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1. Why are we doing any of this?

Every teacher has heard it before: if you’re teaching students to succeed on the Test, then you’re teaching them the skills they’ll need to succeed in college and beyond.

And if you’re like me, you’ve either inwardly or outwardly scoffed at this claim.

As I use the summer to reflect on this past school year and to begin planning for the upcoming one, I’m thinking about this in terms of my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course. Thankfully, I’m not under much external pressure to ensure all my students earn qualifying scores on the AP exam in May. But I do feel responsible for preparing them adequately for the Test since it has the potential to beef up their transcripts and earn them college credit.

But is the purpose of the class to pass the exam, or is it to prepare students for reading, writing, and thinking at a college level? Does preparing them for the exam do just that in this specific instance?

I would argue that part of it does but part of it does not. In particular, the reading section of the AP English Lang. & Comp. exam fails to imitate authentic college-level work. The section consists of four one-page passages — usually taken from varying disciplines and time periods — each followed by multiple choice questions testing a variety of reading and rhetorical analysis skills. Students have one hour.

But in how many college courses were you handed single-page excerpts accompanied by multiple choice questions? How many of your college exams looked like this?

In my experience (as an English undergrad and then as an Education grad student) the answer to both questions is zero. I had to read book upon book upon book, many of which were unfamiliar, dense, and complex. If we weren’t reading a book, then we were reading long, scholarly articles. We read. We thought. We discussed. We wrote. We did not answer multiple-choice questions.

Yet, answering multiple-choice questions like the ones on the AP exam is the kind of skill that can theoretically improve with explicit instruction and practice. So do I spend my time having my students do just that? Or do I spend it having them read/discuss/write about the kind of texts they will encounter in college and beyond?

The College Board and many others would probably say both — but if the point of practicing multiple-choice questions is simply to become good at answering multiple-choice questions, then why are we doing any of this?

While this isn’t a new question, I still haven’t heard a convincing answer.

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2. Chicks ‘n ducks ‘n geese

WONDERFUL FARM HARPER Chicks n ducks n geeseWe’re off tomorrow to spend a few days with the Sendak Fellows, Nora Krug and Harry Bliss, at a farm Maurice owned in upstate New York. (Why did he need a farm? Did he need a place to get away from it all from his place to get away from it all in the wilds of rural Connecticut?). The management tells me my job there is to “be Maurice,” but someone and his pal Wolfie are up in heaven laughing themselves sick at that suggestion. Instead, I imagine myself poking my head around easels, saying “perhaps a little more green there, Nora” or “Harry, you know, Brownie here would make an excellent companion to Bailey, yes?”

I guess the one thing I can tell them about is what Maurice loved and hated–and it was generally one or the other, whether it came to his taste in pictures, movies, TV, books, music or food. “I love it!” “I hate it!” The tricky thing with him, though, is that even though you coulda sworn he’d said he loved something, catch him ten minutes later and his passion had reversed. What I wish I had was Maurice’s talent for contagious enthusiasm: he could make you love what he loved, even if, years later, you finally–secretly and hoping he doesn’t overhear–admit you really don’t find Christa Wolf all that enjoyable.

I’m sure I’ll think of something to say. And we’re going to Tanglewood to meet Lizzie Borden; we’ll show Brownie the land of his birth (he was found wandering in the Berkshire woods); and I’m to be given the opportunity to milk goats. I hope I can see them run!

 

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3. The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern | Book Review

Readers will instantly fall in love with Maggie. Her narrative voice is smart, funny and clever, which makes her a highly entertaining, endearing, complex, triple threat.

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4. Reading about WWI

One hundred years ago today, the first shots of World War I were fired. These books about the WWI era — fiction and nonfiction for a range of ages — are all recommended by The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide.

Picture Books

decker letter home Reading about WWIThe text of Timothy Decker’s unusual picture book The Letter Home is a letter from a medic serving on the front lines during World War I to his young son back at home. A mood of sometimes ironic calm pervades both the spare, observant letter and the laconic black-and-white drawings, which depict the terrors of war in childlike terms: “Sometimes we played hide and seek.” It’s not clear who this book’s audience will be, but it deserves one. (Boyds Mills/Front, 2005)

knit your bit Reading about WWIMikey’s mother and sister are knitting for the troops in Deborah Hopkinson’s Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story; asked to join them, Mikey proclaims: “No way! Boys don’t knit.” Then Mikey’s teacher encourages students to participate in the Central Park Knitting Bee, and Mikey enlists his fellow boys. Heavy on olive and khaki, Steven Guarnaccia’s illustrations indicate the WWI setting but also capitalize on white space, giving readers room to consider the book’s themes. (Putnam, 2013)

