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How to Structure a Simple Summer Schedule (For You and Your Kids)

Sing it with me. Go ahead. “School’s out for summer!” 

Children across the U.S. (and let’s be honest, the school staff, too) are belting it out, but parents and caregivers may be filled with unease. How will I keep my kids entertained? Better yet, how can I structure the day so they entertain themselves? What are ways to prevent summer learning loss after an already challenging school year? What type of boundaries or structure should exist in their day? Chores? Screentime? Exercise? The list goes on. 

Whether your kids are home with you, a relative, a babysitter, daycare, or camp, there are many ways you can help ensure reading and other important activities are a part of everyday life by having some structure. 

At our house, we’ll have a quick family meeting each night to discuss our plans for the following day. Having experienced at-home learning during the pandemic, I learned my family feels more comfortable when they know what the schedule is for the next day and expectations are clearly defined. 

Using a small dry erase board, we fill in a chart that lists activities we “must do” and “could do” (see example below). We work together to generate the list of must do tasks, giving the kids part ownership over the expectations. Having a back-up idea in the “could do” column comes in very handy when the dreaded “I’m bored” phrase shows up. And we categorize all the ideas into values that are important to our family (helping, moving, creating, and learning), but this will be unique to each family.

Here’s an example of what a typical day might look like for my kids, ages 11 and 13.  

ACTION:MUST DO:COULD DO:
HELPstrip sheets off the bed, then remake bed when sheets are dryweeding ($1 for every 5-gallon bucket)
MOVEswim practice, 7:00-8:30go on a walk/scooter ride
CREATEcontinue to create Lego stop motion video/make card for upcoming weddingstart new puzzle or make cookies
READ/WRITE/LEARNcontinue reading Blood for Blood/start Wolf Hollow help Mom with Raising Real Readers book review

Completion of MUST DOs = 1.5 hours of screen time the next day. 

Other ideas: 

  • Since I’m home with the kids, I will include my own must do and could do activities. Modeling goes a long way in influencing children and helps them to buy into the system.
  • If your child won’t be home most of the day, be realistic about what can actually be accomplished during limited evening hours. Or discuss with them ways they could read, exercise, or be creative while away at whatever childcare arrangements your family is using this summer. 
  • Do you have a fun summertime activity in mind, like a day at the pool or trip to the zoo? Use this to your advantage. If your kids successfully complete a certain number of must do tasks in a row, allow them to earn the activity! This demonstrates that hard work and consistency pays off. 
  • The power of surprise is real. Perhaps you’ve seen your child display a selfless act or go the extra mile on a task. Allow them to choose one must do to cross off their list for the day! 
  • Follow through. Consistency is key.

By working together to create some loose structure to the day, you’re helping to ensure that your family’s values get attention, but with a collaborative feel. You’re also helping to nurture your child’s executive functioning, the ability to complete tasks from start to finish. 

Do you have a summer schedule? How do you ensure your kids stay active? Share with our readers on social media in order to help us all learn from each other! 

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Rhododendron Readers

According to my fancy schmancy plant identifier app, a rhododendron is hard to care for. It needs the perfect combination of essential nutrients, soil, sunlight, and water. It actually says, “is more suitable for gardening experience who are ready to take on the challenge.” Hence my surprise when this beauty blossomed in my woods. 

The app gives specific instructions regarding soil conditions and ideal water conditions. It’s susceptible to “sooty mold” and “powdery mildew.” 

So how do you explain the beautiful, vibrant blooms on this plant in the middle of the woods? I mean, I am not a master gardener, but I know that leaves are a good thing and this rhododendron has none. 

The point is that sometimes conditions don’t have to be perfect to still cultivate growth. 

As it is with raising real readers. 

I have worked with students that have shelves full of books, score well on tests, and educated two-parent households who do not like to read or choose to read. 

I have worked with students who beg their parents to take them to the library, work hard to only score poorly, and who L-O-V-E to read. 

While studies consistently show us that kids with access to books, especially ones they choose, significantly increase their chances at becoming proficient readers, there are those situations, much like my rhododendron, where the conditions are less than ideal, but readers bloom regardless. 

Forget to read to your child during some critical years? 

Worried that the inconsistent schooling environment over the last few years has stunted your child’s reading progress?

Feel like a reading disability means your child won’t want read as an adult? 

Readers, like this rhododendron, are resilient. Sometimes unpredictable. But should never be discounted. It’s never too late to bloom and defy the odds. 

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A Reading Field of Dreams

I’m not a baseball fan. But there’s something about a good baseball movie that gets me every time. Like, in Field of Dreams when the whisper comes from the cornfield, “If you build it, they will come.” 

Readers, I had a Field of Dreams moment.

Let me back up. 

My 11- and 13-year old read most days. Sometimes it’s for two minutes, sometimes it’s for an hour. Sometimes it’s independent. Sometimes it’s with me. My husband started reading nightly before bed a few years ago as a way to help shut down his overactive brain before attempting a good night’s rest. But…

They’ve never read independently all at the same time. 

