9781501949180No one these days is delivering better sports books than Kwame Alexander.  He writes other things too, but his sports books, including The Crossover and Booked, consistently reach readers who don’t usually read and provided satisfying stories for more experienced readers.  Alexander’s inventive novel-in-verse format is engaging and accessible, and the drama in these books moves beyond scores and competition to address deeper real-life issues with authenticity and empathy.

Kwame Alexander’s newest book is The Playbook:  52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in this Game Called Life.  The cover nicely echoes The Crossover and Booked, while the contents are delivered in a unique multi-format presentation.  Although readers can dip into The Playbook anywhere and flip or click through randomly, the material is organized into sections by topic:  Grit, Motivation, Passion, Focus, Teamwork and Resilience.  Within each section, the 52 rules are presented through original aphorisms supported by quotes from notable athletes, mini-memoir installments from Kwame Alexander, and (in the print version) photos and graphics.  These varied texts find the sweet spot of saying important things in ways that are inspirational without being preachy.

The audiobook is excellent.  One hour in length on one CD, it captures the same tight-loose approach of the print version.  Going through it in order provides a cohesive listening experience, but certain tracks will be favorites for different listeners, and the production makes it easy to duplicate the skipping around that is so appealing in the print version.  Section titles and corresponding tracks are printed on the CD.  Narrator Ruffin Prentiss III sounds young, and his narration is friendly, sincere, and dramatic in the appropriate places.  (Click here for a brief audio excerpt from The Playbook, courtesy of Recorded Books.)

Readers who discover The Playbook will likely be absorbed as they read and listen (and re-read and re-listen), but I can’t say enough about the value of this book and audiobook as mentor texts.  The Playbook can be an exciting introduction to the concept of multi-genre writing projects.  Using Kwame Alexander’s work as a model, students can focus on a specific idea and then write their own narratives, find or create graphics, research relevant quotes, and distill their learning into an aphoristic rule.  Using the audiobook’s narration as a model for tone, students can record and edit their work into a finished production.

Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook is different from other books on the shelves.  It’s a sports book that uses gamesmanship as a starting point for talking about the character traits and interpersonal skills young people are trying to develop.  Providing access to the audio and print versions of The Playbook is an excellent way for grown-ups to help with that process.

I have a free copy of the audio book version of The Playbook for the first reader to request it in a comment below!  (U. S. addresses only, please.)

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More Recent Nonfiction Picture Books: President-Plants-Protest-Princess Edition

As John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday approaches later this month, some new picture books portray various aspects of his legacy. Last month I reviewed Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President, and this month’s reviews include two more Kennedy books, along with an assortment of other interesting titles.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy's Big SpeechA Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey
Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech is denser than most picture books, perhaps because it tries to do so much. It is a serviceable biography of Kennedy wrapped around a narrative about how his convictions regarding civil rights were sometimes compromised by political considerations. In addition, the beginning and ending of this book invite readers to consider how they are part of history. A lot is going on in these pages.

The R. Gregory Christie illustrations render well-known figures in recognizable ways while also conveying a folk-art feel.

A Time to Act is a worthwhile book for helping young readers understand President Kennedy, segregation, and the civil rights movement, but they may also need help with understanding some of the content. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt is mentioned but isn’t identified. Jackie Robinson is described only as “the famous baseball player.” Passages from Kennedy’s speeches contain language that might also require simplification and explanation for the youngest readers.

A Time to Act provides clear messages about the importance of acting on our convictions and becoming actively involved in the important issues of our time.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American IconWhen Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon by Natasha Wing
I did not know about this episode from Jackie Kennedy’s very full life. In her post-White House years, she led a successful campaign to save New York City’s Grand Central Station from destruction. I admire picture books that promote activism. This one will help young readers understand how the preservation of historical sites is frequently threatened, and how Jackie Kennedy used her celebrity and influence to make a positive difference. As author Natasha Wing writes, “The fight to save Grand Central changed how people viewed old buildings. Rather than tearing them down, preservationists now had a model for how to save historic buildings all over the country, protecting our precious heritage.” Some of the Alexandra Boiger illustrations are vivid while others are drabber; in each case, the color choices help create the mood for what is happening on the page.

Plant the Tiny SeedPlant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson
This interactive picture book about how nature turns seeds into flowers is perfect for reading aloud to groups or individuals. The simple text and appealing pictures leave plenty of space for reader involvement as they reinforce a child’s understanding of nature while also providing room for wonder.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest SongStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio
This is a tough one. “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynching of Black Americans, was Billie Holiday’s powerful signature. In concert and on record, her rendition was chilling and emotional.

