Thursday, August 06, 2020

COVID-19 Can-Do: Three Unorthodox Things We Can Do to Improve Equity and Engagement in Remote Teaching Right Now

artwork by Jean Marc Cote

I am a K-8 teacher-librarian with the Chicago Public Schools.  I went to an online training early on in the COVID-19 outbreak to learn how to produce basic video content in which the instructor said, "just put up your green screen..."  Green screen?!  Oh, yes, let me go grab that, right behind the shock mount for my boom and my three-point lighting kit.  Did I leave that behind the toaster oven?

Though I would say most teachers did the requisite excellent and overly-practiced job of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear this past spring, it's a struggle to have real equity when teachers have varying experience, comfort and training in not only creating content for online instruction but producing it, as well as varying levels of bandwith and access to equipment in their homes (not unlike the students).  What, then, outside of mastering the magical mysteries of myriad screens, can we as teachers and instructional leaders do to ensure quality educational experiences for all students in the time of COVID-19?  

1. Make your "specials" classes your core curriculum.


The great (if uncertified) teacher Auntie Mame says, "life is a banquet, and some poor suckers are starving to death."  How are we setting our academic table?  Kids cannot live by bread alone.  We have the chance to examine the failures in engagement of the past season and correct them with the classes that are the spice of life.


To that end: we don't need fewer specials during this special time, we need more, more, more. Art. Music. Physical Education. Library. Drama. Technology. Turn it all over, give these teachers and subjects unprecedented leadership and time.  Arrange your school's schedule around them, the way you used to schedule math and reading.  Last spring, a lot of these classes fell to the wayside  to prioritize "core classes" in terror that students should "lose time" to the COVID-19 slide. What if students should drop in academic achievement?  Insert pearl-clutch here. The worst that could happen by reversing curricular priorities is that students will do as poorly as everyone expects on standardized tests for a year or two. The best: the discovery of passions. Lifelong learning.


And you should expect the best.  The approaches of these "special" classes necessitate quick engagement and transitions and are often project-based, exactly what students need during crisis learning.  This is where the children will move and create.  This is where there is room to be developmentally appropriate while we have kids looking at screens too much of the day. These "specials" teachers are used to seeing every kid in the school over a period of years, and can integrate the hell out of whatever you're teaching, just tell them...and trust them. 


Examine your biases about these subjects and let them go. "Specials" can't be relegated to extras, incidentals, prep periods any longer.  The stringency of subject areas defined a century ago needs to die.  Invent some new special classes that would be exciting to try online: environmental education, media literacy, armchair travel geography, financial literacy, film history!  Bring back home economics, foreign languages and shop class! If you don't have special classes at your school, enlist teachers to integrate these subjects into the core (some already do). 


Exuberance aside: this is not a minor detail in terms of creating educational equity.  You think families in rich suburban schools and private schools consider art or music or a library an "extra?"  Parents with resources are engaging their children in wonderful online pay-to-play opportunities like Outschool (to their credit, Outschool offered scholarships and reduced rates during the initial outbreak).  People who want to give their children an advantage know the edge that "specials" deliver.  While everyone's heads are turned by the distractions of disaster, up the equity ante for the underserved by being seriously extra in your curriculum.


2. Get great children's literature in the hands of great children.

If you want to maximize elementary school learning and minimize loss during this time and any time, read-aloud to your child consistently every day from children's trade literature and make print matter available.  Period. 

I have said and written that access to children's trade literature (the kind of books found in libraries and bookstores) coupled with the best practice of read-aloud is our best hope for equalizing education in America.  Why?  Because a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child.  Access to books has been proven to be as important an indicator as parent's educational level in determining a student's chances for academic success.  
I wrote a whole book about becoming a supporting character in a child's reading life story, to ensure that if schools fail, your children don't have to. You can also scroll through over a decade of children's book recommendations here.

I have written in a preface to one of my annual lists of book recommendations for children
Books in thoughtful combination are an education in themselves...I can only imagine how a child who experiences these titles will be changed, and change is the definition of learning.  Through what new lenses will the child view the world after experiencing this art?  What biographies will inspire them, what mentors will fly through space and time to scaffold their dreams and efforts?  How will they view and understand the natural world?  What new friends will they find inside books that will inform them to know how to connect and empathize with people outside of books?  What will make them laugh, cry, think?   
A child who discovers the magic of reading will never be as lonely or bored as the child who has not.  That meant a lot on an average day.  During quarantine, it means even more.

Let's take a moment to talk books. Are they all created equal? The crisis has led many teachers and students, understandably and necessarily, to turn to digital resources including ebooks.  However, studies have shown that readers of printed books have a cognitive developmental advantage over readers of e-books. Home libraries have a "very substantial effect on educational attainment."  That means children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds (in this country, about 1 in 6) relegated to free school e-book collections and limited public library access alone may be getting a separate but equal reading opportunity. 

One thing we can do as a country to promote access to print books for all children would be to insist that catalogs, in order to be eligible for bulk rate through the U.S. Post Office, contain a certain percentage of pages dedicated to reading material at the end of them, at least through the course of this pandemic.  Graphic novels, serials, favorites...can you imagine how children would hop up and down at the arrival of the Pottery Barn catalog if a few pages of a Raina Telgemeier or Dog Man were attached?  This will ensure that all children with an address have access to reading material.  The U.S. Post Office has a long and magnificent history of disseminating necessary information through the mail.  This crisis could usher in a new age of appreciation of the agency as it delivers educational equity to children when it is so sorely needed.


For children who do not have an address (unfortunately a demographic of poverty predicted to grow in the coming months and years), we must more aggressively and publicly fund Little Free Libraries.  Right now, most of these libraries are cute and expensive and privately set up, but they need to be recognizable and ubiquitous, the way we have post office mailboxes.


Lastly, look at this plan from the Chicago Public Schools for Instructional Priorities for the 2020-21 school year, a thoughtful descriptor of expectations of the coming year. Do you know else what they are describing?



They are describing a school library with a program run by a trained school librarian to a T, actually.  Yet now, during the COVID-19 outbreak, there are only about 100 librarians in the Chicago Public School system for over 600 schools, i.e. about 100 librarians for over 350,000 students, even though research from 34 state studies suggests undeniable correlation between staffed school libraries and student achievement.  That means a system with over 75% economically disadvantaged students, a system with over 80% Black and Hispanic children, have a 1 in 6 chance of having a school librarian. I am calling out my own city,  but this is hardly the anomaly in urban areas across the country.