Lewis Soldiers 232x300 Reading about WWIJ. Patrick Lewis offers a fictionalized account of the 1914 Christmas Truce of World War I in a picture book for middle-grade readers, And the Soldiers Sang. A Welsh soldier relates how British and German troops facing each other in trenches of the Western Front ceased their fighting on Christmas Day to engage in songs and friendly games. Gary Kelley’s dark, somber pastel illustrations add intensity to this moving story. (Creative Editions, 2011)

mccutchen christmas in the trenches Reading about WWIThe story of the same unofficial World War I Christmas truce is narrated by a grandfather and illustrated with Henri Sørensen’s eloquent oil paintings in Christmas in the Trenches. The bleakness of the trenches is balanced by author John McCutcheon’s emphasis on the indomitable spark of humanity. Based on the author’s 1984 folk song, the book displays a gentle and moving example of how to create peace. An author’s note, musical score, and CD are included. (Peachtree, 2006)

williams archies war Reading about WWIArchie Albright, protagonist of Marcia Williams’s Archie’s War, keeps a scrapbook/journal from 1914 to 1918; he collects his own comics and commentary, letters and postcards, newspaper clippings, and trading cards. Readers will be drawn in by the collage format. The satisfyingly busy pages provide much to pore over, unfold, and lift up, as well as a glimpse into life on the home front during World War I. (Candlewick, 2007)

 

Fiction

angus soldier dog Reading about WWIIn Sam Angus’s novel Soldier Dog, Stanley watches his beloved brother go off to war and then suffers from his father’s angry bouts with grief. Determined Stanley vows to protect his puppy, Soldier, from his father, and to reconnect with his brother. Stanley secures a spot in the military’s messenger dog service where he and the unit’s clever canines provide readers with a unique perspective on the Great War. (Feiwel, 2013)

boyne stay where you are and then leave Reading about WWIFour years ago, nine-year-old Alfie Summerfield’s dad, Georgie, went off to fight in WWI. For a while, letters from Georgie came regularly. Then they stopped altogether. Now Alfie (accidentally) learns that Georgie is in a nearby hospital, suffering from shell-shock. The third-person limited narration of John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are & Then Leave keeps readers experiencing events solely from Alfie’s intelligent but childlike point of view. (Holt, 2014)

fox dogs of war Reading about WWINathan Fox and Sheila Keenan present three stories of dogs who were active participants in wars in their wrenching graphic novel Dogs of War. Fox’s illustrations highlight the chaos and grimness of war, and the text, though sometimes dense, is overall well balanced with the art. A powerful author’s note, compelling stories, and the heroism of these dogs will likely inspire and move readers. (Scholastic/Graphix, 2013)

frost crossing stones Reading about WWIIn 1917, neighboring families face a sea of troubles. Two sons enlist in WWI; a suffragist aunt goes on a hunger strike; a seven-year-old daughter nearly dies from influenza. In Crossing Stones, Helen Frost reveals her story through tightly constructed poems. The discipline of the form mitigates against sentimentality, and the distinct voices of the characters lend immediacy and crispness to the tale. (Farrar/Foster, 2009)

hamley without warning Reading about WWIDennis Hamley’s Without Warning: Ellen’s Story takes place in World War I England as rigid class and gender boundaries begin to crumble. Teenage Ellen moves from her home to work at an estate, then turns to nursing in London, and finally to overseas duty at a French field station. Not even a fairy-tale ending can diminish this poignant and insightful historical novel told from Ellen’s first-person point of view. (Candlewick, 2007)

hartnett silver donkey Reading about WWIIn Sonya Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey, a provocative and elegantly honed tale about war’s toll on innocents, sisters Coco, eight, and Marcelle, ten, discover an English soldier hiding near their French village. They bring the WWI deserter food; he tells them allegorical stories inspired by a silver donkey given to him by his terminally ill brother. Occasional full-page black-and-white art by Don Powers deftly suggests setting and mood. (Candlewick, 2006)

morpurgo medal for leroy Reading about WWIA tale about family secrets and well-intentioned lies, Michael Morpurgo’s A Medal for Leroy is inspired by the real-life experiences of the first black British Army officer, who was prejudicially denied a medal for his actions during WWI. Though the focus of the book is on family relationships and the stories people invent to protect their loved ones, Morpurgo also offers an understated, unexpectedly gentle meditation on prejudice. (Feiwel, 2014)

moss winnies war Reading about WWIWith a difficult grandmother and a troubled mother, Winnie’s family life is challenging. But when the Spanish influenza hits in 1918, Winnie’s first priority is protecting them. The fear and desperation resulting from pandemic illness ring true in Jenny Moss’s Winnie’s War as the heroine faces her limitations, accepts uncontrollable events, and discovers a future for herself. An author’s note gives more history. (Walker, 2009)

obrien day of the assassins Reading about WWIJack Christie and his best friend Angus are caught up in the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Having traveled through time to 1914 Sarajevo, the two become pawns in a struggle between competing factions. They must grapple with preserving or changing history and facing the resultant implications for the future. In Day of the Assassins, author Johnny O’Brien provides a fast-paced combo of speculative and historical fiction. (Candlewick/Templar, 2009)

