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Posts tagged ‘English langauge arts’

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.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott

Benno is a friendly neighborhood cat, and through him we have a new perspective of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass). For many, this night Benno and the Night of Broken Glassmarks the beginning of the Holocaust, on November 9, 1938. There are many books about the Night of Broken Glass, but Meg Wiviott’s book is a powerful addition to Holocaust literature with the story of a cat who belongs to many people in the town of Berlin. Benno frequently visits Professor Goldfarb, the Adler family, the Schmidt family, Frau Gerber, Mitzi Stein, Mosche the butcher. He visits all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, and is the beloved neighborhood cat who get free milk, comfy places to nap, ear rubs, and lots of affection from Sophie and Inge, two young girls in his neighborhood. He is loved by everyone, and he leads a quiet, contented life.

Yet things do not remain content, when Benno sees a bonfire and men in brown shirts. Things are not the same and Benno senses the change immediately. Sophie and Inge no longer walk together, all is quiet and people are not as friendly and happy. The meat scraps disappear, eyes lowered, people hurry about their business. More men in brown shirts. The illustrations reflect the changes that Benno witnesses, showing the chaos and unhappiness that begins to surround the neighborhood. Then the night of broken glass arrives. Benno hears glass shattering. Stores are set ablaze, apartments ransacked, Professor Goldfarb cannot save his books. The Adlers’ door remains closed the next morning and Benno doesn’t see Sophie. Smoke is in the air and nothing is as it was before, even though Frau Gerber’s grocery is open and unchanged. The reader is left with the words “life of Resenstrasse would never be the same.”

Telling the story through the eyes of a cat allows the reader to see the German and Jewish people together harmoniously, especially with the friendship between Sophie and Inge. The change is seen with the arrival of men in brown shirts, and everyone is affected. The reader also witnesses how life changes for the Jewish residents of Berlin, again through Benno’s eyes. In this sense, the reader sees the events through the innocent and unwavering eyes of Benno. We witness how life is torn apart and people become separated.

This is an excellent book to introduce the Holocaust and the Night of Broken Glass to students who are going to learn more about these topics. The book also includes more information about Kristallnacht and additional children’s books for reference.

More Resources on Kristallnacht

This Day in History (

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Night of Broken Glass

PBS People & Events: Kristallnacht


Interested in more picture books about World War II and the Holocaust? Check out Star of Fear, Star of Hope and The Harmonica.

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!

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt

Star of Fear, Star of Hope is the story of Lydia and Helen, two friends living in France, 1942. The German army Star of Fear, Star of Hopeinvades their home country, but the girls continue with school. One day, Lydia’s mother sews a yellow star on Lydia’s jacket, and this is the start of change. The girls do not understand the stars or why it is necessary. Lydia’s mother tells them, “The place for stars is in the sky….when people take them down from the sky and sew them on their clothes, it only brings trouble.” The reader senses the trouble rising, with a mood of fear and foreboding.

And poignantly, Lydia’s mother adds,

“Stars at morning, better take warning. Stars at night, hope is in sight.”

The words of Lydia’s mother stay with Helen over the years, as she tells the story now, decades later as an old woman. As young girls, Helen and Lydia planned a night together to celebrate Helen’s 9th birthday. But as the girls wait for Helen’s parents to return, it becomes apparent that something is happening in the city. Two people appear late at night, with stars on their clothes, using code words to look for safe houses. Helen’s parents take Lydia home and Helen is angry. She yells at her friend, feeling hurt and abandoned. The next morning, the streets of Paris are filled with police, searching for Jews to evacuate. Helen is worried. They search but cannot find Lydia or her family. Helen is left with Lydia’s birthday gift to her, a home made doll, which Helen calls Lydia. Lydia also made clothes for the doll, even a jacket with a star.

While the illustrations convey the darkness, sorrow, and despair of World War II, the pages also contain light, found in the streetlights, windows, hall lights, and the light shining above the doll and clothes that Helen unwraps on this day of darkness in Paris. Throughout the story is the hope that Lydia’s mother mentions to the girls on the first page. Stars at night, hope is in sight. The story ends with the hope that Helen will one day find Lydia, hopefully an old woman with children and grandchildren, happy to find her friend. Stars are also found throughout the story, beginning with the stars that Lydia’s mother sews and ending with the “stars at night, hope is in sight.”

This story is one which will move the reader with both its words and images. Student will learn about this part of the Holocaust, a piece of history in which thousands of Jews were torn from their homes by the German army and sent to concentration camps. This book serves as an excellent resource in teaching about the Holocaust. It is a story to be read, remembered, and shared.


Resources on Vélodrome d’Hiver

Vélodrome d’Hiver began on July 16, 1942.

