Thursday, December 28, 2017

Celebrating Successes from 2017

As I've done for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to think about celebrating successes from the year instead of revisiting what I didn’t accomplish and resolving to do better (for more on this approach see Julie Hedlund’s recent blog post). Her suggestion is to use your successes and achievements as a foundation for setting new year goals.
This was a year of struggles in my personal life and they seemed to squelch my creativity and time for writing. I can claim only a few writing and reading successes for 2017, but I’m sharing them anyway, proud to have accomplished anything in the face of so much emotional change:
1. I participated in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge again and for the first time completed the challenge by writing 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. (No one said the drafts had to be good.)

2. I read over 300 new fiction picture books and board books as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards. It was so much fun discussing these books with my fellow panelists!

3. I worked hard on revising a middle grade novel and am close to finishing my revisions.

4. I revised several picture book manuscripts and my agent sent some of them on submission.

5. I participated in an adult fiction book club at my local library. 

No matter how they are, taking time to celebrate successes lifts you up. I urge you to give it a try and dive into 2018 on a positive note! What are you most proud of this year? I hope you feel good about your successes!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Learning from Picture Books –NOW by Antoinette Portis

A deceptively simple book that reminds us about how young children experience the world.

Summary from the publisher:

Follow a little girl as she takes you on a tour through all of her favorite things, from the holes she digs to the hugs she gives.

Now was written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis, and published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press.


This is my favorite breeze.

This is my favorite leaf.

This is my favorite hole (this one)
because it’s the one I am digging.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The text is a nice demonstration of how repetition of the structure can help to move the reader through the story. The text itself is short and feels very immediate, which goes well with the point of the story.  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

While I think this is an excellent story for parents and young children to read together, it also would work in a preschool or kindergarten class for talking about “favorites.” It could spark an investigation into “favorite things.” I love how it reminds us of the young child’s perspective.

Ages: 2 - 6

Grades: Toddler  – Grade 1

Themes: appreciating the moment, family, favorite things


Discuss: What is your favorite right now? Draw a picture or explain why.

Make a class book of pictures of “favorite things.”

Show students how to create a survey and have them collect data about their “favorite things.”

Have children take turns bringing a “favorite thing” to show and share for “Today’s Favorite.”

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – HOORAY FOR BIRDS by Lucy Cousins

This book shows the world from a different point of view – a bird’s eye view!

Summary from the publisher:

Birds of all feathers flock together in a fun, rhyme-filled offering by the creator of Maisy. From the rooster’s “cock-a-doodle-doo” at dawn to the owl’s nighttime “tuwit, tuwoo,” the cheeps and tweets of many bright and beautiful avian friends will have children eager to join in as honorary fledglings. This day in the life of birds will hold the attention of even the smallest bird-watchers, whether at storytime or just before settling into their cozy nests to sleep.

Hooray for Birds was written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. It was published in 2017 by Candlewick Press.


Can you imagine…
just for one day…
you’re a busy bird?
Yes, a bird!

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really enjoyed the fun rhyming text and big, bright illustrations. It’s a good example of rhyme done well and it encourages children to engage with the story.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

My students would enjoy this book, because of the catchy rhyme and big colourful illustrations. The bird actions are fun and this would be a great book for encouraging dramatic play. It would also be nice to include with non-fiction books about birds at a science area.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: PreK - 2

Themes: birds, creative movement, rhyming


Read through the story and act it out as you go along!

Create your own drawing or painting of a bird in the style of Lucy Cousin’s art with a dark outline. Cut out each bird and display them together.

Photograph each student performing a bird action, perhaps with handmade bird accessory or prop, and make a class book. 

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – LITTLE FOX IN THE FOREST by Stephanie Graegin

I find wordless picture books so interesting because they give me a new perspective on story!

Summary from the publisher:

When a young girl brings her beloved stuffed fox to the playground, much to her astonishment, a real fox takes off with it! The girl chases the fox into the woods with her friend, the boy, following close behind, but soon the two children lose track of the fox. Wandering deeper and deeper into the forest, they come across a tall hedge with an archway. What do they find on the other side? A marvelous village of miniature stone cottages, tiny treehouses, and, most extraordinary of all, woodland creatures of every shape and size. But where is the little fox? And how will they find him?

