Thursday, April 28, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH

I don’t often feature non-fiction, but this is such a fun collection of creatures, I couldn’t resist! Who knew there were so many pink animals?

Some people think pink is a pretty color. A fluffy, sparkly, princess-y color. But it's so much more.

Sure, pink is the color of princesses and bubblegum, but it's also the color of monster slugs and poisonous insects. Not to mention ultra-intelligent dolphins, naked mole rats and bizarre, bloated blobfish.

Isn't it about time to rethink pink?

Pink is for Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink Animals was written by Jess Keating with illustrations by David DeGrand. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016.

My thoughts as a writer:

I liked the way this book was structured: each page is another unusual pink creature with a descriptive paragraph and a fun fact bubble and illustration. I love how, on the right side of the spread, there’s a list of all the key information—size, diet, habitat, predators & threats—it’s so easy to read.

The descriptions highlight interesting details that are likely to draw in a curious reader.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

If I was a school librarian, this one would definitely be on my to-buy list. It would also be a great addition to a classroom non-fiction book collection. I'd use this one to discuss features of non-fiction texts. I can also imagine kids at reading time, pouring over the pages, intrigued by the idea of so many odd pink creatures! 

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes: unusual animals


As a class, vote on another animal color. Research creatures of that color and have each student write their own page for a class book!

Choose one of the creatures in this book and make it the main character in a fictional story. Use its habitat as your setting!

Get out some pink paint and have students draw and paint their favorite creature from the book. Add a bubble with a striking fact about the animal and then create a gallery walk.

Watch some of Jess Keating's Animals for Smart People videos on Youtube. Here's one about the nudibranch, an animal featured in Pink is for Blobfish.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE HONEST TRUTH

A loyal dog, a survival trip and an emotional, heart-wrenching story of a kid with cancer all in one! I knew I’d love this one!

In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He's got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day.

But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from.

So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier--even if it's the last thing he ever does.

The Honest Truth was written by Dan Gemeinhart and published by Scholastic in 2015.

My Take:

I really enjoyed this book. Mark has a pretty good plan to run away, with some false leads for searchers and a good idea for hiding his dog. It seems like he’s thought of everything, until…well, I won’t say what happens, but something messes up his plans and getting to the mountain turns out to be harder than he expected.  I loved the way Mark didn’t shy away from facing what was likely to happen with his cancer, but at the same time, wanted to be seen as a kid, not a kid-with-cancer. This action in this story moves along quickly

From a writer’s perspective, I liked the authentic details about the wilderness that the author embedded in the story. They helped to create a strong sense of place. Though it wasn’t always clear how much time was passing. 

Opening Line (which in this novel is the last line, too):

“The mountain was calling me. I had to run away. I had to.”


“But when you take a picture, that one moment isn’t gone. You caught it. It’s yours. And you get to keep it.”

“Across far, dark miles a friend can still hold your hand and be there with you.”

“It was weird how something could look so close and so far away at the same time. Like I could reach out and touch it, but I could walk all day and night and never get there.”

Other Info:

The Honest Truth is Dan Gemeinhart’s first published novel.  

Dan Gemeinhart did an entertaining Q & A video to give readers more insight into his book. I especially like what he said about dogs: “Stories are more fun, especially adventure stories, if you’ve got a great dog there with your main character.”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – IN A CLOUD OF DUST

It’s amazing how something you think is ordinary, like a bicycle, can have the power to change lives. I didn’t realize there were several organizations that recycle bicycles, including Bicycles for HumanityThis book is one of the nominees for this year’s Blue Spruce Award from the Ontario Library Association. 

In a Tanzanian village school, Anna struggles to keep up. Her walk home takes so long that when she arrives, it is too dark to do her homework. Working through the lunch hour instead, she doesn’t see the truck from the bicycle library pull into the schoolyard. 

By the time she gets out there, the bikes are all gone. Anna hides her disappointment, happy to help her friends learn to balance and steer. She doesn’t know a compassionate friend will offer her a clever solution—and the chance to raise her own cloud of dust.

Brought to life by Brian Deines’ vivid oil paintings, Alma Fullerton’s simple, expressive prose captures the joy of feeling the wind on your face for the first time. 

Inspired by organizations like The Village Bicycle Project that have opened bicycle libraries all across Africa, In a Cloud of Dust is an uplifting example of how a simple opportunity can make a dramatic change in a child’s life.

