Monday, September 29, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Allegra Biscotti Collection

Even though you might not be able to tell from the way I dress, I enjoy reading about fashion and watching fashion-related TV shows. So I couldn't resist picking up this unique middle grade novel about a young fashion designer. 

Description from Amazon:

Emma Rose is SO not a diva.
She doesn't want her turn on the catwalk-she'd rather be behind the scenes creating fabulous outfits! So when a famous fashionista discovers Emma's designs and offers her the opportunity of a lifetime-a feature in Madison magazine (squeal!)-Emma sort of, well, panics. She has only one option: to create a secret identity.
And so Allegra Biscotti is born.
Allegra is worldly, sophisticated, and bold-everything Emma is not. But the pressure is on. And Emma quickly discovers juggling school, a new crush, friends, and a secret identity might not be as glamorous as she thought.

The Allegra Biscotti Collection by Olivia Bennett, Source Books, 2010

My Take:

It was fun to be in on Emma’s secret identity as Allegra Biscotti. I was intrigued by the problem of how she’d keep up her secret identify and finish designing her collection, while at the same time continuing to act like an ordinary middle school student with typical school issues— keeping friends, crushing on boys, and who to sit with at lunch. I really liked the sketches of Emma’s designs that were sprinkled throughout the story. This was definitely a fun read for anyone interested in fashion!

When I put on my writer’s hat, I noticed how the author used details to show the world from Emma’s perspective, describing the details of their outfits and accessories, the feeling of fabric, her thrill at sewing a new design. At one point, it was interesting that the author “broke the rules” of writing middle grade by having an adult step in to help her with a tricky sewing issue, but if anything, I thought it helped to make the story more realistic.

Opening Line:

“Definitely the faux-fur scarf. But not in teal…maybe an eggplant with silver flecks would work.”


“If your clothes didn’t fit in, neither did you.”

“When Emma finally hung a finished piece on the rolling rack against the back wall, it was no longer simply an item of clothing. It was the beginning of a story that would unfold when someone put it on for the very first time.”

“Maybe we just have to figure out how to be friends, I don’t know, differently than we did before.”

Other Books in This Series:

Who, What, Wear: The Allegra Biscotti Collection (#2)
Bead-Dazzled: The Allegra Biscotti Collection (#3)

Looking for more great middle grade reads? Visit Shannon Messenger's website for a list of bloggers and their picks for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: A Snicker of Magic

It's a very gloomy Monday here - the perfect day to snuggle up with a good book. This one has a bit of magic in it, though if you are a big fan of Harry Potter, this probably isn't the kind of magic you're looking for. The real magic in this story is the magic of love, family and people caring about each other.

Today’s Pick: A Snicker of Magic

by Natalie Lloyd

Scholastic Press, 2014

From Amazon:

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere---shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog's floppy ears---but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she'll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that's been cast over the town . . . and her mother's broken heart.

My Take:

The fun twist on magic was a nice concept that intrigued me. I especially liked the idea of “word collecting”.  I’m not a big fan of novels that contain lots of little stories about people, but if you like books about small towns and the quirky people that live there, you’ll enjoy this book. As a character, Felicity is charming and caring and I was hoping throughout the story that she’d get what she wanted—to stay in Midnight Gulch.

From a writer’s perspective, I enjoyed and admired the language and phrasing in this story. I could tell the writer worked hard at creating Felicity’s unique voice and expressions. This is a good one to study carefully to see how the author brings a character to life.

Opening Line:

“They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,” said Mama.


“Just the thought of real magic sent shivers from my nose to my toes.”

“But good stories take your heart someplace else. My body’d never been out of south Georgia. But my heart lived everywhere. I’d lived a hundred lives without ever leaving my tree.”

“She told stories in such a way that I swear my heart heard them before my ears did.”

Other Info:

Natalie Lloyd owns a very sweet dog named Biscuit.

A Snicker of Magic is her first published book.

To find out more about her, check out this interview with Natalie Lloyd at

For more, visit Natalie Lloyd’s blog or find her on Facebook.

Looking for more great middle grade reads? Visit Shannon Messenger's website for a list of bloggers and their picks for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday! 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: Bear, Bird and Frog

Summary from Amazon:  Bear and Bird are best friends. They live together in the middle of a beautiful forest. Bear and Bird have been planning an adventure all day - but when Frog turns up unannounced, Bear is so excited he forgets all about Bird. Bird is sulking because his big plans have been spoilt. But when Bear and Frog find themselves in trouble Bird has to swoop to their rescue - perhaps he will get his big adventure after all!

Bear, Bird and Frog, written and illustrated by Gwen Millward, published by Egmont Books, 2014.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The concept of two friends leaving another one out came across really well with the animal characters in this story. This situation happens a lot in classrooms and day cares, so it's a theme children can easily relate to, yet it also has the possibility for much discussion about feelings. 

This book was a good one for studying picture book structure: the problem of the story was introduced within the first ¼ of the book, then it escalated and the reader could connect with Bird’s feelings, and in the last ¼ of the book, there was a crisis and Bird came to a realization. For me, the realization was a bit contrived since it became evident through a reaction to circumstances, but that may be just a matter of personal taste. I don’t think it would bother young readers.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

Any early primary students will easily relate to Bird and the feeling of being left out. This book will be useful to spark discussions about feelings and strategies to cope with them, as well as what it means to be a friend. I am always on the lookout for good books to help children understand that sometimes it’s okay for a friend to sometimes play with someone else.

