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Two Books to Add to Every Classroom Shelf & a Little Soapbox on Citizenship

I'm going to talk about two books today that need to be on every classroom shelf ; I'm talking K-12, even though they are listed as for a younger crowd. The reason I want to talk about them BOTH has mostly to do with my own tardiness. When I read Her Right Foot last fall, I was very, very, very remiss in not mentioning it because I so instantly adored it for so, so, so many reasons. Then, when the team of Eggers (writer) and Harris (illustrator) followed-up with What Can a Citizen Do?, and Chronicle Kids sent me a copy, I knew I couldn't just talk about one without the other.

Her Right Foot got plenty of love and I tend to shy away from writing about those books. I may love them alongside the masses, but my nature leans a supporter of the underdog.  Her Right Foot was going to be fine. It was going to make it into lots of kids hands. All the kid lit darlings were talking it up. It did not need my little blog. And it was sort of overwhelming in it's educational possibilities. I'd have to REALLY offer some great teaching thoughts and there was the matter of finishing my doctorate that semester. So....yeah, excuse.

What Can a Citizen Do? is releasing in two days and I've seen a smattering of glowing thoughts on it, though one was rather critical (more on that later). I didn't instantly love it the way I had Her Right Foot, but by the third read, I definitely thought it belonged right alongside Her Right Foot on every classroom shelf.

Subtlety is a foundational key in stellar writing for children and writers tend to lean way, way too didactic when they set out to write a "children's book," especially authors who typically write for an adult audience. Mr Eggers has done a fabulous reining-in of the adult-to-kid speak on two topics that could have very easily leaned toward didactic. Both books have A LOT to say about our American societal experiment and What Can a Citizen Do? is even more subtle than Her Right Foot, not only because clocks in at 40 pages versus 104, but because our current state of affairs defining citizenship in this country creates presuppositions regarding what the book MIGHT say in an adult reader's mind.

While Her Right Foot is busy teaching kids facts about Liberty Enlightening the World (the real name of the Statue of Liberty), it is ever so subtly bringing home the message about her symbolism within the American experimental ideal of a diverse and welcoming society grounded in freedom and liberty for all. No preaching, no teaching about ideals of liberty, it's strength lurks quietly within the theme, whilst it goes about offering engaging facts (the absolute best way to teach kids).

What Can a Citizen Do? is even more subtle in theme and I think that's why it took me a third read to fully ignore my adult expectations on what the book was going to be about, something the writer criticizing it over at Kirkus Review failed to consider. The writer over there missed the mark when s/he said it was, "opaque and painfully insensitive to America’s practiced definition of citizenship both historically and contemporarily, which denies the humanity of those not legally deemed citizens." I'm not going to lie; I did keep waiting for some treatise on the legalities of becoming a citizen in the USA - and that treatise never comes. But it is not "opaque" or "insensitive;" it's just not about what you expected it to be about. The writing isn't a statement on the fact that we should be letting everyone who wants to BE a citizen of the USA be one - that message is actually better themed in Her Right Foot. The point lies in the theme that everyone, regardless of a piece of paper saying they belong, already IS a citizen and they can join and be part of something; they can have a voice anyway.

We have lots of children's literature on the immigrant experience and we probably need a new one to address the current immigration war, but  What Can a Citizen Do? is not that book and expecting it to be so simply comes from our own expectations based on the current state of affairs in our country. If you look at the book for what it is: a group of citizens who work together to build a better space for each other, you see Eggers ignoring the current 'othering' that happens when we assign citizenship to a piece of legal paper. I actually find that subtlety fantastic and that's why I think it also makes it a K-12 book. The conversation a high school lit or social studies teacher could ignite with this book would be phenomenal!
Genre: Nonfiction with Flare (I'm going to start calling these new nonfiction offerings this!)
Grades: K-12 (Intro the little ones to sharing & community; debate the state of current affairs with the old ones)
Themes: Immigration, Citizenship, The American Experiment, Activism
Thank You to Chronicle Kids for my copy of What Can a Citizen Do? (PS: You can send mea copy of Her Right Foot any time you'd like ;-)

Buy Her Right Foot HERE

Buy What Can a Citizen Do? HERE

Here's a couple videos you might also use in the classroom:


If you're looking to do an entire unit on this subject, I'll throw a few links to start, but honestly, just google it..... there are links and links devoted to these themes.

