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Swing Sideways by Nanci Turner Steveson


What are you reading today?


This week I finished reading Swing Sideways, a book that made my heart catch as I read, tears well up in my eyes, and yes, a smile too. Annie and California are destined to be summer friends, bonded together by a love of the outdoors and the freedom of summer spent outside, away from grown ups. Their friendship rings true on each page of the book. The cover captures that beautiful summer and the sweet nostalgia the readers (particularly adult readers) will feel as they read Annie’s story. This summer is important for Annie, as she struggles with an over-scheduled life and her mother’s expectations. She has been prescribed a summer of freedom, not the easiest for Annie’s mom, who plans every detail and follows the traditions of summers past. Annie is excited for this summer of independence and freedom. When she meets California, a happy girl who seems to live every day as an adventure (no plans!), her summer adventure begins. Even as the pairing seems unlikely at first, a city girl and a country girl with two very different lives, their friendship blossoms. They tend to animals, search for ponies, look to the past as they search for a way to help California’s mom, and create their own adventures. It is quickly apparent that this friendship will change their lives in unexpected ways. Fans of Bridge to Terabithia will also find a novel here that will break your heart while the strength of the girls’ friendship will fill you with joy. This is an important story of adventure, new beginnings, friendship, loss, and love. Your heart will “swing sideways” – and you’ll love that line in the book – just perfect!

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown


What are you reading today?

The Wild RobotSo I’ve never read a robot story (this is true), and when I started Peter Brown’s new middle grade novel, The Wild Robot, I didn’t know what to expect. The cover depicts a wild setting – think jungle island – and yes, a robot. Obviously intriguing. Peter Brown’s illustrations are magnificent. My favorite just might be the otters, who are fascinated and a bit confused by the robot Rozzum unit 7134 (just call her Roz) who washes up on share in a crate. Roz is the only survivor of a shipwreck carrying crates of robots. While Roz has never seen an island before, or the wilderness at all, she is of course, programmed to survive. And she does. She investigates her surroundings, she observes, she solves problems. The wild animals believe that she is a monster and they stay away. But when Roz rescues a goose egg and suddenly becomes a mother robot, the animals on the island pay attention. Slowly, Roz acquires friends, her baby goose, Brightbill, learns to fly. When the geese fly south for the winter, Roz and the other animals must survive a harsh winter, and this is when Roz’ survival skills shine. She helps others on the island and develops strong friendships with all of the animals, who declare peace while they work together. But technology encroaches on the island, creating dangers for all, which Roz and her friends must face as a team. This book will spark discussions about the way nature and technology work together, how working together can achieve the seemingly impossible tasks in front of one person alone, the nature of motherhood (and parenthood), civilization, environmental issues/climate change, and how all animals – and robots – can survive. An excellent middle grade novel that will captivate many young readers (and yes, adults too!). Check out Peter Brown’s website and his blog about the writing of The Wild Robot at Peter Brown Studio.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin


What are you reading?

Where the Mountain Meets the MoonBeautiful, lyrical, magical. Grace Lin delivers a classic in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with the story of Minli and her family, who live in the Valley of the Fruitless Mountain. Minli’s father tells her stories of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon, while Minli’s mother says the stories are just nonsense. But working tirelessly in the fields, Minli finds comfort and inspiration in these stories. Her family toils daily in the fields, just to earn their daily rice. One day, Minli decides to buy a goldfish from a traveling man, in the hopes of changing her family’s fortune. Her mother declares the goldfish to be a foolish purchase. Minli lets the fish go in the river, and this one act changes her life. She decides to take off on her own journey in order to change her family’s fortune. She plans to ask the Old Man of the Moon what she can do to help her family. When Minli’s parents discover she is missing, they are heartbroken and worried, setting out to find her and bring her home. But Minli discovers a cast of unusual, magical, and helpful creatures along the way, including a dragon who becomes her friend and confidant.

