Sweet Home Alaska
If good historical fiction is supposed to make us wonder about the people who lived during various points in history, then Sweet Home Alaska is certainly good. It had me, instantly upon closing the last page at 1:00 am, researching the Matanuska Valley Colony. I don’t have a vast knowledge of Roosevelt’s New Deal specifics, I just know that the vestiges can be seen in our public spaces and government programs.

Sweet Home Alaska paints a vivid picture of American life during the Great Depression. That life, unlike many others that I have read set during that time, was not all doom and gloom, but rather, filled with love, laughter and community - good people doing good things, families working together, neighbors helping. Drawing on the pioneer spirit of one of her favorite authors, protagonist Terpsichore Johnson, reads Laura Ingalls Wilder tales of pioneer life in preparation for her family’s move from Wisconsin to the wilderness of Alaska. Terpsichore’s little mill town in Wisconsin has been hit hard by the Great Depression and her father is an unemployed mill worker who doesn’t want to go on public assistance. His plan is to apply for a New Deal program relocating families to the Alaskan wilderness, where they will be given money and land to start a new town. Through several twists and turns, Terpsichore’s family is chosen and that’s when the story really takes off (literally and metaphorically). 

The Johnson family is well-drawn, with only Terpsichore’s mother being a bit flat in her rendering. The spirited folks and friends Terpsichore meets in Palmer, Alaska all play wonderfully realized parts in her story. Author Carole Estby Dagg paints a vivid portrait of Alaska and the hardships the settlers faced. Historical facts and figures are sprinkled throughout the tale and give the telling an even greater richness.

As with most strong historical fictions, the sense of place and time are very much a character. It all made me want to plan another trip to Alaska!

Publisher’s Synopsis: “It’s 1934, and times are tough for Trip’s family after the mill in their small Wisconsin town closes, leaving her father unemployed. Determined to provide for his family, he moves them all to Alaska to become pioneers as part of President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project. Trip and her family are settling in, except her mom, who balks at the lack of civilization. But Trip feels like she’s following in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps, and she hatches a plan to raise enough money for a piano to convince her musical mother that Alaska is a wonderful and cultured home. Her sights set on the cash prize at the upcoming Palmer Colony Fair, but can Trip grow the largest pumpkin possible–using all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise she can muster?”
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: 10+
Grades: Middle Grades (5-6 especially)
Lexile: 870L
Thank You to Blue Slip Media for my review copy!
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (a division of Penguin Books)
Date: February 2, 2016
ISBN: 978-0399172038 

Themes: Tenacity, Attitude, Family Love, Friendship, Teamwork
Topics: Cooking, Gardening (especially pumpkins), Homesteading, Alaskan Wilderness, Building a library collection, Musical Inspiration, Literary Inspiration
Characterizations: Good representation of the era and the people living in it
Plot: Will the family do well moving to Alaska? Will the Matanuska Valley Colony thrive?
Originality: Although it certainly borrows from historical journey tales, I have not seen ANY other children's titles on the Alaskan Matanuska Valley Colony.
Believability: Great historical fiction must always ground itself in history in order for us to believe in the character's tellings. This was an excellently researched story.
Diversity: When reading historical fiction, it’s important that we frame our understandings today against a backdrop of times past. Yes, there are a few stereotypes of Alaska and its indigenous people presented by the Caucasian characters, but they would have had those stereotypes during that time. Placing diverse characters in books for the sake of tokenism is just as bad as whitewashing history. I teach my future teachers to look for tokenisms and avoid those book!  Author Carole Estby Dagg seeks to frame her story by giving an account of the decisions she made with regard to omitting  indigenous Alaskan peoples. Her thinking is presented as an author's note at the back of the book. Her thoughts would be an EXCELLENT jumping point for discussions about westward expansion, indigenous peoples rights and colonization - much more-so than any inserted token indigenous peoples.

You can buy Sweet Home Alaska HERE.

  • You can read more about the author on her website: HERE
  • You can find a great curriculum guide: HERE
  • You can read about how Laura Ingalls Wilder's books influenced ----- over at the Nerdy Bookclub:  HERE

--------------- That's all folks! ---------------
© 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at
Authentic Texts Are Best!
It occurred to me today that I assume those        reading my ramblings on Reading Rumpus simply know how to use authentic literature as mentor texts. That was an assumption I made whilst teaching preservice teachers last year - and it was a poor one. Therefore, I thought I should spend a moment talking about selecting authentic literature for instructional use and how most of my full book reviews (not the mini-reviews) include some sort of authentic text teaching ideas, even if I haven't explained HOW to use them as such.

