Archive for August, 2013

August 27, 2013

Will there be a sea monster in my kindergarten class?


The countdown has begun in our house! We have new lunch boxes, new socks, and a whole whopping stack of new forms to fill out. The school year is upon us and for us, The Wizard of Why will be headed to the big leagues. You know, the Majors.


And right now, we are not TOO sure how we feel about that. Which is why it was so awesome to come home from the last vacation of the summer and find these books waiting for us as part of Chronicle Books Sea Monster and the Bossy Fish blog tour.

sea monster-Kate MessnerI was also lucky enough to interview the awesome author, Kate Messner. Here are some things she had to say:

1. Hi Kate! One thing I try to talk about in my blog is what we can do with books after the reading. Or in addition to the reading. In other words, when a parent reads your books to their child, do you have ideas for follow-up activities? Or conversation-starters so that they can keep carrying your message?

Every book can be a conversation starter when it’s shared as a family, but I think SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH especially lends itself to those conversations because its subject matter is something to which every kid (and every adult!) can relate. Everyone knows a bossy fish, and learning to deal with that person can be the difference between smooth sailing and a really rough day at school or the office.

We often ask kids how they can relate to characters in a shared read-aloud, but I think sometimes, as parents, we forget that it’s powerful for us to share our own stories, too. SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH can be a great springboard for talking about how to get along with people whose leadership styles might be different from yours.  Kids will enjoy hearing your own stories – both failures and successes – when it comes to negotiating those kinds of relationships.

2. Your fish pledge mentions speaking out when a child see bullying. We often tell kids this, but it is SO HARD. In fact, I would argue that most adults don’t even do it. How do we really teach kids to speak up? Can you think of a way to use your book as a starting point for that?

It is hard – harder than we think when we give that advice to kids – and that’s why I think conversations about these situations can be so valuable. When we discuss bullying before it happens, we provide a really safe environment for kids to imagine “what if.” What would I do if someone treated me this way? What if someone treated my friend like that?  Role-playing can be a wonderful, natural follow-up to reading a book like SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH. Giving kids the opportunity to practice standing up for friends and modeling inclusive behavior in a fun, non-threatening setting makes it more likely that they’ll be able to be a positive force on the playground when a real situation arises.

3. I like the idea of parents reading books like these because they can share an important concept without lecturing their kids. Do you have advice for parents who want to talk further with their kids about this but don’t want to lecture?

Questions are  more powerful than lectures, I think. The very first time I read this book aloud to kids, I was visiting a classroom full of kindergarten students near Albany, NY, and I was blown away by their reactions. I think I asked a question or two as we read – things like “Hmm…how do you think that made the Ernest feel?”  But soon, all I had to do was pause after reading a page and let the kids reflect. Without me even asking questions, they wanted to talk about the impact of the bossy fish’s behavior. They were able to empathize with the fish being pushed around, and Andy Rash’s great illustration style makes it clear that school settings are full of emotions.  The kids used the facial expressions as evidence in their arguments: “Look, he didn’t say anything, but he’s upset. You can tell by the way his eyes look…”  These kinds of quiet discussions promote empathy and build memories that are likely to be recalled when there’s a need for kindness on the real-life playground.

4. What’s the most important thing you want kids to take away from your books?

That sometimes a “bossy fish” just needs help to be a better friend. As an adult, I love the Robert Frost poem “Outwitted.”

He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.

I’d like to think BOSSY FISH is the preschool version of that sentiment.

Isn’t that all very cool? And in addition, I can offer you a discount:

Just enter this promotion code: SEAMONSTER on this website: Offer ends September 6, 2013.

seamonstersfirstdayseamonsterbossyfishTitle: Sea Monster and the Bossy Fish (and the earlier release Sea Monster’s First Day)
Author: Kate Messner
Illustrator: Andy Rash
Genre: Picture Book
Ages: 4 – 7

Download your own Friend Fish pledge here. Use it in the classroom or your own home to promise friend-making over bullying. And good luck!

Have any other books you like to read before school starts? Share them here!

August 23, 2013

Be someone else. Then understand them.

We know books can take us places. We know they can introduce us to new people. But we often overlook the fact that they allow us to be  someone else. Not just to meet them, gaze into their life for a day. But actually to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes. Meet new people through the lens of the new person we suddenly find ourselves being. And the trend of first person narrators makes this even more possible.

I have a secret hatred for first person narrators because I often think you lose a lot without seeing the whole picture. However, when done right, they do lend a sense of immediacy and intimacy that you cannot get any other way.

piggyTitle: Piggy (originally “Big” in Dutch)
Author: Mireille Geus
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age: Late elementary, Middle

Piggy is a new best friend (of sorts) to the “different” and “special” Dizzy. Or Lizzy, as the autistic girl is not really ever called. The book unfolds as Dizzy, used to being left out of pretty much everything, suddenly finds herself in a tight, and sometimes intense, friendship with the new girl in school. The friendship spirals out of control as the story is told both in the present (in which Dizzie finds herself in a LOT of trouble) and the past (in which Dizzie tells the story as the trouble unfolds).

Is it unfair to say that the book reminds me of a few others (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Out of my Mind) because of the special-needs status of the narrator? Perhaps. But like those two books, this story brings us one step closer to understanding someone that those more neurotypical readers might have a hard time understanding.

Let me be clear: this book didn’t do well (at least in the states–it was translated from Dutch). I bought it for $1 on one of those outdoor racks at the bookstore. But I liked this book. It was a fast and fun read with a good story and good characters. It’s short and nothing completely unexpected, but good nevertheless. It would be a great read for any kid just because it’s a good story, but I like that it will give those readers a closer understanding of someone different from them. If your child is struggling to understand a classmate or get along with a new potential friend, this would be all the more appropriate for them. Definitely read the book along with them and help them to notice how Dizzy reacts to the world around her and how that makes her different. How does it help her or hurt her at different points in the story? This book will help readers carry these images back to school where they can use them to forge a better understanding of their peers.

August 15, 2013

the magic of reading

dinosaursbeforedarkMagic Tree House books have a pretty strong hold on an entire generation of readers. (The first one was published in 1992, so alas I wasn’t able to grow up on these. I’m making up for it now, though.) Whenever we go out, my 5yo has one of the Magic Tree House books under his arm. Sometimes we bring two. (You know, in case dinner takes awhile.) Sometimes it’s a new one (although those are dwindling as he reads more and more) and sometimes it’s an old favorite he’s planning to read again. But there is one thing that never changes: people always comment on them!

“Oh, I LOVED those books” says our waitress as she pours water into my 5yo’s cup. But he doesn’t notice because he’s on the trip, too, with Jack and Annie and their magic tree house and right now he’s riding a dolphin or walking on the moon or running from Samurai.

“I grew UP on those books,” says another girl, walking past us on thestreet, as I steer my son, my hand on his head, his head in a Magic Tree House book.

hightidehawaiiSo it’s unlikely you don’t know these books, but if you are just entering the beginning-reader stage and haven’t hear of them, I cannot recommend them too much. Series books in general are good for beginner readers. They have the same characters, the same patterns, many of the same plot elements. So they can get comfortable in the traveling tree house world and their reading can be stretched because of it.

We actually started Magic Tree House long before The Wizard of Why was hiding them under his covers at night, though. I would use them as read-alouds (there are some pictures so if you choose a time when your kid’s attention span is maximized, this can work.) We also bought the audio CDs and we use those in the car a lot. They’d also be great for bedtime, if you have kids that like to fall asleep to some sound.

My son did not like a lot of the early reader books…(you know, the leveled ones that are about 5 pages long…they are so short and simplistic and he figured out that just because he COULD read them didn’t mean that he WANTED to. Magic Tree House books were a little above his level when he started them, but because he was familiar with the characters and the stories from the CDs and me reading them aloud, he struggled through. Only he didn’t feel like he was struggling because he loved them so much. Now, over 30 books later, many of which he has read multiple times, his reading has reached the level he needed it to.


The other totally awesome thing about the Magic Tree House series is that it has an accompanying nonfiction series. So if you read the first book Dinosaurs Before Dark, you can also read the Dinosaur Fact Tracker. And after Dolphins at Daybreak, you can read the Dolphins and Sharks Fact Tracker. A lot of boys gravitate toward nonfiction, and these are great entry-level nonfiction books. The reading level is a little bit above the stories, but they are still short and sweet and they include the characters Annie and Jack to keep the magic alive.

Something to know when you are choosing a book: While any book can be enjoyed on its own, it’s best to go in order. Especially for a beginning reader who might have a hard time filling in a whole back story based on just the introduction. (And that’s if they read the introduction!) Also, every four books is a mini-series (which you would never know until reading them). For example, in the first four books, in addition to each unique adventure, there is an overall question: who owns the tree house and all the books? In other sets of four books, Annie and Jack are out to collect various objects or free someone from a spell. So it’s best to read 1 – 4 together and 5 – 8 etc. Although, like I said, each book is a perfectly good standalone story.

The original Magic Tree House series is 28 books, plus the Fact Trackers. There’s also the Merlin Missions, which are books 29 and over. These are a little more advanced (slightly longer and there are more main characters. Also, Annie and Jack are older (10 and 11 in the Merlin Missions versus 7 and 8 in the regular series).