During COVID-19 and in the years of recovery to come, this blatant disparity will only serve to widen the gap of achievement and all of the economic opportunity that it ultimately affords. So I'd hazard to say, if you are privileged by your race and/or your tax bracket and/or your zip code and your child goes to a school with a school librarian, you have work to do outside of putting a sign on your front lawn.  Equity in education is part of showing, not telling, Black Lives Matter, and school libraries are equity in education in action. So let's make sure we advocate loudly for the advantage that school libraries deliver and that some children receive while others do not.  If children's books are our best hope for equalizing education for all children we need school libraries to deliver them. 


3.  Train parents first.


Just as experienced teachers know the first week is when you can really set the tone for the classroom, in the context of COVID, rather than diving into assignments and protocols with the children, the first week might be better spent dedicated to helping parents to support learning in the home, patiently walking through how to log in, how to find assignments, how to know when they are due, how to communicate with the teachers, how to create a positive physical space in the home conducive to learning, how to juggle the needs of many children in one household with limited computer access.  Answering these kind of logistical questions, and making answers available in the home language, will contribute to equity and confidence.

Think back to March.  
Oh, the panic.  How much of this do we have to do? Where do they turn it in?  Why is it taking so long to do?  If the work is finished early, what are they supposed to do? What if I don't have a job, or childcare, or someone is sick? Is the teacher looking at my messy apartment?  What if other children need the computer?  What if I need the computer?  What if the computer breaks or I can't get a connection?  What if I have to be at work and my child runs into a problem on the computer?  What if I can't get my child to sit in front of the computer?  What if I don't have a computer?  How will that affect the grade?  Will my child be held back?  But by far, the most common question I heard from shocked, overwhelmed parents when the schools closed: "does this count?" If it doesn't count for the grade, why should my child do it?  The grade, the grade, the grade, icing the towering, dreadful COVID cake is the grade, in the face of, well, death and illness and job loss, here we are, still worried about the grade.

And after responsibly giving attention to the grade in the face of all this, a sense of entitlement may start to creep in, and parents may find themselves frustratingly thwarted by teachers; turns out, working for a long time is not necessarily meeting a standard, busy is not necessarily the same as learning, and every time your child raises a hand or turns something in, it may not result in an "A" (though your child may still be a good and successful person in the long run nonetheless). What counts, then?  What counts?  

Many parents are terrified, it seems, of failure in a time when it seems all systems are failing; when many of us, as adults, are working without economic or health care safety nets in a time of crisis. Some parents, faced with a high level of necessary school involvement, are heavily projecting their own childhood anxieties around school and performance.  Completely understandable.


It is fair to suggest assessments and accommodations may look different during COVID, and parents need to know this.  Letter grades during COVID have already proven intrinsically inequitable because everyone's situation is so different.  We can start by underscoring the big, basic, new-to-many idea that participation can "count" and matter even when it is not graded. 

Better-communicated expectations, affirmations and real partnership can do so much to alleviate deeply personal parental insecurities surrounding academic failure coupled with situational stress and depression that can result in clashes with teachers and family members. A climate in which adults are mutually respectful is always in the interest of children. It doesn't always happen, but it's something to strive for. 

Parents are not professional educators, but they are always in a role of model and always positioned to foster a relationship with the child that can either cultivate or stifle positive values and attitudes toward learning. In the context of claustrophobic COVID, this role is newly pronounced and overwhelming and parents often need extra reassurances and clarification. This is not the Hunger Games, we're all in the same boat, a lack of play dates is unpleasant and potentially maddening but not fatal (while the disease potentially is), and the teachers you may disparage today will still make sure your kids have the skills they need tomorrow. 

If we don't handle climate on the front end, we will all suffer for the rest of the year. So let's take the time to inservice parents respectfully as partners in their children's education by like giving them a leg up, sharing pedagogical insights for survival that we would afford any first-year teacher.  Some may be instinctive, others not.

Parents need to learn, as new teachers do, that there are good days and bad days, and that an education is the sum of many parts.  One bad day is not the end of the world. Forgive yourself and others and keep going.


As new teachers do, parents need to turn focus from whether they are succeeding to whether the child is succeeding, and accept that some portion of challenge or even failure is often necessary for growth. 

As new teachers do, parents need to learn to break tasks down into small steps and be generous and genuine in celebrating steps toward mastery, both to encourage the child and themselves.

They need to see, as new teachers see, that the most effective behavior management comes from engaging children in interests and relevancy, not negative consequences. 


As new and effective teachers do, parents need to examine their own enthusiasms and skill sets to determine what they really have to share as human beings and then realize that lifelong learning comes from the relationship implicit in that sharing, not from any worksheet or app divorced from the context of that relationship.


Parents then need to be encouraged to value, without belittlement, whatever it is they have to share, whether it's the theory of relativity or long division, or how to enjoy a book, or cooking soup, or playing "Chopsticks" on a piano, or growing flowers, or making change for a dollar, or making a bed, or telling a joke, or braiding hair, or speaking another language, or locating the Big Dipper, or simply how to be brave even when things aren't really going your way. 


Most of all, parents need to learn, as teachers invariably do, that if the child doesn't have have mental and physical health, if the child doesn't feel safe, if the child is tired or hungry, it's hard or impossible to deliver any content at all.  And if what a parent can do on a given day is take care of these needs, set the expectation that their child participate in whatever the teacher has arranged for them as best they can, if they stop at the library or tell a story or even just love that child in a way that lets them know, guess what, that's the job description, that's an A.  That's what counts right now.  Maybe it always has been what counted. And if you know of a child whose parents can't provide this, maybe they can start counting on you.  


This may be the end of the age of fallacies that upheld a status quo.  The big assignment now is that we invent ourselves.  The children are so bravely growing and doing this work every day, with or without us.  Refreshed curriculum that invites art, movement, handiwork, the chance to read and some sanity in their inner circle will go far to support this work, preserve the humanity of the children we serve and keep our influence positive, even in the face of our own trials. 


I leave you with a short film that made a big impact on me in imagining a new school year.  Thank you, Liv McNeil.  


I look forward to knowing what you imagine, in the comments section and elsewhere.


Stay well and happy reading, friends. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

HELPFUL HINTS FOR A SANE READING QUARANTINE FROM A SCHOOL LIBRARIAN

Art by Garth Williams, 1948 from Wait Till the Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown

Some helpful hints for parents as you begin your COVID-19 homeschooling adventure:

PLEASE TURN ON THE CLOSED CAPTIONING FEATURE ON YOUR COMPUTER/TELEVISION!!!
It is anticipated that most families will be having a little more screen time than usual during the quarantine.  By turning on this feature when your child watches a show, you are ensuring important exposure to print even when your child is not reading a book.  Please!  This is a small thing to do that can make a big difference...it's a great way to painlessly increase a child's sight word vocabulary and reading fluency!

