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The Trouble with Shooting Stars
Author: Meg Cannistra
Published: August 20th, 2019 by Simon & Schuster for Young Readers

Summary: Twelve-year-old Luna loves the nighttime more than anything else. It’s when no one gives her “that look” about the half mask she has to wear while healing from a disfiguring car accident. It’s also the perfect time to sit outside and draw what she sees. Like the boy and girl from the new family next door…zipping out of the window in a zeppelin and up to the stars.

At first she thinks she’s dreaming. But one night the siblings catch her watching. Now Luna spends her nights on adventures with them, as they clean full moons, arrange constellations, and catch jars of stardust. She even gets to make a wish on a shooting star they catch.

But Luna learns that no wish is strong enough to erase the past — as much as she may hope to.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for The Trouble with Shooting Stars:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about The Trouble with Shooting Stars on Meg Cannistra’s Cake Literary page.

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Beverly, Right Here
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Published: September, 2019 by Candlewick Press

Summary: Beverly put her foot down on the gas. They went faster still.
This was what Beverly wanted — what she always wanted. To get away. To get away as fast as she could. To stay away.

Beverly Tapinski has run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid. By now, she figures, it’s not running away. It’s leaving. Determined to make it on her own, Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mom, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her — and gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes. In a touching, funny, and fearless conclusion to her sequence of novels about the beloved Three Rancheros, #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo tells the story of a character who will break your heart and put it back together again.

Revisiting once again the world of Raymie Nightingale, two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo turns her focus to the tough-talking, inescapably tenderhearted Beverly.

View my post about Raymie Nightingale and Louisiana’s Way Home to learn about the two companion books to Beverly.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for Beverly, Right Here:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about Beverly, Right Here on Candlewick’s page.

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“Why We Need International Books in the Classroom”

After finishing college, my husband and I packed two suitcases each, sold everything else that we owned, and bought plane tickets to Japan. Our plan was to teach English for a year or two and then move back to Tennessee, but we wound up loving life abroad so much that we lived outside Tokyo for almost five years.

For much of my time in Japan, I worked at an international elementary school, where I taught children from all over the world. My classroom was made up of students from Sri Lanka and Denmark and Korea, Canada and Sudan and Poland. Along with a typical American curriculum (math, P.E., language arts, etc.), I was responsible for making sure my class of 15-20 ESL students learned how to speak and read and write and listen in English—a second (or third) language for almost all of them.

It was a challenge, of course, not only to communicate, but to create an environment where everyone felt comfortable celebrating their differences. Unfortunately, sometimes the American textbooks themselves complicated this problem. (Think of how often things like currency and sports and apparel are referenced just in simple math worksheets.) Finding educational resources that represented the diversity of the students in my classroom—even just a fragment of it—was difficult.

Because of this, more often than not, I turned to literature to address the diversity gap in my classroom’s curriculum.

For my students in Japan, bringing books with an international setting or international characters into the classroom helped to make everyone feel more welcome. Though we were a mix of varied beliefs and colors, traditions and clothing and languages, the books we read helped us learn about each other, which in turn created a more respectful and joyful environment.

But this sort of magic isn’t reserved for an international classroom.

Now, back in the U.S., I teach college English in my home state, and I have my students read texts written by diverse authors from all over the world. Though I occasionally teach a special course composed of all international students, the majority of my classes are largely composed of white Americans who’ve never left the country. (As of 2018, over 75% of the students at my university were white and less than 2% came from outside the U.S.)

In my international classrooms in Japan, the diverse books that I brought to our shelves provided ways for my students to see themselves and their peers in the stories we read. Now, for many of my students, however, such texts require that they learn about cultures with which they’re completely unfamiliar. This forces them to see the world through perspectives they’ve never encountered and, ultimately, open both their minds and their hearts.

Bringing writing with international settings and characters into the classroom, especially writing by diverse authors, is beneficial at any grade level and to any group of students. It teaches readers of all ages that the world is bigger than what’s outside the window—and that people are still people, wherever you go.

The Story That Cannot Be Told
Author: J. Kasper Kramer
Published October 8th, 2019 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

About the Book: A powerful middle grade debut that weaves together folklore and history to tell the story of a girl finding her voice and the strength to use it during the final months of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989.

Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country tore down her home to make room for his golden palace; back when families had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. Others are folktales like the one she was named for, which her father used to tell her at bedtime. But some stories can get you in trouble, like the dangerous one criticizing Romania’s Communist government that Uncle Andrei published—right before he went missing.

Fearing for her safety, Ileana’s parents send her to live with the grandparents she’s never met, far from the prying eyes and ears of the secret police and their spies, who could be any of the neighbors. But danger is never far away. Now, to save her family and the village she’s come to love, Ileana will have to tell the most important story of her life.

About the Author: J. Kasper Kramer is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her debut novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told from Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, published on October 8th. You can find her online at www.jkasperkramer.com and on Twitter @JKasperKramer.

Thank you so much for this guest post looking at how perspective and a worldly view shape outlook!

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Weird Little Robots
Author: Carolyn Crimi
Illustrator: Corinna Luyken
Published October 1st, 2019 by Candlewick

Summary: When two science-savvy girls create an entire robot world, they don’t expect the robots to come alive. But life may be a bit more magical than they thought.

Nine-year-old Penny Rose has just moved to a new town, and so far the robots she builds herself are her only company. But with just a bit of magic, everything changes: she becomes best friends with Lark, has the chance to join a secret science club, and discovers that her robots are alive. Penny Rose hardly remembers how lonely she used to feel. But then a fateful misstep forces her to choose between the best friend she’s always hoped for and the club she’s always dreamed of, and in the end it may be her beloved little robots that pay the price.

Praise: [A]uthor Crimi infuses this unassuming transitional novel with compassion, humor, and a refreshing storyline in which girls organically weave a love for science into their everyday lives. Illustrations by Luyken add to the guileless sensibility. A contemplation on the magic of friendship told with sweetness, simplicity, and science.—Kirkus Reviews

**BEA Middle Grade Book Buzz Book

About the Author: Carolyn Crimi enjoys snacking, pugs, Halloween, and writing, although not necessarily in that order. Over the years she has published 15 funny books for children, including Don’t Need Friends, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy?, There Might Be Lobsters, and I Am The Boss of This Chair. Weird Little Robots is her first novel.

For more information, and to download a free classroom guide for Weird Little Robots, visit her website. and Twitter @crims10.

Review: Thank goodness books like this exist out in the world. I cannot wait to see what this new generation of kids are like as adults now that they all have these amazing stories of smart girls to read. Even the characters who fit a certain stereotype for Penny Rose ended up proving her wrong. This book shows that there is more to everything than anyone can imagine: more to science, more to friendship, more to imagination… What a fantastic world that Penny and Lark’s story can be told!

And the story itself is one that is fun to read. Not only do you get to read about robots, engineering, ornithology, and even decorating, but the book includes a story that many kids will connect with: do you abandon one to join the others even if the one is your best friend and the others is giving an opportunity that is hard to refuse. That is something that everyone faces more than once in their life. And told in a lyrical and a bit quirky narrative, the story is just fun to read.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: A Classroom Guide for Weird Little Robots can be found on Carolyn Crimi’s website!

Discussion Questions: 

  • What do Penny Rose and Lark have in common?
  • Why do you think Penny Rose made the decision she did about the secret society? Did she regret it in the end? How could she have dealt with it differently?
  • If you were going to build a little robot RIGHT NOW, what items are in your backpack that you could use? Use these items and sketch out a plan.
  • How could Penny Rose have helped her other robots communicate with her?
  • Why do you think the robots waited to communicate?
  • What did the different members of the secret society show Penny Rose, and the reader, about judging others?
  • Create your own conversation starters. Then, in class, group with 2 other people and use the conversation starters to chat. Rotate.
  • What did Penny Rose’s one decision the turned her back on Lark cause?
  • Penny Rose finds her way through the woods just by listening. As a class create an obstacle course that has different sounds throughout it and see if students can navigate through using only their hearing.

Flagged Passages: “First though, Penny Rose would need a detailed plan. She went up to her bedroom, sat on her bed, and turned on the lamp she had made last year from an olive oil can. A stack of notebooks sat on her nightstand: her New Inventions notebook, her Robot Drawings and Descriptions notebook, and her To-Do List notebook. Her most secret notebook, Conversation Starters, was at the bottom of the pile.

She picked it up, found a clean page, and wrote a quick list of Possible Conversation Starters:

  1. “I think binoculars are fun.” (Lark seems to like binoculars.)
  2. “The sun seems strong today.” (Lark often wears sun goop. First determine if the sun does, indeed, seem strong.)
  3. “Sunglasses are very wise.” (Lark wears sunglasses.)
  4. “Do you like robots?” (It is unknown whether or not Lark likes robots, but it is probable that she does since most people do.)
  5. “Yesterday was my birthday. Would you like some leftover cake?” (This seems like a good bet, unless she has allergies or is gluten-free or vegan or something.)
  6. “What is in that metal box?” (This might be too nosy, although if you’re going to carry something so mysterious, you should be prepared for questions.)

Penny Rose looked over her list. She considered what her father said about Lark not hearing before. She decided she would speak loudly.

Penny Rose tore out the page and tucked it into the tool belt she wore in case she happened upon interesting items for her robots.” (Chapter One)

Read This If You Love: Ellie Engineer by Jackson Pearce, Ada Twist by Andrea Beaty, Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, The Last Panther by Todd Mitchell, Frank Einstein by Jon Scieszka

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**Thank you to Blue Slip Media for providing a copy for review!**

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“Obstacle or Opportunity or Both”

“No pressure, no diamonds” – Thomas Carlyle

It’s simple: every single person you will meet today is facing at least one major obstacle. Especially the ridiculously beautiful person staring back at you in the mirror. Take a look — so many big old obstacles smack in front of us. Daring us. Mocking us. Blocking us from achieving great stuff. Stupid obstacles!

Though we know they’re there, most of us pretend they’re not.

We do our best to avoid facing them. We procrastinate. We rationalize. We think maybe if we don’t look at our obstacles, they might just go away on their own.

Guess what? They don’t go away. Never. And, deep inside, we already know they won’t go away.

The far more likely scenario is they’ll get bigger, noisier, fiercer, and freakier.

Here’s the good news in all this. Every obstacle or problem we face holds a secret. Hidden deep within the dread is an opportunity for greatness.

The big idea is to never let a good obstacle go to waste. Use it or lose it. Now if you believe amateur internet linguists (hint: do NOT believe them) the Chinese symbol for obstacle can also mean opportunity (100% refuted by actual professional linguists, but you get the idea — sounds really Zen, doesn’t it?).

Once again, my friends, it’s really simple. The obstacles that stand in our way can either hold us down or elevate us to greater heights. You get to choose which one to go for. You probably don’t think you get to choose, but you do.

No joke. You really-really do get to choose.

Bertie Blount, the twelve-year-old protagonist of BERTIE’S BOOK OF SPOOKY WONDERS, with help from a terrifying ghost and a pair of hexed sunglasses that allow her to see a better version of herself, eventually chooses greatness. Bertie rose above her tragic circumstances, and her own terrible choices. And, in doing so, she becomes the better version of herself. How cool is that?

It’s funny, but when kids and adults read BERTIE’S BOOK OF SPOOKY WONDERS, they compare themselves to Bertie. Could I do what Bertie did in that situation? Could I persevere how she did? Could I achieve what Bertie did despite all the crazy dangers, and endless ridicule from everyone around me?

The answer is yes. And no. The applicable answer for you depends upon your willingness to face whatever obstacles stand in your way. Whether it’s a problem with your family, or your school, or your sports team. Or a problem with a friend or enemy. Or perhaps it’s an adult struggling with an addiction, or divorce, or health. Or wanting to be a better parent, wife, or husband.

Or perhaps it’s someone who feels like they have a hole in their soul because they know there’s got to be a better way to get through the day. So many people are wearing these cruel shoes, and those shoes hurt worse with every step. We’re talking life blisters, folks. They are living in conflict with their better natures.

Through Bertie’s commitment to thinking differently, her sense of compassion, and her hunger to make things right no matter what, she shows us there is a better way to get through even the absolute most horrific days.

Bertie Blount is fantastically flawed. She’s a girl who is beyond lost. Nothing in her life makes sense to her anymore. But being lost is universal. We all lose our way. And not just with the big picture stuff either. Most of us get lost on a daily or even an hourly basis. That’s what makes Bertie’s story so captivating, and so enriching to the soul, even if it’s partly on a subconscious level. We understand Bertie’s struggles, because on many levels they’re our struggles as well.

As much as Bertie gets lost, she carries on and somehow finds her way out of the dark and scary woods, again and again. Her obstacles didn’t hold her down, they elevated her. And that helps us readers know that we can do the same.

The pragmatic side of the novel is that we don’t find our way by avoiding our obstacles. We have face them, the same way Bertie faces them (usually kicking and screaming). The same way anyone who ever achieved anything great faced their problems. And, as history shows us in countless examples, the obstacles we overcome make us better people than we were before. It’s simple, but not easy. It’s a choice. And it will be the best choice you could ever make.

That’s the hidden diamond in all this. If you choose to make better choices, you go through the day in a happier and more engaged way. If you repeatedly make the best possible choices you don’t need a pair of supernatural sunglasses to become the better version of yourself.

But, hey, if you happen to come across a pair — why not put them on, right?

Bertie’s Book of Spooky Wonders
Author: Ocelot Emerson
Publication Date: October 15th, 2019 by Tantrum Books

About the Book: Twelve-year-old Bertie Blount is great at causing trouble. When she’s forced to leave behind her dad and friends in North Carolina so her mom can marry the most boring optometrist in the world, Bertie has a chance at a fresh start.

But when Bertie arrives in Pennsylvania, she doesn’t just bring trouble; she brings disaster. In a moment of anger, Bertie unwittingly triggers an accident that puts her future stepbrother in a coma.

Broken and desperate to make things right, Bertie prays for a miracle. Instead, the universe gives her a pair of supernatural sunglasses, a wise-cracking doppleganger, and a terrifying ghost that sends Bertie on a dangerous mission to find the one thing that just might save her stepbrother’s life.

About the Author: Ocelot Emerson is the freakish result of a mad scientist’s experiment gone horribly wrong. Born half magnificent cat, half malicious human, Ocie escaped from the secret International Prison For Wayward Creatures, and into a deep dark woods, only to be captured by a pack of ravenous ghost wolves. In a stroke of good fortune, the Great Spirit Wolves set aside their natural disdain for all things feline and accepted the cat person into their pack, where they taught Ocie how to hunt and tell bizarre yet heartwarming tales. Bertie’s Book of Spooky Wonders is Ocelot’s first novel aimed at feral and phenomenally gifted children.

Thank you so much for this guest post about the beauty in time and patience and focus!

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“Bonding a Classroom Over Books: Read Aloud as a Community Builder”

My third year of teaching, I welcomed my fifth-grade class back from mid-winter break by revealing Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons as our next read aloud. Immediately, an excited titter spread amongst the table groups of my classroom. A student raised his hand with a grin and asked, “Are you going to cry? I heard when you read that book last year, you cried … in front of everyone!” The students exchanged excited looks, shocked by the boldness of the question-asking kid and eagerly waiting for the answer. I smiled and nodded.

It was true—I would cry. Walk Two Moons always makes me cry. Always. It did when I first read it as a fifth grader, curled up on the couch in the formal living room of my childhood home (the only place to escape my three younger siblings for quiet reading time), it did every time I read it aloud to one of my classes as a teacher in my twenties, and if I read it today … you guessed it, blubbery mess. That’s what evocative writing does to me, and Sharon Creech is a master.

Over the course of weeks, I read the book aloud to my class and we dissected it together. We made predictions about where Phoebe’s mother had gone, about what would happen if Sal did/didn’t reach her own mother by her birthday, about who the “lunatic” might be, and what, if anything, would happen between Sal and Ben. We discussed our favorite and least favorite characters—writing scenes from their perspectives, really getting into their heads—and when we got to THE SCENE (Walk Two Moons is an older book, but just in case I’ll avoid any spoilers!), my eyes weren’t the only wet ones in the room.

Did all my students cry? Of course not. But no one mocked those who did, which, in the world of tweens, showed a level of respect and empathy I always worked hard to build into my classroom. Whether they were moved to tears or not, they had shared an emotional experience, and they understood that that meant something. They were more than just classmates; they’d gone on a journey together.

This is the power of books.

Not all my read aloud choices were “crying” books. I made sure to read a wide variety of authors and genres to my classes, and I also let them propose read aloud books for the group to vote on. Listening to students explain why they loved a book and why they thought the whole class should read it always gave us insight into them as a person. And the more insight students have into each other, the more tightly knit a classroom becomes. We read scary books, mysteries, historical fiction, funny books, on a student’s recommendation I even read Brian Seiznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a heavily illustrated novel) under the document camera so we could all experience the magic that happens when a well written story and beautiful illustrations combine.

