Monday, January 15, 2018

THE LIST by Patricia Forde -- Exploring Language and Censorship for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Now that I've finished reading books for the Cybils Awards Picture Book and Board Book panel (see my post here if you're interested in what I learned), I'm so happy to be back to reading middle grade fiction. This one was published in 2014 and I wonder how I missed it! The idea behind this story is so intriguing.

Description from the publisher:
There are lots of tense moments in this story! I was intrigued by the idea that language is limited and some words were forbidden. I loved the writing style and the detail in this story.  It was so interesting to think about issues of censorship and the role of language in our lives.

The city of Ark is the last safe place on Earth. To make sure humans are able to survive, everyone in Ark must speak List, a language of only 500 words.
Everyone that is, except Letta.

As apprentice to the Wordsmith, Letta can read all the words that have ever existed. Forbidden words like freedom, music, and even pineapple tell her about a world she's never known.

One day her master disappears and the leaders of Ark tell Letta she is the new Wordsmith and must shorten List to fewer and fewer words. Then Letta meets a teenage boy who somehow knows all the words that have been banned. Letta's faced with a dangerous choice: sit idly by and watch language slowly slip away or follow a stranger on a path to freedom . . . or banishment.

The List by Patricia Forde was published by SourceBooks Jabberwocky in 2014.

Why you want to read this book… 

There are lots of tense moments in this story! I was intrigued by the idea that language is limited and some words were forbidden. I loved the writing style and the detail in this story.

“The words danced in front of her eyes just as they had when she’d been a small child. She remembered lying in bed with all the words she’d learned in school flying about her head, fireflies from some magical place, red, electric fireflies.”

If you’re a writer… 

You might study this book to see how the author integrated Letta’s thoughts and feelings into the story. The setting is also a big part of this story – I wanted to visit the wordsmith shop and the old pumphouse.

“Inside, behind a counter made of solid oak from trees from another time, Letta could see row upon row of shelves honeycombed with cubbyholes. The cubbyholes cradled the vanilla-colored, four-inch square cards, and the cards held precious words.”

If you’re a teacher…

There are opportunities for interesting discussions or reflections about censorship and the importance of language in our lives, as well as thoughts about the future and the depletion of resources and water. There is some violence in this novel, including torture and murder, but the descriptions of these events are not overly graphic.

“Without words, we will be imprisoned in the here and now forever.”

Opening Line:

“Letta, the wordsmith’s apprentice, buried her face in her hands, exhausted.”

Thursday, January 11, 2018

WALK WITH ME by Jairo Buitrago & Rafael Yockteng

A sad, disturbing but important book to read for adults as well as children.

Summary from the publisher:

A simple, imaginative story depicting the complex emotional reality of a girl whose father no longer lives at home.

The girl conjures up an imaginary companion — a lion — who will join her on the long walk home from school. He will help her to pick up her baby brother from daycare and shop at the store (which has cut off the family’s credit), and he’ll keep her company all along the way until she is safely home. He will always come back when she needs him, unlike her father whom she sees only in a photograph — a photograph in which he clearly resembles a lion.

Walk With Me was written by Jairo Buitrago and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng. It was published in 2017 by Groundwood Books.


Keep me company on the way home,
then I can have someone to talk to so I don’t fall asleep
on the long walk out of the city.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

A nice example of a simple text that provides a glimpse of a child who imagines as lion as her companion to help her feel safe. A lovely way to show a difficult life that may resonate with many young children.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This story shows the reality of life for some children and a way to cope through imagination. There is a disturbing scene that depicts a man lying on the ground and a woman screaming, which may require a preview by the teacher and some thinking about how to respond to student discussion. Students may need guidance to make a connection between the picture with her father at the end and the lion that keeps her safe. A important book for a teacher's collection.

Ages: 5 - 12

Grades: K – Grade 5

Themes: emotions, hardship, family


If you were to have an imaginary animal to help you through your daily life, which animal would you choose? Paint a picture of your animal.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Cybils Fiction Picture Books and Board Book Finalists -- With Tips for Writers

Happy New Year! Thank you for your support of my book reviews and my blog!

