Literature Guide for Debby Dahl Edwardson’s “My Name is Not Easy”

Literature Guide for Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name is Not Easy

Download literary guide for Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name is Not Easy

Told from multiple perspectives, Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name is Not Easy is a narrative of the hard, culture-crippling truths of the boarding schools that native Alaskans attended during the early 1960’s. The characters in Edwardson’s story attend the fictional Sacred Heart School, a Catholic institution whose structure and methodology is fierce, brutal, and deeply rooted in the idea that native students needed to be re-trained in order for their communities to succeed. The characters are fictional, but just like their school, they each present carefully designed portraits of “typical” students at such schools, and their experiences give literary life to the real life experiences of unnamed others.

The students at Sacred Heart have been sent there from villages all over Alaska, and while each one’s story of why they’ve wound up there varies, each native Alaskan student’s story shares the same undercurrent: their presence at the school forces them to let go of their language, their landscape, and their people, and it is assumed by those in charge that this is necessary in order for native Alaskans to survive. On top of the clashes between students from self-identified Eskimo villages and Indian villages are emotional and physical abuse from school staff, forced consumption of radiation-filled iodine for government testing, and the adopting out of students not deemed appropriate for school life.  Read the rest of this entry »

18 Story Books on Weather for Kids

18 Story Books on Weather for Kids

There’s a riotous energy this time of year: the mad leafing out of plants and trees, crazy bird song at dawn, unruly swarms of biting insects, the palpable freedom of school letting out for summer, and wild weather that can change from snow squalls to thunderstorms within hours. Those first spring storms are greeted with a mixture of excitement and nervousness in our home. Thunder and lightning, rain and the wind, are full of edgy juxtapositions, scary and beautiful, exciting and terrifying, exquisite and destructive.

Nature’s power is clearly evident in weather phenomena and often seems mysterious. But many weather events can be explained in scientific terms, and when packaged with pictures into the safe covers of a book, help kids understand the wild weather that impacts our lives.  Here’s a collection of kids’ books, mostly about riotous forms of stormy weather. I’ve included a short selection of nonfiction titles and a few picture books, starting with brand new work by award-wining children’s book creator, Arthur Geisert…

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Literature Guide for Dr. Seuss’ “McElligot’s Pool”

Literature Guide for Dr. Seuss’ McElligot’s Pool

McElligot’s Pool is not one of Dr. Seuss’ best-known books, but it is certainly one of his most creative and most beautiful! Blending true Seuss-ian creativity with environmentalist undertones, the story follows a young fisherman through the many different imaginary marine scenarios that could be playing out in the dark water below his fishing pole. McElligot’s Pool is a farm pond scarcely larger than a puddle and filled with human detritus (an alarm clock, a boot, a tea kettle, a tin can, and so on), and while it seems likely that the small, dirty pond holds no fish at all, the narrator’s youthful imagination is not bound by the constraints of environmental reality (nor any other type of reality) and takes readers on a fantastic underwater trip around the world.

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Literary Guide for Anthony Browne’s “Zoo”

Literary Guide for Anthony Browne’s Zoo

Download literary guide for Anthony Browne’s Zoo.

A family outing to the zoo serves as a catalyst for deep thought in this 25-year-old work of children’s literature. Author and illustrator Anthony Browne, known as one of late 20th century England’s best children’s writers, has transformed a quintessential (and perhaps stereotypical) family adventure into a thought-provoking examination of humans’ regard for the natural world in Zoo. Within the book’s pages, illustrations in which humans seem to be animals and animals seem almost human haunt a text dripping with the narrator’s disdain for the lackluster creatures found within the concrete confines of the zoo.