So, Gary Golio’s attempt to develop a picture book based on Billie Holiday’s association with “Strange Fruit” is ambitious but fraught with the potential to be inappropriately graphic for some young readers. Golio seems aware of the tricky territory. The first part of the book deals with Billie Holiday’s origins and the obstacles she faced due to racism. The unfairness and danger of a black woman making her way in the white-dominated entertainment world is made clear but not in a way likely to be frightening to most young readers. When the song “Strange Fruit” is mentioned for the first time in the primary narrative, it is noted to be about lynching but Golio does not dwell on the song’s imagery. However, the back matter begins with a full page of the lyrics in large print, including “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

Charlotte Riley-Webb’s illustrations are a revelation. Bold strokes, bright colors, and swirling shapes convey the story and create tension. I especially liked the rough textures on the surface of some of the paintings.

It’s not my place to say whether a book is or isn’t right for all audiences. All I know is that few books are right for everybody. Strange Fruit is one where the adults involved will need to think about whether it suits the needs of young people who will experience it under their guidance.

Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval PrincessWho Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos
Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess is an excellent picture book for those drawn to the allure of fairy tale/Disney-style princesses. Bridget Heos uses the well-known traits of those princesses as background knowledge for comparing more historically accurate depictions of medieval royal life. Although some aspects of that medieval life were grim and gross, Heos explains it all with humor, accompanied by Migy’s Disney-esque illustrations. This book will enrich students’ understanding of medieval royalty without ruining what they love about the classic movie princesses.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of InventionsWhoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker water toy, is the same guy who figured out how to supply power to the Galileo orbiter’s computer system on its exploratory journey to Jupiter. Who knew?

The power of applying an inventive mind to problems that need solutions is the theme of Whoosh!. Sometimes the inventions hit the mark, sometimes they miss, and sometimes they end up being useful in some other way. No spoilers here, but inventing the Super Soaker was not Lonnie Johnson’s original goal as he worked on a completely different idea. In addition to exploring what it means to be an inventor, author Chris Barton acknowledges the cultural obstacles faced by Johnson as a bright African-American in the middle of the 20th Century.

Whoosh! will appeal to a wide range of young readers even as it delivers important lessons about persistence, curiosity, and how learning and schooling are not always the same.

You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?!You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! by Jonah Winter
In April I reviewed the newest Jonah Winter baseball book, Mickey Mantle:  The Commerce Comet.  If you know a reader who liked that one, You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! is another picture book in Jonah Winter’s series that revisits earlier baseball eras and makes the players (and managers) accessible to today’s young readers. Casey Stengel was, at first, a player with limited skills. As Stengel himself said, “I was not successful as a ballplayer, as it was a game of skill.” Stengel then built a knowledge base from participating in thousands of baseball games and used it to transform himself into one of the most successful managers of all time. Winter presents insights on managing a baseball team and Stengel’s life in a conversational, humorous tone with echoes of something like a tall tale. Barry Blitt’s illustrations convey a similar tone as he finds a sweet spot between comic depictions and fine water-colors.

I hope some of these titles are just right for you and the young readers in your life.  As always, thank you for reading.  I welcome your questions and comments.

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Nine More Nonfiction Picture Books for Your Consideration

Several books about animals are featured in this month’s round-up of recent nonfiction picture books.  I hope these brief descriptions are useful as you select books for your school or family collections.  You will be able to tell which ones were my favorites, but each is worthwhile in its own way.

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea TurtlesFollow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles by Philippe Cousteau
Baby sea turtles have always struck me as sort of mystical. They emerge from being buried in sand and follow moonlight reflecting on water into the sea where they spend most of their lives, returning to land only to bury their own eggs on a sandy beach. Somewhere in there is a myth waiting to be unraveled.

In Follow the Moon Home, Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) and Deborah Hopkinson use the inherently interestingly baby loggerhead turtles as the basis of a larger story about problem-solving. Vivienne’s class at school is searching for a community action project. Then Viv and a classmate stumble on the dilemma of baby loggerheads confusing brightly lit rental properties with moonlight and heading away from the water instead of toward it. The class decides to research and solve this problem, resulting in a story full of positive outcomes for turtles, class members, and the community.

Illustrator Meilo’s So’s sun-washed and moonlit beach scenes beautifully accompany this appealing picture book about nature and activism.

Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie ClarkSwimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang
The murky illustrations in Swimming with Sharks effectively convey the underwater world of sharks, a domain that Eugenie Clark made her life’s work. Beginning with Clark’s childhood shark fascination, this picture book biography emphasizes important lessons about turning a passion into a profession, and underscores how academic and occupational expectations for girls and women have changed since the 1930s.

The Polar BearThe Polar Bear by Jenni Desmond
A whimsical frame story about a little girl who likes to read about polar bears is wrapped around somewhat dense text that lacks a distinctive voice. This picture book’s strongest features are its interesting illustrations and the wealth of facts about polar bears.

Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an EcosystemSea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Sea Otter Heroes has an interesting story to tell. The ecosystem of California’s Elkhorn Slough showed some abnormalities. The seagrass was unusually healthy, considering the pollution that drained into the slough. As marine biologist Brent Hughes investigated, he found complex relationships among various plant and animal species in the region, including sea otters. Sea Otter Heroes emphasizes the scientific methodology involved in Hughes’s work, and thoroughly explains the connections between the biota under study. The sea otters are important players in the story, but they are not the primary focus suggested by the title.

Despite the appeal of the animal story, Sea Otter Heroes has some problems, including dense text, extraneous charts, and photographs that are too small for a picture book format. Some pages are simply wall-to-wall text, including all or parts of up to eight paragraphs. At least one chart shows no relationship between the elements it is demonstrating. While some of the photographs are intriguing or appealing, most are less than one-fourth of a page and dwarfed by the text. Too many of the photos show humans using tools rather than animals in the wild. These editorial missteps weaken a book that could have been more engaging.

Only the most earnest young scientists are likely to stick with Sea Otter Heroes. More casual readers will likely glance at some of the photos and move on to other books.

John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. TolkienJohn Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister
John Ronald’s Dragons is an engaging, enthusiastic picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, focused on his childhood, although it reaches his creation of The Hobbit. Dragons were central in the imagination of young John Ronald, and although his fascination ebbed and flowed as he matured, they never quite went away. Informed by his life experiences—serving in World War I, starting a family—the stories we know as Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga eventually take form complete with the dragon that lurked so long in Tolkien’s imagination.

John Ronald’s Dragons will appeal to young readers who know the movie versions of Tolkien’s work or those interested in fantasy or the writing life. The illustrations serviceably support the story, but I wonder about the choice to cast so many of them in pale greens and yellows.

Mickey Mantle: The Commerce CometMickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet by Jonah Winter
The rough stuff in Mickey Mantle’s life is addressed in the front matter’s fine print, which is a good editorial choice for this picture book celebrating the career of one of the all-time great baseball players. The primary text focuses on the inspirational aspects of Mantle’s life and career: battling through disappointments, coming back from injuries, and working hard on his skills, especially switch-hitting. I hope Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet inspires young readers to find out more about other great players from yesteryear mentioned in Mantle’s story, including Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Bob Feller. Author Jonah Winter adds several flourishes to the text that would make it an appealing read-aloud. My only issue is how the narration goes back and forth between past tense and present tense. That unnecessary distraction took me out of the narrative’s flow. The artwork is one of the book’s strengths. Just look at all the ways that C. F. Payne uses light. Payne’s faces are interesting caricatures, except for one dramatic, realistic portrait of Mantle on the final two-page spread.

Patrick and the PresidentPatrick and the President by Ryan Tubridy
An excellent choice for St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President is a historical fiction picture book that “reimagines” President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Wexford, the small Irish village that is the Kennedy ancestral home. The excitement surrounding President Kennedy’s visit is conveyed through Patrick, a Wexford school boy who is not only a member of the children’s choir in the welcoming ceremony but also a server at the tea hosted by President Kennedy’s Irish relatives. (Patrick’s involvement in two different events of the presidential visit struck me as a bit of a stretch.) P. J. Lynch’s wonderfully warm and nostalgic illustrations do much of the book’s work in showing the enthusiasm of the townspeople, especially the children, and the cool charm of President Kennedy.

RoundRound by Joyce Sidman
Our narrator begins by saying, “I love round things,” and then points out all the things in nature that are round. But I’m not sure all these things are “round.” Is a mushroom round? How about a ladybug? Stars? As a child experiencing this book, I would have said, “Wait a minute. Why is that round?” Each illustration is distinctive and detailed, but even some of these do not carry the text’s claims concerning roundness. Maybe Round can be used to spark discussions about how to define a concept, but I found it a little frustrating. Then again, I might be thinking too hard about this. The back matter has interesting explanations about why roundness is common in nature.

Same Kind of Different As Me for KidsSame Kind of Different As Me for Kids by Ron Hall
Well, there is a nice little message at the end of this book. It’s actually on the back cover too: “Nobody can help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.” As a picture book though, the story is kind of flat and actually hard to believe. The drawings are interesting, but Denver—the subject of the book and its co-author—looks completely different in some illustrations from how he appears in others. The narrative takes Denver from his life as a sharecropper’s son to homelessness to a career in art. The good things that happen to him are attributed to religious interventions from God, angels, and benevolent people who find him. The book might be a nice allegory or keepsake—the front endsheet has a “Presented To” template–but honestly, I don’t think this is a book that kids will return to over and over.

(Some of these reviews appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form.)