Here's a link to 19 Books about the Immigrant Experience in America (from the website Brightly).

Here's Amazon's list of best selling books on the subject of immigration.

Here's Buzzfeed's pick of 15 Immigration books for kids

Want to know more about the author? Here's his website.
I, like everyone else on the planet, have read and enjoyed his Pulitzer-nominated adult book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Literary types will also know that he founded McSweeney's Publishing. Children's literature looks to be a new venture for him and he sure started with a bang (seems to be a pattern with him).
Given no credit throughout this post is illustrator Shawn Harris. Here's his website.
I've said it before, I'm not an artist so I feel less inclined to discuss illustrators in my posts, but Mr. Harris deserves better than I can offer. Both books are done using an amazing paper cutting technique in a way that adds depth and movement to the page. This book would also be an excellent example of that technique for use in art classrooms! 
Here are a few links discussing his technique: One Here and Another Here and Here

-------------------- That's all folks! --------------------
 © 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com

Eraser by Anna Kang with illustrations by Christopher Weyant

Publisher's Synopsis: "Eraser is always cleaning up everyone else’s mistakes. Except for Ruler and Pencil Sharpener, none of the other school supplies seem to appreciate her. They all love how sharp Pencil is and how Tape and Glue help everyone stick together. Eraser wants to create so that she can shine like the others. She decides to give it a try, but it’s not until the rubber meets the road that Eraser begins to understand a whole lot about herself."

My Two Cents: Honestly, those little pink erasers have always been a forgotten tool in my classroom; the idea of a little under-appreciated eraser is quite on point! 
Time for school supplies = colorful pens, shiny new crayons, sharp pencils, full glue sticks, and white stacks of crisp paper. Eraser is a very creative idea, executed wonderfully with fun puns and engaging illustrations. It's a great opportunity to teach that mistakes are not only acceptable, but expected - teachers give you a special tool for them after all!

Definitely one to add to the growing list of anthropomorphized school supplies (The Day the Crayons Quit and The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors) and has a place in elementary school libraries and Pk-2 classroom shelves.

There is a great activity kit with a writing lesson on drafting & editing, as well as a doodling page and character cut outs. You can snag it HERE.

Cute book trailer adds to the telling for classroom reader aloud. Might use it as a pre-reading/prediction strategy.......

Genre: Picture Book
Age: 3-7
Themes: Aside from the cooperation theme, I really like the opportunity to build on growth mindsets here. First grade students can especially become frustrated (given their cognitive expectations and developmental age). I can see this as a strong tool for teachers with self-critical students.
Character Development: Eraser is the star, but the other school supplies are rendered as one would imagine each to actually behave in both words and physical characteristics.
Plot Engagement: Standard plot arc... Eraser gets mad, Eraser runs away, Eraser comes back having learned. This tale could have been less if not for an endearing main character, great word choice and exactingly drawn illustrations.
Originality: Made this old educator consider that little pink eraser I had been ignoring for most of my teaching career and reimagine it as the tool that it really is!
Believability: Illustrations really add to the ability to relate to anthropomorphized school supplies.
Thank You to Amazon Prime for my free Kindle copy!
Date: September 2018
ISBN: 978-1503902589

You can buy Eraser HERE
-------------------- That's all folks! --------------------
© 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Publisher's Synopsis: "It's been five years since the Sweep disappeared. Orphaned and alone, Nan Sparrow had no other choice but to work for a ruthless chimney sweep named Wilkie Crudd. She spends her days sweeping out chimneys. The job is dangerous and thankless, but with her wits and will, Nan has managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.

When Nan gets stuck in a chimney fire, she fears the end has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself unharmed in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature—a golem—made from soot and ash. 

Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster. Together, these two outcasts carve out a new life—saving each other in the process. Lyrically told by one of today's most powerful storytellers, Sweep is a heartrending adventure about the everlasting gifts of friendship and wonder."

I'm just going to say it plain and simple...........  I LOVED Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster! There is just so much right about this tale: excellent writing, well-blended mix of history and fantasy, alternating perspective chapters, an endearing protagonist and her sweetly innocent monster. ALL of it is near perfection for the age range. I am even going to go out on a limb and name it a Newbery contender. 

