Celebrate National Poetry Month with Read to Them!

Each April, National Poetry Month gives folks the opportunity to celebrate the importance of poetry and the poets whose works actively enrich our lives. Like any creative genre, poetry includes a plethora of themes and terminology to introduce to students. Poetry also presents a wondrous opportunity: the chance to build a bridge between reluctant readers and a love of books.

How can that bridge be poetry?

If you peer back through the door of childhood, it’s likely you memorized a nursery rhyme or six. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? The Itzy Bitzy Spider? How about Hey Diddle Diddle? (Just remembering these titles, you probably have more than one of them stuck in your head.) They’re short and their simple rhyme scheme makes them easy to recite and recall even years later.

For many of us, nursery rhymes naturally gave way to the witty, nonsensical tales of Dr. Seuss. From Green Eggs and Ham to The Cat in the Hat, to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and even Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, each is widely accessible in and out of the classroom. Children continue to love these books for their blend of sensibility and silliness, and may not even realize that Seuss’s playful rhyming and repetition helps develop speech and language skills. Seuss’s works also allow children to let loose with their vocabulary acquisition through creating new words like “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz” and “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” in a delightful sort of nonsense that’s sure to twist the tongue.

The first real foray into poetry that kids are likely to have is with Shel Silverstein, known for The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Falling Up. Like Dr. Seuss, Silverstein’s poems welcome kids into a world of quirky characters and outlandish tales. The prose is simple and straightforward, with ample joy and heart, too. There’s also a sense of respect woven through Silverstein’s work, an understanding that children need silliness and to have their unique view of the world honored. Take his poem, “Thumbs” for example:

Oh the thumb-sucker’s thumb

May look wrinkled and wet

And withered, and white as snow,

But the taste of a thumb

Is the sweetest taste yet

(As only we thumb-suckers know).

There’s undeniable childlike humor, yes, but it doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence in the slightest. What all of these examples do best, though, are pique interest. Bigger than that – these forms are short, making them easily digestible to even the most bristling of readers.

You can throw even the most compelling of chapter books at a reluctant reader, but the amount of words on the page are still going to spook some of them. But  kids who may shy away from a seemingly dense novel may be able to gravitate towards the ample white space around poetry stanzas.

Jason Reynolds – whose novels Ghost and Look Both Ways are available in Read to Them’s catalog– recognized this in a 2017 interview with PBS.

“For some kids,” Reynolds says. “Those words – the amount of words – is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the [pet store] window? In this case, poetry.”

But the power of poetry – and poets! – is that in spite of this white space, thanks to deft, careful word choice, a single poem can hold the punch of a full-length story.

Books written in verse, for instance, still contain vital literary elements – characters, plot, structure – while delving further into things like imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. Each serves as foundational bricks to a child’s developing reading comprehension and literacy skills.

“With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present,” Reynolds claims. “This is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia… And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.”

Read to Them has a number of novels in-verse as well as novels where poetry plays a major role within the text*. We invite you to use them as your building blocks for exploring poetry with readers of all ages. Check out the list below:

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech – Jack (the protagonist) doesn’t think he can write poetry – because that’s what girls do, not boys. This initial objection, however, is written in the form of a poem, as is every entry that follows. But as Jack’s poetry unit goes on, he finds himself inspired by the work of Walter Dean Myers and decides to write a poem of his own about his dog. Sharon Creech’s short, stunning stanzas beg readers to slow down and appreciate the beauties of poetry beyond the month of April.

 

 

Finding Langston by Lisa Cline-Ransome – While this isn’t a novel in-verse, the role of poetry is essential. Young Langston, who has just moved from Alabama to Chicago in the wake of his mother’s death, discovers the poems of his namesake – Langston Hughes. Readers will find themselves just as touched by Hughes’ poetry as young Langston is, and may just find a narrative window into their own lives, too.

 

 

 

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – This Newbery Award-winning novel-in-verse brings readers to the basketball court, and into the lives of twin brothers, Josh and Jordan. When the bond between the brothers begins to unravel when Jordan meets a new girl in school, readers will find that the playbooks of basketball and life have more overlap than they might have thought possible, while Alexander’s poetry dazzles on the court and off.

 

 

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander – Nick is just like any other young teen: he loves soccer, he’s got a crush, and he’s trying to figure out what his future holds. However, when the dependable stability of Nick’s world starts to flounder, he finds himself struggling to stay afloat. Alexander’s poems briskly propel readers through the highs and lows of Nick’s life as he finds solace and solutions, even (unexpectedly) from the books recommended by a teacher who visits him in the hospital!

