Read On!

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

John Lewis


March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions)

The U.S. Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is John Lewis. Long before he became a Representative, Lewis was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, when he was a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, he organized sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee at segregated lunch counters. Lewis became one of the “Freedom Riders” who challenged segregation on southern buses. He was one of the principle speakers in the 1963 March on Washington. On March 7, 1965, Lewis led over 600 peaceful protestors as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. While the demonstrators intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to bring awareness to the need for voting rights in Tennessee, they never finished their march. Instead, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers who used billy clubs and tear gas on the peaceful demonstrators. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” as national news teams covered the event. The public awareness of the cruelty of this day helped to persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

John Lewis chronicled his earlier years in the Civil Rights Movement with a trilogy for young adults entitled March. The books are written and illustrated as graphic narratives. The illustrator, Nate Powell, used black, white, and gray to evoke the somber events in striking images. While reviewers have praised the first two books in this series, March: Book Three has earned numerous awards. In 2016, it was the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award. The American Library Association recognized it this past January with a number of awards: the Corretta Scott King Book Award which recognizes an African American author, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, and the YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction.

Image result for john lewis with obama on selma march

(AP Photo)

Young adults need to read this book to understand John Lewis’ work and legacy. He remained and advocate for nonviolence, despite the fact that he was physically attacked and seriously injured during protests. He was arrested over 40 times. He continues to be a strong voice in our democracy. On March 7, 2015, he walked with others to commemorate the Selma march.

For our younger readers, there is an informative picture book biography, Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Ism (Nancy Paulsen Books).

John Lewis has published adult titles including Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Wake Up America 1940-60, and Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.


Richard Peck – The Best Man


Ironically, it was my students who taught me to be a writer, though I was hired to teach them.

Richard Peck

Richard Peck’s novels for children and young adults have received many awards and commendations: the Newbery Medal, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Edgar Award, and as National Book Award finalists. All of this recognition means nothing to a fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade reader. They aren’t impressed. They want to read books that speak to them where they are. Richard Peck does just that.

After serving in the military, Peck became a teacher, first in a high school. In many interviews, he speaks of then being involuntarily transferred to teach English in a middle school. While his educational career wasn’t long, it was there that he observed so much about adolescents. His keen insight comes alive on the page as a reader becomes immersed in his stories.

long My favorite character that Peck has created is Grandma Dowdel, first introduced in A Long Way from Chicago. His descriptions of her have brought her to life for me. Maybe she reminds me of one or both my own grandmothers, and that is a gift from this author. Thank you Richard!

bestRichard Peck’s latest book, The Best Man (Dial), is contemporary fiction. His protagonist, Archer Magill’s voice is that of an average (if there is such a person) sixth grade boy. He often doesn’t recognize the enormity of the personal events around him. His best friend, Lynette discusses that with him when he witnesses a bullying situation at school. Archer and two other boys have found a smaller classmate tied up in the bathroom with the word “gay “ written on his forehead in fluorescent marker. The student teacher, whom all of the students admire, handles the situation with the bullies and their class by explaining that being gay is not just a word, it’s an identity. Mr. McLeod says that it is his identity. Archer never even considered that, and Lynette talks with him about it.

You really take your sweet time, don’t you, Archer?
Time to what?
Mr. McLeod must really have put it out there if you picked up on it. He must have spelled it out.
It got spelled out all right, on Russell’s forehead.

Archer’s family members help him navigate the daily decisions that he makes that define him as a person. There is a great deal of humor in the author’s sensitive descriptions of bullying, homosexuality, divorce, and the hierarchy in middle school. Even though the author is addressing these weighty topics, he does so in a highly entertaining way, recognizing them as aspects of everyday life. In my opinion, this is another award winner for Richard Peck.

In the following clip, Richard Peck discusses the importance of reading aloud to your children. The Best Man might be just the book to read aloud with your pre-adolescent or adolescent. It would open up some important areas of discussion for you all.

The Beatles


…But tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.   – The Beatles

As a baby boomer, I enjoy sharing my memories of growing up and the music that I enjoyed and still enjoy with children. They have a vague concept of a band named The Beatles, but few know anything about the “Fab Four” or their songs.

fabTwo recent additions to our collection should intrigue intermediate and middle school readers. Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Henry Holt) is a picture book biography and a fine introduction to the early lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The young men had much in common, growing up in Liverpool, England and finding escape in music.

beatlesA more sophisticated and more comprehensive title is How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury). There are many black and white and color photographs throughout the book that chronicles the rise of one of the most influential musical groups in history.

Gene Luen Yang


Every two years, the Librarian of Congress selects an author to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The author serves a two-year term and uses his/her position as a platform to speak and write about lifelong literacy, education, and using books and reading for personal growth. There are very specific guidelines used by the selection committee when they choose an author. The National Ambassador for the next two years is Gene Luen Yang.

Yang was born in California, and his parents are Chinese immigrants. His background is noteworthy because Yang draws on his family experiences in his work. The seeds for his writing and art began when he was in elementary school. He began drawing comics then, and he wrote his first comic book in fifth grade. On his website, Yang said, “Nowadays any kid can make a movie, but back then, it was impossible for a ten year old to make a movie, but a ten year old could make a comic book.” The fact that Yang writes graphic novels is also an important aspect of his nomination.

When he was interviewed after the announcement of his appointment was made, Yang said, “Every ambassador picks a platform, so some kind of issue that they want to talk about, and a phrase that sums up that issue. My phrase is ‘Reading Without Walls.’ ” The theme aims to encourage young people to read books that scare them. The author continued, “We want kids to read outside of their comfort zone, to pick a book with somebody on the cover who doesn’t look like them, to pick a book about a topic they previously found intimidating.”

americanHis book American Born Chinese won the Printz Award from the American Library Association for best young adult book in 2007. Boxers & Saints was a finalist for the National Book Awards. Yang’s most recent project is a graphic novel series, Secret Coders, which not only tells a story but also teaches children about computer coding.

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)

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?

Award Season 2015: The Newbery


NewberyThe Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. (From the ALA webpage)

When the professionals on the award committee review books that are under consideration, they have much to discuss. Among the criteria listed are discussions of the characteristics of theme, plot, characters, setting, and style. Part of the definition of the award that presents a challenge for the committee members is that the books can be published for readers up to fourteen years old. Thus, books that are awarded and honored can represent a range of ages.

This year’s award and honor books are published for our older readers within that age range. It is also an unusual award year because two books, the award book and one honor book, are both written in verse. The other honor book is a biography that is written in graphic form where sequential art tells the story.

crossoverCrossover by Kwame Alexander (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is one of those books that is just plain great. I don’t usually gravitate to novels written in verse, but I knew that I had to read it because of the buzz that it was getting from all of the children’s book reviewers and bloggers. Now, I can’t decide who will enjoy it more – a boy who is a reluctant reader or a girl who is an avid reader. The plot and themes are that gripping. The narrator is Josh, a boy who lives for basketball, but is also always rhyming and rapping in his head. He and his twin brother have been playing with their father, a former semi-pro player, since they could hold the ball. His parents and his brother are as fully developed as characters as Josh is. Adolescence and life present him with challenges that could be insurmountable, but Josh perseveres because of his strong family. While parts of this book are tragic, they are also uplifting because of Alexander’s talented storytelling.

The honor books are El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet) and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin). Each of these books deserve a discussion of their own.

brown           el deafo

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