Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I’m always on the lookout for picture books that teach intermediate grade kids about history and life. Here are a couple I found this weekend:
Granny Judith asks twelve-year-old Christmas John to row Molly, the cook’s daughter, across the river from Kentucky to Ohio. Although John is terrified he will be caught, he complies with his grandmother’s wishes, and rows Molly across the river. This trip is followed by many more dangerous journeys throughout the course of the next year. Each time John returns, Granny asks what color his passengers wore. She uses that information to create a quilt, made from squares of “freedom colors.” Finally, there are only two squares left, and it is time for Christmas John and Granny to journey across the river themselves. The original story, taken from true accounts in the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection, is riveting, and the illustrations, done by EB Lewis are absolutely beautiful.


South Carolina, 1955. The Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars want to play in the state Little League Tournament. All of the white teams in the state, however, refuse to play the all-black All Stars and pull out of the tournament. This boycott earns the All Stars a spot at the Little League World Series. The Cannon Street Team is invited to attend the World Series as guests, but is not allowed to play. The title of the book, “Let Them Play,” comes from the chant shouted by the spectators who attended the World Series. Pair this book with TEAMMATES, BASEBALL SAVED US, or SISTER ANNE’S HANDS.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


The summer before sixth grade, Alice Ann Moxley and her family move from Chicago to Mississippi. It is 1964, the schools are about to be integrated, and Alice Ann's father is an FBI agent who has been assigned to protect black people who are registering to vote. Alice finds herself thrust into the midst of the civil rights movement when Valerie Taylor, a black girl, joins Alice's class as only one of two black students in the entire school. Alice is forced to choose between having friends, and sticking up for Valerie, who is the brunt of horrific discrimination and cruelty for the entire year.

This is a terrific story about growing up in the south, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Each chapter begins with a headline from the Jackson Daily Journal. I know intermediate grade kids or middle schoolers would learn tons of history and have great discussions. They could talk not only about history, but also about life issues like integrity, and bravery, and peer pressure. The book would be a terrific read aloud, or a great literature circle. It would be a perfect companion read to WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM or WEDNESDAY WARS.

The only offsetting thing about the book is the cover art. While I definitely believe that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I also think I would have a really tough time selling this book to boys, or even a lot of girls. The cover looks like something straight out of the 1950's, with two girls, one white and one black, standing back to back under a tree. I probably would not have picked the book up if a friend had not recommended it to me. I wonder why they didn't do something a little more modern and hip, because I definitely think this book is a winner and deserves to be far more widely read than I think it will be, with this cover. I spoke with the author at CCIRA and she agrees with me entirely.

At any rate, this is a great read, perfect for Black History Month, or a Civil Rights unit, or Coming of Age unit. Ignore the cover and dive right in for a terrific read.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Emma Jean Lazarus is someone that many of us, especially those of us who are teachers, know well. A seventh grader, she is, to put it mildly, way "smarter than the average bear." So much so that she has difficulty connecting with her seventh grade classmates and spends her days sitting on the sidelines observing them with a researcher's detached formality. Emma Jean doesn't appear unhappy, in fact, she seems quite comfortable in her world. She is friends with many teachers, and also with Mr. Johansen, the school custodian. She has a warm and caring mother and a pet parakeet named Henri. Emma Jean's life is further complicated by the fact that her father, a brilliant mathematician (and probably a lot like Emma Jean, in terms of his ability to connect to people) was killed in a traffic accident two years earlier.

Emma Jean's position as a detached observer is challenged one day when she walks into the bathroom and finds Colleen, a seventh grade classmate, crying because Laura Gilroy, one of the most popular girls in the class, has talked Colleen's best friend into taking Laura, and not Colleen, on a family skiing trip. Colleen, a genuinely nice kid, is devastated at her friend's betrayal.

Emma Jean is detached, but she is not uncaring. She consoles Colleen, then offers to help right the wrong that Laura has committed. Emma Jean uses her writing and computer skills to fabricate a letter to Laura. Colleen, ever the "good girl" knows nothing about the letter until after Laura has received it. This leads to an "interesting" chain of events, which climax when Emma Jean falls out of a tree while attempting to visit Colleen in her second story bedroom.

I know so many kids who might see themselves and find clarity or comfort in this book. I think, for starters, of the GT kids at my school, or of those kids who are just a little bit quirky. They will be fine when they get to real grown up life, where different people are allowed to be good at different things, but right now, in school, when fitting in is everything, life is hard on them. I think those kids might see themselves in Emma Jean.

I also think of kids who have lost a parent, either to death or divorce. Emma Jean and her mother are in the process of building a new life together, one that honors her dad, but also begins to explore new possibilities. That might also be really helpful to some kids.

As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I also can't wait to share Emma Jean's letters with kids. Emma Jean is quite the writer and does amazing things with correspondence. While most of her efforts are a little misguided, one can't help but admire her moxy. This is a gal who makes things happen with her writing.

Another fully satisfying read!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

CASTLE CORONA by Sharon Creech

Several days ago, I wrote about how I was slogging my way through CASTLE CORONA. Finally finished it yesterday. Was it a typical high quality Sharon Creech novel? Absolutely. Amy I glad I read it? Yeah, I think so. Would I read it aloud to kids? Yes, if I was going to read the fairytale-ish genre book to third/fourth graders. It's definitely well done, and has interesting twists and turns. I have to admit, though, that I didn't love the book. Fantasy is just not my favorite genre.

In another blog I read this week, the author wrote about how she struggled through THE HOBBIT this year, because it was one of her husband's favorite books. He has been asking her for more than twenty years to read it, so she finally did. She finished it, and even put it on the syllabus for a college course she is reading, but said she isn't rushing out to pick up LORD OF THE RINGS.

As a teacher, I think it's really important to be widely read, to know lots and lots of different books, so that you can put the right book into a kid's hands at the right time. I will continue, then, to read in this genre. I'm planning to read THE LIGHTNING THIEF very soon.

At the same time, I also think it's important to be honest with kids. I think it's ok to tell them that fantasy is not my favorite genre, that I read it only occasionally, that as much as I read, I have not finished even book two of the Harry Potter series.

I want to be an adult who shares my real reading life with kids, not one who lies about the reading life she thinks she should have.