Monday, May 31, 2010

WENCH by Dolen Perkins- Valdez

Harper Collins Publishers
Copyright: 201
Review copy provided by publisher

After I reviewed Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP, a publisher sent me WENCH, the debut novel of Dolen Perkins-Valdez. "If you loved THE HELP," she said, "you'll loved this one too." And she was absolutely right.

WENCH is the story of Lizzie, a slave owned by Master Drayle. Drayle's wife, Francesca, is unable to have children, and Drayle has chosen Lizzie as his mistress or wench. She has borne him two children. Each summer, Lizzie and Drayle travel to Tawawa, a resort in Northern Ohio, where wealthy slave owners live openly with their slave mistresses. At Tawawa, Lizzie becomes friends with Reenie and Sweet, two women in similar circumstances. Even though Ohio is a free state, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet, do not question their lives. They are treated reasonably well by their owners. They have left their own children and other family members at their respective plantations and look forward to returning to them. All of this changes, however, the summer Lizzie, Reenie and Sweet meet Mawu, another slave. Mawu wants to be free, and she knows how it can be done. She pushes the others to consider their choices and accompany her to escape to freedom.

I love historical fiction because it brings me to whole new understandings of different times and places, and this book was no exception. Yeah, I knew that slave owners did whatever they wanted with their slaves and often had children with them, but I never thought much about the men having long-term relationships, or taking their slave mistresses on vacations. Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet have to make hard, hard decisions about freedom, about family and ultimately about who they want to be as human beings. And then there is the whole women and friendship aspect, which I always love…

Yeah, I totally agree with the person who provided me with this book, "If you loved THE HELP, you will also love WENCH…

Saturday, May 29, 2010

ALFIE RUNS AWAY- Kenneth Cadow

Alfie does not like to take baths, make his bed, eat potatoes, or set the table. When his mother tries to throw away his favorite red shoes, Alfie decides things have gone too far, and makes plans to run away. He packs a water bottle, a box of crackers, a flashlight, three books, and his teddy bear and heads out to find a place where people don't make kids throw away their favorite, albeit too-small red shoes. The bag is a little heavy, however, so he settles down on a blanket in the yard…

I read ALFIE to a first grade class on the last day of school. It was 90 degrees outside, and almost that warm in our hundred year old, non air-conditioned building. The kids were excited and/or worried about getting out of school for the summer. Even so, this book brought forth lots of rich conversations. Everyone, of course, had a running away story to tell. There were also several favorite shoe stories. The kids had lots of great wonderings and comments about the book. J thought the mom was not really doing her job- she wanted the mom to lock the door and tell Alfie he couldn't go anywhere. K thought the mom should just tell Alfie they could go get new shoes, exactly like the old ones if he wanted them. M thought the mom should sneak into Alfie's room while he was asleep and replace the old shoes with new ones. P said, "I bet his mom is just trying to outsmart him. She probably knows he isn't going anywhere very far. Or if he does, she will follow him and bring him back when he gets tired."

Books as a way of helping kids explore big issues like the love of a parent or growing up… Could there be anything better?

Friday, May 28, 2010


Poetry Friday.
The last day of school.
Lots and lots and lots going on.
And in the middle of it all,
I need to stop
and breathe
and say thank you
to my amazing colleagues,
who not only teach
with huge passion
and great intellect
and enormous skill
every single day
but also
love and encourage,
and buy tennis shoes
and baby dolls,
and organize lacrosse teams
and take kids to art shows
and movies
and farms.
Because kids should have those experiences.
It is a privilege
and an honor
to share each day with you.

Because you love me I have much achieved,
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.
Paul Laurence Dunbar

Read more Paul Laurence Dunbar here.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010


On Monday, Farmer Greenstalk's tractor breaks down. Pigs to the rescue! On Tuesday, Mrs Greenstalk gets a leak in her garden hose. Pigs to the rescue! On Wednesday, Jeffrey Greenstalk's kite gets stuck in the tree. Pigs to the rescue!