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My Top Ten Favorite Cover Versions of Chuck Berry Songs

chuckberry-7f44b444-41fd-472d-a907-200cb187bdc6Wow. Chuck Berry is gone. Rosanne Cash nailed it in her Instagram post: “Lights out on the Twentieth Century.” Chuck Berry changed how electric guitar is played. His song-writing was poetry for common people. He synthesized musical styles and created a new genre. Chuck Berry changed the music that changed everything else.

I’ve been thinking about all the great covers out there of Chuck Berry songs, and here are my ten favorite versions of Chuck Berry songs performed by other artists, presented here in no particular order.  Although some of these videos are inferior version of the tracks, I hope they’ll send you in search of the better audio.  Enjoy.

1. Elvis Presley: “Promised Land”
Elvis covered three Chuck Berry songs in his studio recording career. The Elvis version of “Memphis” is anemic, but he pretty well caught the jumped-up humor of “Too Much Monkey Business.” But this one, Elvis’s 1973 version of “Promised Land,” is a ferocious reminder of why Elvis was the best rock voice of all time.

2. Johnny Rivers: “Memphis”
This was a huge hit for Johnny Rivers in 1964. The single was pulled from the excellent album Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey A Go Go.

3. The Beatles: “Roll Over Beethoven”
The Beatles learned rock music from America, specifically Chuck Berry. The first song played at the first Beatles concert was Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” (This song was also a 1970s hit for Electric Light Orchestra.)

4. The Beach Boys: “Rock and Roll Music”
Chuck Berry shares the song-writing credit on “Surfing U.S.A.,” but he had to sue The Beach Boys to get it after they used his “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the inspiration for their hit. When Brian Wilson re-joined The Beach Boys for their 1976 album 15 Big Ones, their version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music” became a Top Ten hit.

5. Bob Seger: “Let It Rock”
Bob Seger name-checked Chuck Berry in “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”: “Well sweet sixteen turned thirty-one/Feel a little tired feeling under the gun/Well all Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” I’ve always thought Seger’s Live Bullet is one of the all-time best live albums, and Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” is one of the reasons.

6. Emmylou Harris: “C’est La Vie”
Chuck Berry approached singing and songwriting much like a country singer, with humor and common vernacular. It was hard to hear the country under all that Chuck Berry guitar, but it was there. Emmylou mined the country vein in her toe-tapper version of “C’est La Vie.”

7. Jerry Lee Lewis: “Little Queenie”
I went back and forth between The Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis for “Little Queenie,” but Jerry Lee had the bigger hit with it, and the Stones never recorded it in the studio, although they play it live sometimes. Here is a split-the-difference video of Jerry Lee with Keith Richards (and Mick Fleetwood).

8. Waylon Jennings: “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”
Waylon also found the country in this Chuck Berry song. Waylon always seemed to be singing about himself in this one.

9. Linda Ronstadt: “Back in the U.S.A.”
This shouter was one of Linda Ronstadt’s last rock hits.

10. The Rolling Stones: “Around and Around”
Chuck Berry’s sound migrated to a new generation through The Rolling Stones, and this chaotic 1964 version of “Around and Around” shows how American rock helped fuel the British Invasion.

Please add your thoughts about Chuck Berry, his songs, and his influence. I never get tired of talking about this stuff.

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Talking about Quotation Marks with President Trump

I don’t usually use my blog for political purposes, but President Trump has taken to giving punctuation lessons, and that’s my turf, so here goes.

As we know, President Trump tweeted this:

trump tweet

Then he tweeted this:

trump tweet 2

When it turned out that Trump’s accusation was somewhere between an outright lie and a flaky conspiracy theory, he started backpedaling.  With a straight face, he told Fox News, “When I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes. That really covers — because wiretapping is pretty old-fashioned stuff — but that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.”

Ok, sir.  Let’s talk about “quotes,” or as most people call them, quotation marks.  Quotation marks are used for several specific purposes, including the indication of someone else’s words.  Is that what you were doing when you put quotation marks around “wire tapping” in a couple of your tweets?  If so, who were you quoting?

Another use of quotation marks is to indicate ironic usage of a term.  (Sometimes this is called a scare quote.)  If that’s what you were doing by placing quotation marks around “wire tapping,” you were essentially saying that it wasn’t a wiretap at all but the opposite of a wiretap, which makes no sense.

Your “it was in quotes” defense has no credibility.  It either means you were lying, ignorant, full of crap, or all three.

If you would like to talk more about punctuation, sir, I stand ready to serve.  Otherwise, maybe we can discuss spelling and proofreading.

trump tweet tapp


trmp tweet honored


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Review: THE ENEMY: DETROIT 1954 by Sara Holbrook

From her “Chicks Up Front” days to a recent piece on how one of her poems was botched by a Texas standardized test, Sara Holbrook has always been in the right place, saying what needs to be said. It’s no surprise that her first novel for young readers, The Enemy: Detroit 1954, is perfectly in sync with our troubled times.

