Advertisement. Click on the ad for more information.
Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Read Out Loud for Easter

As you prepare to celebrate Easter, we encourage you to include books in your celebration. A tradition of reading out loud before Easter dinner, after Easter dinner, as you awaken on Easter morning … perhaps each day during Holy Week? Here are a few gems we believe you and your family will treasure. Happy Easter!

At Jerusalem's Gate  

At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter
written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by David Frampton
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2005

There are twenty-two free-form poems in this book, each from the point of view of a witness to the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each poem could be read by a different family member or the poems could be read separately throughout the Easter weekend. The woodcut illustrations will engender conversations about the style, technique, and details.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes


The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
written by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Flack
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1939

Little Cottontail Mother is raising 21 children, but it’s her dream to become the Easter Bunny. As she assigns her children chores and teaches them life’s lessons, she gains confidence to audition for the job of one of the five Easter Bunnies who deliver eggs and baskets on Easter Sunday. It’s a sweet story still, nearly 80 years after it was first published. The brightly colored illustrations are memory-making for new generations of readers.

The Easter Story  

The Easter Story
written and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

The events of Holy Week, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection, are recounted through the eyes of the little donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. With Wildsmith’s distinctive illustrations, this book has been published in many editions and many languages. A good read-aloud book to add to your Easter bookshelf.


written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books, 2017

Four eggs, each a different color, hatch (one doesn’t) and the chicks set off—and return for the unhatched egg. When the egg hatches, there’s a surprise! When the book ends, there’s another surprise! This is a book about friendship and growing up, just right for reading out loud and for emerging readers to read on their own. With simple lines and appealing colors, the illustrations are irresistible.

The Golden Egg Book  

The Golden Egg Book
written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard
Golden Books, 1947

A true classic among Easter books, a small bunny finds a blue egg. He can hear something moving around inside so he conjectures what it might be. As the bunny tries to open the egg, he wears out and falls asleep. Only then does the young duckling emerge from the egg. With richly colored illustrations from the masterful Leonard Weisgard, this is a treasured book for many children and families.

Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg  

Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg
written by Terri DeGezelle, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo
Pauline Books & Media, 2017

Based on a few lines about the legend of Simon of Cyrene that the author found while researching, this book brings to life the experience of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as told through the perspective of Simon. He takes eggs to Jerusalem to sell for Passover when he becomes caught up in the procession following Jesus as he carries his cross to Calvary. As Jesus stumbles and falls, a Roman soldier forces Simon to bear the cross instead. Told with a lively narrative and brightly colored, satisfying illustrations, this is a good story to choose for read-alouds, opening up an opportunity to discuss the many aspects of the Easter story.

Story of Easter  

Story of Easter
written by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Stefano Vitale
HarperCollins, 1997

With an informative text and glorious illustrations, this book explains both how and why people all over the world celebrate Easter. It tells the biblical story of Jesus’ Resurrection and then describes how people honor this day and the origins of these traditions. Hands-on activities help draw children into the spirit of this joyous celebration of rebirth.

Story of the Easter Bunny  

Story of the Easter Bunny
written by Katherine Tegen, illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert HarperCollins, 2005

Most people know about the Easter Bunny, but how did the Easter Bunny get his job and how does he accomplish the distribution of so many colorful eggs each Easter? It all began in a small cottage with an old couple who dye the eggs and weave the baskets. One Easter, they sleep in and it’s their pet white rabbit’s decision to deliver the eggs and chocolate, thereby starting a tradition. Told in a matter-of-fact style with appealing, detailed illustrations, this is a good addition to your Easter tradition.


March Shorts

Oooo! Here in Minnesota, shorts in March mean chills. These books will give you chills–in a good way!

Cat Goes Fiddle-I-FeeCat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee
Adapted and illustrated by Paul Galdone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985
(reissued in April 2017)

I recognized the title immediately as I song I know well, sung as “I Had a Rooster” by Pete Seeger on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Little Fishes in 1968. Turns out, I remember the rhyme more than the words. Galdone wrote a different adaptation of this folk tale, one that is irresistible for reading out loud. In fact, even if you’re sitting alone in a room by yourself, you’re going to want to read this out loud. The words and the rhyme scheme are fun. Kids at storytime and kids in a classroom and kids sitting on your lap will want to sing along … and quite possibly dance. In this new edition, Galdone’s illustrations are friendly. Find the snail. Who shares the page with the dog? There are many animals to examine and they don’t always make the expected sounds: “Hen goes chimmy-chuck, chimmy-chuck.” As the tale builds cumulatively, it’s a good exercise in memory and repetition, and just plain fun. Turns out it’s a different story than Seeger’s so both of them could be used. 

Hoot & Honk Just Can't SleepHoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep
written and illustrated by Leslie Helakoski
Sterling Children’s Books, 2017

Two eggs, one from an owl’s nest and one from a goose’s nest, tumble to the ground during a wind storm. When the mamas take home the wrong eggs, the hatchlings are confused. The owlet doesn’t like the food the other goslings like and the gosling doesn’t want what the owlets are hungry for. And their sleep patterns are quite different. A wonderful way to open up the discussion about different birds with young listeners, this is a gorgeous book with a happy-go-lucky spirit. Illustrated by Helakoski with pastels on sanded paper, the color is sumptuous, the views have depth, and everyone’s going to want to touch the bird’s feathers. And who can resist the main characters’ names? Hoot. Honk. Hoot and Honk. 

Charlotte the Scientist is SquishedCharlotte the Scientist is Squished
written by Camille Andros
illustrated by Brianne Farley
Clarion Books, 2017

I squealed after I read this book. This is exactly the book I would have read and re-read when I was a kid. The fly papers are diagrams of the inside of a rocket, labeled carefully so there’s much to ponder. Charlotte is a bunny rabbit with a problem. She is a serious scientist with no room to conduct her work. She has a large family, as some bunnies do, and they’re always underfoot. So Charlotte employs the Scientific Method to solve her problem. She creates a hypothesis and tried her experiment and draws a conclusion. And all of this is done with a great amount of humor supplied by the author and the illustrator, a seamless story. That carrot-shaped rocket is delightful and so is the bunny in the fishbowl. At the end of the book, there’s a feature “In the lab with Charlotte,” that uses Charlotte’s experiments for a discussion of the scientific method. Highly recommended.

