Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Book Guides’

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?

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin


What are you reading?

The Thing About JellyfishToday I am sharing a book that I originally included in my Top Ten Middle Grade Novels of 2015 list. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. So why now? Well this past weekend, my daughters and I ended up in a little tiny, one room library in a small town located in the Sierras. I do love a one room library – there is something appealing about a room where the books just don’t seem to fit, and every corner is loaded with stacks of books and bookshelves that look like they might need repair soon. So sitting in one of the chairs in this little tiny library was a young girl – probably 11 or 12 – reading The Thing About Jellyfish. And immediately I had this fabulously happy feeling as I was transported back to reading it. Keep in mind that I read this book six months ago and I’ve read many books since then, but oh the feeling, I remembered immediately! Sometimes a good book stays with you, and this is one of those books. Ali Benjamin’s story is one of friendship and loneliness, of heartbreak and healing, family and friends. Suzy is a 7th grader who faces big questions in life – and bravely asks them of herself, trying to make sense of the challenges she faces in losing her friend and the world changing around her. I wanted to rush over to this young reader and start talking to her, but of course I didn’t. She was transported herself, reading intently and completely absorbed in the story of Suzy Swanson and her best friend, not even paying attention to the people walking in and out of the little one-room library and stepping around the piles of books and carts. As it should be when one is reading a good novel.

Check out Ali Benjamin’s site here and the NY Times Book Review as well.

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.

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!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back AgainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a poignant, touching story of loss, war, conflict, coming of age, and hope. Há Ma is just a young girl when her family flees their beloved home country during the Fall of Saigon. They leave behind everything they know and love, including Father, for the hope of safety and stability. They endure endless days on a ship with little food, waiting for someone to arrive and rescue them. Eventually, Há and her family end up with an American sponsor from Alabama and they move to a new country.

Told in verse, this coming-of-age story will leave the reader breathless with both its powerful imagery and captivating story. Há’s story brings new light to the reader’s understanding of immigration and how children process the trauma of leaving a home country and entering a new culture. The possibilities for this book in the classroom are numerous, thanks to the richness and depth of Thannha Lai’s story.

Important Quotations Topics for Discussion

  • “Every new year Mother visits / the I Ching Teller of Fate. / This year he predicts / our lives will twist inside out /…… The war is coming / closer to home.” (page 4)
  • “Some verbs / switch all over / just because. /…. Would be simpler / if English / and life / were logical.” (page 135)
  • “Wishes /….. Mostly / I wish / I were / still / smart.” (page 159)
  • “But Not Bad   Mother slaps my hand / Learn to compromise” (page 233)
  • “Our lives / will twist and twist, / intermingling the old and the new / until it doesn’t matter / which is which.” (page 257)

Discussion Topics and Questions

  • Poetry. Why do you think the author decided to tell the story in poems instead of a prose narrative format? How do you think the story is different because it is told in verse? Why do some poems have dates while others are dated “every day”?
  • Refugees. Há and her family leave Vietnam very quickly. What emotions do you think they are feeling during this time? Why does Há bring her doll as her one item from home? Do you have one time that you would select if you had to leave your home forever?
  • Vietnam and Albama. How are the two places different? What is Há’s life like in Saigon? What is it like in Alabama? Do you think there are any similarities?
  • Learning English. Há says at one point that there are too many rules in English. Why do you think that learning English is frustrating for her? Aside from the rules, are there other reasons that make it difficult to learn English? Why do you think Mrs. Washington decides to help Há? What kind of person is Mrs. Washington? How do you learn about her character and what type of person she is?
  • Bullying and friendship. Há experiences many difficulties in her new school in Alabama. How do the other students respond to Há and her siblings? What do you think are the reasons for their actions? How does Ha respond? How does Há grow and change as a character?
  • Understanding Vietnam. Há wants people to understand her beloved home country. Why does she want them to know her country? What does she want them to learn about? How does she feel about her teacher, Miss Scott, showing pictures of war in Vietnam? What kind of pictures does Há want people to see and discuss? Why?
  • Family. Há and her family wish for the return of father. How does the family find resolution?