 

 

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – This memoir-in-verse paints a rich picture of the Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn of Jacqueline Woodson’s youth. Woodson steadily finds storytelling to be an essential part of herself, one that she is eager to share with the world. It’s a fully-realized dream, one that Woodson relays in gorgeous, varied, and layered poems that are sure to inspire readers to delve into their own sense of self-expression.

 

 

 

Harbor Me* by Jacqueline Woodson – Step into the ARTT Room – A Room to Talk. Though there are six middle school students featured in Harbor Me, the heart of the novel lies with Esteban. His father, who has been deported, shares poetry with Esteban that he translates into English to share with his friends. Using these poems as stepping stones, this unforgettable group of six is able to elevate their own feelings, stories, and secrets.

 

 

 

Flying Lessons, and Other Stories* by Ellen Oh – Among the small wonders of this collaborative work, you’ll find Kwame Alexander’s novella-in-verse, “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents.” This series of 31 poems introduces readers to Monk, a twelve year old boy who, in the wake of a car accident, develops the ability to read people’s minds. Dive into Alexander’s beautiful free verse (and one haiku) and get a taste of rhyme and anaphora, too!

 

 

 

Look Both Ways* by Jason Reynolds – Jason Reynolds masterfully guides readers through the lives of ten neighborhood kids as they leave school. Everyone has a different story to tell, and each is more complicated than it first appears. During Satchmo’s story, Reynolds employs a free-verse poem that brilliantly captures Satch’s anxiety about walking past a house with a ferocious dog. Readers will find each empathetic, humorous, and profound thread is woven into a lush quilt of interconnectedness.

 

 

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


Sticking with Your Story, a Journey of Persistence

“Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”  

– Vice President Kamala Harris 

 From the day we are born, a blank page unfurls before us, ready and waiting for us to tell our story. Some folks, however, allow their stories to be told by those around them. Despite the good intentions of parents, teachers, and friends, we are inevitably responsible for crafting our own story. Of course it can be difficult to find your own voice, to stick to that voice when faced with steep obstacles. But authentic stories are valuable, so stepping up and seizing the reins of your narrative is a challenge worth pursuing. Lucky for us, the books on this month’s slate of titles feature characters who model this inner strength and who masterfully display the persistence needed to stick to their stories.  

* 

Every classroom comes with its own cast of characters. Some of the characters are predictable – the quiet child who rarely speaks in class, the distracted child who is more concerned with the view through the window than with the whiteboard. But few classrooms have a character as vibrant and charismatic as Gooney Bird Greene. In the opening pages of Lois Lowry’s novel, all eyes in Mrs. Pidgeon’s class follow the new student, Gooney Bird, as she takes a seat “right smack in the middle of everything.” She arrives wearing “pajamas and cowboy boots” one day and “a pink ballet tutu over green stretch pants” the next. And the first lesson that Gooney Bird sits in on?  

What makes good stories. 

Finding the extraordinary in the mundane is Gooney Bird’s bread and butter.

A girl as illustrious as Gooney Bird is not short on stories. In fact, her classmates encourage her to share several with them: How Gooney Bird Got Her Name; The Prince, the Palace, and the Diamond Earrings; and Beloved Catman Is Consumed by a Cow, among others. You’re probably thinking to yourself, A second grader met a prince? Directed an orchestra? Not to mention that poor cat… It’s important not to let yourself slip into Mrs. Pidgeon’s mindset: “I want to be certain that the children understand that these are made-up stories.” 

Over and over, Gooney Bird asserts, “I tell only absolutely true stories.” Gooney Bird’s storyteller heart is a gift, granting Gooney Bird the ability to take her experiences and dress them up to be as dazzling and fantastical as her snazzy outfits-that-border-on-costumes. For instance, a morning like any other leads to a chance encounter with a lost bus, resulting in the tale of Why Gooney Bird Was Late For School Because She Was Directing a Symphony Orchestra. Finding the extraordinary in the mundane is Gooney Bird’s bread and butter. It’s a masterclass that she, in turn, is able to give her fellow students.  

She reiterates that “out there, invisible, are a lot of stories not yet told.” And Gooney Bird’s encouragement leads her classmates to reflect on the stories they have yet to tell – such as “How Beanie Got Her Name” and “How Keiko’s Family Came to Watertower” and “When Barry Spent Every Penny He Had on Something He Wanted Really Badly.” Gooney Bird cements the notion that each of these stories is important and worth being celebrated, that each tale is miraculous in its own way when her classmates let their voices persist and remain true.  