Authentic texts used as mentor texts are pieces of children's literature that contain model examples of English language arts (ELA) skills within their writing. By authentic children's literature, I mean that the texts were not specifically made for instructional purpose. These texts are all or part of a children's book and are usually considered strong in literary merit. Teachers look for these model examples of writing in order to use the authentic texts to explicitly instruct specific ELA skills. Those of us who were 'trained up' during the Whole Language phase of reading educational theory, do it like second nature (whole language debate best left fettered for now!).

What are some important things to know when using authentic texts to mentor English language art skills?

Front-load the vocabulary: As I read any new children's literature selection, I note words that may trip up my students and words that are disciplinary (unique to the topic).  Before we begin the text selection, I always give a quick overview of the new words (with an example and visual if possible).

Read the beginning and the example section(s) of the text aloud: In the case of novels... I find it important to begin by reading the first chapter or so aloud. It helps lock fluent language in their minds and engages them in the text. In the case of picture books, regardless of age, I typically read the entire text. Then, when the time comes to highlight the instructionally selected section of text, I reread the text - or sometimes I have a volunteer student reread the text selection. Either way, the ELA example section needs to be heard and seen by all.

Check comprehension after you read and before you use the text to teach: Before you begin using the text as an explicit teaching example, make certain that the students understand what they have read. As I always say, "comprehension is king."

Create an anchor chart: If the text selection is used as the first time you are teaching a particular ELA skill, use the selected text to create a reminder of the lesson on an anchor chart. You can refer back, and add, to the anchor chart as the year progresses and the students gain more experiences with that skill.

Keep "reading" journals: Have the students make note of the skills and the books used as mentor examples. You can refer back to these, like the anchor charts, and they are super fun to review at the end of the year. Students will be amazed at all of the books you've read together (I have a very specific way of keeping reading journals, but that's a post for another day)!

How does one select the best authentic texts to use as mentor texts?

Multiple Examples: The best mentor texts contain multiple examples of a specific skill. It's not enough to choose one sentence that uses a preposition to teach prepositional use. The text you select for that skill needs to have multiple examples of various prepositions and, according to developmental level, multiple ways of use.

Consider Literary Merit: Just because a book has multiple examples of an ELA skill doesn't make it a good choice. Solid writing skill matters. Story, plot, structure, characterization.... all the  great writing requirements need to be there too. Strong readers and writers grow from simply hearing and internalizing proper language use.

Consider Diversity: Students need to see themselves and their friends represented in your example. American literature tends to lean white and Christian. This is a very important consideration; choose a broad range of authentic literature in order to expose all students to many cultures, races, ideas and beliefs.

Anyway.... I just thought I would give my two cents on using authentic texts since Reading Rumpus is pretty-much completely built around the idea that kids learn best from authentic texts! 

Quick Note: Authentic Texts and Mentor Texts are different from Source Texts. Authentic means real world selections (books, novels, and maybe source texts). Mentor means they can be used to teach explicitly from because they contain model examples of ELA skills (books, novels, and maybe source texts). Source Texts are examples of writings that are sources of information for various disciplines, typically the sciences and social studies. Think of the Constitution when you think of source texts :-)

 --------------- That's all folks! ---------------
 © 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at

photo credit: Ben White on Unsplash
“Fall down seven times; get up eight” is one of many witty quotes that highlight the central theme of SumoKitty written and illustrated by David Biedrzycki. Written as an ode to tenacity, SumoKitty is both witty and instructive for young folks facing adversity. The humor is subtle, played out through a big, strong sumo wrestler being afraid of mice while his friend, the Kitty, gets a little too comfortable, forgetting the job of a cat.

Between humor and wit, SumoKitty is a tale completely filled with new vocabulary opportunities, both English and Japanese. Children will love learning all the Japanese sumo wrestling terms while expanding their English vocabulary. Contractions are a prominent feature within the written structure and offer older children a chance to practice their usage.

SumoKitty is expressively illustrated with subtle watercolor strokes and funny facial renderings. All in all, SumoKitty is a fantastic new addition to your picture book collection.

