How Fantasy Helps Process Real-World Heartache 

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” 

-Lloyd Alexander 

This is the season of vacations – be it a trip across the world, a weekend away, or even just a relaxing day spent by the pool. Can you guess the easiest and most direct way to head out on an adventure? To pick up a book, of course! You can go just about anywhere on the written page, but when you step into Fantasy, those destinations often defy even the wildest and broadest strokes of your imagination. 

Fantasy is a genre that features magical and supernatural elements that are absent from the “real” world. The mythical, the magical, the fantastical – or even a combination of all three. Think: a school dedicated to all sorts of magic users, or dragon eggs in Brooklyn, or even seaside towns bursting at the seams with larger-than-life monsters.  

Just one of many wonderful things about Fantasy is that it allows readers to escape. Often, though, it’s more than just a first class escapism ticket. You’re so drawn in by the razzle-dazzle of the magic systems, the mythical creatures, and the strange, new worlds that you don’t realize your defenses are being lowered. And by the time you understand what’s happening, you’re in the thick of processing the struggles faced by the characters. Bigger than that – you see that these problems and heartbreaks aren’t too different from your own.  

This month, we gather at the Lamp-Post with three titles that perfectly capture such a vital gift that kids and grown-ups alike can appreciate: Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, and Malamander by Thomas Taylor. 

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By stepping into the world of Upside-Down Magic, you meet Nory Horace the night before what is arguably the most important day of her life. She’s facing the entrance exam for the prestigious Sage Academy, but her magic is “wonky.” Instead of turning into a sweet little kitten, her kitten is mixed with a beaver, resulting in a “bitten” and the destruction in Nory’s father’s wood-filled office. However, Nory’s brother, sister, and father have never struggled to control their magic, and it leaves Nory with no one to turn to for help.  

When the morning of the exam arrives, Nory fails… miserably. She lands an immediate rejection from Sage Academy, is sent away to live with her aunt, and is enrolled at the Dunnwiddle Magic School to join a class for kids with Upside-Down Magic. 

Readers are dropped into a world that looks just like ours, but magic is everywhere and running through everyone. For example, Nory hardly bats an eye at her Aunt Margo, who works as a flying taxi, soaring “over black blobs that looked like forests, and black blobs that looked like buildings.”  

What brings Nory pause, though, are the other students in her Upside-Down Magic class. Among the unforgettable roster, there’s Elliot, a Flare who can only turn things to ice; Andres, a Flyer who has to be tethered at all times lest he drift off; and Pepper, a Fuzzie who can only make the animals in vicinity react in terror. Each student arrives with the impression that something is wrong with them, that something needs to change. It’s why Nory very quickly takes it upon herself to create a “box of normal” in an effort to fix her powers, test out of the UDM class, and return home.  

The other students at Dunnwiddle see the UDM kids as different, “dangerous” even. Nory’s own father deemed her magic “damaged” and refuses to contact her throughout the book. For many kids, their view of themselves stems largely from how those they’re closest to describe and perceive them. When those people say hurtful things, it leaves wounds that are long-lasting. 

With the unconventional lessons and constant encouragement from the UDM teacher, Ms. Starr, Nory begins to accept herself as she is. Something as simple as changing her verbiage does wonders for Nory’s self-worth: “We won’t use wonky, either. It’s not polite or kind. Instead, we will say different, or upside down.” There also comes the understanding that Nory shouldn’t have to contain herself to that “box of normal,” not when that box leaves out so much of what makes her unique. By surrounding herself with others who find themselves outside of what’s considered “normal,” Nory is able to realizes that she still has a place where she fits. In the end, it’s the nurturing of her upside-down magic that saves a classmate, and flips her self-perception from powerless to “powerful.” It’s a universal feeling, wanting to be normal – whatever normal means. So don’t let that cute winged kitten on the cover fool you. No matter your age, no matter what others might say, you can take a leaf out of Nory’s book and embrace what makes you unique, too.  

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When you pick up Dragons in a Bag, you’ll find that fantasy elements present themselves a little differently. Jaxon, a young boy from Brooklyn, is dropped off at the apartment of an old woman everyone calls Ma. There’s not really anything to do while he waits for his mother to return besides reading and staying out of Ma’s business… not until Jax notices a mysterious box that moves and jumps all on its own! 

Soon enough, Jax discovers that Ma is actually a seasoned witch with an incredible job: delivering fantastical creatures from our world to the magic realm. Specifically, Ma and Jax are tasked with handling three dragons who cannot, under any circumstances, be fed marshmallows lest they “imprint” on whoever fed them.  

Jaxon’s world, as mentioned above, rests parallel to a magic realm. According to Ma, Brooklyn has gone and “lost its magic. All kinds of creatures used to call this place home. But not anymore.” Still, readers quickly discover that not all the magic has been extracted from Brooklyn. There’s Ma’s friend, Ambrose, who seems to be wearing at least “a hundred different pieces of clothing” and Jax believes that he’s invisible under all those layers. Waiting in the heart of Prospect Park is a transporter disguised as a guardhouse that “looks like the tiniest castle ever built.” This device is what enables Ma to travel between the real and magic realms – and it’s also the reason Ma and Jax get lost in time. “Parallel realms exist in different dimensions. Time travel is like whizzing down a slide. Crossing dimensions is more like skipping double Dutch. You have to wait for the right movement to slip in between the ropes.” Rather than going across time, they wind up going backward to the Mesozoic era where the sky is red and “hungry Pteranodon” are circling for their next meal.  

When pairing the swiftness of the narrative with the eye-widening elements described above, it can be easy to overlook some of Dragons’ more subtle moments. For instance, Jaxon only spends the day with Ma because his own mother is in court after their landlord threatened to have them evicted. Jax’s anxiety and concern comes in waves, but helping the baby dragons reinforces his belief that, “Everybody should have a home and get to stay there as long as they want.” It’s Ma’s reply, though, that really lands a heavy punch: “In an ideal world, that would be true. But that’s not the world we live in, Jax.”  

Whether or not they’ve ever directly faced the effects of gentrification, kids are sure to feel empathy for Jaxon and his mother. (“Brooklyn ain’t what it used to be… Out with the old, in with the new. Sure is a shame, though.”) More than that, by presenting this issue in a way that’s understood by young readers and gives them the appropriate language to use, it can prompt discussions at home and in the classroom. And for kids who are struggling with housing insecurity? Seeing a character like Jaxon will help normalize their own struggles, making them feel less alone with the added comfort of discovering that delight, wonder, and magic still exist in the world, even in the darkest times.  

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With Malamander, you’ll meet Herbert “Herbie” Lemon, Lost-and-Founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel. You’ll accompany Herbie as he endeavors to help his new friend, Violet, uncover the mystery of her parents’ disappearance. Both must evade the sinister Boat Hook Man, just to find their paths crossing with that of the mysterious half-fish, half-man creature that’s haunted Eerie-on-Sea for generations – the malamander. 

