Saturday, October 18, 2008


GRACE FOR PRESIDENT by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion) Grace is appalled that no woman has yet been president of the United States, but decides to remedy it when she grows up, and gets a jump start by seeking to win the school election. The author ingeniously and seamlessly is able to explain the sticky wicket of the electoral college by assigning each of Grace's classmates a state with a number of votes, instead of a single vote. Grace's rival from the other class figures that the boys have more electoral votes than the girls and rests on his laurels, but when it boils down to a boy representing the Equality State of Wyoming, will the best kid win? This story is a great read-aloud, and is just as wonderful and heart-pounding on the re-read. Pham's expressive, jubilant illustrations are absolutely irresistable, and perfectly compliment the high-energy, competitive campaign. The last wordless picture tells all: Grace taking the inaugural oath in front of the Capitol, and the endpapers show her face carved into Mount Rushmore. This may be a work of fiction, but it will be true for some little girl...somewhere, someday! (6 and up)

OUR WHITE HOUSE: LOOKING IN LOOKING OUT by 108 renowned Authors and Illustrators and the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance (Candlewick) This book is an ambitious and eclectic endavor, as over a hundred children's book talents contribute imaginative responses to all things White House. From Nancy Willard's remembrances of looking at a book of paper dolls featuring dresses worn by First Ladies, to Jane Yolen's imagined conversation between John and Abigail Adams, Don Brown's true telling of Dolley Madison's rescue of George Washington, Paul Janeczko's poem "Mary Todd Lincoln Speaks of Her Son's Death, 1862," Dwight Eisenhower's prayer for peace, haunted White House legends from M.T. Anderson, Jean Craighead George's tribute to Teddy Roosevelt in "Executive Order for Nature," illustrations of Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" by Peter Sis, Calef Brown, Ed Young, and Stephen Alcorn, an amazing double-page rendering of presidential pets by Steven Kellogg, Jimmy Carter's memories of Christmas, a behind-the-scene sketchbook by David Small, and perhaps the most affecting: a mini graphic novel by Matt Phelan that captures the callousness of "Hoover's One Term," plus Jack Prelutsky! Jerry Spinelli! Katherine Paterson! Meg Cabot! Richard Peck! Linda Sue Park! There are more stars in this book than on the American flag. Whatever is happening to our economy, we can find a great book value and the richness of America within these pages. An amazing resource to be treasured over time; invaluable to teachers, and informative to all citizens. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
More forays into history and politics for kids!

PRESIDENT PENNYBAKER by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Diane Goode (Simon and Schuster) After his father refuses to let him watch television even after finishing his chores, Luke Pennypacker makes the startling revelation that life isn't fair. In order to amend this situation in the interest of all children, he decides to run for office, not under the Democratic or Republican Party, but the Birthday Party, with a platform that promises children will be treated as if it is their birthday every day of the year. Luke is very good at thinking outside of the box (painting the White House orange!), but if Luke didn't like doing chores, he finds the work involved in running the country to be an even more trying task. Light and full of laughs, this book ends with the smart and subtle suggestion that anyone who takes office will have their own agenda. (6 and up) And a reminder: older children who like to imagine what it would be like to rule a country should check out KING MATT THE FIRST by Janusz Korczak (Algonquin), a great introduction to the grown-up world of politics and one of the best books for children ever written. King Matt always gets my vote! (10 and up)

IF I WERE PRESIDENT by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan (Whitman) An explanation of the duties of the executive branch for the very young. (4 and up)

LADY LIBERTY: A BIOGRAPHY by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick) Poets, construction workers, artists, engineers, journalists, and a little girl with two pet roosters...told in free verse from these many points of view (a la Nikki Grimes' TALKIN' ABOUT BESSIE), we come to know how the Statue of Liberty came to be, the collaboration she really represents, and what a truly marvelous gift she is to us all. Illustrations bear a stoic dignity, and the story will choke you up. (7 and up)

THE ELECTION CONNECTION: THE OFFICIAL NICK GUIDE TO ELECTING THE PRESIDENT (Nickelodeon) Generally, I do not consider titles that have characters on them that were on television before they were in books, or that don't have an author on the cover, but there is an exception to every rule, and the genius of Spongebob is usually that exception. I was able to build a full fourth-grade unit around the election process using this book that answers virtually every question about the election process. In clear language, the political party system, campaigns, debates, electoral college, ways to vote and the role of the media are all addressed. Hmmm, maybe it's a handy guide for grown-ups, too? (7 and up)