Little Fox in the Forest was conceptualized and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. It was published in 2017 by Schwartz & Wade Books.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The problem of a stolen toy is so relatable for young children. I admired the way the illustrator used colour to emphasize different elements and scenes. The story begins in blue tones, but this changes as the story unfolds. There are many details for child readers to talk about and most pages include several small illustrations.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This story would work best for a small group or pair of students to discuss and wonder about what is happening. It’s a good story for encouraging students to generate questions as they think about the story. There are many things to talk about, including making friends, finding lost things, different kinds of animals, and empathy for others. If I had the funds, I would love to create a center for wordless books in my classroom where children of varying experiences with books could explore wordless books like this one.

Ages: 4 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: stealing, friendship, animals


Place this book at a center with toy animals, people and furniture to inspire story-related play.

Have students work with a partner to create their own “pictures only” story.

Encourage students to choose the girl or the fox and draw a picture to show what happens next. Put up the pictures in the classroom for a gallery walk.

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – LIFE by Cynthia Rylant & Brendan Wenzel

A thought-provoking look at our planet with lovely, detailed illustrations.

Summary from the publisher:

There are so many wonderful things about life, both in good times and in times of struggle. Through the eyes of the world’s animals—including elephants, monkeys, whales, and more…

Life was written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. It was published in 2017 by Beach Lane Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.


Life begins small.
Even for the elephants.
Then it grows.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This is a quiet book with slight touches of humor. It’s an interesting example of a circular text that begins and ends the same way. The illustrations show the diversity of life on our planet with muted tones and lots of detail.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is definitely a book for a quieter moment. For me, it generated lots of wonderings and thoughts about appreciating the smaller things in life, the diversity of life on our planet and what it needs to survive, and being hopeful when struggling with challenges. The text has many different interpretations and will work for several different age groups.

Ages: 4 - 12

Grades: PreK and up

Themes: diversity, appreciation of the earth, perseverance through challenges


Choose your favourite animal. What would this animal love about life? Create a piece of art and write your message as a caption.

Take a picture of something small in nature. What could it grow into or become? Draw your idea. 

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – PICTURE THE SKY by Barbara Reid

Since my mom is an artist and has made many paintings of the sky and clouds, I could really relate to the concept behind this book. I loved the way this gave me a whole different way of looking at the sky – or many ways!

Summary from the publisher:

There is more than one way to picture the sky.

The sky tells many stories: in the clouds, in the stars, in the imagination. In lyrical text and brilliantly coloured illustrations, renowned artist Barbara Reid brings her unique vision to the sky above us and around us, in all its moods.

Picture the Sky was written and illustrated by Barbara Reid, and published in 2017 by Scholastic Canada.


There is more than one way to picture the sky.
It can be a blanket, or the curtain rising on your day.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I appreciate writing that draws attention to different perspectives or parts of the world that many people don’t take the time to think about. I enjoyed the careful choice of language and the cadence of the text. The illustrations are lovely, big enough and colourful to catch the attention of wiggly children, yet full of interesting details.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I want to read this book to my class in the hopes of sparking an inquiry or investigation of the sky! It’s a good story for encouraging students to share their perspectives or to read during quieter moments to encourage thoughtful reflection.

Ages: 4 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: sky, modeling clay art, appreciation of the earth


Go outside to observe and take pictures of the sky on different days (e.g., once a month) and discuss how it changes. Or write an emotion word to label the picture and create a class photo exhibit.

Have students create their own sky pictures using modeling clay or paint.

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – MAX AND BIRD by Ed Vere

A fun story about friendship!

Summary from the publisher:

When Max meets Bird, Max thinks he'd like to be friends with Bird. He would also like to chase Bird and maybe eat him as a tasty snack. But that's not what friendship is all about . . . Is it?

Max and Bird was written and illustrated by Ed Vere, and published in 2016 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.


This is Max.
Max is a kitten.
Kittens chase birds.

This is Bird.
Bird is a bird.
Birds get chased by kittens.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I love the humor in the storytelling voice. This is a great example of a story that leaves space for the reader to think and form opinions as the story goes along. I would definitely study this one as an example of a picture book that includes a good balance of dialogue and action, with a clear problem and solution. The illustrations are bright and nicely designed -- perfect for read alouds.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is an entertaining story that could lead to discussions about persistence, following your dreams and friendship. I especially liked the ending, where Max can’t do what Bird does, but is there to support his friend anyway. 

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: PreK - 2

Themes: friendship, persistence, caring


Draw a picture of something you’d like to learn how to do. What steps would help you accomplish it?

