Category: Book Reviews

Poetry for Elementary School Pick: Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems

Firefly_July_Janeczko, Paul B, and Melissa Sweet. Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems. , 2014. Print.

Plot: Noted poet and anthologist Paul Janeczko presents 36 poems organized by season. The collection includes both famous and lesser known poets. Opening in Spring, and moving through the seasons, simple yet elegant verse explores the physical world’s seasonal cues- Rain beats down / roots stretch up / They’ll meet / in a flower- as well as the quiet personal moments that remind us of a particular season- a young girl is pictured, having pulled her bicycle to the side of the road so she can sit and look out over the water at an island shaped just like an elephant: The Island / Wrinkled stone/ like and elephant’s skin / on which young birches are treading. The book closes with the imagery of moonlight streaming in the window and stars formed into the shape of the words THE END.

Topics: Children’s Poetry, Seasons

Awards: Cybils AwardsParent’s Choice Awards

Review: These are not ‘poems for kids’, but rather real poems, for people.  Sure, there are poems about cats and birds, fireflies and stars, but also tight little packages of real life: the subway, morning dew, urban alleyways, and bad moods. The page for winter opens with Cynthia Pederson’s poem about an old truck that has seen better days, evoking the inevitable sense of loss and the reality of reduced mobility that comes with the cold months. But it’s not all meaningful melancholy- there’s much to celebrate here, as the title suggests. The book is marketed as a PreK – 3rd grade book, but I think it would appeal all the way up to 5th grade, and even beyond.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: n/a, ATOS Book Level: 4.5, AR Interest Level: Lower Grades (PK-3)

Qualitative Reading Analysis: This collection of 36 short poems (none over 10 lines) spread over large-format pages with full color bleed has a rating of medium text complexity. The font is consistent and conventional with the exception of the section titles which are incorporated into the artwork, some of which are difficult to recognize, yet serve as an amusing side activity to poetry reading. Organizing by seasons is something every child can relate to, but the poems are not overtly seasonal which elevates the quality of the arrangement and creates an instructive challenge for young readers. A table of contents makes it easy to find a favorite poem or jump to a specific season. The artwork is central to the appeal of the book, its mixed media collages unpredictable and full of interesting textures. The youngest children will enjoy it as a feast of colorful, friendly imagery, content to connect only occasionally with a poem’s message, while others will crave the interpretive assistance of an adult to take in the full meaning of the poet’s words. The oldest children are likely to appreciate the artistry of both word and image.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: 

With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.

Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

Curriculum Suggestions:

For younger students: have a selection of songs and poems and have students choose which songs best match the mood or topic of the poem.

For older students: have students work together in poetry circles to examine the form, content, language, and meaning of poetry, beginning with Firefly July and progressing to more complex poetry.

Stage a poetry Slam (From Education World)

Links to Supporting Content:

Eight Ideas to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Online Resources related to National Poetry Month

Poetry Outloud Teaching Resources

Tags: Book Review, K5, K5-ELA, Poetry, Seasons, School Libraries, INFO237


Math Picture Book Pick: That’s a Possibility!: A Book About What Might Happen

Thats_a_PossibilityGoldstone, Bruce. That’s a Possibility!: A Book About What Might Happen. , 2013. Print.

Plot: Using action-oriented photographs in a riot of colors, this book introduces the mathematical concept of probability to the elementary school set. Each page poses a question prompting an interactive exercise with the answer provided in plain language: These gumballs are in this machine. What color gumball will you probably get? What other colors are possible? Is it possible to get a blue gumball? Sure, it’s possible- but it’s improbable. Key terms, including possible/impossible, certain vs. likely; probable/improbable; possibilities and odds; and combinations/permutations, are conveyed in bold, colorful font and made explicit through instructive, engaging photographs.

Topics: Mathmatics – probability

Review: This book is a real looker! So much fun, it’s sure to engage even the most reluctant student. Kids will initially pick it up because of the large format color photographs of things like gumballs, animal shaped balloons, and frogs in flight, but they will stick with it because it feels like a game of logic- each page pulling you into a new compulsive challenge: When you flip a coin, there are two possibilities: it can land on heads or tails…what are the odds it will land heads up?  Goldstone has a true talent for simplifying otherwise complicated topics. At first glance, I wondered why elementary school students would need to learn about probability, but the book makes it clear why probability is important (helps you predict what will happen) and how foundational the concepts are to mathematical literacy. Every math teacher should have this one up her sleeve.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 580L (adult directed), Interest Level: K-5

Qualitative Reading Analysis: As a adult-directed text, this book has a medium-low level of complexity.  It is the graphics that do the heavy-lifting in this book, conveying the bulk of information. The photographs do require some visual literacy skills, but are carefully selected for their effective portrayal of very targeted subject matter. Certainly, probability is a complex subject, but the book is well-paced, beginning with the most simplistic concepts and moving steadily toward more the nuanced ones. No prior mathematical knowledge required- kids may not even realize they are doing math!

Content/Subject Area & Standards: Mathematics

Directly compare two objects with a measurable attribute in common, to see which object has “more of”/”less of” the attribute, and describe the difference.

