Saturday, February 28, 2009


I've become a Barbara O'Connor groupie. I can't help it. Everything she writes is terrific! So far I've read HOW TO STEAL A DOG and GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE. Last night I read FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA. I own BEETHOVEN IN PARADISE and TAKING CARE OF MOSES (that might not be the exact title), and those are on my pile of books to read soon. 

I love, love, love how Barbara O'Connor's main characters. They are usually kids with lives that are not all that easy (kind of like the kids I teach). They are not the kids with nice clothes, and dance lessons, and families that eat dinner together every night. And yet in spite of all of their difficulties, they manage to survive and actually do pretty ok. Georgina and Kirby and Willow give my kids the courage to try just one more day, and a little bit of hope that maybe better times are just around the corner.

FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA definitely fits into this category. Bird is a sixth grade girl. She's the kind of kid who is pretty much on the outs of the social scene, no one wants to be her friend. Her best friend is Miss Delphine Reese, a neighbor who spends her days taking care of her elderly father. Bird has two goals in life-- she wants to be noticed, to have a few minutes of fame and glory, and she wants to go to Disney World.

When Harlem Tate moves to town, Bird can see that he needs a friend as badly as she does. Harlem is bigger than all of the other kids, and is rumored to have spent three years in the sixth grade. He's messy and doesn't smell too good. And he lives above a tattoo parlor with Mr. Moody, the town miscreant whose only job is collecting tin cans in a black plastic bag slung over his back.

One day Bird's teacher, Mrs. Moore, announces that the school will have a spelling bee, with great prizes like bikes and encyclopedias. The winner will go to the state spelling bee, and the winner of that event will get a trip to Disney World. Bird knows that the spelling bee is her opportunity to accomplish her two goals. The trouble is, the spelling bee is a partner thing and of course no one wants to be Bird's partner. Bird goes to work on Harlem and the two develop an unlikely friendship.

This is one of those books that's a great story, but also teaches kids lots of life lessons. The book reminds kids (and adults) to be gentle, because you never know what people might be going through. It reminds them to follow their dreams.  And it gives kids a friend named Bird, a girl who has the courage and strength of character to keep hoping and to do right things, in spite of what people around her may do or think. (There's one scene toward the end, I don't want to give it away, but Bird reminds me of Atticus Finch sitting in front of the courthouse).

I loved Bird and Harlem and Miss Delphine. I love this book! Barbara O'Connor is amazing.

Friday, February 27, 2009


ORDINARY THINGS: POEMS FROM A WALK IN EARLY SPRING is not a new book. It was published in 1997. It is, however, one of my all-time favorite poetry books, and definitely my favorite book of spring poetry. It's been in the mid-50's all week in Colorado (well, ok, today was cold and windy) but most of the week it's been decidedly spring-ish. My teaching partner even saw crocuses when she was out walking on Wednesday night.  Even if you are in some place that is still cold and snowy, you could look for this book now, and have spring in your heart, while you are waiting for the real thing to appear.

ORDINARY THINGS, like most of Ralph's poetry books, is a series of poems, that kind of tell a story or follow a journey. In the first poem in this book, Ralph leaves his house to walk a large loop through the rural New Hampshire countryside. Each poem is about a different image along the way. Ralph has poems about daffodils, horses, birches, a fern, how  cut hair becomes part of a bird's nest, even one about an overturned Volkswagen beetle. Midway through the book, he rounds a big boulder and loops for home.  You could devour this book in one sitting, or you could just bite off one poem at a time. Either way, it's mudluscious!

Ralph's ability to create an image with just a few words is absolutely amazing. The poems are short and relatively simple, yet also incredibly deep. Ralph is a craftsman who uses language more capably than any one I know. His choice of words, and his metaphors are amazingly complex and beautiful, but also simple enough that kids can easily pick it up. 

