Saturday, May 25, 2013

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Image from
Hyperion Books, 2006

Clementine is in second grade and even though everyone is always saying, “Clementine! Pay attention!” she knows that she’s one of the most observant people in the world. So while her teachers might think she’s daydreaming in class, Clementine is confident that her powers of observation will come in handy. Okay, fine, they don’t help on Monday. That’s the day that she’s sent to the principal’s office for cutting off all of Margaret’s hair. And they weren't really helpful on Tuesday (the day she cut all her hair off to match Margaret’s). But that’s just the beginning of the week for Clementine!

Written in first person from Clementine’s point of view, this humorous book is a great read aloud. Clementine is a spunky, one-of-a-kind heroine who takes charge of her own story. As with most 2nd graders, Clementine frets about friends, family, and school. Clementine’s worries, although manifested in her unique way, are universally relatable. She has a younger brother and she worries her parents love him more, especially since they didn’t name him after a fruit or even a vegetable. Her best friend Margaret tells her there is an “easy one” in every family and that must be Clementine’s brother. What if her parents decide to get rid of her? And what if Margaret doesn’t want to be her friend anymore? And what if Margaret’s mother, who isn’t as thankful as she should be about Margaret’s new haircut, never stops being mad at Clementine?

The chapters are short and episodic, making this a wonderful book for kids transitioning to chapter books. The many moods and movements of the sneaker-clad, red-haired Clementine are captured in the illustrations. Frazee black and white illustrations provide just enough visual interest and context to keep the attention of early chapter book readers without overshadowing the text.  

Watch Pennypacker read some of the book or listen to Jessica Almasy narrate the audiobook.

*Use this story for a book club discussion. Talk about Clementine's emotions and feelings. Ask the kids which part they liked best and why. Try some of the questions from the Talkin’ Bout Books parent child discussion guide created by Julie Moran.

*Clementine continues her adventures in six more Clementine books.
Clarice Bean series by Lauren Child
Just Grace by Charise Mericle Harper
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look, Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

*Other chapter books by Pennypacker:

Age 6+ / Grade 1+


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli, Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Image from

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2007
Diana loves her yellow house with the white shutters and everyone who lives in and around it. She loves her parents, her best friend Rose, and even her annoying little sister, Twink. She loves the bedroom that she and Rose have painted the color of the night sky and the baby birds that have nested in the willow wreath on the front door. But now Diana has to say goodbye to all of that because her father lost his job and the family has to move all the way across Pennsylvania to live with Grandpa Joe. Diana doesn’t want to move and she channels her sad, mad, mixed up feelings into her poetry. But after a while, and a lot of poems, Diana realizes her new home, with its white stucco walls and red geraniums, isn’t so bad after all.

In a series of free verse poems (“It doesn’t rhyme” says Twink) Diana describes her world with energy, passion, and love. Spinelli’s gentle, yet clever, poems capture the desires and emotions of an elementary school aged girl. The poems are arranged chronologically and each one is a quick snapshot. Some poems are short reflections on a person or incident and some are lists, like “My Six Favorite Star Facts” and “Six Reasons We Have to Move.” Phelan’s greyscale pencil illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book. They realistically depict scenes from Diana’s life as if they were candid photos. This creates a scrapbook-like feeling. The illustrations create visual interest, especially nice for early readers, but poems can be understood and appreciated with or without the illustrations. This is a very quick read, great for an early chapter or poetry book club.

*This is a great book to share before/during/after moving. Talk about the feelings Diana had about moving (sad, mad, mixed up), what she had to say goodbye to, and what she discovered at her new home.

*Diana loves astronomy, so bring in some non-fiction books on the planets and constellations.

*The book is short enough to be read aloud in an hour or so. Practice oral fluency by having each student read a poem. Encourage kids to write their own free verse poem, maybe about where they live or a list of six things, like Diana does in the book. More ideas in the educator’s guide from the Libraries of the Edwards County School District.

            Bird by Zetta Elliott, Illustrated by Shadra Strickland
            Eva of the Farm by Dia Calhoun, Illustrated by Kate Slater

*Other chapter books by Eileen Spinelli:
            The Best Story Ever Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
            The Dancing Pancake Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
            Summertime House Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

Age 6+ / Grade 1+


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Image from
Scholastic, 2010.

It’s 1962 and 11 year old Franny Chapman is sure she is invisible. Everyone notices her beautiful older sister Jo Ellen and her saintly little brother Drew, but Franny somehow gets lost in the middle. Franny feels like her world, once so orderly, routine, and safe, is falling apart. Jo Ellen is getting mysterious coded messages in the mail (Just like Nancy Drew, thinks Franny!), her beloved Uncle Otts seems to be haunted by his years fighting in World War II, and Franny’s best friend isn’t acting like a friend anymore. But even worse, Franny is afraid. The United States is in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the whole world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for a bomb to explode. As Franny learns the meaning of friendship and family, she also learns how to deal with fear and uncertainty. “It’s not the calamity that’s the hard part. It’s figuring out how to love one another through it—that’s the hard part.”