Once a year, the malamander comes onto Eerie’s beach to lay its egg. This egg is “an oddly translucent red stone” and bears the “grants-you-your-dearest-wish” sort of powers. But the good can turn bad in an instant, for if someone wishes on the malamander egg only to lose the egg, their wish will become a curse. Such a rare, precious treasure brings out the likes of Sebastian Eels, a smarmy local writer. Eels teams up with the Boat Hook Man, a sea captain who once wished on the malamander egg to live forever… only to be doomed to haunt Eerie’s shores. To make matters all the more complicated, we learn that Violet’s parents disappeared while searching for the malamander egg.  

Malamander approaches Fantasy by creating a rich piece of folklore that rivals some of the most notable monster stories. This creature is known to be “something fishlike and spiny that keeps this from being a someone at all, and more like a something.” With a description like this, and an elusiveness that evades both Herbie and readers, it’s no wonder the town holds its breath when the winter fog sinks low.  

The story is suspended in a time that feels both past and present and rooted in a setting that is so distinct, Eerie-on-Sea may as well be a character in and of itself. During the summer months, it’s considered a family vacation spot, but “when sea mist drifts up the streets like vast ghostly tentacles, and saltwater spray rattles the windows of the Grand Nautilus Hotel” you’ll feel yourself chased by a persistent chill and won’t be able to shake the snow that settles on your shoulders.  

Amid the folklore and the fantastical, it is Violet and her drive to learn her own history that stand as the heart of the novel. Herbie is able to give Violet “two pairs of shoes, tied together by the laces” to show her parents were ever present at all, but Violet is still plagued by a sense of displacement. Her past is essentially a giant question mark. Naturally, she questions her place in the world – who she is, whether she’ll have to carry such a monumental loss for the rest of her days. Through the magic of the malamander egg, Violet is able to get some answers, but not all the answers of what happened to her parents. With Malamander, readers will find that sometimes, no matter how hard we look, answers will remain out of reach. What matters is how we move forward, how we, like Violet, find a way to build a life even when the question marks linger.  

Ultimately, each book lands in a place that defies the traditional happily ever after element most folks expect when reading a fantasy novel. Nory can’t find a way to make her father proud, so she has to build a life without this acceptance. Jax and his mom don’t come out on top of the landlord situation, and have to stay with Ma. And Violet’s story doesn’t wrap up in a neat bow, either — her parents aren’t found, and she has to continue to weather the unknowing. It would’ve been easy to craft stories that end on a frilly, neat expected note, and yet, there is still ample hope to be found in these new beginnings. Magic and folklore and the fantastical remain, too, cushioning endings that would feel purely uncertain in our world.  

It’s one of the reasons we as humans flock to stories, seeking doors to other worlds in an effort to escape our own. 

The beauty of Fantasy is that kids and adults are welcomed through an open door where heroes dazzle in magical settings, yes, but these protagonists are vulnerable. The balance between the fantastical and the mundane is done so deftly, you are likely to be staring down your own heartaches before you know what is happening. After all, monsters are so much easier to face when characters offer a roadmap to navigating similar struggles. And the great company doesn’t hurt, either. Be it in cities that resemble our own or in fantastical places unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, we meet characters with lives that we can empathize with. We learn from mentors offering sage wisdom that can be applied to our own heartaches. Biggest of all, even when we run away to the pages, we’re always able to come home again.  

So pack your bags and grab those books – your next journey awaits.  


Colby Sharp Steps Into the Wardrobe

Colby Sharp will tell you that he is a fifth grade teacher in Michigan, working hard to help his students “fall in love with reading.” And that is true, but Colby is so much more. He is:

  • an author – The Creativity Project is a great gift for your favorite teacher, and The Commonsense Guide to Your Classroom Library (written with fellow reading rockstar Donalyn Miller) comes out September 2022
  • a podcaster – give The Yarn a listen, it is guaranteed to raise your mood
  • a blogger – your first stop for book recommendations
  • a presenter – spreading his passion to educators everywhere
  • a social media sensation – all over Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook with videos on new books, award predictions, book mail, and – my favorite – what his fifth graders are reading (keep an eye out for Read to Them authors in those stacks)
  • a husband and dad, too!

We recently caught up with Colby to get some reflections from him on the 2021-2022 school year and what he is looking forward to. Enjoy!

We have heard from many educators that the 2021-2022 school year was like no other, with greater challenges to overcome. As you reflect on the past school year, were there some books, activities, or traditions in your classroom that were especially helpful to you and your students this year?

I feel like our read aloud time was more important than ever. My readers had spent so much time in isolation that this shared life-changing activity was even more special than it was pre-pandemic.

You are a big proponent of reading aloud to your fifth graders, even though too many people think that fifth graders are too old to be read aloud to. What does reading aloud add to your classroom?

Reading aloud is very important in the community building in our classroom. Kate DiCamillo was right when she said, “Stories connect us.” I like to read all sorts of things aloud to my fifth graders from poems to picture books to middle grade novels. When reading aloud novels, I really like books that are between 180 and 220 pages. That seems to be a pretty good sweet spot. I’m not the best at reading aloud books that are more than 300 pages.

We at Read to Them often look to your blog and videos to see what new books are catching on with your readers. Are there some older books that have staying power with your fifth graders?

Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is more than a decade old, but each year it is new to my readers and they LOVE IT. Kids just love great stories. It doesn’t matter if the book is brand new or a classic. Story always wins. 

We all know that great teachers have a huge impact on helping students “fall in love with reading.” What about peers? Do you see an impact from peer relationships on the reading your students do?

I think that books are often a way that helps kids connect with readers that maybe are not in their immediate friend group. Readers love talking with other readers about books that they both love. Megan E. Freeman’s Alone was a book that connected so many of my readers last year. It never made it to the classroom library. It just kept getting passed from kid to kid.

Families play such an important role in a child’s reading success. How do you encourage families to feel important and empowered to join in on their student’s reading journey?

I try to take the pressure off. No reading logs or grades attached to reading outside of school. I send lots of messages to caregivers sharing the books that are impacting their kids. Most kids are not going to read every single night, and I share that with parents. I’ll take whatever I can get, and I stress the importance of trying to create an environment at home where reading is not a chore.  

You probably have a teetering To Be Read pile like we do here at Read to Them. Now we are deep into summer, anything on your stack that we should be looking out for?

Be on the lookout for Amy King’s Attack of the Black Rectangles. It is going to rock your world! 

Want to hear more from Colby about the importance of reading aloud? Check out this video he did for Read Aloud to a Child Week 2021.


4 Years of OSOB at T. Baldwin Demarest

Since their inaugural program in 2018, the staff at T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary in New Jersey considers One School, One Book to be one of the highlights of their year. With each book, it becomes easier to find ways to ensure their program remains fresh and fun for students.

Clues for T. Baldwin’s read of A Boy Called Bat.

“The program grows each year,” says Lisa Straubinger, who works as the teacher librarian at T. Baldwin. “The first year was pretty straightforward: read these chapters, trivia questions, opening and closing assemblies. Now, we have a [huge] build up to the reveal, special Trivia Tuesdays where students on each grade level are randomly picked from winning entries and receive an extra book coupon. For the final Trivia Tuesday, the winner receives the sequel to the story we have chosen.”