John Himmelman, author of KATIE LOVES THE KITTENS, is back again! The crazy antics of this herd of exuberant, overly helpful pigs are sure to hook primary grade kids. Days of the week, simple text, and supportive illustrations will make this book extra friendly for beginning readers. The surprise ending is reminiscent of Betsy Lewin's CLICK CLACK MOO series.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Each night, when it is time to go to bed, Lulu the mouse puts on her favorite pajamas, the ones that smell "as good as a pink dream" and are "as soft as a butterfly kiss," then snuggles in with Lili-poo, her pet ladybug (who never wears pajamas). One morning, Lulu decides she likes her pajamas so much that she will wear them to school. Things do not go quite as well as Lulu had hoped, however. The other children laugh at her. She gets fingerpaint, then glue, then spaghetti on her favorite pajamas. The bottoms get dusty when the class does the fairy dance. Lulu feels very sad and decides she will never wear her pajamas again…

This is a fun story, sure to be a hit with the preschool/kindergarten crowd, also a great "big sister" present for baby showers. Lulu is a spunky little thing, not unlike Kevin Henke's Lily, of purple plastic purse fame. She is strong willed and a little stubborn, but well-intentioned. Mama and Papa deal with Lulu firmly (only little mice who wear pajamas get bedtime stories) but also with humor (when Lulu decides to wear her pajamas to school, Papa wears his pajamas to drive her there). Stéphane Jorisch's detailed water color illustrations match the story perfectly.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


When I was a little girl, summers were times of huge fun. My sisters and I spent the long hot days splashing in the community pool, riding our bikes, having picnics at the top of a bluff behind our house, and playing endless games of neighborhood hide and seek in the dusky early evening. And there was always a vacation, usually back to the midwest to see grandparents and aunts and uncles.

My urban students' reality, however, is far different. Many of my kids will spend their summer in pieced together day care, or locked inside apartments with worried parents that call every 30 minutes to make sure that their kids are ok, because they can't afford day care. Some will spend part of their summer hungry, because they rely heavily on the school lunch program for sustenance. There won't be any swimming lessons, or soccer camps, or art clubs, let alone cross country vacations.

This week, at the poetry recital, our school psychologist shared a Langston Hughes poem that was new to me…

Merry Go Round
Where is the Jim Crow section
on this merry-go-round
Mister, because I want to ride.

…there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?

Langston Hughes

Read the rest of the poem here.

Laura Salas is hosting Poetry Friday here.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Hmmm. How to describe my latest read? OK, well, imagine a fairy tale with a strong and independent princess, a touch of Roald Dahl (including the bodily functions humor that causes 8-10 year olds to roll on the floor in glee), throw in a little bit of mistaken identity, and a little word play, and you pretty much have Lois Lowry's THE BIRTHDAY BALL.

  • Princess Patricia Priscilla- a bored adolescent princess, five days from her 16th birthday, where she will choose a husband
  • King Lepodoptera- the Princess' butterfly-studying, naturalist father
  • Queen Romelda Rebozo- the Princess' somewhat deaf mother
  • Suitor #1: Duke Desmond of Dyspesia- so ugly a team of Royal Splashers do synchronized swimming exercises in lakes so the Prince will not see his own reflection
  • Suitor #2- Prince Percival of Pustula- a black-clad, black-hearted prince who spends his days admiring himself in the mirror. The prince's valet, Hal, spends his days brushing dandruff off the prince's shoulders
  • Suitor(s) #3 and #4- The Conjoint Counts, Colin and Cuthbert, who have never agreed on anything, except the fact that they want to marry Princess Patricia Priscilla
The Princess, accompanied by her cat, Delicious (the one liners associated with the cat could provide weeks of word study- It's nutritious, Delicious! Stop looking avaricious, Delicious! No need to be surreptitious, Delicious!) decides to liven up her life by attending school with the peasants in the village, where she meets Rafe, the schoolmaster. The Princess invites the entire village to her birthday ball at the castle, where she declares her love for her true prince and they begin a not-so-typical happily ever after…

This book works for me on lots of levels- great story, terrific humor, well-crafted. I love Princess Patricia Priscilla's independence and also her compassion. I love the vocabulary and the word play-- this is the kind of book that makes kids fall in love with language. The pen and ink illustrations by Jules Feiffer (his best known work is probably THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH) are perfect for the story.