In a Cloud of Dust, written by Alma Fullerton and illustrated by Brian Deines, was published by Pajama Press in 2015.

First line: “In a Tanzanian village, a little schoolhouse sits at the end of a dusty road.”

My thoughts as a writer:

The poetic and lyrical style is lovely. The story is simple, easy for children to understand, and shows so clearly the impact and importance of the bicycles for the village children.  It's a good example of a story with an underlying message that doesn't focus on the message, but instead gives us an experience in a child's life.

The warm tones of the illustrations suit the mood of the text. I especially liked the way they showed the joy on the children’s faces after they got their bikes. 

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book is short and provides a good model for a poetic style of language. It could be a springboard for starting a discussion about what happens to things that are thrown away (Earth Day!). It’s also a good starting point for talking about life in other places, though the illustrations show only a tiny bit of life in this village in Tanzania. I wished there were a few more details of the village and what life was like there, so there would be more to discuss with children and to get them thinking and questioning.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes:, bicycles, life in Africa,


Research Tanzania to find out more about what it might be like to live there. What other things might Anna do besides go to school?

Think about what happens to other things that you or your family might not need anymore. List or make a poster of things that could be recycled.

The publisher provides an excellent teacher guide with  lesson plans and activities, recommendations for books to pair this one with, and links for learning more. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOONSTONE

This book has some interesting historical links as well as a fun mystery. It’s another one of the fiction nominees for the 2016 Silver Birch Awards from the Ontario Library Association.

Lady Ada Byron, age eleven, is a genius. Isolated, awkward and a bit rude—but a genius. Mary Godwin, age fourteen, is a romantic. Adventurous, astute, and kind, Mary is to become Ada’s first true friend. And together, the girls conspire to form the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency—a secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals. Their first case involves a stolen heirloom, a false confession, and an array of fishy suspects. But it’s no match for the deductive powers and bold hearts of Ada and Mary.

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone was written by Jordan Stratford with art by Kelly Murphy. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf  in 2015.

My Take:

I loved the idea of stepping back into history to explore what famous scientists may have been like when they were growing up. Ada and Mary have very different and interesting personalities.

The characters are really what makes this story come alive and keeps the book engaging. The detective agency is a fun idea, though I wished the mystery element was a bit more complex and there were more interesting clues for the girls to solve (especially ones that would take more advantage of Ada’s scientific knowledge). 

I also enjoyed all the details from the early 1800’s, especially the differences in the use of language between then and now.

For writers:  

It’s interesting to study how the author incorporates historical events into a middle grade novel. Be sure to check out the author notes where he explains how he has modified real events to create a compelling story.  

Opening Line:

“Force…equals…mass…times…acceleration,” muttered Ada as she wrote in her notebook.


“Ada looked at her as if she were some undiscovered species of sea creature mysteriously washed ashore.”

“Tall wooden bookshelves stood in ranks that seemed to go on and on forever below the London streets, each square shelf stacked with aging gray newspapers, folded like blankets.”

“With each collection of brackets, she simplified all the thoughts in her head down to manageable groups, like variables in an equation.”

Other Info:

Jordan Stratford lives on an island in British Columbia, Canada, where he is working on the next novel in the series.

In the FAQ on his website, Jordan Stratford has some good advice for writers: “Get that draft over with. Don’t put it off because you’re afraid it will be terrible. Of COURSE it will be terrible. But that gives you something to fix, and that bit is really joyous, really rewarding.”

Teaching Ideas:

Have students research a woman scientist. Create a class museum (virtual or physical) to showcase their amazing discoveries.

Have students write their own short story using a famous woman scientist as one of the main characters.

This book has an extensive educator guide with STEM connections and connections to Common Core Standards.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – TO THE STARS!

I am super excited to share this one with you. It’s written by one of my writing friends, Carmella Van Vleet, and I know a little bit about all the hard work Carmella and Dr. Kathy Sullivan put in to tell the story of the first American woman to walk in space! 

Summary from the publisher:

Kathy Sullivan wanted to go everywhere. She wanted to explore and do exciting things that girls weren't supposed to be able to do. 

She liked fishing and swimming; flying planes and studying science. That's what she liked and that's what she decided to do with her life. She eventually became a NASA astronaut and the first woman to walk in space. Kathy wanted to see the whole world and so she did: from space!

Backmatter includes further information about Dr. Sullivan and her career, as well as other famous firsts made by women astronauts.