Text Set to Accompany Teaching of Inside Out and Back Again

The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland    This story provides for many text-to-text connections with Há’s story in Inside Out. Garland’s story begins with the last emperor of Vietnam, and a woman who takes a lotus seed with her from the emperor’s garden on the day that he abdicated the throne. The country is then torn apart by war, first with the French and then a civil war. The woman, Bá, leaves her beloved country on a ship with other refugees, landing in a strange new land. She and her family work for years. One day, her grandson takes her precious lotus seed and plants it, as he has never seen a lotus flower. Bá cries, but the following spring, a beautiful pink lotus appears, “the flower of life and hope….the flower of my country.” The story is powerful and hopeful, while the illustrations that capture the beauty of Vietnam and the lotus flower. The author’s note gives a brief overview of the historical background for the story.

The Wall by Eve Bunting  A boy and his father visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and search for the grandfather’s name among the thousands of names inscribed on the wall. The boy and his father find the name and create a rubbing of the name George Munoz on paper. The story is simple but powerful, evoking the strength and honor of the Vietnam wall with all of the names honoring the soldiers who lost their lives. The final note on the last page gives readers a few details about the wall, along with the information that names are still being added to the wall as those who were “missing in action” are identified. This book will introduce the reader to the Vietnam memorial and honor all of the Americans who fought in Vietnam.

Always With You by Ruth Vander Zee  A picture book with poignant illustrations and a moving, heartbreaking tale of a girl in South Vietnam. Young Kim is only four years old when her mother is killed when their village is bombed. Kim’s mother tells her “I will always be with you.” Kim is found by American soldiers who take her to an orphanage, where she lives for five years before traveling to the US for eye surgery. Based on a true events, this picture book brings to life the story of one young girl, but also the story of the many orphans in Vietnam, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, during the Vietnam War. The author’s note also provides more background for students.

Voices Compassion Education: Vietnamese Poetry  This website contains a great number of resources, including photos, poetry, and non-fiction that could be used with a text set on the Vietnam War.

Writing Ideas

  • Poetry. Take a story from your own family and create a poem. Use specific images and select your words carefully. Notice how Thannha Lai uses emphasis with specific words and images. Think about how you want to arrange the words to tell your story and what you want the reader to notice and think about.
  • Photos of Vietnam. Using a variety of pictures from Vietnam, respond to the photos as Ha might respond. Write about the photos from Há’s point of view. What is important about each photo? Why? (Teachers may want to use images described in “War and Peace” poem.)
  • Journal. Create journal entries from important events in Há’s life. What moments might she want to write about in a journal? Tell her stories with many details and use dialogue.
  • Think about the most important poem in Inside Out & Back Again. (Remember there is not just one “right” answer!) Why do you think this poem is the most important? How does it help the reader understand Há’s story?

Web Resources

Thanhha Lai Author Website

National Book Foundation, 2011 National Book Award Winner (Young People’s Literature) – author video

HarperCollins Book Page Overview & Author Info

Scholastic Book Page: Inside Out and Back Again


Have you read Inside Out & Back Again? Please share your thoughts!

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

West of the MoonTrolls, a spell book, spinning straw into gold, and a magic hairbrush….all of these elements weave together in the tale of Astri and her sister, Greta, in a story that is part fantasy, part folk tale, part history, and completely enchanting. Astri is a young girl in Norway who is sold to a cruel goat farmer, the evil Svaalberd. Despite her miserable conditions and the separation from her beloved sister, Astri never loses faith that her situation will improve. She escapes, through impossible odds, and is off on a journey to find her father in America.

While this story is based in folk tale, the story is original and brings to light many interesting topics for discussion. The power of stories and truth weave a powerful thread throughout the novel, as Astri tells stories that often stray quite far from the truth, and then wonders, is it worse to her to her sister through a story or steal from a cruel master? Astri doesn’t answer this question, but continues to wonder about truth and stories, the “thin thread of truth” left after the spinning yarn of gold disappears. Astri’s character is also perfect for discussion, as she is honest, flawed, cunning, manipulative, dishonest and well intentioned even when all odds are against her. She is determined to escape, even when that requires her to lie (a magic hairbrush!) in order to get what she needs for her journey. She is a well-rounded character, one which the reader roots for and also questions, wondering just what she will do next.

