Sometimes Endings Aren’t Happy

And they all lived happily ever after. Everyone loves a story that ends that way. But what about the stories that don’t? Can we love a story that doesn’t have a happy ending?

Yes, we can. We should at least try. Books can provide a wonderful means of escape, but we shouldn’t live on a steady diet of that type of reading. We need books for escape, but also to challenge us or to get us to face reality. Some of the stories that do that the best are those without happy endings. One such story is Emil Sher’s YA novel Young Man with Camera.

young man with camera cover

The reality of bullying is a big part of Young Man with Camera.

I want you (yes, you!) to read Young Man with Camera, so I’ll try to not give away too much. It gives a very realistic picture of the worst kinds of bullying. The protagonist is drowning in circumstances not of his making, but doesn’t grab the life preserver in front of him. As an adult long removed from situations like those in the story (and thankfully never involved in anything as intense), I wanted him to react like an adult. But he’s an adolescent and reacts like one. Mr. Sher’s characters are complex, just like real kids. And just like real kids, they don’t always make the best decisions. But the decisions they make can sometimes be explained by their life experience and what they’re dealing with.

I don’t want to give the impression that the ending is one of hopelessness and despair. While giving a more realistic picture of bullying than most adults are probably comfortable with, it allows its intended audience to see a glimmer of hope at the very end of the book. And when I say see, I mean it literally. The story is told in both powerful words and photographs. I encourage you to read a Q and A with Mr. Sher by children’s publishing powerhouse Scholastic, Inc.

outsiders cover
It’s a heartbreaking story, and that’s okay.

The closest thing I can remember reading in my youth with a similar ending is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’ve expounded before on my fascination with that book. The class/clique conflict grabbed my 13-year-old heart and wouldn’t let go. It’s the first book I can remember reading where characters who came close to being like kids in my school and my neighborhood didn’t get a happily-ever-after ending. I was in tears by the time Johnny said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” It was perfect. I’d read Romeo and Juliet and other tragedies in Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, but those settings and characters were so far removed from my late-1970s life as to not have nearly the impact of Cherry and Dally (not a perfect analogy, but you get it if you read it).

Not-happy-endings aren’t confined to YA novels, nor should they be. I don’t suggest you sit little ones down in front of cable news so they can see what the world is like. But it’s not a bad thing if they get a little peek of reality now and then through story books. That’s especially true when a loving, trusted adult is there to help them work through what they read or hear in the book. These books don’t usually just plop down a sad ending and leave it there. Rather, they give their little readers a picture (literally and/or figuratively) of some of life’s disappointments, often with coping tools built in to the story.

Children can benefit from realism in storybooks.

An excellent book for this is Suzanne Collins’ (yes, she of Hunger Games brilliance) The Year of the Jungle. It’s a poignant autobiographical story about life for little Suzy while Daddy is in Vietnam during the war. Through brilliant storytelling and illustrations, you get a sense of the concern and confusion that fills the heart and mind of a child in this situation, including when Daddy returns home but is not quite the same. I’ve shared this story with my second-graders for the past couple of years. We have a lot of military families at school so I was interested to see how the story would be received by my young audience. Every time I’ve read it, the response has been positive. They ask a lot of questions and make insightful comments.

Don’t be afraid of a character who doesn’t live happily ever after. Go with them on their journey. Share their heartache, get mad, cry – whatever the story moves you to do. If it at least makes you think or at most makes you confront an issue, you’ll be better off for it. You can always comfort yourself with some fun escapism afterward.

Until next time, keep reading!


They’re the Great Pumpkins, Charlie Brown

I like Halloween just fine, but since our daughters stopped trick-or-treating ten or more years ago, I don’t go all out for it. I don’t care to wear a costume and haven’t carved a pumpkin in years (our front porch now sports a plastic plug-in jack-o-lantern from Target). But when I saw online posts about decorating pumpkins like story characters, well, my interest in Halloween became renewed.

Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!
Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!

So the flyers advertising our Inaugural Story Character Pumpkin Decorating Contest went home in early in October. I’d talk up the contest to my classes but didn’t get much feedback, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the first of three pumpkin turn-in days rolled around on October 21, but I was excited to get to school and meet my volunteers for the 7:30 a.m. drop-off.

Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.
Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.

We got four pumpkins. Four. I was feeling kinda Charlie-Brownish.

I was pretty sure it was going to be a flop. Four pumpkins. We didn’t even get enough to have one for each of the five categories. But then I had six classes that day and many of the students were very interested in the four pumpkins.

During Thursday’s drop-off, about 12 more pumpkins arrived. That day, six more classes had library and the feedback was very enthusiastic. By the end of Friday’s drop off frenzy, our total number of entries was 41. 41! That’s about 10% participation. For a first-time event, that was amazing.

Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene's Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.
Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene’s Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.

We had judging and prizes for first place in five categories (primary grades, intermediate grades, middle school grades, family, and teachers & staff), as well as runners-up. But receiving gift cards wasn’t the purpose of the event. The purpose was to have family fun, be creative, and celebrate reading. Everybody did that, so everybody won. I even discovered a couple of books that I want to get my hands on, thanks to some of the entries.

