#PB10for10: Picture Books and Environmental Awareness

“To describe the world more fully is to change it.
To let the world go undescribed is, in some way, not to know it, at one’s peril.”
~ Elif Batuman ~

I know. It’s August 12th. The tardiness of this post is due entirely to Tropical Storm Isaias and the havoc it wrecked on the power grid here in western Connecticut. Thank you for your patience, and thank you, as always, to Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek for creating and curating this celebration of picture books. Please be sure to visit Mandy’s blog, Enjoy and Embrace Learning to read all the lists contributed to this labor of love. It is teachers like them, and others in this community, who will keep the gift of stories alive for years to come.

Like many of you, I have watched the events of the past several months in shock. There are days when I can’t bear to listen to the news, afraid of whatever fresh horror has unfolded overnight. There are other days when I read voraciously, looking for answers, solutions, actions I can take that will make a difference. But honestly, most days I feel quite helpless. 

But deep in my heart I know the best action I can take is to educate my students. There have been so many important #BLM lists shared already this summer about picture books, chapter books, YA books and more, I knew I couldn’t add to or improve any of those. So I decided to take a different approach. One aspect of our current crisis is the environment. There are researchers who believe one reason the novel coronavirus made the leap from animals to humans is because of habitat loss. There have also been numerous reports about how environmental disasters disproportionately affect BIPOC communities.

In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell states that “Simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.” Caring begins with attention. People don’t, indeed can’t, care about something they have no knowledge of. So I decided to build my list around the environment, because, ultimately, the fate of Black lives, Latinx lives, Indiginous lives, all lives, are inextricably intertwined with the fate of our planet. 

Because of Covid, I experienced most of these books online, through read-alouds graciously permitted by publishers this spring. I look forward to soon being able to hold these books in my hands and share the beauty of these “descriptions of the world” with my students. 

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret, written by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books, 2020)


If You Come to Earth, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Chronicle Books, Sept. 15, 2020)

We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (Macmillin Publishers, 2020)


Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann (Neal Porter Books, 2020)

Most of the Better Natural Things in the World, by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Angel Chang (Chronicle Books, 2019)


Green on Green, written by Dianne White, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Beach Lane Books, 2020)

A New Green Day, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis (Neal Porter Books, 2020)


Outside In, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Cindy Derby (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2020)

My Friend Earth, by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Francesca Sanna (Chronicle Books, 2020)


Over and Under the Rainforest, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, 2020)

My previous #PB 10 for 10 posts:

2019: Follow Your Heart

2018: Creative Imaginations

2017: Celebrating Nature

2016: Feeding Our Imaginations

2015: Poetry Picture Books

2014: Friendship Favorites

2013: Jane Yolen Picture Books

2012: Wordless Picture Books





Poetry Friday: My Great Escape

This draft is my response to the Teachers Write mini lesson that Kate Messner posted on Monday.  In it, she asked writers to consider “how might different elements of [a] story look different to different characters?”

To inspire us, Kate shared the story of a king cobra that escaped from a Florida home a few years ago. Despite my irrational fear of snakes, I knew I wanted to write from the cobra’s perspective.

Kate’s new novel, Breakout, is a fictional version of the real-life drama of two inmates escaping from a prison near her home in upstate New York. Three characters tell the story from different points of view, giving readers a more complete picture of events. One character, Lizzie, often manages to find humor in this serious situation. The article about the escaped snake also included humorous Twitter and Facebook posts people wrote at the time, imagining where in the world the snake might be. But I found nothing humorous about the situation. I felt sorry for the poor woman who found the snake, and I really felt sorry for the snake. 

My Great Escape

Stolen from my jungle home,
stuffed into a barren box:
no royal treatment for me.
My days were spent in misery.

Desperate to stretch,
uncoil my sleek brown body
I watched for my chance,
bolted from that ranch.

I slithered through suburbia,
searching for a place to settle:
a bamboo thicket or a fallen tree
where I would be free.

But my dream was not to be…

I was found behind a dryer.
Hissing, hood flared in warning,
I rose up as if on a throne:
Leave me alone!

I put up quite a fight
before Animal Control officers
caught me, ended my spree
and returned me to captivity.

draft © Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Poetry for Children, where Sylvia Vardell has some exciting news and the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Slice of Life: Wonder Poems

                     11454297503_e27946e4ff_h   new-teachers-write-2015

For the fourth summer in a row, Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles, and Jen Vincent are hosting Teachers Write!, a wonderful online summer writing camp. What began as the result of a comment during a Twitter chat has grown into a huge community and even inspired a book, 59 Reasons to Write (Stenhouse, 2015).

Yesterday, Kate kicked off the 2015 season with an invitation to wonder. Kate writes that wondering is where authentic writing starts, that “Wonder is essential for writers, but sometimes, we don’t leave time for it in our daily task-finishing, dinner-making, laundry-sorting lives.” Unfortunately, this is often true in our classrooms, too.

