“You can develop this ability to see. You just have to know what to look for…and where to look.”
Erlin Olafsson *

It seems astonishing to us in the modern age, when microscopes and telescopes have revealed so many wonders, that not that long ago, people didn’t know where butterflies came from. When Maria Merian was born in 1647, a majority of people still believe Aristotle’s theory of “spontaneous generation…that insects did not come from other insects, but from dew, dung, dead animals, or mud.” Growing up “in a household filled with growing things,” Maria became curious and “from youth on [she was] occupied with the investigation of insects.”

Joyce Sidman’s engaging and colorful biography of Maria Merian, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), is itself a wonder. Each chapter opens with a poem chronicling the lifecycle of a butterfly. These poems, told from the insect’s perspective, mirror Merian’s own transformation from a curious girl helping in her stepfather’s art studio to a pioneering thinker who lead the way for future scientists. As Sidman writes, “she saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections—and changed our view of it forever.”

Sidman’s clear, poetic prose, interspersed with Merian’s own words from her field notes, brings Maria and her world to life. The book is lavishly illustrated with Merian’s intricately detailed paintings and Sidman’s own photographs of the metamorphosis cycle. Maps and period paintings of daily life in Germany and the Netherlands provide young readers with clear images of 17th century Europe. Additional information about aspects of daily life at the time, including “Women: Unsung Heroes of the Workforce,” “Science Before Photography,” and “Slavery in Surinam,” among others, place Maria’s life and accomplishments in a broader context. A glossary, timeline, and suggestions for future reading are also included.

At one point, Sidman explains that “Maria had decided that insects belonged to plants and plants to insects. Together, they formed a community of living things that nurtured one another.” In this book, Sidman has woven together many strands from art and science that enhance each other to create a stellar example of what is possible in nonfiction for young readers.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is a true gift to readers. Maria Merian was a remarkable woman who overcame the constrictions of society to achieve her dreams, dreams that have left a legacy still with us today. She deserves this book and our children need to hear her story. They need to know that miracles and mysteries are all around them, just waiting to be discovered.

Maria Sibylla Merian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers can download a study guide here. After students finish The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, be sure to direct them to Jeannine Atkins’s gorgeous novel in verse, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

(quoted in Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island, by Loree Griffin Burns)

SOL 17 & It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?: See You in the Cosmos


Over two hundred years ago, William Wordsworth advised writers and artists to “fill your page with the breathings of your heart.” And while I doubt Wordsworth imagined that rockets would one day send those breathings into the cosmos, there’s no question that Jack Cheng’s new middle grade novel, See You in The Cosmos (Dial Books, 2017), is full of heart.

Written as a series of iPod recordings, See You in The Cosmos is an epistolary novel for our digital age. Alex Petroski is a “rocket enthusiast” from Colorado who is planning on launching a rocket at the SHARF festival in nearby New Mexico. With his faithful dog, Carl Sagan, at his side, Alex sets out for the festival. This trip marks the beginning of an odyssey that takes him from Albuquerque to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Along the way, Alex learns valuable lessons about loyalty, trust, and the truth about his family.

Alex’s vivid narration through the iPod recordings immediately draws readers into the mysteries at the core of his life. With a mother who has “quite days,” a father who died when Alex was three, and a 24-year old brother who lives in Los Angeles, eleven year old Alex has learned to be remarkably self-sufficient. And while getting to the rocket festival is the original purpose of Alex’s journey, it soon becomes a quest to find out the truth about his father. Throughout his trip, Alex meets an eclectic assortment of characters who help him reach his goal.

Cheng richly layered novel reminded me of Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. Like Sal, Alex’s search leads him to undiscovered truths about his family and himself. Readers will be cheering Alex on every step of the way. They may even discover a truth or two about themselves.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, MelanieLisa and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts. Also, please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

SOL 17 & IMWAYR: If You Were the Moon

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What does the moon do all day and all night? Laura Purdie Salas answers this question in her enchanting new picture book, If You Were the Moon. Cheerfully personified, the moon, spends its days and nights engaged in many familiar activities of childhood and displays many familiar moods. A spirited moon plays “dodgeball with space rocks” and peak-a-boo with Earth. The moon is helpful when it “lights a pathway to the sea” for sea turtle hatchlings. Salas also casts the moon as joyous, inspiring, and loving. When the moon sings “Earth a silver lullaby,” children will want to climb into bed to hear its song.

