Thursday, February 8, 2018

HEARTful Reading by Mary Louise Sanchez

Even though I retired as a teacher/librarian, I still I like to keep connected to the world of school librarians and teaching. I love learning and I love reading! And, since I'm a pending middle grade author, I feel it's also important for me to keep informed of what's happening in the realm of education. 
In the January/February 2018 issue of School Library Connection I recently read an article about SEL. The article is entitled "On Common Ground" by Mary Frances Zilonis and Chris Swerling. I had never heard of SEL, but soon found out it's a hot topic in educational research. CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning) defines SEL as "the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."  Eight states have partnered with CASEL to adopt these SEL Core Competencies.

·       Self-awareness

·       Self-management

·       Relationship skills

·       Responsible decision making

No sooner did I read this article when a blog I follow by Lee and Low Books advertised an upcoming webinar on—SEL. I tuned in to a very professional presentation with excellent graphics and book lists which highlighted the SEL themes in many of the published Lee and Low Books. Katie Potter is the Literacy Specialist who works for Lee and Low Books and after much research on her part, she developed six themes of SEL. The title of her webinar is: "Using Diverse Books to Support Social and Emotional Learning." I encourage you to also view the list of fine books Lee and Low publishes which match these themes listed on their website, Lee and Low Books

·       Empathy

·       Positive Relationships

·       Recognizing and Managing Emotions

·       Problem Solving

·       Grit and Perseverance

·       Perspective-Taking

Since  Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books, will be publishing my middle grade historical fiction novel, The Wind Called My Name, around the fall of 2018, I wanted to see how my novel fit the SEL themes. I'm proud to say I believe my book touches on all these themes. I believe most authors want their texts to matter to kids' hearts as well as their minds.

We do a good job of reaching the minds of our students when we ask recall questions, comprehension questions, and close reading questions. But students are more than their test scores. We need to work harder at making text matter to our students' hearts and to ask students to also pay attention to the emotions books awaken in them. One way to do this is to have student speak about how the text made them feel and share their thoughts, because each reader will come away with a different experience.

Hopefully, our students are given many opportunities to answer the question posed by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst in their book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. The question is:  How has this text changed me? We want our students' thinking to be disrupted by what they read and we want to see changes in our students.
These changes can lead to a better understanding of other people and themselves. The authors list some questions in their book, Disrupting Thinking, that  we can ask our students to help them learn that reading should touch their hearts as well as their minds:

The authors, Beers and Probst offer a framework to help students "attend to the textual, intellectual, and emotional aspects of their reading." They call the framework BHH Reading (Book, Head, Heart). You can learn more about their vision for teaching reading on a podcast from their publisher, Scholastic.


February is I LOVE TO READ MONTH. Let's make a concerted effort this month to not only help students respond to their reading with their HEADS, but also with their HEARTS. 

Here are recent middle grade historical fiction books that touched my heart. What are some books that have touched your heart?

Goodreads image

Goodreads image

Goodreads image

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

History of the Horse in Western America

Horses, and their cousin the mule, played a major role in my frontier, historical trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles. Will Braddock, the young protagonist, rides a Morgan horse. Will’s sidekick, Homer Garcon, owns a mule named Ruby. Lone Eagle, Will’s Cheyenne friend, rides Indian ponies. Will’s army friend, Lieutenant Luey Moretti, rides typical cavalry horses. 

When doing research for my books, set at the time of the building of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s, I wanted to ensure I wrote factually about the animals. Henderson Libraries, in Henderson, Nevada, where I live, has numerous books that provided the answers to my questions. I found studying the history of the horse in the development of the American West allowed me to better understand what my fictional characters faced during their involvement with “Manifest Destiny.”

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds by Susan McBane, although not written specifically for middle-grade students, provides “a comprehensive visual directory of the officially recognized world horse breeds.” The book is coffee-table size, but will be easily understood by younger readers.  Fossils of Eohippus, the earliest ancestor of the horse, have been found in the Wind River basin in Wyoming. That, coincidentally, is the setting for much of Bear Claws, the second book in my trilogy. Eohippus existed about fifty million years ago, and it and later ancestors had died out and disappeared entirely from the North American continent long before the first Native Americans are believed to have immigrated from Asia across the Bering Straits. The horse, as we know it today, did not appear in the Western Hemisphere until the Spanish arrived to exploit the “new world” following Columbus’s “discovery” of America.

A excellent book covering all aspects of horses that is specifically written for middle-grade students is Horse Crazy by Jessie Haas. The book is divided into four parts, with the first part being “In the Know: Essential Equine Education for the Truly Obsessed.” This part includes a good chapter on prehistoric horses, pointing out that Eohippus stood only fourteen inches high, the size of a fox. The book discusses the development of the current-day horse for use by cavalry. The author informs us that the American Indians created their pony from horses abandoned by or stolen from the Spanish Conquistadors. This volume also includes recommendations for several historical novels featuring horses.