Holbrook’s main character Marjorie Campbell is twelve years old as the atrocities of World War II are still etched in the minds of Americans, although children of her age have no direct memories of them. Many are also preoccupied with the Cold War fears of creeping Communism. For Marjorie and other children, these perceptions are playing out for real in their Detroit neighborhood when books deemed subversive (1984, The Grapes of Wrath) are removed from library shelves, and newcomers are treated with suspicion. When Marjorie is assigned to share a desk with the just-arrived Inga, she is torn between her instinct to be friendly and her classmates’ intentions to be unwelcoming.

Holbrook respects her readers by presenting the complexity of Marjorie’s situation. Members of her family and community have been directly affected by the war, and they harbor negative attitudes toward Germans and DPs (displaced persons). Others are concerned with over-reaching attempts to limit freedoms in the name of safeguarding against Communism. Marjorie takes it all in, and then relies on her heart to make decisions about how she will navigate her neighborhood and her world.

Marjorie’s voice in The Enemy is charmingly innocent, smart, and vulnerable. Here is her description of one of the local librarians: “Mrs. Pearson has her arms crossed tightly, the way she always does. Crossed arms are as natural to her as breathing. It makes me wonder how she opens a car door or flushes a toilet. I imagine she was born with her arms crossed, telling the doctor to keep it down as soon as she opened her eyes.” Sara Holbrook definitely knows how kids think and speak.

Today’s middle school and high school students are well aware of what is going on around them. They see the protests and hear the inflammatory rhetoric. Reading The Enemy: Detroit 1954 in a time when our government is focused on creating a classes of “others” through harsh characterizations and targeted immigration policies will give adolescents a context for processing their own roles in today’s swirling events, and considering whether “the enemy” is outsiders or dark impulses closer to home.

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What’s Not Wrong with All These Writing Conferences

idea-605766_1280For the past couple of years, I’ve worked in a college writing center.  I really like this job.  Students come to me with their papers, and we confer about their writing.  They think we’re working on the assignments, but my true goal is helping them develop as writers.  Since my retirement from full-time teaching, I’ve plied my trade in a variety of education-related contexts, but these writing center conferences just might be the most gratifying.  Why?

The least important reason is the most selfish.  There is no advance preparation, and there is no work to take home.  I arrive fresh, and I depart unburdened.  This leaves time and energy for my other pursuits.

The other reasons why I like all these writing conferences may be of interest to other writing teachers.

There is no wasted energy in a writing conference.  Sometimes in a class I feel like my instruction is shooting off sparks that don’t really ignite anything.  Maybe some students have other pressing issues on their minds.  Maybe I’m teaching some mandated content that I don’t really believe in, and the students can tell.  Maybe my approach is reaching some students but falling short with others.  With one-to-one conferences, none of that is a factor.  If my approach isn’t working, I know immediately and switch to another path.  The student and I are focused, 100% productive, and locked on to a mission.  The student sets the conference agenda, and my role is help him discover how to get un-stuck, apply a rhetorical or mechanical concept, or think about writing in new ways.  Everything we say and do together in our writing conference is directly related to developing a specific piece of writing and to helping him grow in confidence and competence as a writer.

One-to-one instruction provides opportunity for personal connection.  Because conferring is individualized, it’s more conversational than whole-class instruction.  As I talk with students, they can usually tell I’m interested in their writing and thinking, and I truly care about helping them.  When that realization kicks in, we move to a higher plane of transaction in our communication.  Their writer brains become more energized, and their writer muscles flex more deliberately.  Each conferring session ends with better writing, a stronger writer, and exchanges of gratitude.  They thank me for my help, and I thank them for the opportunity to work with them, and I encourage them to return.

Some writing problems are best solved individually.  Understanding writing as a process is a revelation for some students.  My favorite tutoring sessions are those where a student doesn’t how to begin.  She may have some ideas or understanding of content but not quite see how to develop that material into an organized multi-paragraph format.  I usually ask a student like this to just talk about what she wants to say while I take some notes.  Then I present her own words to her in a rough outline form.  Aha!  Suddenly those scattered thoughts look a lot better when they have some structure imposed on them.  Then we talk about how the human mind can think up cool stuff, but it doesn’t arrive in an orderly manner.  The writer’s job is to arrange those cool ideas so that they can be easily digested by a reader.  That progression from scattered thoughts to somewhat organized ideas to a well-reasoned, reader-friendly argument is a process that students will eventually learn to trust.

When students are under time pressure, they may want to generate an entire paper all at the same time without understanding that it must be built and developed rather than just flung down in one splash.  These writers try to start with the introduction’s first sentence, jam right through to the conclusion, print it out, and hand that sucker in.  Writing just doesn’t work that way!  No wonder they are stuck!   I explain that having a general direction is a good idea, but it might actually be most useful to write the body paragraphs first and then craft an introduction and conclusion for that material.  Starting with what they understand best is usually more productive than trying to start with some vague notion of an attention-grabber in an introduction for material that doesn’t exist.