Millbrook Press, 2017

Jaime Kim’s whimsical illustrations capture these different moods by creating a wonderfully expressive moon. The magical quality of the book is enhanced by a scattering of what could be stardust over every page.

For all its playfulness, If You Were the Moon is grounded in facts. On each page, Salas included informational paragraphs, written in clear, child-friendly language to describe the moon’s phases and tidal effects, theories about how the moon was formed, and more. There is a brief glossary, as well as suggestions for further reading.

This book is a must-have for any PreK or early elementary classroom. The spare, poetic text is a perfect mentor for children’s writing, and the factual portions of the book will generate many questions. A comprehensive Educators Guide is available here, and a treasure-trove of other goodies can be found hereIf You Were the Moon will spark the imaginations of all who read it.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, MelanieLisa and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts. Also, please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: Reading Resolutions


“Outgrow yourself as a reader.”
~ Lucy Calkins ~

Last January, a colleague and I decided to challenge our students to make Reading Resolutions. A few other teachers in our building adopted our idea. Although I don’t have statistics about our outcomes, getting kids to talk about and read books they wouldn’t have otherwise considered can be counted as a success. (By the way, I finished the Very Famous Book last February.)

We are making Reading Resolutions again this year. Here are our suggested reading resolutions for 2017, adapted from Scholastic’s “100 New Year’s Reading Resolutions”.


We’re encouraging kids to pick books from at least two categories, but there are so many books I want to read, I didn’t have any trouble choosing a book for each category.

  • A book written by someone from Connecticut–Connecticut author and poet Leslie Bulion’s The Universe of Fair (Peachtree, 2012)—Leslie visited our school last fall and gave us a copy of this book, which was inspired by the Durham Fair. Other teachers have read it to their students, but I haven’t gotten ahold of it yet.

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  • Best friend’s favorite book— This was hard. My dearest friend and I read many of the same books, and I’ve already read her very favorite book, Little Women. While we were talking about something else, she mentioned The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, by Paul Gallico. Anything about World War II is always interesting to me, so this was an easy choice.
  • A book of poetry/novel in verse—I will probably read dozens of books in this category this year. I finished Jeannine Atkins lovely Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science yesterday, and have One Last Word (Bloomsbury, 2017), by Nikki Grimes on my desk. Maybe I should modify this to be one book from this category every week.
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  • A book set in a country where I do not live—There are so many possibilities for this category. I haven’t read Symphony for the City of the Dead, (Candlewick, 2015) M.T. Anderson’s book about Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Given my penchant for books about WWII, this seems like a good choice.
  • A book published the year I was born—Somehow I never read The Cricket in Times Square, written by George Selden and illustrated by Garth Williams, even though I still have the copy I bought at the book fair when I was in 4th grade!

  • A graphic novel or comic book—Another category with so many worthy choices. I love Matt Phelan’s work, and his reimagining of Snow White (Candlewick, 2016) set in Manhattan during the Depression intrigues me.
  • A nonfiction book about a topic I know nothing about—Last summer I heard Ed Yong speak about his book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Ecco, 2016). I read about half the book in August, but was distracted once school started. I resolve to get back to it and finish it.
  • Newbery Award or honor book—I’ve read all the recent medal winners, but there are many honor books I’d like to read. I will definitely read whatever wins this year if I haven’t already. Stay tuned.
  • A book written this year—As I skimmed through the January/February issue of The Horn Book, I quickly came up with at least half a dozen titles for this category. I want to read Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d  (Candlewick) by Mary Losure, coming out in Feburary. Then there’s Rachel Vail’s Well, That Was Awkward (Viking), or Me and Marvin Gardens (Levine/Scholastic), which are both also out in February.
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  • A book in a genre I’ve never read before—How about a genre I don’t like? Horror is probably my least favorite genre, but I don’t read too much science fiction either. I have an ARC of Fuzzy, by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger, so for now, that’s my choice.