I read this book to my fourth and fifth graders on Wednesday. I had only planned to read them two or three poems as an opening for class, but they begged for more, and we ended up spending about twenty minutes sharing poetry. Yesterday, as M (one of my hardest-to-focus fifth graders) burst through the door she said, "Are we going to do more poems by that guy?"

If you don't know Ralph's poetry books, check him out. He has six or seven other poetry books (HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE BEACH LATELY, RELATIVELY SPEAKING, and ROOM ENOUGH FOR LOVE) are some of my favorites. 

Happy Friday! Happy Poetry Friday! Happy Spring! Poetry Friday is here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


We are in the middle of getting kids ready for state tests. And it's hard, because it feels like our kids start the race about fifty yards behind the starting line, with used sneakers, instead of fancy cleats. And we are having a visit from the CDE today. And that's hard, because they will tell us that our teachers are not good enough, because they cannot get the kids who start out fifty yards behind the starting line with their used sneakers caught up to kids who have new sneakers, and lessons, and special coaches, and good meals. 

Then I read this, (thanks Frankie!) and I decide I will try for one more day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I have been a little lax in the blogging department this week. I have been busy with other important stuff:
  • Coordinating the testing schedule and materials for CSAP, our state assessment (the absolute least favorite part of my job, which I will not blog about, because I would probably get fired).
  • Researching remedies for plantar fascitis (sp?) so that my eighth grader can continue playing basketball and also play in a new high school development football league.
  • Helping my high school son complete two ten-page grammar packets, including an African American history word search that took us approximately one hour to complete.
  • Chasing my two four-footed Houdinis around the neighborhood. They have gotten out of the yard twice in the last week! Thankfully, they were found by some dog angels and I didn't have to pay pound fees.
As I struggle through life in the slow lane, my smart friend, Lauren, has been doing some really big thinking. I love her post about remembering the "important stuff." Head over to Pictures, Words, and Wisdom and check it out!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Boy, oh boy, can I dink around a lot on the internet. I'm up early this Saturday morning to fill out paperwork so that Kadeem can play in a spring football league (because we do not have enough sports in our life), after which I will go to school and finish packing up the third grade CSAP books, then go buy a shirt and a pair of size 16 shoes so my son does not have to wear tennis shoes to a wedding this afternoon, then be at the wedding downtown at two. Yikes! 

Anyway, just came over from Chicken Spaghetti where I read a wonderful quote by Donalyn Miller, a middle school teacher who blogs as THE BOOK WHISPERER. Miller writes:

There are many days when I don't get it right-- my lesson falls flat, my temper is short, or I am too distracted to focus on the child standing in front of me. My students forgive me on those days because I am one of them- a reader. I rarely fail when talking to children about books and why they should read this one. It pleases me when my students consider me an expert whose opinions about books they value; I convince a lot of kids they are experts because they read too.

This fits right in with what Mary Lee and I have been talking about regarding reading engagement this week. Bottom line, I think, teachers who care hugely about books help students become people who care hugely about books.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Marge Piercy

The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again. 

The rest of the poem is here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Author: Kai Jackson Issa
Illustrator: Arthur L. Dawson
Publisher: Lee and Low (review copy provided by publisher)

I've spent my entire career in urban settings. Right now, I'm in a pretty rough neighborhood in north Denver. Many of our students have hard, hard, hard lives-  we have kids being raised by grandparents or foster parents, kids whose parents are working two and three jobs to support their families, and kids whose families are really struggling in our very difficult economy. Our students are regularly exposed to domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Last year, a shopping center in the neighborhood was burned down in a gang-related turf war.

In the midst of all of this craziness, stands S*** Elementary. The teachers at my school do an amazing job, not only teaching kids, but also loving them; they buy shoes and coats and school supplies, take kids to movies and sporting events, organize after school tutoring and clubs, pump up bike tires, give hugs and pats on the back and kicks in the butt. Every single day, in a million different ways, my colleagues say to kids, "Hey, there's a big wide world out there waiting for you. You are somebody wonderful and important." 

