"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Friday, October 30, 2015

Walk the Trail of Tears in How I Became a Ghost

Tingle, Tim. 2013. How I Became a Ghost. Oklahoma City: The Roadrunner Press. ISBN 978-1-937054-53-3

The year is 1830.  Isaac, a ten year old boy, lives in Choctaw Nation, Mississippi with his parents and older brother.  They have a comfortable life there, with many friends.  But all that changes once the Treaty Talk begins.  The Nahullos (White people) come in the middle of the night and set fire to all of the homes in their town.  Most of the Choctaw people barely make it out alive, while some perish in the flames.  They flee to a swamp, thinking it unlikely that the Nahullos would look for them there, but eventually they do arrive with a nasty surprise. 

Thus begins a long and difficult journey for the people of Choctaw Nation.  As per the agreement of the treaty, the Nahullo soldiers march the Choctaws through the sleet and snow towards the new land where they are being relocated to.  Through all of this, Isaac begins to see ghosts and learns that he will soon become one of them.  On this journey, new friendships are formed, and the Choctaws remain brave and strong in the face of so much misery.  Along with a shapeshifting panther boy and a charming five year old ghost, Isaac embarks on a mission to save a young girl's life.  Will he remain alive long enough to see this mission through?  Or will the cruel Nahullos bring more terror and death to the Choctaws along the Trail of Tears?   

How I Became a Ghost is a truly compelling story.  It is part historical fiction, part supernatural, and part mystery all wrapped up in one important middle grade novel.  The story is told from Isaac's perspective.  From his opening line, "Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before," Tingle quickly pulls the reader into Isaac's world and immerses him/her in this tragic piece of history. Isaac's tale keeps the reader on his/her toes, anticipating the moment when he finally becomes a ghost.  But despite this, Isaac comes across as an ordinary ten year old, who children will easily relate to.  And while the topic of death is certainly a sad one, the tone of the novel is not.  The Choctaws do not really leave when they die.  They remain with their family members and can appear before them, offering them some measure of comfort.  Children with no prior knowledge of the Trail of Tears may pick up this book because of its supernatural elements, but will leave the book emotionally connected to the Choctaws and their devastating plight.

For all of the novel's positive qualities, Tingle does the leave the reader with some unanswered questions.  It is never explained how Isaac's mother knew to keep her family from taking the blankets or who cast the spell to make the rattlesnake appear on Nita's body.  How I Became a Ghost is marketed as the beginning of a trilogy, so hopefully these questions will be answered in the next book.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any information on if and when the second book will be out.

Tingle is Choctaw, himself, and this novel was inspired by his own memories of retracing the trail and speaking with tribal elders.  The Choctaw beliefs, traditions, and language add to the authenticity of the story.  This is an important novel for all middle grade students to read, offering a glimpse into a culture they may not be familiar with while bringing to life an important event in our country's history.

2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner

2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - ""The beginning of a trilogy, this tale is valuable for both its recounting of a historical tragedy and its immersive Choctaw perspective."

From THE HORN BOOK - "Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller, relates his tale in the engaging repetitions and rhythms of an oft-told story...Spare and authentic."

From THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS - "Tingle's prose is terse, urgently propelling the story along and providing a minimalist aesthetic that evokes storytelling techniques and renders accessible a tragic piece of history."

Tingle has written several Choctaw novels.  If your students would like to read more about this Native American culture, suggest the following titles.
  • Tingle, Tim. House of Purple Cedar. ISBN 978-1935955245
  • Tingle, Tim. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey From Darkness into Light. ISBN 978-1933693675
  • Tingle, Tim. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom. ISBN 978-1933693200

The Choctaws do not say good-bye.  Instead, they say chi pisa lattice, which means "I will see you again, in the future."  Why do they say that, and how is that different than just saying goodbye?  Have a discussion about this with your students.

This novel has many characters who display bravery.  Ask your students to write about who they think the bravest character in the story is and why.

Use this book as a jumping off point to have your students research the The Trail of Tears.

Tim Tingle is also a renowned storyteller.  Share this video with your students of Tingle telling a Choctaw story about how rabbit got his short tail.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Learn About a Native American Tradition in Jingle Dancer

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. 2000. Jingle Dancer. Ill. by Van Wright, Cornelius & Hu, Ying-Hwa. New York: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN 0-688-16242-8

Jingle Dancer is the story of Jenna, a young girl who longs to take part in the Jingle Dance, just like her grandmother.  Much to Jenna's delight, Grandmother Wolfe tells her that she can, in fact, dance at the next powwow.  Jenna has watched and danced along with video tapes of Grandmother Wolfe jingle dancing so many times, she knows she is ready to perform.  However, Jenna does not have a special jingle dress.  What will she do?

