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!



It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading:Alan Cole is not a Coward and Dear Martin


I managed to finish reading  two timely and thought provoking  books last week:

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Reading Eric Bell’s Alan Cole is Not a Coward felt at once deeply familiar (Alan and so many of the other characters felt like the middle schoolers I spend my days with) and yet revelatory (we never really know what our kiddos’ home life is like, but that life absolutely impacts what our kids do and say and think in our classrooms.  

Alan and his best friends Zach and Madison sit at the cafeteria’s sole Unstable Table, whose rickety structure reflects the boy’s own precarious social status at their middle school.   To make matters worse, Alan’s older brother, who is just about the biggest and nastiest bully I have ever encountered in MG lit, has just discovered Alan’s secret crush – another boy.  He promises to keep this secret secret IF Alan agrees to a competition: Cole brother vs. Cole brother.  Alan is forced to agree to this, even though he has no idea how he is supposed to accomplish any of Nathan’s ridiculously difficult tasks.  Thank goodness for his friends, for even though Zach and Madison have issues of their own, they are 100% loyal, most of all, they believe in Alan more than he believes in himself.

The scenes between Alan and his brother are difficult to read, because Nathan is so relentlessly brutal.  But so are the scenes between Alan’s family which reveal undercurrents of loss, blame, and rage.  Even so, the story manages to keep at its very center the three friends who embody a sweet and wacky kindness and humanity. Our classroom definitely needs several copies of this book, for it will surely be a favorite.

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I have been hearing rave reviews for Nic Stone’s Dear Martin  from every quarter, so I knew that I was in for a special read when my own copy of this book finally arrived.  There is so much going on in this book, that (after a few futile efforts on my part) I’m just going to share the jacket blurb:

Dear Martin  is a pitch perfect novel of our times, one that touches upon so many of our cultural flashpoints: police brutality, race relations, the school to prison pipeline, income and education inequality.  At the center of it all are kids like Justyce and Manny, who are trying to navigate what it means to be African American in a society that cannot seem to ever be able to live up to its lofty founding principle that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”.
Nic Stone has crafted a novel that tells it like it is.  Justyce must contend with racism from all sides: his entitled white class mates, the kids from his neighborhood now running drugs and guns, and his mother who believes that there are simply no good white people.  I so appreciated the honest way in which Justyce’s conflicts were explored, and the clear eyed way in which the author used his story to tell the larger one of our country at a crossroads.
This is definitely a book for 8th. grade and beyond – the issues addressed are complex and beg for deep discussions about the story and its historical references. What a fabulous book!






It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The Perfect Score, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, Jasper & The Riddle of Riley’s Mine

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It was a great reading week – of the four books in my reading pile, I managed to finish these three:


Set in the period directly after the Civil War, J. Anderson Coats’ The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming gives us a glimpse of  life from a unique perspective: the women  and children who had lost their menfolk in the war.

Jane Deming’s widowed father remarried a young woman before setting off with the Union Army.  When he dies during the Seige of Vicksburg, Jane is left in the care of her rather harsh and controlling stepmother, and with the care of her  baby brother, Jeremy.  Other women left in such a position were heading out to Washington Territory, where rumor has it that there were many prosperous single men who had made their fortunes and were in need of wives.  Mrs. D., as Jane refers to her, is convinced that this is her only option, and so they set sail hoping for their dreams to come true: a rich husband (Mrs. D’s) and the opportunity to go to school (Jane’s).

The real Washington Territory proves to be about as different from expectations as possible, and both Mrs. D. as well as Jane have to make adjustments and sacrifices along the way.  Jane makes for a wonderful narrator – describing the perils of the journey West, and the rough and tumble life of all those who ventured into its wilderness in the hopes of building a new life far away from the crowded East coast cities and factory towns.

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming is rich in historical detail and fascinating characters, it’s a thoroughly engaging story.


I  read Caroline Starr Rose’s Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine in one sitting – I simply could not put down this rollicking adventure.  Eleven year old Jasper is having a hard time dealing with his mostly drunk and always broke father, who seems to have lost his way after his wife’s death.  Jasper is glad that he has Mel, his older brother, to keep him company in their common misery.  Someday, both boys plan to run away together, perhaps to prospect gold up in the Klondike gold fields where men are rumored to be making huge fortunes.

When Mel takes off without him, Jasper is determined not only to find his brother, but to prove that if Mel has dreams of gold, he cannot realize them without his intrepid younger brother.  Finding Mel proves to be easier than making the hazardous trek up steep mountains in the midst of blizzards in order to get to those fabled gold fields, but Jasper and Mel persist.

I simply loved Jasper, who proves to be the perfect narrator with his wry sense of humor and stubborn courage.  He part of a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom are beautifully crafted and great fun to get to know.  Like  The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming ,  this is a meticulously researched story, and one learns a lot about what it was like to be a part of the rush to find gold and strike it rich.  I know that my sixth graders will love this book, so my challenge will be to  have enough copies on hand to keep them happy! This would make for a hugely enjoyable class readaloud, too.


The Perfect Score  caught my attention because it was  about how students in one middle school plotted to outwit the state’s mandated test.  Now, there’s an idea!  But, of course, Rob Buyea does more with the story than just that, for The Perfect Score is also about the whole kaleidoscope of middle school life: adjusting to new teachers, dealing with the cafeteria, coping with bullies at school and at home, and learning what cooperative work is all about.

Buyea has become a master of storytelling through multiple perspectives,  which is a narrative style that my kids love.  I especially liked learning about Trevor, who is a mean bully at school because he is tormented at home by his awful older brother.  I think it’s helpful for our students to try to develop an empathetic understanding of all their classmates, even the bullies.  The Perfect Score would make a fabulous book club book, for it will spur conversations about so many important issues – middle school related and beyond.








It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The People Shall Continue, and Family Poems For Every Day of the Week


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

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Simon Ortiz’s seminal children’s book , The People Shall Continue was first published forty years ago.  My tattered classroom copy can now be retired, as the publisher has just released a special anniversary issue. The People Shall Continue tells the history of Native and Indigenous people in North America, from their beginnings to the challenges they  have faced ever since the first European settlers arrived.

Ortiz tells this story in the way of the best oral narratives, and it is a moving experience to read it aloud with its sober cadences, repetitive phrases, and  powerful evocations of  bitter scenes, first of hope then of betrayal.  Sharol Graves’ illustrations to great justice to Ortiz’s writing, for they fit each segment of this story perfectly. I especially loved these pages, which tells the creation story of the people, and of the knowledge passed from one generation of the People to those who survive in the next:ENG_spread_1.jpg

In his author’s note, Ortiz writes movingly about the struggle of Indigenous People to maintain and honor their traditions: “Without any doubt, the endeavor to continue to live as Indigenous Americans is sincere and serious.  It is a way of living that engenders love, care, responsibility, and obligation.  It must be exercised and expressed as belief, commitment, and assertion of one’s humanity in relationship to others and all life beings in Creation, in order that the people shall always continue.”

We read this book just before the Thanksgiving break in my sixth grade classroom, which led to thoughtful discussions about the meaning of this “American holiday”.  It’s a book that belongs in classrooms, for it tells a story that must not be forgotten

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Family Poems for Every Day of the Week is a joyous whirl through the seven days we march though, endure, and enjoy.  I loved the way Alarcon wove his Latino traditions and family stories into each poem day.  The illustrations by Maya Christina Gonzalez were full of vibrant colors and feast for the eyes, as well.

Here’s what my reading week looks like: