Category Archives: Librarians

Picture Book Conversations in the Middle Grades

In my work as Library Media Specialist at an International Baccalaureate School, my main job was support of the curriculum for students as seen through the IB Organization’s lens. This framework of thinking urges students to dig deeper into a subject, to be open-minded inquirers, and to find ways to apply the thinking they practice across their subjects and ultimately in their interaction with the world around them.

I have found that one great way to connect with students and to engage that deeper thinking is to use picture books. It’s easy to discount this format as “too young” for many students, but in reality, even the simplest-seeming of them can be powerful tools for scaffolding a topic, for generating new questions, and most importantly, for beginning a conversation with students that gets them thinking more deeply about a subject in new and different ways.

A picture book can be a connector through its art and visual nature, through topics and themes which are presented, explored and resolved in a short time (yes, I read picture books aloud to students all the way into middle school in my library), and simply through a layout which invites sharing with others. Engaging with a picture book can open doors for a wide array of students with differing needs and learning styles, and can lead to rich exploration in the classroom.

Picture books aren’t just about princesses and fluffy bunnies. They can help us understand the problems of hunger and oppression or the meaning of friendship or patriotism. They can help us understand differences between people so that we’re free to see similarities. They can help us examine our own lives more closely, all through the safety of the page.  Picture books are my own read of choice with students of any age, and in our recent cry for diversity in children’s literature, they fulfill this need in some wonderful ways while making the curricular connections we need from the books we share with students.

Here are some picture books which can be useful tools for starting conversations with Middle Grade readers on a wide variety of topics. Synopses come from IndieBound unless otherwise noted.

My name is Sangoel, by Karen Lynn Williams and Catherine Stock, illustrated by Khadra Mohammed

9780802853073

Sangoel is a refugee. Leaving behind his homeland of Sudan, where his father died in the war, he has little to call his own other than his name, a Dinka name handed down proudly from his father and grandfather before him. When Sangoel and his mother and sister arrive in the United States, everything seems very strange and unlike home.(from Goodreads)

The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi

9780440417996

The new kid in school needs a new name! Or does she?
Being the new kid in school is hard enough, but what about when nobody can pronounce your name? Having just moved from Korea, Unhei is anxious that American kids will like her. So instead of introducing herself on the first day of school, she tells the class that she will choose a name by the following week. Her new classmates are fascinated by this no-name girl and decide to help out by filling a glass jar with names for her to pick from.

I Pledge Allegiance, by Pat Mora and Libby Martinez, illustrated by Patrice Barton

9780307931818

Libby’s great aunt, Lobo, is from Mexico, but the United States has been her home for many years, and she wants to become a U.S. citizen. At the end of the week, Lobo will say the Pledge of Allegiance at a special ceremony. Libby is also learning the Pledge this week, at school—at the end of the week, she will stand up in front of everyone and lead the class in the Pledge. Libby and Lobo practice together—asking questions and sharing stories and memories—until they both stand tall and proud, with their hands over their hearts.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iran, by Jeannette Winter

9780152054458

Alia Muhammad Baker is a librarian in Basra, Iraq. For fourteen years, her library has been a meeting place for those who love books. Until now. Now war has come, and Alia fears that the library–along with the thirty thousand books within it–will be destroyed forever.

In a war-stricken country where civilians–especially women–have little power, this true story about a librarian’s struggle to save her community’s priceless collection of books reminds us all how, throughout the world, the love of literature and the respect for knowledge know no boundaries.

The Sandwich Swap, by Raina Al Abdullah and Kelly DiPucchio , illustrated by Tricia Tusa

9781423124849

Lily and Salma are best friends. They like doing all the same things, and they always eat lunch together. Lily eats peanut butter and Salma eats hummus-but what’s that between friends? It turns out, a lot. Before they know it, a food fight breaks out. Can Lily and Salma put aside their differences? Or will a sandwich come between them?
The smallest things can pull us apart-until we learn that friendship is far more powerful than difference. In a glorious three-page gatefold at the end of the book, Salma, Lily, and all their classmates come together in the true spirit of tolerance and acceptance. Selected by Indie Booksellers for the Summer 2010 Kids’ Next List