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In Grace Lin’s beloved modern classic, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Minli lives with her parents in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain. They spend each day working to survive, rarely ever reaping enough rice to properly feed themselves. However, “what kept Minli from becoming dull and brown like the rest of the village were the stories her father told her every night at dinner.” These Chinese fables and folktales nourish Minli’s soul whenever food is scarce and spirits are low, but her mother discounts their value, time and time again: “Our house is bare and our rice hardly fills our bowls, but we have plenty of stories… What poor fortune we have!”   

Chinese fables and folktales nourish Minli’s soul whenever food is scarce and spirits are low.

It is her mother’s tired sighs and hope found within the tale of the Old Man of the Moon that fuel Minli – with the aid of a talking goldfish to get her started – to set out to bring good fortune to her family. 

When they discover Minli has gone, Minli’s parents are frantic and neighbors warn: “You better go find her or else she will never return. Foolish Minli! She is trying to do the impossible!” In stark contrast, Minli never doubts the substance behind her father’s stories. Of course the Old Man of the Moon exists! Of course he knows the answers to everything! Minli’s conviction is so strong and steady, she convinces every companion she meets on her journey that it’s possible to speak with the legendary Old Man of the Moon.  

From a Dragon to a king, a buffalo boy to young twins, each share their own stories with Minli, too. Each of these stories adds to Minli’s red threads of fate, as each are woven together to forge a bridge that ultimately leads her to her destination, and to a deeper understanding of what is most important.  

Not a changed fortune, not a house full of gold and jade, but her family. 

By selflessly asking Dragon’s question of the Old Man of the Moon, Minli is able to remove the heavy pearl from the Dragon’s head and help her loyal friend take flight. Without valuing the long list of fables and folktales she encountered on her journey, Minli never would have understood just how wrong her mother was.  

Stories are what sends Minli’s rice bowl overflowing.  

They are what enable her to be grateful for what she has rather than longing for what she lacks. Upon returning to her family’s hut, the now wiser Minli observes that “the shabby walls and worn stones seemed to shimmer as if a translucent silk veil covered them, muting any flaws and transforming the house into a dwelling of luminous light and delicate shadows. Minli had never seen her home look so beautiful…” This growth, this ability to shift perspective, are tools Minli has honed for herself and they are so vital in Minli’s efforts to craft a new story for her and her beloved parents – one that goes on to impact the entire community around them.  

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The path that the protagonist of Janae Mark’s From the Desk of Zoe Washington walks is, to put it lightly, complicated. In many ways, Zoe’s story has been told for her: she’s an aspiring baker happily making cupcakes on her birthday, who is supported by loving parents and a doting grandmother. The story Zoe knows is upended when she finds a letter from her birth father, Marcus. Doesn’t seem like that big of a problem, right? It wouldn’t be, but Marcus has been in prison for Zoe’s entire life. She doesn’t know him, her mother refuses to talk about him, and Marcus has always been painted as a “monster” who committed a horrible crime. Which is true… 

Right? 

Zoe, upon exchanging letters with Marcus, finds herself questioning everything she thought to be true, her whole life’s narrative. “I was old enough to figure out for myself how I felt about him,” Zoe claims. It can be hard enough to know a person when they’re standing right in front of you, but when all you have of someone is paper and ink? Doubt is to be expected, and trust is something to be slowly nurtured. But Marcus is kind, thoughtful, and caring. With the Little Tomato playlist, unearthed newspaper accounts of the incident, and the discovery of the Innocence Project, Zoe’s world does not make the same sense it used to, and she is lead to two life-changing realizations: 

“Maybe the pencil marks can’t be erased, but at some point, you could decide to turn a new page.”

Sometimes power isn’t found in sticking to your own story, but protecting the story of someone who isn’t around to do it themselves. Sometimes, there is strength in re-evaluating what you know and using that understanding as fuel to help change the minds of others. Zoe, superstar that she is, does both of these things. 

For all Zoe’s mother had good intentions to keep her daughter distanced from Marcus, she tried to determine Zoe’s story for her. However, once the idea that Marcus is innocent enters the realm of possibility, Zoe is forced to tear up the story she knows and start from scratch: “Maybe the pencil marks can’t be erased, but at some point, you could decide to turn a new page.”  

