.

One mission in common: ESCAPE.

Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…

All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Joseph, Isabel and Mahmoud are all the same age when they must flee their homelands – twelve; they are at that stage of their lives when they are between the innocence and magical thinking of childhood, and a more circumspect and realistic understanding of the worlds they live in.  This kind of dual perspective lends their individual stories a moving poignancy, and makes a powerful impact – how do children who have seen their worlds fall apart in such cruel ways ever return to having hope, to believing in humanity?

Gratz does not hold back from describing what war and persecution looks like and feels like; he is especially careful to also include unexpected acts of kindness, as well as moments when people turn away from doing what little they can to assuage suffering. In other words, Refugee is realistic.  What makes it a difficult book to read, however, is the way we see history repeating itself time and time again, in every part of the world.

I was moved, too, by the way Gratz described the anguish and frustration of the refugee.  Here, for instance, Mahmoud ponders over the predicament of his family as they make one harrowing journey after another trying to find safety:

But Mahmoud wasn’t ready to give up.  He wanted life to be like it was before the war had come.  They couldn’t go back to Syria. Not now. Mahmoud knew that.  But there was no reason they couldn’t make a new life for themselves somewhere else.  Start over. Be happy again. And Mahmoud wanted to do whatever it took to make that happen. Or at least try.

But making something happen meant drawing attention. Being visible. And being invisible was so much easier.  It was useful too, like in Aleppo, or Serbia, or here in Hungary.  But sometimes it was just as useful to be visible, like in Turkey and Greece.  The reverse was true too, though: Being invisible had hurt them as much as being visible had.

Mahmoud frowned. And that was the real truth of it, wasn’t it? Whether you were visible or invisible, it was all about how other people reacted to you.  Good and bad things happened either way.  If you were invisible, the bad people couldn’t hurt you, that was true. But the good people couldn’t help you, either. If you stayed invisible here, did everything you were supposed to and never made waves, you would disappear from the eyes and minds of all the good people out there who could help you get your life back.

Of course, “the people” these three characters encounter across different time frames and continents, are the rest of us – the lucky ones who are not displaced, who live in security, whose lives are not upended by circumstances beyond our control. And, more often than not, we choose to “disappear”   the Mahmouds, Isabels and Josephs because it’s uncomfortable, or because choosing not to do something is easier than speaking up and doing the right thing.

The gift of this book is that we can share this story with our students, and open conversations about what it means to see people, to act on their behalf, to keep ourselves open to the idea that we all own a share of the suffering displaced people face, and we must change the way in which we respond.  Isabel’s grandfather says this:

“I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana.  But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: it didn’t. Because I didn’t change it.”

The idea of changing the world, of doing what we can to make it a better place, is one that is especially important now, in Trump’s America, where toxic messages of hate and indifference to suffering are reaching our kids through news every day.  We will be reading Refugee in my sixth grade class, and I look forward to many important discussions with my students – to change.