In this “documentary novel,” Wiles seamlessly intertwines Franny’s personal drama with historical events. Franny’s voice is funny and touching by turns. Her worries are universal and her emotions are relatable. Franny’s chronological narrative is interspersed with historical montages. These pages combine black and white photos and illustrations of people, events, and items of the 1960’s (Khrushchev, Bert the Turtle, maps, fallout shelters, etc.) with song lyrics and quotations. In addition, short, engaging biographies of people who influenced events in the 1960’s are sprinkled throughout the book. Biographies include, Pete Seeger, the Kennedys, Harry S Truman, and Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer. Back matter includes notes about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a bibliography, and detailed source notes. Although this book is set more than 50 years ago, the themes are timely and relevant today.  Use this book for a book club or classroom discussion.

I have also listened to the audiobook and highly recommend it. Sound effects, music, and quotations spoken by a variety of voice actors create a soundscape that brings to life the 1960’s. These sound montages serve the same purpose as the visual montages do in the print version. This is a great book to read and listen to at the same time, as each format expands upon the story in a different way. If you're sharing this book with the class, try having students read a chapter and then listen to a chapter. 

Take a look at an excerpt of the book to see how photographs and quotations are integrated into the story. You can also listen to a chapter of the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Emma Galvin.

*Check out Connie Rockman’s excellent discussion guide, which includes discussion questions, an interview with Wiles, and suggested further reading.

*Play some of the songs mentioned in the text. Discuss the feeling of the songs, as well as their lyrics. How do these songs help to tell Franny’s story? Here is a partial list of songs in the book, (some recording artists noted):
Abiyoyo (Pete Seeger)
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Chain Gang (Same Cooke)
Do You Love Me? (The Contours)
Wonderful World (Sam Cooke)
Guantanamera (Pete Seeger)
Hit the Road, Jack (Ray Charles)
If I had a Hammer (Pete Seeger)
Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
John Henry (Pete Seeger)
The Loco-Motion (Little Eva)
Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore (Pete Seeger)
Monster Mash
Moon River
Runaway (Del Shannon)
Stop, Mister Postman
Theme from A Summer Place
When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ along

*Non-fiction books about the 1960’s and the Cuban Missile Crisis:

*Readalikes set in the 1960's:
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez
Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

*More middle grade books by Wiles:
Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Image from
Simon & Schuster, 2002

The summer of 1793 starts like any other for 14 year old Mattie Cook. Every morning she helps her mother and the cook, Eliza, cook food, brew coffee, and serve the men at the family’s coffee house in downtown Philadelphia. She hates getting up early and never misses a chance to slip out of the coffee house to visit her friends. But one hot August day everything changes. Polly, the hired serving girl, doesn’t come to work because she caught yellow fever and died in a matter of hours. Soon all of Philadelphia is consumed with panic and fear. People begin to flee the city to escape the disease. Even Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington leave town. Should Mattie’s family leave town as well? They might lose the coffee shop if they leave, but they might die if they stay. Then Mattie’s indefatigable mother comes down with fever. Now Mattie is really scared, she’s never seen her mother so weak and fragile. Surround by disease and death, young Mattie must learn to take care of herself and others who now depend on her.

Based on historical events, Anderson immerses the reader by telling the story in first person from Mattie’s point of view. The characters are well-rounded and immediately likable, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching when they are hit by yellow fever. The story is full of moral dilemmas that make this a great book for discussion (see discussion questions below). The chapters are arranged in chronological order. The date is printed at the beginning of each reminding the reader that this horrible epidemic devastated Philadelphia in a matter of a few months. Extensive research is obvious from the detailed notes in the appendix on the epidemic, famous people effected by the disease, and other historical events and objects. This is an excellent historical fiction recommendation for a reluctant reader because of the high-stakes plot and captivating characters. You might try using Anderson’s label, “Historical Thriller”, to hook readers.

Read an excerpt of the book and get drawn into Mattie’s story.

*Use this title for a book club or a history unit. Encourage students to discuss the moral dilemmas in this book. Try some of these discussion questions:
What would you do if you were in an epidemic?
Would you help your neighbor, even if it meant you could get the illness and die?
Would you leave the city?
Would you go back to the city?

*More books for kids about yellow fever and epidemics:
Plagues,Pox, and Pestilence by Richard Platt, Illustrated by John Kelly

*Historical fiction readalikes:
Finest Kind by Lea Wait
The Great Fire by Jim Murphy

*More middle grade novels by Anderson:

Age 11+ / Grade 6+

Also, shout out to BK for the great book recommendation!