As a teacher at this school, I want to contribute to that message. And so I work hard at finding books that will send message of hope to our students. Recently, I became familiar with HOWARD THURMAN'S GREAT HOPE, a new picture book biography. Howard Thurman, in case you have never heard of him (I hadn't, prior to reading this book), was a minister who served as a spiritual advisor to people like Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Marion Wright Edelman. He traveled to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi long before ML King Jr. made that journey. He wrote twenty books. 

And yet Howard Thurman came from very humble beginnings. His father was a field laborer, who died when Howard was very young. His mother and grandmother took in laundry and cleaned houses. Every morning, before he attended school, Howard walked for an hour to deliver the clean laundry, then picked up the dirty laundry after school. He held a variety of other odd jobs throughout his childhood. 

Howard attended segregated schools in Florida. By the time he got to eighth grade, he was the only student in his class, and the principal taught him.  He received a scholarship to prestigious high school one hundred miles away from his town, but had a suitcase that was held together with tape and rope. When he arrived at the train station, the conductor said he couldn't take his handle-less suitcase on the train and would have to pay $3 to send it as baggage. Howard didn't have the money and sat on the curb and wept. A kind stranger paid the freight charge, so that Howard could put his suitcase onto the train, and travel out into that big world. He was the first person in his family to attend college.

I loved this book on many levels. First, I love being able to say to my kids, "Look, here's a person who had a really hard start, and look what he did." I also loved the kind stranger who paid the freight charge. I loved being able to say to kids, "Look, you never know what your kindness might do for someone else." I love providing my kids with one more example of an African American scholar. 

A great book for a unit on Civil Rights, or African American history, or biography, or determination…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nurturing Kids' Reading Hearts

A couple of days ago, I wrote this post about engagement. This resulted in a very nice conversation with Mary Lee, one of my blogging friends, and together we created a survey to give to kids. I'll be trying that out today, and am anxious to see what kids have to say. If you'd like to try that survey, email me, and I will shoot a copy your direction. 

When it comes to engagement, I think teachers have to take at least part of the responsibility. I truly believe that what we do directly impacts kids' reading engagement. So here is a survey for my reading teacher friends. Rate yourselves from 1-4. A 1 is something that is not much like you, you are not doing that yet. A 4 is a statement that is TOTALLY you. 

After you take the survey, star one area you are really proud of, then set one goal for something you are going to do better. 

Classroom Rituals and Routines
A) I have established a clear, tight, explicit routines for independent reading time (none of my reluctant readers are spending more time in the bathroom or "browsing in the library" than they are spending actually reading),
B) I have comfortable places for children to sit during independent reading time.
C) My reading conferences are quiet and unobtrusive. My voice does not distract kids or interrupt their reading time.
D) Record keeping and responding to reading do not take time away from actually reading. 
E) We have established ways for kids to share their reading with each other. 
F) We have structures/routines for kids to keep track of books they might like to read someday.

The Classroom Library
A) I have an extensive classroom library. 
B) The classroom library is the most attractive and comfortable part of our room.
C) The classroom library is organized in a way that is meaningful to children, they have no difficult finding the books they want, e.g. books in a certain series, or by a certain author. 
D) I add to the classroom library regularly. 
E) The classroom library contains books on a range of reading levels and topics. EVERY SINGLE CHILD can find books that are just right for him/her.
F) I use DRA levels as a tool for guided reading groups. They do not serve as the exclusive criteria for children's book selection.

Classroom Reading Instruction
A) Our classroom reading instruction focuses on strategies that make kids' better readers no matter what text they are reading, e.g. visualizing, what to do if you realize you don't understand, how to break apart and decode long words. 

Affective Environment
A) No child in our class reading community feels ostracized or embarrassed about their reading abilities.

