lang game

Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball by Heather Lang is a terrific new nonfiction baseball picture book and a great way to celebrate the upcoming baseball season.

“Girls don’t play baseball” is the book’s opening line, announced to twelve-year-old Kathryn by her brother Tom. Right away, readers get a sense of Kathryn’s spunk when she answers, “Why not? I’m better than you.” And she’s right. Kathryn is the best player around, but when Little League teams form in the spring of 1950, she is excluded because she’s a girl. Then, with her parents’ support and ingenuity, Kathryn makes the team and becomes not only the first female Little League player, but also the best all-around player on the King’s Dairy Little League team.

Anybody’s Game is irresistible because of Kathryn’s persistence and because both the text and the artwork get the baseball right. Kathryn’s upper cut swing and pitch delivery would be the envy of any player, and her willingness to slide headfirst says a lot about her approach to baseball and life. Heather Lang’s engaging narrative voice delivers Kathryn’s story in text rich with dialogue and lively sentence constructions. Cecilia Puglesi’s artwork effectively evokes the 1950s with attention to authentic period details while the characters’ large, stylized eyes convey an impressive range of facial expressions.

Young readers will relate to Anybody’s Game because the heroine is a kid. Picture book biographies frequently include the childhood of a resilient person who grows up to do something amazing. In this book, it’s a kid who does something amazing. Although Kathryn’s love of the game motivates her to do whatever it takes to play, her defiance of expectations imposed by her gender blazed a trail for today’s determined female members of their schools’ football and wrestling teams.

The useful back matter is framed by Heather Lang’s reflections as a baseball fan and includes photos of Kathryn Johnston along with details about how she has stayed involved in the game, as well as a clear “Women and Girls in Baseball” timeline.

Heather Lang’s Anybody’s Game is an excellent addition to classroom or home libraries. Its important lessons will stick with readers as the new baseball season slides headfirst into summer.

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Review: SPEAK: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll

speak graphic

When I learned a few months ago that Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 YA classic Speak was being adapted as a graphic novel, I assumed it would be just that, an adaptation. The new version of Speak is more than that though. Way more.

Speak: The Graphic Novel is still the story of Melinda, a freshman who was raped at a party and is now ostracized at school because she summoned police to the party. The art teacher is still here, and the tree is still significant. This re-telling of Speak retains all the essence of the original, but some aspects are updated, including the presence of cell phones and the internet. A few other plot elements are different, and readers familiar with the novel will notice and appreciate the variations.

The graphic novel format brings many new dimensions to this story as the artful arrangement of text and images takes us inside the mind and emotions of this brave, damaged young woman. We see the surreal images swirling in Melinda’s mind. We visualize somewhat disorienting juxtapositions in ways that text doesn’t allow. Artist Emily Carroll’s black-and-white renderings effectively convey the drama of a victim who will not use words in most situations, although the last few pages do more than speak—they shout!

Speak: The Graphic Novel stands alongside the original novel as a powerful alternative way of telling Melinda’s story. It will absorb both new readers and those who have long known the relevance of Laurie Halse Anderson and Speak.

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Review: CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT by Nancy Churnin

churnin charlie

Most Americans know the story of Jackie Robinson, the black baseball player who broke his sport’s color barrier in 1947. Charlie Sifford, the first black PGA golfer, could be called the Jackie Robinson of golf, but Charlie’s situation was different. Golf is an individual sport with no teammates. Golf is frequently played at private clubs with significant leeway to determine who can play on their courses. Because of his persistence, and with the support of Jackie Robinson himself, Charlie Sifford became the first black PGA golfer in 1961.

Charlie Takes His Shot is Nancy Churnin’s new picture book biography of Charlie Sifford. Focusing on his life in golf, Churnin takes readers from the 1930s when Charlie is not allowed to play on the courses where he caddies, to 1967 when Charlie dramatically wins his first PGA tournament. Along the way, readers see how different types of prejudice keep Charlie out of professional golf, even when he wins the National Negro Open so many times they tell him to keep the trophy. Sometimes the bigotry takes the form of blatant harassment; other times the discrimination is more insidious. The narrative text invites readers to simultaneously imagine being a superior athlete and the victim of such racial injustice. When Charlie’s ball drops in the cup in the final scene, readers understand that the game of golf and American society are forever changed.

The life lessons in Charlie Takes His Shot are clear: stay true to your game, whatever it is; keep practicing and getting better at what you do; and find the people who will support you in your cause.

John Joven’s illustrations not only impeccably accompany the text, but they also strikingly capture various physical actions involved in golfing. In many picture book biographies, the older version of the subject bears little resemblance to the younger person, but as Charlie Sifford ages during the decades covered in this story, Joven masterfully portrays him at various stages of life.

The back matter includes an author’s note that discusses Charlie Sifford’s life in more detail and a thorough timeline contextualizing Sifford’s life and accomplishments.

Charlie Takes His Shot is a worthwhile addition to any collection, alongside Nancy Churnin’s other excellent picture book biographies, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game and Manjhi Moves a Mountain.

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Meet Julia Reyes and Vivian Carter: 2 YA Books for Right Now!

mexican moxie

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez and Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu are two of the most powerful YA books of the past year. Every high school classroom has readers looking for books like these and characters like Julia Reyes and Vivian Carter. If you haven’t yet met Julia and Vivian, please introduce yourself and then introduce them to others!

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter opens with Julia and her family mourning the sudden death of older sister Olga, the seemingly perfect child. Then Julia, the family rebel, discovers some surprising clues that maybe her sister wasn’t so perfect after all. Julia’s family life was complex before her sister’s death. Born in America to undocumented Mexican immigrant parents, Julia dreams of attending college in New York and becoming a writer, aspirations that her parents do not understand or accept. With this important book, author Erika L. Sánchez gives readers an authentic look at the lives of the growing number of young people with one foot in America and the other in Mexico. But the novel is more universal than that. As Julia investigates her sister’s secrets, she also learns details about her parents’ earlier lives, and readers are reminded how the people we think we know and understand are often shaped by their buried pasts.

MoxieMoxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Author Jennifer Mathieu gets everything right in her novel Moxie. The main character Vivian lives in a small Texas town, and she is more than fed up with how most of the boys in her high school get away with degrading the girls. “Make me is a sandwich” is a favorite taunt, but things eventually go far beyond that. Inspired by her mom’s RiotGrrrl past, Vivian creates and distributes a zine titled Moxie to challenge the girls in her school to resist and fight back.

The girls don’t know who started the magazine, and they react to it in different ways, but as the behavior of the boys and men in the school becomes more and more despicable (and believable), they adopt the zine’s motto “Moxie girls fight back.” Moxie has humor, but it’s mostly just fantastic because of its daring, honesty, and integrity.

In many ways a public high school is a microcosm of its community and culture. We live in a time when a disgraced judge in Alabama had a viable path to the U. S. Senate despite lying about preying on underage girls when he was in his thirties. The President of the United States proudly admits to assaulting women, then dismisses it as locker room talk, as if that makes it okay. A prominent Hollywood producer routinely intimidates and assaults women (including someone I know personally) and gets away with it for a long time. If there was ever a moment when a novel like Moxie is needed, it’s right now.

I hope libraries and classrooms will put a spotlight on I Am Not your Perfect Mexican Daughter and Moxie. Get them out there. The excellent covers will do some of the promotional work, but please talk up these important books!


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One More 2017 Round-Up of Nonfiction Picture Books

For my final set of nonfiction picture books of 2017, here are eighteen recent titles that feature history, biographies, animals, math, and natural science. I’m constantly amazed at the inventive ways picture book authors and illustrators approach and shape their material to engage and enlighten readers. I hope you find something here that will appeal to the young readers in your life.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of ConfusionDazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton

This is a terrific subject for a nonfiction picture book! The drama of war, the art of deception, and giant ships painted in dazzling colors and patterns all combine in Chris Barton’s Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion. During World War I, British ships were torpedoed by German submarines at a rate so alarming that the British food supply was threatened. Nothing seemed to thwart the attacks until Norman Wilkinson, a British naval officer, came up with the idea of painting the ships in bold patterns that would confuse the enemy’s tracking systems just long enough to avoid being torpedoed.

Barton’s narrative text has many touches of humor, which might seem out of place for such a deadly subject, but the point of Dazzle Ships is that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is “by trying the unlikely, the improbable, the seemingly bonkers.” Illustrator Victo Ngai’s picture book debut gives readers large, detailed images that are themselves dazzling. No one will hurry through this book. Each spread features Barton’s engaging narrative voice and Ngai’s complex but friendly visuals.

Dazzle Ships gets the history right, but more importantly for young readers, it makes history interesting and relevant to contemporary contexts. I can easily imagine a Dazzle Ships fan becoming the person in the room who says, “Other ideas aren’t working very well. What if we try a dazzle approach instead?”

The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News StoryThe Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story by Darcy Pattison

I won’t give away anything here, but the sea monster that spooked the Nantucket citizenry in 1937 turned out to be something other than a denizen of the deep. Darcy Pattison’s picture book The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story is a tale for our times as it reminds readers that reported facts need to be verified and that the media is sometimes used for purposes other than truth-telling.

Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist ExtraordinairePocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo

Pocket Full of Colors is a picture book biography of Disney artist Mary Blair. The through line of Mary’s story is her fascination with color. As a child, Mary “collected” colors; throughout her life, she traveled the world in search of more colors. When first hired by Walt Disney, Mary’s fanciful color schemes were rejected by the “Nine Old Men,” Disney’s primary animators. But Pocket Full of Colors is a persistence story, and Mary ends up in charge of her own animation. Mary Blair is the reason the pumpkin carriage in Cinderella is teal instead of orange. Mary Blair is the reason the Peter Pan mermaids are lime green. And Mary Blair is the reason “It’s A Small World” has such a unique look and feel. The text by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville is light and lyrical, and Brigette Barrager’s bright artwork expertly draws on Mary Blair’s fascination with arranging colors. Pocket Full of Colors will delight young readers as they recognize Mary Blair’s art from Disney films they love while learning the story behind those visual effects.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy WatersMuddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael James Mahin

Muddy is a powerful picture book biography of McKinley Morganfield, better known as blues legend Muddy Waters. As a child in Mississippi, little McKinley “was never good at doing what he was told.” That included keeping clean, so his Grandma Della just took to calling him Muddy. Muddy’s insistence on doing things his own way made it hard for him to stay employed in the Jim Crow South, so he came to Chicago to play music, his way. Author Michael Mahin emphasizes how Muddy was always true to how he felt his music should sound, even when others tried to exert control over it, and young rebel readers will find validation in Muddy’s story. Evan Turk’s artwork is just wild. The loud abstract page spreads capture the thrilling, stinging electricity of Muddy Waters’ voice and guitar. I’m not sure if Muddy has wide kid appeal, but it’s likely to be just the right book for some kids.

Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee!Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney

Andrea J. Loney’s Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee is a picture book biography of one of the most important figures from the Harlem Renaissance. As a photographer, James VandDerZee created portraits that captured and celebrated the lives of Harlem residents in ways that eventually showed the rest of the world the lives of middle-class black citizens. In an age when photography studios are in our pockets, the story of James VanDerZee and the art of photography is important to remember, not only because of his role in elevating the art of portraiture but because of how his dignified work challenged negative stereotypes of black Americans.

Imagine That!: How Dr. Seuss Wrote the Cat in the HatImagine That!: How Dr. Seuss Wrote The Cat in the Hat by Judy Sierra

I clearly remember the Dick and Jane books from my earliest grades of elementary school. Dr. Seuss came along in later grades in the form of read-alouds. I loved when our teacher read to us The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Yertle the Turtle. My parents read Dr. Seuss book to me too: Horton Hatches the Egg and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. As I learned from Judy Sierra’s nonfiction picture book Imagine That!: How Dr. Seuss Wrote The Cat in the Hat, the Dr. Seuss easy reader books came along just a little later, and apparently my teachers weren’t quite ready to replace Dick and Jane with Thing One and Thing Two.

Imagine that. Imagine That! helped me understand something about my early reading life that I’d never realized. I’m excited to think about this wonderful book doing the same for readers fifty years younger than me as they ponder when, how, and why Dr. Seuss books came into their lives.

The Cat in the Hat grew out of a realization that those Dick and Jane books are boring, and kids were more likely to read if their first easy readers were fun and exciting. Ted Geisel, the author known as Dr. Seuss, accepted a challenge from writer John Hersey to write a funny book using only words from the approved basal reader list. Imagine That! explains Geisel’s offbeat creative processes and how The Cat in the Hat became such a phenomenon.

Young Dr. Seuss fans will enjoy learning more about this subject matter that is likely already in their knowledge banks. Will this be their first exposure to literary analysis as they think about how Dr. Seuss worked within various constraints to create his delightful effects? Will it inspire them to write funny stories of their own? Imagine that.

Frida Kahlo and Her AnimalitosFrida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown

In Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, Monica Brown tells the life story of artist Frida Kahlo through the lens of the animals in her life, how she shared traits with them, and how they inspired and inhabited her imagination. Kahlo’s life and art lend themselves to interpretation in many ways, and I admire how this picture book biography chooses a specific window that is accessible to young readers. The John Parra illustrations not only convey the biography of Frida Kahlo; they also emphasize the animal motif that runs through her life and work. Readers will likely want to see some of Frida Kahlo’s artwork after reading this book. The back matter helpfully includes a list of paintings that connect to this narrative, and kids will enjoy recognizing the animals from Monica Brown’s book in those Kahlo paintings.

