A Must-Have Non-Fiction Chapter Book

As an upper elementary school teacher, it’s hard to find interesting and well-written non-fiction texts for kids ages 8-12. Non-fiction books for younger readers are easy to find, with amazing authors like Seymour Simon and Gail Gibbons. For middle-school-aged students, there are plenty of narrative non-fiction chapter books that are engaging. But for the middle-level reader, there seems to be an absence of rich, substantive non-fiction books for them to grow their skills as readers of this genre.

That’s why I get SO very excited when I discover a non-fiction book that is not only interesting and well-written, but perfect for this age group. Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends is one of these books.

Kid Artists… by David Stabler focuses on the childhoods of the most well-known artists, their lives before they became famous. The reader does not even need to know who the artist is in order to appreciate their experiences growing up. This book humanizes the legends, from Dr. Seuss to Keith Haring.

Each chapter features a different artist and the book is organized into three different sections: Call of the Wild, It’s a Hard-Knock Life, and Practice Makes Perfect.

For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s chapter is in the section Call of the Wild because she grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and drew so much of her inspiration from nature and the world around her. In her childhood, Georgia O’Keefe challenged gender norms, from her favorite pastimes to her preferred clothing. Readers can easily relate to the competitive dynamic among siblings as well as receiving and responding to academic criticism. For Georgia O’Keefe, art became a way of expressing herself and communicating with others.

 

Kids will be delighted to read the chapter about Ted Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss. Ted Geisel grew up near a zoo and he spent a lot of time as a child studying and drawing animals, though his drawings did not resemble the real living ones. His animals were imaginary and wonderful. Word-play was also a big part of his upbringing, which contributed to his interest in language.

When the U.S. went to war with Germany, Ted Geisel became the target of teasing for being a German-American. He stood up to the bullying and became determined to demonstrate his patriotism. Kids will learn about the importance of advocating for social justice and how Ted Geisel’s own experiences with discrimination and intolerance influenced his work as a children’s book creator.

There are so many aspects of Kid Artists that make it a strong non-fiction book. It is ideal in that it is organized into sections and chapters. Kids can examine why the author made the decision to arrange the book this way and how each chapter connects to the greater section. Within each chapter, readers can be challenged to examine the cause and effect relationships, how events or experiences in each artist’s childhood impacted his/her later work. Not to mention, readers do not have to read this book from beginning to end, they can use the table of contents to decide what chapters are interesting to them and read just those sections.

Doogie Horner’s illustrations are peppered throughout each chapter. They support the text, helping the reader envision elements of the text, while adding elements of humor to keep the reader engaged.

*I received a complimentary copy of Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends in exchange for my honest review.

 

Click here to purchase a copy of this book (affiliate link).

 

 

The Perfect Chapter Book for Friday the 13th

Warren the 13th is a peculiar 12-year-old boy and heir to the Warren Hotel. Saying he is hardworking is an understatement as he is the hotel’s bellhop, waiter, groundskeeper, and chimney sweep, among his huge list of other responsibilities. His father, Warren the 12th, passed away years ago and since he was too young to be in charge his uncle Rupert came to run things. Sadly for Warren, his uncle is rather lazy and at times exhibits evidence of narcolepsy, which led the hotel to fall quickly into disrepair.

One day a mysterious and unexpected guest arrives. His face is wrapped in bandages and he communicates by using a deck of picture cards. Despite how overwhelmingly strange this guest is, Warren does his best to be a great bellhop, welcoming him even though he seems unappreciative and impatient. Warren gives him the not so original nickname of Paleface.

When Warren’s wicked step-aunt Annaconda learns of the new guest’s arrival, she becomes irritated and paranoid. She asks many many questions and then starts asking if he mentioned the All-Seeing Eye, a mysterious treasure that is rumored to be hidden inside the hotel. We quickly learn that Annaconda is cruel, reminiscent of many of Roald Dahl’s evil characters, including the Twit and Miss Trunchbull. And thus begins the search for the All-Seeing Eye, each character trying to find it faster than the other.

Warren the 13th* is a clever and quirky book that fuses adventure and humor. The reader must pay close attention to small clues and keep track of details throughout this fast-paced chapter book. The Edward Gorey-esque illustrations by Will Staehle are really captivating and add to the emotion of the text.

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye is perfect for kids ages 8-14. This book would be a huge hit in my 4th grade class as a read aloud, and my 5th graders would have loved to read it independently. Click here to purchase a copy of the book (affiliate link). 

*I received a complimentary copy of Warren the 13th in exchange for my honest review.

 

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Pam Munoz Ryan is one of my favorite writers for kids ages 10-14. Her books have serious depth, with complex characters dealing with real-life issues that are not easily resolved. They go through significant changes, sometimes big and other times subtle, always with the help of important relationships. If you have young readers in your life and you want to expose them to some sophisticated texts, check out any of Pam Munoz Ryan’s books.

I was super excited to borrow Echo from the library. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a solid three months to read through it because we do have a young baby at home. When I reached suspenseful parts, I would find pockets of time to read it out loud to our little one just so I could find out what happens next.

