Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Hooray, I finally have my new blog up, "Hit the Ground Running," especially for new and high-spirited pedagogues! I will have a giveaway a week there for copies of HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING for a while, so please visit and spread the word.
In celebration of the launch, let's have some more back-to school books...this time, especially for older kids. The first pick especially belongs in every intermediate classroom!

EXTRA CREDIT by Andrew Clements, spot illustrations by Mark Elliott (Atheneum)

Rereading the letter, then looking more carefully at each picture, Abby felt ashamed of the letter she had sent to Afghanistan. As near as she could recall, she had spent about ten minutes on it. The letter she'd gotten back was so much...more...

But Abby's feeling of shame didn't last. It was replaced almost instantly by determination. Because she decided that her next letter was going to be even better.
Athletic and distracted, Abby Carson has been a flop at school, and it's a serious possibility that she'll be held have to repeat the sixth grade unless she can get B's on every single bit of her remaining schoolwork. She also must agree to complete an extra-credit project: an exchange of letters with a student in another country, and a display of the correspondence. Half a world away, hard-working Sadeed has been given a special assignment by his teacher: help his little sister answer the letter that has arrived at the school from an American girl. After all, having a boy answer her wouldn't be proper, and his little sister does not know English well enough to represent the village. But the urge to personally communicate and connect overwhelms Sadeed, and he soon abandons his role as his sister's ghost writer and enters into a secret friendship that could prove dangerous to the people he loves the most.

From the man often considered the master of the "school story" and author of the much beloved FRINDLE comes, in many ways, his most daring offer to date. While I can't attest to the cultural accuracy of the depictions of Afghanistan, there is an ambitious shift in the artist's craft here, not unlike when Beverly Cleary moved from writing her sunny RAMONA series to undertaking the more serious tone of DEAR MR. HENSHAW. Honest but never heavy-handed, this exciting and realistic read-aloud probes deeply into the decisions of the children as they drift away from the constraints of their assignments, and the story line offers so much to thoughtfully discuss. The mores of Sadeed's village conflict with modern values, but for how long? To what extent are children entitled to privacy? Abby learns to look at her Midwestern world with new, more appreciative eyes, and eyes that learn the hard way to hone in on the biases and agendas of others as she is forced to remove a part of her display that represents the faith of her faraway friend. Is this decision right or wrong? Both children are striving to find--and to articulate--their intentions of peace in a world of forces that circumvent their efforts in ways large and small, sometimes deliberately, sometimes thoughtlessly. This is a book about choosing battles, and patiently waiting for the world to change even when the change has already occurred inside of you.

Most interesting of all, though, might be the revisiting of the topic of old-school "snail mail" in an age of digital communication; besides setting gears in motion for geopolitical conversation in classrooms, it's also pretty sensational to use for starting off a unit about conventional letter writing. There was a time before IM-ing when the hard work of creating correspondence and tucking treasures in an envelope were representations not only of ourselves but of our cultures, inducing us to put our better foot forward, as the characters in this book soon discover. Even in the age of highly homogenized e-mail, letters still create connections by which empathy can come to fruition like Abby's cornfields in the sunshine, or, as Sadeed might put it, with the warmth of "the smile of God."
He stared at Abby's face, trying to connect the words he had just read with this girl he saw looking straight at him. At that very moment, gazing at her picture, Abby became a real person to him--someone who was intelligent, someone who loved being outdoors, someone who noticed the beauty of nature and the shapes of words. And her favorite color was green. And it struck Sadeed that right now he probably knew more about this Abby Carson in America than he had ever known about any other girl in his whole life, including his own sister.
Expect to well up with tears more than once from the sheer poignancy of this very good book. (10 and up)

Other penpal picks, old and new:
  • The sadly out-of-print but worth-finding-used COSMIC COUSIN by Nancy Hayashi, in which a girl exchanges letters with a mysterious classmate using library books as mailboxes (7 and up);
  • DEAR MAX by Sally Grindley and illustrated by Tony Ross, the refreshing boy-centered book about a fellow who pursues a long-distance friendship with an author, and in the process discovers how to deal with a bully (8 and up);
  • LONGER LETTER LATER, a realistic back-and-forth between two characters separated by a move and orchestrated by two great authors: the marvelous Ann Martin and the late great Paula Danziger (9 and up);
  • And! The latest installment in the trendy Mother Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick, DEAR PEN PAL, in which a group of eighth grade girls dive into Jean Webster's classic novel Daddy Long Legs via post.
Also of interest:
There's room on the shelf for more classroom fiction. Here are a couple of new books that are too cool for school (almost).

THE MAGICAL MS. PLUM by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Amy Portnoy (Knopf) Well, I've gotta hand out the gold star right away for most outstanding and evocative description of a teacher classroom set-up right on the first page, starting with "Ms. Plum had the best class in Springtime Elementary" before any of the kids even set foot in the room. That's the spirit! Ms. Plum isn't worried, because when she sends her students into the supply closet, they emerge with an animal "familiar" who will help guide them to a better version of themselves. A squadron of squirrels helps classmates see that awkward Darma is really someone special, a little donkey inspires Becky to unburden herself of her constant complaints, while a parrot induces Eric to let folks finish their own jokes. The author does a good job of creating tension amidst the formulaic by focusing in on Carlos, who doesn't seem destined to ever get to the supply closet at all. These magical, behavioral modifying vignettes bring to mind Betty MacDonald's 1957 classic MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE with a splash of Sachar's Wayside School. By the author of the bestselling picture book A VISITOR FOR BEAR, this book has high appeal for early chapter book readers who will wonder: what animal would follow me out of the closet? (7 and up)

THE HOMESCHOOL LIBERATION LEAGUE by Lucy Frank (Dial) Katya has come home from summer wilderness camp a changed girl. She has fallen in love, after all, though not with a boy... instead, she has a new passion for nature, which cannot be sated solely in her spare time. She runs away from school the way one might run away from home, and her parents reluctantly allow her to give homeschooling a try. The depiction of the parents is believable as they try to accommodate Katya's yearning toward learning, however, struggle with a the lack of tools to really make it work. Also a standout is the strangely effervescent tone of the writing; where the Katherine Hannigan's pensive, sensitive writing style has for a long time made IDA B the homeschooling queen bee (followed by Spinelli's shining STARGIRL for older readers), Katya will create her own buzz with a voice that has more in common with the writing of Ann Brashares' SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. Well-intentioned, Katya has a manic, impulsive streak, still cares about her circle of friends enough to lie about the "league" that doesn't exist (yet), she has crushes on boys, and makes a marvelous, well-meaning mess of her lesson plans as she and her family learn the hard way to differentiate between homeschooling and unschooling (curious grown-ups can discover the difference by examining Dayna Martin's RADICAL UNSCHOOLING and Nanda Van Gestel's THE UNSCHOOLING UNHANDBOOK and the movie SURFWISE). This book does an outstanding job of not relying on stereotypes of children attending either traditional or alternative schools; Katya has friends happily attending public school, while her homeschooled beau is ready for another path. On a level, this might be less of a school story than a survival story; it's a chronicle of a girl who is trying to defend her own love of learning from being quelled by the shortcomings of a system that has stopped feeding her particular spirit. Many children fantasize about being homeschooled, or going to "regular" school. The grass doesn't seem greener on either side of the fence in this thoughtful book. The message is clear: either way, getting an education is hard-earned...so why not have fun while you earn it! (12 and up)

On a personal note: A love letter to letters
I have to share my own enthusiasm for the subject of "pen-pals" that Clements brings up in his new book. Before finding my passion for children's books, letter-writing was definitely my thing! Sticker collecting was also a hot hobby when I was growing up, and I combined those interests to start a national sticker and pen-pal club called "The Best Friends Sticker Club," where for $5 and six self-addressed stamped envelopes, I would send cheerful newsletters and a handful of cool stickers to add to member collections. The initiative was picked up by the uber-80's-fabulous Stickers & Stuff Magazine (yes, there was a magazine, I even wrote regularly for it as a junior columnist!). My mailman was amazed when I received literally hundreds of beautifully decorated letters a week, pouring out of my little Chicago apartment building mailbox. I was amazed, too! I received hilarious audio tapes from Texas, loving little tokens from friends in California, envelopes written in sweeping, regal calligraphy from New York City, and marveled at a newsletter created by a buddy in Minnesota. By the time I was fourteen, I had hundreds of penpals from every corner, hill and vale of the country, and my little club took up so much of my time that I found it necessary to stay home from school on some days to keep up (thanks to Mom and Dad for being so awfully flexible; I think they must have been homeschoolers at heart).
In high school, I was connected to many friends even farther across the miles through the amazing, now defunct International Youth Service (IYS) (read the comments on this blog for a small taste of what a difference this service made in the lives of so many). There is a lot of lip service given to all that we have in common as people, but nothing brought that truth to light in my childhood the way those letters did. One penpal from the Congo would send me wish-lists, often requesting barrettes; I didn't appreciate her need at the time and fell out of touch, and can only shudder when I think of what her fate might have been, given the nightmarish conditions of her geographic area. A boy from Turkey sent me amazing letters of how he and his friends would torment a teacher by letting animals loose in the classroom. I have kept those letters, and they still make me (and the children I share them with) laugh out loud. After maintaining correspondences through my teenage years, I was able to travel all through Western Europe on my own when I was twenty, staying with my distant "sisters," experiencing lifestyles from the POV of people who really lived there. Later, one of my penpals from India came to live in the United States, eventually earning a Ph.D in molecular biology and becoming my son's godmother and holding a special place in my heart for twenty-five years. What wonderful adventures and friendships I have enjoyed thanks to pen-pals!