Teaching Thoughts: Sweep jumps right into the chimney sweeping action and orphaning and some struggling readers would benefit from some backstory on 19th-century England and chimney sweeps before setting off, but most readers will fall in love with Nan, and then Charlie quick enough to figure all the historical unknowns. The book clocks in at 368 pages, but the chapters themselves are short enough to capture even struggling readers attention; yet strong vocabulary, historical framing and plotting also hold the more advanced readers' attention.

Having previously read and enjoyed Mr. Auxier's Night Gardener, I felt the same strong mood/tone methods at work. He creates melancholy without falling into gloom; the reader feels protagonist Nan's story. Lots of opportunities for teachers to pull mood/tone - author's purpose examples from his work. 

Social Science themes on activism, child labor, 19th-century England, anti-semitism can all be explored. 

Although I did not see it in the digital copy, I have read that the book will have additional information on topics such as golems, chimney sweeps, etc... at the end. 

I highly recommend this title for both library and classroom purchase. It would also make an excellent read aloud.
Genre: Historical Fantasy? Magical Realism? Both!
Age: 9 - 12
Pages: 368
Themes:  Friendship, overcoming adversity, activism, wonder 
Sweep also takes a nod towards Dickens with orphans, England, nasty adults and abused children
Character Development: Protagonist Nan is strong from the get-go, Toby is the embodiment of hope in a bleak world, and Charlie.......... innocent, wonder-filled golem Charlie.......  is as strong a supporting charter one could ask for
Plot Engagement: Some young readers have trouble with alternating storylines, but as a reading specialist, I love this type of mental workout for my students. One storyline is melancholy remembrance, the other is action present.
Originality: A GOLEM... not too many golems in children's literature, played so well as soot and ash, instead of the traditional clay, with the chimney sweep history. This is a premise that when pitched to a publisher might get you booted out the door. But, man, it works!
Believability: Never a minute of disbelief - turning pages into the wee hours of the night to finish sort of story
Thank You to NetGalley for my digital copy and to publisher ABRAMS Kids/Amulet Books
Date: September 2018
ISBN: 9781419731402
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Here's a lovely book trailer from the author

You can read more about author Jonathan Auxier on his website www.thescop.com . There's lots of videos and resources as well as information on author visits. 

-------------------- That's all folks! --------------------
 © 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com

The Affective Jacob's Ladder Reading Comprehension Program

I was given a copy of Affective Jacob's Ladder Reading Comprehension Program Grades 4-5 through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers. This was my first exposure to this particular reading curriculum which was developed by the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary. There are many grade ranges in the series, but this book appears to be the first that aims to broaden a student’s affective/social-emotional intelligence whilst also increasing reading comprehension (as appears the sole target of other books in the series). As full disclosure warrants, I must mention that my scholarly experiences do not lean toward the gifted/talented student; I have MUCH more experiences with struggling comprehenders. However, I must argue that many of the strategies employed by teachers of such labelled students are good strategies for ALL students, and I found that to be the case with this curriculum.

 This is a very mixed review. I liked the curriculum, found it to be a useful tool, but there always seemed to be a qualifier as I was writing what I liked about it.

I particularly liked that the authors used a variety of genres and mediums, as well as mixing classic tales with modern interest pieces. HOWEVER, I think students could also enjoy a little cross-analyzation of how those writings and mediums differ yet all seek to do similar things (perhaps I missed this in the book, but I saw mostly that each ‘lesson’ was tied to only one particular story).

I am also excited, in today’s test-driven world to see ANYTHING written with social-emotional growth in mind. Call me an old-fuddy-duddy, but I think we better get back to making schools more than utilitarian factories, churning out robotic test-takers. HOWEVER, I also think that many of the prompts/lessons could be stretched a bit further even (and probably will be by many a teacher).

The authors included a handy and interesting pre and post assessment, BUT where I come from, the assessments students take are prescribed so there would be little time in the mandated scope & sequence of the year to add them. This leads me to my two criticisms of the book (and probably the whole series): lack of alignment to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the presumption of “giftedness.”

