Books That Break the Fourth Wall…


All books are interactive – there’s the author and the reader. But novels usually work like a theater performance with an imaginary “wall” between the action on the stage and the people in the audience.  For example, when a child reads Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, they see Mrs. Mallard and Michael (the police officer) safely guide the eight ducks across the busy street. It’s wonderful, but the reader is not part of the action.

I’m not usually a fan of “novelty” books. Books are perfect just the way they are.  But the number of fun and interactive picture books is increasing, and kids love them. These are books that invite participation and make the reader part of the story.  An added bonus of interactive picture books is that they can draw reluctant listeners in. If you’re reading to an especially restless group of young children, try one of these interactive books, and then a few weeks later, they will be ready to hear if Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack make it to the other side.

Herve Tullet is the master of the interactive book, and his work has clearly inspired some of the books listed below.  His three magical books are Press Here, Mix It Up, and Let’s Play.  It’s nearly impossible to resist playing along with Tullet’s masterful books.  In Let’s Play, he asks the reader to follow a yellow dot.  On the opening pages, the dot is in the center of the page, and the text reads: “Press the top corner to get me started.”  Of course, I did- and on the next page, the dot had moved to the top right corner. Tullet’s books are better than an iPad!!

Bunny Slopes by Claudia Rueda (Bunny is ready to go, but needs help from the reader to get down the hill.  The best page is when you are asked to “tilt” the book so that Bunny can go down the bunny slope!)

Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson (Matheson’s book follows an apple tree through its seasonal changes.  I like the page where you “shake the tree” and then on the following page, the apples are on the ground.)

The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (As the title announces, there are no illustrations in Novak’s book.  But the text explains exactly how books work.  When the page tells you to read the word “blork,” you do it of course because it’s the next word on the page.  Hard to explain, but brilliant!)

We Are In a Book! by Mo Willems  (“I think someone is looking at us,” Gerald says to Piggie in this episode of the popular duo’s adventures. Similar to Novak’s book, the power of this book comes from the realization that the reader has to say what’s on the page.  Really fun.)

Stretch, Wiggle, and Bounce by Doreen Cronin (Perfect for active toddlers, Cronin’s popular series gets kids to touch their toes, bounce, and “wake up with a wiggle.”)

Life on Mars by Jon Agee  (A new book by one of my favorite authors and illustrators. At first glance, this book does not seem to fit into this list of books that invite a child to participate, but the reader is absolutely essential to the clever premise of this story.  It only works with the barrier between author and reader broken. )

Some other interactive picture books to explore….

Warning: Do Not Open This Book! by Adam Lehraupt

Please, Open This Book! by Adam Lehraupt

Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley

Don’t Touch This Book and Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter

We’re In the Wrong Book by Richard Byrne

This Book Just Ate My Dog by Richard Byrne

This Book Is Out of Control! by Richard Byrne

Can You Make a Scary Face? by Jan Thomas

Huff & Puff by Claudia Rueda

Plant the Tiny Seed by Christie Mathewson

Have Fun!

The Kids Have a Point…

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A friend recently asked if I could recommend a book for her 7th grade son that is “not as depressing” as what he reads in school and much of what they find in bookstores.  It was not the first time I’ve heard that question. A few years ago, a 6th grade girl, browsing in the school book fair, said: “it seems like every book is sad.”  I try to keep a mental list of titles to recommend when faced with this question: The Great Green Heist by Varian Johnson, The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjertsen Malone, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, among others.  But they have a point.

Earlier today, while reading reviews of book I’m considering for Inly’s summer reading list, these lines jumped out at me:

“When thirteen-year-old Stevie Grace Tanner’s parents are killed in a freak accident, their deaths uncover a wealth of family secrets….”

“After his father dies, twelve-year-old Flip has to leave Amsterdam for Mossum, a remote island in the North Sea, to live on his uncle’s farm.”

“Clair and Abigal have few memories of their mother – she died when they were very young….”

“After her mother was murdered in cold blood….”

“Constantly on the move after her father’s death, Calliope June Snow (Calli) arrives in St. George, Utah, with her lovelorn mother, a few suitcases, and an egg carton rock collection.”

There are lots of wonderful new books – and I definitely cherry-picked the lines above to make my case, but Harry Potter is only one character in a long line of orphans.

I understand why authors make this decision.  The readers of middle grade and young adult realistic fiction are starting to crave some independence. They want to act rather than being acted upon.  The process of “coming of age” is necessarily part of a separation – kids want to see other kids solve problems themselves rather than being saved by a well-meaning parent or guardian who comes to their rescue or provides them with “the answer.”  That being said, I would like to see more middle grade novels in which the young protagonist has to navigate adolescence with their families. That is the reality for many young readers, and those changing relationships are rich with material for a novel.