QUIET HERO: THE IRA HAYES STORY by S.D. Nelson (Lee & Low). A shy Native American boy fights personal and military battles during WWII, and ultimately serves most honorably and memorably at Iwo Jima. Fascinating photographs add to a richly historical author's note. (7 and up)

THE IMPOSSIBLE PATRIOTISM PROJECT by Linda Skeers, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Dial) When the children are supposed to come up with something that represents the big idea of "patriotism" for Parent Night, a sad little boy rallies with something that inspires the room. Children lonely for parents serving in the military is a reality, and the sensitivity to this experience is recognized in these pages. Readers will be encouraged to reflect on the meaning of the word in their own lives. (6 and up)

CHILDREN OF THE USA by Maya Ajmera, Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder and Cynthia Pon (Charlesbridge) A state-by-state tour of our country, with double-page spreads for every location and a focus about the lives of kids at each stop. Young readers will find manageable the bites of history and what makes the location unique, as well as general facts and colorful people-watching-worthy photographs. Useful for reports, armchair travel, and gaining an appreciation of the exciting diversity of cultures within our nation. Parts of the book's proceeds will be donated to The Global Fund for Children, which support community organizations that serve the world's most vulnerable children and youth. (8 and up)

LARUE FOR MAYOR: LETTERS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL by Mark Teague (Scholastic) Correspondence tells the story of a canine who manages an underground, grassroots campaign to create the most dog-friendly adminstration ever. Dirty politics and anti-gog hysteria kep the story spicy. (5 and up)

TWO MISERABLE PRESIDENTS: EVERYTHING YOUR SCHOOLBOOKS DIDN'T TELL YOU ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR and KING GEORGE: WHAT WAS HIS PROBLEM? EVERYTHING YOUR SCHOOLBOOKS DIDN'T TELL YOU ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Steve Sheinkin, illustrated by Tim Robinson (Roaring Brook) Revisionist history perfectly packaged for reluctant readers, with plenty of quirky spot illustration and historical play-by-play sectioned off into manageable chunks that are colloquially described ("Bravery in battle earned [Colonel Johann "the Lion" Rahl] his nickname. But he was also kind of a lazy guy"). These books are like having a really fun uncle help you with your history homework. (9 and up)

BABAR COMES TO AMERICA by Laurent de Brunoff (Abrams) Our favorite French colonialist pachyderm takes a shine to our great country. Take the greyhound (or grey elephant) tour old school with this retro reissue from 1965. Gotta love big daddy Babar resting with room service at the Hilton, and a carriage ride through New Orleans ("Finally, in an excellent restaurant, they feast on fried chicken and pecan pie"). From football to Black Angus beef to Los Angeles traffic, the American spirit is covered from sea to shining sea. If your youngster is part of the mod squad, they may prefer the more contemporary BABAR'S USA, which overlays the cartoon characters on to real photographs from landmarks around the country (I appreciated the nod to Chicago's "El" train). (5 and up)

And finally, the subject of women in history and politics has fared very well in the season of books. MARGARET CHASE SMITH: A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by David McPhail (Charlesbridge). Formalistic, solid writing tells a tender story of a very strong and accomplished woman, who besides running for president in 1964 served in the Senate and stood against McCarthyism while others kept silent, earned ninety-five honorary college degrees, and kept a copy of the constitution in her purse unbtil the day she died. Truly helpful and insightful timelines are on every page: "US women working outside the home," "US life expectancy," "US incomes," which are very effective in putting Margaret's experiences (and our own) in a historical context. Pair with A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT: THE STORY OF VICTORIA WOODHULL by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Jane Dyer (Walker), the compelling story of a controversial figure who used money she earned from palmistry to start her campaign, and also by Krull we have DREAMS TAKING FLIGHT: HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Simon and Schuster). Bates does a remarkable job of really capturing Clinton without caricaturing her, and we do sense the dewy-eyed dreamer who really did want to be an astronaut during a time when women were not encouraged to reach for the stars. The author does an equally good job of removing the figure from current political tensions or leanings, and instead tells an age-appropriate story of a little girl who was inspired, and then went on to inspire others. (5 and up) We also have ELIZABETH LEADS THE WAY by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Henry Holt), a folksy and succinct picture book introduction the spunky suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to whom all women owe a debt of gratitude this November 4th; PHILLIS'S BIG TEST by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Houghton Mifflin), about the famous black poet of the times of George Washington, who underwent intense examination because no one could believe a young slave girl could produce such accomplished work; and, while a bit too busy to be a read-aloud, we have the still well-researched and informative INDEPENDENT DAMES: WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT THE WOMEN AND GIRLS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner (Simon and Schuster), combining a general overview of the situation from a woman's point of view, countless biographical salutes to women from history that will allow children to springboard into deeper research, and a detailed revolutionary timeline that flows from page to page, plus the humorous and historical ink-and-watercolor sketch style we saw in THANK YOU, SARAH: THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THANKSGIVING.

