When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WhenYouReachMe_SteadBibliographic Info:
Stead, Rebecca. 2009. When You Reach Me. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780385737425.

It is 1978 and Miranda is a sixth grader in New York City who lives with her single mom, an independent woman who never got the chance to finish law school. Miranda is surrounded by a unique cast of characters, including her ex-best-friend Sal, her mother’s kind-hearted boyfriend Richard, Sal’s mother Louisa, shop owners Belle and Jimmy, and classmates Annemarie, Colin, Julia, and Marcus. Each person plays a very important role, some large and some small, in the lives of each other.

The crux of the story is that Sal is randomly punched by another kid one day while walking home from school. He stops talking to Miranda from that day forward. Miranda is unsure if being attacked or perhaps something else spurred Sal’s behavior, and she is left feeling lonely and confused. A mystery is woven into the story in the form of strange letters that Miranda finds in places that no one but herself or her mother should be able to access. The letters prompt Miranda to tell her story from the beginning and that “they” are asking her to do this so that they can save a friend’s life. The letter Miranda writes is the actual novel, When You Reach Me. References to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time hint at science fiction elements at work, but never overwhelm the building of characters. “Stead’s novel is as much about character as story. Miranda’s voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation” (Augusta 2009).

When You Reach Me is a novel about a girl who comes of age during a stage of life when she and those around her are stuck in neutral. “Spaghetti again. We were kind of stuck, I realized. In a lot of ways” (Stead 2009). Miranda is a smart girl, but she is only able to move forward with her life by paying closer to attention to those around her. It does help, of course, that someone is sending her letters from the future.

Stead’s novel won the 2010 Newbery Medal, a 2009 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book, and a 2009 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Readers under the age of 12 may be a bit confused by some of the time travel references and conversations, but young fans of Madeline L’Engle will be delighted by the parallels in the two stories. The only moment in When You Reach Me that I did not like was when Stead reveals the ending of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Other than that spoiler, this is a fantastic coming of age novel. After reading it, ask young readers to write letters to an adult in their lives but specify that they must write the letter to the young version of that adult. Young readers may also enjoy writing letters to themselves that can be read at the end of the year or even further in the future.

Augusta, Caitlin. July 2009. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|25425359|23387850&mc=USA#. Accessed November 15, 2013.


The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

MidwifesApprentice_CushmanBibliographic Info:
Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife’s Apprentie. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 9780064406307.

In just over 120 pages, author Karen Cushman weaves a story about the life of a starving and homeless orphan girl in medieval England. When readers are first introduced to Alyce, who is initially known as Beetle, she seeks warmth from the bitter cold in a pile of warm manure. Details like this are what bring Cushman’s story to life and what convey the harsh reality of Alyce’s day-to-day life.  Cushman’s character-driven story gives readers a sense of what life might have been like for a poor girl in medieval England. Children may be surprised to learn that a child without a family was not necessarily sent to an orphanage or somewhere similar. Cushman is careful not to use modern slang and is generous, though not overly so, with descriptions of food, clothing, and tools of the time period. All of this helps to evoke a setting appropriate for the time period. “Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people’s occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart” (Miller 1995).

Particularly interesting are the descriptions of a midwife’s job. The Author’s Note at the end of the book gives further detail about the history of midwifery. Many details may surprise readers. An important aspect of the novel is how Cushman is able to include  themes of independence, education, self-discovery, and feminism. Alyce thinks she is less than a person. She considers herself stupid and useless. She perseveres in harsh conditions, both physically and emotionally, and begins to grow intellectually and spiritually as she pays attention to what others around her do, remembers those lessons, and applies them in her own life. A poignant moment in the story occurs when Alyce succeeds at something as she had not succeeded before.  “At that, Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.”

The Midwife’s Apprentice won the 1996 Newbery Medal and a 1998 Young Reader’s Choice Award. This short novel is a great starter book for children who are new to historical fiction. Try reading it aloud to a classroom or asking students to take turns reading it aloud. After each chapter, prompt students with a discussion. Alyce’s destitution is is an excellent discussion point for children. Ask children why Alyce sleeps in the dung heap and why she stayed with Jane, the midwife, despite how mean Jane is to Alyce.

Miller, Sue. May 1995. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|1220566|47089429&mc=USA#. Accessed November 3, 2013.

How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships by Robin Page

how-to-clean-a-hippoBibliographic Info:
Page, Robin. 2010. How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships. Ill. Steve Jenkins.  ISBN 9780547245157.

Did you know there is a bird that hops into a crocodile’s mouth to help clean the fearsome creature’s teeth? Did you know there is a small crab that scares away predators by using sea anemones like a cheerleader’s pom poms? In How to Clean a Hippopotamus, Robin Page and Steve Jenkins offer a concept book that gives young readers a glimpse into symbiosis.

Page and Jenkins have covered a topic sure to lure readers. Animal books are popular with children, and the concept of animals helping each other when they might otherwise be predator and prey will be particularly fascinating to children. The text is fairly simple and on a second grade reading level, although older elementary age children will also enjoy this title. Significant words such as an animal’s name or an action are printed in bold text. For example, “The tuatara is nocturnal. It sleeps during the day and hunts at night” (Page 2010). Over 20 symbiotic animal relationships are shown. At the end of the book, there is a thoughtful look at the relationship between humans and dogs.

The illustrations are cut and torn paper collages, although I did not realize it during my first reading of the book. “Jenkins’s trademark collage illustrations continue to impress with their vibrant and stunning manipulation of cut and torn paper” (Dean 2006). Jenkins work is truly stunning in its intricacy and detail. The images are arranged in panels like a graphic novel, accompanied by floating text and colored text boxes that are easy to read and never overwhelm the images. Each animal pairing has a clever title, such as “Wider, Please,” in which the Egyptian plover picks meat from a Nile crocodile’s teeth.

The last three pages present information about different types of symbiotic relationships, such as parasitism and commensualism. There are also thumbnail images of each page, with descriptions of the size, habitat, and diet of each animal. A list of suggested titles can be found beneath the copyright information. This 2001 ALA Notable Book for Children may read on a second grade level, but it is appropriate for even younger children as a means of discussing the animal world. In your classroom or storytime at your library, ask the kids to list any symbiotic relationships they can think of. Here is a fun craft idea: using either pre-cut animal shapes or the children’s own drawings, ask kids to make up their own symbiotic relationships and describe how the animals might help each other.

Dean, Kara Schaff. April 2010. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|28858056|27775879&mc=USA#. Accessed October 22, 2013.

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea by Sy Montgomery

The-Quest-for-the-Tree-Kangaroo-9780547248929Bibliographic Info:
Montgomery, Sy. 2006. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780618496419.

Imagine a place that has remained virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Moss and ferns adorn trees in forests mostly unexplored by scientists. In this ancient and seemingly magical place is a timid creature that exists only in this forest. The cloud forest of Papua New Guinea is home to the elusive Matschie’s tree kangaroo, a tree-dwelling kangaroo. In this richly detailed photo essay book, author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop give readers more than just a glimpse into the world of the tree kangaroo; readers are treated to a narrative that describes the journey to the cloud forest and what all that journey entails.

The book begins with two illustrated maps; One shows North America and South America in relation to New Guinea and the other shows a close-up of the New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula. This gives the reader an idea of how far away the tree kangaroo’s home really is. What really drives it home is the description of the journey from the small 12-seater plane to the group’s final work site. Before the journey begins, lead scientist Lisa Dabek is introduced. Her story of persevering toward her goal of working with animals despite fur allergies and asthma should inspire children with similar problems. From there, the other members of the exhibition are introduced and the journey truly begins.

Gorgeous, boldly colored photographs adorn every page. “Stunning close-ups of plants, insects, and birds vie for attention with panoramas of moss-draped trees in the eerie, ancient forest” (Piehl 2006). Many animals other than the tree kangaroo are shown and there are a several highlighted sections that go into more detail about the local people, cloud forests, advice for kids from Lisa, and even a glossary of words in Tok Pisin, a local language. Particularly interesting is a passage that lists all the items that are packed for the plane ride, including “20 liters of kerosene”, “6 boxes of dishwashing detergent”, and “48 rolls of toilet paper” (Montgomery 2006).

The layout of the book is simple; Large spreads include a photograph on the far left and far right and clean, easy-to-read text between. The reading level is suitable for children in fourth grade or higher, although advanced or eager younger readers may find this a challenging but worthwhile read. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo was nominated for the Sibert award in 2007, won the Orbis Pictus award in 2007, the ALA Notable Books for Children award in 2007, and won a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year award in 2006. Librarians would do well to add this title to their library’s collection.

This book lends itself as a great catalyst to a discussion of conservation and endangered species with children in upper-elementary. This could also lead to the introduction of books about the food chain and eco-systems.

Piehl, Kathy. December 2006. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|17660960|13392470&mc=USA#. Accessed October 17, 2013.

The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat

Three-Ninja-Pigs_CoreySchwartz_DanSantatBibliographic Info:
Schwartz, Corey R. 2012. The Three Ninja Pigs. Ill. Dan Santat. New York: Penguin. ISBN 97-0-399-25514-4.

