A Few (Or More) Great New Picture Books

Oh summer, I love you for many reasons; waking up because my children ask me to get up and make them breakfast and not because of the alarm, nights on the deck, lightning bugs, and naps, I am fairly certain, I could be a professional napper.  And the books…oh the books.  How much sweet er is summer time reading where I have the time to sit for an hour or more and just fall into the pages of the books I choose?  Or time to grab a whole stack  of picture books and read them end to end, pretending not to notice how much they will cost me but knowing that they will make our school year that much better.  So I think it is time to share a few (or more) of my very favorite reads of this summer.  Some are out now, a few are coming out soon.

Don’t Call Me Grandma written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon is not at all what I expected.  I loved the narrative of the grandma that is not like a grandma is supposed to be and then the unexpected hints of why she is the way she is.  I will be using this one for teaching Contrast & Contradictions from Notice & Note.  To see all of the picture books I like to use for that, go here. 


I have used Kobi Yamada’s book what Do You Do With an Idea for a while now and was eager to read his latest What Do You Do With a Problem?   What a fantastic addition to any classroom library for the message it sends of resilience and also the conversations it may lead to.

Another fantastic picture book to discuss problems and anxiety is Jack’s Worry from Sam Zuppardi.  I love the illustrations of how Jack’s worry follows him around and how he ends up solving it.  Many children would benefit from this book in their classrooms.

Hello, My Name is Octicorn created by Kevin Diller and Justin Love is in my pile of books for the first day of school.  Funny yet poignant in its message, this will also make a great picture book to teach theme.

What do you do when you are supposed to write but just don’t have any ideas?  You read Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead.  Beautiful illustrations coupled with a story that will make you think, this is a must for any writing workshop classroom.

I laughed out loud when I read Poor Little Guy by Elaina Allen, but this book is not just funny, it also carries a great message; don’t judge others by their looks because you never know what will happen.  I am a fan of this book.

Baa Baa Smart Sheep by Mark and Rowan Sommerset is so wrong, yet so right.  This book and its sequel I Love Lemonade are both worthy additions to any classroom library that is looking to recapture the fun of reading.  I cannot wait for the reactions of my students when they hear this book.

While I have been reading about the controversy surrounding Thunder Boy Jr. the debut picture book from Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, I think it is a great addition to our classroom.  I believe that a picture book that has controversy surrounding it is always a great addition because it will offer my students a perspective into something they may not otherwise think about.  Beyond the controversy though, it is also a picture book that speaks of pride in self and culture.

I have few words for this brand new picture book A Child of Books written by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Westman.  It is as if they went into my mind and gave me everything I need to try to convince children that writing can be magical.  Beautiful.  This is out in September, I encourage you to pre-order it now.

School’s First Day of School written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson (who is a brilliant illustrator)  is the book I secretly hope all of my students want read aloud on the first day of school.  Written from the perspective of a school and its first day, I love the feel of the book, the theme of the book and immediately reread it after the first read through.

What happens when those around you decide to keep spoiling the book for you and all you want to do is read in peace?  That is exactly what Mihn Le shares in his fantastic picture book Let Me Finish illustrated by Isabel Roxas.  How fantastic will this picture book be for discussing reader identity?

Return by Aaron Becker is simply a masterful conclusion to his extraordinary trilogy that started with the book Journey.  What a powerful set of wordless picture books.

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner and illustrated by Abigail Halpin takes on a quest into the wild.  Beautifully illustrated with a text that begs to be shared, this is a great text for descriptive writing.

In my book Cale Atkinson can do no wrong and he goes on to prove that in Explorers of the Wild.  A dual part narrative that would be an amazing way to talk about how we judge others based on assumptions rather than knowledge.

Another incredible dual perspective picture book is Dear Dragon by Josh Funk and illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo.  Not only do I love the story of the two narrators a lot, but also how this book can lead to bigger conversations about what we assume when we hear someone share their story.  As I get ready to teach social justice, this book is the perfect entry into the danger of a single story.  This book is out September 6th, but is a must for pre-ordering.