I wonder if I can squeeze this read aloud in somewhere in the the last ten days of school!


At one of my first teaching jobs, I was privileged to work with a facility manager named Mel, a sweet, sweet, sweet, retired army veteran with a heart of gold. Mel loved his building, loved his teachers, and loved the kids. The second or third year we worked together, our class hatched turkey eggs. Mel and the babies took a liking to each other. Every morning when he arrived at work, he would take the turkeys out of their pen and they would follow him up and down the halls. When Mel started the vacuum, the baby turkeys would scurry back out into the hall and peep worriedly until Mel emerged.

I couldn't help but think of Mel as I read THE GOOSEMAN: THE STORY OF KONRAD LORENZ. Lorenz is the scientist best known for the development of a ethology, the study of animal's instinctive behaviors. Us common folk probably know him better as the person who studied the imprinting behaviors of ducks and geese. From a very young age, Konrad loved, loved, loved animals. His parents encouraged his passion, even allowing him to have a monkey that snatched shiny things away from anyone who came to visit. As an adult, Lorenz studied medicine, but soon left the field to pursue his interest in animals. He spent his entire life studying the behaviors of ducks, geese, and other wild animals. Early in his career, he had a goose named Martina who actually slept with him, and brought her "boyfriend" home to meet him.

This will be a fun book to share with our first graders, who are eagerly watching an incubator full of duck eggs…

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thought for the Day

is the language
in which man (or woman)
explores his (or her)
own amazement.

~Christopher Fry


WARNING: If you are a children's book person, this post probably falls into the, "How'd you miss this series?" category. So you might want to skip it. DODSWORTH IN LONDON is evidently the third book in this easy chapter book series (think NATE THE GREAT or MERCY WATSON). And I have never seen DODSWORTH IN NEW YORK. Or DODSWORTH IN PARIS. But now, having read DODSWORTH IN LONDON, I will definitely look for the other two.

Dodsworth the Bear (whoops, our first graders think he might be a mole, and looking again, I suspect they are right) and his rascally companion, Duck, travel by hot air balloon to London. After an unfortunate dart throwing incident in a pub, the two decide to tour the city by double decker bus. The bus station is very crowded and Dodsworth and Duck become separated. In that brief moment, Her Majesty's Royal Duck, who looks a great deal like Dodsworth's travelling companion, happens onto the scene. Duck (Dodsworth's companion) gets onto one bus, and Dodsworth and the Royal Duck get on another one. Duck has tea and crumpets, sees a Shakespeare play, and splashes in the fountain near Pershing Square. Dodsworth spends a harrowing afternoon dealing with a case of mistaken identity, then trying to hunt down his naughty friend. Eight hours later, Dodsworth finds Duck happily dancing on the Queen's piano.

I teach in a very urban area and many of my students have never been out of our neighborhood, or to a another city. Many of our kids wouldn't recognize London or Paris, or cities, let alone know about any of the landmarks in those cities. I would probably have to read DODSWORTH IN LONDON aloud before children could be successful in reading it independently.

At the same time, I'm always looking for ways to expand my children's horizons, and I think this series would be perfect. I envision us getting out a world map, locating London, and googling places like Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, maybe printing out pictures and tracking Dodsworth and Duck's journey's (note to publisher: world or city maps or photographs would be cool end pages). I think we'd have a blast. I also think this book could lead to some great conversations about dealing with badly behaved friends, handling conflict, and just life in general.