The remainder of this post features more pictures of the creative, fun, amazing entries. Enjoy and be inspired! Until next time, keep reading!

Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
And the winners are... Primary -- Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family -- The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate -- David from No, David! Middle School -- Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff -- Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.
And the winners are…
Primary — Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family — The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate — David from No, David!; Middle School — Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff — Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Read

Beware! Scary books are everywhere!
Beware! Scary books are everywhere!

Whether you prefer your Halloween creepy or cute, there are books out there for you and your children to enjoy this time of year. Here are some suggestions for a variety of readers. Not all are Halloween stories but they fit the theme. Any age ranges are guidelines. You know what your children can handle better than authors, publishers, or well-meaning bloggers.

For the Littlest Pumpkins (infant-age 3)

Discerning babies know the best books.
Discerning babies know the best books.

A new favorite I came across at our recent Scholastic Book Fair is a fun little board book entitled Boo! A Book of Spooky Surprises by Jonathan Litton and Fhinoa Galloway. It’s part of the My Little World board book series. The combination of colorful illustrations and rhyming text is perfect for little story lovers.

Mouse’s First Halloween by Lauren Thompson is a sweet little board book that takes Halloween symbols and turns them from frightful to delightful. Adorable illustrations in warm colors and text that rhymes and uses onomatopoeias make for a comforting story.

The Halloween title in Roger Priddy’s Bright Baby Touch & Feel books is the delightfully interactive Spooky. If you aren’t familiar with this series, think of this title as a sort of Pat the Bunny for Halloween. It has big, bright pictures of familiar Halloween symbols, a variety of textures to go along with each, and simple vocabulary.

Treats for Readers Aged 4-8

Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.
Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.

Gus Vasilovich’s The 13 Nights of Halloween is a favored read-aloud among our youngest library patrons. It’s a clever countdown to Halloween night (think The Twelve Days of Christmas). Even someone who can’t carry a tune with a handle (that’d be me) will sing along to the witty little ditty with a roomful of second-graders. The vibrant illustrations brilliantly combine cute and creepy. This book gets checked out of our library long past Halloween.

You know Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame would have a Halloween winner. Specifically, The Hallo-Wiener. It’s a super-fun read aloud that features a picked-on dachshund named Oscar who becomes a hero when he saves trick-or-treat for his doggy peers (the same ones who were picking on him!). The book’s positive message is delivered subtly and humorously. And it’s fun to do a Julia Child voice while reading as Oscar’s mother.

For the kid who wants facts with their Halloween fun, there’s J is for Jack-O’-Lantern: A Halloween Alphabet by Denise Brennan-Nelson. This is one of many alphabet books from Sleeping Bear Press that entertains as it educates. From autumn to zany, young readers learn about Halloween symbols, traditions, and facts. There are even recipes for hot apple cider, witch’s brew, and other treats that would be perfect for your Halloween party.

Tricks for Readers Aged 9-12

Originally published in 1968, The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase has a slightly different writing style and vocabulary than today’s middle-graders are accustomed to reading. Encourage them to read it anyway. It’s neither screamingly scary, nor gross-out gory. It’s subtly creepy, which is good for kids who want an itty bitty fright but don’t like to be terrified by their books. A nasty and mean girl named Maureen (now she’d be characterized as a bully) meets her match in the seven ghostly Messerman sisters who inhabit a dilapidated old mansion. But is it enough of a match to make the supremely stubborn Maureen change her ways? Read it and see.

Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.
Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.

Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, is a master of the fantasy genre. That expert touch is used perfectly in the light horror of The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns. This collection of six short stories will have you leaving all the lights on. Those not frightened by what lurks in the dark can turn them off and use a flashlight to get the full effect. Jacques, an Englishman, deftly employs British vernacular which may take some getting used to for middle-grade readers unfamiliar with that dialect. Parents (or grandparents) who have enjoyed years of Monty Python can shine during read aloud time.

Neil Gaiman can terrify and entertain readers of any age. In Coraline, the eponymous protagonist is a bored little girl who stumbles into a ghastly world. That’s frightening enough. But when that hair-raising realm invades Coraline’s real world, the creepiness factor increases exponentially. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations lend an even more sinister air to the story. Don’t make the mistake of passing up this book because your kids have seen the movie. The movie does not do this story justice. I know librarians always say that. As usual, it’s the truth.

Teen Screams (ages 12-15)

Eve Bunting’s many children’s books are well-known, but she also has an impressive list of Young Adult titles to her credit. Among them is The Presence: A Ghost Story. Though set during Christmastime, it’s a great YA ghost story. It has a lot of what readers this age are looking for – mystery, tragedy, the supernatural, romance, and suspense. Bunting’s ghost is that of a handsome young man who lures teenage girls to their doom, and he’s chosen a new victim. As an aside, Bunting’s latest YA suspense novel, Forbidden, will be published on December 1.

These books are great if you're ready for something a bit more frightening.
These books are great if you’re ready for something a bit more frightening.

