Category Archives: KidLit

Thanks for being my ally, Jean Fritz

Once when I was being considered for a K-8 elementary Social Studies Product Manager’s position, a colleague protested that I was unqualified, not having had any sales experience.

Although I really didn’t want the job–at the time--I really did want to set the record straight, out of justice and self-pride–and to leave open the possibility of future candidacy.

Never had any sales experience? Seriously? You try selling social studies to hundreds of middle and high school students one hundred eighty times a year. Then you come back and tell me whether or not I have any sales experience.

End of conversation.

Seriously…. Motivating students to relate to historical figures and events was no easy undertaking. That is why I so appreciate and admire the work of Jean Fritz, whose narrative nonfiction American history titles made her my greatest ally in selling social studies to students each year.

Thinking on September 17th, this past week, about the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution and how challenging it is to get students to become excited about its back story, reminded me how much of a master storyteller and impeccable historian is Jean Fritz.

The title of hers that is a perfect fit for garnering students’ appreciation for the task that faced the writers of the Constitution is Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, which even contains the document itself for end-of-book reference. Whether used in conjunction with the September 17th commemoration, within a US government unit, or  as part of the study of the historical development of the United States, this title is a gem.

Additionally, the title can be used to prompt dialog and practice in life/negotiation skills, as well as the writing process.

With more than a dozen other titles to choose from, Fritz’s books easily can be connected with a variety of Patriotic holidays like Columbus Day and Presidents’ Day, themed studies like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, or historical time periods, like the American Revolution or the Civil War.

A veritable pioneer in writing these kinds of engaging nonfiction narrative history titles, Ms. Fritz is one of a kind. Do yourself a favor. Make her your teaching ally, too!

Grandparents’ playful vision

As so many working mothers do today, my mother dropped me off at my grandmother’s house on her way to work in the morning.

One difference between now and then: the “dropping off.” No long or short car drives. No. My mother and I walked a couple of city blocks to grandma’s house.

And as we walked each day, on some days I imagined I had some other favorite name, with which I was happy to be going on an adventure to grandma’s house.

Unfortunately, my mother would not play along.

Fortunately, my grandmother would.

“Who do we have here today?” she would ask, apron around her waist, hair pulled up in a braided bun, humongous smile on her face.

And I would tell her my name du jour and she would say in a most enthusiastic voice, “Welcome, [repeating that name].”

And I wouldn’t even give a backward glance at my mother, so happy I was to be in the company of my storytelling grandmother.

If you have had an imagination-affirming grandmother or grandfather figure in your life (or maybe, especially if you haven’t), you might enjoy sharing the Caldecott-award winning book The Hello, Goodbye Window, which celebrates playful discourse between grandparents and their imaginative granddaughter, as they observe life through the “hello/goodbye” kitchen window.

Who fed your creativity, starting from your youngest years? Who gave you the imaginative lens through which to observe your everyday world? 

Give thanks for them! And if that person is a grandparent still alive today, be thankful again, and reach out to them on this their special Grandparents Day!

not either/or, but: and/both

Remember the first book you checked out from the public library?

I do! I was in kindergarten. It was a Babar book—which title, I don’t recall; I wish I did!

What I do recall is that the font of that book simulated handwriting. And although I couldn’t read many words in any font, much less in script, I still remember how proud I felt walking down the library steps clutching that book, feeling very grownup.

More than the joy I felt carrying that book, I remember how grateful to my father I felt. And although I recall only one or so more times that he drove me to the library, that first time was memorable enough for an entire lifetime. I loved books, and I loved him for gifting me with choosing from a library-full of them!

(Ironically, when I was in high school, instead of walking home from the bus stop on cold and rainy days I waited—at the branch library!–for my father to stop as drove past the library on his way home from work.)

All of this reminiscence is to say that September is Library Card Sign-up Month, and I’d like to send a message to teachers and school librarians: please encourage parents to frequent the public library with their children. Not only so that the children can borrow books, but so that the children can associate reading with their parents’ love.

To parents, I implore: please, if at all possible, bring your children to the public library. Your children will associate your love for them with love of reading. Transferring the feeling of being loved to the love of reading is the best foundation you can give your children for a lifetime of learning.

To everyone I say: taking children to the public library isn’t an admission or intimation that the school library is inadequate. No. Each library has its role and purpose in a child’s education. Going to the public library with one’s parents is a different kind of experience from going to the school library with one’s teacher.  It’s not a matter of school or/instead of the public library, but the school and the public library.

No matter how many different sorts of cards a grownup carries in a purse or wallet, none provides as many endless possibilities for parent-child bonding and a lifetime of shared and independent learning as does a public library card. If you don’t have one, please!, now is the time to get one!

