Monday, February 27, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE WOLF KEEPERS by Elise Broach

If you like animal stories, this middle grade novel is a good choice! I didn't know what to expect when I opened it, but the story and characters were so interesting I read it straight through without stopping.

 Description from the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Lizzie Durango and her dad have always had a zoo to call their home. Lizzie spends her days watching the animals and taking note of their various behaviors. Though the zoo makes for a unique home, it's a hard place for Lizzie to make lasting friends. But all this changes one afternoon when she finds Tyler Briggs, a runaway who has secretly made the zoo his makeshift home.

The two become friends and, just as quickly, stumble into a covert investigation involving the zoo wolves who are suddenly dying. Little do they know, this mystery will draw them into a high-stakes historical adventure involving the legend of John Muir as they try to navigate safely while lost in Yosemite National Park.

The Wolf Keepers was written by Elise Broach and published by Henry Holt & Company in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s full of secrets you’ll want to know more about – Tyler’s mysterious past, the problem of what’s happening to the wolves, and the location of a lost cabin. The two main settings of the zoo and Yosemite National Park really come alive through the author's details. In addition to being a mystery and an animal story, this was also partly a wilderness survival story! Lizzie was a kind and compassionate character and there's an interesting story line of her getting to know tough-on-the-outside Tyler. The drawings by Alice Ratterree scattered through the story add to the already vivid picture from the descriptive language.

“It seemed wrong somehow to assume that animals experienced the same emotions as humans, and even more wrong to believe that animal feelings only mattered if they could be understood in human terms.”

If you’re a writer… 

There’s a lot to learn from this book about using specific details, building characters with depth and emotion, and crafting a strong plot.  

 “They could no longer hear the wolves howling, but Lizzie was sharply tuned to every strange sound carrying through the trees…the rustle of pine needles, the snapping of twigs, the occasional chirp, trill, or hoot of some night creature.”

If you’re a teacher…

This would be a great book for a class read aloud. There are interesting possibilities for discussions about animal rights and conservation (should we keep animals in zoo?) as well as social issues (Tyler’s circumstances and his own comments about himself). An author’s note explains the ties to real historical events and people, and details about her research on wolves.   

Opening line:

“A few feet away, the wolf stared at Lizzie with pale silver eyes, ears pricking forward in sharp triangles.”

Other info:

You can read the first chapter at the publisher’s website.
On her website, Elise Broach talks about how her life and writing interact: “when you’re a writer, every part of your life eventually works its way into your books, whether you intend it to or not, so there are definitely bits and pieces of real life—and real people—in all of my stories.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – MONSTERS LOVE COLORS by Mike Austin

There are so many books on mixing colors, it’s hard to imagine finding anything new on the topic. But when I read this to my kindergarten students, they loved it so much, I had to study it more closely!  

Summary from the publisher:

Did you know that monsters love to
Because monsters love to make new colors!

Celebrate along with the hilarious monsters in this wild and energetic picture book from author-illustrator Mike Austin. Mixing and discovering color has never been so much fun!

Monsters Love Colors was written by and illustrated by Mike Austin. It was published in 2013 by HarperCollins Children’s Books.


“Monsters love to scribble, scribble, mix, dance and wiggle!”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This book showed me the value of fun word play for connecting with young children. I loved the rhyming associations with the colors: “Red is the color of ROAR! And SNORE! And more! more! MORE!”  There are funny asides with bits of monster dialogue and a wonderful over-the-top moment at the end. I found the scribble art style worked well to bring out the wild, creative spirit of the cartoony, kid-friendly monsters.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

There is a lot more to this book than I realized at first. Different discussion points could be highlighted, depending on your lesson focus. As well as teaching about colours and colour mixing, it also shows individual differences (each monster has their own favourite color and that’s okay) and how art is about playing and being creative (scribbles can be art too). 

After reading this book and seeing how my students reacted to it, I want to look for Mike Austin’s second book, MONSTERS LOVE SCHOOL.

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: PreK - 1

Themes: color, color mixing, creativity, individual differences


Choose an interesting word from the book (e.g., growl, roar) and create a piece of art to go with it.

Draw a scribbly monster for your favourite colour and think of some words to describe it. For example,   Purple is the colour of….

Experiment with paints and crayons to make your own new colours. Invent a rainbow with your own creative colors.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – HOWARD WALLACE, P.I. by Casey Lyall

If you're looking for a good, middle grade mystery, this is a must read. I'm sometimes cautious about mysteries, because they can be too far-fetched or too easy to solve, but this one hit it just right.

Description from the publisher:

“What’s with the get-up? Is that the company uniform or something?”
“This? All P.I.s wear a trench coat.”
“Dude, that’s a brown bathrobe.”
I shrugged and straightened out my sleeves. “First rule of private investigation, Ivy: work with what you’ve got.”