Cirque du Freak #1: A Living Nightmare by Darren Shan was at the peak of its popularity during the recent vampire lit obsession. We’ve moved past vampires and this series has, unfortunately, gone by the wayside. This is a ghastly introduction to the 12-book Cirque du Freak series. At the height the series’ popularity, I asked an eighth-grader why he liked it. While he enjoyed the scary stuff, he said what he liked best was the good vs. evil theme. It’s a good bridge from Goosebumps to Stephen King for readers who like some gore with their fright.

You can’t be a Marylander recommending scary stories and not include Edgar Allan Poe. For this age group to get a taste of the great and disturbed genius that is Poe, try Stories for Young People: Edgar Allan Poe edited by Andrew Delbanco.  It features five of Poe’s most iconic tales – “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Oval Portrait.” The Stories for Young People series makes classic, unabridged literature accessible to students who might otherwise bypass it. With vocabulary and analysis provided for each tale, young readers can read and understand Poe’s genius. And have nightmares after the fact.

Here’s hoping you find something frighteningly fun to read this Halloween. Until next time, keep reading!

Author Crush Part 2 – Keeping Your Gidwitz About You

Book Nerd Truth
Book Nerd Truth
The only thing better than a long-awaited new book is a long-awaited new book by one of your favorite authors. Adam Gidwitz is the author. The book is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – So You Want to Be a Jedi? It’s part of a trilogy by three terrific authors (Gidwitz, Alexandra Bracken, and Tom Angleberger). I just finished the book yesterday (yes, I read it out of sequence). I read the book not as a Star Wars fan (I like the original Star Wars trilogy just fine, but I’m not an aficionado), but as an Adam Gidwitz fan. Now I want to read the other two books. The book was that good and the author is that talented.

I was introduced to Gidwitz’s debut novel, A Tale Dark & Grimm, in March 2011 when I read it for a freelance job I had writing teacher’s guides for audiobooks. Over about 18 years, I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 books for that job. This was one of my all-time favorites. It was as if I’d discovered gold. I told my then-seventh graders about it. They asked me to read it to them, which I did when they were in eighth grade. It was a hit, always in circulation, and had excellent word-of-mouth reviews by middle schoolers. There aren’t a lot of books that enjoy that kind of widespread popularity across that 11-14 age group.

If you aren’t familiar with it, A Tale Dark & Grimm features Hansel and Gretel wending their way through some of the Brothers Grimm lesser-known tales. And Gidwitz tells it like it was, with all the grim gore these stories originally possessed. Jacob and Wilhelm would be pleased. No one in these stories is whistling while they work. This book is gruesome and frightening, which kids kind of like (whether their parents like it or not). But you know what else it is? It’s funny. Something that sets this book (and Gidwitz’s subsequent novels, In a Glass Grimmly and The Grimm Conclusion) apart from scare-me books that kids enjoy is humor. Gidwitz’s narration interjects witty warnings and asides throughout the chapters, just when they’re needed to ease the tension.

Gidwitz has a quality that all children’s book authors need, but not all of them have. He understands kids. He knows what entertains and interests them. He can get them to think about right and wrong without being Mr. GrownUpPreachy. He speaks to them, not at them. He’s a traditional storyteller with a modern-day twist.

Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of about 100 middle schoolers.
Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of approximately 100 students.
We were fortunate enough to have Gidwitz visit our students not once, but twice. Both visits were successful beyond my expectations.There aren’t a lot of people who can hold 100 students in grades 5 through 8 in rapt attention for an hour, but he can and did. As part of his second visit, we were able to have 25 students attend an after-school writing workshop with him. It was an amazing opportunity and I still have parents and students asking when we’re going to do it again.

Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
It’s hard to pinpoint the best things to come out of those visits and the popularity of the Tale Dark & Grimm series among our students. The best I can do is narrow it down to two. The new interest in/appreciation for the fairy tale genre and the number of students who expressed an interest in someday being authors were possibly the greatest outcomes. A strictly personal third fantastic outcome was a job for my eldest daughter, but that’s a long story for a different type of blog.

In July 2014 I happened upon this YouTube video from Disney Publishing WorldWide announcing the upcoming Star Wars books. It was great to see Gidwitz included among a cadre of accomplished children’s book authors who would take on the project (note: the slate of authors changed from the time this video was produced). While, as stated earlier, I’m not a Star Wars mega-fan, the original Star Wars trilogy is iconic for my generation. I remember my workaholic dad taking the day off to take all five of us kids (ages 14 to 5) to see the first film, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, during the week that it opened. We kids knew it was a big deal. Not only did Dad take a day off, but he was taking us to the movies – he almost never went to the movies – and without Mom along to help him. So I eagerly awaited the publication of this new book. While the Star Wars franchise has many fairy tale elements, I was very interested in how Gidwitz would interpret Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I've read them?
My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I’ve read them? P.S. I love the cover art!
It’s terrific. In this novel, Adam Gidwitz does what he does best. He gets the reader immersed in the story. You are Luke Skywalker. You are training to be a Jedi. You have to save your dearest friends and battle your greatest foe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. What is really unique, really gives it an inimitable twist, are the 24 Jedi lessons interspersed throughout the book. As I read each one, I thought how much fun they would be as class activities and how much excitement they would add to the read aloud experience. Now I really want Gidwitz to come back to our school and teach our students how to be Jedi.