What books are you resolving to read this year? Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: Celebrating Friendship


At the risk of being late to the party for these books about love and kindness, I want to share them here because, let’s face it, the world needs all love and kindness we can give.

Last August I had a terrible time choosing a theme for my Picture Book 10 for 10 list. I had two or three ideas, and over thirty books to choose from. One that didn’t make my list of books that feed our imaginations was Best Frints in the Whole Universe (Roaring Brook Press) by Antoinette Portis. This book is on Betsy Bird’s list of “The Best Picture Books of 2016” and was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book of 2016. Last summer their reviewer called it “cosmically delightful” and I whole-heartedly agree.


“Yelfred and Omek have been best frints since they were little blobbies.” But, as anyone who’s ever had a best frint knows, the course of true friendship, like love, never does run smooth. Of course Yelfred and Omek work out their difficulties and discover that “best frints are the best thing of all.”

Portis’s joyfully wacky planet Boborp language will entertain all PreK-first grade readers, but why should they have all the fun? I’d share this book with second grade and beyond both for pure enjoyment and for the theme.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love (Schwartz & Wade, 2016) by Michelle Edwards and illustrated by G. Brian Karas stole my heart. This book is also on Betsy Bird’s list, and I would have included this on the list of knitting books I shared early in December, except I hadn’t read it yet. Mrs. Goldman knits hats for “the tiniest babies” and  “Hats for small, medium, and large friends and neighbors.” Her young friend Sophia makes pom-poms for all of these hats. One day, while they’re walking Mrs. Goldman’s dog, Sophia notices and worries about Mrs. Goldman’s bare head. She decides to “make Mrs. Goldman the most special hat in the world.” What follows is as much a story of perseverance and inspiration as it about love and friendship.


This story of intergenerational friendship reminded me of Eileen Spinelli’s Sophie’s Masterpiece and A Gift for Tia Rosa, by Karen T. Taha. Be warned that reading Edwards’s heartwarming tale may inspire young knitters to try their hand at creating their own “Sophia Hat”. Thankfully, Edwards and knitter Theresa Gaffney have teamed up to design a pattern that novice knitters should be able to knit without too much trouble.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: Spreading Love & Warmth


The arrival of a new baby brings joy and always inspires me to break out my knitting needles. So it was this past weekend when my niece and her husband welcomed their third child, Vera. As I was putting the finishing touches on a frilly hat, I began thinking about picture books that spread the happiness a hand-knit gift brings.

Shall I Knit You a Hat (Macmillan, 2004) by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise begins with Mother Rabbit hearing the news of “a blizzard moving this way.” She immediately knits a hat to keep Little Rabbit’s ears warm. Kind-hearted Little Rabbit loves his hat so much he asks Mother Rabbit to make hats for all their friends.


The theme of spreading love and warmth through hand-knitted hats is extended to sweaters for all, including animals, houses, and trees, in Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn (Blazer + Bray, 2012). Hidden in the simplicity of this Caldecott Honor book, illustrated by Jon Klassen, are deep ideas about generosity and the true worth of a loving spirit.


Much to the dismay of his captain, Ned, the Knitting Pirate, by Diana Murray and illustrated by Leslie Lammle (Macmillan, 2016), loves to knit. But when an sea monster attacks their ship, Ned’s hand-knit “blanket with the jolly roger crest” comforts the angry beast and saves the day.


These books share a sense of love and comfort that we sorely need right now. They are perfect read-alouds for inspiring generosity in young children.

My knitting also inspired this #haikuforhealing, part of Mary Lee Hahn’s December haiku project.

loops of spun softness
slip off quicksilver needles
cozy hat blossoms

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: “Before Morning”


Samuel Taylor Coleridge once reminded “clever young poets” that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” Joyce Sidman’s poetry embodies this advice. In her latest book, Before Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Sidman has chosen just sixty-six words and crafted them into a lyrical incantation full of love and longing.


A hallmark of Sidman’s poetry is her unexpected metaphors and images, and Before Morning is true to form. We’re instantly lured into “the deep woolen dark” where “the earth turns to sugar/and all that is heavy/turns light.”  A deceptively simple rhyme scheme is almost “hidden from sight,” but adds to this book’s rhythm and beauty.