My Knowledge of Children's Books
A) I actively seek to expand my knowledge of children's books by reading book reviews, blogs, and/or visiting bookstores. 
B) I read children's literature on an ongoing basis.
C) I make a point of seeking out new authors, titles, genre, and series.
D) I do book talks almost every day.

Supporting Struggling Readers
A) I build children's passion for books through a daily read aloud time. 
B) I select a variety of read alouds. Some are thinking books, too hard for kids to read alone, but not too hard to think about. Some are series or author series, selected to get kids interested in a particular author. Some are topic books, chosen because kids are interested or because I want to build background knowledge about a particular topic.
C) I monitor children's book choices and progress through books.
D) I help children, especially my struggling readers, choose books that interest them.
E) I jump start kids by reading the first chapter of their books aloud to them.
F) I do partner or buddy reading with my struggling readers, until they have the author's voice in their head. 
G) I have lots of series books in my class, and encourage students to use series.
H) I honor and encourage the rereading of favorite books.
I) I have a basket of "Old Friend" books, e.g. books like VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR and BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, that we all read. 
J) We read poetry every day. Students have a poetry notebook they can use as backup reading during independent reading time. 

I'd love to hear what other people are thinking about this topic…

Monday, February 16, 2009

CHAINS- Laurie Halse Anderson

Twelve-year-old Isabel is a slave in Rhode Island in 1776. Her father has been sold, her mother has died, and Isabel is responsible not only for herself, but also for her five-year-old sister, Ruth, who is "simple" and suffers from epilepsy. Isabel's owner, Miss Mary Finch, is not the typical slave owner; she has taught Isabel to read, and has even written her will to grant freedom to Isabel and Ruth when she dies.

Unfortunately, when Miss Mary dies, an unscrupulous cousin takes custody of the girls. Instead of being freed, they are sold to the Mr. and Mrs. Lockton, a wealthy but cruel Loyalist couple in New York City. Isabel's only "friends" in the city are Master Lockton's wealthy aunt, Lady Seymour, and Curzon, a slave she meets the day the girls arrive in the city. Curzon encourages Isabel to act as a spy for the Patriots. Isabel is neither for nor against the Patriots' cause, she just wants to obtain freedom for herself and her little sister, and is willing to do whatever she has to do to make that happen…

Madame Lockton is cruel beyond belief. She works Isabel day and night, and tries to train Ruth to be her personal attendant. Because of her seizures, Ruth is unable to do the job, so Madame Lockton determines that she is no longer of value to the household. Isabel, totally grief stricken, runs into the city looking for her sister. When she is caught, she is severely punished. I wept as I read those chapters…

Prior to CHAINS,  I didn't know very much about New York City during the Revolutionary War. Like most Americans, I hadn't spent too much time thinking about the Loyalists. I'd never wondered about what happened to all of the families who lived in New York  City during that time.  I never knew there was a huge fire that destroyed a large part of the city in 1776. And although I knew that the Patriot soldiers had hard lives, I was shocked to learn that the prisoners of war were "stuffed" into jails, churches, warehouses, and even old ships, with no heat, no coats or blankets, no medical treatment, and very little food or water. Laurie Halse Anderson does a masterful job of embedding layers and layers of research into this powerful story, and I come away not only having read a great story, but also knowing a lot more about the Revolutionary War. 

This is an amazing read, by one of the finest authors writing today. I loved Halse Anderson's picture book, INDEPENDENT DAMES. I couldn't wait to share the ARC of her newest YA novel, WINTERGIRLS with my niece. And now CHAINS. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow!

Maybe the best thing is that there will be a sequel to CHAINS within the next year! I'd like to read it tomorrow! I want to know what happens to Isabel and Curzon!


Author: Crystal Hubbard
Illustrator: Robert McGuire
Publisher: Lee and Low
Review copy provided by publisher

This weekend my son's basketball team lost a really tough game.   The boys are eighth graders, many of them have been together since first grade, and we're in kind of a bittersweet time, because next year they'll be splitting up and heading off to different high schools. 

