Migrant: Book Review and Writing Prompt

In Migrant: The Journey of a Mexican Worker, José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro have created a compelling work of art. Drawing from the experiences of children who migrate to the United States from Mexico and Central America, Migrant tells the story of a young boy who makes that dangerous journey with his mother and sister. The book takes the form of a codex, an ancient technique that utilizes a single sheet of paper or parchment to tell a story or give information pictorially. Codices were folded like an accordion, and some examples have survived this way for hundreds of years.

books about immigration, immigration book

In particular, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations used codices to record the sacred stories of their religions and details of their histories. Mateo and Pedro combined this heritage with a very modern story to create their book. Like an ancient codex, Migrant reads from the top down. The pictures, in this case, are all unified into a single image, but the narrative builds upon itself as the reader’s eyes move down the page. The book uses brief paragraphs alongside the image to explain exactly what’s happening. One side of the book has the text in English, and the other in Spanish, so it’s a great tool in a bilingual classroom.

books about Mexican immigration, immigrants to United States

The story itself is sparse. A young boy recalls a few details of life in an agricultural village in Mexico prior to his father’s departure for better economic opportunity in the United States. When money stops coming from his father, the boy, his mother, and his sister undertake a perilous journey to try to reunite the family. The dangers – riding on top of train cars, hiding from police – are enumerated, but not in a way that makes them too fraught for an elementary audience. While I would use caution in sharing this book with immigrant or refugee students who might have experienced similar situations, it’s a powerful introduction to the realities of immigration for students who have no personal experience with just how difficult it can be.

I’m actually itching to use this as a prompt with upper-elementary or middle school students. The illustrations in the book are unique both in style and detail, compared to most children’s literature, and I think they’d elicit some interesting independent work if you asked students to create a similar style of picture telling about an important event from their own lives. Then, students could build a short narrative writing piece alongside the image.  For students learning English, this format would give them a way to tell a complete story without having to focus as much on the mechanics of writing. Someone with more fluency in the language could help them write their narrative, with revision and editing work as appropriate.

In the past, I have suggested learning about immigration as a logical next step to studying the traditional Thanksgiving story. Migrant would definitely work in that same vein, and I recommend it highly. Please tell me how it goes if you use it with your students!

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Misty Copeland’s Firebird: Another book for little dancers

A few months back, I shared a few books that the little dancer at my house has loved. Recently, we’ve added one more to that list, so I thought I’d share it today.

Unless you’ve avoided nearly all media outlets, you’ve probably heard of Misty Copeland, who I’d argue is the most famous classical dancer in the world right now. {I think it’s beyond great that a classical dancer is a household name, but that might be a bit of personal bias.} Recently, Copeland was named the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and she’s made it her personal mission to involve more children of color in classical dance.


What I didn’t know was that last fall, Copeland published a children’s book called Firebird (IndieBound/Amazon). Illustrated by the amazing Christopher Myers, Firebird is a sort of free-verse poem written from Copeland to an imagined young dancer. Full of encouragement, the text uses the Stravinsky ballet Firebird as a frame for the advice Copeland would give a young girl whose life hasn’t always followed the easiest path.

darling child, don’t you know
you’re just where I started
let the sun shine on your face
your beginning’s just begun

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that my children (ages 3.5 and 5.5) would really like this book. Its intended audience is clearly older, and the style is far from narrative. Something clicked, though, and they’ve asked to have it read repeatedly. Myers’ bold illustrations help move the story’s idea along in a somewhat narrative way, and that may have made the difference for my little readers. As I’m writing this with the book on my lap, the 5.5 year old is singing “Firebird! Firebird!” and dancing around the house, so there’s a ringing endorsement.

The book ends with a letter from Copeland to the reader, where she shares that she wanted to give young dancers a book in which they could see themselves. With Firebird, she has achieved that goal, and probably set in motion more dancing dreams than she realizes.

This four-minute news story contains both an interview with Misty Copeland, and some footage of her dancing. The dancing portion includes some scenes from Firebird, including pictures nearly identical to those Myers used in the book.

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Navigating Early – I love it.