Classify objects into given categories; count the numbers of objects in each category and sort the categories by count.

Organize, represent, and interpret data with up to three categories; ask and answer questions about the total number of data points, how many in each category, and how many more or less are in one category than in another.

Solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately.

Identify arithmetic patterns (including patterns in the addition table or multiplication table), and explain them using properties of operations.

Generate a number or shape pattern that follows a given rule. Identify apparent features of the pattern that were not explicit in the rule itself.

Generate two numerical patterns using two given rules. Identify apparent relationships between corresponding terms. Form ordered pairs consisting of corresponding terms from the two patterns, and graph the ordered pairs on a coordinate plane.

Curriculum Suggestions: 

Use this as a read aloud, working on a few pages at a time, and challenging students to come up with similar scenarios to illustrate the point.

Create a collage, using magazines to cut out high contrast, sharp graphics that can illustrate the concepts of possible/impossible, certain vs. likely; probable/improbable.

Links to Supporting Content:

Probability (PreK-4): Explore mathematical chance by showing your children how to use a “Lucky Guess” spinner to see if it knows all, in this activity from Arthur. (PBS Learning Media)

4th Grade Card Game

5th Grade Probability Carnival (news story)


Tags: Book Review, INFO237, K5, K5-Math, Probability, School Libraries

Science Picture Book Pick: Me…Jane

Me_JaneMcDonnell, Patrick. Me– Jane. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. Print.

Plot: Young Jane (Goodall) loves her stuffed toy chimpanzee Jubilee, and takes him everywhere she goes. Jane and Jubilee have busy, fun-filled days investigating the miracles of nature- from spider webs, to tree sap, to chicken eggs. Jane feels so alive in the outside world and harbors a cherished dream of living in Africa, helping the animals. She continues to study books and record her observations, until one day her dream comes true.

Topics: Biography – Jane Goodall, Biography – Women, Biography – Scientists, Animals – Apes & Monkeys, Nature Study

Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video; Charlotte Zolotow Award; Cybils Awards; New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year; Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children; Parents Choice Award; Randolph Caldecott Medal

Review:  This book does so much to describe the passion and commitment that must be inherent in Jane Goodall’s character- and which most certainly describes what it takes to be a true scientist.  Yes…Jane observed, read, and studied, but crucially, she also ‘cherished’, ‘loved’ and ‘felt’ the magic, joy, and wonder of being a part of nature. Patrick McDonnell has given young readers the inside scoop on the practice of science and the joy of following your dreams.

And since we’re talking about science, I decided to test this book on an actual child: my daughter, an avid reader who, while only in first grade, can read into the Lexile 500 range and is typically drawn to chapter books in the AR 3-4 level. Having surreptitiously left  Me…Jane in a pile of other books waiting for review, I watched my daughter pick up (and read) several other books (including Separate is Never Equal, That’s a Possibility and Firefly July) before finally turning, to Me…Jane. I could tell she was only mildly interested and when I asked her about it, she reported, “I just don’t understand it.”  I suspect it wasn’t so much the words themselves, but the fact that she doesn’t know who Jane Goodall is, or appreciate her contribution to the world. In addition, there is not a strong plot line, so it was kind of a ‘so what’ moment for her. Perhaps what adults find endearing about the book- Jane’s sense of magic and wonder- is simply taken for granted by young readers still so deeply connected to their passions.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 740L, ATOS Book Level: 3.2, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 3.5, AR Interest Level: Lower Grades (k-3); AR Reading Level: 3.2

Qualitative Reading Analysis: Despite the simplicity and brevity of the text, this book scores high for text complexity. The complexity comes primarily from needing some kind of background knowledge in order to understand why we should care about a little girl who carries a toy chimpanzee and likes being outside. The purpose of the text- ostensibly to inspire young people, particularly girls, to follow their dreams- is not made explicit; without reading the biography at the end, one wouldn’t know the obstacles she was up against- there is only joy and happiness, no obstacles, presented in the main story. Additionally, the language is often figurative: suspense mounts when, “one day Jane was curious…she snuck into a chicken coop…stayed very still….” but then falls flat, “…and observed the miracle.”  Likewise, the purpose of the two facing pages of drawings and puzzles is unclear. It is not until the very last page of the back matter, in tiny font, that we learn that it was Jane herself who created the intricate drawings when she ran a science club as a young girl- a compelling fact that may best be related prior to reading the story, along with the “About Jane Goodall” page.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: 

Describe the connection between two individuals, events, ideas, or pieces of information in a text. (Young Jane / Adult Jane)

Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.

Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.

Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.

Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

Curriculum Suggestions: Read this book aloud in class as a way to introduce the role of observation in the scientific process, being sure to use the book’s back matter and other media to bring students up to speed on Jane Goodall’s achievements and fame.

It could also be used as a biography for young students interested in female scientists, though it won’t be in this book where students source their facts. Instead, use Me…Jane as a way of communicating the way Jane used her natural talents and interests to turn a dream into reality.