We’ve reached the end of this year’s deliberations for Round 1 in the fiction picture book and board book category for the Cybils Awards and it’s time to announce the winners! [For the official announcement and lists of finalists, check here.]

I am so appreciative that authors, illustrators and publishers trusted me to evaluate the extensive work that went into creating their books. It truly was an honour. The process of discussing amazing texts and illustrations with the other panelists was enlightening, inspiring, challenging and a lot of fun. It was excruciatingly difficult to winnow down our many favourites to come up with a shortlist for the final round of judging. (Unfortunately, some nominated books could not be evaluated by all of our team members because we weren’t able to track them down if we didn’t receive review copies, so we had to exclude them.)

As a teacher:

The process of choosing finalists made me more aware of the many stories that are available to share with my students. I now have my own list of books from 2017 that are “must reads” to introduce different topics in the classroom or would be just a lot of fun to enjoy with my students. (In case you are wondering, the review copies I received for evaluating these books will be donated to my classroom, my school, my school’s family learning centre and my local public library.) I love the knowledge I have gained and my increased ability to recommend some great books to families or teachers with particular interests or needs.

As a writer:

I’ve learned so much from reading and thinking about these books! Here are three key learnings:

1) Many stories start off strong, but falter when it comes to the ending. Writers, pay more attention to your endings. Endings that are emotionally strong or offer a big surprise for the reader linger with readers.

2) Despite much of the advice we get as writers to be subtle about morals or being “preachy,” some rule-breaking writers straightforwardly state their message, but are able to weave it into the story effectively so it doesn’t sound overly didactic. This was really interesting.

3) Layers rule! The books I liked best all had different levels of interpretation and were fun to read for both children and adults. Humor plus a deeper level of meaning and a story that doesn’t overwhelm with words is a winning combination. Stories with a more serious tone stand out when they have a strong voice, authentic or specific details and amazing illustrations.

In no particular order, here are the shortlists for my panel:


After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) written and illustrated by Dan Santat (Roaring Brook Press)

Baabwaa and Wooliam written by David Elliott and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Walker Books)

Escargot written by Dashka Slater and illustrated by Sydney Hanson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Flowers for Sarajevo written by John McCutcheon and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree)

Big Cat, Little Cat written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper (Roaring Brook Press)

Creepy Pair of Underwear! written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown (Simon & Schuster)

The Book of Mistakes written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books)


Circle, Triangle, Elephant: A Book of Shapes and Surprises written by Kenji Oikawa and illustrated by Mayuko Takeuc (Phaidon)

Hair written and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli (Candlewick)

One Happy Tiger written and illustrated by Catherine Rayner (Tiger Tales)

When Your Lion Needs a Bath written by Susanna Leonard Hill and illustrated by Daniel Wiseman (Little Simon)

Changing Faces: Meet Happy Bear written by Nathan Thoms and illustrated by Carles Ballesteros (Harry N Abrams)

Bears are Big written by Douglas Florian and illustrated by Barbara Bakos (little bee books)

Peek-a-Moo written and illustrated by Nina Laden (Chronicle Books)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Celebrating Successes from 2017

As I've done for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to think about celebrating successes from the year instead of revisiting what I didn’t accomplish and resolving to do better (for more on this approach see Julie Hedlund’s recent blog post). Her suggestion is to use your successes and achievements as a foundation for setting new year goals.
This was a year of struggles in my personal life and they seemed to squelch my creativity and time for writing. I can claim only a few writing and reading successes for 2017, but I’m sharing them anyway, proud to have accomplished anything in the face of so much emotional change:
1. I participated in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge again and for the first time completed the challenge by writing 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. (No one said the drafts had to be good.)

2. I read over 300 new fiction picture books and board books as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards. It was so much fun discussing these books with my fellow panelists!

3. I worked hard on revising a middle grade novel and am close to finishing my revisions.

4. I revised several picture book manuscripts and my agent sent some of them on submission.

5. I participated in an adult fiction book club at my local library. 

No matter how they are, taking time to celebrate successes lifts you up. I urge you to give it a try and dive into 2018 on a positive note! What are you most proud of this year? I hope you feel good about your successes!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Learning from Picture Books –NOW by Antoinette Portis

A deceptively simple book that reminds us about how young children experience the world.

