Month: December 2012

Holding Sacred the Time and Space for Choice in Reading

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I’m taking this class, Literature for Children and Youth, as part of my school library certification coursework (I know, right!  Like, I get to read amazing picture, chapter, and young adult books for class…and get a grade!).   Every week we are assigned to choose anywhere from two to fifteen titles from an extensive list based on genre, award, topic, etc.  One week we were assigned to read four Newbery Award winners.  Another week was historical fiction, etc; then, we are supposed to blog about them.  Tough life, huh!

(part of) my TBR stash hanging out with some faves

But here’s the thing…I’m getting ready to wrap up on this class.  This week is our final week of assigned reading (the topic, by the way, is banned and challenged books).  As I’m going back through my blog posts one last time and publishing them, my eyes keep wandering over to my TBR (to be read) stack on the book shelf that my excellent friend and reading mentor, Donalyn Miller, bequeathed to me last spring as she was packing up her classroom library in preparation of her move from 6th to 4th grade.  Here’s a small sample of the greatness that awaits me:

  • I am Arthur by Phillip Reeve
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
  • Want to Go Private by Sarah Darer Littman
  • Happy Face by Stephen Emond
  • Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me by Kristen Chandler
  • White Cat by Holly Black
  • This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
  • Witchlanders by Lena Coakley
  • Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
AND..two 2012 titles that I know are serious contenders for major awards this year:
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
(just to name a few.  I failed to mention The Diviners by Libba Bray that I reward myself with a little bit each night before I go to sleep)

Yes, they are still on my shelf, sadly.  The thing is, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in graduate classes since June and do not allow myself to pull from my TBR stack until all of my assigned reading is done.  And–no matter how amazing the assigned titles are (believe me…like awesome books!)–since I did not choose them on my own from an organic, have-to-read-this-right-now kind of base place in my reading soul, my assigned books do not bring me near as much pleasure as those that I received from friends as recommendations or that I discovered on my own on Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and review sources.

Guess where I’m going with this…

I count myself as a rather solid reader as an adult.  There’s room for improvement–I could read faster, more extensively, widely.  I could read a lot more nonfiction, biography, and histories.  But on the whole…I’m not too shabby.  And even I, a strong reader, feel that the reading experiences that I choose to engage in lead to much more meaningful exchanges between myself and the book…no matter how GREAT a book may be that was assigned to me.

Now, I’m thinking about my students’ reading experiences–all of them, from the alliterate, reluctant reader to my AP, advanced readers–all of them derive more pleasure, more meaning, more transformation as readers and people from the books they choose for themselves than any title I could put in front of them.

The message, folks, is simple.  There’s a time and place for assigning reading.  But to grow readers–real readers, who see reading as breathing in their lives, necessary for the expansion of their lives and souls–we must hold sacred the time and place for choice in our classrooms and in our students’ lives.

Happy reading,


Module #6: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type

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Book Summary
What happens when the cows on Farmer Brown’s farm learn to read and write and type?  They leave notes demanding certain improvements, of course. 

APA Reference

Cronin, D. (2000).  Click, clack, moo: cows that type.  New York, NY:  Simon &Schuster Books for Young Readers


Cronin’s humorous story of barnyard animals who band together over a typewriter and their new-found delight in the power of sending messages delights young readers, teens, and adults.  Lewin’s water color images with bold tracings convey the expressiveness of both Farmer Brown and his animals as messages are sent and received.  The simply repeated phrase, “click, clack, moo” sets the book’s light-hearted rhythm, inviting readers to participate whenever the familiar stanza appears, accentuated with large and bold font.  Older readers might even recognize some parallel’s with George Orwell’s Animal Farm and enjoy discussing the irony of Farmer Brown’s situation and the pigs from the classical novel. 

