Tuesday, September 01, 2009


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy September, everyone!

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


Katherine Tillotson said...

Dear Esme,

Happy to find our book, It's Picture Day Today, on your site!

The seed for the story was planted on an afternoon that Megan spent with her three-year-old niece. They sat together at a kitchen table with paper, buttons, pom-poms, sequins and all manner of things spread out in front of them.

The little girl had never been introduced to glue. Imagine her delight when gradually, bit by bit, a clown emerged!

I like to think that this new book is a metaphor for all of us. We each put ourselves together, bit by bit, in surprising and totally
unique ways.

Thank you for the review!

Katherine Tillotson

laurasalas said...

Hi Esme,

Thanks so much for including Stampede in your review roundup.

I know and enjoy many of these books, but Go Home, Mrs. Beekman! and Best Baby Ever are both new to me. I've put them both on reserve at the library--can't wait to read them.


Burgin Streetman said...

Congrats Sister! Ten years in print is no easy feat.... you deserve it!

Anonymous said...

I read your teaching diary as part of a book club selection. How long did you teach---and why did you leave the classroom?

Esme Raji Codell said...

I still teach. I left the classroom to be a school librarian, which is a wonderful job that allows me to share books all day.


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