I recently reviewed Nicole Helget’s new novel, The End of the Wild, for School Library Journal.  A timely and worthwhile read.  Here’s an excerpt from my review:

“Eleven-year-old Fern has more responsibilities than most kids her age. Since her mother and baby sister’s death in a car crash two years earlier, she has lived with her stepfather, Toivo, and her two younger brothers. Fern works hard to help keep her poor family together.  Toivo, a veteran of the Iraq War, has been unemployed since losing his job as a mechanic, and although he does odd jobs to support his family, he drinks too much and the family struggles to keep food on the table. Fern is central to the family’s success. Their house is surrounded by woods that, as her name suggests, Fern treasures as both sanctuary and food basket…..Fern is struggling to select a project for the school’s STEM fair, when she learns that her beloved woods are being considered for a wastewater pond for a fracking company… excellent book for a young reader who is interested in learning about one of today’s most complex environmental issues.  Fern is a likeable character who is, in her words, learning “what kind of adult do I want to be.” A worthy goal.”

Finally, I highly recommend this article from today’s New York Times:

Note: The banner photo was taken from Inly’s school library where you can see the maker space downstairs.




Three Books and Three Projects…

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I’m happily surrounded by stacks of new books – spring releases to read during Tuesday’s expected snow storm!  Here are three favorites…

Life on Mars by Jon Agee — I read this to a group of 7th and 8th graders last week and they loved it.  After our spring break, when I have a  chance to read it to younger kids, I anticipate the same enthusiastic response.  Agee’s picture books are witty and smart.  In this one, a young astronaut lands on Mars (carrying a chocolate cupcake) determined to find signs of life.  He walks all over the planet, but begins to think nothing could live in the cold and dark environment he encounters. Ultimately, he finds a flower growing among the rocks, but part of the fun here is that the reader sees more than the young astronaut!  The story is interactive in the best way.

For Mars-like vistas, check out Jason Chin’s new picture book, Grand Canyon, especially the spectacular double gatefold. Like this one, Chin’s previous books Redwoods and Island, blend breathtaking illustrations with enough facts for kids who enjoy knowing the numbers. Here’s an interesting one: the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and more than a mile deep.  This book is both information rich and inspiring enough to make the reader want to plan a trip to Arizona!

A small book that could easily be lost on the shelf – Bertolt by Jacques Goldstyn – deserves to be on permanent display.  The story opens with a young boy looking for his lost mitten and who, it is clear, prefers the company of “his” oak tree, Bertolt, to being with other people.  The boy spends many happy hours with his tree, but one spring the tree does not grow any leaves, and he has to accept that Bertolt has died.  I’m not going to tell you what he does next.  It would not be fair to take the moment away from you. You have to see it yourself.

Our fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students recently completed their book projects – each of them read a book that is a “window” to a life different than their own. After reading the book, they were assigned a project with very few parameters other than it had to be hand-made, no 3D printing this time around.

The projects were all wonderful, but I’ll share three of them….

The picture below is a project based on the novel George by Alex Gino.  George is about a boy who knows she is meant to be a girl.  When George’s class presents Charlotte’s Web, George hopes for the role of Charlotte so that everyone, especially her mom, will see her as a girl.  The Inly student who read this book decided to represent the process of transformation. It’s a lovely and thoughtful project.

The banner picture at the top of the post was taken during a middle school class last week. I gave the kids time to select books for their March break reading.  We had stacks of books all over the floor, and they recommended them to friends, selected their own reading, and talked about their favorite books. It was a happy hour!


By the Book….



Every Sunday I look forward to reading the New York Times Book Review’s weekly feature, By the Book, in which they interview a prominent person from the literary world.  Like some people play along with NPR’s puzzlemaster Will Shortz during Weekend Edition, I “answer along” with the Book Review’s questions.  Since my answers won’t appear in the actual New York Times, I’m having fun by responding to some of their questions here.


What’s the last great book you read?

There are many books I’ve enjoyed recently, but if we are defining “great” as timeless, my answer is Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, Mothering Sunday. It’s a small book that is beautiful and intense.  Michiko Kakutani said it has a “haunting, ceremonious pace,” a phrase that has stuck with me.  Three other books that I have to mention in this category: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.


What books are currently on your nightstand?

The books on the nightstand had to be moved to the floor so that the nightstand would not crack under the pressure!  There are so many good books in the queue, but I’m currently reading Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by the historian, Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Ona Judge worked for President Washington while the First Family was living in Philadelphia, and I was fascinated to learn that slaves in Pennsylvania were free after living there for six months. This was a problem for the first President and his wife who relied on the slaves who traveled with them from Mount Vernon.