YOU DON'T HAVE TO REPLICATE THE SCHOOL EXPERIENCE TO HAVE AN EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE.
Filling the days with piles of worksheets and assignments will likely bore your child and create conflict. Keep in mind, many children can get a lot more done in less time working at home, where there are fewer bathroom breaks and transitions between classes and peer distractions.  Children learn from relationships.  Teach your child to make scrambled eggs or walk them through a family recipe.  Play board games.  Work on tying shoes.  Read aloud.  Interview an elder.  Write letters to friends.  Plant a windowsill garden.  Learn a craft on YouTube together.  Watch a classic movie together (suggestions to come). Build indoor forts, or models, or cardboard box dollhouses.  Whatever you can do is enough, whatever you have can be enough.  Don't stress.  This can be a positive and memorable time just by being as present as possible. Find your own flow and put the mental and physical health of your family first.

MOVE THE SCREENS WHERE YOU CAN SEE CHILDREN USING THEM AND PRACTICE CYBERSAFETY.
The internet has rich offerings during this time but also potential pitfalls.  Have a conversation about screen time and phone use at the outset.  Especially with older kids, come up with a plan you can agree upon and a cut-off time for phone usage to avoid conflict as the days wear on.  While we don't want to isolate children during the quarantine, we also don't want them to develop poor habits.  Increased unsupervised online activity can also be a recipe for exposure to inappropriate thematic content or contact with inappropriate strangers or online bullies.  Check histories, activate filters and put screens where activity can be monitored.

TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT THE NEWS.  In middle school library classes, we have been talking about citing sources and the credibility of what we read, where information comes from and considering the viability of who is speaking or writing.  Who do we believe?  What makes information fact and what makes something an opinion?  Use the news that the children encounter online and on television to continue that conversation and to mitigate fears during this stressful time.

ENCOURAGE JOURNALING.  Children can keep a personal diary of life during this time or make a daily family newspaper.  Remember, this is an unprecedented time.  Remind kids they are living the history we read about.  Their stories matter and will matter.

GIVE YOUR CHILD THE RECESS WE CAN'T.  Your child loves, craves and needs physical activity.  Because of mandates of the way time is spent during a school day, we can't give them the long recess they developmentally deserve.  You can.  Long, long walks and bike rides are encouraged while keeping social distancing. It will help focus and mood.  Recognizing that many parents work; do it as you're able.

IT'S OKAY TO BE A LITTLE BORED.  While it is helpful to have art supplies and books and resources within your child's reach, it is not your job as a parent to fill and schedule every moment.  A little down-time fosters creativity, imagination and autonomy...and reading!  Speaking of...

MAKE READING DURING THE QUARANTINE ABOUT CHOICE, NOT LEVELS.
Comic books are real reading.  Sports magazines are real reading.  Cookbooks are real reading.  Books on tape are real listening (and reading, if you get a copy of read along).  Picture books are real reading and promote visual literacy.  Read-aloud across the grade levels is one of the most academically beneficial things you can do for your child during this and any time.  Even when your child knows how to read, reading aloud with your child following along in the book (you can run your fingers under the word as you read) does wonders and also fosters positive connections with books and with you. Additional and specific book recommendation blasts from the recent past I have recommended to my own students may be found herehere and here, and on my personal children's book review website you're reading right here, but again, access to specific titles is going to differ from house to house during the quarantines and there are no wrong choices.  Your assignment:  read what you have and read for fun.

SET REASONABLE GOALS IN READING AND ALL THINGS.  Try a Book Bingo (sample card here, but tons from which to choose).  Or create a reading batting average (picture book = single, nonfiction = double, chapter book = triple, classic finished as a family = home run; use the sport of your choice and the categories of your choice).  Or, how many award-winners (or any genre) can you read?   Small, attainable steps toward a goal or open-ended achievements build confidence.

ADDITIONAL HOMESCHOOLING ONLINE RESOURCES below!  Try not to be overwhelmed; remember, you don't have to do them all or any of them at all, they are tools to be used if needed.  An "assignment" might be for children themselves to explore five a day and write "reviews."

Free Reading Websites for Kids




Starfall (good for primary, some free, some premium)


ABCYA!  (online reading games)



General



(Whoa!  Brought to us by kidsactivitiesblog.com)

(Arts courses.  Ms. Esme takes a class here!  Good for older kids)

(recipes and information from every country in the world!)




Homeschooling on Pinterest

AND ON A PERSONAL NOTE:
When I wrote How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, it was with the heartfelt, almost religious belief that children's trade literature and read-aloud was our best hope for equalizing education. I wanted to give every family the tools to be a supporting character in a child's reading life story, no matter what their socioeconomic background might be.  It was marketed as a parenting book, but it really, it came from my lesson plan book.  I have been a fifth grade teacher, a homeschooling mom and now a K-8 school librarian with the Chicago Public Schools for over a dozen years. I still know quality children's literature has the potential to give every child a solid elementary education, in or out of the school building.  You can temporarily access this book for free during the COVID-19 crisis here.  

Teachers, librarians and parents are all partners in education. The closing of schools is a call to cooperation.  I hope this guide and PlanetEsme, which has been recommending books since 1999 and offers hundreds of free book reviews right here via this blog, will be useful, inspiring and empowering to you and your family during this challenging time.  

Wishing you health and the enjoyment of books and one another from my home to yours.
XOXO Esme

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

You Don't Have to Be Jewish

It has unfortunately recently come to my attention during the course of a six hour workshop about diversity in children's literature by a high-profile and impactful sponsor, no books representing Jewish people were included.  My understanding is that when a participant questioned the exclusion, it was pointed out that the recommendations also did not include obsese or old people, either; time was limited, not every group can be included.

Well, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that happened in Pittsburgh less than a year ago didn't happen because people were obese.  And the attack on the San Diego synagogue this spring wasn't because people were old.  I appreciate that not every religious group can be represented at book recommendation events, but the timing of such exclusions is questionable. If any other racial or ethnic group marginalized in our history were excluded from the lists at the same time that mass marches were actively happening to call for their eradication byWhite Supremacist and other hateful groups, well, what would you call that?  Poor timing?  Outrageous?  Or something else?


Tzivia MacLeod has written a very brave article, Dear Diversity: Are Jews Allowed? which references another separate scenario of exclusion.  