Some students have an assignment sheet but are paralyzed by the all of the requirements and expectations:  underline topic sentences, mark details in the margin, APA style, etc.  Again, these students may try to “efficiently” write an essay while simultaneously inserting all of these non-rhetorical elements.  I tell these writers they are trying to paint the house before it’s built.  They need to go through the discovery and development phases of the process.  There are no shortcuts.


Discussions about these issues rarely happen in whole-class settings for a variety of reason.  Even when these topics are discussed in class, individual students may not see them as personally relevant, even if they are.  But when these conversations about writing happen in a one-to-one conference, the learning is focused, individualized, and more personally gratifying.

These benefits are real, but I wonder if they transfer to settings beyond college writing centers.  Do they have relevance for classroom teachers who hold writing conferences with their students?  Thanks for your feedback.

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Seven More Nonfiction Picture Books for Your Consideration

This is a strong batch of books–no duds here.  Along with some of the books in last month’s installment of reviews, many of these titles can become part of a collection featuring culturally diverse personalities and topics.

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote HistoryFrederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers

Readers of this new picture book biography of Frederick Douglass will easily come away with important understandings about slavery, the connection between education and freedom, and the role of Frederick Douglass in obtaining both emancipation for slaves and suffrage for women. Masterfully told by the late Walter Dean Myers, the Douglass who emerges from these pages is tough, brave, smart, and passionate—a role model for our times. The dramatic Floyd Cooper illustrations effectively present the face of a thinking man set against historically significant backdrops. Presenting slavery with both accuracy and sensitivity to young readers is a challenge for picture book creators, and Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History meets the challenge with text and images that are both powerful and palatable. This life of Frederick Douglass emphasizes how one voice can change history, a lesson for every American home, classroom, and library.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights ActivistThe Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson

In May, 1963, more than three thousand children were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after peacefully protesting the city’s segregation policies. Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest of those children, spent a week in jail before all the cells were filled, the children were released, and some of those segregation policies began to change. Audrey narrates her story in an uplifting tone that is mostly cheerful but also conveys her indignance at being denied equality with white children, and her fear and discomfort while in jail. The Youngest Marcher will pair well with Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaële Frier to demonstrate how even the youngest members of a society sometimes play important, courageous roles in the quests for freedom and justice.

Ticktock Banneker's ClockTicktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller

Benjamin Banneker, a young colonial-era farmer, is interested in how things work. When a friend loans him a pocket watch, Benjamin is fascinated and decides to use it as a model to build a bigger clock. Working with math and the concept of scale, Benjamin uses his troubleshooting and problem-solving skills to successfully craft a mantle clock out of surprising materials. Although David C. Gardner’s illustrations reveal that Benjamin is of African descent, that fact is not a major element in Shana Keller’s narrative. The back matter explains that even though Banneker was born free he was denied access to most educational opportunities because of his race. Ticktock Banneker’s Clock will appeal to young inventors, and shows math’s real-world relevance. The historical context also provides worthwhile aspects for consideration and discussion as we are presented with a true story of an African-American who applied his ingenuity to challenges in a time filled with obstacles.

Martin's Dream DayMartin’s Dream Day by Kitty Kelley

I’ll admit to being a little skeptical about approaching a Martin Luther King picture book authored by celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley. Martin’s Dream Day, however, is an excellent addition to a bookshelf devoted to King, America’s struggle with civil rights, and the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In addition to clear, accessible text, the illustrations in Martin’s Dream Day are historic photographs taken by the late photojournalist Stanley Tretick.

My favorite aspect of presenting history to young people is illuminating how events and people connect. Nothing ever happens in isolation. This picture book provides concise background for the civil rights movement, King’s involvement, and the march itself. In addition, Martin’s Dream Day provides clear connective tissue not only to those topics, but also to the nation’s capital, President John F. Kennedy, Congressman John Lewis, and how a bill becomes law.

AbrahamAbraham by Frank Keating

Abraham, written by former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, is a worthwhile addition to collections. Told in first person from Lincoln’s point of view, the narrative concentrates on Lincoln’s early life but also covers his career up to the end of the Civil War. As Lincoln tells about formative experiences, primarily hard work and a passion for reading, the text effectively integrates quotes from Lincoln’s own writings. (These passages can be used as models to show students how to incorporate quotes into their own sentences.) Mike Wimmer’s illustrations of young Lincoln intriguingly show him as younger versions of the person we know from the familiar photographs taken later in life. Some of the vocabulary toward the end (emblazoned, unfettered) may be challenging for elementary readers to decode on their own, but the captivating artwork and engaging perspective successfully convey an appealing Abraham Lincoln.