The story is extraordinarily extraordinary without presenting as such: what was (and still is) a very common family experience reveals itself to be something that is conceptually much greater, and experientially (for the characters) much less. The family of four featured in the cover illustration argue their way through traffic and pay exorbitant prices in order to gain the privilege of interacting with nature, the absence of which is subtly included in the first few pages’ illustrations. Though seemingly excited about their destination, the family engages only passively with their surroundings, failing to get a map and looking at some “boring” animals before searching for their favorites. Creature after creature is met with criticism from the narrator and his kin, while the creatures themselves are depicted as disengaged from reality within their unnatural surroundings. Even the creatures that promised excitement (tigers, for example) leave much to be desired, and by the end of the day, the family favorites are the cafeteria and the gift shop.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literature Guide for Ruther Heller’s “Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones”

Literature Guide for Ruther Heller’s Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones

Download literary guide for Ruther Heller’s Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones.

As a nonfiction text that looks very much like most fiction books, Ruth Heller’s Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones is filled with rich illustrations and vocabulary and draws readers in with its alluring, picture-book-like structure. This fun, upbeat, and informative text pairs the inherent wonder of childhood with a collection of fascinating facts, and despite its appearance, it is a great example of a rich nonfiction text for young readers.

The text within the book is short and simple, and draws meaty sentences out over the course of several pages, thus allowing young readers to digest each piece of information on its own while working to piece together a larger idea. There are few words, but the ones that are there convey important information and essential vocabulary. The rich, detailed illustrations appear to be simply artwork, but provide readers with accurate images of the many species mentioned in the book. Young readers can gain much knowledge (and entertainment!) from an endless close examination of the pictures alone.

The book’s simplistic nature makes it ideal for readers ages 5-8, but it can be read and enjoyed by readers of any age. Using our literary guide, educators of all kinds can use Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones as a tool for helping readers strengthen their observational skills as a tool for comprehension of texts. Critical thinking questions, extension activities, and mini-lesson help readers to build their knowledge base, share their thinking, and stretch their learning to connect to numerous skills and ideas.

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Books for Young Bards

Books for Young Bards

April is National Poetry Month! Time to indulge in poetic forms of all kinds and kids’ books serve up odes of opportunities. Picture books are notorious for revealing in rhyme and rhythm, but novels can deliver a powerful poetic punch too, and ought to be a part of any reader’s well-stocked library bag. Highly accessible, novels in verse have an intimate and immediate feel to them, and often make good read-aloud books, even as they are perfect for savoring in quiet. Has your family had a healthy serving of poetry today? Try one of these middle-grade grade novels and satisfy their cravings for couplets. Read the rest of this entry…

If ever there were a month for spontaneous outbursts of snowdrop-covered verse and dandelion rhymes – it’s now. After a long, grueling winter, to see the ice recede and flowers push up and bloom, to hear birdsong in the morning and to leave heavy coats behind, is poetic glee. Spring itself is living poetry. What a glorious time to share some couplets with a couple of kids, so here are six new books for young bards.  Read the rest of this entry…

Here is a new book filled with humorous rhymes and fantastically bizarre cars. Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems is the work of the 2011-2013 US Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, and award-winning children’s poet, Douglas Florian. Together, they have created a collection of futuristic automobiles, from the Giant Bookmobile of Tomorrow and the Caterpillar Cab to the Eel-ectric Car and The Sloppy-Floppy-Nonstop-Jalopy, which will have readers wheeling with delight.  Read the rest of this entry…

Literary Guide for Ann M. Martin’s “Rain Reign”

Literary Guide for Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign

Download literary guide for Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign.

Appropriately titled with a homonym pair, Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign is told through the eyes of a young girl on the Autism spectrum whose two loves in life are homonyms and rules. Rose’s love of these things, unfortunately, often stands in the way of her ability to connect with those around her – including her father, a single parent with little patience for Rose’s needs. Through Rose’s narration, readers learn about the thoughts that drive her mind and the compulsions that fuel the behaviors that those around her cannot seem to understand.

