Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ghost, by Jason Reynolds (ages 9-14) -- a strong favorite in our Mock Newbery discussions

“When I first picked it up, I thought it was a biography because it was so real.”--Sam, 4th grade
Kids across Berkeley are responding to Jason Reynolds' new book Ghost, talking about how it feels so real to them that they imagine themselves being right there with Ghost. This is definitely one of their favorite books, as we head into our Mock Newbery discussions--one that will stay with readers for a long time.
by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, 2016
audiobook narrated by Guy Lockard
preview on Google Books
Your local library
ages 9-14
*best new book*
Castle Crenshaw, who calls himself Ghost, is a kid my students can relate to. Some students know what it's like to have so much "scream inside" that they can't control it; others relate to working and struggling to join a team, but then having a bad decision almost cost you everything.

Jason Reynolds brings readers right into the story with his conversational tone. You can imagine being right inside of Ghost, in his head as he's watching a track team practice, eating sunflower seeds, thinking about how he could run faster than any of those kids on the track. Reynolds hooks readers just a few pages into the book when Ghost shares when he discovered he could run so fast -- the night his father shot at him in a drunken rage, as Ghost and his mother ran for their lives.
"I really loved the beginning. It was pretty tough, but it hooked me in. When he got into the track team, it relieved me. He still made some terrible choices, but he gets through them."--Rosa Parks 5th grader
Some students noted how Ghost is a complicated character--and they were very engaged by his struggles to figure out how to fix the problems he created. Many noted how much they liked seeing Ghost change and grow during the story. They definitely responded to the pacing, talking about how they couldn't put this book down--staying up all night to finish it. And the ending, oh my.
"The ending was hard. It was so good that I hurt because it was over."--Sakura, 5th grade
I have been particularly impressed by how 4th and 5th graders responded to the difficult topics of domestic violence and poverty. Reynolds helps kids think about these issues, and he creates space for acknowledging what it takes to keep going through these difficulties. He crafts a story that is full of hope and warmth, humor and relationships, even though it is also a story of struggles and bad decisions.

I absolutely agree with my friend, school librarian Eric Carpenter, who wrote on the blog Heavy Medal:
"Its spare prose creates the most authentic voice I’ve ever encountered in a contemporary piece of middle grade fiction. I can’t remember the last time a realistic, modern character sounded and acted so much like the students at my school...

Let’s think about Castle. What he wants more than anything else is an identity that is anything but a victim. He seems himself as a basketball player but won’t try playing. He is obsessed with world records because to him the record holders gain new identities by accomplishing crazy feats."
Ghost will certainly stay with my readers. I've noticed how this book appeals to a really wide range of kids, regardless of background or interests. Sporty kids love it; introspective thinkers love it. Here's how one reader summed it up:
"I liked how he eventually figured it out and solved (his problems), and helped himself even if he's the one who hurt himself. I liked how he kept working from nothing."--Rosa Parks 5th grader
Will this win the Newbery? It's definitely one of the best books I've read this year. But some may find the language too colloquial, and want to have more figurative language. It depends on how you balance the different elements, which you place more importance on. All I know is that I'll be sharing this with students for years to come. And it will be a book that stays with them in their hearts. That's what matters in the end.

I want to send special thanks to the whole team in Berkeley who's been supporting our Mock Newbery project, especially our library director Becca Todd. The review copy came from my public library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, January 9, 2017

One Last Word: Wisdom of the Harlem Renaissance, by Nikki Grimes -- powerful, resonate poetry for today's youth (ages 11-16)

Nikki Grimes' poetry exudes warmth and hope, while acknowledging the trials and tribulations that life brings our way. In this outstanding new collection, she shares poetry from the Harlem Renaissance and builds her own verse from it -- creating powerful, resonate poems that speak directly to today's youth.
One Last Word: Wisdom of the Harlem Renaissance
by Nikki Grimes
illustrated by Cozbi Cabrera and others
Bloomsbury, 2017
preview at Google Books
Your local library
ages 11-16
*best new book*
Grimes finds "fuel for the future" in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, pairing short poems from that era with her own original poems. She creates a multitude of contemporary voices, mostly of teens grappling with their hopes and dreams and struggles. In her opening poem, the young narrator asks, "How can I stay strong / in a world where fear and hate / wait outside my door?" Her teacher suggests that she seek out the poems of the Harlem Renaissance for inspiration and advice.