Relying on her creativity and determination, Jenna borrows enough jingles from the dresses of her family members to make her own jingle dress, complete with the necessary four rows of jingles.  With Grandmother Wolfe's help, the dress is ready in time for the next powwow.  Now Jenna is poised to make her dream of jingle dancing come true.

There is so much to love about this heart warming story.  Jenna is a modern Native American child.  In her author's note, Leitich Smith says specifically, she is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and also of Ojibway descent.  Jenna wants nothing more than to participate in a long standing family tradition that she has always been too young for.  This is a feeling all children can relate to.  She is depicted as smart and resourceful, when she comes up with the idea of borrowing a row of jingles from each of her four relatives.  And the strong bond she shares with her grandmother is apparent in the way she idolizes her and carefully works on the jingle dress with her.  Children will easily relate to Jenna and reflect on their own memories of when they wanted something and had to figure out a way to make it happen. 

The warm watercolor illustrations perfectly complement the tone of the text.  Husband and wife team Van Wright and Hu made each character so expressive.  Jenna's happiness and love for her family shine through in the illustrations.  Each jingle dress is painted in bright colors that highlight their beauty and their importance in both the story and the Muscogee culture.

Leitich Smith has done a fine job of creating a contemporary Native American story that includes a traditional Native American tradition.  Her author's note at the end provides a wealth of information about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Ojibway people, jingle dresses, the origins of jingle dancing, and the importance of the number four.  Not only was this a story I truly enjoyed, but I learned about the culture, as well.  Leitich Smith even includes a glossary with Native American words children from other cultures may not know, including fry bread, Indian taco, powwow, and regalia.

Another highlight of this picture book is its portrayal of strong Native American women.  Jenna is a girl who showed great determination.  She didn't let the fact that she couldn't order a jingle dress in time for the powwow stop her from following her dream.  Grandmother Wolfe doesn't let her age slow her down or keep her from dancing.  And Elizabeth, Jenna's cousin, has a successful career as a lawyer.  This is an important book for young Native American girls to read, so that they can see themselves reflected in these strong characters.  It is also an important book for children of any culture to read, so they can find similarities between themselves and Jenna and learn about a culture they may not be familiar with.

NEA Native American Book Lists

Reading is Fundamental 2011 Multicultural Book List

2001 NCSS Notable Trade Book 

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Watercolor paintings in bright, warm tones fill each page...Seeing Jenna as both a modern girl in the suburban homes of her intertribal community and as one of many traditionally costumed participants at the powwow will give some readers a new view of a contemporary Native American way of life."

From BOOKLIST - "This contemporary Native American tale highlights the importance of family and community through a young girl's dream of joining the dancers at the next powwow."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Their easy integration of Native and standard furnishings and clothing gracefully complement Smith's heartening portrait..."

Visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's website.  There is a wealth of information for both teachers and students.  http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

Many Native American people believe the number four is important, as demonstrated by the four rows of jingles Jenna needed for her dress.  Ask your students if they can come up with other things that come in fours.

Ask students to share if they have any traditional dances they do with their families.  If they would like to demonstrate, invite them up to perform for the class.

Students may be interested in seeing a real jingle dance.  Share this video with them.

The powwow is an important event in Jenna's family.  Ask students to share what events are important in their families each year?  What do they do to prepare for these events?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Prepare to be Terrified with Skeleton Man

Bruchac, Joseph. 2001. Skeleton Man. New York: Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-439-43961-2

Skeleton Man tells the story of Molly, a sixth grade Native American girl who's parents have disappeared.  They went out one Saturday night and never returned home.  Many days pass, and still there is no sign of them.  But suddenly, a strange man shows up, claiming to be Molly's long lost uncle, and declares that Molly shall now live with him.

Instantly, Molly knows something is wrong.  The way her uncle won't show her his face, the way he locks her in her room each night, and the way he always sneaks off to the shed in the backyard all lead Molly to believe that this is no ordinary man, and certainly not her uncle.

Molly's dreams begin to give her clues to what is happening.  Her current situation is shockingly similar to a spine-tingling Mohawk legend her father used to tell her, involving a greedy skeleton man.  As Molly starts to put the pieces together, the horrifying truth is revealed.  Will Molly be reunited with her parents?  Or will they all meet a tragic demise at the hands of the Skeleton Man? 