And whether you are a school or public librarian, parent of school-aged children, or teachers and administrators, why not ask and arrange for a public librarian to have a library card sign-up table in full sight at each back-to-school night, as a gift to the children and a courtesy for their parents?

p.s. When I think about the timing of my first public library visit with my father, I’m thinking that it was September, and my kindergarten teacher likely recommended the visit. ..Oh, and did I mention? …When I grew up, I became a school librarian.

Do you have favorite library visit memories, either as a child yourself, or as an adult, with children?

Miss Rumphius…anew

Yesterday, I learned about a loving husband who planted four and one-half miles’/ 400 acres’ worth of sunflowers in honor of his deceased wife, whose favorite flower the stately giant flowers had been.

Referring to his wife as the “Sunflower Lady” of the neighborhood, who brought happiness to those she met, the husband credited his wife as the inspiration for the planting of her favorite flowers. He cited how, before her death, she had suggested raising and selling sunflowers to generate money for cancer research and patient care, as a way of paying back the goodness she had received during her multi-year battle against multiple myeloma.

Before even reading the news story, just as soon as I read the headline (Husband Plants Four Mile Stretch of Sunflowers in Tribute to Wife Who Died of Cancer), I immediately thought of the “Lupine Lady,” author Barbara Cooney’s great-aunt, a.k.a. “Miss Rumphius,” who made three promises to her grandfather, including the pledge to make the world a more beautiful place.

Miss Rumphius did that by scattering lupine seeds, near and far, since the purple wildflowers were her favorite, and she wished to share her joy in beholding the flowers with everyone who lived in the neighborhood or visited the vicinity of her beloved house by the sea.

Although every day is a wonderful day to ponder the beautifully written and illustrated Miss Rumphius, as a librarian, I shared Ms. Cooney’s story in honor of Earth Day. Students liked that the main character was a librarian, mostly, I think, because they thought I took special delight in that work role connection with Miss Rumphius.

I liked that the students responded to the story with a multitude of ideas about how they, individually and collectively, could make the world a more beautiful place, including by simply smiling.

In terms of the sunflower planting in the news story, I like that the sunflowers stand tall, in silent testimony that death does not have the final word. Faith, hope, and love do.

If you would like to read the news story, here is the link: Sunflower Tribute

The more I reflect on both stories, the more I wonder if the “Sunflower Lady” knew the “Lupine Lady,” given that both women lived the charge to leave the world a more better place; both using flowers to make a loving statement.

Did the “Sunflower Lady” read Miss Rumphius when she was a child? As a mother, did she read Ms. Cooney’s inspirational story to her own children?

…I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer to any either or both questions were a resounding Yes!

What do you think?

Owen & the Busybody Neighbor

Guaranteed, in more than one school across America, librarians will be introducing a new group of students to Owen, the endearing main character in a Caldecott Honor book by the same name, authored and illustrated by the popular and prolific Kevin Henkes.

Students easily identify with Owen, who finds it rough to leave home, as he starts kindergarten, without his favorite security blanket (literally) to hold onto.

In the end, a compromise between Owen and his parents leads to an ingenious solution that delights students, rooting, of course, that Owen gets to keep and take his blanket with him.

As a former kindergartner, and now an adult reader and mother, the character who most catches my attention every time I read this book to students is the busybody neighbor.

“Mind your own business,” I want to tell her. “He’s not your child. Don’t voice any judgments.”

It is in part succumbing to the neighbor’s insinuations into their business that Owen’s parents take action. Every story, I know, needs an antagonist, an archenemy, a villain, and I guess it is better to cast a neighbor, rather than the parents, into that role.

Still, it bothers me. Makes me think, too, in these days when school is about to begin (or has already begun) that often parents push their children because of “family pride” social standing concerns or social pressure from other adults.

Even if Owen’s parents intended to take action apart from the neighbor’s criticism, I wish they would have stood up for their boy.

I remember once, when I was Owen’s age, being outdoors in the neighborhood with my mother when, by chance, we encountered an acquaintance of hers–a woman, her age, that I had never seen before.

Talking to my mother as if I weren’t there (maybe that was the start of my often feeling invisible), the acquaintance said, “How’s your Nervous Nellie daughter?”

An only child, I knew there was no one else the acquaintance could have been referring to—not unless my mother had another child she had kept secret.

Although I never heard of “Nervous Nellie,” I knew what nervous meant. I knew that description fit me—and now I had a name to describe me: Nervous Nellie.

Yes. I was a very anxious child—and still am a very anxious adult. (Unlike Owen, I never carried around a security blanket; maybe that’s part of my problem.)

I don’t ever remember seeing that acquaintance of my mother’s again. No matter, I didn’t need to. Even now, decades later, I see her face. I hear her voice. “How’s your Nervous Nellie daughter?”

Stand up to the neighbors. Tell them nicely, but definitively, what you tell your children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say (charitable, constructive intervention, excluded), don’t say anything at all”—especially not in the children’s earshot.