Beth Krommes‘s scratchboard and watercolor illustrations give a marvelous depth to Sidman’s poem and resonate in unexpected ways. Sidman herself has said that the illustrations were “a complete surprise.” Krommes, who has illustrated two of Joyce’s earlier books, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) and Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), provides a setting that is instantly recognizable to readers: the hustle and bustle of daily life. Children will want to pore over the details of this family’s life and will find surprises on every page.

In her author’s note, Joyce explains that Before Morning is “an invocation—a poem that invites something to happen.” She goes on to encourage readers to think about their own wishes and find the best words for them.

I tried to find the best words I could to express how much I love this book. My wish is for Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes to continue collaborating and creating stunning picture books like Before Morning.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: “Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet


The miracle of a book is a mystery to children. They wonder where books come from. They think authors are, as E.B. White put it, “mythical being[s].” To children, books seem to be conjured out of thin air. Which, in a sense, like a spider’s web itself, they are.

In Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Melissa Sweet has woven a miraculous, magical book that peels back a layer of this mystery to reveal the very human side of one of our most mythical authors, E.B. White.


Sweet’s inviting prose and inventive artwork immediately draw readers into White’s world. The illustrations are a hybrid of photos, collage, and watercolors. Sepia-toned photographs of White with his father and brother in Maine are followed by one of Sweet’s appealing watercolors. White’s own description of the scene, from his 1940 essay, “A Boy I Knew,” is typed out on vintage paper using a manual typewriter, serves as a caption. The effect is beguiling. I wanted to be sitting there “at the water’s edge [on] a granite rock upholstered in lichen.”


Drawing extensively on White’s letters and essays, Sweet takes readers from White’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York to his death in Maine eighty-six years later. As a boy, he was surrounded by words and discovered at an early age that writing helped him “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts.” Keeping her text focused on how early events in White’s life impacted his development as a writer and his future work, Sweet helps readers see the roots of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his life and his early writings.

White’s early poems and stories were published in St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. Sweet includes copies of these, giving the book the intimate feel of a scrapbook of a beloved relative. Readers will want to savor every page. Glimpses of White’s masterpieces for children are found throughout his life. Sweet writes about White’s time as a camp counselor at Camp Otter in Canada, and we learn about his road trip across the country in a Model T after graduating from Cornell.

Each major work, as well as The Elements of Style, is given its own chapter. We learn of the difficulties White had finishing Stuart Little, the criticism it received from librarians, and the love lavished on it by children. Sweet describes in detail how White’s farm in Maine, his doomed pig, and a spider’s egg sac coalesced into Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s description, drawing on White’s own words, of how the opening scene of this book evolved is a master class in revision. As every writer knows, “revising is part of writing.” These scenes show how the fantastical elements of White’s fiction are grounded in the real world. As White replied to one of his critics, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”

No detail in the design of Some Writer is ignored: chapter numbers are old typewriter keys, old-fashioned labels are used for page numbers and to identify the essay or letter of White’s that is being quoted. Sweet’s collages are perfect mentor texts for creative ways to convey information.


The publisher lists the age range as 7-10, but middle school readers will also find plenty to be inspired by in this book. All readers and writers have much to learn from E.B. White’s quiet wisdom about writing and life. Interested readers will want to explore the extensive endnotes and bibliography of White’s own work, as well as works written about him. There is a touching afterword by White’s granddaughter, Martha, and notes from Melissa Sweet about her writing process and her art.

Sweet writes with the economy White advocates in The Elements of Style. “Every word tell[s]” a key part of White’s story. She blends her words and her art with White’s words and demystifies the process of becoming a writer… “through hard work and being open to the world around you.”

After White’s death, Roger Angell, William Shawn, and John Updike wrote in his obituary, “White felt it was a writer’s obligation to transmit as best he can his love of life, his appreciation for the natural world.” Sweet’s love of and appreciation of E.B.White, his work, and the natural world shine out from every page of Some Writer. In her author’s note, Sweet quotes White, saying “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable…[But] a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” Like Charlotte’s Web itself, Sweet’s “stunt” is nothing short of a miracle.