Grimes then uses a selection of poems from this era to build her own poems. Using the Golden Shovel poetic form, she takes a key "striking line" from a poem and ends each line of her poem with one word from this striking line. Thus, her modern poems are intimately linked with the original. Each pair of poems is accompanied by a full-color illustration by leading contemporary African American children's artists, adding to the artistic interpretation of these resonate themes.

Grimes spins classic poems to reflect modern sensibilities. Countee Cullen begins his poem "For a Poet" with the line, "I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth." From this, Grimes creates a modern character who uses poetry to hold and protect her secrets, as she navigates her urban neighborhood. Frank Morrison illustrates this poem, showing a young black girl walking past a graffiti-covered wall, with her nose buried in her journal. The result will resonate with my students, helping them imagine themselves in these pages.
"Dream-killers daily stalk the streets you and I
travel, trying to trip us up, but we can give them the slip. I have
learned to protect my heart-songs. I keep them wrapped..."
Grimes' poetry will resonate with the experience of today's teens. She tackles difficult issues head-on. In "Crucible of Champions," based on the poem "Life and Death" by Clara Ann Thompson, Grimes' character Jamal speaks directly about the violence and brutality that has led to the "Black Lives Matter" campaign:
"The evening news never spares us. Tune in and we
hear: if you're a boy and you're black, you live
with a target on your back. We each take it in and
shiver, one sharp-bladed question hanging overhead: how
Long do I get to walk on this earth? The smell of death is too intense,
And so we bury the thought, because the future is
ours, right? We get to choose? Well, we choose life."
Beginning with an introduction to both the Harlem Renaissance, Grimes provides both historical background and a personal connection to this era. Born in "the very Harlem from which many of their careers were launched," Grimes was well aware of the impact that poets like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar had. She helps young readers see the way that these writers reflected racial pride during this era.
"Through the decades, this literature has reminded readers, of all races, how vital it is that we define ourselves, set our own paths, celebrate our own capabilities, and determine our own destiny, no matter what obstacles are placed in our way."
Grimes acknowledges the weight of injustices and racial bias, but her voice rises strongly through this collection filled with hope and the assurance the poetry will help readers stand tall. "The past is a ladder / that can help you / keep climbing."

Illustration © Frank Morrison 2017, poetry © Nikki Grimes 2017, shared with permission from the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Bloomsbury Children's Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Storyteller, by Evan Turk -- the power of stories, providing a glimmer of hope (ages 6-10)

"There is a unique kind of magic that comes from hearing a story told. With only the power of a voice, an entire world can be created." -- Evan Turk, author's note to The Storyteller
In his enthralling new picture book The Storyteller, Evan Turk celebrates the way stories bring hope and inspiration to people young and old. Read aloud this wonderful picture book with children ready for a longer, more complex story. Our 3rd graders loved it and we had a fascinating conversation about the author's motifs, artwork and messages.
The Storyteller
by Evan Turk
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, 2016
Your local library
ages 7-10
*best new book*
A thirsty young Moroccan boy searches through a busy, chaotic city for a drink, but no one has any water to share. As he walks home, an old storyteller calls out to him, assuring him that his thirst will be quenched if he listens to a story.
“At that same moment, in the hot, dry south of the kingdom, a thirsty young boy made his way through the clamor and smoke of the Great Square to look for a drink, but no one had any water to give.”
The storyteller spins a tale of the terrible drought and how one family always had enough water to share. The young boy is enthralled, and by the time the old man has finished speaking, the boy's cup is miraculously filled with cool water. Day after day, the boy returns to hear more stories--and Turk masterfully layers each story within a story, linking themes, motifs and stories together.

The boy returns each day to hear another installment of the storyteller's tale. At first, my students were a little confused how the storyteller told a story about an old woman telling a story about another woman stealing a bird--but as we talked about it, they started nodding and whispering to each other about things they noticed. Look below and notice the old storyteller on the left telling the young boy the story -- it almost spins out of his hands. And notice how the border encircles the the old woman on the right carrying the bundle of cloth--for she is the center of the new story.
“The next morning, the boy awoke at dawn and ran to meet the storyteller at the fountain again. ‘Would you like to hear the story of the Glorious Blue Water Bird?’ he asked.”
Turk was inspired by many things as he created this story: the storytellers of Morocco, or hlaykia, who tell stories in the public squares; the traditional carpet weavers in Morocco, who pass on stories through their artwork; local artists in Ait-Ben-Haddou, an ancient fortified village in southern Morocco. Turk shows in this video the way he created the vibrant jewel-toned blues and warm golden-sand browns in his artwork, using a technique he learned from these Moroccan artists. In turn, he was inspired by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, who used many jewel-toned colors and geometric patterns in his portraits.

This is a book that will benefit from many repeated readings, just like traditional stories benefit from being passed on from storyteller to storyteller. Readers will notice new details each time they share the story, whether it's the way the bird symbolizes hope (echoing the story of the phoenix), or the way the blue of the water slowly fills the patterns as the stories take hold. Other readers notice that the boy starts out quite alone with the storyteller, but that he's surrounded by community by the end of the story -- because stories bring people together.
"'...And that,' said the storyteller, 'is the story of how, not long ago, a young boy saved Morocco from the desert.'"
I just wish you could have watched my students whisper to each other as they realized that the young boy turned into the storyteller by the end of the story. There was a quiet buzz that went through the room, as they noticed the different people in the crowded square, and recognized the power of the storyteller to banish the djinn to the desert.

If you are interested in learning more, you'll definitely want to check out these resources:
Illustrations © Evan Turk, 2016, shared with permission from the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, and we have purchased additional copies for our library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Who Will Win the Newbery Medal? Kids in Berkeley build excitement & community around books

I'm so excited that kids in Berkeley have loved joining our Mock Newbery book clubs. We've started one in every elementary school in Berkeley, with 50 kids are joining at each school. That means we've got close to 500 kids reading the best books published this year, building community and spreading book buzz!

In their special issue leading up to the ALA Awards, Publishers Weekly (PDF version here) highlighted three mock Newbery programs across the US. They wrote about how this award, like the Grammys and Oscars, makes headlines and creates bestsellers -- and how our students are "in the thick of it," predicting and analyzing potential winners. I just love the way that Shannon Maughan captured the essence of our project.

Our project, like many others, was inspired by Heavy Medal and other mock Newbery book clubs that librarians hold with each other. We want to share this experience with our kids, and as teachers and librarians, we bring special attention to the impact this has on young readers. As I told Maughan,
“It’s exciting to talk about the best books of the year... We wanted to target all readers—especially readers of color—to let them know that their voices matter and their opinions about books matter. We wanted them to know that adults in their lives are listening to them. It’s not just ‘Which book did you like best?’ but we go deeper and explore bigger ideas in our discussions.”
Berkeley students record their ideas for their mock Newbery
It has been amazing to watch the response at each elementary in Berkeley. Kids love getting to choose to join a book club, getting to choose which of the nominated books to read. Parents are telling principals that their kids are reading more than ever. Librarians are noticing that these great books are circulating even more than popular mainstays like the Wimpy Kid. Even the principals across the district have formed their own book club, reading these books and sharing their thoughts with each other.

Maughan noticed four important elements that each mock Newbery project leader talked about:
  • Collaboration -- Every mock Newbery leader talked about partnerships within their schools and communities that help them launch these programs. Collaborators help figure out how to purchase enough books, help lead meetings, and help talk about which books to put on the final list.
  • Social Media -- Teachers and librarians across the country are using social media to talk about books, whether it's through Goodreads, the #nerdybookclub, Twitter talks or NerdCamps. This has been a huge support to me.
  • Inclusiveness -- Mock Newbery programs are especially powerful when they reach out to all students, especially those who are not yet confident readers. Spreading "book buzz" creates excitement for all readers, and this engagement is a huge piece of increasing students' reading abilities and enjoyment.
  • Early Planning -- All of us start the year promoting our mock Newbery book clubs. This helps build excitement, and it enables kids to read enough books so that they're familiar with the best of the year by the time the January Newbery announcements come out.
The excitement is already building in Berkeley. Some kids are passionate about one book, and are trying to persuade their friends that it's absolutely the best. Others are making connections between books in wonderful ways. Just look at the joy and excitement in this poster, where students shared their thoughts about The Girl Who Drank the Moon:
"Best book ever!! PS: I want to drink the moon too!"
I am so honored to share teaching ideas with my cross-country colleagues Cathy Potter and Jason Lewis, plus many many others who inspire us. I love the way Jason sums up the reaction of his kids last year to the announcement of the Newbery Award:
“When they announced books that the kids knew, the excitement was unbelievable. To see the expressions on their faces—it was perfect. It just makes everything you’re doing worthwhile.”
I want to honor and thank Berkeley's terrific district library coordinator, Becca Todd. We have had so much fun creating this project together. I am so grateful that Armin Arethna, Berkeley Public Library children's librarian, has been my teammate all through this project. And most of all, I want to honor and thank all of the librarians, literacy coaches, teachers and principals who have helped spread this book buzz throughout the kids of Berkeley.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wish, by Barbara O'Connor -- keeping hope alive in difficult times (ages 9-12)

Children face difficult times throughout their lives -- fighting with good friends, losing an animal you love, conflict at home, struggles with schoolwork. Figuring out how to keep hope alive in the face of these difficulties is a crucial part of growing up.

Charlie faces a heap of trouble in Barbara O'Connor's book Wish, but each and every day she makes a wish. Through her stubborn, fiery personality (or maybe despite it?), she keeps hope that her life will get better. This was a perfect book to read at the end of this turbulent year -- I hope you find hope in its pages.
by Barbara O'Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan, 2016
*read an excerpt*
Your local library
ages 9-12
Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese is sent to live with an aunt and uncle she's never met before when her family falls apart. Her father is in jail, and her mother won't get out of bed, so Charlie must stay with Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus until her mother can get her "feet on the ground" again. Charlie feels forgotten, dumped in a small town far away from everything that she knows, while her sister gets to live with her best friend.

Charlie struggles with her "fiery red temper," with her anger, with her worries. Young readers will relate to these feelings--worrying that her mama won't get better, or feeling angry that everyone is ignoring her.
"What was I doing there on that porch with these people I didn't even know? I felt like I'd been tossed out on the side of the road like a sack of unwanted kittens."
Every day, Charlie makes a wish--she has a whole list of all the different ways to make a wish, "like seeing a white horse or blowing a dandelion." She never tells anyone what her wish is, but readers quickly realize it's to live with her family, to go home. But what do you do when your wish doesn't come true?

Things start to turn around when Charlie befriends a stray dog she names Wishbone.
"I knew what it felt like to be a stray, not having a home where somebody wanted you. And he was a fighter. Like me. That dog and I had a lot in common. I was suddenly overwhelmed with love for that skinny dog."
O'Connor skillfully develops this story, showing Charlie's struggle in her new home, the way she's so stubbornly focusing on what she doesn't have that she doesn't see the goodness of her new home. Instead of becoming sappy, this story resonates with poignant vulnerability and the power of friendship.

I especially love the way that Aunt Bertha focuses on Charlie's positive side, instead of quickly criticizing her. Her childhood stories give Charlie a sense of history and a sense that things will be okay, even if they're difficult now. Aunt Bertha reminds me of some of these lessons about helping students develop hope from the Greater Good Science Center -- especially telling stories of success, and keeping things light and positive:
"Helping our students cultivate hope might be one of the most important things we do for them. Not only will it help them get more A’s in the short-run; it’ll give them the confidence and creativity to reach their long-term goals in school and in life."
I want to send special thanks to Kirby Larson for recommending this book to me--she's so right that it quickly became one of my favorites this year. Share this with children who have loved reading realistic stories like RJ Palacio's Wonder or Lynda Mullaly Hunt's Fish in a Tree. The review copy came from my public library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sharing Christmas traditions: Nutcracker, Santa and more (ages 4-9)

If you celebrate Christmas, are there special books that you read each year? Our family reads The Night Before Christmas every year, snuggling in bed together--and yes, our teens still clamber in our bed to share this tradition. Three new picture books make a delightful way to share Christmas traditions.
The Nutcracker
illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat
adapted by Kate Davies
Candlewick, 2016
Your local library / Amazon
ages 6-9
The original Nutcracker story and the ballet that developed from it are skillfully retold in this picture book, but it's the illustrations that will draw readers back to it again and again. Puttapipat sets black cut-paper silhouette figures against jewel-toned scenes, creating a sense the formal ballet and the intimate, magical story. The longer text makes this more suited for older children.
"They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past."
The climax, as Clara and her prince enter the Sugar Plum Fairy's castle, reveals itself as the majestic ball unfolds in a double-page pop-up construction. For a fuller look at this beautiful book, read the review at What to Read to Your Kids. Head over to Fuse 8 to see a terrific range of Nutcracker stories.
The Christmas Boot
by Lisa Wheeler
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Dial / Penguin Random House, 2016
book trailer
Your local library / Amazon
ages 4-7
Elderly Hannah Greyweather sets out one winter day to collect firewood, when she discovers a solitary boot in the snow. When she tries it on, the boot immediately changes shape to fit her foot--it's the first sign that magic has touched this boot. "'Such a magnificent find,' she said to the left boot. 'Who could have lost such a treasure as you?'" The next morning, the boot's mate appears by her bed and Hannah goes out to do her chores, her feet wonderfully warm.
"Her arms were nearly full when, just past the spruce grove,  she spotted something. In the snow, deepest black upon purest white, lay a boot."
As the days progress, Hannah discovers more gifts magically appear. Young readers will gasp and smile with knowing pleasure when a visitor knocks on Hannah's door, wearing "a red hat, a red suit...and one black boot." Although the text never names this visitor as Santa Claus, young readers will enjoy seeing how he works his magic--asking Hannah whether there's anything he can give her. Jerry Pinkney's watercolor illustrations bring warmth, gentle humor and holiday spirit to this touching story.
Walk This World at Christmastime
by Debbie Powell
Big Picture Press / Candlewick, 2016
Your local library / Amazon
ages 5-9
"In France, place a Yule log in the fire,
and burn it to bring good luck."
Readers take a tour of the world and see Christmas celebrations from fireworks, Las Posadas and piƱatas in Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil to Yule logs, hidden toys in candied cakes and Three Kings Day in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Each detailed double-page spread focuses on countries in a region with overlapping traditions. Readers are invited to lift little flaps, numbered in the tradition of an advent calendar, to reveal images and small facts.

The tour starts in America, travels south to Central and South America, and then travels to Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The tour ends with Asia and then Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The final spread shows a world map, asking young readers to trace their journey. I especially love how this creates a worldview that is not just centered on European traditions.

Illustrations © Niroot Puttapipat, 2016; © Jerry Pinkney, 2016; and © Debbie Powell, 2016. The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers for review. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books