Read On!

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

Great Biographies


When I was in third and fourth grade, the library was in easy walking distance from my house. I have fond memories of finally being a confident reader and being allowed to choose my own books. There was a series of historical fiction titles that I fondly remember. They were the “Little Maid” books, and my favorite was The Little Maid of Lexington by Alice Turner Curtis. The little maid wasn’t a term describing a servant, but a girl who witnessed important events during Colonial times. (As an adult, I was astonished to find that while I was reading these books in the late 1950s, they were originally written between 1913 and 1937. Hmmm…there weren’t as many books published for children then. Or, my public library never discarded many!) After I read one of the titles, I always looked for a biography about the hero from history – George Washington, Paul Revere, or Benjamin Franklin. There weren’t many biographies written for intermediate readers during my childhood. Times have changed…

betsyOur independent readers are intrigued by two series that I can’t recommend any more highly, Who Was…? and Who Is…? These short biographies, published by Penguin, have black and white illustrations on many pages, and they include additional background information and a bibliography at the end of the book. The authors describe the childhood, accomplishments, and challenges of the biographee. I would have been thrilled to read Who Was Betsy Ross? by James Buckley (2014) after I read A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia. Fortunately, there are many different titles to keep our readers happy. The publisher has also developed two other series, What Was…? and Where Is…? The WhoHQ website by Penguin has a trivia game for readers when they have finished some of the books.

Magic Tree House


dinWhen Mary Pope Osborne wrote the first book in the Magic Tree House Series, it’s a fair guess that even she couldn’t imagine the number of readers whom she would reach. Dinosaurs Before Dark introduced young readers to a brother and sister, Jack and Annie, “who discover a magical tree house filled with books”. This was the first of many adventures that our young heroes have. Fifty-two books later, children are as enamored with the formula as ever. The joy of these books is that our youngest non-readers enjoy having the books read to them, while our independent readers consume them on their own. Consume is an apt term to describe our young readers who are hooked on the series. The titles appeal to boys and girls alike. Some insist on reading them in the order that they were published., while others choose their next book randomly.  It isn’t uncommon for a child to race to the library to request a specific volume; they insist that is the only way to be sure to read them all.

ancientAnother bonus to the Magic Tree House phenomena is that the author has also produced twenty-eight books in the Fact Tracker Series. These nonfiction companions to specific titles explore more information about the subject of a title in the original series. For example, Ancient Greece and the Olympics is the companion to Magic Tree House #16: Hour of the Olympics.  In the novel, Jack and Annie witness the first Olympic Games. The Fact Tracker details everything from Greek architecture to specific athletic events.

Parents may also enjoy the website that goes with the series. They do not have to register for their children to play some of the book related games.

Winnie the Pooh


One of my favorite books to share with children is Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. When I introduce the book to my third graders at the beginning of our author study, I often hear some groans or see some of them roll their eyes. I let them voice their doubts which are always that the book is for younger children, or that they’ve seen the Disney version. I ask them to trust me, and we dive into the background of Milne’s life and begin to read the book. By the time that we have finished the book and unit, every child is a fan of Milne. Their ending comments are always that “younger” children can’t appreciate the humor in the book. They enjoy knowing about Christopher Robin and his toys.

Imagine my joy in learning from a colleague that Winnie-the-Pooh was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. Check it out…and if you ever want to talk about Winnie, stop by to see me!

*Pooh and Piglet, adapted from Iwona Erskine-Kellie (original illustration from Ernest Shepard), Creative Commons

A Delicious Book


Pie by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic, 2011) is one book that I confidently recommend to many of my intermediate readers. This novel has humor, a misunderstood protagonist, and just enough of a mystery to keep the reader turning the pages.

Alice Anderson loved her Aunt Polly, and it wasn’t because Polly made the best pies in town at her bakery, Pie. More important than that was that the pie shop was “…a home away from home, a safe place where she could truly be herself.” No one ever paid for a pie at Aunt Polly’s shop, but they expressed their appreciation by leaving gifts of pie ingredients. The pie shop was known far and wide for the delicious pies and exceptional piecrust.

Alice was as baffled as her parents and the rest of the town when Aunt Polly’s lawyer read her will. Aunt Polly left her secret piecrust recipe to her beloved cat, Lardo, and she left her beloved cat, Lardo, to Alice.

This book is scrumptious, and so are the pie recipes that begin each chapter!

Remembering Andy Warhol


They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.

Andy Warhol


This quote introduces Bonnie Christensen’s outstanding book, Fabulous!: A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Henry Holt, 2011). Christensen explains to readers that Andy Warhol was the Prince of Pop, the King of Cool, and internationally famous when he was an adult. When he was growing up though, most people never would have imagined that he would become the artist that so many admire. Andy Warhola (his original name) lived with his immigrant parents in a two-room space where he shared one bed with his two brothers. When he was in third grade, Andy was very ill, and he spent hours drawing, reading Dick Tracy comic books, and dreaming of movie stars. Growing up was not easy for Andy, but he continued to draw and attended art school. Readers will be inspired by the strength and ingenuity that Warhol demonstrated as his art became recognized and acclaimed. Christensen’s collaged photo transfers on canvas painted in oil illustrates this “fabulous” picture book biography that contains an informative author’s note and time line.


Uncle Andy’s (Putnam, 2003), written and illustrated by James Warhola, one of Andy Warhol’s nephews, is a fine book to pair with Christensen’s newer title. Warhola describes one of the “faabbbulous” trips that his family enjoyed when they visited his famous relative. Andy Warhol’s New York home was packed with collections and items that inspired him. The close-knit family enjoyed these family visits, and the author chronicles his uncle’s influence on his own career as an artist.

Masterpiece Is Just That


Elise Broach has written her own masterpiece and given it that title. Masterpiece is one of the best books for our middle elementary school children (students in grades three, four, and five) that I’ve read this year. I couldn’t put the book down, as I cheered on the main character, Marvin, a young beetle who lives with his family in a New York City apartment. His beetle family resides under the kitchen sink, and they keenly observe the daily events in the lives of the human family who live in the apartment. The beetles are especially sympathetic to James, whose feelings and interests his mother and stepfather often overlook. When James’s birthday is definitely not a happy event, Marvin decides that he must give James a special gift, and he sketches a drawing using an ink set that James’s artist father gave him as a gift. When his family members believe that James created the tiny detailed painting, he is overwhelmed by the attention and doesn’t deny it. James learns about Marvin’s skill, and although they can’t speak to each other, they learn to communicate in other ways. As I read this book, I became interested in learning more about the German artist, Albrecht Durer, since he is featured in an important exhibit that the characters visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of the details that I’ve described only set up the main plot line which involves a famous painting, an art heist, but most of all true friendship.

Some of our fourth and fifth graders have also enjoyed Elise Broach’s novel, Shakespeare’s Secret. While the plot of this book is current and realistic, the author interested a few of us enough to look up more information about William Shakespeare. Her writing tends to do that to you.

Masterpiece reminds me of George Selden’s beloved classic, The Cricket in Times Square. The books exhibit the same suspension of reality, as the reader believes in the fantasy worlds that bring insects to life. On the flap of The Cricket in Times Square, one reviewer describes Selden’s book in a way that is fitting to write of Broach’s Masterpiece. “Every once in a while a story is told, ostensibly for children, which captures so perfectly the imaginative realm in which even children are permitted to dwell only for a time, that the adult world must stop and listen too.” These words perfectly describe the experience that I enjoyed reading both of these books.

Skip to toolbar