Monday, January 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE BICYCLE SPY

I really enjoy reading historical fiction and I spent a few hours with this one over the holidays -- an absorbing and exciting read with lots of nail-biting moments.

Marcel loves riding his bicycle, whether he's racing through the streets of his small town in France or making bread deliveries for his parents' bakery. He dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany's occupation of France began two years ago, in 1940, the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, interrupting Marcel's rides with checkpoints and questioning.

Then Marcel learns two big secrets, and he realizes there are worse things about the war than a canceled race. When he later discovers that his friend's entire family is in imminent danger, Marcel knows he can help — but it will involve taking a risky bicycle ride to pass along covert information. And when nothing ends up going according to plan, it's up to him to keep pedaling and think quickly... because his friend, her family, and his own future hang in the balance..

The Bicycle Spy was written by Yona Zeldis McDonough and published by Scholastic Press in 2016.

My thoughts as a reader and teacher:

I couldn’t put this book down! It’s a compelling story that brings to life the fear and reality of what it was like to live in France during 1942. Marcel was brave and courageous, and I loved how his passion for riding bicycles and the Tour de France was an integral part of the story.  

“He was exhausted, and very, very cold. But then he thought of the riders in the Tour de France. Surely they got tired, hungry, and cold too. They had to ride in all kinds of weather—extreme heat and freezing cold.”

From the moment Marcel discovers a secret about his family, he is afraid about what he must do, but he takes on the challenge, even when at times he has to do it on his own and without the security and guidance of his parents.

This would be a great book to start or deepen discussions about prejudice, persecution and basic human rights. The back matter contains a brief history of World War II as well as of the Tour de France.

My thoughts as a writer: 

Historical fiction can sometimes be more interesting than compelling, but this story was both. I loved how the author created suspense and drama through the use of specific details. 

“Escape? Where?” The hair on the back of Marcel’s neck began to prickle and he knew it wasn’t just from the crisp, cold air.”

Opening Line:

“A gust of wind cut across Marcel’s face as he cycled furiously down the street.”

Other Info:

Yona Zeldis McDonough has written 27 books for children. They include The Doll With the Yellow Star, The Dollhouse Magic, Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Who Was Rosa Parks? 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – BEAUTIFUL

I'm excited to start off 2017 with this wonderful picture book that promotes diversity and positive self-image. As a teacher and as a mother, I'm always looking for books that show children, and especially girls, of different shapes, sizes and abilities, as confident and multi-talented. I recommended this book to my local library to purchase for their collection.
Summary from the Publisher:

Every girl is unique, talented, and lovable. . . .Every girl is BEAUTIFUL.
Much more than how one looks on the outside, true beauty is found in conquering challenges, showing kindness, and spreading contagious laughter. Beautiful girls are empowered and smart and strong!

BEAUTIFUL breaks barriers by showing girls free to be themselves: splashing in mud, conducting science experiments, and reading books under a flashlight with friends. This book will encourage all girls to embrace who they are and realize their endless potential.

Beautiful was written by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. It was published in 2016 by Running Press Kids.


“Beautiful girls…have the perfect look.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The text is simple, celebrating different aspects of beauty for girls. The illustrations are the key to developing the underlying message that beauty is found in many different ways – showing girls as adventurers, scientists, and creators. This is a good text for studying how the text and illustrations work together.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I love the message that all girls are beautiful no matter how they dress or act, and that girls can do anything. I’d love to read this to my class to see how they react to it. The illustrations include confident girls with different skin colors and body types. It’s a good book for promoting self-acceptance. Every child’s library should include this book.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: PreK - 2

Themes: self-acceptance, diversity, beauty, empowerment


What does beautiful mean? Make a list of all the different ways of showing beauty.

Make a “beautiful” class book by having each student draw a picture of a friend (male or female) and write about what makes them beautiful.