The pace of my modern adult life has been too dizzying to write letters they way I used to (and my parents are no longer in a position to write me a note of excuse from work). But even now, as I compose convenient e-mails with a zip and a zap, I know deep down there's a difference between that and trying to say something in your best handwriting, or choosing things from your life to write about with the care of arranging flowers in a bouquet to offer a new friend (though I still do try to do some of that here on this blog). There's something incomparable about seeing that stamp in a corner from a world away, and knowing, just as Sadeed and Abby discover, that you are about to receive something very, very rare and personal. This hobby led me come to appreciate what it means to be a citizen of the world in a whole new way, and taught me that everywhere you go, you are liable to find people that are good. Though IYS is no longer, you and your children can still check out International Pen Friends to start an adventure of your own.

What's the best letter you have ever received? Did you have a penpal growing up? Please share your stories in the comments section!

Hello: Know Other People Poster by Open for ReadyMade Magazine. Rights reserved by artist.
Pictures of stamps, coins and letters from Esmé's collections.
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to
support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Hey, everybody, before we launch into some fabulous new and recent back-to-school books, I have to shout out my good news! It's time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the publication of the real-life diary of my first year of teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, EDUCATING ESMÉ! My publisher has just reissued the book to include a brand new guide I wrote for first year teachers, "Hit the Ground Running," featuring 25 pieces of practical advice and a "new teacher shopping list." The reissue also includes a new foreword by Katherine Paterson, legendary author of classic books such as BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA and THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS and the soon-to-be-released DAY OF THE PELICAN (yes, I know, I'm breathing into a paper bag this very minute about it). In honor of the reissue I will also be launching a separate blog especially for new and high-spirited k-5 teachers, where in the coming weeks there will be conversation about the teaching experience, helpful hints, giveaways, inspiring artwork, links both useful and unique, book recommendations (well, of course!) and probably some things to eat (it's still me, after all). Hope you'll check it out and tell your teacher friends. Meanwhile, what could be a more apropos celebration than a merry stack of new back-to-school recommendations?


MESSING AROUND ON THE MONKEY BARS AND OTHER SCHOOL POEMS FOR TWO VOICES by Betsy Franco, illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Candlewick)
Where did you come from?
Far away.
Miss your friends?
Every day...
How old are you?
Just turned eight.
You like hoops?
Yeah, great.
Got any friends?
Nope, not yet.
Wanna play?
You bet!
The technique of the two-voiced poem have been visited by greats like Paul Fleischman (to award-winning effect in JOYFUL NOISE) and Mary Ann Hoberman (in her cunning choral exercise of the YOU READ TO ME, I'LL READ TO YOU series, supporting emergent readers), and here in this latest offering in that style, a deadly sight has been set against the dreary "round robin" of reading. Lines are in plain and bold type to indicate turns, and are accented by zany, folksy painted illustrations. Besides being fun, these poems are empathetic to the audience and validate the work day of children, whether being slightly behind on an animal report, being distracted by classroom noises in the poem "Whirr, Whirr, Zing, Zap," pushing to the front of the line in "Me and Joe Lining Up After Recess," and maybe empathetic to the work day of the teacher as well ("Our Tired Teacher Must Not Be Listening" might be fun to tuck in teacher's mailboxes on the last Friday of the first week of school). The author kindly offers "adventurous ways to read the poems" at the back of the book, and if I may, I'd like to add the suggestion that in a classroom setting the poems be shared on opaque projector or on overhead transparency, so everybody gets a chance to read. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
More new and relatively recent back-to-school picks that earn an A. And A is for...

THE ANACONDA ATE MY HOMEWORK! by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Aaron Renier (Hyperion) Just look at that cover. Snake guts, and we haven't even opened it yet. You know two boys are having a tug-of-war over it already. When the winner cracks it open, there is a highly graphic-style comic/picture book hybrid of a well-meaning student who experiences a series of dramatic mishaps that make the reader glad if a dog eating homework is the worst that ever happens. Don't worry, though eleven pages behind, our boy Digby eventually earns a reprieve from the President of the United States. The thing about this book is, by the end, it's almost believable. Even in the storytelling canon of cumulative catastrophe such as Remy Charlip's FORTUNATELY (Aladdin), Margery Cuyler's THAT'S GOOD! THAT'S BAD! (Holt) and Trinka Hake Nobel's THE DAY JIMMY'S BOA ATE THE WASH (Puffin), this book feels modern and fresh. Someone definitely did their homework here. (6 and up)

SPLAT THE CAT by Rob Scotton (HarperCollins) "It was early in the morning and Splat was wide awake. Today was his first day at Cat School, and his tail wiggled with worry." First day of school jitters, fie on you! As Splat traverses time, it is clear his fears are absolutely unfounded...in fact, Splat is a hero, giving his cohort a new outlook on mice. The computer-generated black-red-gray illustrations are detailed and hilarious, allowing us to see every hair of the bad hair day, the contagious Cheshire grins of Splat's classmates and the rumple of clothes when hugging mom at the end of a long, exciting day. Last year's release, it deserves a revisit for being laugh-out-loud worthy, as well as a testament to the very real feelings of first grade scaredy-cats. Preview the very funny promotional video here. (5 and up)

IT'S PICTURE DAY TODAY by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson (Atheneum) By the author of the popular Judy Moody series and with artwork that seems inspired by Hanoch Piven, this title is more of a conceptual catalog of art supplies than a story as different bric-a-brac roll in for attendance and arrange themselves nicely for a group photo. It is worth a look, though, because there is potential for extension: surely, we can break out all the leftover craft supplies and have the kids do three dimensional sculptural portraits, culminating in a very artsy "class picture" that you can photograph and use for a darling blog and stationery header. Madame MacDonald is still a great idea woman. (4 and up)

Another collection of poems for back-to-school is STAMPEDE!: POEMS TO CELEBRATE THE WILD SIDE OF SCHOOL by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Steven Salerno (Clarion), introduced with the question, "Is your school a zoo? Which creature are you?" Each poem is a brief comparison between a child and an animal ("The whisper spreads like fire or flu./"Someone has a crush on you!" My cheeks burn hot as a sun-sharp ray./I'm a blazing cardinal, winging away.") The child with a grumbling stomach is a starving bear coming out of hibernation, and someone else is a skunk...maybe you can guess why! Being lost in the halls is akin to being a mouse in a maze. The awkward girl on picture day feels like a caterpillar, but dad knows there's a butterfly inside. Salerno's slick, colorful sketches, like the children, aren't afraid of sliding outside the lines. This collection, though slightly slim, stands to remind us that while we're all different, we're in this menagerie together. Children can come up with their own similes to tame the wild feelings of self-consciousness, shyness and shortcomings that school can evoke. For more animal fun, pair with the class pet poems of Judy Sierra in THERE'S A ZOO IN ROOM 22 (Harcourt). (7 and up)

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's new "Lunch Lady" series, LUNCH LADY AND THE LEAGUE OF LIBRARIANS, LUNCH LADY AND THE CYBORG SUBSTITUTE and the promising, soon-to-be-released LUNCH LADY AND THE AUTHOR VISIT VENDETTA (Knopf) is the next big thing being served up nice and hot. Tons of comic-book frames barely contain all the action as Lunch Lady lives up to her motto: "Serving justice! And serving lunch!" Fans of the intermediate graphic novel format of Jenni Holm's BABYMOUSE series will like what's on the menu, and find its bumblebee-colored palette poses no gender-specific limits of appeal. All the cool teachers will have it ready in their classroom libraries this fall. (See? Peer pressure not so easy, is it?) And if you want to start an author food fight in your library, you'll also want to include True Kelley's SCHOOL LUNCH (Holiday House), which, like meatloaf, is an oldie but goodie. (7 and up)