Anywhere FarmAnywhere Farm
written by Phyllis Root
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Candlewick Press, 2017

Where can you farm? Anywhere! Together, Root and Karas present convincing arguments for growing your own food wherever and however you can. “For an anywhere farm, here’s all that you need: soil and sunshine, some water, a seed.”With soft vignettes that look closely at ways and means to plant seeds, “Kale in a pail, corn in a horn,” to circular depictions of neighbors tending their small-scale farms, to two-page spreads that show an urban community involved in gardening, the blend of poetry and illustrations make this book an appealing invitation to try your hand at farming … anywhere. Readers will have fun detecting all the places growing plants can be supported. As kids and adults of all ages and abilities work together, the lush end to this book is a satisfying one. Excuse me, won’t you? I’m off to germinate my seeds!

written and illustrated by Anna Walker
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 paperback

I pronounce this a Picture-Book-of-the-Absurd, delightfully so. “Peggy lived in a small house on a quiet street.” Her chicken coop in the backyard of a suburban house has a trampoline outside. “Every day, rain or shine, Peggy ate breakfast, played in her yard, and watched the pigeons.” In a series of nine “slides” (do you remember slides?) on each page, we observe Peggy doing just these things … with joy and When Peggy is blown off her trampoline by a strong wind into the unfamiliar environment of downtown, does she panic? No. She takes the opportunity to explore. In vignettes, Peggy eats spaghetti, she rides an escalator, and she shops for bargains. The soft, muted watercolor palette of the book is punctuated by Peggy’s black feathers, making her easy to follow as she ultimately decides she’d rather be at home. But how will she get there? Clues planted earlier in the story give her ideas and ultimately she finds her way back to her chicken coop with new-found friends. This is an ideal book for sharing one-on-one, examining the humor on every page as the intrepid Peggy shares her story.

written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Do any of us spend enough time noticing the natural world around us? Do we look at the shape of things? Do we wonder enough about why they are in the shapes they are? What about all of the round things in the world? The moon. water, lily pads, rocks … so many specific things to notice, observe, and appreciate. Joyce Sidman’s poem leads the listener into this exploration: “I love to watch round things move. They are so good at it!” Yoo’s illustrations find things to show us that are not in the text … words and illustrations blending together into a book that is more than its parts. Colorful and charming, the book’s design gets everything right. Even the author’s bios on the back jacket flap are presented in round shapes! Two pages in back ask “Why are so many things in nature round?” Short paragraphs from the author will broaden your vision, leading to discussions and noticing more each time you walk outside.

If You Were the MoonIf You Were the Moon
written by Laura Purdie Salas
illustrated by Jaime Kim
Millbrook Press, 2017

From the glossy cover to the moon’s expressive face to the bracketed, you-didn’t-know-that facts, everything about this book is appealing. Salas has a way of looking at something as familiar as the moon while encouraging us to think about it in fresh ways, poetically observant, waking-you-up ways. The moon as a ballerina? Of course, and for very good reason. In brackets, the facts: “The moon spins on its invisible axis, making a full turn every twenty-seven days.” Kim illustrates this spread with a contented, ballet-dancing moon that can’t help but make the reader smile. “Weave a spell over wonderers.”? The bracket inspires us with “Claire de Lune” and “The Moon is Distant from the Sea.” The illustration shows the Baule people of the Ivory Coast in festival masks. All of this is set in the vibrant colors of a moonlit night. It’s an inspiring book presented with the right balance for kids who love a poetic presentation as well as factual information.


Skinny Dip with Loni Niles

Loni Niles

Loni Niles

We interviewed Loni Niles, K-12 media specialist in the Wadena-Deer Creek public schools in west central Minnesota. She shared her thoughts about books and life.

What is your favorite late-night snack?

I love popcorn and can eat it any time during the day, even for breakfast!

Favorite city to visit?

Chicago. Even though we moved from there when I was just a baby, I still take some pride that I was born there!  Now I love to visit there because my stepdaughter and her husband are such wonderful hosts—they show us all kinds of wonderful things the city has to offer.  Oh yeah, and there’s that grandson there, too! He definitely is a draw for me to visit this wonderful city!

First date?

My husband and I do not really agree on when our first date was. Fortunately, we agree on some of the more important things in life!

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

I find myself passionately recommending the novels The Lottery Rose by Irene Hunt and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Miss Steimle, my fifth grade teacher, read both of these out loud to my class in the 1970s, but today’s kids love them, too!

The Lottery Rose, A Wrinkle in Time

This is NOT a Cat!Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Mike Wohnoutka. My favorite book of his work is written by one of my favorite authors, David LaRochelle. It’s a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards this year and called This is NOT a Cat! Check it out! 

Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Gotta have my coffee in the morning!

Favorite season of the year?

Although I love them all, it’s winter! Minnesota is the perfect place for me!  We typically get a real winter here and we definitely get four seasons!  At age 48, I started to downhill ski.  But I love to watch high school hockey, go snowmobilng and sledding, and when my sons were younger we used to love playing in the snow!

Marathon candy barFavorite candy as a kid?

Anyone remember the Marathon candy bar?! A yummy caramel braid covered in chocolate.

Brothers and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I’m in the middle of two brothers. I always told my two sons that I’m the best mom for them because I know what it’s like to have that big brother pounding on you and that little brother picking at you!  I used to lament not having sisters, but I have been surrounded by wonderful women (and girls, too—I have three granddaughters) in my life—so it’s not so much an issue anymore. 

Loni Niles and her brothers

Best tip for living a contented life?

I do live a very contented life, but I don’t really have a tip on how to do it. Seeing the good in things and people comes pretty naturally to me.  I try to remember my mom’s advice to always assume the best. This is the same woman who once told me as a teenager complaining about my acne that I should just be happy I have a face. That still makes me chuckle! 

Hope for the world?

My hope for the world is that we begin to recognize each others’ talents (and our own!) and appreciate each other—even our differences.



Copyright Adobe Stock. Rome Map Detail; selective focus By Jules_KitanoIn college I was fortunate enough to travel with a school-sponsored group to Europe. I saw many amazing things, but Rome was the place I couldn’t stop talking about afterwards.

When I described my love for Rome to my parents, I focused on one particular episode: Wanting to escape the afternoon heat, a group of us ducked inside one of the churches that crop up everywhere in that city. Inside this unremarkable building, I discovered the original of a painting that had been my favorite out of my entire art history textbook. It was just hanging there on the wall, not even worthy of a locked door in a city that is crammed full of exquisite artworks.

I used a different anecdote when talking to my friends. I described the multi-hour dinner a group of us enjoyed, complete with a different wine for every course, and how we followed it up with a long midnight stroll through what seemed like the entire city of Rome, becoming completely lost, and probably by pure luck managing to eventually make it back to our hotel in one piece.

Here’s an important reminder for your writing students: when they are telling a story using a character speaking in first-person voice (the “I” voice), the character/narrator’s intended audience will play a key role. In other words, at some point the writer should ask, “What ‘audience destination’ does the narrator intend? Who does my character imagine will read their story?” That awareness of audience will shape many things, particularly how honest the narrator chooses to be, and what kind of private details they choose to share.

Do they imagine that there will be no outside readers (such as in a “Dear Diary” format)? Or does the narrator imagine they are telling their story to complete strangers? Knowing the answer to that question, in combination with the personality the writer has established for the narrator, will affect how the story is told.

Case in point: when I knew my parents were the audience, I chose a Rome story set at midday, in a church, featuring a Great Work of Art. I DIDN’T choose the Rome story set at midnight, on dark streets, featuring a group of wine-sloppy college students.


Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break


Pop-up Books

Our household’s fascination with pop-up books came as a surprise to me. As a child I didn’t like them much. We had a few—one was Sleeping Beauty, I think. But they popped with boring modesty and they always had these tabs that you pulled to make things move, only my brother pulled them too hard and so they didn’t do anything besides pull in and out. Distinctly disappointing.

But #1 Son received Robert Sabuda’s The Christmas Alphabet for his first Christmas. He was ten months old. We were still at the stage where I was singing cheerfully, “Books are for reading, not for eating!” every time we sat down to read. He loved books…with all his senses. But when I opened The Christmas Alphabet he sat back on the couch in amazement—his mouth opened in surprise, but not because he wanted to eat the pop-ups. When he managed to tear his eyes away from the fantastic paper creations that stood up on each page, he looked at me as if to say, “What have we been doing all this time with those tasty two-dimensional books?!”

I taught him how to use one gentle finger to lift the flaps, open the doors, turn the pages….. I think this might’ve been instrumental in him becoming such a gentle giant, actually. (He’s 6’6”+ these days!) Our pop-ups remain in stellar condition.

Over the years we added to our collection. More Robert Sabuda, of course—Cookie Count, A Tasty Pop-up became our all-time favorite, I’d say—the gingerbread house can be enjoyed from all sides! But we also procured many of the classics—Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Mother Goose Rhymes—and some general learning ones, too, like an atlas, something about dinosaurs or dragons (I can’t remember which, and I can’t find it—maybe #1 Son took it to college?), and several more holiday books.

In short, we are fans. Darling Daughter once spent most of a spring break making pop-ups off of the plans on Sabuda’s website. Part engineering, part origami, part art, pop-ups are endlessly fascinating. She’d probably do it on her spring break next week if I left the tab open on the computer.

It’s hard to have pop-ups at the library, of course. There’s always the child who pulls too hard, turns the page too fast and refolds the folds or breaks the spine. If they weren’t so expensive I’d say we should just let them get trashed and replace them…but I get budgets. However, it’d make a great special event at the library—an afternoon of making pop-ups, reading them, then sharing them with friends…. I’d sign up and go myself! Now that I’ve pulled all of ours out though…I might still be busy here!


Skinny Dip with Mike Wohnoutka

Mike Wohnoutka

Mike Wohnoutka

We interviewed Mike Wohnoutka, children’s book illustrator, widely known for his books Dad’s First Day, Moo!, and Little Puppy and the Big Green Monster. (Mike’s last name is pronounced wuh-noot-kuh.)

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Picture books in general. I often hear parents say their children are too old for picture books. Recently a parent told me her first grader had “moved on” from picture books.  This absolutely drives me crazy. You are never too old for picture books.  They are second to none when it comes to art, storytelling, and language.

picture books

Favorite city to visit?

New York. I love the museums, comedy clubs, book stores, and theaters. It’s also nice to go to lunch with my editors since most of the publishers I work with are in New York.

Most cherished childhood memory?

Playing Kick the Can with all the kids in our neighborhood.

Mike Wohnoutka and David ShannonIllustrator’s work you most admire?

David Shannon. David is the reason I became an illustrator. After seeing his presentation, when I was in college, about how he illustrated his first children’s book, How Many Spots Does A Leopard Have?,  I thought “THAT is what I want to do!” His paintings are technically stunning and his stories are so funny.

When I visit schools I tell students about David being such an influence on me. It’s amazing how excited the students get when I show the cover of No David! and it’s incredible that every student is familiar with that series. He obviously has struck a chord with children.

A couple years ago, David and I both presented at the Mazza Museum summer conference. It was wonderful to meet him. He  is the nicest guy and it was fun to let him know how much of an inspiration he has been to me.

Go-to drink?

Coffee, especially in the morning as I write or paint.

Mike Wohnoutka

Copyright Mike Wohnoutka

Favorite season?

Fall. Leaves changing colors, cooler weather, the World Series, and Halloween are a few of the many things I love about fall.

Dream vacation?


What gives you shivers?


Strangest tourist attraction?

Mike Wohnoutka's family at the Wizarding World of Harry PotterOur family recently took a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, mainly to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was such a fun vacation. The attention to detail in creating Diagon Alley, Hogwarts Express, and Hogsmeade was awe-inspiring.

My wife and I got teary-eyed when we first entered Diagon Alley. 

Also, the rides throughout Universal and Islands of Adventure were a blast. Of course our kids loved it all, but the strange thing about this tourist attraction is how much my wife and I truly enjoyed everything, too. We can’t wait to go back.

Brothers or sisters? How did they shape your life?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved to draw. Having three older brothers who were all really good at drawing had a big influence on me. I remember being so impressed with the simplest sketch they would do and I was determined to be as good as they were.

Best tip for living a contented life?

I have found meditation and yoga very helpful. I start every day with a 20 minute meditation (before the coffee).


Isn’t It Time to Listen to the Teachers?

Recent headlines are sounding the alarm:

Star Tribune articleMore Minnesota teachers leaving jobs, new state report shows
One-fourth of new teachers leave within first three years, according to a new state report. 

The statewide teacher shortage described as an “epidemic” has Minnesota school districts searching for strategies that will increase teacher retention. A February, 2017, Star Tribune article offers a startling statistic that should be stopping school boards, administrators, legislators and most importantly parents in their tracks:

“The 2017 version of the Minnesota Teacher Supply and Demand report issued Wednesday found a 46 percent increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession since 2008.”

While I believe a number of other issues also deserve our attention (increasing the number of teachers of color, improving teacher training, and closing the achievement gap), we cannot ignore the fact that the future of education is uncertain at best. Some might even say the future is bleak.

However, as a self-professed champion of positivity and on behalf of the hundreds of colleagues I have worked with over the past 26 years, I have compiled a short list of requests. Investing in these five straightforward conditions would send a strong message that we are serious about addressing the need to attract and retain high-quality teachers for our children.

Isn’t it time to listen to the teachers when we ask for the following? 