Joseph Bruchac has created a creepy story based on an old Mohawk legend.  The result is a book that will terrify you, yet you won't be able to put it down.  Molly is a believable character who is trapped in a situation that many middle grade children fear - what would happen to you if your parents disappeared?  The plot is engaging and fast paced.  While there are some intense scenes, this is also a story of bravery, with a little bit of humor sprinkled in.  

This novel contains many authentic aspects of Native American culture.  The Mohawk legend plays a huge role.  Molly believes that the rabbit in her dreams is trying to guide her safely through the events that are taking place.  This aligns with the fact that dreams are considered symbolic in many Native American cultures and are not to be dismissed.  Perhaps most significant, though, is that Molly is portrayed as a modern, 21st century sixth grader.  She does not wear feathers in her hair or live in a tipi.  More contemporary Native American characters are needed in children's literature today, to demonstrate to others that this is not a culture that is "extinct."

Joseph Bruchac is a prolific author who has delivered a quality of piece of literature in Skeleton Man.

ALA Notable Children's Book

2005 Nutmeg Book Award Winner

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "The mix of traditional and contemporary cultural references adds to the story's haunting appeal, and the quick pace and suspense, particularly in the last few chapters, will likely hold the interest of young readers."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "The suspense draws readers in and keeps them engaged. In the classic horror tradition, Bruchac offers a timely tale that will make hearts beat and brows sweat, and it has the bonus of a resourceful heroine to put the world right again."

From author R.L. STINE - "The legend is chilling—and the terror builds on every page. This book gave ME nightmares!"

Molly is back in the much awaited sequel, The Return of Skeleton Man.  Have your students read this  book to find out what happens next to Molly and her family.
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Return of Skeleton Man. ISBN 9780060580926.

Joseph Bruchac has written numerous picture books and novels.  If your students enjoyed his writing, have them choose another of Bruchac's books to read.  You can access his catalog of titles by clicking this link.

Have your students work with iMovie or another video production program to create a book trailer for Skeleton Man.  Have them use their creativity to make it scary and engaging.

Have a discussion with your students about Molly's dreams.  What did they mean?  Do they think dreams have meaning?

Joseph Bruchac does school visits, where he combines storytelling, Native American music, and information on his own writing.  Depending on the budget of your school or your school's PTA, look into scheduling a visit with him.  Students will be in for an incredible experience.  For more information on Bruchac's school visits, visit his website http://www.josephbruchac.com

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Trailer - Barbed Wire Baseball

Here is my book trailer for the 2014 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Honor Picture Book, Barbed Wire Baseball.  I hope you like it!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Visit the Other Side in The Afterlife

Soto, Gary. 2003. The Afterlife. Florida: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0-15-204774-3

Set in California, The Afterlife is the story of Chuy, a seventeen year old Mexican boy who is brutally murdered in the opening chapter of the book.  He rises up from his body as a ghost.  In his new ghostly form, he laments his death and all the things in life he will never get to experience.   He visits his parents and other friends and family members and shares in their grief.

But Chuy realizes that being a ghost isn't all bad.  He discovers he has some newfound abilities, including flying and walking through solid objects, and he has some fun experimenting with what he is now capable of.  He comes across a couple other ghosts of the recently departed and even encounters true love.

As he slowly starts to fade away, will Chuy leave this earth with regrets or at peace?  

While this YA book includes a random act of extreme violence and a host of characters who are devastated by their losses, Soto manages to keep the tone of the novel light and humorous.  Chuy is a sarcastic, self-deprecating teen who causes the reader to laugh more than to feel sorry for him.  His moments of grief are balanced with mischief and fun, including knocking down the door of a thug's house so the local children could "steal" the stolen bikes he was stashing there.  His voice comes across as that of a realistic teenager.  Readers will root for him as his feelings for Crystal grow, and they will relate to his jealousy over her past boyfriends.

Soto interweaves many Spanish words in with the English text, which adds to the cultural authenticity of the story.  In keeping with Mexican tradition, Chuy's family has a rosary for him the day before his funeral.  When Chuy realizes that Crystal is half Mexican, he finds her to be even more lovely.   

What will stay with me after finishing The Afterlife is not that it was a story about death, but that it was a story about hope and taking the time to enjoy each moment, even if you are a ghost.

ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers

BOOKLIST Editors' Choice

From BOOKLIST - "He not only paints the scenery brilliantly but also captures the pain that follows an early death. In many ways, this is as much a story about a hardscrabble place as it is about a boy who is murdered. Both pulse with life and will stay in memory."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Soto writes with a touch as light as Chuy's ghost and with humor, wonderment, and generosity toward life."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Filled with hope and elegance."

If your students enjoyed Soto's writing, share some of his other books with them.  Click this link to peruse his catalog of titles.

Chuy and his family did not have a lot of money, and he describes himself as completely average, even feo.  Still, he was a happy teenager who was content with his life.  Crystal, on the other hand, was rich, beautiful, and popular, but she was so unhappy that she killed herself.  Have a discussion about the stark differences between these two characters' overall satisfaction with their lives and what the implications are.

While Chuy is a ghost, he fulfills a lifelong dream of going to a Raiders game.  He was able to float in and go right down onto the field without being noticed.  Ask your students to write about where they would go if they were in the same ghostly form as Chuy and explain why.

Have your students take a quiz to check their understanding of this novel.  Click on this link to find a quiz that you can print and administer to your students.

Ask your students if they were satisfied with the ending of the book.  If not, how do they think it should have ended?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Celebrate the Joy of Reading with Tomás and the Library Lady

Mora, Pat. 1997. Tomás and the Library Lady. Ill. by Raul Colón. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-80401-3

Tomás and his family are traveling from Texas to Iowa.  His parents are migrant farm workers who work on Texas farms in the winter and Iowa farms in the summer.  Tomás and his family do not have much, but they all share a love of stories.  After realizing that Tomás has heard all of his stories, Papa Grande encourages him to visit the library.

Tomás had never been to a library before, and he is amazed by the sheer volume of books.  It was at this library in Iowa that he developed a passion for reading and a joy in sharing books with others.  When it was time to return to Texas at the end of the summer, Tomás was sad to leave his beloved library and his new librarian friend behind.  However, that love of reading stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Tomás and the Library Lady tells the true story of Dr. Tomás Rivera, the son of migrant farm workers who grew up to become the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.  

Pat Mora has written an inspiring story about the power of reading.  Using Dr. Tomás Rivera's real life experiences, she depicts an accurate portrayal of what life was like for migrant workers from Mexico in the 1940s.  Tomás and his brother did not have many toys to play with, so storytelling was a cherished form of entertainment.  The brothers and their family worked all day and had little opportunity to visit places such as libraries.  The kindness showed to him by the librarian and the fact that she made him feel so welcome in that library was something he hadn't experienced before.  Spanish words are woven into the text seamlessly.  

Young readers will relate to the joy Tomás feels when entering the library because it is a feeling that they all share.  Reading and being read to is a common experience among all cultures.  They will also enjoy Raul Colón's beautiful, warm paintings.  They give the portrayal of Tomás's life an almost dreamlike quality.

My children and I enjoyed sharing this book together.  When I was done reading, my five year old son said, "Tomás is just like me because we both like to go to the library."  While there are vast differences between Tomás's life in the 1940s and my son's life today, I was pleased he made that connection and that is what stayed with him upon completing the book.

1997 Américas Award for Children’s and  Young Adult Literature Commended Title 

1997 Notable Books for Children, Smithsonian

1998 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award 

1998 Teachers' Choices Award from the International Reading Association 

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "While young readers and future librarians will find this an inspiring tale, the endnote gives it a real kick; the story is based on an actual migrant worker who became chancellor of a university—where the library now bears his name."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "A charming, true story about the encounter between the boy who would become chancellor at the University of California at Riverside and a librarian in Iowa."

From AMAZON.COM - "This tribute to Tomás and his mentor reminds us of the power of stories and those dedicated librarians who have changed the lives of so many people."

Share this video with your students where Pat Mora discusses the real life Tomás.

Have a discussion with your students about migrant workers.  Explain to them what life is really like for these people. 

Share this poem about Tomás that Mora wrote in 2005.
Library Magic
"¡Vamos! Let's go to the library!"
Tomás said to his family. 
He showed them his favorite books
and his cozy reading nooks.

"¡Vamos! Let's go to the library!" 
Tomás said to his friends. "Hurry!" 
They saw libros in stacks and rows. 
They laughed at funny puppet shows.

"¡Vamos! Let's all go to the library!" 
Join the fun, a treasure house that's free. 
Bring your friends and family. 
Stories, computers, maps and more, 
facts, fun. Enter the magic door. 
Like Tomás, open books and soar. 
Be a reader. Explore galore.

