Slice of Life: Books Worth Rereading


One of my favorite features of The New York Times Book Review is the “Bookends” column. Every week, two authors (from a group 15 journalists and novelists) “take on questions about the world of books.” These questions are varied and wide-ranging. Recent columns have addressed everything from “Why Do We Hate Cliché?” to “Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?”  I’ve been thinking about this week’s question, “which books do you read over and over again?” since I finished reading the column.

I was not a voracious reader as a kid. I did read and love Charlotte’s Web and James and the Giant Peach, and I’m sure I reread them. But I don’t remember reading them to the point where I had passages memorized or the books fell apart. Columnist Dana Stevens clarifies this distinction in her response to “which books do you read over and over again?” when she says “there’s rereading a book, and then there’s inhabiting it as an alternate reality…”

This is where the power of reading lies. It’s through this habitation that we truly begin to, as Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton suggest in their book What Readers Really Do, “think about how those lessons and ideas might impact and inform our own lives.” (p.183) While we do have these kind of transformational encounters with books as adults, it is the books we read as children that often have the largest impact on our lives.

But I don’t think this kind of habitation necessarily happens without help. Many kids do find that life-changing book on their own, but more often, they need our help and guidance. In order to help with this, we need to know books and our students. We need to foster the kind of interactions with books that, as Dorothy and Vicki also state, “gives us an opportunity to give voice to the way that text let us feel validated and less alone. And naming that for children allows them to go forth with more awareness of the role books can play in their lives.” (p. 180)

The list of books with the power to change lives is as long and varied as children themselves. But there are a number of books that turn up again and again on lists of transformational books. I would include anything by Kate DiCamillo on such a list, although The Tale of Despereaux and The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses are my favorites. Pam Muñoz Ryan, Christopher Paul Curtis, Sharon Creech, and Jack Gantos all have written books that have the power to change young readers lives. And this year’s Newbery Medal winner,The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander is the latest wonderful addition to this list.

In her Newbery Acceptance speech for The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo explained that everyone involved in making books for children has “been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world.”

Books that do that are books worth rereading.

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.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


Leroy Ninker Saddles Up (Candlewick Press, 2014) by Kate DiCamillo

Mercy Watson was a staple in my first grade classroom, so I was excited to learn that Leroy Ninker was back with his own adventure. Leroy has repented his thieving ways is now a man with a dream. Inspired by the westerns he watches while working at the Bijou Drive-In Theater, he dreams of being a cowboy. The Bijou’s ticket seller, Beatrice Leapaleoni, encourages Leroy to follow that dream. She urges him to wrestle fate to the ground and get himself a horse.

Leroy does just that. He meets Maybelline, a big horse with a loud whinny, and it’s love at first sight. Silliness ensues, but as in all Kate DiCamillo stories, love overcomes all obstacles. Leroy and Maybelline even end up on Deckawoo Drive for breakfast with Mercy Watson. On the menu? Hot buttered toast, of course.

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up is a perfect read aloud for first or second grade. Mercy Watson fans will enjoy reading Leroy’s adventure with Maybelline on their own. This book is filled with sage advice (“Be a straightforward communicator,” Patty LeMarque tells Leroy.) and self-discovery (Leroy “never imagined he could string so many words together at once.”) But most of all it is a book filled with love, “word after beautiful word…”  

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Somehow I missed the debut of You Are (Not) Small (Two Lions, 2014) by Anna Kang and illustrated by Christopher Weyant, last summer. Thankfully, it won the Geisel Award last Monday, so when I saw it at the library over the weekend, I recognized it and brought it home.

Using just a handful of words, Kang’s text and Weyant’s illustrations work together to convey important lessons on differences and perspective. These concepts work on many levels, giving this book wide appeal. Younger readers will easily understand the literal meaning of these differences, and older readers will be able to infer a deeper meaning. Everyone will love that when the characters finally do find common ground, they celebrate by sharing a meal. After all, everyone loves to eat!

In classic picture book fashion, the final page presents a new possibility, opening the door for children to create their own You Are (Not)… story.

Don’t forget to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

Slice of Life: Read Alouds for Everyone


Last night’s #readingjoy Twitter chat, led by Jennifer Seravallo, got me thinking about read alouds. Much has been written about the importance of parents reading aloud to children from the very start and making read alouds part of every classroom routine. I agree with every bit of this advice. I read to my own children from the day we came home from the hospital, and we never skipped read aloud time in my classroom. But I’ve also come to realize the importance of read alouds in my intervention lessons.