The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, The First Woman to Run the Boston MarathonThe Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon by Kristina Yee

The Girl Who Ran is a persistence story. In 1966 Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. As a little girl, Bobbi liked to run. Her friends did too, until they lost interest. Bobbi kept running. As an adult, she wanted to run in the Boston Marathon, but her application was denied because of her gender. So, Bobbi covered up her long hair, jumped out of the bushes, and ran the marathon anyway. We all need stories like this.

The images of Bobbi and other people in this picture book biography effectively show the emotions involved in each page spread, but when Bobbi is running, she is trailed by fiery streaks of red, orange, and yellow. Similarly, the primary narrative text is straightforward, but there are moments in the story when words burst across the top of the page. When Bobbi’s running is in flow, rhyming couplets appear in italics. I like how these various touches move Bobbi’s true story into something a little bigger than mere reality.

Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de MéxicoDanza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México by Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México is a picture book biography about the founder of the most enduring Mexican dance company, El Ballet Folklórico de México. Danza! is the story of how a young girl in Mexico City was inspired by folk dancers to become a dancer herself. Amalia Hernández trained in classical ballet but found herself choreographing modern dance pieces resembling the dances she remembered seeing as a young girl.

Although Amalia took her dances to villages all through Mexico, she knew her artistic visions could not be complete unless they were performed in a theater. The company she formed became internationally famous for their dazzling fusion of ballet and modern dance with folkloric elements.

Much like El Ballet Folklórico de México itself, Danza! uses illustrations blending traditional Mexican styles with modern depictions. Danza!’s readers will learn about turning artistic dreams into reality, and the persistence necessary to achieve artistry on a large scale. This book will especially appeal to young dancers, and students with Mexican heritage will undoubtedly experience a surge of pride.

Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee BurtonBig Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker

Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton is a picture book biography celebrating the work of “Jinnee” Burton, the creator of such classic children’s books as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Maybelle the Cable Car, and The Little House, the Caldecott Award Winner in 1943. Young Jinnee’s imagination takes many forms, but the drawings she makes to delight her children become stories and eventually books beloved by generations.

Although Sherri Duskey Rinker’s narrative conveys a factual timeline, it is not exactly a straightforward biography. Big Machines is more of a salute to imagination, creativity, storytelling, and adults who inspire children. John Rocco’s warm realistic pictures, an homage to an earlier time in children’s book publishing, provide a bit of nostalgia for adult readers but will also allow young readers to experience how books looked and felt once upon a time.

From the endpapers to the back matter, this loving tribute to an author who cared enough about children to create stories for them is sure to delight both children and adults.

Dangerous JaneDangerous Jane by Suzanne Slade

The title Dangerous Jane is alluring, but it’s also ironic because the life mission of Jane Addams was to protect and serve whoever needed protection and support. Dangerous Jane tells the life story of Jane Addams with a focus on how she was inspired to serve others as a child, and moves on to how she established a settlement house in Chicago and an international women’s movement, both dedicated to helping those who need it without regard for nationality or any other consideration. After World War I, Jane Addams was considered a traitor and labeled “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by some who thought she should be more selective about who she provided with assistance. She eventually became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Author Suzanne Slade’s text covers these milestones in the life of Jane Addams in finely crafted sentences. Slade’s economy with words provides her sentences with punch but never crosses into melodrama. I especially admire how the final phrase or image on each page is particularly thought-provoking. Because of Slade’s attention to the sound of her sentences, Dangerous Jane is one of the rare picture books that will work as a read-aloud.

The illustrations by Alice Ratterree enhance Suzanne Slade’s narrative with historically accurate and interesting backdrops. The faces are expressive and realistic, and all of this is rendered in colors that are not quite sepia but still create a nostalgic effect.

Young readers exposed to Dangerous Jane will learn about empathy, compassion, service, World War I, the role of women in the early Twentieth Century, and much more. In this time when some in our society want to build walls, I’m glad that “Dangerous” Jane Addams can still inspire the better parts of human nature.

Hidden Wildlife: How Animals Hide in Plain SightHidden Wildlife: How Animals Hide in Plain Sight by Jim Arnosky

Hidden Wildlife: How Animals Hide in Plain Sight is the latest In Jim Arnosky’s series of picture books about wild animals. The window here is Arnosky’s own experiences with these animals and how his artist’s eye interacted with the animal’s coloration and camouflage. Two striking aspects of Hidden Wildllife set it apart from similar books. The first is Arnosky’s stories about how he encountered each animal in its natural habitat and what he noticed about how it blended in with its surroundings. (Exposition is fine, but stories make the learning stickier.) Secondly, the colorful paintings are large and dramatic, and young readers will love the foldouts.

How to Survive as a FireflyHow to Survive as a Firefly by Kristen Foote

How to Survive as a Firefly explains the brief, dynamic life of a firefly, and how its metamorphosis differs from other life cycles. The energetic narrative voice effectively conveys what author Kristen Foote wants readers to understand about the firefly—it lives fast, changes quickly, and doesn’t have time to relax. (This contrasts with how I experience fireflies as they seem to quietly twinkle off and on during lazy summer evenings!) The illustrations are comical, but the appearance of the narrator becomes a little repetitive. The animated tone of the narrative text carries through to the back matter, which may lead young readers to engage with those pages rather than skipping them.

WalrusWalrus by Herve Paniaq

Animals Illustrated: Walrus by Herve Paniaq is full of interesting facts about walruses, and the Ben Shannon illustrations depict aspects of a walrus’s life not commonly considered. The text is easy to read, but I’m a little troubled by several variations of “it is said” or used in a book that is likely to be used as a credible source. For example, Paniaq writes, “Walruses that live in very deep water are said to enjoy eating seals.” Well, do they enjoy eating seals or not? That “said” formation leaves doubt.

The book’s short chapters offer intriguing information and pictures, but the last spread covers two topics, how walruses can be dangerous to humans, and how Inuit store walrus meat and used tusks as harpoons. If the book is read in one sitting, which is likely, the end just seems to trail off with no final thoughts or big idea to remember about the subject.

If your library doesn’t have a walrus book, this one will be serviceable.

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald EagleBeauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle by Deborah Lee Rose

Beauty and the Beak begins as a bald eagle chick is born. The chick is followed to adulthood when she is wounded by a human predator. The weakened, disfigured bald eagle is discovered scavenging in a dump by a police officer and taken to a raptor sanctuary. Named Beauty, the eagle is not only nursed back to health, but with the help of 3-D dental technology she is successfully fitted with a prosthetic beak that restores much of her ability to function normally.

This book’s photographs are excellent. The first part shows how a bald eagle develops into maturity and fends for itself in the wild. The second part shows Beauty in rehabilitation and undergoing the procedure for attaching the prosthetic beak. The science is explained in accessible language and clearly demonstrates that humans are capable of helpful impulses that ingenuity can harness with technology to improve our world and its varied inhabitants.