The story begins with a young boy named Otto who meets three sisters in the forbidden forest. He learns that the sisters are trapped in the forest by a witch’s curse. They share with him the prophecy and they gift him a harmonica to pass on when the time is right.

The book is then divided into three sections, each belonging to a different preteen who encounters the harmonica and recognizes the magical quality it possesses. First we meet Friedrich living during the rise of Nazi Germany, whose face is marked by a large birthmark that so many cannot see beyond. Mike is an orphan living during the Great Depression who is fiercely loyal to his younger brother. Lastly, Ivy a young girl living in California whose family members are migrant workers. They move to Orange County to care for the farm of the Yamamoto family, who has been sent to an internment camp following the attack of Pearl Harbor.

Each section is beautifully crafted, infusing rich historical details of the different times and places without overwhelming the reader. These characters are brave, thoughtful and proponents of social change. The harmonica is the thread that connects their lives as it makes its way to the intended owner in order to fulfill the prophecy that will set the three sisters free.

Echo blends elements of fantasy in a mostly historical fiction book in an extraordinary way. This book is great for kids ages 10-14. Click here to purchase a copy of Echo (affiliate link).

Squanto’s Journey – A Different Perspective on Thanksgiving

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Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac is a must-have in every 3rd-6th grade classroom library. Written from the point of view of Squanto, it provides the often silenced Native American perspective on interactions with settlers from Europe. Squanto’s Journey shines a light on the harsh treatment of the Native Americans during these initial encounters.

For example, in 1614 Squanto and several other Natives were invited aboard a ship under the guise of sharing a feast, when in reality they were captured and taken to Spain where they were to be sold as slaves. Squanto was brave and determined to return back to his homeland. With the Friar’s help, he made his way to England. There he worked hard to master the English language, realizing that he could be of great value if he could serve as a translator between the English and the Native Americans.

Squanto’s Journey portrays the tensions between the Natives and the settlers. It teaches of the violence between the groups as well as an underlying distrust. It reveals that huge numbers of Natives were wiped out by sicknesses brought on by the settlers.

Despite all of this, the Natives played an integral role in the survival of the Pilgrims during this time. Throughout the story, Squanto remains optimistic that the Native Americans and settlers will be able to share the land peacefully.

Squanto’s Journey is an important picture book because it provides the point of view of an important figure in the history of the United States. It is a great way to introduce different perspectives and engage students in an open dialogue the real impact the settlers had on the Native Americans and their land. This picture book is ideal for children ages 7-12.

Click here to purchase a copy of Squanto’s Journey (affiliate link).

Saving Mr. Terupt

Saving Mr. Terupt is the 3rd book in this series by Rob Buyea. Each chapter of the book is written from the point of view of one of the seven different narrators. As this is the third book with the same characters, I began to feel very familiar with the characters as if I’m seeing them grow up before my eyes.

In the first book, Because of Mr. Terupt, the characters are in 5th grade. I’d recommend that book for use in 4th-5th grade classes. In the sequel Mr. Terupt Falls Again, the students are now in 6th grade and the content of the story becomes more mature. In this third book, Mr. Terupt’s crew has moved on to 7th grade at the local middle school. The content becomes more serious, dealing with bullying, health issues and school budgets. But once again, this is a story about friendship and perseverance.

I am a big fan of the Mr. Terupt series. I think the characters and the issues they face are realistic. I would recommend the 1st book to upper elementary aged students. This book may even make a great whole-class read aloud that taught into different points of view and the importance of empathy in life. In the past, I’ve had 4th and 5th graders devour the first book and then ask to read the next two. I usually check in with their parents, give them a heads up about the content and get the okay from them before lending out my copies. I would recommend the entire series for 6th grade and up.

Click here to purchase a copies of Because of Mr. TeruptMr. Terupt Falls Again, and  Saving Mr. Terupt (affiliate links). 

Books to Commemorate 9/11

Teaching in a New York City public school, it’s so important to commemorate September 11. This is not only part of our nation’s history, but something that has directly touched the lives of so many families in New York. Even though my students, being in 4th and 5th grades, were not yet born in 2001, 9/11 is a date that they too will never forget.

There are some phenomenal developmentally appropriate picture books to explore 9/11 with young learners.

For very young students (Kindergarten-2nd grade): The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein celebrates the two World Trade Center towers, which dominated the New York City skyline. It is the story of a French aerialist named Philippe Petit who tightrope walked between the two towers in 1974.

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My colleague recommended 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy for use in my 4th grade class.

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This story takes place in a small village in western Kenya in 2002. The main character Kemeli, returns to his home village and shares with his people, the Maasai the story of September and New York. Touched by the story of human suffering, the Maasai decide to bestow the gift of 14 cows to the Americans.

When I introduced the story to my students they asked, “Why cows? What does this have to do with September 11?” After reading the story, I asked the class, “So, why cows?” They were able to understand that the cow represented life for the Maasai people. The gift of 14 cows was a symbol of their empathy for the Americans.

A third book to commemorate 9/11 is Fireboat by Maira Kalman. This book explains the events of September 11 in as kid-friendly a way as possible.