Another fine book for middle-grade students is Pocket Genius: Horses compiled by DK Editors. This book is described as a pocket-size encyclopedia featuring more than 125 individual breeds of horses, ponies, and their cousins — zebras, mules, and donkeys. The anatomy and behavior of each of the breeds is concisely presented, along with information on coloring and markings. This compact volume provides an excellent introduction to the equine world for younger readers.

Since I was particularly interested in the Morgan horse, I was pleased to discover Sarah Maass’s small volume entitled The Morgan Horse. It is one of fifteen Edge Books devoted to horses, each book pertaining to a single breed. The Morgan is one of the horse world’s newer breeds. About 1791 the first of this famous breed appeared in Vermont. Although rather small in size, the Morgan soon developed a reputation for its strength. During the Civil War and the long-running battles with the Indians on the western plains, the Morgan was favored by the U.S. Cavalry. That was a primary reason for me selecting this breed to be the horse ridden by Will Braddock in The Iron Horse Chronicles.

There are dozens more interesting books about the history of horses that will appeal to middle-grade readers. I present here some that were helpful to me during my writing.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Edge of the Seat and the Ever After by Eden Unger Bowditch

The history of children’s literature is something of a jumble. John Locke claimed that children should learn by playful and fun reading material. John Newberry was one of the first to produce works for specifically for children. And so it began…though sensibilities have certainly changed. Or perhaps…changed back?

There are myriad familiar (and less familiar) stories that have been passed down through the ages from storytellers to children, who then grow up to be storytellers themselves. There are familiar versions (edited from perhaps somewhat disturbing earlier versions) of fables and fairytales that we know from Disney films and from other gently (or severely) altered publications from the 1930s through the 1950s. Traditional versions of stories, like “The Little Mermaid”, are very different than their Disney reinventions. Disney does not have the ill-fated mermaid as losing the love of the prince and falling overboard to die and become at one with the sea foam. Along with other forms of censor, Grimms’ Fairytales and Hans Christian Anderson stories were re-envisioned to provide ‘happily ever after’ endings and offer clear divisions between good and evil. Stories, in which the protagonist may have behaved badly, perhaps chopping off a head or two, would still present the ambiguously good hero as righteous. And then, fearful of the delicate sensibilities of the young, grown-ups began to change these beloved old tales to fit into nice packaging and send the reader to a happy place. Even John Newberry, namesake of the Newberry Award, seemed to be called into question since he wrote, in the letter from “Jack the Giant-killer” that “Little Master Tommy” would be “whipt” if found to be lacking in appropriate skills and demeanor. Goodness! We could not let our children know that there was any such thing! The little mermaid got the guy and no child would ever have to hear about chopped off noses or cloven boys who were raised by witches. It was believed, for those interim years, that scary stories had to be abolished. From the people who brought the fig leaf to Michaelangelo’s nudes, we got clean and happy, all day, every day.


But then, psychology gave us a surprise. Children LIKE scary and WANT to hear stories of danger and yuck. Children who learn to navigate the treacherous fantasy and can better cope with the real. And why stick to the straight and narrow? These stories were handed down and altered over the centuries. Why not take it further? We now have stories like The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Wicked by Gregory Maguire, both revisiting the ideas we have always held about good and evil and who is right or wrong. We now understand that it is a fine thing for kids to read Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales or tales of the Grimms closer to the originals, which can often be fairly disturbing.

Middle Grade books still straddle ideas about adolescence and issues that are considered to be challenging to childhood innocence. But, perhaps, we know how smart and capable young people are. We know that every story isn’t tied up with a bow. We have learned that being on the edge of your seat is sometimes an important place to be when reading a book. There are such fine authors here at PMGM and I, personally, have been on the edge of my seat more than once as I perused the pages of their novels. And it is, indeed, a fine place to be.

-Eden Unger Bowditch

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sara K Joiner: A Review of "Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army"

Last year I reviewed the first book in the Spy on History series. The second book is now available, and it features more opportunities for readers to find clues hidden throughout the text and illustrations.

Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army tells the fascinating story of the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the Ghost Army. The troops were a special unit of about a thousand men specially selected for their skills. They were artists, sonic engineers, meteorologists, and radio operators. Most of them were not trained in combat.

What on earth were a group of non-combat-prepared men doing in the Army in the middle of Europe during World War II?

They were a deception unit. Their job was to make the Germans believe specific Army divisions were in one location when that division was actually somewhere else entirely.