Boxes for Katje, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen

9780374309220

After World War II there is little left in Katje’s town of Olst in Holland. Her family, like most Dutch families, must patch their old worn clothing and go without everyday things like soap and milk. Then one spring morning when the tulips bloom “thick and bright,” Postman Kleinhoonte pedals his bicycle down Katje’s street to deliver a mysterious box – a box from America! Full of soap, socks, and chocolate, the box has been sent by Rosie, an American girl from Mayfield, Indiana. Her package is part of a goodwill effort to help the people of Europe. What’s inside so delights Katje that she sends off a letter of thanks – beginning an exchange that swells with so many surprises that the girls, as well as their townspeople, will never be the same.
This inspiring story, with strikingly original art, is based on the author’s mother’s childhood and will show young readers that they, too, can make a difference. Boxes for Katje is a 2004 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story of Africa, by Jeannette Winter

4010047

As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Wangari was surrounded by trees. But years later when she returns home, she is shocked to see whole forests being cut down, and she knows that soon all the trees will be destroyed. So Wangari decides to do something—and starts by planting nine seedlings in her own backyard. And as they grow, so do her plans. . . . (from Goodreads)

One Hen: How one Small Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

9781554530281

Inspired by true events, One Hen tells the story of Kojo, a boy from Ghana who turns a small loan into a thriving farm and a livelihood for many.

The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis

9780374347017

Through annotated illustrations, journals, maps, and dreamscapes, Peter Sís shows what life was like for a child who loved to draw, proudly wore the red scarf of a Young Pioneer, stood guard at the giant statue of Stalin, and believed whatever he was told to believe. But adolescence brought questions. Cracks began to appear in the Iron Curtain, and news from the West slowly filtered into the country….By joining memory and history, Sís takes us on his extraordinary journey: from infant with paintbrush in hand to young man borne aloft by the wings of his art. The Wall is a 2007 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year, a 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2008 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year, the winner of the 2008 Boston Globe – Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, and a nominee for the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids.

Sparrow Girl, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

9781423111870

Ming-Li looked up and tried to imagine the sky silent, empty of birds. It was a terrible thought. Her country’s leader had called sparrows the enemy of the farmers–they were eating too much grain, he said. He announced a great “Sparrow War” to banish them from China, but Ming-Li did not want to chase the birds away.
As the people of her village gathered with firecrackers and gongs to scatter the sparrows, Ming-Li held her ears and watched in dismay. The birds were falling from the trees, frightened to death! Ming-Li knew she had to do something–even if she couldn’t stop the noise. Quietly, she vowed to save as many sparrows as she could, one by one…

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon

9780822599753

A neighborhood cat observes the changes in German and Jewish families in its town during the period leading up to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass that becomes the true beginning of the Holocaust. This cats-eye view introduces the Holocaust to children in a gentle way that can open discussion of this period.

The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton

9781582464503

Meet Brian, the invisible boy. Nobody ever seems to notice him or think to include him in their group, game, or birthday party . . . until, that is, a new kid comes to class.
When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. And when Brian and Justin team up to work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to shine.
From esteemed author and speaker Trudy Ludwig and acclaimed illustrator Patrice Barton, this gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish. Any parent, teacher, or counselor looking for material that sensitively addresses the needs of quieter children will find The Invisible Boy a valuable and important resource.
Includes backmatter with discussion questions and resources for further reading.

Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel

9781936261291

With humor and warmth, this children’s picture book raises awareness about poverty and hunger Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty. Sofia learns that Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to fill their fridge and promises Maddi she’ll keep this discovery a secret. But because Sofia wants to help her friend, she’s faced with a difficult decision: to keep her promise or tell her parents about Maddi’s empty fridge. Filled with colorful artwork, this storybook addresses issues of poverty with honesty and sensitivity while instilling important lessons in friendship, empathy, trust, and helping others. A call to action section, with six effective ways for children to help fight hunger and information on antihunger groups, is also included.

Emily’s Blue Period, by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown

9781596434691

Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.

Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.

“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”

It might last quite some time.

There are so many more I could share, some with humor and heart, courage and quirkiness, some that share themes of resiliency and integrity. I hope you’ll find some new ways to share picture books with the Middle Grade readers in your life!

Do you already have a favorite picture book to share?

 

Valerie Stein is proprietor of Homeostasis Press. She’s at work on two historical fiction books, including a historical mystery for middle grade readers.

Vaerie blogs about books  and being grateful at The Best of It.

You can find her tweeting lots, especially about kids’ books, @stein_valerie

Reading for Pleasure, Not Purpose

At a recent book festival, I noticed a tween girl eying my table. Finally she walked over, picked up one of my books, and began reading.

When her mom approached, the girl waved the book over her head like a flag. “This one!” she begged her mom. “Please?”

Her mom smiled patiently. “Let me have a look,” she said. She flipped through the pages as if she were searching for something. “What’s the lexile?” she asked me.

“Lexile?” I repeated, even though I knew what the word meant.

She began to explain the concept of “lexile,” then gave up. “What grade level is this book for?” she asked, sighing.

“Fourth through seventh, mostly,” I answered. “Although some third graders read it, and so do eighth graders. There’s really no rule.”

The mom glanced at her daughter, who by then was at the other end of my table, flipping through another book. “The reason I ask,” she murmured, “is because my daughter is a very advanced reader. She’s in the fifth grade, but she’s reading on a tenth grade level.”

My heart went out to this mom, because I know what it’s like to have a kid who’s an “advanced” reader. Advanced readers tend to be voracious ones, the kind of kid who brushes her teeth with a toothbrush in one hand and a book in the other. It’s a full-time job supporting a book-addicted kid’s reading habit. And finding appropriate books can be an adventure: you don’t want your kid to read books that are too babyish, because they will bore her, and possibly turn her off reading. But at the same time, you don’t want her to read YA books that may be intellectually more stimulating, but too mature in other ways–too dark, too edgy or too sexually explicit. After all, your fifth grader is still a fifth grader. A kid, not an adolescent.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned as a parent, a teacher, and an author: if we want our kids to become lifelong readers, we need to let them read for pleasure. This means allowing them to make their own reading choices (within reasonable limits). And we need to support their choices, not pluck books from their hands in the name of lexiles and reading levels.

Because why does any kid choose any book? Maybe she likes the cover, or the title, or the plot summary on the book jacket. Maybe she likes the author’s style, or finds the main character someone she’d want as a friend. One of my totally unproven (and unprovable) theories about MG reading is that for many kids, especially the “advanced, voracious” ones, reading is a social experience, a chance to hang out with the characters, empathize with them, laugh with them, learn from their triumphs and blunders. And to do any of that socializing in a meaningful way, they need characters they can relate to– which usually means kids roughly around their own age.

But what about the parent’s responsibility to educate her child? Is there anything wrong with a mom leafing through her daughter’s book to check if its language is rich, and enriching? No, of course not; but a kid’s pleasure reading shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of: Does this book contain vocabulary words? Some of the best-written books don’t even have “big” words–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to give one example. And some of the worst books are bursting with pompous verbiage and gobbledegook. The best middle grade fiction does so much more for kids than just expand their vocabulary.

I recently came across an article about a study conducted by Britain’s Institute of Education, which suggested that children who read for pleasure have a more advanced vocabulary as adults than non-pleasure readers. “The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary…may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” said the researchers. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.” For older kids (age 16), reading “highbrow fiction” made the greatest improvement in adult vocabulary; but for the ten year olds, it seems the frequency of pleasure reading, and not the level or “lexile,” may be the most significant factor. To me this suggests that if you want your fifth grade kid to continue developing her already precocious language skills, let her choose her own books. A brilliant piece by Valerie Straus in the Washington Post makes several suggestions for strategies which encourage reading autonomy in the classroom, as well.

And in case you’re wondering what happened to the mom and the daughter at the book festival: They stepped away from my table, talked it over, and returned to buy the book the daughter had chosen in the first place. When I signed it for the girl, I wrote: “Keep reading!” But something told me that advice wasn’t necessary.

