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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Are We There Yet?

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_27KeyboardMy Texas grandparents  usually made the long drive to Minnesota. But the summer I was thirteen, my parents piled me, my two younger brothers, and a borrowed boy cousin into the old station wagon and headed us south.

I escaped into the far back, propping myself up on suitcases and reading a thousand-page-long Civil War novel called House Divided. The boy’s constant bickering added a backdrop of battleground sound effects.

Did I mention how often we had to turn around and go back somewhere to retrieve my cousin’s forgotten retainer?

“Are we there yet?” That question comes out on every long drive. There’s point where we just want to be DONE with all the traveling. It’s the same with a writing road trip. There’s at least one moment during every one of my writing projects when I think: I’m done. This has to be good enough. The problem is, I’m often nowhere near my destination  when this happens.

To be a writer over the long haul, you have to get back on the road and keep writing despite those moments.  But it helps enormously to change things up somehow—I might alter my writing location by going to a coffee shop, or turn on music (usually  I’m a non-music writer).

Students have this same “I’m done” response after they’ve worked on a long project for a while. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to generate a new burst of enthusiasm in them is to let them switch from writing longhand to keyboarding. Sign up for the computer lab, or let students take turns on a classroom computer. This simple change always fuels new writing energy.

Even on the longest trip, the answer to “Are we there yet?” is eventually, “Yes! We finally made it!”



Middle Kingdom: Nebraska City, Nebraska

Middle Kingdom: Nebraska City, Nebraska

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to Nebraska City Middle School in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where Lisa talks with Media Specialist Alice Harrison.

Lisa: What would you like to tell our readers about your community?

Alice: Nebraska City, Nebraska is home to the national holiday Arbor Day, celebrated every year the last Friday in April. J. Morton Sterling, the founder of Arbor Day, migrated to the Nebraska Territory in 1854, where he later became the Secretary of Nebraska Territory. Sterling saw the agricultural and economical benefits of planting trees, and in 1872 he convinced the Nebraska Board of Agriculture to establish a specific holiday for everyone to join in planting trees. April was chosen to correlate with Sterling’s birthday, and several presidents since then have declared Arbor Day a national holiday on the last Friday in April. Since the first Arbor Day celebration to the present day, Nebraska City has celebrated with a parade down the main street where area middle school and high school bands come to perform. Tree starters are distributed to the attendees, as well as tons of candy!

The abundance of apple trees planted in Nebraska City has led to another celebration—the AppleJack Festival  was established to celebrate the harvesting of all those apples. Taking place the third weekend in September, people come from all over to consume apple pies, apple bread, apple donuts (my favorite!), several varieties of fresh apples, apple jams, and a long list of other apple items, along with participating in other celebratory events.

Lisa: What changes are ahead this year for your school or library/media center?

Alice: Nebraska City Middle School has 325 students, predominately white with a large population of Hispanic students. It is a Title 1 school with 45.8% free and reduced lunch. The district school board passed the implementation of a technology 1:1 initiative, beginning the school year of 2015-16, as a pilot program in the Middle School. All the students, staff, and faculty will have Chromebooks to use (at school only) by checking them in and out of the homerooms or alpha classrooms. Presently, the Middle School is the only school in the district approved to participate in this pilot program. Every classroom teacher will be using Google Classroom (a Google Apps for Education app). The goal is to help teachers save time by organizing lesson plans, incorporating interactive curriculum, allowing for student and teacher collaboration, and providing immediate teacher feedback, along with displaying and accessing class assignments and grades. To incorporate this 1:1 initiative, our IT director is setting up every student with their own personal Gmail account.

To teach digital citizenship and personal responsibility with the Chromebooks, every teacher, including myself, will be teaching and utilizing the Common Sense Media curriculum. I am only a ¼-time Media Specialist at the Middle School (I teach at the elementary school for the other ¾-time), so I am fortunate to have a marvelous full-time assistant in the Middle School library. The first few days of school this coming year, all the students will be attending training sessions taught by the faculty and staff to instruct students in the use and care of Chromebooks. In the past, I have taught 6th grade keyboarding, but to date, I do not know of any plans for keyboarding instruction.

The Nebraska City Middle School band preparing to perform in the Arbor Day parade 2013

The Nebraska City Middle School band preparing to perform in the Arbor Day parade 2013

Lisa: What else will be new for the Middle School library this year?

Alice: I am excitedly anticipating this new school year at the Middle School because this past May I purchased 37 e-books, our first time to acquire this format. The e-books that I purchased were from Follett, but our library automated system is the online, cloud-based version of Library World. Follet sent me detailed instructions as to how to set up the e-books for checkout. The students and faculty will be able to read the e-books on the Chromebooks, but only online. However, they can be accessed on all other devices for online or offline reading. I’m ecstatic!

Sixteen of the e-books are our state award nominees, which are called Golden Sowers . There are a total of 30 books nominated every year for three levels, with 10 nominated in each level: Primary, Intermediate, and Young Adult. And that leads me to how I came to connect with Lisa Bullard, who asked if I would participate in this interview for Bookology—her book Turn Left at the Cow is a Golden Sower nominee for the 2015-16 school year.

Lisa: Alice, the Golden Sower nomination is such a huge honor for me, and I’m so delighted that it brought the two of us together! Can you tell us more about the impact of the Golden Sower titles on your library and student reading?

Alice: Each summer, I try to read as many Golden Sower nominees for the coming school year as I can. READING…my favorite pass-time!

As you can imagine, a major concentration of our promotion at the Middle School library is devoted to the Golden Sower state nominee books. Our literature/reading teachers also heavily promote these in their classrooms. At the end of every school year, the students are awarded certificates for four different levels of completion for reading the Golden Sowers. From these students, three names are drawn for additional prizes.

Some of the Golden Sower nominees are books from a series—then I usually purchase the whole series, because the students are so interested in the nominated books. For example, some of the series with recent Golden Sower nominated-titles are: Richard Paul Evans’ Michael Vey series, the Starters series by Lissa Price, Rob Buyea’s Mr. Terupt titles, the According to Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, and the Legend series by Marie Lu. Two years ago, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, was chosen as a Golden Sower Award winner and our Middle School selected this book as an all-school read.

Lisa: What other books and series have been popular reads in your Middle School?

Nebraska City Middle School

Nebraska City Middle School

Alice: The list includes the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, the Conspiracy 365 series by Gabrielle Lord, the Selection series by Kiera Cass, Erin Hunter’s Warriors series and Seekers series, the Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen, and the Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan. Other popular authors with our middle schoolers are Mike Lupica, Laurie Halse Anderson, Meg Cabot, and Carl Hiaasen.

Lisa: I’m amazed at all you have going on—especially since with your split schedule, you don’t have a lot of time to do it all! Are there any other initiatives you’d like to share?

Alice: In the past year, I have been trying to focus more on our reluctant readers in the Middle School. I’ve been purchasing more nonfiction graphic readers and fiction graphic novels. Also, this new school year I am incorporating a new promotion at the Middle School for the Golden Sowers. I have been making audio and printed text QR codes for each Golden Sower book and printing the book covers to apply them to the covers. I will be displaying them in the Middle School library and hallways. The audio portion features me reading the book’s summary, and the printed portion contains links to book trailers, author websites, and book theme links.


Skinny Dip with Avi

bk_OldWolfWhat keeps you up at night?

Meeting deadlines.

What is your proudest career moment?

When, after fourteen years of trying to write, I published my first book, Things that Sometimes Happen (1970).

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

I don’t know if the game of Squash is part of the Olympics, but if so, that would be it.

bk_ThingsWhat’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

Becoming a step-parent.

What’s the first book you remember reading?

Otto the Giant Dog.

What TV show can’t you turn off?

I don’t turn any show on.



More from the 1950s: Polio

Another threat besides communism terrified people in the 1950s, especially because it primarily affected children: polio. 1952 saw the largest epidemic in US history: 57,879 people contracted polio that summer, and more than 3000 of died. By the end of the decade the disease was nearly eradicated in the US thanks to two forms of vaccines developed by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Here are a few titles that help us understand this part of the recent past.