#1. High quality training in classroom management and engagement

Ask any first year educator what he/she learned about these essential components of teaching in their undergraduate courses and the answer will likely be “Little, if anything.” The sad truth is that our colleges and universities are not doing an exceptional job of preparing new teachers for the challenges they will face when it comes to creating classroom environments that are conducive to learning. We must do better. Before the degrees are granted, as well as once new teachers are standing in front a classroom full of kids, learning how to establish a climate where kids can and want to learn is essential. 

#2. Reasonable class sizes

And speaking of that classroom full of kids… Despite the studies that insist class size doesn’t really matter all that much, 99.9% of teachers will tell you, CLASS SIZE MATTERS! A lot! Last year I taught two sections of Language Arts. My first section had 31 students, my second section just 22 students. The amount of time I could devote to small group reading with students in the second section was obviously much greater than with students in the first section. Excellent teachers strive to create meaningful relationships with students, they believe in providing relevant feedback, and they understand the importance of connecting with parents. Accomplishing these goals is possible with 22 students. Making it happen consistently with 31 students is a feat that most teachers find overwhelming.

#3. Ample classroom library and supply budgets

There is a joke often shared on social media that teaching is the only profession where you steal from home and take things to work. Surveys have shown that the average teacher spends at least $500 out of their pocket for everything from Kleenex to snow boots to graham crackers. We not only worry about keeping students healthy, warm, and fed, but we also invest heavily in putting books on our shelves year after year. Many teachers I know dream of winning the lottery in order to stock his/her classroom with the basic essentials. Rather than make us wait for our lucky numbers to hit, how about if the school boards, administrators, and school finance gurus help us meet the needs of students today! We’re not asking for millions, but $500-$1,000 per year would help a great deal.

#4. Time in our classrooms during “back to school workshop” days

Every August it’s the same old story. Teachers sit through hour after hour, day after day of meetings and workshops that are supposed to help us become the best teachers we can be. The intentions are honorable. Most of us realize this. But here’s the thing, our minds are elsewhere during this crucial time period. It is tough to get or stay engaged in talk about interventions, effective math routines or even worse, new rules for using the laminator, when more than two dozen little people and their families will be walking through the door for open house in 48-72 hours. Give us the time we need to get our classrooms ready. Make it a priority to limit those August workshop sessions in favor of supporting us in a substantial way – with adequate time to be in our classrooms preparing for our learners and the adventures that lie ahead. 

(l. to r.) Maurna Rome, Meghan Malone, Lynn Searle, Ashley Hall, Kali Gardner, all second grade teachers at Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park, MN. Team members not available for photo: Suzanne Knauf and Molly Borg

#5. Ongoing, job-embedded, teacher-driven professional development

The benefits of “one and you’re done” or “sit and git” workshop training days are minimal. Oftentimes there is little change in beliefs or behaviors after attending this type of PD. As an instructional coach, I am privileged to be in a district that values investing in teacher development and growth. I have worked in several other districts that have not approached professional development in the same way. Honoring teacher voices in this process is the way to foster systemic change and sustain improvements. Recently I joined a group of teachers as they collaborated on creating a teacher-friendly guided reading lesson plan format. It was so impressive to see how they bounced ideas off of one another, discussed their rationale and insights, or offered differing opinions on how to approach the plan. There was a lovely mix of synergy, respect, and affirmation. They knew what they were doing and they were doing it well. The next day, they decided to put in a request for half-day subs so everyone on the team could dig even deeper into their understanding and implementation of the new approach to guided reading. This is the type of professional development we need. No one at the district office or State Department of Education could do a better job of prescribing or designing effective training.

Ask the teachers. And most importantly, listen to them. They know. Trust me. They know. Trust them. They really know.


Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

stuffed duckLet’s play a little game. I’ll tell you some things about the inside of my car, and you tell me what you can discern about me from those details.

There’s an ice scraper on the floor and a foldable camp chair in the back.

There’s a copy of a 200-page unpublished novel with my name listed as the author.

CD selections range from the Carpenters to Queen Latifah to the soundtrack from “Shrek.” The backseat carpet is heavily stained. The backseat itself is covered in scuff marks.

There’s a brightly colored, handmade God’s eye hanging off the gear shift. There’s a stuffed duck dressed in a sailor’s outfit in the map pocket.

The glove compartment holds binoculars, mints, a prescription bottle full of quarters, and fast food coupons.

Okay, you get the picture.  My guess is that while you might misinterpret some of those details, there are actually several things you’d guess correctly about me based on knowing them.

You can turn this game into a fun character-building activity for student writers.  Ask them to describe one of the following settings connected to one of their own story characters: their character’s bedroom, locker at school, closet, or (for older characters), their car. Once they’ve created the description, have them trade with another student. Then the other student will try to guess something about the personality of their partner’s character, based on the description of that personal space. That tells the writer which details best reveal their character’s personality and circumstances, and therefore would make the best details to include in their actual story.

Students could also do this as a compare/contrast activity by describing the bedroom or locker of two or more key characters in their story.

Young writers will find that they can convey a whole lot about a character by giving readers a chance to peek into their characters’ personal spaces.


What’s Best for the Story?

Page Break


I’ve Been Enchanted

The Hotel CatThis is a rare admission from me because it’s about a book whose main characters are animals. I’ve stated before in this column that animal books have never been a favorite of mine, even as a child. Surely there are others of you out there who are too shy to admit the same thing?

In my determination to read older children’s books that I haven’t read before, I’ve just finished a book that has shown me I can adore books about animals: The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill, a Jenny’s Cat Club book. First published in 1969, this is the penultimate book in Averill’s 13-book series that begins with The Cat Club, published in 1944.

I liked this one so well that I’m going to track down all of the other books that come before it and some of Averill’s other books as well.

Her cats are always cats. Even though they speak cat talk, and at least in The Hotel Cat they can talk with a human who understands cat talk, their thoughts and dialogue and actions always seem cat-like.

Tom, the stray who wanders into the Royal Hotel, an older but genteel 300-room hotel in Greenwich Village, is welcomed by Fred, the janitor, and given a place to stay. Tom eventually explores the hotel, staying out of sight of the humans, until kind and thoughtful Mrs. Wilkins, a long-term resident of the hotel, discovers him in the ballroom. The two become tender-hearted friends because Mrs. Wilkins is that character who understands cat talk. She meets Tom late each night for a conversation, always remembering to bring Tom a treat.

It’s the winter of the Big Freeze, and neighboring residents are moving to the hotel with their cats because their boilers are bursting. Tom is very protective of his hotel until Mrs. Wilkins encourages him to be friendly, an accommodating and compassionate host. Three of the new hotel guests are Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers.

Esther Averill

illustration copyright Esther Averill

It’s a book about making friends and sharing and learning how to talk in a kind and thoughtful way. Tom worries about losing his new friends when all the boilers are fixed. He learns about the Cat Club and tries hard not to feel left out. These are all feelings every child knows well.

Because Averill’s writing is so spare, with words appropriately evocative, this book (and presumably the others) would make a great read-aloud for classrooms and families. What fun it is to read the cat talk out loud!

Esther AverillAnd now that I’ve fallen in love with her writing, I had to know more about the author and illustrator. I’ll keep looking for more information about Esther Averill but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve found.

She graduated from Vassar College, wrote for Women’s Wear Daily, then moved to Paris. There, she founded Domino Press to publish children’s books with European illustrators. She paid as much attention to book design and production as she did to content and illustration—the books were topnotch. When Nazis threatened to overtake Paris, Averill returned to the United States and once again published books through Domino Press. She went to work at the New York Public Library and then began writing and illustrating her own books. Don’t you want to invite her to lunch?

Here’s an article that Ms. Averill wrote for The Horn Book in 1957. If you wonder about the distinction between picture books, illustrated books, and picture storybooks, this article will enlighten you. In it, she critically reviewed the Caldecott winners from 1938 to 1957. 

I enjoyed this article by Anita Silvey about Jenny and the Cat Club for Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac

You can research Esther Averill’s work, including The Hotel Cat, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and at the DeGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.


The Hotel Cat 
written and illustrated by Esther Averill
The New York Review of Books, 2005
originally published in 1969


Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

Once there were two bears. Big Bear and Little Bear. Big Bear is the big bear, and Little Bear is the little bear. They played all day in the bright sunlight. When night came, and the sun went down, Big Bear took Little Bear home to the Bear Cave….

There was a time—and it doesn’t seem that long ago, I might add—that this gentle book was read in our own Bear Cave on a daily basis. I know there are other Big Bear and Little Bear books, but we never had them. We had just this one—Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?­­ And we loved it—both the kids and the parents.

The kids delighted in the little jokes in the words and illustrations. Big Bear is the big bear and Little Bear is the little bear was hilarious to #1 Son. Darling Daughter loved Little Bear’s acrobatics in bed when he was supposed to be settling down to sleep. (She was perhaps all too inspired by them, in fact.)

And I loved it because….well, Can’t You Sleep Little Bear is one of those books that features inspired parenting. As a parent who read a lot to the kids, I always appreciated having parental role models in the books I read—wise and understanding mothers, kind and empathetic fathers. Parents who seem to be at their best in sometimes difficult or harried circumstances (like with the child who won’t go to sleep)—not perfect, seldom perfect, in fact—but rather, simply wise people who know how to take a deep breath, ask a pertinent question, and lead the child through to the resolution if there was one to be had.

Big Bear is an inspirational Dad. He may be exhausted, but he has remarkable patience at the end of a day spent playing in bright sunlight. Sure, he grumbles a bit that he has to put down his Bear Book just when it’s getting to the interesting part—but he does put it down, and he gently addresses the situation, with nary a hint of impatience. Again and again he goes to his Little Bear who is turning flip-flops on the bed and says “Can’t you sleep, Little Bear?” (He does not yell from the other room: “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WILL YOU GO TO SLEEP?!”)

And when Little Bear says he’s scared, Big Bear does not say “There’s nothing to be afraid of…” No, he asks what Little Bear is scared about. “I don’t like the dark,” [says] Little Bear. Big Bear asks a clarifying question. “What dark?” And Little Bear tells him,“The dark all around us.” (We used to divvy up these lines when we read the book together. I’d say “What dark?” and they’d say, “The Dark All Around!” with very dramatic inflection.)

Big Bear looks, and he sees that the dark part of the cave is very dark, so he goes to the Lantern Cupboard and brings a small light to Little Bear. He does this several times, in fact. A larger light each time.

It’s the Lantern Cupboard that gets me. Each time Little Bear protests the dark, Big Bear brings a larger light to vanquish the darkness that is all around. From the Lantern Cupboard. I’d read that and think: shouldn’t we all have a Lantern Cupboard? With different sized lights as might be needed for different and particular situations? I’m sure I’d be a better parent if I had access to a Lantern Cupboard.

In the end, the Big Bear and Little Bear leave the Bear Cave and go out where the darkness really is all around. And Little Bear is scared, but Big Bear encourages him to look . “Look at the dark, Little Bear.” And little bear does. In the safety of Big Bear’s arms, he looks at the darkness. And in the midst of the vast darkness, he sees the moon and the twinkly stars, too.

And this, I think, is what it is to parent—Lantern Cupboard or no. We light the lights against the darkness…we go with them when and where we can…we offer our love with our strong arms wrapped around them so they can be brave and look out at all that is out there…and, hopefully, be surprised by the moon and the twinkly stars, too.


Skinny Dip with April Whatley Bedford

April Whatley Bedford

April Whatley Bedford

We interviewed April Whatley Bedford, lifelong reader, currently the Dean of the School of Education at Brooklyn College.

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

Can I choose two? I would love to have coffee with Michelle and Barack Obama, either together or individually. I’m sure I’m not alone in this answer, but there are no two people I admire more in the world, and I also believe we would laugh a lot during our conversations.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

The Girl Who Drank the MoonThis changes on a frequent basis, but I just finished reading the most recent Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since I finished it. Kelly Barnhill’s beautiful language, the world she imagined and described in such exquisite detail, the ultimate message of hope and forgiveness … I could go on and on about this book. I feel sure that the well-deserved award will bring this book to the attention of more readers—of every age—who need to know about it.

Favorite city to visit?

Until I was fortunate enough to live in them, my two favorite cities to visit were always New Orleans, where I lived for 15 years, and New York City, where I have lived for the past three. Now my favorite city to visit is San Francisco, but I also dream of living in Paris sometime. There is never enough time to explore all the wonders of each of these unique and culturally rich cities, and they all have pretty fantastic food, too.

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Radiant ChildAgain, I could never pick just one but I am currently swooning over Javaka Steptoe’s spectacular Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat! Since I moved to Brooklyn, I have become friends with Javaka, and when his name was called in Atlanta at the ALA Youth Media Awards first for the Coretta Scott King medal and then for the Caldecott, I couldn’t stop screaming. He showed me a draft of the book on his iPad about a year before it was published, and I was counting the days until I could see it in print. His collages, evoking the style of Basquiat but pure Javaka, are so captivating to me. We invited the fifth graders from a local partner school, PS 119, to hear him speak at Brooklyn College just a few weeks before ALA Mid-Winter and gave them each a signed copy of Radiant Child. Being able to connect children with authors and illustrators is one of the great joys of my personal and professional life, and I was thrilled to be able to call the principal of PS 119 after the awards ceremony with the wonderful news that she could share with all of her fifth-graders. I am definitely one of Javaka’s biggest fans!