Whenever it was time to choose a new book, inevitably there would be questions about which books I had found sad, scary, or funny when I was a tween. The kids were always delighted if I named a book they’d read and enjoyed—books were sometimes my best “in” with struggling students. If you’re curious, some of my top answers were  Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows (sad), Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Til Helen Comes (scary books are my personal favorite—I still have the battered copy of this book that I received in third grade!), and Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom (funny, though that book really runs the gamut).

I made sure to have copies of all these books in my classroom library, and almost without fail, any book I endorsed quickly became a hot commodity. Students would discuss with me and with each other what their own takes on my recommended books were. Then, they’d suggest books they thought I might like, which is how I discovered Mary Downing Hahn is still the queen of ghost stories. (I can only hope to still be publishing books when I’m in my eighties!)

The five years I spent in the classroom showed me that not only is reading a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon (or the last ten minutes of lunch), books have the power to forge connections. I loved spending my days with the delightful, witty (and yes, sometimes sassy!), tween students in my class. When I left teaching to raise my young children and write, I thought of my former students often and my desire to write was refined into a desire to write books for them—for middle grade readers.

My debut middle grade novel, The Wicked Tree, is first and foremost a creepy tale, but there is humor, grief, mystery, and a lot of friendship woven in. I can’t wait for Tav’s story to be in the hands of middle grade readers and their teachers, and it would be my greatest joy to hear that it sparked a classroom discussion that helped bring the students and teacher closer together.

The Wicked Tree
Author: Kristin Thorsness
Publication Date: October 8th, 2019 by Month 9 Books

About the Book: Deep in the woods, a gnarled tree grows. Its thick, black trunk twists angrily up into the night sky. Held in place by the magic of a long-ago patriarch, it has waited centuries to lure a descendant into its trap.

Eleven-year-old Tavorian Kreet hates it when money troubles force his mom to move them in with his great-grandmother – though the historic house and grounds are pretty awesome. Tav is told to stay out of the estate’s woods, but he can’t resist the chance to explore.

After Tav’s first trip into the woods, he begins to have strange dreams about a supernatural tree. The dreams start out pleasant, but soon grow dark and menacing. On a dare, Tav ventures further into the woods with his new friend Harper, and they meet a mysterious, mute boy named Edward who lives in a decrepit cabin there. Though he’s unable to communicate where he came from or why he lives alone, in clear distress he scrawls two words: Bad Tree.

Tav knows what it’s like to be afraid. If he’d been brave enough to act four years ago, he could have saved his dad from the fire that took their home. But he wasn’t, and he’s been trying to redeem himself since. Now Tav is determined to help Edward. He enlists Harper, and together they search the estate for clues to Edward’s identity and how to help him.

While searching, Tav and Harper find antique photo albums, ancient diaries, and a secret laboratory. They piece together the Kreet family history, and discover a curse that’s been waiting generations for an heir. Tav’s dreams grow more ominous, and he realizes time is running short. To save himself and his friends, Tav must go to the heart of the woods, find the Bad Tree, and confront an evil magic before it consumes him completely.

About the Author: Kristin Thorsness is a former 5th and 6th grade teacher who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their son and daughter, and two spoiled dogs. She likes dark chocolate, strong coffee, and creepy stories that keep her up reading late into the night. For more info or to get in touch, visit her online at www.kristinthorsness.com.

Thank you so much for this guest post about the power of books!

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Orange County Public Schools’ Innovation Office opened in 2018 to support identified “Schools of Innovation” and to support staff in the implementation and development of innovative practices within and across these schools. My school was lucky enough to be considered a “School of Innovation” when the learning community opened in 2018. Then, in the Spring of 2019, the Innovation Office began recording their Appetite for Instruction podcast, and my colleague, Caitlin Chacon, and I were so lucky to be asked to participate.

Our podcast episode was titled “Unleashing Young Readers,” I’m assuming as an homage to this blog, and we shared what literacy instruction looks like at our school, both in the podcast and the companion write up:

Unleashing Young Readers (Episode 3)

Happy listening 🙂

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