Monday, August 22, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – SONG OF THE LIONESS: ALANNA

I decided to try this book when it became available as an e-book through my local library and I’m so glad I did! I really enjoyed this compelling fantasy and now I want to read the rest of the series.

Description from Amazon:

Young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page. But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. 

As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies. Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and make her a legend in the land.

Song of the Lioness: Alanna was written by Tamora Pierce and this reprint edition was published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2010 (originally published in 1983).

My Take:

I didn’t know what to expect but I really enjoyed the story line of Alanna pretending to be a boy so she could train to be a knight. The story moves along at a good pace and I especially liked the realistic details of how she hid her true identity. Alanna's character is determined and persistent, but she also has flaws which sometimes lead to trouble. The magic part of the story is intriguing, and I liked the friendships she developed.  Lots of fun and adventure in this action-packed story!

For writers: 

This is a good example of how to create a believable fantasy world without getting bogged down in details.  I was able to connect with this character right from the beginning of the story.

Opening Line:

“That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk.


“Every muscle in her body was stiff and sore. She was speckled with large and small bruises. Stiffly she got ready for the new day, wondering if she would live through it.”

“The truth was, she didn’t feel worthy of being someone’s squire. She was a girl, and she was a liar. And at any moment, the truth could surface.”

Other Info:

Tamora Pierce is the author of many novels for teens, such as The Protector of the Small series.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Learning from Picture Books: FINDING WINNIE

Now that the library strike is over, I’ve lugged home a big armload of books. I finally have gotten around to reading this very special picture book, and it was worth waiting for!  
Summary from Amazon:

During World War I, Captain Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian on his way to serve with cavalry units in Europe, rescued a bear cub in White River, Ontario. He named the bear Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war.

Harry Colebourn's real-life great-granddaughter Lindsay Mattick recounts their incredible journey, from a northern Canadian town to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England . . . and finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made a new friend: a boy named Christopher Robin.

Gentle yet haunting illustrations by acclaimed illustrator Sophie Blackall bring the wartime era to life, and are complemented by photographs and ephemera from the Colebourn family archives.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear was written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.


“Could you tell me a story?” asked Cole.

My thoughts as a writer:

There is so much to love about this story! The unique structure of intertwining stories from different generations is fascinating.  I loved learning about how Winnie the Pooh came to be, and enjoyed learning about in the White River connection, having driven through there many times on the way to Thunder Bay. I thought the author did a lovely job of integrating interesting facts (e.g., the number of ships sailing across the Atlantic) into the story.  This is truly a book for all ages – and I think it would be a lovely “family read aloud” to spark interesting discussions.

The realistic, soft style of the illustrations suited the historical nature of the text. It was so interesting to have reproductions of actual photographs  and research materials in the Scrapbook at the end.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

As a teacher, I really liked the way this book contains a “story within a story” and explains how a story character developed and took inspiration from real life. There are many reviews and ideas posted about how to use this book with students, but I think it would be a lovely mentor text for encouraging students to learn about their own family history. For example, to encourage children to interview their own parents and grandparents to find out about the interesting stories in their family history.

Ages: ages 6 and up

Grades: upper elementary

Themes: bears, family history, soldiers, zoo, Christopher Robbins


There is a wonderful and comprehensive teacher guide for Finding Winnie with  Social Studies, Math , Language Arts, Science and Arts connections.

Brain Pickings featured a summary of the story with links to resources.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Thoughts on the Loss of My Local Library (Or Why I Don't Have a Picture Book Review to Post Today)

To me, the library is one of the most important places in my city. I drop by my local branch at least once a week, where I am met with helpful, courteous staff, who probably love books as much as I do. At any given time, I have a stack of 15 to 20 physical books checked out, with another 3 or 4 electronic books as well.

Except at the moment, I can’t exchange those books for new ones. Due to contract issues and disagreements, the library workers are on strike and our libraries are shut down.

I am saddened by the timing and what this means for the thousands of children on summer break, who are now unable to access their local library and library programs. For many, libraries are an important literacy connection to bridge the summer gap between school terms. We should be encouraging kids to visit the library over the summer, not cutting off their access. 

Sure, we can check out books electronically. But can you really snuggle up with your child and pore over the pages of an iPad? Can you study and appreciate the details in the illustrations? Maybe some people can. But I miss the feel and excitement of holding a book. Turning the pages. Sharing the surprise. Reading with a person, not a device.

Workers keep the shelves stocked, care for books and provide help for people who need to research or find materials. They help patrons of all ages access internet services, and are responsible for many story times, book clubs and other activities that build a sense of community and a love of books and learning.