Another element that I love about this book is the history. No doubt all readers will walk away with new knowledge about immigration and the people who made the perilous voyage to the new world, despite the difficulties. Astri and her sister procure a list of necessities for the journey that will surprise young readers, most likely unfamiliar with the food and personal necessities that a person had to bring on board, in addition to their passage fare. The realities of a long boat journey are seen through Astri and Greta’s eyes. Readers will also appreciate the struggles that people faced just to board the boat and pay for their passage, not an easy task.

In all, this book raises many questions about Astri’s actions, the morality of people and doing what is right, family values and forgiveness. Astri is a complicated girl who will no doubt provoke discussion about what is right and wrong, what one should do for others and for oneself, and whether it is ever justified to lie or steal. No matter the conclusions of the reader, everyone will understand the difficulties of journeying to a new, unknown land and the perilous undertaking of two children who desperately want to be with their father.

At the close of the book, you will find the Author’s Note which is packed full of useful information, history, photos of the author’s great-great-grandmother’s diary from her journey to America on board the Columbus in 1851. Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales also provided the author with inspiration and material for West of the Moon, and Preus lists some of the folk tales she references in the novel (including “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”). Also helpful is the glossary of Norwegian words as well as the bibliography for further reading.

Important Quotations for Discussion

  • “The sun is ahead of him now; he is walking west. West. That is the direction I will have to go to get to America. Spinning Girl presses a damp rag to my face and wipes the blood and filth from my limbs. When I’m as clean as I’m going to get, she goes back to her work. As she spins her yarn, I spin a golden dream out of dust motes. A dream of going to America.” (page 40)
  • “Quickly, without letting myself think about it, I unpin Mama’s brooch from my dress and pin it on Spinning Girl’s. By the look on her face, I’ll wager she’s never been given anything like it. Or any gift at all, most like. Still, somehow, I feel that it’s I who have been given the greater gift.” (page 100)
  • “She looks at me sadly and pushes two of the bigger coins back to me across the counter. ‘Use these coins wisely,’ she says. ‘They’re only a trifle, but a mere trifle is often enough when luck is on your side.'” (page 119)
  • “Greta is silent, and I think of how Papa used to say, ‘Sometimes silence is an answer.’  The little brook we ride along chatters so much, there’s hardly need for us to talk anyway.” (page 123)
  • “‘Perhaps you and I could be friends,’ she says. I can only nod, for suddenly my eyes are full of tears. A symptom of my bad eyes, must be. I wipe them dry and look out at the sea.  At that moment, sea and sky go dark and seem to disappear altogether. Then, as if by magic, they are rekindled, this time with a pale glean – not like daylight, yet not dark night either. It’s the moon, rising up full behind us, casting a blue glow over the world as we sail toward the last of the sun.  Though I don’t know everything about my past, nor do I know what the future will bring, right now I know I’m just where I belong: sailing on a perfect ocean of light, east of the sun and west of the moon.” (page 197)

Writing Ideas

  • Astri’s Journal. Write three journal entries from Astri’s point of view. Include at least one from her journey escaping the evil Svaalberd and at least during the time on the boat to America. Think about what details Astri would want to include and what she might want to tell her father about the adventures.
  • Greta’s thoughts. Write a chapter from Greta’s point of view, perhaps waiting for Astri to arrive, on the journey to the sea shore or on the boat to America. Think about how Greta would view the events and what she would choose to retell in her story. Think about how her story would be different from Astri’s version of the story.
  • Father’s letters. Write one of Father’s letters to Astri and Greta, one which the girls are not able to read. What does he tell them about America? His journey? His plans for the future?


Have you read West of the Moon? Or other novels based on a folk tale or fairy tale such as this? Please share!

The Badger Knight by Kathryn Erskine

The Badger KnightThe Badger Knight is the story of a young boy, Adrian, in medieval times (1346) who suffers from albinism and asthma, making him a sickly boy in the midst of war times. Adrian wants nothing more than to go into battle along side his friend Hugh, who has run off in search of his own father and to fight in glorious battle against the Scots, who have invaded northern England.