Create a mirror template. Have each child draw a self-portrait inside the mirror that shows something awesome about themselves. Write an explanation or sentence about what makes them beautiful.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Celebrating Successes from 2016

If you are looking for an alternative to setting New Year's resolutions, you might want to try this idea from children's author and entrepreneur Julie HedlundJulie’s approach is an alternative to traditional New Year’s resolutions that stem from negatives, like 'what I didn’t do last year' or 'what I need to fix about myself.'
Her suggestion is to review your successes and achievements, and then use them as a foundation for setting goals. To me, this makes a lot of sense. I've been thinking about mine. Here are a few of my reading- and writing-related successes from 2016:
1. I was one of the judges for the final round of the Cybils Awards for Fiction Picture books last January & February. Despite the nail-biting moments of struggling to decide on a winner, the process of discussing picture books with others who love them as much as I do was great and I learned a lot.
2. I participated in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge again (writing 12 picture books in 12 months). I didn't write any more picture books than last year but it was a good way to stay motivated.
3. I worked on revisions to one of my middle grade novels and my agent sent it out on submission before the end of 2016. 
4.  I revised several picture book manuscripts.

5.  I attended a few local SCBWI meetings and I also participated in a book club (adult literature) at my local library. So much fun to meet more people who also love writing and books!       

6. I read over 150 children's and YA books in my personal reading challenge.

Some years it's easy to find successes, but this year I was a little afraid there wouldn't be any. I experienced several life-changing events in my personal life that made it hard to focus on writing or reading. But no matter how small, celebrating successes is important. I urge you to give it a try. Head into 2017 on a positive note!
What are you most proud of this year? I hope you feel good about your successes!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – I Am Josephine (And I Am a Living Thing)

I've never seen a picture book that talks about this idea of classification before. A simple but unique story.

Summary from the Publisher:

Meet Josephine: a spirited and curious girl, a big sister, and a human being. She’s also a mammal, an animal, and a living thing—all identities she explores with readers in this simple informational picture book.

Josephine presents her family (and herself) as examples of human beings, and then familiar creatures like her dog and her mom (and herself) as mammals. Next, she adds whales, lobsters, hummingbirds, and elephants (and herself) as examples of animals. Finally, she shares examples of living things, including moose, foxes, butterflies, flowers, and bugs… and, of course, herself!

Inspired by science and nature writer Jan Thornhill’s many classroom visits, this book is intended to help children recognize themselves as part of the natural world, with an emphasis on how all living things share similarities.

Playful, kid-friendly illustrations in vibrant colors paired with minimal text make this an easy introduction to the classification of living things. Endmatter goes into further detail about the unique characteristics of humans, mammals, animals, and living things.

I am Josephine (and I am a living thing), was written by Jan Thornhill and illustrated by Jacqui Lee, was published in 2016 by OwlKids.


“I am Josephine. I am Josephine, and I am a human being.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really loved the concept of this book, and the simple kid-friendly text and illustrations. The repetitive style creates a rhythm and expectation for the reader. I also liked the places where readers are invited to find or count examples of each concept.

The illustrations are cartoon-like and fun, but also make it easy to identify each animal or being.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I haven’t seen a book that explains these categories to young children before and I really love it. I think it could provoke a lot of discussion. What is a living thing? I liked the lists at the end to explain the concepts.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: living things, mammals, classification of animals


Provide pictures of different kinds of living things for children and have them decide which group(s) they belong to.

Draw a picture of yourself and write your answer to the question on the last page of the book: What makes you different from other human beings?

Think about how you fit into other groups (e.g., immediate family group, relative group, friend group, class group, school group ) etc. and write an “I am ______ story of your own.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – PIRASAURS!

Another fun book about pirates! And who doesn't love dinosaurs? I really enjoyed reading this one -- it begs to be read aloud.

Summary from the Publisher:

Meet the Pirasaurs, a ragtag team of seasoned pirate dinosaurs looking for adventure and treasure! There's fearsome Captain Rex, golden-toothed Velocimate, one-eyed Bronto Beard, and more fearsome, buccaneering well as one new recruit who may be small, but who's eager to prove he can learn the ropes and find his place on the team.

But when a trap is set upon the Pirasaurs while looking for buried treasure, it's up to the littlest recruit to show the team that there's more to a Pirasaur than meets the eye patch!

Pirasaurs! written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Michael Slack, was published in 2016 by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic.