Kwame Alexander is the reason many of my self-identified non-readers are now readers, so this picture book was a given.  Come to find out Surf’s Up illustrated by Daniel Miyares (another of my favorite writer/illustrators out there) is all about the pleasure of reading.  Yes please!  This is also in my first day pile of choices for my students.

You haven’t seen amazing non-fiction writing if you have not read Pink is for Blobfish written by Jess Keating and illustrated by David Degrand.  Not only is this a book that students have to pick up when they see it, they keep returning to it.  What a fantastic mentor text for how to do nonfiction writing right.

I was lucky enough to be given a finished version of They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel at ILA.  It is gorgeous.  It is mesmerizing.  And it is for all ages.  This book….yeah…there may be some awards in its future.  I cannot wait to use it to teach multiple perspectives.  It comes out August 30th, definitely worth ordering now.

What happens when you stop trusting yourself and instead start listening more to everyone else’s opinion?  Find out in Bertie Wings It written by Leslie Gorin and illustrated by Brendan Kearney.  What a great conversation starter about staying true to yourself.

I hope it comes as no surprise that I would love the picture book Worm Loves Worm written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato.  A picture book that makes us think about the labels we feel inclined to put on people and how unnecessary they can be; yes please.

Pat Zietlow Miller continues to enthrall me with each new release.  Sophie’s Squash Go to School is the sequel to the super funny Sophie’s Squash and a great sequel indeed.  I love the theme of friendship and acceptance and also how it builds upon the first book.

I first fell in love with the work of Hannah E. Harrison when I read Extraordinary Jane (this is another must add to your library) and her latest picture book My Friend Maggie is incredible.  What happens to a beautiful friendship when an outsider starts to criticize one of the friends?  Pre-order this picture book, out August 9th, and find out.


Ok, I have more, but I will stop for now.  And yes, I purchased almost all of these books out off my own pocket because that’s what we do, and they were worth every single penny I spent.  If you want to stay up-to-date with what I am reading, I have decided to dedicate my Instagram account to that exact purpose, you can follow me there if you would like.

To see all of the many other lists of favorite books I have made over the years, go here.

Some Small Ideas for Implementing Change in the New Year

Don't let your new ideas become forgotten plans. @pernilleripp

I had my first back to school nightmare 3 weeks ago, yes in June, not even a full month into summer vacation.  It was the same standard dream that I think many teachers have as they start to look forward to the year ahead; the children hate you, you are unprepared and everything tends to just get worse from there.  I was surprised at how early the dream occurred at first, yet then I remembered just how excited I am for the next year.  I know it may be too early for some to think about the next school year but when we have this type of job that brings us so much joy, it is hard not to get excited, even if school does not start until September 1st.

As I have been searching for new ideas, new ways to make 7th grade English a better experience for all, I cannot help but think about all of the ideas I have had previous summers.  How my head has been filled to the brim, excitement building, and then something happens between the beginning of the year and the end of the year.  For some reason most of those ideas don’t happen.  Most of those ideas fade away.  As soon as the day-to-day routine starts, our old habits take over and we just don’t do all those things we said we would.  As my colleague Reidun says, “We have all of these ideas in the summer and then  we get into habits and routines because we get busy.”  And that’s it isn’t it?  We get so busy with all the things that teaching encompasses that we tend to not add anything else on as we paddle our way through our days.  But what if we were able to sustain just a few ideas?  What if we planned for the busyness and that way could find the time, break the habits, and actually do some of the things we dream about?  Here are a few ideas to help.

Do things now.  This may sound silly but chances are you already know what you get busy with those first few days of school.  So which of those things can you get busy with right now?  I know that many are on summer vacation but as we relax, what little things can be done right now so that they don’t slow us down later?  I plan on spending some time in my classroom this week shelving books, creating displays, and making a few copies.  Nothing exciting (well maybe making displays gets me pretty excited) but all things that need to get done.

Plan for the change.  If you have a great idea that you really want to implement, then schedule it.  Write it in your planner, create your lesson plan, whatever it is that you need for it to happen.  This is how I go through my first days if school; with a list of things I would like to accomplish and then I plan accordingly.

