Category Archives: For Kids

Speaking of Shakespeare

Well, technically no one was speaking of Shakespeare, but maybe we should have been speaking like him. The reason: yesterday was officially Talk Like Shakespeare Day.

If you weren’t aware of this auspicious holiday and missed the occasion to impress your friends with quotes from Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, here is an opportunity to celebrate in a way that might be more fun. Get your Shakespeare on and take a look at these middle-grade books inspired by the Bard.

To read or not to read? What? Of course you should read these fabulous books!

Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive!) at Last by Avi

Star-crossed love. Betrayal. Death. Comedy? Peter Saltz (Saltz to his friends) and Anabell Stackpoole like each other, but they’re too shy to do anything about it. Thank goodness for Saltz’s best friend, Ed Sitrow, who masterminds an eighth grade production of Romeo and Juliet-starring none other than Saltz and Stackpoole as Romeo and Juliet. But getting the two reluctant lovebirds together is a bigger task than anyone anticipated, even with Shakespeare’s help. What ensues is the most hilarious, disastrous, and unprecedented rendition of Romeo and Juliet in history!

The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood

Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare’s play Hamlet--or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.

William’s Midsummer Dreams by Zilpha Keatly Snyder

From three-time Newbery Honor author Zilpha Keatley Snyder, “an adventure story with a lot to say about identity, ambition, and character” (Kirkus Reviews). After a year living with Aunt Fiona, William is off to audition for the role of Puck in a summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But getting the part is just the beginning. Now William has to deal with a jealous rival out to sabotage him, a not-so-secret admirer, and the way the Baggetts still haunt him in nightmares. William’s summer is filled with acting and costumes and applause, but he still worries sometimes that he and his younger siblings will never be able to shake off the past. But when the Baggetts show up again, William realizes that he is braver than he thought, and that all will turn out okay.

All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts by Gretchen Woelfle, illus. Thomas Cox

Suddenly a hand gripped the back of his neck. “Cutpurse!” Kit is caught! Twelve-year-old orphan Kit Buckles, seeking his fortune in Elizabethan London, has bungled his first job as a pickpocket at the Theatre Playhouse where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are performing. To avoid jail, Kit agrees to work for the playhouse and soon grows fond of the life there: the dramas on–and offstage. Things get truly exciting when Kit joins the plot to steal the playhouse from the landlord who has evicted the company.

Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave by Deron R. Hicks, illus. Mark Edward Geyer

Twelve-year-old Colophon Letterford has a serious mystery on her hands. Will she discover the link between her family’s literary legacy and Shakespeare’s tomb before it’s too late? Antique paintings, secret passages, locked mausoleums, a four-hundred-year-old treasure, and a cast of quirky (and some ignoble) characters all add up to a fun original adventure. Readers will revel in a whirlwind journey through literary time and space in real-world locales from Mont St. Michel to Stratford-Upon-Avon to Central Park.

Tower of the Five Orders by Deron R. Hicks, illus. Mark Edward Geyer

Colophon Letterford’s life changed overnight when she uncovered Shakespeare’s lost manuscripts. Now the authenticity of those manuscripts is in question and the family publishing business is in danger. In this exciting mystery, thirteen-year-old Colophon travels from Oxford’s lofty Tower of the Five Orders to the dank depths of London’s sewers in her pursuit of truth and honor. But the stakes are high. Budding cryptologists, Shakespeare fans, and mystery lovers alike will revel in the twists and turns of this fascinating middle grade sequel to Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave.

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

All Hamlet Kennedy wants is to be a normal eighth grader. But with parents like hers –Shakespearean scholars who actually dress in Elizabethan regalia in public –it’s not that easy. As if they weren’t strange enough, her genius seven-year-old sister will be attending her middle school, and is named the new math tutor. Then, when the Shakespeare Project is announced, Hamlet reveals herself to be an amazing actress. Even though she wants to be average, Hamlet can no longer hide from the fact that she — like her family — is anything but ordinary.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Holling Hoodhood is really in for it. He’s just started seventh grade with Mrs. Baker, a teacher he knows is out to get him. Why else would she make him read Shakespeare . . . outside of class? The year is 1967, and everyone has bigger things than homework to worry about. There’s Vietnam for one thing, and then there’s the family business. As far as Holling’s father is concerned, nothing is more important than the family business. In fact, all of the Hoodhoods must be on their best behavior at all times. The success of Hoodhood and Associates depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has Mrs. Baker to contend with?

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Only in the world of the theater can Nat Field find an escape from the tragedies that have shadowed his young life. So he is thrilled when he is chosen to join an American drama troupe traveling to London to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a new replica of the famous Globe theater. Shortly after arriving in England, Nat goes to bed ill and awakens transported back in time four hundred years — to another London, and another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Amid the bustle and excitement of an Elizabethan theatrical production, Nat finds the warm, nurturing father figure missing from his life — in none other than William Shakespeare himself. Does Nat have to remain trapped in the past forever, or give up the friendship he’s so longed for in his own time?

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing–and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.
As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama. In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Animal-Human Connection: Creating Compelling Animal Characters

Over the last twelve years, my husband and I adopted and raised three rescue dogs.

After spending more than two decades of my life in India without pets, it began to occur to me that animals could become our family, teachers and healers when we were thousands of miles from our dear ones.

My reason for writing a thesis on this topic for my MFA program at VCFA was because of my growing desire to understand their emotions and incorporate them into my own fiction.

Let’s take a look at some books that show us these things:

  1. Can animal characters in novels lead rich emotional lives?
  2. How do authors draw a line between imagination and reality?
  3. What makes readers care?