For fresh OSOB participants, Straubinger stresses the importance of keeping it simple the first go round – “Get a feel for the program and how it works. You will always have time to grow it!”

Baldwin’s current OSOB programs close with a special day dedicated to participating in activities centered around the book. Straubinger shares that they tie their OSOB selections to their Read to Make a Difference initiative where students read to raise money for a charity.

“After reading A Boy Called Bat,” Straubinger says. “We raised money for our local nature center that houses some wild animals that can’t be released back into the wild due to injuries.”

During their time with Bat, students at T. Baldwin Demarest were treated to a virtual visit by Bat’s author, Elana K. Arnold. Other OSOB titles include The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant.

“A student wore a kid-sized gorilla suit to celebrate The One and Only Ivan.”

“The year we did The One and Only Ivan,” Straubinger says. “We were able to get our hands on a gorilla suit. It was kid size so we asked one of our fourth graders to dress up. He was fantastic! He jumped around, danced, and [helped] get everyone excited about the book.”

This same year, Straubinger shares that she had the opportunity to meet John Schu, a prominent figure in the KidLit community, at a statewide librarian conference. When she shared with Schu that her school had selected Ivan for an OSOB program, Schu gave her a signed copy of the book that Straubinger passed on to the student who dressed up in the gorilla costume. When reflecting on this special exchange, Straubinger says, “[These things] really helped create a stronger connection to the story.”

Straubinger first heard about OSOB through other professionals in the “library world.” Straubinger shares that she immediately loved the idea of a program that would not just bring a single classroom together around a book.

“We love creating a connection across the grade levels,” Straubinger says. “With all the staff and with families, too!”

Straubinger heads the committee that plans and carries out the OSOB program in her school. Straubinger begins each cycle by reading several OSOB contenders at the beginning of summer, narrowing down the choices, before making her recommendation to the committee. She also leads the efforts to see books distributed to families, ensuring that each book has its own memento label: the year it was read and a note of gratitude to the PTO for donating the money for books.

“As the program is running I start each library class with a recap of the night’s reading and we talk about what we think may happen next,” Straubinger adds. “I run our Instagram account where we post the clues to guess the title, nightly reading, hints for trivia, pictures of the program in action, and any other tidbit we think is worth mentioning.”

Over the course of four years, Straubinger notes that the memories made during OSOB have always been positive, and that the impact has been undeniable. There is already ample excitement for the next OSOB, as T. Baldwin Demarest continues to grow the program and expand it into different areas both at school and in the community.

“Everyone looks forward to it each year,” Straubinger claims. “Kids like to suggest possible titles. Fourth graders are talking to kindergarteners about the same book – it truly gives everyone in the building a connection to each other!”


Wendy Orr and Vivian Vande Velde Meet Us at The Lamp-Post

Happy Summer! At the Lamp-Post, our summer thoughts are filled with books that are playful and fun! Can books be part of play? Of course! Especially Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island and Vivian Vande Velde’s 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos. It turns out that writing these playful books is fun, too! 

In this laughter-filled interview, we discuss the importance of play: how characters and stories become the raw material for creative play and children’s growing expressive language. Living on a tropical island with an iguana as a playmate or cavorting with the classroom pets in an elementary school at night – these stories are the stuff that sets the stage for wonderful, dramatic play.  

We also learn about the serious (and not so serious) work of naming characters and places in books for children. From a motherly sea lion named Selkie to a pair of wise-cracking science geckos named Galileo and Newton – naming choices are intentional and essential to the story-telling. Here are some highlights from the interview: 

 Wendy on the importance of play: 

“I just love it when you see kids acting out something they’ve seen in a book, making it their own, taking it further. … One of the greatest joys you can have as a writer is seeing kids…in spontaneous play that they’ve carried on from your story. And they’ve embroidered it, they’ve changed it, they have become the characters. … That is just the best form of learning to be in the world.” (3:40-5:24) 

 Vivian on the revision process as a form of play: 

“When I am making revisions, I am trying to take something that I have written that’s OK and trying to make it be more fun, more exciting, or whatever the emotion is that I’m going for.” (31:25-34:04) 

 Wendy on naming characters, including Selkie the sea lion from Nim’s Island

“Selkies are from Celtic mythology, and they are seals that become women or women that become seals. … Names are so important. … The whole sound of the name. Adorabella is not Jane.” (46:06-49:43) 

 Vivian on how different life experiences lead to different stories: 

“Everybody has different life experiences which means that everybody has different stories inside of them.” (57:41-58:07) 

Vivian and Wendy ended our conversation with anecdotes from their lives that found their way into their books. 

Vivian on wearing glasses as a child (52:12-53:30)

Wendy on receiving an aerogram from her mother visiting the Galapagos Islands (54:29-56:09)

 

 


Six Books with Unusual Animals

Animal characters are a staple of children’s literature, and for good reason. Many young readers gravitate to animals, giving these stories wide appeal. Peruse the children’s department at your local library, and you will find lots of books featuring farm animals, pets, and – for reasons I’m not sure I understand – rodents. Here at Read to Them, in addition to Fenway, Wilbur, and Humphrey, we have books with some more unconventional animals, too. Here are Six Books with Unusual Animals for you to try!

Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant is a tale of friendship and teamwork between a loyal dog, a brave squirrel, a wise hermit crab, and…a wisecracking bat. Murray the bat will help dispel all those icky misconceptions about these nocturnal creatures. Really, they just love junk food!

Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan follows the escapades of a young marsupial who befriends a girl, despite the warnings of her mother and her brothers. Did you know possums study Shakespeare to perfect playing dead? Well, now you do!

 

In James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, everything is unusual, from the horrible aunts to the enormous sea-faring fruit. The large supporting cast of insect characters adds to the outlandishness and heart of this classic Dahl story.

 

The Mysterious Abductions by Tracey Hecht opens a series that sheds light on creatures of the dark. An unlikely trio of a pangolin, a sugar glider, and a fox set off to find out why other animals are vanishing, seemingly without a trace.

 

In We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes by Patrick Jennings, a female gopher snake named Crusher will have even the most fearful of us thinking differently about these scary reptiles, and rooting for her to find her freedom.

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park introduces readers to the science and magic of silkworms as they transform from tiny eggs into delicate pillows of silk. While the worms don’t talk in this book, their metamorphosis is central to the growth of the human protagonists.

If you read any of these titles, be sure to share your photos with Read to Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy reading!


Let the Kids Play

 Play is the work of childhood.  – Piaget

One of the biggest perks of teaching preschool is you get to play – really play – with the experts. Four-year-old humans know more about play than any adults. If you promise to respect the play and not try to turn it into work, they are more than happy to let you play, too. But, please, don’t screw it up by asking stupid questions like, “How many logs are holding up those planks, Julieta?” Count them yourself if you want to know – we are playing here.