Beauty and the Beak’s extensive notes and back matter comprise roughly 40% of the book. While the primary narrative accompanying the photographs is geared toward younger-grade readers, the language in the ancillary material is noticeably more complex and devoid of photos.

Zoo Scientists to the RescueZoo Scientists to the Rescue by Patricia Newman

Patricia Newman’s colorful Zoo Scientists to the Rescue is a picture book for middle-grade readers focused on the problem-solving work of scientists affiliated with zoos around the world. The first and last chapters are overviews of the kinds of dilemmas faced by animals and dealt with by zoo scientists. The three middle chapters feature specific species in specific zoos: orangutans at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, black-footed ferrets at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and black rhinoceroses at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Annie Crawley’s high-quality photographs of animals will captivate young scientists, but the photographs of people doing their work or posing with charts are less interesting.

Money Math: Addition and SubtractionMoney Math: Addition and Subtraction by David A. Adler

David Adler’s Money Math: Addition and Subtraction is a wonderfully interactive picture book for elementary-age readers. Hosted by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures from United States currency, Money Math engagingly connects the real-world skill of counting money to more abstract mathematical concepts, such as fractions and decimal points.

The cartoon-like illustrations by Edward Miller invite readers to imagine the coin illustrations as real coins. Students who enjoy this book will easily transition from the book to manipulatives or actual coins. Although the book is focused mostly on adding coins and bills in various ways, it also touches on the subtraction-related skills of making change. The tone and message of Money Math is that counting money is fun, and so is the math behind it. Money Math is a great addition for any school, classroom, or home library.

If You Were the MoonIf You Were the Moon by Laura Purdie Salas

A little girl reading in bed, on the verge of falling asleep, says hello to the moon and wishes she “could do exactly nothing, just like you.” The moon replies, explaining all the ways it is more active than it seems. The narrative can be read by focusing on the moon’s lyrical replies (“Hover near your mother … Tease the Earth: peek-a-boo!”), but each of the moon’s answers is supported by a more detailed explanation of the science behind it, as well as beliefs about the moon from various cultures. The moon is friendly throughout, both in the text and in the illustrations as it reveals how being the moon is a lot like being a busy youngster.

Many of these reviews appeared on Goodreads or elsewhere in slightly different form.

As always, thanks for reading. Which of these jump out at you as the most appealing?

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14 More New Nonfiction Picture Books for Home or School

This batch of nonfiction picture books has a little bit of almost everything–biographies, animals, dazzling illustrations, fascinating photos, laughs, drama, and insights into our amazing world. I hope these reviews are helpful to parents and educators searching for the best titles to add to shelves at home or school. Here we go.

What Makes a Monster?: Discovering the World's Scariest Creatures (The World of Weird Animals)What Makes a Monster?: Discovering the World’s Scariest Creatures by Jess Keating

The most disgusting, disturbing animal I’ve ever seen is a moray eel at Walt Disney World. It’s horrible. And now Jess Keating comes out with What Makes a Monster?: Discovering the World’s Scariest Creatures, and there is the fangtooth moray eel, which justifies every bad dream I’ve ever had about those nasty things.

If that weren’t bad enough, this book also features the vampire bat, the Humbolt squid, and worst of all, the goblin shark. Thanks, Jess. There go a few more nights of good sleep.

All of this is testament to another fabulous book in Keating’s “The World of Weird Animals” series. Yes, I’m creeped out by some of those pictures, but I also learned a lot from reading this book. Filled with facts just as weird as the pictures, the text also doesn’t shy away from positive aspects of these animals. For example, some of them are less endangered than they used to be, and some look for ways to help each other.

As with Keating’s Pink Is for Blobfish, the previous book in this series, the format is the definition of engaging. Bright colors, captivating photos, funny illustrations, and cleverly written text make this a book that young people will read repeatedly, and share with each other. If curiosity is the best impetus for motivating students to study science, What Makes A Monster? will provide plenty to ponder.

Animals by the Numbers: A Book of InfographicsAnimals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics by Steve Jenkins

The weight of all termites on Earth is double the weight of all humans on Earth. A gnat beats its wings a thousand times per second. The bulldog bat is one of the loudest animals, but humans can’t hear its high-pitched sounds. Crocodiles kill three hundred times more humans each year than sharks. Only three Red River soft-shelled turtles are still in existence, two in zoos and one in a Vietnamese lake. Who knew?

Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Animal Infographics will fascinate animal lovers and others. Animals are automatically appealing to many young readers, but this book also includes strange facts about familiar and unfamiliar species that will intrigue many curious minds.

Author Steve Jenkins goes beyond the animal focus to present data in a variety of infographic formats: pie charts, flow charts, bar graphs, and many others, making Animals by the Numbers a helpful guide as students consider and decide how to best visually represent or report different types of information. These infographics are presented alongside Jenkins’s own artwork depicting many different animals.

Jenkins’s strong integration of content and format will make Animals by the Numbers one of the most appealing, useful books in any collection.

Hatching Chicks in Room 6Hatching Chicks in Room 6 by Caroline Arnold

Follow along as Mrs. Best brings eggs from home to an incubator in her elementary school classroom. Hatching Chicks in Room 6 has an easy-to-follow narrative with built-in drama as Mrs. Best’s students watch and wait for the baby chicks to emerge from the eggs they carefully incubate. Caroline Arnold’s photos are great as they capture the students’ enthusiasm and what seems to be expressiveness from the baby chicks. (If a photographer can show expressiveness in a chicken of any age, something good is going on.) Although there is necessarily some challenging vocabulary here (incubator and albumen, for example), the words are explained well and are not overwhelming. Once readers know the words, they will likely incorporate them into their own language when discussing this book or its subjects.

Robins!: How They Grow UpRobins!: How They Grow Up by Eileen Christelow

Robins!: How They Grow Up is full of fascinating details about robins that will enhance what young readers have probably already noticed about them. As the primary text explains how young robins are born and develop, some comic robins lurking at the bottom of the pages comment on the narrative. This provides some nice variety, which is needed because the pictures become repetitive in places, mostly because the backgrounds are so plain, and the robins look mostly the same from page to page. Still, the artwork is expressive and appealing; it’s just repetitive. Although probably too long for a read-aloud, Robins! can be a good picture book to use in the spring as robins begin to appear. Markers of the robins’ various ages can serve as little chapter breaks for those hesitant to read the entire book at once.

Can an Aardvark Bark?Can an Aardvark Bark? by Melissa Stewart

Can an Aardvark Bark? explores the variety of sounds made by animals, and which dissimilar animals make similar sounds. Emerging readers will enjoy the onomatopoetic character of the animal sounds featured in the primary text (bark, whine, growl, etc.), while more details and complex vocabulary are found in the supporting text. The primary text would serve well as a read-aloud, and children can then explore the rest of the book more independently or in groups. The format is almost a tribute to Eric Carle with its stylized artwork made of multiple fabrics and text with repeating elements.