Armed with rubber tanks and artillery, lots of sound recordings, fake radio transmissions, cans of paint, and very few real weapons, they helped the Allies battle their way across France and Luxembourg and into Germany. Along the way, they took part in the Battle of the Bulge by "filling in" gaps in the military lines by pretending to be entire other units.

Their greatest success came in March of 1945. The Ghost Army--a group of about a thousand men--had to pretend they were two divisions of the Ninth Army--about 30,000 men. Dwight Eisenhower was hoping to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning to invade Germany ten miles south of the true invasion point.

Once the Allies crossed the Rhine and invaded Germany, they discovered documents indicating the Germans believed Allied troops were massing exactly where the Ghost Army was.

Using the included spy tools--red acetate, vellum, cipher wheel, and Morse code--readers decode clues throughout the story to find Victor's sketchbook.

Although the information about the Ghost Army is fascinating and suspenseful, the story is short on characterization. Reluctant readers might not mind as the Ghost Army moves from one mission to the next, but I wanted a bit more detail about Victor.

The book gives teachers opportunity to discuss camouflage and how that's a benefit or a detriment. There's also brief discussion of minor details about daily life that people don't often think about. The Ghost Army had to convince the Germans they were someone they weren't. An Army isn't just vehicles and artillery and people. It's also the daily lives of those people--hanging laundry, getting water, leaving trash. It's a chance to discuss those tiny details with students.

Like the previous title in the series, this won't necessarily hold up to heavy library or classroom use because of the spy tools. If any of those are lost, you will have a hard time solving the puzzle without skipping to the end.

Having read the previous book in the series, I was more familiar with how the clues worked in this one, so I was able to spot more of them without using the answers at the back. I still missed some though!

This series is a fun way to introduce readers to codes and codebreaking without making it too difficult. Even readers who have cracked a few codes in their time will enjoy one more opportunity to spin a cipher wheel and work out a message. Maybe they'll even be inspired to create their own!

Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army is written by Enigma Alberti and illustrated by Scott Wegener. It is the second of Workman's Spy On History series. The next book in the series, Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culpepper Ring, is scheduled for publication in January 2019.
Workman Publishing supplied a free copy of the book for review purposes.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a public librarian.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Middle-Grade Historical Fiction 2017: Lists and Links to Some of the Best

The logical place to start any list of best middle-grade historical fiction is the Scott O'Dell Award, which went this year to Lauren Wolk for Beyond the Bright Sea, Dutton Books for Young Readers. 

"Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.

Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger." --Amazon Review.

The Kirkus list of Best Middle-Grade Historical Fiction of 2017 includes nine books which you can find here. Of of these is The War I Finally Won, the sequel to The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial.

"When Ada’s clubfoot is surgically fixed at last, she knows for certain that she’s not what her mother said she was—damaged, deranged, crippled mentally as well as physically. She’s not a daughter anymore, either. Who is she now?

World War II rages on, and Ada and her brother, Jamie, move with their guardian, Susan, into a cottage with the iron-faced Lady Thorton and her daughter, Maggie. Life in the crowded home is tense. Then Ruth moves in. Ruth, a Jewish girl, from Germany. A German? Could Ruth be a spy? " --Amazon Review

Publisher's Weekly lists their picks for best middle-grade of 2017 here, some of which are historical. Of particular note is the Hans Christian Anderson Award WinnerBronze and Sunflower by the Chinese children's writer, Cao Wenxuan.

"Sunflower is an only child, and when her father is sent to the rural Cadre School, she has to go with him. Her father is an established artist from the city and finds his new life of physical labor and endless meetings exhausting. Sunflower is lonely and longs to play with the local children in the village across the river. When her father tragically drowns, Sunflower is taken in by the poorest family in the village, a family with a son named Bronze. Until Sunflower joins his family, Bronze was an only child, too, and hasn’t spoken a word since he was traumatized by a terrible fire. Bronze and Sunflower become inseparable, understanding each other as only the closest friends can." --Amazon Review.

Also, be sure to check out the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), which has a plethora of lists and links to awards that I especially like for leads to multi-cultural books. 

I hope these lists and tips enlarge your 2018 reading list. They've enlarged mine. What was your favorite middle-grade historical fiction read from 2017?

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Movies Based on MidGrade Novels

With winter here, now's the perfect time to pull up a chair and enjoy a good book. I think it's even better if you can follow that up with a movie, as well. I think it's interesting to compare a written story to one told visually. Comparing and contrasting the two mediums can lead to some interesting and insightful conversations. 