Change your environment.  We get stuck in the same routines because our environment doesn’t change.  When we work in a space that looks like it did the year before it feels as if our brain pulls us back in the previous year’s mindset.  So if you want to change things, move some furniture around, change the layout, make a physical change to inspire a curriculum change.

Plan your preps.  This idea is also from Reidun, but I had to share it because it is genius.  We tend to focus on planning our lessons but how about we create a plan for what we will do during our preps?  I know I often end up not being quite as productive as I would like because I cannot remember all of the things I would like to accomplish to begin with.  So while you plan your week, or even just your day,  take time to figure out what the goals of your preps should be as well.

Purge.  We get sucked into our old habits because we have all the stuff to do it.  So if you really want to get rid of a lesson or change something up, purge the things that go along with it.  That way you might as well plan for something new since you would have to plan anyway.

Tell someone else.  I have ongoing dialogue with several other educators about what I would like to do next year.  Not only is this a way to get the ideas out of my head but that way they can also check in on me.  We know plans feel a lot more official when we speak them out loud, so find someone to share your ideas with.

Make it visible.  At the end of a school year, where I felt like I had not done enough for my readers, I wrote a post-it to myself.  It still hangs right in front of me whenever I sit down at my classroom computer.  It says “Find them a book.”  This small reminder is all I have needed to keep trying, to keep changing, to keep working toward a better literacy environment for all of my students.  So whatever your idea is, make it visible in the form of a post-it reminder or something similar.  When you look at every day, it propels you forward.  The other post-it I have is a quote from Shane Koyzcan’s beautiful TED Talk, it says “If you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror.”  It hangs there so I remember the good days, so I remember that I am not perfect but that I am trying.

And as always; start small.  Often times our grand ideas fall away because we feel overwhelmed.  So focus on the little things that will lead to those bigger things.  Plan for those small things so that each day becomes a step toward the bigger change that you would like to see.

What do you do to keep your ideas alive?

PS:  To make it official; some of my new ideas include incorportaing writer’s process by using The Yarn Podcast, doing a version of Penny Kittle’s multi-genre project, focusing more on micro writing, and also getting students more time to discuss.  Now you can help me stay accountable.



How I Teach English in the 45 Minute Timeframe

One of the question I am asked the most is how do you teach English in 45 minutes?  Not just reading, not just writing, but everything that English encompasses.  And I can tell you; it is not easy, nor is it perfect, nor do I have everything figured out.  The 45 minute block of time is the bane of my English existence.  Yet as I have figured out it is within our biggest problems that we find our biggest inspiration, and that is very true for this situation.  I have to try to make 45 minutes work while my students and I pine for more time.  In fact, this is the core of the book I am currently writing; how do you create passionate readers when you barely have any time to teach, let alone have conversations?

I am not alone in this quest to solve it.  Many great minds of literacy such as Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller have all helped shape my thinking.  As have countless English teachers that have trodden the path before me.  While I rest my class on a workshop foundation, I have had to make some tweaks to make it work for us.  So I thought I would share a few ideas here.

We start with 10 minutes of self-selected independent reading.  Every day of the year, almost.  This is the very last thing I will take away from our schedule.  From the second day of school this starts and the students know to “settle in and settle down” as they fall into their book.  I spend the 10 minutes conferring with 2 or 3 students, as detailed in this post here.  Students have done their own attendance, all I have to do is enter it.  Students can also book shop during this time.  A timer or my voice brings us back when the 10 minutes are over.

2-4 minutes of book talks.  I sometimes book talk the same book in all 5 classes or 5 different ones.  As the year progresses, students will also book talk their books to the class if they feel like it.  Inspired by Penny Kittle I do not just book talk books that I have read, but also new books that I am excited about.  These book talks are a must as students try to figure out who they are as readers and should be transferred to the students when possible so they can find their reading buddies.