Chasing Orion

Kathryn Lasky
Candlewick 2012 

From the Newbery Honor author (Sugaring Time). 11 year old Georgie and her family have just moved into a new house. It’s the summer of 1952 and pools, parks, and other gathering spots are closed due to the polio epidemic. Georgie makes friends with the teenage girl next door, Phyllis, who is now in an iron lung as a result of the disease.  Kirkus star.


Epidemic: The Battle Against Polio

Stephanie Draper
Benchmark Books, 2005

Photo illustrated survey of the history of the disease, including a section on the debate over whether FDR’s paralysis was caused by polio or some other disease. Includes timeline of polio-related events.


Fleabrain Loves Franny

Joanne Rocklin
Amulet Books, 2015

Pittsburgh, 1952. 11-year-old Franny has polio and is undergoing extensive therapy. She befriends a genius flea and falls in love with a brand new book, Charlotte’s Web. Includes author’s note, bibliography, and discussion guide. Bank Street College of Education’s “The Best Children’s Books of the Year,” Ages 9-12.


Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Katherine Krohn and Al Milgrom (illus.)
Capstone Press, 2007

A graphic novel that focuses on the efforts to find a vaccine. Back matter includes a condensed history of the disease and biography of Salk. Extensive bibliography. Part of the Inventions and Discoveries Graphic Library series.


King of the Mound (My Summer with Satchel Paige)

Wes Tooke
Simon and Schuster, 2012

When Nick is released from the hospital after suffering from polio, he is sure that his father will never look at him in the same way again. Once the best pitcher in youth league, Nick now walks with a limp and is dependent on a heavy leg brace.  Things look up when he gets to hang out at the local semi-pro ball park, where he meets the great Satchel Paige.


Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

Peg Kehret
Albert Whitman, 2006 anniversary edition

The author of numerous state-award-winning children’s books (including Nightmare Mountain, The Ghost’s Grave, Stolen Children) describes her battle against polio when she was thirteen and her efforts to overcome its debilitating effects. Small Steps has also won many state reader’s choice awards.


Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven

Susan Richards Shreve
Houghton Mifflin, 2007 

Just after her eleventh birthday, at the height of the frightening childhood polio epidemic, the future best-selling author of many books for adults and children (The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, Ghost Cat) was sent as a patient to the sanitarium at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was a place famously founded by FDR, “a perfect setting in time and place and strangeness for a hospital of crippled children.” For older readers and adults.


Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

bk_EnolaStripThe summer’s roadtrip is behind us—a wonderful vacation had by all. We were in two cars this year due to different destinations at the start, but we met up for the second half of the week.

The car my daughter and I drove was equipped with several audiobooks. The boys neglected this detail, probably because they were packing for survival in the wilderness. I have no idea what they listened to while in the car—each other, podcasts, music etc., I guess. We asked the question, but hardly listened, I’m afraid, so eager were we to fill them in on what we had listened to….

…which was a trio of glorious Enola Holmes mysteries! We’d all listened to the first, The Case of the Missing Marquess, a summer or two ago. The kids are huge Sherlock fans, and so these mysteries featuring a much younger sister of that famous detective were a no brainer for a long trip that took us into the mountains. We agreed after that first book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s got nuthin’ on Nancy Springer. And now that some of us have listened to a couple more books of Springer’s series—well, let’s say this: Stand Down, Sherlock. Enola Can Do It All—And In a Corset!

Enola Holmes (please notice what her first name spells backwards) is but fourteen years old and living on her own, having run away from her brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, after her mother ran off on Enola’s fourteenth birthday. And she’s getting along quite well, thank you, without her brilliant (yet terribly chauvinistic/misogynistic) brothers. In each book, Enola is solving a mystery—even overlapping with Sherlock in some cases—and eluding villains, scallywags, and her brothers as the needs arise.

The historic detail is fascinating—especially the detail on the subject of corsets and other “unmentionables.” The corset becomes a symbol of all that Enola (and her mother, for that matter) rejects—namely, the myriad of confines that Victorian society placed on women. But she wears one! Not just any corset, of course. Her scrawny fourteen year old body doesn’t need the “support,” and she flat-out rejects the not-unlike-foot-binding purposes of early corset wearing (these details are harrowing). But as a vehicle—yes, you read right—for her many disguises and tools, her very individually designed corset is an important part of how she makes her way in London as a detective instead of a runaway fourteen year old girl. Enola’s corset offers physical protection and storage—in it she carries a dagger, various disguises, money, clues, bandages, food and supplies—while allowing her to change her shape as needed. Her disguises are as varied as the fascinating characters she meets.

Enola is feisty and outspoken, wicked smart and wise beyond her years. The mysteries she solves are full of intrigue, puzzles, and curious clues. And the audiobooks are performed by none other than Katherine Kellgren, one of our very favorite readers. These stories are wonderful in black and white on the page, but Kellgren brings them to life! As she does in reading the Bloody Jack series, each character receives their own voice. If you read about Kellgren’s preparation you’ll see that she works with dialect coach—I dare say that Professor Henry Higgins would be able to place each character on the very street on which they were born.

Although the mysteries do not have to be read in order, it’s good to read The Case of the Missing Marquess first because it sets up the ungirding mystery of Enola’s mother. Each mystery references previous ones and as we end come closer to the end of the series (I hope more are being written!) that seems to be important, as well.

Read them, listen to them—they’re delightful either way. These receive a hardy recommendation from our house to yours as beautifully spanning a significant sibling age-range in the car. You can’t help but fall into the story. We only made it half-way through the third mystery before we were home, but we’ll start again with our boys on our upcoming road trip. What were we thinking listening to such great books without them?



Skinny Dip with Lynne Jonell

bk_SignCatFavorite holiday tradition?

One of my favorite things ever is when we sit around the table at Thanksgiving and take turns telling what we are particularly thankful for, that year. I get a little choked up, especially when I listen to my sons.

Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s challenge?

I was a teacher’s pet up through sixth grade, and then teacher’s nightmare thereafter. (My ninth grade English teacher hated me so much, she slotted me into the slow class for tenth grade English. I couldn’t figure out why I was in a class with a high proportion of good-looking jocks, but I wasn’t complaining! My mother discovered what had happened in my senior year, but by then it was too late.)

Upon reflection, I think I was probably a fairly challenging teacher’s pet, as well.

What’s the first book report you ever wrote?

bk_WitchFamilyI can’t be absolutely certain, but I think it was The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. Besides the fabulous mix of reality and fantasy, which I have always loved, the great thing about that book was that I discovered it when it was my turn to choose library books for our small in-classroom library. All the other third grade girls loved my choice, and begged to read it after me; and for a week, I was popular!

Do you like to gift wrap presents?

Yes, and I thought I was pretty good at it until we had an all-family Olympics one summer. One of the events was gift-wrapping—blindfolded—and my team put me head-to-head with my older sister, Kathy. Not to put too fine a point on it, she mopped the floor with me.

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year-old self?

In the immortal words of Bob Marley, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.”

What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?

gr_authorsLouisa May Alcott: She captivated me on a family vacation with Little Women. I had already read through the stack of books I’d brought for the car trip, and my mother bought that book for me instead of the comic book I wanted. Though I complained at first, I read the first page—and I was hooked forever.

C.S. Lewis: He pulled me into his magical world of Narnia, with its great themes of good and evil and children whose choices had powerful repercussions, and I only wished he had written a hundred stories for me to devour, instead of just seven.

Madeleine L’Engle: I still remember exactly where I was when I read A Wrinkle in Time in sixth grade, and how I reread the final chapter because I couldn’t bear for it to be over. When I closed the book at last, I knew that what I wanted to do most of all was to write stories like that, for kids like me.

Where’s your favorite place to read?

It depends on the season!

Winter: curled up in bed with my electric blanket on high. Summer: on the back patio, in the wooden swing, with cushions and a tall glass of something cool. And in spring or fall, on a comfortable sagging corner of my favorite couch, next to my grandfather’s old glass-fronted bookcase (which houses my favorite children’s books.)



My Seneca Village

by Marsha Qualey

My Seneca Village
by Marilyn Nelson
Namelos, 2015

My Seneca Village cover

I’m going to begin with a disclaimer that is also a bit o’ bragging. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, Snook Alone, How I Discovered Poetry). I’ve stayed up late and sipped wine and talked with her, spent a day escorting her to school visits where she wowed elementary students; she once supped at my table. I also had the good fortune to hear some of the poems in My Seneca Village when the book was a work in progress.