Turns out, young humans aren’t the only creatures who are play experts. I recently had the opportunity to spy on a mama fox and her kits. It was like watching a good teacher observing her kids on the playground – staying close by to make sure nothing terrible happened, but letting the kids direct their own play. The kits rompled and tussled, never straying too far from the den, obviously having all kinds of rough-and-tumble fox fun.

In both cases – kids and kits – play is all about learning about the world. But to the little ones, it is just about having fun. 

And fun is a key component of play. In my family, we have a saying: “If it was all fun it would be called play, not work.” The corollary is: “There is a reason they pay you to go to work – you wouldn’t do it for free.”  

The difference between play and work is not learning something or doing something hard. Play can be hard and you can certainly learn from it. The differences between play and work are twofold: you get to choose and it is fun.  

So what does this have to do with books? I mean, books are OK, but are they the stuff of play? Well, it depends on the book. Some books just beg to be played in addition to being read, with all the play value of a giant mud puddle, a dump truck, and some snow shovels. And, while the stories are being played, kids just might learn something about teamwork, self-reliance, and integrity.  

This month, at The Lamp-Post, we are looking at books that show that stories are part of play. The titles include: 

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos by Vivian Vande Velde 

Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr 

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen 

 

All three books have elements of play that will appeal to young readers – and not-so-young readers, too.  

We’ll start first with 8 Class Pets which takes the cumulative tale form found in so many playful picture books, extending the riff into a short, illustrated novel. You know those cumulative tales – books like the Jan Brett classic The Mitten where a parade of forest animals climbs in an ever expanding mitten, or the bizarre There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly brilliantly presented by Simms Tabak. These rhythmic stories start simply enough, but every page turn adds a new plot point, building to a rollicking conclusion. Vande Velde adopts a similar form when Twitch the squirrel, fleeing an owl, accidentally steps on a dog’s nose.  

 WELCOME! 

This is the same banner that tells the children School is open again after the summer.  

Someone was obviously telling me School was open for me to escape from the dog.  

Didn’t I say the people here love squirrels? 

So for the first time in my life, I ran into School.  

That owl veered away and flew off into the evening.  

But the dog followed me in.  

See – young readers and listeners know right away that an adventure has begun. As Twitch tries to evade the angry dog, he moves from one classroom to the next, adding class pets to the tale at every turn. From Green Eggs and Hamster, the math-loving first grade rodent, to Galileo and Newton, the science lab geckos, all the animals lend their expertise to Twitch as he tries to outwit the dog. 

So, where’s the play? The cumulative tale format is so popular in picture books because kids love predicting what is going to happen next. It helps them feel like part of the action. 8 Class Pets works the same way. What’s going to happen when the fish tank gets caught on the dog’s leash? How are the animals going to work together to trap the dog?  

Read aloud so it becomes a group experience, this story can be the fodder for creative, imaginative play. Young kids love to pretend to be animals, especially animals with as much personality as Vande Velde gives her pets. The know-it-all Miss Lucy Cottontail and the dexterous Sweetie the Rat are just begging to be acted out. As an added bonus, there are tons of options for STEM and art play with this book. Head outside with some big pieces of cardboard, paints, a scooter for the fish, a box for trapping the dog, and some other random props and let the play explode. Will the kids be messy when it is all over? Yes, yes they will. Will they be happy? Yes – especially if they are given the choice to morph the play into something of their own creation. Will they learn something about working together to keep the play going and the power of storytelling for big belly laughs? They sure will. And, don’t be surprised if the antics of the ten animals in this story (and the lessons about teamwork) continue well past your time with the book.  

Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island invites similar creative, dramatic play for a slightly older group of children. It tells the story of young Nim who lives on a tropical island with her dad, off the grid except for the satellite that makes email possible (a nice twist). She is friends with a sea lion named Selkie, an iguana named Fred, and a sea turtle named Chica. Together they work in the garden and maintain their shelter, and they play in the water with made-up games like coconut soccer. Later, Nim has to save her island from meddling tourists and rescue a bumbling author from the ocean.  

Orr writes the book with such a play-filled voice, it invites readers and listeners to imagine living in Nim’s world. Here is Nim just after her father has sailed off to do some science experiments, leaving her to her own devices for three whole days:  

 “And what we need first,” said Nim, “is breakfast!” So she threw four ripe coconuts thump! into the sand and climbed down after them.  

Then she whistled her shell, two long, shrill notes that carried far out to the reef, where the sea lions were fishing. Selkie popped her head above the water. She had a fish in her mouth, but she swallowed it fast and dived toward the beach. 

And from a rock by the hut, Fred came scuttling. Fred was an iguana, spiky as a dragon, with a cheerful snub nose. He twined round Nim’s feet in a prickly hug.  

“Are you saying good morning,” Nim demanded, “or just begging for breakfast?” 

Fred stared at the coconuts. He was a very honest iguana.  

This is the stuff of elementary school dreams! Climbing coconut palms, befriending animals, being the hero with no need for adults – all the ingredients that could sustain creative playground or backyard games for weeks on end, so long as the resident grown-ups respect the creative power of the play. Don’t be like my daughter’s elementary school teacher who decided that fifth graders were too old for world-building dramatic play. Oh no! They should play kickball instead – really. People, don’t do this. If kids are engaged in creative group-based play, stand back like Mama Fox and make sure nothing terrible happens. And let them play.  

OK – so play is all fine for those little elementary school children. Middle school kids, though, they are all business. Got to learn that biology and read Important Books – no time for foolish play. That certainly seems to be the philosophy of our education system that has decided kids magically no longer need space to breathe and relax and play after age eleven. Sure, adults grab a coffee and play Candy Crush on their phones for a break, but twelve year olds should work straight through the school day, with maybe 30 minutes for lunch – not to mention do homework when they get home. It really is a wonder they don’t organize and go on strike. And, maybe after reading Hoot, they will.  

Hoot is Carl Hiaasen’s first book for young readers, and it won the Newbery Honor in 2003. Hiaasen’s protagonist, Roy Eberhardt, is new to Coconut Cove, Florida and he isn’t happy about leaving Montana. He quickly gets drawn into some mischief-making at the construction site of a new Mother Paula’s Pancake House that happens to be the nesting area for rare – and endangered – burrowing owls. He joins forces with Beatrice Leep, the toughest kid at Trace Middle School, and her step-brother (who goes by Mullet Fingers) to save the owls. Mullet Fingers leads the charge using some rather unconventional methods, including putting alligators in the jobsite port-a-potties, painting the windows of a squad car, and removing the seats of the bulldozers. It culminates in an old-fashioned protest with Trace Middle School’s students carrying signs and singing songs and making real change for the little owls.  