Several elements make this an excellent choice for upper elementary grade level fiction. Adrian is a boy who does not fit in with others and is often misunderstood. His health and albinism set him apart from others. He is underestimated as well; though he is magnificent with a bow and arrow, far surpassing the skills of adults around him, people often assume that he cannot shoot well, much to his frustration. His character is multi-dimensional, intriguing, and likable for the reader, creating an emotional investment at the start of the book. Once Adrian, the Badger Knight, takes off on his own to find Hugh and help battle the Scots, the adventure begins. And while Adrian undertakes a physically strenuous and unpredictable journey (involving monks, knights, and young boys who live on the streets), he also goes through an emotional journey and grapples with issues in war and life that surprise and astound him as he makes decisions and forges relationships that once seemed impossible.

Adrian’s journey of emotional growth is what sets this book apart from others. While it could be simply an adventurous medieval tale of battles, knights, and villains, Adrian’s character keeps the reader intrigued and pushes the question, what would you do? Prior to battle, Adrian believed that all Scots were pagans who deserved to die at the hands of the English. But things change when Adrian witnesses a monk, who should be a man of God, stealing from others and lying. Then Adrian finds himself in battle, where not everything is as he expects. Adrian meets a man from Scotland, an encounter which has a profound effect on Adrian and causes him to reconsider what he believed about being honorable and noble in times of war.

At the heart of this book is the morality Adrian ponders and the notion of honor – what does Adrian learn in this journey? What does it mean to be honorable? Who are the honorable people in Adrian’s life? What lessons does Adrian learn from the street gang, Sir Geoffrey, the monks, Donald and Hugh? What does he learn about girls in battle? Why does Adrian risk his life for someone he thought was the enemy? Why does “Badger” work well for Adrian’s nickname? What does noble mean for Adrian? Friendship?

(Note: Adrian also pens a glossary of medieval words and phrases for the young reader, found at the end of the book, Godspeed Friends!)

Important Quotations for Discussion

  • “I wonder how the boy felt at that last moment before he was shot. I think about how Hugh gives a blessing to the creatures he kills, thanking them for providing him sustenance, which I always thought strange. I’ve never before felt the need to say a prayer like that, but I do now.” (page 189)
  • “It’s not the reunion I pictured. Maybe Hugh and I have both seen too much. The horrible death of Sir Geoffrey is enough to make me never want to see a Scottish soldier again, never mind heal him. I know Hugh is a healer at heart. He has knowledge and patience like Nigel. He’s noble like Henry and Sir Geoffrey. He’s my best friend. But right now, I can’t even stand to look at him.” (page 203)
  • “‘Bowyer, like my father,’ I say, out of habit. But Father won’t allow it and even being an archer has lost its appeal. I always thought they were such noble callings. Now, as I gut the squirrels and remember Sir Geoffrey’s death, I wonder what, exactly, noble means.” (page 282)
  • “‘What about you, laddie?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I say. We’re both lying, but sometimes friends do that for each other to keep their spirits up.” (page 312)
  • “I think of what I always believed to be truths — Scots are pagans, thieves are bad, knights are noble, girls are weak, war is glorious — and how all these “truths” aren’t real at all. They’re things I was taught or everyone believes, just as all people who look like are supposedly angels or, more often, devils. I didn’t believe Nigel when he said that scribing was power, that seeking the truth and sharing it is mightier than being a soldier.” (page 314)
  • “I’m the Badger, tough and scrappy. I’m the Spider, small but determined. Mostly, I’m someone useful from the village of Ashcroft. My name is Adrian Black, and I am a man.” (page 325)

Writing Ideas & Activities

  • Make a map. Trace Adrian’s journey, using symbols to represent different events in the story. Explain the symbols and important events in a reflection to accompany your map.
  • Create a journal of Adrian’s adventure. Select several important moments in the story to write about in a journal from Adrian’s point of view.
  • Write a letter to Donald. Think about what Adrian might want to tell Donald after the novel ends. Imagine what Adrian may be doing and what Donald’s life was like after he returned. What would Adrian share with Donald?
  • Write a new chapter. Spend some time thinking about how Adrian will tell his story to his father. What will he tell his family, especially his father who was anxiously search for Adrian? What important moments will Adrian share? What will he tell his father about the monks and Sir Geoffrey? What about the battles he witnessed and Hugh’s story? What will he tell his father about Donald?


