It’s Monday & Here’s What I’m Reading: Every Month is a New Year, Bear’s Scare

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I have been too long away from picture books, so it feels rather special to share two new picture books I’ve discovered this first day of summer break:

Every Month Is  New Year is a glorious celebration of all the ways and days in which the  cultures of the world celebrates their vision of a new year.  Marilyn Singer reaches into all of that diverse, celebratory richness for her poems, each of which describes the customs and history of ringing in the new year around the world.  Here are two I particularly loved:


Singer’s lively and joyful verses are perfectly accompanied by Susan L. Roth’s exquisite mixed media collage illustrations, which are so vivid and full of texture. Every Month Is  New Year is a pleasure to read and share with children of all ages.

Jacob Grant’s charming book Bear’s Scare is just the book to read if you are (like me) averse to spiders.  Bear shares his spotlessly clean and tidy house with Ursa, his small stuffed friend.  All is well in Bear’s world, until he finds spider webs here and there.  He turns his house over in order to find the culprit, to no avail.  In all the tumult, Ursa loses an arm and Bear is distraught…until Spider finds a way to save the day.

This is a sweet and lovely story, one that can be read on many levels, and loved at each.  Here’s the book trailer, which I found utterly charming, as well:


It’s Monday! And Here’s What I’m Reading: Comics Confidential & Let Your Voice Be Heard


My  sixth graders love graphic novels, so it has been a pleasure and a relief to find so many wonderful new examples of this genre being published all the time.  Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk Story, Craft, and Life Outside the  Box, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus, interviews thirteen graphic novelists to discover their creative journeys and inspirations in this particular genre, which makes for fascinating reading.

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Each of these author-artists shares childhood stories, as well as their experimentations with different types of visual mediums, to trace the way they arrive at both a story to tell and how to best to use their art form to tell it.  Danica Novgorodoff, author of The Undertaking of Lily Chen,  offers this insight into what drew her to her craft, which is echoed in one way or another by  the other  writers included in the collection:

I love the potential for experimentation, all the different ways you can combine words and images.  I like the different types of pacing you can have: the expanses of space and time, and the moments of silence and great action that you can fit into a single page.It’s a very versatile form.  The text and images can be paired to tell the same story in two completely different ways, or they can tell two different stories simultaneously.

This would be a wonderful book to share with students at the very beginning of the school year, when students explore genres even as they explore  their classroom libraries.  I also loved the rich insights these authors shared about how other aspects of their lives (race, culture, etc.) influenced their artistic directions.

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Pete Seeger was a national treasure, both for his music as well as for the spirit of social justice which infused all his songs.  In Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger, Anita Silvey tells his remarkable story in a  well researched  and engaging way.  I was always  impressed with the way Seeger looked past his family’s economic and social privileges to identify, instead, with those who were in need.  Many photographs and interviews help to place Seeger at the crossroads of   every civil and environmental movement over the course of the many decades of his life, movements that fueled and gave purpose to his songwriting.

I love that Silvey included Seeger’s work  in cleaning up the Hudson River, because I have spent many a memorable June at the Clearwater Festival, contributing to and rejoicing in the work of  restoring health to the Hudson River again.  Reading this book brought back so many wonderful memories of activism and music that all seemed to feature, somewhere, the tall and smiling figure of Pete Seeger and his equally memorable banjo.   

It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Midnight Teacher and Confucius


I have two fabulous picture books to share with the #IMWAYR community:

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It was against the law for slaves to have any path towards literacy in the American South; it was not only forbidden for any slave caught trying to learn to read and write, but it was also a crime for others to teach them.  Punishment for all involved was swift, certain, and brutal.  In spite of all these dangers, African Americans organized secret midnight schools where they could create access to what they were denied: an education.  One of these courageous individuals was Lilly Ann Granderson, and her story is told in Janet Halmann’s wonderful new picture book, Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School.

Over the course of many years, Lilly taught hundreds of people whose bodies may have been enslaved but whose minds and spirits yearned to be free. Beautifully illustrated by London Ladd,  Midnight Teacher  is a picture book that is sure to inspire and engage readers.  

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Any book by Demi is sure to be exquisitely written and Illustrated, and that is the case for her most recent book Confucius: Great Teacher of China.  This book is a wonderful way in which to introduce children to the life of philosophical ideas of China’s great teacher,  ideas which are still valued and practiced two thousand years after his death.