Now, this book might not generate days of dramatic play on the playground – mostly because we don’t release middle schoolers to the playground nearly as much as we should. But, it is just the kind of playful scenario that tweens and young teens love – the chance to stick it to hapless adults who can’t seem to do anything right, with a side order of humiliating the school bully. In Hoot, Hiaasen enlists these kids in his never-ending quest to shine a light on self-interested blowhards and cowards and to rally good folks to do something about the problems in their communities. In all of Hiaasen’s books for young readers (six to date), he appeals to kids’ naturally occurring righteous indignation and their inclination toward subversiveness. Really, middle schoolers are the perfect radicals, before they become jaded by the world. Consider this eloquent speech from Mullet Fingers:

 “Ever since I was little,” Mullet Fingers said, “I’ve been watchin’ this place disappear – the piney woods, the scrub, the creeks, the glades. Even the beaches, man – they put up all these giant hotels and only goober tourists are allowed. It really sucks.”  

Roy said, “Same thing happens everywhere.” 

“Doesn’t mean you don’t have to fight back.” 

 (Want to join the fun? The same themes run through his books for adults, too!) 

Playful stories provide the formative experience necessary to imagine a different – and better – world. Little kids who romp through books like The Mitten and 8 Class Pets grow to be kids who create faraway lands with iguanas for pets. And, maybe – if we’re lucky – they will become kids who demand a world that values nature over pancake profits, ready to lead the charge.  

I have murky memories of the assigned reading from my school days – starting with the Dick and Jane primers, and going through The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, and so on. What did I learn from reading these books? That teachers hate kids? That the only “valuable” books are by old dead white guys? That characters in those dusty books could have benefited from some quality mental health care and maybe some play? I sure didn’t fall in love with reading because of them. In fact, they just about beat the love of reading right out of me. Let’s not perpetuate this mistake with the next generation. Let the kids play by letting them choose play-filled books – and just maybe they’ll end up changing the world.  

What are your memories of assigned reading? (Anyone else subjected to Dostoyevsky for summer reading?) Did those books encourage creative play or imaginative flights of fancy? What playful books do you recommend to young (and not so young) readers? Other ideas for joining the forces of play and story to build readers? We’d love to hear from you! Find us on all of your favorite social media platforms @readtothem. Or comment below!  

 

 


July Book Stack: Wanna Play?

Our July Book Stack is recognizing, appreciating, and exploring books in the Read to Them library that incorporate the element of play, our at The Lamp-Post theme for this month. Wanna play?

 

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary 

When you discover a little mouse in your hotel room and he rides a little toy motorcycle, plenty of playful fun awaits. 

 Magic Moment: The joy of a mouse with his motorcycle.  

Ralph felt proud to think he was going to be written about in a composition in far-off Ohio. Pb-pb-b-b-b. He grabbed his tail, gunned the motor, and took off, heading for the threadbare part of the carpet that made such a good speedway. Round and round he sped, faster and faster until his whiskers blew back and he was filled with the joy of speed. He longed to wave to Keith, but he realized a good driver must keep both paws on the handgrips. He glanced up and noticed that Keith’s eyes were closed. The boy had fallen asleep with a smile on his face. 

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

Poor Peter Hatcher doesn’t think the repeated antics of his two-and-a-half-year-old brother, Fudge, are funny at all. But the reader sure does. 

Magic Moment: When Fudge refuses to eat, Peter must come to the rescue. 

Finally my mother got the brilliant idea of me standing on my head while she fed Fudge. I wasn’t very excited about standing on my head in the kitchen. The floor is awfully hard in there. But my mother begged me. She said, “It’s very important for Fudge to eat. Please help us, Peter.” 

So I stood on my head. When Fudge saw me upside down he clapped his hands and laughed. When he laughs he opens his mouth. That’s when my mother stuffed some baked potato into it.   

 

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker 

Clementine tries her best to solve problems like glue in hair and pigeon poop on the stoop, but often finds herself in trouble, especially with her principal, instead. 

Magic Moment: Clementine shows her brother what responsible play looks like.  

“I’m coming, Radish,” I called to him. 

“Go for a wok?” he asked, when I came into his room. 

“You’re lucky to have me for a big sister,” I told him. I have to remind him of this every day, because he forgets. We went into the kitchen and I got out the wok. “Nobody invented this trick for me when I was little.”  

Then he climbed into the wok and grabbed the handles and I gave him a really good spin. He went whirling around, bumping into the cabinets, and then he got out and walked wobbly until he fell over, which he thinks is the funniest thing in the world. 

“Again!” he yelled.  

But, I didn’t spin him again, because he throws up on the second ride and somebody has to clean it up which is N-O-T, not me. This is called Being Responsible.  

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

The toys read books, tell stories, and play chess at night. There’s even an adventurous trip to the basement for a full cycle with the singing washing machine. 

Magic Moment: Lumphy discovers it’s more fun down on the floor where you can play than stuck on the big high bed waiting for “private time.”  

[Lumphy] crawls to the edge of the high bed and looks down.  

The toy mice are playing leapfrog. Plastic is reading one of the big books and rolling slightly side to side. The one-eared sheep is laughing with the wooden rocking horse in the corner. 

Lumphy sighs, and rearranges himself on the bed. The problem is, he usually stays up late. This time of night, he likes to be doing stuff. Playing marbles, or checkers, or pick-up sticks. Something. 

It is not his bedtime yet. Not even close.  

Bonk! Lumphy jumps down. It hurts his bottom when he lands, but he doesn’t mind. He is so happy to be down again that he kisses all four toy mice with his buffalo mouth and then trots over to Plastic and offers to watch her roll down the staircase. 

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

This wackiest of books is bursting with playful fun, from students turning into apples to kicking spoil-sports over the fence. 

Magic Moment: Don’t cross Mrs. Gorf…unless you like apples.  

Joe couldn’t add. He couldn’t even count. But he knew that if he answered a question wrong, he would be turned into an apple. So he copied from John. He didn’t like to cheat, but Mrs. Gorf had never taught him how to add.  

One day Mrs Gorf caught Joe copying John’s paper. 

She wiggled her ears—first her right one, then her left—stuck out her tongue, and turned Joe into an apple. Then she turned John into an apple for letting Joe cheat. 

“Hey, that isn’t fair,” said Todd. “John was only trying to help a friend.” 

Mrs. Gorf wiggled her ears–first her right one, then her left–stuck out her tongue, and turned Todd into an apple. “Does anybody else have an opinion?” she asked. 

Nobody said a word. 

Mrs. Gorf laughed and placed the three apples on her desk.  

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

TsTs, Chai, and Tchke just might be the most fun squirrels in the history of children’s literature. Join them as they rescue Jed and leverage the playful spirit of squirrels to save the rest of their community.  

Magic Moment: Jed escapes the talons of the hawk who has captured him by practicing the ancient squirrel martial art of Hai Tchree, making “like water,” and falling safely to earth. 

 …Jed slipped from the hawk’s grasp and plummeted through the air to earth. Or almost to earth. At the last possible moment, a porcupine walked beneath him. Followed by a curious dog. Jed bounced off the dog, who was headed for some serious trouble, and landed in a pile of autumn leaves. 

Upside Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Wonky magic leads to kittens with dragon wings, boys turning into rocks, rain inside the classroom. Mastering that magic requires new friendships, teamwork, and appreciating your own unique talents. 

 Magic Moment: Discovering the power of upside down magic – the prospect of revenge! 

Oh, drat. 