Until next time, keep reading!

The Good Fight: 8 Ways to Get Middle Schoolers to Read

Quizzical Look

Middle schoolers. I love them. They can be a jumble of hormones, feelings, doubts, defiance, humor, ambivalence, aloofness, and questions. Little by little they’re leaving behind childhood for the teenage years. The late Sister Helene Fee, IHM, was principal of our school for many years and encountered more than her share of middle schoolers. She used to hand out to their parents a wonderful little essay called “The Cat Years” during the back-to-school meeting in August. It sums up what those parents were about to experience.

I see a version of “The Cat Years” in our library. Students who couldn’t wait to check out a book from pre-kindergarten all the way through fifth grade now come to the library and look at me like I’m insane when I suggest they use silent reading time for silent reading.

Quizzical Look
You want us to read? In the library?

I’m not talking about children who have learning differences that make reading difficult. That’s a much more complex topic. I’m talking about those who read with little or no difficulty but who have lost their interest in reading. For parents and teachers, getting those 11- to 14-year-olds to read can be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. It doesn’t have to be all-out war.  Here’s what we can do to give ourselves an edge in the battle.

  1. Take away the no-time excuse. This one is probably the most prevalent and yet the easiest to fix. Everyone has 20 minutes to read most days of the week. If a middle schooler can’t eke out that kind of time, perhaps parent and child need to sit down and see where their time is being spent and what can be juggled or cut out.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Most people (myself included) have nearly uninterrupted access to electronic distractions. We can watch TV pretty much anywhere at any time. That goes for playing video games and browsing social media. If this is the culprit robbing your child of reading time and attention, consider placing limits. You might be the bad guy temporarily, but it’s for a good cause.
  3. Provide access to reading material. You needn’t break the bank buying books. Public and school libraries can be your best friend. Make a date to browse the stacks for favorite topics, genres, and authors. Too busy to browse? Let your child spend a little time at home on your public library’s online catalog and make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers so you can get in and out quickly. Or, check a list of recommended titles like those you can find on
  4. Give the adolescent people what they want. I seldom ask students of this age “What do you like to read?” The answer will often be a stonewalling “Nothing.” Instead, I ask them about hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes. With that information and a catalog search, we usually find a winner. Once you have that, pile on.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.

    If they like graphic novels, find as many as you can. Sports? Mike Lupica might become their go-to author. Video gamers might like a fiction series with dystopian themes like The Giver, The Hunger Games, Legend, Fever Crumb, or Shadow Children.

  5. Make reading socially acceptable. Lots of kids this age don’t want to be seen as uncool and sometimes (to my amazement) reading gets tagged as uncool. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try adding a social aspect to make reading more appealing. Get together with other middle-schoolers and their parents for occasional book swaps, or start a book club. It can be as infrequently as monthly or quarterly. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are tried-and-true ways to make this happen.
  6. Share the books you loved at that age. I am thrilled beyond words that our three copies of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders have been in almost constant circulation since last spring. I told some sixth-graders that when I was in junior high (the prehistoric version of middle school), I holed up in my bedroom and read that book in one day, and then cried my seventh-grade eyes out. That got the ball rolling. Now it’s making the round with eighth-graders. I’m trying to get them to read Betsy Byars’ The Summer of the Swans, but the dated cover makes it a harder sell.
  7. Read together. Try to find the lovable puppy hiding beneath the surface of that aloof cat. I know this is something I beat into the ground. It’s been in past posts, and will be in future ones. Believe it or not, they want to be read to. I have proof.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to. These seventh-graders are.

    For a back-to-library assignment, one of the things I asked my seventh- and eighth-graders to do was to write what they would like us to do during library time this year. I was pleasantly surprised that many students said they wanted me to read to them.

  8. Communicate and investigate. Talk to teachers, librarians, and other parents of middle schoolers to see what has worked for them. Investigate blogs and articles. If you’re having this issue, you know many other parents have faced the same problem. Kids continue to read so someone somewhere is having success.

I love a good quote about reading. Even more so when it’s from a great author like Kate DiCamillo who said, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty.  It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” And what parent would miss the opportunity to give such a gift?

Until next time, keep reading!

Picture This: 5 Classic Picture Books Every Child Needs to Know

One of life’s greatest pleasures is a beautiful picture book. That’s especially true when it’s the kind that can be enjoyed by children and grownups alike. Novels are great for losing yourself in words and ideas. But there’s something about combining words and ideas with gorgeous or unique illustrations that makes the picture book experience extra special.

Of all the things I love about my job as an elementary/middle school librarian, a particular favorite is that I have the opportunity to share new picture books with my young students, along with discovering new authors and illustrators. With so many wonderful books to choose from, it’s easy for the older ones to get pushed aside and forgotten. That is a mistake. It’s our duty as parents and teachers to make sure those classics don’t end up on the ash heap of picture book history.

