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1. My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay -- by Cari Best and Vanessa Brantley-Newton (ages 5-9)

With our 3rd graders, we're spending a lot of time looking at how we understand characters' feelings through what authors write and illustrators draw. This helps students understand the layers of a story and connect to characters, but it also helps them develop empathy. Our kids loved reading a new book, My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay, and really connected to the story. It's truly a special book about perseverance, friendship and blindness.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
by Cari Best
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan, 2015
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-9
Adults might first notice the cane that Zulay is holding, but kids first noticed the braille alphabet on the back of the book. After they all felt the back cover, we talked about why Zulay might need to use this alphabet, so everyone started with a little background knowledge. Zulay has a huge smile on her face as she comes to school, arm in arm with her three best friends.
"We link our arms and skip our legs and sing like the stereo till Ms. Perkins, the hall lady, tells us to stop. 'You have a new perfume!' I say, and she says back, 'Zulay doesn't miss a thing.'"
Zulay loves her teacher, writing on her Brailler and helping her friend figure out a math problem. But when Ms. Turner, an aide, comes to help her practice using her "fold-ing hold-ing cold-ing" white cane, Zulay is reluctant. She doesn't want to be left behind or different from everyone else.

We talked about what it means, not wanting to "stick out", and why she might feel like this. I shared how hard it was for me to have to get extra help with my multiplication facts in 3rd grade. Kids talked about the illustration below, and how Zulay was feeling as she struggled learning to use her cane outside. We looked at Zulay's expression and thought about how it would feel.
"Then we practice together in the big outside with no walls or desks or friends." 
Zulay's spirit shines as she decides that she wants to run in the Field Day race around the track. She practices and works hard, and--just like Zulay's friends--my students cheered when she ran the final race.
"'Run, Zulay, run!' my friends all shout, like I shouted for them."
My students could definitely relate to how hard Zulay worked, how worried and uncertain she felt when things were difficult, and how excited she was at the end. The only detail they were a little unclear about is whether Zulay ran with Ms. Turner, as you see above, or by herself as it shows her when she crosses the finish line.

There are very few picture books about showing contemporary kids who are blind, so it is especially refreshing to see one with such a positive character and inclusive message.

This week, kids will look at a big array of picture books finding examples of characters' expressions. We are excited to have a visit by Lisa Brown, picture book illustrator and author, who will talk with 3rd and 4th graders about the Art of the Picture Book. Lisa's characters are full of a wide range of expressions -- just take a look at her Tumblr, where she posts daily sketches.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Macmillan, and we have already purchased an additional copy for our school. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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2. 2015 Pura Belpré Awards: Celebrating the Latino cultural experience in children's books (ages 2-14)

The Pura Belpré Medal
Each year, I look to the Pura Belpré Awards with joy. These awards celebrate the Latino cultural experience in books for children. Year after year, this committee selects books that speak to my students, both affirming my students' experiences and providing a window into others' cultures. Each year, I discover new books through these awards and celebrate ones that are already favorites.

2015 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, was awarded both the Pura Belpré Award for Illustration and the Caldecott Honor Award. I adore this book and have shared it with teachers and families all fall. As the Belpré press release states, Morales "uses rich, vibrant color photographs and minimal evocative text to beautifully portray the unique imagination and creativity of an iconic Latina artist." The joy and inspiration Morales gets from Kahlo is palpable on every page. (ages 3-12)

2015 Illustrator Honor Awards

Little Roja Riding Hood, illustrated by Susan Guevara and written by Susan Middleton Elya. I can't wait to share this with students -- they love modern twists on favorite fairy tales. I haven't read it yet, but Kirkus Reviews calls it "a spirited interpretation" that blends "a whimsical fairy-tale land with contemporary Latino-American life." (ages 3-7)

Green Is a Chile Pepper: A Book of Colors, illustrated by John Parra and written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong. My kindergarteners loved this duo's Round is a Tortilla last year, with Parra's folk art and Thong's rich language. Green Is a Chile Pepper continues this pair's delightful concept books that are full of Hispanic cultural details woven into lively text and colorful illustrations. (ages 2-6)

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh combines clear text and folk-inspired art to bring this important story to children. Sylvia Mendez and her family fought for their right to go to their local neighborhood school in Westminster, California, in a court case that set a precedent for Brown vs. the Board of Education. This evocative, accessible story is one of my absolute favorites of the year, and I'm so happy to see it honored here and by the Sibert Committee. (my full review) (ages 6-10)

2015 Pura Belpré Author Award
I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín, illustrated by Lee White and translated by E.M. O'Connor. I just started reading this last week after the awards were announced, and I can already tell that several of my students will love it. Celeste’s carefree life in Valparaíso, Chile, is shattered when warships appear. As people disappear, Celeste’s parents go into hiding, and she is sent into exile. When she returns home, she works to reunite people she loves and to move her country forward. The award press release states, "Lyrically written by acclaimed poet, Marjorie Agosín, this Chilean story offers a refreshing perspective on resiliency." (ages 10-14)

2015 Author Honor Award

Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, written by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Raúl Colón. This accessible volume contains 20 short biographies of Latino men and women who have shaped the United States. Each chapter is about 3 to 4 pages long, providing enough depth to hold the reader's interest and paint a picture of these noted figures' remarkable achievements. I especially love the range of people Herrera includes. An excellent book for schools and families. (ages 8-12)

Please seek out and share these excellent books. Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Penguin, Abrams, Macmillan, and Chronicle Books. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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3. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 7: OUR WINNERS! + GIVEAWAY!!!

It's been an exciting journey with our students, reading and discussing what they think the most distinguished books for children have been in 2014. My students know their voices and opinions are valued--and that's made a huge difference to them. But even more than that, they've had a great time sharing their ideas with each other.

As a special celebration, I'm hosting a giveaway of one of these titles of your choosing. Please see below for full details!


The winner for the 2015 Mock Newbery at Emerson School is The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. 

Students passionately argued that The Crossover was not just a book they loved, but the writing distinguished and distinctive. They shared examples about the characters, the plot and the language. Students from all sorts of different backgrounds connected to the themes and language in The Crossover. This is not just a sports book, but rather a book that operates on a multitude of levels. I think most of all, they responded Kwame Alexander's voice, in the way he both riffed on rap style but also wove deeper issues that made kids pause and think.

We celebrated three honor books that all received more votes than the rest of the titles. The three honor books for 2015 Mock Newbery at Emerson are:
The Swap, by Megan Shull -- a book that resonated emotionally with many students, because it captured some of the inner and social pressures kids feel today. The followed the complex plot, and found the voices clear and consistent. I especially appreciated the nuanced gender roles -- some typical for boys and girls, some less expected.
The Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd -- students responded to the lovely language, the heartfelt themes and the magical fantasy in Lloyd's debut novel. They understood how hard it was for Felicity to move every time things started to get tough for her mom. They could feel how important words were to Felicity. And they could see Felicity growing throughout the story.
The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm -- it was wonderful to see how students responded to the layers of science, fantasy and family. There was just the right amount of depth to draw students in, but never overwhelm them. That balance takes incredible skill; Holm creates thought-provoking situations without making readers feel like they're being led into a discussion. Our readers responded to the humor, the heart and the love in this story.

Will any of these win the 2015 Newbery Medal? We'll all find out on Monday, February 2nd when the winners are announced in Chicago at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting. You can follow the live webcast here early Monday morning.

I'll be spending the weekend with my library "book friends", talking about favorite books we've read and new books we're looking forward reading this year. These four special books will certainly be ones I'll be sharing--because my students' excitement is contagious!

GIVEAWAY: As a special celebration, I would like to send one of these titles to a classroom or school library as a way to share a love of books. Please fill out the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway rulles are simple:
  1. Giveaway ends Thursday 2/5 at 12am Pacific.
  2. Winners must be to the United States shipping address.
  3. Kids & parents may enter, and present the gift to a teacher or school library.
a Rafflecopter giveaway


I want to give a special thanks to all the publishers who supported our book club by sending review copies. It made our small adventure possible. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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4. 2015 Newbery Awards -- HOORAY for Crossover, El Deafo & Brown Girl Dreaming!!!!! (ages 4-14)

This morning, the American Library Association announced the winners for 2015 distinguished books for children across many categories. This week, I'd like to share these with you along with my excitement and my students' reactions to these books. I am jumping with joy because all of these books speak to children so well. (read the full press release here)

The 2015 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature:

The Crossover,” written by Kwame Alexander, won the 2015 Newbery Medal, for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature. From the very first time I read this aloud to students, they have loved it. I'll never forget 5th grade boys nearly wrestling each other in the library to check out our copy first. This story captured their heart and the words conveyed power, rhythm and emotion that connected to students. (read my full review here)



Two Newbery Honor Books also were named:

El Deafo” written and illustrated by Cece Bell. For the first time, a graphic novel has won a Newbery Honor, and my students adore this. They love graphic novels, and El Deafo soars to the top on every measure. Cece shares her memoir, growing up deaf after suffering meningitis. My students completely relate to Cece's character, even though they have not gone through exactly the same experiences. She brings them right into her world, conveying her thoughts and feelings so well through words and comics. Please seek out this outstanding, very special story.

Brown Girl Dreaming,” written by Jacqueline Woodson. This memoir told in verse drew many of my students in, helping them see Jackie's experiences growing up in the 1960s and also showing them how some of her experiences were similar to their own. I'll never forget the way Elani and Aleecia came in after reading it together, just glowing and saying, "It's like WE were in the book."

Woodson crafts her verse so differently than Alexander and tells her memoir in such a different way from Bell -- I love that we're showing our children that there are so many different ways you can live in the world. Your goal is to be the best YOU that you can be.

I am also thrilled that these books are so accessible to children. Not only are they distinguished in their literary merit, they also are respectful of where children are developmentally, what they bring to the reading experience.

Kwame Alexander talked with us about how he knew some kids could enter a novel in verse more easily than dense text -- he wanted to write a book that invited kids into a the story, but once they were there provide them with a nuanced, layered, powerful story. And man, does he do that. Because his language is so accessible, kids can enter the conversation and then talk deeply about all sorts of literary devices the author used, the messages he's conveying, the journey his characters go through.

Check out some of Emerson students' discussions and thoughts on all our Mock Newbery books. I can't wait to share these titles with even more readers.
Part 1 -- The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond + Brown Girl Dreaming
Part 2 -- The Crossover + Dash + The Fourteenth Goldfish
Part 3 -- The Great Greene Heist + Half a Chance + The Life of Zarf
Part 4 -- Magic in the Mix + Nest + The Night Gardener
Part 5 -- Nuts to You + The Red Pencil + Snicker of Magic
Part 6 -- The Swap + Witch's Boy + Zoo at the Edge of the World
Part 7 -- OUR WINNER!!! (plus giveaway)
My heartfelt appreciation goes out today to all the authors who are writing books for kids. They put so much heart, soul and thought into their craft. It makes a tremendous difference in kids' lives, finding books that speak to them. My heartfelt thanks also goes out to the whole children's literature community, from librarians who spend countless hours on committees evaluating and discussing books, to publishers who take incredible risks to bring stories into our hands, to booksellers who help get books into the hands of as many readers as possible. This is a very special community.

Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ABRAMS, and Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Books for Young Readers. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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5. 2015 Caldecott Awards: a terrific range & selection of books!!! (ages 4-14, yes really!!)

This year's Caldecott Committee broke boundaries by including a graphic novel for young teens among their seven (7!!) books awarded honors. This selection of picture books, meaning books told with and through pictures, serves a wide range of children -- from preschoolers who will adore Dan Santat's Beekle, to teens who are the perfect audience for Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's graphic novel This One Summer.

Before I get any further, if you're considering This One Summer for your child, please learn about it before you order it. I genuinely recommend this for kids who are 13 and 14, but not for elementary students. Skip down to the end if you're specifically looking for information about this book.

The 2015 Caldecott Award for the most distinguished American picture book goes to:

Dan Santat, the author and illustrator of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. This delightful story has charmed our young students at Emerson, with Santat's special message about loneliness, imagination and finding your own special, true friend.

My students are huge fans of Dan Santat's and will be thrilled to see this picture book, which comes so much from Dan's heart, honored and celebrated. Dan truly captures so much of what children value in this world -- playfulness, fun and friendship with an incredible eye and vivid imagination. Perfect for preschoolers, but enjoyed by older kids as well (ages 3-9).

Six (!!) Caldecott Honor Awards were given:

Nana in the City, by Lauren Castillo, captures the relationship between a young boy and his grandmother, as she helps him overcome his fears by listening, understanding and helping him. I especially love how his nana never scolds him, but rather emotionally comes to where this little guy is. Another truly special book, perfect for kids ages 3-6.

The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary GrandPré and written by Barb Rosenstock, conveys the way abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky experienced colors as sounds and sounds as colors. It's fascinating--this picture book biography didn't appeal to me right away (I brought too many grown-up questions to it), but my 5th grader found it fascinating and the art captivating. Kandinsky listens as “swirling colors trill…like an orchestra tuning up,” and GrandPré shows him lifting his paintbrush much like a conductor. A fascinating intersection of art and music, for ages 6-10.


Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett, is another huge kid favorite at Emerson precisely because it makes kids laugh and wonder at the same time. Sam and Dave are indeed digging a whole, as you can see on the cover, and they are determined not to stop until they find "something spectacular." What I love best about it is the respect Klassen and Barnett have for kids who love to puzzle over things and think about questions that don't have easy answers, or necessarily ANY answers. They're totally comfortable with that uncertainty, something grownups often forget. Kids from 4 to 10 have loved this.

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, made me gasp in wonder the very first time I saw it -- and it's had the same effect on children and adults alike. Just look at the colors on the cover -- but then open, and you enter the dreamlike world that Morales creates, combining handmade puppets and carefully crafted stage sets. Morales conveys a sense of an artists' world, and how one artist infuses another artists' dreams and spirit. While this isn't a biography at all, it is an incredible testament to the artistic spirit that appeals to the very young as well as older readers who can put it into more context (ages 3-12).

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant. I adore this utterly splendid book that tells the life of Peter Roget and the creation of his thesaurus. Sweet uses playful illustrations to draw children into young Peter's life, showing them how he loved lists of words and discovered that words had power, especially when gathered together and organized in interesting ways. This is a book children will enjoy pouring over again and again, noticing more details each time. I particularly love showing kids (ages 6-10) the ways science, language and art intersect.

This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki. This fantastic graphic novel eloquently captures young teens on the cusp of adolescence, as they spend the summer together. For the first time, the Caldecott Committee said, YES, the illustrations in a graphic novel is a true form of art, one that is vitally essential to the story. It is utterly ground-breaking and I am so happy.

This book speaks to young teens about the way friendships change as they enter the murky waters of adolescence. Rose is so happy to spend the summer once again with her friend Windy, but she rejects many of their past activities as too childish and yearns to mimic the older teens in this beach town. I like the way Kirkus sums it up: "The realistic dialogue and sensitive first-person narration convey Rose’s naïveté and confusion, and Windy’s comfort in her own skin contrasts with Rose’s uncertainty." Teen pregnancy, gossip and a parent's depression all wind their way through this story. I've found it speaks well to young teens, ages 13-15.

Please seek out and share these books with kids in your life. They are each truly special. Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Little, Brown, Random House, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Macmillan and Eerdmans. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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6. 2015 Coretta Scott King Awards: celebrating African American culture and universal human values (ages 4-15)

Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are a continued source of inspiration for me and the schools I serve. Each year, these awards are given to authors and illustrators for books that honor African American culture and universal human values. Today, I would like to share the winning books with you. As the award website states,
"The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood."
2015 CSK Illustrator Award
Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers and written by Misty Copeland. In this stirring, beautiful picture book, Copeland creates a conversation between a young girl who dreams of dancing and herself as a professional ballerina (my full review) Myers illustrations are full of vibrant, saturated colors and help children visualize a story as they listen to Copeland's poetic text.

I read Firebird today with 2nd graders -- Jeehyun said, "It's like it was showing the young girl's life cycle," as she grew up and followed her dreams. I smiled, as we thought back to Jeehyun in kindergarten and wondered what advice she would have to herself as she was just starting school. It was a magical moment to share.  Inspiring, for ages 6-10.

2015 CSK Illustrator Honor Awards:

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Joesphine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Patricia Hruby Powell. I adore this beautiful biography that Patricia Hruby Powell & Christian Robinson created celebrating Baker's life and work (see my full review).  Christian Robinson captures Josephine's movement and playfulness with his gorgeous acrylic illustrations. Savor this long picture book biography over several sittings -- and notice how the pictures and words play off each other. For ages 8-12.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by Katheryn Russell-Brown. As Kirkus writes, "Bewitched by the rhythms of jazz all around her in Depression-era Kansas City, little Melba Doretta Liston longs to make music in this fictional account of a little-known jazz great." Kids love the exaggerated illustrations that brim with humor, sass and verve--just like I imagine Melba's trombone playing did. A great picture book biography, for ages 4-8.

2015 CSK Author Award:
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, is a moving, evocative memoir in verse that paints a picture of what it was like to grow up black and female in the 1960s and 1970s (see my full review). This book was especially meaningful to several of my African American students, especially girls, who could relate to Jackie's experiences. This powerful book will now be decorated with four medals: the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Sibert Award for nonfiction. Excellent and outstanding in so many ways, best suited for ages 10-14.

2015 CSK Author Honor Awards:

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was recognized for its portrayal of a close-knit African American family, loving and supportive but also rife with tension between the brothers. As you know, my students are **huge** fans of The Crossover. As I said to a friend when I first read it, I love how the characters' African American identity is an important part of the book, but not an issue in the story -- it's just part of who they are. Don't BOTH of those medals look fantastic on this cover? Fantastic for ages 9-14.

How I Discovered Poetry, by Marilyn Nelson, is memoir in verse that is based on Nelson's experiences growing up as a daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force during the 1950s. Publisher's Weekly calls this "an intimate perspective on a tumultuous era and an homage to the power of language." To learn more, listen to this NPR interview with Nelson. I have not read this or shared it with students, so I'm not quite sure if it's best suited for ages 12 and up, or would be a good fit for our 5th graders.

How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon, is a gripping novel for teens that is undeniably relevant to issues our society is grappling with around the country. As Publisher Weekly writes, Magoon "offers multiple, contradictory perspectives on the shooting of an African-American youth. No one disputes that 16-year-old Tariq Johnson was shot on the street by Jack Franklin, a white gang member, but the motives of both killer and victim remain fuzzy, as do the circumstances surrounding the shooting." While I have not read this, I am a big fan of Magoon's previous work and know this will be an intense and full of raw emotions, for ages 14 and up.

2015 John Steptoe Award for New Talent:
When I Was the Greatest, by Jason Reynolds. I have not read this, but friends are raving about this engaging story of urban teens Ali, Noodles and Needles. As the award committee writes, "In an authentic contemporary voice, Reynolds focuses on the importance of family, the acceptance of responsibility and the obligations of friendship and portrays a likeable teenager learning how to be a good man." Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Please seek out and share these books with kids in your life. They are each truly special. Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Penguin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Lee & Low, and Chronicle Books. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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7. Poetry in motion: Terrific virtual visit with Kwame Alexander (ages 10-14)

"Oh man, I love that book." -- that's Theo, one of my 5th graders, when I told them last week that we were going to Skype with Kwame Alexander, the author of The Crossover. How cool is that? Just hearing Theo sigh and declare his love for a book was enough to melt my heart. But now we are all soaring, with all the inspiration, smiles and love from our visit this week.

Huge thanks go out to Kwame Alexander -- first for writing a book with so much heart, so much swag, so much appeal that it's got kids passing it from friend to friend. But also for taking his time to visit with us.

You can get a sense of what it's like for our students to Skype with Mr. Alexander in this picture below. Two fifth grade classes gathered in the library (about 50 kids), of whom about 15 had already read The Crossover. We first listened to Kwame tell us about the book, but the bulk of our time was spent asking questions back and forth.
Skyping in the Emerson library with Kwame Alexander
As students started asking questions, I captured some of what Kwame was saying. I'd like to share a few excerpts here.
"Basketball is like poetry in motion."

Asking Mr. Alexander a question
"I was inspired to write this book by my relationship with dad. He was a really good basketball player, like Josh & JB's father, but I wasn't. I played tennis instead. I also wanted to this because I love basketball so much. And I wanted to write a book that boys (and girls too) would really want to read, and I knew that basketball would draw a lot of kids in."

"Why did you write this story as a novel in verse? Because poetry is the coolest form of writing on the planet, and I happen to be the coolest dude on the planet! But it's more than that -- poetry is rhythmic and concise, and when you do it write, poetry has a lot of swag. This is just like basketball -- players have rhythm, movement, a lot of swag. A novel in verse also doesn't have a lot of words on a page, so kids who don't like to read won't be intimidated by this book. That was important to me."
One student asked what the first novel in verse was that he read, and Kwame talked about how Love That Dog by Sharon Creech was just amazing. Then he asked her what other novel in verses she liked. When she told him that she loved Words With Wings, by Nikki Grimes, Kwame took out his phone and texted her! Then he took this selfie to show Nikki!!
We asked him about what you do when you get stuck writing. Kwame asked if any of us played soccer. When you play soccer, you do a lot of running, but you aren’t always scoring goals. Writing is like that. You write and write and write, and eventually something will click and you’ll score. The Crossover took Kwame five years to write.

Here’s how he goes about writing a poem.
  1. Somebody tells me what I have to write about, or I have to figure out my topic
  2. I make a list of as many words I can think of about that topic. I write down 30-50 words.
  3. I think about the structure -- what kind of poem am I going to write? Maybe I’m going to borrow a poem, model this poem on a poem I really like.
  4. Then I take my list of words and start fitting them into that structure. I add verbs or adjectives to link the words together, connect them, and keep playing.
Special thanks to Kwame for taking time out of his writing day to visit with us. And special thanks also go to the Berkeley Public Schools Fund and our school PTA that made this visit possible. If you're at all inclined to try out Skyping with an author, reach out and see if they're interested.

If I could, I would send every 5th grade teacher a copy of The Crossover. Not only can it capture kids' attention, but it holds them there with an emotionally resonant story told with powerful, crafted language. The review copy came from our school library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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8. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 1: Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond + Brown Girl Dreaming

Our 4th and 5th graders are buzzing with excitement from our Mock Newbery discussion and voting. We have been reading and reading, sharing books and ideas, trying to figure out what makes a book truly distinguished. This past week, we've had two lunchtime book club meetings for our final discussions and voting. Just look at our turnout!

2015 Mock Newbery discussion at Emerson School
Over the next several days, I will try to share my students' thoughts on our books. Each student has tried to read at least five books from our nominated books (see here for more about our process), and all were working hard to compare very different books with each other. I want other librarians, parents and kids to be able to hear some of their comments.

There is no way that our small group could read all the books that the Newbery Committee will be discussing. I wanted a representative sample that fell within our 4th and 5th grader's range. This year, I also wanted to give the students more responsibility and voice in nominating books to consider.

I think I've inspired new admiration from our group about just what the Newbery Committee must do -- from the amount of reading to the hard, hard decisions. I will discuss each book, simply in alphabetical order. Here are the posts on our Mock Newbery:
Part 1 -- The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond + Brown Girl Dreaming
Part 2 -- The Crossover + Dash + The Fourteenth Goldfish
Part 3 -- The Great Greene Heist + Half a Chance + The Life of Zarf
Part 4 -- Magic in the Mix + Nest + The Night Gardener
Part 5 -- Nuts to You + The Red Pencil + Snicker of Magic
Part 6 -- The Swap + Witch's Boy + Zoo at the Edge of the World
Part 7 -- OUR WINNER!!!
Our book club actually start last spring, much like the Newbery Committee does, excitedly reading new releases. One of the first books that quickly grabbed readers and rose to the top was The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond.
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond
by Brenda Woods
Nancy Paulsen / Penguin, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
Emerson's fourth and fifth graders were drawn to the way that Violet Diamond slowly builds a relationship with her grandmother, and how she discovered more about herself, her family and her identity in the process. Violet is biracial, like many of our students; but she never knew her African American father because he was killed in an automobile crash before she was born.
making notes for the Mock Newbery discussion
It was interesting that the students who really liked this book didn't speak up much about it. Perhaps it's because they read this in the beginning of the year. Or perhaps it's because it appealed to quieter readers. I just know that it stayed with my students, persisting to our final round of voting.

Brown Girl Dreaming was another book that probed identity, family and self-discovery -- but this book drew a much more vocal reaction from my students.
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen / Penguin, 2014
2014 National Book Award winner
my full review
Your local library
Amazon
ages 10-14
Woodson weaves together the story of her childhood, built from her family's memories as well as her own. She writes her memoir in verse, capturing the episodic, sensory-rich feeling of memories. As we talked about characters, Kaiyah spoke up, saying how well she got to know the characters in Brown Girl Dreaming from the dialog.
"In the first chapter, you can really understand what the dad was like and the mom, and the conflict between the two, because of how they wanted to name their daughter and how they talked." 
Other students agreed, saying how they got to know a wide range of characters, not just Jackie. Her brother and sister, her grandparents, her mother were all really well developed and distinct, showing you what different family members were thinking and feeling.

Moreover, my students commented how much they could connect to Jackie. Elani and Josselin said, "It's like we are actually in the book." Angel elaborated, explaining:
"Jacqueline Woodson described her own experiences so well that I knew how she felt, and I have experienced some of the same things, so I felt like she would understand how I feel."
Kaiyah and Angel also noted how well Brown Girl Dreaming captured the different settings, from rural South Carolina to urban New York City. Small interior images also stayed with our readers, like when Woodson's baby brother was eating paint chips from the wall.

I was impressed how articulate and passionate our Brown Girl Dreaming readers were. While this isn't necessarily a book for a wide audience within a classroom, it goes deep for the readers it touches, staying with them for a long time.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher Nancy Paulsen and Penguin Books for Young Readers, and we have purchased additional copies for our school library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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9. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 2: The Crossover + Dash + The Fourteenth Goldfish

Our students have had passionate, thoughtful conversations all year, recommending books to one another, considering which book they liked and why it resonated with them. Throughout, we talked about the key components of literature and storytelling: character development, plot and pacing, setting, language and themes.

Ever since I first shared Kwame Alexander's The Crossover with Emerson students, it was clear that this book spoke to our students in a unique way. It's been fascinating listening to kids talk about why.

The Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
my full review
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-14
From the very first page, the language of The Crossover pulls young readers right into the rhythm and feelings of a fast-moving basketball game. Just look at the opening lines and you can see the combination of basketball terms, rhythm and rhyme, and downright attitude.
"At the top of the key, I'm
              MOVING AND GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING--
Why you BUMPING?
              Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING,
Be careful though,
'cause now I'm CRUNKING"
As Norah said, "It's not quite rhyming, but it's almost like rap, like a song." Mahari added that he likes the form of poetry: "It made it more interesting for me as a reader. The language conveyed the character's feelings." Norah added that it isn't just printed normal on the page. Kids really noticed that the way the words are arranged enhanced the way language conveyed both character's feelings and the author's message.

Other students commented on the character development in The Crossover. Maddy said that she "felt like she was there with the characters at every move" (that word choice seemed so appropriate to me, since there's so much movement in this story). Kids could really see twin brothers Josh & J.B. as distinct characters and relate to the tension between them. Madeline added that she felt their father was a very detailed character, because Alexander showed how much he loved basketball but how he also really loved his family.

I asked students if they felt that they could see what was coming (in other words, was the plot too obvious?), and they really felt like they were right there with the characters. While some might have had an idea of the foreshadowing, they really didn't notice the signs that the mother was concerned about the father's health -- certainly not the way adult readers would notice.

Several students commented on how The Crossover made them think a little more about what they were reading. They liked how the titles of the poems related to the themes and the plot--giving them a sense and focus. Several other students talked about how they had to take a second, reread a passage and ask what the author was really saying. I think this attests to Alexander's nuanced, layered language.

Historical fiction often draws the attention of the Newbery committee, and I was happy to see students respond so passionately to Kirby Larson's story about Japanese internment during World War II. "Dash is one of the best books I have ever read!"
Dash
by Kirby Larson
Scholastic, 2014
my full review
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
Here's Abby's recommendation from early September: "If you like dogs a lot, you'd probably love it. If you like books with hardship and struggle, you'll probably like it. It's also heartfelt, with a lot of love. Every single chapter keeps you hanging." She passionately shared this book all year long.

Right from the beginning, young readers relate to how alone Mitsi feels when her friends start avoiding her -- all because of something that happened in a war far, far away. Larson creates a unique, distinctive character, but focuses on elements that many readers can relate to. Just as I write that sense, I realize what a tricky balance that is!
"The author describes Mitsi's emotions so well, her love of being an artists and her talents and passion. She brings out who she is and who she wants to be. I could imagine what she looks like and what she's feeling at the moment."
Abby said, "The setting and details of the characters and their experiences were amazing. I could picture it like a movie in my mind---they should make a movie of it!" I would agree with Abby, especially noting the way I could picture the different camps in my mind and how the harsh conditions made life so much more difficult for Mitsi's family.
Mitsi Shiraishi and her beloved dog, Chubby -- inspirations for Dash
I was particularly moved reading in Kirby Larson's blog this letter from Louise Kashino, who endured experiences similar to Mitsi's:
I read DASH and poured over every sentence inasmuch as I was 16 when we were incarcerated on May, 1942. My family was assigned to Area D inside the Puyallup Fairgrounds, where our barrack among others was built inside the racing grounds. I don't know who guided you through the whole incarceration, but you did an excellent job of describing the experiences for someone like me. I also relocated to Chicago and eventually returned to Seattle, so again, your description of the whole movement brought back many memories. Thank you for your accurate descriptions of our experience to give the general public an insight into what we experienced during our incarceration.
We had a rousing discussion about The Fourteenth Goldfish, with students arguing on both sides of the fence. It had real supporters and others who just weren't drawn into it.
The Fourteenth Goldfish
by Jennifer L. Holm
Random House, 2014
my full review
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
Overall, my students loved Jennifer Holm's blend of realistic relationships, humor and science with a touch of fantasy. Maisy said, "It's a really good book because it has lots of science, but not too much so you can't understand it." I am impressed with how well Holm understands her audience, adding in just enough layering of science to introduce students to the history of science and scientific thinking without overwhelming young readers.

Some students really enjoyed the fantasy elements. Talia noted that it reminded her of Tuck Everlasting. But other students found it a little confusing, especially at the beginning when Ellie is figuring out that this teenager is actually her grandfather.

I would actually venture to guess that the students who liked it were drawn in by the themes of the story -- the idea that you can figure out a solution, that things are possible if you work at a creative solution, and the idea that grandparents and grandchildren actually have a lot more in common if they could only discover a little more about each other as real people.

The review copies came from my home collection and our library collection and our classroom collections. Early review copies were also kindly sent by the publishers: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, and Random House. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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10. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 3: The Great Greene Heist + Half a Chance + The Life of Zarf

Emerson's 2015 Mock Newbery discussions
Like the Newbery Committee, our students have been reading and reading over many months. Some books created a strong initial impression, but they did not stay with readers the same way as other books. What does that say about a book? Is it less distinguished? Maybe or maybe not. These three books below had fewer readers that championed these books in our final discussion.
The Great Greene Heist
by Varian Johnson
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 10-14
Students liked this complex, engaging plot as they followed Jackson Greene's efforts to help Gabriela win the student council election. Thea wrote when she nominated it, "This book is good because it felt like you were there with the characters. I couldn't put it down." I really enjoyed the twists and turns in the story when I read this. But I did find the way it started right in the middle of the action--with a big cast of characters--a little confusing. I kept wishing there was a cast list!

This is a great story for kids who like thinking how all the pieces of a puzzle fit together. Although we had two copies at school all fall, not many students picked it up. At first, I thought it might be more suited to middle school, but it isn't circulating very much at our neighboring middle school. It will be interesting to see how this does over time.

Cynthia Lord's Half a Chance is as different as can be than The Great Greene Heist. While the former is sharp and witty, Half a Chance is quiet and reflective. Since our students picked which books they wanted to read and didn't read all of our nominated titles, these two books drew very different readers. One of the interesting things about the Newbery committee members is that they read everything and they need to consider a wide range of readers.
Half a Chance
by Cynthia Lord
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
This friendship story appealed to readers who enjoy quieter stories with a lot of heart. Gwen nominated it, saying it had a unique style and felt very special. The rural New Hampshire setting was very different for our urban readers, and Cynthia Lord's language & tone created a timeless feel. Readers noted that it didn't seem like the 21st century--a big contrast to The Crossover and The Swap.

As we discussed setting, Gwen noted that the setting was "quiet but beautiful"-- and that the setting really helped develop the whole feeling for the book. The characters were reserved, and I'm not sure if my students really understood the full scope of the story. If we had more time, I'd love to draw the students who read it together and ask them more about the grandmother's dementia.

Where Half a Chance is quiet and reflective, The Life of Zarf is funny and zany. The students who loved this book were so excited that they convinced lots of friends to read it. It definitely had "book buzz" throughout the fall. But I'm not sure many readers considered it their top book by the end of the year.
The Life of Zarf
The Trouble with Weasels
by Rob Harrell
Dial / Penguin, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Our students laughed and laughed at Zarf's attempts to deal with middle school social structure, albeit in a mixed up fairy-tale world with princes, trolls and neurotic pigs. Like many kids, Zarf is goofy and funny -- it was a joy for them to read. Over and over again, kids ask me for funny books and this is a great one to hand them.

As we talked about the elements of a distinguished book, students noticed that Harrell's plot was suspenseful and funny. But more than that, they noticed how he paced the story. McKenna said, "There are times when I thought it was scary, but then it ends up funny." Harrell develops a rhythm, so kids were excited to turn the page but could expect something outrageous to happen in just a moment to break the tension. They also loved the exaggerated reactions. Here's McKenna again:
"One exciting part that ended up funny is when Chester (Zarf's friend, the neurotic pig) is walking and a branch hit him. He thought it was a Snufflewheezle and he started freaking out. Then Zarf and Kevin Littlepig who were with him started freaking out too."
Just like the Oscars, the Newbery goes to "serious" books much more often than funny books -- even though slapstick humor is just as difficult to write well. I think it's because taste in humor is much more individual and varied. I didn't respond to the themes quite the same way that the kids did, probably because the humor seemed too exaggerated for my tastes. But if you know a kid who wants a fast-paced, funny story, definitely seek this out.

The review copies came from my home collection and our library collection and our classroom collections. Early review copies were also kindly sent by Scholastic. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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11. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 4: Magic in the Mix + Nest + The Night Gardener

getting ready for book club -- each week, I took notes
What draws us into great stories? Is it the chance to see a glimpse of ourselves in other people? Is it getting lost in another world, so far from our own? Or maybe it's getting swept away by an exciting plot, full of suspense and danger. As we met each week, I loved listening to my students recommending books to one another each week during our book club lunches, hearing what they loved and what captured their interest.
Magic in the Mix
by Annie Barrows
Bloomsbury, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Many kids are drawn to stories with characters that inspire them because of their courage and bravery. Molly and Miri return from The Magic Half, but they are the only ones in their family who know that they haven't always been twin sisters. Molly and Miri's brothers always annoy them, but when the brothers stumble through the time portal that Molly and Miri have opened, the twin sisters know that it's up to them to rescue their brothers.

Our 4th and 5th graders all commented about how much they could imagine these characters, how the story pulled them through, and how they liked the mix of time-travel fantasy and historical fiction.
"I liked learning a little bit about the Civil War, but not too much."
"I could really see Molly and Miri and how brave they were helping their brothers."
"When they were scared, walking through the forest, I could feel like I was right there."
In the end, Magic in the Mix was read and enjoyed by many students (our two copies have circulated 25 times already!), but it didn't rise to the top of many final voting lists.
Nest
by Esther Ehrlich
Wendy Lamb / Random House, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 10-14
Eleven-year-old Naomi "Chirp" Orenstein is devoted to her mother, but life starts to fall apart when Chirp's mother is hospitalized for depression. When I first read Nest, I wasn't sure if it was right for an elementary school library, but several of my early readers were adamant that it was an amazing book that should be in our library. Angel and Corina wrote in their nomination,
"It's not a happily ever book, but it shows how much a girl and her family care and love each other after various tragedies.They may not end up with a perfect life but I found it was even better that way."
Nest is suited for students who like heartfelt stories that linger with you. Some students who like realistic fiction could tell that it was too sad, and stopped reading. Speaking with middle school librarians, it's finding a wider audience there. This is definitely a story that makes readers think long after they've turned the last page. What I loved about my students' reactions is how much they related to Chirp's inner strength as she copes with her mother's illness.
The Night Gardener
by Jonathan Auxier
Amulet / Abrams, 2014
my full review
Your local library
Amazon
ages 10-14
Students who read The Night Gardener held it up as an example for masterful plot, setting and character development. "I could see how the tree was built right into the house," said Amelie. "I really imagine the house, seeing how it was old now, but also how it used to be." The setting was integral to creating the frightening tone for the story, especially the suspense that kept students reading. Kaiyah specifically mentioned that she felt right in the forest when Molly and Kip were in their wagon heading toward the Windsor's estate.
friends discussing books for Emerson's Mock Newbery
It's interesting -- I think both The Night Gardener and Nest might be seen as "more appropriate" for middle school students, but are ones that my students advocated strongly for including in our library. They are both emotionally intense stories, but I've found that students will stop reading them if they aren't ready for them. Both have depths in their treatment of different themes that I would love to talk more about with small groups, and both would stand up well to rereading. I was very happy to see both of these excellent books part of our discussion.

The review copies came from my home collection and our library collection. Early review copies were also kindly sent by the publishers, Abrams and Bloomsbury. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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12. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 5: Nuts to You, The Red Pencil + Snicker of Magic

Listening and sharing ideas in our Mock Newbery discussions
In our Mock Newbery book club, students were able to choose which books they wanted to read. In order to vote, they had to read five or more of the nominated titles. I wanted to give them freedom to choose what to read, but I also really enjoyed listening to them recommend titles to one another. We had informal book club meetings once a week for lunch in the library, and then we met in January for our final discussions. Many students chose to read today's three books--I hope I can capture some of their comments.
Nuts to You
by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow / HarperCollins, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-11
Right from the beginning, students started talking about how Nuts to You was both funny and full of adventure. After a hawk captures the unsuspecting squirrel Jed, his friends TsTs and Chai are sure that he's still alive. They set off following a trail of "buzzpaths" and "frozen spiderwebs" (electrical lines and utility towers) to rescue him. I love that the kids responded to the satirical footnotes and twists in language. Just take this example from near the beginning:
“To squirrels, ‘Are you nuts?’ is a combination of ‘Have you lost your mind?’ and ‘You remind me of the most wonderful thing I can think of.’”
Some students had trouble getting into this story and found the tone or perspective confusing. Maisy said at one meeting that she was half-way through the story and didn't quite see what's funny about it yet. McKenna told her that it starts getting funnier and funnier as you start getting more into the book--in fact, she wondered if it would be funnier the second time you read it. Talia and Gwen definitely agreed with McKenna.
The Red Pencil
by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Little Brown, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
Students consistently mentioned The Red Pencil not only as a powerful, touching book, but also one that they could really understand what the characters were going through even though it was so different from their lives. When the Sudanese rebels attack her village, young Amira's home is destroyed and her whole life is upended. She escapes to a refugee camp, but what about her dreams of going to school?

When we were discussing plot and pacing, Corina expanded on why she thought The Red Pencil was so effective:
"I felt like I always knew what was going on even though it wasn't familiar to me. Each small moment, the author would break it down so you knew how everyone was feeling about it. You didn't know what was going to happen next -- you felt like you were in the present of the story and were right there with the characters."--Corina
I just went back and checked -- it's fascinating that Pinkney writes this in the present tense. Amira's emotional journey was important to students. She had to escape her war-torn home, and she also had to discover how to navigate following her own dream of learning to read and write despite her mother's traditional views.
Snicker of Magic
by Natalie Lloyd
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Just look at all those post-it notes--so many kids read Snicker of Magic. We all agreed that kids liked it, but during our Mock Newbery discussions we tried to explore why the story and writing were especially good. When Felicity Pickle moves to Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, our readers could tell right away that she was lonely--but Nia's comment to book club back in October was: "She think the word lonely is really really strong to say." Time and again, students mentioned how Felicity sees words, but they also noticed how the author really shows readers how Felicity feels. This magical element helped them see deeper into Felicity's feelings and Lloyd's themes.

This mix of magical fantasy elements in a real-life setting appealed to many readers. They loved the details like blueberry ice cream that helps you remember lost memories, and they could relate to many of the characters. A few mentioned that the pacing seemed a bit uneven ("sometimes it speeded up and then other times it was really slow or went off into something that didn't go with the plot") but others strongly disagreed and liked the way different plot elements wove together.

In our discussions we didn't have enough time to explore the themes of the stories, but I firmly believe that those underlying themes are a major reason why these different stories all appealed to readers. Whether it's TsTs' loyal friendship in Nuts to You, Amira's resiliency in The Red Pencil or the Beedle's generosity in Snicker of Magic, each of these deeper themes resonated with readers in lasting ways.

The review copies came from my home collection and our library collection. Early review copies were also kindly sent by the publishers, HarperCollins, Little Brown and Scholastic. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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13. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 6: The Swap, The Witch's Boy + The Zoo at the Edge of the World

“Isn't it odd how much fatter a book gets when you've read it several times?" Mo had said..."As if something were left between the pages every time you read it." -- Cornelia Funke, Inkspell
When our students look back on our Mock Newbery discussions from this year, they will see parts of themselves in the books they loved and championed. Each book appealed to different readers -- and that's something the Newbery committee wrestles with as well. How do you clearly evaluate the art while acknowledging the personal response? Our discussions just started to dig into this topic, but they helped students listen to each other and consider all that goes into selecting the ultimate award-winning books.
The Swap
by Megan Shull
Katherine Tegan / HarperCollins, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-13
Ellie and Jack might look like they each have everything going for them, but they're each struggling on the inside. When they bump into each other on the first day of school and magically switch bodies, they're forced to see life from a different perspective. While the premise might seem familiar to adults, my students found it compelling and well-written.
"Megan Shull described the setting really well because I felt like I was in the story. I could totally imagine where they would be. Once, when the two characters were switched and the boy was at soccer practice with the girls' team, I could imagine being on the field practicing."
"Oh, and I remember how they were at the swimming pool in the very beginning and Ellie's friend was so mean to her."
Shull creates characters and social situations that my students understood because they were so familiar. From sleepover party dramas to friendship issues, our readers saw elements from their own lives. Emily said,
"The Swap was awesome! The characters were super strong. I could feel that they were actually real people.... The girl was being bullied but when she switches bodies with a boy, he helps her with it."
It was interesting how none of the kids found it difficult to keep track of which character was talking -- they could really feel and understand the nuances in the characterization. I saw the ending as a bit too predictable, but my students focused on the emotional journey and resolution for the two main characters.
The Witch's Boy
by Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
Students were drawn into Barnhill's the fantasy world in The Witch's Boy by Ned's journey to stop the coming war and make sure that magic is used wisely and justly. As Alessandra said, it has something for all types of readers. Those who want adventure will like the danger and obstacles Ned and Aine face. Readers who want fantasy will like the magic, the talking stones, the moving forest. But, as Alessandra notes,
"The author did a good job making sure there was friendship and some sadness, weaving in different kinds of stories so different kinds of readers would like it."
As I think back on The Witch's Boy, I think that this is certainly a book that would benefit from another rereading. I could tell that students responded to the themes of courage, justice and inner-strength, but we didn't have enough time to really talk fully about these.
The Zoo at the Edge of the World
by Eric Kahn Gale
Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Our 4th graders were especially excited to recommend The Zoo at the Edge of the World to one another. "If you like animals, you'll love this book," said Claire in her nomination. I was happy to include an action-packed adventure in our selection. However, students did not end up citing it during our final discussions.

Students like the development of Marlin's character, as he discovered his ability to speak directly with the animals even though he stuttered so badly that he couldn't speak to other people. I was concerned by the characterizations of the zoo employees who were native to British Guiana. They were never fully developed, but rather used as a contrast to Marlin and his father. I think students really responded to Gale's exploration of treatment of animals in captivity.

The review copies came from our school library and my personal collection. Review copies were also kindly sent by HarperCollins. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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14. Blog Tour: Ares, Bringer of War, by George O'Connor (ages 9-14)

Today I'm celebrating the release of Ares: Bringer of War, the latest graphic novel by George O'Connor in his outstanding Olympians series. This entire series is terrific and very popular with my students. They're going to be thrilled to see this newest installment.
Ares: Bringer of War
Olympians, book 7
by George O'Connor
First Second, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-14
The mighty Ares is the Greek god of war, consumed by rage, hate and vengeance. His war is destructive, frenzied and maniacal. And as O'Connor clearly shows, you can only really understand Ares in contrast to his half-sister Athena, goddess of the strategic, logical side of war.

O'Connor brings readers right into the middle of the Trojan War, using the Iliad to frame his portrait of Ares. We enter the scene ten years into the war, as the Greeks and Trojans are mired down in the conflict. As Zeus proclaims,
"The cost has been high for both sides. But much that is fated to occur has not happened yet. We may need to take a more active hand."
But the gods incessantly argue and take sides, playing the mortals against one another like a chess game. As O'Connor shows, Ares is blood-thirsty, but he is also loyal and determined, and he truly mourns the loss of his son in the end. Readers will be amazed by the artwork, but also by the complicated interactions between all the gods.

Ares: Bringer of War feels even more complex than previous Olympians books because there is one whole story arc, involving gods and mortals. Previous books seemed more episodic to me, so easier to digest in smaller chunks.

Complicated? Yes, but I've been drawn back to this graphic novel again and again, reading it perhaps four times this week. With each reading, my understanding grows--and I've watched the same thing happen with my students. They read the same graphic novel over and over, noticing more details each time, understanding the characters more fully with repeated readings.

For other stops on the Blog Tour, check out MacTeenBooks. Definitely suggest The Olympians website as a resource for fans -- it's full of information on the gods and O'Connor's research, as well as links and activities.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, First Second Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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15. Investigating about explorers: a range of resources (ages 8-12)

Do you have fond memories of reading your history textbooks? Probably not. So how can we make history more interesting for our children?

We want our children to envision what it would have been like to live long ago, to make the messy decisions that people had to make, to struggle and wrestle with life, warts and all. And yet we also need to convey basic information about historical periods and figures. How do we balance the facts with the engaging material?

As a case in point, I've been helping 5th grade students gather information about famous explorers from different eras. They're investigating Marco Polo, James Cook, Hernando Cortes, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride and many others. Their teachers want them to practice note-taking skills. What resources will help them the most?

World Book Encyclopedia: building background knowledge
"How are we supposed to choose which explorer to do our report on if we don't know anything about them?"
Students need to begin their research process by learning some basic facts about their subject. This should be pretty easy for the children to read, since they need to focus on building a clear framework in their minds. I would suggest just reading at this point, not taking notes. We start with World Book Kids, the junior version of the World Book Encyclopedia.

Web Path Express: guided Internet research
"I call this Google for 5th graders."
We have recently added WebPath Express to our Follett Destiny library catalog. This service guides students in their Internet searches, helping them go directly to accurate, age-appropriate sites. Students are able to find reliable resources quickly, without having to filter out commercial or college-level sites.
Explorers
by Chris Oxlade
Kingfisher Readers, level 5
Kingfisher, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-10
Students will like the clear sentences and frequent illustrations in this brief introduction to nearly twenty explorers from ancient to modern times. Each explorer's major achievements and struggles are covered in a two-page spread, so the pace moves quickly. Sentences are relatively short, and drawings keep interest high.
"Marco Polo was born in Venice, in Italy. In 1271, when he was just 17 years old, he set off for China with his father and his uncle. They took gifts for Kublai Khan, the powerful ruler of China in the 1200s CE."
This type of book will help students develop a "research report" tone to their own writing. It is factual and straight forward. But it does not have much depth, it does not really prompt students to connect to what they're reading or to ask questions.
Lives of the Explorers:
Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought)
by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Google Books preview
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Krull engages readers with dynamic writing, as she introduces them to the lives of twenty ancient and modern explorers. While this is more difficult to read, it is also much more interesting. She begins the chapter on Mathew Henson, African American explorer of the North Pole in the early 1900s, this way:
"Matthew Henson and Robert Peary shared many an unappetizing meal in the frozen land around the North Pole. But in the United States they wouldn't have even been allowed to eat together, as restaurants were segregated into 'black' and 'white' sections."
In just three pages, Krull helps readers get a sense of the challenges Henson faced and his remarkable achievements. She incorporates quotes from Henson to give a sense of his perspective. Teachers and librarians should note, however, that she does not indicate the sources for her material, but just provides sources for further reading.
Into the Unknown
How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air
by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty
Candlewick, 2011
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-14
*my full review here*
Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty absolutely captivate me each time I read a section of Into the Unknown. Biesty's intricate illustrations draw me right into each scene, helping me imagine what it would be like to be part of an expedition. Students love the fold-out illustrations and the cut-aways that show you the inside of ships. Ross's descriptions include enough detail to engross me without overwhelming me. They have a strong narrative flow, conveying the dramatic pull of these stories but also helping young readers start forming their own questions and conclusions.

The review copy of Explorers came from our public library. The review copy of Lives of the Explorers was kindly sent by the publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The review copy of Into the Unknown was kindly sent by the publishers, Candlewick. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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16. Reading Levels: Using them to help kids get hooked on reading

Our Berkeley Unified teachers have just completed five days of conferences with parents, and I wanted to follow up with a librarian's perspective on recommending books for kids. Our teachers do a remarkable job individually assessing students' reading levels to gauge their progress, development and challenges. At each conference, they let parents know how their children are developing and what level they have reached. But what do parents do with this level?

Reading to stuffies happens every day in our library
Reading levels are only useful if they can help guide children toward books that are enjoyable, interesting and appropriate for a child at that point in their reading life. I do not label my books with reading levels, and I have compared different systems enough to know that they conflict much of the time. And yet, published reading levels are helpful as a starting place if you don't know a book.

Our teachers use Fountas & Pinnell levels, which take into account a book's vocabulary, sentence length and text structure. While classrooms have leveled libraries, how do parents help direct kids at home, the library or the bookstore? My best advice is to figure out what has worked well for your child, both in terms of interest and complexity, and build on that.

Ultimately, we need to ask our children to take charge in figuring out if a book is working for them. I always ask kids to open a book, read a little and see how it feels. But I know that kids need a starting place, a way to narrow the field so they can choose from a set of books that might work. That's where reading levels and recommended lists can help.

At this year's conferences, we shared recommended reading lists which used reading levels to help direct kids and parents. Feel free to download these or share them with teachers and families in your schools.
  • Kindergarten (very beginning to read, levels C-E)
  • 1st grade (beginning to read & early chapter books, levels D-M)
  • 2nd grade (early readers & chapter books, levels H-P)
  • 3rd grade (short chapter books & novels, easy nonfiction, levels K-P)
  • 4th grade (novels & high interest nonfiction, levels O-T)
  • 5th grade (longer novels & nonfiction, levels S-W)
You'll notice that the grade levels are not included on the reading lists. Many teachers wanted to be able to use these for kids based on their reading levels, not based on the student's grade.

Finally, we shared several brochures from the wonderful Jim Trelease. My favorite is Ten Facts Parents Should Know About Reading. As he writes,
"We humans are pleasure-seekers, doing things over and over if we like it. We go to favorite restaurants and order the food and beverages we like, not the stuff we hate. So if you want to ensure children visit "reading" more often, make sure they like it more than they hate it. How do we get them to like it that much? Read on."
Friends have fun reading together!
Many thanks go to all the students at Emerson for helping me test out so many books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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17. The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm: curiosity & discovery, believing in the possible (ages 8-12)

Kids and teachers are loving a new book, The Fourteenth Goldfish, and it makes me so happy to hear them raving about it. I had a chance this weekend to sit down with Milana, a ten year old I lent my copy to, and we really had fun talking about this book. Talking about books together really helps us deepen our appreciation, deepen our thinking about the layers in a story.
The Fourteenth Goldfish
by Jennifer L. Holm
Random House, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
*best new book*
Sixth grade is tricky for Ellie, but the day her mom brings home a new kid turns everything upside down. At first, he seems like a typical surly teenager, but something "tickles at (her) memory." Ellie is shocked when she realizes this is her grandfather Melvin, somehow turned into a thirteen year old boy. "I discovered a cure for aging... the fountain of youth!" he shouts. But he's stuck in this new body and can't get into his lab to recover the T. melvinus specimen, the species of jellyfish that helped him change back into a teen.

My young friend, Milana, loved reading this so much that she bought one of her good friends a copy. "I got it for my friend because she's really into science and she really likes sea life. Now she's started it and won't stop reading it."

Holm seamlessly weaves into the story a love of science and Milana picked up on this. Right away, she talked about wanting to learn more about Salk's discovery of the cure for polio and Oppenheimer's race to build the atomic bomb. As I've been rereading this, I love how much science Holm incorporates, especially as Ellie gets to know her grandfather.
Melvin tells Ellie, "Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don’t give up, because we want to solve the puzzle... Scientists never give up. They keep trying because they believe in the possible."
The relationship between Ellie and her grandfather is what makes this book special for me. Holms creates believable, nuanced characters and I think that's one reason so many readers are responding to this story.
When Melvin, Ellie's grandfather, tells her mother, "'Your daughter’s interested in science. She shows great aptitude. You should encourage her.' I feel a flush of pride. Maybe this part of me—the science part—was there all along, like the seeds of an apple. I just needed someone to water it, help it grow. Someone like my grandfather."
As Milana and I were talking more about the characters, I asked her if Melvin reminded her of any of her grandparents. I wish Jenni Holm could hear this young girl talking about her grandfather, a doctor who's always busy thinking and talking on the phone -- and how this story helps her see a different side of him. Milana told me, "It makes me wonder what my grandfather looked like, how he acted and what he was interested in when he was my age."

The Fourteenth Goldfish left me thinking most about the themes essential to science: curiosity, discovery, possibility. A recent TED Radio Hour explores these same things, albeit more for adults. It starts with James Cameron talking about his childhood, when he loved collecting and studying all sorts of things, curious about everything. "It's almost like the more we know about the world, the limits of what's possible start to crowd in on us." But this curiosity stayed with him--and imbues both his movies and his love of oceanography.

The real power of The Fourteenth Goldfish? It's like so many well-crafted stories: creating conversation, creating a moment to think a little more deeply about those around us, creating an ah-ha moment that curiosity and a passion for discovery lay at the heart of science--believing in the possible.

More reviews:
The review copy came from my home collection and our library collection and Milana's collection (I've already purchased many many copies!). If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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18. Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands, by Katherine Roy (ages 7-11) -- absolutely terrific, gripping nonfiction!!

Did you know the world’s largest wild population of great white sharks lives just 30 miles from San Francisco? How about that white sharks are the world's largest predatory fish, growing up to 21 feet long? Sharks **fascinate** my students and Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy, is absolutely terrific. They can't get enough of this new book!
Neighborhood Sharks
Hunting the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands
by Katherine Roy
David Macaulay Studio / Macmillan, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 7-11
*best new book*
Katherine Roy, as both illustrator and author, combines compelling paintings with informative text to explain how these predators are able to hunt down their perfect prey so effectively. She focuses on the shark’s streamlined body, warmed blood, excellent vision, endless teeth and projectile jaws--providing clear scientific information while hooking readers with dramatic, vibrant paintings.

What I loved best reading this with both 2nd graders and 5th graders is how different students can access the wide range of information she provides.  Younger students listened to some of the text, but really examined the illustrations and thought about them. They loved this drawing comparing the shark's body to an airplane (see below) -- and together we talked about different things that help sharks swim so quickly.
from Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy
As teachers, we call this visual literacy--helping students understand diagrams, gaining information from illustrations--an essential skill, especially for nonfiction. Illustrators talk about how they're layering the information, both in the visuals and the text. But really, the kids are just soaking up knowledge, fascinated by how sharks hunt, eat and grow.

In Neighborhood Sharks, Roy not only shares information about sharks, but she also helps kids think about the scientists who study the sharks. She spent four days at sea with them, observing them, learning about their work studying these powerful animals, making sure that all her facts were correct -- so she could really give readers the feeling that you are there swimming with the sharks.
Katherine Roy, out on the water with the Farallon shark team
Are you as fascinated by this as my students and I are? Check out Katherine Roy's blog -- I especially loved reading about her inspiration for adventure and seeing some of the drawings progress. I will be interviewing Katherine for Parents Press in January and can't wait to share more of our conversation. Until then, go find a copy of this book!

The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Macmillan Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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19. Emerson's 2015 Mock Newbery Nominations (ages 9-14)

Kids love talking about books, especially when you ask them their opinion about books they love. At Emerson, our lunchtime book club is in the midst of reading for our Mock Newbery discussions -- a chance for our 4th and 5th graders to talk about the best books of the year.


We started off in September by talking about the Newbery Award, what it is and how we look at books. Each year, librarians gather to discuss all of the books published for children in America that year and select the most distinguished. It isn't a popularity contest, but rather a chance to see which author creates distinctive characters, an engaging story, nuanced themes, a memorable setting. We talk about how they must look only at the words -- and so this means many of the graphic novels my students love won't be particularly eligible.

After reading throughout the fall, our students started nominating the eligible books they felt were most distinguished. It is creating terrific buzz around many amazing books. I just love the way kids are championing some books, convincing friends that they just have to read them.  Below is our list of nominated books and a slideshow I share with all our classes.

Wow! Our students have nominated seventeen terrific titles. I particularly like how diverse this range of titles is--covering a wide range of writing styles, genres, and characters. We will work hard to compare books as different as The Crossover with Life of Zarf! But throughout our discussion, we will keep bringing it back to the qualities of good literature: characters, plot, setting, dialog, themes and language.

In early January, we will help them narrow this down to the books with the most readers -- so we can have an in-depth discussion comparing different books.

I hope you enjoy trying out some of these titles. They are books that speak to readers and create conversation. I couldn't ask for anything more.

A wide range of publishers have been very supportive sending us books for review, and we have purchased more copies of each book. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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20. The Hula-Hoopin' Queen: terrific picture book + gift idea (ages 5-10)

Each holiday I love pairing books with toys that kids will enjoy. Kids love toys (duh!) and these pairings extend the experience of both book and toy by capturing their imagination. This week, I'll share posts each day with fun ideas.

The Hula-Hoopin' Queen would be a perfect grandma gift for a young reader -- especially from a grandma that's still young at heart. Pair it with a sparkly hula hoop and you're all set!
The Hula-Hoopin' Queen
by Thelma Lynne Godin
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Lee & Low
, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-10
Kameeka loves hula hooping and is sure she can become the Hula-Hoopin’ Queen of 139th Street--but Mama reminds her that she has to help get ready for Miz Adeline’s birthday. After all, Miz Adeline took care of Mama and Kameeka when they each were babies. How will Kameeka ever get all these things done and get outside to beat her rival Jamara?
"Girl, don't you even think about it. You know today is Miz Adeline's birthday."
When Kameeka heads out to run an errand, she sees Jamara and just can't avoid stepping up to save her reputation. By the time she gets home, it's too late to make the birthday cake! I especially love the ending, as Miz Adeline lets Kameeka see how much she loved hula hooping when she was a kid.
"Neighborhood kids crowd around as Jamara and I hoop."
Godin's text has snap and is great fun to read aloud. Brantley-Newton's illustrations really appeal to my students, capturing the feel of our multicultural urban community.

Pair this fun book with a hula hoop set and maybe you'll inspire some intergenerational or neighborly contests of your own.

Illustrations copyright ©Vanessa Brantley-Newton, 2014, shared via Lee and Low site and Thelma Lynne Godin's site. The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Lee and Low Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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21. Fit for a wanna-be king: Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth (ages 8-12)

Do your kids love graphic novels? Do you know any kid who loves the spotlight or has fun when their friends grab center stage? The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review is a new series of graphic novels that my students are giving a round of applause for the way it combines humor, theatrics, tragedy and puns. It would make a great gift either for comic-book fans or theater fans.
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Macbeth
by Ian Lendler
illustrated by Zack Giallongo
First Second, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
"Macbeth, the hero of our story, the greatest warrior in the land."
When the zoo shuts for the night, the animals gather together and put on a show. The lion makes a natural mighty Macbeth, full of swagger and a taste for power. My students were easily able to imagine why such a beast would want to be king--and Lender's version shares this classic play in a form that is very kid-friendly. Here's how he adapts the witches' famous song which charms Macbeth, setting the plot in motion:
"Double, double,
toil and trouble,
fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Eat the king,
the plot will thicken,
go on Macbeth,
he tastes like chicken."
Lendler mixes humor and puns throughout Shakespeare's bloody tragedy, giving young readers a real sense of the classic play but making it very age-appropriate. Giallongo's illustrations capture Macbeth's slide into gluttony perfectly, make light of the witches and add plenty of ketchup to keep the tragedy at bay. My students definitely give this version of Shakespeare a hearty round of applause.

We were lucky enough to have Ian Lendler visit Emerson last week to share his book with our 4th and 5th graders. He starts out his presentation with a loud bugle calling everyone's attention (see below), just as the young boys did during Shakespeare's time. He shares an overview of the story with students, emphasizing some of the lessons of the story. Our kids highly recommend his visit to other schools, especially for kids who like funny comic books and putting on their own plays.
Ian Lendler at Emerson
Are you looking for a holiday gift to add to the fun? I know my students would love their own stadium horn to call everyone to their performances. They also might want a mighty robe, fit for a king. Check these ideas out:
The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, First Second. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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22. Celebrating Christmas: three favorite new books (ages 3-10)

We are heading off to celebrate Christmas. Our packages our wrapped, suitcases are next. Before I leave, I'd like to share three favorite new Christmas books my students and I have loved this holiday season. I will be taking a break from my blog 'till New Years, celebrating with my family and finding plenty of time to read. Until 2015, enjoy these new holiday favorites!
12 Days of Christmas
by LeUyen Pham
Doubleday / Random House, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 3-8
Bay Area children’s illustrator LeUyen Pham (pronounced “Le Win”) infuses this classic Christmas carol with a delightful international flavor. A young boy and girl dressed in old-fashioned European costumes discover each of the traditional items, from a partridge in a pear tree to ten lords a-leaping.
"my true love gave to me/ 8 maids a-milking"
My students especially loved examining maids, dancers, lords and drummers in traditional dress from all regions of the world. Just look at these delightful interior spreads that Uyen shared with me.
"my true love gave to me/ 11 pipers piping"
These illustrations remind me of a special holiday tradition my mother passed on to me, displaying dolls in traditional dresses all around our Christmas tree. Pham's new illustrations for the classic song are a splendid treat.

'Twas Nochebuena
A Christmas Story in English and Spanish
by Roseanne Greenfield Thong
illustrated by Sara Palacios
Viking / Penguin, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 4-8
Using the familiar rhythm of “The Night Before Christmas,” this little girl describes her special family traditions--from hanging decorations to breaking a piñata. The rhythm and rhyming makes this great fun to read, especially with so many Spanish words woven in throughout. The meanings are clear from the context and illustrations, but there's also a glossary at the end.
"'Twas Nochebuena and all through our casa
every creature was kneading tamale masa."
I love the warm, joyful illustrations that celebrate family, friendship and traditions. My students loved recognizing some familiar traditions, but also learning about some new ones such as Las Posadas, where neighbors and families parade from house to house, and reenacting Joseph and Mary's journey on Christmas Eve.
Manger
Poems selected by Lee Bennet Hopkins
Illustrations by Helen Cann
Eerdmans, 2014
Google Books preview
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-10
As legend has it, all creatures are granted the power of speech for one hour at midnight on Christmas Eve. What might they say? How would they react to the story of Jesus's birth?

This beautiful book gathers together 15 poems reflecting the animals that might have been present at the birth of Jesus. These masterful poets convey a sense of wonder, awe, and humility that is echoed in Cann’s rich illustrations.

Learn more about Manger and Lee Bennett Hopkin's poetry at Sylvia Vardell's blog Poetry for Children.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers: Random House, Penguin and Eerdman's. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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23. Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson -- savoring memory, family and dreams (ages 9-14)

I am filled with love and hope as we step foot into the new year. I spent the day going on a beautiful walk in the crisp sunshine and then rereading my favorite book of the past year: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson.