She knew this animal. She had done it before. 

She was a skunk. 

Step away. Just leave them alone, thought Girl-Nory. 

But Skunk-Nory didn’t step away. She was too angry at the Sparkies. How dare they be so mean to Elliott? 

They were enemies. Hairless enemies. And she was a skunk! She could do stuff to enemies. 

Bad stuff. Smelly stuff.  

  

El Deafo by Cece Bell 

Young Cece loses her hearing and learns how to manage her hearing aid and friendships during her 1970s childhood, complete with sitcoms and a sweet first crush…

Magic Moment: Cece’s Phonic Ear includes a transmitter worn by her teacher, allowing Cece to hear her teacher wherever she goes.  

Squeeeak. Zzzzip. tinkle tinkle. “Oh no! Hee hee!” tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. “Aaah…what a relief!” wop wop. “Toilet paper? I know what’s coming!” zzzzzzip! FLUSH! 

                                                                            Judy Moody is in a Mood by Megan McDonald 

Third-grader Judy Moody is interested in so many things, from crafting her own t-shirt messages to Venus fly-traps. She has a great friend, Rocky, and she is frustrated by her little brother, Stink, at nearly every turn. 

Magic Moment: Judy discovers her not-quite-yet friend, Frank…is a collector!  

 Frank Pearl’s shelves were lined with coffee cans and baby food jars. Each one was filled with marbles, rubber bugs, erasers, something. Judy couldn’t help asking, “Do you have any baseball erasers?” 

“I have ten!” said Frank…  

“Really? Me too!” Judy smiled… 

 He also had two pencil sharpeners—a Liberty bell and a brain—and a teeny-tiny flip book from Vic’s. Frank Pearl showed her his buffalo nickel, which he kept in a double-locked piggy bank…. 

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

It’s a game of mystery play as the kids in Mr. Lemoncello’s Library have to solve puzzles – together – to make their way out.  

Magic Moment: The infamous Mr. Lemoncello introduces himself.  

“Tank you. Tank you. Grazie. Grazie.” 

He bent forward so his mouth was maybe an inch away from the microphone. 

“Buon giorno, boise and-uh girls a.” He spoke very timidly, very slowly. “Tees ees how my-uh momma and my-uh poppa teach-uh me to speak-eh de English.”  

He wiggled his ears. Straightened his back.  

“But then,” he said in a crisp, clear voice, “I went to the Alexandriaville Public Library, where a wonderful librarian named Mrs. Gail Tobin helped me learn how to speak like this: ‘If two witches were watching two watches, which witch would watch which watch?’ I can also speak while upside down and underwater, but not today because I just had this suit dry-cleaned and do not want to get it wet.”  

Mr. Lemoncello bounced across the stage like a happy grasshopper.  

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez  

As Malú navigates the new school, her divorced parents, and the resident mean girl, she finds fun and playful outlets in her own artistic zines and her budding punk band. 

Magic Moment: Malú takes the classic nostalgic song, “Cielito lindo” by Lola Beltran, and plays it punk.  She honors her mother and stays true to herself, all at the same time.   

When I got home, I kicked off my shoes and grabbed my laptop. I plugged in my headphones, popped in Señora Oralia’s Lola Beltrán CD, and waited for the music to start. Which old ranchera song could we turn into a cool punk rock song?…  

Most of the songs were heavy, sad love songs that made you feel like you were drowning in tears. I didn’t know anything about being in love, so none of them felt like the right song. 

Then I heard one I recognized. I had a memory of Mom singing along to it while she made breakfast on a lazy weekend morning. The tune was lighter and happier than the others. It was the opposite of a sad love song. The lyrics spoke of how singing could make hearts rejoice. I listened to the song over and over as I tried to imagine it louder and faster and with me singing it. I picked up the CD case and looked at the list of track titles. It was a song called, “Cielito lindo.” 

Class Dismissed by Allan Woodrow 

The teacher checks out, and doesn’t tell the administration. Instead of chaos in the classroom, the students take responsibility to teach themselves, yielding weeks of fun…and learning. 

Magic Moment: The discovery of what it means to have no teacher: freedom! 

A clean desk is begging to be doodled on. Really. 

Still, I lick my thumb to rub over my drawings and erase them. I don’t want our teacher to yell at me.  

But then I stop and look down at a now half-erased, smudged heart. 

Ms. Bryce won’t yell. She’s not even here.  

She just quit. 

I can do anything – anything at all! – and no one will send me to the principal’s office. 

No more being screamed at. No more getting into trouble for no good reason. 

A feeling of happiness spreads over me. I feel free. 

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin

At her quirky new school in Vermont, Caitlyn learns she’s not really replacing the departed, mysterious, prankster legend (Paulie Fink).  She’s actually coming to learn how to connect with each of her distinct classmates and contribute to the culture of her new school. 

Magic Moment: One of the responsibilities for students at the Mitchell School is feeding the goats… 

On the second day of school, Mr. Farabi asks Henry to carry the bucket into the pen. Henry blinks hard, swallows nervously. But he goes in. 

We grab and throw the pellets, but we run out before Henry’s done filling the first bowl. The goats notice him, and they charge at him. Panicking, Henry drops the bucket, sits down in it, and covers his head with his arms. 

“Goats have no upper front teeth!” he shouts. “Goats are herbivores!” A second later, we can’t see Henry, or hear him, because he’s disappeared beneath a swirl of goat hair. By the time Mr. Farabi rescues Henry, his glasses are barely still on his face, and his hair is a mess. 

As Henry stumbles out of the pen, Mr. Farabi lifts the bucket and asks, “Anyone else want to give it a try?” 


Advocates, and Other Tools for Deeper Understanding 

You’ve probably never sat down, scratched your head, and said, “You know what I ought to do? Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” If you have, you were probably pretty certain that you’re already checking off all five boxes, but you might be surprised. Because smack-dab in the middle of that color-coded pyramid, is the label Belongingness and Love Needs. According to Maslow, this includes things like connectedness, trust, and acceptance, all of which rely on one vital building block to get their footing: Understanding.  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with a heart over the central wedge, Belongingness and Love Needs

To be understood is to be known, flaws and all. It’s having your word-jumbles be translated in a second-flat by someone who’s taken the time to learn your language. It’s having someone see the full scope of your past, and be happy to walk with you toward the future. And more often than not, it’s having someone see you and be willing to speak up on your behalf, allowing others to bask in the wondrous whole of you, too.   

Let’s take a look at how A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, Restart by Gordon Korman, and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper employ the use of an advocate, and how such a figure is instrumental to changing the course of each narrative for the better.  

 * * * 

Really, with such earnestness and heart, it’s no surprise that A Boy Called Bat has become a Read to Them staple. Bixby Alexander Tam has a routine and likes to stick with it, but on a day full of surprises, his Mom (a veterinarian) brings home a baby skunk. Bat feels an immediate connection with the kit. It’s an easy creature to love, “so small that Bat couldn’t even tell he was in the towel except for the tiny face that peeked out.” However, Bat only has one month to prove to his Mom that he’s responsible enough to keep the baby skunk as a pet. But where, you may ask, does having an advocate come into play? 