sedgwick foreshadowing Reading about WWIIn Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing, seventeen-year-old Sasha is a half-trained British nurse cursed with the ability to foresee imminent death. She runs away and follows her brother to the front, intent on saving him after a vision of his demise. An ongoing exploration of contemporary reactions to shell shock during World War I complements the plot and enriches Sasha’s character, and the clever conclusion is both surprising and apt. (Random House/Lamb, 2006)

slade megiddos shadow Reading about WWIAfter his older brother dies in combat, Edward, a sixteen-year-old Saskatchewan farm boy, lies about his age and enlists. He sees action in Palestine; it’s here that the horrors of the Great War are most graphically described. Arthur Slade puts an original spin on the experience of a young man going to war in his novel Megiddo’s Shadow. (Random House/Lamb, 2006)

westerfeld leviathan Reading about WWIScott Westerfeld’s Leviathan features a mix of alternative history and steampunk. As WWI breaks out, Prince Aleksandar and his advisers flee to the Swiss Alps. Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp, disguised as a boy, is aboard the British airship Leviathan, which crashes near Alek’s estate. As the two meet and begin the complicated dance of diplomacy, the story and characters come to life. Black-and-white illustrations by Keith Thompson capture Westerfeld’s complex world. Sequels Behemoth (2010) and Goliath (2011) continue the tale. (Simon Pulse, 2009)

 

Nonfiction

bausum unraveling freedom Reading about WWIAnn Bausum provides an informative overview of America’s involvement in WWI in Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I. She discusses President Wilson’s fight to enact laws against “anti-American” activities as an example of how political leaders during a national crisis have attempted to restrict personal freedom in the name of patriotism. Illustrations, photographs, and notes enhance the succinct text. A “Guide to Wartime Presidents” chart is appended. (National Geographic, 2010)

freedman war to end all wars Reading about WWIWith an abundance of historical photographs and a characteristically lucid, well-organized text, Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars: World War I documents the history of the First World War: from its tangled beginnings, through years of stalemate, to the collapse of empires and uneasy peace, and ending with a brief description of the rise of Hitler. Freedman’s narrative, dedicated to his WWI veteran father, is dramatic and often heart-wrenching. (Clarion, 2010)

murphy truce Reading about WWIThe first part of Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy sparely and effectively outlines the causes of the Great War. Murphy then moves into a close-up view of the trenches before providing an account of the 1914 Christmas Truce. This historical background gives the truce emotional resonance; the subsequent carnage is all the more sobering in contrast. Plentiful photographs and period illustrations convey the paradoxes well. (Scholastic, 2009)

Walker BlizzardGlass 237x300 Reading about WWIOn December 6, 1917, two ships headed for WWI-ridden Europe — one carrying relief supplies, the other carrying an extraordinary amount of explosive munitions — collided in the Halifax, Canada harbor. Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 author Sally M. Walker sets the stage, then focuses on five families that lived in the waterfront neighborhoods. Through their eyes, we experience the explosion, devastating aftermath, and eventual rebuilding. Numerous black-and-white photographs, plus a couple of welcome maps, further chronicle events. (Holt 2011)

Don’t miss Touch Press’s nonfiction WWI Interactive app (2012), reviewed here.

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5. Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 Edition

This column is part of a series of recommended board book roundups, formerly published twice a year, now published every season. You can find the previous installments here. Don’t miss Viki Ash’s primer “What Makes a Good Board Book?” from the March/April 2010 Horn Book Magazine.

blair baby animal farm Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionBaby Animal Farm
by Karen Blair
Candlewick    18 pp.
4/14    978-0-7636-7069-6    $6.99

Blair, doing her best Helen Oxenbury impersonation (successfully!), depicts a gaggle of cutie-patootie toddlers (accompanied by a puppy and one of the kids’ teddy bear) visiting a farm populated by baby animals: ducklings, chicks, piglet, etc. Simple, active sentences include accompanying kid-pleasing sound effects: “Feed the lamb. Baa, baa, baa… / Time for lunch. Nom, nom, nom.”

 

deneux jojos first word book Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionJojo’s First Word Book
by Xavier Deneux
Twirl    60 pp.
3/14    978-2-8480-1943-7    $16.99

Little rabbit Jojo and his sister Lulu learn basic kid-skills: getting dressed, eating with utensils, using the potty, etc. Each clear, uncluttered illustration shows one or both bunnies with items around them labeled with simple words (in script, for what it’s worth): “Jojo and Lulu’s house: chimney, roof, window, mailbox, door.” The sweet illustrations feature lots of rounded edges and saturated colors. Sturdy pages include thick tabs to quickly flip to four sections (“Jojo and Lulu,” “Home,” “Out and about,” “Animal friends”).

