Guest Student Blogger: Mercy (age 9)

I have just read the first Harry Potter book, The Sorcerer’s Stone. I really liked it and this is why. The book is so interesting. I really liked it! Let me tell you why the book is so interesting.

I love it when Hagrid tells Harry that he is a wizard! Then he starts at Hogwarts, a school for wizards and witches. It is funny when Hagrid and Harry try to hatch a forbidden dragon named, Norbert, in Hagrid’s wooden hut. I also think it is interesting when Harry gets past the black fire and finds Professor Quirrell.

Harry’s friends are Ron and Hermione. My favorite thing about Ron is that he is the first one to make friends with Harry right away. My favorite part with Hermione is when she helps Ron and Harry defeat a full grown mountain troll.

I also, like the Quidditch matches where Harry got to be a Seeker and catch the Snitch. It is cool when Harry got on the Quidditch team and got the really nice broomstick as a first year, which had not happened in a century at Hogwarts. It is also fun when Harry won the House Cup for Gryffindor, his house.

My favorite character is Harry Potter. This is why, he is the most important and interesting. The story would not have been very fun without him.

Harry is a hero!


Beginner Chapter Books

People will sometimes say, “Any book is a good book as long as it gets kids reading.”  There is only one reading level this is true of: the potentially torturous stage of beginner chapter books. Let’s be honest, this genre often does not exemplify our finest literary moments. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover.

At this stage, they have out grown the safety and parental regulation (I mean “guidance”) of picture books. You may find your attempts to introduce them to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe met with the roll of an eye and the horror of a dust covered book. At this point, you are left with no option but to let them choose whatever will get them to actually read, even if it is Bunnicula.

Here are a few series that your children will actively read without causing you to inwardly cringe:

Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel)- For the beginner chapter book reader there is no better place to start than Frog and Toad. Their adventures are hilarious and heartwarming.

Magic Tree House (Mary Pope Osborne)- This series is an exciting introduction to historical fiction that dabbles in geography, biology, and of course, magic. While there are a few books in the series that can be scary, your kids will love following the wild and magical events of this brother/sister duo.

My Weird School (Dan Gutman)- These books will satisfy your elementary school student’s appetite for silliness. The teachers are out of this world (literally and figuratively), the students are wild and smart, and the entire school is a chaotic joy.

Ready Freddy (Abby Klein)- Again, in the vein of silliness and elementary school humor while still maintaining some sense of dignity (well, that might be a stretch), these stories are funny and consistently enjoyable.

Geronimo Stilton (Geronimo Stilton)– Everything about the Geronimo Stilton books appeals to young readers, the pictures, the different uses of fonts for emphasis, and the stories themselves. And should your child somehow ever read all the Geronimo Stilton books, don’t worry, there is a whole spin off series with his sister, Thea Stilton.

Boxcar Children (Gertrude Chandler Warner)The Boxcar Children are a little longer and are a good bridge between the beginning chapter books and the longer chapter books. They will also work well for your advanced reader who is still a bit young for the content of the longer chapter books. This is a classic series for a reason.

Good luck navigating the turbulent waters of the beginning chapter books section.






Illustrators to Know

Illustrators are the bedrock of children’s literature. There is an entire genre that demands their work. Yet somehow, even with picture books, we so often neglect their contribution. Oh we remember their indelible representations of our favorite characters, but we do not remember them, the artists. If you ask someone who the author of Charlotte’s Web is most people will be able to tell you, E.B. White. Now ask those same people to visualize Fern or Wilbur, they will likely have an instant picture in their mind. But ask who drew the illustrations in Charlotte’s Web and now you have a question worthy of Trivial Pursuit. (Full disclosure, I had to get my copy of Charlotte’s Web off the shelf and to find out who illustrator was…Garth Williams, should you ever find yourself in pursuit of the trivial!)

While I am a firm believer in the power of the written word, there are times when this power is made stronger by a thoughtfully illustrated picture. From the simple to the complex, the black and white to the colorful, the pencil to the digital, illustrators can transform the written word into something unforgettable. The style and form the artists use varies greatly as they carefully match the descriptions and vibe given by the author, but when done well the result is a manual for children’s developing imaginations. Not to mention, a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging introduction to reading long before the art of sounding out words is cultivated.

While there are many artists who can successfully translate one book into picture form, there are only a few who can do so consistently over many books and a range of topics. Here are some of my favorites among those few. There are others that should be here, but now I have an excuse to write “Illustrators Revisited”.

  1. Jane Chapman – Most well known for her illustrations of the Bear books by Karma Wilson, Chapman has many other books to her credit, including my favorite I’m Not Sleepy!. Her art is fun, vivid, and instantly relatable.
  2. Kadir Nelson – I cannot say enough about Kadir Nelson’s work. You may remember him from my list of favorite children’s book authors and now I will recognize him for his phenomenal illustrations. Nelson’s illustrations are realistic and stunning. Every person’s library should include his books, adults and children alike. I have already mentioned the wonder that is He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, but for a timely and excellently illustrated book to follow up with, get Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
  3. Guy Parker-Rees – Parker-Rees is the artistic hand behind some of my favorite children’s books. His illustrations for The Hippo-NOT-amus and Down By the Cool of the Pool are lively, exciting, and expressive.
  4. Leo Lionni – I have found every book with illustrations by Leo Lionni (and there are many) to be fascinating. His unique ability communicate volumes using such simply beautiful pictures is unmatched. From Fredrick to Chameleon to Swimmy, Lionni’s work is remarkable.
  5. Donald CrewsFreight Train belongs on every child’s bookshelf. It is a work of art. Having said that, there are many more books written and illustrated by Crews that deserve attention as well, including all his other books about different modes of transportation.
  6. Ed Young – One of the first books I read to my students was Seven Blind Mice. The colors against the black pages are outstanding and eye-catching. The book itself is brilliant in its introduction to colors, numbers, days of the week, and an important lesson learned, but it is the illustrations that make it so memorable.
  7. Derek Anderson – As the illustrator behind the adorable Little Quack, I have a soft spot for Anderson’s bright, energetic pictures. In addition to following Little Quack’s escapades, I have found a renewed appreciation for Anderson’s illustrations in Waking DragonsHe has an uncanny style that embodies adventure and cuteness and it is thoroughly enjoyable.
  8. Renata Liwska – Liwska’s soft, comforting illustrations are the picture equivalent of a warm blanket on a winter’s day. Just looking at her pictures turns me poetic. Red Wagon is one of those near perfect picture books and it is the beautiful illustrations that give it life.
  9. Pat Hutchins – Hutchins’ unique artistic style give her books a lasting impression. It is difficult to define her style, but if you have questions as to her amazing creative ability, click on the link to her website. As for her books, my favorite is Barn Dance!. I find myself coming back to her books again and again, especially Little Pink Pig and Bumpety Bump.
  10. Chris Van Allsburg Jumanji and The Polar Express are a master’s class in how to brilliantly illustrate books. Van Allsburg’s muted use of color and attention to detail give his illustrations a riveting effect. He is among the very best in his craft.

*Honorary mention – April Wilson deserves noting because her book Magpie Magic is amazing. The colors, the spacial effect, and the idea all come together to create a beautiful and wonderful book.

I am grateful for these artists who give such incredible vision to the written word. I know there are many more like them and would enjoy hearing your additions to the list.