In memory of the leader, educator and author, Tomás Rivera
© 2005 by Pat Mora

If your students enjoyed this story, read more books to them written by Pat Mora.  Here are a few of her many titles.
  • Mora, Pat. The Rainbow Tulip. ISBN 978-0142500095
  • Mora, Pat. Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children's Day/Book Day; Celebremos El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros. ISBN 978-0061288777
  • Mora, Pat. Confetti: Poems for Children. ISBN 978-1880000854

If your students enjoyed Raul Colón's paintings, share more books with them that he illustrated.
  • Colón, Raul. Draw! ISBN 978-1442494923
  • Weatherford, Carole Boston. Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century. ISBN 978-0375856068
  • Brown, Monica. My Name is Gabito / Me llamo Gabito: The Life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ISBN 978-0873589086

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Return to Sender - A Story of Hope

Alvarez, Julia. 2009. Return to Sender. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-85838-3

11 year old Tyler Paquette and his family live on a farm in Vermont that has been in their family for generations.  Since his father's tractor accident, however, they are struggling to keep the farm going.  Rather than sell the farm, his father decides to hire some workers from Mexico.  The three brothers he hires live in a trailer behind the Paquettes' house, along with one of the men's three daughters.  

The eldest daughter, Mari, is the same age as Tyler.  They develop a tentative friendship based upon their mutual interest in star gazing.  Tyler, however, struggles with the fact that his new friend and her family are in the country illegally.  How can he be friends with someone who is breaking the law?

Mari and her family are in constant fear that they will be picked up by la migra and deported back to Mexico.  They also worry about their mother, who they haven't seen or heard from in months.  Will she be able to find her family now that they've moved to Vermont?  Is she even still alive?

Return to Sender is a powerful and relevant story that examines the line between right and wrong.  It is also a tale of friendship and family.  As Alvarez so eloquently put it, "Friendship knows no borders."

Julia Alvarez's story offers an honest look into a timely issue in our country.  The novel is told in alternating points of view.  Tyler's story is told through a narrative, and Mari's story is told through personal letters she has written to various members of her family.  While born in two seemingly different worlds, Tyler and Mari come to discover that they actually have a lot in common.  The idea that "friendship knows no borders" will resonate with young readers and hopefully inspire them to get to know someone who may seem different than they are.  

This story, while a work of fiction, is culturally authentic in every way.  The situations it describes are real.  Like the Cruz family, farmers from Mexico who can no longer survive farming in their own country are forced to come north into the U.S. to find work and provide for their families.  The title of the novel, Return to Sender, was the name of an actual operation in 2006, where many workplaces were raided and anyone found working in the country without the proper paperwork was taken away on the spot.  Alvarez has seamlessly interwoven many Mexican traditions, holidays, foods, and the Spanish language into the novel.  The plight of the three girls, especially Ofie and Luby who were born in America, is something the children of migrant Mexican workers must face.  The ruthless coyotes Alvarez describes do exist, and the methods described for how to transport the immigrants across the border are authentic.

This novel takes a relevant issue in our country and brings it to life.  It gives a face to the nameless illegal immigrants that are discussed on the news.  Most importantly, it takes an honest look at the children of the Mexican immigrants and how they are affected by this.  While there are a plethora of people in this novel who would love to send the Mexicans back to Mexico, there are also characters who recognize the Cruz family for the wonderful people they are and would go to any length to help them.  Alvarez sheds light on the fact that this issue is not so black and white.  There are many shades of gray, and doing the right thing as a fellow human being may not necessarily align with what the law dictates.

Return to Sender is an important novel that every middle grade student should read.  

2010 Pura Belpré Author Award

2010 Americas Award for Children and Young Adult's Literature

Oprah's 2010 Kids' Reading List

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "This timely novel, torn right from the newspaper headlines, conveys a positive message of cooperation and understanding."

From BOOKLIST - "The plot is purposive, with messages about the historical connections between migrant workers today and the Indians’ displacement, the Underground Railroad, and earlier immigrants seeking refuge. But the young people’s voices make for a fast read; the characters, including the adults, are drawn with real complexity; and the questions raised about the meaning of patriotism will spark debate."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "While this novel is certainly issue-driven, Alvarez (Before We Were Free ) focuses on her main characters, mixing in Mexican customs and the touching letters that Mari writes to her mother, grandmother and even the U.S. president. Readers get a strong sense of Tyler’s growing maturity, too, as he navigates complicated moral choices."

Julia Alvarez is a prolific author of Hispanic literature for young people.  If your students would like to read more of her books, send them to this link to find a list of titles and descriptions.

To listen to Julia Alvarez discuss Return to Sender, click this link.

Julia Alvarez has shared on her website some highlights of the research she did on migrant workers while writing this novel.  To learn more, click this link.

Share Mari's favorite song, "La Golondrina", with your students.

Mr. Bicknell asks his students to write a love story, any kind of love, that had happened to them that past year.  Have your students take on this writing assignment.  If they feel comfortable, have them share their writing with the class.