 

holub be patient pandora Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionBe Patient, Pandora! [Mini Myths]
by Joan Holub and Leslie Patricelli
Appleseed/Abrams    26 pp.
9/14    978-1-4197-0951-7    $6.95

 

holub play nice hercules Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionPlay Nice, Hercules! [Mini Myths]
by Joan Holub and Leslie Patricelli
Appleseed/Abrams    26 pp.
9/14    978-1-4197-0954-8    $6.95

Board book master Patricelli (Yummy Yucky; No No Yes Yes; The Birthday Box, among many others starring the adorable gender-neutral baby with the single spiral curl) and Ready-to-Read maven Holub (recent coauthor of the middle-grade Goddess Girls series) team up for these witty introductions to Greek myths for preschoolers — and also starring preschoolers. Hercules’s bearded, jeans-wearing dad tells him to “play nice” with his baby sister (“I am not nice. I am strong!”). Pandora’s mom warns: “Do not open the box” — which turns out to contain cupcakes. The last page in each book gives a very brief synopsis of each Greek myth.

 

samoun how gator says goodbye Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionHow Gator Says Good-Bye!
by Abigail Samoun; illus. by Sarah Watts
Sterling    22 pp.
2/14    978-1-4549-0821-0    $6.95

 

samoun how hippo says hello Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionHow Hippo Says Good-Bye!
by Abigail Samoun; illus. by Sarah Watts
Sterling    22 pp.
2/14    978-1-4549-0820-3    $6.95

In each book the title animal character visits seven countries — France, Russia, Egypt, India, China, Japan, Argentina — then returns home to the U.S. (a map appears at the end). Left-hand pages include text (“He says ‘Alvida!’ in India”) with pronunciation (“[AL-veh-da]”), while right-hand pages feature friendly scenes of Hippo or Gator smiling and waving at the people (well, animals) who live in each place. Simple shapes and subdued hues make these useful books eye-pleasing and approachable.

 

thomas birthday for cow Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionA Birthday for Cow
by Jan Thomas
Houghton    38 pp.
4/14    978-0-544-17424-5    $7.99

Thomas’s gleefully silly picture book about turnip-obsessed Duck trying to hijack Cow’s birthday cake prep translates well into a board-book version. If anything, Duck’s personality is even more outsized in this smaller format, and little kids will easily be able to follow the action and the humor.

 

van genechten 8 9 and 10 2 Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 Edition8 9 and 10 [Odd One Out]
by Guido van Genechten
Clavis Toddler    20 pp.
2/14    978-1605371870    $12.95

 

van genechten happy angry sad Board Book Roundup: Summer 2014 EditionHappy Angry Sad [Odd One Out]
by Guido van Genechten
Clavis Toddler    20 pp.
2/14    978-1605371863    $12.95

These lively books reward close observation from little kids. Each spread features an array of adorable, nearly identical looking critters (flamingos, camels, rhinos, spiders). The text asks a series of questions, including those that are number-based in 8 9 and 10 and emotion-based in Happy Angry Sad: e.g., for ladybugs — “Who has 4 dots and who has 5? Who can’t keep up? And who is going to the beach?” Spoiler alert: at the end of 8 9 and 10 all the animals end up at the beach; the mountains are their destination in Happy Angry Sad.

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6. Never Fear…WriteOnCon 2014 Is Here!

Keep calm and carry on, folks. We know the announcement is a little late this year, but WriteOnCon 2014 is happening, and it’s going to be awesome! Mark your calendars for August 26-27, and get those pitches ready, because we’re in the process of lining up a stellar list of Ninja Agents and Editors who are looking for the next big thing.

You’ll notice a few changes this time around. This year, we decided to put more focus on the things you tell us you love the most. You come to us for unprecedented access to agents and editors. We’re bringing the Ninja Agents and Editors to our forums in force. And we’ll also be holding a couple of live events to give you a chance to ask all your burning questions. We’re eliminating some of the things like blog posts and vlogs that didn’t generate as much interest—at least for this year. We’d love to hear what you think about this pared down WriteOnCon when it’s all said and done.

Over the next month, we’ll be cleaning up the site and the forums and finalizing the schedule. Keep an eye on this space or follow us on twitter (@writeoncon) or facebook (writeoncon) to stay up to date on the latest and greatest. Until then, get to work on those pitches, because the countdown has begun!

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7. Yaqui’s text set

medina yaqui delgado1 Yaquis text set Since I wrote recently about using a text set built around the idea of respect and the title Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina, a few people have asked what other texts we used alongside it. Our* essential question was “What makes someone worthy of respect?”

We were aiming for a set that spanned genres, and so the resulting set was both too big to use in our short time but also made of texts that weren’t only from the YA world. It included the some of the following:

  • Poems like “The Ballad of the Landlord” by Langston Hughes and “Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike
  • A series of quotes about respect from famous people
  • The short story ‘Chuckie’ by Victor LaValle
  • A couple of articles about bystanding and upstanding when bad things happen to others
  • Lou Holtz’s famous first locker room speech at Notre Dame
  • A couple of pieces from the This I Believe collection having to do with self-respect (thisibelieve.org)
  • Several anecdotes from the book Discovering Wes Moore about choices, misunderstandings, and facing adversity

This group of texts are all related to the idea of respect and who gets it and who doesn’t, and the different readings allowed us to consider respect from a variety of vantage points as we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of Piddy and Yaqui in the anchor novel.  They also gave us lots of time to dabble in writing different genres.

