Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Historical Fiction


Alice whenSome books that I pick up as just an entertaining read pique my interest to further investigate the subject they present. That’s what happened with Rebecca Behrens’ contemporary story, When Audrey Met Alice (Sourcebooks, 2014).  The main character portrayed in the book is Audrey Rhodes, and she is the “First Daughter” in the White House. With her mother as President of the United States and her father a busy scientist, Audrey has no one to share her challenging experience as an only child who faces the spotlight. She attends Friends Academy in Washington, D.C., and it is difficult for Audrey to determine whether her fellow students are interested in being her friend only because of her mother’s position. It is also a bit difficult for a middle school girl to even talk to a boy when her Secret Service agent is hovering nearby.

Audrey plans a pizza and movie party for the entire eighth grade to see an advanced screening of a popular movie. When there is a security breach before the party, the White House is locked down and Audrey’s party is canceled. This furthers the First Daughter’s feelings of loneliness and isolation.

AliceShortly after the party, Alice discovers a treasure under an old floorboard in a closet in the Family Residence Dining Room. It was a fabric wrapped bundle that contained some old postcards, a pack of old cigarettes, and a leather diary. The items belonged to Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest child, and the diary was written during Alice’s years living in the White House. Instead of sharing her find, Audrey hides them in her room and begins to read Alice’s diary. At last, she has found someone who understands what life as a First Daughter means.

The author did extensive research on Alice Roosevelt. She incorporated true information about Alice into the diary that her fictional character, Audrey, found. Alice was certainly a colorful character for her times, and probably even by contemporary standards. In Alice’s fictional diary, she writes about wearing a color of blue that she enjoyed. There was a shade that was named after her, “Alice Blue” became popular in women’s fashions of the times. The color is used by the United States Navy in insignia and trim on vessels named for Theodore Roosevelt. There was even a hit song in a Broadway musical, Irene that was “Alice Blue Gown”. Rebecca Behrens website has interesting information to further investigate Alice.

I hope that some middle school readers might enjoy When Audrey Met Alice as much as I did.

(Photo of Alice Roosevelt from Wikipedia)

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A Thanksgiving Favorite


cranberryWhile there are a plethora of new books on the market every season, it’s always a pleasure to introduce some of my favorite older titles to children. One series of picture books that I’m fond of is the Cranberry Series by Wende and Harry Devlin. Wende wrote the stories that she may have first shared with her own seven children. While Wende was a gifted painter, she began to collaborate with her husband, Harry, also a commercial artist. Harry began to illustrate the sweet tales that Wende wrote. Together, they created the Old Black Witch Series and the Cranberry Series.

In Cranberry Thanksgiving, one can tell that the Devlins were influenced by their family vacation on Cape Cod. Maggie and Grandmother live in Cranberryport, at the edge of a cranberry bog and close to the ocean. On Thanksgiving, they each invite a guest to share their feast. Grandmother invites Mr. Horace, a traveler from the city, who smells of lavender and carries a gold-headed cane. Maggie invites Mr. Whiskers, an old sea captain who smells of clams. Grandmother’s famous recipe for Cranberry Bread is stolen, and a most unlikely character is the hero of the story.

Today’s children enjoy this timeless story as much as those who heard it back in 1971 when the Devlins first published it. I had requests for more Mr. Whiskers’ stories, and fortunately for us, the Devlins wrote other books.

And…they shared their Cranberry Bread recipe!


Recipe found at the Devlin website here.

Rediscovering Harry Potter


harryHarry Potter fans will be thrilled with the new, illustrated version of J.K. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic). Jim Kay, the illustrator, was honored in 2012 with the Kate Greenaway Medal. This award is given to an artist in Great Britain whose illustrations in a book for young people demonstrate outstanding merit. Kay has produced dozen’s of colorful illustrations to compliment Rowling’s popular tale.


The publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, should be commended for this project. Undoubtedly, they will make money on this edition, but the quality of the book is remarkable.


When the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK) was first published, readers only had the thumbnail illustrations at the beginning of each chapter as visuals. Once the series became the phenomena that it is, the movies appeared. Readers then pictured Harry Potter as Daniel Radcliffe represented him. Each year, there are children who are discovering Rowling’s magic for the first time. Jim Kay’s Illustrations are colorful and full of details. He hasn’t depicted the characters and events as copies from the movie. His art is fresh and unique. I’m already anticipating Kay’s art for the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.


How amazing it is to compare the initial number of books printed for Rowling’s first book of Harry Potter in 1997 to this new edition. In 1997, several British publishers rejected Rowling’s manuscript. When Bloomsbury Press published it, the first run was of 500 books. Scholastic bought the U.S. publishing rights for the book, and less than a year later, their first run was for 50,000 copies. The 2015 publishing run for this illustrated edition is 1,000,000 copies.