This loss was an especially tough one for several reasons. First, they won this league last year and really wanted to do it again. Second, the team that won is a team they beat 90% of the time. Third and hardest, the team wasn't lost by the kids, it was lost by a referee, when he allowed the other team to take one too many free throws. They won by one point. That extra free throw put them ahead, when really the game should have been tied at regulation and gone into overtime. 

Talking about it later, all my son could say was that it wasn't fair, that they had not really lost the game. And I had to agree with him, they hadn't. All I could say was that sometimes life was not fair and sometimes people in authority behave in dishonorable ways. Sometimes we can't do anything about injustices that are done to us. All we can do is take charge of our attitudes and our behaviors. And sometimes it is  really hard.

Then I thought of Crystal Hubbard's wonderful new picture book, THE LAST BLACK KING OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY. The LAST BLACK KING is the story of Jimmy Winkfield, an African American jockey and horse trainer. Winkfield rode in the Kentucky Derby in 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903,  finishing third in 1900, winning the race in both 1901 and 1902, and coming in second in 1903. Given his tremendous success, one might have expected that he would have gone on to ride in the Kentucky Derby many more times. Surprisingly, Winkfield never rode in the Derby again. In fact, since 1902, however, no African American jockey has ever won the race. Winkfield truly was the "last black king of the Kentucky Derby."

Why, after such finishing in the top three for four years running, did Winkfield not compete again? The answer is simple. He was black. Racism was prevalent. The Kentucky Derby was a big purse for jockeys. Other jockeys were given preferential treatment because they were white. Jimmy Winkfield finished his career as jockey in Russia, where he won many races, married a Russian heiress, then had to drive a herd of thoroughbreds out of the country during the Russian Revolution in 1917. He emigrated to France, where he had to defend himself with a pitchfork during World War I. Life truly wasn't fair. And yet Winkfield made choices, again, and again, and again, which allowed him to survive and thrive in spite of other people's wrong actions.

Robert McGuire's colorful, beautifully detailed illustrations greatly enhance this story. My favorite is a picture of all of the horses running, where McGuire went so far as to use a sponge or splatter painting to show the dirt/mud coming off the horse's hooves. Amazing illustrations!

I shared this book with my fourth and fifth graders on Friday, and with my son this weekend. This week we will read Kadir Nelson's WE ARE THE SHIP. The kids I teach and love need to know how to respond when life treats them unfairly. They need to know that people can rise above very difficult circumstances…

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I've been thinking, a lot, since CCIRA last weekend, about how to help kids grow reading hearts, or become more engaged in their reading. I think it's so, so, so critical. Engagement is something we struggle with a lot at our school, partly, I think, because the kids don't see lots of the adults that matter to them reading outside of school, and partly, I think, because we are spending so dang much time testing and getting kids ready to test, that we don't spend enough time helping kids fall in love with reading. I started a conversation with our teachers about this on Friday, and have been thinking about how I know when kids are engaged as readers.
An engaged reader:
1) Can read for increasingly longer periods of time.
2) Is more focused on their book, and hopefully less fidgety and/or able to be distracted during independent reading time.
3) Doesn't want to quit when reading time is over.
4) Chooses to read at other times throughout the day.
5) Can easily talk about favorite books, authors, genre.
6) Chooses to read all of the books in a series or all of the books by an author.
7) Encourages other people to read books he/she has just finished.
8) Has strong emotional reactions to books.
9) Wants to talk about his/her reading.
10) Plans for a reading "future," can talk about books he/she plans to read, keeps a list of books to read
11) Asks to borrow books from me, or visit the library or bookstore.
12) Brings books to share with others, e.g. significant adults or friends.
13) Takes books home whether or not they HAVE to, or reads longer than they have to.
14) Enjoys read aloud time.