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It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Ashes to Asheville & Georgia Rules


In her thoughtful article for the New York Times entitled, What I Learned From Kristi Yamaguchi, Nicole Chung writes movingly about the power of seeing oneself represented in the books we read:

Representation, when you finally get it, can be life-changing, allowing you to imagine possibilities you never entertained before.  If you’re seen as irrelevant, on the other hand, or rarely seen at all-if your identity is reduced time and time again to a slickly packaged product or the same tired jokes and stereotypes-it can be harder to believe in your own agency and intrinsic worth.

As a teacher, I see this play out in my classroom almost on a daily basis when my students choose what they want to read or respond to what they’ve read.  For what seemed like a very, very long time, the list of kids who were not represented in any of our classroom books was a long one.  Although we have quite a distance to travel yet, I am happy to say that this is finally changing.  Last week I found two new books at our town library, both of which featured same-sex parents.

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Sarah Dooley’s Ashes to Asheville begins when twelve-year-old Fella (short for Ophelia) is hauled out of bed late one night by her sister Zany.  Fella has been living with her grandmother ever since her Mama Lacy’s death.  She misses her Mama  Shannon and her sister Zany, but Fella’s grandmother  (and the court) insists that Fella would be better off with a blood relative instead of  Mama Shannon.  All Fella has left of her mother is an urn of her ashes, but Zany aims to change all that with her plan to drive Mama Lacy’s ashes back to the place where they all lived happily together, their hometown of Asheville.

Of course, their road trip turns out to have more twists and turns than either of them could have anticipated, and it takes the unlike partnership of Mama Shannon and Grandma Madison to bring Zany and Fella back home again – home to the mama they have left.

I loved the humor in this story, and the way Dooley writes about life with two mamas: not everyone was kind, and there were some places where they were more accepted for the loving family they were.  But, they were a real family, no question about that.  Ashes to Asheville is a wonderful book for any classroom library, and I’m glad to have added it to mine.

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Nanci Turner Stevenson’s Georgia Rules is set in country I personally love and hold dear – the North Country of upstate New York and Vermont.  The story, however, begins in Atlanta.  Maggie’s mother and step-father’s divorce leads mother and daughter back to the Vermont farm Maggie’s late father had willed to her.  It’s the farm that has been in the family for many generations, and Maggie’s father seemed to have an inkling that Maggie would love it too, and come home to at last.

At first, neither Maggie nor her mother (a Southern belle from head to toe) find anything about the farmhouse or rural Vermont to like one bit.  But, little by little, Maggie discovers more to know and admire in the father she hardly knew, just as she comes to treasure the landscape and serenity of the farm.  Georgia Rules is full of vividly imagined characters and lively action – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.




It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Draw the Line, Lillian’s Right to Vote & Long Armed Ludy


Reading middle grade novels as a final round judge for Cybils was an all-consuming task, but now that that has passed, I feel free to read picture books again.  What a delight to be able to walk out of my town library with a bag full of new picture books!  Here are three:

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All of Kathryn Otoshi’s brilliantly conceived and executed picture books have a place of honor in my sixth grade classroom, because  they never fail to engage us all in exploring important ideas through our talk and writing.  Draw the Line  begins with two boys discovering that the separate lines they are creating can merge and become wonderful new creations. A misstep halfway through their game causes misunderstandings and disaster, until they learn to look at things in a different way.  Draw the Line is all the more powerful for being entirely wordless and allowing the reader to infer, invent, and imagine.

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Draw the Line is all the more powerful  for being entirely wordless and allowing the reader to infer, invent, and imagine.

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African Americans won the right to vote in America (the land of “all men are created equal”) in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  It is hard to believe that now more than ever, under this present Trumpist regime, these rights are jeopardy.  Sometimes it feels as though this country first takes giant leaps forward, and then begins to slowly but inexorably pedal back.

Jonah Winter, the author, was inspired to write this story by the real-life Lillian Allen.  Born in 1908, Lillian lived through all the changes that brought about her opportunity to cast the ballot for Barack Obama.  The fictional Lillian stands at the bottom of a steep hill, and with every step she takes she remembers all those who marched and sacrificed  so that she could vote.

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This is a wonderful book to share with children, many of whom are not aware of the struggle to get the right to vote.  Remembering words, people, and deeds, Lillian inches ever upward to exercise her right to vote.  Shane W. Evans’ gorgeous paintings are the perfect accompaniment to  Winter’s moving text.