Animal stories fall into at least three different categories –

1. Where animals act just like humans like E.B. White’s Stuart           Little.




2. The second category is where animals are secondary characters and behave more like themselves like because of        Winn-Dixie.


3. The third category is where animal characters stretch                   believability, and the reader feels the inner life without               turning the character into a human like Charlotte’s Web.


In these three categories of books, the animal characters make a connection with the readers and show us their behaviors in the environment they evolve in.

Now, we will look at three contemporary middle-grade novels –


The gorilla in The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate



The pig in The Adventures of A South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz



The hound dog in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt



I will focus on some of the tools these authors use to draw the reader into the emotional core of the animal characters.

What do the three novels have in common?

  1. In many ways, they are a close reflection of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.

First, like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, Ivan, Flora and Ranger are held captive by their human friends. Second, like Wilbur, Ivan, Flora, and Ranger have minimal or no conversations with human beings. Third, Ivan, Flora and Ranger have best friends outside their species, just like Wilbur trusts Charlotte, the spider. Fourth, all these stories have animals as main characters.

  1. These books have also gotten a strong reception from readers, reviewers, and other critics. They have been nominated for state lists and won prestigious awards, and have received starred reviews from well-acclaimed review journals in children’s literature.

Making readers fall in love with a character isn’t easy, especially if the author is avoiding turning the animal into a substitute human.

So, how do these authors make readers care?

  1. The authors put their animal characters in extreme conditions.

Ivan is forced out of his natural habitat and is kept in a strange, unfriendly enclosure with no access to nature.

Flora is displaced from the security of her barnyard to the extreme living conditions in Antarctica.

Ranger is tied and chained underneath the porch by his cruel human owner.

  1. The authors use metaphors to help the reader feel the inner life of the character.

Through various metaphors, the reader discovers how Ivan might see the world and his sensibilities through his point-of-view, the deeper emotions and struggles of Flora, and the tender emotional core of Ranger.

  1. The authors also show the characters’ feelings using real animal characteristics including these:
    1. Odors
    2. Vocalizations
    3. Body Language

Ivan uses odors to understand the humans around him. He also watches TV, draws pictures and sometimes he throws me-balls at the humans coming to see him. Ivan knuckle-walks and uses his movements, bared teeth expressions and chest-beating to communicate his intentions.

Flora uses odors to form perceptions about her environment. Flora also responds to feelings of surprise and shame with her sounds. Sniffing objects, nosing, massaging, nibbling, scampering, rubbing, stretching and yawning are her common body language signals.

Ranger’s use of smells shows us how he feels around his friends and his abuser. His vocalizations show us his suffering in isolation of living in the underneath. Ranger also exhibits feelings of love towards his kitten through the process of licking.

Applegate, Kurtz, and Appelt had three different animals to work with, and they use methods and tactics that give Ivan, Flora and Ranger their own actual stories.

Ivan’s story is one of empathy, empathy for humans and animals with hope that we can all commit to changing our world.

Flora learns to be the best at being herself. Kids struggle the most when they must be popular and liked by everyone to be successful in school, so they connect with the theme, which is being who you are while stretching for what you long for, and watching out for the help that will come along to help you on the path to your dreams.

The Underneath is also a story of empathy. It is a moving story that brings an unusual family of animals together in unity and danger, and the reader feels huge empathy for these animals and relates with them at a human level.

These novels belong to a beloved category first developed by authors like E.B. White where these craft elements provide opportunities to develop empathy, respect, sympathy, and make the readers care for the animal characters. Most importantly, they intensify the emotional pathways – between animals and humans, between the animal characters and the readers. They help writers create work that is memorable and makes a true animal-human connection. Do you have a favorite book that fits into any of the categories discussed above? Share with us in the comments below.


I had the opportunity to attend the 33rd annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University in early April.  The event is the longest-running event focusing entirely on multicultural literature for children. One of the highlights of the program is the awarding of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. This year’s honoree is Pat Mora, author of over forty books for children, teens and young adults.

Pat is also the founder of El día de los niños/El día de los libros, (Children’s Day/Book Day), or simply Dia.

I must admit, that despite being directly involved in children’s literature for nearly twenty years as both children’s book festival founder ( and children’s book author, I knew nothing about Dia.

So, what is Dia? And what can we do as writers of children’s literature to participate and promote the initiative?

Dia’s roots began in 1925 at the first World Conference for the Well Being of Children in Geneva, Switzerland. Children’s Day was established after the conference, intended to bring attention to children’s issues. Many countries, including the Soviet Union, encouraged the publication of children’s books.

The Parade of the Red Army, Soviet Union, 1931.

In 1996, Pat Mora proposed connecting the celebration of children with literacy. The following year her concept was endorsed by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) is now the home to Dia.

Dia is intended to be a daily commitment to connecting children and families to diverse books, languages and cultures. April 30th is designated as the culmination of the year-long celebrations.

Libraries across the United States celebrate Dia with book clubs, bilingual story times, and, (yay!) guest appearances by children’s book authors and illustrators.

ALSC has a website, where book suggestions, toolkits and great resources can be downloaded to help with a Dia Celebration. Check it out:

The website has a locator tab to find a Dia event near you:

Pat offered in her comments to the audience at Kent State University that we in Ohio were not doing enough to spread the mission of Dia. There is only one event listed in the national registry in my home state. Pat is right. We can do more.

My hope is to somehow bring together a collaborative effort to celebrate Dia with our partner library system, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, and our Claire’s Day event. Stay Tuned.

What will you do to support this important mission of connecting children with books? Perhaps you could read of one of your works at your local library. Or, maybe volunteer to share multicultural books with children at your nearby school. Or, even just share the Dia website with your local school and/or library.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book Fiesta, written by Pat Mora, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.