10 minutes or less;  teaching point.  I used to do a full mini-lesson every day but my students asked me to please stop.  They made me see how varied their needs were so depending on what we are doing, most days we have a very short whole class discussion point or lesson.  My students have asked me to instead do small group lessons or one-on-one conferring/teaching based on needs.  The text that I most often use for a mini lesson is a picture book.  Almost all new concepts are introduced through picture books, before we move into nonfiction, multimedia or short stories.  Picture books allow us to get to the point quickly and in a way that allows all readers to access the text.  They also bring a lot of joy back into our reading community.  To see some of our favorites, please see all of the lists here.  

The rest of class time; student work-time.  Again, this looks different based on what we are doing, but most often I am either conferring with students as they come to me or I am going to them and doing coach-ins over their shoulder.  If we are doing book clubs then I listen in on conversations from the side, if students are writing then I most often confer with them at a side table.  All writing conferences start with me asking them what I should be looking for.  They need to be able to come up with a goal for me instead of just having me check “whether it is good or not?”  This is a great way to get students to take ownership over their writing and start to understand what they need to work on.  Reading conferences always start with “What are you working on as a reader?”

The biggest learning point for me has been to limit my teacher-talk in order to get students to have more time.  If we have a day where I know my teaching will expand beyond the 10 minutes, then I often tell the students that so that they know to expect.  That way they can also understand the purpose of the lengthier instructional time.  As far as figuring out which child needs what, which yes, is one of the biggest challenges, I have students self-reflect a lot, but I will also be using a sheet like this more often so that they can tell me what they need to work on.

I am not sure this post is even helpful, It could be about 30,000 more words or so, however, this should offer a small glimpse into what a typical day in our classroom looks like.  We do not do reading or writing separately but often have both in a day, what we do though is have different focuses for our quarters, so quarter 1 and 3 are more focused on reading explorations, whereas quarter 2 and 4 are more focused on writing explorations.  Please feel free to leave your questions in the comments if I can help in any way.

I am currently working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book titled Reimaging Literacy Through Global Collaboration is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

If Not Now

I started four different posts tonight, trying to find the right angle on the thoughts that have run through my mind the last few days, the last few weeks, perhaps even all summer.  But I realized as I wrote each post and promptly deleted that my mind was too tired to eloquently process what it is that is running through it.  So rather than wrap it in a story,  rather than wrap it up in whatever example I could conjure, I figured just to write it out instead.

We may think that our voices are nothing special.  That what we do only matters on a small scale.  That we can never be as great as (insert amazing thinker here).  That we have no business speaking, that we have no business speaking up.  That we have no business proclaiming anything as truly ours.  That our ideas have little worth and that surely someone else is much more deserving.  That surely somebody else must be better than us.
And we can believe it.  We can live it.  We can make ourselves feel like the biggest imposters, sure that someone will call us out.  But for what?  Because at the end of the day a change will only come if we all speak up.  If we see our worth.  If we see the worth of the truths that our students share with us and then amplify it for them.  When we say that we need a change, then we need to make that change.  When we see the injustice of our school systems.  When we see the disengagement.  When we see the wrong.  Then we must speak up.
So while I am not sure how I got to be someone others sometimes listened to, I do know this; my voice matters, but just as much as yours.  So as someone once said, “If not now, then when?  If not you, then who?”
When was the last time you spoke up for change?

Some Favorite Book Club Books for Middle School

Every March, my students hold their book clubs.  It is something we work toward all year and by spring they are mostly all excited to do them.  As I have tweaked the process, one of the biggest changes I made was to step away from only a few selected books for them to read and instead open it up to as many books as possibly.  With the help of the great selection of cheap books at Books4schools.com our book club set selection is now over 50 different titles and I am always looking to expand.  We no longer have a theme to the books, besides whether or not they are a great book, and students seem to always be able to find several books that they would like to dig into.  Because I teach kids from very varied backgrounds, some are ready for more mature books than others.  If a group collectively chooses a more mature book such as Speak or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian then I make sure their parents are alright with it.  Because of this I always encourage educators to read the books they have students choose from to make sure they are actually meaningful books and also a great experience for the intended age group.

So here are some of my students’ favorite book club books in 7th grade.

Monster by Walter Dean Meyers

From Amazon:

Fade In: Interior: Early Morning In Cell Block D, Manhattan Detention Center.

