Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards 2014-15

September 19, 2014

MCBAOur fourth and fifth graders are avidly reading various books that have been nominated for this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (MACBA). This voluntary reading program was started by Dr. Helen Constant in 1975, and it is administered through Salem State University. Twenty-five books are nominated for the award, and our voting for the DCD favorites will take place in late winter.

There are many obvious benefits to reading along with us for the next few months. Students are often introduced to authors who are unknown to them before this, and they return looking for other books by them. Some of the authors, like Patricia MacLachlan and Rick Riordan, are already favorites of many intermediate readers. An important benefit that may not be obvious is that our readers become critics. They learn how to evaluate literature through plot, characters, and interest, and they have fun doing so. Throughout the next few months, I’ll highlight some of the nominated titles. Links to the reading lists and our required journal pages can be found on our DCD Library page.

familiarsAdam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson are two authors whom may be new to most readers, but they might soon be favorites. They have co-written The Familiars Series, and the first book in that series, The Familiars (Harper, 2010), is one of this year’s nominees for the MACBA. These two friends have created a magical world that entrances many readers. Their characters, their familiars, are magical animals who are chosen by young wizards in training. However, Aldwyn isn’t a magical familiar; he is an ordinary cat who has wandered into the unusual pet store. Aldwyn and the extraordinary pets must work together when their young wizards are captured by the evil queen of Vastria.

The Familiars website is both informative and entertaining. Readers can get to know the authors, learn more about the characters, and find out what kind of familiar they might be. When I took the quiz, I was designated as a “Protector of the Land”, perhaps a raven.


The authors’ video gives us a taste for their sense of humor.


The Unwanteds – Book Four

September 11, 2014

4The fourth book in Lisa McMann”s series, The Unwanteds, was published last week. Island of Legends (Aladdin, 2014) has not disappointed the fans of this popular fantasy series. Our readers are responding to The Unwanteds in a similar manner to children’s reactions to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We believe in McMann’s world of Artimé and Quill, and we are invested in the characters. In the third book of the series, Island of Fire, we were left with a number of cliffhangers that involved many characters. (No spoilers here!)

On her website, Lisa McMann explains that her inspiration for The Unwanteds occurred when her children came home one day complaining that their school arts programs were being cut. As “artistic and creative” children, they felt like they were personally being punished. McMann quotes her son as saying, “Not just punished, Mom. Sent to their deaths.” Her idea for just such a society was born.

Last spring, our fifth graders produced book trailers in their library classes by using iMovie on iPads. Two students chose to feature The Unwanteds. Enjoy their introductions, and I hope that they entice you to read the book. Thank goodness we only have to wait until February of 2015 for Book Five!


Yummy Reading

May 30, 2014

blissThe Bliss family own a bakery, but they also have an ancient “Cookery Booke” that is kept locked up and a secret. When their parents go out of town, Rose and her siblings are supposed to make sure that nothing happens to their book, which the children are not allowed to use. When a stranger shows up and declares that she is Aunt Lily, Rose is enchanted with her exotic life and the meals that she makes. The Bliss children decide that just making one or two recipes certainly can’t hurt, so they experiment with the recipes for “Love Muffins” and “The Cookies of Truth”. The magic gets out of control, and Aunt Lucy might have secrets, too.

Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood (HarperCollins, 2012) is a tasty reading treat. Readers may want to head to the kitchen to bake some of their own families favorite desserts after reading it. I’m certain that they will want to read about the further adventures of the Bliss family in Littlewood’s second novel, A Dash of Magic (HarperCollins, 2013), and then they can devour her third tale, Bite-Sized Magic (HarperCollins, 2014).

dash               bit


Jack Gantos

May 23, 2014

dead endJack Gantos is an author whose books span generations since he writes picture books and fiction for intermediate, middle school, and adult readers. In 2012, he was awarded the Newbery Medal for his novel, Dead End in Norvelt. This is one of the choices that our middle schoolers have for their optional summer reading.


In Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos combines tales of a bit of his own childhood with outrageous invention. Norvelt, PA does exist as one of the planned communities that were built in the 1930s. There were 1850 applications for the 250 homes, and the first residents were a representative population for that area of the country. The author did grow up in Norvelt, and he did write about some of his own experiences. The reader can only wonder which parts of the book are real and which come out of Gantos imagination.


The plot hinges on Jack being loaned to an elderly neighbor because he was “grounded for life”. It certainly felt that way to a young boy who was looking forward to a carefree vacation. And…this feisty old woman writes obituaries about the original settlers of Norvelt. Miss Volker begins to suspect that too many elderly residents are prematurely dying, and she enlists Jack’s help to check out her suspicions.


norveltGantos continued his outrageous tale in the sequel, From Norvelt to Nowhere. This author’s fans are glad that he did!

Artist Bill Traylor

May 16, 2014

billHow fortuitous that formally trained artist, Charles Shannon, met Bill Traylor on a street in 1939. Shannon (1914-1996) was from Montgomery, Alabama, and while he was studying at the Cleveland School of Art, he became interested in the artistic culture of the south. He recognized the talent of Bill Traylor, a former slave who had experienced periods of homelessness. Shannon encouraged Traylor to continue drawing and painting and brought him art supplies.

Bill Traylor (1854-1949) created between 1,200 and 1,500 pieces of art during his lifetime, although he didn’t begin his art until his was well into his eighties. Prior to that time, Traylor had endured slavery and raised a family as a sharecropper. When he moved to Montgomery, Alabama at age eight-one, he struggled to survive. Throughout these hardships, he began to sketch on found pieces of paper and cardboard. He began to draw images from all stages of his life that he had stored in his memory.

Charles Shannon arranged for exhibits of Bill Traylor’s work, and now this former slave and self-taught man is recognized as a very important American folk artist.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw was written by Don Tate and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, 2012).

The Unwanteds

May 8, 2014

unwantedsWhen the first reviews for The Unwanteds came out in professional journals for librarians, they were positive enough that I knew that I should buy the first book of the series for DCD. The review in Kirkus described The Unwanteds (Aladdin, 2011) as “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter.” Before I read the first book in Lisa McMann’s series, I thought that seemed like a bit of an overstatement to sell the book. Eric Norton’s recommendation in School Library Journal was toned down but still very positive when he wrote, “This is a good starter fantasy or dystopia without the darkness in titles for older readers.” Neither of these reviews do justice to McMann’s series, and the buzz that it has created among our intermediate readers. The Unwanteds is one of the Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards’ Honor Books for 2014.

Lisa McMann challenges her readers with her society of Quill where thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories. The Wanteds are the elite, and they will go off to the University. The Necessaries will also be saved to work for the good of the society. The rest of the thirteen-year-olds will be The Unwanteds, and their fate is to be eliminated. When twin brothers receive different verdicts, Aaron becomes a Wanted and Alex is an Unwanted. Alex and the rest of the Unwanteds face their deaths, until they meet Mr. Today.

McMann further develops her tale in Book Two: Island of Silence, and Book Three: Island of Fire. Our readers are clamoring for these titles and eagerly awaiting Book Four: Island of Legends which will be published in September 2014. Adults should give themselves a treat and read the series too!

island of silence    island of fire


May 1, 2014

It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.
John F. Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 27, 1962

falloutThe Merriam Webster Dictionary defines fallout in two ways. The first definition is “the radioactive particles that are produced by a nuclear explosion and that fall through the atmosphere”. The second is “a bad effect or result of something”. Both of these descriptions are directly related to Todd Strasser’s gripping novel for middle schoolers, Fallout (Candlewick, 2013).