On a personal note: what finally sent me over the edge

Because I love people with whom I do not always agree and I am unhappy about the divisions this election has caused between friends and neighbors, I generally strive to keep politics out of my conversation, and certainly out of my blog. However, during the third domestic presidential debate there were some statements made that were so audacious, unsubstantiated and so potentially damaging to the education of children, I feel I would be remiss in my advocacy if I did not point them out. At one point in the debate, one of the candidates suggested that we "need to encourage programs" such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers specifically because they allow people to "go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations...or have the certifications that are...required is some state[s]."

Both Teach for America and Troops to Teachers are fast-track programs that fill a logistical need for teachers to be employed in geographic areas that are most challenging to staff. They often attract people who have previously studied for other careers, but are now eager to contribute positively to the lives of children through the classroom and want to hurry up and do it. My foremost concern is the suggestion that teachers who do not have the education training to be qualified enough to serve in affluent white suburbs should be sent to serve children who are so predominantly of color and from a lower socioeconomic background. This, as far as I'm concerned and despite the best of intentions, is an overt breach of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1964, which outlaws separate but equal education. Further, children in the urban areas that these programs serve generally are at the highest risk for academic failure, in overcrowded settings that require the most classroom management and parent outreach, to say nothing of the need for professionals to be able to assess and address critical learning deficits and differences. Why on earth would we assign our least trained and experienced teachers to serve this population? This doesn't negate the best efforts of the wonderful people who try to fill these voids in urban schools, but I wish, as a country, we would not suggest that these programs are the answer to the problems of urban education, and instead recognize them as aid we receive while we are supposed to be genuinely working on solving these problems.

If we were to decide that the likes of five weeks of teacher training before entering the classroom were sufficient, my other concern is that an accepted lack of training undermines the profession, hardly the thing to do when we are trying to make the career attractive enough to enlist "an army of teachers." I do think that if someone really cares about doing their best, they will value the importance of training so they can deliver the quality of education that children deserve, and this does take time. Just as we don't have fast-track pediatrician programs, I can't imagine why someone would think a few weeks is enough time to begin to absorb the stages of child development, capably diagnose roadblocks to learning, or to know how to individualize instruction in a large group. I know that I could not have survived my own experience teaching in inner-city Chicago without comprehensive preparation, including classroom management work alone that went on for fifteen weeks, hundreds of hours of observation, student teaching and mentorship. Life experience is not a substitute for pedagogy, and knowing something is a different ability than knowing how to teach someone else what you know; this is a mantra from the world of veteran teachers. What failures will it take to make people outside of the profession believe it?

I see why the credentialing of teachers would come under fire. Established university certification programs are not the be-all-end-all. Requiring full-time unpaid student teaching makes the experience out of reach for some. Complaints of the impracticality of training falls on deaf ears of entrenched academia. Traditional training programs take years, and people need jobs now, schools need teachers now. It may be true that tests for credentials are hardly a reliable measure for what a teacher is able to share, or how capably they will share it. Public education is already built on a historical model of Ford Schools, in which sixteen-year-olds taught roomfuls of sixty kids, with the hope of indoctrinating immigrants in American citizenship and creating reliable workers. I know that many teachers come out of Teach for America and other programs are ultimately successful at what they do, and perhaps it is hard to tell the difference between certified and uncertified teachers after they have been working for a number of years. It may be argued that any new teacher does a certain amount of learning by doing anyway, so really, what's the difference? The difference is, to have to initially rely so heavily on instinct instead of research, theory, and learned management skills involves a lot of unnecessary reinventing of the wheel on the children's time. Minimal training is also unfair to these teachers going through these fast-track programs, who are almost invariably assured a trial-by-fire. Even the many teachers who enter alternative certification programs still strive to become ultimately certified, and many experienced teachers have been revitalized to reflect on their practice by rising to the challenge to become National Board Certified, another eschelon of professionalism. Scoffing at the preparation and formalized assessment process by which one becomes a teacher is at best, unsettling, careless, and insultingly dismissive to a workforce dominated by women; and at worst, dangerous, both to teachers who are sent into situations they aren't prepared to handle, and to our national security, when we choose to bank our children's futures on pedagogical practices of a hundred years ago or those of developing countries. If necessary, I would hope we can adjust the way teachers are prepared without moving backwards, making better use of seasoned teachers as part of that equation.