So, obviously I was predisposed to like it. I was not prepared, however, for how quickly and completely I fell in love.

The book opens with Nelson’s “Welcome,” which includes a succinct history of Seneca Village, “Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners,” that was founded in 1825. The village was short-lived: “By 1857, everyone would have been forced to move, and Seneca Village would be completely erased by the creation of Central Park.”

41 poems are at the heart of the book. Each was inspired by a name and “identifying label” Nelson found in census records. Presented in chronological order, the poems span thirty-two years; several of the characters reappear, maturing and changing along with the village. For the first reading, it’s beneficial to read the poems in order, even if a quick glance at a table of contents that reveals such titles as “Miracle in the Collection Plate” or “Pig on Ice” tempts you to skip ahead.

Equally important are the one-page scene-setting prose descriptions that preface each poem. Were My Seneca Village ever to be an image-illustrated book, I’d wager not even the finest of our picture book artists could animate the characters and setting as well as the author’s language; it would be akin to breaking a spell.

Seneca Village Project; Google Earth; Photo: City Metric

  Central Park West is the street bordering the park in the right hand image. Seneca Village Project; Google Earth; Photo: City Metric                                          

Historical footnotes accompany several of the poems. Those and the excellent concluding author’s note, in which Nelson explains the poetic forms and rhyming techniques she used, remind the reader that the literary mural unfolding in her hands is the result of history, imagination, and hard and intentional work.

This is a book for all ages, but, oh, what a terrific book to read aloud or simply make available to young readers (though I should warn any interested teacher that there is one poem that might trigger PG-13-ish questions or comments; I won’t mention it by name because I don’t want anyone reading ahead, but it includes the lovely compound noun “pleasure-purveyors”). 

Seneca Village is an almost-lost world.  With My Seneca Village, Marilyn Nelson brings that world near in time and close to home.


Places We Never Expected to Go

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_TwinsOn-the-road Lisa is different than Lisa-at-home. Traveling Lisa takes bigger risks. She’s less responsible. She puts herself in the way of more trouble.

You might almost call her my Evil Twin.

Something happens when I’ve moved outside my comfort zone. I perceive things in a fresh way. I feel a freedom to be someone other than who I usually am. My perspective and my relationship to the world change with my surroundings.

Writing gives me this same chance to try on different parts of myself, but without the need to set aside bail money. So what if I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old boy? A musical genius? Homecoming queen? I can write my way inside any one of those characters, any one of those facets of the human experience. When I am successful in doing so, it means I have managed to travel to an unexplored part of myself—a part that, like my Evil Twin, experiences the world in a very different way.

Your students can explore the power of an alternate outlook through a simple “swapping viewpoints” writing exercise. Give them a basic story conflict, such as a scenario where a “perfect” older brother and a “screw-up” younger sister have to work together to achieve a common goal.

Ask students to immerse themselves as fully as they can into the consciousness of the brother. Have them write for ten minutes, telling the story from that character’s point of view. Then, ask them to swap and rewrite the exact same scene from the younger sister’s point of view. They’ll be surprised by the possibilities they discover in the story, and in themselves, by exploring these alternate viewpoints.

One of the beauties of writing is that it can take us places we never expected to go—perhaps especially, places we never knew existed inside ourselves.


Skinny Dip with Terri Evans

bk_EleanorParkWhat keeps you up at night?

Just about everything – I am a worrier and haven’t had eight straight hours of sleep in almost two years.

What is your proudest career moment?

There are two, both of which occurred in the past couple of years. The first began two years ago (as did my inability to sleep well) when the parents of a child involved in a summer reading program, on which my Library Media Specialists colleagues and I were collaborating, challenged the book we had chosen on the grounds that it contained graphic language and sex. The Parents Action League (one of eight groups in Minnesota that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group) got behind the challenge and made several demands—that the book be removed from all schools in the district, that the author not be allowed to visit our schools, and that the Library Media Specialists who chose the book be disciplined. The story went national. One of my proudest moments was when I spoke in front of our school board, along with two of my colleagues, in order to defend the book (the award-winning Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell). I am passionate about the freedom to read and the freedom of information—and providing my students with books in which they see themselves reflected, even if their lives aren’t pretty. This freedom also allows these students to look into the lives of others and develop empathy. Having the opportunity to express this passion, and eventually winning this battle (the committee charged with deciding the fate of the book voted unanimously to keep the book on the shelves in our schools), changed me forever. The following fall I was awarded the Lars Steltzner Intellectual Freedom Award. In addition, that year I was named a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. One of the most challenging times in my life was also one of the most rewarding.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

Gymnastics or figure skating. In fifth grade my teacher told me I was clumsy. It would be a great “so there” moment!

What’s the first book you remember reading?

bk_Little-Women-book-cover-2As a child, my parents could not afford to buy me or my four siblings books, nor did we ever go to the library. I was not a reader. The summer between fourth and fifth grade, my family and I moved back to Minnesota from Michigan.  As a going-away gift, my friends gave me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was the first book that I ever owned and the first book I remember reading cover to cover. That was the beginning of my journey to becoming a reader. I treasure that memory and that book (which I keep in a safe spot and look at frequently).

What TV show can’t you turn off?

So You Think You Can Dance – reality competition shows, especially those that involve something artistic, are my guilty pleasure (Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway – I LOVE them all!)



Two for the Show: How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Phyllis Root and Jacqueline Briggs Martin

It’s high summer in the garden, with an abundance of vegetables to harvest and flowers abuzz with pollinators. Crunchy carrots, leafy kale, sun-warm tomatoes, garlic bulbs, green beans, zucchini (some gigantic) all offer themselves to the gardener. But more grows in a garden than plants. People grow, too, and connections between people take root and blossom. Two lovely picture books about growing things and the people who grow with them are The Gardener by Sarah Stewart with pictures by David Small (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux , 1997) and The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Sharon Wilson (Candlewick Press, 2000).

bk_gardner178The Gardener is an epistolary picture book (a category worthy of its own blog post), told in letters from a young girl, Lydia Grace, sent from her home in the country to live in the city with her Uncle Jim during the Depression until “things get better.” She writes first to her Uncle Jim, then back home to Mama, Papa, and Grandma. Although Uncle Jim doesn’t ever smile, Lydia Grace is excited by the window boxes she sees in the city, by learning to bake bread in her uncle’s bakery, and by the store cat Otis who sleeps on her bed.

With help from her family back home who sends her bulbs and seedlings and seed catalogues, from Emma who works in the bakery with her husband Ed, and from neighbors who give her containers in which to plant flowers and call her “the gardener,” Lydia Grace sets about making gardens in pots and filling windows boxes with radishes onions, and lettuce. But what fills her with “great plans” is her discovery at the top of a fire escape of the building’s roof (shown in a wordless spread), littered with trash and just waiting for the dirt she hauls from a vacant lot.

All the while, Lydia hopes for a smile from Uncle Jim.

When her “secret place” is ready, Lydia Grace, Emma, and Ed bring Uncle Jim to the roof garden in a glorious double page wordless spread, which parallels the first view of the roof, now transformed.

A week later, when Lydia Grace learns that her papa has got a job and that she’s going home Uncle Jim closes the shop, sends Ed and Emma and Lydia Grace to the roof garden, and brings Lydia Grace a cake covered in flowers. Lydia Grace writes, “I truly believe that cake equals one thousand smiles.” The last page, also wordless, shows Uncle Jim hugging Lydia Grace as they wait for her to board the train home. In the grim grey city, Lydia Grace has grown more than beautiful flowers and a garden, she has grown a connection with her uncle, Emma, Ed, and the neighbors. As she writes in the P. S. of her last letter, “We gardeners never retire.” In this book, the deepest emotions are not said in words but with flowers, with cake, and with silent hugs. Even the wordless spreads convey the book’s heart—that plants and people can bloom in the grayest surroundings.

bk_grandadtreeLGThe spare poetic words of The Grandad Tree begin,

There is a tree

at the bottom of Leigh’s garden.

An apple tree.

Vin, Leigh’s big brother, said

it started as a seed

and then grew

and grew.

And Vin said

that tree,

where they used to play

with Grandad,

that apple tree

will be there…


The text goes on to tell how Grandad was a baby once, then a boy who climbed coconut trees near the sea where he lived, then a man and a husband and a dad and a granddad for Leigh and Vin. “That’s life,” Grandad would say.