Professional Reviews

Section: Focus On: COMMUNITY

CRONIN, Doreen.
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.
illus. by Betsy Lewin.
S. & S. 2000.
RTE $15.95. ISBN 0-689-83213-3.
K-Gr 3– Life on the farm will never be the same after the cows discover an old typewriter. When Farmer Brown refuses their first written request for electric blankets, the determined cows go on strike. In a bold act of community organization, they convince the hens to join them, and soon the baffled farmer is out both milk and eggs. Neutral Duck arbitrates with hilarious results. Lewin’s watercolors are as big, bold, and outrageous as the animals’ demands. Video and audio versions available from Weston Woods.

Auerbach, B. (2005). Click, clack, moo: cows that type [Review of the book Click, clack, moo:  cows that type]. School Library Journal51(9), 58.

Library Uses

Use this text alongside Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s other works including Duck for President and Giggle, Giggle, Quack (all which take place in Farmer Brown’s barnyard) for students to explore the work of one author/ illustrator team more in depth.  

Module 13: Tales from Outer Suburbia

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Shaun Tan explores many of the themes and issues present in modern day suburbia through a collection of comic, illustrated stories and sketches.  The stories are presented through a satirical lens and offer the the reader a sophisticated but humorous examination of suburban lifestyle. 

APA Reference:

Taun, S. (2008).  Tales from outer suburbia.  New York, NY:  Arthur A. Levine Books.

Professional Review:


TAN, Shaun.
Tales from Outer Suburbia.
illus. by author. 96p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks.
2009. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-545-05587-1.
LC number unavailable.
Gr 4 Up– Intriguing, wacky, or downright surreal, these dynamic illustrated vignettes by a master artist show unequivocally that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” suburban community. Tan works his magic with a few well-chosen words and a vibrant and expansive artistic vision, inviting readers to observe and explore familiar landscapes and look for untold stories beyond the obvious. BOOK

Tales from outer suburbia [Review of the book Tales from outer suburbia]. (2009). School Library Journal5540.


Unlike his award-winning The Arrival, which focuses on a singular plot and cast of characters, Tales uses a series of short vignettes, some not even prose, to explore fantastical stories of stick people, whales beached in backyards, and even a “how-to” grow your perfect pet. Even taking the graphics out of consideration, the text alone in this work would not warrant the label “novel.” But, because it has illustrations, we are quick to place it in the graphic novel genre.

Readers who enjoy illustrated texts that invite deeper exploration in the graphics and images will enjoy this book.  The quirky alien neighbors and random how-toinfluences provide some laugh-out-loud moments as well as moments for further consideration where you may even stop to wonder if Tan is sneaking in a social commentary of some sort in between his more light-heared sic-fi moments.  

Library Uses:
This title is an excellent discussion starter for graphic novels as a genre.  Invite students to explore how this book is organized, the role of the graphics and the text, the multiple story lines and modes of writing, and them invite them to compare this to more linear-styled graphic novels such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick or any number of more traditional graphic novels.  

Module 10: Fever 1793

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Philadelphia 1793. One of the hottest summers on record.  Head-strong Mattie Cook is desperate to put her plans for her mother’s coffeehouse into action and make something of herself.  Suddenly, fever engulfs the city, sending those with means away to the country as escape and the city’s poor and lonely to fend for themselves as an epidemic spreads from home to home.  Maddie finds herself fighting to survive, alone, in a city that has turned into a cemetery.

APA Reference:  Anderson, L. H. (199?) Fever 1793. New York, NY:  

Fever 1793 is an example of historical fiction featuring fictional characters in a real situation, in this case the Yellow Fever outbreak that killed thousands of people in Philadelphia at the end of the summer of 1793. The story follows Mattie, daughter of a coffee house owner, as she watches the devastation the fever brings unfold around her. Her own family is afflicted and scattered. Mattie narrowly survives the fever only to find herself alone and wandering the streets of a disease-ridden Philadelphia.

Over the course of the two evenings that I read the book, I found myself dreaming about Philadelphia and illness! Anderson’s descriptions and details were so vivid and strategically placed in the storyline (ex., the dress Mattie takes out of her mother’s chest when she runs out of clean clothes, the way the sun seemed to bake the cobbled stones of the city, the sights, sounds, and tastes from the open market, the vinegar-soaked clothes and sponges), that they imprinted on my subconcious mind. This is the mark of great historical fiction for me– being transported to a time period and landscape that I have never experienced in person. 