The next book on my list is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  I’ve also been reading The New Yorker’s recent profile of Anthony Bourdain, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (the book I’m reading with my middle school students), and enjoying a book about the artist William Merritt Chase, an American painter.  I saw an exhibit of Chase’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts and became obsessed with his painting of his wife called Meditation (pictured above).


How do you organize your books?

Alphabetically, of course!  I work in a library.


What book would people be surprised to find on your shelves?

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.  About a year ago, my husband commented that he could not remember ever seeing me read a science book.  He may not have meant it as a challenge, but I bought Montgomery’s book the next day, read every page in front of my husband, and have been talking about the intelligence of the multi-hearted cephalopods ever since!


What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious, but undirected.  I read constantly, but not in a way that distinguished “classics” or “literary” books from everything else.  I read whatever was in front of me: Bobbsey Twins at my grandmother’s house and what felt like every book in the children’s room of the Xenia Public Library.  Judy Blume is the author who sticks with me.  Years later, I wrote to thank her for writing Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and, although it never occurred to me that she received countless similar letters, she wrote back.  I will never forget that.

unknown-8How do you like to read? Paper or electronic?

Paper – 100% of the time.  I expected to like reading on a screen, but for me it felt too much like I was reading for work or scrolling through emails.  Pages are my portals to other lives.


You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Barack Obama; Arlene Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right; and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.  Maybe they could help me understand what is happening in our country.  But I would invite the poet Naomi Shihab Nye to join us for dessert.  Her poem, Kindness, would give us words to hold on to as we stepped back into the night.




Three Must-Have New Books….



If you are a school librarian or parent wondering which of the new books to borrow or buy, here are three that stand out from a recent delivery of spring titles.


Pax and Blue by Lori Richmond (ages 3-6)

The story has been told before, but Richmond does it simply and sweetly.  Pax, a young boy who lives in the city, is friends with a pigeon he names Blue. Every morning, Pax brings a “bit of toast and shares it with Blue.”  But one morning, as Pax’s mom races to work, Blue follows them onto a packed subway car where, of course, a little pigeon can get lost and cause panic on the train!  There is a happy ending of course, but there is something about the cartoon-like drawings and muted colors that makes this a special book. This would be fun to read with Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, another heartwarming story about friends who are temporarily separated.


Not Quite Narshal by Jessie Sima (ages 4-7)

A new story about being true to yourself, but there can’t be too many of those!  Kelp seems to hatch from a clam – and knows “early on that he was different from the other narwhals.”  Kelp plays joyfully with his accepting narwhal friends, but when he sees an adult unicorn standing on a cliff, he knows the truth.  Kelp is happy to meet other unicorns, but he loves his ocean friends too.  Luckily, he discovers that he can live in both worlds.  Excellent storytime possibilities: either pair it with other stories of belonging: The Ugly Ducking or Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio.  Or plan a unicorn gathering and include A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young and Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.


Wolfie & Fly by Cary Fagan (ages 6-9)

With the growing focus on maker spaces and maker culture in schools, this is the perfect early chapter to support tinkering.  Renata is a young girl who prefers reading about undersea life to being with other children – until she meets her neighbor Fly, a boy who enjoys making up songs and playing them on his plastic guitar.  When Renata starts building a submarine from a large cardboard box, a friendship is born.  I hope to see lots more projects from these two imaginative kids!

News From the Book World…..



Dick Bruna, the Dutch creator of Miffy, the white rabbit, died at the age of 89.  Over twenty years ago, during my first trip to Holland, I fell in love with the simplicity and sweetness of Miffy and came home with books, dish towels, and a refrigerator magnet – pictured above.

Link to the New York Times obituary:

Philip Pullman, at the author of His Dark Materials, announced that he will release the first book in a new trilogy on October 19.  The Book of Dust, Pullman said, “is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organization, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free.”  A timely read, and the best part — Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of His Dark Materials, returns in this new trilogy!


Happy Reading!

Perhaps a Book a Day?



“We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  (John F. Kennedy)

Perhaps a way to see a way through some of the troubling discourse is to counteract negative words with those that appeal to our better nature.  When I worked at the John F. Kennedy Library, one of the things I grew to admire most about President Kennedy was the way he consistently encouraged people to be their best selves rather than giving in to their fears.  That is sorely missing now.

Like many people, I am trying to identify constructive ways to participate in the debate, but there are times when I find myself reeling from the divisive and hateful language.  Earlier today, reading School Library Journal, I found this poster:


It will be displayed in the school library next week.  But it reminds me that I need to balance the angry rhetoric with words that are elevating.  I’m going to take 5 minutes every day to read a picture book that puts good words in my head.