Like most girls of my generation, I grew up slightly in love with the all-boys’ prep school movies of the late 20th century. “Dead Poets’ Society” was obviously our favorite, and I like to think I recognized the genius of Robert Sean Leonard long before he appeared on “House.” Thus, when I found out that Clare Vanderpool’s latest novel, Navigating Early (IndieBound/Amazon), was set in an all-boys’ prep school in New England, I figured I would like it.

books for middle school, navigating early review

Several years ago, my mother’s cousin sent her home with a copy of Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (IndieBound/Amazon), which all three of us loved. Navigating Early is similar in that there are some fantastical elements within a more realistic narrative. Loosely framed within the style of an epic journey, Navigating Early follows two main characters – Jack and Early – whose lives have collided at a boarding school where neither particularly fits in. World War Two looms in the background, but seems quite remote from the rural Maine coasts and woods where the action of the novel occurs.

Today, we would consider Early autistic, but within the historical framework of the novel, he is just thought eccentric and difficult. Early’s particular fixation is on the number pi, and the elaborate storyline he has created to explain each of its digits. Jack falls into friendship with Early, and the two boys set out on a quest through the woods that eventually leads to some very unique characters and dangerous situations.

I think one of Vanderpool’s greatest strengths as a writer is creating characters that are relatable despite having some very singular qualities. Both main characters have lost their mothers, but they come to terms with that loss in very different ways. Both are struggling to understand the young men they are becoming, but their self-awareness comes at varying costs. Best of all, unlike those found in so many novels that middle schoolers read, these characters resonate with boys and girls, because Vanderpool’s coming-of-age stories transcend the tropes that many middle-grades writers seem to favor.

Increasingly, I am convinced that we kill a lot of novels – or at least the enjoyment that can be found in reading them – by teaching them to death. This is a book with enough going on that it could be ‘taught’ to a classroom, loved by a book group, or devoured by an eager solo reader. Vanderpool’s craft bears studying, and there’s plenty to unpack within the content, especially its convergence with epic verse. For once, I don’t think giving it a closer look would ruin it; rather, I think it would draw out the reader’s thinking and allow for a little more introspection.

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Some books in heavy rotation at our house right now are from Marie-Louise Gay‘s Stella series (IndieBound/Amazon). Focused on a very imaginative little girl – and sometimes her younger brother, Sam – these books take place in fairly standard settings, yet contain wonderful adventures.

children's read aloud, books about siblings

The watercolors are incredible in these books, and the illustrations contain little visual treats for the reader. You really feel transported when you read these, even though the situations are familiar. Sam asks a million questions, and Stella answers them as only a big sister can, with a lot of exaggeration and creativity.

Read Me a Story, Stella is probably our favorite so far, with its tromp through nature and hilarious explanations by Stella. The emphasis on outdoor exploration, with zero input from adults, makes this an attractive choice for those of us trying to encourage reasonable independence when playing outside. One of Gay’s strengths as an author (a bilingual author, no less) is that she manages to tell a child’s story from a child’s point of view without being cloying or ridiculous. You really get the sense that she remembers what it was like to be five or six, and in the process of coming to understand how the world works.

If you read about Stella and Sam, feel free to stop back by and tell us which book from the series is your favorite. 🙂

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A pretty remarkable book.

(You’ll be shocked to learn I picked up this one because of its cover. Then, I went to add the book links, and learned they changed the cover on the paperback edition. To this, I say BOO, because I think the hardback cover – seen below – more accurately captures the spirit of the book.)

novel for gifted studentsLizzie K. Foley’s Remarkable (IndieBound/Amazon) tells the story of Jane Doe, a very ordinary girl born to remarkable parents, in between two remarkable siblings, in a town so extraordinary that its name was changed – you guessed it – to Remarkable.  However, it’s not your ordinary introspective coming-of-age novel. Instead, it’s a mystery and adventure story mixed together with pirates, some adults who are not who they appear to be, and a fun smattering of cultural references that will keep adults chuckling to themselves. (Think pictures on milk cartons, and workplace fantasy football leagues.)

Ultimately, Remarkable is kind of a sweet little ode to being yourself and finding contentment from within, rather than trying to meet perceived expectations. The message is fairly standard, but a little bit unexpected in the ways that it plays out: “being yourself” might just mean leaving all your responsibilities behind and becoming captain of a pirate ship. Most of the supporting characters are a little stereotyped, but I think that Jane’s development overcomes this.

As I read the book, I realized that it’s the sort of book that would have been a perfect read aloud for my brother and me when we were children. The parts that were less interesting to me (pirate related chatter and a pair of twins’ attempts to undermine all authority) would have been my brother’s favorites. Equally, the parts that would have had him dozing (Jane’s grandfather’s reflections on why someone might want to disappear, and the wooing of a mysterious lake monster) were among my favorites. For this reason alone, I think Remarkable is a book worth exploring for adults who are working with more than one child, and especially for people who need to capture the interest of a wide range of readers.