I usually make time for wondering during my drive to work and when I’m walking my dog, so it didn’t take me long to come up with a list, which soon morphed into a poem:

What wonders does the world behold?
a chirping robin greeting the dawn
a mighty river carving stone
a million stars shining in the sky above
the ringing of a telephone
the warmth of your hand in mine
finding a friend in the pages of a book.

Not sure what I would do with this list, I went about my morning. Within an hour, I heard a story on NPR about the NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Of course I started wondering what discoveries will be made about this most-mysterious non-planet. The similarities between the word “planet” and “Pluto” popped out at me, and I started thinking about how to work this into a poem.

J. Patrick Lewis says that in poetry, like architecture, “form follows function.” My work-in-progress has me thinking a lot about poetic forms. Lately, I’ve been working on a diamante (Which J. Patrick Lewis doesn’t consider a true verse form; read why here.) because it seemed like the form might help me accomplish my purpose for writing. This form also seemed like it might work for a planet/Pluto poem. Here’s a draft:

celestial, spherical
orbiting, rotating, reflecting
rock, solar system, outcast
freezing, wandering, eluding
distant, mysterious

While there are parts of this I like, I wasn’t thrilled with it. Still wondering, I did a little research. Tricia Stohr-Hunt’s blog, The Miss Rumphius Effect is a treasure-trove of poetic resources, so I checked her site for more information. Coincidentally, Tricia’s post yesterday was about cinquains, another short form with a strict pattern. So I decided to try the Pluto poem as a cinquain.

rocky mystery
wandering at the edge
of our solar system; outcast:

I’m still pondering this one, but playing around with different forms was fun. It also helped me see a new possibility for a poem that’s been challenging to write. In addition, a few implications for teaching became clear as I was writing.

Asking a child, “What are you wondering about?” is such simple act, yet how often do teachers do it? What a gift it would be to ask our students this fundamental question each morning! What a list kids would generate! If we did this, then all the moaning about not knowing what to write about or groaning about making revisions might fall by the wayside. When you’re truly invested in what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work. And who knows where their questions will lead? 

Thank you Kate, and everyone at Teachers Write! for the inspiration, and thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Compost, Worms, & Chickens


Without trying to be thematic, I read three books this weekend that all related to taking better care of the Earth and all the creatures we share our planet with.


Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals (Tricycle Press, 2010; illustrated by Ashley Wolff) is a clever rhyming alphabet book that explains how and what to compost, as well as why composting is important. Ashley Wolff’s collage illustrations are a study in recycling themselves. The main character’s apron is made out of pages from the Farmer’s Almanac, beautiful papers are used for goose feathers, and found objects add depth to every page.

Years ago, we made composting columns out of soda bottles so kids could observe this process. This was a great project, although some kids were grossed our by the worms! Now, I would add a writing component to this unit, using the experience to model writing a how-to book. Instructions for how to construct these columns can be found here: http://www.learner.org/courses/essential/life/bottlebio/ecocol/build.html Marty McGuire Digs Worms by Kate Messner (Scholastic Press, 2012; illustrated by Brian Floca) is a natural read aloud choice for a unit like this.


Denise Fleming is a favorite of early-childhood teachers everywhere. In underGround (Beach Lane Books, 2012), Fleming has created cut-away illustrations of the ground beneath our feet using pulp painting, “a papermaking technique using colored cotton fiber poured through hand-cut stencils.” (from a note included on copyright page) Animals, plants, rocks, and minerals are all shown with details sure to fascinate the youngest naturalists. Humorous touches are everywhere, making the book a kind of I-spy of buried treasures.  Two pages of facts about the critters who inhabit the book supplement the simple rhyming text.


City Chickens (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012), by Christine Heppermann, is a non-fiction book for kids in second grade and up about Chicken Run Rescue, a shelter for rescued hens and roosters in Minneapolis. Heppermann includes a wealth of information about Mary and Bert Clouse’s efforts to care and find new homes for abandoned chickens. The reasons such a shelter is needed are explained, as is the responsibility of caring for these birds. You will have a different view of them after reading this book and seeing Heppermann’s gorgeous photographs. Notes include information for educators and a source list. This book could be used as a springboard for opinion writing about keeping chickens as pets. Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project has a digital text set of additional resources on pets in the classroom here. More information about City Chickens is available on this website.

I grew up across the street from a working dairy farm. The rhythms of the farm were the rhythms of life. It makes me sad to know so many children are only able to experience nature from a distance, but these books will ignite the curiosity of children about the wonders that surround them.

Be sure 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!


Image       Image

Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” advises that we should “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

I thought of this when I read today’s quick-write on Kate Messner’s Teacher’s Write blog post. I’m often astonished by the beauty of the fields around my house, especially in summer. I’ve written about this in my journals over the years, and Kate’s post inspired me to turn these observations into a poem.

Sometimes, on a summer morning

Grandpa Stuart’s fields are touched

by the rays of the rising sun

so just the top of the grasses

glow in the yellow light.

Goldfinches perch on purple thistles,

breakfasting on seeds.

Sometimes, a deer wanders into the field,

interrupting their feast.