These books are phenomenal. With this series, your kids will have an awesome time with the fun-loving Annie and the cautious and studious Jack. And they will visit and learn about topics as varied as dinosaurs, pirates, ninjas, tornadoes, Ancient Rome, the ocean, the Civil War, and sabertooth tigers. And that’s just a few of the over 30 titles. So whether you use these as read-alouds or books for your newly independent reader (or a little of both), I highly recommend this series as a good place to enter the magical world of books.d Jack are a little older (10 and 11 in the Merlin Missions as opposed to 7 and 8 in the regular series)…one thought about books is that kids tend to like reading about characters who are slightly older than they are.

August 12, 2013

Wormy Apples Galore

by Kathy Higgs-Coulthard

Although our family lives in Michigan, our kids actually attend school in Indiana, and for them school starts in less than a week. Some years that early start date is a blessing. Some years we covet Michigan’s tourism law, which mandates no school until after Labor Day. This year, we’re divided. My youngest two are all aflutter about school supplies and which friends they’ll have in their homerooms, but my oldest are facing the two extremes of high school—freshman year for our daughter and senior year for our son. The start of this school year means we are that much closer to big changes for each of them. For just this week, though, we’ll pretend it’s the same as any other year and fall into our family’s back to school traditions.


Each fall we go apple picking with Grandma. We love one particular spot up in Michigan where the farmer gives families a ride through his orchard, pointing out the Paula Red, the Ginger Gold, Honeycrisp, and Galas. He warns us that the Red Delicious aren’t ready yet—but we already know that ‘cuz we come the same time each year. Then he dumps us out among the trees with our bushels. There’s something to be said for finding your very own apple, still hanging plump and perfect until you pluck it. There’s a certain ceremony in the way you rub it on your shirt (because we all know that gets the germs off) and take that first juicy bite. Even better is the debate on the tractor ride back while we pass around our apples, extolling their virtues.

My favorite part of apple picking comes after we get home. The little girls wash and dry the best of the bunch while Katie and I melt the caramel. Then we dip and roll. What we roll in varies according to the ages and interests of the kids—one year it was white chocolate chips (yum!), another year purple and pink pastilles (not so yum). The best year was when Chris suggested we roll them in crushed Oreos and attach a few gummi worms. I was resistant—our announced purpose is to make teacher gifts for the first day of school, but having learned from the process versus product philosophy (see last month’s blog “The Journey”), I agreed. My kids assured me it was great fun to watch the look on the teachers’ faces as they unwrapped their wormy treats.

This year we’re going to make a pie, too. It’ll give us a reason to ignore the back to school shopping for one more day. And hopefully Chris won’t suggest we add any worms.

A few of our favorite apple related books:

onegreenappleTitleOne Green Apple
Author: Eve Bunting
Illustrator: Ted Lewin
Genre: Picture book
Ages: 3-10 years

An amazingly beautiful book about a young Muslim immigrant’s first few days in her new American school. A field trip to the apple orchard helps her see that life isn’t all that different in her new country.

applestooregonTitle: Apples to Oregon
Author: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: Nancy Carpenter
Genre: Picture Book
Ages: 2 – 8

A funny story of a pioneer family. And fruit.

How about you? What are your favorite back to school rituals? Got any great apple pie recipes?

August 6, 2013

Take Me Out to the Ballpark

by Angela Verges

Line drive, loose hit, home run, these are all signs that baseball season is in full swing. I remember the days of my boys playing t-ball, coach pitch, and then baseball. Sitting on metal bleachers, watching kids in the outfield pick dandelions during the game, was one of the joys of parenting during baseball season.

During the days of little league parents may play the role of coach, snack organizer, and cheerleader. The job doesn’t end there. As my boys got older they wanted to expand from playing baseball into watching “real” baseball games. So it was off to Tiger Stadium to see professional baseball in action.

fenwayfoulupThis summer, we’ve shifted into reading a book with a baseball theme. One book we chose as a quick read was The Fenway Foul-Up by David A. Kelly. This book is one in the series, Ballpark Mysteries. In the story, Kate and Mike are cousins who stumble upon a mystery to solve while they are at a baseball game at Fenway Park.

Mike and Kate are self-appointed sleuths who search for clues to find a lucky bat that was stolen. The bat belonged to the star slugger of the Red Sox. Large print and pictures add to the easy flow of this book. And the story line is good too.

grandmasatbatIf you have an emerging reader, Grandmas at Bat by Emily Arnold McCully is a fun story. When Pip’s team needs a coach his two grandmas step up to the plate, literally. They coach, they cheer and they even take a turn at bat. It sounds like real life parenting during little league season.

If your little slugger can’t seem to get enough of baseball, let him or her have a little fun with baseball related science experiments or activities. At the science buddies website, there was an experiment that shows how to determine whether body position affects baseball speed (

The TLC website listed activities and instructions for playing them. Some of the activities included, Backward Baseball, Spelling Bee Baseball and a Base Running Game (

The next time you’re sitting on metal bleachers watching a little league game or sitting in the stands of a professional game, remember kids really do grow up quickly. Enjoy the journey. Soon the roles will reverse and the kids will take you out to the ballpark.

Do you have any adventures in baseball to share?

August 2, 2013

the secrets of parenting with books

This was a YA book I could NOT put down. I think EVERY SINGLE parent needs to read it right now. And most teens, too. I chose this book for its title and cover. This might make me shallow, but it totally worked. Because Aristotle and Dante DO discover the secrets of the universe, or at least some of them, and they do it in a really realistically teen way.

aristotleanddanteTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Fiction, Realistic Fiction
Age: 12 and up

And the cool thing about the parents? Well for starters, they aren’t dead! When is the last time you read a kids’ book where the parents were still alive? Still thinking about that one? Exactly. ALL FOUR parents are involved, and all, despite various issues they might have, are phenomenal role models, or at least doing their best. (And not in a cheesy, role-your-eyes I can’t believe my mom is making me read this book kind of way. Not that your kid would EVER roll his eyes…)

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a compelling story about two teenage boys. Both are Mexican-American, which is already an identity with which they struggle, in different ways. And both are discovering sexuality, and again, they discover their own in really different ways. Aristotle is rough around the edges, completely silent inside and out (which makes him a really unique 1st person narrator–he doesn’t understand himself well enough to tell you all the details). Dante is more refined, more talkative, inquisitive. He wants to save the dead bird in the street.

Aristotle and Dante become fast friends and what happens next is nothing less than the story of all boys who grow up. It will, in particular, speak to those teenage boys who are finding out that their own sexuality might be different than the status quo, but I believe this is a book whose teenage angst will speak to all of us: gay, straight, young, and old.

And like I said, this is a book for parents. If you are having a hard time talking with your kids about growing up, having friends, or being gay, please read this book. Give it to your kids to read. And, like Ari’s father, sit down at the kitchen table one day and just start to talk. You might be surprised where it gets you.

If all books were like this, EVERYONE would read kids’ books, everyone would read with their kids, and this blog would be totally irrelevant.

And you don’t have to take MY word for it. This book won the Michael J. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, and the Pura Belpré Award. Seriously. It has three medals on the cover.

If you like this one, I would suggest: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. All are great coming-of-age boy stories with a real MC and real problems in a real world.

August 1, 2013

leeks, boys, and those long afternoons

Today, I’m posting about tough parenting days over at the awesome Leanne Shirtliffe’s for Whiteboard Wednesday (today making a super special appearance on Thursday!). I’m excited to be there so click here to read my post!

She would post herself, perhaps, but she’s celebrating the awesomeness that is her latest (and firstest!) parenting book, Don’t Lick the Minivan. Leanne is funny, honest (mostly I think), and makes you think you are not alone in the world of parenting.

dontlicktheminivanTitle: Don’t Lick the Minivan
Author: Leanne Shirtliffe
Genre: Parenting, Humor
Ages: Old, or at least those people who feel that way because of their kids 🙂

Here is a description of her book from IndieBound: (but warning, if you read this, you are going to want to buy it immediately!)

As a woman used to traveling and living the high life in Bangkok, Leanne Shirtliffe recognized the constant fodder for humor while pregnant with twins in Asia’s sin city. But in spite of deep-fried bug cuisine and nurses who cover newborn bassinets with plastic wrap, Shirtliffe manages to keep her babies alive for a year with help from a Coca-Cola deliveryman, several waitresses, and a bra factory. Then she and her husband return home to the isolation of North American suburbia. In Don’t Lick the Minivan, Shirtliffe captures the bizarre aspects of parenting in her edgy, honest voice. She explores the hazards of everyday life with children such as: The birthday party where neighborhood kids took home skin rashes from the second-hand face paint she applied.The time she discovered her twins carving their names into her minivan’s paint with rocks.The funeral she officiated for “Stripper Barbie.”The horror of glitter.And much more A delayed encounter with postpartum depression helps Shirtliffe to realize that even if she can’t teach her kids how to tie their shoelaces, she’s a good enough mom. At least good enough to start saving for her twins’ therapy fund. And possibly her own. Crisply written, Don’t Lick the Minivan will have parents laughing out loud and nodding in agreement. Shirtliffe’s memoir might not replace a therapist, but it is a lot cheaper.

If you are done laughing yet, head on over to see my own post at