Vintage Books for Christmas

We’ve been busy, but I haven’t been blogging. Surprised? I doubt it. We’ve discovered some vintage gems this Advent, so I’ll share a few of those quickly.

vintage christmas book, kate seredy bookOne day, I’ll write you a virtual dissertation on Kate Seredy, and why her books deserve a lot more modern attention than they get. In the meantime, rejoice that A Tree for Peter (IndieBound/Amazon) was just republished, and that The Chestry Oak will be returning soon. A Tree for Peter made me cry (not surprising), but it also made me think. It’s the story of a young boy growing up in a shantytown, and a mysterious stranger who changes not only Peter’s life, but also the lives of everyone Peter knows, with a few simple gifts. The shantytown is transformed, as are the hearts of its residents, largely through the not-so-magical-magic of feeling empowered and purposeful in their daily lives. There is also a wraparound story to the overall book that highlights the ability of young children to influence others through their actions. I will grant you that the plot is a little far-fetched, but I think the sheer inspiration of it overcomes that.

A few notes for the modern reader: Peter has a limp, and is called “lame” throughout the book. You’ll want to think about that ahead of time, and either discuss it in advance with your children or use a different word to describe how he has difficulty walking. There is also one reference to “wild Indians,” and once again you’ll want to decide how to handle that before you get to it. For a book of this vintage (1941), neither of those things is surprising, but they do require some forethought before reading this book in a classroom, especially.

vintage winter book, ice skating book

A Day on Skates, which is actually set after Christmas, is a new favorite at our house for Bethany (5). (IndieBound/Amazon) She asked me to read it again as soon as we’d finished it. It’s written and illustrated in a format that is very rare in modern publishing: it’s horizontal, with sporadic black and white illustrations on most spreads, with a few full page color plates. It’s a great intermediate step for kids who are pretty good at listening to picture books, and aren’t always great at following a story in a novel. They have to do some work to visualize the story, but there are some helpful illustrations just when they need them. This is especially handy for children like mine, who have zero frame of reference for things like ice, snow, and skating. I imagine children in North Dakota would need less help with this.

The premise of A Day on Skates is that a class of Dutch children are going on a full-day picnic that includes miles and miles of skating. It’s a huge undertaking, and plenty of adventures occur. (Spoiler alert: one of the main characters falls through the ice, the whole class visits a stranger’s farm for help (and pancakes), a group of boys gets locked in a church tower, and it begins to look like the group will not have the stamina to make it home, until they are rescued by a passing sleigh.) While I’m sure it’s written with a rose-colored pen, this book is also an interesting look at how people used to handle adversity, back before helicopter parenting was a thing.

Modern reader notes, again: There are numerous references to things/activities being “for girls” and “for boys,” in ways that irked me, personally. As we encountered these, the girls and I just talked through them, and I don’t think that impeded the flow of the story. There’s also a bit towards the end where a group of boys decide to be explorers, like Columbus, and I did a wretched hatchet job of changing some wording to more accurately reflect Columbus – landing, rather than discovering, for instance. I entirely skipped one paragraph referring to “red Indians,” because I had not pre-read to know that I’d need to do some explaining before we started. With older readers, I’d use this as a teaching opportunity to discuss prejudice and how it can show up in unlikely places.

christmas books, vintage rudolph book

My friends at Bound to Be Read had this little winner sitting in the window on Black Friday. Initially, I thought to save it for Christmas Eve, but then I just loved it too much to wait. This is the 75th anniversary reprinting of the original Rudolph story from Montgomery Ward. It’s delightful. The illustrations are vintage, and the language in the poem is pretty great. While ultimately this is a story about bullying (reindeer are cruel, it turns out), it’s pretty exciting to see how Rudolph really does help Santa, even in old-school four color illustrations. I think we’ve all been missing out, relying solely on the infamous Rudolph TV special for our reindeer knowledge, even if Rudolph was just a marketing gimmick. (IndieBound/Amazon)

In case I don’t get back here beforehand, I hope y’all have a Merry Christmas (if you celebrate it), and a great start to 2015. Thanks for reading!

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Angelo: An Unsung David Macaulay Classic

architecture books, books about loss and grief for children, children's grief books

Today, I want to share a little about this fantastic book that appeared on our library’s shelves a few weeks ago. Initially, I picked it up because of the author/illustrator. Like many people, I’ve long loved David Macalay’s magnificent architecture/engineering non-fiction works, including Castle (IndieBound/Amazon) and Mosque (IndieBound/Amazon). These large-format masterpieces have stayed in print for decades, and encouraged more than a few reluctant readers to read those pesky words sitting beside the intricate illustrations.