I'd love to start a conversation or hear other people's thoughts on this topic.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


The 2008 CYBILS  winners are posted! Having worked on the panel that whittled the Intermediate Grade/YA nonfiction list from sixty to five (OK, actually seven was the best we could do!), I can't even imagine how these committees were able to choose one great book from each of these lists! Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of the people who work so tirelessly on these awards- these are books I know will be winners with kids! The boys have football practice this afternoon (sandwiched between two bball games this morning and two tonight!) and I'm headed for the Tattered Cover, which is located directly across from the high school! Yippee!

Friday, February 13, 2009


A valentine poem by one of my all-time favorite poets (and writers) Naomi Shihab Nye.

"A Valentine for Ernest Mann"
Naomi Shihab Nye

You can't order a poem like you order a taco
walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two" 
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address, 
write me a poem," deserves something in reply. 
So I'll tell you a secret instead: 
poems hide, In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do 
is live in a way that lets us find them. 

The rest of the poem is here.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I'm always on the lookout for books to lure my boys into the "Land of Reading." This weekend, while I was at our state reading conference, I had the privilege of hearing Nancie Atwell speak about her new book, THE READING ZONE. During the Q and A, someone asked Atwell what she was reading. She said she had just started THE JUVIE THREE by Gordon Korman, but thought it was definitely a winner. I totally concur.

Gecko, Arjay, and Terrence are juvenile delinquents who have been placed in a special halfway house. The three will live in an apartment under the supervision of Mr. Doug Healy. They are expected to attend school and therapy sessions, and also do community service. One slip up and they will be sent back to their previous detention facilities. 

Gecko and Arjay understand this, and pretty much toe the line. Terrence, however, is a gang wannabe, anxious to leave at the first possible opportunity. One night, in an attempt to escape, he climbs out onto a fire escape. His roommates catch him and a scuffle ensues. During the scuffle, Mr. Healy is knocked off the fire escape and suffers a serious head injury.  

The boys know they are in big trouble. They load an unconscious Mr. Healy into a stolen car and leave him at a hospital emergency room. They then return to the apartment, where they decide their only hope is to pretend that all normal routines are in place until Mr. Healy returns. They anticipate this won't be more than a day or two, but when Mr. Healy awakens, he has amnesia, and doesn't remember anything about his life…

This is a terrific read, a book where you can't wait to turn the page to see what happens next. At the same time, there's real depth to the characters, and the friendship the three boys develop. A great middle or high school read. Now if I could only get one of my boys to read the first few pages…

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


A couple of read aloud images from yesterday:

11:00 Third Grade Intervention Group
It's the day before third grade CSAP (our state tests) and the anxiety level is a little high. I have decided that one more day of test prep is not going to make that big a difference for my struggling readers; instead, we are having a party to celebrate all that we've learned so far this year. Aside from poetry, I don't read aloud to this group a lot, mostly because I have them for such a short time every day. Today, though, I bring SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM, a wonderful new picture book biography about Robert Smalls, a slave who smuggled his family, and the families of several other slaves out of South Carolina (and stole a Confederate ship and four cannons in the process). 

As I read aloud to my little group, which roughly reflects Stedman's population (50% African American, 40% ELL, mostly from Mexico, and 10% Anglo), I know that the decision to NOT read aloud every day was a really bad one. "I can't remember. What's slavery?" says S, one of the three African American kids in the group. M doesn't know what a harbor or a dock is. About two-thirds of the way into the picture book replete with images of water and boats, C says, "Are they going in a boat or on a train?" 

1:00 Fourth/Fifth Grade Intervention Group
I have this group for ninety minutes each afternoon and have read to them since Day One. We are currently three chapters from the end of Christopher Paul Curtis' historical fiction novel, ELIJAH OF BUXTON. I usually begin our group with read aloud, but today several of the kids are late, so we start with independent reading time. The second I pull the kids together, Jackie says, "Are you going to read today?" I grab ELIJAH and read one chapter, a pretty long one, that takes about twenty minutes. By the end, my voice, on its fourth read aloud of the day, and still kind of hoarse from last week's bout with the Colorado Crud, is just about shot. "Can't you read some more?" says Rodolfo. "We're almost done," pleads DiAnthony. I grab a paper cub from the top of the piano (we meet in the auditorium) and dispatch Darlene to the water fountain, then read for 25 more minutes, until my fifth grade writing group is standing at the door. As they leave, I remember that we never did guided reading or skills block today. I think it's fine. Today I built kids' reading hearts.