This volume is a wonderful gift for any child or grown up who appreciates the series. Even though I own the originals, I have it on my wish list for the holidays.




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October 30, 1938

orsonThe United States was battling its way through the Great Depression. Adolph Hitler had risen to power in Germany, and his army was advancing throughout Europe. Many American families gathered around the radios in their homes for entertainment and news. Because of the world events, listeners became accustomed to their radio entertainment being interrupted by news reports. Orson Welles used this model of breaking into a regularly scheduled show with news. He decided to use some ideas from H.G. Wells 1898 book, War of the Worlds. In that story, alien vessels landed in London and terrorized that city and moved throughout the world.

Orson Welles took that idea and made a radio play based on it for the CBS Mercury Theatre on the Air. In his script, aliens first landed in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Very few radio listeners heard the announcement at 8:00pm that it was a dramatic presentation. Instead, thousands of people panicked and believed that the United States was being invaded.

AliensMeghan McCarthy’s picture book, Aliens Are Coming: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast (Knopf, 2006) is an interesting way to share this event. The children are sure that this hoax couldn’t be perpetrated today because of our technology.



Black and White


OliviaWhen I was a child, there was a common joke, “What’s black and white and red all over?” The answer, of course, was “a newspaper” because of the play on the word red/read. Once we knew this answer, we learned other answers like “an embarrassed zebra” or “a sunburned penguin”. Today’s children probably wouldn’t come up with the old answer of a newspaper, but they might answer that a book can be black and white and read all over. After all, many of our older children grew up enjoying the picture books about Olivia by Ian Falconer. The illustrations in Olivia are black, white, and grey with splashes of red. Parents and children loved the little pig that enjoyed fashion, opera, and ballet. Falconer’s book was commended as a Caldecott Honor Book the year it was published.

skunkToday’s young children have two books that are also black and white and will be read all over, The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (Dial) and The Skunk by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Patrick McDonnell (Roaring Brook Press). These books are entirely different, but they are both winners during story time. The Skunk is a quiet book that sneaks up on the reader, just like the skunk who follows a man around all day. We don’t have a name for the man, but he tells us his tale in the first person. The illustrations are almost all in black and white with a touch of red, especially in his tie and the skunk’s nose. The charming twist at the end brings about some great discussion among the children. This author illustrator team are certainly a dynamic pair.

bookThere is no discussion, just outright laughter, when I read The Book With No Pictures to children. The illustrator did use color to accentuate the silly words and phrases while the readers normal voice is depicted in black and white. It doesn’t matter how many times a child hears this book, they want to hear it again and again and again.

So…What’s black and white and read all over? My answer is “A GOOD BOOK”!

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Nooks & Crannies


cranniesIt’s always a happy time for me when I discover a new author to share with students. Jessica Lawson is my latest “find”, and I’ve been recommending her latest book, Nooks & Crannies (Simon & Schuster).

In the beginning chapters of Nooks & Crannies, I thought that I knew the formula that Lawson was following for the plot. The setting is London in the early 1900s, and six children received an invitation from the Countess of Windermere to spend a weekend at her “magnificent and secluded home”. Hmm…that was sounding like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the more recent Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. I predicted that the most deserving child would be recognized by the generous benefactor. The author soon surprised me with an early twist in her plot by introducing a rather nefarious Countess.

As I continued into the story, Nooks & Crannies began to remind me a bit of an Agatha Christie mystery for our middle readers. The heroine is an eleven year-old girl, Tabitha Crum, whose parents have arranged to put her in an orphanage as soon as the weekend is over. Because of their neglect, she had to fend for herself, and her only friend and confidant is Pemberley, a mouse. Once at the estate, Tabitha and the other children learn that one of them may be an heir to a fortune. Not everything is as it appears to be though, and Tabitha soon has questions about the Countess and her knives, a sick old lady, secret passageways, and mysterious happenings.

This novel is great fun, and I look forward to reading Lawson’s previous book, The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thacher which is a take-off of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Let’s hope that Lawson will have many more books in the future.

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Down the Rabbit Hole


…Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. Lewis Carroll

alice_02b-alice_rabbitI felt just like Alice this week, burning with curiosity, as I fell down the rabbit hole and attended events celebrating the 150 anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

There is a small exhibit at Butler Library at Columbia University in their rare book room that celebrates the 1932 visit of Alice Pleasance (Liddell) Hargreaves to New York City. Alice was the author’s child friend who inspired the creation of the story. Charles Dodgson, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll, began the tale when he and a friend, Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took Alice and her two sisters out for an afternoon of rowing and sharing a picnic. Alice’s 1932 visit was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Dodgson’s birth. The Columbia exhibit commemorates the degree given to Alice:

the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, in recognition of the place which your name occupies in English literature and of the remarkable contributions to that literature by Lewis Carroll to which your personality gave rise.
Dr. Murray Butler, President of Columbia

Actor Andrew Sellon performed a one-man show as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He has been writing this show for a number of years, and his research and interpretation of the author’s life suggested alternative theories to events in Dodgson’s life.

