Massachusetts Children’s Book Award Nominees

October 17, 2014

MCBAThe nominees for this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MACBA) cover a range of topics and reading levels. It is always interesting to debate the appropriateness of a book for a specific child. Two of the books on this year’s list are perfect examples of the fact that basing a selection on an “anointed” reading level shouldn’t be the mitigating factor in choosing to read a book. One of the strengths of this voluntary reading incentive program (MACBA) is that the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders are exposed to books that they might not gravitate to on their own, perhaps because of the level. Yet, after reading some of the novels, they are eager to talk about them.

liarThe narrator in Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2012) is a seventh grade boy named Georges, with a silent “s”. He is a target for one of the school bullies who looks for other students’ weaknesses. It isn’t much easier for him at home. His mother is working extra hours as an intensive-care nurse because his father lost his job. Their new apartment is in Brooklyn, and he forms a friendship with Safer, who has a warm, eccentric family and proclaims that he is a spy. The author tackles the courage and fortitude that it sometimes takes to navigate childhood and adolescence with insightful compassion. Readers learn that what they may believe is truth could be based on a lie. In the MACBA program, Liar & Spy is listed at the fourth grade reading level, but it clearly also deals with themes for older students.

orangeOne Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin (Abrams, 2011) doesn’t have just one protagonist. A different neighbor on Orange Street tells each chapter, and each character has a unique voice and perspective. The children on the street puzzle over a hear-shaped stone, a stranger with a sketchpad, and a bright orange traffic cone. They learn about each other, but more importantly, they gain insight about themselves. In the MACBA program, this book is listed at the advanced sixth grade level, yet the cover attracts younger readers. The two quotes on the very first page immediately appealed to me.
The street I lived on was like a book of stories, all different, but bound together.
-The Memoirs of Ethel Finneymaker

They all believed in magic, but everyone’s magic was different.
-Stories and Lists of Mormidable Words, by Ali Garcia

The author shares her ideas and the background of the book.

Words, words, words…

October 10, 2014

Picture book biographies for children have become works of art in recent years. It’s not just younger children who enjoy them. Because of their content, students in the middle school also find them entertaining and valuable for research. Talented authors and illustrators bring the stories of historical and contemporary people to life in engaging text and art.

Most adults and children give little thought to the origins of the dictionary and thesaurus.  After reading about Noah Webster and Peter Roget, we not only learn about their famous works, but we find that they were pretty interesting characters. These two contemporaries each had a passion for language and a dream.

NoahNoah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) chronicles his life and cleverly includes the definition to words in the text.
Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes,  he  wasn’t). He was, he said, “full of CON-FI-DENCE; (Noun: belief that one is right) from the very beginning.

Readers learn that Noah Webster knew all of the American Revolutionary heroes, and he told them about his belief that the thirteen colonies must become a nation.

rogetThe Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014) is one of the coolest picture book biographies that I have seen recently. The collage illustrations imitate the journals and word lists that Roget kept all of his life. Roget originally categorized his synonyms by concepts and ideas. In modern versions the words are listed alphabetically. In Greek, Thesaurus is a word that means “treasure house”.

Virginia Lee Burton

October 3, 2014

MikeWhile today’s children may have never seen a steam shovel, or a tractor who pushes a plow, they still respond to the humanity and artwork in Virginia Lee Burton’s books. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Katy and the Big Snow may be books who feature a technology from the past, but today’s children still identify with their engaging stories.

Much of the charm of Virginia Lee Burton’s stories is her artwork that she combines with them. Her use of watercolor, ink, and graphite in many of her books demonstrates her talent. Yet, her publisher also allowed her to design all of her book that not only included the illustrations, but also the choice of typeface and use of space.

Burton’s roots are local as she was born in Newton, MA, although she moved to California when she was 8 years old. When she was 21, she returned to Boston and met her future husband in a drawing class at the Boston Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts. After raising two sons, Virginia founded a textile collective called the Folly Cove Designers on Cape Ann. The designers’ linoleum block print designs received national accolades. That legacy also still remains as a testimony to her talent.

We’ll continue to share Virginia Lee Burton’s talent and storytelling. Whether it’s the predicament in which a small cottage finds itself with The Little House or a train engine who takes off on its own in Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away, or people having their voices heard in our democracy in Maybelle the Cable Car, the tales and art still delight adults as much as children.

Ludwig Bemelmans and Madeline

September 26, 2014

MadelineThis year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of the popular picture book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. The New York Historical Society is celebrating the occasion with an exhibit on the precocious character and her author.

Ludwig Bemelmans lived a full life, not only as an artist and author, but also as a novelist, essayist, and humorist. Born in Austria, he moved to the United States in 1914 where he worked in hotels. When the United States entered World War I, Ludwig enlisted in the Army and became a US citizen. When the war was over, Bemelmans returned to his work in hotels and restaurants.

This talented artist didn’t begin writing until he was 36 years old, when he wrote his first picture book. Readers of all ages are certainly thankful that he did. The character of Madeline is named after his wife and modeled after his daughter. Bemelmans created fifteen books for children, and this mischievous heroine is still the most popular.

Bemelmans contributed his writing and art to many periodicals, most notably, The New Yorker, where he drew many cover illustrations. While he designed Broadway and Hollywood sets, his existing public artwork are murals in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. The bar has been named “Bemelmans” in his honor.

Readers young and old alike should visit or revisit Bemelmans books.

Madeline & Me








Madeline exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

*Author biographical information taken from the Madeline website.

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 who 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