What is something you could help a friend to do? Try it!

Make puppets to tell the story of Max and Bird, and act it out.

Check out this live storytelling by the creator, Ed Vere, from the Scottish Book Trust.

He also gives us a peek inside his studio:

NOTE: This title has been nominated for a Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – FALCON WILD by Terry Lynn Johnson

 A different take on the typical survival story because it includes a falcon!                             
Description from the publisher:

Thirteen-year-old Karma is lost in the backcountry of Montana with her falcon, Stark, and a troubled runaway boy named Cooper. She’s desperate to find help for her dad and brother after a blown tire on a back road causes a terrible accident.

Karma wouldn’t be in this predicament if her parents hadn’t insisted on returning Stark to the bird’s original owner. Life at her father's bird sanctuary—and Karma’s dreams of becoming an apprentice falconer—will never be the same when she has to give Stark back. Lost in the wild, their bond only grows stronger as Karma teaches the falcon to hunt like a bird of prey. All the while, Cooper gets his own lessons on how to trust in newfound friendship.

Both Karma’s and Cooper's mettle is tested by mountain terrain, wild animals, severe weather, injury, and her own waning hope as this edge-of-your-seat wilderness adventure story vividly portrays the special bonds that can form between humans and animals.

Falcon Wild was written by Terry Lynn Johnson and published by Charlesbridge in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s an exciting adventure story as well as a story of friendship between Karma and Cooper. One of the things I enjoy about middle grade novels are all the unique hobbies and interests kids have. The details about falconry in this book were super interesting!

“I’m dangling above a dark hole. The falcon-like part of my brain kicks in. My eyes dart, searching for a solution.”

If you’re a writer… 

The setting is a big part of this story, so it’s a good book to read to study to see how to integrate setting details.

 “The air has changed around me. The smells of cooling earth are lifting with the approaching dusk.”

If you’re a teacher…

I liked how the main character in this story made several “mistakes” and had to find ways to resolve her feelings about them.

“After all my time getting her to trust me, now I’m betraying her.”

Opening Line:

“Stark senses my fear and pulls at the jesses around her feet.”

Other Info:

I really enjoyed Terry Lynn Johnston’s novel Ice Dogs and I’m looking forward to reading her other new stand alone novel, Sled Dogs.

She is also writing a Survivor Diaries Series and the first book, Overboard! is now available. 

There’s a teacher’s guide for this novel here

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – ANYWHERE FARM by Phyllis Root & G. Brian Karas

This book encourages wondering! A good choice to pair with non-fiction  about growing plants.
Summary from the publisher:

You might think a farm means fields, tractors, and a barnyard full of animals. But you can plant a farm anywhere you like! A box or a bucket, a boot or a pan — almost anything can be turned into a home for green, growing things. Windows, balconies, and front steps all make wonderful spots to start. Who knows what plants you may choose to grow and who will come to see your new garden?

 Phyllis Root delivers a modern rhyming mantra for anyone hoping to put their green thumbs to good use, while G. Brian Karas’s cheerful urban illustrations sprout from every page. After all, anywhere can be a farm — all it takes is one small seed and someone to plant it.
For any anywhere farm, here's all that you need: soil and sunshine, some water, a seed.

Anywhere Farm was written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. It was published in 2017 by Candlewick.


For an anywhere farm, here’s all that you need:
and sunshine,
some water,
a seed.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I liked the concept that seeds can be planted in all kinds of different places. The language in this book is fun: “Your seed will sprout out at its own seedy speed.” It’s a lovely example of rhyme done well.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

A great choice to go along with learning about plant growth. Some pages introduce questions, which are good opportunities or models for students to wonder and think. This is a really fun rhyming story for young children! I liked the way the ending invites the reader to take action and plant their own seed.

Ages: 4 - 7

Grades: K - 2

Themes: seeds, growing plants, environment, community


Can we create a classroom garden? What do we need? Encourage students bring in seeds and containers to plant their own creative garden.

Draw a picture of an unusual place where you could plant a seed.

Create a “wonder wall” where students can post their own questions about growing seeds.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – ZINNIA AND THE BEES by Danielle Davis

I'm always on the lookout for novels that connect to nature. Luckily, I won this quirky read from a contest by Wendy McLeod MacKnight and Capstone Young Readers!                           