In her author’s notes, Anderson answers several plausible questions her readers might have for her, inculding details about the fever and her inspiration for the story. It’s clear that she spent a great amount of time and care in researching the event to mine the details that would bring her story and characters to life. 

Professional Review:



1793 252 pp. Simon 9/00 ISBN 0-689-83858-1 16.00 (Middle School) Laurie Halse Anderson
For fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook, the epidemic begins with the news of the sudden and unexpected death of her childhood friend Polly. It is summer 1793, and yellow fever is sweeping through Philadelphia; the death toll will reach five thousand (ten percent of the city’s population) before the frost. Mattie, her mother, and grandfather run a coffeehouse on High Street, and when others flee the city, they choose to stay–until Mattie’s mother is stricken. Sent away by her mother to escape contagion, Mattie tries to leave, is turned back by quarantine officers, falls ill herself, and is taken to Bush Hill, a city hospital run by the celebrated French doctor Steven Girard. Without ever being didactic, Anderson smoothly incorporates extensive research into her story, using dialogue, narration, and Mattie’s own witness to depict folk remedies, debates over treatment, market shortages, the aid work done by free blacks to care for and bury the victims, the breakdown of Philadelphia society, and countless tales of sufferers and survivors. With such a wealth of historical information (nicely set forth in a highly readable appendix), it’s a shame that the plot itself is less involving than the situation. While Mattie is tenacious and likable, her adventures are a series of episodes only casually related to the slender narrative arc in which she wonders if her mother has survived the fever and whether they will be reunited. Subplots concerning Mattie’s own entrepreneurial ambitions and her budding romance with a painter apprenticed to the famous Peale family wait offstage until the end of the book. Still, Anderson has gone far to immerse her readers in the world of the 1793 epidemic; most will appreciate this book for its portrayal of a fascinating and terrifying time in American history.
By Anita L. Burkam

L. Burkam, A. (2000). Fever 1793 [Review of book Fever 1793]Horn Book Magazine76(5), 562-563.

Library Uses:
A text set featuring Fever 1793 and other similar historical fiction titles featuring heroines overcoming enormous odds might engage teen readers in a new genre.  In addition, to Fever 1793, this set might include Chains (also by Anderson), Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, and The  Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. 

Module 12: Hole in My Life

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Jack Gantos loves books and loves writing, but as a mischievous, dreamy-eyed teenager, his determination and drive to get to college to study writing take him down a dangerous and criminal path;  he agrees to help to smuggle a boat-load of drugs to Manhattan from the Virgin Islands.  As a result, he serves his sentence in a federal prison, chronicling his days in a copy of Karamazov.

APA Reference:
Gantos, J. (2002).  Hole in my life.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Girous.


It is a memoir about the author’s decisions that led to him being incarcerated in a federal prison at the age of nineteen for smuggling drugs from St. Croix to Manhattan. Gantos was received the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book awards for this title. 

In the opening and the final chapters, Gantos takes the reader into his experience in a federal prison. He does not shield or protect teen readers from its realities (violence, rape, depression, drug use, etc.), but he doesn’t provide gratuitous and graphic details in excess either. The moments and scenes where he does get graphic are balanced with a sensitivity and profound revelation or reflection on the part of the author, making the overall message of the book that much more effective. 

In his first chapter he writes, “Ironically, in spite of all the fear and remorse and self-loathing, being locked up in a prison is where I fully realized I had to change my life for the better, and in one significant way I did” (p. 7). Had he not slowed down and taken us into his world during these pivotal scenes, this message would not be as resounding.

In places the memoir reads like a travelogue, chronicling his days at sea with the cantankerous former British sailor, Hamilton.  Gantos also honestly conveys his feelings of limbo, being neither here nor there.  As a whole, the memoir is a compelling and sometimes cautionary coming-of-age story, warning of the impetuousness of youth and will appeal to a broad reader base of teens.  