Raising a Reader

How to raise a successful reader in 10 easy steps (HA! Well, there are 10 steps, easy or not):

  1. Find a teacher friend. – Teachers have insider knowledge when it comes to children’s literature. Day after day they see which books children are consistently choosing, which books never get read, and which books get kids talking. This is all information you need. Extra credit for making friends with a homeschooling parent as they are notorious book nerds (I can think of no better compliment).
  2. Find a good library – By which, I mostly mean find a good librarian. You may have heard that any library is a good library. While this is a fantastic theory, it is sadly not the case. I have discovered there is such a thing as a “bad” library and much worse, a “bad” librarian. You know the one, the one that yells at the kids during story time. Do not even get me started on this new theory that books in the children’s section can be re-placed ANYWHERE in the correct alphabet shelf. For example, if a child takes a Patricia Polacco book of the shelf, it can be replaced anywhere in the “P” section. It goes against everything that is right about being a librarian…but I digress. It is worth the time it takes to find a good library. The one with a sign at the front that says, “Kids program today: Library will be noisier than usual”, where the librarians smile when they read and they talk excitedly about books, where there is order on the shelves of the sizable children’s section and you are able to find that specific book right away because it has a specific place (not that this shelving issue bothers me or anything). I have had the privilege of using two fantastic libraries with my children. I am grateful for thoughtful, caring, and organized librarians who helped instill a love of books and reading into my children. Recently, I was checking out books and over heard a mom asking the librarian for books about camping. The librarian’s eyes lit up and she excitedly gave her a few ideas off the top of her head and then about thirty minutes later she found that mom with a three page print out (What?!) of all the books about camping she had found. This is the kind of library you never leave!
  3. Have time – It takes time to cultivate an appreciation for reading. It takes time to build the patience to sit and read words in sequential order. It takes time to humbly bolster your vocabulary by looking up unknown words. It takes time to find compelling and engaging stories. It takes the most time to actually read these compelling and engaging stories to your child. Take the time.
  4. Have no sense of personal space – The best way to raise a successful reader is to build memories of reading together. This means you will have someone on your lap, at your side, or, inexplicably, occasionally, on your shoulders. You will read through fingers in your face, you will read through puffs of hair in your face, you will develop x-ray vision as you read through a whole head in your face telling you, “I can’t see the pictures”. It would seem that the less personal space you have, the greater success you will have raising a reader.
  5. Teach your child to read – Literally, teach your child to read. Teachers are phenomenal and also extremely over-worked. It is absolutely no fault of their own that they are often unable to give each child the one on one attention they would like to give, but it is a fact of the modern classroom. Children learn to read earlier and with better fluency if they are given that one on one attention. This is an excellent opportunity for you to be the one who gives them that attention. Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons is an excellent resource for this. I have used it with each of my children who are old enough to read and the program has worked each time. It seems counterintuitive and rote in the beginning but stick with it. It works.
  6. Have time – What should your super power be? The ability to create time.
  7. Talk to older kids – I have not met a kid yet who is not willing to express their opinion about something they enjoy. Find a kid older than your oldest child and talk to them about books they like, books to avoid, what they are reading right now, which books they have enjoyed the most, etc. This is all information you need.
  8. Find a good bookstores – Libraries are works of magic, but generally speaking the magic is older. For new releases and obscure books, you need the bookstore. I regularly walk through and take pictures of the displays to help me remember books I want to read to the kids.
  9. Have an enthusiasm for reading yourself – They watch you read and can’t help but be fascinated by what they are observing (right?).  Imitation is the finest form of flattery. And what could be more flattering than your child following in your literary footsteps? Nothing, I tell you. For once, you can be proud of their mimicry of you. Unlike that other time, you know the time…yes, that time…books are so much less embarrassing.
  10. Did I mention time? –  Because mostly what you need is time. Lots and lots of time.

Bonus – It doesn’t hurt if you have access to a blog that has book recommendations right at your finger tips. I wonder where I could find one of those?! (*shameless plug*)






Summer Research for Kids

Remember what research used to be like? From the mind numbing process of searching card catalogs, to the back breaking effort of carrying one hundred pound encyclopedias, to the finger aching toll of putting pen to actual paper, we had to work hard for every paragraph of information we could gather. Never mind the inevitable fact that the paragraph we toiled for was, in fact, useless. Now, it is all too easy.