It is the closing week of the exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum entitled “150 Years of Wonderland”. This exhibit featured Dodgson’s original manuscript that he presented to Alice Liddell along with first editions of the book. Among the other exhibits were John Tenniel’s original drafts and illustrations, Dodgson’s microscope and photographic plates, personal items of the real Alice, and very informative descriptions of the author and illustrator.

This was a rabbit hole that was almost as difficult to emerge from as Alice’s escape. However, my time exploring Dodgson’s life and world will continue, just as his words about Alice do:
And how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago;

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God in His wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.

~Ogden Nash, “The Fly”

Readers are just “buzzing” about some of the new insect books that are just “flying” off our shelves. While that is a bad pun, the quality of non-fiction books that are being published about this group of arthropods has never been higher. I’d like to share three new science books.

flyI, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas (Henry Holt) shares information about flies in a humorous story told by a fly. The poor insect is tired of the butterfly always being used as the example of insect metamorphosis. He does acknowledge that maggots aren’t as cute and furry as caterpillars. When the children in the class ask the fly questions, he answers them truthfully, even if he doesn’t like to admit that he can spread diseases during his 21 days of life.

antA book that is a bit more scientific, yet perfect for elementary school readers is Good Question! How Strong Is an Ant? And Other Questions About…Bugs and Insects by Mary Kay Carson (Sterling). The title of each chapter is a question about the insect world. Can dragonflies see in all directions at the same time? Can butterflies taste with their feet?

bugsOne of our most popular new books is Bugs by George McGavin, illustrated by Jim Kay (Candlewick Press). This pop-up book explains insects, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies. The artwork, on the first two-page spread, of the broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, almost flies off the page. The dragonfly is a detailed example of the fact that all insects’ bodies are structured similarly.The author is a professor at Oxford University, and he has traveled to New Guinea, Thailand, and Tanzania for his research.

These three titles should delight any budding young scientist. Oh…and if you visit Philadelphia with your children, you might want to visit Insectarium, Philadelphia’s All-Bug Museum.

Two Gems


A picture book is a small door to the enormous world of the visual arts, and they’re often the first art a young person sees.  Tomie dePaola

crayonsThe crayons are back! Drew Daywalt brought young readers into the world of crayons when he brought them to life in his award winner, The Day the Crayons Quit. Children laughed out loud at the antics of the colors. Who can forget yellow crayon and orange crayon bickering over which is the true color of the sun and writing to their owner, Duncan, to complain? Daywalt once again teamed up with illustrator, Oliver Jeffers, in The Day the Crayons Came Home (Philomel). This time Duncan receives postcards in the mail from his crayons. Orange crayon and yellow crayon aren’t arguing anymore because they were left outside in the sun and they are melted together. They want to be rescued and brought home.

openAnother recent addition to our collection that features the use of a crayon is Open Very Carefully: A Book With Bite (Nosy Crow/Candlewick) by Nicola O’Byrne, illustrated by Nick Bromley. A crocodile intrudes on the story of The Ugly Duckling and starts eating the letters in the book. His favorite letters are O and S, and as he munches them, it becomes difficult to continue the story. The reader can get physically involved in the book by rocking and shaking the crocodile. This is great fun to share with our youngest readers. Older children who enjoyed Chester by Melanie Watts might also like to check these out.

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Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards


MCBAOnce again, we will be promoting the nominees for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MACBA) during the 2015-2016 school year at DCD. Even though I’ve written about this program before, I would like to explain it to parents who have never had a fourth, fifth, or sixth grader before now. This voluntary reading incentive program has become a popular event for many students, and it was started by Dr. Helen Constant in 1975. 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 Kate DiCamillo and Patricia MacLachlan, 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.

From time to time, I’ll be reviewing some of the titles under consideration for the award. So…let me write about one today.

“Life itself is the most wonderful fairy-tale.” – Hans Christian Anderson

(Quote taken from Liesl Shurtliff’s website.)

rumpWhen I first started to read Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, I was skeptical. For me, as a reader, the writing was not enticing. The story wasn’t grabbing my attention in a positive way, but I decided to give it more of a chance. I’m certainly glad that I did since I became a part of the fantastical world that Shurtliff created. Her clever explanation and imaginative retelling of the traditional tale of Rumpelstiltskin made me sorry to see the tale end. The trailer for the book might give you some indication of how I was at first “put off” by the beginning chapters. Since I’m now promoting the book to students, and discussing it with them when they have finished it, many of them have expressed the same thoughts. They weren’t sure at the beginning, but they enjoyed it as they got into it.

This book is a perfect example of a child’s growth as they begin to read critically.


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