Ten: Books, Articles, and Pictures Worth Sharing….

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At last….spring!  My husband opened a box of seeds yesterday, and the incredibly tiny little beginnings hold the promise of flowers blooming over the months ahead. When he begins planning his garden, I know we are turning the corner.

Here are ten things that I thought were worth sharing this week….

  • Russell Freedman died on March 16. The author of many award-winning biographies for young readers, Freedman wrote 47 books, but the best known is his 1988 Newbery-winning book, Lincoln: A Photobiography.  I had the opportunity to meet Freedman when I was in graduate school and fondly remember his encouraging words when I was considering writing about Hank Greenberg. Here is a link to his New York Times obituary:
  • If you regularly read aloud to young children – your own or in your classroom – you need a copy of A Couch for Llama by Leah Gilbert on your bookcase. Mary and I read it to nearly ten groups of young children this past week, and it was a hit every time. The premise of the silly story is that the Lago family needs a new couch so they pile into the car and head to the furniture store where, in a scene straight out of Goldilocks, they look for a “just right” new couch for their family. They find a new couch, but on the way home, it falls off the top of their car and into a field where it is found by a llama. This is a sweet story that you won’t mind reading multiple times.

  • Friday’s New York Times had a wonderful story about George and Martha, the hippopotamus friends who are the stars of James Marshall’s picture books. It reminded me that George and Martha have been “on the shelf” for too long – it’s time to introduce a new generation of kids to these sweet stories.  Here’s the link:
  • Jillian Tamaki’s new picture book, They Say Blue, is a book about colors and changing seasons, but also about slowing down and paying attention. This is a book to share with classroom and art teachers.

  • I just read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, the story of a young woman who grew up in a remote part of Idaho in a strict Mormon, survivalist family.  As a child, Westover did not have a birth certificate, did not attend school, and never saw a doctor. Incredibly, she finds her way to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge University. Her memoir focuses not only on her truly unbelievable journey, but on her quest to understand her family and the meaning of “home.”

  • The popularity of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series continues. We looked at what books have been checked out of the library most often over the past few months, and Gerald and Piggie rule the list. One of our students had them lined up and ready to read!

  • One of the books I read in Italy was Muriel Sparks novel, The Finishing School. It has been on my bookshelf for a long time, and sometimes, walking by our bookshelves, a title will catch my eye – a book I bought, but haven’t read. I read Sparks’ best known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, years ago, but had not read anything else by the British writer. This one was interesting – a study of jealousy. Roland is a teacher who, along with his wife, runs a small European boarding school. One of the reasons they have chosen this career path is to give time for Rowland to devote to writing his novel. But, as it turns out, one of his students is also writing a novel, and Rowland becomes consumed by jealousy, both professionally and personally. Sparks is an unsentimental writer. You can almost imagine her plotting this novel out by just taking everything to its most extreme and seeing how it all plays out. Funny. A bit dark. A biting satire.

  • One of the best parts of visiting Italy was being surrounded by Renaissance art – Lippi, Bellini, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, and others. If I had not gone down the book path, I would have studied art history, and as I get older, I’m devoting more time reading about and looking at paintings. Over the past five or so years, I’ve taken a deep dive into two periods that interest me: the Dutch Golden Age and the Renaissance. Like my other reading, it’s an endless well. So many paintings – and so many books.  As we visited churches and museums in Florence, I chose to focus on one specific story and thought about how it is interpreted by different artists. I focused on the Annunciation, a moment we must have seen represented 100 times during the week. Like a story that’s illustrated by many illustrators (think of Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella), the story of Mary hearing the “news” is represented in many ways. Here are a few that stood out for me. In the first, Mary seems unsure about what the angel has to tell her. The fourth image is part of a wall-size fresco that is absolutely stunning. 

  • It is April 1 – the first day of National Poetry Month. A chance to read poetry and awaken some part of you that may have been dormant over the winter. Here is one of my favorites:

Billy Collins
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

  • A final picture to make it 10!  Happy Reading….

Italy: Art, Beauty, Spaghetti, and Books….


I just returned from a week in Italy during which I visited beautiful churches, enjoyed delicious food, spent a magical day in Siena, and went to lots of bookstores. I had low expectations for how much bookstores would figure into this trip, especially since (even after a week in Italy) I know only two words of Italian: grazie and prego. But my husband and I were pleasantly surprised, not only by the number of English language books available, but also by the sheer number of stores.