The teacher, mother, and child in me thank you!  …Go, Owen!

Bethany Hamilton’s bio inspires

For the past few years, our elementary school has recognized not only Women’s History Month, but Individuals with Disabilities Month each March.

Among the many life stories about individuals with disabilities that student read, one of the titles within the Defining Moments: Overcoming Challenges series was hands-down the students’ favorite.

That title was Bethany Hamilton: Follow Your Dreams!

I suspect students related to that particular biography, in part due to their familiarity with Ms. Hamilton’s life story, from television and film.

But not only for that reason.

Knowing that Ms. Hamilton lost an arm in a shark attack, and yet still continues to surf, unembittered, captured their empathy, as much as their imagination.

Quite simply, they wanted to know more about her.

But not only about her.

Using the interplay of the series title, as well as the title of Ms. Hamilton’s individual biography, students reacted to the biographies of other inspirational individuals honored during the month of March.

“Defining moments,” “overcoming challenges,” and “follow[ing] your dreams” …

In the end, students concluded that everyone has one or more challenges to overcome, and that biographies like Bethany Hamilton’s give others the strength and confidence to face and overcome their own limitations and adversities, past, present, or future, in pursuit of their dreams.

Without a doubt, Ms. Hamilton’s life story–not despite the shark attack, but because of her response to it, made a deeply personal impression—one that will not soon be forgotten by her admiring young readers.

title giveaway

As a student of marketing, I learned that headlines need to entice–but not to mislead or to deceive.

In the world of literature, book titles act as instant headlines.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think, readers feel cheated out of their investment (whether time, energy, or money) when texts come up short compared with titles that promise or suggest more than–or—even worse— different from—what the text actually delivers.

Wearing both my marketing and teaching hats, I am a title-connoisseur of sorts.

I was thinking about book titles this week, following a Twitter trend inviting tweets in which one word in a book title was changed such that the revised title would give the plot away.

A devotee of mysteries, I personally, I “hate” when the title of any genre gives the plot away!

As an elementary library media specialist, during story time, I often “hid” a “too-revealing” title from younger students, unless the point of my previewing activity was to have students predict various story elements, including the resolution.

With fifth graders, there was one title I purposely called attention to before sharing its video version. That title was the one associated with a historical fiction Newbery honor book.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

Over the years, many tears were shed by fifth graders when Sam died. Tears that I would never want to deprive students—or myself—from shedding.

At the same time, when caught off-guard, some fifth graders were not emotionally equipped to protect themselves from the shock of seeing Sam’s death. They had not chosen to read the book; I had chosen to share the video version. I felt I owed them a chance to “be with” the title before watching it come to fruition.

…Enter me, before airing the video, referring to the title.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

“What do you think happens to Sam in this story?” I would ask.

Preparing students ahead of time, I hoped, removed the “shock” of San’s death, without depriving students of their heartfelt reaction—a reaction which led students to deeper debates and discussions about the decisions of conscience required by those who fought for or against our War for Independence.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

It’s all in the title. What’s your favorite? Are there any that give away the story’s resolution? How do you feel about such titles?

words worth memorizing

To follow up the last post which spoke of the literary interventions being undertaken in public schools to combat HIB, here’s an interesting, if not controversial challenge and thought.

While I’m not suggesting that we go back to McGuffey readers, there is something to be said about filling students’ heads with memorable, character-building messages to counterbalance the purposefully “dark and edgy” messages being fed to them by some “with-it” recreational children’s litter-ature today.

I can just imagine that pooh-pooh’s that this post will conjure. No matter.

While kids have always been “just kids” and generation gaps written about in Socratic times could have been written about today, if you have taught for a number of decades, I’m confident that you would agree that there is in schools today a growing blatant verbal disrespect for peers, as well as for authority, that exceeds past disrespects.

Although I’m not accusing the “tell-it-like-it-is” trash talk that characters spew forth, even in beginning series books, as being totally responsible, I am suggesting that what students fill their heads with often comes out–not unexpectedly– through their mouths.

Why not fill students’ heads with character-building thoughts?

For example…(although not necessarily in these exact 19C. words):

“Keep a watch on your words, my darling, for words are powerful things. They’re sweet like the bees’ sweet honey; like the bees they have terrible stings.”

When I was nine years old, many decades ago, my fourth grade teacher forced us to hand-copy and memorize those opening lines (as I now recall them), as well as the rest of the lines of a rather lengthy poem,  “Words of Beautiful Truth.”

(Making students memorize poems. Teachers did that then; they don’t now. For lots of educationally sound reasons, totally apart from character education and development, maybe they “should” now and again.)

If you want to read the entire poem, you can find it online (as I was amazed and delighted to do when I searched by its opening lines this week).