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In the spirit of the Olympics, I discovered this marvelous book: Long Armed Ludy: And the First Women’s Olympics.   This is the (mostly) true story of Lucile (nicknamed Ludy) Godbold,  a college track star who discovered that her extra-long arms made her the perfect shot put super star.  Ludy makes it all the way to the Olympics where she collects a gold for her main event and medals in a whole lot of other track events as well.

Jean L. Patrick writes with a humorous folksiness that  makes this book extra fun to read aloud, and Adam Gustavson’s whimsical illustrations find a way to highlight the way Ludy’s long armed awkwardness  was perfectly suited to the sports she learned to expertly play.





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It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Caleb and Kit, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus


My students have been immersed in the world of nonfiction these last many weeks, but I’ve had a chance to branch out into some great fiction for when they surface from this particular unit.

Aven Green is a character who just made me want to smile.  She’s plucky, funny, good-natured and kind.  One would think that the disability she was born with (being armless) would have made her a shy and fearful sort of kid, but Aven’s parents made sure that would not be the case:

I think I can do all these things because my parents have always encouraged me to figure things out on my own-well, more like made me figure things out on my own.   I suppose if they had always done everything for me, I would be helpless without them.  But they didn’t and I’m not.  And now that I’m thirteen years old, I don’t need much help with anything.  True story.

But, when Aven’s parents up and move from Kansas (where she’s always lived and where she knows every single kid in her entire school), to a rundown western theme park in Arizona (which she knows not a soul), even she experiences challenges for which she needs all the help she can get.  Meeting Connor and Zion, one who has Tourette’s and the other who is shy and struggling with being overweight, is the first step Aven takes in making a new life in her new town.  The three friends stumble upon a mystery at the ranch, and Aven has a sneaking suspicion that solving it will also answer some important questions about her own life.

This was a charming book, and I already have a long list of students who want to read our classroom copy.  I love that the disabilities of these young characters are written about with honesty and humor, and I love that Aven is the strong and capable young lady that she is.  She’s funny, too, with a wise dry wit that is so endearing.

                             CALEB AND KIT by Beth Vrabel

Twelve-year-old Caleb has dealt with his cystic fibrosis as best as he can – he has good days and bad days, days when he can do as he pleases and days when he can only watch his perfect older brother Patrick do everything and do it well.  In fact, Caleb’s own father had had such a hard time dealing with all of Caleb’s medical issues that he wound up leaving their home for good.  Caleb’s life changes when he meets the mysterious Kit in the woods behind his house.  Kit loves adventure, believes in magic, and seems absolutely fearless.  Caleb is soon swept up in her adventures, some poorly thought out and dangerous.  But, he soon begins to wonder about his new friend: where is her mother and why does she so often look bedraggled and bruised? is she living so deeply in her world of magic that she is putting herself (and Caleb) in terrible danger?

This is a poignantly written story that sweeps the reader along.  I don’t often find that the issues written about in this story find their way into middle grade fiction, and I welcome the chance to share this book with my sixth graders.








It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


My resolution for the new year is to read fiction that is neither middle grade nor YA; luckily, I got a head start on that goal over Winter Break with this new, and much-heralded book:

I loved Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, also a wise and lyrically written story about families, parenting, and the ways in which society intrudes and often perverts.  Ng is a fearless writer and an honest one – Everything I Never Told You  was, at times, excruciatingly difficult to read for it made me think about my own efforts at parenting and how they went awry at times, as parenting is wont to do. 

Little Fires Everywhere is an equally brilliant book, although the scope widens to include class, race, and the politics of gender and poverty.  Here the book jacket synopsis:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Shaker Heights is the mirror image of the town I’ve lived in for many years, and I therefore understood Elena Richardson and her children all too well.  Our town, too, is said to embody all that a perfect town should, and many of its residents (like those of Shaker Heights) have returned to raise their own families in its perfection.  Elena’s children reminded me of so many young people I’ve come to know over the years, who grew up within the entitled confines of perfection, often at a great distance from truth, introspection, and a sense of genuine empathy.  They live in bubbles of prosperity and a self-congratulatory contentment, and seek to find similar bubbles however far they may wander from home.

I love the way Ng is able to build each character little by little, and weave the sometimes interconnecting narratives expertly through surprises and tragedies.  Each narrative stands on its own quite beautifully, but running through and around each other as they do makes for a captivating reading experience.  I am looking forward to reading it all over again for a Voxer book group, I imagine we will have some lively conversations!