The best children’s literature is sophisticated, imaginative, and literary. But literary and sophisticated aren’t enough. For kids to bother with it, a story has to move.

The Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon has it all! Imagine yourself laughing out loud as a dragon and a nerdish iguana battle ninja frogs. And Vernon draws you into the story so well, you willingly suspend disbelief when were-wieners battle their arch nemesis, biting potato salad.

Not feeling it yet? Listen to this excerpt from Curse of the Were-Weiner:

“Wendell exhaled. He wanted to say, Are you sure? Or maybe Do we have to?

But it was Danny, and Danny was always sure, even when he was completely wrong.”

Kids will love these stories. So will discerning grownups.

Building Empathy

Over the holidays I read Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. Yeah, some of my stack books have been waiting for years.

It occurred to me as I read that the only thing better than experience for building empathy are good stories. Fiction must be part of the school curriculum. It is essential to building critical thinking skills and it lets students walk in someone else’s shoes.

Nonfiction is important, but it isn’t more important than fiction.

Liar and Spy gave me the same feeling I got the first time I read Harriet, the Spy. I’d never had the run of an apartment building and Harriet probably never watched her grandmother wring a chicken’s neck and fry it up for lunch, but we were the same kid anyway.

If we can’t travel, we can read. If we can’t meet our other selves, we can still find them in a book. Books in the hands of kids are as important to the future of the world as adapting to climate change will be.

Rural Oklahoma kids need to read about a boy in a Brooklyn apartment as much as they need to read about an Afghani girl who must disguise herself as a boy to work in the market. They need to read about a Sudanese boy escaping a civil war and a Midwestern boy surviving the Chicago fire, both coping with loss. They need to know the how and the why of a Somali boy on a pirate ship and of a young slave who will risk her life to learn to read. They need all this to see that we are all as alike as we are different, to understand how circumstances shape each of us.

As for Rebecca Stead, she deserves every award she gets. Read her stories for her storytelling skills and for literary excellence. You’ll even build your vocabulary. Painlessly.

Midwest Book Review, Children’s Bookwatch

“Froggy Bottom Blues” is a delightful origin of the blues tale with friendly froggy, bird, and animal characters for musicians. Loosely based on the biography of W. C. Handy, composer of “Memphis Blues” and early blues performer and collector, “Froggy Bottom Blues” follows the odyssey of E. Z., a froggy daughter who traveled [up] the Mississippi to follow a dream of becoming a great blues singer, inspiring other animal friends to become blues musicians along the way. Child-like illustrations present the characters of E. Z., Pelican, Woodpecker, and Cat, animal friends who also become blues musicians with E. Z.’s encouragement. One of the most beautiful aspects of “Froggy Bottom Blues” is the theme of sharing as a basic component of blues and perhaps all great music. Simply told and creatively illustrated, “Froggy Bottom Blues” tells a compelling tale about the birth of the blues, in the eyes of a talented, determined frog female who becomes a successful blues singer. It is a perfect introduction to the blues and the rich cultural background of blues musicians on the southern trip [up] the Mississippi River.

Froggy Bottom Blues
Sharon Edge Martin, author
Timothy Lange, illustrator
Doodle and Peck Publishing
P.O. Box 852105, Yukon, OK 73085 9780998930275 $9.99 http://www.doodleandpeck.com

The Gift of a Good Story

As a Christmas gift to myself, I am reading. Whole novels. Big ones. Little ones. And drinking cups of coffee while they are still hot. Yes, there is still work to be done, but for chickens and family to feed, most of it is less important than stilling my mind of anxiety and diving into story.

Yep, that was a cheesy way to introduce Matt De La Pena’s The Living. The writing is, of course, superb, and the characters people in which to believe. If you like apocalypse and politics and romance, you won’t go wrong with this, the first book in a series…or maybe a miniseries.

Here’s a sample:

“He did nothing more than tread water in the dark for several minutes, battling his own thoughts. What if he was stranded for good? Nothing to eat or drink, no one there when he died? What if he never saw anything but water again? He felt like he’d been shown the truth of the world. The absolute power it held. People just meaningless specks that came and went as easily as flipping a switch.”

You want something a little sweeter? Read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. I cried. I don’t care much for tearjerkers, but this beautiful little story made me feel cozy and hopeful. Yeah, and I want my own wishtree.

A Two-Novel Week!

This was a good week, with only minor distractions. I not only wrote every day, but I managed to find quiet time to read two of the middle grade novels on my tottering stack.

First, Teddy Mars: Almost an Outlaw by Molly B. Burnham.

I picked up the first Teddy Mars novel, Almost a World Record Breaker, when it won the Sid Fleischman Award for humor from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I loved it so much, I decided to read it aloud to my fourth-grade Reading Lab boys. They loved it so much, they said I should invite the Reading Lab girls next door to join them. Almost an Outlaw, the third book in the series, lives up to expectations. Find you a reading spot where it’s okay to laugh out loud.

Second, Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson.

I had expectations here, too, because I’m a fan of Lawson’s The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.

How would I classify Nooks and Crannies?

It takes place in the early 1900s in England, during the reign of King Edward, so we can call it historical fiction.

The wealthy can afford electricity and motorcars, and the house where most of the story takes place has clever hidden passages. This gives the book a steampunk feel even though it’s a half dozen years into the 20th Century.

It is definitely a mystery, well plotted and fast paced, but it has such quotable lines. I see no reason that good genre fiction can’t be literary fiction, as well.

The main character, despite her Dickensian life is smart and good. If you love a good mystery, settle in and read.

I heartily recommend both books for your own middle grade stacks. And if you don’t have a middle grade stack, I suggest you start one.

