Read On!

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

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.


Two Novels


There have already been a number of quality books published in 2015 for our intermediate and young adult readers. Two of my latest favorites are Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (Scholastic, 2015) and Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015). These books are each challenging with their content and intriguing with their plots.

echoEcho is a difficult book to describe because it shifts back and forth from fantasy to reality. In a mysterious and forbidden forest, a man meets three strange sisters who deliver a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. That harmonica is intertwined within three other stories. Readers will be drawn to the challenges that Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California face during different time periods. This is a long book with 592 pages, and readers will be so engrossed in the plot that they will be disappointed to have it end.

Pam Munoz Ryan speaks about her writing and another of her books, The Dreamer, in this video.

stellaStella by Starlight is realistic fiction that challenges readers to face the realities of racism in the United States. The main character lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina, in the heart of the segregated south. In this Depression Era story, the Ku Klux Klan are making a reappearance and terrorizing many in the area. Sharon Draper talks about her inspiration for her latest book.

***On an unrelated note, “Stella by Starlight” is also the name of a 1940s jazz classic. To hear Miles Davis perform it, check out this video.

Let the Reading Begin


MCBA_rdax_230x150It was an exciting week for our rising fourth, fifth, and sixth grade readers  because the announcement of the 2015-2016 nominees for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award. This voluntary reading incentive program has become a popular event for many students. The organizers at Salem State College have responded to librarians’ suggestions and requests to publish the nominees as soon as possible in May. Fortunately for us, the list was published last Friday afternoon. We were able to get many of the titles for our book fair this week. As the children plan their summer reading, we’ve encouraged them to use the MACBA list for suggested titles and authors.

7Some of the books that have been nominated for the 2016 award are already favorites of mine. One of them, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a sophisticated novel for our readers. When I wrote about it on February 20, 2014, I thought that the Newbery Award Committee should have recognized it, and I said
Willow is unique, and depending on your point of view, you will want to be her friend, or teacher, or parent. Her world falls apart when she is in middle school. It’s no spoiler to tell you that in the opening chapter, the reader learns that Willow’s parents die. While this shatters Willow’s world, a diverse group of individuals reach out to save her. It is Willow who saves them and brings out each one’s “giftedness” (my term). Do share this book with a fifth, sixth, or seventh grader, but be sure to read it yourself too.

While Counting by 7s is one of the most sophisticated books on the list, there are titles that will interest children of various reading levels. All of the nominees and their reading levels are on the Salem State College website. We will be promoting these particular books until our voting party in 2016.

Spring Reading


There are some very entertaining new novels for children and young adults that have been published this spring. I have a stack of books to read, and I want to recommend two this week.

fishFish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Penguin, 2015) is a novel that many readers from ages 10+ might enjoy. I did! The narrator of this story is Ally, a sixth grader who is struggling to navigate school. She is contending with the typical social issues that occur during those middle school years. As an outsider, Ally is trying to fit in. Her difficulties are compounded by the fact that her father is in the military, and he is currently stationed overseas. Her family has moved around a lot because of her father’s assignments, and school hasn’t been easy for Ally or her older brother. Maybe it’s because she was never in one school for very long, or maybe Ally was very good at faking her ability, but no teacher had picked up on Ally’s academic deficits. The situation in her present school is similar to that in her previous one, she gets sent to the principal’s office often for causing problems. Her new sixth grade teacher realizes that Ally can’t read, and that she is dyslexic. Even though the main character is a girl, one of her best friends is an interesting boy, and this might help with the appeal to our male readers. Ally’s teacher’s words to her are some that all children who struggle need to hear,

Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.

allKate Messner is another novelist who can speak to youngsters as if she were their peer. In All the Answers (Bloomsbury, 2015), her middle-school protagonist is Ava, a girl who is often overcome by her fears. Whether it is family, social or academic issues, Ava feels that she doesn’t have the courage that her best friend, Sophie, does. Ava is also worried about her grandfather in a nursing home and her parents arguing a lot. When she uses a pencil from her family’s junk drawer, Ava is shocked to learn that the pencil has magical powers. When she writes out a question with the blue pencil, she hears a voice that gives her the answer. The pencil tells her that it can only divulge facts, and that “People have free will.” Still, there are not only academic facts that Ava and Sophie learn, but also facts about the boys and girls in their class. Perhaps they weren’t supposed to know some of these facts. How ethical is it to use the pencil?