Compare picture book biographies: Me… Jane by Patrick McDonnell and The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, discussing what parts of Jane Goodall’s life they chose to include and how they each used illustrations to support the text. (The Classroom Bookshelf.  (2011, May 2) Me…Jane and the Watcher [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Links to Supporting Content:

The Jane Goodall Institute’s (JGI) global youth-led community action program, Roots & Shoots (website)

National Wildlife Federation

The Watcher by Jeanette Winter

Tags: Biography, Book Review, Goodall, INFO237, K3, K3-Sci, School Libraries

Historical Picture Book Pick: Separate is Never Equal

Separate_Never_EqualTonatiuh, Duncan. Separate Is Never Equal: The Story of Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation.  New York : Abrams Books for Young Readers,  2014. Print.

Plot: This is the true story of how the Mendez family won their 1947 case for desegregation of California schools a full seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation in the United States. Nine-year old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers are baffled when they are told they must attend “the Mexican school”, not their local neighborhood school. Sylvia’s parents are both U.S. citizens and she speaks perfect English, but her brown skin and tell-tale last name are the only ‘facts’ the all-white school needs to know. The dismal state of neglect of “the Mexican school” motivates Sylvia’s parents to spend all their savings to file a lawsuit. After much community organizing and further legal proceedings, the Mendez family wins their case, paving the way for equal opportunities for all California students, regardless of race, ethnicity or language.

Topics: History – U.S. – 20th Century, Civil Rights, School Integration, Hispanic-Americans, Education

Awards: Cyblis Awards; International Latino Book Awards; Robert F. Silbert Informational Book Medal; Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award

Review:  This book offers great bang for your buck, highly applicable to a number of subjects and concepts taught throughout grade school- from Language Arts to History/Social Studies and the Visual Arts – to the concepts of character, prejudice/bias, citizenship, and bullying. Older students can use the text to investigate the multiple causes and effects of desegregation, while younger students can learn about the concepts of equality and diversity, and begin to develop a sense of the ways in which immigrants have helped define Californian and American culture.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 870L (adult-directed), ATOS Book Level: 5.1 , Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 4.6, AR Interest Level: Lower Grades (k-3)

Qualitative Reading Analysis: This book has a rating of medium for text complexity. Background knowledge and subject-matter preparation will help students place the book into proper context, and a vocabulary lesson will likely be required (a glossary is included at the end of the book). This book is appropriate for adult-directed reading in grades 1-4, wherein younger students will be drawn to the illustrations and able to grasp their message of injustice, while older students will also enjoy the expressive illustrations, but will additionally be able to glean the larger message that problems can be solved through social action via the legal system for a lasting resolution. Selective reading /paraphrasing is suggested for lessons with younger students.

The full color folk art illustrations are integral to the story. Highly ‘readable’, the illustrations could nearly tell the story without the supporting text. Appealing to a wide age range, the illustrations are at once simplistic and artistically sophisticated. Stylistically resembling ancient Mexican/Mixtec motifs, the illustrations enable author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh to layer in meaning and cultural context in a highly accessible way. While the illustrations are models of simplistic, uncluttered efficiency, the text is less so. Often, the text feels overly dense with details- such as legal proceedings and specific school administrator names and titles- that are faithful to the facts, but distract from the otherwise powerful message of the story.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: 

History-Social Science

Grade 1:

1.5 Students describe the human characteristics of familiar places and the varied backgrounds of American citizens and residents in those places. #2.Understand the ways in which American Indians and immigrants have helped define Californian and American culture.

Grade 2:

2.3 Students explain governmental institutions and practices in the United States and other countries. #1. Explain how the United States and other countries make laws, carry out laws, determine whether laws have been violated, and punish wrongdoers.

2.5 Students understand the importance of individual action and character and explain how heroes from long ago and the recent past have made a difference in others’ lives.

Grade 3:

3.3 Students draw from historical and community resources to organize the sequence of local historical events and describe how each period of settlement left its mark on the land. #3. Trace why their community was established, how individuals and families contributed to its founding and development, and how the community has changed over time, drawing on maps, photographs, oral histories, letters, newspapers, and other primary sources.

3.4 Students understand the role of rules and laws in our daily lives and the basic structure of the U.S. government. #1. Determine the reasons for rules, laws, and the U.S. Constitution; the role of citizenship in the promotion of rules and laws; and the consequences for people who violate rules and laws. #2. Discuss the importance of public virtue and the role of citizens, including how to participate in a classroom, in the community, and in civic life.

Grade 4:

4.5 Students understand the structures, functions, and powers of the local, state, and federal governments as described in the U.S. Constitution. #5 Describe the components of California’s governance structure (e.g., cities and towns, Indian rancherias and reservations, counties, school districts).

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. #8. Describe the history and development of California’s public education system, including universities and community colleges.

English Language Arts

Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.

Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.

Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently.

Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

Distinguish their own point of view from that of the author of a text.

Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.

Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text..

By the end of year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, in the grades 4-5 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Visual Arts

Grade 1:

Develop Perceptual Skills: 1.1 Describe and replicate repeated patterns in nature, in the environment, and in works of art

Historical and Cultural Context: Diversity of the Visual Arts- 3.3 View and then describe art from various cultures.

Aesthetic Valuing: Derive Meaning- 4.2 Identify and describe various reasons for making art.

Grade 2:

Artistic Perception: Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design- 1.3 Identify the elements of art in objects in nature, the environment, and works of art, emphasizing line, color, shape/form, texture, and space.

Historical and Cultural Context- Role and Development of the Visual Arts- 3.1 Explain how artists use their work to share experiences or communicate ideas.

Connections, Relationships, Applications: Visual Literacy- 5.3 Identify pictures and sort them into categories according to expressive qualities (e.g., theme and mood).

Grade 3:

Historical and Cultural Context: Diversity of the Visual Arts- 3.5 Write about a work of art that reflects a student’s own cultural background.

Aesthetic Valuing: Make Informed Judgments- 4.3 Select an artist’s work and, using appropriate vocabulary of art, explain its successful compositional and communicative qualities.

Connections, Relationships, Applications: Careers and Career-Related Skills: 5.4 Describe how artists (e.g., architects, book illustrators, muralists, industrial designers) have affected people’s lives.

Grade 4:

Historical and Cultural Context: Diversity of the Visual Arts- 3.2 Identify and discuss the content of works of art in the past and present, focusing on the different cultures that have contributed to California’s history and art heritage.

Aesthetic Valuing: Derive Meaning 4.2 Identify and describe how a person’s own cultural context influences individual responses to works of art.; 4.5 Describe how the individual experiences of an artist may influence the development of specific works of art.

Connections, Relationships, Applications:Careers and Career-Related Skills- 5.4 Read biographies and stories about artists and summarize the readings in short reports, telling how the artists mirrored or affected their time period or culture.

Grade 5:

Historical and Cultural Context: Diversity of the Visual Arts- 3.4 View selected works of art from a major culture and observe changes in materials and styles over a period of time.

Aesthetic Valuing: Derive Meaning- 4.1 Identify how selected principles of design are used in a work of art and how they affect personal responses to and evaluation of the work of art.

Curriculum Suggestions:

Consider buying a class set of this book. Have the students peruse it on their own, telling them to simply look at the illustrations, and then read it aloud in class for a teacher-led discussion, including defining key terms (included in glossary). After the the discussion, (older) students can use the book like a textbook, gleaning facts embedded in the story and using the back matter which includes photos, glossary, multimedia bibliography and an index, to take their inquiry a step further.

The book will help students identify bias and prejudice. It can also be used to illustrate key themes that are taught throughout the elementary grades, including bullying, citizenship, and multiculturalism. It would also work well in an art class discussion of the cultural dimensions of the visual arts, the various reasons for making art, and as an example of the use of folk art from various time periods and cultures.

Idea: Have students use Storyboard That to share the basic story of desegregation and to encourage social action, good citizenship and tolerance.

Supporting Content (Multimedia Resources):

Author Talk (8 min. video):  Duncan Tonatiuh introduces his book and the inspiration behind his illustrations. Rather than a book reading, this video features the author explaining, in his own words, what the book is about and, importantly, where he got the inspiration for his striking illustrations. In this conversational, unrehearsed, and possibly homemade video, viewers are invited ‘behind-the-scenes’ to see what the author looks like- he’s dressed in jeans and appears to be in his own living room- and how he works. After a brief review of the book’s main idea in plain language, we move into his workroom where he shows his computer screen up close, bringing up images of the primary sources upon which the book’s illustrations are based, including a sample of an ancient Mixtec codex and an archival photograph taken during the years of segregation. Suitable for both lower and upper elementary students.

The National Archives’ David M. Rubenstein Gallery Exhibition Records of Rights (Online interactive exhibition):  This online exhibit allows students to see the depth and breadth of the ongoing struggle of Americans to define, attain, and protect their rights, helping students connect the Mendez case with the broader civil rights movement. The interactive exhibit is organized as a timeline, with a slider to move through key time periods and events, allowing the visitor to drill down into each section, revealing primary source material such as photographs, correspondence, governmental documents, and posters, as well as a 1-2 paragraph explanation. Within each drill-down there is a list of clickable tags, further enabling students to ‘connect the dots’ and follow their particular interest. While the complexity rating of the writing and its accompanying visual resources is quite high, having the exhibit displayed as a timeline, is instructive. This resource allows students to explore as they wish, while providing teachers excellent source material on which to base further instruction and activities. Suitable for upper elementary students.

A Story of the Hispanic Population in the US (infographic): This infographic shows latino population growth in the U.S. from 1850 – 2010. A series of pie charts, viewable at various time intervals, help illustrate how latino immigration has changed over time, in terms of numbers but also in terms of country of origin and citizenship, adding context to the era discussed in the book. It would also be useful for a broader discussion on Latino culture in general and or/immigration, as it sheds light on the widespread misunderstanding that all Latinos are Mexican and illustrates how Mexican immigration is in relative decline. Elementary school students will need assistance drawing more complex inferences from the data, but taken at face value, it provides a simple, yet interactive practice for using pie charts. Suitable for upper elementary students.

Twister (app): This app allows you to create a simulated tweet from a fictional or historical character. A simple form asks for a user name, which the student makes up, and the real name of the character being imitated so that it can be matched with an accurate photograph in the database. Then, the student types in the tweet (imagining what that person would say) and an historically accurate date; click ‘submit’ and a full color simulated tweet appears that can be either saved, printed, or shared. A fun app intended as an educational tool to help students identify the key characters, subjects, and motives of a particular topic. The QR code will take students to my completed tweet, but they have the opportunity to create their own with a simple click directly from that page. Lots of opportunity for creative thinking here. Suitable for upper elementary students.

The Racial Dot Map (interactive infographic): A truly exceptional infographic showing racial distribution at the neighborhood level. Using 2010 census data, the map shows one dot, color coded by race, for every person in America. While the book teaches the power of community action in changing racial segregation laws, this infographic expands the conversation to show that official desegregation has not necessarily resulted in true integration in some parts of the US. It would be instructive, for example, to compare Los Angeles with parts of the midwest, showing students the large concentrations of latinos in LA, and helping them recognize that the races are far more interspersed there than, say Chicago or Detroit. Students will need guidance to discover the stories held by the data, but will glean much and have a lot of fun simply exploring on their own. Suitable for upper elementary students.

Tags: Book Review,Citizenship,Desegregation, INFO237,K5, K5-ELA, K5-History-SocSci, K5-VisualArts,Mexican-Americans,Multicultural

Middle or High School Historical Fiction Pick: Shadow on the Mountain

ShadowOnTheMtPreus, Margi. Shadow on the Mountain. New York: Amulet Books, 2012. Print.

Plot:  This fast-paced work of historical fiction is based on the true story of a 14 year old boy who joins the underground Resistance movement in German-occupied Norway. Compelled at first by the sheer adventure of it, Espen takes on increasingly dangerous tasks that eventually force him to choose between his moral convictions and his friends and family. Set in a small town in Norway- a neutral country with a predominantly blond and blue-eyed populace- the story helps illustrate the key policies and tactics of the Nazis from an unusual vantage point.

Topics: World War II (1939-1945); Holocaust; Underground Movements; Spies; Norway – History.

Awards: Bank Street College Best Books of the Year; Notable Books for a Global Society; Judy Lopez Memorial Honor Book; VOYA Top Shelf for Middle Grade Readers; Jeannette Fair Memorial Book Award; Kirkus Best

Review: The pull of adventure and suspense, vivid descriptions, and the familiar social context of school friends will help young readers keep moving through the otherwise remote and unfamiliar territory that is WWII. There is some violence, but none of it explicit. Substantial back matter includes archival materials and bibliography as well as a pronunciation guide, code-breaking activity, and instructions for making invisible ink. This is an engaging book for a wide range of ages.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 730L, ATOS Book Level: 5.0, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 4.5, AR Interest Level: Middle Grade; AR Reading Level: 7

Qualitative Reading Analysis: This book scores a medium for text complexity. At nearly 300 pages, reluctant readers may balk at the heft, but will soon be drawn into the action-filled adventure. Readers need not be familiar with the specific geography and politics of WWII to follow the story and be entertained. They will likely come away with an appreciation of the main themes- oppression, espionage, moral conviction, and human dignity. Teacher-led analysis will help unpack these themes and connect them to the causes and consequences of WWII, and to see how the author uses characters with conflicting motivations to develop these themes.  1940’s Nazi-occupied Norway is not a typical setting for YA novels and the language used to set the scene, including terms such as “hair pomade”, “sneakers”, and “swell”, as well as references to Norse mythology, may slow readers down.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: History-Social Science, 10.8. Students analyze the causes and consequences of World War II-  #5: Analyze the Nazi policy of pursuing racial purity; and #6: human costs of the war.

Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.

Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Curriculum Suggestions: This title would work well as supporting text for a 10th grade WWII unit, particularly for reluctant and struggling readers who will read for the adventure and wind up learning a lot about WWII in the process. It would also be a compelling selection for 7th-9th grade independent or literature-circle reading, regardless of background knowledge.

Consider having students create their own timeline of events using HSTRY.COM, a free tool for making multimedia timelines. See product review here.

Links to Supporting Content:

Book Trailer

The National WWII Museum (website)  Topical overviews and summaries, primary source galleries, statistics and more- aimed at students. Also includes programs and resources for teachers.

Daring to Resist: Three Women Face the Holocaust- A Teacher’s Guide to the Film.  The purpose of this study guide is to help students think about the nature of resistance, which is the theme of Daring to Resist. How do the experiences of young Barbara, Faye and Shula relate to issues in the students’ own lives? The guide encourages students to explore ways that young people can make a difference in their personal lives and in their communities.

Find Out More: The Norway Campaign in World War Two (website)  Written from the British perspective, this is an accounting of the consequences of the failed takeover of Norway.

Norway: War Resistance Peace (webiste)   A source of Norwegian Resistance history in the form of interviews, archival documents, a timeline and more.

Ration Cards (1 min. video). Ration cards are part of the Shadow on the Mountain story; this brief video discusses the use of ration cards (in the U.S.) during WWII.

Loose Lips Sink Ships (archival document)  Millions volunteered or were drafted for military duty during World War II. The majority of these citizen-soldiers had no idea how to conduct themselves to prevent inadvertent disclosure of important information to the enemy. To remedy this, the government established rules of conduct. The following is excerpted from a document given to each soldier as he entered the battle area.

