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Top Ten Books of 2016

Top Ten Books (Including YA) of 2016!


My annual 2016 list of favorites (whether or not they were published in 2016, these books are part of my experience). For my favorite middle grade novels published in 2016, visit my MG post. This list is a mixture of my young adult books as well as fiction, non-fiction, and everything I thought was a memorable reading experience (and recorded in my Goodreads reading). Here is my list, in no particular order. Enjoy and happy reading in 2017!


the-underground-railroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. WOW. Cora’s story will captivate readers, through the horrors of slavery and the fear of those who dare to escape. This story blends the magical with the harsh reality of the time period. Utterly mesmerizing and unlike any slave narrative I have read before. Read it!

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.


the-serpent-kingThe Serpent King by Jeff Zenter. I cried. And I cried some more. For all the books I read over the course of the year, there aren’t a lot of characters that I miss after I finish a book. But I miss Travis, Dill, and Lydia. I still find myself thinking about them.





all-american-boysAll American Boys by Brandon Kiely & Jason Reynolds. I have to admit that when I saw that this book was written by two authors, I was unsure. Here is what a pictured: an uneven voice, unevenly developed characters, and an “anti-police” agenda. I was wrong on all counts. Rather than a novel with an agenda, this is a novel that is a window to discussions of racial profiling and the complexities of issues that some might be tempted to judge from a headline. This is definitely a story about going beyond the headlines and thinking about multiple perspectives.  It is timely, engaging, and thought-provoking. Read more about Brandon & Jason and how this novel came to be in this interview by James Sullivan.




Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow.  I missed my bedtime by about 3 hours for this one. I got to a point where I couldn’t stop reading and finished around 2 am. Charlie Davis is a girl with pain in her life and her heart – and she needs a new chance, a chance to build her life again. She arrives in Tuscon, Arizona, and she faces her past and her future while trying her best to take steps forward, one at a time. Her grit is inspiring and you just might find yourself awake at 2am, anxious to find out how the pieces in Charlie’s life will come together.




belzharBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer. So I listen to audiobooks as I run, and this was one that I listened to during the fall. My normal route is around thirty minutes. But when I was listening to Belzhar, I found myself saying, hey, maybe 4 miles today, or 5, just so I could keep listening. There are multiple twists in this story, and just when I thought I had something figured out, Meg Wolitzer surprised me again. Loved every minute of this book!





another-brooklynAnother Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. Just beautiful. The writing is phenomenal. Everything I pick up by Jacqueline Woodson is mesmerizing, from picture books to middle grade novels, and now young adult. This is a story of friendship, hope, and the bonds we have with those around us – the people we choose to let inside our lives and the people who hold our hands when we need it.






the-nestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. My goodness. Where to start? Something about this book reminded me of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I found myself captivated by the characters, their motivations, their decisions, I could not stop reading. I have recommended this book multiple times since finishing it. Definitely one to read and discuss.








My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Just beautiful writing, and a thoughtful meditation on life, the decisions we make, and how we connect to those around us. Different from Strout’s previous novels, but the familiar themes of family, connections, friendship will remind readers subtly of Olive Kittredge and Strout’s other works as well.







did-you-ever-have-a-familyDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. There was something about this book that grabbed me and I found myself reading compulsively. At times the story was uneven, but I found the suspense to be a driving force throughout the novel, pushing me to keep reading and wondering what would happen to June’s world.









The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I added this book to my TBR list because I saw it in a list of books about amazing but often unknown women. Rebecca Skloot inspired me along with Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s perseverance in researching and telling this story is something to be admired.


When All We Know is Love: Post-Election Thoughts by Travis Crowder

Read. Write. Teach. Love.

Nerdy Book Club

“We can take comfort in knowing that each moment we have with a child is a moment to improve the world.” -Christopher Lehman

“Spread love.” -Kwame Alexander

Hurt. Despondent. Belittled. Mortified. Uncertain. Angered. These are the emotions that are circulating through my heart and mind at this moment in time.  Like many other Americans, I really do not know what to feel, or how to begin qualifying the emotions I’m experiencing. I’ve tried to live my convictions, knowing that goodness, intellect, and love are pillars of a respectful life, and I’ve tried to inculcate within my students the same values.  I want them to respect and to understand the beautiful souls that comprise humanity, loving as widely as they can.

Several months ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and came across a picture posted by Penny Kittle.  It was an image of the inside of Crush: Love Poems…

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They All Saw A Cat by Brendan Wenzel


they-all-saw-a-catThey All Saw a Cat is my new favorite picture book! I keep returning to it every day, reading and noticing something new on each page. This book is all about the power of perception and observation. What a beautiful celebration of the imagination! What do you see on each page? A cat makes his way through the world, and along the way, different animals see the cat. The perspective of each animal influences how they see the cat, which leads to magnificent, thought-provoking illustrations. Every animal sees the cat through their own eyes. Finally, the cat sees his own reflection in the water, yet another interpretation of the cat. Yes, they all saw a cat. This is a book that teachers will reach for again and again, as the possibilities are endless, both with younger and older readers. Point of view, inferential thinking, visual literacy. This is your book! A brilliant book for so many of these reasons. And above all, a fun book to read and enjoy!

Courage, Community & Hope: Reading Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

*originally posted at Nerdy Book Club

Stella by StarlightReview by Tara Warmerdam


Stella is a young girl you will remember long after the final page of this finely tuned and well written novel. She is a writer. Yes, I LOVE that she is a dedicated writer (who sneaks out at night to keep writing!) and we get to read her own words throughout the novel. It is yet another layer to see how her writing develops and changes over the course of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as there are complications in Stella’s life that come with the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Stella and her family live in the small town of Bumblebee, North Carolina, in 1932. Segregation is a way of life for all in this small African American community. When the Klan arrives late at night, Stella and her brother JoJo hide behind a tree and witness a cross burning in the night sky. They know that they have to tell their parents. Very quickly, tensions rise and things begin to shift in this small, tightly knit community. The Klan activity worries everyone, including the young children.

Stella is a thoughtful young girl who wants to make sense of the world around her and the worry about the KKK is now part of this world. Fear becomes part of daily life in Bumblebee. But Stella wants to understand people including those who different from her. She tells her father “it’s hard to be a tree” in thinking about the life cycle of trees, understanding different types of trees, different uses, how trees are made into furniture, books and newspapers, and “dust becomes words.” Stella spends time thinking and writing, expressing her feelings through her pen and paper.

Despite the looming presence of the Klan and the threats to the community, Stella’s father and other men head to town in order to register to vote. This moment of courage and bravery is a powerful moment in Stella’s life and resonates within the community. After the men pass their voter registration exam, the Klan strikes in the town of Bumblebee bringing fire and destruction. But the community comes together, taking care of each other, displaying their strength and determination to live without fear. Stella’s family then faces another crisis in which the racism of one person could have disastrous consequences, but Stella’s bravery and intelligence triumph.

Through Stella’s writings, we see her strong will, optimism and hope for a world in which color doesn’t limit people or segregate them from others, but rather a world in which everyone is equal. She longs for a community in which everyone can live together safely. She looks for the good in all people, in her classmates, her neighbors, and the adults in her life. We also see Stella’s growth, both as a writer and as a young girl determined to grow up and make a positive difference in the world around her.

Christmas arrives with the end of the novel, and Mama’s words “just plain joy” echo throughout the final pages. The last chapter is Stella’s “Star Sentinel Christmas Edition” in which Stella describes Christmas morning and the roosters who don’t think about flying….and Stella tells the reader “but I do.” This final image of flying and freedom leaves the reader with hope and optimism. Readers will find many topics and layers to discuss, from segregation, the KKK, the importance of family, standing by one’s word and living without fear. This is an important book about the power of words, community, and hope for the future. The depth and richness of Stella by Starlight make it a joy to read and discuss.

Have you read Stella by Starlight? Please share!

Four Fun & Fabulous Picture Books for Phonemic Awareness (And Also Fabulous Read Alouds!)

Fun Read AloudsRecently I was working with a young student who was struggling with letters and sounds. His confidence in reading was extremely low and he already decided that he couldn’t read. Over many weeks, I focused on finding books that were fun and engaging, bringing him out of his shell and drawing him into the world of books, searching for read alouds that helped him explore sounds, repetition, rhyme and alliteration. With time and many, many books, he is making progress toward reading and his confidence is growing! Following are Fox in Sockssome of the favorite books that he asked for again and again. All of them are wonderful books for reading out loud and building phonemic awareness  – plus they will make you laugh!

Fox in Socks. Possibly the best tongue twister ever – you will need to practice this one before you read it out loud! But when you do, kids will laugh and you will too. Expect Dr. Suess’ infamous zany pictures, insanely hilarious rhymes and words. Don’t expect to read this out loud without mistakes (even after practicing!) but somehow, that makes it all the more funny for young readers. The possibilities for finding rhymes, alliteration, and repetition are endless! Now where is Mr. Knox, can you please tell us Fox in Socks????

Silly Sally. Disclaimer: Audrey Wood is one of my favorites, so it’s no surprise that this is a go-to book for me when working with a young reader. Silly Sally is silly! Truly silly. Sally is walking to Silly Sallytown, meeting characters along the way. The book builds in a predictable format, using repetition that helps young readers make predictions (and start “reading” on their own) along the way. The illustrations are bright and appealing and the rhythm of the book makes it an excellent choice for a read aloud.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.  You can’t go wrong with this classic. Letters are fun when they areChicka Chicka Boom Boom climbing up a tree and falling down again (skinned knee D!) Oh so many possibilities for little ones in the classroom with this book – I have walked into kindergarten classrooms with their own gigantic chicka chicka tree, complete with all the letters, watched little ones make their own abc book in the chicka chicka style, and helped children match upper and lower case letters on felt chicka chicka boom boom trees. This book stands the test of time and discriminating readers. My reluctant student who dreaded writing letters was eager to match letters and try out the sounds when Chicka Chicka Boom Boom was on the table in front of us. Boom Boom!


Piggy Pie Po. Audrey Wood again 🙂 My young reader loved this one and asked for it multiple times. Why?Piggy Pie Po He told me that he loved this pig, and he loved saying “piggy pie po.” Piggy paints, eats, baths, dances, swims, counts…he is a busy pig! The illustrations are colorful and fun. Readers will like piggy and oh so exciting for me….my young reader tried to read the title on his own! It’s tricky as each word begins with “P” but he was motivated to try and figure out how each word was different.  Definitely a winner for inspiring a young reader, making him laugh, and asking to read it, “again please!”


What are your go-to books for young readers who are working on letter sounds? Please share!

Black, White and All the Colors in Between: Reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine***originally posted at Nerdy Book Club


No one speaks of the chest in the corner, covered with a gray sheet and one end hanging off at an awkward angle. The gray sheet reminds Caitlin of a bird that cannot fly, floating and falling instead of flying through the air. Caitlin draws the chest covered with the sheet, replicating what she sees on the outside but not the empty chest she knows is hidden out of sight. This metaphor sets the tone for Mockingbird, a story of pain, loss, understanding, and hope. The novel centers on Caitlin, a ten year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the loss of her brother in a tragic school shooting. The grieving experience as well as the path for healing is different for all of the characters, particularly Caitlin and her father. Erskine explores the avenues of grief and healing, particularly the difficult situation for Caitlin, with a sensitivity that brings new light to a tragedy.


Mockingbird has multiple storylines at work: the loss of Devon (Caitlin’s brother), Caitlin’s difficulty in experiencing empathy and understanding the loss of her brother, and the aftermath of a tragic school shooting that has rattled the school and community in ways that reverberate throughout the novel. With a third person point of view, the multiple storylines might overwhelm the reader. But as the story is told from Caitlin’s point of view, we see each storyline through her eyes, keeping the focus on the emotional connections throughout the novel. While it is tricky to have so much at work in the novel, it adds depth as well as many possibilities for discussions and rich text connections. Another layer to the story is To Kill A Mockingbird, present throughout the novel, as Devon’s nickname for Caitlin is “Scout” and the story is referenced at multiple points. Devon teaches Caitlin about the meaning of To Kill A Mockingbird, as “It’s wrong to shoot someone who is innocent and was never going to hurt you in the first place.” Caitlin realizes that the school shooters did not “Get” the meaning of this book in their English class.

One of the strengths of this book is Caitlin’s voice. The reader witnesses Caitlin’s difficulties in understanding how those around her are coping with the tragedy of Devon’s death and the school shooting. The grief of those around Caitlin, her father, teachers, classmates, is palpable and heartbreaking. Caitlin’s character is well-developed, multi-dimensional, and complex. Erskine is adept at using finely tuned details and nuances to take the reader into the character’s world, allowing us to see, hear, and understand Caitlin’s point of view. Caitlin’s strengths and talents are apparent, as well as her challenges in understanding the emotional experiences of those around her. She has difficulty understanding why people who did not know Devon express their sorrow and sympathy; she cannot understand why unfamiliar relatives come to visit after Devon is gone; she does not understand why it is upsetting for her father when she refers to her brother as “Devon-who-is-dead.” She draws in order to make sense of the world around her, refusing color because she prefers black and white. In the world of paper and pencil, she holds tight to the things she can understand and categorize, without color or shades of gray.


Caitlin becomes fixated on the idea of Closure, an idea she discusses at length with Mrs. Brook. The idea of Closure is elusive. Finally, Caitlin understands, in black and white, the idea of Closure and “how to experience an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event.” She determines this conclusion will happen when Devon’s Eagle Scout chest is finished, as he was planning to teach Caitlin and other Boy Scouts how to woodwork. Ultimately, Caitlin’s dad decides that he is ready to work on the chest. After completing the project, it is donated to the middle school in an act which can be seen as a step toward Closure for the community as well as Caitlin and her father. In another step forward, Caitlin is ready to try pastels for the first time, adding color to her sketches.


While Mockingbird is a novel focused on Caitlin and her grief, the book is about something more than her story alone. Ultimately, this book is about empathy, people understanding each other, understanding the things in life that are not black and white, the things in color, that change, move, shift, grow and transform, and about connections, healing, acceptance. Coping with tragedy in grief is not only difficult for special needs children, but it is difficult for all. Connecting with others, embracing the unique qualities of each individual, doing our best when faced with challenges that seem insurmountable, making progress and moving forward one step at a time.



Black, White and All the Colors in Between: Reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine – Review by Tara Warmerdam

Very excited to share my review of Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, posted on the Nerdy Book Club!

Nerdy Book Club

mockingbirdNo one speaks of the chest in the corner, covered with a gray sheet and one end hanging off at an awkward angle. The gray sheet reminds Caitlin of a bird that cannot fly, floating and falling instead of flying through the air. Caitlin draws the chest covered with the sheet, replicating what she sees on the outside but not the empty chest she knows is hidden out of sight. This metaphor sets the tone for Mockingbird, a story of pain, loss, understanding, and hope. The novel centers on ten year old Caitlin, a high-functioning autistic girl with Asperger’s, and the loss of her brother in a tragic school shooting. The grieving experience as well as the path for healing is different for all of the characters, particularly Caitlin and her father. Erskine explores the avenues of grief and healing, particularly the difficult situation for Caitlin, with a sensitivity…

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Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Because of Winn Dixiewinndixie

Now this is a novel that will break your heart and also fill it with hope and love at the same time. A best-seller and Newbery Honor book, this is one that will immediately become a favorite. One ten-year old girl recently told me, “None of the books I read are ever as good as Because of Winn-Dixie,” with a sigh. I understand completely. Opal is a young girl filled with loneliness and questions about her missing mother. But things change when she walks into a Winn-Dixie grocery store and walks out with a rescue dog. Winn-Dixie, the dog, brings something into Opal’s life – as one student told me, “she really rescues Opal just like Opal rescues her.” With a cast of memorable characters who each bring something unique to Opal’s life, this summer of change brings friendship and some life lessons that find their way unexpectedly into Opal’s life, just as the summer storm enters Opal’s life and brings surprises along with it. Gloria Dump, Miss Franny Block, and Otis all help Opal in their own way as she learns to deal with loss and sadness, while finding friends, acceptance and healing (and Winn-Dixie nudging her just a little bit). If you haven’t read this book, you must stop everything now and begin reading! I won’t spoil the plot, but this is one you should read and pass along to your students, friends, and family.

Topics for Teaching and Exploration

  • Grief.
  • Helping others.
  • Loneliness.
  • Friendship.

Important Quotations for Discussion

  • “You can’t always judge people by the things they done. You got to judge them by what they are doing now.”
  • “Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept going to that empty spot, the spot where I felt like she should be.”
  • “There ain’t no way you can hold onto something that wants to go, you understand? You can only love what you got while you got it.”
  • “We appreciate the complicated and wonderful gifts you give us in each other. And we appreciate the task you put down before us, of loving each other the best we can, even as you love us.”
  • “I believe, sometimes, that the whole world has an aching heart.”


Discussion Questions

Why doesn’t Winn Dixie like to be alone? What do you think of Opal’s decision to take Winn Dixie to the church and to the library?

What do you think the preacher should tell Opal about her mother? What kinds of things would Opal like to know about her mother? What do you think about the list and the details he tells Opal?

Pretend like you are going to tell a friend about this book and about Opal. Make a list of ten things about Opal to tell your friend.

What things to Opal and the preacher have to be thankful for at the end of the book?
Why do you think the book is called “Because of Winn Dixie?”

winndixie3How does Winn Dixie change Opal’s life?


Websites and Resources

Kate DiCamillo Website

Scholastic website Because of Winn Dixie

Kate DiCamillo Interviews

Write for Kids “Writing From the Heart”

Reading Rockets Video Interview

Teaching Books Meet the Author with Kate DiCamillo

PBS News Hour with Kate DiCamillo – June 2014


Please share, what is YOUR favorite line from Because of Winn-Dixie?

Some Rules We Need to Break In Our Reading Classrooms

This is a great read – and a great reminder to all! Take a few minutes to read through the rules you should break 🙂

Pernille Ripp

image from icanread

We seem to be run by the rules of what came before us.  We seem to be trying to uphold traditions that were started all in the spirit of becoming better reading teachers.  And yet, I think it is time for us to break some rules, to become reading warriors, and to speak up and say no; this is not what reading will look like in our classroom.  This is not the reading experience that my students will have, this is not what will make students fall in love with reading.  So I present you with some rules that seem to perpetuate much of our reading instruction and encourage you to break them just like I have and so many others before me.

Rule number 1:  You must read X number of pages before you abandon a book.

I used to enforce this; give it 30 pages…

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The Harmonica by Tony Johnston

The HarmonicaThe Harmonica is a moving story of a young boy who is separated from his family, sent to a different concentration camp in Poland, 1939. The story begins in Poland, with a family who is drawn together by their love and celebration of music. The narrator cannot remember his parents’ faces, but he remembers the songs and the love they shared. He wished for a piano, “his heart’s desire.” He dreamed of playing Schubert, but “like the composer, we were poor/ as pigeons.” Yet one day his father brought home a special gift – a harmonica. This harmonica brought joy, music and dancing into their home, and Henry loved to play.

But soon Henry is separated from his family when the Nazis arrive, shattering the dreams of the Jews in Poland.


I was sent

to a concentration camp, swallowed,

dreams and all, down the dark

Nazi throat.

Barefoot, I labored alongside others,

all of us dull-eyed bags

of bones, digging a road through snow.

Henry is left with only his harmonica to remind his of happier times. He plays the harmonica, and the commanding officer orders him to play again, and again, each night rewarding him with bread after his harmonica concerts of Schubert. This brings even more angst to Henry, who sees the dichotomy of a man who brings brutality and misery to the Jews, yet loves the beautiful music of Schubert. Henry despises himself until another prisoner thanks him, as they too listen to the music every night, bringing a small piece of beauty to the darkness of the camp. So Henry continues to play, thinking of his parents and the other prisoners, who may have hope through music. Henry’s story ends with “I played for them – with all my heart.”

The illustrations (by Ron Mazellan) serve to convey the mood and tone of the story. When the Nazis arrive, the darkness is felt across the page, first with soldiers and guns outside a building, despondent faces in a window above, worried about their fate. The next page is a bleak picture, behind the soldier, arm outstretched, people huddled in trains about to depart. The concentration camp is dark, stripes of the imprisoned people and the tiny light on Henry’s face. The final page shows the shadow of the commander, sitting low in his chair with a whip in hand, while Henry, with light in his face and the faces of his parents in his mind, plays the music of Schubert on his silver harmonica. The words and language will mesmerize the reader, bringing to life the simple joys of music found in the sadness and despair of a concentration camp. Johnston and Mazellan bring beauty and depth to this story, based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Henry Rosmarin.


More Resources and Information about Henry Rosmarin

USC Shoah Foundation: Henry Rasmarin

LA Times article (August 31, 2001) “Henry Rasmarin: Music Helped Him Survive Holocaust”

Days of Remembrance: Henry Rasmarin (YouTube)

Young, Broke and Kosher “The Story of Henry” blog post


Interested in more picture books about the Holocaust? Check out Star of Fear, Star of Hope and Benno and the Night of Broken Glass.

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