Lauren Tarshis on the American Revolution

If you’ve read any I Survived books, you know before you start that the main character will suffer and that he or she will survive. It’s predictable, and that suits most upper elementary readers. What’s not predictable is how much you will enjoy reading a novel with a not-really-all-that-predicable ending, how passionately you will root for characters that feel like real people, and how much you will learn.

The latest offering from the series author, Lauren Tarshis, covers the Battle of Brooklyn, aka the Battle of Long Island. I won’t tell you how the battle turns out. I recommend that you read the book. Once you’ve read it for yourself, read it again with a kid and discuss its weighty questions.

I intend to find a fourth grade class with whom I can share the story.

Ms. Tarshis suggests you read the following books, as well:
The Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Fighting Ground by Avi
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
The Keeping Room by Anna Myers
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Until There Is Time Travel

There is more than one good reason to read Joshua and the Biggest Fish by Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith (illustrations by Dorothy Shaw). The first? It’s a good story. That should be enough, but the teacher in me loves that there is more.

Joshua and the Biggest Fish is the story of a Muscogee Creek boy who is tired of being called cepane (chee-BAH-nee), little boy. During a traditional food gathering event, he sets out to prove that he is no longer a child. The tale, set in 1920 on the banks of the Deep Fork River in Oklahoma, is based on real events.

It’s important that young people become acquainted with history and culture, and not just their own. Since we can’t travel back in time…yet…what better way to learn history than with a good story?

Students also like to pick up words in other languages. We spent one school year learning Choctaw vocabulary. We built a Choctaw word wall, practiced with a native speaker on a Choctaw Nation website, and showed off our skills every chance we got.

Joshua and the Biggest Fish introduces Muscogee Creek words, including pronunciation. A quick online search brings up some additional resources, some sponsored by the tribe. The book also contains a section of photographs from the Oklahoma Historical Society.

I recommend this book for all the reasons above.

Clancy Knows What He Likes

I’ve been a Una Belle Townsend fan since I read Grady’s in the Silo back in 2003. I’ve bought her books for family members and I’ve used them in the classroom.

Last year, the boys in my fourth grade Reading Lab made a year-long project out of Townsend’s Toby and the Secret Code. Our word wall always contained a mix of English and Spanish words. After we read Toby, a story with reference to the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I, our multi-lingual wall also included Choctaw words.

Townsend’s latest picture book may be my favorite yet. Clancy is one of those rare stories that doesn’t have one scene too many. It starts where it should and ends on just the right word.

Clancy is a charming goat who likes the taste of wood even if he doesn’t care much for nails. Sorry, but I’m not giving away any more of the story. You’ll have to read it for yourself, then you’ll want to find a classroom of second graders with whom to share it.

I bet they laugh as heartily as you do.

Too Many Irons

My dishes are always done. I do a load or two of laundry almost every day. I’m not a neat freak. Indeed, I’m far from it; I share my space with a man, two dogs, and two cats. What I am is a writer. It is easier to wash dishes or sort clothes than it is to tackle a problem I’ve encountered in a story.

It’s hard for me to start writing. It is even harder to stop once I get going. The hardest thing, though, is sticking with one project.

As the author of six, seven, I’m not sure how many unpublished novels, I know that it is essential to visit the novel every day to maintain the thread. This is just as important when you’re revising.

I set aside time each day to revise. Then a poem happens. Or I have an insight that requires the rough draft of an essay. Then, when it is time to get back to the revision, I find that I’m out of time. Ha! It’s happening right now.

My teachers called me hyperactive. My mother said I had too many irons in the fire. I never did find out if they were clothes-pressing irons or branding irons. I could stop to do some research to find the source of that saying, but…my revision!

I love the book I’m working on. I don’t know why I get distracted. Writer friends, do any of you get stymied by your next great idea?

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

I ended up in the emergency room this week doubled over in pain. That’s not figurative language. I was doubled over. It took a few days for the doctor to get me through, but I used my time wisely. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was reading. I read two middle grade novels.

Let’s talk about the book I liked.

Woof: A Bowser and Birdie Mystery by Spencer Quinn will make you giggle while providing some edge-of-the-seat action. The narrator is Bowser, a mixed-breed mutt with a good nose. And even if his off-side narration sometimes goes on a little long, you stick with him.

Set in the Louisiana bayou country, there’s a missing piece of taxidermy, some WWII history, and a puzzle to solve. Birdie is a brave and resourceful girl, but she couldn’t get by without Bowser’s nose and loyalty.

I’ve already bought the next book in the series.

Now, let’s talk about the book I didn’t. I won’t tell you it’s name, but it involves a pretty, mean girl and her used-to-be-friend. Why talk about it at all if I can’t recommend it? Because of what I learned as a writer by reading it to the end.

1. Your antagonist can’t be unrelentingly mean. She (or he) must have some redeeming value, and not just a sad reason for them being what they are.
2. The activities and tone must jive with the setting of the book, both time and place. Both the protagonist and her nemesis were expected to do the family ironing. It takes place in the present. Do people still iron their sheets?
3. The author does a good job of showing the relationship between the protagonist and her grandmother. But when she, inevitably, loses her beloved grandmother, the funeral scene goes on for much too long. Too much time was spent on details that didn’t matter.
4. The author explained things that most readers already know.
5. The ends all tied up to neatly, except one. Who won the talent show?
6. The song titles listed in the book seemed like an odd assortment. Songs can date a book, but they can also date an author. Don’t just use your favorite old tunes. You’re writing this for kids, not for their parents.

The writing was literate, and the plot wasn’t stupid. A few revisions might have made this a book I could name in the review. Hey, there’s a lesson right there.