Steve (Voice-Over)
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady prosecutor called me … Monster.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

From Amazon:

“Hope is the thing with feathers” starts the poem Frannie is reading in school. Frannie hasn’t thought much about hope. There are so many other things to think about. Each day, her friend Samantha seems a bit more “holy.” There is a new boy in class everyone is calling the Jesus Boy. And although the new boy looks like a white kid, he says he’s not white. Who is he?

During a winter full of surprises, good and bad, Frannie starts seeing a lot of things in a new light—her brother Sean’s deafness, her mother’s fear, the class bully’s anger, her best friend’s faith and her own desire for “the thing with feathers.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

From Amazon:

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

From Amazon:

Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. When they arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with her, Cecile is nothing like they imagined. While the girls hope to go to Disneyland and meet Tinker Bell, their mother sends them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers. Unexpectedly, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern learn much about their family, their country, and themselves during one truly crazy summer.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

From Amazon:

The two-time Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt delivers the shattering story of Joseph, a father at thirteen, who has never seen his daughter, Jupiter. After spending time in a juvenile facility, he’s placed with a foster family on a farm in rural Maine. Here Joseph, damaged and withdrawn, meets twelve-year-old Jack, who narrates the account of the troubled, passionate teen who wants to find his baby at any cost. In this riveting novel, two boys discover the true meaning of family and the sacrifices it requires.

All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

From Amazon:

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.


Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

From Amazon: 

“Speak up for yourself–we want to know what you have to say.” From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

From Amazon:

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley

From Amazon:

Listen—Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t.
Now he’s alive again.
Simple as that.

The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but Travis can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still sixteen, but everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.

Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, there are going to be a few more scars.

Oh well, you only live twice.

Eleven by Tom Rodgers

From Amazon:

Alex Douglas always wanted to be a hero. But nothing heroic ever happened to Alex. Nothing, that is, until his eleventh birthday. When Alex rescues a stray dog as a birthday gift to himself, he doesn’t think his life can get much better. Radar, his new dog, pretty much feels the same way. But this day has bigger things in store for both of them. 

This is a story about bullies and heroes. About tragedy and hope. About enemies with two legs and friends with four, and pesky little sisters and cranky old men, and an unexpected lesson in kindness delivered with a slice of pizza. This is Eleven: the journey of a boy turning eleven on 9/11.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

From Amazon:

Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild.

At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox.

Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own. . . .

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

From Amazon:

Sylvie and Jules, Jules and Sylvie. Better than just sisters, better than best friends, they’d be identical twins if only they’d been born in the same year. And if only Sylvie wasn’t such a fast—faster than fast—runner. But Sylvie is too fast, and when she runs to the river they’re not supposed to go anywhere near to throw a wish rock just before the school bus comes on a snowy morning, she runs so fast that no one sees what happens…and no one ever sees her again. Jules is devastated, but she refuses to believe what all the others believe, that—like their mother—her sister is gone forever.

At the very same time, in the shadow world, a shadow fox is born—half of the spirit world, half of the animal world. She too is fast—faster than fast—and she senses danger. She’s too young to know exactly what she senses, but she knows something is very wrong. And when Jules believes one last wish rock for Sylvie needs to be thrown into the river, the human and shadow worlds collide.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

From Amazon:

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut–young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers, Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If the world survives, that is.

Deenie by Judy Blume

From Amazon:

Deenie’s mother wants her to be a model, with her face on magazine covers—maybe even in the movies—but Deenie wants to spend Saturdays with her friends Janet and Midge, tracking Harvey Grabowsky, the captain of the football team, around Woolworth’s. She wants to be a cheerleader, too, and go to the seventh-grade mixer to hear Buddy Brader play his drums.

Instead, Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis. And that means body stockings to squeeze into, a roomful of strangers to face, and a terrifying brace that she’ll need to wear for years that goes from her neck to her hips. Suddenly Deenie has to cope with a kind of specialness that’s frightening—and might be hers forever.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

From Amazon:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

From Amazon:

Caitlin has Asperger’s. The world according to her is black and white; anything in between is confusing. Before, when things got confusing, Caitlin went to her older brother, Devon, for help. But Devon was killed in a school shooting, and Caitlin’s dad is so distraught that he is just not helpful. Caitlin wants everything to go back to the way things were, but she doesn’t know how to do that. Then she comes across the word closure–and she realizes this is what she needs. And in her search for it, Caitlin discovers that the world may not be so black and white after all.