It was especially notable that the bookstores we visited sell books, not stuff. As we walked around several large stores in Florence and Rome, we could not help but think about our local Barnes and Noble which is increasingly a toy and gadget store rather than a book store. One reason for this may be that trains are the primary transportation mode between Italian cities – and trains are great places to read.  I took the pictures below in the Rome train station. In the top picture,  you can see how closely the books are packed onto the shelves – just aisles of books and nothing else.

It was especially fun to see books about Maria Montessori in the bookstores. Of course I could not read them, but recognizing her name on the covers reminded me how much I value being a part of the world-wide Montessori community.

Our favorite store – and the one we visited three times – was the Paperback Exchange, an English language bookstore that has been in Florence since 1979. Each time we walked by, we stopped in for a few minutes to hear English spoken, and look at the wonderful selection of books about Italy.

We also saw Pinocchio everywhere! The famous Florentine wooden puppet character created by Carlo Collodi is available in every possible form, from “Made in China” bottle openers to lovely handmade figures costing hundreds of dollars.

Of course, I wanted to bring home a Pinocchio souvenir, one that was made in Florence and seemed to capture the puppet’s spirit. I took the decision very seriously, but ultimately decided on this little guy made in a stationary and bookbinding shop that has been in the same family for over one hundred and fifty years.

The woman working in the shop told us about the 1966 Florence flood and how the store was busy with book restoration for many years after that.  It was truly one of the loveliest experiences of our trip. A cozy shop full of beautiful books and stationary – and Pinocchios!

We arrived home too late to participate in Saturday’s March for Our Lives, but like many people, I felt inspired by the young speakers and hopeful about the future.  Here’s the dedication from Bill Peet’s 1975 picture book, The Gnats of Knotty Pine. 

I came home to lots of new books so stay tuned…

Happy Reading!

The First Sign of Spring – New Books!

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Flowers may not be blooming yet, but spring in the book publishing world means early March. The first flowers have pages rather than petals!

Here are five standout new picture books –

Franny’s Father Is a Feminist by Rhonda Leet

A sweet story about Franny, a little girl whose father knows that “girls can do anything boys can do.”  The cheery cartoon-like illustrations by Megan Walker add to the spirit of this book about what it means to be a feminist. Franny enjoys taking her bicycle apart and putting it back together, going fishing with her dad, playing hockey, and going to ballet class.  Her father supports all of her interests – and teaches her about Sally Ride and Malala. A fun book for young feminists and their dads!

The Boy and the Whale by Mordecai Gerstein

Over the past year and a half, there has been a necessary and responsive emphasis on children’s books that foster empathy in young readers. The Boy and the Whale, Gerstein’s new picture book which was published late last year is a good one to add to your collection of books that convey courage and sacrifice. In a setting that looks to be someplace in Latin America, a boy and his father lose their only fishing net when a whale becomes tangled in it. Although his father is understandably concerned about the net, the boy is determined to save the whale.  At great risk, the boy uses his fishing knife to free the giant whale. The pictures add to the dramatic intensity – and, of course, there is a happy ending.

Florette by Anna Walker

There are moments when I’m opening a new picture book, that I’m brought back to the joy I felt as a child when a character leapt right into my heart. That’s the response I had to Florette. Mae, the little girl at the center of the story, misses her garden after her family moves to the city: “Mae missed playing with her friends, listening to the birds in the apple trees, and gathering things for her treasure jar.” Ultimately, she finds a plant shop called Florette and new friends to share her love for the natural world. Beginning with the beautiful endpapers, Florette is a magical book about learning to grow in a new place.

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima

Jessie Sima, the author of Not Quite Narwhal, has written another picture book that begs to be read aloud. Harriet is not the kind of child who wears a costume only on October 31. She “wore costumes all the time.”  The opening pages show Harriet in a dentist chair wearing a dinosaur costume and at the laundromat dressed as a ghost. On the day of her birthday party, she and her two dads go to the grocery store where Harriet is literally carried away by a group of penguins buying ice. In her fantasy (or is it real!), she follows the penguins happily at first before realizing she wants to go back home for her birthday party.  The large format cartoon-like illustrations make this the perfect book for sharing with a group of young children.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel

The only nonfiction book on my list (so far), Girl Running is the true story of Bobbi Gibb who, in 1966, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. This was an unfamiliar story to me – and it’s an incredible one. When Gibb requested an official application for the Marathon, she received a letter stating: “…Women are not physiologically able to run twenty-six miles and furthermore the rules do not allow it.” Bobbi Gibb ran anyway and finished in three hours and twenty minutes. Micha Archer’s collage-style illustrations enhance and extend the story, especially with the clever mile markers at the bottom of the page. An inspiring story for young athletes. I’m going to save this book for a read aloud during the week leading up to the Boston Marathon.