It is one of the selections that appears in the 1887 compiled volume of Little Poems for Little Children: Suitable for Memorizing for Recitation at School and at Home

Interestingly, in introducing the collection, the compiler, Valeria J. Campbell, offers persuasive thoughts to teachers about the benefits to their students of having them fill their minds with “choice things,” such as the selections in the compiled volume.

At the time that I was a “little” nine year old child, I had no idea of the lasting impact a “little” poem that I was forced to hand-copy and memorize by my fourth grade teacher would have on my character development.

True, the title I remembered (“Words of Beautiful Truth”) differs from the title of the poem as it appears in the 1887 internet compiled volume (“Keep a Watch on Your Words”).

Yet, as an adult who often hears both sets of those words echo in my mind and heart, I continue to surprise myself, not only that I remember the words–at least the first stanza–pretty much verbatim, but that the entire “gist” of the poem, which I joyfully read and remembered–is something I have “permanently” learned–if not always perfectly practiced.

Want to stop HIB?

Why not make memorable for students the idea that words can hurt and that they should refrain from using them to harass, intimidate, and bully?

Why not provide opportunities for students to memorize anti-HIB poems?

Can’t hurt. Worth it if even just one fewer child or adult is stung by mean words.

What do you think?

fairy tales, repurposed

Not just in the month of October, but especially then, given its designation as “Respect Month,” it was my joy and responsibility to share with students age-appropriate literature about fighting harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Although the HIB concepts are sophisticated, using familiar fairy tales, like Cinderella, made it possible to engage four and five year olds in conversations about the topic, enabling them to identify HIB character-types such as bullies, targets, bystanders, and upstanders.

Especially gratifying was one kindergartener’s assessment of the HIB Cinderella character-types.

Her conclusion: An upstander (defender) and a target (victim/bullied person; e.g. Cinderella) could be the same. You don’t have to wait for someone else to stand up for you. You can stand up for yourself.

If only life were that simple with no fears, no threats, no constraints. But, why not strive for that reality?

In view of Malala’s recent birthday which (connected with the previous post), and her efforts to end violations and maltreatment (HIB, I would say), having stood up to her would-be assassins and detractors, Malala herself seems to fit–if not the glass slipper–then the victim/upstander bill!

Although fairy tales were not the only literary genre that I explored with students in connection with Respect Month, alluding to fairy tales as part of the discussion presented an opportunity to informally assess students’ prior knowledge of this genre, which provides so many literary allusions.

I, for one, was always grateful to parents and guardians who introduced their children to stories from this amazing genre, as well as to neighboring genres of folk tales and nursery rhymes.

Familiarity with such foundational genres, starting before they even enter school, sets students up for reading success–as well as for learning strategies for real-life anti-HIB success!

Was there a piece of literature that gave you the confidence to stand up for yourself or for someone else? I hope so! …Even (especially, now?), as adults, we need to be assertive in protecting ourselves and those for whom we are responsible and love.

Malala’s life story

One of my favorite genres for students’ book reports is biography, especially when the subject of the biography or autobiography is “someone of enduring significance,” to quote a fourth grade teacher, or “someone whose life is worth reading about/worth imitating” (to quote me).

I’m so pleased that biographies of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai are available for our children.

Malaya is one gutsy young woman advocate for the education of girls and boys around the world.

What an inspiration!

How challenging I have found it to be: trying to convince our students how blessed they are to be able to—no! be required to—go to school. What a protection from the many child abuses, deprivations, and neglects that befall their school-age-mates, especially their female school-age-mates around the world is mandatory education for our children.

Of particular interest to me, as revealed in a news interview that was shared on her website, was Malala’s revelation about the impact that reading a particular biography has made on her life.

In this regard, would it surprise you to learn that one of the fewer-than-a-dozen books Malala counted herself privileged to read before the assassination attempt on her life was Martin Luther King’s biography?

According to her interview, Malala credits Dr. King’s biography with informing her peaceful, yet determined, activism on behalf of childhood education, particularly for girls.

Today, on this July 12th, when Malala celebrates her eighteenth birthday, an age when American girls who have enjoyed freedom to have formal schooling might still be reveling in their recent high school graduation and looking forward to starting college or a job training program, Malala’s life story is reminding the world that girls in other parts of the world have not been as fortunate.

But their misfortune doesn’t have to continue. If you believe in the humanizing power of books and education, you might see what Malala is doing to help them, and how you might help them, too: 

If you feel inspired, you might even support her very worthy literacy advocacy cause, including her challenge to governments to invest in books–not bullets!

Happy Birthday, Malala!

May the next chapters of your life’s story continue to challenge and to edify us all, as you work to bring opportunities for schooling into the daily lives of all the children of the world, especially into the lives of all the girls and young women.

Books and life. Thank you for showing us how they go together, Malala!