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of those classic picture books that should stay in our read-aloud rotations and find a place on our family bookshelves. There are so many of them, one post won’t do it (I feel another continuing topic coming on). The five covered here have publication dates spanning from 1932-1963, which means all of them are older than me. This bit of information, by the way, usually causes gasps of amazement among my little story time friends.

  1. Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932). This is not the book for which Marjorie Flack is best known (think The Story About Ping or any of the Angus books featuring a playful little terrier). In this story, a little boy named Danny is looking for a birthday gift for his mother, a very wholesome picture book theme.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.

    His search takes him from one talking animal to another until he gets to Mr. Bear, who gives him the best idea of all. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Danny ends up with the simplest and best gift. It’s a sweet and very relatable story, with a subtle anti-materialism message. The book’s illustrations really stand out because of the bright colors. Many of the picture books from this era contain illustrations in more muted tones. This one uses bright pinks, greens, and yellows that really catch the eye.

  2. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson (1936). Probably one of the best stories ever written that basically tells children “just do you.”
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.

    Big, strong Ferdinand the bull had no desire to be like all his peers and head butt his way to the great bull fighting rings of the big city. He’s the original stop-and-smell-the-flowers character. There’s a lot of political analysis that’s been done regarding this story that I won’t get into here. Just suffice to say that if Adolf Hitler hated it and Mahatma Gandhi loved it, it must be awesome. Leaf’s clever words and Lawson’s beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations combine for a charming tale.

  3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd (1947). I probably don’t have to convince anyone that children need to know Goodnight Moon. This is the quintessential picture book.
    “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon…”

    Whether in paperback, board book, or hardcover, you’ve probably owned a copy at some point in your life. The sweet illustrations, the depiction of a bedtime routine, and the soothing rhythm of the words make it a perfect bedtime story for the very young. This is one that you’ve probably read so many times you know it by heart and you secretly find that it soothes you as much as it does most children. Like most enduring books, there’s so much more to this one than meets the eye.

  4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962). What child doesn’t love a snowy day? All that bright, white frozen fluff to run and tumble in, sled on, and roll into a snowman, along with the promise of an unexpected holiday from school! The cover itself is suitable for framing.
    Children love to wake up in Peter's world.
    Children love to wake up in Peter’s world.

    The brightly colored illustrations bring to life every child’s exuberance that bubbles up when they look out the window and see a fresh, clean, snow-covered world. They want to put on snow boots and join Peter, the imaginative little boy whose feet go through the snow with “…his toes pointing out, like this…pointing in, like that.” This picture book is more than a delightful story with brilliant illustrations. More than 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine for those who didn’t live through the heart of the Civil Rights Era that The Snowy Day was also a picture book torchbearer, being “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero” ( Peter is an every-child who most children can relate to. God bless Ezra Jack Keats for bringing us Peter in this and subsequent books, and for finally opening a door to children’s literature that is hard to believe was previously closed.

  5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). If I’d have written this post more than four months ago, I would have put Where the Wild Things Are in the same category as Goodnight Moon – a book everyone knows and loves. However, while doing a classroom activity with my seventh-graders I was dismayed to find out that this Maurice Sendak classic may not be as widely known as it should be anymore. Many of those 12- and 13-year-old students were only familiar with Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version. I wanted to cry. But like any librarian in this predicament, I stopped the activity, got our copy of this timeless treasure, and read it to them. I did the appropriate voices and shared the beautifully bizarre illustrations. Such a wonderful story of reassurance can’t be allowed to go by the wayside.
    All children need to know they're loved, even after a wild rumpus.
    All children need to know they’re loved, even after a wild rumpus.

    All children need to know that no matter how “wild” they may be, they will always have a place where they are loved. And that supper will be waiting for them, and it will still be hot. And if that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read Where the Wild Things Are.

I hope this list gives you some titles to look for the next time you’re browsing your local bookstore or perusing the stacks at your public library. If you have special memories of any of these titles, please share them in the comments section.

Until next time, keep reading!

Author Crush Part 1 – Do You Know Mo?

Updated blog post with pictures from the Mo Willems exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

Young Readers Resource

I plan to use this space to periodically extol the virtues of my favorite children’s book authors. It was tough to decide who should be the first author featured, but I decided on author/illustrator Mo Willems. Prior to becoming an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, Willems was an Emmy award-winning writer for Sesame Street. As valuable as his contributions to children’s television were, we’re all fortunate that he switched gears and started writing books.

Mo Willems is a star in our school library and his books are always being circulated. I spend a few weeks with our pre-k students reading his humorous stories and talking about his delightful illustrations, beginning with one of the Pigeon  books, moving on to Elephant and Piggie, a Knuffle Bunny story or two, and one of his wonderful stand-alone titles. If there’s time left at the end of the school year, we usually learn how…

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Love Your School Library

That new book smell is everywhere. The posters are up. The books are on display. Student library accounts have been added or updated. Lesson plans are (almost) finished. Getting ready for a new year in the school library is akin to getting ready for Christmas, and the night before school begins is a sort of Christmas Eve, full of preparation and anticipation.