Text sets are such a fun way to really think hard about important stuff, and I’m excited to keep adding to this set about respect.

*This curriculum for the BGA/BU Summer Institute was developed in collaboration with my awesome friends Marisa Olivo and Lucia Mandelbaum from BGA and Scott Seider from BU. 

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8. A winter’s tale

exit A winters taleIf you aren’t completely burned out on dystopian fiction, do go see* Snowpiercer, a big, violent, gorgeous, baroque movie about the end of civilization, its last remnant perpetually traveling the ice-covered globe in a nonstop great big train. There is NO love triangle, with eros limited to a couple of crypto-gay warrior-bonding types, and plenty to thrill your (mine, anyway) inner ten-year-old, like an exciting shootout between cars as the train curves around an enormous bend. There’s high camp, too, supplied by Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill as the banality of evil and a gun-toting schoolteacher, respectively. (Wait, did I just repeat myself?) And Ed Harris is on hand, playing–spoiler alert–the very same part he played in The Truman Show.

But best of all is the look of the thing, from the icy landscapes and ruined, empty cities the train charges through to the train itself, from the squalid cars at the back where the slave labor lives to the sleek sushi bar, spa, and disco for the more privileged passengers at the front. One of the more subversive elements of the film is the way it gets you to think “why, yes, I could totally enjoy watching from the dome car as the world freezes to death. Waiter!”

The ending–spoiler alert again–is beautifully and starkly ambiguous. Life or death. I understand that the French graphic novel on which the movie is based has a sequel, but truly: none needed.

*In a movie theater, if you can. While the film is available on TV as an on-demand feature, you really want the big screen and sound for this one.

 

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9. Lately Lily Travel-Centered Books from Micah Player

The Lately Lily books and activity sets, bought together or separately, are beautifully designed items that not only tell an interesting story about travel and adventure, but also encourage children to be storytellers and chroniclers themselves.

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10. Using Dear Mr. Henshaw to encourage students to write

dearmrhenshaw 200x300 Using Dear Mr. Henshaw to encourage students to writeDear Mr. Henshaw, a Newbery medal-winning book by Beverly Cleary, is a great way to get students to think about some of the therapeutic benefits of writing. Of course, you don’t have to mention how helpful writing can be when you need to sort out feelings but you can let students figure this out on their own as they read the book.

Leigh Botts writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, as part of a school assignment and when the author writes back and asks Lee questions, his mother says he has to respond. Through his correspondence with Mr. Henshaw Lee learns about accepting life’s difficulties and — with the encouragement of Mr. Henshaw — starts to keep a journal.

In addition to coping with his parents’ divorce and missing his father, Leigh also deals with moving, adjusting to a new school, and having his lunch continually stolen — certainly timeless topics.

While some children may not think of writing letters to an author, they may keep a journal or know someone who keeps one. There are a lot of projects that can be added to the study of this book, including writing letters or journal entries as one of the characters. Students could also write to offer advice to the characters. Introducing students to the basic format of a personal letter (or e-mail) will provide valuable experience.

Mr. Henshaw certainly proves to be more interesting (and interested) that Leigh probably imagined. Reading this book could also foster discussion about the kinds of people your students admire (authors, celebrities, athletes) and what makes a person worthy of admiration. Ask if there are any local, “hometown heroes” that your students admire in addition to people who are nationally or internationally famous.

One of the many takeaways from the book for adults is that adults encourage Leigh to write and while he is hesitant at first, it grows on him. Students who would not write on their own may learn to enjoy it more if a teacher or parent lays the groundwork for them to get comfortable first.

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11. Best Young Adult Books with Jessica Love, Co-Author of Push Girl

Co-written with Chelsie Hill from Sundance Channel's reality TV show Push Girls, Jessica Love's debut novel PUSH GIRL published on June 3, 2014 from St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books. IN REAL LIFE, a story about online friendship and love, comes out in 2015.

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12. Top 5 Wordless Books: Five Family Favorites with Laura Marx Fitzgerald

I've found that the best of these books spoke to my kids when they were pre-readers, but still continue to draw them back again and again, as they uncover more in the multilayered stories. So without further ado, here are the Fitzgerald family's Top 5 Wordless Books.

