Thursday, January 29, 2015

Learning from Picture Books - Ninja Red Riding Hood

I love mixed-up fairy tales and today’s feature is a fun one! For writers, it shows how effective it can be to put a new, creative twist on a classic story. As a teacher, I know this story with its comic-style illustrations will really hold student interest in a read aloud.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Wolf just can’t catch a break! Ever since the three little pigs started teaching everyone Ninja skills, huffing and puffing just hasn’t been enough to scare up a good meal. 

His craving for meat sends Wolf to classes at the dojo, and soon he’s ready to try out his new moves. A little girl and her tiny granny should be easy targets—right?

Not if Little Red has anything to say about it! Kiya!

Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Dan Santat was first published in 2014 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 

Check out this fun trailer.

My thoughts as a writer:

This story incorporates the rhyme so seamlessly it’s a great one to study if you’re taking on the challenge of writing in rhyme. The concept of this story—re-envisioning the original with Ninja’s—is an impressive hook. It’s worth reading this story a few times to study how the author wove the concept through all aspects of the story. The story is also a great model for pacing and effective page turns.

My thoughts as a teacher:

This would be a good story for older primary students to read after reading and studying the classic version of Little Red Riding Hood. Students can look for similarities and differences. The colorful, comic-style illustrations are eye-catching, and offer an opportunity to explain speech bubbles. 

For classroom use, this story might require some discussion about whether fighting is the best way to solve problems, but it would be an engaging way to start. The ending might also require some discussion about respecting other people's choices and views (e.g., about vegetarianism).

Activities to go with this book
 - have students create their own fractured fairy tale in a comic style
- create posters or videos about good ways to solve problems
- read The Three Ninja Pigs by the same author-illustrator team and talk about the style of illustrations

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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Rain Reign

I’ve heard a lot about this book, so I’m glad I finally had a chance to read it. And it's a dog story! I love dog stories. I read this one as an e-book from my public library. 

Here’s the Amazon description:

Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She’s thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose’s obsessions, her rules, and the other things that make her different – not her teachers, not other kids, and not her single father.

When a storm hits their rural town, rivers overflow, the roads are flooded, and Rain goes missing. Rose’s father shouldn’t have let Rain out. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.

Hearts will break and spirits will soar for this powerful story, brilliantly told from Rose’s point of view.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, 2014

My Take:

I’ve read several middle grade books about kids with autism now, but even so I still enjoyed this one. At the beginning, I was a tiny bit annoyed by Rose’s frequent homonym mentions, but I appreciated how they brought out her personality and drew the reader in to the way she thinks. I liked the fact that her father seemed to be struggling with how to interact with her too, and wasn’t portrayed as super-supportive or having all the answers. It was an emotional story and though sad in places, I was left feeling hopeful for Rose.

As a writer, I thought the ending was interesting. Everything wasn’t wrapped up to be neat and tidy with everything happily ever after. It left me wondering about the characters and what would happen next, not in a “setting up a sequel kind of way”, but in just thinking about what might happen.  

Opening Line:

“I am Rose Howard and my first name is a homonym.”


“On Mondays Mrs. Liebler chooses two kids from our class to be my Lunchroom Buddies for the week. She keeps a list of buddies so that everyone gets the same number of turns. Usually when she announces the buddies no one says anything.”

“All dogs have smart noses, but Rain’s must be especially smart.”

 “I can’t think. I put my hands over my ears and jump and up and down on my bed.”

Other Info:

Ann M. Martin lives in the Hudson Valley in New York state with her cats. She has been a children’s book author since 1983.

She is well-known for writing The Baby-sitters Club series.

On, Ann M. Martin talks about how Rain Reign came to be.

For a list of her many published books, visit Ann M. Martin at the Scholastic website. You can learn more about Ann M. Martin on her Facebook page.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Pack of Dorks

As a middle school “dork” myself, I often choose middle grade books where the dorky kid finds a place for themselves. This one was interesting because the main character had a new baby sister with a disability. I read it as an e-book from my public library.  

Here’s the Amazon description:

Lucy knows that kissing Tom Lemmings behind the ball shed will make her a legend. But she doesn’t count on that quick clap of lips propelling her from coolest to lamest fourth grader overnight. 