Recommended for both elementary classroom and library purchase. This one is going to be a popular and fun read for children. See standards & teaching ideas below...
Publisher’s Synopsis: "Watch out, mice! This cat is a sumo champion! A stray kitty gets a job in a sumo stable, chasing mice in exchange for food. But when eating like a sumo wrestler slows our feline hero down, he realizes he must train like a wrestler, too. Through hard work and perseverance–and with a little help from a big buddy–SumoKitty is born! A funny and heartwarming story inspired by the Japanese saying “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
Genre: Picture Book, Animal Tales
Ages: 5 - 8
Pages: 48
Date: August 13, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-58089-682-5
Thank You to Charlesbridge Publishing for my advanced copy!
Themes: Tenacity, Friendship, Work Ethic
Characterization: SumoKittty and his pals, especially mouse-fearing Kuma, are delightfully rendered with both a reverence for their sport and a solid touch of humanness that makes this both a multicultural delight as well as a simple story of friendship.
Plot: Will SumoKitty be able to rise to the occasion and defeat his opponent(s)? Will Kuma? Originality: Terrifically original, allowing both the sport of sumo wrestling to shine while telling the story of a stray cat finding friends and a wrestler rising to his challenge.
Believability: SumoKitty is fully realized and grounded in the real-life sport of sumo wrestling
Diversity: Japanese sumo wrestling, and the disciplinary vocabulary of that sport, grounds the tale in believability as well as giving other cultures a look at an important part in Japanese culture. Wrestlers are not caricatures, but depicted as serious athletes, competitors, and friends.
Teaching Ideas:
Vocabulary Standard: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 2 reading and content, choosing flexibly from an array of strategies. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.5.A Identify real-life connections between words and their use

Japanese Vocabulary: sumo, rikishi, dohyo, gyoji, yokozuna, heya, chanonabe, okamisan, shiko, teppo, tachi-ai, gaburi-yori, tsukidashi, basho, mawashi

English Vocabulary: referee, wrestler, ring, champion, ceremonial, opponent, stew, manager, charge, torso, loincloth, yoga, humbled

Grammar Standard: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.2  Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing. CCSS.ELA LITERACY.L.2.2.C  Use an apostrophe to form contractions and frequently occurring possessives.

SumoKitty Contractions = don’t, he’s, it’s, you’re, who’s, I’ll, there’s, I’m, didn’t

Comprehension Questions:
(chronologically, though second grade example, can be reworked to grades K-3 with anchor standards)

1. Okamisan is ready to throw the kitty out, but she hears something and does not throw the kitty out. What does she hear and why does that sound allow the kitty to stay in the heya? (she hears a mouse and gives Kitty a job getting rid of the mice in the heya, especially because Kuma is afraid of mice) (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.7 Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.)

2. Why does Kitty lose his job? (he grew fat & lazy) (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.3 Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.)

3. How does Kitty become SumoKitty? (he trains hard and gets rid of all the mice so the sumo wrestlers make him a mawashi and call him SumoKitty) (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.3 Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.)

4. Why do you think the yokozuna had mice sewn onto his mawashi? (to try to scare Kuma) (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.7 Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.)

5. What does, “fall down seven times, get up eight” mean? (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.2 Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.)

You can buy this fabulous book here:

Share the trailer with your students/children to get them excited about the book:

About the author/illustrator (from the publisher): "David Biedrzycki is the author and illustrator of the Breaking News series, the Ace Lacewing, Bug Detective series, and the Me and My Dragon series. He has been creating illustrations for book publishers, advertising agencies, magazines, and design firms since 1980. His art has graced the cover of KidSoft magazine, New England Aquarium billboards and children's software packaging, such as "The Amazon Trail" and "Odell Down Under." David has collaborated with children's author Jerry Pallotta on The Beetle Alphabet BookThe Boat Alphabet Book, and The Freshwater Alphabet Book. He grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and three children." Read more about him HERE. 
--------------- That's all folks! ---------------
 © 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at
I'm a dog person. Sorry cat folks. My adult children have five cats between them, and I appreciate my grandcats, but I own two doggies: Jebediah Peabody. & Annie Roo.

