Friday, May 14, 2021

OUTSIDE IN by Deborah Underwood & Cindy Derby - a look at nature from indoors + activities for teachers


cover watercolour illustration of girl and cat walking in a forest

Why read this book?

I love spending time in nature, and it was so interesting to think about how we stay connected to nature even when we are inside. The illustrations are stunning! If you love the art of the picture book, this is one you definitely need to explore. 

Summary from the publisher:

Perfect for fans of Joyce Sidman and Julie Fogliano, Outside In reminds emerging readers of the ways nature creates and touches our lives in homes, apartments, and cars, and is the perfect homeschooling tool to reflect on the world’s connectedness.

Outside is waiting, the most patient playmate of all. The most generous friend. The most miraculous inventor. This thought-provoking picture book poetically underscores our powerful and enduring connection with nature, not so easily obscured by lives spent indoors.

Rhythmic, powerful language shows us how our world is made and the many ways Outside comes in to help and heal us, and reminds us that we are all part of a much greater universe. Emotive illustrations evoke the beauty, simplicity, and wonder that await us all . . . outside.

OUTSIDE IN, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cindy Derby, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2020.


My Thoughts as a Writer:

The language in the story is lovely and poetic, with many connections to the five senses. This is not exactly a traditional type of story, but more a poem about how we are connected to nature in many different ways, even though we are inside. A good book to study to think about how to bring the five senses in to your writing.

My Thoughts as an Educator:

This is such a beautiful book both in terms of the language and the illustrations! I was so thrilled to share this with my kindergarten students. This is a book to re-visit more than once. For example, read this book before going outside for a nature walk, and then read it again after returning inside to talk about what students noticed during their walk. You could also read this indoors, and then have students search for the "nature" they experience around them indoors.

I really love how this book can inspire a greater connection with nature! It's a great choice for talking about the five senses or to pair with mindfulness activities. The illustrations have a dreamy or imaginative quality which may evoke different emotions for class discussions. Definitely a book for a classroom or library collection.

Ages: all

Grades: K – 5

Themes: nature, mindfulness, five senses


Explore & List: What examples can you find of the outside in your indoor environment? Make a class list! How many did you find? Did you use all of your senses?

Mindfulness: After reading this story, sit in a quiet place outside. Close your eyes and concentrate on what you notice. What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you hear?

Art: Choose a favourite illustration from the book. How does it make you feel? Explore Cindy Derby's website to explore some of her other illustrations. What do you notice about her style of art making?

Create & Imagine: To create some of her illustrations, Cindy Derby painted with thread. Try using yarn or thread dipped in paint to create your own painting! What does your creation make you think of?

Older students may appreciate watching some or all of this 30 min video showing how she used this technique and the decisions she made while creating a piece of artwork. 

Learn more: In this wonderful video interview from BABF Youth, 
the author and illustrator talk about the process of creating the book and read it aloud together, and Cindy Derby demonstrates an art activity. I especially liked how they talked about "imperfectness" in art and writing as beautiful. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

YOU GO FIRST by Erin Entrada Kelly - a story about online friendship and connections

 This is a quieter book that includes one of my favourite games. Published before the pandemic began, it now seems timely to think about the online connections we make and how they impact our lives.  

Why you want to read this book…

Another great story with characters that very real, from Erin Entrada Kelly. In this story, Ben and Charlotte live miles apart in two different cities and connect through an online Scrabble game. That concept hooked me on the book before I even opened it, since I'm a big Scrabble fan and I play online games all the time. I love the idea that having another person to connect with in some way, can help you feel less alone. 

For me, there was an underlying thread that different kinds of friendships fill different needs in your life, or help support you in different ways. Although the two kids became online friends, they had a different friendship than each of the main characters developed with their in-person friends and family. This is quieter story that leaves the reader with some questions to think about, and an ending that isn't neatly wrapped up (rather like real life).

I really love this quote from the story: "The greatest mystery of people isn't learning what they are, but learning what they aren't."

Here’s the summary from Amazon:

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard and eleven-year-old Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana.

Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch.

During the course of one week, Charlotte and Ben—friends connected only by an online Scrabble game—will intersect in unexpected ways as they struggle to navigate the turmoil of middle school. The New York Times-bestselling novel You Go First reminds us that no matter how hard it is to keep our heads above troubled water, we never struggle alone.

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly was published by Greenwillow Books in 2018. I read an e-book from my local public library.