The picture at the top of the post is of a beautiful glass object sitting on a window sill at Fallingwater, the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the mid-1930s. A house with spectacular views both inside and outside, and yet, the thing I loved the most was this glass. I’m off on another adventure – no blog post next weekend. But I’ll return with more pictures of beautiful things that I see along the way.

Happy Reading!


Nor’easter Photo Edition….

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Mother Nature got in the way of my regular Sunday posts. Our power was restored yesterday and we spent last evening clearing out the refrigerator and grocery shopping. Once again, the natural world reminded us of who’s really in charge!

Until Sunday when I can write something more substantive, here are a few pictures to enjoy:

I put the back page of the New York Times monthly kids’ section up in the library with an invitation to add to it.  Here are responses from Inly 6th graders:

Over the past week, including some disruptions from the nor’easter, the Inly Players put on a joyous and colorful production of Seussical. This event was Inly’s twelfth annual show produced by theater professionals and cast from students and community volunteers. Inspired by Dr. Seuss, the Lower Elementary students designed fantastical creatures to decorate the hallway:

In anticipation of the upcoming spring break, we have encouraged the students to check out lots of books. It’s a scary thing, I warned them, to be at home or on vacation without a pile of good books to read. Here are some of the browsers making big decisions:

I have lots of new books to look at over the next couple of days so check back on Sunday.

Happy Reading!


Books to Grow Your Child’s Kindness Muscles…

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Like most of my friends, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by the world these days. I tell myself to shut off the constant jolts of upsetting news, but I can’t do it. I want to know what’s going on even though reading about gun violence is disturbing and frightening. What makes me hopeful are the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The long overdue conversation they have started is invigorating and reminds me we have a voice – and a vote!

The first reference I saw to the hashtag #ArmMeWith movement was on School Library Journal’s Instagram feed. After seeing this:

I began to wonder what others are “arming themselves with.”  So many inspiring responses….

Today, five books to arm your child with what matters: kindness, good words, peace, and empathy:

Write To Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady

The true and inspiring story of Clara Breed, a children’s librarian who, in 1942, encouraged her young Japanese American patrons to write to her from internment camps. Grady’s picture book includes excerpts from the notes children wrote to Mrs. Breed including one that reads: “Books make the day shorter and happier for us.”

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates

A smiling umbrella grows to include everyone.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi

Based on the author’s own life growing up the child of Vietnamese immigrants in Minneapolis, Phi recalls waking up early to go fishing with his father. A 2018 Caldecott Honor Book

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead

The winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal, this is not a new book – but it is a gentle and timeless reminder of the importance of friendship. I appreciate this book more every time I read it.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

This book has been on my mind recently which is certainly related to the debate about immigration. This story of an immigrant man traveling to a new and unfamiliar place, is the closest I’ve come to understanding how unsettling it must be to start over.  The Arrival is a wordless book that uses graphic novel style panels to convey the main character’s experiences and confusion. As overwhelming as it is, Tan’s book is also beautiful and warm.

And a story about a tree…

During the last two months of his life, President John F. Kennedy ended several of his speeches with the same story. He said:

“I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose: plant it this afternoon.”

The first time I heard an audio recording of President Kennedy telling this story, I remember thinking it was the perfect metaphor for his administration: we may not be able to do everything now, but we can plant the seeds.

Last week, during a trip to the Kennedy Library with Inly’s middle school students, I saw this crayon drawing by twelve-year-old John F. Kennedy:

The drawing is part of the exhibit, JFK: Mementoes and Milestones, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth.  I wonder if President Kennedy thought of his tree drawing when he heard the story of the French Marshal.





Paris, Mystery Boxes, Cherry Blossoms, and Jenny Kroik…

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It’s a rainy Sunday, a perfect day for reading – and writing about reading. My current book is The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt.  I know – it sounds like the title of a paperback romance, the kind I used to find stacked in my grandmother’s bookcase. But it’s not. Hewitt’s book is a biography of Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne who was among other things: the subject of a painting by Manet, the inspiration for a novel by Zola, and made a countess by Napoleon III.

There are many other books in my “to read” pile, and arguably some that I should have chosen before this one. But I needed something different, a break from my reading list. I purchased Hewitt’s book about a year ago after reading a good review, but it has been sitting on the shelf since then. The other day, feeling the need to leave the contemporary world behind and enter a different time and place, I picked it up, and I’m now happily reading about the Paris theater world in the late 19th century.