DroughtsDroughts by Melissa Stewart

Also written by Melissa Stewart, Droughts is a useful science book in the “Let’s Read and Find Out” series. Sweet’s primary narrative text explains the science behind droughts in clear, straightforward language. The human touch comes through the warm Andre’ Ceolin illustrations showing children and adults dealing with various stages of drought, as well as taking steps to conserve water. The vocabulary and syntax in the sidebars and back matter is slightly more complex than the rest. This is fine because adults are more likely to be involved in the experiments and explanations described in those sections. Sweet and Ceolin’s book is more friendly than flashy as it makes accessible the science behind droughts.

Two Truths and a Lie: It's Alive!Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive! by Ammi-Joan Paquette

I was originally not sure about this one. Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive presents sets of three cleverly-written, humorous explanations of various scientific phenomena. But, you guessed it, two of them are true and one is not. The fake one might be wildly made-up or it might have something factual embedded in it, but it’s not completely true.

All the explanations are fun, but I’m bothered by young readers spending so much time reading fake stuff alongside true stuff, even if they know some of it is made up. Separating fact from fiction these days is almost a survival strategy, and I don’t quite see how this book strengthens that skill. I imagine readers being entertained and enjoying the mysteries but not remembering enough of the details the next day to be clear on what was true and untrue.

Since I originally reviewed Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive, I’ve talked to two parents who are also educators who told me they see kids absorbed in this book, so I’m willing to consider that because truth is so slippery in our peculiar era I may not be seeing the book’s full potential.

Manjhi Moves a MountainManjhi Moves a Mountain by Nancy Churnin

“Moving mountains” is usually a hyperbolic metaphor for accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks. In the nonfiction picture book Manjhi Moves a Mountain, a dedicated laborer literally moves a mountain to connect two villages. Manjhi’s poor village “in the heart of India” is separated from a more prosperous village by a mountain. Manjhi throws a stone in frustration. Inspired by seeing dust crumble from the stone, Manjhi begins to chip away at the mountain with his hammer and chisel. At first, other villagers laugh at his folly, but eventually they begin to respect his dedication. Twenty-two years later, Manjhi has moved the mountain, and the two villages are united.

This beautifully designed book has a mythical feel, but Manjhi’s story takes place in the twentieth century. Nancy Churnin wisely refrains from belaboring Manjhi’s heroism as she simply tells what happens and heroism emerges from that description. Danny Popovici’s appealing illustrations reward readers who linger on each spread as details are embedded in the depth perspective of each picture. The book begins and closes with different endpapers that effectively convey the power of Manjhi’s accomplishment.

Although it actually happened, Manjhi’s accomplishment is something of a metaphor after all, as the back matter challenges readers to consider what mountains they can move to improve their communities, and provides links to resources for learning about what others are doing, and how readers can share their own experiences.

Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman PilotLighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith

Nothing on Earth captures the imagination quite like taking to the sky in a hot air balloon. Lighter than Air is a picture book biography about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman pilot. Blanchard guided hot air balloons all over 18th Century France. Author Matthew Clark Smith provides a narrative that contextualizes the French attitudes of the period, especially regarding the role of women in that society, and how Sophie Blanchard first challenges those expectations, then becomes an exception to all those rules as she gains popularity and respect for her airborne exploits.

Some of the Matt Tavares illustrations are drawings that evoke the art prints of that time, but several of the pictures are more involved with backgrounds and sophisticated shadings. These pictures are more satisfying and made me wish the others were more like them.

The design of Lighter than Air is simple. The endpapers are plain, and the back matter is an author’s note, illustrator’s note, and a brief bibliography. The author’s note reveals the circumstances of Sophie Blanchard’s death. No spoilers here, but I hope young readers find their way to that detail and then ponder and discuss its ironies.

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer CodeGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark

Laurie Wallmark’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code portrays legendary computer programmer Grace Hopper as fun and feisty. More than anything, Wallmark’s picture book biography is an appealing story that will engage many young readers, not just the technology fans. The computer science and engineering are accessible and presented as challenges which “Amazing Grace” gladly tackles. The narrative has a friendly voice, and I also like the inspirational Grace Hopper quotes adorning many of the page spreads. Katy Wu’s bright, happy illustrations perfectly match the tone of Wallmark’s words. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is a book that readers will remember, re-visit, and talk about with each other.

Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America SingingListen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing by Leda Schubert

Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing is a worthy picture book tribute to the iconic folksinger. The lyrical text begins with “Listen,” an imperative repeated several times. The difference between “listen” and “hear” is a call to pay attention to what is going on beneath and behind the words and tunes of Pete Seeger’s songs.

Most pages of the text includes brief lists of two or three titles of songs associated with that page’s content. While most of the songs are not explained, some titles are well known, which creates a kind of imagined soundtrack for reading this book. The lesser-known titles may intrigue readers to investigate them.

Raúl Colón’s artwork can almost stand alone without text. His textured illustrations have a nostalgic glow that perfectly matches Leda Schubert’s portrayal of Pete Seeger’s idealism and optimism.

If you’re only going to add one Pete Seeger picture book to a collection, I recommend Listen. Seeger’s life is explained in an evocative voice, and the role of folk songs and folk singers in those tumultuous times is conveyed without being overtly didactic. Schubert and Colón hit all the right notes here.

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple GrandinThe Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin portrays a misunderstood child who persists in learning to become a renowned scientist. As a child, Temple’s autism confuses and alienates many of those around her. When she leaves the city and spends more time in rural settings, she begins to understand her own mind and its powers that are so hidden from others. This important picture book lures in readers with friendly illustrations and gently rhyming text. Picture book biographies rarely make for good read-alouds, but The Girl Who Thought in Pictures is an exception. Educators and parents who use this book will help young readers understand autism and empathize with those who think differently.

Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the WorldPedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World by Allan Drummond

Pedal Power has a nice balance of whimsy and message as it shows how bicycling advocate Maartje Rutten led Amsterdam to become the world’s foremost biking city. Although the words and pictures have light touches, author Allan Drummond delivers important content about the benefits of cycling and the power of activism.

Her Right FootHer Right Foot by Dave Eggers

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers is mostly a history of The Statue of Liberty that begins with humor and ends with an important message about America and immigrants. Some of the background is familiar, which Eggers acknowledges, but there are also some surprises. In fact, there is one big surprise involving something important about the statue’s right foot. The narration builds a positive relationship by directly addressing a reader, sometimes teasingly, sometimes with compliments. This pays off at the end when Eggers delivers his innovative interpretation of the statue. The Shawn Harris cut-paper artwork is decidedly modern, which reinforces a new way of seeing our well-known neoclassical statue. Her Right Foot is fun, and it’s likely to be a favorite with young readers even as it reminds us about America’s important mission to welcome “the poor, the tired, and the struggling to breathe free.”