If you have a thoughtful, contemplative child in your life, seek out this book. If you want savor the richness of memory, family and dreams, seek out this book. If you want to revel in the beauty of language, by all means seek out this book.
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen / Penguin, 2014
winner of 2014 National Book Award for Young People
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-14
*best new book*
Woodson has long been one of my favorite writers, drawing readers into emotionally powerful stories. Here she digs deep into her own childhood, writing in free verse to capture the images and feelings that come with those memories. Her language is rich in metaphor and imagery, exploring the way memories stay with us.
"My grandmother tells us all this
as we sit at her feet, each story like a photograph
we can look right into." 
As I read Woodson's memoir, I'm filled with the love for my own grandfather. Even though he was so very different than Woodson's grandfather, the strength of her memories evoke my own remembrances. I feel "the weight of our grandparents' love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm."

But most of all, I love reading how Woodson talks about her dream of becoming a writer, her realization that words and stories are her special gift: "songs and stories and whole new worlds tucking themselves into my memory." Woodson excels at conveying her particular memories, but also connecting her life to a universal experience.
"How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again."
When I first read Brown Girl Dreaming last spring, I wondered how children would respond to it: Was this more of a book that adults would appreciate? Will children relate to her journey? Throughout the fall, I've watched it light a spark in students. It isn't the book for every child, but it is a truly special book for those it reaches. I just wish you could have seen two fourth graders who read it together and gushed how they see themselves in Woodson's words.

I am excited that my students have nominated Brown Girl Dreaming for our Emerson 2015 Mock Newbery. It will be fascinating to hear our passionate readers talk about what this book meant to them, whether they see Woodson's writing as distinguished and how it compares to other books they've read this year.

Teachers will also love using excerpts to inspire their students' own writing. Here are two of my favorite images:
"The empty swing set reminds us of this--
that what is bad won't be bad forever,
and what is good can sometimes last
a long, long time.

Even Coraandhersisters can only bother us
for a little while before they get called home
to supper."
---------------------
"When I read, the words twist
twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands."
Please share this exceptional book with children who want to savor language, revel in memories and dream of being a writer.

Here are some interviews with Jacqueline Woodson I have especially loved reading, watching and listening to:
The review copy came from my personal library. I have already purchased several copies, although the first review copy was kindly sent by the publisher Nancy Paulsen and Penguin Books for Young Readers. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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24. The Madman of Piney Woods, by Christopher Paul Curtis -- poignant historical fiction (ages 10-13)

With so many tragedies in the news lately, I've been wondering what causes some people to react to life's hardships with hatred and bitterness when others react with empathy and understanding. As I finished reading Christopher Paul Curtis's moving novel The Madman of Piney Woods, the characters gave me strength to face life's hardships and reflect on what's important. This is a companion novel to his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, but it easily stands alone.
The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 10-13
*best new book*
Thirteen year old Benji Alston lives in Buxton, Ontario and dreams of becoming a newspaper journalist. The Civil War happened long ago, but its impact still resonates in Buxton, a Canadian town settled by abolitionists and runaway slaves. African-Canadian Benji is excited to start an internship at a local newspaper in nearby Chatham, where he meets Alvin "Red" Stockard, son of an Irish immigrant and a local judge.

Curtis slowly builds this story, immersing readers in each boy's separate life--showing their interactions with friends and family. African-Canandian Benji is most at home in the woods, but he is not a perfect character. He's exceedingly jealous of his younger brother and sister, teasing and tormenting them. Red is the sort of person who watches a situation closely, noticing how people act and interact. It's no surprise when we find out that he dreams of becoming a scientist.

Both boys come across a man--perhaps real, perhaps mythical--living in the woods whom local children fear. Through Benji, readers comes to know The Madman of Piney Woods and learn about the horrors of the Civil War that made him retreat from society. But readers also come to know Red's Irish grandmother and the "coffin ships" that carried her to Canada--and how those experiences led her enduring bitterness.

I know this will be a hard book to summarize for students. It's the sort of book you have to find your way through, trusting friends' recommendations and the author. But it has lasting power, both in its overall themes and in specific passages. On his deathbed, the "Madman" Mr. Bixby gives this final advice to Benji:
“You gotta be careful, boy. Life ain’t fair; it ain’t got no conscience ’bout letting one bad choice you make as a child be the thing what colour every waking minute you has thereafter. You gotta remember to treat each moment and each person as precious, treat ’em all with the same respect I seent you treating them woods.”
Benji has the last word with his first published article, a eulogy for Mr. Bixby which captures the lasting message I take away from this book.
"He is a hero because, in spite of all the horrors he’d witnessed, he never allowed anger nor vengeance to poison his spirit. he is a hero because though surrounded by the ignorance of his fellow man, he never became bitter."
I finished this book feeling like I was a better person for having read it. It reaffirmed my resolutions to keep connected to friends and family, to appreciate life's small moments and special people.

My students love Christopher Paul Curtis's novels Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. It's interesting that few read Elijah of Buxton. I look forward to encouraging more to trust a favorite author and read this. It will be a perfect fit for students who seek poignant stories, appreciate masterful writing and enjoy becoming immersed in characters' lives.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher Scholastic Press. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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25. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls (ages 5-9)

Children are drawn to books in part to see themselves reflected, but also to look into the lives of other people far away. I think truly wonderful books can help us do both. Emmanuel's Dream tells the inspiring story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who was born in Ghana with one deformed leg. He faced life with courage and fortitude, and his story helps readers think about how we face life's challenges.
Emmanuel's Dream
The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
by Laurie Ann Thompson
illustrated by Sean Qualls
Schwartz & Wade / Random House, p2015
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-9
*best new book*
From an early age, Emmanuel's mother encouraged him to go after what he wanted. Even though one of his legs was deformed, he hopped more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, and even learned to ride a bike with his friends. In 2001, Emmanuel rode his bicycle four hundred miles across Ghana to spread his powerful message: disability is not inability.
"As Emmanuel grew, Mama Comfort told him he could have anything,
but he would have to get it for himself."
Laurie Ann Thompson
Today, I have the honor of starting off a blog tour celebrating the publication of Emmanuel's Dream with an interview with Laurie Ann Thompson.

Mary Ann: How did you first find out about this story?
Laurie: I first learned about Emmanuel’s inspiring story when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005 at the launch of Emmanuel’s Gift, a documentary about his life narrated by Oprah herself. On her show, Oprah said, “I think every parent should go take their children to see this movie because it will change the way your children think about what they can do and can be.” I agreed, but as a children’s book author I thought it would be even better if every parent could share Emmanuel’s story with their child through a book!

Mary Ann: Then how did you go about learning more about Emmanuel?
Laurie: First, I bought the movie and watched it over and over again. Then, I did research online and through library databases to find newspaper and magazine articles about Emmanuel and his activities. Finally, in 2010, I had the honor of meeting Emmanuel and interviewing him in person. After that meeting, I had 18 pages of typed, single-spaced notes to add to my research file! Since then, Emmanuel and I have kept in touch by email and phone, so he was able to answer all of my follow-up questions directly.
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and Laurie Ann Thompson in San Diego
Mary Ann: What was really interesting or surprising to you?
Laurie: What I love most about Emmanuel’s story is how thoughtful he was about what he was trying to accomplish. He’s an incredible athlete, yes, but he’s also very intelligent and observant, and his ride was more than just a physical pursuit. He specifically chose a sport, cycling, that most people think would require two legs. He hired a photographer to document his journey along the way. And he intentionally arranged meetings with key government officials and religious leaders all along his route so that his story would be featured in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television. This careful cultivation of the right kinds of media attention was a huge factor in his success.

Mary Ann: When you read this story with children, what do you find they really connect to in Emmanuel's story? What inspires you about children's reactions?
Laurie: Since it just came out, I actually haven’t had a chance to read it with very many children yet, but what attracted me to the story was the fact that Emmanuel was such an underdog. He wasn’t expected to do anything important with his life—he was expected to become a beggar. First, he ignored that expectation, and then he completely turned it on its head! The setting will certainly be unfamiliar to most readers in the United States, and many children won’t be able to relate to being disabled and but I think all of us, especially children, can relate to that feeling of being underappreciated, of someone else’s expectations for us coming in disappointingly, frustratingly low. I hope that after reading the book children will give themselves permission to follow their own dreams and live up to their own potentials, regardless of what others may tell them is possible or not. I think that’s the real power behind Emmanuel’s story, and what I most wanted to convey.

Thank you so much, Laurie, for taking the time to share your thoughts on this beautiful story. I absolutely agree -- I think that this story helps children look inside themselves to see how they can be courageous, how they can live up to their potentials no matter what others tell them.

I look forward to following all the stops on Laurie's blog tour.
Mon, Jan 12: Great Kid Books
Tues, Jan 13: 5 Minutes for Books
Wed, Jan 14: Unleashing Readers
Thurs, Jan 15: Sharpread
Fri, Jan 16: Cracking the Cover
Sat, Jan 17: Booking Mama
Mon, Jan 19: Once Upon a Story
Tues, Jan 20: Proseandkahn
Wed, Jan 21: Geo Librarian
Thurs, Jan 22: Nonfiction Detectives
Fri, Jan 23: The Fourth Musketeer
Mon, Jan 26: NC Teacher Stuff
Tues, Jan 27: Teach Mentor Texts
Laurie Ann Thompson is the author of Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters, a how-to guide for teens who want to change the world. An advocate for social justice, Laurie is dedicated to inspiring and empowering young readers. Emmanuel's Dream is her picture-book debut. Visit her at lauriethompson.com.

Illustration © 2015 by Sean Qualls from EMMANUEL'S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH by Laurie Ann Thompson; published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher Random House Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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