To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space was written by Carmella Van Vleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan, and illustrated by Nicole Wong. It was published by Charlesbridge in 2016.

First line: “Kathy Sullivan loved to explore.”

My thoughts as a writer:

This book has a unique structure. The story scenes alternate between Kathy’s interests as a child to her interests and accomplishments as an adult, so it is possible to see the parallels. I’ve never seen a picture book written this way before, but I think it’s effective in moving the story forward. Along with the illustrations that clearly show Kathy as a young child and grown woman, changes in font style help to reduce confusions.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is good book to read to promote the role of women in science, and to show children of any gender that they can accomplish what they dream about. I really liked the way different areas of science and scientific tools are included in the story – there is a lot to talk about here, including blueprints, compasses, instrument panel, undersea exploration, flying, and of course, being an astronaut!

Because of the way the book is laid out, it would be fun to encourage readers try to predict from Kathy’s interest or adventures as a child what adult activity or job it connects to on the following page.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes:, space, astronauts, women in science


What do you dream about doing when you are older? Draw and picture and write about your dream. It would be fun to seal up your picture in an envelope to open in ten years!

What jobs do the women in your life do? Make a list. Are there any jobs women can’t do? Why or why not?

There is an extensive educator’s guide with ideas for many different curricular areas.

Dr. Sullivan is the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Here is she is speaking on Earth is Blue 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - MY DIARY FROM THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

When this book came up on my library holds list, I jumped into reading it, not knowing what to expect. Reading about an alternative reality where all kinds of fantasy creatures were part of everyday life was so much fun! I read this one as an e-book.

 Spirited, restless Gracie Lockwood has lived in Cliffden, Maine, her whole life. She’s a typical girl in an atypical world: one where sasquatches helped to win the Civil War, where dragons glide over Route 1 on their way south for the winter (sometimes burning down a T.J. Maxx or an Applebee’s along the way), where giants hide in caves near LA and mermaids hunt along the beaches, and where Dark Clouds come for people when they die.

To Gracie it’s all pretty ho-hum…until a Cloud comes looking for her little brother Sam, turning her small-town life upside down. Determined to protect Sam against all odds, her parents pack the family into a used Winnebago and set out on an epic search for a safe place that most people say doesn’t exist: The Extraordinary World. It’s rumored to lie at the ends of the earth, and no one has ever made it there and lived to tell the tale. To reach it, the Lockwoods will have to learn to believe in each other—and to trust that the world holds more possibilities than they’ve ever imagined. - See more at: 

My Diary from the Edge of the World was written by Jodi Lynn Anderson and published by Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, in 2015.

My Take:

I don’t think I’ve ever read a story quite like this before – it was quirky and fun, though at times evoked a lot of emotion. It was fun to be on a road trip with Gracie and her family as they tried to save her brother Sam’s life. I really enjoyed being immersed in an alternative world filled with magical and imaginary creatures that were part of everyday life and history, like yetis that live up in Canada and mermaids that lurk in the ocean. It was fun to encounter concepts like quantum physics, superstrings and entropy while I was reading.

For writers, this is a good example of a middle grade novel written in a diary format. It’s also an interesting example of world-building, where fantasy creatures and places are blended into the world the way it exists now.

Opening Line:

“I’m on the top of the hill, looking down on the town of Cliffden, Maine.”


“I’ll tell you in one sentence what it’s like to be the middle child, in case you don’t know: Everyone on either side of you squeezes you until you almost explode, and all the time that they’re smushing you they’re not really noticing you’re there.”

“I suppose one person’s most-boring-lecture-of-all-time can be another person’s “interesting.”

“Maybe out there someone somewhere will read this, maybe even in some other world; maybe someone’s reading it right now.”

Other Info:

 Jodi traveled to different places around the world as she was growing up. She worked as a book editor before she became an author.

When she's not writing she likes to cook, knit, hike and make claymation videos for her friends. (See also 5 Things You Don't Know About Jodie-Lynn-Anderson.)

Teaching Ideas:

Have students write one or more diary entries about an incident in an alternative reality of their choice.

Create a fantastical creature that could inhabit this world and write a news story describing the historical event that your creature had an effect on.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – FISHERMEN THROUGH & THROUGH

I had no idea what to expect with this one and the story surprised me. I really liked the illustrations. This book is one of the nominees for this year’s Blue Spruce Award from the Ontario Library Association. 