Rose learns how to forge a deep connection when her father brings her home a dog, who she names Rain due to the very special triple homonym nature of the word (it matches both reign and rein). Rose cares for Rain herself, taking her responsibilities as a pet owner very seriously. But when a hurricane hits Rose’s home in upstate New York, Rain is lost in the storm. With homes destroyed, power lines downed, and roads (such as Rose’s) washed out, it’s nearly impossible for Rose to search for Rain. Showing incredible resilience and determination as a result of her intense love, Rose pushes herself to search long and hard for Rain – encountering new opportunities and challenges she couldn’t have imagined.  Read the rest of this entry »

Recommended Fiction Titles with Autistic Characters

Literary Guide for Bernard Waber’s “Courage”

Literary Guide for Bernard Waber’s “Courage”

Download literary guide for Bernard Waber’s Courage.

Raising strong, resilient children is a theme in communities perhaps more than ever right now. There are a great many traits that such children must learn to possess before adulthood, and Bernard Waber’s Courage belongs in the library of anyone striving to cultivate strength and resilience in children.

Waber’s sweet, simple story – created late in his career – is a study of courageous acts both great and small. Rather than preaching the importance of courage or spotlighting the immense acts of courage shown by others, the story focuses on everyday courage – the kind that young readers can easily understand, connect to, and replicate in their own lives. Written in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the book serves both as a tool for supporting readers in recognizing their own everyday courage and as a catalyst for future courageous acts.

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Local Literary Musings: A Winter Piece

Local Literary Musings:
William Cullen Bryant’s A Winter Piece

Remember Cummington native William Cullen Bryant, who was featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 edition of Learning Ahead? After a career in New York, Bryant returned to his childhood home in Cummington when he was 71. Bryant’s early poetry is very much influenced by the landscape of the Western Massachusetts Hilltowns of his youth. In fact, Bryant’s A Winter Piece is a reflection on this time of year.  Even though the summer is gone, Bryant notes in his poem how winter has an unexpected beauty that is still marvelous to behold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Exercise the Freedom to Read

The Right to Read

Interestingly, the freedom to read has not always been seen as a freedom. Citing the freedom to read as a part of our Constitution’s First Amendment, the American Library Association hosts a Banned Books Week every year to celebrate the freedom to read. As they write on their website, “Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers of all types – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

Here is a list from The American Library Association of the top 20 American novels that have been challenged. Have you read any of them?  Read the rest of this entry »

In Appreciation: 5 Books in the Area of Mindfulness & Empathy

Reflections of a Year in Reading

Reading up on mindfulness and empathy is a powerful way to understand and reflect on our own mindfulness practice and our how to work within our current divisive paradigms.

As those who know me well can attest, I love to read. Like the house could be burning down but please just let me finish this chapter first love to read. With 2016 at a close and much confusion and uncertainty in the current morass, I have been reflecting on some of the best books I read last year on the practice of mindfulness and empathy, especially those that I am still pulling lessons from now to help me in my daily practice and daily existence.

Below are five of my favorite books that I read in 2016 on the areas of mindfulness and empathy.

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Literary Explorations of Ice Harvesting

Henry David Thoreau & “The Pond in Winter”

Ice harvesting is embedded within the history and cultural traditions of New England. So much so, in fact, that it also influenced the literary reflections of  writers such as Henry David Thoreau who described the harvesting of ice in his chapter, “The Pond in Winter,” from Walden. As you explore ice harvesting through  living history demonstrations and artifacts from the past, read Thoreau’s chapter on  “The Pond in Winter” for historical understanding from a literary perspective.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literature Guide for Leo Lionni’s “Tillie and the Wall”

Literature Guide for Leo Lionni’s Tillie and the Wall

Download the full guide to Tillie and the Wall.

One of beloved author and illustrator Leo Lionni’s lesser known works, Tillie and the Wall tells a fantastically symbolic tale of a young mouse and the power of curiosity. Told through somewhat simplistic text, the story is accessible to young readers yet includes deep symbolism that older readers can engage with.

Lionni’s classic style of illustration (a mixture of cut paper, collage, and traditional hand-drawn images) echoes both the story’s simplicity and below-the-surface complexity, and the book’s images add additional layers to the embedded symbolism. Read the rest of this entry »

4 Books that Explore the History of Thanksgiving

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Slice of History
Four Non-fiction Titles for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving ties us to those colonists who nearly four hundred years ago celebrated their first harvest in a small coastal community now known as Plymouth. The holiday also ties us to the Wampanoag Indians who were vital in helping the Pilgrims survive their new world.