“Cecile Widerman Kaufer, Holocaust Survivor, Recounts 1942 Vel D’Hiv Roudup in Paris Stadium” Huffington Post, July 17, 2012.

“France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews” NY Times, July 29, 2012.

Yad Vashem – The Holocaust in France

Holocaust Remembrance Day – the Vel D’Hiv Roundup in France

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay


Interested in more picture books about the Holocaust? Check out Benno and the Night of Broken Glass and The Harmonica.

5 Beautiful Picture Books About Artists

5 Artist Picture Books

Diego Diegoby Jeanette Winter

Written by Jeanette Winter, this book will captivate you with illustrations and the story of Diego Rivera (in Spanish and English). The story is informative for all ages and conveys Diego Rivera’s celebration of Mexican culture and the people of his country. The story serves as an excellent introduction to his artwork and life. Older students can continue their research to delve more into his childhood and later, his move to Paris and back to Mexico, especially as this influenced his artwork. Students will learn about his murals as well as his passion for social justice.

VivaFridaViva Frida

by Yuyi Morales

Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s celebrated artist and passionate woman is seen through vivid language and poetry – all accompanied by lush, vibrant and colorful illustrations. The poem is told in both English and Spanish, and celebrates Frida with strong verbs and a style that evokes Frida’s artwork. The author’s note includes insight and her own connection to Frida Kahlo. This book is a great jumping off point for learning more about Frida’s life and artwork. (For another great picture book that will teach you more about Frida’s life, check out Frida by Jonah Winter).

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri RousseauFantastic Jungles of Henri Matisse by Michelle Markel

The jungles are living and breathing in the work of Rousseau. This is the story of a self-taught artist who persevered and followed his dream, only beginning to paint at the age of forty. The text is engaging and aptly bring life to the colorful illustrations – which immerse the reader in art just as Rousseau became immersed in his own paintings.  Adults will also appreciate the myriad of historical figures who appear in the illustrations and add depth to the picture book for older readers. Those who know about Rousseau will likely still find new details about his life and work, and children will be inspired by his dedication, perseverance and determination.

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri MatisseThe Iridescence of Birds by Patricia Maclachlan

Matisse is celebrated with beautiful illustrations inspired by his hometown and the French countryside. The cold, gray village is juxtaposed with light, color, patterns, paint and a home filled with opportunity for art. Young Henri and older Henri are both found in this story, and the reader can see the life story of the artist through the beautiful illustrations. Matisse’s family had pigeons and he would observe the birds, paying close attention how the light would change their colors as they moved – the iridescence of birds. You will also find author’s and illustrator’s notes which bring insight and thought to the story of Henri Matisse and the writing of this picture book.

My Name is GeorgiaMy Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter

Flowers, nature, the American Southwest, sunset, the deserts of New Mexico. Georgia O’Keefe holds an important place as an American artist. This book appeals to readers of all ages, telling Georgia O’Keefe’s story in a first person narrative. Georgia, as a young girl, was unique in her dress, manners, and focus. At the age of twelve, she knew she would be an artist. With the support of her family she attended art school and forged her own path in the male-dominated art world. She painted the beauty of nature and landscape as she saw it, with her own unique perspective. The illustrations are lovely and will transport you to Georgia’s world. The biography is simple yet interesting. Readers will be intrigued and captivated by Georgia’s life and her intense passion for art.

Of course there are many wonderful picture biographies of artists – these are only five! What are your favorite picture books about artists?

Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

Close reading.

Looking through titles of journal articles, professional development books and teacher training sessions, it seems that close reading is the buzz word of the year. And yes, I already overheard a parent ask, “Is it really something new? Weren’t we all reading texts and answering questions thirty years ago too? What changed?”close.reading

Actually, a lot has changed. We have so many people to thank for helping us understand how readers make sense of text and how meaning is created. (I’m just going to add one gigantic thank you to Louise Rosenblatt at this point!) And while students have been answering questions for many, many years, there is still more for teachers to learn on the subject of reading. Now when we talk about close reading, Notice and Note is the book that will become a turning point for teachers everywhere. I have no doubt that Kylene Beers & Bob Probst’s text will become the definitive text on the subject of close reading for narrative texts. And now I will add: Thank you Kylene and Bob!

What will you learn when you read this book? Topics that will keep your highlighter in use—-

  • What does literacy look like in the 21st century?
  • What are text dependent questions?
  • How are they part of the Common Core State Standards?
  • How can I create and use text dependent questions with the text I am teaching?