World War II, A War for Resources-Crash Course World History (video, 11 min.)  Join host John Green to learn about World War II and some of the causes behind the war. In many ways, WWII and the expansionist aggression of both Germany and Japan were about resources, especially food.

Tags: Book Review, Historical Fiction, INFO237, MS-History-SocSci, WWII

Book Pairing Pick: To Kill a Mockingbird and Feathers


Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Feathers. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007. Print.

Plot:  To Kill a Mockingbird: Eight year old tomboy Scout and her older brother Jem spend long unsupervised days happily playing  in the fields and creeks of small town Alabama in the 1930’s. Their favorite pastime and source of unending curiosity is the local house-bound recluse who they’ve named “Boo.” Convinced Boo is a monster, they dare each other to lure him out of the house, or to at least catch a glimpse of him. What they discover is that the real monster is not Boo, but rather the ugly racial and social prejudice that keeps their small town in a tight lock hold.  When their father, a lawyer, defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, Scout and Jem learn the painful truth of  injustice.

Feathers: When a pale, long-haired boy from the other side of the highway shows up at Frannie’s all-black school, he is quickly dubbed “Jesus Boy.” The name sticks because he does look like Jesus, and because he likes the moniker. Frannie is too busy worrying about her mom’s multiple miscarriages and her deaf brother to think too deeply about the new class enigma. Adamant that he is not white, Jesus Boy becomes the focus of everyone else’s insecurities: the preacher’s daughter believes that he may be the real Jesus, while the class bully, who looks part white himself, uses Jesus Boy as his psychological punching bag. Through her classmate’s various reactions, Frannie comes to understand that appearances can be deceiving, that we believe what we want to believe, and that communication can bridge divides. Most importantly, she learns that hope- light as a feather- is everywhere, floating on the wind.

Topics: To Kill a Mockingbird: Race Relations, Civil Rights, Prejudice, African Americans, Law & Crime; Gender Relations; Southern States; 1930’s

Feathers: Race Relations; Prejudice; African Americans; Faith; Friendship; Family Relations; Disabilities – Deaf Children; 1970’s

Review: Both of these books are timeless, thought-provoking, character-driven novels; one classic, the other contemporary. Both provide a strong sense of time and place- the deep South of the 1930’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and somewhere north of there in the 1970’s in Feathers– a pairing that underscores the persistence of racial and social prejudice. While Harper Lee’s classic provides an intimate and dramatic sense of the heartbreaking realization that life’s not fair, it might be said that Feathers delivers hope that the injustice of our tacit social norms could be unveiled for what it is by naming it; by saying it, and thereby “seeing” it.

But it’s not that Feathers continues where To Kill a Mockingbird left off, or that Feathers is simply more hopeful, it’s that Feathers provides an easy way in. The notion that people believe what they want to believe is a crucial aspect to both novels, but is much more explicitly, and far more gently, revealed in Feathers.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, readers must confront the gritty details of rape and other violence, attend to unconventional language demands and sometimes-confusing flashbacks, all while being able to discern Lee’s nuanced social critiques among the details of a far-away place long ago. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exceptional work with characters that readers are unlikely to ever forget, but, in comparison, Feathers makes fewer demands, while successfully getting to the heart of the big topics: race, prejudice, faith and hope. Reading both, students will sense the repeating motifs of perspective: looking but not seeing; the injustice of tacit social norms: saying but not hearing; and the hope of moral conviction.

Quantitative Reading Level:  To Kill a Mockingbird: Lexile: 870L, ATOS Book Level: 5.6, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 8.1, AR Interest Level: Upper Grades (9-12)

Feathers: Lexile: 760L, ATOS Book Level: 4.4, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 4.3 , AR Interest Level: Middle Grade; AR Reading Level: 4.4

Qualitative Reading Analysis: To Kill a Mockingbird: While the book’s major themes are explicit, the story compelling, and the language conversational, the subject of rape, Lee’s social critiques, and the historical setting of the novel indicate a high level of complexity.

The themes of race-relations and prejudice are straightforward: an innocent black man is assumed guilty- “a dead man” from the moment the crime was committed; Arthur “Boo” Radley is considered a monster until he is truly “seen”. The meaning of the book’s title is made explicit early on and references to it are fairly easy to identify, connecting it directly to the story’s overall superstructure of good vs. evil. Readers will be drawn to the vivid cast of characters and likely to never forget them. Readers will recognize the novel as a coming-of-age tale wherein Scout and her brother Jem, lose their innocence as they encounter evil in its various forms.

And yet, the cliché of not judging a book by its cover is developed in a myriad of touching and subtle ways beyond the basic plot of Tom Robinson’s trial and the character of Boo Radley. The exploration of prejudice is not limited to the lens of race. There is much here on class and social inequality that reveal yet more layers of the artificial, morally corrupt, and tacit rules that make up the landscape of ‘adult life’.

The book begins as a retelling of a childhood event by a grown-up woman. As such, readers come to expect Scout as the voice of reason, providing an adult filtering and sense-making process, but sometimes- unexpectedly- the narrator-protagonist, Scout Finch, reverts to her younger self- a less experienced self, complicating the sense of trust in the narrator to usher one through the text. In other words, these are not straightforward ‘flashbacks’, but rather, demand close attention by the reader. The structure of the book is otherwise straightforward.

While conversational, the dialog is not standard English and seeks to provide a strong sense of place and time.  As such, many words and phrases will be either difficult to recognize, such as “…folks say he pizened ‘em…” (p. 30),  or  potentially unknown, such as “Jee crawling hova, Jem!” (p. 148).

The knowledge demands of unpacking the overlapping and interrelated topics of justice, social norms, and civil rights are high. Maturity is required to recognize the power of invisible social structures, and then some smarts to apply that line of thinking to a different time period. Students will need to draw from academic background knowledge in the subjects of history, social science, and English language arts in order to think about and discuss the advanced themes on offer in this seminal text.

Feathers: Rated low for  complexity, Feathers is a slim, efficient, easy read. Never preachy, it hits the hard issues of race, class, faith and hope with a feather-light touch. While the references to 1970’s music and the occasional jive talkin’ dialog, “…right on brother -man, I feel what you’re saying” may be lost on young readers, the memorable characters and the accessible yet elegant literary devices work wonders to bring the message home. Requiring little to no background knowledge, this touching, timeless story is likely to provoke fruitful thought by readers within a wide range of ability.

Content/Subject Area & Standards:

High School English Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.10: By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Curriculum Suggestions: Use this book pairing in a 9th grade English class to make the heavy topics of race and class relations more accessible. Struggling readers will gain confidence from reading Feathers first, and more adept readers will simply enjoy it as a quick easy read; both types of readers will benefit from using the book as an entry point and as a comparison to the classic.

After reading both books, watch the following video as a primer for a discussion on the treatment of enduring themes: Is To Kill A Mockingbird Still Relevant Today? To discuss: The time period in which To Kill A Mockingbird (1930’s) and Feathers (1970’s) are set spans 40 years. And now, the setting for Feathers is 40 years old- are these books still relevant today? Why does popular fiction keep addressing this topic?  How do the two authors themselves and the time period in which they wrote affect their treatment of the same topic?

Links to Supporting Content:

Primary Source set from The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Includes photographs, documents, and objects that provide context for historical and thematic elements within To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Website

The Big Read’s Readers Guide to To Kill A Mockingbird- About The AuthorA program of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.

Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project works to research “cold cases” of racial violence and injustice from the Jim Crow era, attempting to set the record straight and help communities and families in the search for reconciliation and remediation. The 17-minute video “The Trouble I’ve Seen” describes their work. (Tavares, L. “Text to Text- ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names’” The Learning Network, The New York Times, 2 April, 2015. Web. 6, October, 2015.

Tags: Book Pairing, Book Review, Classics, HS-ELA,INFO237

Nonfiction Historical Pick: Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp

Children_of_Dustbowl_Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. New York: Crown, 1992. Print.

Plot:  In 1931, just as the Great Depression  hit, it stopped raining in the Oklahoma Panhandle. A severe drought and unrelenting winds made farming impossible and eventually hundreds of thousands of destitute families left the area for verdant California- the largest migration of people in U.S. history. With nothing but hope, the “Okies” arrived in California’s San Joaquin Valley to a hostile populace and very few jobs. Barred from local schools and living marginally in migrant camps, migrant children could not get an education.  Not until one man, touched by their plight, established an ‘emergency’ school for them by gathering donations, using his own resources, and having the children themselves construct the school.  The ‘Weedpatch School’ was a great success and a tremendous source of pride for the children- who, for the first time in their lives, had something to call their own.

Topics: History – U.S.- Depressions -1929-1941- Great Plains,  Dust Bowl Era, 1931-1939, History – California – 20th Century, Migrant Laborers – Children of, Education, Droughts.

Awards: Friends of Children and Literature (FOCAL) Award; Jefferson Cup Award; Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children; Spur Awards: Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction.

Review: This non-fiction historical work takes place at the emergency farm-labor camp immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Short of reading the classic, this documentary history gives readers a real sense of the hopeless depravity suffered by the migrants in a well-researched, richly conveyed, and easy-to-digest format. A great pick for anchoring further discussions on the Great Depression and the ‘dirty thirties’.

Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 1120 L, ATOS Book Level: 6.8, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 6.0, AR Interest Level: Middle Grade ; AR Book Level: 6.8

Qualitative Reading Analysis: Rated medium-low for knowledge demands, structure, meaning/purpose, and language features. Like a textbook, Children of the Dust Bowl is organized into fairly dense chapters with informative archival photographs, yet unlike a textbook it remains a compelling story from beginning to end. Large photographs, simple maps, song lyrics, and descriptive first-hand accounts help bring the “Okies” to life. Nine short chapters with plenty of white space that follow the Okie migration experience in a predictable chronological order will help offset the rather high Lexile rating of 1120. Readers will only need a basic level of preparation to situate this documentary history, but further teacher-led discussions will be required to fully integrate the story into the context of the Great Depression. Bypassing lengthy explanations of the larger economic and ecological factors contributing to the mass migration, the book zeros in on the inspiring story of the Weedpatch School, making it highly relatable to young readers.