Respectfully, to professionals: please. Find the room, find the time.  Whether Jewish or not, inclusion of this literature in collection development conversations is more than religious representation.  It's respectful acknowledgement of the backgrounds of some of the most seminal contributors to the genre:  Maurice Sendak, the Reys, The Hobans, The Zemachs, Judith Viorst, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, R.L. Stine, Judith Kerr, Julius Lester,  Mordicai Gerstein to name a very few. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that Jewish American contribution is American history, extending broadly and meaningfully into the secular American world.   But more than that, as is the battle cry of diversity in children's literature:  all children deserve to see themselves represented on the shelves.  Further, all children deserve access to quality literature that reflects people different from themselves.  Holes in collection diversity are holes in preparing students for encounters with the human diversity that with any luck and effort will demarcate the 21st century as much as any technology, so if you have no Jewish kids at your school, you need Jewish children's books even more. If you are a teacher or librarian and you do not have books representing Jewish people in your collection, there is a lack in the diversity of your collection.


So, what's the fix? 


The first thing to do is probably get acquainted with The Sydney Taylor Award list, which is kind of like a Jewish Newbery given by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL).  A committee of professionals determine "outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience," not unlike the Coretta Scott King Award and Pura Belpré award for their respective representations.  The authors and illustrators do not have to be Jewish to receive the Sydney Taylor award. The AJL has a handy annotated list of all winners since the award's inception in 1968, which is an education in itself. 


A less extensive but very thoughtful list is the Love Your Neighbor:  AJL Recommends Jewish Books for All Readers compilation (full discloure: one of my books, Vive la Paris, now out-of-print, appears on this list, and has also received a Sydney Taylor Honor). These titles can be organically integrated into character education programming.  One of my favorite articles I have read is "Is The Rainbow Fish Jewish?" by Heidi Estrin.  Written for Jewish educators, it is a powerful testament to the overlapping of values found in vibrant children's literature to be embraced by many faiths. Rachel Kamin, an esteemed and active AJL committee member and reviewer, along with her colleagues, compiled a beautiful and extensive list of Jewish Stars:  Recommended Books with Jewish Themes for Schools and Libraries that deserves the attention of anyone adding Jewish identity to the diversity of their collections.  And the Book of Life is a long-running, fun and informative podcast hosted by Heidi Rabinowitz for anyone interested in Jewish literature for young people.  


I am the lucky librarian in a racially, ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse school in Chicago and am acutely aware of the balancing act between presenting diversity and separation of church (and synagogue and mosque) and state.  But the bottom line is, a good story belongs to everybody.  These are just a few titles I personally use successfully in my programming over the years with the children I serve. I hope you will share yours in the comments section.




All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.  The name Sydney Taylor comes up a lot in conversations about Jewish children's literature because she was "the first children's author to write books about Jewish people that were read by mainstream America" (Cummins, 2014). She started the series in 1951, a chummy plum of realistic fiction that finally depicted Jewishness as a matter-of-fact in the course of the daily adventures. To me, it's kind of like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 of Jewish literature.  Throughout, there's feeling that family is the world, but the rest of the world is still there, too. For better or worse. 


Taylor also was pioneering in the way she wrote about urban life, a family crowded into a small apartment, relatable to many of my students.  The exciting, funny, emotional, episodic chapters are devour-able, thank goodness she wrote more than one. Fans of old-fashioned book candy a la Beverly Cleary and Betsy-Tacy series will rejoice.  The series holds up like a good TCM movie: classic. 




King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak is the story of a boy king who rules over a country of children while the grown-ups make a mess of their own.  By page two of a read-aloud, my fifth graders were hooked.  Whether being in the trenches of war with his foul-mouthed roughneck bestie Felek, building life-sized dolls to fool his jealous advisors, trying to ingratiate himself through dispersal of chocolate or traveling the world to find an unlikely guest for his meeting of a children's parliament, this book is a masterwork of cliffhangers.  It also contains some of the most nuanced, profound and entertaining characters in children's literature.  Popular as Peter Pan in parts of Europe, it is largely unknown here in the states, which is a great loss to be ameliorated.


Korczak's real life story is legendary, and ultimately tragic.  He was a Polish pediatrician during WWII who ran orphanages in Warsaw (and really did try an innovative children's parliament as described in the book in that setting).  Korczak had many opportunities to escape the Nazis but elected to stay with his charges, and died with them at Treblinka.  Every time I read this book, I can feel Korczak loving those children and trying to prepare them for the difficulties of this imperfect world.  He wrote and read aloud these words as a gift to the children he loved, children he was trying to distract from suffering with the joy and excitement of these great adventures. And now, almost a hundred years later, the words can come from your lips to the children you care about, and they still work their magic.  A miraculous legacy of read-aloud. 




Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Issac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Written by the master storyteller, my students have thrilled and laughed raucously to this read-aloud, favorites being "Fool's Paradise," the story of a family who tricks a bridegroom into believing he has died and gone to Heaven in order to help him appreciate his life on Earth; "The First Shlemiel" which is a slapstick series of events gone wrong with culminating hilarity and forgiveness; and then the cover story, Zlateh the Goat, in which a goat saves a boy's life in a winter's storm.  There is also "The Snow in Chelm," an introductory story to the town in literature that is famous for its wise fools, though exploration of this may be better served in Singer's wider collection, Stories for Children.   To introduce children to Singer's work is to introduce children to truly graceful narrative and a gentle view of humanity.  



 

Less gentle but just as important: The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy.  If the only books that represent Jewish people in your collection take place during the Holocaust, that would be as much of a mistake as only representing African Americans in the context of slavery.  That said, it is an important chapter in history shared by all humankind, and there are some remarkable children's books set against this backdrop.  Two of the finest are, inexcusably, out of print, one of them being The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel, a brilliant translator and author whose own family escaped Vienna during the war.  She does such a resonating job of depicting the painful cleaving of a friendship between Jewish Inge and Leiselotte, daughter of a Jewish S.S. officer.  It is easy for children today to imagine the strain between the two friends, and the ultimate loss.


"In 1945 the war ended.  the Germans surrendered and the ghetto was liberated.  Out of over a quarter of a million people,  about 800 walked out of the ghetto.  Of those who survived, only twelve were children.  I was one of those twelve."  Yellow Star was written by the niece of one of these twelve, composing the unthinkable story into an accessible verse memoir that does the honest and tricky work of presenting what really happened to the Jewish people during World War II while still being readable and appropriate with guidance for middle-grade readers.  A masterful introduction, and in tandem with The Devil in Vienna, they do highly effectual work in teaching students about the human experience in this most inhumane context. 





Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Hershel has agreed to spend eight nights in the synagogue and rid the town of Ostropol from the goblins plaguing their Hanukkah celebrations. Part ghost story, part holiday story, and decorated with both hilarious and beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Caldecott-winning Trina Schart Hyman,  this is the favorite, favorite,  favorite annual classic read-aloud for my second grade; I show the children menorahs, dreidels and chocolate gelt to allow children who are not Jewish to understand the objects referenced, and then we all play dreidel, dance the hora and draw pictures of our own goblins.  This is what I mean when I say story belongs to everybody.   More mystical Jewish fun may also be found in reprint of the classic The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches by Marilyn Hirsh, one of my own childhood favorites.  




You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Carillho, is the story of the great New York Dodgers pitcher so dedicated to his faith that he would not come to the mound during the 1965 World Series on the highest Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even in the face of great discrimination. Biographies are a great place to start with sharing Jewish history and identity, and they can be read aloud across the grade levels.  Besides, there are so many good ones: I Dissent:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley;  Brave Girl:  Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet; Sholom's Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein; Through the Window:  Views of Marc Chagall's Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpré; Write on, Irving Berlin!:  How An Immigrant Boy Made America Sing by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardener, to name a very few, many more cited on the lists referenced above and out there in the world, including one of my very favorites: 

  

Emma's Poem by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, the wonderful story of Emma Lazarus and how she came to compose the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus," which famously begins, "Give me your titred, your poor, your huddled masses/yearning to breathe free..."  Every young citizen deserves to know this story and that a Jewish woman is behind this national invitation.  It is a great story to begin a school year with, but also perfect for integration into units about immigration which also often happen around Thanksgiving, an occasion to read another Jewish classic, Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, though I usually elect instead to share the Oscar-winning video adaptation of the book, a little pricey but worth it and along the lines of Eleanor Estes' masterpiece The Hundred Dresses as far as fodder for discussion of bigotry and empathy.  Here is the trailer:




Finally, Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, which I share with children just because it is a book I happen to love.  In an effort to show gratitude to his God, Benny hides bagels in the Holy Ark of the temple.  The bagels disappear, and Benny's grandfather is outraged at the sacrilege.  But where are the bagels actually going?  This tear-jerker is about the connection between people's idea of God and the more earthly ideas of gratitude and service, the idea of tikkun olam, acts of kindness performed that honor and are in keeping with one's faith; like the Golden Rule, a concept embraced by caring people of all religions and all non-religions, and certainly by children.




By sharing these kind of stories, children will learn important words like "synagogue," "rabbi," "mazel tov," "mitzvah," "Shabbos,"even latke and dreidel, vocabulary that I do not believe will invite conversion any more than reading a book about a child in a hijab will make someone a Muslim or seeing an illustration of a Christmas tree will make someone a Christian, but it will in fact allow children to navigate in a friendly, knowledgeable, tolerant and compassionate manner amongst people of a particular group who may be different in some way from themselves. I would think that would be a general objective for the education of all children.  

To suggest "well, we also didn't include people who are heavy" when talking about limiting our conversations about diversity is unfortunately an utterly nonsensical answer; think of it being offered to any other racial or ethnic group.  It is logically flawed.  An old person used to be young, and a heavy or thin person might change their weight, but regardless of religious practice, Jewish heritage is part of an unchangeable identity. As sure as African American, Native American, Latinx or Asian people have unhappy stories of American aggression and "otherness," so do Jewish people. And in conversations about diversity in children's literature and allowing children to see themselves reflected in the literature they read, to exclude Jewish children's literature, particularly at this juncture of revisited history, is irresponsible at best and a form of ethnic erasure at worst. It is especially ugly juxtaposed with the publishing world's flood of salable, sometimes platitude-filled pablum about empathy.  Kindness is as kindness does, and the word is a living thing.  Read and develop collections with g'milut chasadim, or loving kindness, in deed as well as in mind.  My wish for the Jewish New Year.  

Monday, January 21, 2019

Thirty One-derful Children's Picture Books to Start the New Year: Best of 2018

Research suggests strongly that more children's books in the home can do so much to eradicate the effects of other disadvantages. And when we know they aren't in the home,  we need to bring the very best to the home away from home: the classroom.  In other words, children's books continue to be our brightest hope for educational equity, and the more quality picks on the shelves, the merrier.  

This speaks to the magic of collection building.  One good book is transformative. But there is something about the relationship of books on a shelf, next to each other. The arrangement is like neurons firing, from one to another; every connection matters.  I think of the yearly round-up as its own special collection; if a child were to read all these books in the course of a year, how would they be changed in what they know, in how they act, in what they value?  How would they form relationships to books, authors, illustrators, each other?  Because that's all real learning boils down to: content, change and relationship, and these selections will foster growth in all those areas.  Books are chosen with read-aloud, classroom use, kid-appeal and excellence in writing and illustration top of mind. Here we go, thirty-one in honor of every day of the first month of the New Year!

First, my picks for the highest award in American children's book illustration, The Caldecott Medal

My fingers-are-crossed hope for this year is that all the Caldecott Awards go to books that represent Latinos, because this year,  it just so happens all of these books absolutely deserve to win and also just so happen to feature Latino characters.  



In Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Candlewick), young Julián observes gorgeous costumed mermaids en route to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and naturally this unleashes his fantasy of joining them.  He imitates them with an elaborate and imaginative homemade costume.  Will this meet with his grandmother's disapproval?  While this is a powerful story of unconditional love that every child deserves to read (and experience), I confess it is my favorite because it is just so beautiful.  SO BEAUTIFUL.  The cover is charming, yes, but when you crack it open...WHAT! Those lines.  The flow.  The colors.  It's DREAMY.  It's LUCIOUS!  And the endpapers.  I've been giving a lot more attention to endpapers during story times since illustrators seem to be giving them more attention of late as well.  Sometimes they are wrapping paper for the gift of the book and other times they are a bonus gift, as is the case here: a row of grandmothers at a swim class with Julian under the surface, and finishing with the same grandmothers as mermaids with our victorious hero in tow.  Intergenerational, urban and urbane, developmentally appropriate and reflective, loving, LGBQT friendly and celebratory of All Things Imagination, this book makes a major splash.




In Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick), Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela wonders why she has such an unwieldy moniker and learns that her name was inspired by a conglomeration of relatives worth remembering, each of whom is introduced here.  There is a piece of each of these ancestors that lives on in Alma, combining to make her one of a kind.  The uncluttered and refined line illustrations bring to mind children's book masters of the past (think Martha Alexander). Mostly I am so excited by the potential for classroom conversations this will inspire about names and relatives and how who we are can have so much to do with where we come from.   This book invites family, ancestry and pride.  