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13. Third grade transitional books

Third grade is a funny transition period between picture books (“baby books”) and chapter books (“big kid books”).  Personally, I think there is much to say about a great picture book, but my students tend to balk at the idea of reading them; they want long books with as many chapters as possible. I think what my students are really searching for is more challenging content, but not all students are ready to enter the realm of the chapter book or even a very complex picture book (meaning fonts, vocabulary, and overall visual structure). So I try to encourage students toward picture books that are meant to be more academic or informative, and relatively straightforward. Here are two of my many favorites.

michelle 233x300 Third grade transitional booksMichelle by Deborah Hopkinson; illustrated by AG Ford
When I was working for AmeriCorps, my nonprofit purchased this book as a Christmas gift to all its student participants. My students were enthralled by this book because of its subject, Michelle Obama. The book’s text was complex but straightforward enough that it was accessible. It narrated her story without over-fantasizing, and told my students that by working hard, anything was possible. The pictures helped with the comprehension but what shone was Michelle’s values and strength of character. Because of the population I was working with (low income, racially diverse community), I think Michelle continues to be a relevant role model and the reason why the book remained so dear to my students.

redwoods 199x300 Third grade transitional booksRedwoods written and illustrated by Jason Chin
Another great find while working for AmeriCorps, I wanted my students to grasp the height and girth of a redwood tree without ever visiting one. I read this book aloud because the text was sometimes too long and detailed, and needed summarizing or simplifying. This is probably more appropriate for an older grade, but my students enjoyed this nonfiction picture book nonetheless.  Jason Chin also wrote and illustrated two other nonfiction books (Coral Reefs and Island: Story of the Galapagos), but I found this one to be the simplest for 3rd grade.

I know what you’re thinking: what about graphic novels for 3rd grade? That’s another blog post in the making. Until then, what picture books have you found that are both engaging and academic?

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14. Batter up!

With baseball season in full swing, it is the perfect time to check out one of the many great picture books featuring baseball. Here are some of my favorites.

Wise SilentStar 219x300 Batter up!Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy by Bill Wise with illustrations by Adam Gustavson (K-3)
Today many baseball fans may not know this, but in the late 1800’s one of the best major league players was William Hoy, who also happened to be deaf. This book tells his story with wonderful oil painting illustrations that will help readers understand both the time period and Hoy’s life.

Perdomo Clemente 235x300 Batter up!Clemente! by Willie Perdomo with illustrations by Bryan Collier (K-3)
Told in English with scattered Spanish words, this book follows a young boy named Clemente as various family members tell him about his namesake, the great Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente. While the book details Roberto Clemente’s baseball career, it also includes other aspects of his life, including his charitable work. It is a great option, particularly for those looking for a book that incorporates Spanish language text.

Adler LouGehrig 300x247 Batter up!Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David A. Adler with illustrations by Terry Widener (K-3)
Though he is perhaps best known now for the disease named for him, Lou Gehrig was an important figure in baseball well before he was diagnosed. In this book, readers learn about his early life, including his studies at Columbia University and his fourteen years in major league baseball, during which he played in a record number of consecutive games. While the book does not shy away from Gehrig’s illness, it tells the inspirational story of his life both before and during that period.

Winter SandyKoufax 247x300 Batter up!You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter with illustrations by Andre Carrilho (K-3)
In a striking departure from many sports biographies for children, this book focuses on Koufax’s struggles and early failures before recounting his rise to the top of the game. Readers also learn about the important role that Koufax’s Jewish faith played in his career, causing him to face discrimination and also leading to his refusal to play in the 1965 World Series because it fell on a high holy day. Though this book will appeal to all baseball fans, those who love baseball statistics will particularly enjoy the way that it integrates important stats into the illustrations at key points in the story.

Meshon Yakyu 300x249 Batter up!Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon (Preschool)
In this fun, brightly colored book, a young boy goes to baseball games in both the United States and Japan. Side-by-side pages show the differences between the experience in each country, both at the stadium and outside of it. The book integrates Japanese words in the text and unique details of baseball culture in each country into the illustrations.

Thayer CaseyattheBat 182x300 Batter up!Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer with illustrations by Joe Morse (K-3)
This entry in the Visions in Poetry series takes the classic poem “Casey at the Bat” and moves it to an urban setting. The poem is a classic for a reason, and a new generation of baseball fans can enjoy it with the modern, updated images that accompany it.

Bidner JoeDiMaggio 298x249 Batter up!The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41 by Phil Bildner with illustrations by S.D. Schindler (K-3)
Whether you are looking for a baseball book or an exciting glimpse into a period in history, this book won’t disappoint. It follows the separate paths of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams as they each chased baseball records over the course of the summer of 1941. The illustrations bring the time period to life and make this book a great way to make baseball fans into history fans — and vice versa.

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15. Illustration Inspiration: Bob Shea

Bob Shea has written and illustrated over a dozen picture books including the popular Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and the cult favorite Big Plans illustrated by Lane Smith.

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16. Reading Rainbow (Rowell)

rowell landline Reading Rainbow (Rowell)Who knew Rainbow Rowell had a new book (for adults)? Not me! Until I snapped it up at the Cambridge Public Library yesterday. A TV-writer mom bags out on her husband and kids during Christmas vacation in order to stay home and prepare for a big pitch at work. Her marriage has been cooling for a while, and this might just be the nail in the coffin. (I haven’t gotten to the time-travel part, but the flap copy tells me it’s coming.) Like the narrative voice(s) in Rowell’s Attachments, this one is smart, witty, and slightly bemused. Watch out, Jennifer Weiner; Rainbow’s coming for you!