Throughout Minli’s story we also have stories sprinkled throughout – from the magical creatures and those that Minli meets on her journey. Each story adds to Minli’s own tale, and the power of each story is apparent as Minli moves closer and closer to the Old Man of the Moon. Lin illustrated the book with gorgeous, inviting pictures that depict Minli and her magical friends. The artistry of the illustrations depict the Chinese art and history at work in the story. In an Author’s Note, Lin discusses the inspiration found in the stories she heard and read as a child, and this is apparent in the blend of magic and Chinese folk tales and fairy tales, found throughout Minli’s fantastical story.

The power of stories and the power of the story teller reverberate throughout Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. I couldn’t help but think about the full power – for the listener and the speaker – of the stories that shape Minli. The stories bring life and magic to the reader and Minli along with her family. And through the power of stories we also see the power of family and love, as no matter what, Minli’s parents are dedicated in their love for her and their quest to bring their family together. It is the power of love, family, history and faith that truly bring the magic to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.


Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo


What are you reading?

Raymie NightingaleI’ve been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Raymie since I first read about her on Kate DiCamillo’s website.  I just finished reading Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo and WOW! Kate DiCamillo fans will see some familiar themes of loss, hope, community (oh, and children with fabulous pets!) and the importance of friendship. I couldn’t help but think of Winn Dixie, though Raymie is a completely different and unique character. Sadness permeates this book, just as the cover grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. We see the back of a young girl, standing in water, with a baton. And while we don’t understand the cover right away, let me tell you that yes, the cover works. It is brilliant. When you finish the book, you will see just how brilliant it is.

Beyond Kate’s website, I didn’t read anything about Raymie until after I finished the book. Kate DiCamillo has given a few interviews and there are snippets and pieces about Raymie popping up all over the place – but I didn’t want to read anything until I finished. And as all of Kate DiCamillo’s books “WOW” me, this one did as well. I was surprised many times by the journey, and the friendship, of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly Tapinski. Raymie is a girl with a plan – to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, which will cause her father (who recently left with a dental hygienist) and return to Raymie’s life. Somehow, as the reader, we know that this is not going to work. But don’t tell Raymie this, because she is determined. As are her friends, with problems and plans of their own. This is a book of sadness, yet also the unfailing hope of these young girls, who have a plan and a vision. Nothing works out as the planned, but isn’t that how life is? And while there is sadness and loneliness, there is also humor, quirky characters and crazy adventures (really, the search for a baton, a stolen/lost library book, a cat who is possibly dead?) and three girls who persevere through the difficult and unexpected, looking for a way through to happiness. And as always, beautiful language that stays with the reader, long after turning the page. The moment I finished, I returned to the first page to start the journey again. But perhaps my favorite moment came with Raymie’s world and Florence Nightingale connecting in a most unexpected and unusual manner. (I promise, I’m trying very hard not to spoil the plot, but I love these lines – now read the book please!)

“For the first time, she understood Florence Nightingale and her lantern and her bright and shining path. She understood why Edward Option had given her the book.

For just a minute, she understood everything in the whole world.”

“She was Raymie Nightingale, coming to the rescue.”

Thank you, Kate DiCamillo. Beautiful.

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

Castle in the AtticThe Castle in the Attic. A fantastical kingdom, magic castle, a true knight, fiery dragons and amazing adventures? Absolutely! This magical story is grounded in the reality of William’s life, a ten-year-old boy who is sad to see his British nanny move back to her homeland after taking care of William for so many years. But her final gift is a castle, handed down through generations – and a lead knight which never came to life for her, but suddenly the legend is real and William holds a tiny, brave and fiercely alive knight in his hands. William has many choices in front of him. With magic, he figures out how to make things shrink, becoming part of the castle world. He also has to say good-bye to Mrs. Phillips. What will he do? And once he makes his choice, will he be able to fix things and make everything right again?

There are several great things that I love about this book. First off, it is an enjoyable and readable adventure that keeps the reader guessing. William is a likable and interesting character, leading readers into his story. Another plus with this book are the lessons learned – William learns many valuable and important character lessons along the way, but never heavy-handed and always an integral part of the story. The lessons he learns are authentic. Young readers will immediately pick up on the things he learns and the changes he undergoes as he tries to solve the problems he encounters (and sometimes creates, oops!). This is definitely a great read for kids in the 3rd-6th grade range and will appeal to boys and girls alike.