Description from the publisher:

A colony of honeybees mistakes seventh-grader Zinnia’s hair for a hive — and that’s the least of her problems. While Zinnia's classmates are celebrating the last day of seventh grade, she's in the vice principal's office, serving detention. Her offense? Harmlessly yarn-bombing a statue of the school mascot.

 When Zinnia rushes home to commiserate with her older brother and best friend, Adam, she's devastated to discover that he's gone — with no explanation. Zinnia’s day surely can't get any worse . . . until a colony of honeybees inhabits her hive-like hair!

Zinnia and the Bees was written by Danielle Davis and published by Capstone Young Readers in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

It sounds kind of weird, but once I accepted the unusualness of there being bees in her hair, I ended up loving Zinnia’s character and how she coped with the changes in her life. I was surprised by how much emotion I felt while reading this story. I grew angry at Zinnia’s mother for not taking more action when Zinnia’s brother disappeared and for not noticing how Zinnia was hiding under her hood. 

“It’s like a terrible, ridiculous attack-of-the-bees sci-fi movie is being filmed—except no one else knows about it, and I am, unfortunately, the star.”


If you’re a writer… 

You might enjoy the way the author used details, especially the use of the yarn and knitting to show Zinnia’s feelings.

“Wood needles. Wool yarn. The hypnotizing push and pull, tuck and wrap. All the stuff that feels massive gets smaller. Less overwhelming.”

If you’re a teacher…

This book really showcases how sometimes relationships with parents can be challenging and hard for kids. Not everyone has a perfect family, and I think this book shows that, as well as different ways for coping. I also thought it was nice the way the main character reflected and had some realizations about how her own behavior contributed to problems with her friends.

“It shuts with a tiny click that sounds louder than my slam did, at least to me. It sounds final, like after everything, I’ve finally gone too far.”

Opening Line:

“Ronny the Rattlesnake is naked. But not for long.”

Other Info:

Here’s a fun book trailer for Zinnia and the Bees!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT by Susanna Leonard Hill & Erica Sirotich

This is a really fun rhyming story from young children! I won this book in the summer in an online contest sponsored by Vivian Kirkfield (check out her blog for great reviews of picture books). I could hardly wait for school to start to introduce it to my class!

Summary from the publisher:

Join the ride as a team of adorable vehicles work together to build a new road in this fresh, cement-mixing spin on the classic nursery rhyme, “The House That Jack Built.”

Bulldozers, scrapers, graders, and more are hard at work making sure that every car, truck, and motorcycle can get where they’re going fast!

The Road That Trucks Built was written by Susanna Leonard Hill and illustrated by Erica Sirotich. It was published in 2017 by Little Simon.


This is the traffic that’s moving too slow.
Cars and buses have nowhere to go.
What is the answer?
I’m guessing you know.
The trucks need to build a new road!

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This is a nice example of how to create a rhyming story. The problem of the story is clear from the beginning. The fun, bouncy rhymes keep our attention through the story – as do the big, bright illustrations of different trucks. Most of the lines in the story flow easily during a read aloud. The choice to use the format of “The House That Jack Built” works well.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is a really fun rhyming story for young children! The idea that every truck has its part to play in the construction can be used to help explain the concept of teamwork. The labeled diagrams at the back are good examples of how to label as well as providing information about the parts of trucks.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: preK - 1

Themes: trucks, construction, teamwork


Provide pictures of the different trucks in the story to use when telling the story.

Create a road building centre with props for children to explore during play.

With Lego or other snap-together blocks, encourage children to build different kinds of trucks and talk about the parts they need for their jobs.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada, so it seems especially appropriate to feature a novel that reminds us that some families are struggling today. This is an absorbing read, especially for children ages 11 and up with challenging family situations. 

Description from the publisher:

Charlie feels like she's always coming in last. From her Mom's new job to her sister's life away at college, everything else always seems to be more important than Charlie's upcoming dance competition or science project. Unsure of how to get her family's attention, Charlie comes across the surprise of her life one day while ice-fishing . . . in the form of a floppy, scaly fish offering to grant her a wish in exchange for its freedom. Charlie can't believe her luck until she realizes that this fish has a funny way of granting wishes, despite her best intentions. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they've ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish.

The Seventh Wish was written by Kate Messner and published by Bloomsbury in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

It's great to find a story that shows how a sibling is affected when her older sister faces a difficult challenge. It’s a realistic portrayal of how a whole family struggles and has to come to terms with the crisis, while still carrying on with all the other things they have to do in their lives. (This story reminded me a bit of Jo Knowles’ novel, Still a Work in Progress, because it is also told from the perspective of a sibling of a struggling character. See my review here.)