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Growing up in Texas, I was always a summer sun worshiper, but since moving to New York, I’ve grown very fond of the fall. As a teacher, the beginning of a new school year has always seemed like the real New Year’s for me, but most of my life I lived in places that really didn’t have four separate seasons. There’s just an excitement in the air as the season changes from summer to fall that I love. I’m still not a fan of New York winters, but it’s pretty hard to beat the holiday season in the city.

Autumn in New York, Central Park, New York Ciity

What gives you shivers?

Sunsets, fireworks, candlelight, shooting stars, lightening bugs, waterfalls, the ocean…all in a good way.

Morning person? Night person?

Most definitely a night person.

Your hope for the world?

My greatest hope for the world, especially during these difficult days, is that we are all able to expect kindness and compassion from one another.


Seeing the Signs

Ice Cream!Fast food signs taught my twin nephews to read when they were only two.

They couldn’t whip out the dictionary and rattle off definitions. But they could spot a familiar logo and correctly assign language and context to it. The big golden “M” meant a possible lunch break; “DQ” meant ice cream; “SA” was for bathroom breaks. In my book, they were reading, if only on a rudimentary level.

Drivers tend to stop noticing how frequently those same signs appear along the roadside. But if you’ve told the backseat duo that you’ll buy them some ice cream, trust me—there’s no way you’ll be allowed to overlook the next “DQ.”

There are a couple of “bad” writing habits that work something the same way. These habits tend to be scattered all over our writing, but we often overlook them—until we make it our specific mission to notice how often they pop up.

The first habit is overusing some form of the verb “feel”: “felt,” “feeling,” etc. Examples are: “He felt angry.” “She’s feeling sad.” There’s a stronger way to convey that emotion—in writers’ lingo, you want to “show” instead of “tell” your reader how the character is feeling. Instead of saying he felt angry, have him kick the wall. Instead of telling us she’s sad, have her weep. The emotions will be more intense, and the writing will be stronger.

The second habit is overusing adverbs. Look for any words ending in “ly.” Then work to reduce these adverbs while also fortifying the verbs they modify. An example? Instead of saying, “He ran quickly,” say “He raced.”

So here’s a quick revision tip: Have your students scan their documents, circling or highlighting any form of “feel,” and any “ly” endings (or if it’s computerized document, they can use the “find and replace” function). Then have them follow the advice above to strengthen their writing.

Once they see how much difference these quick fixes can make, you won’t even have to bribe them with ice cream.


Miles to Go

Page Break Lynne Jonell


Our Hearts Will Hold Us Up

Jackie: It seems perfectly appropriate that the Manager of Holiday Placement  has placed Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love and affection, right in the middle of cold, dark February. I want that celebration to spread out for the whole month (why not the whole year?) the way the smell of baking bread fills an entire house, not just the kitchen. Why can’t all of February be Heart Month? We are choosing books this month with that goal in mind. We want to celebrate heart, love, ties of affection. And we have chosen a new book, a couple of medium new books and an old book to help us.

More, More, More Said the BabyA while back we did an entire column on Vera B. Williams. But I am still missing her. I need her political activism and her huge heart in my neighborhood. I turned to More, More, More Said the Baby. (Greenwillow, 1990). 

This book is a huge celebration of the love between daddies and kids:

Just look at you
With your perfect belly button
Right in the middle
Right in the middle
Right in the middle
Of your fat little belly.
Then Little Guy’s daddy
Brings that baby
Right up close
And gives that little guy’s belly
A kiss right I the middle
Of the belly button.

Between grandmas and kids:

Then Little Pumpkin’s grandma
Brings that baby right up close
And tastes each
Of Little Pumpkin’s toes.

And mamas and kids:

Just look at you
With your two closed eyes
Then Little Bird’s Mama…
Gives that little bird a kiss
Right on each of her little eyes.

I never tire of reading about these children, diverse children, who are so loved and so valued. This book will be fresh as long as we laugh and kiss babies with belly buttons and ten little toes.

Phyllis:; I miss Vera B. Williams, too, and I love seeing her spirit still alive in her books and also in the hearts of people everywhere who care about people everywhere. Her language in More More More is so delicious–along with the repetition we have lively verbs of interaction between grown-ups and beloved children (swing, scoot, catch that baby up).  Little Guy, Little Pumpkin, and Little Bird have names that could be any child’s. I love, too, the exuberant art and hand lettered multi-colored text. Everything about this book celebrates taking joy in our children.

My Heart Will Not Sit DownJackie: In My Heart Will Not Sit Down, (Alfred Knopf, 2012) empathy and caring for others travel around the world. Rockliff creates a school child Kedi, who hears from her teacher about the hungry children in New York City and cannot stop thinking about them. She asks her mother for a coin to send them. Her mother says they have no coins to spare. “Kedi knew Mama was right. Still, her heart would not sit down.” She asks an uncle, a sweeping mother with a baby on her back, a grandmother pounding cassava, laughing girls who carried pots of river water, old men playing a game of stones, even the headman. No one has coins… Until the next morning when her mama gives her one coin. She takes the coin to school, thinking that one coin can do little good for the hungry children. Then the villagers show up—each bearing a coin. “We have heard about the hunger in our teacher’s village,” said the headman. “Our hearts would not sit down until we helped.” 

Phyllis:  This is one of those books that called to me from the shelf in a bookstore and captivated my heart once I opened it. Kedi’s heart stands up for the hungry children in New York, America, as she calls it. When the villagers bring their coins, which the author notes would be a small fortune to the village even though $3.77 would not go far in America even in the Depression, her mama asks, “Now will your heart sit down in peace?” Kedi answers, “Yes, Mama, Yes!”  The author notes, too, that in Cameroon, where the event occurred on which the story is based, people shared with anyone in need, even strangers, because, as they said, “You may meet him [a stranger] again, and in his own place.” This story reminds me that the actions of one small person can touch many hearts and feed hungry children.

The Heart and the BottleJackie: Hearts can spur us to action. Hearts can break. And the last two books are gentle stories of the heartache of loss. Oliver Jeffers writes of a “little girl…whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.” Jeffers shows us this little girl talking with her grandpa who sits in a chair, lying under the stars with her grandpa. He accompanies her on all her explores. And then one day the chair is empty. She decides to put her heart in a bottle to keep it safe. After that she wasn’t curious. She grows up and the bottled heart is heavy around her neck.  When she wishes to retrieve her heart she can’t—until she meets another little girl.