Summary from Indigo:

Peter, Santiago and Ahab are fishermen through and through. The sea is the place where they spend their lives. Still, they have dreams of other places and when the sea is gentle the fishermen talk of those fantasies — of sand dunes and camels, of hot-air balloons high up in the clouds, of fields full of rainbow-coloured tulips.

On one of those dreamy days the fishermen make an extra special catch — a lobster as white as the clouds of Santiago's daydreams. Never before have they seen anything this extraordinary and beautiful! Surely this is a catch that should be shared with all! 

When word of the special lobster makes its way to photographers, marine biologists and reporters they all come to the village to see for themselves and share the story with their followers. Peter, Santiago and Ahab are eventually offered money for the lobster! 

As if such an extraordinary creature was theirs to sell!! The final offer is for more money than any of them could have ever imagined — a sum that would allow them to achieve their life dreams. But the fisherman realize it is impossible to imagine their life without the water and the sound of the seagulls overhead — and they need to return their special catch back to the freedom of its own watery world.

Fishermen Through & Through was written by Colleen Sydor and illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan , and published by Red Deer Press in 2014.

First line: “There once lived three fisherman: Peter, Santiago, and Ahab.”

My thoughts as a writer:

There is some really fun language in this book, such as “salty as the  bottom of a pretzel” and “until the sun got snoozy.”  The style reminds me of a legend or tall tale, and suited the story so well. It’s interesting that this story is told with three adult characters, too, a little different than the many books I’ve come across told from a child’s perspective.

I love the underlying importance of nature in the character’s lives and the feeling of contentment that comes from the illustrations and life near the sea. The illustrations are soft and have lots of small textural details.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I liked the way this book made me think about living things and whether they belong in tanks or in the ocean, and how, sometimes, it’s hard to know at the time what is the right thing. This could be a good topic for discussion.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes:, compassion, fishing, fishermen, oceans


What do you think the lobster did after it was put back in the sea? Draw a picture to show your idea.

Do white lobsters exist? Do some research about lobsters.

Find three interesting ways the author used language or description in the story. Talk about why they are interesting and how they fit (or don’t fit) with the story.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - BLACKBIRD FLY

This realistic story about a girl struggling to fit in tugged at my heart. A great read!

Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. She and her mother moved to Louisiana from the Philippines when she was little, and her mother still cooks Filipino foods and chastises Apple for becoming “too American.” When Apple’s friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show her how special she really is.

Blackbird Fly was written by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Betsy Peterschmidt, and published by Greenwillow Books in 2015.

My Take:

Love the realism and authenticity of this story! At times it was hard to read, because it reminded me a little of my own experiences with bullying. Apple was a likable character and I empathized with her, right from the beginning of the story. Through the story, I was rooting for her to begin to accept and love herself for who she is, and to find people who would accept her too. I especially liked all the details about the Filipino culture embedded in the story.

From a writer’s perspective, I thought the dialogue and behaviour of the middle school characters were quite believable. This novel had a strong and unique voice. It’s a good example of a contemporary middle grade novel for anyone wanting to include diversity, or to take on a theme of bullying and racism. Love the natural way the author included cultural details.

Opening Line:

“On the day we moved to America, it snowed in Chapel Spring, Louisiana, for the first time in twenty years.”


“I found out later that carrots were supposedly good for vision, not for color or shape, but who cares about that when you can get eyeglasses or contacts? Nothing fixes slanted eyes.”

“Right before you steal something, you feel it everywhere. Your mouth gets dry. Your insides rattle. You even feel it in your fingertips.”

“Everything rushed through my head, but then it all faded away into the back of my mind, and none of that stuff mattered because there was music.”

Other Info:

In Blackbird Fly, the main character, Apple, believes that every person has at least three interesting facts about themselves. Author Erin Estrada Kelly lists these three interesting facts about herself on her blog:   1. She’s Filipino-American.  2. She has chronic asthma. 3. She loves rare books.

Erin wrote her first book in second grade – a story about two orphans.

Check out the playlist of Beetles songs that Apple considers to be the soundtrack for her life.

Teaching Ideas:

Have students brainstorm and write Three Interesting Facts about themselves. Reflect on the kinds of Interesting Facts people are willing to share about themselves. Would your facts be different if they were not for anyone else to see?

Create a playlist of six or more songs that represent the soundtrack of your life. Why did you choose these songs? For each song, explain why you chose it and how it represents you.

Discuss or write about Apple’s struggle to belong to her culture as well as to fit in at school. Why is it so difficult for her?