Dreamers by Yuyi Morales (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) is based on the real immigrant experience of Mexican author Yuyi Morales and her young son.  It does an sensitive job of depicting the foibles of someone making a way in a new country and offers one of the most impactful visual celebrations of the power of reading and libraries for anyone trying to find their place in a culture. The illustrations among the bookshelves pay tribute to the titles that transformed the Morales' lives and earn this book a place in the collection of every and any children's book enthusiast.   The Caldecott is not a prize that is supposed to recognize career contribution, but if it were, I can't imagine an author more deserving of inclusion in the canon of that award.  Her palette, surrealistic style and consistently hopeful and often humorous contributions are consistently distinctive and distinguished, and this is no exception.  Her topic is timely and necessary for classrooms and her treatment is truly healing, inspiring, victorious.



And heads up, fresh out of the gate for 2019, we have the glorious Planting Stories:  The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (Harper), a  picture book biography about the woman who inspired the Pura Belpré Award given to "a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth" (which, incidentally, Yuyi Morales has garnered several times). Any discussion of children's book awards with children this season would be enriched by a sharing of this vibrant picture book biography. 

Moving on to other notable titles:




Potato Pants by Laurie Keller (Henry Holt).  Potato is so excited to get new pants, he's dancing the Robot (or Po-Bot, as the case may be)..but troublemaking Eggplant has purchased the last pair!  Eggplant is being blamed for problems, but does Potato play a part? Under the skin, this is a good pick for modeling genuine apologies and conflict resolution. The varied layout is busy and exciting, and I can't imagine anyone not wanting to design their own pair of potato pants and doing a little dance after reading.  I love children's books that children actually love and that matches their energy.  This wins.  For more zany fun in the spud department, check out the seasonal Meet the Latkes by Alan Silberberg (Viking).



 

A couple of alphabet books made the list this year.  Though without a particular narrative line, I literally gasped when turning pages of Animalphabet byJulia Donaldson, illustrated by Sharon King-Chai (Dial), with die cut pages and colorful, supersaturated illustrations.  While the alphabet offerings may not be novel (a is still for ant), the processional storytelling is, with questions prefacing each next page that invites active guessing from the audience and the eye taking a journey from corner to corner to take it all in. The pages are delicate and may be better suited to private collections, laps and teacher-led story times, but absolutely still worth the purchase for the sheer pretty of it.  Fans of Charley Harper and Petr Horacek will approve.


P is for Pterodactyl:  The Worst Alphabet Book Ever by Raj Haldar (also known as the rapper Lushlife) and Chris Carpenter, illustrated by Maria Beddia (Sourcebooks) plays on the preposterousness of our language (O is for Ouija,  N is not for Knot, T is for Tsunami, G is for Gnocchi), and has a funny full-page picture for every letter but content that can be shared with older children just as well.  Though any child will benefit from the vocabulary, this book underscores the challenges any English language learner might encounter, and might be used to underscore their achievement just as readily.  Very clever and well executed.  




Anyone who follows my recommendations knows that I think children's picture book biography is  the most powerful genre within children's literature because it can be read across the grade levels and introduces children to figures that fall outside the trajectory of war that textbooks seem to follow.  Artists, scientists, inventors, sports figures, peacemakers...if we read children just one picture book biography a week, in a year, how many new mentors would they be introduced to through literature?  This year, we have three biographies that are especially visually fetching and all feature females: Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor:  The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf), Gloria's Voice: The Story of Gloria Steinem- Feminist, Activist, Leader  by Aura Lewis (Sterling),  She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf), and also recommended is 


Pride:  The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno (Random House), which gives a very excellent explanation of the ubiquitous rainbow flag as well as a well-written, straightforward and poignant introduction to LGBQT history and one of it's heroes for young audiences.  Pretty essential and pretty darn wonderful.  


There was a time in this country when we made things.  A LOT of things.  Made by Hand:  A Crafts Sampler by Carole Lexa Schaefer, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (Candlewick) is a celebration of that history.  Acrobatics of poetry and historical fiction employ vocabulary like crimper.  Plane.  Churn.  Sampler.  Bandolier.  I was won over from the first description of the invention of the Terrestrial Globe, borne from a passion I have not so convincingly experienced in print since the reading of Jacqueline Briggs Martin's Snowflake Bentley.  Back matter provides detailed explanations of which parts of each vignette are fiction and which are nonfiction,  and photos of the real artifacts, while well-matched  folksy illustrations grace the rest.  Highly original and making amends for years lost by removing shop and home economics from school curriculums, this is an erudite, complex, genre-bending book better suited to older children, and even then, maybe not every child.  But the child for whom it is suited will revisit this book, be inspired by this book, will time travel with this book. Though Lois Ehlert's Hands remains one of my favorite children's books about making things, this year provides many other complimentary titles: With My Hands:  Poems About Making Things by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson (Clarion), Made by Maxine by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Holly Hatam, and Kids Cooking:  Students Prepare and Eat Foods from Around the World by George Anacona (Candlewick), which suffers from lack of recipes (though easily searchable online) but has delicious, active photographs of real children preparing food.  
  

Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall (Little Brown).  I confess, when I saw this book, I thought, regionallllll.  How is this going to speak to the landlocked midwestern kids I teach?  WRONG!  Reminder/note to self: often the best kind of books are not the books that speak to one's own experience, but invites us into a new one.  What happens when someone is sick and they live in a lighthouse?  How do they get supplies?  How does someone come to visit? Can it withstand tidal waves?  All questions are answered in the context of the story of a lonely lighthouse keeper who finds his bride, his family and an unexpected future from the tower.  The x-ray illustration of the lighthouse's interior will inspire children to imagine houses and architectural futures with a vim not seen since Daniel Pinkwater's The Big Orange Splot, In fact, beyond inspiring indefatigable interest in lighthouses and imaginings of living in one, this is one of the most romantic and graceful children's books I have ever come across.  


Of course, now Hello, Lighthouse must headline a storytime that includes the classic Tim All Alone (or any of the Tim books) by Edward Ardizzone, and the new gem Ocean Meets Sky by Terry and Eric Fan (Simon and Schuster) (about a boy who takes a magical boat journey to honor his grandfather, absolutely ethereal and stunning, like a dream that was captured in the bindings of a book), A First Book of the Sea by Nicola Davies (always exceptional for science writing), illustrated by Emily Sutton (Candlewick), and The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam, illustrated by Victoria Semykina (Templar) (which is a January 2019 release, but I don't care, this story about a paper boat who is trying to become a real boat is gorgeous and you need to know about it now).  Oh, what the heck.  Bag whatever you were planning, teachers, and embark on a unit about the sea, sea travel, lighthouses.  There's so much treasure in the sea. 