Zoe can no longer ignore how much she wants to have a relationship with her birth father. And when Zoe tracks down the alibi witness, she has no doubt that she must come clean to her parents about what she’s learned, about how much her perspective has changed. Zoe’s secret efforts have turned her into more than “a little kid who can’t handle things.” She is the reason Marcus eventually gets out of prison, that an innocent man is able to live the life he always deserved. There’s no doubt that Zoe’s narrative of unbreakable faith will continue to inspire long after readers have swept their eyes over the novel’s closing lines. 

Each of us are affected by the world – our families, our friends, and a thousand other circumstances that are unique to us. As Gooney Bird, Minli, and Zoe have proved, what matters is what we do with these raw materials when it comes to telling our own stories. Do we just passively accept the stories others thrust upon us? Or do we seize the narrative, buffing and polishing our rough-faced gem to make it our own? By sticking with your story, you might be encouraging others to tell their stories, to realize all that they have to be grateful for, or even get justice for those who have been made voiceless.  

With just a bit of persistence, we can fill up that blank page and keep striving to tell the stories that help each of us live honest, authentic lives. 


Tips from the Field

One of the classic, bread-and-butter elements of Read to Them’s printed newsletter was the “Tips from the Field” section. It allowed seasoned One School, One Book program coordinators to share advice with educators who may be looking for ways to innovate or even find their footing in launching their reading event. We are happy to be able to share the wisdom of three OSOB veterans and hope that their guidance inspires you as much as it does us!

 Kelly Wintemute– Reading Specialist Title 1

Corry Area Intermediate School in Corry, Pennsylvania 

Our school chose The One and Only Ivan for our first OSOB title. The book is award-winning, loved by our staff, and lent to many extension activities. Next year, the survey results from students, parents, and team will determine our book choice. Our school incorporated many things to keep the students engaged with The One and Only Ivan. Our staff was vital in creating the culture for One School, One Book. It was essential to making this fun, and our faculty’s enthusiasm was contagious. Ivan-related decorations and bulletin boards covered the hallways.  Our staff recorded the readings and posted them on our Seesaw pages. Our school encouraged at-home participation for the reading of the book.

We integrated The One and Only Ivan in our Family Involvement Night by having a staff dressed as a gorilla to entertain the participants, provided suggestions on how to read with their families, and had other literary-themed activities. The educators also engaged the students by having an optional weekly trivia challenge on the pages read each week. The students also had optional activities such as gorilla drawing and a cooking activity, Gorilla Wraps. The students could access these activities on Seesaw, and every activity earned them a chance to win The One and Only Bob, The One and Only Ivan sequel. Teachers also posted the students’ work on a grade-level blog.

The highlight of our One School, One Book experience was our community involvement activity. One of the themes of The One and Only Ivan is compassion for animals. Our school tied this theme to the Erie Zoo’s campaign, Wild Open Spaces. The goal is that the zoo will offer “more WILD OPEN SPACES for their animals and help them better meet the needs of the animals and plants in their care – creating a unique environment that will be enjoyed for generations to come.” Our students connected to the animals in the story and wanted to help other animals through a voluntary penny drive. In addition, our students created and donated enrichment activities for the animals at the zoo. For example, they made paper chains and colorful paper bags for the animal’s entertainment during the winter months with fewer visitors. As a result, Corry Area Intermediate School students raised $2,338.07 for the Erie Zoo to help with their campaign. This activity allowed the students to make a difference in their community. Our first year doing One School, One Book was a tremendous success!

 

Lisa Korbas– Student, School & Family Support Services Coach (Title 1)

McCormick Elementary in Farmington, New Mexico

I have been participating in OSOB since 2018, since I was hired as the Title 1 teacher. But my school has been involved since 2015. Each school year we fit in two books for our students, one in fall and one in spring. We are fortunate to have our local ROTARY club help supplementing with the funds. Each year they also participate by handing out the books and celebrating during our final chapters.

We choose our books based on our diverse population, which includes Spanish speakers and Navajo speakers. We always choose a book that can be purchased in both Spanish and English.

We promote the new book in many ways around our campus; first by putting up “bulletin boards” and fliers around the building. We have also made many posts in our social media, [our school] website,  and Schoology community groups. We also keep our classroom teachers involved by providing electronic timelines for reading, activities that go with the book and rewards for those who can answer comprehension questions about the book.

Each Friday we visit each classroom in the building and ask these questions and even put winners on the Announcements.

We believe each time we participate in OSOB our students are the most involved in their own reading and are including their own families in a positive way.