Though Arnold never says as much in the text, Bat is on the autism spectrum. For instance, vanilla yogurt is one of his safe foods and he carries around a pair of earmuffs for when his senses get over-stimulated. Bat also has a far easier time interacting with animals, as their language is pretty straightforward. As for people,  “…it wasn’t worth it to try to explain… what he’d meant. [His sister Janie] usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did.”  

Bat’s mother is not everyone. 

Dr. Tam knows that her son sees the world differently, that the ways he interacts with others are different, too— and that’s perfectly okay. She defends Bat when Janie gets frustrated with him and she gently corrects Bat when he misses certain social cues. He’s often blunt, accidentally saying something hurtful without realizing the sharpness of his words. Dr. Tam frequently reminds Bat of the “unspoken rules… about things that people are supposed to know without having been told.” While this advice doesn’t always prevent awkward interaction, it’s a reminder Bat keeps at close hand and a tool he uses at school. 

Bat sits on the couch to braid Janie's hair (illustration by Charles Santoso)

Bat also has trouble dealing with emotions. The day his Mom brought the skunk kit home, she ran late. It inspired quite the surge of feeling in Bat and he “…felt a ball of anger rising up in his chest, hot and hard and loud, wanting to escape through his mouth in a yell.” But it doesn’t escalate any further, because Bat’s mom is there with her “soothing voice,” being patient, kneeling with Bat until he is calm enough to use his own voice. 

Most vital of all, Bat’s mother builds a sort of scaffolding to help Bat find his way with Janie. Like any pair of siblings, Bat and Janie have fights and disagreements. Bat even knows that “Janie thought he was weird” sometimes, “but he still didn’t like to hear her say it out loud.” Once the baby skunk is added to the equation, for instance, Bat takes one of Janie’s pajama tops and puts it in the kit’s enclosure. All Bat wanted to do is ensure the kit remained familiar with Janie’s scent, but Janie was furious. Bat isn’t sure where he went wrong, and while Janie fumes in her room, Dr. Tam offers to teach Bat how to do laundry so he can get the animal smell out of Janie’s pajama shirt. Bat then makes a suggestion of his own: “Maybe if we use extra fabric softener, and make the pajama top softer than it’s ever been, then maybe Janie won’t be so mad.” Such a beautiful yet understated moment could not have come to fruition without Dr. Tam meeting Bat at his level with an abundance of patience, or without Bat seizing the social tools his mother has gently introduced to him.  

* * *

In other instances, an advocate can arrive in your life from a place you’d least expect. Take Chase Ambrose from Restart. Before he suffered an accident that claimed his memories, he was a school bully, the kind of kid who’d send others fleeing in the opposite direction. In fact, Chase did send a student moving out of town to a different, out of state school. However, after head injury-induced amnesia, things are different now: Chase is quieter, more thoughtful. Kind, even – but none of the kids he’s hurt in the past believe he’s capable of such drastic change, and trying to make amends isn’t something that can be achieved with the snap of a finger. 

But it can be achieved by joining a video club.  

It’s a mere chance that Chase ends up having a brief encounter with Brendan Espinoza on one of his first days back to school. Brendan, unbeknownst to Chase, is one of the kids who used to be bullied terribly by Chase and his buddies. When the rumors of Chase’s amnesia seem to be validated by Chase’s changed behavior, Brendan invites Chase to act as a cameraman, and it leads to quite the surprising realization: “The Chase Ambrose who worked on this video was not the same person… He was helpful. He had good ideas. He was even nice.” This testimony-slash-olive branch is what invites other students in the video club to smooth out their hackles and start an unlikely camaraderie with Chase.  

A pair of broken glass that feature on the cover of RestartEverything goes up in the air, though, when two of Chase’s old buddies start a fight that ends up nearly destroying the music room. Chase accidentally strikes a student with a fire extinguisher, and lets himself “get drawn back into the old life” to evade punishment. Just as quickly as he won his classmates over, opinions switched and once again, he’s seen as nothing more than a bully. Brendan is the only one to come to Chase’s defense: “I know what it looks like. But doesn’t Chase deserve the benefit of the doubt?” No one is convinced, nor takes the time to listen to Chase’s side of the story.  

Brendan discovers he caught the fight on film and it was an accident after all. He even assembles film club kids at his house to play the footage, to prove that Chase has been innocent this whole time. Having others understand you when you know yourself is hard enough, but having someone help the world see you when you’re little more than a blank slate is an entirely different beast. With Brendan at his side, though, it’s a beast that Chase manages to defeat.  

* * *

Melody, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Out of My Mind, is highly intelligent. She’s a great listener, and her narrative voice is so incredibly funny. In the beginning, though, only the reader knows these things. Melody has cerebral palsy, which means she can’t speak or write, she’s wheelchair-bound, and almost everyone around her underestimates just how smart she is. (“Nobody gets it. Nobody. Drives me crazy.”) Note, here: the keyword is almost everyone. Melody is supported by a small village of fierce advocates, all of whom help her voice be heard for the first time in her life.  

Like Bat, Melody’s earliest advocate is her mother who has this sort of “Mom sense” that is essential in helping with Melody’s needs. She observes that Melody laughs right at the punchline of a joke, knows which genres of music make Melody wiggle around with joy. When the time comes to consider enrolling Melody into school, Melody and her mother go to a doctor that is meant to gauge Melody’s intelligence. It results in Melody being treated in a way that’s incredibly cold and insensitive, unleashing an explosive reaction from Melody’s mother: “You’re not so intelligent, sir – you’re just lucky! All of us who have all our faculties intact are just plain blessed. Melody is able to figure out things, communicate, and manage in a world where nothing works right for her. She’s the one with the true intelligence!” This is the same sort of fury that’s unleashed when Mrs. Billups, one of Melody’s teachers in Room H-5, neglects Melody’s needs by refusing to read the careful records a previous teacher left behind. Both of these interactions, while uncomfortable to read, ultimately result in reinforcing the idea that Melody deserves to be treated fairly. She may have a disability, but “she is extremely intelligent! And you better learn to accept that!”  

A gold fish jumps from one small fish bowl toward a larger fish bowl

The first person outside of Melody’s family to see the potential in Melody is a colorful woman named Mrs. Violet Valencia, who lives next door. During the first meeting when Melody is barely two, she declares: “All kids are special. But this one has hidden superpowers. I’d love to help her find them.” And she does. Mrs. V gives Melody a priceless gift: literal piles of words, “making it her mission to give [Melody] language” to communicate with others.  

Ultimately, it’s the combined efforts of Mrs. V. and Catherine, a school aide,  that result in Melody receiving a Medi-Talker. This device is similar to the computer that Stephen Hawking used, something that contains “nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives – thousands of them – as well as a cool sentence-maker that is located on another level.” It allows Melody to prepare “hundreds of phrases and sentences and get to them with just a touch.” More than anything else, when Melody is folded into inclusion classes, the Medi-Talker allows her to communicate with her classmates. To joke with them. To defend herself in the face of bullying. Though it isn’t exactly smooth sailing, she’s able to show her peers the true Melody that’s been there all along, helping them to see that, “Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all.”   