Back in this world, one of my students did a cool project this week. Inspired by the novel Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jake asked if he could plan something for our writing class based on an activity in Hunt’s novel. “Each group will be given a shoe box wrapped in elastic bands with a mystery object inside,” the teacher in the novel tells his class. “Your job is to guess what the mystery object is.” Jake certainly knew I could never turn down a book-based project, so the next day, he brought in four boxes, put us in groups, and explained our task. It was great. The other students really enjoyed it, and there were some awesome guesses about what turned out to be a cork, an egg, a bar of soap, and a pencil.

It’s grey and cold outside, but beautiful with a hint of springtime in the Library. Thanks to Inly’s art teacher, our students made carp fish and origami cherry blossoms for the Library. This was part of our collaborative project during which we read Japanese stories during Library visits and the kids made brightly colored fish during art class.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Instagram, not about posting my own pictures, but in following others. Facebook has never been a temptation, but I love the quick scroll of Instagram, especially while I’m waiting in a long line at the CVS pharmacy or while taking a 15-minute lunch break at school. It’s fun to see what my friends are reading and celebrating, but Instagram has actually become a tool of my work. Publishers use it to promote new books and authors share pieces of their work, but it’s the bookstores that are my favorites. It’s a great way to (quickly) see what’s being read and talked about. I now follow over 50 bookstores around the world, and those pics give me good ideas and a wider picture of the reading world.

One of my happiest discoveries was the artist, Jenny Kroik. She doesn’t promote specific titles, but her illustrations of people browsing in bookstores, visiting art museums, and walking around New York City are wonderful. In fact, this illustration of a woman shopping in the Strand Bookstore was the cover of The New Yorker’s November 13, 2017 issue:

Recently, scrolling through Kroik’s Instagram feed, I saw this one of a little girl at Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore in New York City. I’m sharing it here with the artist’s permission.  If you are an Instagrammer, add her to your list:

Happy Reading!

Learning History through Good Historical Fiction



“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  Nelson Mandela

Recently, during a conversation with my colleagues at the end of a school day, I shared with them that, during  a conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the students expressed surprise that Calpurnia, the Finch family’s housekeeper, is a black woman. Another teacher shared a similar story. We began talking about the importance of pre-existing knowledge, of having a basic understanding of history and an internal timeline to reference. I responded to my student’s question by telling them that a prominent white southern family in the 1930s would, of course, have a black housekeeper. Of course, kids have gaps and they don’t know what they don’t know – but as my colleagues and I continued to talk, I mentioned that several students are obsessed with the Divergent series and other dystopian novels.

That led us to thinking about how, as young people, we learned much of our history through reading historical fiction, and we wondered if the popularity of fantasy novels, has had an impact on what kids know.  Dystopian novels are valuable. They allow kids to process uncertainty, ask questions about the world we live in, and spark essential conversation about power dynamics.

But as I thought more about it, I remembered how many more fantasy novels circulate in the school library – compared to historical novels.  I also re-read a New York Times opinion piece from this past November called “How to Get Your Mind to Read.”  Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist and the article’s author, writes:

“…Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years. Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate – they comprehend very little of what they sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.”

Willingham’s article provides clear examples of how much more successful students are when they have “broad knowledge.”  Here’s a link to the full piece:

All of this reminded me of how much I learned as a child from reading historical novels. It was not always the best of what was being published; I read indiscriminately, everything from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It took time for me to discern what was good, but in the meantime, I learned the basics of American history, how attitudes have changed over time, and how people have been treated based on their race and ethnicity. I laid the foundation so everything that followed had something to stand on.

There is lots to think about here: the teaching of history, the role of technology on our limited attention spans, and how we can encourage kids to read more of the excellent historical fiction and nonfiction available to them. Not at the exclusion of fantasy which has much to offer, but rather as part of a well-balanced reading diet.

Here are twelve excellent historical novels for middle grade readers:

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (the first in the Seeds of America trilogy, Chains follows the story of Isabel, a 13-year-old slave girl fighting for her freedom in New York City at the start of the Revolution)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (an African American family travels from Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963)

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper (Depression-era North Carolina)

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (a young girl’s struggle for survival during the Dust Bowl)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (a Vietnamese girl’s experience moving from Saigon to Alabama)

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (A Danish family hides a Jewish friend during WWII)

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (based on a true story of one of the lost boys of Sudan)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (set in the 1930s, a young girl moves from Mexico to California)

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (three sisters travel to Oakland, California in 1968)

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (a young Communist during Stalin-era Russia)

There are many more excellent historical novels for kids, but this shows a range of places to jump in: African American history, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the American Revolution, and more.

And wherever you live, there are places to visit to make these stories come to life, to take a break from virtual reality and re-enter the world.

Happy Reading!