Author Archives: Katherine Schlick Noe

Biographies: The World through Others’ Lives

IMG_1264A few weeks ago, I met with two new teachers planning a biography unit on persevering in the face of challenges.  As they talked about the books they wanted to use, I was suddenly transported back to my own middle grade years when I haunted the school library bookshelves for the “orange books” — the Bobbs-Merrill series of biographies written for kids.

Talk about perseverance and challenges!  Molly Pitcher: Girl Patriot made me want to stand up with George Washington’s army, to brave the battlefield and bring my pitcher of lifesaving water to save fallen soldiers; to swab, load, and fire the crucial cannon that sent the British soldiers fleeing into the night.

Biographies can be powerful lenses into others’ lives, and the number of excellent biographies for middle grade readers continues to expand.  Fortunately, we now have picture book and chapter book biographies that represent notable people from widely diverse backgrounds.

As an example, I’d like to share the books that the teachers, Ashley Hankins and Jess Stuecklen, chose for their study of perseverance and resilience.

Ashley and Jess wanted their students to consider what it means to face challenges and to “understand how people hold on to their values and beliefs … and rely on or reach out to their community” when life throws challenges in their way.  They built the unit around chapter books for students to read and discuss in small groups.  They used the Who Was …? series of chapter book biographies published by Grosset & Dunlap, including Who Was Anne Frank? by Anne Abramson and Nancy Harrison.

Then they added picture books to help their students see that challenges come in many forms and that people find ways to persevere under wildly differing circumstances.  They said they intentionally chose books about people perhaps less well known than those in the series, because “we wanted students to see that all people have the ability to overcome challenges and go on to accomplish remarkable things.”

Ashley and Jess wrote the descriptions below to help students’ families understand how each book reflects the theme of their unit.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull; ill. by Yuyi Morales.  This beautifully illustrated picture book chronicles the life of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. Beginning with his life as a young boy growing up on a farm in California, the book shows how struggles in Cesar’s early life developed Cesar’s character. His perseverance eventually led him to take charge and stand up for the rights of farm workers everywhere.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo; ill. by Dom Lee.  Olympic diver Sammy Lee was the first Asian American to win a gold medal. Before this achievement, Sammy experienced discrimination as a Korean American growing up in the 1930’s. Even though people of color could only use the pool one day a week, Sammy was able to rise above his challenges to succeed as a diver.

 Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull; ill. by David Diaz.  Caldecott Medal-winning artist David Diaz illustrates this true story of Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic gold medalist. This book documents Wilma’s childhood, in which she suffered from scarlet fever and polio–leaving her left leg paralyzed. Against all odds Wilma went on to become one of the fastest women in the world.

emmaspoemEmma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser; ill. by Claire Nivola. Few people know how the Statue of Liberty came to represent the United States as a country that welcomes immigrants. This picture book introduces us to the life of Emma Lazarus, the author of the famous poem “The New Colossus,” which helped turn the statue into a symbol of freedom and liberty. The poem was engraved on the entryway to the Statue of Liberty, and features the famous lines “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thanks so much to Ashley Hankins and Jess Stuecklen for sharing their exciting biography unit!  To learn more, please visit their classrooms:  Welcome to P6!: Biography Unit (Jess) and Ms. Hankins Class (Ashley).  You’ll find background information on the unit, as well as family activities designed to connect students’ families to the great learning that is going on at school.


Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at

No Such Thing As a Lost Cause: Interview (and book giveaway!) with Stephanie Guerra

BillyBeing a kid is like having two permanent police officers watching you all the time – even when you’re going to the bathroom.  At least that’s how it feels to Billy March.  He’s been grounded for 63% of the past month.  Every time Billy almost gets his parents’ trust back, his mind wanders off, and he causes another disaster!  Now Mom and Dad are threatening to send Billy to a psychologist.  They may even make him take brain drugs!  But deep down, Billy worries that Dad wishes he had a different son.  Maybe he doesn’t belong in this family at all.  But maybe, just maybe, talking to a “shrink” won’t be as terrible as Billy thinks.

stephanieguerraIn Billy March, Stephanie Guerra hands us one energetic, impulsive, frustrating, and endearing 10-year-old who is doing the best he can even though it sure doesn’t seem like it.  Guerra’s text tells Billy’s funny and poignant story, enriched by  illustrator James Davies’ whimsical graphics that plunge us straight into Billy’s wild imagination.  Billy the Kid is Not Crazy is coming to book shelves in October.

Where does Billy come from?

Billy’s a product of my life-long love of characters with wild imaginations and frequent misbehavior. Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Toad from Wind in the Willows, and more recently Joey Pigza are among my favorites. I love how porous reality and fantasy can be in childhood, and I think some children have a special gift for slipping past that boundary and creating endless diversion for themselves. Billy came about because I wanted to write a child who was so enmeshed in his fantasies that the world became a stage for his imagination—resulting in lots of trouble, of course.