Professional Review:

Focus On: High School

Hole in My Life.
Farrar. 2002.
Gr 9 Up– The autobiographical account of the author’s search for his magical muse is thwarted by a get-rich-quick scheme of pirating a ship of pot up the coast. Gantos takes his consequence in the dregs of prison and reinvents a plan to spring free his intellectual aspirations. This candid, vivid, and illuminating page-turner emphasizes the salvation of journaling while showing how smart choices can right wrongs. Audio version available from Listening Library.
Compiled By Alison Follos

Follos, A. (2004). Hole in My Life (Book) (Review of the book Hole in my life). School Library Journal50(11), 67.

Library Uses:

Hole in My Life would make an excellent selection for a book club for boys.  Gantos’ style, humor, and realism might appeal to reluctant teenage boys, especially those with difficult pasts.  

Jack Gantos talks about how his life moving from place to place helped to shape the person and writer he is today. 

Module 11: How They Croaked

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King Tut, George Washington, Cleopatra, Marie Curie–what do all of these great historical figures have in common?  They all croaked, kicked the bucket, met their maker…they died.  Not only did they die, but they died in some of the most strange, gruesome, and mysterious ways.  This collection of biographies of the famous chronicles the lives of its subjects–often debunking or proving myths–and provides a scientific analysis of each of their deaths.  

APA Reference:

Bragg, G (2011). How they croaked. New York, NY:  Scholastic.

This title details the gruesome deaths of several famous figures including Queen Elizabeth, Pocahontas, Napoleon, Einstein, and many more. This title is a social science/ biography nonfiction book presented in chapters, one for each figure. The margins are wide and text is often accompanied with black and white drawings and figures that correlate with the subject matter. 

Other than just being very informative,
How They Croaked is a riot! The writing style incorporates colloquialisms and humor while providing the details and sometimes hilarious facts surrounding each death (King Henry VIII’s body exploded in his tomb because of the amount of infection and gasses that had built up in the layers of fat!)

At the end of each chapter the author provides little tid-bits and related facts such as all the different things that were named after Caesar (calendar, cesarean section, czar, Kaiser, etc.)

As an example of an excellent informational text,
How They Croaked engages students through it’s relatable language, humorous tone, and related sketches. The brief chapters make for excellent read-alouds for students of all ages. Even our HOSA (Health Science Occupations) teacher came in and bought one for her class because of the direct tie-in with her curriculum.

Professional Review:

The Book Review

BRAGG, Georgia. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. illus. by Kevin O’Malley. 178p. charts. bibliog. further reading. index. Web sites. CIP. Walker. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-8027-9817-6; RTE $18.89. ISBN 978-0-8027-9818-3. LC 2010008659.
Gr 5-9–King Tut died of malaria; Edgar Allan Poe is suspected to have had rabies. Beethoven and Galileo both met their ends due to lead poisoning. Fifteen other historical figures, including world leaders, writers, and scientists, were felled by things as mundane as pneumonia and as unpredictable as angry mobs. Each entry provides the circumstances of the person’s death and gives context to those circumstances, from discussions of the political climate to medical practices of the time. Chapters are separated by a spread of brief facts related to the individual, the demise, or the era. Lively, full-page caricatures set in decorative frames appear throughout, along with spot illustrations. Back matter includes a lengthy list of sources. The sometimes-snarky writing gives the material a casual, conversational tone that will appeal to many readers. The title alone provides an easy booktalk; expect this one to be passed around and pored over.
By Brandy Danner, Wilmington Memorial Library, MA

Danner, B. (2011). How they croaked: the awful ends of the awfully famous [Review of the book How they croaked:  the awful ends of the awfully famous].School Library Journal57(4), 189-190.

Library Uses:
This book would be a very entertaining opening title for a book talk featuring biographies for young adults.  A trailer could cleverly preview a few of the famous and their deaths.