Have you read The Badger Knight? Interested in other historical novels for elementary grades? Check out A Single Shard and Turtle in Paradise.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish in a TreeA fish in a tree? The title will grab your attention and you will pick up the book. But when you start reading, it is Ally who will hold your attention. With every page of Ally, you will want another. This is a girl who doesn’t fit it, who is called “slow” and doesn’t have a lot of friends. She isn’t one of the cool kids or the smart kids. And she can’t read. She has made it quite a few years by faking…while her mother and her teachers haven’t figured out her secret. She never learned to read. But this year, and this teacher, are going to be quite a different experience for Ally.

Mr. Daniels is the new teacher who has some different ideas about the classroom. And he is the first teacher to realize that Ally can’t read. (As a teacher, this is a frustrating point in the book – Ally’s teachers do not realize her problem. Instead, we watch Mrs. Hall repeatedly send Ally to the principal’s office without ever investigating deeper into Ally’s problems in class. No one realized that Travis, Ally’s older brother, also “faked” his reading in school. Read more about Travis & Ally in Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s post “Who is Travis Nickerson?” at Nerdy Book Club.) When Mr. Daniels comes along, a young, new teacher working on his special education credential in the evenings, he not only realizes that Ally can’t read, he has some ideas about how to help her.

The teacher is not the only force of change in this book. Ally and her friends bring change to the classroom through their friendship and their willingness to defy the crowd. Ally, Keisha and Albert become friends, though unlikely friends at first, they soon bond. Keisha is a girl who doesn’t put up with nonsense, speaks her mind, creates unique bakery items in the kitchen. Albert is intelligent, quirky, and honest. They are individuals and celebrate each other through their friendship. Shay is the girl who dominates the classroom, has friends around her, but is heartless and cruel to those she decides are not worthy of her friendship. The teachers don’t seem to pick up on the subtleties of Shay’s true nature, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. But Ally and her friends manage, slowly but surely, to influence the class through harmony and friendship, a quiet and positive force.

There are multiple strands running through this book that will engage and interest young readers. While Ally has dyslexia and not all readers will understand her struggles with seeing the letters move on the page, many readers will identify with the idea of not fitting in and feeling invisible, whatever the reason. Albert and Keisha are two more characters who are unique, interesting, and surprising. Readers will empathize with these good-hearted characters. Adults (and teachers too!) will enjoy this uplifting and optimistic novel. Yes, change can happen! And yes, kids who struggle can learn to read!

Topics for Writing and Discussion

  • Loneliness. When Mr. Daniels asks the class about the words lonely and alone, Ally surprises herself by raising her hand. She explains that “‘Well…alone is a way to be. It’s being by yourself with no one else around. And it can be good or bad. And it can be a choice. When my mom and brother are both working, I’m alone, but I don’t mind it.’ I swallow hard. Shift in my seat. ‘But being lonely is never a choice. It’s not about who is with you or not. You can feel lonely when you’re alone, but the worst kind of lonely is when you’re in a room full of people, but you’re still alone. Or you feel like you are, anyway.'” (pages 123-124)  Why do you think Ally describes alone and lonely in this manner? How has she experienced loneliness? It is possible to feel lonely in a room full of people?
  • Friendship. How do you see friendships at work in Ally’s classroom? Why do you think that Keisha, Albert and Ally become friends? What do they have in common? Are they good friends? What friendship moments come to mind? How does their friendship change the class?
  • Bullying. People might describe Shay as a bully in the classroom. Do you think she is a bully? What characteristics does she have that lead you to this conclusion? What moments in the story show the reader Shay’s character? When Ally approaches Shay in the classroom, did you make a prediction about how Shay would respond? Do you think Shay was feeling lonely in a classroom full of kids? Why doesn’t Shay take the opportunity to be friends with Ally? Why does Ally say that it “felt like the right thing” to come over to Shay, even though Shay was mean to her again?
  • Catalyst. When Jessica apologizes to Ally and tells her that she is a good artist, Albert calls Ally a “catalyst.” What does he mean by this? What is the definition of catalyst? How does Ally become a catalyst in her group of friends and her class? Are there other “catalysts” in this novel?