Summary from the publisher:

Follow a little girl as she takes you on a tour through all of her favorite things, from the holes she digs to the hugs she gives.

Now was written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis, and published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press.


This is my favorite breeze.

This is my favorite leaf.

This is my favorite hole (this one)
because it’s the one I am digging.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The text is a nice demonstration of how repetition of the structure can help to move the reader through the story. The text itself is short and feels very immediate, which goes well with the point of the story.  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

While I think this is an excellent story for parents and young children to read together, it also would work in a preschool or kindergarten class for talking about “favorites.” It could spark an investigation into “favorite things.” I love how it reminds us of the young child’s perspective.

Ages: 2 - 6

Grades: Toddler  – Grade 1

Themes: appreciating the moment, family, favorite things


Discuss: What is your favorite right now? Draw a picture or explain why.

Make a class book of pictures of “favorite things.”

Show students how to create a survey and have them collect data about their “favorite things.”

Have children take turns bringing a “favorite thing” to show and share for “Today’s Favorite.”

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – HOORAY FOR BIRDS by Lucy Cousins

This book shows the world from a different point of view – a bird’s eye view!

Summary from the publisher:

Birds of all feathers flock together in a fun, rhyme-filled offering by the creator of Maisy. From the rooster’s “cock-a-doodle-doo” at dawn to the owl’s nighttime “tuwit, tuwoo,” the cheeps and tweets of many bright and beautiful avian friends will have children eager to join in as honorary fledglings. This day in the life of birds will hold the attention of even the smallest bird-watchers, whether at storytime or just before settling into their cozy nests to sleep.

Hooray for Birds was written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. It was published in 2017 by Candlewick Press.


Can you imagine…
just for one day…
you’re a busy bird?
Yes, a bird!

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really enjoyed the fun rhyming text and big, bright illustrations. It’s a good example of rhyme done well and it encourages children to engage with the story.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

My students would enjoy this book, because of the catchy rhyme and big colourful illustrations. The bird actions are fun and this would be a great book for encouraging dramatic play. It would also be nice to include with non-fiction books about birds at a science area.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: PreK - 2

Themes: birds, creative movement, rhyming


Read through the story and act it out as you go along!

Create your own drawing or painting of a bird in the style of Lucy Cousin’s art with a dark outline. Cut out each bird and display them together.

Photograph each student performing a bird action, perhaps with handmade bird accessory or prop, and make a class book. 

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – LITTLE FOX IN THE FOREST by Stephanie Graegin

I find wordless picture books so interesting because they give me a new perspective on story!

Summary from the publisher:

When a young girl brings her beloved stuffed fox to the playground, much to her astonishment, a real fox takes off with it! The girl chases the fox into the woods with her friend, the boy, following close behind, but soon the two children lose track of the fox. Wandering deeper and deeper into the forest, they come across a tall hedge with an archway. What do they find on the other side? A marvelous village of miniature stone cottages, tiny treehouses, and, most extraordinary of all, woodland creatures of every shape and size. But where is the little fox? And how will they find him?

Little Fox in the Forest was conceptualized and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. It was published in 2017 by Schwartz & Wade Books.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The problem of a stolen toy is so relatable for young children. I admired the way the illustrator used colour to emphasize different elements and scenes. The story begins in blue tones, but this changes as the story unfolds. There are many details for child readers to talk about and most pages include several small illustrations.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This story would work best for a small group or pair of students to discuss and wonder about what is happening. It’s a good story for encouraging students to generate questions as they think about the story. There are many things to talk about, including making friends, finding lost things, different kinds of animals, and empathy for others. If I had the funds, I would love to create a center for wordless books in my classroom where children of varying experiences with books could explore wordless books like this one.

Ages: 4 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: stealing, friendship, animals


Place this book at a center with toy animals, people and furniture to inspire story-related play.

Have students work with a partner to create their own “pictures only” story.

Encourage students to choose the girl or the fox and draw a picture to show what happens next. Put up the pictures in the classroom for a gallery walk.

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.