Firegirl by Tony Abbot

From Amazon:

From this moment on, life is never quite the same for Tom and his seventh-grade classmates. They learn that Jessica has been in a fire and was badly burned, and will be attending St. Catherine’s while getting medical treatments. Despite her horrifying appearance and the fear she evokes in him and most of the class, Tom slowly develops a tentative friendship with Jessica that changes his life.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.

From Amazon:

Two girls separated by race form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958

Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn’t have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear – speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.

But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn’t matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis


From Amazon:

A wonderful middle-grade novel narrated by Kenny, 9, about his middle-class black family, the Weird  Watsons of Flint, Michigan. When Kenny’s  13-year-old brother, Byron, gets to be too much trouble,  they head South to Birmingham to visit Grandma, the  one person who can shape him up. And they happen to  be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown  up.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu


From Amazon:

On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city that was saved by the magic woven into its walls from a devastating plague that swept through the world over a hundred years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow. Oscar spends his days in a small room in the dark cellar of his master’s shop, grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island generations ago. Oscar’s world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.

But it’s been a long time since anyone who could call himself a wizard walked the world, and now that world is changing. Children in the city are falling ill, and something sinister lurks in the forest. Oscar has long been content to stay in his small room in the cellar, comforted in the knowledge that the magic that flows from the trees will keep his island safe. Now, even magic may not be enough to save it.

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson (Non-fiction)

From Amazon:

Even in the darkest of times—especially in the darkest of times—there is room for strength and bravery. A remarkable memoir from Leon Leyson, one of the youngest children to survive the Holocaust on Oskar Schindler’s list.Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. With incredible luck, perseverance, and grit, Leyson was able to survive the sadism of the Nazis, including that of the demonic Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow, the concentration camp outside Krakow. Ultimately, it was the generosity and cunning of one man, a man named Oskar Schindler, who saved Leon Leyson’s life, and the lives of his mother, his father, and two of his four siblings, by adding their names to his list of workers in his factory—a list that became world renowned: Schindler’s List.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

From Amazon:

Although he faces responsibility bravely, thirteen-year-old Matt is more than a little apprehensive when his father leaves him alone to guard their new cabin in the wilderness. When a renegade white stranger steals his gun, Matt realizes he has no way to shoot game or to protect himself. When Matt meets Attean, a boy in the Beaver clan, he begins to better understand their way of life and their growing problem in adapting to the white man and the changing frontier.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

From Amazon:

During the summer of 1793, Mattie Cook lives above the family coffee shop with her widowed mother and grandfather. Mattie spends her days avoiding chores and making plans to turn the family business into the finest Philadelphia has ever seen. But then the fever breaks out.

Disease sweeps the streets, destroying everything in its path and turning Mattie’s world upside down. At her feverish mother’s insistence, Mattie flees the city with her grandfather. But she soon discovers that the sickness is everywhere, and Mattie must learn quickly how to survive in a city turned frantic with disease.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson 

From Amazon:

As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

From Amazon:
Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesn’t like Holling—he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation—the Big M—in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

From Amazon:

In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

From Amazon:

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, and they know who to avoid. Like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

Hatchet by Gary D. Paulson

From Amazon:

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father when the single-engine plane in which he is flying crashes. Suddenly, Brian finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a tattered Windbreaker and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present—and the dreadful secret that has been tearing him apart since his parent’s divorce. But now Brian has no time for anger, self pity, or despair—it will take all his know-how and determination, and more courage than he knew he possessed, to survive.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

From Amazon:

Doomed to―or blessed with―eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

From Amazon:

Two boys – a slow learner stuck in the body of a teenage giant and a tiny Einstein in leg braces – forge a unique friendship when they pair up to create one formidable human force.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

From Amazon:

Steven has a totally normal life (well, almost).