Important Quotations

  • “Mr. Daniels looks up at that bright blue sky and says, ‘Now, don’t be so hard on yourself, okay? You know, a wise person once said, ‘Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.'” (page 159)
  • “And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand – sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt. My grandpa used to say to be careful with eggs and words, because neither can ever be fixed. The older I get, the more I realize how smart my grandpa was.” (page 184)
  • “I realize that dealing with Shay every day is like playing chess. She is always looking for your weakness, always trying to get you flustered and force you into a mistake. Against her, you have to remember that the board is always changing and moving. Keep your eyes open. Be careful. Have a plan. Realize that you can only stay on the defensive for so long – eventually, you have to take a stand. But no matter what, don’t give up. Because, every once in a while, a pawn becomes a queen.” (pages 191-192)
  • “‘I think you’re just invincible.’ And then he winks and begins taking the pieces off the board and putting them in the box. I am sad the game is over and I’m relieved that I trust him again. And isn’t it funny – I’ve gone from being invisible to invincible.” (page 192)
  • “At first I’m surprised, but then I realize it wasn’t a mistake to come over, because it felt like the right thing. Shay’s the one who decided to act mean, but at least I tried. I have to admit though, I do feel sorry for her.” (page 252)

Dyslexia Resources & Books

Kids Health Understanding Dyslexia

Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand

Chess for Kids – Special Needs

The Alphabet War – A Story About Dyslexia by Diane Robb

Tom’s Special Talent – Dyslexia by Kate Gaynor

Knees – the Mixed Up World of a Boy with Dyslexia by Vanita Oelschlager

It’s Called Dyslexia by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos


Have you read Fish in a Tree? Other books on the subject of dyslexia and reading? Please share!

Christopher Mouse by William Wise

Christopher MouseThis is the tale of a young mouse on a journey. Christopher begins his life with his mother and siblings in a box, only to see his brothers sold to a laboratory and his sister sold to a young girl at a pet store. Christopher, too, is separated from his mother and siblings, and is sold to a young boy with the appearance of the perfect pet owner. But Christopher’s life is full of surprising adventures, as he ends up with a new owner, an amazing and almost devastating encounter with a cat, an escape and adventure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more surprises along the way as he searches for a loving, forever home.

Words of Wisdom

Christopher receives several tidbits of advice from his mother, great for discussions and predictions along the way!

“‘Certainly the world can be grim at times,’ she told us once. ‘And yet, if we try, I think we can train ourselves to bear up under our burdens.'” (page 23)

“Escape…should be thought of only as a last resort. If you’re sure your owner is either so careless or cruel that your life is endangered, then you’ll have no choice. Look for a hole in your cage, or some other way of gaining your liberty. Once outside, you must hope good fortune will smile on you, and that somehow you will survive.” (page 25)

“With people for company, you’ll never be bored. The things they say to their friends and relatives – and the other things they say when their friends and relatives have gone. Books? College? Listen to people, study them, and you’ll end up with a real education!” (page 27)

“Soon I was to be traded or sold. I would belong to someone else, and any new owner, I was sure, was bound to be an improvement on Aubrey. Which merely proved how much I still had to learn about life.” (page 86)

“I have such an odd feeling in my bones,…..our story might end the way every story should, with singing and laughter–and a poem that says that long after our separation, Anna and I lived happily ever after.” (page 152)

Discussion Questions

1. Christopher learns many lessons from his mother, though he must leave her at a young age. What are some of the important lessons he learns?

2. How does Christopher come to decide that Freddy would be a good owner? What are the clues in the pet shop that Christopher notices?

3. Why does Christopher like to write poems? What do we learn about Christopher’s character through his poems?

4. When does Christopher first suspect that Aubrey will not be a good owner?

5. Why does Christopher decide it is better to escape and be on his own – even though freedom could mean danger and peril for him? What do we learn about Christopher’s character at this point? What kind of mouse has he become as he grown up in an unpredictable and surprising world after leaving his mother’s box?

6. By the time Christopher ends up in his “forever home” with attentive and trustworthy humans, he has learned many lessons. What are some of the lessons he has learned? What surprised you the most about his lessons and what he comes to understand about the world and the people he encounters?

7. What is your favorite Christopher Mouse poem? Explain why it is your favorite and why it is a good example of Christopher’s writing and character.

 Writing Ideas

  • Write your own Christopher chapter. Give him a new adventure in the museum or in Aubrey’s house, the setting is your choice! Create an exciting event for Christopher, perhaps one in which he meets a new character or has a narrow escape!
  • Write a final poem for Christopher, after he is reunited with Anna. Or an epilogue for the book, telling us about his new life with Anna and wrapping up his final adventures with Aubrey, the cat, the museum, umbrella, sink, etc.!

