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.

SOL: Knowing and Wondering With Fifth Graders


I’ve been a fan of Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s “Know/Wonder” chart since I first discovered it on Vicki’s blog a few years ago. Since then, I have read and learned much from Vicki and Dorothy’s book, What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann, 2012). If you aren’t familiar with Vicki & Dorothy’s book, a Know/Wonder is a simple tool students use to chart their thinking as they read.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the Educator’s Institute in Rhode Island and hear Vicki speak about comprehension. She focused on ways we can help students think deeply about complex texts independently. I always feel like I gain new understanding when Vicki shares her ideas. She articulates her thinking about reading comprehension in such a way that I say, “Of course!”

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Earlier this week, I took Vicki’s advice and got “kids involved doing the thinking right from the get go.”  After a very brief introduction, I began reading The Fourteenth Goldfish (Random House, 2014), by Jennifer L. Holm, to a group of fifth graders. The first chapter generated a number of unanswered questions. The narrator isn’t named, and there is only one clue as to whether it’s a boy or a girl.  We find out that the goldfish who just died is really goldfish number thirteen. “So why is the book called The Fourteenth Goldfish?they wanted to know. Right away, they were:

  • gathering information
  • asking questions
  • making predictions
  • thinking about the plot—which has to come first in order to be able to problem solve for deeper understanding—both at the inferential level and the thematic level

In Vicki’s words, they were engaged in a “productive struggle” to make sense of this book.

Engagement is key. How often have you shared a book that you absolutely love, only to find that your students don’t love it? We take it personally, right? Vicki reminded us that “kids have to be engaged with their thinking about a book, not our love of it.”

So book choice is important. Vicki suggested that it isn’t Lexile levels that make a text complex; “texts are complex because they interact in unpredictable ways.”

Unpredictable things happen in the first three chapters of The Fourteenth Goldfish, but because students were engaged and were charting their thinking, a chorus of “I KNEW IT” erupted spontaneously at the end of one revealing chapter.

I will be working with these students over the next week or so. We will continue to “pay close attention to the details,” and develop ideas about this book. Once we have done that, we can start the next phase of this work by looking for patterns. Then we can “develop a line of inquiry” from these patterns and follow it as we continue reading.

Vicki ended her talk with a reminder that “kids can notice a lot if we open the door for them to notice.” Who knows where their thinking will lead us?

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.