The story corner is waiting for children like a decked-out Christmas tree.
The story corner is waiting for children like a decked-out Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

Harold Howe II (1918-2002), author and former U.S. Commissioner of Education, said “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” Even if your livelihood doesn’t depend on the existence of a school library as mine does, I think many of you can agree with Mr. Howe.

But the sad fact is not all schools have libraries. Those that do are fortunate, especially if students, like at our school, have library as a weekly class, and can also make a quick trip when it’s not their designated day to take out or return books.

Every level of school represents a student population with a wide range of interests and abilities to work with. Ultimately, the goal is to make each student’s library time meaningful. But that requires collaboration. Students, families, teachers, and staff all have a part to play. At the beginning of each school year, librarians have the opportunity to let the students know what their role is in that partnership. Hopefully, students get the opportunity to voice their expectations, as well. So I’m putting on my cat-eye glasses and going total librarian to give you some idea of what the home piece of this puzzle is. In the interest of full disclosure, I really do have cat-eye glasses. So trendy.

  1. Read, read, read. This is the most important item on the list. Children who see their role models reading are more likely to read on their own. As a parent or guardian, or just someone loved by an impressionable little human, you’re automatically a role model. Books, magazines, newspapers –hardcopy or electronic – all count. And whether or not you read for yourself, at the very least, read to and with your children. No matter what.
    The great family tradition of story time, circa 1975. My parents and little brothers enjoying the great Richard Scarry.
    The great family tradition of story time, circa 1975. My parents and little brothers enjoying the great Richard Scarry.

    You’re tired, busy, stressed, frazzled. Do it anyway. The littlest littles will love having that time with you and remember it fondly when they aren’t little anymore. And when they’re not so little, it’s a wonderfully sneaky way to get them to sit down and have time with you. After reading, talk about what they read. Get their opinions and get them to make predictions. It’ll help them comprehend the story better and give you a little more insight into the wonderful people they’re becoming.

  2. Participate. Does your school library need volunteers at the circulation desk, with shelving, or during the book fair? Do you have time in your schedule? It may be as much as a couple of hours a week or as little as an hour a year. But you, your child, and your child’s school library will benefit from it.
    Volunteer in your school's library, or just visit.
    Volunteer in your school’s library, or just visit.

    This might be the hardest one for most families. Your librarian understands. We have multiple commitments, too. At least don’t be a stranger. Stop by the library during open house or other school events and say hello.

  3. Know your due dates. This is important for students and their parents. The younger the student, the more the onus is on the parent/guardian to know due dates. Decide in your household who bears what portion of that responsibility. A good way to keep track of due dates is to note them on a calendar (paper or electronic). Let your children do it, and it’ll make them more part of the process. These days not all libraries stamp due dates in the books. They just give you a receipt (to lose). In our school library, we’re stampers. Old school works for us for some things.
  4. Think of overdue notices as gentle reminders. That’s really what they are. Really. I jokingly call them nasty notes, but they aren’t.
    Overdue books? It doesn't have to get ugly.
    Overdue books? It doesn’t have to get ugly.

    Librarians just want to make sure the books are available to others as quickly as possible. Also remember that these notices are often automatically generated, so your child is likely to get one if the due date coincides with a school absence. If it’s a hardcopy given to your child, let him or her know that it’s important to bring it home.

  5. Let your librarian know (gently, like an overdue book reminder) if you believe a damage/overdue/lost book notice was received erroneously. We’re human. Mostly. We make mistakes. Especially during book fair.
  6. Return damaged books for repairs. People have the best intentions when they try to repair school library books, but it’s not a good idea. Send it back with a note about the damage so it doesn’t accidentally get checked in and shelved in damaged condition. If it can’t be repaired, don’t be surprised to get a bill for the cost to replace the book.

    All in a day's work!
    All in a day’s work!
  7. Let the librarian replace lost or damaged items. It will probably eventually be on your nickel, but don’t buy a replacement copy of a lost or damaged library item unless you’ve made arrangements with your librarian. Replacing a library-bound edition with a mass market paperback? Nope.

Happy new school year! I hope this list is helpful. Until next time, keep reading!

Summer Love

new books
Most of our new library books, ready to go!

Here it is, the end of summer. While I’ve enjoyed these mostly schedule-free days, I am looking forward to seeing my students again. One of the things I enjoy most about being an elementary/middle school librarian is introducing our students to new books every year. As of this writing, there are 145 brand new, never-before-checked-out books ready to go from shelves and spinners to the hands of (hopefully) eager readers. Of course we still love our old books just as much. As I tell my kids, an old book is new to someone who hasn’t read it yet. But that’s a post for another day. Today it’s about the shiny, new volumes.

Specifically, it’s about what I read this summer. More specifically, it’s about my five favorites. For the purposes of this post, I’m only referencing middle-grade and YA books. We have some awesome new stuff for the younger students, but they’re easier to persuade. My toughest customers are my upstairs kids.