I left the classroom seven years ago to become our school’s literacy specialist. Because I work in a small district, this role includes many duties. One of these is working with tier 3 students. The children I work with are our youngest, most at-risk students who are typically non-readers when we begin working together. One of the biggest challenges they face is understanding why they should bother with reading at all. Usually this is because reading isn’t a priority at home. I meet with their parents to discuss the importance of reading to and with their children. I also give them pamphlets and links to websites with tips and information about how to make reading part of their routine at home. I send books home that children can keep. And yet, they still don’t read at home.

By the time these children arrive in my room, they’re convinced that I’m going to torture them. So I start by chatting with them about their pets, hobbies, and places they like to visit, just to break the ice. Once they are comfortable, I start asking about favorite books or subjects. Then I bring out my secret weapon. A book. I offer it as something I like, not as something I think they should like. Usually they ask for their own copy by the end of the week.


One of my first students was a first grade boy with a host of issues. (He was diagnosed with Autism during the time I worked with him.) He had no interest in anything other than Legos and hated school because he had to leave his Legos at home. He knew most of the letters and sounds, but didn’t know how to pull them apart or put them together to make words. For some reason, he took a shine to Emily Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear (Simon & Schuster, 2007). I must have read that book to him a hundred times. Soon, he was reading it with me. And before long, he was reading lots of other books, too.


Another boy was adamant that he hated letters and wouldn’t learn to read. I told him that was his choice but that I was going to read to him. His “breakthrough book” was in fact a poem from Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peter’s excellent collection Here’s a Little Poem: A First Book of Poetry (Candlewick, 2007). Peter’s own poem, “The No-No Bird,” introduced this child to a boy who liked the word “no” as much as he did. Maybe it was this flash of recognition that finally brought him around. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he could read the word “no.”


Last year I had a student who was so shy and quiet he barely spoke above a whisper. To break the ice, I began reading Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson to the Rescue (Candlewick, 2005). He loved Mercy and her silly antics! Soon he was reading with me, asking questions, and thinking of further adventures for Mercy. Over the course of the year, we read every Mercy Watson book we could get our hands on. My heart was filled with joy at the look on his face when I presented him with his own copy of Mercy Watson at the end of the school year.

Do I know what it was about each of these books that made them the right books for these children? No. What I do know is that each child heard or saw something in them that made him happy. Something in these books helped him feel connected to another person and let him know he wasn’t alone. And that is, after all, why we read.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.










SOLC 2014: Stories, Letters, and Mailing May


Kate DiCamillo, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, claims

“When we read together…we are taken out of our aloneness. Together, we see the world. Together, we see one another. We connect.”

We typically think of stories being in the pages of a book. But they also come in the form of letters. One of my aunts was a great letter writer. This, of course, was pre-email and texting, even before free long distance was ubiquitous. My grandmother always looked forward to her sister’s letters, and she loved sharing them with my mother as soon as they arrived. Thinking of her now, sitting at her kitchen table, reading and commenting on my aunt’s news, has suddenly overwhelmed me with longing.

Charlotte May Pierstorff also longed for her grandmother, who lived “a million miles away through the rough old Idaho mountains.” Her parents had promised her a visit, but when the time came, there was no money for a train ticket.


The solution to May’s problem is told in the 1997 book, Mailing May (Greenwillow), by Michael O. Tunnell and illustrated by Ted Rand. With the help of a cousin who works for the railroad, May’s parents decide to mail her to her grandmother via parcel post. After having fifty-three cents worth of stamps and a mailing label attached to the back of her coat, May boards the train for Lewiston and is off on her adventure.

Tunnell lets May tell her own story, which really conveys May’s excitement about her trip. She describes hanging “on the edge of mountainsides” and crawling “through tunnels.” The story ends with May’s joyous reunion with her grandmother, “with a little help from the U.S. Post Office!”

I knew the minute I read Mailing May that it was perfect for my third grade students. May’s experience was so far removed from anything they could imagine, I wanted to immerse them in this book. We turned it into a springboard for a day’s worth of learning. We discussed the theme of the book, and made personal connections about visiting grandparents far away.

But we also wrote letters to grandparents, even if they lived down the street. We studied a map of Idaho and learned about its geography. In the book, Tunnell describes how the postmaster weighs May, then calculates the cost of mailing her. We were piloting a new math program at the time, and there was a lesson about calculating shipping costs for packages. So I brought in my bathroom scale and weighed each child so they could calculate how much it would cost to ship themselves to Florida (where many grandparents did indeed live).

Each year I looked forward to our Mailing May day. The kids were amazed by May’s story and loved her sense of adventure. And while I can’t say they all loved writing the letters, they all had a new appreciation for our quick and easy communication abilities. More importantly, they also gained an understanding and appreciation of how stories, whether in books or letters, connect us all across distances of space and time.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge and creating this space for us to share our stories. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.