And speaking of curly girls… who else is annoyed by this new Progressive Insurance ad, starring the otherwise inoffensive, even endearing, Flo? What the hell, Flo? My people don’t talk smack about your Carol Brady throwback hair.

flo Reading Rainbow (Rowell)

 

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17. Dinosaur versus… everything

Roar roar ROAR! When it comes to destruction, dinosaurs win! Check out these two brand-new titles about dinosaurs on rampages:

dinos Dinosaur versus... everything

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18. Children’s Book Trends | July 2014

When you see what some of the prizes are, you won't be surprised that in this month's little peek at the current children's book trends on The Children's Book Review there are some really great giveaways; including a chance to win an Amazon Kindle and a $100 Amex gift card!

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19. Learn About Sleepover at the World Cup in Brazil, by Geeta Raj

Geeta Raj brings an 11-year career in international development and humanitarian assistance to The Global Sleepover series, including over 8 years as a Senior Program Analyst with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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20. Best Selling Picture Books | July 2014

Three of the books in The Children's Book Review's best selling picture books list for July fall under the category of American history. Each of the books are deliciously rich in visual cues.

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21. Best Selling Middle Grade Books | July 2014

Seriously, there are some VERY good books on this list of best selling middle grade books; including Kevin Henkes' The Year of Billy Miller and Sharon M. Draper's Out of My Mind.

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22. B: A Profile of Brian Floca

locomotive B: A Profile of Brian FlocaAn editor’s dream — smart authors, smart artists. They save so much time. That is, they’re up to speed without undue heaving or the need for sand on the tracks (see Locomotive for more on the subject). My subject in this tribute is someone who is all three: author, artist, smart.

Given a pencil, Brian Floca doodled young and was still happily at it when, in the spring of 1991, we met in Providence, Rhode Island, in (unaccountably) an empty office in the Department of Egyptology at Brown University. Doodles, by then, had become a comic strip in the campus newspaper. As a junior at Brown, Brian was also studying with David Macaulay at nearby Rhode Island School of Design (what a treat, then, to read in The Horn Book’s review of Locomotive that the back endpaper cutaway illustration of Central Pacific engine Jupiter surely “would make David Macaulay proud”).

It was Avi who arranged our meeting. He was seeking an illustrator for a 400-page gleam in his eye that became City of Light, City of Dark (1993), an early entrant in the recent resurgence of graphic novels. Brian had been recommended. He did some sample pen-and-inks: lots of energy; inventive perspectives; a touch of the sinister, which Avi’s tale required.

Before that first project was published, Avi had dreamt up a second — a fantasy called Poppy (winner of a 1996 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award). The three-inch mouse heroine emerged first in what the illustrator describes as “cartoony pen-and-ink” but then matured magically in velvety pencil. From gargantuan cityscape to atmospheric woodland, this young man could draw anything.

I hadn’t yet read any of Brian’s own story ideas. Turned out he was not only a skilled draftsman, but also a witty writer, sometimes wacky, sometimes tender. The first text Brian brought me was a goofball romp about a boy in a natural history museum, The Frightful Story of Harry Walfish (1997), though not till he’d finished, for Orchard, Helen Ketteman’s Luck with Potatoes (1995). Years later, I mean years, he admitted that before Helen’s book he’d never done any watercolor illustrations requiring book-length focus. But focus he did…on a departure, and also in watercolor: Five Trucks (1999), which Booklist starred and which prompted the reviewer to ask: “If picture books about trucks are so easy to do, why do we see so many poor ones and so few as good as this?”

A stylistic throwback followed, Dinosaurs at the Ends of the Earth (2000) about explorer/naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews. Not quite nonfiction (Brian imagines some dialogue), the book spreads as wide as the Gobi Desert; the text, mostly arrayed horizontally, is lengthy and looks it. Great rectangles of words. But the writing is alive, a throwback only in its long-lined form.

As a kid I loved poring over Holling C. Holling (but oh, those long texts) and the informational books by Edwin Tunis (dry as tinder, yet the drawings captivated). Fifty years later, here was Brian Floca of Temple, Texas, an artist who could bring to life gizmos, vehicles, feats, and all manner of things that go and do and make noises. And not go on and on for paragraphs. Here was an artist to channel that one-time kid who liked “process” and long-looking. I hope it’s clear that we’d hit it off as friends from the beginning, but now the making of books about the workings of things had become a connecting passion.

The Racecar Alphabet (2003) was the first brainchild: rambunctious, even raucous, with an alliterative text only 205 words long. One NASCAR driver we heard from via e-mail reads the book to his son regularly and praised Brian for the accuracy of art, car info — and sound effects. For a further example of those, see Lightship (2007).

“A committee member” asked for a lunch-break look at our copy of Lightship in the Atheneum ALA booth.
She’d heard that the text was “strong.” It was Lightship that alerted the world that this young man could not only illustrate and pace a book beautifully, he could also write. Brian’s texts thereafter arrayed themselves vertically; visually spare, like ribbons floating to allow room for art, they often read like poetry (think of the glorious Moonshot in 2009, and now Locomotive). The words brim with emotion even when it is facts he’s presenting.