Every year Americans prepare their feasts of thanksgiving, each celebration an echo of that very first feast in 1621. Here are four non-fiction books that give interesting perspectives about our national holiday, dispelling some of the more romantic myths and introducing some fascinating facts. This year along with your harvest feast, go ahead and have a slice of history too.

1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving written by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac, with photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. In this photo essay, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast is re-enacted at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA.  Recorded by National Geographic photographers over three days, the book dispels the more romantic myths of pilgrims dressed in buckles and hats, and Indians wrapped in blankets. And instead gives “a new look,” a fresh perspective, to the beginning of our national holiday. Historically accurate, with full-color photos, the book brings this important piece of history to life, and in particular, gives voice to the Wampanoag Indians’ role in helping the pilgrims to survive. (Published by National Geographic Children’s Books, Washington, D.C., 2001. ISBN: 0-79-22702-74. 48 pages.)

Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners (The pilgrims thought about food all the time. They had to!) written by Lucille Recht Penner with illustrations selected by author. This book explores the customs, manners, and eating habits of the Pilgrims, from their first years surviving in the wilderness to their later years as successful farmers and hunters. Filled with details about the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival and how smelly, messy, and perilous it was, the book portrays their daily life, while specifically focusing on food. The book also highlights how Pilgrim survival depended on the help of native peoples. Line drawings and photographs accent the information, and with chapter titles like “Bugs for Dinner” and “We All Scream for Pudding,” readers’ curiosities will be piqued.  Pilgrim menus and recipes included. (Published by Perfection Learning, Iowa 1997. ISBN: 0-75-69410-91. 117 pages.)

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message adapted by Chief Jake Swamp and illustrated by Erwin Printup, Jr. In this children’s version of the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, readers can hear a message of gratitude that originated with the native peoples of New York and Canada. Traditionally spoken at the beginning of each day and at special ceremonies, the Thanksgiving Address expresses a reverence for nature and recognizes the unity among all living creatures. The message stretches the idea that there isn’t just one day of the year for giving thanks, but sees every day as an opportunity for thanksgiving. The message is also written out in the Mohawk language. Bold, color-block paintings provide a vibrant landscape for reading. (Published by Lee & Low Books, New York, 1995. ISBN: 1-88-00001-56. 24 pages.)

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner, is told in an easy conversational style and illustrated with lush drawings full of detail and historic relevance.  The book introduces a little known heroine, Sarah Hale, (who is also responsible for penning “Mary Had A Little Lamb”), and her crusade to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Noticing how Thanksgiving was losing its importance in American traditions, Hale spent 38 years writing magazine articles and petitioning four different presidents until her perseverance and pen power finally won out. President Lincoln was persuaded by her argument that a national holiday would re-unite the union, and in 1863 he made it official. ”A Feast of Facts” outlines more information about Thanksgiving, Sarah Hale, and 1863 in history. (Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0-68-98478-74. 40 pages.)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

Literary Guide for Barbara Cohen’s “Molly’s Pilgrim”

Literary Guide for Barbara Cohen’s “Molly’s Pilgrim”

Download literary guide for Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen.

Set in the early 20th century, Molly’s Pilgrim illuminates the multiple meanings and cultural roots of the word pilgrim. The story features a Jewish family who immigrated to the United States from Russia, likely to flee the pogroms.