Politicians, left and right: please! If we need to change the ways teachers are credentialed, so be it, but we cannot say to teachers that they are going to be held accountable in one breath and then undermine the level of training that would allow them to be accountable. We cannot continue to send teachers out of credentialed teacher training programs with (maybe) one children's literature course under their belt; sending a teacher into a classroom who doesn't know children's books is like sending a plumber out without a wrench...and even Joe the Plumber gets a wrench (and a license for what he does). We cannot ignore the need to integrate literacy across the subject areas, and then expect children to perform well on math and science tests if they can't read the questions. We cannot value the insights of military veterans in deciding what resources are needed to lead to victory, and then shrug off teaching veterans when they have so much to say about what is needed to create victories on the home front. Most of all, we cannot laud ourselves as civil rights activists and against segregation in one breath and then continue to 1) have a double-standard about which teachers are qualified to teach in inner city schools serving minority children and 2) fund schools based on property taxes, an inherently inequitable modus operandi which makes socioeconomic class the new school segregation... something that neither candidate, for all of their charter schools and vouchers and choices, were willing to dare to address directly.

These weeks have been times of tremendous stomach aches for most Americans, and our crystal ball is cloudy...but let's take heart! Luckily, a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child. Children's literature remains our best hope for equalizing education in America, and read aloud remains our most successful practice across the grade levels for academic achievement. I hope that teachers, whatever path they are taking, embrace these truths that will ultimately create a future (and by Heaven, a present!) for the children they serve, and allow them to live the American Dream: and by that, I don't mean a house, a dog and two-and-a-half children, I mean the promise of possibility, of telling the truth to children when we say, "if you can dream it, you can do it."

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Carrie said...

Hi Esme! I am probably your #1 fan, ever since reading your diary in my at-risk ed class several years back.
I am wondering if you have a chapter book recommendation for my students to read that goes along with the 5th grade Social Studies curriculum in AZ. We study the American Revolution, Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc. Several people have recommended "Fever 1793" to me. But I am wondering if there might be others out there.
Thanks ahead of time!

Megan Germano said...

Speak it, sister! I really enjoyed this post and hearing your thoughts. Thoughts I think most of us are thinking ourselves.

Stacy Dillon said...

Thanks for the round up, Esme. The other title that my kids are intrigued with is Ballots for Belva, by Dudipta Bardham-Quallen. I found it pretty interesting too!

Jeannine Atkins said...

Esme, Thank you for your eloquence on those teaching programs. I wasn't aware of Troops to Teachers till the debate and am glad to learn more through you and to have more words for why it's troubling.

And thanks, too, for the hopeful note at the end of your post.

Jeannine Atkins

Wild About Words said...

When I read Grace for President to 300 kindergarten through second grader students during a school visit last week, the children erupted in cheers at the book's conclusion. It's a great read for the younger set.
And I couldn't agree more about your thoughts about teacher training. Amen!
With all good wishes,

Esme Raji Codell said...

Hey there, Carrie! For Civil War fiction, have you tried Margaret McCullan's HOW I FOUND THE STRONG? Review at (scroll down). The kids also might enjoy DEAR ELLEN BEE: A CIVIL WAR SCRAPBOOK OF TWO UNION SPIES by Mary Lyons and Muriel Branch. I do think the Civil War is a great chance to read some outstanding nonfiction since there is so much primary source material. THE BOYS' WAR: CONFEDERATE AND UNION SOLDIERS TALK ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR by Jim Murphy is one of the most outstanding and hard-hitting reads for kids on the subject. And of course, don't forget to read aloud Patricia Polacco's PINK AND SAY!

Happy reading, and thanks for your kind words...and all you do to connect children and books!

Esme Raji Codell said...

Donna, great job reading to those 300 kids...and great blog! Glad to know about it. Keep up the inspiring work!

Anonymous said...

Well said--such good points!
Shana (a silent, but longtime fan)


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