Here they are:
Yes, it's weird that I placed my two dogs within this book review about a cat named Max.... I once had a dog named Max, he was CRAZY, but I digress even further! 
The reason I am placing a picture of my two dogs smack in the middle of a posting on Max Attacks is because I loved this book almost as much as I loved They All Saw A Cat and I am beginning to wonder if my five grandcats are chipping away at my dog adoration.
Here is Boba Cat:
Here is Taxi Cat:
Here is Choco Cat:
Here is Lemons Cat:
Here is Shrimp Cat (yes, she is disabled):
See! Cute grandcats!
But, we are here to talk about Max Attacks and I adore Max even though I am not a cat person. His facial expressions are exactly that of a cat getting into all sorts of mayhem. His personality shines right out of the pages. Max is blue, about the color of Pete the Cat (another favorite!), with black stripes. He reminds me so much of Boba Cat (shhh, he's my favorite grandcat). Max has a desire to "trounce and pounce" the swishy fishies in the bowl, but he keeps getting distracted by all the fun things to pounce upon: shoelaces, a lizard, socks, etc.  I don't usually write much about illustrators, not my expertise, but Penelope Dullaghan does an amazing job painting the psyche of cats. She perfectly complements Kathi Appelt's curious and attacking cat.

Max Attacks is a great read aloud with its rhymes as big and bouncy as protagonist Max. I highly recommend it for classrooms Pre-K - 3rd purchase as well as all elementary libraries. I think this one may have a shot at a Caldecott.

Genre: Picture Book, Animal Tales
Age: 4 - 8
Pages: 40
Publisher: Atheneum, a division of Simon & Schuster Kids
Date: June 2019
ISBN: 9781481451468
Acquired: Personal Copy

Themes: Cat Behaviors, Getting Distracted Easily, Winning (or not)
Characters: Max is great.  Doggie in the background looks bewildered by Max (as most dogs do when watching crazy cats). Even the fishies seem to wonder what's up with Max!
Plot: Will Max stay focused long enough to get the fishies?
Originality: There are lots of cat books, but Max Attacks is a stand out. His personality is so indicative of cat behavior and most young children can identify with getting easily distracted in a big, new, beautiful world with so many things to do and see.
Believability: Complete understanding of cat behavior, aided by perfect illustrations to convey those emotions. You'll be rooting for Max even though you won't want the fishies made into stew.

Teaching Ideas:

Vocabulary: pounce, trounce, midst, gusto, catnip, crouches, snag, dangling, kaput, cozy, trusty 
Discussion: There are lots of opportunities to predict and infer. Pages are not numbered, but...
1. On the page right before Max sees the lizard, ask what is going to happen (he is going after that lizard!)
2. What does Max want to do with the fishies? (Fishy stew)
3. What does Max do after he starts "twitchy" and "switchy" (repeated several times throughout, Max is getting ready to attack)
4. On the page when Ma and the dog get wet, ask what happened (Max attacked the bowl with water in it and they got splashed)
5. On the very last page, the lizard is sneaking off the page sideways. What does this say about Max "winning?"
6. And, don't forget the big question: Did Max win or did the fish? The illustrations are so important to this tale. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.7 Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.)
1. Write the couplet rhyme words and have the students practice them by looking at common spelling/sound patterns. Here are the rhyming couplets:
2. As you can see there are several phonemic patterns to explore there too! And, a couple nonsense words to explore! (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.1.2.D Segment spoken single-syllable words into their complete sequence of individual sounds (phonemes)
3. Discuss how the rhyming words create meaning (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.4 Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.) 
4. Max Attacks is a complete sentence and says a lot. Review the parts of a complete sentence.
(CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.1.1.A Recognize the distinguishing features of a sentence (e.g., first word, capitalization, ending punctuation.)

Kathi Appelt is a fabulous children's writer, one of my favorites. You can read more about her on her website: HERE.

Penelope Dullaghan is an award-winning illustrator. Max Attacks is her first children's book. You can read more about her on her website: HERE.

--------------- That's all folks! ---------------
 © 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at

Publisher's Synopsis: "The sounds of the city at night create a lively lullaby in this melodious bedtime story from superstar producer and musician Timbaland, Caldecott Honor–winning illustrator Christopher Myers, and Kaa Illustration!
As a little boy gets ready for bed, the sounds of a wild storm echo around him, lulling him to sleep. From the crash of thunder to the pitter-patter of raindrops to the beat of passing cars, the music of the city creates a cozy bedtime soundtrack."