Since his beginnings, Brian has been a working illustrator. His website makes clear that his range is impressive —
animal, vegetable, mechanical. I have a most personal collection of hand-drawn postcards and notes the Society of Illustrators could make a show of; a recent highlight is a pen-and-ink Jupiter, puffing a great blast of thank-you flowers.

Locomotive began life in 2008 as an homage to a wondrous big chugger such as Jupiter, when Brian’s flight of Apollo 11 was still on the drawing board. It soon became clear that locomotives, especially those engines destined for transcontinental travel, bore on their wheels the great weight of nineteenth-century America. Homage
became paean. Had to. Thirty-two pages became, progressively, 40, 48, 56, 64. Research led him this way and that — into many an account of the heroism, ingenuity, venality, and even crime behind the country’s westward expansion. These elements, outside the immediate focus of Locomotive, make appearances in the narrative in supporting roles, which, it is hoped, will lead readers to other books, other stories. But the stars of Locomotive had to remain the locomotives themselves (several were required to make the Omaha-to-Sacramento trek); sometimes even pieces of their stories fell to the cutting room floor.

Nearly a victim of the streamlining ax was the KA-BOOM! explosion picture. (Brian said: “Boys will like it; I hate to lose it, but…”) Lots of the book hit the floor at one time or another, great puddles of remarkable art, often without room for itself in the narrative, offshoots of story for which there was no space or time. The nights of the journey had to be documented with rhythmically placed dark pages; lighting for existing scenes had to be changed from midnight to sunlight — perspectives had to be juxtaposed. Locomotive was pulled apart and reassembled many a time. Like a machine itself, this book was built.

And as with the pictures, the text too was an assemblage. I must have read it a hundred times and yet I am always impressed with how the skein of language supports the visual story. For by now, after a long, evolutionary, and iterative process, a story had emerged — of one family traveling westward, propelled by a sequence of Union Pacific and Central Pacific locomotives. Listen to the book read aloud. Through its words, it presents the experiences of one boy (a stand-in, surely, for the artist himself) lucky enough to see and see more and hear and hear more — a whole world opening up to him.

At the touching end, the simplicity of the family’s reunion seems to me just right — no bustling background, just feeling. Full but spare, the text here through the arrival in San Francisco was sifted and shifted well into final proofing stage. The book ends with the art/text version of a hug. And extends to the back of the jacket, which shows six grown boys loving a machine — just as three grown boys, Brian principally, but also the designer, Michael McCartney, and I, have loved the tinkering, the polishing, the priming of this book for its journey from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first.

Brian Floca has opened a world to me.

And now, what’s next? Back to the man who put this crew together: Avi and his Old Wolf. Brian has illustrated in rich pencil the fable-like tale of an aged wolf-pack leader determined to feed his hungry pups (does he or doesn’t he have one more kill in him?), a boy with a birthday bow-and-arrows who knows about killing only from video games, and a raven who knows about everything.

After that, there’s a picture book starring a cat behind the wheel—a vehicle-sized cat or a cat-sized vehicle? Only the artist knows for sure…

I am grateful that there’s to be a future for us. Thank you, young sir, for the ride so far. I have learned much.

Your pal, D

Brian Floca is the 2014 Caldecott Medal winner for Locomotive. From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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23. Two Arthurs

Here in Boston we are getting ready for a sideswipe by Hurricane Arthur. They’ve even moved the Boston Pops and fireworks festivities to tonight instead of tomorrow. Meanwhile, Arthur is headed for the southeast coast here in the US today. It’s pretty rare for that first storm of the season — the one named with an A — to do much damage, but still one worries. I hope everyone stays safe.

Thinking about this hurricane’s name reminded me of the most famous children’s lit Arthur, Marc Brown’s aardvark. I admit to never watching one of the cartoons all the way through, in part because I don’t like how the character’s face was made so generic for the cartoon version. It’s as if Arthur’s makeover role model was Michael Jackson: lighter skin tone (or is it fur?) and smaller features. I never did understand the color change, but regarding the nose, it’s probably difficult to animate a character with a large droopy nose and short arms. How would he carry anything?

Still, when you compare the first book — which is about Arthur learning to come to terms with having a very large nose — to the present incarnation, I have to wonder what children make of this change.

arthursnose Two Arthurs       arthurnow Two Arthurs

Has anyone had a conversation with a child about the different physiognomies? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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24. Best Selling Young Adult Books | July 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart has been added to our best selling young adult books for this month. The rest of the titles have remained the same, proving just how these titles truly are popular books for teens (and many adults, too).

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25. Best Selling Kids Series | July 2014

Thanks to World Cup Soccer, the new Magic Tree House book, Soccer on Sunday, has the series on top of The Children’s Book Review’s best selling kids series list.

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