Henri Matisse


The Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented a fascinating exhibit in 2014 called Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. The exhibition catalog for the exhibit is inspiring, and I knew that we had a number of books in the DCD library that discussed this talented artist’s life. Many of them focus on the time in his life when Matisse created almost entirely with paper and scissors.
Henri Matisse was born in 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France. He lived in Paris for most of his life, and his avant-garde work was known internationally. At seventy-two, the artist became very ill, and nearly bedridden. Instead of giving up all of his art, he developed his ideas in a new medium – large cutouts from hand-painted paper that his assistants hung around the room for him.
m3The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (Roaring Brook Press, 2014) is a simple tale of Henri’s childhood, and how his surroundings influenced his later works.
Jeanette Winter also wrote a biography of the master for our youngest readers in Henri’s Scissors (Beach Lane, 2013).  Marjorie Blaine Parker’s biography, Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Henri Matisse (Dial, 2012) is an enticing complement to Winter’s work.
m4Jane O’Connor and Jessie Hartland teamed up to produce Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors (Grosset & Dunlap, 2002). Their children’s biography is in the form of a school report that a student has written. It contains images of some of Matisse’s work and a discussion of his life.
My three favorite picture book biographies on this master are Matisse: The King of Color by Laurence Anholt (Barron’s, 2007) and Matisse’s Garden by Samantha Friedman, illustrated by Cristina Amodeo (MoMA, 2014), and Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blaine Parker, illustrated by Holly Berry (Dial, 2012).
mAnholt provides details of Matisse’s life that aren’t covered in other children’s books. He chronicles the relationship that Henri had with Monique, a young nurse who helped him through a serious illness. Monique became his confidant, but she eventually left and entered a religious order as a nun. Year’s later, the nun and artist were reunited, and Matisse built the Chapelle du Rosaire as a gift to Monique and the other nuns who cared for him. He designed seventeen stained glass windows that fill the chapel with light, color, and pattern.
m2Matisse’s Garden was published by The Museum of Modern Art to coincide with the recent exhibit. This tale concentrates solely on Henri’s cut-outs, but the book itself is a masterpiece with pages that open out in double spreads to illustrate some of his larger cut-outs.


matisseColorful Dreamer is just that, colorful. Holly Berry’s illustrations are a combination of more realistic sketches of Henri and his family combined with colorful collages that evoke his artwork and imagination.


MissOh, and I still haven’t mentioned a book for our older readers and art enthusiasts, Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel:Bringing Matisse to America by Susan Fillion (Godine, 2011). Two unmarried sisters from a German-Jewish family in Baltimore amassed one of the most amazing collections of modern art in America. They concentrated on works by Matisse, although they also purchased many paintings by Vuillard, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Picasso. The sisters’ collection was bequeathed to The Baltimore Museum of Art.



A.A. Milne’s masterpiece, Winnie-the-Pooh, was published in 1926, and his book still entertains readers today. While many children know Winnie through Disney movies, when our third graders read Winnie-the-Pooh in their library classes, they are exposed to the richness of Milne’s prose.

To add further enjoyment and insight into the book, the children learn about the background to the story and the characters. It is more special for them when they learn that there was a real Christopher Robin, and that he was the author’s son. Even more interesting is that Christopher Robin’s real toys, including Winnie, are on display in the New York Public Library.

bookSally M. Walker’s new book, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh (Henry Holt, 2015) adds to the richness of sharing the story of this special bear with today’s readers. Jonathan D. Voss illustrated this tale of the background of the real American black bear after whom Christopher Robin’s Winnie is named. Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian in the Canadian Army, rescued the bear cub after the cub’s mother died. Lieutenant Colebourn named the bear Winnipeg, after his army company’s hometown.

Winnipeg soon became known as Winnie, and she became Colebourn’s constant companion, harryeven sleeping under his bed every night. When the soldiers were shipped to England because of WWI, they brought Winnie with them. However, when Harry’s group was sent to the front in France, the soldier knew that Winnie would be in danger if she went with him. Colebourn made arrangements with the London Zoo for Winnie to live there.

Winnie shared this new home with other bears, yet she retained her gentle nature. Because bearshe was so accustomed to humans, the zoo even let children interact with her. That’s where A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin met Winnie. Christopher Robin decided that his stuffed bear, Edward Bear, must change his name to Winnie-the-Pooh. …And generations of readers are happy that he did!


(Photos from Wikipedia)


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Pedro Martínez


Ramón is the biggest reason
I have gotten where I am.
He is the great one in this family.
I am still Ramón’s little brother.
-Pedro Martínez, 1998

pedroMatt Tavares shares an inspirational story in Growing Up Pedro (Candlewick Press, 2015). Pedro Martínez got his first real baseball glove when his older brother, Ramón, signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers for five thousand dollars. The Martínez family lived in the village of Manoguayabo in the Dominican Republic, and Ramón was the baseball star of the family. Ramón told Pedro stories of his struggles in the United States because he couldn’t speak much English. Pedro began to study English, and when he was eventually given a shot in the Dodgers’ minor-league system, he could be interviewed without an interpreter.

Many players and fans implied that Pedro only made the team because Ramón was a star pitcher. Pedro was determined to prove them wrong, and he became one of the best relievers in the league. When the Dodgers traded Pedro to the Montreal Expos, Ramón encouraged him to prove his talent. In Montreal, he became a starting pitcher. The Martínez brothers even got to pitch against each other – Ramón won. After Pedro won the National League Cy Young Award in 1997, the Expos couldn’t afford to pay him, and they traded him to the Boston Red Sox. The rest of his story is now Red Sox history. Ramón also joined the Red Sox late in his pitching career. The brothers were back playing ball together just as they did many years ago in their homeland.

There are many videos of highlights of Pedro pitching, but one of my favorites is this one. He struck out three batters in one inning with only nine pitches.

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