Another series pick of the season is JUNIE B'S ESSENTIAL SURVIVAL GUIDE TO SCHOOL by Barbara Park (Random House). If you still do not like Junie B. Jones, I can only presume you never heard the series on audio, read by Lana Quintal. Never a grammarian's delight, Junie B. books are still the masterclass of colloquial voice, and that is still the case in this non-fiction how-to parody written by the irreverent first grade expert. From "The Heaviest Stuff in Your Backpack":

A BAD NOTE from your teacher feels like you are carrying a hugie-big Hippo-pot-of-something. And a hugie big pot-of-something is a heavy load, I tell you!...BUT...A BAD REPORT CARD is the HEAVIEST LOAD OF ALL! Because A BAD REPORT CARD feels like you are carrying a whole entire ELEPHANT in your backpack! (And THAT cannot be good for your spine.)"

Informative sections like "Getting Bossed Around (Some of the bossy bosses who will boss you)," "How to Stay Out of Trouble (possibly)," "Getting Smiley (New Friends and Other Happy Stuff)" and pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about water fountains but were afraid to ask (be very afraid) will surely assist reluctant readers in getting back in the groove, or at least getting the giggles. Spiral bound silly succulence, every child deserves Junie's helpful hints as a little back-to-school present. (7 and up)

And while Junie B. is definitely written with an audience of kids in mind, there's a couple of children's books I would love to read to parents on the first day of school:
GO HOME, MRS. BEEKMAN! by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Marsha Gray Carrington (Dutton)

"Forever!" bellowed Emily. "Every day forever!"
"All right," declared Mrs. Beekman. "I'll stay."
"Do you pro-o-omise?" asked Emily...
"I promise," vowed Mrs. Beekman. "And a promise is a promise. I'll stay at school for a million gazillion years with my Emily right on my lap."

An accommodating mom stays in the classroom for a little while as her daughter gets over her first-day jitters, and then spirals marvelously out of control, hiding as an undercover coat rack, disguising herself as a show-and-tell project, and entering via helicopter in order to be there day after day. For all the zaniness of the situation, the dialogue remains completely believable, and what's more, the back-and-forth is a pleasure to read-aloud, which is no small authorial feat. Also impressive is the ability to create a sympathetic portrait of all the characters: a well-meaning mother trying to keep a promise, an embarrassed child, and a teacher who is working hard to earn the trust she knows she deserves. Mommy's maddening good intentions wear out her welcome quickly, and the little girl finally has to lay it on the line: "But mommy, school is for children. We can have a really good time together at home when school is over." This book handles a sensitive subject with great kindness, and celebrates the ability of children to adapt well to new situations, regardless of how much they hide under the covers that first morning. A sleeper gem (that would be funnier if I haven't met a few real Mrs. Beekmans). (6 and up)

You wouldn't know from the cover that BEST BABY EVER by David Milgrim (Putnam) was a back-to-school book, but it sure is! See baby laugh! See baby talk (and talk and talk and talk)! "See Baby walk! Walk, Baby, Walk! See Mommy and Daddy get the camera!" See baby make his first friend! But hold up here..."Look! Baby is getting on a bus! See baby go to school. See baby wave bye-bye. See Mommy and Daddy cry like two babies." This tender, unassuming little picture book gets everything right: simple illustrations are evocative of baby's innocence, but clearly convey that baby is confidently growing up from page to page, and there is great humor in the child recognizing this more than the adult. An abundance of exclamation points befit this extraordinary time of change and surprise and delight, as well as the shock of how fast it goes. Preschool teachers, be sure to share with the parents plastered against the window (as depicted on the last page of the book as well). (3 and up)

Back-to-school intermediate fiction coming soon, stay tuned! But if you need extra-credit pronto, there are more PlanetEsme picks at Back-to-School Read Aloud Redux I and Back to School Read-Aloud Redux II, and be sure to visit the thematic back-to-school Carnival of Children's Literature hosted by In Need of Chocolate for great books recommended from all over the blogosphere.

Happy September, everyone!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.


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