• Childrens & YA Literature

A Tribute to Literacy: K-12 Book Reviews

March 6, 2013

nea's read across americaIn honor of Dr. Seuss’s March 2nd birthday and NEA’s Read Across America celebration, the International Reading Association's Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group would like to present a Tribute to Literacy in this week’s column. Today’s classrooms and libraries offer reading selections for children that they can freely select and enjoy. Reading will truly put tomorrow’s citizens on the path to success.

ReadWriteThink offers lesson plan ideas to support teachers and their individual celebrations of Read Across America. NEA offers a plethora of “Resources to Get Reading.”




Abouraya, Karen Leggett. (2012). Hands around the library: Protecting Egypt’s treasured books. Illus. by Susan L. Roth. New York: Dial Books.

hands around the libraryAlthough the January 2011 uprising against Egypt’s regime received much media attention, one smaller act of courage concerned books and the country’s literary treasures. This picture book describes how some of the nation’s most unlikely heroes banded together to protect the library of Alexandria from possible damage as the Egyptian protesters took to the city’s streets to express their displeasure with the current state of politics. Angry individuals intent on being heard by destroying whatever lies in their path don’t often stop to think about what might be lost by their actions. In this case, the quick thinking of those onlookers and protesters who linked hands with the building’s librarian, Dr. Serageldin, kept the building and its contents safe. They risked their lives by forming a human chain to protect the library. The library itself is a treasure, not just for the books it contains but for its architecture, its cultural significance, and the sanctity it provides to citizens. It even features stones containing letters or signs from 500 different alphabets. The book’s illustrations consisting of collage and photo montages are stunning and inspire contemplation of the power of literacy to form bonds among strangers. The love of some humans for their libraries knows no bounds, and acts of heroism are inspired for many different reasons.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Alexander, Claire. (2012). Back to front and upside down! Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

back to frontAfter Miss Catnip's students learn that today is the birthday of their principal, Mr. Slipper, they decide to make birthday cards for him. Stan is full of great ideas for what he plans to draw on his card, but he is frustrated once he realizes he must write a message as well as provide an illustration. No matter how hard he tries, he just can't get those letters to look like Miss Catnip's examples on the board. With encouragement from a friend, he asks his teacher for help, and realizes that he isn't the only one who is struggling with letters that seem to come out backwards and upside down. The soft colors of the illustration and text itself may feature a classroom of animals, but the simple story describes a common classroom challenge while offering suggestions for coping when things that seem easy for others are very hard for you. The expressions on the faces of these earnest students are endearing, adding to the pleasures of reading this title, whose author/illustrator is a recent recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award for this book.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Asim, Jabari. (2012) Fifty cents and a dream: young Booker T. Washington. Illus. by Bryan Collier. Boston: Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

fifty cents and a dreamWritten in a free verse style, this beautifully illustrated biography tells the life story of Booker T. Washington. Previous interpretations of Washington’s life have often run contrary to concepts of the fight for freedom and true emancipation than other versions and approaches to civil rights. Author Jabari Asim has presented the determination of a young man born into slavery but given his freedom by the end of the Civil War years. Through hard work and just a few pennies in his pocket, he walked 500 miles to begin the academic life he so earnestly sought when he received admission into the Hampton Institute in 1872 Virginia. Working as a janitor while he was at Hampton, Booker earned his degree and went on to become a teacher truly living the dream he had placed before himself as a young boy. Detailed author notes at the end of the book provide a timeline and further details of the life of this determined young learner. Teachers will find an interesting interview with both author and illustrator at this popular children’s literature blog, Mr. Schu Reads.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Cline-Ransome, Lesa. (2013) Light in the darkness; a story about how slaves learned in secret. Illus. by James E. Ransome. New York: Disney/Jump at the Sun.