It’s not a surprise that Christopher Mouse: The Tale of a Small Traveler won the Winner of the 2011 California Young Reader Medal (Intermediate). This is an engaging, interesting book that will entertain young readers as they ponder life from the point of view of a mouse!

Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee


Two girls, different and yet the best of friends, hilarious adventures, crazy antics, you will laugh out loud and fall in love with Bink and Gollie. Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee teamed up to create a fabulous duo, perfect for beginning readers. After all, who wouldn’t laugh at the idea of giving a fish a pancake, right?

When Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee met, they quickly became friends – laughing along the way and discussing books. Soon, they were planning a book together and trading letters back and forth – good old fashioned pen pals! Read about how Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee created Bink and Gollie at the StarTribune.  The chemistry between DiCamillo & McGhee is readily apparent in Bink and Gollie, who can get a tad annoyed with each other (seriously, those socks, Bink? yes, a fish is a marvelous companion, and no, I am not answering the door….I am in the Andes Mountains….but of course!) but ultimately, they remain the best of friends.

“‘Gollie,’ said Bink, ‘use your gray matter.

Don’t know you know that you are the most marvelous companion of all?’

‘Really?’ said Gollie.

‘Really,’ said Bink.”

The illustrations, by Tony Fucile, are such an integral part of the book that it is difficult to picture the words without Bink and Gollie, searching through a bin of colorful socks or planting a pole at the top of the Andes Mountains. Certain illustrations are mostly black and white, with carefully selected color for emphasis (a colorful bin of socks with a black and white sock sign, or a black and white movie theater full of people with Bink, Gollie, and a fishbowl with Fred in it, balanced precariously on Bink’s head in color)  Some pages are wordless, letting Fucile’s images say everything that needs to be said. The layouts change with each page, sometimes one full picture, other times a page is broken into three pieces of a scene – reminiscent of story boarding. This adds to the interest and engagement with each page – the reader can’t help but want to turn the page and see what is next for these two girls! Bink and Gollie are captured perfectly through Fucile’s artwork, Bink’s crazy hair, energy, positive attitude and willingness to try new adventures, Gollie’s careful, organized and also nurturing nature, and the relationship between the two is simply charming. You can’t help but want to part of their child-centered world (no parents in these books to tell them no!). Their activities and antics are appealing and fun for all — roller-skating, climbing mountains in the Andes, gardening, these girls aren’t afraid of anything!

Finally, the language is inventive, surprising, and engaging. In a land filled with mostly boring and stilted books for beginning readers (I will never forget listening to a six-year-old reader put down a text-book company created “reader” and say “This book just doesn’t make any sense! The words don’t even go with the picture!” and really there was nothing I could say other than, yes, you’re right….a heart-breaking moment) — it is lovely to pick up an interesting book for emerging readers that doesn’t shy away from using words and phrases such as:

  • outrageous
  • bonanza
  • baffled
  • marvelous companion
  • gray matter
  • implore
  • venture

The language in Bink and Gollie will surprise, delight, engage, and young readers will beg for more of Bink and more of Gollie! Thank goodness there are two more Bink and Gollie books…..Bink and Gollie: Two for One (#2) and Bink & Gollie: Best Friends Forever (#3).










Fun Stuff & Activities for Bink & Gollie

Check out Bink and Gollie’s home page for fun activities, book info and teacher guides

Candlewick Press Teacher’s Guide

Scholastic Treasure Coloring page

Love Bink and Gollie? Please share? More Kate DiCamillo? Check out Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures!

The Reading Corner

A Book Blog for Teachers, Readers & Writers

Reading to the Core

Just another site

Read, Reflect, Write, and Share.

Learning about reading and writing in a high school English classroom.




Mark Fearing Illustration

The Classroom Bookshelf

Books, teaching, writing....and more books


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

Pernille Ripp

Teacher. Author. Creator. Speaker. Mom.

The Bookshelf of Emily J.


Nerdy Book Club

A community of readers

English's Education

Books, teaching, writing....and more books

NCTE High School Matters

Books, teaching, writing....and more books

Teacher Tech

Alice Keeler

Kylene Beers

Reader. Writer. Teacher. Speaker. Current Cancer Fighter

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

%d bloggers like this: