Nowhere to Call Home for the Holidays


A few months ago, I wrote a post about children’s books that address the topic of immigration. Today I came across a wonderful opportunity for children to send holiday wishes of love and hope to refugee families living in detention centers in the United States. The following is a description of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) Hope for the Holidays project:

In 2014, the U.S. government returned to the inhumane practice of detaining mothers and children in jail-like settings in three family detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania. Consequently, many mothers and children will spend the holidays in detention, separated from the love of their families and the comfort of their traditions. Join LIRS in bringing hope and joy to children and mothers in immigration detention through sending Christmas cards and gifts. Write a message of hope to a family in detention and then mail your cards to LIRS. We will ensure that they are delivered to families in detention and to those children who arrive at our borders alone.

The holiday cards are needed by December 12th and instructions on where and how to send them are on the LIRS website. They particularly need cards with messages written in Spanish, and their website provides appropriate examples.

This project would pair nicely with the picture book Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat, which I described in a previous post. The mother in this story is living in a detention center while her husband and daughter anxiously wait for her to be released.

Because Donald Trump’s presidential campaign focused strongly on illegal immigration, many young children in the U.S. have become more aware of this issue. It is being discussed at home, in classrooms and on the playground. While we may feel that the issue is too complex for children to understand, we also need to recognize that they will likely be exposed to it whether we feel they are ready or not.

Like so many other issues in our world, I believe that it is important to teach children to approach the subject of immigration with compassion. We can help them understand the reasons why we secure our borders and require people to follow a specific path to citizenship, while also acknowledging the desperation and despair that leads refugees to flee their home countries. If we lived in a country where boys are recruited as child soldiers, where drug cartels terrorize the community, where there is no work, no food, and no hope, can we really say we would stay in that environment? Or would we flee to a new country despite the legality of that decision and the dangers that were in front of us? The goal is to help children see the complexities of the issue and respond with compassion because, in the end, those refugees living in the detention center could be any of us.

Wishing peace to all of you this holiday season…


PHOTO credit: Morgue File, chilombiano,



Book Characters Who Read Books


WIP Wednesday is a weekly link-up for writers hosted by Happy Writer. This week’s theme is Bookworms, Reading. In classic literature, I can think of many scenes where characters are reading. One of my favorite fictional bookworms is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. In fact, Caroline Bingley uses Elizabeth’s reading habits to take a shot at her:

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”

I love that in a Jane Austen novel so much can happen over the course of an evening in the drawing room. Some characters are engaged in a game of whist, while others are reading or taking a turn around the room. One of the reasons I love and admire Elizabeth Bennet is her intelligence. She preferred a good book over the silly games and flirtations that amused the other female characters. Elizabeth was worth a thousand Caroline Bingleys.

When I think about contemporary literature, I can’t find many examples of characters actually reading. I can think of characters who are depicted as nerds and may profess a love of books, but actual scenes where they are reading…I can’t come up with any immediately. I wonder if this is because modern day writers are told to drive the story with action. This is especially true in young adult novels, which are what I mainly write. One writing tip I have heard over and over is to “come in late and leave early.” This means the writer starts the scene when the action is already happening and leaves before the action completely winds down. This scene structure doesn’t leave much time for characters to sit around reading books.

The young adult thriller I am working on is tightly plotted, and I haven’t shown my character doing much that isn’t part of the main action. I did give her a pet, which helped me show another side to her. Now I need to start thinking about her as a reader. Does she like to read? I think she does, although she doesn’t enjoy the classic literature assigned to her in high school. Her books of choice are modern and gritty and disturbing. She’d  be reading Divergent or The Walls Around Us. Now let’s see if I can slip that into the novel somewhere…



“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Sun is Also a Star

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine

new-wowWhat soon-to-be-published book am I excited about right now?

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon


Available: November 1, 2016

From the author’s website:

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Why I’m looking forward to reading it: I enjoyed Yoon’s first novel Everything, Everything, which is currently being made into a movie. I’m curious to see how she will give the star-crossed lovers trope new life by bringing in immigration issues. Plus, I just love a good YA romance, especially one with multicultural characters and told from multiple points of view. If you haven’t read Everything, Everything, check it out while you wait for The Sun is Also a Star.


Just the Same: Recently Published Picture Books About Immigrant and Refugee Experiences

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus

Over the last few years, I have been disturbed by the growing global trend of anger and fear toward immigrants and refugees. I understand that prejudice against immigrants and refugees is not a new concept, but there has definitely been an increase in hateful rhetoric. Where once we were proud of being “a nation of immigrants,” we are now debating building walls and excluding people because of their religion. I believe we will look back on this period in history with shame.

I want my children to understand that we all deserve basic human rights, and people who come to our country seeking freedom from poverty, war and other dangers are not a threat to us. The titles listed below are all recently published picture books that address the immigrant and refugee experiences. They are appropriate for elementary school, and I believe they could be used at the middle school level, as well. I often used picture books to introduce new topics to my middle school students. Most importantly, these books have the power to spark important conversations about compassion and empathy. What could be more important to discuss with our children?

We Came to America by Faith Ringold (2016)imgres-copy-2

Ringold’s poetic approach to immigration is both honest and appropriate for young children. In the first few pages she notes that American Indians were the first Americans, a fact that is left out of many immigration lessons. She also does not ignore the issue of slavery: “And some of us were brought in chains/Losing our freedom and our names.” She goes on to convey the reasons immigrants came to this country, as well as the beauty that comes from the blending of diverse cultures. The colorful illustrations depict a wide array of immigrant families in the traditional clothing of their native countries. Ringold concludes with the line “We are all Americans/Just the same,” a simple message that at this point in our country’s history feels incredibly relevant. This book would be a fantastic choice for discussions on diversity and tolerance.


Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng (2015)images-3

This picture book humanizes the issue of illegal immigration by bringing it down to a personal level. The story is told through the eyes of a little girl who travels with her father along the border. He attempts to earn money to keep them alive, and she counts the things she sees: chickens, clouds, stars. The little girl never gets an answer to her question about where they are going, and her confusion adds to the quiet desperation of this story. The illustrations help convey the obstacles immigrants face: the camps of people who live by the railroad track, the escape from soldiers (presumably border police), the father’s look of exhaustion and despair. The words and images are appropriate for young children, yet they will provoke conversation and raise important questions. There is epilogue that concludes with the question, “What do those of us who have safe comfortable lives owe to people who do not?” I think children often have a much more generous answer to this question than adults.


Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez (2014)imgres-14

In this wordless picture book, we follow the experiences of an Asian boy who has come to live in America with his family. At first, he feels confusion, loneliness, and grief. He cherishes a red seed he has brought with him from his native country, and it is this treasure that pushes him to explore his new neighborhood and connect with others in his community. There is so much to enjoy about this book that I found myself poring over the details on each page. It would be best read aloud with a small group, as the illustrations might be harder to enjoy from a distance. This book could be very powerful to read with children who are new immigrants. Even students who know little or no English can enjoy wordless picture books like this one, and I believe the story would be a wonderful way to connect with them. This book would also be useful in teaching about inferences (what can you infer based on the boy’s body language in the pictures?) and fiction writing (have students write the words to accompany the story).


Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danicat and imgres-13Leslie Staub (2015)

Saya’s mother has been sent to an immigration detention center, and her family does not know if she will be released or deported back to Haiti. During their separation, Saya listens to bedtime stories her mother has recorded for her on cassette tapes. She and her father work to get her mother released, and, in the end, they are reunited. For children, the idea of being separated from a parent will resonate strongly. As a teacher, I certainly had students with family members who were in prison or who were facing deportation issues, and I wonder if this book and others like it would have been helpful to them. I’m sure many of them felt alone and afraid, just like Saya.

Wimpy Kid Read-Alikes


The most popular series in my school library was Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The copies would come back tattered, stained and well loved. They passed from hand to hand before I had time to check them in and out again. Many parents asked me to recommend a similar series so they could get their kids to read something – anything! – other than a Wimpy Kid book. I think it’s pretty wonderful that Jeff Kinney created a series to hook the most reluctant of readers, and I’m always happy to suggest titles that kids can move to next.

There are the three elements in the Wimpy Kid books that I believe make them so popular:

  • Humor
  • Realistic (usually cringe-worthy) life events
  • Hand drawn illustrations/cartoons

The following books have the trifecta: humor, realistic tween problems, and cartoon illustrations. I listed the series title first (if there was one) followed by the title of the first book in the series:


  1. My Life Series: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian — Twelve year-old Derek Fallon is crushed when he has to spend his summer at “Learning Camp.” Reluctant readers will particularly identify with Derek, and all readers will enjoy his adventures and sympathize with his humiliations. I feel like this series has a little more depth and heart than Wimpy Kid and highly recommend it.


  2. Tom Gates: The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L. Pichon — Tom Gates is a British version of Greg Heffley. You’ll find the same humor about school and home life. A glossary at the end helps readers understand some of the British terminology. In my library, this series was a huge hit with Wimpy Kid fans.


  3. Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang by Amy Ignatow  — This journal format series chronicles the adventures of best friends Lydia and Julie as they attempt to uncover the formula for popularity. I think boys would love this series just as much as girls if they would give it a shot. It really bothers me that boys have been socialized to resist “girl” books, and I encourage parents to buy the book and cover it with a brown paper bag. Maybe then little dudes will be comfortable reading it.


  4. Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell — I have to admit, I have not read this series myself. The reviews are mixed, with some saying the main character Nikki Maxwell doesn’t show enough growth over the course of the story. I included it because it’s hugely popular with female reluctant readers. I think it’s worth it for parents to check it out and see what they think.


  5. Origami Yoda: The Strange Case of Origami Yoga by Tom Angleberger — Dwight, an odd kid in the sixth grade, starts making accurate predictions for his classmates by speaking through a finger puppet shaped like Yoda. This offbeat concept yields hilarious results and realistic portrayals of tween angst. Interestingly, Angleberger is the husband of the author/illustrator of book #6…

    book cover

    cover of the novel El Deafo

  6. El Deafo by Cece Bell — This memoir follows Cece Bell through her childhood as she adjusts to becoming deaf after a bout of meningitis. Reluctant readers will love the graphic novel format and Bell’s humorous take on her life-altering situation. Adults will appreciate the fact that the book has something important to say. I wrote more about the book here.


  7. Charlie Joe Jackson: Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald — The title says it all. Charlie will go to great lengths to make sure he doesn’t have to complete a reading assignment. Hilarity ensures and reluctant readers will love him.


  8.  Big Nate: In a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce — Big Nate is another series that flies off library shelves. Like many of the main characters in this list, Nate is a ne’er-do-well who can’t seem to get a break. Big Nate is heavy enough on the humor and illustrations to hook reluctant readers.

I know many parents hope to get their children to read something more challenging than Wimpy Kid. Please note that this is not the purpose of my list. These are read-alikes to keep kids reading, especially kids who aren’t always thrilled to pick up a book. I like to tell people that I spent junior high reading every book in the Sweet Valley High series. I went on to become an English major, a librarian, and an appreciator of great literature (as well as seriously low brow books). I believe that it’s important to make reading a pleasurable experience for children. The hope is that this will lead them to more substantial literature and lifelong reading habits.

Book to Screen: Anne of Green Gables

This past week I found out that two of my favorite books are being made into movies. Happy dance! One is a well-loved classic novel that already has a fantastic mini-series version. The other is a 2011 young adult novel that I will write a post about in a few days. Let’s get on to the classic: Anne of Green Gables.


The first film version of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery was a black and white silent film made in 1919, eleven years after the book was published. Based on my research, it appears that the film was never released. Several other versions followed, including the popular 1985 miniseries Anne of Green Gables and the 1987 sequel Anne of Avonlea. This version was widely praised, and I believe the talented cast was a large part of the film’s success. Megan Follows was the perfect choice for plucky orphan Anne Shirley, and I feel sorry for anyone who has to play the part after her. She seemed to understand who Anne is: tough yet dreamy, romantic yet feminist, and sometimes difficult but desperately wanting to do better and be better.


Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth were excellent as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the elderly siblings who are quite surprised when the orphanage sends Anne to them instead of a boy. The scenes between Marilla, Matthew and Anne provide many of the most poignant moments in the series, and I admit that I cried through many of them. Anne’s “bosom friendship” with her “kindred spirit” Diana Barry and her love/hate relationship with Gilbert Blythe were also depicted beautifully in this film. Gilbert became one of my serious book crushes…sigh.


I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (because when you watch one, you have to stay up all night watching the other), but talking about them is making me want to order the DVDs immediately. How do I not own these already?? When you love a book and its movie version this hard, it’s difficult to imagine the necessity for a reboot. And yet I’m looking forward to the Netflix version, an eight episode series titled Anne that is currently being filmed in Canada. It will air some time in 2017.