What lessons does William learn along the journey? What does Mrs. Phillips teach William?

  • The power of honesty.
  • A true friend is always your friend, even if they are far away (and sometimes you have to let a friend go on their own journey even if you want them to stay).
  • Kindness and helping others is always important.
  • Sometimes you have to trust other people.
  • Practice is important – just because you don’t get something right the first time is no reason to quit.
  • Confidence is something you have within yourself.

Fabulous Quotations for Discussion

  • “‘But I’m here so that lady can go free,’ William said, his voice powerful in the silent room. He took another step toward the mirror. It no longer scared him. It showed him only what he already knew.” (page 158)
  • “You must find your own way through the forest, William. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along. In this one and our old one.” (page 103)
  • “You have within you the weapon you need. The heart and soul of a knight in the body of a squire. No other weapon will serve you as well as that knowledge.” (page 104)
  • “A truly courageous person is the one who must first conquer fear within himself.” (page 173)


Elizabeth Winthrop’s website “Teachers Page for Castle in the Attic”

Castles on the Web  This website is great for all things castle related – photos, glossary of terms, myths and legends, weapons and supplies, even a castles for kids page.

Building a Medieval Castle with Kids

Built by Kids – A Cardboard Castle

The Castle in the Attic has me thinking more and more about fantasy books at the middle grade level! What are your favorites?

PAX by Sara Pennypacker


What are you reading?

PAXBuzzing of bees. It seems that everyone is buzzing…..all about a small red fox named Pax. And let me tell you, Pax is a gem. Really, truly, a gem. This is a must read for 2016. Sara Pennypacker has brought so much into this story; it has depth, beauty, war, peace, loss and hope. It takes place during war time, but the exact setting and time period are not directly mentioned. This adds to the global feel of the novel; it could take place anywhere where there is a war, a boy, and someone he loves. Pax is a red fox, adopted by twelve-year-old Peter, who is forced to abandon Pax and move to his Grandfather’s house more than 300 miles away when war comes upon them. While Peter’s father heads to war, Peter mourns the loss of Pax. And Pax mourns too, confused and lost as to why he is now on his own. The narrative alternates between Pax and Peter, each telling his story as the reader eagerly anticipates a reunion. The characters are complex. The story is certainly a coming of age novel for Peter, but it is so much more than many simpler coming-of-age tales. Peter’s story is one of grief, loyalty, healing, responsibility, determination, patience, and sacrifice. Peter has to think of more than himself, and his own needs, while being patient. He encounters Vola, the other main (human) character, who has much to teach Peter, just as she learns herself along the way, through Peter and his story.  It is a difficult journey for Peter, which is one of the strengths of the story. While it may seem unreal to set out traveling 300 miles to find a fox, the emotional journey, the complexity, and the depth of Peter’s emotions are realistic and courageous. This is a middle grade novel, listed for ages 9-13. Readers will find much to discuss and ponder in Peter’s journey and his beautiful relationship with the red fox, Pax.

“So which is it? You going back for your home or for your pet? They’re the same thing, Peter said, the answer sudden and sure, although a surprise to him.” –Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart


What are you reading?

The Honest TruthSo I love Twitter for many reasons  – and finding new books (and fellow book nerds) are at the top of my I LOVE TWITTER list. And I happened across a tweet that mentioned The Honest Truth as a book that could turn non-readers into readers. Now that says something. So I added the book to my ever-growing list of books to read and sadly, I didn’t get it to right away. So many books, so little time. But this week, I picked it up and started reading. I was hooked. Trust me on this one. It might sit on your shelf, but once you pick it up, you won’t put it down till you finish.

“The mountain was calling me. I had to run away. I had to.” So begins Mark’s story, and his journey to Mt. Rainier. Mark is compelled to run away and this is what moves the story forward. Why does Mark have to run away? Well, he is not an ordinary kid with an ordinary life. He has been battling cancer for years. Cancer that robs him of an ordinary childhood, a typical first day of school, normal days spent playing outside. These moments don’t happen for Mark because he has to battle cancer with chemotherapy. And when a phone call comes that the cancer has returned, Mark decides to leave with his dog, Beau, and climb the mountain he was destined to climb. No plot spoilers here, because you must read it yourself. I will share this: Beau and Mark both surprised me on this emotional and heartbreaking journey. It is a story of friendship, dreams, and empathy. Trust me.

Definitely check out Dan Gemeinhart’s website and once you finish The Honest Truth, you’ll be eagerly anticipating Some Kind of Courage, just published in January, 2016. I’ve officially added it to my “To Be Read” shelf and I can’t wait!


Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

Paper Hearts is a beautiful novel in verse; it is the story of two young Jewish girls who become friends and survive Auschwitz. Zania and Flatka’s story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, particularly with the knowledge that this is “a novel based on true events.” In the face of cruelty, death, and horror, we also see the beauty of humanity, friendship, and love. The girls in Auschwitz have little to call their own and are constantly in fear of the guards, who will bring swift punishment to those who do not follow the rules. A small piece of silk or a hidden letter could bring death. And in the midst of the horror, the girls look for the beauty that ties them together, the love that will give them strength and hope to face another day. Zlatka found a way – through bartered paper and scissors, pens, she made an origami heart to celebrate her best friend’s birthday. All of the girls at the work tables signePaper Heartsd the heart, wishing for freedom and happiness for all. Fania keeps this heart, treasured and hidden, while the girls continue to work, even through death marches. Eventually, Fania, Zlatka, and several other girls who signed the heart survived the death marches and returned to Poland. Fania emigrated to Canada with her husband many years later while Zlatka moved to Argentina. Fania kept the heart, which she donated to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre in 1988. The Heart is still on exhibit at the Memorial Centre.


Wiviott’s book is an easy one to read in one sitting. I found myself unable to put it down and the flow of the writing, in verse, adds to the readability. The language is amazing. Breathtaking and poignant. Wiviott’s words carry weight and power. Not only the story, but the language too stayed with me after the last page.

“The Heart

Small enough

To fit in the palm of my hand.

Big enough

To restore my faith.

Friends replacing

The family I’d lost.

A reason to take risks.

A reason to keep living.”

Paper Hearts ends with a final poem “The Last Train” and the words “Never again.” The book also includes photos of Fania’s heart, a glossary (very helpful) and an author’s note about what is true in the story. There are many resources out there for learning more about Fania, Zlatka, and the paper heart.

The possibilities for Paper Hearts with young readers are numerous and this book will be a significant addition to the book shelves of Holocaust stories for both young readers and adults.

Resources for the Holocaust, Auschwitz, and the Heart

Have you read Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, Meg Wiviott’s picture book about Kristallnacht? Check out my blog post here.

#SixtyBooks Reading Challenge: Reading Books and Starting Conversations!

Sixty Books#SixtyBooks

Here is the challenge: read sixty books in 2016! I am excited to join this group and make reading a priority in 2016. Of course I love reading and I love books, so this does make sense!

Why Sixty Books? I like the pledge: “I will make reading a regular part of my daily routine.” Simple. But what I really love is the idea of conversations. This reading movement is not simply about logging a number of books and checking off a box. It’s about the conversations that can happen and the possibilities that can arise from these conversations. Conversations are powerful. I like the statement “Imagine the levels of understanding and empathy we would reach.” This is why I read. This is why so many of us read, every day and every week. It’s the understandings, the conversations, the possibilities that come with a good book.

Now are you intimidated by a number? I know this could be a problem. Here’s my solution. It’s not simply about the number. Yes, I know that Sixty is part of the title. This is true. Donalyn Miller discusses book numbers at length in The Book Whisperer. She expects her students to read every day. And she expects them to read forty books. Yes, forty. And she doesn’t talk about failure as an option. She also requires her students to read widely – to read different genres (as one student realizes, forty Dr. Suess books will not work for her requirement). So I’m taking this as part of my challenge. I’m not going to worry so much about the final number at this point. I’m going to read every day and I am going to read different genres: non-fiction, professional development, historical fiction, young adult. I’m even going leave my comfort zone and read some science fiction and fantasy this year. In fact, if any one has any book recommendations for me in this category, I’d really appreciate it!