Public school teachers make up the largest group, by far, of humans educating the future citizenry. And while I am located and have only taught in test-insane Florida, I am also aware that most public schools in the entire United States are tied to a standardized test, measuring specific standards (oh, the horror stories to be told there). This curriculum 100% covers many, if not all, of the CCSS. YET, the teachers I know are required to list those in their lesson plans. Therefore, they would have to sit with each lesson and decide which of the CCSS each lesson taught/practiced/assessed, etc…. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal until you consider that the teacher probably has 3-5 different lessons going in just English-Language Arts alone. Start adding that up and you can see why having the authors make a simple footnote of standards aimed at each lesson would be so helpful (instead wasting paper on a blanket appendix of standards that every public-school teacher in the country knows like the back of their hand).

 Lastly, I’m going to get on a high horse. I was a remedial reading teacher and a remedial reading coach. These lessons would have been fabulous with my students too! Why must we always label things? I raised two “gifted” kids and one “average” kid. My “average’ kid is a doctor. Again, it’s my soapbox and probably doesn’t have anything to do with the merits of this curriculum.…….

I think this is a worthy school/teacher purchase. I just wouldn’t delegate it to the “talented” few.

For those further interested... Click HERE for a Powerpoint that explains the overall curriculum in more depth:

Even more can be found on the program by clicking HERE 

And here is the publisher's synopsis: "The Affective Jacob's Ladder Reading Comprehension Program uses a model approach to scaffold student learning and promote inquiry-based discussions of texts. This series of Jacob's Ladder focuses specifically on supporting advanced students' social-emotional needs through the discussion of reading selections in the following genres: short stories and media, poetry, and speeches, essays, and biographies.

Using the same critical thinking ladder framework, students move from lower to higher level skills of self-awareness, metacognition, and goal setting. The books include high-interest readings, poems, and connections to videos and songs that integrate reading comprehension and analysis skills with affective and social-emotional needs, as students are asked to apply themes, character or real-life experiences, and lessons from texts to their own lives. New ladders were specially designed for this series and derived from relevant theories about empathy, risk and resilience, achievement motivation, and mindsets and practices for cultivating talent.

The Affective Jacob's Ladder guides provide teachers with an explanation of the nature and substance of the theoretical constructs for each ladder. Also included are an overview of the goals and objectives of each ladder and suggestions for how to implement the ladders in the classroom in a way that supports students' academic and social-emotional needs at the same time."

-------------------- That's all folks! --------------------
 © 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com

Toaff's Way by Cynthia Voigt

Publisher's Synopsis: "Meet Toaff: a lovable squirrel, and new standout character, searching for a place to call home in this gem of a story by a Newbery Medal-winning author. Toaff is a small squirrel full of big questions. Why must I stay away from the human's house? Why shouldn't I go beyond the pine trees? Why do we fight with the red squirrels across the drive? His sister shrugs--that's just the way things are. His brother bullies--because I said so. And the older squirrels scold--too many questions! Can Toaff really be the only one to wonder why? When a winter storm separates him from his family, Toaff must make his own way in the world. It's a world filled with danger--from foxes and hawks and cats to cars and chainsaws. But also filled with delight--the dizzying scent of apple blossoms, the silvery sound of singing, the joy of leaping so far you're practically flying. Over the course of a year, Toaff will move into (and out of) many different dreys and dens, make some very surprising friends (and a few enemies), and begin to answer his biggest questions--what do I believe and where do I belong? Master storyteller Cynthia Voigt offers readers a rich and rewarding story of finding one's way in the world."

My Two Cents: I think maybe Kirkus reviews hit the nail on the head best when describing Toaff's Way as, "A brilliant, bushy-tailed bildungsroman." This coming-of-age story has A LOT of great stuff going for it: inviting chapter transitions, suspense, new and interesting creature characters, changing seasons to change the setting, cute little drawings, and an extremely likable protagonist. It is a super read-aloud choice for 1st - 3rd grade, but I think strong 2nd grade, and average 3rd - 4th grade readers will also enjoy this title for independent reading very much.

Animal-Tales aren't for all kids, but Toaff's Way has enough going that I think both typical animal-tale readers, along with a few new to animal-tales readers will stay with it.  Toaff's Way might be the book to get those adventure genre kids into a new genre as it has adventure and humor, done craftily subtle compared to the typical in-your-face humor attached to children's literature of late (sorry, showing my age and my reluctance to embrace all those potty-humored stories!).