 

Linda Garrison– Librarian

Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg, Florida

Choosing the book: We begin discussing book choices at faculty meetings in the spring. Our school comprises PK-4th. I alternate choosing books which would appeal to our older students (Dominic) with the whole school (Mr. Popper’s Penguins). One year the theme of our fundraising gala was loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, so we chose that book as our

OSOB. It is critical that at least one person has read the book recently, before finalizing the choice, thus ensuring that teachers and administrators can be prepared to answer possible objections.

It is essential to choose and purchase the book as early as possible so that teachers can read it and begin to choose activities. I try to choose books that have sequels, or the author/illustrator has published other books; do not have movies (difficult); have a beginning reader companion; have a Spanish version; include music, science, or language. I purchase as many sequels as possible so that the students (or teachers) can seamlessly move to the next. I try to have at least 5 of the next book, 3 of the 3rd, and 1 of the next few. Students love to read these throughout the year!

Creating excitement: We begin teasing the book in May. I create a bulletin board with the covers of past reads circling a blank cover with a question mark. During the last week of school, I give hints to the students (we have a morning Flag; this could be done over the loudspeaker). When we read The Trumpet of the Swan, one hint was, “The author of this book has won a Newbery Medal and a Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.” The title is kept secret until the “Big Reveal.”

Timing and Introduction: Canterbury reads the book over 3 weeks. We launch the program the first full week of the school year, which allows teachers to focus on the OSOB without having to balance other curriculum reading. It also encourages parents to make reading every night a habit. On the first day of school, the Head of School receives a hardback copy (which will be given to the library), wrapped in brown paper. They are not allowed to unwrap it until the students get their copies the morning of The Big Reveal.

The Big Reveal is important! In past years we have had the PE teacher, wearing a helmet with mouse ears, deliver The Mouse and the Motorcycle on a scooter; a drone delivered a letter from our state Senator who was an astronaut when we read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet; a video of faculty reading Fenway and Hattie with their own pets followed by a student delivering the book to the principal in a “moving van” (a decorated pedal truck).

Curriculum tie-ins and activities: Journaling in science class and Boston baked beans for lunch (The Trumpet of the Swan); building beds and cricket cages in STEAM/Art, fortune cookies, learning about opera (The Cricket in Times Square). I created vocabulary bookmarks for Dominic. It was very time-consuming but worth it. I laminated them and encouraged students to keep them to study for their college entrance exams! The music teacher has highlighted musical styles or artists mentioned in books (opera, jazz), and the art teacher has created projects based on themes.

My job is to encourage teachers to think creatively, support them, and showcase their work. Many of the books lend themselves to lessons such as empathy or resilience – use the themed list provided or ask teachers for their thoughts.

I believe one of the decisions I made early on has been critical to student buy-in: there is to be NO testing on the book! Teachers may, for example, use the vocabulary, discuss themes, and incorporate geography into projects, but none of the work can count toward a grade. This constraint was the only area I had resistance from teachers, but after conversations about why, most – not all – have accommodated this request.

Family/student involvement: Along with the letters Read to Them provides, I send home a handout a week to parents, such as “Tips for Reading Out Loud to Young Students” and “Why Reading Out Loud to Older Students is Important.” Students are encouraged to create projects at home. They have created miniature school desks (The World According to Humphrey); a water horse built from a pumpkin base (The Water Horse); and paper dogs with knapsacks (Dominic). I encourage parents to send me pictures of the family reading together, which I post around the library. We do participate in the trivia program, with correct answers going into a basket from which I draw a winner from each grade level to get a trinket (bookmark, sticker, nothing big). Our head of school and other visitors or often-invisible staff (chaplain, reading, OT specialist) sometimes read the questions. Make the trivia easy on the teachers by providing pre-cut paper and a basket/baggie.

Wrap-Up: We read the last chapter together. One year we played the audio of The Trumpet of the Swan at a school assembly, but typically the teacher reads the last chapter in class. Every student receives a reading bracelet (purchased with book fair money the year before).

Be patient and kind to yourself! The program builds upon itself. Funding was difficult the first few years, but parents are now so enthused that they fundraise to pay for the books! It is easy to get overwhelmed and over plan; I think it is more important to have teachers and parents excited about a simple program than stressed about details in an elaborate one. Once they understand the power of this program, they will be volunteering to help! Good luck!


For Women’s History Month, Learn About Persistence from Lois Lowry, Grace Lin, and Janae Marks.

 “All the stories that you read, they will help you someday. They will give you the strength to get you through something someday.” 

Three writers at three different stages in their careers each share stories – the struggles and the triumphs – of their journey to becoming successful writers.  Lois published her first book at age 40 (after a divorce); Grace endured years of rejection before finally writing her own story to pair with her Asian art; and Janae left three novels in the drawer before finally breaking out. They exemplify how Persistence is vital for any writer to bring their own authentic stories into the world.  