This is a story about dealing with sadness—we want to protect our hearts but we lose so much when we wall them up.

Phyllis:  Oliver Jeffers both wrote and illustrated The Heart and the Bottle, and the illustrations help carry the events and the emotions of the story.  When the girl who has bottled her heart decides as a grown-up to take her heart out again, the art shows her trying to shake the heart out, grip it with pliers, break the bottle with a hammer, and finally, abandoning her work bench covered with a drill, a cross cut saw, a wooden mallet, screwdriver, and other assorted tools including a vacuum cleaner leaning again the bench, she climbs a ladder to the top of an enormously tall brick wall and drops the bottle which still doesn’t break but just “bounced and rolled…right down to the sea” where a little girl easily frees the heart from the bottle and returns it.  The book ends, “The heart was put back where it came from.  And the chair wasn’t empty anymore. But the bottle was.” Here, too, the art reflects that the woman’s  world is once again filled with wonder.  We need our hearts within us.

Cry, Heart, But Never BreakJackie: Cry, Heart, But Never Break comes to us from Denmark. It was written by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi and translated by Robert Moulthrop (Enchanted Lion Books, 2016).  This book also deals with loss. Four children live with their grandmother—“A kindly woman, she had cared for them for many years.” Then Death knocks at the door. The children decide to forestall Death’s mission with coffee. They will keep him drinking coffee all night so he cannot take their grandmother, thus giving her another day of life. Eventually he has had enough. And one of the children asks why grandmother has to die. And then comes: “Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” He tells them a story of Sorrow and Grief meeting and falling in love with Delight and Joy. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

When Death goes to the Grandmother’s room, he says to the children, “Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness begin a new life.” Charlotte Pardi’s illustrations are perfect for this book, simple and tender. We see what appears to be quickly-sketched furniture in the night kitchen—we know this is a story. And yet we connect with the emotions on the children’s faces.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Never Break. Illustration © Charlotte Pardi.

Phyllis: I love that the children ply Death with coffee, which Death loves, strong and black, and that it’s the youngest child who looks right at Death and eventually puts her hand over his. But even coffee can’t stop Death; when he goes  upstairs the children hear the window open and Death say, “Fly, soul, fly away.” Their hearts grieve and cry but do not break. Some (but not all) of the best books about Death come, interestingly, from other countries. But this book is not only about Death it is about the necessity of a life with both sorrow and grief and also joy and delight. This is a book that makes me cry and hope for all our hearts that they never completely break.

Jackie: We started with connection—the connections of babies and families, and we have come round to loss of connection, when what remains is love. Our hearts will hold us up.


Merna Ann Hecht and Our Table of Memories

Merna Ann Hecht

Merna Ann Hecht

When one poet, Merna Ann Hecht, and one educator, Carrie Stradley, observed their community, their schools, their students, and realized that a plethora of life experiences surrounded them, they put their teaching and their hearts together to create The Stories of Arrival: Refugee and Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project at Foster High School, in Tukwila, Washington.

These weren’t typical high school stories. Instead, these students have experiences of leaving their homes, their friends, their schools, their countries … to emigrate to America, where life is often astoundingly different.

Encouraging these English Language Learning students, more than 240 of them over the past six years from 30 countries, to communicate their stories through poetry helps to empower them to find their voices and move confidently into their chosen futures (a paraphrase of the project’s mission).

Stories of Our Arrival

Combine this project with another, Project Feast, and you have not only a cookbook of worldwide appeal but a book of poetry that is often eye-opening, compassionate, and heartrending. A recipe for understanding. A taste of the memories, travels, and longing behind the poets’ words.

Together with their partners The Institute for Poetic Medicine (Palo Alto, CA), the Jack Straw Cultural Center (Seattle, WA), and Chatwin Books (Seattle, WA), these two women and their projects have created Our Table of Memories: Food & Poetry of Spirit, Homeland & Tradition. It’s a beautiful book, part poetry by high school students, part recipes from the traditional cooks from their countries, and part art with illustrations by Morgan Wright, a recent college graduate, newly enrolled in New York City’s Bank Street College to pursue her Master of Arts in teaching.

By publishing this interview with Merna Hecht, it is the hope of Bookology‘s editors that you will be inspired to consider a program like this in your own community. Feel free to contact Merna with your questions.

  Can you tell us a bit about your life, in particular what pulled you toward poetry?

 There is not a moment I can recall when I wasn’t pulled toward poetry. I first heard the incantatory rhythms of poems from my grandfather who gave beautiful, memorized recitations of Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. I think it was second grade when I began writing rhymed poems. Those childhood poems were shaped by what then seemed the magic of the natural world. Noticing details of bugs, petals, leaves, cracks in the sidewalks on my way to and from school often made me late. At the time it seemed like a secret world. Now I think that early impulse for close observation and a deeply private inner world have shaped the poet I’ve become. I have always turned toward poetry to nourish my spirit. As a young woman, I began to read many different poets who spoke to me, challenged me, provoked me and opened my eyes and heart to the beauty and suffering of the world; I’ve not stopped turning these pages. Poetry is the place where I find a wellspring for expression of what seems most tender, most true and most unsayable. 

How did you find your way to teaching?

By a somewhat gnarled and twisted path and I’m so glad I got there! I was a registered nurse by the age of 21 and worked for five years as a pediatric nurse. I usually carried finger puppets in my pockets and offered impromptu storied puppet shows at children’s bedsides. Then came a realization that I much preferred the storytelling and puppets to the nursing! “The rest is history,” from working with midwives on the Navaho reservation, to jaunting about as a puppeteer and poet in the schools in rural Idaho, to earning a Masters Degree as a children’s librarian. Under the tutelage of master storyteller, Professor Spencer Shaw at the University of WA, I fell in love with the art and craft of tale-spinning. Fast forward to working as a children’s librarian for Seattle Public Library to my first formal teaching job in a progressive teacher certification program and onward to becoming a teaching artist and a university lecturer.

You’re nationally known as a storyteller. In 2008, the National Storytelling Network presented you with their Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling, with which you created a pilot program as a poet and storyteller at Bridges: A Center for Grieving Children in Tacoma. Can you tell us about applied storytelling? What does that mean and how do your stories work toward that specific application?

These days, storytellers show up in many places: detention centers, hospitals, war torn countries at centers for young people in trauma and drug rehab facilities for teens. These raconteurs bring the age old pleasure of listening to a tale well told. This allows young people (and all of us) to temporarily walk in someone else’s shoes; it sparks the imagination to life. Through ancient patterns of myth and folktales stories can allow a trust in possibilities to take hold. To apply storytelling in settings for young people and adults who have experienced loss or trauma helps create safe space and gathering places where deep listening can occur. There are universal truths in stories from all cultures. Many stories reflect the inevitability of loss in human life and they speak to our interconnectedness to each other, to animals, trees, the moon, the stars and to mysteries beyond us. In this way stories can ease a sense of isolation and loneliness. Finding the right story for a situation, a group, or an individual is part of applying storytelling to special settings and using stories to help others trust that they can overcome obstacles and find their inner strength and courage.

What drew you toward working with refugee and immigrant children?

The short answer is that these young people are my teachers! Their determination to succeed in high school, continue on to college and contribute to this country and/or to return to their homeland to help others inspires me and gives me hope. They dream of becoming doctors, nurses, peace-makers, environmentalists, actors, pilots and they do not bemoan the difficulties they have experienced at such a young age. Loss of family members, life in refugee camps, forced migrations, lack of enough food, health care, education and still they are model citizens. They are young people who are hopeful, curious, and deeply kind who wish to help create a more peaceful, humane world.

Stories of Our Arrival poets

The Stories of Our Arrival poets. Educators Carrie Stradley (front row, left) and Merna Hecht (front row, second from right) feel privileged to have worked with more than 240 students over the past six years from 30 countries.

You’re an organic gardener with respect for food traditions. How did this inspire you for Project Feast and how did the idea of the cookbook, Our Table of Memories, with poetry and illustrations come into being?

Our Table of MemoriesWhen I heard about Project Feast and found that it was located within a mile of the school my idea for a collaboration sprang in part from years of “hands on” intensive gardening and cooking and from a passion for exploring different ways people across the globe prepare and share food. This love of cross cultural food is something Carrie and I share. When she heard the idea for collaborating with Project Feast her eyes lit up with a “yes!” We both recognize that when people leave their homelands, a deep sense of home remains with them, in part, with eating and growing the foods of their cultures. We felt that a food-themed project would generate a rich outpouring of poems. Given that food and poetry both speak languages of flavor, scent, spice, texture, and color we wanted to include illustrations that would reflect the sensory feel of the poems—to create a presentation much like a memorable meal which the eye feasts upon before the palette! We also wanted to celebrate our students and the refugee women of Project Feast by including beloved recipes from their memories, their families and their homelands.

 Can you share a particular story from this Project that gave everyone hope?

One of Carrie’s ELL classes had fourteen boys and only two girls. Hope certainly flourishes when a group of adolescent boys, all refugees from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, openly support and applaud each other for writing poems that are vulnerable and emotionally expressive. Hope flourishes when they tell us that they’ve found their voices and a way to tell their stories through poetry. At the project’s conclusion those who wished to apply for a scholarship were asked to reflect on what they learned from poetry. Their replies filled us with hope and in truth, with tears, here are a few short excerpts:

Khai, from Burma

I can speak the truth in the poem I wrote… Poems will make other people understand us (immigrants). As an immigrant and a lot of others who are just like me, we have a vastly hard life… One of the ways that we can explain our painful past is only by a POEM, it is the only way to make a connection with everyone; poems make us two in one. Poems are vastly crucial to all of us because poems are ALIVE! There is peace, love, friends, family, and much more in a poem. This is why poems are extremely important to us (immigrants) and to everyone who has a heart.

Abdi A.

Abdi A.

Abdi A., from Somalia

I was born in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, and lived there most of my life. Writing poems helped me remember and appreciate what I have now and also helped non-immigrants to have a better understanding of what is it really like to be a young boy with a hopeless dream of becoming a doctor. I remember a white man who worked with the IOM asking me what my dream was and I told him I wanted to be a doctor and laughed at myself because I thought it was ridiculous and ‘’too big’’ for someone like me. But here I am today living a happy life and working towards my dream… Poetry doesn’t just show us how much we share, it helps us see the world in an entirely different way. When I heard Kang Pu’s poem about how his mom died and the struggle that his family had and how the government didn’t even help, I understood him better… Poetry is universal. ELLs can learn about or read poetry in their primary language, helping them bridge their worlds… I plan on going to a four-year college and I still have that dream of becoming a doctor, so I can go back home one day and help the sick and the needy.

Has there been an effort made to replicate this project in other high schools around the country?

This is a next step that project co-director and ELL teacher extraordinaire, Carrie and I have wanted and intend to accomplish. Along with the wonderful engagement and sage advice of John Fox, founder/director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, (we are proudly an IPM Poetry Partner Project) we intend to take the next step and publish a template of poetry prompts and activities along with a collection of resource material for replicating this poetry project.


The poems in this book are luscious but, to tempt you further, the recipes includes Doro wet: an Ethiopian Chicken Stew (pgs. 120-121), Arroz con Leche, (pgs. 130-131), Zawngtah: Burmese Tree Beans with Tilapia (pgs. 136-137), Orange Iraqi Teatime Cake (pgs. 154-155) and many more. Is  your mouth watering yet? Everything about this book is inviting … you will embrace it!

Publisher, Chatwin Books

Your Local Bookseller


Kang Pu

Kang Pu

Here’s a sample of one of the heart-touching poems in Our Table of Memories:

Kang Pu, from Burma

When my mom cooked it smelled of sweet wintertime cherries,
of a solitary forest with rain falling
and it smelled like the murmur of a lonely bird, singing,
I picture the spherical smoke rising from her kitchen
it was like the sound of sleep at night,
it was like arriving home safe and sound
the sounds of her kitchen were peaceful. 

I still long for the laughter of those family meals
we all waited for that table, my mom’s table,
how she prepared every family meal,
this is what I still long for,
so often I remember my mother
nothing can take her memory away from me,
it is truly difficult that I have departed
from my motherland,
and from my mother’s kitchen.

The reason I wrote this poem is for memories of my mom and her kitchen. It was difficult for me to write this poem because I still long for my mother’s kitchen. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to study. Yet, no matter how far away from my parents, I am still holding their lessons and still using what they taught me. Without lessons from parents it’s hard to be in community with others and hard to stand on your own.

Nathaly Rosas

Nathaly Rosas

And another sample:

Nathaly Rosas, from Mexico

I am from a place where
The food is an art and every bite
Is a spicy piece of our culture.
Where the smells call you to enjoy
And the flavors take you to your memories.

Read more poems like these on Merna Hecht’s website.


“Stories of Immigration and Culture” poetry podcasts are available here, hosted by the Jack Straw Cultural Center.

Institute for Poetic Medicine, founded by John Fox, where Merna and Stories of Arrival are Poetry Partners.

Jack Straw Cultural Center

Stories of Arrival: Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project