 The apple tree blossoms in spring as the art shows Vin and Leigh playing ball with Grandad. In summer, as the apples grow, Grandad plays his violin for the children under the tree. He watches them harvest apples as the leaves fall, and he watches from the window as they build a snowman in the winter. The text continues,

And sometimes things die,

like trees,

like people…

            like Grandad.

Leigh and Vin and their momma remember Grandad as Vin plays his violin, and Leigh plants a seed beside the apple tree to grow and grow, to go through changes, and for them to love forever and ever

            just like they’ll always love Grandad.

In few words and glowing illustrations, Cooke and Wilson bring together the seasons of a tree and of a life lived and show how while things change, some things, like Leigh and Vin’s love for Grandad and his for them, will last forever.

Comfort, love, relationships can all bloom along with the wide world of growing things. Even when harvest is upon us gardeners, it’s good to remember that seeds will hold next year’s gardens close inside. Who knows what will blossom there beyond fruits and flowers?

Other books about growing things that we love:

  • Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams
  • Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter

Kekla Magoon: Writing Historical Fiction

interview by Ricki Thompson

cover image

Aladdin Books, 2009

RICKI: Kekla, thanks so much for joining me and your other fans (old and new) on Bookology! Your novels have been described as “well-paced,” “deeply-layered,” and “elegantly crafted.”  I especially admire the uncomfortable issues you confront and the risks you take in your stories. You’ve authored a number of engaging books, but today let’s talk about your companion YA historical novels, The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, and the research involved in writing them.

Your novels take place in Chicago, 1968, a powder keg time and place. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot. It was the year that thousands of protesters and police clashed violently outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Did you choose this volatile setting, or did it choose you?

KEKLA: I wanted to write about the Black Panther Party, and though the organization was started in 1966 in Oakland, I wanted to show a broader picture of the civil rights struggle too. So I chose a city I was already familiar with, and where riots had erupted in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination (this happened in many cities nationwide, but not Oakland, because the Panthers helped calm the community). Chicago happened to also be the city where the DNC [Democratic National Convention] was held, which allowed Maxie’s story to open amid that melee.

RICKI: The Black Panthers was a controversial party. Many of your characters, including your protagonist, Maxie, are members. Why did you make this choice?

Aladdin, 2012

Aladdin, 2012

KEKLA: The Panthers were controversial because a lot of people didn’t understand their goals. In the media and in historical discussions, they tend to be portrayed as violent and scary, when in reality their work in the communities was broad and often very positive. Most people think of them as a militant group, which they were, however their “militancy” was based on a strategy of self-defense against police brutality. When they were not being attacked, they focused on creating positive change and empowering people within struggling black communities. The Black Panther Party operated schools, ran food programs, offered legal aid, and provided health clinics for poor people who did not have anywhere else to turn. I wrote these books in part to offer up the Panthers’ side of the story and to show how exciting their presence in the community was to young people who longed to make a difference and were tired of marching and protesting for change and being beaten down for their effort.

RICKI: The Black Panthers believed in carrying arms in order to police the police. A number of the characters in your books handle guns. What kind of research did you do to learn about firearms?

KEKLA: I read about the types of guns the Panthers used. I’ve never had actual firearms as a part of my life. I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of guns, and while it appeals to me in theory to learn to use them for the purposes of research, I didn’t ever take it that far.

RICKI: Chicago, 1968, doesn’t exist anymore. But some of the people who inhabited that time and place still do. What role did personal interviews have in your research?

KEKLA: Not much for The Rock and the River. I didn’t personally know any former Panthers at that point, though I had spoken to a number of people who lived through the time and participated in the Civil Rights Movement in other capacities. By the time Fire in the Streets came out, I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of former Panthers, some of whom are still well known activists and educators.

RICKI: Did you explore the places in Chicago where your characters lived and worked? What did you learn from your explorations?

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Henry Holt, 2014

KEKLA: I went to college in Chicago area, but I lived in New York when I wrote these books. I have been to the neighborhoods where I picture Sam and Maxie living, but the community I created for them is really a conglomeration of places and things.

RICKI: Your novels make reference to a number of famous people—Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton. If you could have  lunch with one of them, whom would you choose? Why?

KEKLA: Oh, wow. I would love to sit with any of them. Of your list, the only person still living is Bobby Seale, so I will try for that one in real life at some point, along with Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and anyone else who will hang out with me. But in terms of those who are gone, I would probably choose Fred Hampton. He is the one on the list who had the least chance to speak in the world (shortest life, smallest platform during that life) and I can only imagine how much more he would have had to say.

RICKI: Authentic dialogue is so important in historical fiction. How did you learn the slang (such as “pigs” for “police”) and the everyday vernacular of the period?

KEKLA: Just from reading the Panthers’ historical writings, I was able to pick up their language and style. I certainly could have carried that aspect of the stories further, but I wanted modern readers to be able to follow the slang, so I chose a few things to use regularly. “Pigs,” to me, is Panther-specific and very evocative.

RICKI: What experiences, questions, cravings, in your own life connect you to Sam in The Rock and the River and/or Maxie in Fire in the Streets?

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Candlewick, 2015

KEKLA: Well, the main question that drives ROCK is which path to choose—passive resistance or self-defense, broadly speaking. And in FIRE, it’s how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in, which is a shade of the same issue. So these novels are partly driven by my wondering what I would have done if I had lived back then, what choices I might have made in that time and place.

RICKI: Can you talk about your research process?

KEKLA: I did a lot of reading about the Black Panther Party: books, magazines, newspapers. I’d already studied the civil rights movement in general for many years already, but it was interesting and informative to dig into a less-often-discussed topic. I watched documentaries in which the founders and early members of the BPP spoke and the organization’s history and controversies were highlighted. I read their writings and speeches from the period, and autobiographies of, and I even viewed some old microfilm copies of the original Black Panther newspaper. Later, I traveled to Oakland and viewed copies of the real newspapers and other ephemera in their archives.

RICKI: And how did you keep track of your research?

KEKLA: I was supposed to keep track of it?

RICKI: You said your mom helped you in your research. How?

KEKLA: I can imagine myself saying that, but out of context, I’m not actually sure what I meant. She was a young teen in the late 1960s, so I’ve certainly talked with her about her own experiences and memories of the time.

RICKI: You’ve no doubt heard the expression “Your research is showing.” What riveting information did you have to eliminate for the sake of the stories?

cover image

Bloomsbury, 2015

KEKLA: Well, 1968 was quite a rich year in terms of historical context, so I left a lot of compelling material out of these stories. But it’s also a near enough moment in history that the kinds of historical details that authors sometimes get bogged down in retelling—daily food preparation rituals, transportation, period technology—weren’t too much of an issue. I did have to pay close attention to my own assumptions about the world—I had to eliminate references to Chicago’s Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), which hadn’t been finished yet, and pens that “click” open had to become pens with caps. The long curly cords of telephones that I remember from my 1980s childhood weren’t in fashion yet, so you couldn’t walk around the kitchen while on the phone, you had to stand in one place to talk. This is the kind of detail that my mom and other older readers helped me correct. And, of course, I realize that the very detail of using a corded phone may be news to some of my young readers!

RICKI: Fire in the Streets ends on a strong but edgy note. Can we hope for a third novel to join your other two?

KEKLA: Oh, I doubt it. I guess you never know when an idea will strike, but for the time being I’ve moved on to other topics. The nearest thing to a third “companion” for ROCK and FIRE is my non-fiction book on the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party, which will be published by Clarion in Fall 2016.




There’s Nothing to Dooooooooo

by Vicki Palmquist

By this point in the summer when I was young, the charm of being out of school had worn off, I’d played every game on my grandma’s shelves, and I’d had a few fights with my friends in the neighborhood, so I’d retreated to reading as many books as I could, consuming stories like Ms. Pacman swallowing energy pellets.

When your kids claim that there’s nothing to do, here are a few suggestions for books that inspire doing things, thinking about things, and investigating more.

How Come? Every Kid's Science Questions ExplainedAs I was growing up, I believed that I didn’t like science or math. Turns out it was textbooks and worksheets and tests I didn’t much care for. Give me a paragraph like these two:

“One very big number was named by nine-year-old Milton Sirotta in 1938.

“Milton’s mathematician uncle, Edward Kasner, asked his nephew what he would call the number one followed by a hundred zeroes. Milton decided it was a googol.”

And the number naming doesn’t stop there. This tidbit is part of a chapter called “What is the last number in the universe”” found in How Come? Every Kid’s Science Questions Explained (Workman, 2014), written by Kathy Wollard and illustrated by Debra Solomon with wonderfully comic and lively depictions of the concepts in the text.

Other chapters address must-know topics such as “How does a finger on a straw keep liquid in?” and “Are ants really stronger than humans?” and “Why do the leaves change color in the fall?”

I probably don’t need to point out that kids aren’t the only ones who will find this book fascinating. Read a few chapters to yourself at night and you’ll be able to answer those endlessly curious children who pull on your sleeve.

PhotoplayFor the visually curious, and I believe that means Every Child, you’ll be inspired by Photoplay! Doodle. Design. Draw. by M.J. Bronstein (Chronicle, 2014).

Ms. Bronstein provides examples and workspace for kids to draw on existing photos (printed in the book), telling a story with those drawings or even writing a story. The book can be used in quite a few different ways … and then you can take your own photos and print them out for kids to continue having fun and using their imaginations.

Who Done It?A book that takes some investigation and one that looks like a book for very young children is actually a sophisticated guessing game. The humans and critters line up on Olivier Tallec’s game pages in Who Done It? (Chronicle, forthcoming in 2015).

A simple question such as “Who played with that mean cat?” requires looking into. Can you spot the most likely suspect?

For kids who are learning about facial expressions, body language, and taking one’s time to reason through a puzzle, this is an ideal book that will engender good discussions or occupy a few of those “there’s nothing to doooooo” hours of summer.

Who Done It?



by Melanie Heuiser Hill

We are talking a lot these days at our house about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and bk_MockingbirdGo Set A Watchman. As a family we listened to To Kill A Mockingbird, narrated by Sissy Spacek, last summer on our vacation. Everyone in the car was riveted to the story…but both of the kids will tell you they really didn’t like it.

I adore Harper Lee’s novel—the characters, the setting, the story, the writing. We spent much of eighth grade English on it, in my (possibly revisionist) memory, and I loved every minute of it. I am intrigued, challenged, and often convicted by the arguments made by those who do not adore it, however. Closer examination of this beloved classic this summer hasn’t “ruined” To Kill a Mockingbird for me, nor has Go Set A Watchman; rather, I’m seeing it through different eyes and thinking about things in new ways. This feels important. And I’ll make the dangerously loose claim that any book that gets people talking and reading like these two books have is a good book. (Of course there are exceptions—you just thought of some and so did I. Just go with it. You know what I mean.)


bk_I-KillLast week, I went to look for books for kids about To Kill a Mockingbird and brought home a couple of novels recommended at my local independent bookstore. My girl reads much faster than I do—especially in the summer with its long reading hours—and so she agreed to read them and report back. I handed her I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora first. She read it in one sitting.

“You will love it,” she said.

“Did you love it?” I asked. Sometimes these opinions are mutually exclusive.

“Pretty much.”

And so I read it. It’s a quickie and it did not disappoint. Very clever, great writing, many layers to enjoy but easy to read, and a wonderful “idea” for a story for young teens. My only complaint is that I wish it had been longer. It moves fast and is admirably compact…but the writing is so good, the characters so wonderful, their dialogue so witty, the story such a hoot, and the themes so important…well, I just would’ve enjoyed more of it.

Our conversation around this book has largely been about the role of technology, not the original classic around which the small novel revolves. Acampora’s book is full of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, chat rooms—it’s all there. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the plot, which is why I didn’t mind it at all.

I remain Luddite-like and cranky enough to be frustrated when these very contemporary (so contemporary I wonder how they get the book published before everything changes) social media platforms show up in books. Often, in children’s books especially, it feels like mentions of technology have been added in to make things seem more teen-friendly and “hip.” Since the social media scene is notoriously fast-changing (especially in how kids and teens use it), this seems short-sighted, not to mention unnecessary.

But I Kill the Mockingbird is actually dependent on the social media in what I’ll call “a good way.” What the kids do—which is create a situation in which To Kill A Mockingbird seemingly disappears and therefore becomes The Hot “New” Book Everyone Must Read—could not have been done in one summer without the exponential possibilities and catastrophes of social media.

ph_screen-and-bookPLUS—and this is important—these kids, all three going into high school, are not on screens and devices all the time. That would make a terrible book, in my opinion. They text and post and tweet and chat, etc., but that’s all summed up in efficient narration (because who needs to watch it unfold?) and we’re back to the action of the story, back to the large and important themes, back to the unique personalities and sweet friendship of the three main characters.

You do not have to have read To Kill A Mockingbird to enjoy I Kill the Mockingbird, but you will enjoy it more if you have. You’ll also enjoy it more if you’re generally well read—the chapter titles are very clever, as is the subtle homage to a whole shelf of well-loved books. I’m a fan. And so’s my kid. So we recommend it, the both of us. Take an afternoon in these last weeks of summer and have a read. Let us know what you think.



Summer School

by Maurna Rome

photo salt flats

Maurna, reading at the salt flats in Argentina

The bumper sticker reads: “Three reasons to be a teacher; June, July and August.” This may be true for some, but it was never my mantra, at least until this summer. This summer I decided to participate in summer school and what a good decision that was! My class of “summer kids” included the most diverse, interesting bunch of characters I have ever experienced in my 25 years of teaching. And best of all, rather than being confined to one classroom for the entire stint, our lessons took place in a variety of locations including London, New York, and New Orleans. If you’re thinking this was one of those online “virtual” schools, think again. It wasn’t. I had the pleasure of creating this summer school experience that was like none other. I hand picked most of the kids and the places to which we travelled. I know it sounds too good to be true in many ways and, although it wasn’t always easy, it has been one of the most rewarding summers of my career.

Let me tell you a bit about the kids… Trust me, learning about the histories of kids who have dealt with some unimaginable hardships at a very young age can pull mightily on your heartstrings and make you lose sleep. My “summer kids” have had to navigate some serious challenges. Ada was born with a physical impairment that could’ve been treated at birth yet her abusive mother chose to keep her locked in their apartment, away from other kids. Her language development was severely impacted by this neglect yet she finally

photo bookstore

Visiting a bookstore in Argentina.

learned to read at the age of 9, thanks to her foster mom. Albie is one of the kindest, most hard-working, sincere boys I have ever met. Although his parents try to be supportive, they are extremely frustrated with low academic achievement and the fact that they were asked to remove him from his highly regarded private school. And then there’s Rose. A very high potential girl with autism who lives with her emotionally distant father and a dog she loves dearly. Rose has frequent meltdowns in class and has been known to throw things, scream and make it difficult for others in the classroom to learn. Armani is a sassy, brave young lady who survived Hurricane Katrina and has had to grow up fast as she helped her family pick up the pieces after they lost everything. Finally, there is Robert, a very lonely, troubled boy being raised by his grandmother. He yearns to find out more about his mother who died when he was a baby. These incredible “summer kids” are just a few of the 20 or so who have filled my days with worry, sadness, inspiration and joy. Many of my “summer kids” have been teased and tormented by peers. Not all of them have endured such trauma, but they all have a story to tell. My time with these “summer kids” has taught me much about the power of friendship, perseverance and hope.

Meeting Caldecott award winning author, Dan Santat at the ILA Convention.

Meeting Caldecott award winning author, Dan Santat at the ILA Convention.

One of my students had a real gift for making up rhymes. Consider this gem:

Home is a place to get out of the rain

It cradles the hurt and mends the pain
And no one cares about your name

Or the height of your head
Or the size of your brain

Another quote worth pondering came from the mother of one of my “summer kids”:

If you have to tell lies, or you think you have to, to keep yourself safe—I don’t think that makes you a liar. Liars tell lies when they don’t need to, to make themselves look special or important.

And imagine how taken I was with this thought for the day, shared by that same young man who was removed from his prestigious school for not being smart enough:

You couldn’t get where you were going without knowing where you’d been. And you couldn’t be anywhere at all without having been almost there for a while.

I love my “summer kids” and the time we spent together but I have a confession to make. The truth is, I did not receive a paycheck for any of the hours I devoted to summer school. That may seem absurd, yet I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What I got out of the experience was worth much more. There is no denying how real and full of grit my “summer kids” lives are. There is also no doubt that I learned some tremendous lessons from this group. But, you see, my “summer kids” came to me from the books I savored throughout several weeks of travelling and time with family and friends. While I was swept up in the worlds in which they live, they accompanied me on my summer Rome_SummerKidsadventures, from Salta, Argentina to St. Louis, MO. And just like every eager learner who greets me at the start of a new school year, their challenges and triumphs become mine and their stories will remain in my heart forever.

I’ll bring these “summer kids” into our classroom this fall where they’ll join us on our literacy journey in the coming year. We’ll all get to know and discuss this bunch of characters as I read their books aloud. I am a reader and it is so important that my students learn about my reading life as they continue to create their own!


Some of the “kids” I spent my summer with:

  • Ada – The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Albie – Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
  • Rose – Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin
  • Armani – Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana
  • Robert – Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
  • Jack – Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
  • Ellie – 14th Goldfish by Jennifer Holms
  • Lina – Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Hyung-pil – Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
  • Dinky – Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr

Skinny Dip with Mary Casanova

Grace coverWhat keeps you up at night?

I have two kinds of sleepers in me: 1) the one who sleeps soundly from the moment my head hits the pillow until morning and 2) the restless non-sleeper (usually hormone induced) who keeps an ear open for the cat, Apollo, meowing at the door; who hears one of our three dogs—Kito, Sam, or Mattie—every time they get up to lap at the water bowl, which I imagine must be getting low and so I climb from under my covers to go check; the sleeper whose mind starts whipping through a “rolodex of worries” or possible story ideas (I have a one-word mantra I use to stop the whirring and it’s SLEEP); and the sleeper with restless legs syndrome, which feels exactly like worms crawling in my legs until I move them around, or as I’ve discovered, get up and do ten minutes of stretching. Sleeper #2 needs three cups of strong coffee to get going in the morning.

What is your proudest career moment?

One Dog coverOh, there have been many moving, humbling, amazing experiences with fans. But just recently, at an elementary school in Duluth, Minnesota I had another. I’d picked kids to come up and help act out One-Dog Canoe in front of the audience with a laminated red paper canoe and puppets. As we neared the end of the skit, one boy who hadn’t been selected, barreled up unexpectedly, seized the microphone from my hand, and shouted into it “Can I come, too?!!!” I was surprised, but before I knew it he ran off as an adult made a dash for him. Turned out, he was a boy with autism who rarely tuned in to what was going on around him. But from the back of the auditorium, he’d become fully engaged in the story and skit and wanted to be part of it. As the teacher said, “You connected with him and he was right there with you!”

Describe your most favorite pair of pajamas ever.

Two years ago I ordered pajamas for myself for Christmas from BedHead. Pricey. More than the cheap pj’s I had always settled for. The red, gray, and light blue paisley pattern has faded (they were pretty wild at first), but from the start, they’ve been soft and comfy and welcoming. Pajamas should say “Ahhh.” These do.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

Because I love horses (we own three: Sable, Ginger, and Midnight,) I’d definitely do an equine event. And if I knew I’d win gold and not break my neck, I’d go for three-day eventing, which involves cross-country jumping, dressage, and stadium jumping. Short of that, I’ll have to settle for occasional 3-day horse-camping trips, trail-riding, and riding at a friend’s indoor arena, just a few miles down the road.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

bk_Dick_JaneThe bravest thing? I wrote a first novel and finished the draft. And second, once published, I braved my deep and profound fear of speaking. Only by speaking countless times, over and over and over, did I gradually overcome the clenched stomach, visible shaking, and sense of impending death. I told myself, “Do this for your books. It won’t kill you, even if it feels like it will.” And now, to my utter amazement, the fear is 99% gone and I enjoy sharing with audiences. I never thought that would be possible.

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I remember Dick and Jane books in 1st grade and thought they were incredibly dull and boring stories. If this was “reading,” I wasn’t impressed. It took Charlotte’s Web, perhaps in 3rd or 4th grade, to change my attitude toward books.




School Desegregation in Children’s Literature

by The Bookologist

In this month’s “From the Editor,” Marsha Qualey share’s scholar Rudine Sims Bishop’s observation that while there are many nonfiction books for children and YAs about the civil rights events of the 1950s, not too many authors have tackled the topics in fiction. One exception might be school desegregation/integration,which is the focus of this month’s timeline. We’ve included one of the first books to deal with desegregation after Brown vs. The Board of Education (1954), a few from the boundary-pushing era of “problem novels,” and some recent titles, which are of course also problem novels (what novel isn’t!) but with flashier covers. 

Oh–and one picture book. Enjoy.




Catch You Later, Traitor Companion Booktalks

To get you started on the Bookstorm™ Books …

America in the 1950s cover  

America in the 1950s

Edmund Lindop with Sarah Decapua
21st Century Books, 2010

  • Topic-centered chapters, e.g.: the transition from WWII, the Korean War, the 50’s economy and society, the Red Scare

  • Photo-illustrated

  • Report material galore, including substantial back matter

Bat 6 cover


Bat 6

Virginia Euwer Wolff
Scholastic, 1998

  • In rural Oregon not long after WWII, the annual softball game between 6th grade girls from two towns is a cauldron of secrets, simmering racism, class divide, hope and friendship.

  • Quick-reading, multiple-viewpoint narrative shared by all the girls and some adults provides a “you are there” report of the big event

  • Jane Addams Peace Award, an SLJ Best Book of the Year

Belles of the Ballpark cover  

Belles of the Ballpark: Celebrating the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

Diana Star Helmer with Thomas S. Owens
Summer Games, 2015

  • The 1992 film A League of their Own is now a generation old and possibly unknown to many young students; this book is perfect for those just discovering the women’s-league topic or for fans of the film that want to know more

  • Detailed league history from its origins during WWII, through its 12 seasons

  • Loads of photos and many interviews

Catch a Tiger cover  

Catch a Tiger by the Toe

Ellen Levine
Viking Juvenile, 2005

  • It’s 1953 in New York, and 13-year-old Jamie’s father IS a communist; life changes

  • Communists in the ‘50s were often very involved in civil rights actions; this novel explores the relevance of that connection to the “witch-hunting” and finger-pointing

  • Author’s note and additional back matter

City of Spies cover  

City of Spies

Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan
illus by Pascal Dizin
First Second, 2010

  • It’s 1942 and the world is at war, and in New York 10 year old Evelyn has the run of the city; adventure ensues in this graphic novel

  • Visual blend of old-style-American comics (Evelyn reads them and draws her own) and updated European (Tin-Tin) visual storytelling

  • Seeing the enemy everywhere—a great current topic for discussion and a terrific narrative backbone for a mystery

Cold War cover  

Cold War

Josepha Sherman
Lerner Publications 2004

  • Begins with historical background on the “rise of the superpowers,” including a brief rundown on both the US and Russian revolutions and the partitioning of Europe during and after World War II.

  • Strong photo illustration

  • Back matter includes glossary, timeline of Cold War events, maps, and reading list

Fabulous Fashions cover  

Fabulous Fashions of the 1950s

Felicia Lowenstein Niven
Enslow, 2011

  • 48-page overview of the fashion era

  • Photo illustrated, with reproductions of actual 50s advertising

  • Glossary and fashion timeline in back matter

Green Glass Sea  cover  

The Green Glass Sea

Ellen Klages 
Viking Books, 2006

  • And you think your family has a secret… A novel about growing up in the shadow of the Manhattan project

  • Set in 1943, provides context for why the Soviet Union and communism would loom as such a foe in the 1950s

  • Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction


Discovered Poetry cover  

How I Discovered Poetry

Marilyn Nelson
illus by Hadley Hooper
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014

  • Childhood memoir—fictionalized—in poems, each set in the years 1950-1959

  • Illustrations and black and white photographs expand the “curb appeal” for the reader wary of poetry

  • Coretta Scott King honor book

LIFE cover  

Life: Our Century in Pictures for Young People

edited by Richard B. Stolley
adapted by Amy E. Sklansky
Little, Brown and Co., 2000

  • Before, during, and after the 1950s. Great context for study and discussion of the decade

  • Introductory essays for each decade written by notable children’s authors, including Lois Lowry, Patricia and Frederick McKissack, Avi, and Katherine Paterson.