Each shares stories about the books that influenced them. (The Two Towers?!) And memorable anecdotes about how to nurture readers’ stamina.  Look for Lois’s story of a snow day in South Carolina…  And don’t miss Grace’s own insights from reading with her own family.  The best way to inspire a reluctant reader? “Read to them!”  

 

It Is Our Pleasure to Chat With:

Lois Lowry – Gooney Bird Greene 

Grace Lin – Where the Mountain Meets the Moon 

Janae Marks – From the Desk of Zoe Washington 

 

Topics Covered 

Q1: So what does Persistence mean to you?  (3:36) 

Q2: The power of Sliding Doors – for characters and readers. (22:35) 

Q3: The value of family or cultural stories to characters. (41:25) 

Q4: How characters grow from new friends and new relationships. (54:50) 

Q5: On the notion of “flow” and how to develop students’ attention spans and focus. (1:04:10) 

 

Highlights

13:35 – Janae Marks talks about the importance or persistence, grit, luck, timing, and representation in her writing journey.

31:10 – Janae Marks talks about writing a better version of yourself and providing hope.

1:02:41 – Grace shares a remarkably candid anecdote about reading The Two Towers while her husband endured chemotherapy treatment for cancer. 

1:06:54 – Lois Lowry tells a story about a librarian and a recalcitrant 8th grader during a snow day in South Carolina. 

1:10:54 – Grace Lin waxes on the higher power of reading and especially the power of reading aloud. 

 

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Lois Lowry is the author of almost 50 books, spanning four decades. She won the 1990 Newbery Medal for Number the Stars and the 1994 Newbery Medal for The Giver. Her novel for younger readers, Gooney Bird Greene, is featured on the Read to Them list of books for schools. It tells the story of a second grade girl who wants to be “right in the middle of everything” as she tells her “absolutely true” stories, and inspires her classmates to tell their own.  

Grace Lin comes to us fresh from winning the 2022 American Library Association Children’s Literature Legacy Award for her body of work. She has published almost 30 books, from board books to novels, and garnered awards including the Caldecott Honor for A Big Mooncake for Little Star, a finalist for the National Book Award for When the Sea Turned to Silver, the Theodor Geisel award for Ling and Ting, and the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the book we discussed together. We also recently added The Year of the Dog to the list of  Read to Them offerings.  

Janae Marks is beginning her career as a novelist and is off to a fast start. Her debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, received multiple starred reviews and awards, and she has followed that with another acclaimed novel, A Soft Place to Land. Both books have been selected by Project LIT, a national book club program for young readers. We offer From the Desk of Zoe Washington on our book list, and looking forward to the upcoming sequel, On the Air with Zoe Washington, coming in 2023. And, since we have read the book, we’ll be watching out for the Kerry Washington-produced movie about Zoe!  

 

 

 


Persistence: Doors, Maps, and Folding Chairs

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop pioneered the philosophy that children’s literature should serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Books should allow children to see themselves, see others, and enter new worlds. Thankfully, we are now hearing more and more about the role of mirrors providing representation and validation, and windows building empathy. But, as I think about that framework, I am struck by the doors. Books open those doors, but books also show readers how to walk through them.  

From infancy, children learn by watching others around them, first in the home and later in the neighborhood, at school, on teams. Literacy expands that world even farther, allowing children to throw open a wider variety of doors, and to see many approaches to walking through those doors.  

For young readers trying to find their own ways of navigating the world, richly drawn characters can act as sextons. Some characters tiptoe through doors, trying not to make any ripples, finding themselves buffeted by the wind and waves. But others, like the girls in our novels this month, chart a course and hold true to it, come what may. They embody persistence, defined as: 

 firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. 

Well, “obstinate” is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s obstinate is another woman’s fierce determination. Gooney Bird, Minli, and Zoe all model that fierceness for readers of all ages.  

Our youngest character, Gooney Bird Greene, beautiful written by Lois Lowry, quite literally steps through the door of her new second grade classroom on the very first scene of the book, ready to grab her share of this new space.  

“I’m your new student. My name is Gooney Bird Greene – that’s Greene with a silent ‘e’ at the end – and I just moved here from China. I want a desk right smack in the middle of the room, because I like to be right smack in the middle of everything.”  