Startled, they rise as one

into the air, darting and diving,

chittering as they fly

before settling down

to the business at hand:

harvesting the glorious sunshine

captured in those thistles.

One of Grandpa Stuart’s fields at sunset. It was hayed this week, so there are no thistles.

What astonished you today?

This post is doing double duty for today’s Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers. Thank you, as always, to Stacey and Ruth for hosting!

Time for Teachers Write!


I’ve been largely absent from Twitter and blogging for the past week or so. The swirl of end-of-the-year activities and responsibilities, plus helping my niece get ready for a bridal shower she hosted on Saturday, demanded my full attention. But today is the last official teacher day (kids finished last Friday) and it’s the first day of Teachers Write, a fabulous online summer writing camp for teachers and librarians hosted by Kate Messner and friends. So it seems appropriate to kick off this summer of writing by setting some goals. Goals and objectives are nothing new in education, but lately it seems like they’re the new black.

Last summer I followed the posts and prompts at Teachers Write and I did a fair amount of writing in my journals.  But I didn’t share a lot online. This year, I hope to share more of my writing here. Notice I said hope. I am my own worst critic. I want my writing to be perfect the first time I write it. I know this never happens. I’ve read countless writing books and interviews with authors reassuring fledgling writers that first drafts are always terrible. I also know that I am not the only person who feels this way, as many of the comments on the Teachers Write Facebook page say pretty much the same thing. Allowing myself to just write is something I’ve gotten better at, but I still have a long way to go.

While I’m posting some of this writing, I’d like to improve my blogging skills. After a year and a half, there are still some technical details related to my blog that I’d like to master. A friend told me to move my picture to the top of the page, but I have no idea how to do this. Sometimes a picture stays where it landed because I can’t figure out how to move it.

Another goal I have is to keep a regular writing schedule. This has gotten easier for me over the past few months. Participating in the March Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers really helped me with this. There are days, however, when life intervenes and not a word is written.

And that brings me to my final goal: Not to worry. If I don’t I polish up that picture book draft from 2004 or turn it into an early chapter book, it will be waiting for me next year. If I don’t post some writing one day, I will the next. Any writing I do is an accomplishment.  Going through this process helps me clarify my thinking. It also provides me with tips and tools to share with my students when they are stuck. Most importantly, being a writer makes me more empathetic to my students as they struggle to find an idea, a word, a voice.

Dr. Thomas McMorran, Connecticut’s Principal of the Year for 2012, was the speaker at my school’s Eighth Grade Graduation last Friday evening. His speech was witty, down-to-earth, and full of wisdom. He stressed the importance of caring for one another and being fully present in our daily lives. McMorran urged everyone to “Be here, right now.” This summer, I hope to do just that: to be here, with all of you, writing and learning together.

A huge thank you to Kate and all the authors who will be participating in Teachers Write this summer!

Reflections on One Year of Blogging


Today is Reading to the Core’s first birthday! Although my posts have been sporadic at best, I’ve learned a lot over the past year. Since birthdays and anniversaries are always a good time to look back and reflect, here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on becoming a blogger.

The blogosphere is filled with friendly, supportive and generous people. While this may not be true of all corners of cyberspace, this describes the kidlitosphere in spades. I’ve been inspired by you all! Kate Messner’s Teacher’s Write summer camp prodded me to write more. While not everything I wrote in response to her prompts ended up here (trust me, that’s a good thing!), she and all the writers who joined in encouraged me to stretch myself and take risks. Thanks, Kate!

It’s Monday, What Are Your Reading (Book Journey), Tuesday’s Slice of Life (Two Writing Teachers) and Poetry Friday (various hosts, but you can always find the line up at A Year of Reading) have also been especially motivating. Thank you to all you equally busy bloggers who’ve found your way here via one of these memes.

I’m also thankful for the kind words people have left in their comments. I especially appreciate my loyal commenters Colette, Betsy, and Elizabeth. Some people may despair that the internet is changing the world as we know it, but I am incredibly grateful that it allows me to connect with faraway friends so easily.

One of the most eye-opening realizations I’ve had from blogging is just how difficult it is to sit down and compose a half-way intelligible piece of writing. Not one of these posts has been completed in less than an hour, and they have usually been rolling around in my head for a day or two before I begin writing. Why we think our students should be able to sit down and hammer out a fluent story or essay in 45 minutes is beyond me. They should have at least an hour! Seriously, without regular, sustained writing practice, it simply isn’t fair to subject our students to the kind of writing assessments that dominate today’s instructional landscape. As a result of this insight, I have been more mindful of my own writing instruction and my support of teachers implementing writing workshop this year.

Over the next year I’m really going to make a concerted effort to post at least once a week. I have lots left to say about books, teaching, and life in general. Which brings me to the name of this blog. In one sense, the “Core” of the title refers to the Common Core. I think about the implications of the CCSS on instruction almost all the time. (Sad, I know.) And yet, much of what I wrote about over the past year had nothing to do with these standards. They were more about what’s at the core of me: curiosity about the world around us and a passion to help all kids find their own true self, to find their own true core.