Malala: Activist for Girls' EducationMalala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaële Frier

Consider the challenge of conveying Malala Yousafzai’s story in a way that is appropriate for children: Malala’s courage and convictions arose from a context of political and personal violence. Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education masterfully navigates this territory. Author Raphaële Frier does not shy away from the Taliban’s brutality, including the shooting of Malala on a school bus, but she first establishes Malala’s passion for education, beliefs in the rights of girls, and her family’s role in providing schooling for Pakistani children. The illustrations from Aurélia Fronty present Malala and other individuals in a more expressionistic manner, reminiscent of muralists. The bright artwork is not gruesome or graphic on the pages conveying violent episodes, although it is dramatic. Young readers will come away from the main text with an understanding of how one person can make a difference, as well as the obstacles to freedom faced by some children, especially girls, in other cultures. The back matter presents photographs of Malala, numerous quotes from her, and background material relevant to understanding her life, work, and culture.

One Proud PennyOne Proud Penny by Randy Siegel
A plain 1983-vintage penny tells its story with pride. Since its minting in Philadelphia, this penny has been spent, saved, lost, and found many times in its travels around the country. No matter what happens, this penny is proud to do its job, even though 250 billion other pennies are out there. Mixing whimsical, engaging art with real images of pennies, One Proud Penny blends scientific and historical facts about pennies with more imaginative considerations about the role of pennies in our lives and economy. One Proud Penny will build on kids’ inherent curiosity about coins and money.


These reviews appeared elsewhere in slightly different form.

Which of these sound most promising for your young readers?

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Six Nonfiction Picture Books for Young Readers

Each month in 2017, I’m planning to offer a round-up of recent nonfiction picture books with the hope that it will help parents and educators at all levels sort through and pick titles that are the best choices for their homes, classrooms, and libraries.

The first three books reviewed in this installment are excellent choices for Black History Month.

Preaching to the ChickensPreaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim

Although John Lewis became an extraordinarily important civil rights leader, Jabari Asim and E. B. Lewis give us the child who became that leader. Young John had to work hard on an Alabama farm, but the work he especially liked was caring for the chickens. He also liked going to church. Eventually John began sharing the spiritual lessons learned from his mother and his church with those chickens, and they seemed to understand his messages. Through this appealing depiction of a child finding ways to be positive in a world filled with challenges, readers will easily see foreshadowing of John Lewis’s later work with larger “flocks.”

Beyond being engaging as a nonfiction picture book narrative, Asim’s rich text can also provide students with examples of description, sensory images, details, and dialogue. The watercolors of E. B. Lewis, as in his other work in Jacqueline Woodson’s picture books, strike a dramatic balance between impressionism and realism.

Preaching to the Chickens is one of the finest nonfiction picture books of the past year.

The Legendary Miss Lena HorneThe Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford

Lena Horne would turn 100 this year, and The Legendary Miss Lena Horne is a worthy tribute to this icon. Although Horne may be largely unknown to today’s youngest readers, author Carole Boston Weatherford provides an engaging narrative for Horne’s life and career that touches on the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow South, prejudice on stage and screen, the civil rights movement, and ends with a nod to how “black stars now gleam on red carpets and reap box-office gold.” The text is accompanied by Elizabeth Zunon’s bright illustrations that effectively convey both the despair and glamour of Lena Horne. Rarely does a picture book biography so brilliantly capture an important life as well as a century of important periods in American history.

Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is BornMuhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta

Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born is an excellent picture book introduction for young readers to the legend of The Greatest. After an introductory note explaining that Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali are the same person, the opening pages show the major moments from Ali’s boxing career and capture his charisma through his words. The illustrations are accurate but not overly graphic. Then the narrative moves back to an episode from Ali’s childhood. When his new bike is stolen, young Cassius appeals to a police officer for help, and the officer introduces him to the sport of boxing. From there, Ali’s life and career are conveyed with attention to both his athleticism and activism. The illustrations are bright and cartoon-like as they portray first a child and then a man who became the most well-known person on the planet. Ali’s life serves as a lesson that no matter what bad things might happen—a stolen bike, racial or religious persecution—we can always choose to respond with positivity.

Where Are the Words?Where Are the Words? by Jodi McKay

A little period feels like writing a story but doesn’t have words. With the help of its friends—other punctuation marks and some (low-tech) writing supplies–words galore come along. Although a little muddled in the middle, Where Are the Words? features many good ideas about writing, including how punctuation can help shape ideas, how creativity can be sparked just by putting things side by side, and how supportive friends can sometimes provide inspiration when writers are stuck.

For those who use picture books in middle and secondary grades, Where Are the Words? has humor, sophisticated ideas, and clever illustrations and graphics that make it a worthwhile addition to upper-level classroom collections in addition to its obvious appeal for elementary classrooms and libraries.