Partially because my husband is a college professor and I used to teach elementary school and partially because we care about the future of humanity, we decided early on that our children would understand the concept of actual look-it-up-in-a-book research. And so, every summer each child is able to pick something they would like to research and the beautiful process begins. Some years they all decide to study the same thing, like the years we moved back to back summers. The kids decided to research the new states we were moving to. Then there was the bee year. Generally speaking, though, they pick different subjects. This year, we have cheetah, sea turtle, basketball, and panda research going on.

The younger kids choose four books on their topic. As I read to them, I try to find out what they would like to learn about,specifically. When we get to the parts of the books that discuss those specifics, we talk about what they are learning and how that fits or conflicts with what they expected. The goal at this stage is to get them familiar with the idea of looking up information in a book and finding answers to questions they have.

The older ones pick four books that they can read on their own about their topic. They then come up with five questions they would like answered by their research and I add five questions. Once they have read their books, they write up a “report” answering the questions in essay form. Writing is as much a part of research as reading and needs to be taught; that is the goal at this stage.

Over the years, we have come across a few authors and series that we always begin with when teaching children to research. This list is by no means exhaustive but these particular authors should be your first line of reference.

Steve Jenkins – Jenkins’ books are ideal for younger children wanting to research animals. His illustrations are very interesting and his content is short but informative. The end of each book gives a more detailed account of the animal featured in the book.

Jim Arnosky – These books would be a natural follow up to Jenkins’ books, for the slightly older kids. Arnosky’s fantastic illustrations are a large part of what makes his books so compelling. The information he provides is very helpful and will be read again and again.

Gail Gibbons – Gail Gibbons should be your number one stop for all things science with children. Her content language is geared toward older children, but she keeps each page short and heavily illustrated making her books accessible to all ages. We have read a great many of her books in our house and we have found them all helpful.

Magic School Bus – Ms. Frizzle! Does there need to be any enticement beyond her? She is the dream science teacher (well, maybe tied with Bill Nye the Science Guy) and for good reason. She’s punny, smart, and fearless. A lot can be learned from field trips in a magic school bus.

National Geographic Little Kid First Big books – A cross between a National Geographic magazine and an encyclopedia, these books are are wonderful. They are excellent for research with the younger kids. I regularly find my youngest “reading” through the Big Book of Animals lost in all the pictures.

Explore and Learn series – These are basically mini encyclopedias with each book focusing on a different aspect of science. For example, the series includes Science and Technology, Earth and Space, Me and My Body, just to name a few. They are full of interesting and useful information.

Here’s to reclaiming the art of research! Enjoy and please let me know which authors or series you would add to the list.

Plllleasssse read to me!

In my house, we are solidly into summer. July is the only month of the year where there is no school for my older kids and we are all feeling it’s effects.  All of those energetically optimistic (really, will I never learn) goals I had for finding new and exciting books are beginning to wane. (Yes, I realize it is only July 5th). All of those enthusiastic moments of filling in boxes with reading times are becoming a burden. And, if I am being perfectly honest, all of those warm, cozy, treasure-these-moments-in-your-heart times of cuddling up on the couch reading to the four kids are turning into sweat-inducing, nudge-producing, riot-inciting times where I have to “read” (see also: “shout”, “yell”, “scream”) over a barrage of “don’t touch me”, “I can’t see”, “quit poking me”,”I can’t hear”, “WAIT, Mom, you skipped a page”.

As such, I have found myself returning to those tried and true books that I know they will be happy to hear again. These are the books they have memorized; the books where I can start a sentence and they finish the page for me. Usually, these are the books that I avoid at all cost for that same reason. But now it is July and in July auto-pilot is an acceptable form of parenting.

And so, I have a list of picture book series that your children will be happy to read over and over again. These are good books and even better for being parts of series, giving you weeks of trips to the library without having to search for something else. Auto-pilot!