“We're Pirasaurs! We're Pirasaurs!
We rule the open seas!
We'll cannon-blast you to the past!
We do just what we please!”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The rhymes in this story are clever and keep the rhythm going, so it’s a great example to study if you’re writing a rhyming picture book. I love the concept of pirate dinosaurs, which I bet is very appealing to young readers. There are some really fun characters in this story, like “Bronto Beard” and “Triceracook”. The big, cartoony illustration style really brings out their personalities. 

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is a fun read for the classroom. There’s lots of wordplay and language to engage students. I also like the message about cooperation instead of fighting! In my kindergarten classroom, I’d leave this book at a centre with some toy dinosaurs and perhaps some blocks for building a pirate ship.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: dinosaurs, pirates, cooperation


Draw your own pirate dinosaur character. What would you name it?

Make a treasure map on thick paper. Cut it into pieces and see if a partner can put it back together.

What words rhyme in this story? See if you can hear them as your teacher reads aloud.

Talk about some ways to cooperate in your classroom “pirate ship”.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – NEVER FOLLOW A DINOSAUR

I don't often find books with mysteries in them for young children, so I was intrigued by this one. It was especially fun that the children were hunting a dinosaur!

Summary from the Publisher:

Sally and Joe are convinced that the mysterious footprints they have discovered must belong to a dinosaur! Could it be? Join them as they follow the clues to find out…but wait -- what if Sally and Joe are right? What if it really is a dinosaur?

Never Follow a Dinosaur was written and illustrated by Alex Latimer. It was published in 2016 by Peachtree Publishers.


“One afternoon, Joe and his sister Sally spotted a strange set of footprints.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This cumulative story was a bit different than others that I’ve read since each time a new description of the dinosaur was added. I loved the idea of building on clues through the story.

The illustrations were fun! I really liked the way their imagined dinosaur changed as they found more clues and made more guesses.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

The clear illustrations make this a nice book for reading aloud to a group. I really liked the clues and how the book modeled that knowing more changed their ideas about what the dinosaur might be like. I also really liked the plans they drew for their trap. It’s a good book for making inferences.

Ages: 5 - 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes: dinosaurs, mysteries, clues,


Make a list of the clues Joe and Sally found when hunting for the dinosaur. Is there another explanation?

Draw your own plan for a dinosaur trap. Label the key features that will help catch a dinosaur. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS

I loved Jo Knowles’ emotional middle grade SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, so I was excited to read this book. It’s written from the perspective of a boy whose sibling has a mental illness.

Description from Amazon:
Noah is just trying to make it through seventh grade. The girls are confusing, the homework is boring, and even his friends are starting to bug him. Not to mention that his older sister, Emma, has been acting pretty strange, even though Noah thought she'd been doing better ever since the Thing They Don't Talk About. The only place he really feels at peace is in art class, with a block of clay in his hands. As it becomes clear through Emma's ever-stricter food rules and regulations that she's not really doing better at all, the normal seventh-grade year Noah was hoping for begins to seem pretty unattainable. In an affecting and realistic novel with bright spots of humor, Jo Knowles captures the complexities of navigating middle school while feeling helpless in the face of a family crisis.

Still a Work in Progress was written by Jo Knowles and published by Candlewick Press in 2016.

As a reader and teacher:

When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure I’d like this story, even though the realistic details made me feel almost like I was entering middle school myself. As I read on and let myself get to know Noah, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to find out what was going on with his family and sister Emma. Experiencing the situation through Noah’s thoughts and perspective made me think about how the whole family is affected when one person has a mental illness.

As a writer: 

Jo Knowles includes specific details and images to create an authentic story. I’d read this one again to study how to write a story about the sibling of a person in a difficult situation. I really liked this perspective and I think it’s an area of middle grade that has been overlooked. Another great example of a character-driven contemporary middle grade.

Opening Line:

“I am not afraid of Molly Lo,” Ryan tells me from inside the stall in the boys’ bathroom.

Other Info:

Jo Knowles is the author of See You at Harry’s, another middle grade book I really recommend (see my thoughts here). She has also written several YA novels.  

Here’s Jo Knowles talking about how she got the idea for the story:

There is a teacher guide for this novel.