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The story begins by describing the John J. Harvey a fireboat that served New York City from 1930-1990s, when it was retired. It includes the building of the Empire State Building and the completion of the George Washington Bridge. On the tragic day in September, the John J. Harvey is called out of retirement to serve the City once again. This is a story of community and coming together during an unimaginable time in our history.

A Remarkable Book About Starting Over

Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan was a popular book in my 5th grade class last year. It was one of those books that students asked to read even though it was above most of their reading levels.

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Intended for students in grade 5 and up, Counting By 7s is the remarkable story about Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius whose adoptive parents are killed in a car accident at the very beginning of the story. Though Willow is highly intelligent, she has a difficult time navigating social interactions. To say that she is misunderstood is an understatement. For example, she aces a school test, and is then recommended for counseling because the administration thinks she cheated. At the same time, Willow is unusual. She learns Vietnamese in order to impress a new friend, Mai. She is an expert botanist, with an unprecedented appreciation for plants.

Through the story the reader is challenged to examine the little things, or perhaps the more subtle things, in life.

“Open your eyes, people. This is amazing. If plants made sounds, it would all be different. But they communicate with color and shape and size and texture. They don’t meow or bark or tweet. We think they don’t have eyes, but they see the angle of the sun and the rise of the moon. They don’t just feel the wind; they change because of it. Before you think I’m crazy (which is always a possibility), look outside. Right now. I’m hoping that your view isn’t of a parking lot or the side of a building.”

(As I read Counting By 7s, I found myself literally laughing out loud many times. This was just one of them.)

Willow moves in with Mai, her mother Pattie and her brother Quang-ha. Pattie is a strong woman who owns her own nail salon. She wishes the only color nail polish they used was red, since it symbolizes luck. Pattie shows us that sometimes you have to take a chance and open your heart, and in this case home, to someone in need. Throughout the story, she provides the voice of reason. She responds to challenges quickly and with confidence. Pattie says, “What we expect rarely occurs; what we don’t expect is what happens,” which summarizes not only what is happening in the story, but what happens in our lives.

For many of the characters, Willow brings about positive changes, not before forcing them to take a hard look at their lives and take responsibility for their actions. One by one, the characters confront their obstacles and they gain the courage to move forward. At one point, Mai’s brother Quang-ha, with whom Willow has had a strained relationship, says, “I don’t want to know how you did it. I want to believe that you’re magic.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review about The Book Thief and I said, if you read just one more book…, well now I’m revising that to say, please read two more books. Holly Goldberg Sloan brings to life several complex characters in this heartbreaking then heart-mending story. This is a story about life and loss, friendship and love, and having the strength and courage to move forward.

Revisiting Texts that Address Bullying

About a year ago I wrote a post about picture books that address bullying, an important topic in school communities today. This summer I am enrolled in a class on Contemporary Adolescent Literature. One of the books we were assigned to read is Please Stop Laughing at Me by Jodee Blanco. I found this to be a powerful text about Jodee’s firsthand experience with bullying from her last years of elementary school through high school. Though it is a text that one might consider using with high-school-aged children, the content and level of physical, verbal and emotional bullying Jodee experiences make this not a suitable text for a younger audience.

Our course instructor then recommended All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. This is a short story about a group of children in a school on Venus. It had been raining on Venus for seven years straight and according to scientists the sun was coming out that day. Among this group of 9 year olds is Margot. She stands apart from the children. Margot is different from the other kids, she was born on Earth.

The narrator describes Margot in the lines, “She was different and they knew her difference and kept away. There was talk that her father and mother were taking her back to Earth next year; it seemed vital to her that they do so, though it would mean the loss of thousands of dollars to her family. And so, the children hated her for all these reasons of big and little consequence. They hated her pale snow face, her waiting silence, her thinness, and her possible future.” The children in this story torment Margot and there is evidence of physical, verbal and social bullying. They end up locking her in the closet and forgetting her there when suddenly the sun comes up and they all run outside. When the children return to the classroom, saddened that the sun has vanished and will not reappear for another seven years, they realize that Margot was still trapped in the closet. Bradbury slows down this part of the scene in the passage,

They stood as if someone had driven them, like so many stakes, into the floor. They looked at each other and then looked away. They glanced out at the world that was raining now and raining and raining steadily. They could not meet each other’s glances. Their faces were solemn and pale. They looked at their hands and feet, their faces down.

Then the story ends with the children unlocking the door and Margot emerging.

In addition to being a story about bullying, this is a tale about jealousy and difference. I would definitely use this short story in my class to engage students in a conversation about bullying and the treatment of others. The ending of the story sets readers up for a conversation about the actions of Margot’s classmates and their repercussions. Students can be asked to consider how the children in the story feel when they realize Margot was trapped in the closet and how this experience may or may not impact their treatment of her in the future. In addition, they can be asked to consider how Margot feels at the end of the story.

This is an important text that challenges students to consider their actions and the way they engage with their peers.

How do you introduce the issue of bullying in your classrooms? Do you use texts to engage students in discussions about bullying and its consequences? If so, which ones?