Molly, the title character, has just moved with her parents to a small and culturally homogenous community. She doesn’t yet speak English fluently, and her parents are even less fluent than she is. Molly’s biggest challenge is fitting in at school. As the only Jewish student, she is teased and taunted for her difference in appearance, her accent, and her lack of knowledge about American cultural traditions – especially Thanksgiving.  Read the rest of this entry »

On the Trail: Nature and the Woodland Forests

Exploring Literature, Art & History through Nature Trails

Hiking is an engaging way to explore seasonal patterns with family and friends. It requires very little gear, just walking shoes, a water bottle, and a map! You can also bring a trekking pole to keep your footing steady. Art activities such as sketching, painting, and journaling encourage hikers to thoughtfully observe the macro and micro patterns found in their surroundings. Like Henry David Thoreau on his hike up Mt. Katahdin in Maine, take a moment to reflect on your engagement with the outdoors. Bring a notebook with you to write down your thoughts, ideas, questions, and observations. Prefer sketching to writing? Use your sketchbook and pencil to sketch the different trees, wildflowers, and water features you encounter on your path. Each time you venture outdoors, follow the same format until you have a notebook or sketchbook filled with different places and trails, filling your notebook with nature-based inspiration.

Chesterfield Gorge, West Chesterfield, MA. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Explore nature and the woodland forests through reading and literature. Here are recommended titles and poetry available through your local library:

  • Walking with Thoreau: A Literary Guide to the New England Mountains by William Howarth
  • “The Rivulet” (poem) by William Cullen Bryant
  • The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau
  • Wild Moments by Ted Williams

Excerpt from Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts (Seasons: Sept/Oct), a downloadable bimonthly publication produced by Hilltown Families that sheds light on embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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16 Picture Books That Celebrate Apples

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Bushel of Books about Apples

‘Tis the season when orchards bear autumn fruit, and cider is poured into eager cups, and the smell of pie beckons from the oven. ‘Tis the season for apples.

Hand-picked from dozens of titles, here’s a bushel of picture books that celebrate the apple. There are a few new books, books about the life cycle of apples, apple–picking, and America’s mythic hero, Johnny Appleseed, plus some apple arithmetic, and books with apple pies baked into their stories. Enjoy!  Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Natalia Romanova’s “Once There Was a Tree”

Literary Guide for Natalia Romanova’s “Once There Was a Tree”

Download literary guide for Once There Was a Tree.

Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree tells the story of life after death in nature. Beginning at the end of a great tree’s life, the book spotlights the many visitors and inhabitants who benefit from what the former tree’s stump and roots have to offer. Beginning and ending with human visitors, the chain of use includes bark beetles, ants, and even a bear! Each visitor to the stump gains something substantial from it and begins to feel ownership of it – though each, unbeknownst to them, ends up sharing it with all of the others. In the end, the stump remains and, though many have utilized it as a resource, it continues to offer itself to the world. So who then does it belong to? All of the visitors feel that it is theirs, yet each of them has taken advantage of a different part of the stump. Without realizing it, the people and creatures who feel they own the stump have actually shared it – allowing the stump to truly belong to everyone and, ultimately, to the earth itself.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Jonathan Bean’s “This is My House, This is My School”

Literary Guide for Jonathan Bean’s “This is My House, This is My School”

Download literary guide for This is My Home, This is My School

Jonathan Bean’s This is My Home, This is My School introduces young readers to the idea of self-directed learning. Centered around a somewhat chaotic household and its many inhabitants, the story points out that, for the homeschooled narrator, home and school are one and the same – making home a place for living and a place for learning. Based on the author/illustrator’s childhood, the book helps readers see the ways in which a family can use their everyday experiences to support the acquisition of almost any kind of knowledge.

Beginning with pages that repeat the story’s title, the book follows the narrator through a quick tour of his home, wherein it is learned that his siblings are his classmates, his mom is his teacher (and dad the substitute), his kitchen is his cafeteria, his back yard is his playground, his family van is his school bus, and all of the rooms of his home (as well as the outdoor spaces nearby) serve as his classrooms. Readers see family members (students!) engaged in a wide variety of activities during the tour, from traditional “school-style” activities like computer research and worksheets to less structured activities like basement science experiments, cooking projects, family music jams, treehouse building, and stream exploration. Read the rest of this entry »

Community-Based Nature Writing Opportunities this Summer

Intergenerational Nature Writing This Summer

Writing intersects with the natural world in many ways. Genres of nature writing include science writing, environmentally inspired literature, and works of environmental advocacy. Walks and hikes through the woods and mountains, journeys through rivers and streams, can inspire all types of artwork from poetry about the beauty of the natural world to imploring essays on our responsibility to preserve it.