Barbara Dee is the author of the middle-grade novels THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE.  Find her on the web at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com and on Twitter @BarbaraDee2.

Make Soup, Not War

The holidays are almost upon us, and no matter what you celebrate this season, you can bet there will be food involved. Beyond simple sustenance, what and how we eat play an important role in our relationships with others. This month’s National Geographic, which focuses on food, emphasizes “the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” Likewise, when presented in literature, food is often a symbol of communion between characters, communities, and even cultures. As Thomas C. Foster writes in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “…breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.”

Several middle-grade books feature food and meals in ways that create bonds between characters and cultures. Some even include recipes for parents, teachers, and librarians, who may want to join with their own children or students by reading, cooking, and eating together during this holiday season—or any time of year.

53494In Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, twelve-year-old Rosie has had a falling out with her best friend, Bailey, who is sight impaired. The story begins in the kitchen as Granny and Rosie slice carrots, onions, mushrooms, and celery and simultaneously swap stories about their lives. Granny tells about the best friend she left in Italy. And Rosie explains how Bailey is angry with her for learning Braille. By the end of Part One, Rosie realizes Bailey’s anger stemmed from the fact that reading Braille was his special talent. Rosie then brings soup over to Bailey’s house as a peace offering. In Part Two, the recipe for friendship and bonding includes homemade cavatelli, tomato sauce, and meatballs. As Granny, Rosie, and Bailey mix the ingredients, jealousies are revealed and life lessons are learned. Exact measurements aren’t listed in the book, but it’s clear that Granny Torrelli’s instructions for making soup and pasta are surefire recipes for reconciliation between Rosie and Bailey.

imagesIn Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, eleven-year-old David Greenberg is having a rough time. When the story opens, his mother has already moved to another state. After that, his best friend abandons him, a bully targets him, and his pet hamster dies. Still, the one constant in his life is his grandmother. She’s always there to comfort him, not only with words, but also with her kugel, blintzes, and famous apple cake. And, although there are awkward family dinners in David’s house and in his friend Sophie’s house, as well, the close connection between food and friendship is apparent when David eats two pieces of Sophie’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and slips the third piece in his pocket. At the end of the book, Gephart includes the recipe for Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake—sure to comfort the characters at your table.

imagesRose Kent’s Kimchi and Calamari demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture when Joseph Calderaro, who was adopted from Korea by an Italian family, begins researching his background for a school essay assignment. But how can a calamari-eating, cannoli-loving fourteen-year-old find his Korean identity when there’s no information about his personal heritage anywhere? One way is to lie about it, which he does. But another way is to embrace his ancestral culture over dinner with a neighboring Korean family. Joseph bonds with them over sticky rice, bulgogi, and kimchi. As he comes to accept the fusion of his Korean origin and his Italian upbringing, he proudly describes himself as, “One hunk of Joseph slapped between a slice of Italian bread and a mound of Korean sticky rice.” Finally, he has the topic for his essay: “Joseph the Ethnic Sandwich.” While the book doesn’t contain the directions for cooking kimchi or calamari, plenty of mouth-watering Korean and Italian recipes are available on the Internet for hungry readers.

images-1Dumpling Days is Grace Lin’s third novel about Pacy Lin. In this one, Pacy travels to Taiwan for a month for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. And while it’s sometimes difficult for Pacy to navigate her new surroundings, peach buns, soup dumplings, and other delicacies definitely have the power to bridge the gap between cultures. A recipe for Chinese Dumplings can be found at the end of the book.

Other middle-grade novels about food:

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaeffer—recipes for tea, sandwiches, and scones are included in the book.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman—recipes can be found on the author’s webpage under Extras.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath—recipes are included at the end of chapters.

If you have a favorite middle-grade novel with food and/or recipes, feel free to serve it up in the comments section. In the meantime, happy reading and eating!

Dorian Cirrone is the author of several books and short stories for children. She blogs about reading and writing (and sometimes eating) at doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/. Hop on over  for writing tips and occasional give-aways.