A fun new-to-me series I can't wait to share with kids.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetry Friday

For the past couple of years, I've been enjoying Poetry Friday with the fifth graders at my school. Every Friday afternoon, I tromp in with a stack of books, and plop myself on the floor. I share a few poems, the kids share a few poems, we read poems, we write poems, we perform poems, we talk about poems…and it's about the "perfectest" way I can think of to end a week. I think the kids must love it too, because by Wednesday, I've usually been asked by two or three fifth graders if I'm coming this week…

Interspersed with simply enjoying poetry, I try to teach our tough, inner city ten year olds, a little about poetry. I talk to them about the purposes poetry plays in my life. I talk about how poetry makes me see the world in very different ways, and about how it helps me take time to stop and savor and celebrate life's little goodnesses. And about how I hope it will do that for them too…

A couple of weeks ago, around Earth Day, I shared Takayo Noda's DEAR WORLD, which is one of my favorite books. I wrote a couple of poems, then the kids wrote. I thought, in honor of the very special poetry journey we have taken this year, that I would share a little of their writing…

Dear Wind,

I like when

you breeze

and make me

feel clean.

I like when you

move trees for

the trees not

to stay still

and not hide

their smell.

I like when

you pass by me

even if you’re


you are just

a dream.


Dear Rain

I like how you

clean the streets.

I don’t like how you

bring sorrow and greyness

I like how you

bring the sound

of a pen dropping.

I don’t like how you

make it dark

around the city.

I like how you’re

so clear

like glass.

I don’t like how you

make me

stay in.


Dear Rain

I love

when you

come down

Sweet and

soft round

and round.

Dear Rain

will you keep

coming down?

Dear Rain

I love

your puddle

I want

to jump in it.

Dear Rain

I love

when you

come down.


Dear Lemon

I love when

you grow and

you show your

sport your yellow.

I love when

you make us

buy you at

the store.

I love when

I cut you

open to make

soft good lemonade.

I love when

you put lemon

juice on my salmon

you make it

so, so good

for me to eat.


Dear Spring,

The way you

show up right out

of winter like

an unexpected


How you

come and I

become mature

more and more

every day.

How you make

sun shine and

snow melt

You’re the perfect dream



Dear Soil,

I love when you

give a home

to insects.

I love when you

turn into mud

and worms come

to say, “Hello.”

I love your color

nice and brown.

I love how you

make my plants grow

and give them nutrients.

I don’t love

when you get me dirty

and my clothes too.


Dear Snow

I love when

you’re there and cold.

I love when

you’re always there

so I can have

snow fights.

I love when you’re there

so I can make money.

I don’t love

when you’re

always wet.


Dear Rain,

I love it

when you clear

the pollen

out of the air.

I love it

when you make

the bugs

go back to their homes.

I don’t love it

when you make

the cats

run away.


Dear Grass,

I love how you

cool me down on

a hot day.

I love how you shine

when you’re wet.

I love how you

surround the trees.

I love how you

reflect the morning



Dear Dog

I love the way you

come and wake me

up in the morning

for school.

I love the way

you come lay

at the door

until I get home

from school.

I love the way

you come

and cuddle with me

in the bed

at night.


Thursday, May 13, 2010


Last year, I was one of the lucky ducks that got to be a CYBILS judge. The entire panel loved Chris Barton's THE DAY GLO BROTHERS, a biography of the men who invented neon colors. DAY GLO BROTHERS eventually went on to win the CYBILS award for elementary nonfiction.

Yesterday our school librarian handed me Chris Barton's new book, SHARK VS. TRAIN. The book begins with a comic strip illustration of two little boys running to the toy box. One little guy grabs a shark, the other a toy train, and begin a series of "My toy is better than yours…"

Their conversation isn't just about an ordinary competition, however. I mean, everyone knows a train would win a land race and a shark would win a race in the water. But what about diving? A burping contest? Piano playing? A lemonade stand? Things just get crazier and crazier until finally the book ends when the two little boys are called to lunch…

The zany competitions are illustrated by Tom Lictenheld, who I know best for DUCK! RABBIT!

I know this is a book kids are going to ask for again and again. I also think it will also make a great readers' theater.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


A month or so ago, someone recommended that I read TILL WE HAVE FACES by C.S. Lewis. TILL WE HAVE FACES is Lewis' 1956 adaptation of the myth, Cupid and Psyche. The main character in this book, Orual, is the daughter of a king. She has two younger sisters, Redival and Psyche. Orual and Redival's mother passes away, the king remarries, then the girls' stepmother dies while giving birth to Psyche, and Orual ends up raising her younger sisters. Orual is very intelligent, but battles the demons many of us face every day- she believes herself to be extremely unattractive, she doubts herself, and she questions and regrets her decisions and life choices. Psyche, her youngest sister, is almost an exact opposite-- very, very beautiful, both in mind and spirit.