Who puts the books back on the shelves? Checks up on our holds? Makes up special bags of books so you can grab one and run? Helps elderly people in our community find what they need? Organizes activities to bring people in the community together? 

Yes, it’s the library workers.

Why? Because it’s their job. And because they care about people as well as books.

So today I’m sad, mourning the closure of my city library, one of the cornerstones of a literate community. Can’t we find a way to work together to resolve this, for the good of everyone? 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – OCDANIEL

You're probably surprised I actually have a post, since I slacked off during the end of the school year rush. But this book is worth waiting for. I've been looking forward to reading this book since the fall of 2015, when I heard Wesley King talk about it in a writing workshop put on by CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers).

Description from the publisher:

Daniel is the back-up punter for the Erie Hills Elephants. Which really means he’s the water boy. He spends football practice perfectly arranging water cups—and hoping no one notices. Actually, he spends most of his time hoping no one notices his strange habits—he calls them Zaps: avoiding writing the number four, for example, or flipping a light switch on and off dozens of times over. He hopes no one notices that he’s crazy, especially his best friend Max, and Raya, the prettiest girl in school. His life gets weirder when another girl at school, who is unkindly nicknamed Psycho Sara, notices him for the first time. She doesn’t just notice him: she seems to peer through him.

Then Daniel gets a note: “I need your help,” it says, signed, Fellow Star child—whatever that means. And suddenly Daniel, a total no one at school, is swept up in a mystery that might change everything for him.     

OCDaniel was written by Wesley King and published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2016.

My Take:

Reading this book was a powerful experience for me. I learned a lot about how a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder thinks and functions. The book gave me a realistic picture of how a mental illness like this is integrated into a person’s life.  I really liked the way the author explained the behaviours and thoughts related to his disorder as “Zaps” and “the Routine.” I thought it was very realistic, too, how Daniel hid his illness from his parents.

Though it may seem like this book is about dealing with Daniel’s mental illness, it’s also a story about an ordinary kid facing with ordinary middle school issues like trying to get a girl to notice him, annoying older siblings, dealing with parents, and trying not to look like a total dweeb on a sports field. I was also intrigued by the mystery related to his new friend Sara. There was a lot going on in this book, but it all fit together and was written in an easy-to-relate to style.

For Writers: 

I’d study this book to see how the author balances all the different plot threads. It’s also a good mentor text for anyone writing about a character with a mental illness.

Opening Line:

“I first realized I was crazy on a Tuesday.”


“I don’t know when it started or why, but some numbers are good, and some are not.”

“Besides, I figured authors wrote even when they didn’t really want to, including the days when they had to go solve a murder.”

Other Info:

Wesley King is a Canadian and the author of the middle grade novels, The Incredible Space Raiders from Space and Dragons vs. Drones

OCDaniel originated from some of the author's own experiences as a child with anxiety and panic attacks stemming from OCD. In an Author's Note, he says "My OCD is a challenge that I deal with every day, but I wrote this book because I believe it can be defeated."

For some fun facts about Wesley King, check out this video at the Lost in a Great Book blog.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE WILD ROBOT

I'd heard a lot about this book and was really looking forward to reading it! I didn't know about all the illustrations, so that was a lovely surprise.

Description from Amazon:

Can a robot survive in the wilderness?
technology meets nature in a survival story on an island

When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. She has no idea how she got there or what her purpose is--but she knows she needs to survive. After battling a fierce storm and escaping a vicious bear attack, she realizes that her only hope for survival is to adapt to her surroundings and learn from the island's unwelcoming animal inhabitants.

As Roz slowly befriends the animals, the island starts to feel like home--until, one day, the robot's mysterious past comes back to haunt her.

From bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator Peter Brown comes a heartwarming and action-packed novel about what happens when nature and technology collide.
The Wild Robot was written and illustrated by Peter Brown and published by Little Brown and Company in 2016.

My Take:

I haven’t read a middle grade book with talking animals for a while, and I enjoyed this one. I was so interested in finding out what would happen to Roz, I read it very fast. But I’d read it again to again to study the illustrations more closely and absorb all the layers of meaning.

I enjoyed the details of the natural setting and animal behavior, as well as Roz’s understandings and communications about it. By the time I got to the end, I really wanted to find out what happens next. I hope there is a sequel!

For writers: 

It’s interesting to think about how Peter Brown managed to create a robot with warmth and kindness, while still keeping her robot-like characteristics and personality. I especially liked how the lessons and strategies the robot tried to learn were emphasized throughout the story. 

Opening Line:

“Our story begins on the ocean, with wind and rain and thunder and lightning and waves.”


