Category Archives: Teachers

Celebrating Stories about America’s National Parks!



Happy Birthday America!

In honor of July 4th, and family travel season, I thought I would write about one of this country’s greatest treasures: The National Parks System. I’ve come to more deeply appreciate the NPS through my middle-grade reading kids, who are obsessed with the “Junior Ranger Program” – a program available at almost all U.S. National Parks and Monuments. On visiting a park – great or small – our children will ask the ranger if they have a junior ranger program. This is usually a printed booklet that asks the kids to to age appropriate activities relevant to the park — everything from taking a hike, attending a ranger talk on geology or nocturnal creatures, reading about a historical event or figure, and then completing various puzzles, activities and games. On completion of a booklet (which may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 or 3 hours), the ranger checks their work and viola! They are sworn in to be junior rangers!

5623805_f520My kids are really excited to collect the various junior ranger badges — there are about 400 in this country and my kids have 72 each — but others enjoy collecting patches, or stamping their “national parks passports” with stamps from various parks. It’s a great way to see America, and have the kids be the instigators and navigators of family trips (rather than the ones who dread going places and drag their feet) But you don’t have to go far (usually) to find a great NPS site – there are many smaller sites that you may not know about right around the corner from you! Just visit to look at the list of wonderful junior ranger program-containing sites. (There is also a web ranger program, and several you can do online!)

There are many TERRIFIC books for kids to learn about national parks: check out some great lists here and here. When we visit a site, we often try to read something that gets us excited about what we are about to see. There’s undoubtedly a biography, nonfiction or fiction for every middle grade reader that would be appropriate to read about almost every park! Here are some thoughts that might make your summer NPS vacation both informative and literary!


1. Visiting Boston’s Historic Sites or just stopping by on your way to the Cape? There are several junior ranger programs in the area. And while you’re clocking miles on I-95 why not give your middle grade biography or history buff Who Was Paul Revere?

Who Was Paul Revere?



2. Heading to Florida for a beach vacation or to visit Disney? Take a day trip to the Everglades or the several other terrific NPS sites in Florida! Maybe your mystery reader will enjoy Nancy Drew 161: Lost in Everglades. 

3. Going to the big parks in Arizona? What about giving your animal-loving reader that old classic Brighty of the Grand Canyon

4. Of a literary or oratorical bent? What about visiting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge or Edgar Allen Poe’s Birthplace in Philadelphia or Fredrick Douglass’ National Historic Site in Maryland?


Feel free to add your favorite park/vacation related books below! And enjoy your summer exploring this nation’s beautiful parks!

Here’s an adorable link to get your younger travelers excited about national parks:  Sesame Street Explores National Parks


Freedom Summer 1964: Looking back with a new generation

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
traditional song that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960′s

Fifty years ago this month, the arduous efforts of civil rights advocates through the 50′s and 60′s coalesced in Mississippi as thousands organized to push for voting rights long-denied to African Americans.  Our nation’s work for equity and social justice goes on today, and the examples set by those who would not give up are treasured by ongoing generations of readers.  In their remarkable book, Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made it Happen,  Casey King and Linda Barrett Osborne share interviews that fourth graders conducted with family members and others who worked for justice during this time.

Starting with Oh, Freedom!, Seattle teacher Kay Yano built a unit on Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement so that her fifth-graders could also learn from — and be inspired by — this important time in our history.  Kay’s goal was “to draw students into the lives of some of the leading voices of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and to see that they were all ordinary people who saw injustice and felt moved to action from it.  I want students to understand that people just like us can rise up and do extraordinary things, and that when we work together, we are able to be change agents.  My hope is that students can find that place in themselves that resonates with these leaders and find the ability to be change agents too.”

A Sampling of Books about the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles; ill. by Jerome Lagarrigue.  Friendship defies racism for two boys in this stirring story of the “Freedom Summer” that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now in a 50th Anniversary Edition with a refreshed cover and a new introduction. (Indiebound description)

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges.  This is a book written by Ruby Bridges herself!  She writes in her memoir about her experience, accompanied by Federal Marshals, of being a 6-year-old who became the first black student to attend her elementary school.  This book has articles that appeared in newspapers at the time and helps to create a context for her remarkable story of courage (Kay Yano description).