He plays drums in the All-City Jazz Band (whose members call him the Peasant), has a crush on the hottest girl in school (who doesn’t even know he’s alive), and is constantly annoyed by his younger brother, Jeffrey (who is cuter than cute – which is also pretty annoying). But when Jeffrey gets sick, Steven’s world is turned upside down, and he is forced to deal with his brother’s illness, his parents’ attempts to keep the family in one piece, his homework, the band, girls, and Dangerous Pie (yes, you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is!).

House Arrest by K.A. Holt

From Amazon:

Timothy is on probation. It’s a strange word—something that happens to other kids, to delinquents, not to kids like him. And yet, he is under house arrest for the next year. He must check in weekly with a probation officer and a therapist, and keep a journal for an entire year. And mostly, he has to stay out of trouble. But when he must take drastic measures to help his struggling family, staying out of trouble proves more difficult than Timothy ever thought it would be. By turns touching and funny, and always original, House Arrest is a middlegrade novel in verse about one boy’s path to redemption as he navigates life with a sick brother, a grieving mother, and one tough probation officer.

Legend by Marie Lu

From Amazon:

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

MiNRS by Kevin Sylvester

From Amazon:

A boy and his friends must find a way to survive in the mining tunnels after their new space colony is attacked in this gritty action-adventure novel, which School Library Journal called “a solid survival story.”

In space. Underground. And out of time.

Christopher Nichols and his family live on a new planet, Perses, as colonists of Melming Mining’s Great Mission to save the earth. Dozens of families like Christopher’s have relocated, too, like his best friend Elena Rosales.

A communications blackout with Earth hits, and all of Perses is on its own for three months. It’s okay, though, because the colonists have prepared, stockpiling food and resources to survive. But they never prepared for an attack.

Landers, as the attackers are called, obliterate the colony to steal the metal and raw ore. Now in a race against time, Christopher, along with a small group of survivors, are forced into the maze of mining tunnels. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

From Amazon:
Two brothers will need all their wilderness skills to survive when they set off into the woods of Wyoming in search of their absent father.Jake and Taylor Wilder have been taking care of themselves for a long time. Their father abandoned the family years ago, and their mother is too busy working and running interference between the boys and her boyfriend, Bull, to spend a lot of time with them. Thirteen-year-old Jake spends most of his time reading. He pours over his father’s journal, which is full of wilderness facts and survival tips. Eleven-year-old Taylor likes to be outside playing with their dog, Cody, or joking around with the other kids in the neighborhood.

But one night everything changes. The boys discover a dangerous secret that Bull is hiding.

And the next day, they come home from school to find their mother unconscious in an ambulance. Knowing they are no longer safe and with nowhere else to go, the Wilder Boys head off in search of their father. They only have his old letters and journal to help them, but they have to make it.

It’s a long journey from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the wilderness of Wyoming; can the Wilder Boys find their father before Bull catches up with them?

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

From Amazon:

“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

I know I am forgetting some and probably even some really good ones.  I will update the list after I have ventured into our classroom at some point this summer.  In the meantime, please share your great middle school rbook club choices in the comments.



What 10 Minutes of Reading Really Is

Do not be fooled;a child readingis a powerfullearningexperience happening.

For the past 2 years, my students in 7th grade English have started almost every single class with 10 minutes of independent reading.  With 10 minutes of falling into a book.  With 10 minutes dedicated to the one thing that research says will make the biggest difference to their reading comprehension.  When you teach just 45 minute classes, giving up 10 minutes can be seen as a major sacrifice, and yet, it never is; after all, reading time is one of the biggest gifts I can give all of my students.  And offering them up 10 minutes to read the pages of a book they choose is the biggest investment I can make into their future reading lives.  I give it gladly.

To an outsider it may seem like the 10 minutes is enough, that all you need for a successful reading experience is just to give kids time.  But if you dug a little bit deeper, you would start to see all of the work that leads up to these quick 10 minutes, all of the investment that has happened before all of my students are actually reading.  So what do the 10 minutes rest upon?