  • Illustrated with photos from the Life magazine archives

Francine cover  

The Loud Silence of Francine Green

Karen Cushman
Clarion Books, 2005

  • Communism, the Red Scare, injustice; also, friendship and being 13

  • Detailed and unusual setting (1950 Los Angeles, a Catholic school) with many cultural reference students will enjoy exploring; discussion guide  

  • Newbery medal author

Spy cover  


Richard Platt  
DK Eyewitness Books, 2009

  • History of spying with many bios of famous spies

  • Gadgets galore

  • The usual DK magic potion of well-done visuals and text

Played for Nothing cover  

We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About the Game They Loved

Fay Vincent
Simon & Schuster, 2008

  • Interviews with some of baseball’s best players from the 1950s and 1960s

  • Second installment of the author’s project, an oral history of baseball; interested readers can go back to Volume 1 (1930s and 40s) or jump to Volume 3 (1970s and 80s)

  • Illustrated with period photos  


Candice Ransom: Being Ten

Ivy Honeysuckle coverEvery summer I wish I was ten again, the perfect age for the perfect season. At that age I was at the height of my childhood powers. And as a reader, books couldn’t be thrust into my hands fast enough.

Every morning I’d eat a bowl of Rice Krispies, with my book at the table (my mother wouldn’t let me do this at supper, though I often kept my library book open on the seat of the next chair). Then I’d go out to my tree house to watch birds and read the day into being. Whatever I was reading—fiction or nonfiction—shaped my daily experiences. I longed to live in books.

At ten, I had mastered writing and drawing to the degree that I was comfortable moving back and forth between words and images. With pencil, paper, and crayons, I could slip into the world beyond the printed page. I “continued” the story in the book, or drew pictures, sometimes copying the illustrations. I loved the reckless, sketchy lines of Beth and Joe Krush’s drawings in The Borrowers. And I drew precise, tiny black cats, like the ones Superstitious coverErik Blegvad often included in books he illustrated, like The Diamond in the Window, and Superstitious? Here’s Why?

Books led my ten-year-old self to places beyond my small Virginia landscape. In The Talking Tree, a novel about Pacific Northwest Native Americans, I was desperate to make my own totem pole. I glued three empty thread spools together and tried to etch a stylized raven, wolf, and beaver with the pointed end of a nail file that kept skidding off the smooth wooden surface.

My cousins got roped into acting out a Nancy Drew story. After reading The Mystery of the Leaning Chimney, I buried my mother’s Japanese sake cup, brought back by my uncle during WWII, in our back yard. When my cousins rolled up, I ran to meet their station wagon.

“Mama’s valuable foreign vase has been stolen!” I exclaimed, showing the boys the sinister-sounding note I’d written.

“Aw, you wrote that,” Eugene said, recognizing my handwriting.

Pumpkin Day cover“No, really, it’s from the vase stealer!” I was shocked at his unwillingness to suspend disbelief, but undeterred. I dragged them all over the yard, digging holes until I “stumbled” on the buried cup.

What made that summer special was the freedom to read. I read during the school year, of course, and even in class when I was supposed to be working on fractions, but pleasure reading time was squished to weekend afternoons and bedtime. Summer, however, was one Great Big Reading Fest.

Best of all, I wasn’t hobbled by a summer reading list. I grew up in an era in which teachers turned kids loose in June, glad not to clap eyes on them again until after Labor Day. Now many elementary schools ask students to read to prevent “Summer Slide.” The random lists I checked offer a wide variety of books in a range of reading levels. But the reading list noose tightens in middle and high schools. Students are often required to read from a more specific list and write a paper.

In her recent Washington Post piece, educator Michelle Rhee admits her own childhood dislike of summer reading lists that included such titles as Anne of Green Gables and other books she trudged through with little interest. As a teacher, and later as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, she recognized the value of summer reading programs. But she also believes students should choose their own books.

A few weeks ago, I wandered the nonfiction children’s section in our public library. A boy around ten sat cross-legged on the floor, a book on helicopters open in his lap. I guessed he had pulled the book from the shelf and plunked right down to read it.

“Mom!” he said. “You have to see this! It’s the most amazing thing in the world!”

Yes, I agreed silently. It is the most amazing thing in the world to watch a child just the right age fall into a book of his choice. I hoped he would keep that glorious part of his self always. Let books continue to guide him, pull him in, shape his day.





Bookstorm: Catch You Later, Traitor

Catch You Later Traitor Bookstorm

In this Bookstorm™:

Catch You Later, TraitorCatch You Later, Traitor

written by Avi
Algonquin Books for Young Readers, 2015

The early 1950s in the United States was a time when soldiers and medical personnel had returned home from the two theaters of World War II, Communism was talked about as something to be feared, and colleagues and neighbors were asked to testify against people who were suspected to be Communists in America. The nation was caught up in reports from the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Federal Bureau of Investigations was concerned about citizens who were disloyal to America. The air was heavy with suspicion and people were encouraged to fear intellectuals, immigrants, and Hollywood.

It was a time when baseball soared. The Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the New York Yankees were the most famous teams of the day. Radio was the primary source for news and entertainment. Televisions weren’t yet a part of every household. 

In Avi’s novel, 12-year-old Pete Collison is a regular kid who loves Sam Spade detective books and radio crime dramas, but when an FBI agent shows up at Pete’s doorstep accusing his father of being a Communist, Pete finds himself caught in a real-life mystery. Could there really be Commies in Pete’s family? This look at what it felt like to be an average family caught in the wide net of the Red Scare has powerful relevance to contemporary questions of democracy and individual freedom.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. For Catch You Later, Traitor, you’ll find books for a variety of tastes, interests, and reading abilities. Catch You Later, Traitor will be comfortably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve included picture books, novels, and nonfiction for the plethora of purposes you might have. This Bookstorm™ has a few more books for adults than usual, believing that a background in the era will be helpful for educators who weren’t alive during, or wish to brush up on, the time in which this book takes place.

McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare. Surprisingly, there aren’t very many books written for young readers about this intense time in history, but we’ve selected a few that will align well with Catch You Later, Traitor.

Nonfiction. There are a greater number of nonfiction books available about the early 1950s, including lifestyle books, the Cold War, fashion, the Hollywood Ten, and spies.

Communism, Socialism in the United States. Were you aware that a group of Finnish-Americans moved to Russia to set up a Utopian community based on promises from Russian leader Joseph Stalin?

Witch Hunts. A classic book, a classic play, and a fascinating look at an incident of the “Red Scare” in children’s books.

Mid-Century United States. Superb recommendations for books, both fiction and nonfiction, set in the 1950s. Reading several of these along with Catch You Later, Traitor will give students an excellent flavor of the time, which offers a mirror for other periods in history as well as the present.

Baseball in the 1950s. It was the most talked-about sport in the country, claiming headlines and tuning radios in to listen to “the game.” We’ve gathered a wide-ranging set of books that will include something for every reader, from picture books to books for adults.

Noir Detective Fiction. We mentioned Sam Spade, but what exactly does “noir” mean? Here are good examples, spanning early chapter books such as Chet Gecko to a graphic novel like City of Spies to Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon.

Old-Time Radio. There are whole radio programs online to be shared with your classroom, along with a series on YouTube that depicts the workings of a radio studio, and Avi’s own novel about the heyday of radio serials.

Techniques for using each book:



From the Editor

by Marsha Qualey

Catch You Later, TraitorWelcome to the sixth issue of Bookology.

This month’s Bookstorm™ Book is Catch You Later, Traitor, the latest novel by Newbery medalist Avi. Set in the 1950s in New York City during the era of communist-hunting, the novel explores the long and frightening reach of government into private lives under the guise of security and patriotism and how a pointed and accusing finger can cause so much damage.  Accompanying the Bookstorm™ is a conversation between Avi and Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt and our usual bullet point book talks for some of the Bookstorm™ companion books.

After prepping and reading for this month’s 1950s-influenced Bookology, I’m ready to claim the podium and assert that the most important year in American Children’s publishing was 1957. Thanks to two of that year’s events, everything changed.