And because of the natural beauty of our region, Western Massachusetts has a rich literary history. Famous authors such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes all share ties to the Berkshire area. In addition, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, W.E.B. Du Bois- all hold historic ties to Western Massachusetts.

Those interested in learning about literary history should check out our post: 10 Resources for Literary Learning in Western MA. Others may want to follow in the footsteps of these authors, many of whom drew upon the natural surroundings of the Pioneer Valley in their writing.

Here are several upcoming community-based opportunities that support your interests:  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: Must-Read YA Summer Novel

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Raymie Nightingale: A Must-Read Summer Novel

The new middle-grade novel by beloved author, Kate DiCamillo, is the must-read novel of the summer. Creator of some of the best stories for children including, Because of Winn-Dixie (Candlewick, 2000), The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003), and Flora & Ulysses (Candlewick, 2013), she is also a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and two-time winner of the Newberry Medal. With her newest work, Raymie Nightingale, DiCamillo gives the world a radiant story with quirky, lovable characters that will make your heart sing.

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Literary Guide for Molly Bang’s “Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays”

Literary Guide for Molly Bang’s Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays

Diane Wilson was always a strong woman. She made a living as a shrimper while raising five children, and relied on her own resilience and pure grit in order to raise her family. In 1989, shrimp became scarce in the bays of her hometown in Calhoun County, Texas. Diane worried about the size of her catch, and the future of the shrimp population in Texas’ bays. What would happen to the industry if the shrimp died out? How would she support her family?

Diane’s concerns turned into action when she learned about a connection between the lack of shrimp and the monstrous plastics manufacturing plants that dotted the coastline of her home county. At the time (1989), her county was responsible for over half of the state’s pollution – and it wasn’t just killing the shrimp. Diane saw the effects that the plants had all around her – in the local landscape and within the human community, too. And much to her horror, the companies causing environmental destruction and human health problems were not only being allowed to do so, they were about to be allowed to expand without any consideration of the environment impact that expansion would have.

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Literary Guide for David Wiesner’s June 29, 1999

Literary Guide for David Wiesner’s June 29, 1999

Literary Guide for David Wiesner’s June 29, 1999

Though set in the now somewhat distant past, David Weisner’s cleverly written June 29, 1999 is part fantasy, part scientific study – pulling readers into a world where science and the (nearly) impossible intersect.

The date is May 11th, 1999, and young scientist Holly Evans has just begun her first major experiment. Holly has released vegetable seedlings into the earth’s atmosphere in hopes of studying the effects that outer space will have on the growth of her tiny plants. She shares her work with her classmates who are, understandably, quite speechless. Weeks go by without much excitement; Holly tracks the days and, we can assume, waits patiently for her seedlings to return. Finally, on June 29th, something exciting happens – the event lending itself as the story’s namesake. Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: The Lure of Foxes

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

The Lure of Foxes
Two Middle Grade Novels Weave Stories of Children and Foxes

There’s something about foxes. Something magical. And beautiful. And wild. Their expressive faces, their curious, intelligent nature, their coats of fire or of smoke enchant me, and remind me of my innate connection to the natural world. Whether it’s a red flash in the snow, the playful pounce of kits in the morning sun, the silhouette of a bushy tail disappearing into the woods, or a shrill bark at twilight – every encounter with a fox lures me to my own wildness. That is why I was immediately drawn to two new middle grade novels which weave the stories of children and foxes.

Both of these stories unfold through the point of view of the human characters and also from the point of view of the foxes, and the experience of being in the foxes’ world is riveting. But these are not light-hearted stories. Emotionally compelling, achingly real, these are stories about love and loss, the costs of war, grief, soul purpose, and hope. These are stories about the relationship between humans and their environment, the spiritual connections among every living thing, and the perilous impact of humans on the natural world. It’s sensitive material, but deftly handled by the authors, these are shimmering, powerful stories for middle grade readers and up.   Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Cynthia Kadohata’s “Half a World Away”

Literary Guide for Cynthia Kadohata’s Half a World Away

Download Literary Guide for Half a World Away.