An enticing classroom library.  For the past 6 years, I have been spending a lot of money, yes, my own mostly, to try to build up a library that would entice my students.  Just this morning, I realized I needed to go to the book store to find more sports books as I look at the year to come.  While our library now is large, it certainly did not start out that way; when I weeded my books, I had less than 150 left, but they were of decent quality and so our foundation started with that.  Having an in-class library, coupled with a school library, has made a huge difference to my not so invested readers.  The books are right there, at their fingertips, and they can bookshop any time they want.  They do not have to wait for library time or even a pass to grab a new book.  However, having a school library has also made a huge difference because they see a knowledgeable adult that can help guide them to books we do not have in our classroom library.  Another adult has the chance to know them as readers and to help them select their next favorite read.  I do not think my students would read as much if they didn’t have immediate access to books that spoke to them.

An exploration of reading identity.  We spend a lot of time reflecting on who we are as readers, much to the chagrin of some of my most resistant readers.  They are content with declaring themselves as non-readers and would prefer for it to be left at that.  However, starting on the second day of school we start to dig into what type of a reader they and also what their goals are.  They start to evaluate what has shaped their reading journey so I can figure out how to best support them further,  or break down some ingrained habits of non-reading.  This is a constant conversation in our classroom; what do you like to read, how do you know, why do you abandon books, what book do you want to read next are all questions that surround us as we discover who we are and who we want to be.

A reading-obsessed adult.  I read voraciously, even when it is summer, so that I can pass books to my students.  I am connected to other reading crazed adults so that I can find more books for our library.  Being a reader myself, and especially of the books we have in our classroom, means that I can speak the same language as my students.  By handing books to students and telling them that this may work, we start to develop a deeper relationship than just student/teacher, instead developing one based on the books we love.  If you reach reading, you should be a reader yourself, because how can you expect students to invest into something if you don’t invest yourself?

An understanding of self.  We learn how to book shop together, to-be-read list in hand, because this is a skill that many of my students have not developed.  When they do not know how to find the next great book, they don’t read.  It becomes one more thing that they use to not read.  So together, we bookshop and tie it in with our reading identity exploration.  We make it a social event at least once a month, adding as many titles as we can to our list, but it is also an anytime event.  If a child is constantly book shopping it tells me they do not know who they are as readers and so the conversation starts there.

A challenge.  Modeled after Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge, my students have a 25 book challenge (or higher for those where 25 books is not a big deal) and this challenge drives us forward as we plan our reading.  All students read with urgency, not at a hurried pace, but with the need to read more than the year prior.  We discuss our progress, we revisit goals and we tweak as needed.

A goal.  My students are not “just” reading, although frankly “just” reading for some would be a major win.  They are always working on something, however, many of them are working on goals directly tied to their reading identity, or the lack of one.  So while some kids may be working on skills tied to their reading comprehension, others may simply be working on habits; trying to find a book they actually want to read, trying to re-identify themselves as readers.  When I confer with students, I ask about their specific goals and if they do not have one, then we set one together.

A learning purpose.  We use Notice and Note from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst to dig deeper into our reading, as a springboard to discuss and write about our reading, and so students are expected to do this work at all times.  However, they are not always doing that work, sometimes we read simply to read.  What matters is that they CAN do it when needed.  We also read to identify writing craft, to learn about the world,, and to explore ourselves as human beings.  Having a self-selected text as a way to spur discussion means that all of the students are able to participate in conversations, because they have actually read the book.

For the past 2 years, I have seen many 7th graders rediscover a lost love of reading or even start to work toward a better relationship with books and reading.  I have seen 7th graders build upon the foundation of reading love that their previous teachers have laid.  Almost every single child I have had the honor of teaching has read more books than they thought possible.  When I ask them what made the biggest difference they tell me that the 10 minutes made them into readers.  I always smile, because I know that the 10 minutes played a major factor, but they forget all of the other components that come into play when we have a well-developed independent reading experience in our classroom.  So start with the time, but do not think that is enough.  After all, we are not just teaching reading, but trying to create reading experiences.

I am currently working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book titled Reimaging Literacy Through Global Collaboration is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.