  1. bk_cat-hatThe publication of The Cat and the Hat. In one fell swoop, reading instruction and the type of books early readers could encounter would never be the same. Dick and Jane would hold on for a few years, but not much longer.
  2. The launch of Sputnik. According to author and children’s literature scholar Anita Silvey, after this salvo in the space race the “school market for children’s books surged into the forefront of children’s publishing” (Children’s Books and Their Creators, p. 5 43). This surge was strengthened a year later with a tremendous increase in the federal funds available for purchasing school books—texts and general reading material.
Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1

Everything changed.

Well, that’s a bit of hyperbole, isn’t it? It’s also quickly refuted because one big thing that didn’t change was the whiteness of American children’s literature.

The world of children’s book writing and publishing is now engaged in a needed and wonderful campaign for diversity in the topics and subjects of the books and in the voices creating, publishing, and promoting those books.

A wonderful campaign, but not a new one, though the definition of diversity has expanded in ways the early proponents might never have imagined. One of those proponents was Nancy Larrick, whose 1965 Saturday Review article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” brought the topic to the general public’s eye, much like Walter Dean Myers’s 2014 article in the New York Times shortly before his death.

Blacklist coverThe whiteness of children’s literature came into sharp relief as I was reading and reading about books included in this month’s storm.  We include several Red Scare novels on the list, but they are centered on white lives; I’d love to hear about books that explore what a child or teen of color experienced. In the terrific book The Other Black List, author Mary Helen Washington writes “Because J. Edgar Hoover suspected that anyone working against segregation or in the field of civil rights also had communist ties, the FBI (in league with Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities committee) persistently targeted the black intellectual and cultural community of the 1950s” (pp. 22-23). At least some of those targeted adults must have had young people in their lives who were affected.  I want to read their stories.

bk_FreeWithinIn her excellent book Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature, Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University, states there is a surprising dearth of children’s novels about the organized civil rights events of the fifties (and by extension, I suppose, the Red Scare).

Which brings me back to 1957 and yet another momentous event: the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. At the center of that were nine teenagers:  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo. Perhaps one reason there are so few fictional explorations of the 1950s civil rights period is that the real stories and people involved tend to blow everything else out of the water. Still, desegregation is one civil rights era experience that many authors HAVE tackled in novels, and our timeline this month shares some of those.

The upheavals of the 1960s, on the other hand, have inspired many writers, and later this month we’ll have an interview, “Writing History,” with Kekla Magoon, author of How it Went Down, Fire in the Streets, The Rock and the River, and many more books for teens and middle grade readers.

And of course throughout the month we will run our regular features and columns, beginning today with a Knock Knock column: “Being Ten” by Candace Ransom.

We also have a contest! Anyone who comments (on any article in Bookology) during the month will be entered into a random drawing to win a signed hardcover of Avi’s book, and our featured Bookstorm, Catch You Later, Traitor.

And by all means…if you disagree with me about the year 1957, tell me why. In a comment, please. You might be a winner.

Thanks for visiting Bookology.





A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi published his 1950s’ era novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, he dedicated the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fellow author, fellow reader, fellow connoisseur of noir detective novels and history. The Bookologist is privileged to listen in on this conversation between two authors who are so greatly admired for the depth and texture within their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short article entitled “Memories Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the powerful ways that his childhood memories affected the making of his Greentown, Illinois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he created the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beauty (to him) of the town’s factories, the terror (to him) of the gullies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evocation of 1951 Brooklyn. Is that fair to say?

It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I confess I still think of myself as a New Yorker. I’ve written more about the city than any other place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopian graphic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the American Revolution. It’s not just “home” in a physical sense, it’s my emotional home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Mountains, nine thousand feet up, in a community of thirteen, the nearest neighbor a mile away.

When writing Catch You Later, Traitor, which is set, for the most part, in my boyhood neighborhood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoopball, go to the local movie theater. I easily recall sitting on the front stoop reading comic books with my friends—even which comic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the physical setting: Pete’s apartment, the streets, the nursing home, the school. Though I suspect that being in these settings brought a great deal of nostalgic pleasure, how did these settings play a part in the plotting of the book?

I think all writers depend on sensory memory. Consider Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a bookstore in my neighborhood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie theater where I would go for the Saturday morning kids’ shows. My Brooklyn was very much a small town. There was everything I needed, and all I needed to construct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great pleasure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is particularly intriguing to me, since it seems to me to be acting in interesting thematic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of monolithic power: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of responding to America, one way of sitting and responding and behaving. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Donavan, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Donavan represents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insistent power, also represents the way the country was acting toward dissent at this time?

Mr. Donavan is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remember him. But don’t forget Mr. Malakowski, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Parents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools constitute a parallel universe to home life. They don’t always intersect. Pete’s parents don’t really know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typical. In today’s world, the older a kid gets the less he/she wants parents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does represent the country at that time, but it’s important to remember that it was not the whole country.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the characters that are so vivid—an Avi trademark. I think especially of Mr. Ordson, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the newspaper, because Mr. Ordson wants to keep up with current events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve written that Mr. Ordson is based on a real person to whom you, as a young adolescent, read. Are there other characters based on folks from your past? Perhaps Pete’s father, a noble character? Have you, as William Faulkner once advised, cut up your relatives to use them in your plot?

How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abusive. Don’t get me going. Anyway, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of opposite, too. Cathartic, perhaps. On the other hand, Pete’s older brother is somewhat based on my own older brother who, like many older brothers, can be patronizing to younger brothers. That said, a major part of the story is not about families that pull apart—there is some of that—but how families stay together. And Kat—a key fictional character in the book—is drawn to Pete’s family as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One other element from the past: the noir voices, the sounds of the hard-boiled detective fiction that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-person narrative to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you probably had a lot of fun with that, right?

I adored writing those sections. I think there is something uniquely American in that noir voice. The tough love. The sarcasm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very careful literary construction, all of which masks a deep-rooted sentimentality, an embarrassed, if you will, searching for love. Very complex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my readers gives me great pleasure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era novel, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a perfect America but believes that the stories of workers and African Americans also need full play in tales of the development of the country, Pete is ostracized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Commie! Since all historical fiction is written both about a time in the past and for readers in the present, it seems to me that your novel is a powerful warning against assuming that any narrative about our country is simple and uncomplicated.

One of my favorite notions about historical fiction is expressed in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I find that a fascinating idea because I don’t entirely agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a different country, but they do not always do things differently there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve written, you understand this. Our goal is to make the past meaningful to the present, right? To give it life. America has such a complex and fascinating history. But how little people know of it! How many great stories there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the novel, he develops strong anger toward both his brother and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the narrative. At the same time, he comes to understand that his father lives a life that is larger and perhaps more noble and honorable than he had imagined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this novel is about the limits of knowledge—that we cannot truly know someone else completely?

Pete’s father tells Pete: “Nothing is simple. Know that and you know half the world’s wisdom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Somewhere I read, “Poor writing makes what you know simple. Good writing makes it complex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Perhaps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assumption that I have the right to know everything about someone else. I note this in the context of a world in which it seems to be the growing assumption that we do have the right to know what we want to know about another person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Hey! Privacy, the last frontier! It’s one of the most important things about book reading. It’s truly private. Far more so than even digital reading! The other day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more intimate than sharing thoughts. That said, one of the most powerful things a person can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall playing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dangerous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanatic loyalty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loyalty. I know this is, on one level, simply Pete’s desire to get back at the others around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is asserting his right to be different—exactly what McCarthyists feared and prosecuted, and, perhaps, exactly what our own culture seems to fear: the person who does not buy into the current vision of the American dream: to acquire. This is not a message novel; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the reader turn the page. But at the same time, you are making some powerful suggestions that warn against a too easy acceptance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Being loyal to a false ideal can be very destructive. Being loyal to high ideal can be very dangerous. Pete’s shift from being a Brooklyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is something that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the National Pennant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becoming independent from my family. But when you become independent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are rejected, told that you have abandoned them, whoever or whatever them might be. But being different, being independent, is liberating. In Catch You Later, Traitor, the word traitor becomes a code word for “being different.” In the story being different enriches Pete’s life. The story begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becoming a kid again—but far deeper in experience. Hey, that’s why I dedicated the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Thank you both for this interview. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to consider, but we expected no less from the two of you.