Are you interested? Read more about #SixtyBooks in 2016!  You’ll find a link to join – and then you can head to the Goodreads group and Twitter so you can share your books as you read! I’m reading #SixtyBooks in 2016, join me!


Happy reading!

Sixty Books Badge

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

Riding FreedomRiding Freedom is the story of Charlotte Parkhurst – also known as Charley. Charlotte spent several years in a boys orphanage after both of her parents died in a crash. After her best friend was adopted, Charlotte struck out on her own, but in disguise as a boy. Charlotte knew that as a young girl, she would face trouble trying to travel on her own, but as a boy she would not encounter as many questions. Hence, she became Charley. With a deep love for horses and an understanding of horse stables, Charley quickly found a home and later, a job as a stage coach driver. Her reputation grew and “one-eyed Charley” was known as a top rate stage coach driver like no other. Young readers will definitely enjoy Charley’s adventurous life and her headstrong, spirited and courageous personality, which is at the heart of this novel. Charley’s story, based on the true story of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (born in 1812 in Vermont) is inspiring for both young readers and adults. In dressing like a man, Charley experienced the freedom of working, living, owning land, and voting. Her obituary includes the question: “Who shall longer say that a woman can not labor and vote like a man?”

Journals and Writing

Something about this book inspires writing. In reading Charley’s story, I can’t help but think of what a student might write from her point of view. The book gives the reader the opportunity to imagine the possibilities…

  • Vern. When Charley finds out that Vern is gone, she says “I won’t ever be forgetting him for what all he done for me.” Write a journal entry from Charley’s point of view about Vern. What would she want to say to him and tell him after all these years? What is important about Vern in Charley’s life, the past and the present?
  • Voting. Write a journal entry from Charley’s point of view about voting in the election. How does she feel about women being able to vote? How does she feel about women taking on tasks that are deemed “men’s work”?
  • Freedom. What is the significance of the word freedom for Charley? What meanings does the word have for her? How is the concept of freedom important in Charley’s life?

Great Quotes for Discussion

  • “Since the day you were born, you’ve been determined as a mule and tough as a rawhide bone.” (page 4)
  • “Just like when he taught her to ride, he kept putting her back on Freedom after each fall, saying ‘Every time you fall, you learn somethin’ new ’bout your horse. You learn what not to do next time.'” (page 64)
  • “She felt like she did that day on the stagecoach when she’d run away from the orphanage. Like she was on the verge of something exciting. Something new. Like she was closer to realizing her dream.” (page 85)
  • “This was something she could do for that woman who stood up in front of all those laughing men and passed out handbills on the saloon steps. Something for those women out front who were pretending they didn’t mind that they couldn’t vote. For Vern, who hadn’t been allowed to speak up and should have been able to. And for that little girl outside who was already standing up for herself.  She smiled. And for me, she thought. Because I’m as qualified as the next man.” (page 129)
  • “Important names that stood for something and were fitting for fine animals. She named the colt, Vern’s Thunder. And she named the filly, Freedom.” (page 134)


Resources for Riding Freedom

Mobile Ranger: One Eyed Charley: The Cross Dressing Stage Coach Driver – great website with pics & info!

Scholastic Page & Book Talk

Charley Parkhurst Facts and Legends

The Most Famous Stagecoach Driver….California’s Charley Parkhurst


Children’s Resources for Learning About Women’s Suffrage and the Right to Vote

Time for Kids: The Fight to Vote

National Women’s History Museum: Did you know? Facts About Woman Suffrage

Scholastic Suffrage Page (Activities)

Civil Rights for Kids (Ducksters page for Women’s Suffrage


Have you read Riding Freedom? Or other novels by Pam Munoz Ryan? Please share!

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