I think this is the first novel I’ve read that includes both Irish dancing and ice fishing! For me, the magic fish reminded me how sometimes we wish for a quick solution that will make things better but in reality there are some difficulties we can only get through with time and hard, emotional work. The ending of the story was realistic and hopeful.

“But today, I’m tired of being the youngest in the family. I hate the way everybody else’s plans matter more than mine.”

If you’re a writer… 

This is a good story to study to see how to create a fully realized picture of the many elements that make up middle school life – friends, family, activities and interests, homework… It’s so interesting to see how the author manages to balance all of these elements in the same story!

“Mom doesn’t need that stomping and kicking and forget-everything loudness the way I do, especially now.”

If you’re a teacher…

Many students need to cope with difficult family situations, like addiction, so I think it’s an important novel to at least have available in the classroom. I really liked the way the story showed the family taking time to work through the situation. This story has connections to curriculum related to substance abuse and addiction.

“We can wish on clovers and shooting stars and flowers all we want. But in the end, the only real magic is what’s inside us and the people we love.”

Opening Line:

“I’ve only seen the ice flowers once.”

Other Info:

Kate Messner has written many middle grade novels including Eye of the Storm, Capture the Flag, The Exact Location of Home and the Ranger in Time series.

There’s a teacher’s guide for The Seventh Wish on Bloomsbury’s website.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – MITZI TULANE, PRESCHOOL DETECTIVE in WHAT’S THAT SMELL? by Lauren McLaughlin & Debbie Ridpath Ohi

I enjoyed this sweet, funny book about a young girl and her family.

Summary from the publisher:

Mitzi Tulane may be only three years old, but she sure knows how to follow a trail of evidence and solve tough mysteries. From the strange happenings in the kitchen to the sudden arrival of every family member she’s ever met, Mitzi pieces together the clues and (finally) realizes that she’s . . . in the middle of her own surprise birthday party!

Kids and parents will laugh along as Mitzi sorts through not-so-subtle hints and comes to her conclusions. Readers will love figuring out the surprise ahead of the private-eye protagonist! Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s bouncy illustrations bring an extra layer of fun to Lauren McLaughlin’s clever story.

Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective in What’s That Smell? was written by Lauren McLaughlin and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It was published in 2017 by Random House Children’s Books.


“Mitzi Tulane knew every smell that came from her kitchen. As a detective, it was her job to know what happened at 123 Maple Street.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really liked the idea of Mitzi being a detective to find out more about what was happening in her own house. It’s also very sweet that she turns to her baby brother, Kev, to think things through. The author has nicely shown the perspective of a young child with Mitzi’s observations and conclusions (“Everyone one in the whole wide world was standing in Mitzi’s living room.”) The illustrations follow this same perspective and most scenes depict the world around Mitzi from her eye level. I also enjoyed the subtle humor that often seemed designed to give adult readers a chuckle.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I don’t often come across fiction picture books that focus on the sense of smell, and I liked the concept of using it to solve a mystery. This different way of telling a story about a birthday was refreshing. The illustrations show diversity in the skin colors of family members, and it was interesting to read interviews with Debbie that explained the reasoning for her artistic choices (

Ages: 2 - 5

Grades: preK - 1

Themes:  birthdays, family, detectives


Draw a picture of your own birthday party. Who was there?

Go on a “smelling walk.” Use your nose to smell what’s in the air around you and try to identify what you are smelling.

What is your favorite smell? Draw pictures or make a list of smells you like—and smells you don’t like.

Check out the Teacher's Guide on Debbie Ridpath Ohi's site for more activities.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Monday Quick Pick: RESTART by Gordon Korman

I don't have time for a full review of this one, since it's so early in the school year and I'm still re-learning how to balance my writing, reading and teaching without collapsing from exhaustion at the end of every day. But I really wanted to give this book a shout out. 

I loved the concept of the story: a kid who was a terrible bully has an accident, gets amnesia and gets a chance to start his life over again.

This is a different take on a bullying story and it's worth sharing with kids to generate discussion about feelings and behaviour choices. As well as Chase's point of view, the story is also told from the perspective of kids who he bullied in his "previous life."

I am a big fan of Gordon Korman's writing and you can learn more about him from some of my other reviews of his books: UNGIFTED, MASTERMINDS and THE HYPNOTISTS.