My Two Cents:
Nighttime Symphony is more than another sweet, lyrical bedtime story, it is an ode to fatherhood. Written by Grammy award-winning musician Timbaland, the musical cadence and rhyme of Nighttime Symphony is spoken as sweet sentiment by a father explaining the rumblings of a city storm as be helps his son to bed. By comparing the weather's sounds to melodious expressions, the narrator father helps his young son to not only squelch his fear, but to embrace the wonders of the city sounds.

That being said, Nighttime Symphony still works best as a lovely bedtime story. Rhyme schemes are not conducive for explicit ELA instruction and classroom applications are minimal.  Some comparisons are possible discussion points, but the book is meant to be more artistic than instructive.  Library purchase for diversity and read-alouds recommended.  

Genre: Picture Book, Realistic Fiction
Age: 2-8 , Pre-K - 3rd
Pages: 32
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, division of Simon & Schuster Kids
Date: May 2019
ISBN: 978-1442412088
Acquired: Personal Copy

Themes: Fear and Beauty of Sounds/Storms, Fatherly Love
Characters: The characters seem a bit inconsequential to the telling, with the father doing all the telling and the boy doing all the listening.
Plot: Poetic rendering of boy getting more comfortable with storm sounds due to father's explanations
Originality: Anchored in urban space, colorful illustrations, sweet comparisons of sounds to music
Diversity: Black father/son positive representation, City setting & sounds

Timbaland is a Grammy Award–winning musician. He has collaborated with many well-known musicians (Justin Timberlake, Madonna, One Republic, BeyoncĂ©, Missy Elliott, etc.). He is also the producer for the TV series Empire.
Nighttime Symphony is his first book for children.

Illustrations by Christopher Myers, an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books. He won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in the book Harlem, and has received three Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards. Myers has also illustrated books written by his award-winning author father,  Walter Dean Myers.
Watch this great video interview from Reading Rockets with Chris Myers regarding black representation and imagery in media:

Illustrations also Kaa Illustration Studio, comprised of illustrators Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien, and based in Ho Chi Minh City Their stunning, vibrant illustrations are inspired by the folk culture of Vietnam and Asia. You can see more about them HERE.

--------------- That's all folks! ---------------
 © 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at
Publisher's Synopsis: "A breathtaking picture book about the relationships we share from New York Times bestselling storytellers Julie Fogliano and Loren Long in the tradition of The Runaway Bunny and Guess How Much I Love You....
Through clever, thought-provoking verse and warmly evocative art, New York Times bestsellers Julie Fogliano and Loren Long explore the awe-inspiring nature of relationships, love, and connection."

My Two Cents: If I Was the Sunshine is one of those books that begs you to pick it up. The typography, the pastel colors, the title….  All done with an artistic swoosh that begs you to grab it. That’s what I did as soon as my library acquired it. And, I am glad.

If I Was Sunshine will deservedly be on the Caldecott short-list and should be added to primary classrooms for both read-aloud and discussion opportunities. The artistic decision to print in all lower case makes this reading specialist cringe a bit, but If I Was Sunshine is not a title to grammatically nitpick. Rather, it is a title to read aloud, in lilting cadence, and discuss. Each rhyming stanza is a metaphor of relationship. Students will do well to listen to it as the poetry it is in the first sitting and then to review it a second or third time to discuss the relationships of the metaphors.

Highest recommendation. For both elementary library & classroom purchase. Definitely one for collection :-)
Genre: Picture Book
Age: 4 - 8
Pages: 48
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Kids / Atheneum Books for Young Readers
My copy: personal collection
Date: May 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1481472432
Themes: Love, Relationships, Nature Beauty

Teaching Ideas:
1. This wonderful book works with many ELA standards. I offer first grade, but the complexity of the relationships are developmentally closer to second grade...

if you were the winter
and i was the spring
i’d call you whisper
and you'd call me sing

Why would spring call winter whisper?
Why would winter call spring sing? 
(CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.4 - Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses)

2. Another idea: Discuss the use of light in illustration and how it creates a mood that aides meaning
(CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.7 - Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events)

3. Great little teacher's guide available: HERE

Julie Fogliano is a New York Times bestselling author and recipient of the 2013 the Ezra Jack Keats Award. You can read more about her HERE

Loren Long has illustrated many great children's books including President Barack Obama's Of Thee I Sing, Madonna's Mr. Peabody's Apples, and Jon Scieszka's Trucktown series. You can read more about him HERE
--------------- That's all folks! ---------------
 © 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at