What influences from your life found their way into Billy’s story?

Billy gets in trouble so frequently that his parents take him to see a child psychiatrist. I kept those scenes brief—I didn’t want them to take over the story—but they’re important. My mother is a child psychologist, and I grew up with lots of dinner-table talk about the therapy process. My mother sometimes shared the struggles that young clients were going through (without revealing their names, of course). She had tremendous sympathy and love for the kids she worked with, and she didn’t believe in such a thing as a lost cause. She is a strong supporter of therapy without drugs when possible, and that certainly worked its way into Billy’s story.

One of the most important things I learned from my mother is that therapy is not for “bad” kids. Lots of children have to visit a psychologist or psychiatrist at some point, whether for testing, help with a temporary problem, or support with something long-term. And there are times in all of our lives when we could use someone to talk to.

James Davies’ illustrations add both humor and poignancy as they take us deep into Billy’s psyche. Tell us about your process for blending the text and graphics.

I’m delighted with how Davies’ illustrations turned out. He’s a very talented artist, and he intuited and added to the whimsical spirit of my characters with style and humor. Our process was simple: I described the basic content of each cartoon strip, including action and dialogue. Davies then translated the scene into cartoon strip form.  I love the funny details in his settings and the way he brought Billy and Keenan alive with dynamic body language.

Our readers will be interested in your teaching with young women incarcerated at the King County Juvenile Detention Center.  Please describe what you’ve learned about your own writing through that work.

Working with the teens at the correctional facility has impacted my own writing tremendously. I pick up rhythms of language, characters, and culture in a way that I’d never do otherwise. The girls have brought home to me the power of writing to heal, vent, and connect. They’ve showed me what writing in a community looks and feels like. I’m moved by how they support each other and listen respectfully and lovingly to sometimes very painful memoir pieces. Writing as community has been an important lesson for me; I’ve always written in a vacuum.

Can you give us a hint about what’s on your middle grade horizon?

I’m revising the final draft of a middle-grade/YA crossover about a fourteen-year-old Italian American boy navigating life in Mob-infested Brooklyn of the eighties. The working title is BROOKLYN SOLDIERS. I think older middle-grade readers will love that one. I also have two young adult novels coming out in 2015 (OUT OF ACES and sequel) which are keeping me busy.

After that . . . I have a weakness for Pilkey-style potty humor. I’m not sure I could pull it off, but I may try just for fun. During my MFA, I wrote a middle-grade novella about farts coming to life on Halloween. I never showed it to anyone, least of all my professors, who were literary novelists for adults. But the story has lingered in the back of my mind all these years.

What’s something about you that we wouldn’t guess if we met you in person?

My sister and I are planning to film a series of videos for YouTube in which we reenact some famous Groucho and Harpo Marx scenes (and invent some new ones). I’m Harpo. I really want to do this, although it may seriously embarrass my husband.

Stay tuned for more great stories from Stephanie Guerra (and keep your eye on YouTube!).  In addition to writing for middle grade and YA readers, Guerra teaches courses in writing and children’s literature at Seattle University, which is where our paths first crossed.  Read more about her writing instruction with teens in detention — it’s an amazing story!  And visit Stephanie at her website

A chance to win an autographed copy of
Billy the Kid is Not Crazy!
Simply post a comment describing what intrigues you about this book or
(if you’re a teacher), how you think it would grab your students.
Winner to be announced on Saturday, September 28!


Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at


For Teachers and Librarians Page Update!

It’s smack dab (almost) mid-August, which means … time once again for our semi-annual update on what’s new on MUF’s For Teachers and Librarians page!

Here’s an overview of three great new resources and links we’ve added: (you’ll find them marked with New! on the For Teachers/Librarians page):

In the section, BLOGS (of special interest to teachers and librarians):

Top Teaching Blog by Scholastic:  Well regarded as a resource for literacy professionals everywhere, Scholastic also offers teacher-to-teacher support through the Top Teaching Blog.  Eight innovative teachers bring you right into their classrooms for ideas on how to enhance middle graders’ literacy experiences.  Even though summer is quickly waning, you’ll get some great ideas from team member Shari Edwards in this post: a challenge to herself to read a children’s book a day.

A Year of Reading:  Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn are classroom teachers and authors of acclaimed professional books on literacy.  Their blog is rich with ideas and resources for bringing middle grade readers and good books together!  Check out Franki’s thoughts on selecting that all-important first read aloud of the school year.

 In the section, GENERAL RESOURCES for teaching and literature

Finding Common Themes in Fiction Texts: 3rd grade teacher Beth Newingham offers a wonderful array of strategies and resources (downloadable posters!) to help you guide  middle grade students to find and learn from the themes in good books.  This is a rich site from Beth’s classroom in Troy, Michigan — take your time and dig in!  Beth is also part of Scholastic’s Top Teaching Blog team, so we encourage you to visit her there as well!

We invite you to share your new favorite teacher and librarian middle grade resources in the comments section below!