Who Is Bruce Springsteen?Who Is Bruce Springsteen? by Stephanie Sabol

This worthwhile addition to the venerable “Who Is?” series aimed at upper elementary-age readers covers the important aspects of Bruce Springsteen’s life and career. I can easily imagine young readers knowing about Springsteen from their parents and picking up this book to understand more about him, or to learn about the life of a rock star. Filled with illustrations that are eerily accurate, Bruce’s journey is explained in a kid-friendly approach that emphasizes how his growth as a writer mirrored his development as an artist. Supplemental materials include side-by-side timelines of Bruce’s life and important world events, as well as page-length explanations of relevant concepts such as “blue collar,” “Elvis Presley,” and “September 11.”

It's a Sunny Life: An Adventure Fit for Rain or ShineIt’s a Sunny Life: An Adventure Fit for Rain or Shine by Gary Lezak

The story here is thin as “cool TV weather man” Gary decides that he should take his newly adopted puppy Sunny on a mountain-climbing adventure with his other dogs as a bonding activity. The weather turns bad and Sunny quickly becomes lost. Astonishingly, a helper dog named Jamie appears to point Sunny back in the right direction based on Sunny’s “choice” to leave tracks in the snow. Just as astonishingly, Jamie cannot be located when Gary returns to the cave with Sunny and the other dogs.

Author Gary Lezak is a Kansas City television meteorologist. It’s a Sunny Life may be of interest to those who see him on a regular basis, but there isn’t much in the book in terms of character or plot. Young readers fascinated by weather might hang in there with Lezak’s adventure story, and the eight pages of weather terms and facts found in the back material can also provide them with insights into weather phenomena.

I’m eager to know how the kids in your world respond to these books!

As always, thanks for reading.

These reviews appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form.

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Do Whatever You Want

Before launching this blog six years ago, I wrote posts for a variety of online forums.  From time to time, I re-post them here if they still seem relevant.  This one originally appeared in slightly different form on English Companion.

cover-artworkI care deeply about what goes on in my class and with my students. I will do pretty much anything to reach, teach, motivate, accommodate, develop, and inspire the hundred-plus students that I am so fortunate to have assigned to me each year. I care about what they learn, how they learn, and my role in their development as writers, readers, thinkers, and citizens. My personal goal is for every one of them to have a quality literacy experience in my class each day, and most days I feel like my goal is achieved.

But up and down the halls of my school are other classrooms with other students and other teachers. While I wish them all well in a more abstract sense—hoping that they too are having quality literacy experiences—I’m growing weary of having those students and teachers being grafted on to my work load.

Here is what I mean. A growing trend toward mandated collaboration and professional learning communities is playing out in our schools resulting in a kind of paralysis among too many teachers who seem unable to make decisions or move forward unless every other teacher is doing pretty much the same thing at the same time. If that works for them, hallelujah, but it doesn’t work for me.

I believe in the following principles regarding teacher autonomy:

• Teachers should be relatively independent beings who know how to collaborate when it best serves the needs of their students.

• Classrooms are highly contextual. What works for one teacher and one set of students should not automatically be presumed to be “best practice” for any other teacher or class. Heck, it might not even work for that teacher on a different day or in a different class!

• Emerson was right when he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency between teachers has the possibility of being “worst practice” if teachers apply inappropriate strategies and methodologies, even if those strategies and methodologies are consistent and successful with other teachers. When all classes and students are consistent, then and only then will teacher consistency make any sense.

So, when I’m ordered to participate in a collaboration session, I am sometimes reluctant to engage in it. I respect each of my colleagues, but I see teachers who do not know how to plan on their own, teachers who try very hard not to change a single thing from last year’s lesson plans, and teachers who believe that their way of doing things is the only valid way. What do my students gain from my collaboration with those colleagues?

If their approaches are working for their students, what’s the problem? If their approaches are not working for their students, is it my responsibility to take time and energy from my own classes in order to make their classes better? My experience, unfortunately, shows me that forced collaboration is more likely to result in some kind of incoherent least-common-denominator mishmash, usually designed to satisfy an obsession with data or standardized assessments.

I don’t want to seem like an iconoclastic ogre. I value collaboration when it benefits my students and my teaching. I participate in some form of collaboration almost every day through an ever-growing network of teachers whose opinions, expertise, and experience I have found to be sound, wise, and valuable. Some of those teachers are on-site; some are across town; some are online. It is also my great honor to be asked from time to time to consult with individual teachers, schools, and districts to help them with their classroom practices and writing programs. In these instances, collaboration is authentic, voluntary, and tends to be focused on pragmatic problem-solving.

So, Wise Ones of the Blogosphere, please help me find the balance. When is collaboration healthy? When is it unhealthy? And is it OK to care more about my own classes than about what is happening down the hall? I’m interested in responses from teachers in all career stages. Thanks for your replies.

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