Review copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An Educator’s Guide for Some Writer is available here.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: “Full of Beans”


In a note to readers, Jenni Holm explains that when her son was old enough to read Turtle in Paradise (Random House, 2010), “he wanted to know more about Turtle’s sharp-tongued cousin Beans.” He told her, “Beans needs his own story.”

Thankfully, Jenni Holm agreed and has served up Full of Beans (Random House, 2016), a rich, rewarding novel for middle-graders that grapples with hard questions about right and wrong.


Beans Curry’s authentic voice leaps off the page from the first sentence: “Look here, Mac. I’m gonna give it to you straight: grown-ups lie.” It is 1934 and the Depression has hit Key West hard. Work is scarce, and Beans is doing everything he can to help his family survive. After he and his younger brother, Kermit, are cheated out of money for cans they’ve collected, Beans can’t resist the lure of a job from Johnny Cakes, Key West’s resident gangster.

But even though he tries to hide the fact, Beans is really “a good boy.” Whether he’s helping his mother deliver the laundry she takes in or watching his kid brothers, everyone knows they can count on Beans. So when his work for Johnny causes harm to his friend Pork Chop’s family, Beans feels “like a criminal.” Desperate to redeem himself, Beans learns some hard lessons about telling the truth, being a friend, and doing the right thing.

Holm does a masterful job of bring Key West of the 1930s to life. Local and historical details are expertly woven into Full of Beans. There are references to the Depression, WPA artists painting tourism posters, even Key West’s “resident writer.”

Along with Turtle in ParadiseFull of Beans is a great book club choice for 4th, 5th, or 6th graders studying theme, character, or author’s craft. It’s also a great choice to read for fun. And because Full of Beans is a prequel to Turtle in Paradise, you don’t have to read Turtle’s story first.

Full of Beans is full of humor, full of hope, and, most importantly, full of heart. Beans Curry is a character you won’t soon forget. And that’s no lie.

"By the Ocean, Key West" by A. Johnson, WPA artist, via Key West Art & Historical Society
“By the Ocean, Key West” by A. Johnson, WPA artist, via Key West Art & Historical Society

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

IMWAYR: Tallulah’s Tutu & More


When I was eight, I began ballet lessons. I had been dancing around the living room for years, and I think my mother thought it would be easier on the furniture. (The arms of our sofa made excellent alps when the Von Trapp family had to flee the Nazis in The Sound of Music.) I did love the leotards, especially the ones with satiny fronts that we wore for our recitals, but I didn’t love the disciplined practice. I was also a bit of a klutz.

Tallulah, a budding ballerina who is the star of five picture books by Marilyn Singer, is not a klutz and she does love to practice. From the moment we meet Tallulah, in Tallulah’s Tutu (Clarion Books, 2011), we know that she is going to be “a great ballerina.”

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Tallulah’s enthusiasm is irrepressible and shines through in Alexandra Boiger’s watercolors. Tallulah doesn’t understand, though, why she doesn’t get a tutu when she begins her lessons. When her teacher explains that “it takes time and a lot of practice to earn your tutu,” her disappointment causes her to have a tantrum and she gives up ballet. But she really does love ballet. She dances around the neighborhood and through the supermarket. Eventually, Tallulah returns to her lessons and earns her tutu.

In a previous post, I’ve written about A Mindset for Learning (Heinemann, 2015) by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz. Throughout her five adventures, Tallulah exhibits all the characteristics of a person with “a mindset for learning.” Although Tallulah suffers disappointments in each book, her optimism and persistence always pay off in the end.  She demonstrates resilience and flexibility as she faces challenges. Also, Tallulah learns much from those around her who show her empathy when she feels most defeated.

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Tallulah may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but she was exactly what I needed to lure one of my students, a young ballerina who hated to read with a very fixed minset, into the world of books. We have talked about how Tallulah responds to the problems she’s faced with and how we can learn from Tallulah’s resilience and flexibility. While I still have a way to go with this student, I’ve earned her trust by sharing Tallulah’s stories with her and she’s making progress. We sometimes return to these stories if she needs a break or is having a particularly bad day. After all, it’s hard not to feel better after spending time with Tallulah.

You can learn more about Tallulah and her adventures here. Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers to find out what others are reading.