I have been reading to kids since the day I began my teach career in 1981 (the first professional development session I ever did was based on Jim Trelease's READ ALOUD HANDBOOK). Those first few years, I joked, only half kiddingly, that read aloud was the only time I could get kids to truly settle down and listen. Today, I am reminded anew:  Read aloud is not only good for the soul, it's VITAL for building kids' passion for books, as well as their background knowledge, vocabulary, and listening comprehension.

I was not entirely accurate yesterday with the statistics about how many parents read aloud to their children, it's actually about the same in the United States and Australia. One-half of the parents of preschoolers read aloud to their children. Two-thirds of the parents cite TIME as the reason they don't read aloud. Check out Susan's latest read aloud entry about one of her readers, who blogs at THE ECCLETIC READER has a magnet on the side of her car encouraging parents to read to their children. (I'm considering getting one of these for my car. I think that in addition to promoting this hugely important habit, it would cut down on my chauffeuring responsibilities because my sons, who already think I qualify as a leading candidate for Nerd Book Mother of the Year, would refuse to ride with me, despite the fact that I read aloud to them pretty much every day). 

Monday, February 9, 2009


Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read to kids. Teachers at my school will tell you that I am a fanatic. This morning, I found a really disturbing post. Did you know that 1/2 of the parents of kids under 6 in the United States DO NOT read aloud to their little ones????? In Australia, it's worse-- 2/3 of the parents don't read to the kids. Head over to the The Book Chook and read her post about this!

Sunday, February 8, 2009


AUTHOR: Janet Halfmann
Review copy provided by Lee and Low

Have you heard of Robert Smalls? I hadn't, at least not until I read this beautiful new biography. Now,  I can't wait to introduce to my students and my sons to Robert Smalls.

Smalls was born in the slave quarters of the McKee family plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839. His mother was a house servant, and Robert soon began working in the house as well. He was smart and talkative, and quickly became Master McKee's favorite servant. As such, Robert had an easier life than most slaves. Even so, he witnessed the evils of slavery- cruel beatings, children sold on the whipping block, and families torn apart. He grew to despise slavery.

When Robert was 12, he was sent to Charleston to work in a hotel. He was fascinated by boats, and soon convinced Master McKee to allow him to work in the shipyards, where he sewed and rigged sails, and became known as one of the best boat handlers on the water. During this time, he also married Hannah Jones. When they had their first daughter, Elizabeth, Robert was saddened to realize that the child actually belonged to Hannah's owner. He determined that somehow he would earn $800 to buy his wife and child, so that the family would never have to worry about being torn apart. 

By the spring of 1861, the southern states had seceded from the Union, and the Civil War had begun. There was very little commercial boat traffic in or out of Charleston, so Robert took a job on the Planter, a 147-foot wood burning steamer. On May 12, 1862, Robert and other members of the crew boldly stole the ship, loaded with four Confederate cannons, used a rowboat to pick up their families, and sailed out of the harbor and past several Confederate forts, finally surrendering the boat and the four cannons to the Union navy. In an afterword, we learn that Smalls was later declared a national hero, and convinced Abraham Lincoln to allow African Americans to enlist in the Union army. He helped draft the constitution for the state of South Carolina, and served as a member of the United States congress. Unfortunately, he was also one of six African American delegates who refused  to sign an amendment to the state constitution when South Carolina repealed African American's right to vote in 1895.