A good activity for this book would be for students to take the roles of different characters (e.g. Bird, Bear, Frog) and talk about what happened from their point of view, to get different perspectives on the situation. The ending also invites the reader to imagine things the friends could do the next day, so another great activity would be to have students draw and write about what happened next.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Bookscategorized by theme and topic. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Podcasts for Writers: Let's Get Busy

If you've been following my blog, you know I enjoy listening to podcasts while driving, mopping floors or walking the dogs (and there are more walks now, with three dogs). This summer I discovered a new and interesting podcast for writers, readers and librarians of children's books.

This podcast has been around for just over a year. Host Librarian Matthew Winner interviews "authors, illustrators, kidlit notables, education luminaries, and everyone in between."

I just finished listening to Matthew's discussion with Drew Daywalt, author of the best-selling picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit. It was inspiring to hear that it took almost ten years for Drew to get the book published. It just shows that it's true that you should never give up! 

If you want to get a sense of some of the great podcasts available, Coming Up On the Let's Get Busy Podcast lists the top five downloaded episodes. 

Matthew Winner is an elementary school teacher-librarian. He also has a blog, The Busy Librarian, where he highlights some of the content of the podcasts, as well as providing reviews of children's books, book trailers and other tidbits. A great resource for teacher-librarians and elementary school teachers!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Out of My Mind

I usually do a lot of reading over the summer, but this year was different. I ended up doing more writing than reading—when I wasn’t caring for the three dogs, that is. Of the few books I did manage to read, this one stuck out for me as meaningful and one I’d definitely want to read again. 

Today’s Pick: Out of My Mind

by Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

From Amazon: 

Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom—the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow. In this breakthrough story—reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—from multiple Coretta Scott King Award-winner Sharon Draper, readers will come to know a brilliant mind and a brave spirit who will change forever how they look at anyone with a disability.

My Take:

This was a powerful and moving story. It gave me a glimpse into the perspective of someone with a life very different from my own. This is a wonderful book for students and classroom discussion. I enjoyed the twists and surprises in this book from several events that I didn’t see coming. I also appreciated the way the ending wasn’t too neatly wrapped up, just like real life.

As a writer, I especially enjoyed the main character’s voice. It gave her so much personality and really brought her character to life, which was so important in this story since Melody couldn’t speak.

Opening Line:

“Words. I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.”

Other Info:

Sharon M. Draper lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and their golden retriever.

Out of My Mind  and her other books have received many awards and honors – far too many to list here. She has been honored as National Teacher of the Year and is a five time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary award.

Here’s what she says about writing: “I love to write; words flow easily from my fingertips, and my heart beats rapidly with excitement as an idea becomes a reality on the paper in front of me.”

And she also talks about writing about a child with physical limitations: “I wanted to give those kids, who are often treated as if they are invisible, a chance to be heard, to be seen as the individuals they are, not the machines they ride in, or the disability that defines them.”

Some of the author’s other books include:

Little Sister is Not My Name – Sassy #1
The Birthday Storm – Sassy #2
The Silver Secret – Sassy #3
The Dazzle Disaster Party – Sassy #4
The Clubhouse Mystery Series
Copper Sun
Double Dutch

Looking for more great middle grade reads? Visit Shannon Messenger's website for a list of bloggers and their picks for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: Hopper and Wilson Fetch a Star

Don't you love the stuffed toys on this newspaper airplane? This cover caught my eye and, after a few late summer evenings of sitting on the deck admiring the stars, I had to read it!

Hopper and Wilson Fetch a Star

written and illustrated by Maria van Lieshout

published by Philomel Books, 2014

From Penguin:

Have you ever wanted your very own star?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your own star for a nightlight? It is this thought that begins Hopper and Wilson’s second adventure. They fill their airplane with lemonade and soar into the night sky. So many stars to choose from! One is too pointy. One is too heavy. Another is too bright! Taking a break on the moon, the two friends look directly above and spot it—the perfect star! As Hopper lays down for a nap, Wilson ventures off on his own, to the dark side of the moon. Yet now he is lost! How can he find his way back to Hopper?

The perfect star, of course. Wilson spots it in the sky and follows it back to his friend. In another deceptively simple story, Maria van Lieshout shows how sometimes the best part of nature is that it’s only found in nature—and that everything has its proper place…be it stars or even best friends, who always belong together.    

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I liked the unique concept of fetching a star for a nightlight. It was fun to think about the two friends studying each star to find just the right one. The illustrations really captured my attention, especially the ones of the night sky, which evoked the feeling of staring up at the real night sky in a very dark place. The newspaper that folded up into an airplane and unfolded into a blanket was a cute and creative detail.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book offers lots of possibilities for discussion, e.g. Is it okay to take things from nature? What would you do if you got lost? It would be nice to compare and contrast this story with others about stars and space, e.g. Eric Carle’s Papa Please Get the Moon for Me or Oliver Jeffers’ How to Catch a Star

Non-fiction books about stars and space would complement this nicely, for kids who want to know more. For some companion books, Delightful Children’s Books lists 11 Children’s Books About Stars and Space.

A fun exploration to go along with this would be paper airplane making using different kinds of paper. Looking at these illustrations sparked this question for me: Can you make really make paper airplanes from newspaper? A great question for students in primary grades to investigate.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books. The books on the list are categorized by theme and topic, and each one has a link to a blog that featured it, so you can get a few ideas about the contents and ideas for using it.