Suddenly Lucy finds herself trapped in Dorkdom, where a diamond ring turns your finger green, where the boy you kiss hates you three days later, where your best friend laughs as you cry, where parents seem to stop liking you, and where baby sisters are born different.

Now Lucy has a choice: she can be like her former best friend Becky, who would do anything to claim her seat at the cool table in the cafeteria, or Lucy can pull up a chair among the solo eaters—also known as the dorks. Still unsure, Lucy partners with super quiet Sam Righter on a research project about wolves. Lucy connects her own school hierarchy with what she learns about animal pack life—where some wolves pin down weaker ones just because they can, and others risk everything to fight their given place in the pack. Soon Lucy finds her third option: creating a pack of her own, even if it is simply a pack of dorks.

Weaving tough issues, including bullying, loyalty, and disability, with a thread of snarky humor, family bonds, and fresh perspective, Pack of Dorks paints characters coming-of-age and coming-to-terms. Beth Vrabel’s stellar debut contemporary middle grade novel is sure to please fans of Jack Gantos, Elizabeth Atkinson, and Judy Blume.

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel, Sky Pony Press, 2014

My Take:

Lucy has a lot of problems with kids at school, not to mention the problems that arrived when her new baby sister was born. I haven’t come across many middle grade books where the main character has to deal with a sibling having Down Syndrome. Lucy's behaviour and actions seemed realistic for her age and I was rooting for her to find a way to solve her social problems and fit in. I especially liked her unconventional grandmother, and learning about wolves and the wolf sanctuary. 

From a writer’s perspective, it was interesting to think about how the author stayed true to Lucy’s point of view, by having her more concerned and aware of problems with her friends than the issues related to her new sister, which were consuming her parents.

Opening Line:

“This was the biggest recess of my life.”


“Dad nodded at me, and the sick feeling I had trapped under my ribs since our fight trickled away.”

“Maybe I should’ve stood up for April the way she had for me, but I couldn’t seem to move.”

“She pushed back the sleeves of her uniform and I could see her arms weren’t soft like the soggy chicken skin on Grandma’s arms. They were solid and rippled with muscle. I swallowed hard.”

Other Info:

Beth Vrabel lives in Connecticut, and once wanted to be a wolf biologist.

Her next book, The Blind Guide to Stinkville is coming in the fall of 2015.

On her blog, Beth Vrabel says this about writing: “First I think of a character. Over the course of weeks or even months, I think about that "person," what makes him tick and how he'd react to different situations. And then I (hopefully) find my plot.”

 For more, visit Beth Vrabel’s website

Monday, January 12, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: All Four Stars

I’m hooked on Master Chef, Master Chef Junior and The Taste, so to anyone who knows me, it’s not going to be a big surprise that I really loved this food-related middle grade book! I waited for a long time for it to become available at my public library, and finally got to read the e-book. But I think I might buy a copy of my own.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.

But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014

My Take:

This story was a lot of fun! I heard many good things about this book before I read it, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. I really liked the concept of an 11-year-old girl secretly becoming a restaurant critic. Gladys’ parents were interesting characters, seemingly very different from her (they were hopeless at cooking) and although they did spend a lot of time at work, there was a strong sense of family. I also liked Gladys’ attempts to solve her problem of how to actually get to the restaurant she was supposed to review. This book has interesting settings (food shop, Broadway show) and humor with all the difficulties that Gladys encountered with her friends.

As a writer, I’d study the plot in this story, as well as the pacing. The story moves along quickly, so there were no slow or dull moments. Each scene is important to the story.

Opening Line:

“Gladys Gatsby stood at the counter with the spout of her father’s heavy blowtorch poised over the ceramic cup.”


“A warm, happy feeling course through Gladys, like the kind you get from a sip of hot cider on the first cold day of fall.”

“That night after dinner (a piece of fish that had been blackened beyond recognition on the outside but was still frozen on the inside), Gladys set to work.”

“It took only one bite for Gladys to conclude that this crumble was the best thing she’d ever cooked.”

Other Info:

Tara Dairman lives in Colorado, where writes plays and middle grade novels. She enjoys traveling and spent two years traveling around the world.