 

In all three books, advocates go beyond just offering support— each work to ensure the protagonists feel validated, that Bat, Chase, and Melody have no doubt that they are more than the labels the world has thrust upon them. A kid with autism. A bully. A girl with cerebral palsy. The narratives become fuller once each kids gains a fuller sense of who they actually are. It’s no small feat. After all, kids are constantly changing, trying out new personalities and phrases, tics and traits, like they’re the latest fashion trends. It’s how we all come into ourselves. It’s how we learn and ultimately, it’s how we grow. 

But we don’t grow alone, and A Boy Called Bat, Restart, and Out of My Mind only reinforce this notion. 

Still, there are times that no matter how sure of ourselves we may be, others will misunderstand us. If all you hear is that you’re “weird” or a “bully” or “empty-headed” you may miss the chance to discover your true self: that you have a knack for working with animals, that you can be a real asset to a film club, or that you’re incredibly funny and clever. It’s why advocates are so vital in forging relationships with those around us. To serve as translators, as bridges, as a rock to lean against amid challenging times.  To remind us not to let our need for Belonging and Love be neglected. 

At Read to Them, we encourage you to read these books together, be it at home or across a whole school community. The lessons about understanding that Dr. Tam, Brendan, Melanie’s mother, Mrs. V., and Catherine teach are meant to guide advocates in the making— parents, teachers, and students, too. How lucky we are to have such important pieces of children’s literature to give us the tools to best understand those around us. How lucky we are to have those same guides so we, ourselves, can be understood, too.  

Who has been an advocate in your life? Share a few words about this significant person – or persons!- in the comments below this post. 


Four Years of OSOB With Booth Tarkington Elementary

Booth Tarkington Elementary in Wheeling, Illinois has been actively participating in One School, One Book for four years. As Ryann Rivers, the librarian at Booth Tarkington, looks back on their previous reading events, the growth between their first and most recent event is like an acorn to a tree. 

“The first year, I gave families too much time to read the book,” Rivers says. Booth Tarkington’s first OSOB title was The Lemonade War. “I wasn’t sure everyone was reading the book. We were able to have the author Jacqueline Davies at our school for an author visit so that was a great incentive for reading. I also had family engagement nights, but I still didn’t have the formative data on whether families were reading the book or how they felt about it.” 

Booth Tarkington students created their own wish tree during their school-wide read.

Booth Tarkington students created their own wish trees.

During their latest OSOB, however, Rivers and her school took advantage of the technological advances brought forth by COVID-19. Google Meet became instrumental in hosting bi-weekly lives for students and their families to engage with Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. Rivers even created her own self-paced Kahoots that families played in conjunction with the chapter readings. 

Rivers first heard about OSOB at AISLE (Association of Illinois School Library Educators), a state library conference which features presentations for tech, STEM, and library teachers. 

“I hoped OSOB would create a community of readers,” Rivers shares. “A presenter from a neighboring school district was talking about how they used OSOB in their school.  I liked the idea that everyone could have a common language (the book) we are all reading to connect them.” 

Rivers always puts a great deal of thought behind selecting her school’s OSOB title. Given that Booth Tarkington has bilingual programs, she starts with books that are available in Spanish before working on a presentation for her principal. 

“I tell him all the reasons we should use this book,” Rivers explains. “And my plan with how I would engage families and students. [My principal] usually asks me to select a couple of classroom teachers to read the book from the perspective of their students, typically K – 2, and get feedback.” 

As the school librarian, Rivers is also able to get feedback from families. She shares a survey at the end of each OSOB about family’s interest in potential titles for the next program, something that’s been increasingly valuable in narrowing down her book list. 

“For me, library programming is at the heart of the school,” Rivers says. “It brings the fun. It brings the party. OSOB is exactly that– an opportunity to bring the love of reading in a fun and engaging way.”

Though Rivers admits it’s hard to get 100% participation from families, she believes that if she can get one new family to participate in OSOB when they hadn’t previously, the program was a success. 

“Students look forward to participating in OSOB each year,” Rivers claims. “OSOB has definitely created a reading culture at my school.”

One family at Booth Tarkington created a massive hamster maze for Humphrey. A student watches Humphrey the hamster navigate the maze.

“…one family even built a huge hamster maze!”

One of the fondest OSOB memories came from a library hamster Rivers obtained during her school’s reading of The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The students (naturally) named the hamster Humphrey. Kids brought carrots from their lunches to drop off at Humphrey’s cage, and one family even built a huge hamster maze. Like Birney’s Humphrey, the Humphrey at Booth Tarkington couldn’t be contained to one room. 

“I have so many fond memories of her in her ball rolling around the school,” Rivers says. “She was even able to drive her hamster car in the Halloween Parade! She was easily the most popular thing at school.” 

When asked to advise first year OSOB participants, Rivers claims that crafting a plan and sticking to it is essential. Communication is essential in connecting with families and keeping them involved for the duration of the program.

“I used Parentsquare which our district uses to communicate with families,” Rivers says. “It was the most effective way to get information to families as reminders of upcoming events related to the book and ways to participate.” 

Several boxes filled with family resources are shown.

“Just a fraction of family packets Rivers put together for her school.”

However, biggest of all, Rivers says that it’s important – and encouraged– to ask for help from teachers and staff in launching the program. 

“I am really bad at this,” Rivers admits. “I usually enlist the help of other staff members and my own family members. Also, teachers will see me working on something (like stuffing envelopes with the books and other papers for 450 families) and will volunteer to help. I have even had custodians offer assistance!”

She feels very fortunate to have the support of her school administration and staff. With so many elements that go into planning a successful OSOB, and if you feel as though your ideas may be turned down at every turn, it can be defeating. 

“Did my principal love the hamster?” Rivers says. “No. [But] was he able to see that having her was an integral part of the book’s excitement? Yes.” 

Looking ahead, though, Rivers likes the seemingly endless possibilities of what she might do to engage families with different books in Read to Them’s catalog. She has a tendency to “brainstorm all the possible events and ways to hook readers” and proceed with the title best fit for her school community. 

“There are so many other books that I have ideas for,” Rivers shares. “And that will keep me – and OSOB– going for years to come.” 


Sharon M. Draper and Elana K. Arnold Meet Us at The Lamp-Post

Join us at The Lamp-Post as we discuss understanding with Elana K. Arnold (A Boy Called Bat) and Sharon M. Draper (Out of My Mind).

In this reflective and personal conversation, we learn how both authors approach their storytelling as a vehicle for readers to find their own meaning, rather than teaching a planned lesson. There are so many rich and lasting lessons to be learned from the wide array of books each of them has written. 

We discuss various types of understanding readers encounter when reading about complex, well-drawn, nuanced characters like Bixby Alexander Tam and Melody Brooks. Understanding people who are different from you. Understanding the world around you. Understanding yourself.