Also on the subject of reimagining life's possibilities, we have The Town of Turtle by Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Catia Chien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). "Turtle spent a lot of time in his shell.  It was very dark inside--as dark as the inside of a closed flower, as dark as the underside of a bell."  After dreaming about a better home, Turtle embarks on renovations to his shell, as colorful and outlandish as his dream...and his vision grows and grows, until it invites others to join him.  I always get a little grumpy when recommending anything illustrated by Catia Chien, because ever since The Sea Serpent and Me, I just don't understand why she doesn't win everything. Why?  WHY?!? Whatever.  She's too good for this world.  That's why she creates otherworldly books like this one.  


How to Be a Good Creature:  A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is not a picture book per se and probably better suited for ages 10 and up, but since I want to buy a classroom set of thirty, it seems like a title I ought to share. Less of a book about animals and more about a life with animals, we follow the author, a naturalist and adventurer, through her encounters with the natural world. Black and white full-page plates charmingly accent the writing.   It is a difficult to write a memoir for children (I know), but when it is done well, it can offer a blueprint for future possibilities for the reader. I am sure many animal lovers---and strong-willed girls---will find inspiration and empowerment in the author's unconventional choices.  Future naturalists will also delight is other recent offerings: Look at Me!  How to Attract Attention in the Animal World by nonfiction super-team Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the generous and elegant Sing a Song of Seasons:  A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (Nosy Crow), Little Fox in the Snow by Jonathan London (famous for his Froggy series), illustrated by Daniel Miyares (Candlewick), the very interesting Under the Canopy: Trees Around the World by Tris Volant and Cynthia Alonso (Flying Eye), and Moon by Alison Oliver, in which a little girl finds respite from her over-scheduled life by adapting to some wolfy ways, illustrated with vintage flavor and a very fresh follow-up to last year's Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell.



The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial).  I bristle at didacticism in children's books, and gosh golly isn't it enough of it out there telling kids to Be Kind and Be Welcoming and all too often with the storyline of a limp noodle and probably the long-term efficacy of the "Just Say No" campaign.  With renewed vigor now that it is coming to light the number of bad eggs in our box, the industry is burgeoning with titles that decry bullying and emphasize empathy with a capital E, though we have been trying since 1944 and Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses (and if that didn't cut the mustard, I don't know what would).  So why did I re-read this book about seven times?  The human condition requires loss and disappointment, certainly for children, too; I think the only thing worse than the event of loss is the well-meaning ding-dong who says or does exactly the wrong thing.  So many people rightly fear being this ding-dong and so don't do anything at all, which is even worse. Enter: the rabbit.   

When a flock of crows destroy a block tower, the child is devastated.  Different animals come to offer solace.  The chicken wants to talk-talk-talk about it.  The bear wants to get mad. The ostrich sticks its head in the sand and pretends it never happened.  The hyena wants to laugh it off. And the snake insidiously hisses a suggestion of revenge.  It is not until the rabbit comes and holds space does the child's healing begin, and dreams of a new, better edifice begin to formulate.  The strength of this book is that it does not contend only with the person who is experiencing pain but the person who is offering support.  The expressive illustrations make artful use of negative space and perfectly compliment the story (and yay, there is a story!), showing children from an early age that not only do we not owe it to anyone to feel the way someone else would like us to feel, it is not always our charge to fix but only to be present.  This might go far to ensure that they do not grow up to be obnoxious in the face of somebody else's adversity in years to come. Hush up and be somebody's rabbit. A very valuable lesson indeed.

Also in this very same vein is the more comical Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne and Max Lang (Random House), which follows a similar story arc of animals not just letting monkey get his mad on. More emotions are wrangled via the masterful Molly Bang, author of the popular When Sophie Gets Angry...Really, Really Angry who has a new book in that series, When Sophie Thinks She Can't, addressing lack of confidence and feelings of competition with others.  Poor Sophie.  She needs Rabbit to listen.

All right, all right.  Like picture books with cats in them, I probably like these kinds of feely-books more than I'm willing to admit.  If you do, too, visit this excellent blog, Books That Heal Kids.  

Speaking of books with cats.


In Cat Wishes by Calista Brill, illustrated by Kenard Pak (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a cat captures a snake and is granted three wishes in exchange for its release, only the cat doesn't really believe in wishes.  What would he wish for if he did?  To his surprise, the wishes seem to come true, culminating in a human with a wish of her own. This book is a bit of a "sleeper," but a keeper for it's lovely story structure and sweet illustrations, great for teaching beginning, middle and end and story sequencing.  And if you'd like more feline steps to follow, check out Mapping Sam:  A Book About What is Where and How to Get from Here to There by Joyce Hesselberth (Greenwillow), a nifty general overview to all kinds of maps, labels and blueprints.  

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A new offering from the multiple-award-winning team who brought us Last Stop On Market Street, we have Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam), a provocative story of a little girl from a migrant family who has to think of just the right wish to make on some valuable dandelion fluff.  When her flower is destroyed, her cantankerous big brother steps up to show her there is more than one wish that come true for her future.  Complex and subtle themes run deep in this family story, and I defy you not to become enamored with Robinson's friendly, geometric illustration style that hearkens to the great Ed Emberley.  My school was fortunate to have an author/illustrator visit from this team, springboarding 2nd and 3rd graders into exploration of simple landscapes using geometric shapes, crafts involving wishes that ended up being extremely personal and poignant, creation of Mexican papel picado and discussions of what it is like to come from somewhere else (a subject on which my Chicago Public School students have plenty of prior knowledge).  
Other new picks that will elicit discussion and appreciation of global and multicultural experiences include the sumptuously illustrated Islandborn by Junot Diaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa (Dial), A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin (Little, Brown), The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Candlewick),  Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (Carolrhoda) and the beautifully written Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Portuguese author Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono and translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Enchanted Lion, published in partnership with Amnesty International).  




I always try to add one or two really strong seasonal read-alouds to my collection every year, and this year I chose Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins (Athenaeum).  Stumpkin notices he is different, missing a stem, and watches forlornly as the other pumpkins are chosen over him from the grocery shelf, reappearing as jolly jack-o-lanterns in the building across the street.  Finally, it is Halloween.  What will be his fate?  Oh my goodness, the simple illustration style for this surprisingly nail-biting cliffhanger is too perfect, the kind of book you just hold to your chest two-armed and sigh, "that's what a children's book should be."  It doesn't matter if it's January.  Trick-or-treat yourself.  


Making a Friend by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Alison Friend (Harper).  Beaver is trying to widen his social circle, but keeps making well-meaning faux pas. Finally, he abandons his efforts in lieu of creating a perfect partner of his own snowy invention, only to find a like-minded raccoon whose friendship may outlast the season. Lots of modeling of kind words and a theme of perseverance coupled with adorable cartoon illustrations make for storytime perfection.  You can never have too many really good snowman books in the cooler, and this one will defrost any midwinter read-aloud slump.  