There are lots of books about little girls with big personalities in children’s literature – heiresses to the Ramona Quimby throne. And, sometimes, they all get lumped together as a genre of sorts – the scrappy little girl who gets into scrapes but has a heart of gold. Gooney Bird, however, turns that stereotype on its head. Gooney Bird puts herself into scrapes because she has a heart of gold and shepherds those around her through their own scrapes with the power of her stories. She is the leader who sets the course, opens the door, and marches her cowboy boots right on through with her head held high.

Does misfortune befall Gooney Bird? Of course. See for example How Gooney Bird Came from China on a Flying Carpet. When catapulted out of the back of a moving car in an effort to save her tailless cat, Gooney Bird reacts by giving a TV interview, and filing the story away to become part of her own persona. Gooney Bird is not a person who lets literal bumps in the road derail her from her path of being her own true self. 

So, what does Gooney Bird tell us about persistence? Think about young readers meeting Gooney Bird for the first time. They may have met Ramona, or Junie B., or Clementine, each adding a pin in a map of How to Navigate the World. Gooney Bird will show them an entirely different way:  When faced with a new place, put on the clothes that make you feel like yourself and claim your space. By modeling that fierce dedication to her own spirit, Gooney Bird shares some persistence with her classmates, her teacher, and her readers. For our younger readers, Gooney Bird is a concrete example of defining yourself for yourself, and holding true to that line. 

“…So choose your question carefully.”

Our next model of persistence is Minli in Grace Lin’s modern classic, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Minli decides that it is up to her to change the fortune of her family and her community by going to see the Old Man of the Moon. With the encouragement of a talking goldfish, she sets out on this quest, firm in her determination to improve conditions in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain. She does not seek the counsel of her parents because, of course, they would forbid her to go. She knows the space they expect her to occupy within their family – an obedient daughter who helps in the fields, listens to stories, and sleeps under their roof. But Minli has a different vision of her role in the family and the greater community – a provider who can banish her mother’s sighs of discontent. So, she makes a compass in her blue rice bowl, and follows the direction it points – True North.  

As she leaves for her quest, she says, “When I come back I will know how to make you happy again!” Fortunately for Minli, she gathers good friends and supporters on the way. But, make no mistake – this quest is hers and hers alone. As she travels, she steps boldly through doors – out of the door of her home, into the secret entrance into the Inner City of Bright Moonlight, and through the circular opening to the Old Man of the Moon.

However, persistence should not be confused with recklessness. When Minli finally reaches that round door and the Old Man of the Moon, he cautions her: 

“It’s behind the gate with the pictures of the lucky children on the door.”

“Every ninety-nine years, someone comes here with their questions. But I will answer only one. So choose your question carefully.”  

Minli launched her journey to bring happiness and good fortune to her family. And she could have marched through the gate and demanded an answer from the Old Man of the Moon on how to bring that fortune. Instead, her quest has taught her much about the world outside her own front door. When Dragon asks why she didn’t seek the answer to how to change her family’s fortune, she responds, “I didn’t ask the question because I don’t need to know the answer.” It seems fitting, therefore, that when the goldfish man returns to Minli’s village, he is sent to a set of doors, ornately decorated with pictures of lucky children. Through those doors, he finds a thriving community, a happy family brimming with good fortune, and a girl gazing up at the moon.  

Janae Marks’ debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, takes Minli’s quest to benefit her family and brings it to modern times for a contemporary middle schooler. Zoe receives a letter from her incarcerated father on her birthday, her first contact with a man she has never known. Until that point, she has worried about typical middle school concerns – problems with her long-time best friend, a long summer stretching in front of her, and her ambition to be a pastry chef. But, when that letter lands in her hands, she suddenly has bigger concerns. She wants to establish a relationship with Marcus and, as she learns more, she becomes determined to clear his name.  

At first, her grandmother supports her efforts to communicate with Marcus, providing Zoe with a role model of persistence. Grandma knows that Zoe’s mother would not approve, but she sticks to her principles. Later, though, the quest to find the alibi witness will come down to Zoe and her steadfast friend, Trevor. Zoe faces that perennial dilemma, saying to herself, “But maybe it was okay to do something wrong if you were doing it for the right reason.” Despite her misgivings and real obstacles, Zoe knows that building this relationship with Marcus is the right thing to do, so she holds her course.  

The perhaps ill-formed plan to confront a possible alibi witness brings Zoe and Trevor to the office door of Dr. Susan Thomas, a math professor at Harvard. At this pivotal moment, Zoe – like Minli – slows down a bit.  

 “I opened the door carefully, like if I did it too fast, the person on the other side would disappear.”  