Angelo, by David Macaulay

Like Macaulay’s other work, Angelo (IndieBound/Amazon) is illustrated in almost a technical style, as you can see in the inset above. Unlike those other books, though, there is a definite human touch in the illustrations and story that makes this book really memorable. The story is straightforward: Angelo is a plasterer, working to restore a church in Florence. He befriends an injured pigeon, who becomes his constant companion. As Angelo ages and his health fades, the pigeon (now named Sylvia) provides as much help and comfort as she can. Angelo’s final masterwork is a permanent home for Sylvia, and Angelo passes away knowing that Sylvia will always have a safe place to rest.


I was genuinely surprised to reach the end of the story and feel so strongly about the way that Angelo and Sylvia had helped each other. The discussion of death is done so deftly that young children might not even realize exactly what has happened to Angelo. My three year old loves this story, and explains matter-of-factly that Angelo has died at the end, but focuses more on the final nest he created for Sylvia. My very sensitive four year old also enjoys rereading this book, and will take the time to carefully study the illustrations, looking for little secrets in the pictures.

While this may not be The Book to use if your child or student is facing a particularly difficult loss, I think it is amazing as a simple introduction to the concept that all living things will eventually die. There are no meaningless platitudes, and no particular religious references, other than the funeral scene taking place at the church that Angelo re-plastered. There is a calmness to the story, which comes from the reader knowing that Angelo led a beautiful life and that he and Sylvia would live on in each others’ hearts.

Basically, it’s just plain lovely.


You knew this was coming: The Obligatory Apple Post.

Those of you who disdain everything about traditional education should probably stop reading now. 😉 Those of you who have PTSD from thirty years of teaching Kindergarten might want to quit, too.

Girls and apples

But for everyone else, it’s apple time! When I taught second grade, I loved apple week. We did it, and we did it big: books, crafts, apple sauce in the Crock-Pot. It felt like 1978 or something. I’ve written about a couple of my favorite apple books before, but there is one more I’d like to highlight. Also, this gives me an excuse to post pictures of the girls from our apple picking excursion last month.

Apple Picking 2014

I think they’re pretty adorable, personally. (Side note: our apples were not as good this year. I assume this summer’s heat to be the culprit.)

apple book, children's apple book, book for fall, children's books for fall

I went on a little library quest for apple books, and almost came up empty. However, Ann Turner and Sandi Wickersham Resnick’s Apple Valley Year (IndieBound/Amazon) turned out to be a new favorite at our house. Written to reflect the growing cycle of an apple orchard, Apple Valley Year reminded me of Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney’s masterpiece Ox-Cart Man. Not only does the text reflect a simpler, agrarian past, the style of the illustrations is also folksy and detailed, much like Cooney’s.

farming books, books about apple farming, apple orchard

For those of us who are enjoying the resurgence of traditional skills, there’s a lot of eye candy in this book. Check out that quilt! There’s also a prominently featured wood stove and an embroidery sampler. One of my favorite things about this book is that it shows the way that various farm chores support the orchard in different ways. The family does more than work with the trees – they also move beehives to encourage pollination and encourage the fox family that preys on mice, whose gnawing threatens the trees’ health.

plant life cycle book, farm life cycles, agrarian america

There’s even a little bit of economics here. The book’s youngest characters talk about how they won’t have new shoes until after the apple harvest is sold, and the parents discuss the dependence of the family upon a high price for apples each year. Obviously, the book portrays a successful year in the life of the farm, but conversations between the characters help readers see that one reason for this success is the hard work of the entire family.

This is an excellent choice not only for that beloved apple unit, but also for reading comprehension skills like identifying cause and effect relationships and synthesizing. Readers could use knowledge gained about apple farming from this book to make predictions about modern apple farming, especially as it exists on a smaller scale. Equally, this is a great book to curl up with on the couch, while the applesauce cooks in the Crock-Pot. We’ll be doing that this week.