light in the darknessUnder the cover of darkness, Rosa and her mother, both slaves of the master’s plantation, sneak away to find the “pit school” of Morris. Though expressly forbidden by law, Morris, himself a slave, was taught to read the Bible by the master’s wife. Now he has set up pit schools to teach other slaves who are willing to risk these clandestine learning sessions. Pit schools are shallow holes dug into the ground and often covered with branches and twigs so as not to be discovered by the plantation night patrollers. Rosa and her mother slip away as often as they can and are slowly learning their letters. Rosa is most anxious to learn whole words and now, even after a close call with the night patrollers, risks a harsh whipping with lashes for each letter learned, she is willing to continue learning. Pair this picture books with Gary Paulsen’s novel Nightjohn (1993), young readers will understand the strong desire these folks had to learn to read. Teachers might like to introduce this book with the video showing how illustrator-husband James Ransome created the beautiful watercolor illustrations for this story.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Fleischman, Paul. (2013). The matchbox diary. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

the matchbox diaryDespite his inability to read and write, an Italian immigrant finds a way to keep a record of the events in his life. Finding several small matchboxes, he places a token of each important event in each of them, and then later stashes them in a cigar box. When his great-granddaughter comes to pay her respects and get to know her ancestor, she is fascinated with his treasure trove of interesting objects. He tells her that each of them represents a story. When she chooses the cigar box, he uses its contents to describe his story about life back home during desperate times when the family had little to eat and their subsequent journey to the United States. Once they join his father who had originally come to the country seeking a better life, they face prejudice and mistreatment. Eventually, he goes to school, learns his new country’s language, becomes a printer, and later, opens his own bookstore. As the stories draw the great-granddaughter closer to her relative, she expresses a desire to keep a diary of her own so she, too, can keep a record of the things that matter. The story is tenderly told, and is perfectly supported by the book’s lovely, light-filled acrylic and gouache illustrations showing perfectly the mixed emotions of the book's characters.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Grant, Joyce. (2013). Gabby. Illus. by Jan Dolby. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

gabbyLike many novice readers, Gabby loves reading her book. When the letters somehow spill from its pages, Gabby gathers them up and forms simple words, including cat, fish, and bird. As the letters make words, the animal each work represents appears on the page, and Gabby has quite a menagerie around her. But a cat, a bird, and a fish all in the same room might spell disaster unless Gabby moves quickly. She manages to swiftly fashion another word since the three animals aren't getting along. After they become friends, she can go back to what she really longs to do: her reading. The illustrations are filled with bright colors and a smiling Gabby, and the back matter includes two activity pages to add to readers' enjoyment of the book.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Winters, Kari-Lynn. (2012). Gift days. Illus. by Stephen Taylor. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

gift daysReminding readers not to take for granted the right to go to school and become educated, this understated story about a young girl's desire to learn to read will tug at readers' heartstrings for several reasons. After the death of her mother in Uganda, Nassali assumes responsibility for her younger siblings and spends her days performing the necessary household chores. There is no time or money for school, at least not for a girl. Nassali longs to learn how to read, and after reflecting on their mother's goals for both of them, her brother gives her a precious gift. Once a week he gets up early and takes care of the chores so that his sister can practice reading and writing. This inspiring story shows just how important an education can be in attaining a better life. The softly-colored illustrations reveal the sheer joy on Nassali’s face once she has a chance to dream of a brighter future. The book’s back matter includes a glossary and discussion of Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as statistics about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman




Pattison, Darcy. (2012). Desert baths. Illus. by Kathleen Rietz. Mount Pleasant, SC: Sylvan Dell Publishing.

desert bathsTeaching students to wonder is the most crucial role of a teacher. To keep readers turning the pages is the work of an author. In this well-written and illustrated book, young readers learn about the inhabitants of the American desert. Readers will be amazed at the diversity of creatures living in the desert. Since these animals show up at different times of the day, the narration flows in a natural chronology. The accurate illustrations provide details to situate the young readers in the desert habitat. Using text and illustrations, readers actively participate in trying to figure out how each creature will find different ways to stay clean when there is no rain or water. One by one, the bobcat licks her cub, the pallid bat takes a spit bath, and the javelina rolls over thick, cool mud. In addition to six pages of activities, the book is accompanied by a teaching guide and numerous tools for classroom activities that provide opportunities for engaged learning. A great resource for any teacher because of its focus on the desert, this title may encourage many reluctant readers to search out similar texts.