Strasser’s premise is that it is 1962, and a nuclear bomb is dropped on America during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He tells the story through the eyes of an adolescent boy whose father is the only one in his neighborhood who has constructed a bomb shelter. Even though he was ridiculed by his neighbors, Scott’s father stocked his shelter with enough supplies to keep his family of four alive for two weeks.

When the unthinkable happens and the warning sirens pierce the night, Scott, his brother, his parents, and their maid head down through the metal trap door to the enclosure and safety. Neighbors clamor to get in with them and some succeed before the door is secured. Others bang and beg to be let in, but then there is a terrible blast and silence outside.

The electricity is cut off, and there are not enough supplies for everyone who made it to the shelter. Conditions worsen by the day, and moral questions are raised. What will it be like when they leave the shelter? Should everyone be allowed to remain in it for the duration, or should some people be put out? Scott’s mother was badly injured during the struggle, and she lies unconscious, what will happen to her?

A Cat with a Big Appetite

April 25, 2014

SidA number of years ago, there was a charming picture book that was written by Inga Moore that was called Six-Dinner Sid (Aladdin, 1991). Sid was a very smart and portly cat who lived at number one Aristotle Street. He also lived at number two, three, four, five, and six Aristotle Street. The owners of these homes all thought that Sid was their very own cat, and he ate well at each house every day. Well…Sid was found out when each owner took him to the same vet. They decided that Sid should not eat six dinners a day. Don’t worry about Sid though because this intelligent cat soon remedied that situation.

catFast forward twenty-two years and Tony Johnston shares the same story in The Cat with Seven Names (illustrated by Christine Davenier, Charlesbridge 2013). Johnson developed his cat’s owners more fully. This feline’s adventures brought many people from diverse backgrounds together.

Both books are charming…do check them out!

MA Children’s Book Awards 2014

April 17, 2014

We called it! The 4th and 5th grade readers who voted on the 2014 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (MCBA), chose not only the winner, but also the runners up this year. Our readers, who participated in this voluntary reading incentive, were pretty discriminating. At our voting party, we talked about which books had merit, and which books should still be popular in future years. After the DCD votes were counted and sent in to Salem State College, we waited to see how other readers from schools throughout the state voted.

outOut of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (Perfection Learning, 2012) was this year’s winner. The popularity for this book happened by word of mouth, as students began recommending this book to their friends. The story is about a fifth grader who suffers from cerebral palsy. When she is introduced to a device that allows her to communicate, her family realize that she isn’t retarded, but instead she is brilliant.

The runners-up for the award each received votes from our students too.

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (Aladdin, 2011), The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan (Disney-Hyperion, 2010), Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli (Balzar & Bray, 2012), and Chomp by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012)




“Genius draws no color line.”

April 10, 2014

When Marian SangWe cannot live alone… And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.
Marian Anderson

On April 9, 1939, seventy-five years ago this week, Marian Anderson performed an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Her concert was there because she was banned by the Daughters of the American Republic (DAR) from performing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. There was a “white-artist-only” clause in the contracts presented by the DAR. While there was a segregated section for black audience members, only whites could appear on stage.

The news of Anderson’s situation became public, and Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization. However, the public outcry did not change the policy. The executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, proposed that Marian Anderson should perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Franklin Roosevelt assigned his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to oversee the logistics of the concert. Few could have guessed that 75,000 people would attend the concert, and millions of Americans would listen to it on the radio.

Genius draws no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such voice as lifts any individual above his fellows, as is a matter of exultant pride to any race.
Harold Ickes

The first song that Marian sang was “America”. In the third line, she changed the words, “of thee I sing”, and she replaced them with “to thee we sing”.

In 1942, Marian Anderson did receive an invitation from the DAR to perform at Constitution Hall. On January 7, 1943, she sang to an integrated audience at a benefit for the American Red Cross.

VoiceWhile much has been written about this event, there are two books that I highly recommend for our students. When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2002) is a sophisticated picture book biography. Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman (Clarion, 2004) is a title that I would suggest for grades 5 and up. Freedman included many photographs to support his work.