Content/Subject Area & Standards: History- Social Science: 4.4: Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s– #5: Discuss the effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II on California.

English Language Arts- Reading Informational Text:

Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.

Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Curriculum Suggestions:

After reading Children of the Dustbowl, read (aloud in class) the March 12th, 2011 New York Times article, Itinerant Life Weighs on Farmworkers’ Children and discuss how the socio-economic issues of migrant labor continue to affect children in California today. [Sourced from:  Schulten, K. “Teaching Steinbeck and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with The New York Times” The Learning Network, The New York Times, 19 August, 2010. Web. 29, September, 2015.]

Pair Children of the Dust Bowl with the 2013 graphic novel, The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown, which relates the science behind the ‘dirty thirties’ that gave rise the the mass exodus of poor farmers out of the Oklahoma panhandle, and which highlights the potential of future similar ecological disasters. Alternatively, pair with Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan to compare the circumstances of the Mexican farm workers in southern California.

Many of the book’s photos were taken by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in order to document the lives of farm workers (see pg. 79). Expand on this by having students create a Pinterest board that tells the story of the of dust bowl, or of more recent migrant laborers using photos from Photos For, a free, safe (G-rated),high-quality, pre-cited/attribution-attached photos for students. Be sure to brainstorm a list of search terms that will find photos to convey the most important aspects of the story.

Have students listen to Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi song two times, and then pass out copies of the lyrics. Read the lyrics together and discuss situations Guthrie sings about that students discovered in the book. [Sourced from Colleen Carroll, children’s book author, curriculum writer-developer, and education consultant; Sleepy Hollow, New York. Random House Children’s Books. Web. 5 October, 2015.]

Supporting Content (Multimedia & Links):

Woody Guthrie singing “Do Re Mi” (2 min video [subtitled]): Woody Guthrie is famous for his songs telling the truth of the Dust Bowl period. This song, in particular, speaks to the ‘Oakies’ headed to a presumably better life in California: “Don’t swap your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are…California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see; but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got the do re mi.” The archival photos of both Guthrie and the Dust Bowl storms are interesting, and the subtitles help with the lyrics (full text of the lyrics can be downloaded here). An engaging way to begin a discussion of the situations that students discovered in the book.

The Dust Bowl PBS Interactive (website): This is a comprehensive website hosted by PBS in support of the Ken Burns Film, The Dust Bowl. The photo gallery section highlights the important role of visual images in exposing social problems, with an excellent selection of Farm Security Administration photos, some of which students are likely to recognize from the book. An interactive component of the site allows you to ‘choose your own’ story by assuming the role of the protagonist and making your own choices, such as Things are going well- do you keep the farm the same size or expand the farm? Each choice leads down a different path, illuminating the various economic, social and environmental factors that came into play. The Legacy section focuses on the thought-provoking question, Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again? While not designed specifically for young students, the site is visually interesting with accurate information. Detailed lesson plans and classroom activities using the site’s content are available in the Educators section.

The Geography of the Great Depression (Activity): The National Archives’ Docs Teach program offers this interactive map with archival photos to help students see how the Great Depression affected Americans in different parts of the country. This simple activity that engages a student’s visual literacy and geography skills, can be completed in 5-10 minutes. By investigating both the common themes and the differences in the photographs from different parts of the country, students can begin to contextualize the Dust Bowl events in the wider context of the Great Depression. Afterwords, students may be interested in browsing through the rest of this important institution to discover thousands of primary sources on the Great Depression and WWII, or on California by historical era. This is an excellent resource for both students and teachers alike, providing high resolution digitization of primary sources alongside a summary of their significance.

Drought severity map for the period 1930-1934 (interactive map infographic): The National Centers for Environmental Information creates animated maps of drought conditions in the US by stitching together monthly, color-coded drought indices data. The result is a visually dynamic demonstration of just how dry the central plains area (and indeed the large majority of the US landmass) became at the height of the Dust Bowl period. The animation is set to run like a slide show, but controls allow the viewer to slow it down, speed it up, pause it, or view it frame by frame (month by month). I have it set to display Jan, 1930- August, 1934, but students can easily change the dates to anywhere from 1900 up to last month. Use this as a jumping off point to discuss drought conditions in California- then and now, tying the discussion back to the central question posed in the PBS/Ken Burns resource: Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again?


Haiku Deck Dust Bowl Presentation: The beauty of Haiku Deck presentation software is its limitation on words. It forces presenters into selecting words efficiently, which results in a ‘less-is-more’ type of impact. This is true of this particular Dust Bowl presentation, where elementary students are sure to pick up on important information without being overloaded. The question and answer format is effective and the photographs selected are interesting. Having students create their own Haiku Deck presentation would be a wonderfully instructive research activity, as they will have to sift, sort and prioritize the information they have on a particular topic. It would also work well as a way of practicing visual literacy, by selecting photos that best convey that slide’s content. Be aware that the photo selection utility automatically links out to Flickr to source photography, which may pose concerns, but ultimately reflects the reality of children using the world wide web, and could be a useful real-world exercise.




Tags: Book Review, INFO237,MS-History-SocSci,Nonfiction-Historical