  1. Froggy (Jonathan London) – If your family is a little loud, a little wild, and a little cheeky these books will be great for you. As an added bonus, there are exactly twenty-seven thousand books in this series. You will find a book for every possible occasion and enjoy discovering all the ways Froggy is “a little more red in the face than green”.
  2. Elmer (David McKee) – I mean, what’s not to like about a patchwork elephant. Elmer and his friends seem to be constantly misunderstanding each other or their circumstances, but they learn many important problem solving skills along the way.
  3. Fancy Nancy (Jane O’Connor) – For the child who has a style all their own, plays every kind of dress-up imaginable and dreams in drama, the Fancy Nancy series is a must read. O’Connor does a good job of couching vocabulary and relationship building skills in stories of fanciful dramatics.
  4. Pigeon (mo willems) – If you have read more than one of my posts on this blog, then you are already familiar with my appreciation for the Pigeon books. This bird is hilarious and perfect for that moment when things are on the brink of collapse and everyone needs a laugh.
  5. Bear (Karma Wilson) – The Bear books are wonderful. Not only are the words almost lyrical in their rhyming but also Jane Chapman’s illustrations are truly beautiful.
  6. Ladybug Girl (Jacky Davis) – The Ladybug Girl books are excellent for the child that wants to explore, create adventure, and imagine.
  7. I’m Dirty! (Kate McMullan) – These are fantastic books that give voice to many of your children’s favorite vehicles. Each book is about a different vehicle and they “talk” the reader through their mechanics and jobs. My kids favorite of the moment is I’m Cool.
  8. Duck (Jez Alborough) – With the Duck books, you can follow along as Duck wrecks havoc on the lives of those closest to him. Duck is stubborn, rude, and never seems to learn his lesson. You can’t help but feel sorry for the characters left in his wake.
  9. Cows to the Rescue (John Himmelman) – These books begin with Chickens to the Rescue. The books follow a farmer and his family through the dilemmas of each day. Each books shows different animals of the farm hilariously trying to help.
  10. Amelia Bedelia (Herman Parish) – This classic series has been re-vamped for modern consumption and the result is surprisingly successful. Amelia Bedelia is still as literal as ever, but her circumstances and struggles have been updated. I have found the newer series much easier for my younger kids to understand.

Here’s to reclaiming reading time! Good luck.

Dear America

I am taking that first step down a slippery slope. That first step is entirely avoidable but oh so satisfying. I am, in full awareness, going to write a blog post detailing books about the United States of America for the 4th of July. It is so cliche I was not going to do it and still so perfect I cannot help myself.

The logic is sound. There is a series largely about U.S. history that I want to talk about but never seem to fit in anywhere until my sister pointed out that there is an entire upcoming holiday celebrating U.S. history. Perfect.

Until the blog becomes:

  1. 5 Perfect Books for Arbor Day
  2. 10 Amazing Books for World Pancake Day
  3. 3 Fantastic Books for Wheat Day
  4. 10 Incredible Books for National Donut day
  5. 100 Million Super Books for World Chocolate Day

The slippery slope. (Also, apparently I am hungry). It is too easy but, occasionally, appropriate to connect dates and events with books about those dates and events. I will do my best to use this crutch wisely and sparingly.

To that end, let me introduce you to the Dear America series. In this historical fiction series, events are chosen from U.S., and sometimes world, history and told through the diaries of a fictional girl from that time. The stories are fascinating, challenging, and compelling. The way they are told brings history to life in a new way for kids. They are able to sympathize with and imagine the stories so much more because they are told from a child’s point of view. For your child who is interested in history, these are a must read.

There are two spinoff series from the Dear America books. First is My Name is America; the stories in this series are told through the diaries of a fictional boy. The second series, called The Royal Diaries, takes historic queens from around the world and tells their childhood stories through fictional diaries.

At the end of each book, there is a historical note. These notes give a general history lesson about life and the major events during the time the story takes place. The books are an excellent introduction to historical events and figures that have helped shaped the United States of America, for good or for ill.