My favorite part of Toaff's Way is the hidden in plain view themes on prejudice, othering, and elitism. Voigt shows absolutely no preachiness about these deep subjects; my favorite kind of non-didactic children's tale (oh, how I hate books that preach at kids!), instead making it integral to the tale itself.  Steering classroom conversations about these tough subjects would be made easy and non-threatening when led by examples of furry, little, sharp-toothed creatures instead of big, mean, orange-hued, sharp-toothed Tweeters. In fact, it would be much more effective (in my humble opinion) than trying to get young children engaged in any sort of discussion on the current political state of othering people. I believe Toaff's Way would be a great introductory story to gift students with conceptual knowledge on these difficult themes for when they are later confronted with their ugliness. That, after all, is what great children's literature does.

Genre: Animal Tale
Age: Publisher says grades 3rd - 7th, but that is really stretching it. I'd say closer to 2nd - 4th  grade
Pages: 272
Lexile: 790
ISBN: 978-1524765361 Knopf Books for Young Readers

Themes: Bravery, Self-Determination & Belief, Coming-of-Age, Prejudice, Elitism, Bias
Character Development: Toaff is what it's all about and though a few character's develop a little, this is a story all about a spirited, inquisitive, brave, and impulsive little squirrel
Plot Engagement: The chapters are short and end with either cliffhanger or foreshadowing so as to very much make the reader want to keep going.
Believability: Yep. Toaff has an excellent voice penned by a master writer
Thank You to NetGalley for my advanced digital copy and to Publisher Random House Children's for making it available there :-)

It should also be noted that Toaff's Way is part of a larger series called: The Davis Farm Books that all take place on the same farm. If a kid likes this one, they'll surely enjoy seeing some of the same characters in all three books!


 You can read more about author Cynthia Voigt on her website: HERE

-------------------- That's all folks! --------------------
 © 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl S. Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com

The Other Dog by Madeleine L'Engle - a tiny book review

Publisher's Synopsis: "Reissued in hardcover to coincide with the movie release of A Wrinkle in Time, here is a true tale of dog-meets-baby from Newbery Medal–winning author Madeleine L'Engle! Based on Madeleine L'Engle's own poodle's experience coping with a new baby in the house, this sprightly picture book presents a familiar domestic drama with an utterly charming new twist. Tongue-in-cheek wit, endearing illustrations, and a revealing author's note make this a publishing event to celebrate!"

My Two Cents: Popping it's little head back into publication on the heals of L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time movie hoopla, The Other Dog is a simple and sweet tale of a dog's jealousy when Mom & Dad bring home another dog (aka: baby). Although the book is a exaggerated look at sibling feelings with the addition of a new baby, I think it has a wider appeal. Lots of kids will enjoy doggie Touche L'Engle-Franklin's affronted tone and eventual love for the new family member.

Some quick teaching thoughts:
  • Compare the dog's character traits to humans (anthropomorphisms).
  • Examine the narrator's point of view compared to what the reader knows (it's a baby, not a dog!). 
Note: Third grade standards listed, but can spiral down to 1st & 2nd, of course :-)(CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events / CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.6 Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.)
  • Examine how the illustrations help the reader know more than the dog.                        (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.7 Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.)
  • Discuss rivalry and jealousy - vocabulary meanings, as well as feelings
  • As an added bonus, the author includes a true tale of Touche L'Engle-Franklin, which is as interesting as the story itself. This would be a great addition for older students reading A Wrinkle in Time in order to learn a little bit more about the author herself or as a great way-in book to compare writing styles (very different) from the same author. 
Genre: Picture Book
Age: 4-8
Pages: 48
Themes: Sibling Rivalry, Family, Point of View
Character Development: Love the sassy dog narrator
Plot Engagement: Decent, not super engaging, but sweet and slow win-over of the dog brings a smile
Originality: More just a sweet tale of the author's real dog, not meant to be super out-there like her other works
Believability: The protagonist's voice, along with the true-tale, gives it strong believability
Thank You to Chronicle Books for my lovely copy.
Date: New issue = May 2018
ISBN: 978-1452171890

BUY The Other Dog HERE

Most people know Newbery winning author Madeleine L'Engle from her Time Quintet series that began the fabulous, and one of my all-time favorite novels, A Wrinkle in Time. Please don't ever see the movie before you read that book! In fact, just skip that movie (sorry, Oprah). You can read more about her HERE. She was a fabulous lady!
Teachers can find lots of resources and information for her many books there also.
----------------- That's all folks! -----------------
© 2007-2018 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com
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