Twelve-year-old Howard Wallace lives by his list of rules of private investigation. He knows more than anyone how to work with what he’s got: a bathrobe for a trench coat, a makeshift office behind the school equipment shed, and not much else—least of all, friends. So when a hot case of blackmail lands on his desk, he’s ready to take it on himself . . . until the new kid, Ivy Mason, convinces him to take her on as a junior partner. As they banter through stakeouts and narrow down their list of suspects, Howard starts to wonder if having Ivy as a sidekick—and a friend—is such a bad thing after all.

Howard Wallace, P.I.  was written by Casey Lyall and published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

The clues for the mystery and the mystery itself were believable, with lots of neighbourhood adventure as Howard and his sidekick scoped out crime scenes and interviewed suspects. I liked the creative details, like Howard’s playground office. Social issues of middle school, such as dealing with friends and bullies, were nicely woven into the plot and I loved the growing friendship between Howard and Ivy.  

“One of the greatest investigative advantages is the opportunity to observe your subjects when they’re unaware of being watched. People behave more like themselves when immersed in their natural environment.”

If you’re a writer… 

Something to study here is how the author created the quirky, first person narrator. The novel has a strong, consistent voice.  Howard’s obsession with being a detective came through loud and clear through all his actions and dialogue, but we also got to see his sensitivity.

 “Telling her to buzz off was the most sensible thing to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words.”

If you’re a teacher…

It can be hard to find contemporary mystery novels for kids in the 9-12 age group that have an age-appropriate mystery. It was nice to see that Howard was solving mysteries for other kids his age.  

Casey Lyall's website is very teacher-friendly and has lots of resources, a scavenger hunt for students based on Howard's rules for detectives  including:

Opening line:

“She didn’t knock, just barged through the door like she owned the place.”

Other info:

Word on the street has it that Casey is writing a sequel – I hope so!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

7 Inspiring Quotes from #Storystorm 2017

Thanks to StoryStorm and @TaraLazar, January was a great month for writers and other creatives to get inspired by coming up with an idea each day for the entire month. If you tried it, I hope you have a big list of ideas now! I ended up with over 30 ideas and 5 or 6 of them look promising to explore further, so I’m quite pleased. (For more on the process of weeding out ideas see Kate Messner’s excellent post on Picture Book Math (And Why You Should Write Something New.)

In case you missed out on the #StoryStorm fun, I’ve created a collection of inspiring quotes from the StoryStorm posts to turn to when you need a creative pick-me-up.

1. Dan Moynihan, Day 5: “Don’t be afraid to explore a possibility just because you don’t know where it will lead.”

2. Jennifer Arena, Day 7: “…the everyday can become fantastic, if you just change your perspective.”

3. Nancy Churnin Day 10: “…don’t forget that life and ideas are waiting like treasures in plain sight to be discovered and savored…” 

4. Marcie Colleen, Day 14“…having a stellar idea doesn’t always lead to immediately being able to draft up the story. Some things take time.” 

5. Laurie Ann Thompson, Day 17“ writers, we have a super power: the ability to make our readers feel, and it is through the experience of these feelings that hearts and minds—particularly those of young readers—are forever changed.” 

6. Ross MacDonald, Day 19: “Working hard at one thing doesn’t take away from other things, it adds to them.” 

7. Adam Grant, Day 23: “Being original isn’t about being first— it's about being different and better.” 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – HANNAH AND SUGAR BY KATE BERUBE

I can't pass up a good dog story! I really liked this quieter story and I think it's one many kids will want to experience again and again, because of the way the character Hannah copes with her fear. 

Summary from Amazon:

Every day after school, Hannah’s school bus is greeted by her classmate’s dog, Sugar. All of the other kids love Sugar, but Hannah just can’t conquer her fear of dogs. Then, one day, Sugar goes missing, so Hannah joins the search with her classmates. Will Hannah find a way to be brave, and make a new friend in the process?

Hannah and Sugar was written by and illustrated by Kate Berube. It was published in 2016 by Abrams Books for Young Readers.


“Every day after school, Hannah’s papa picked her up at the bus stop.”

My thoughts as a writer:

The design of the book and the illustrations help to add emotion. It was interesting to me to study the page turns for this story. Key moments are emphasized when they are shown by illustration only. I especially loved how the design of the book draws out the moment when Hannah comes face to face with Sugar. 

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is more than a book about a child overcoming her fear of dogs, though that topic will definitely hook students on the story. Through this book, you can discuss fears in general and strategies for coping with them, an important aspect of mental health. I really liked the page where Hannah thinks about what it would be like to be Sugar – it’s a great starting point for talking about empathy.

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: PreK - 1

Themes: fears, empathy, taking risks, coping with fear


Think of something you are afraid of. What small step could you take to feel less afraid? Draw a picture of yourself taking that small step.

What is your favorite page in the story? Explain why.

Draw a poster that they could put up to help find Sugar. Think about how to make it easy to see from a distance. What information would need to be on the poster?

Check out Emily Arrow’s song about this book!