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Muñoz Ryan; ill. by Brian Selznick.  This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Marian Anderson, who was a gifted singer who was prevented from performing at the Metropolitan Opera and Constitution Hall because of discriminatory policies.  However, she was invited by President Roosevelt to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she performed in front of an appreciative crowd of 75,000 people.  This performance opened doors for her and for others that had previously been closed. (Kay Yano description)

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni; ill. by Bryan Collier.  Rosa Parks’s story is told here, both her life leading up to the moment where she “sat down to stand up” for the African American community in Montgomery, Alabama.  The story then moves into the resulting bus boycott and some of concrete results of her actions of civil disobedience. (Kay Yano description)

As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing Walk toward Freedom by Richard Michelson; ill. by Raul Colon Tells the parallel stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel (a Polish-born rabbi who fled Nazi Germany) and how they came together in the March To Montgomery.  It talks about the many influences and common experiences of oppression that both men faced and how they found commonality that helped to cement their alliance. (Kay Yano description)

Revolution by Deborah Wiles.  It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded. Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote. They’re calling it Freedom Summer.  As she did in her groundbreaking documentary novel COUNTDOWN award-winning author Deborah Wiles uses stories and images to tell the riveting story of a certain time and place — and of kids who, in a world where everyone is choosing sides, must figure out how to stand up for themselves and fight for what’s right. (Indiebound description)

Learn more about Deborah Wiles’ “60′s Trilogy” in MUF team member Laurie Beth Schneider’s interview with Deborah Wiles and her editor, David Levithan

Thank you to Kay Yano for sharing her unit ideas!

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

Recipe for a mystery

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 8.53.53 PMEarlier this month I had a delightful classroom visit with third grade readers who were studying mysteries. I was about to go into a segment on the ingredients of a mystery when I realized these eight- and nine-year-old readers knew exactly what went into a satisfying mystery. Not only had they read a few mysteries as a class (including one of mine in the Hannah West series), they were prepared with questions about plot, setting, character motivation, red herrings, and tracking clues.

case of the lost body from the buddy filesWe talked about how there’s an element of mystery in almost any story. Getting to what makes a novel a true mystery is a bit harder. “Every good book should be suspenseful and should have a question to be answered, but suspense and questions alone don’t make a mystery,” says Dori Hillestad Butler, author of the Edgar Award-winning Buddy Files mystery series. To be classified mystery, she continues, “… the main character needs to follow clues, confront red herrings, and use some basic reasoning skills to solve the mystery. A lot of books that are labeled ‘mystery’ are lacking that. The author just sort of moves the character from one place to the next … the mystery doesn’t flow organically from the character’s actions.”

Not only is Dori an accomplished mystery writer, she also chaired this year’s selection committee for the Edgar Awards’ Best Juvenile Novel. That meant reading and evaluating about 70 middle grade mysteries. Not surprising, what she looks for in a good mystery is exactly what young readers have told me they want in a page-turning story.  They want to see a detective they can identify with who is deciphering clues and following leads; they want to be inside the detective’s head and get a feeling for how to analyze what people are saying, what is true — and what they might be hiding.

When considering mysteries for the Edgars, Dori says, “I wanted to see a main character taking action, following leads, sifting through clues. I wanted to see red herrings. I wanted to see a main character considering the evidence, forming a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and actively solving the mystery on his own rather than simply being led to the solution by the author.” Precisely what most of us desire in reading mysteries – and good reminders for those of us writing detective novels.

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Just a portion of a checklist from to help young readers who are exploring the mystery genre. Click on the image to go to the full PDF.

Scholastic’s Ingredients for a Mystery lesson plan for third- to fifth-graders has been handy for me when talking to young readers. It’s also a useful reminder when drafting and revising to be sure that the recipe’s ingredients are all included, with the proper pacing, mixing, and timing added.

This recipe may seem a bit simple when plotting a novel, but it still proves to keep me on my toes. Do I have the right number of suspects? Who are the witnesses, and what might they know that’s not immediately evident? How is the pacing and timing? Is 90 percent of the action taking place over two days, but the story takes much longer?

If you’re looking for middle grades that include the essential ingredients of a mystery, be sure to keep an eye on the Edgars. Here’s a list of the past 10 years’ winners (and be sure to look at recent finalists, too):

Edgar Award Winners for Best Juvenile Mystery 

  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (2014)
  • The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo (2013)
  • Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (2012)
  • The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler (2011)
  • Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn (2010)
  • The Postcard by Tony Abbott (2009)
  • The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh (2008)
  • Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements (2007)
  • The Boys of San Joaquin by D. James Smith (2006)
  • Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (2005)

I’d love to hear recommendations for mysteries to add to my summer reading list!