This is a terrific story of an amazing Civil War hero. The illustrations, done by Duane Smith, are stunning, oil paintings in all hues of blue, turquoise, green, orange, and gold. The paintings are really different, lots of really broad brush strokes, with the details being done in different shades of the same color. It's hard to describe, but I could see art teachers using Smith's work to teach students about oil painting. This is Smith's first picture book, and he goes right under Kadir Nelson on my list of favorite illustrators.

A great book for African American history month, or a unit on the Civil War, or heroes, or bravery, or biographies…

Saturday, February 7, 2009


As a teacher in urban settings, and as a mom of two African American sons, I am hugely committed to making sure that my students and my sons see themselves in the books they read. When I started teaching, a million years ago, it was not that easy to find great children's books with multicultural themes. Ten or fifteen years ago, I became familiar with Lee and Low, a publisher specializing in multicultural children's literature, after hearing author Ken Mochizuki (PASSAGE TO FREEDOM and BASEBALL SAVED US) speak at a conference. Since then, Lee and Low has become one of my favorite publishers; most recently I blogged about Ted and Betsy Lewin's beautiful new book,  HORSE SONG, THE NAADAM OF MONGOLIA. One of the things I love most about Lee and Low is that they have books featuring people of many, many shapes, colors, and sizes. They also have terrific multicultural poetry collections for children. A few of my favorites include:

  • BASEBALL SAVED US (Japanese Americans in internment camps)
  • COOL MELONS TURN TO FROGS (a tribute to Issa, a Japanese poet famous for his haiku)
  • PASSAGE TO FREEDOM (a very brave Japanese diplomat saves hundreds of Jews during WW2, a must have for units on the holocaust or real life heroes)
  • RICHARD WRIGHT AND THE LIBRARY CARD (is there anything better than books bout books and libraries)
  • LOVE TO LANGSTON (a must for anyone who loves Langston Hughes)
  • GETTIN' THROUGH THURSDAY (about a family trying to make it until payday- really applicable for lots of kids right now)
  • YUM! MMM! QUE RICO I blogged about this one in my (I blogged about this one for Poetry Friday on December 26)
  • POEMAS PARA SOñAR (I apologize for the tilde over the N, I can't figure out how to do it right on Blogspot)
Here is a list of some of their other award winners.

I'm thinking about Lee and Low tonight because they just sent me a box of new books. Three terrific new African American biographies- SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM: THE ROBERT SMALLS STORY, HOWARD THURMAN'S GREAT HOPE, and THE LAST BLACK KING OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY. I'll be delving into these in the next few days, but in the meantime, if you are participating in DIVERSITY ROCKS, you might want to check out LEE AND LOW.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


So here's a cool new website. Some folks have put together Kidlitosphere Central. There's a page where you can connect to lots of the folks who are blogging about children's literature. And a page where you can connect to authors and illustrators. And another page of news. Pretty darn neat!

Monday, February 2, 2009

100 DAYS AND 99 NIGHTS- Alan Madison

Esmerelda (Esme)  Swishback McCarther is a second grade girl who has a little brother, Ike; a biggish brown dog, Napoleon; and a "bedzoo" of stuffed animals that she rearranges alphabetically every morning (boy, do I wish this child lived at my house!) Each chapter begins with the story of one of these stuffed animals. 

Esmerelda's dad, August Aloysius McCarther the third, is a sergeant in the U.S. Army, as was his father, and his father's father. Inevitably, he is sent on a tour of duty (100 days and 99 mights) and Esme and Ike, along with their mother, try to hold down the fort at home. 

 Madison does a masterful job capturing the feelings of Esmerelda and her brother, "The first days were easier for me…But then, as the days began to fall like raindrops, I couldn't keep running between them and pretending I was not getting wet. So, as each day got easier for Ike because he had gotten used to being soaked, it got worse for me. Soon I was drenched and shivering…"

100 DAYS AND 99 NIGHTS is one of those books you want to have around, well, just because you never know when a kid might need it.