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Two New-to-Us Halloween Books

Halloween always seems to slip up on me, book-wise, and I end up reading all of our favorites in marathon fashion on October 30th and 31st. This year, I’m making a real effort to work these in a little bit sooner, so we can stretch out the fun over a few weeks. I’ve shared several of our family’s classic Halloween selections before, so today I wanted to share two new choices.

halloween books for kids, children's halloween books

This brand-new book reminds me, illustration-wise, of Ghosts in the House (IndieBound/Amazon), which I reviewed last year. It’s Only a Witch Can Fly (IndieBound/Amazon), by Alison McGhee with spellbinding illustrations by Taeeun Yoo. The book’s plot is fairly basic: a little girl sees a bright moon shining in the sky, and longs to be a witch so that she can fly to see it. Her early attempts result in failure, but eventually she manages to “be” a witch and fly to the moon.

When I first read this story to the girls, the rhyme scheme had me stumped. It was irregular, and I couldn’t figure out why some words rhymed and others just repeated. Then, I read the dedication page and learned that the text was written in the form of a sestina, a style of poetry that has its roots in the music of French troubadours. Obviously, this is highly unusual in a children’s book, but it definitely works for this story, because it evokes something ancient that helps the reader understand the little girl’s very basic and primal desire to fly.

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Another aspect of this book that I particularly enjoyed was the involvement of the little girl’s family. When the little girl’s attempt to fly results in her being flung from her broom, it is her younger brother that picks up the broom and encourages her to try again. After she soars across the moon in the night, her entire family runs to greet her and celebrate what she has done. While obviously not the sort of thing that happens in daily life, the love and support shown to the girl is downright heartwarming – not at all what you’d expect to see in a book where the main character wants to be a witch!

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Some of you are shocked to see this here, because you know I’m not normally a fan of books that turn into interminable series, and Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Click, Clack, Moo! (IndieBound/Amazon) seems to have done just that. However, the latest entry into the saga of a farmyard full of recalcitrant animals (and one pesky duck) is actually pretty fun reading. Click, Clack, Boo! (IndieBound/Amazon) takes us back to the farm on Halloween night, where we learn that Farmer Brown is not a fan of the holiday. In fact, he hides under his covers, hoping to skip the entire thing.

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Not surprisingly, the animals in the barn plan a huge party to celebrate, and their costumes are hysterical, which is to be expected. Also as to be expected, Farmer Brown finds a note from Duck, who is dressed as a vampire. Unexpectedly, though, the note actually invites Farmer Brown to join the animals in the barn, where he receives a surprise that is not at all spooky.

For those of you who have kiddos who get scared easily, this is a good book to read to discuss how things that seems spooky often aren’t frightening at all. Even though Duck’s behavior initially frightens Farmer Brown, we, as readers, know that it is just Duck, who is much more silly than scary. Bethany, who is afraid of anything in costume, found it reassuring to know that the animals in costumes were the characters she was used to seeing in Click, Clack, Moo.

Have you added any great new Halloween books to your libraries? We’re also looking for suggestions, so feel free to share if you have.

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Sophie’s Squash: I’m not the only fan of the butternut.

Last week, I told you about my little error in the book storage arena. As a result, we’ve been discovering some excellent new fall books, because we’ve had to actually pay attention to those at the library. Up today: Sophie’s Squash, by Pat Zietlow Miller, with illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf. (IndieBound/Amazon)

fall books, preschool fall book, elementary fall book

This one is only tangentially related to fall, but I snatched it up because I’d just bought my first butternut squash of the year from our friendly farmer, Mr. Chad. In the story, Sophie also selects a butternut squash from her local farmer’s market. Unlike me, though, Sophie considers the squash a friend, rather than an ingredient.

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As the story progresses, Sophie becomes increasingly attached to Bernice the Squash, while Bernice begins to deteriorate. Eventually, Sophie’s parents convince her to visit the farmer again, who tells her what squash need to thrive: “fresh air, good clean dirt, and a little love.” Sophie knows she has all of those things, so she buries Bernice in a little dirt bed in her yard.

children's books for fall, vegetable book

Winter arrives immediately thereafter, and Sophie frets about what will become of her beloved friend. It turns out that there is no need to fear, because Spring comes with a surprise better than she could have ever anticipated. The picture above gives you a little clue about that, but I’m not going to give away the entire ending.

My older daughter is a bit anxious by nature, and this was a good book for us to read and use to discuss ways that things that seem initially difficult can have surprisingly great endings. It’s also a book worth considering if you have a child or student who needs to give up a treasured object for one reason or another. Sophie’s caring nature is definitely one to emulate, and I think the overall message is one that would be useful for most children.

Butternut Squash

I feel like I should tell you that we did not create a doll out of our squash, since I have definite plans to eat it in the near future. Maybe I’ll figure out how to make one out of felt? There’s a chance I get that done before Sophie’s next book is published…

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