In our school, grades 4 through 8 are in classrooms on the second floor of the building. Something about going up one flight of stairs changes some of my sweet, compliant(ish) primary-grade patrons. Yes, many remain dedicated readers who can’t wait to get downstairs to the library for their next book. However, with each succeeding grade, there are those who may range from picky to aloof to downright disdainful when it comes to reading.

I’ve been at this long enough to know not to take it personally. It’s the natural order of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up without a fight. And if I’m going to win any of them over, I have to be prepared.  So I read. And read. And read some more. So far this summer, I’ve read 11 of our new middle-grade/YA books (I have two left in my pile, so we’ll see how that goes). There’s not a single one I didn’t like, but I didn’t love all of them. I loved five of them, roughly 45%. Not bad. So here they are, in no particular order, except for my absolute favorite which I’ve saved for last.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Deafo, a graphic novel memoir, but was intrigued by the title and the cover illustration (yes, I’m a book-cover-judger). My interest was also piqued by the fact that author/illustrator Cece Bell was awarded a prestigious 2015 Newbery Honor by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). This is a big deal. This is the first graphic novel to earn this distinction. Newbery books get a lot of attention and a lot of readers. This honor can only help the format. If you aren’t familiar with graphic novels, you can read more about them in my previous post, “I Was Wrong”.

madman el deafo pic
The Madman of Piney Woods and El Deafo, two of my favorite summer reads.

I read El Deafo in one evening. Yes, graphic novels are generally quick reads, but I couldn’t put it down. Bell tells the story of how, as a small child, she lost her hearing and gained a superhero alter-ego. It’s fantastic. If you’ve been unsure about graphic novels, this one is a great introduction. It’s quirky and relatable at the same time. It shows that differences are nothing to fear, but it’s not heavy handed about it. The illustrations are perfect for the story. Cece and the other characters are portrayed as rabbits. This may sound odd but once you start reading it, you won’t give it a second thought. You’ll be too focused on Cece’s story and themes familiar to anyone who’s ever been a child, like friendship and identity. Bell is deserving of the Newbery honor, as El Deafo really is a “…most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (“Welcome to the Newbery Medal Home Page!” You can learn more about author/illustrator Cece Bell here.

 The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

Beautiful words from Christopher Paul Curtis.

I’m a longtime fan of Christopher Paul Curtis. He is a gifted storyteller and a master of historical fiction. What he can do with words is practically magic, as you can see from this picture, which is page 119 of The Madman of Piney Woods. This story is a companion to his 2008 Newbery Honor winner Elijah of Buxton, but you can enjoy Madman without having read Elijah.

Although it’s historical fiction (set in Canada in 1901), themes of friendship, family, loyalty, and prejudice make it something with which many middle-grade readers may identify. Madman’s two protagonists, Benji and Red, tell their stories in alternating chapters. Some young readers don’t like this method of storytelling, but it’s brilliantly done here. Though Benji and Red’s stories intertwine, they each have separate points of view which are best expressed in each boy’s first-person voice. It’s the best way to gain an appreciation for each boy’s different experiences and how they lead them to the same place. It’s a suspenseful story, as well. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the outcome for potential readers, so I’ll just leave you with this plea to read it. Curtis really is a word magician. Here’s a terrific interview with him from earlier this year that gives great insight into the man and the author.

brown girl dreaming
The beautifully-told story of author Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I love a story written entirely in free verse poetry and authors who convey the beauty of words so naturally that their readers are enveloped by it. And I love a memoir. Brown Girl Dreaming has all of that, and more. In Woodson’s own words, it’s the story of “what it was like to grow up an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.” (

A big part of this story’s appeal is that, although set in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is relevant to children of the 21st century. In addition to the societal themes, this story is very much about family, friendship, and realizing one’s gifts. The free verse writing also makes for a quick read, so a middle-grade reader who may be put off by 319 pages need not be. Get to know Jacqueline Woodson here.

.The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley

dumbest idea
The Dumbest Idea Ever! is actually brilliant.

The Dumbest Idea Ever, as it turns out, wasn’t. This is another memoir in graphic novel form (see El Deafo, above). It’s an engaging story about how high school student Jimmy Gownley became graphic-novelist Jimmy Gownley. It’s a great story for kids who dream of a career as an author and/or illustrator, but also for anyone who simply has a future goal that seems unattainable in his or her young mind. Gownley went on to become the author/illustrator of the popular Amelia Rules series and founder of Kids Love Comics, which uses graphic novels to promote literacy.

On a big-picture level, The Dumbest Idea Ever is a realistic look at the transition from middle to high school. Jimmy assumed this was going to be an easy transition but circumstances worked against him. He had to struggle to find his place. The graphic novel format makes it accessible to students of all abilities, and is a great way for readers to make self-to-story connections about goals, disappointments, and perseverance. Gownley doesn’t preach, he just tells (and shows) what he experienced, and what generations of kids have experienced at that time in their lives. It’s a charming story with a bittersweet epilogue that many students will enjoy.

EchoEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

My favorite book of the summer is about a harmonica. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. But even though I don’t know much about the instrument and have no talent for music, after reading Echo, I wanted to learn to play the harmonica (your ears are safe; I never actually attempted it). It’s practically the protagonist of the story. Practically. Actually, three children from different places and slightly different times and very different circumstances are the protagonists. The harmonica, though, is the tie that binds their stories together. It seems enchanted to the point that it literally and figuratively saves lives.

Ryan’s Echo is part fairy tale, part historical fiction, and completely mesmerizing. It may be a little intimidating for middle-grade readers at 592 pages, but it’s a magnificent story and worth the time and effort. For kids who would scoff at independently reading something this long (and even those who wouldn’t), it is a wonderful family read aloud. It has male and female protagonists. It has adventure, hope, despair, triumph, tragedy, music, magic, and relatable themes. If you can be brought to tears by a beautifully-told story (stop looking at me!), keep a box of tissues handy. Perhaps the biggest draw for me (though it’s hard to choose just one) was that I cared about Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy, the main characters of the three stories-within-the-story. Ryan portrays them in a way that makes them seem like flesh-and-blood people. I wanted things to turn out right for them, for them to no longer experience hurt or loss. I won’t tell you if I got my wish, but I will implore you to read this book so you can find out for yourself. I would also suggest that you consider other works by this award-winning author.

I hope you found something in this personal bibliography that captured your interest. What was your (or your young reader’s) favorite summer read? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, keep reading!

I Was Wrong

If this article does nothing else, the title will please the only three people guaranteed to read it – my husband and our two daughters. It’s not something they hear often from me.  So I’ll repeat it; I was wrong.

I was wrong about graphic novels. I spent a long time turning my nose up at them, refusing to acknowledge them for the valuable resource that they are. I’ve learned my lesson. I promise to never again judge a book by its format. Graphic novels are not glorified comics that exist for lazy readers. Nor are they kid’s stuff or a literary fad.

graphic novels

Instead of simply explaining this change of heart, I’ll tell you what’s so great about graphic novels. First, we need to make sure we’re on the same page as to what a graphic novel is. Graphic novels combine original artwork and text in comic book style to convey a fictional story or factual information. As explained by the website, graphic novels are not a genre. Rather, the graphic novel is a format that can be applied to any genre.

When giving any thought to graphic novels, many people think of superheroes like The Avengers or Justice League, but superheroes have had to make room on the shelf for other types of graphic novels. Of course there are science fiction and fantasy. But you can also find history, biography, realistic fiction, historical fiction, and even adaptations of classic literature.

While we’re changing perceptions, forget any age or gender notions. This is not strictly the domain of adolescent boys. Female authors, illustrators, and protagonists are becoming more prevalent in this format. has a list of 470 adult graphic novels (though it does contain some middle-grade and young-adult titles). For children in primary and intermediate grades, longtime favorites like Captain Underpants, Fone Bone, and Wimpy Kid have been joined by a parade of new favorites like Big Nate, Cleopatra, and Squish. You can find many more here.

Graphic novels have found their place in classrooms and school libraries, and it’s not shoved on an out-of-the-way shelf far from the so-called real books. Always on top of developments in children’s literature Scholastic, Inc. began publishing its own line of graphic novels under the Graphix imprint ten years ago. Around that time graphic novels began to gain popularity among educators as a way to entice reluctant readers to pick up a book, or as a resource for ESL programs and ELL students. Studies endorse this use of graphic novels, including one that states that “…students appeared to have a better understanding of the storylines when reading graphic novels, and seemed more enthusiastic about learning.” (“Graphic Novels Support Reading Comprehension Strategies.” March 20, 2013)

As they started gaining popularity with teachers, graphic novels also expanded their student audience. In our school, they are enjoyed by children of all abilities. About seven years ago (mostly thanks to Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series), I began to change my opinion of graphic novels when I began to see their universal appeal. Previously I dismissed them as brain candy — a quick, entertaining read of little educational value. I heard the reasons why our students enjoy them, and they are the same reasons for enjoying any literature. Our students find them funny or exciting or scary or touching. They love the protagonist. They despise the antagonist. Most importantly, they want to read more. And that’s really the goal here, to find something a child wants to – loves to – read.

I included two of our newly-acquired graphic novels on my personal summer great graphicsreading list. Both are autobiographical in nature. I read Cece Bell’s Newbery Medalist, El Deafo and The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jeff Gownley. Of the 10 books I’ve read so far this summer, those two are in my top five. Both stories are witty, moving, and relatable.

I won’t go into all the ways graphic novels can benefit young readers. You can read some of that here. Maybe you still have reservations about graphic novels for your child. The crass humor some of them contain, though hilarious to 7-year-olds, can be off-putting to adults. If that’s the case, consider starting out with classics. In our library we have Black Beauty, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Swiss Family Robinson, and many more. If nothing else, a graphic novel may lay a good foundation if your child has to read the traditional novel later in life. Or maybe it will make him or her want to read it!

Until next time, keep reading!