- Rani Iyer, Washington State University Pullman


Polacco, Patricia. (1998). Thank you, Mr. Falker. New York: Philomel Books.

thank you mr. faulknerThe well-loved author/illustrator returns to a painful period in her own childhood to describe the ultimately heartwarming story of little Trisha, who is at first overjoyed at the thought of starting school and learning how to read. But her initial excitement turns to dread and embarrassment as the numbers and letters in the school books jumble together in her mind. As Trisha struggles to read and write, school becomes even more challenging for her. A move to a new school and new city only results in Tricia’s being teased for being unable to read, and Trisha starts to hate school. Mr. Falker, a new teacher in the fifth grade, changes Trisha’s life when he stops a classmate from bullying her and gives her hope by promising that she will learn to read. Teaming with the reading teacher, Mr. Falker works with Trisha every evening after school, and four months later, she can read sentences and even a complete paragraph. Once opened for Tricia, the world of words never closes again. Decades after its events occurred, this autobiographical story is still potent, filled with the palpable pain and pride of self-determination, an everlasting tribute to literacy and readers.

- Rani Iyer, Washington State University Pullman


Scieszka, Jon, editor. (2013). Who done it? An investigation of murder most foul. New York: Soho Teen.

who done itKids love to have fun while reading … and writing, so what better way to show the fun and power of words than to start with Jon Schieszka as the editor who puts together over 80 of the most celebrated authors in children’s and YA literature and accuse them of the murder of the disgusting editor, Herman Q. Mildew? Through all sorts of responses from quick quips, Tweets, eulogies, denials and illustrations, the authors provide hilarious comebacks to adamantly prove their innocence. Just a few of the authors include David Leviathan, John Green, Lemony Snicket, Mo Willems, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Peter Brown, Barry Lyga, Rita Williams-Garcia, Lyren Miracle, Elizabeth Eulberg, Mandy Hubbard, Mac Barnett and more! This fabulous collection of hilarity will make for a great read aloud in addition to providing an example of the numerous forms writing can take.
Watch this TED production of Dave Eggers as he talks about the writing program called 826 Valencia or visit the website of the 826NYC project to learn about the history and background of this writing and tutoring program.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant




Fitzmaurice, Kathryn. (2013). Destiny rewritten. New York: Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins.

destiny rewrittenThe day before she is born, Emily’s English-professor mother buys a book of poems by Emily Dickinson. As fate would have it, her mother names her new daughter, Emily, and her destiny begins. Her mother would have her become a poet but young Emily does not even like poetry. In fact, she has another genre of writing she is much more interested in and that is romance novels and writing wonderful happy endings. Emily discovers one day the original book of poetry where her mother has actually written notes in the book including one page that reveals the identity of her long-absent father. The book somehow is misplaced, given away and Emily and her friends begin a desperate search trying to find where this book has ended up in second-hand bookstores. Set against the backdrop of the 2006-2008 Oak Grove tree-sitter controversy in Berkeley, California, this book is layered with several other themes as Emily learns about environmental issues as well as her own identity. Teachers might like to pair this book with The Emily Sonnets (Yolen, 2012) reviewed later in this column. Read more about the book or view the book trailer at the author’s website or download the detailed discussion guide at the publisher’s website. Learn more about the Oak Grove Tree Controversy at Berkeley at.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Hitchcock, Shannon. (2013). The ballad of Jessie Pearl. North Andover, MA: Namelos Publisher.

the ballad of jessie pearlBased on the author’s own family history, Jessie Pearl’s life in the era of a 1920s North Carolina tobacco farm is not easy. Her own mother has died and now her older sister, Carrie, has tuberculosis. When Carrie passes, her infant son is left behind to be cared for by Jessie. Jessie’s own high school education is put on hold and that is devastating to her because graduating and attending teacher’s college is her lifelong ambition. She has always loved school, studied hard and been a good student. First her mother’s death and now the responsibility of her sister’s child make her dream seem impossible. J.T., a nearby farmer, has also entered Jessie’s life and has offered her a life being his wife and partner. In time for Women’s History Month, this book offers a realistic and heart-wrenching story of the choices, or lack of choices, women of earlier eras faced. Throughout the book readers will be eagerly awaiting the choice that Jessie makes to determine her future. Learn more about the author and her book at the author’s website, where she has created a CCSS curriculum guide for download.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Yolen, Jane. (2012). The Emily sonnets; the life of Emily Dickinson. Illus. by Gary Kelley. Mankato, MN: Creative Company.

the emily sonnetsAuthor/poet Jane Yolen has created a collection of sonnets to pay tribute to the distinguished poetic voice of Emily Dickinson. Through this series of 15 sonnets penned by Yolen she presents the life of Emily sometimes through the voice of her sister, sometimes a friend, sometimes a critic and also by Yolen herself. Jane Yolen actually lives near the family homestead of the Dickinson family in Amherst, Massachusetts, so the setting and period have given the author the appropriate backdrop for this volume. Gary Kelley’s somber and somewhat dark paintings add the right atmosphere that surrounded Emily’s solitary life. Yolen has included biographical information throughout the book interspersed with the sonnets. Teachers might like to use the volume with the book reviewed earlier, Destiny Rewritten (Fitzmaurice) or the 2012 YA novel, Emily’s Dress and other missing items (Burak). Read more about Jane Yolen on the Engage blog

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant




Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. (2012). No crystal stair: A documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Minneapolis: Lerner/Carolrhoda Books.

no crystal stairLife was surely no crystal stair for Lewis Michaux, who grew up during a time when segregation still existed. After trying to make a living in various ways, Lewis started his own bookstore in Harlem with only five books, peddling his wares on the city streets. Eventually, his store became a meeting place for anyone interested in black heritage as well as a home away from home for writers such as Nikki Giovanni, and political figures such as Malcolm X. Amazingly, Michaux even encouraged patrons to use his bookstore as a library if they couldn’t afford to buy the books he had for sale. This story about the author's own great-uncle is inspiring, a fresh reminder that knowledge gained from literacy is power. Nothing mattered more to this man than providing literature written by African-American writers to African-Americans. The inclusion of FBI notes on its observation of Lewis over the years is rather chilling, reminding readers that those who spoke out against the status quo were often suspect. Clearly, this single-minded man and his bookstore were community treasures. Check out the interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on the Engage blog. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Sa, Rachel. (2012). The Lewton experiment. Vancouver, BC: TradeWind Books/Imprint of Orca Books.

the lewton experimentSeventeen-year-old Sherri has accepted a summer internship as a newspaper reporter in Lewton, Ontario. When she arrives in Lewton expecting a city teeming with activity, she is sorely disappointed to discover a near-phantom like downtown existence. She soon learns that the newly constructed big-box store, Shopwells, has hired many of the people who formerly worked at the businesses on Main Street. Sherri finds it odd that these people have boarded up their businesses to support and work for “the enemy” business so she sets out to investigate what is happening in this town and why these changes have taken place. As the mystery proceeds, a love interest turns up for Sherri that gives her pause to reflect on the relationship with her boyfriend back home. This fun mystery read with a touch of romance and investigative journal writing will appeal to aspiring writers.
Read about the author’s experience as a reporter at her website.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


These reviews are submitted by members of the International Reading Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Reading Today Online. The International Reading Association partners with the National Council of Teachers of English and Verizon Thinkfinity to produce, a website devoted to providing literacy instruction and interactive resources for grades K–12.




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