Cynthia Kadohata’s Half a World Away is a complex and emotionally-charged work of incredibly realistic fiction. Weaving together themes of family, adoption, truth, and love, the story challenges readers to consider major ethical questions as they learn about protagonist Jaden’s struggles with change and self-discovery.

Adopted from a Romanian group home at the age of 8, Jaden has never truly felt a part of his so-called family. Though his parents show him love and care for him, he struggles greatly with strong emotions and dangerous habits that he doesn’t completely understand – causing him to feel that he doesn’t truly belong in his family. Having been abandoned by his mother at a young age, he fears that something is wrong with him – something that will make history repeat itself, leading his family to eventually cast him out as well.

Jaden’s challenges come to the forefront of his consciousness during a family trip to Kazakhstan, where they are to adopt baby Bahytzan from an orphanage in the southern city of Kyzylorda. While Jaden enjoys the almost unreal quality of his experiences in Kyzylorda, his parents deal with strong emotions as they struggle to bond with the new member of their family – leaving Jaden emotionally out of the loop, as he can’t seem to be able to engage emotionally with anyone, especially not his parents or their new baby. And he can’t escape the nagging feeling that the new child is meant as a do-over, thanks to the parenting obstacles that he has presented.

Half a World Away is a powerful story of astounding depth. Readers ages 10 and older can gain insight into the complexity of human psychology and the power of experience in human development. Using our literary guide, families can work together to delve into the many layers of the story, and can take advantage of critical thinking questions and suggestions for extension activities in order to put the story into context and to develop schema to support the development of connections to the characters and their experiences.

Open Sesame: Six Novels Written in Verse

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

For National Poetry Month
Six Novels Written in Verse

April is National Poetry Month! Time to indulge in poetic forms of all kinds, and kids’ books serve up odes of opportunities. Picture books are notorious for reveling in rhyme and rhythm, but  novels can deliver a powerful poetic punch too, and ought to be a part of any reader’s well-stocked library bag. Highly accessible, novels in verse have an intimate and immediate feel to them, and often make good read-alouds, even as they are perfect for savoring in quiet. Has your family had a healthy serving of poetry today? Try one of these six middle grade novels and satisfy their cravings for couplets. Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 5 Picture Books Present Amazing Women In History

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Five New Picture Books Present  Amazing Women In History

For Women’s History Month, here are five new picture books honoring women who made a difference in art, photography, science, sports media, and education!

One of the many aspects of the picture book I adore is that they are compact vessels of information. My children and I often have the experience of discovering little-known pieces of history and fascinating people of interest while immersed in a picture book biography. And this month has been no exception.

In the five new picture books presented here, all of which honor women in history, I was familiar with only one name. What a marvelous power the picture book holds in this regard – to tell the story of important but overlooked pioneers, to share their life and work through art and narrative, and to introduce children to the idea of dreaming big.

Here are five inspiring stories about girls who made a difference, packaged ever so delightfully in the form of a picture book.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for The Black Book of Colors

Literary Guide for The Black Book of Colors

Download Literary Guide for The Black Book of Colors

Unique within the landscape of children’s literature, Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria’s The Black Book of Colors accomplishes something that no other book has yet to do: telling a story about color without actually using any true colors. Made up of pages filled with shiny black-on-black images and bright white text, The Black Book of Colors links colors to sensory experiences, managing to activate all of the senses but sight in order to describe all of the colors of the rainbow.

In addition to lacking color, The Black Book of Colors is unique in another way. The book is written with braille letters accompanying the text on each page, allowing readers to inspect and gently feel the patterns of tiny bumps that share the same meaning as the letters and words they’re used to. While the braille included in the book isn’t printed in a way that allows it to be read by blind children, its presence allows sighted readers to consider the similarities and differences between their own literacy and that of a blind peer.  Read the rest of this entry »

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