Here are ideas for the first ten days, all of them books that emphasize kindness, empathy and the importance of understanding each other:


How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham


Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena


Zen Shorts by Jon Muth


Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey


Teacup by Rebecca Young


The Arrival by Shaun Tan


Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis


A Sick Day for Amos McGee


Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson


The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas


Today, a snow day, is the perfect time to read one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

One last note: the photo at the top was taken by Will Maxwell, an 8th grade student and talented photographer.

Happy Reading…


Ten Happy Things….


The days are grey and cold.  I am sad that someone who is remarkably incurious lives in a house where there is beauty and history in every room.  The list of things that frighten me is overwhelming. I am looking for sparks of light.  There are many of them – friends and family, books and art, my students and colleagues, and groups of committed and patriotic citizens who are finding ways forward.

Here are ten things that may shine light on the week ahead…


  1.  A book tower!  During library class last week, a first grade student created her own work of public art:


2. The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduck by Timothy Basil Ering.  A lovely and gentle picture book that celebrates friendship and hope. Ering’s art is beautiful – his two-page spread of fog looks exactly like what you see while driving through a foggy evening.  When we first meet Alfred Fiddleduck, he is in an egg waiting to hatch. The egg is being carefully ferried by Captain Alfred who is carrying it in his fiddle case – a gift for his wife who is waiting for his return in their little house by the sea.  But a violent storm sends the fiddle case into the sea, and “far offshore, deep in the fog, alone and drifting, the egg cracked.”  There is a happy ending, of course, but the journey is beautiful.


3.  A poem by a 2nd grade student and printed here with her permission:

Winter by Ana

Winter means snow,

winter means fun,

winter means ice, and rarely sun.

Winter means snowmen, chilly toes,

winter gives you a red nose.

Dull grey skies predict more snow,

while you’re inside with the fire aglow.


4.  Elephant and Piggie!  These two are always guaranteed to make you smile.  This week’s New Yorker includes an article about their creator, Mo Willems.  Here’s a link:


5. Kid book reviews.  As all school librarians know, it’s challenging to convince kids to take a risk on a new series.  Most of them prefer to check-out books their friends are reading. But if you can find one student to trust your guarantee that they will like the book, a new series may catch fire.  That’s what happened with the Billy Sure: Kid Entrepreneur, a series by Luke Sharpe.  For weeks, I unsuccessfully tried to get a group of boys who enjoy light, fast-paced chapter books to try them.  And then – success!  Oliver, a student who was perhaps tired of the same recommendation, checked out Billy Sure #1.  After we displayed his review, we can’t keep the books on the shelf!  Oliver’s review reads: “This is a really funny book. I like how Billy is an inventor. I like how he tries to build stuff and he goes on TV!  This is a really good book if you like inventing things.”


6. The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli.  I finished it this morning and closed the book thinking about the kids I will recommend it to tomorrow.  Like many of Spinelli’s novels, this one takes place in Pennsylvania – this time in the late 1950s when kids are watching American Bandstand.  The Warden’s Daughter is Cammie O’Reilly, a 7th grader whose mother died when she was a baby.  She so desperately wants a mother that she tries to turn her “Cammie-keeper,” as she refers to the woman who cares for her, into a mother figure.  Meanwhile, Cammie’s best friend appears on American Bandstand – representing the change Cammie and her friends are experiencing on the cusp of becoming teenagers. This is a thoughtful and moving novel for mature 5th-7th grade readers.


7. An origami boat made by an 8th grade student who read Around the World in 80 Days.


8. There is a box of books under the library check-out desk.  It’s where we keep new books for Inly’s older elementary students – 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.  It started simply enough: a place to hold new books I plan to share with them or books put aside for specific students. Last week, three girls stopped by, and asked if there was anything special in the blue box.  I pulled it out for them, they sat down, and began pulling books out.  Spontaneously, one of them said – “this is the best plastic box I’ve ever seen!”


9. The Mothers by Britt Bennett.  I’ve been listening to Bennett’s debut novel since reading a glowing review in The New York Times this past November.  It’s a story about secrets, about friendship, about leaving and returning, and the hold our past has on us.  The book mostly takes place in Southern California, but there were times, listening in my car on cold days in January,  I was tempted to roll the window down.


10.  The Snowy Day on Postage Stamps!  2017 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter’s creator, Ezra Jack Keats.  I’ve been asking about the stamps at every trip to my local post office.  I will buy some to use and some to keep!

Happy Reading – and keep your eyes open for flashes of light!