The classic fable of the Three Little Pigs is given a comic book-like twist in this retelling that delivers plenty of punches, kicks, and limericks to boot. The basic plot remains the same: a mean and hungry wolf is determined to defeat (and eat) the pigs, and each pig chooses a different method to keep the wolf from achieving his goal. In this version by author Corey Rosen Schwartz, each pig chooses to study a different style of Japanese martial arts in order to defeat the wolf. Pig one chooses aikido, pig two chooses jujitsu, and pig three chooses karate. Each confrontation takes place at the house of the individual pig, and fans of the original will be happy to see that the houses are straw, sticks, and brick, respectively. Pigs one and two fail, but the stoic and dark-haired female pig three wins the final battle with her mix of determination and persistence.

Dan Santat illustrates the characters in a hilariously anthropomorphic style. The art is vibrant, full of movement, and the characters appear to jump off the page. Santat utilized a sumi brush on rice paper technique combined with Adobe Photoshop, which gives an Asian-aesthetic to each image. The illustrations come across as an homage to Japanese art and culture. When the wolf confronts the female pig outside of her home, they are surrounded by falling petals from a cherry blossom tree while a serene statue of a pig-like Buddha meditates in the background. From each pig’s home to the dojo, Japanese-style architecture is represented with great care.

Perhaps most surprising about the book is Schwartz’s uses of limericks for each spread. There is never a hitch in the rhyme and, when paired with the action-filled illustrations, the structured verse keeps the momentum moving forward to the final battle scene. Facing the wolf in preparation for the fight, Pig Three says, “Quit huffing and puffing, / and I am not bluffing. / I warn you, I’m willing to fight.” The rhymes are snappy and laugh-out-loud funny. Classroom students may enjoy taking turns reading each limerick aloud. “Schwartz’s irreverent verse never falters—and any book that rhymes “dojo” with “mojo” is one that’s worth a look” (Publishers Weekly 2012).

This book has wide appeal. Children (and adults) who love the classic fable, fans of martial arts or ninjas, poetry lovers, folks who want a little bit of girl power in a picture book, and admirers of Japanese art and culture should all find something to enjoy. The glossary at the back also offers a great lesson in new vocabulary, as well as a further lesson in culture. This is definitely a story that many children would love to act out, so a reader’s theater is my first suggestion. For a writing exercise, ask children to come up with different settings for a new story about the wolf and pigs. On a personal note, this is now one of my top favorite children’s books and I cannot wait to share it with the families who visit my library!


Publishers Weekly. July 2012. Publishers Weekly.com. http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-399-25514-4. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock retold by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens

Anansi-and-the-Moss-Covered-Rock_EricKimmel_JanetStevensBibliographic Info:
Kimmel, Eric A. 1988. Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. Ill. Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday House. ISBN 0-8234-0689-X


Anansi is a clever and very tricky spider. In Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, Anansi comes across a moss-covered rock in the forest and quickly discovers that the rock has magical powers. Each time he says the words, “Isn’t this a strange moss-covered rock,” Anansi is knocked out cold. Being as clever and tricky as he is, Anansi decides to use the rock’s magic for nefarious purposes. One by one, the mischievous spider lures his forest friends – Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Giraffe, and Zebra – for a walk into the woods and tricks each one into saying the words that activate the rock’s magical powers. KPOM! Each animal is knocked out, leaving Anansi plenty of time to steal yams, bananas, and other food from each animal’s home. However, Bush Deer sees what Anansi is up to, and she manages to turn the trick around and help the animals get all of their food back. Does Anansi learn his lesson? Being the trickster that he is, I think not!

According to award-winning author Eric Kimmel, Anansi is a regularly occurring character in folklore from West Africa and the Caribbean. Anansi has been known to the take the form of either a spider or a man. Kimmel has retold other Anansi tales, each illustrated by Janet Stevens, such as Anansi and the Magic Stick, Anansi and the Talking Melon, and Anansi Goes Fishing. Many of Kimmel’s books focus on fables, folktales, and myths, much like Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock.

This folktale takes place in a tropical forest where many different types of animals live. It seems likely that each animal represents a different personality type or human characteristic. The animals are illustrated in a realistic manner, but Lion, Elephant, and Bush Deer are shown in anthropomorphic positions several times throughout the story. Anansi is drawn to look like an actual spider without any extra characteristics to make him look particularly bad natured. “Stevens’ complementary, colorful illustrations add detail, humor, and movement to the text. Here, Anansi is portrayed as a large eight-legged arachnid; his expression is in his motion” (Salvadore 1988). Although many folks find spiders to be scary or creepy, it is relatively safe to say that Anansi does not look exceptionally so. This is a potential discussion opportunity to have with children in terms of bad people not always appearing a certain way.

The magical rock is a familiar motif in folktales, such as in my review of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. In this case, it serves as the catalyst for the conflict. Devious Anansi sees only how he can benefit from the moss-covered rock and not how he can use it to help others or even help himself without harming others. This is, in a sense, a tale of good versus evil. Jamaican-born artist Michael Auld shares many stories and interpretations of Anansi at his website, Anansi Stories. According to Auld, Anansi is used frequently in the Jamaican culture as a tool for teaching lessons of morality. “Through Anansi the Spider-man, we children learned that ‘might was not always right ‘. We learned that, although we were small, we could use our brains to solve any problem” (Auld 2007).