“Roz could feel her Survival Instincts—the part of her computer brain that made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”

“Performing could be survival strategy! If the opossum could pretend to be dead, the robot could pretend to be alive. She could act less robotic and more natural.”

“It was a mystery why her computer brain knew certain things but not others.”

Other Info:

Peter Brown is an author and illustrator living in Brooklyn, NY. He has written and illustrated many picture books, such as My Teacher is a Monster, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild,  Will You Be My Friend? and Children Make Terrible Pets.  He also illustrated one of my favorites, Creepy Carrots. The Wild Robot is his first middle grade novel.

Peter Brown's blog post on how The Wild Robot developed is fascinating. He explains many considerations he had while planning, such as deciding on the gender of the robot, the setting, and where the initial idea came from. I was especially interested in how long it took for this story to develop – eight years!

I also really enjoyed reading Peter Brown’s description of what the story is about and what Roz learns. Here's a snippet: “But the most important lesson Roz learns is that kindness can be a survival skill. And she uses kindness to develop friends and a family and a peaceful life for herself. Until her mysterious past catches up with her.”

Looking for more middle grade reads? Check out the list of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books over at author Shannon Messenger's blog.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – WOLFIE THE BUNNY

At first this book seems like just another funny story (and it is) but there are also deeper layers and an important but subtle message about standing up for yourself and the people you love.

Summary from the publisher:

The Bunny family has adopted a wolf son, and daughter Dot is the only one who realizes Wolfie can--and might--eat them all up! Dot tries to get through to her parents, but they are too smitten to listen. A new brother takes getting used to, and when (in a twist of fate) it's Wolfie who's threatened, can Dot save the day?

Wolfie the Bunny was written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora. It was published in2015 by Little Brown and Company.


“The Bunny family came home to find a bundle outside their door.”

My thoughts as a writer:

This is a really great example of how illustrations work with the text to add more humor and layers to the story. The bright, bold illustration style without much background keeps the focus on the characters.

I really liked the use of repetition. A pattern is set up that seems like it’s going to be predictable but then there's a surprising twist.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

There are a lot of possibilities for discussion with this book – how it might feel to have a new sibling, why the baby is getting so much attention, adoption, looking different than other people in your family, standing up for others. I really liked the idea that you can stand up for yourself and others, regardless of size.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: preschool - 2

Themes: individuality, getting a new sibling, family, standing up for others


Draw your favorite page in the story. Explain why you liked it.

Make puppets and retell the story! This would be a really fun book to place at a retelling centre or to use in a retelling basket.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME

I've enjoyed two of Karen Rivers' other middle grades, so I was looking forward to reading this one. I wasn't disappointed - there's lots of suspense!

middle grade story of a girl trapped in a wellDescription from Amazon:

Longing to be one of the popular girls in her new town, Kammie Summers has fallen into a well during a (fake) initiation into their club. Now Kammie’s trapped in the dark, counting the hours, waiting to be rescued. (The Girls have gone for help, haven’t they?)

As hours pass, Kammie’s real-life predicament mixes with memories of the best and worst moments of her life so far, including the awful reasons her family moved to this new town in the first place. And as she begins to feel hungry and thirsty and light-headed, Kammie starts to imagine she has company, including a French-speaking coyote and goats that just might be zombies.
The Girl in the Well is Me was written by Karen Rivers and published by Cormorant Books in 2016.

My Take:

I really didn’t like the girls in this book, reminding me of “mean girls” I encountered myself at various times in my life so far. I liked the way more layers of Kammie’s personality and history were revealed as the story continued, and I was scared for what might happen to her. It’s a good thing this was a shorter book that I could read fairly quickly.

For writers: 

I found it interesting to think about how the author created tension and suspense while writing in a stream of consciousness style. A really good example of writing where everything is written in the thoughts of the main character, and realistic in the way her thoughts jump from one idea to another related idea.  

Opening Line:

“The whole thing feels like a prank at first, like something they planned—a joke with a punchline.”


“But, obviously, popular and mean are tied together so tight they’re like those knots that just tighten and tighten no matter how hard you try to untangle them.”

“I start to cry again, but my throat is all clamped up from all that crying before and I can’t breathe, so I stop and instead do useful things, like whisper-screaming HELP every twelve seconds in the hopes of being helped.”

“I stare at the well wall in front of me, which is like looking into a shadow to try and find a light.”

Other Info:

Karen Rivers ( is the author of 18 novels for adults, young adults and middle grade readers. Her middle grades include: Finding Ruby Starling, The Encyclopedia of Me and Waiting to Dive.