If you’re looking for another thought-provoking, or maybe funny, middle grade book to read, check out Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Monday, April 12, 2021

TORNADO BRAIN by Cat Patrick

I'm very behind on my reviews, but I've been enjoying some wonderful middle grade books as well as picture books. Now that I'm on my spring break, I'm hoping to catch up a little because I do have a great list of books that need to be shared!

Why you want to read this book…

All the characters in this story felt so real! Their dialogue, actions and situations were all realistic and individual -- no exaggerated stereotypes here. Since the main character, Frankie, noticed things that others did not, she was able to put together clues to help solve the mystery of what happened to one of her friends.  But the main reason why I enjoyed this story so much was the heartbreak and the difficult emotional journey of navigating friendships.

The author carefully included unique details to show what Frankie experienced, which helped me to stay very absorbed in the story. As a writer, I was interested to study how she used flashbacks to develop the story. I also liked the tornado facts sprinkled into the story!

I think I'll remember this story long after reading it. It made me think about how an event or situation can seem different depending on your perspective. I definitely learned something from diving a little deeper into a way of thinking that is different from my own.


 Here’s the summary from the publisher:

Things never seem to go as easily for thirteen-year-old Frankie as they do for her sister, Tess. Unlike Tess, Frankie is neurodivergent. In her case, that means she can’t stand to be touched, loud noises bother her, she’s easily distracted, she hates changes in her routine, and she has to go see a therapist while other kids get to hang out at the beach. It also means Frankie has trouble making friends. She did have one–Colette–but they’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated.

Then, just weeks before the end of seventh grade, Colette unexpectedly shows up at Frankie’s door. The next morning, Colette vanishes. Now, after losing Colette yet again, Frankie’s convinced that her former best friend left clues behind that only she can decipher, so she persuades her reluctant sister to help her unravel the mystery of Colette’s disappearance before it’s too late.

Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick was published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 2020. I read an e-book from my local public library.


If you’re looking for another thought-provoking, or maybe funny, middle grade book to read, check out Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Monday, March 1, 2021


I can’t believe I missed this one when it came out! It was a really absorbing read. 

Why you want to read this book…

 The writer did a wonderful job of making Charlotte and the other characters feel real. I liked the way Charlotte thought about the connection between her own life and the historical articles she was reading. 

Even though I am a fan of the “Little House” books and really enjoyed them, I am aware of how problematic they are, and it was great to see some of the bias and facts being carefully woven into the story. I also liked the way Charlotte’s teacher challenged and encouraged her.


 Here’s the summary from the publisher:

 A life on the prairie is not all its cracked up to be for one girl whose mom takes her love of the Little House series just a bit too far.

 Charlotte’s mom has just moved the family across the country to live in Walnut Grove, “childhood home of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Mom’s idea is that the spirit of Laura Ingalls will help her write a bestselling book. But Charlotte knows better: Walnut Grove is just another town where Mom can avoid responsibility. And this place is worse than everywhere else the family has lived—it’s freezing in the winter, it’s small with nothing to do, and the people talk about Laura Ingalls all the time. Charlotte’s convinced her family will not be able to make a life on the prairie—until the spirit of Laura Ingalls starts getting to her, too.

Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas was published by Roaring Brook Press in 2017. I read an e-version from my local public library.


If you’re looking for another fun middle grade book to read, check out Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Monday, February 15, 2021

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU MANGOS by Kereen Getten – A story of friendship, adventure and mystery

The setting of this story is wonderful! It's a fun read with a twist ending and supernatural elements.

Why you want to read this book…

If you’re wishing for the warmth and escape of summer, this book will take you there. I really enjoyed reading about Clara’s adventures and her secrets. Clara has a memory issue related to a mysterious event that happened last summer, leading to fears and complicated feelings about friends that unfold as the story develops. And there’s a surprising twist! 

I loved all the details of the island that we experience through Clara’s adventures—including her secret hideout.  


Description from Goodreads

Twelve-year-old Clara lives on an island that visitors call exotic. But there's nothing exotic about it to Clara. She loves eating ripe mangos off the ground, running outside in the rain with her Papa during rainy season, and going to her secret hideout with Gaynah--even though lately she's not acting like a best friend.

 The only thing out of the ordinary for Clara is that something happened to her memory that made her forget everything that happened last summer after a hurricane hit. Sometimes things come back to her in drips like a tap that hasn't been turned off properly. Other times her Mama fills in the blanks...only she knows those aren't her memories and it is hard feeling like she is not like everybody else.