For extension activities in the classroom or at a library, have children create a reader’s theater version of Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. Although props are not needed for reader’s theater, it may have fun for the children to color and cut out animal shapes, glue them to craft sticks, and use them as puppets during the reader’s theater. Using a prop may help bashful children feel braver, and also adds an artistic element to the extension activity.


Auld, Michael. 2007. “About the Anansi Stories artist.” Anansi Stories. http://anansistories.com/About_the_artist.html. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Kimmel, Eric. 2013. “Read About Eric!” Eric A. Kimmel. http://ericakimmel.com/read-about-eric/. Accessed September 18, 2013.

Salvadore, Maria B.  Review of Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, Eric Kimmel. School Library Journal, November 1, 1988. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|92965|60950&mc=USA#. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

ImageBibliographic Info:
Willems, Mo. 2009. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. New York: Hyperion Books. ISBN 9781423114376.

Naked mole rats are, well, naked. They don’t wear clothes. Wilbur, however, is different from other naked mole rats. He loves wearing clothes. From a tuxedo to an astronaut suit, he will wear anything that suits his mood or how he wants to feel. The other naked mole rats respond with snarky comments and do their best to convince Wilbur that wearing clothes is not what naked mole rats are meant to do. Wilbur continues to question why naked mole rats can’t wear clothing. The naked mole rats try to convince Wilbur that Grand-pah, the “oldest, greatest, and most naked naked mole rat ever”, needs no clothing, so why should they? Wilbur’s response is: Why not? Furious and frustrated by Wilbur’s questioning, the other naked mole rats take their concerns directly to Grand-pah. After giving the situation much thought, Grand-pah gathers the colony to make an announcement. Grand-pah’s response and the overall lesson is simple: why not, indeed? Clothes can be fun! Readers will be tickled by the clothes that some naked mole rats choose, while other naked mole rats choose to remain naked.

Willems is well-known for his Pigeon picture books and the Elephant and Piggie beginning reader series. As he does with the books that follow those characters, the illustrations in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed are simple with little to no background detail. In fact, Willems had this to say about his picture book illustrations, “The only rule I set for myself before starting is that the star of each book should be designed in such a way that anyone can draw him or her” (Shanae 2008). His artwork has a retro quality that, at times, is reminiscent of Charles Schultz or even William Steig. The lack of background or even a set location in Naked Mole Rat gives it a universal feel, which fits with the over-arching theme of the book. Emotions and surprisingly intense expressions are revealed most often in the eyes, but also in placement of the arms with occasional additions of various shaped lines to indicate movement and mood. Coloring appears to be watercolor in strong shades of pastel pinks, blues, greens, and yellows. Fans of Willems will get a kick out of finding the hidden face of the Pigeon, toward the end of the book.

Written in third-person point-of-view, Naked Mole Rat is an irreverent celebration of independence and individualism. The story is a bit of a twist on the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Wilbur is a brave, bold, and courageous protagonist, but never in a way that is meant to undermine authority. He never tries to push his views on the other naked mole rats but, instead, they attempt to push their views on him. One could argue that they are trying to uphold tradition, yet the naked mole rats never discuss exactly why they don’t wear clothes. They just do not wear clothes! Humor abounds as readers see Wilbur in various outfits. There are even moments of sarcasm and Willems addresses this directly with the parenthetical statement, “Naked mole rats can be very sarcastic…” Children are sure to laugh not only at the personification of the naked mole rats, but also at the first mention or two of the word “naked.” The echoed phrase is likely to positively desensitize children to any supposed inappropriateness of the word. Children can take away many positives, such as being brave like Wilbur, learning self-expression, and embracing individuality.

For a silly storytime activity, make paper doll versions of Wilbur and his friends, then provide children with either construction paper or magazine clothing images so that children can “dress” the naked mole rats. This would also be a wonderful opportunity to add science to the mix by introducing children to actual photos of naked mole rats, information about their diets, and their habitats. In addition, a great resource for parents, teachers, and librarians, as well as a fun place for kids, is pigeonpresents.com. This site offers trivia, coloring sheets, flash games, and great extensions for teaching and storytelling in the “Grown-up Stuff” section.

I have read several Mo Willems books in both my Toddler and Preschool Storytimes. They are always a huge hit. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is one of my favorites, because of it’s irreverent humor and positive message about being yourself. I have not yet read this picture book in storytime, but it is definitely on my list!

Shanae, Sujata. September 2008. “Mo Willems.” National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. http://nccil.org/experience/artists/willemsm/. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Hyperion Books for Children. 2013. “Pigeon Presents!” http://www.pigeonpresents.com/. Accessed September 8, 2013.