See what I mean? A little bit of almost everything. No book is just right for every reader, but I hope some of the titles here fit the interests of the young readers in your world.

One more quick note: Since my last blog post about nonfiction picture books, I’ve been chosen as a first round judge for the Cybils Awards. Nothing I say in these reviews should be assumed to reflect how I’m judging any of the nominated books, or how the Cybils judging is proceeding in general. Finalists are announced on January 1, 2018, and winners are announced on February 14, 2018!

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Review: TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green

turtlesJohn Green’s new novel Turtles All the Way Down: I don’t even know where to start. Maybe just start with what I want to say about this book. It is important. Aza, the narrator and main character, has anxiety. Even pleasurable things like kisses cause Aza’s thoughts to race and spiral. Because anxiety is rampant in American society today, especially among teens and pre-teens, Turtles will matter to those who live with a similar mental illness. Even those who are free from debilitating anxiety will gain understanding of it as John Green gives us Aza’s unfiltered inner monologue.

Or maybe I should start with what this book is about. There is a plot, for those who like plots. A billionaire has disappeared leaving his children and estate in a questionable status. The oldest son Davis was a childhood friend of Aza’s. When Aza’s best friend Daisy realizes the connection and the reward for finding Davis’s father, she forces Aza to seek out Davis. A relationship develops between the anxiety-ridden Aza and the boy who doesn’t really miss his missing father.

What if we just start at the beginning: “At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time—between 12:37 P.M. and 1:14 P.M.—by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.” This sentence establishes Aza’s voice, and shows an understanding of how going to high school is a different experience from living in the rest of the world. In Aza’s mind, everything in her world is connected and beyond her control, and similarly, everything in Turtles All the Way Down is connected to something else. Stars in the sky and Star Wars. Technology and intimacy. Turtles and lizards. Shakespeare and blogs. Infinity and right now.

I almost forgot! This book is funny! Spending so much time in Aza’s head would be “exhausting,” as her friend Daisy says, without light moments and clever phrases throughout the book. The conversations, both spoken and text message, crackle with wit as these smart kids banter about big issues (mental health, abandonment), restaurants (Chuck E. Cheese, Applebee’s), and the status of their romances.

The Fault in Our Stars should have squelched those who see John Green as someone who writes within the definition of Young Adult Literature. That book was unquestionably far beyond any narrow conceptions of the YA genre. Turtles All the Way Down is out there too. John Green has written a narrator who draws us in and affects our understanding of how a mind works. We can either recognize something of ourselves in Aza, or we can better understand those like her. Either way, Aza will affect readers. Turtles All the Way Down may be YA lit, but it’s also just lit.

Be kind to yourself, and enjoy reading this new book.

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Just Another Day of Books Around the Room

5433e0b8b1ac3d5467881f5442b38b1a--eragon-quotes-christopher-paoliniFrom time to time, I like to compile a list of books my students are reading to see if I can discern any patterns or trends that will help me understand them as readers and possibly diagnose any situations that might need to be addressed. This year I’ve been working with four classes of high school juniors. Almost all of them reliably bring a book to class each day and read it for fifteen minutes at the beginning of each ninety-minute block.

Because students finish books regularly, the list changes every day, but here are the titles from a recent class, arranged alphabetically by author. (Numbers in parentheses indicate multiple students reading the same title.)

Kwame Alexander: The Crossover
Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian
Bryan Anderson with David Mack: No Turning Back
M. T. Anderson: Feed
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: Seinfeldia
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer
Paulo Bacigalupi: The Doubt Factory
Cris Beam: I Am
Frank Beddor: The Looking Glass Wars
Sam Bracken: My Orange Duffel Bag
Patrick Carman: Skeleton Creek
Joelle Charbonneau: The Testing
Joelle Charbonneau: Independent Study
Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Nyrae Dawn: Facade
Matt de la Peña: Mexican Whiteboy (2)
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: The Strain Book One
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: The Strain Book Three: The Night Eternal
Sarah Dessen: Dreamland
Carl Deuker: Swagger (2)
Emma Donoghue: Room
Sharon M. Draper: Just Another Hero
Dave Eggers: The Circle (2)
Kathryn Erskine: Mockingbird
Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods
Becca Fitzpatrick: Crescendo
Gayle Forman: Where She Went
Lisa Gardner: Touch and Go
Tim Green: Unstoppable
Charles F. Gritzer: Mexico
Alison Goodman: Eon
Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler: The Demon in the Teahouse
Ellen Hopkins: Crank
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity
Sherrilyn Kenyon: Invincible
Jo Knowles: Read Between the Lines (3)
Joseph R. Kozenczak and Karen M. Kozenczak: The Chicago Killer: The Hunt for Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy
Kevin Kwan: Crazy Rich Asians
Marie Lu: Prodigy
Chris Lynch: Hit Count
Michael Lewis: The Blind Side
Mike Lupica: The Underdogs
Zoe Marriott: The Name of the Blade
George R. R. Martin: A Game of Thrones (2)
David McCullough: 1776
Meg Medina: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Linda R. Monk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide
Mike Mullin: Ashfall (2)
Mike Mullin: Ashen Winter
G. Neri: Knockout Games
Jennifer Niven: All the Bright Places (3)
Shana Norris: Troy High
Chase Novak: Breed
Joyce Carol Oates: Blonde
George Orwell: 1984
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club
Joe Perry and David Ritz: Rocks
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely: All American Boys (2)
Rainbow Rowell: Eleanor and Park
Julie Shepard: Rosie Girl
Shel Silverstein: A Light in the Attic
Andrew Smith: Grasshopper Jungle
Tom Rob Smith: Child 44
Trenton Lee Stewart: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Tara Sullivan: The Bitter Side of Sweet
Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give (4)
Julia Walton: Words on Bathroom Walls
Paul Franklin Watson: Sea Shepard: My Fight for Whales and Seals
Scott Westerfield: Goliath
Various: 666: The Number of the Beast
Lauren Roedy Vaughn: OCD, the Dude and Me
Sean Williams: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Emma Young: She Myself and I

The variety here is astonishing, but I think I see some patterns. The first one is something that probably wouldn’t be apparent to outsiders. Many of these titles were featured in our daily book-talks. Every day I tell students about a book that I think some of them might like. Those books are more likely than any others to show up in their hands. Sixteen of the books listed here have been the subject of book-talks earlier this year.

book talk slide 2

A slide like this is on the screen each day as students arrive in class.  After our independent reading time, I do a book talk on the title or titles.  In this case, we had a “two-fer” book talk on two thematically-linked novels, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

I also see a lot of books from the classroom library. Although the school where I’m working has an outstanding library and library staff, and many students are frequent visitors, other students rely on the classroom library. I’m not sure what makes the difference, but it’s an interesting question that has no wrong answer.