A sequel to All Four Stars, called The Stars of Summer, is coming in May of 2015.  I can hardly wait!

All Four Stars is a finalist for the Cybils Awards, in the category Middle Grade Fiction.

Tara offers a free 20-minute author Q&A session on Skype or Google Hangout with any class, book club, or library group that has read All Four Stars.

For more, visit Tara Dairman’s website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Learning from Picture Books - The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

Even though the text in this picture book biography of Lois Ehlert is written for children, I really enjoyed learning about her techniques and how bits of her life are woven into her stories. Teachers will find this valuable to read to students, who are likely familiar with many of the books this biography mentions.

Here's the summary from Simon & Schuster:

Lois Ehlert always knew she was an artist. Her parents encouraged her from a young age by teaching her how to sew and saw wood and pound nails, and by giving her colorful art supplies. They even gave her a special spot to work that was all her own. 

Today, many years and many books later, Lois takes readers and aspiring artists on a delightful behind-the-scenes tour of her books and her book-making process. Part fascinating retrospective, part moving testament to the value of following your dreams, this richly illustrated picture book is sure to inspire children and adults alike to explore their own creativity.

The renowned Caldecott Honoree and illustrator of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom provides a moving, intimate, and inspiring inside look at her colorful picture book career. 
The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert was first published in 2014 by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

My thoughts as a writer:

The design and text of this book are lovely and well thought out. But I was most fascinated by the content. I loved reading the “behind-the-scenes” details about how her books developed, from the idea to the illustrations to the entire story. She gives some wonderful tips and quotes for fledgling writers and artists: “Everyone needs time to develop their dreams. An egg in the nest doesn’t become a bird overnight.”

I appreciated all the hard work and persistence that goes into a single creation. It was fun to see how her life intersected with her writing.

My thoughts as a teacher: 

I’d love to share this book with students, and especially students who are interested in art and writing. This book shows how ideas for stories and art can come from everyday life, and some of Lois Ehlert’s process in creating a book. It's also a good way to show students how much hard work and persistence goes into a single project.

As a follow up to reading this, it would be fun to try some of the techniques she used to create her collages and illustrations. Another interesting activity would be to go back and study the books she mentions. She also includes some fun art-related activities in the book.

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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015

This was the first year since I started my 100 book challenge that I didn't achieve my goal of reading 100 MG and YA books. I know that sounds like something I should be disappointed about, but I'm not. The main reason I set goals is for something to work towards and to focus on. I can always set another one or a different one if that one doesn't work out. I like to be flexible. 

I still strongly believe that reading a lot of books is an important way to improve your writing. But the other important thing that goes along with that is actually doing the writing. And in 2014, I was writing. I also re-discovered my passion for writing picture books, which I gave up a few years ago because of the frustration of rejection. This year, I'm ignoring that and doing what I love. Besides, almost every day I come home from work with another picture book idea (one of the benefits of teaching kindergarten). I'll still be working on my middle grade novels, too, because I love the ideas and challenge. 

What does this mean for my reading goals? This year, I'm going to be changing my 100 Book Challenge to include picture books as well as middle grade novels, and a sprinkling of young adult novels because I love them too. I'm not setting a number for how many of each type, because I like to see what I find. I choose books to read based on recommendations from other readers and writers, as well as from what I find in my local library. If you have any recommendations for me this year, please share them in the comments!

Here are my 2015 reading goals:

1. Read 100 children's books - picture books, middle grade and young adult.

2. Read all of the picture book and middle grade fiction finalists for the Cybils Awards, and maybe some of the finalists for speculative fiction for elementary and middle grades, if I have time. (For more about these awards given by book bloggers, visit 

3. Read all of the Blue Spruce and Silver Birch nominees from the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading.

4. Try to remember to keep track of my reading on GoodReads, though I'll also be tracking it here on my blog.

I'm so excited to begin! I already read a couple of the nominees and finalists towards the end of 2014, so I'm off to a good start. Do you have any reading goals? Feel free to share or link to them in the comments. I'll be back Thursday with a Learning from Picture Books feature and then next Monday I'll have my first featured post for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday in 2015. Happy reading!