The biggest movie release for the middle school audience this past fall was Wonder, which was based on R. J. Palacio's New York Times bestseller from 2012. Both the movie and the book tell the story of August Pullman, a boy born with Treacher Collins Syndrome or mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic disease that affects the bones of the head and face. August's many surgeries have caused him to be home-schooled, but at the beginning of this story he is entering the fifth grade (which is in Middle School in the book, and Elementary in the movie) for the first time. This story offers its tween audience great lessons on kindness, friendship, and acceptance, and the devastation of bullying.

Wonder isn't historical fiction. It is set in the present. But it made me wonder what other book to movie adaptations are available for middle grade readers.

Although it is not pivotal to the story, August Pullman's dog dies in Wonder. I don't know why, but dogs seems to die in a lot of middle grade novels. In Wilson Rawls' 1961 novel, Where the Red Fern Grows, an Oklahoma boy named Billy Colman saves up his money to buy two Redbone Coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Anne, which he trains. These two dogs end up saving Billy's life, but at an awful cost. This novel has been adapted to the screen several times, most recently in 2003.

Sounder is another historical fiction that features a faithful dog. Set in the Deep South during the Depression, William H. Armstrong's Newbery Award-winning 1969 novel tells the story of an African-American family dealing with racism and poverty after the father is imprisoned for stealing a ham. The 1972 movie version of this story features moving performances by Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield.

No dog dies in the classic Anne of Green Gables. L. M. Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables over 100 years ago, but it has remained a perennial favorite. Its main character, a spirited 11 year old orphan named Anne Shirley, is adopted by Matthew Cuthbert and his grumpy sister Marilla, who contacted the orphanage looking for a boy to work on their farm, and estate called Green Gables located on Prince Edward Island. There have been numerous screen adaptations of this novel, but by far the best is the TV miniseries from 1985.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a writer and teacher. You can learn more about her and her books here

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Chris Eboch on Painful Truths in # History and Historical Fiction

A class acts out a Maya sacrifice scene
from The Well of Sacrifice
Every culture throughout history had problematic aspects. No matter how much you may admire or be fascinated by an era of the past, chances are that period had a dark side. The world today is filled with sexism, racism, slavery, and violence, and the past was certainly no different. 

What should an author of historical fiction do? Are such topics suitable for children? Do they belong in the classroom?

I feel we should write and teach the truth as realistically as possible. This includes writing accurately about the horrors of the past – with some adjustments to make subjects suitable for young audiences.

The Well of Sacrifice is set in Mayan culture. The Maya used human sacrifice and bloodletting in their religious ceremonies. I portrayed these things as accurately as I could (given what we think we know), but, since this novel is for middle grade readers:

  • I chose to soften the king’s bloodletting ceremony by having him pierce his tongue instead of his penis.
  • I tried to show why they did these things – this was religious devotion, not random violence.
  • I described the dangers involved in bloodletting, lest anyone be tempted to try it.
  • I showed the risks of accepting human sacrifices – the innocent can be victims.
  • The violence is disturbing, to Eveningstar (the main character) and to the reader.

The book includes other violent events as well. Eveningstar doesn’t participate in the violence; she fights it, as do other good characters:
  • When slaves plan to rebel, her mother finds a peaceful way to help them escape.
  • The enslaved character Small is taken into Eveningstar’s family. Some of his people have been killed by hers. Yet he helps Eveningstar, even saving her life. He shows kindness and forgiveness (and gets freedom in the end). Some young readers say he is their favorite character.
  • Eveningstar tries to stop Great Skull Zero, the high priest who is trying to take over the city and sacrificing anyone who stands in the way. She notes, “Great Skull Zero had disrupted the patterns of life. He acted for his own glory, not that of the gods. He must not be allowed to become king.” Still, she never hurts anyone. She fights by finding out the truth, by telling the truth, and by staying alive despite his best efforts to destroy her.

Student projects from The Well of Sacrifice
I wasn't sure if the violence would make it too old for middle grade readers. However, the publisher tagged the book as "for ages nine and up." It's been used in many schools in the fourth grade – although I sometimes do get e-mails from teachers who are struggling to get approval from the administration or the PTA. At least I can tell them that it is being used successfully, and with great enthusiasm. In fact, I've had teachers say, "Girls love the strong heroine, and boys love the gory stuff."

Hey, whatever gets kids reading, right?

Chris Eboch taking notes
in Coba, Mexico
Get lesson plans to use with The Well of Sacrifice, The Eyes of Pharaoh, and The Genies Gift at the "For Teachers" tab on my website.

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In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Kirkus Reviews called The Well of Sacrifice, “[An] engrossing first novel….Eboch crafts an exciting narrative with a richly textured depiction of ancient Mayan society….The novel shines not only for a faithful recreation of an unfamiliar, ancient world, but also for the introduction of a brave, likable and determined heroine.”

Chris Eboch’s other novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs

Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at or her Amazon page