When Psyche is a teenager, the gods become angry at the land of Glome and demand the sacrifice of Psyche. The god Cupid intervenes and Psyche's life is spared, but Psyche must spend her life in a faraway castle as Cupid's bride. Orual discovers that her younger sister is still alive, and she attempts to reclaim her. Psyche however, is happy in her new role, and does not want to leave. Orual's efforts upset the gods, and she spends her entire life reliving and regretting her decisions.

This was a hard read for me. Fantasy is not my favorite genre.I didn't like Orual very much. I wanted to be like Psyche, who was good and pure and beautiful, but sometimes, a lot of times, maybe most of the time, I found myself identifying more with Orual.

The ideas in FACES were big and metaphorical and hard to wrap my head around. And as much as I hate to admit it, usually I don't read books with themes about the nature of humans vs. the nature of the holy, healthy love vs. destructive love, and the journey of life, at this time in the school year. It was one of those books that disturbed me so much I wanted to put it away and forget about it.

At the same time, it's a book that has stayed with me. I keep coming back to the ideas again and again. TILL WE HAVE FACES causes me to see myself and my life journey and my relationships and other people through a whole different lens. I want to read the book again this summer. I want my book club to read it, because I need to talk about it. I want everyone I know to read it.

Here are a few quotes I keep going back to. I'm not posting them because I like or dislike them, but rather because I keep going back to them. :

Don't you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can't help? (111)

You don't think-
not possibly-
not as a mere hundredth chance
that there might be things
that are real
though we can't see them?

Child to say
the very thing you really mean,
the whole of it,
nothing more or less
or other than what you really mean
that's the whole art and joy of words. 294

"Psyche had no more dangerous enemies than us.
And in that far distant day when the gods become wholly beautiful,
or we at last are shown how beautiful they always were,
this will happen more and more.
For mortals, as you said,
will become more and more jealous.
And mother and wife and child and friend
will all be in a league
to keep a soul from being united
with the Divine Nature.
" p. 304

"I know now Lord, why you utter no answer.
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face, other questions die away.
What other answer would suffice? (308)

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Isabelle Bean is one of those kids that many of us who are teachers know well. She's smart, not the "get straight A's in school" kind of smart, more the kind of living in her own world, super creative, going to be an artist or inventor or entrepreneur as an adult kind of smart. She's quirky, but not the kind of quirky that kids, or even most adults, like or appreciate. Instead she is the kind of smart and quirky that causes her to be isolated and lonely. "By the time Isabelle reached third grade, she had given up on friendship. She'd grown tired of sending birthday party invitations to children who never RSVP'd, much less appeared at her door on the given date with brightly wrapped packages in their hands. She'd given up making persimmon cookies to bring to school, where other children called them Cootie Cookies and refused to eat them. She'd given up handing out Valentines stenciled with pictures of beating, winged hearts. She'd even given up smiling at girls who seemed shy and in need of a friend themselves."

Isabelle's situation becomes even sadder when we learn about her family- she lives alone with her mother, who was raised in an orphanage, and doesn't quite know how to parent her very different daughter. One day, Isabelle is sent to the office for not paying attention in class. She opens a door, and finds herself falling into a whole different world. She soon meets Hen, who is as pragmatic as Isabelle is spacy, and Grete, who after being declared a witch by her community, has been hiding out in the forest for more than fifty years.

FALLING IN is a fantasy, which is not generally my favorite genre, and even though I loved Frances O'Roark Dowell's SHOOTING THE MOON, I didn't absolutely love this book. Isabelle is a quirky character, and I can only think of two or three kids in my school, mostly our "Isabelles" who would really understand her. At the same time, I'd love to try the book as a read aloud early in the school year. I think FALLING IN could open up some really big and important conversations about how we treat and care for people in our community. And those are exactly the kind of doors I want books to open for kids…