But open it she does, and opening that door is the key to finding the truth. The rest of the quest is not that simple, though. As was bound to happen, Zoe and Trevor’s fragile cover story unravels. The car door slams after Trevor’s mom sees them get out of the taxi. The front door slams as Zoe’s mom comes home to learn the whole story. And, the laptop slams shut on Zoe’s hopes of uncovering Marcus’ alibi.  

As it turns out, though, Zoe’s fierce determination ends up softening her mother’s own resolve. The 12 year old has taken this quest as far as she can, and her persistence opens a space in her mother so she is ready to face some hard truths about Zoe and about Marcus. In the end, Zoe needs her mother and stepfather’s help to free Marcus, just as they needed her help to see the path ahead of them 

 Zoe’s dream toward the end of the book is a metaphor for her journey:       

“I dreamed of Marcus sitting alone in his prison cell at the end of a long hallway. I tried to run to him, but every time I got close, the hallway would stretch out even longer and I’d have to start running all over again.”

Zoe persists down that long hallway in her quest for the truth about Marcus. Her determination finally pays big dividends, in establishing a new closeness with her father, in winning his release, and in carving a new role for herself in the family.  

Painting of Shirley Anita Chisholm by Kadir Nelson.

Now, do we want young readers to lie to their parents and dash off to another city like Minli and Zoe? No, we do not. But any young person taking those first steps into practicing persistence is going to make mistakes. And, there’s the beauty of characters like Gooney Bird, Minli, and Zoe. They show kids, in the safe environment of a book, how stepping through those doors might work out. They give readers the chance to play out the string, equipping them with all of the learned wisdom of these characters, before facing similar dilemmas in their own lives. Readers learn that persistence sometimes comes with mistakes and costs, helping them to evaluate their own course of action and, ultimately, their own true selves. 

 There is a popular Shirley Chisholm quote that speaks to the persistence she embodied in her time. It is still valuable to readers in our time: 

 “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”  

Women like Shirley Chisholm start out as little girls like Gooney Bird, asserting her way into upending her second grade class. They become older girls like Minli and Zoe, taking steps through more challenging doors that they open themselves. These three characters support young readers as they learn how to walk through their own doors and assert their own seat at the tables they choose.


Perkins Elementary Conducts Read-a-Thon for OSOB

Over more than a decade of program launches and anecdotes from educators, Read to Them has found that no One School, One Book looks exactly the same. We are constantly amazed by the ingenuity that program coordinators take to launch a successful event or – in this case– to ensure an OSOB program even lands at their school in the first place.

Anne Ware, K-5 gifted teacher at Perkins Elementary in Pinellas, Florida, first heard of the program through Read to Them’s Florida Regional Representative, Sally Baynard.  As it happens, Ware is one of Baynard’s former students. Ware found herself drawn to OSOB for a number of reasons. What charmed her the most was the prospect of building a stronger school community.

“It was something we desperately needed, especially in these days,” Ware claims.

Ware was incredibly determined to bring OSOB to Perkins, though program funding was, admittedly, an issue. With the aid of former PTA President, Summer Jensen, the two sought a unique initiative that could garner a wide net of support for a school-wide reading event. Ultimately, they settled on conducting a Read-A-Thon. Perkins students were eager to ask friends and family for support– and it was a call happily answered.

“I posted the fundraiser on Facebook and got a lot of support,” Ware shares. “Grandparents love to support reading!”

The fundraiser was a roaring success. With the aid of the Pinellas community, Perkins Elementary raised not only enough money for an OSOB program, but had enough funds remaining to give teachers money for classroom supplies.

“Students still fondly remember the Stella mosaic…”

Perkins selected Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan for their school-wide read.

“It was such a community building experience,” Ware says. “You could not walk through the halls without seeing pictures of the characters [from The One and Only Ivan] posted. In my own window we decorated with coloring work of different characters and posters of character traits!”

Ware’s favorite piece that students created during the program was a collage mosaic out of Rubik’s cubes. The piece depicted Stella, one of Ivan’s elephant companions in the novel, and it was “a very big hit” among the students and staff. 

“The primary classes did lots of art activities based on the book,” Ware says. To nurture further engagement, Ware adds: “There were trivia questions on the [school] news every morning. A few classes even held parental involvement contests.” 

Ware remains hopeful that another One School, One Book program is on the horizon. Students still fondly remember the Stella mosaic, for instance. Seeing the lasting impact and the incredible amounts of potential that remain, Ware’s determination is certain to yield another successful event down the line.