Authors from diverse backgrounds are important. I’m not going to do an ethnic tally, but I know that every title I mention written by an author of color shows up soon in our diverse classes.

Graphic novels are huge. In one class there is a small enclave who starts each block checking in with each other about what’s going on in whichever volume of The Strain they are currently reading. In addition, the most-read book in this still-young school year is Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer. (Nonfiction graphic novels, anyone?) The school library has 1,100 graphic novels in its collection, and those shelves get a lot of traffic.

My only concern is that a few students still choose books almost randomly, as if one book were just as good as another. Sometimes they even stick with those randomly chosen titles, even though they know they are welcome to abandon any book any time. Students know they are required to read, but some of them don’t know how to choose well. We can work on that.

I wonder if anyone sees other trends or patterns here? What am I missing?

Your comments and questions are always welcome, and as always, thanks for reading.

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The Top Twenty Ways Busy Juniors Can Find More Time to Read

reading at homeThis school year I’ve been working with 114 juniors. They are smart, focused, positive, respectful, and busy, busy, busy. Their after-school hours are devoured by sports, clubs, teams, activities, jobs, and hands-on family obligations.

As readers, some of these students are already voracious. Others haven’t read much in the last few months, and some haven’t read much for several years.

As we all work together to improve everyone’s reading life, we discuss practical aspects of being a reader. For example, we talk about when to abandon a book, when the best part of a book is most likely to happen, and the importance of having a next book in mind.

We read self-selected books for fifteen minutes in every class, but one of the obstacles to developing richer reading lives for these juniors is finding time to read outside of class. With that in mind, I recently reminded them that we make time for what we value. Then I asked them to reply to this:

Think about your typical day. Regardless of how much time you currently spend reading each day, how can you make more time for reading? Where can you find five, ten, fifteen minutes or more in your schedule to read a few more pages? List your ideas, whether they are obvious or wacky.

The 114 juniors responded wonderfully. Presented in order and without judgement, here are The Top Twenty Ways Busy Juniors Can Find More Time to Read!

1. Before going to sleep
2. In study hall
3. During lunch
4. Before school
5. During down-time in class—for example, after finishing a test
6. While eating dinner
7. On the bus
8. Right away when getting home from school
9. In the bathroom
10. After homework
11. Instead of TV or video games
12. During passing periods
13. Instead of phone or social media
14. Find a quiet place
15. After practice
16. While waiting
17. In the bath
18. When bored
19. While walking somewhere
20. (Tie) After work / During other classes

While those were the top ideas, some interesting “outlier” responses showed up too. Here they are, in the students’ own words:

“Drop classes so you can read.”
“Don’t do other homework.”
“While brushing my teeth”
“You can read with friends.”
“In the shower”
“Skip school.”
“Read two books at once, one for school and one for home.”

As we formulate expectations for our students about reading or homework in general, we should also keep in mind that home environments vary in terms of their friendliness toward reading: “People tell me to do homework and read at home, but home is an uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden environment that makes it impossible for me to do that.”

I hope you enjoyed the lists, but you can help us learn! What are your favorite times and ways to give yourself a few more minutes to read in a busy day?

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Talking about THE ENEMY with Sara Holbrook

the-enemy-md-1Many Nerdy Book Clubbers are already familiar with Sara Holbrook through her books of poetry for young readers, including I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult and The Dog Ate My Homework.  We also know Sara through her work with “partner-in-rhyme” Michael Salinger that helps students and teachers from around the world understand how writing poetry can meet the needs of living in the modern world.

Sara Holbrook’s newest book is The Enemy:  Detroit, 1954 (Calkins Creek, 2017).  Loosely based on her own childhood experiences, The Enemy’s narrator is Marjorie, a twelve-year old who sees the tensions of the Cold War play out in her home, school, and community.  Marjorie’s responses to the suspicion, paranoia, and xenophobia so prevalent in that era are powerfully relevant to our own troubled times.

I’m honored that my long-time friend Sara agreed to share her insights with Nerdy Book Club members in a recent email interview.

Sara HolbrookWhen it comes to writing, you have done so much—poetry for young people, spoken word poetry, think pieces, books for educators—but this is your first novel.  What brought you to writing a novel for middle-grade readers?

As a poet, I tend to write in first person. I think it keeps me honest. I have written hundreds of poems in a middle grade voice, from I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult to I’m Not So Bad. That is how I have chosen to write my story over the years, part fiction and part memoir. The Enemy came to me in multiple voices, from multiple points of view. The final chapter of the book is a true story that I would occasionally relate to friends. Finally, I decided I wanted to write about it, and it grew into the book.

What about The Enemy do you hope will appeal to young readers?

Marjorie, the protagonist, claims she is not shy, but she struggles with speaking up for what is right. I think (hope) young readers will cheer her on as she finally triumphs in finding her own voice.

One thread of The Enemy deals with how immigrants are welcomed by some and mistreated by others.  Were you aware of that back in 1954, or is that thread more informed by what you see happening in 2017?

First, I was only six in 1954. But growing up, I certainly was aware of immigrants, as I grew up surrounded by them. Many of my friends had a grandparent who spoke broken English, or no English at all. I remember once babysitting at the house of an immigrant family and being astounded by their empty closets. Among my parent’s friends, the term DP, was widely used to label folks who had European accents. That said, I don’t remember overt bullying by kids against immigrants in my school. I have, however, heard these reports from adult friends of mine who came here as children. In the school district where I live now–Mentor, Ohio–a few years ago, there was a high school student, a recent Croatian immigrant, who tragically committed suicide due to extreme bullying. News reports cited a culture of aggressive conformity in the school. Also, I have family who actively work helping stranded migrants on our southern border, so immigration is a topic we often discuss. Studying history and (frankly) age have given me more perspective on the great sacrifices immigrants make moving to a strange place to start over, a place where acceptance is not guaranteed. This I have written about in an adult poetry book, From the Park Bench (2015), in a persona poem.

Came the Irish Catholics,

who hated the protestants,

who hated the Poles,

who hated the Germans,

who hated the Italians.

The Serbs and the Croats brought their hate with them.

And everyone hated the Jews.

All that hate waved through the ghettos.

After the war followed the hillbillies, blacks, and Latinos

who began to unite the city

in some kind of new-improved hatred.

Cultural diversity is a crock.

Everyone wants to be with their own kind

or the closest thing to it

and hate ain’t no recent invention.

I like how the author’s note at the end of The Enemy explains what various family members were like in 1954 and to what degree they inspired various characters.  There isn’t much there about you though.  So, what were you like in junior high, and how are you still kind of the same?

I was a total geek, glasses and braces. I was a daydreamer, quietly rebellious, and I was skeletal and could barely hold up a pair of corduroys. I was so shy I’d turn purple if anyone talked to me. I did collect maps and brochures from National Geographic and spent long hours at the library where I got into trouble more than once for sneaking into the adult section. Am I the same? As an adult I consider myself a plainclothes revolutionary. But I will say that, like Marjorie, I have sometimes had to give myself a little kick to speak up for myself. I have a people-pleasing tendency that I have to fight against pretty much daily.