And of course, the signposts. What are signposts? Kylene and Bob have identified six signposts that we need to teach:

  • Aha Moment

    Using color with signposts

    Using color with signposts

  • Again & Again – Repetition
  • Words of the Wiser
  • Tough Questions
  • Compare & Contrast
  • Memory Moment

We know what good readers do when they read: they make connections, construct meaning, ask questions and try to answer them. They engage with the text. And we know that often, our struggling readers don’t do these things. They miss the cues for the important moments in the text. Teaching your students the signposts will bring about the “aha moment” – yep, and that is one of the signposts! It is the “wait – that was repetition. We read that phrase in the last chapter. I remember it. Why did the author repeat it? Why is it important?” And we stop, notice it and then take note. Then we build and make connections. So after you learn about the six signposts, you will be ready for anchor questions, reading logs and charts. You will be ready to build these concepts into your curriculum.

  • What are anchor questions?
  • How can I use anchor questions to help students further their analysis of complex texts?
  • How can I use a reading log in my classroom? How can I use signposts with independent reading?
Signpost Bookmark

Signpost Bookmark with color

You will also discover that many teachers are already sharing their signpost bookmarks, charts and reference materials. Check out pinterest boards and Teachers Pay Teachers for plenty of ideas (you will find not only bookmarks, but also posters, anchor charts, flip books, strategy cards, reading logs and more). I made a color coordinated signpost page (to use with colored post-its) and bookmark as well. The book will also give you some fabulous inspiration for creating signpost charts with your students for continued reference throughout the year. The appendix include reading log samples. You can also head to the Heinemann website and find the pdfs of the documents in the appendix, which is quite handy. (Check out the Companion Resources tab)

At the heart of this text is creating opportunity for student engagement with texts – and fostering meaningful, thoughtful engagement and conversations that will create new reading habits. This isn’t a text about how to teach a novel, but rather how to teach students to become better readers of all novels that they pick up, whether it is in the library or the classroom or at home.

Friends, this is a book you will want on a shelf in your classroom. Read. Annotate. Highlight. Start teaching the signposts. And drop me a line to let me know how your students are doing with their close reading!

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir told in poetry. BrownGirlDreamingThis book is ideal for upper elementary and middle school. And in a word, it will leave you breathless.

Not surprisingly, Brown Girl Dreaming was awarded the National Book Award and you will find this book on numerous lists of “top children’s books of 2014.” If you haven’t read Jacqueline Woodson before, this is the perfect introduction. And then you should start reading her other books — and with 3 Newbery Awards, 2 National Book Awards, a Coretta Scott King Award, 3 Coretta Scott King Honors, among other awards, she has many books that you simply MUST read.

Teaching this book includes so many possibilities. And today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. Perfect. This is what comes to mind after finishing the book….

Thematic Topics for Exploration

1963 and the Civil Rights Movement. Woodson was born in 1963 and throughout the book you will find mentions of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., peaceful protests, sit-ins, Ruby Bridges. The events of the Civil Rights Movement are very much a part of this book, which is an excellent opportunity for students to explore these moments in history. The possibilities are endless for learning and discussing Civil Rights as your students read Brown Girl Dreaming.

Setting. Ohio, South Carolina and New York. The author’s childhood, taking place in both the South and the North, is profoundly affected by place. The smell of her grandmother’s cooking, the dirt, the Southern small town where she walked with her siblings…and the North, the New York setting and also Ohio. Setting is an important piece of this story. Pairing this story with poetry that deals with setting (thinking of Nikki Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee”) and you have a great connection for your students to explore the importance of space and setting.

The Importance of Dreams. Certainly the American Dream is alive and present in Woodson’s memoir. This is a story of dreams and how one little girl keeps her both her dreams and her family history alive through writing and storytelling. The juxtaposition of dreams and history is fascinating, as Woodson looks to the past while she writes and dreams of the future.

Race and Identity in America. Woodson’s memoir of course deals with race and identity, particularly as it shaped her upbringing in South Carolina, Ohio and New York. As Woodson discusses in a recent interview, “My grandmother would always say to me, ‘You’re a pretty brown girl,’ ” she says. “There was something about ‘brown’ that felt more universal, and it was speaking to more people than myself.” (see National Public Radio interview) And in seeking to write more books about diversity, Woodson has given readers a book that speaks to more than her own individual experience. This is a book that will encourage students to think about their own identity and place.

Picture Books About the Civil Rights Movement

Some of my favorite picture books – ideal for introducing the Civil Rights movement and excellent for pairing with Brown Girl Dreaming. These books lend themselves well to class discussions and text sets.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodsonotherside

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

The School is Not White! A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Doreen Rappaport

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkey

Rosa’s Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights by Jo S. Kittenger

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carol Boston Weatherfordruby

More online resources for building a unit around Brown Girl Dreaming


Jacqueline Woodson’s website

National Public Radio interview

National Book Award video

New York Times piece by Jacqueline Woodson “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke”

Please share – have you read Brown Girl Dreaming? What are your thoughts about possibilities for the classroom?

What do you read and discuss for Martin Luther King Jr Day in your classroom?

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