There are reasons to be both optimistic and concerned about the remake. One reassuring detail is that they have assembled a talented all-female team for the writing, producing and directing. The writer is Moira Walley-Beckett who worked on Breaking Bad. I can’t imagine a series more different from Anne of Green Gables than Breaking Bad, but I also know that great writers can do different genres well. I’m pretty sure Anne won’t be mixing up meth on P.E.I.

According to information released from the filmmakers, there will be new plot lines that address contemporary issues of bullying, prejudice and identity. Hmmm. This makes me anxious. There is plenty of action to include from the novel itself so it worries me that they feel the need to add new scenes in an attempt to modernize the story. I’m not a fan of messing with classics unless you’re going completely over the top, like adding zombies or sea serpents. When the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice concluded with kissing and invented dialogue, it really got my petticoats in a wad. You’re going to improve on Jane Austen’s dialogue?? You cheapen the moments between Darcy and Elizabeth just to make the ending sexier?!? I don’t think so, bub!

OK, calm down, Willard. Deep breaths. Think of Darcy in the BBC version…


I will watch the Netflix version of Anne, and then I’ll retreat to the ’85 miniseries if they don’t get it right. It will be fun to see Carrots and Gil on screen again. They better not cut out the scene where she breaks the slate over his head.


I think Anne would appreciate filmmakers who are willing to take a risk on a remake though, don’t you?

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” ~ Anne Shirley


Books to Read on the First Day(s) of School

As a teacher and a librarian, I always eagerly anticipated that first day of school. I was well rested. My lessons plans were solid. My room was lice free. And I knew that my students would be on good behavior for at least a week. This year, I’m heading back into the school year as a parent, not as a teacher or a school librarian. It’s strange to be on summer vacation instead of being part of the hustle of teacher workdays. Today I found myself hanging bulletin board paper in my husband’s classroom because apparently I can’t stay away.

In the spirit of keeping my head in the game, here is a list of great books to read aloud the first day(s) of school (pre K through third grade). I noted which books have main characters who are people of color because I think diversity is an important consideration when selecting read alouds. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments. Wishing all my former colleagues and educators everywhere a great first day of school!

Preschool and Kindergarten

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis — This book chronicles one girl’s first month of kindergarten. The illustrations are colorful and engaging, and the story will reassure students that school is fun.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn — Mama Raccoon comforts her baby as he starts school. This book addresses the separation anxiety many children feel. If you’re a sap like me, it may bring tears to your eyes.

Bailey by Harry Bliss — Bailey decides to attend school. What’s the problem? He’s a dog. If you’re looking for a lighthearted read, this is a great choice.

The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing — This take on the classic Christmas story is a solid choice for the first day. At the end of the story, the parents are the ones crying as they drop off to their kindergarteners. Too true.

I am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child — Lola’s brother Charlie tries to reassure her that school will be fun. I find that Lauren Child’s illustrations are better for one on one reading, but the story is funny enough to hold a group’s attention.


Grades 1-3

Brand New School, Brave New Ruby by Derrick Barnes — This book is for all the younger siblings who follow their brothers and sisters into a school. Ruby is sassy, smart and ready to make a name for herself. The main character is African American.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look — I love Alvin Ho because he represents the quiet, anxious introverts among us. Students who will only read Diary of a Wimpy Kid may enjoy Alvin enough to read the rest of the series. The main character is Asian American.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes — You may know Henkes from his stellar career as a picture book author. This is what I would call a quiet book. Nothing zany or intense happens, but many students will relate to the experiences of second grade and family life.

Dory Fantasmagory: The Real True Friend  by Abby Hanlon — I haven’t loved a protagonist this much since Clementine. Dory is that strange kid, the one who talks to herself, wears weird clothing, and is generally under-appreciated. She desperately wants a girl named Rosabelle to be her new best friend. Hilarious. I want Dory to be my best friend.

Make Way for Dyamonde Daniels by Nikki Grimes — Dyamonde is dealing with her parents’ divorce and moving to a new school, but she retains a positive attitude. When a grouchy boy arrives as the new kid in her class, Dyamonde is determined to get to the bottom of his bad attitude. The main characters are African American.