But this summer is going to be different for Clara. Everyone is buzzing with excitement over a new girl in the village who is not like other visitors. She is about to make big waves on the island--and give Clara a summer she won't forget.

When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten was published by Random House Children’s Books in 2020. I read an electronic version from my local library.


 If you’re looking for another fun or maybe spooky middle grade book to read, check out Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Monday, February 1, 2021

ANA ON THE EDGE by A. J. Sass - A story about deciding who you really are

After an extended holiday break (which included returning to teaching kindergarten online and writing about my students' wonderful progress for their report cards), I'm back to reviewing some of the many books I read. This year, one of my reading goals is to expand the types of books I read to better reflect the diversity of children who read them. Along with choosing stories that call to me personally, I will also be choosing books that may help me broaden and challenge my own perspective. 

 Why you want to read this book…

Ana’s story is intriguing, full of tension and a few surprises. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this book, but it didn’t take long before I was hooked on the story. The way Ana’s character develops and grows seemed so natural, especially the way Ana questioned and thought about their own feelings. The backdrop of the competitive figure-skating world adds another layer to the story with the pressure to perform. This is a much-needed book and it’s so well-written that I really didn’t want to put it down.

The author’s note and an explanation of dysphoria at the back helps to explain what nonbinary means and some of the feelings a nonbinary individual might experience.


Description from the publisher…

Twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin, the reigning US Juvenile figure skating champion, is not a frilly dress kind of kid. So, when Ana learns that next season's program will be princess themed, doubt forms fast. Still, Ana tries to focus on training and putting together a stellar routine worthy of national success.

Once Ana meets Hayden, a transgender boy new to the rink, thoughts about the princess program and gender identity begin to take center stage. And when Hayden mistakes Ana for a boy, Ana doesn't correct him and finds comfort in this boyish identity when he's around. As their friendship develops, Ana realizes that it's tricky juggling two different identities on one slippery sheet of ice. And with a major competition approaching, Ana must decide whether telling everyone the truth is worth risking years of hard work and sacrifice.

Ana on the Edge by A. J. Sass was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2020. I read an e-version from my local library.

If you’re looking for more thought-provoking middle grade books to read, check out Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Friday, December 4, 2020

EXPLORERS OF THE WILD by Cale Atkinson - A fun adventure story for a child and a bear

One of my favourite themes in picture books and children's novels is adventure, so I was delighted to recently discover this beautifully illustrated picture book by Canadian author-illustrator Cale Atkinson! I read it as an e-book from my local library. (Even though I always prefer to hold and pore over a hard copy, e-books have the advantage of a view of the complete illustration not obscured by the gutter from the binding). 

Summary from the publisher:

Boy and Bear both love to explore the outdoors. There are so many neat things to see, and so many strange things to find. These explorers are prepared for anything . . . except each other!

When Bear and Boy meet in the woods, they're scared at first. Really scared. But soon these kings of the wild realize that no mountain is too big to conquer if you have a friend to climb it by your side.

Explorers of the Wild was written and illustrated by Cale Atkinson, and published by Disney-Hyperion in 2016.


Why I liked this book:

The colourful and detail-packed illustrations really went well with the single-day adventure. I think kids will love the friendly-looking characters and the "big surprise" when they meet each other. Such a cute story!

From a writer's perspective...

I'd read this again or use it as a mentor text if I were writing a picture book with two parallel stories. This is a great example of a book with two parallel stories that meet partway through the story and continue on together. The simple text really lets the illustrations shine.

From an educator's perspective:

This is a lovely celebration of a single day's adventure into the woods. It reminded me a little of an old favourite, "Where's My Teddy?" by Jez Alborough. It would be fun to discuss the different perspectives of the characters and what they see or bring on the adventure. This story could also lead to a discussion about how some friendships are based on common interests. As a read aloud, this could inspire some wonderful some student art and writing!

Ages: 4-7

Grades: K – 2

Themes: adventures, nature, friendship


Create: Think about what might happen if you planned your own adventure. Draw small pictures of all the things you'd bring along. Or, cut them out of a flyer and glue them in a collage, with a few words of explanation.  

Write: Write a story about your own adventure! You could use the prompt: If I was exploring the wilderness... 

Imagine and draw: What do you think happened when the bear got home? What about the boy? Draw comic to show what happened next.