The dialogue in The Enemy is especially appealing.  Marjorie, the twelve-year-old narrator, has a lot of clever lines, and other characters’ words are written in ways that make clear how a readers’ ear is supposed to hear them.  How does that work?  Do you catch snippets of conversation and build from there, or do you base a character’s language on the voice of someone you know, or something else?

I spent a lot of time speaking the dialogue and internal monologues out loud as I wrote. I have always felt that with performance poetry, my performance feeds my writing just as much as my writing feeds the performance. So it is natural to me to speak the words as I write them. I worked until it sounded natural, true to the characters.

At one point in The Enemy, Marjorie asks her mother, “What’s worse, a commie or a Nazi?”  What is Marjorie trying to figure out with that question?

That is actually the first line I wrote in the book. It held its place as the first line of the book for the first few drafts, even. Marjorie is surrounded by the fallout from WWII— her neighbor Mrs. Fisher who hasn’t overcome the loss of her son – her own father’s experiences in the war – Nazi’s are known as the worst of the worst. Or they used to be. Now Marjorie is hearing of a new political enemy, the commies and the Russians and they have a bomb that could wipe out the world. She wants to know which enemy to worry about. She doesn’t really know much about the commies or Russians, WWII has personally touched her.

The kids in The Enemy lived through traumatic events of historic proportions, although the refugee children confronted them more directly than the American kids on the home front.  Drawing on your understanding as a mom and grandmother and educator with a lot of international experience, what can you say about how children deal with things when their worlds become so chaotic or violent?

World events so affect kids. In one extreme, they can be caught in the crossfire. In cases such as with Marjorie, talk about newsworthy events comes to them by way of media and parent discussions. We know kids mimic adult behaviors and we see this in The Enemy when Bernadette insists that the circle of friends sign a loyalty oath. In my own case, I remember having discussions with girlfriends about whether we would grow up to have children.  We were worried and would talk about “the bomb.” I was suspicious that perhaps this was a false memory, until I found it confirmed in contemporaneous interviews that Studs Terkel did with kids. The interviews appear in the final chapter of his book, The Good War. Kids take the siftings of parents’ conversations and actions and build their own realities. One thing I had to do was make sure I wasn’t relying on childhood false narratives and passing them off as history. Throughout the writing of the book, I confirmed every one of my memories through research. From McCarthy’s book banning and Mr. Wizard’s recipe for a volcano, to actually tracking my father’s Army unit’s movements in the European theater to confirm his stories, I searched and found documentable evidence for the stories in the book. My meticulous editor, Carolyn Yoder, even had me make a bibliography of my research.

The young people in The Enemy are just living their everyday lives—school, parents, friends, teachers—but the paranoia and politics of the larger society keep causing things to happen that those kids do not fully understand.  Do you think today’s American middle-schoolers are more aware of world events going on around them, and if so, how does it affect them?

When the twin towers came down, Michael Salinger and I took great care to guard his then second grade son from fearsome news reports, muting the sound of the TV when he entered the room. Still, three or four days later, he came to his father and asked, “When are we going to get bombed?” He’d heard just enough to create a false narrative that had him plenty scared. According to multiple reports, hate crimes in the US are up 20% as a result of the recent election. Unfortunately, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, bullying and hate crimes are also up in schools and the increase can be directly linked to the election of Donald Trump. Kids reflect the mood and culture of the parents. If they sense fear or hostility in their parents, that is going to be apparent in their actions. Students outside this country (I have visited over 50 schools in more than 40 countries) tend to be far more aware of world events than our kids, sadly. I see that reflected in the poems that they write. We have seen popular culture overwhelm news events in the minds of young people, and that’s not only tragic, it’s dangerous. I think part of our jobs as middle grade educators is getting them outside of themselves and their immediate environs and help them see the greater world.

You and Michael do a lot of work in overseas and American schools.  What have you discovered that is universal about school-age children?

Kids want to know. Too often adults who are pressed for time resort to speaking to kids in directives–go there, read that, sit quietly–rather than taking time to explain what’s going on and answering questions. As parents and educators, the very best thing that we can do is to encourage their natural curiosity. I hear two things from middle grade kids all over the world: 1. I’m not like those other kids, and 2. Nobody listens or cares what I have to say. This feeling is universal.

Many educators, myself included, cheered your January, 2017 Huffington Post piece “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems” in which you described how the STAAR test in Texas used two of your poems as test questions that you found incomprehensible.  What else do you want to say to educators who love making a difference in the lives of students but who are burdened by the accountability culture that sometimes gets in the way of their work?

The testing emperors have no clothes. The STAAR questions/answers were beyond incomprehensible; they were fiction created by an anonymous author of unknown scholarship. The author of those questions had no idea why I put a stanza break in here or used a simile there. Not a clue. When it comes to interpreting aesthetic literature, the authors just make stuff up. And yet kids’ lives and teachers’ lives depend on a 12 year-old’s ability to guess the answers made up by the author of the test. What do I say to the teachers? Keep questioning the quality of the tests, talk to parents about the quality of the tests. Stop being ashamed. Any test that purports to measure a student’s abilities that does not take into account any input from the teacher is bogus on its face. The tests attempt to evaluate both the student and the teacher in one test, and consistently fail at both.

I did write a follow up article, which appeared in The Washington Post, “Why I Would Never Tell a Student What a Poem Means.”

What else do you still want to do as a writer and educator?  Will there be more novels?

I have two other novels in the works. Borderline is set in 2005 on the border between Tucson and Nogales. The protagonist is Hannah who has been sent to live with her grandmother, an activist on the Mexican border. The grandmother is Marjorie. I have one more novel in mind, set in Detroit in 1967. I’ve also been scratching on a novel in poetry and have a couple ideas for other poetry projects and one teacher resource. This is the first week of summer, when school visits are over and writing time begins. I’m excited to get to work.

Thank you for the many ways that your life and work and generosity have affected so many students and teachers around the world for so many years.  You never need to wonder if you have made a difference.  As you look back, what is most gratifying about all you have accomplished?

Writing with kids. I love it. I am constantly flabbergasted by their insights and take such joy as I see them taking baby steps to finding their voices and just becoming. I have had so many rich opportunities and I am deeply grateful for all the teachers and administrators who have invited me into classrooms, both by inviting me for school visits and using my work in their classrooms.

sara me ncte

Sara and me at Sara’s signing for The Enemy during the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Atlanta, Georgia in November, 2016.

This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the Nerdy Book Club web site back on June 25, 2017. For those interested in more about The Enemy, here is a link to my original review.

Visit Sara Holbrook online at and follow @saraholbrook on Twitter!

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