Baby Monkey, Private Eye by bestselling and award-winning author Brian Selznick and David Serlin (Scholastic).  A beguiling little monkey rouses himself repeatedly from nap time to locate missing items for a series of increasingly surprising clients.  Artful historical references and visual jokes are tucked in throughout for the recognition and entertainment of all ages,  but this fills a special need for emergent readers; an entirely accessible early reader with some heft to it, short "chapters" overflowing with confidence-building visual cues and repetitions and belly-laugh humor, and through it all one of the most striking homages to Maurice Sendak I've seen in a long time, black and white line illustrations and comic book interjections hearkening to Higglety Piggelty Pop! and Some Swell Pup.  Gone, but not forgotten. 


 The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee (Dial). Tension builds as a headstrong little knight insists on staying on his side of the edifice out of concern of what is on the other side even when the danger on his own side is clearly and hilariously growing. It's funny, or maybe unfunny, because it's true. Sigh.  John Agee is known for a tongue-in-cheek and subversive twang in his books, but even without the undertones of any grown-up debate, what I like best about it is how it draws attention to the middle seam (or "gutter") of the book, and how John Agee had to really think about the layout of this physical book to create it, it's part of the story.  Books that afford the chance to look at parts of a book are a boon.


Let's peek at some classroom must-haves...


Can I Be Your Dog? by Troy Cummings (Random House) Arfy is a stray looking for a home, and sends each house in the neighborhood a letter alerting them of such.  Poor Arfy is thwarted at every turn, ultimately retreating to a cardboard box in a rainstorm...until the mail carrier makes a proposal of her own.  I'm not crying, you're crying!  Naturally, this book has extensions for letter writing and persuasive writing, but not to be overlooked is the superior storyboarding going on here, building tension wonderfully until its satisfying twist. The illustrations are big, bright, well-paced, comic and uncluttered, perfect for sharing.  Starting from the front end-papers like postage stamps with themes a dog would love (a hydrant, collar, squirrel to chase) to the last end-papers (A double-page spread of the neighborhood and hints for helping homeless animals), this book will win the hearts of children and teachers alike, and deserves to win even more.  Go fetch.  And FYI, for an extension, additional animal-themed correspondence from this publishing year may be found in Love, Agnes:  Postcards from an Octopus by Irene Latham, illustrated by Thea Baker (Millbrook).  


How about some people letters? Dear Substitute by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Disney Hyperion).  A little girl is thrown when her routine is interrupted by a teacher's sick day, expressed in a series of hilariously curt notes to inanimate and conceptual items in the school  ("Dear Line, /Yes, I do know I'm supposed to be line leader this week, /Especially since I was chair stacker last week. /I'm sorry You-Know-Who doesn't know how we do things in Room 102.") Eventually, the sub convincingly wins our narrator over with some well-chosen poetry, and it turns out she doesn't mind if her regular teacher needs another day to recover.  More than a strong mentor text, emotionally sensitive, honest and clever in conceit, this is a wonderful book to leave for a substitute in your absence or share for a read-aloud in your presence.

Another classroom-themed favorite of the year is We Don't Eat our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins (Disney Hyperion), in which Penelope T. Rex is new to and nervous about  the school experience, exemplified by her ingestion of her classmates (don't worry, Mrs. Noodleman has her spit them out).  Penelope is lonely, but her father explains, "Sometimes it's hard to make friends...especially if you eat them." This should be enough food for thought for Penelope to adjust...this book could, but doesn't, stop there.  Not until the class pet, a goldfish, puts Penelope in line does she realize that we shouldn't dish out what we can't take.  Revenge is a dish best served a la dinosaur.  Oversized illustrations are great for group sharing and are full of hilarious facial expressions and clever detail.  Fans of Jon Klassen will appreciate this story's edge, and so will students with a sense of humor.  


Some other strong back to school offerings this year are Twig by Aura Parker (Simon and Schuster), in which a stick bug at a busy bug schools finds her camouflage hinders her friend-making, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated byRafael López (Nancy Paulsen Books), Mae's First Day of School by Kate Berube (Harry Abrams),  in which first day jitters send a student up a tree, Fairy's First Day of School by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Sara Not (Clarion), a twee back-to -school how-to suitable for the Fancy Nancy set and Did You Hear What I Heard?  Poems About School by Kay Winters, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Dial).  


Every Month is a New Year by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Susan Roth (Lee & Low). This book of poems showcases celebrations welcoming the new year from somewhere around the world, one for every month.  This is a multicultural book with some real meat on the bones.  You will not be able to read it without learning something new, and extensive back-matter wants for nothing; in sharing with children, I advise introducing using the descriptions of the celebrations in the back before sharing the poems, because there is so much new vocabulary and such a rich opportunity to explore each place.  I am a long-time fan of Susan Roth's cut paper collages, but this recent offering has detail, vibrancy and energy that suggest a real labor of love and career chef d'oeurve, and has a definite "wow" factor.  The book pages turn like a calendar and is laid out as such, and can be read at once but might be better served in the classroom as delight in small bites to look forward to every month. Every teacher should have this book.  


Finally, inspired by the movie Around the World in 80 Days, we have the beautifully illustrated and oversized Around the World in 80 Puzzles by Aleksandra Artymowska (Big Picture Press).  Sometimes, like in Walter Wick's I SPY books, we just lust for a title that children can privately pore over the pictures for hours in the world of a beautiful game.  Here you go.  

That makes thirty-one new book recommendations.  Or thirty three.  Or is it thirty seven?  I'm an elementary school librarian, not a math teacher, so if numbers don't involve Dewey Decimal or measurements to bake cupcakes, I'm never quite sure.  What I am sure of is that there is a book in this list that will connect with and enthrall a young reader in your life, and I thank you for sharing it.  

I can't count very well, but I can read.  

As I write this post and think of all the reviews and recommendations and resources out there, it occurs to me that there's still nothing quite like examining a book in hand!  To that end, if you are in the Chicago area, please friend me on Facebook to keep apprised of upcoming Cookie Bookie gathering and Silent Reading parties I will be hosting through the year to afford you the opportunity to do just that, or build your collection and host your own!

This post is dedicated with love to the late and very great friend, mentor , reader and inspiration Agnes Royer, the "Story Lady" who was the voice for Fun for Kids, the longest running children's radio show in America out of Ketchikan, Alaska.  You made a world of difference.  

Links are provided for information.  Please support your local independent bookseller.  

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