Without a suggestion. Without being asked. Without so much of a hint. 

Until this past weekend. 

I snuck a picture from my corner to capture this moment. 

If you’ve never had a moment like this or want more moments like this, I’ll let you in on a secret. 

We built a field for it and trusted the team would eventually show up to play. 

Here are the blueprints for a field of your own: 

  1. Make time for nothing. On this particular rainy day, we had nothing planned from 1:00 on. 
  2. Set the stage. It was a really chilly day for May, so my husband lit a fire in the fireplace. Important: fires are not necessary. We have them like 4 times a year. But it was super cozy and probably helped draw everyone in.
  3. Cultivate calm. The dog was napping. The tv was off. Phones were silenced. And ¾ of us *might have already been in our pajamas. 
  4. Keep books handy.  I was already reading and my husband grabbed his book too. My son sauntered in and picked up his. Then my daughter joined in a few minutes later. Key: the books were already on the coffee table in the living room. 
  5. Relax. As much as my brain wanted to scream, “Oh my! This is REALLY happening! We’re all reading independently at the same time. In the same room” I refrained. I played it cool. So should you. Your goal is to keep the mojo going.  

We read like this for about 20 minutes. I’m not sure it will ever happen again. But one afternoon, we were all playing ball at the same time, on the same field. It might take awhile. You might feel failure. But keep building. They WILL come. And if they have a good time, they’ll come back for more. 

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Book Review: Starfish

Title: Starfish

Author: Lisa Fipps

Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021

“Mom, I absolutely know this is the best book I’ve ever read. Let’s read it sloooooow so it lasts longer.”

When your daughter loves a book this much, it’s pretty much mandatory that you interview her and capture the moment. What I wasn’t expecting was for Miss E to then write her own questions to interview me. And, um, well….they were better than my questions. See for yourself.

R: You’ve said this is your favorite book of all time. What makes it so special?

E: It makes you look at the world from a new perspective. You don’t ever really know what is happening at home with other people. 

R: You also said everyone, even adults, should read this book. What do you think would happen if that wish came true?

E: Everyone would be able to put themselves in the shoes of Ellie and others that might be different then they are. People would be kinder and realize just because someone is different than you are, doesn’t mean they should be treated differently. 

R: Lately, your favorite books have been novels in verse. Why do you keep coming back for more?

E: When I browse through certain books I think about how long it will take me to read them. But when I see a novel written in verse I think about how much I’m going to enjoy it, not how long it will take me to read it. 

R: If you could ask a character in Starfish a question, who would it be and what would you ask?

E: I would ask Ellie if her mother changed her ways after the last session with Doc. 

E: How do you think Catalina’s family helped Ellie?

R: Catalina’s family provided a second family for her. She was comfortable in her own skin and saw examples of unconditional love at their house. 

E: What was your favorite part in the book?

R: I loved it when Mrs. Boardman asked Ellie to share her favorite quote from the book she read. Ellie shared one from Song for a Whale: “The whale didn’t need to be fixed. He was the whale who sang his own song.” (p. 184). I think it’s a reminder to live life the way YOU want, not compare yourself to others and their expectations. 

E: How would you deal with Ellie’s mom if you were Ellie?

R: I think, with the help of Doc, Ellie handled her mom- perfectly by the end of the book. I’m not sure Ellie would have been able to do that if her dad hadn’t brought her to Doc. I’d like to think I could have been brave like her. Ellie is one of my new heroes. 

Have we convinced you yet to give this book a try? We certainly hope so! Let us know! And we’d love to read an interview of your own!

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We Need Diverse Books

When it comes to youth literature, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone nowadays who would say it’s a bad thing to have more books featuring diversity and/or diverse characters. Just take a look at some of the major movements that are currently taking the publishing industry by storm. I’m sure many of you have heard of either #ownvoices or “We Need Diverse Books,” just two examples of recent literary movements. As the great educator Rudine Sims Bishop put it, books are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Not only do diverse books allow kids to see themselves reflected in the characters and stories they read, but they also serve as a window readers can look through to view life from a different perspective, or as a door for kids to use to step into experiences unlike those they’ve had and envision themselves in someone else’s shoes.

But it’s not enough to check an item off a list and confirm that a specific number or proportion of books meet certain “diverse” criteria, or even to try and assign specific qualities to define diversity. If we want our kids to become real readers, we need to work to get great books that they want to read into their hands. And this involves having a better understanding of the different ways diversity presents itself in books, especially those for younger readers.

 So you want get some books with diversity into your kids’ hands. FANTASTIC! But where do you start? Well, the most common type, and probably the kind of book that most people first think of when it comes to books with diverse characters, are often referred to as “issue books.” Typically found more in realistic fiction, these are stories where the character’s diversity plays a central role to the plot. For example, the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft (the first graphic novel to ever win the Newberry Award btw!) is a story about Jordan, a 7th grader, as he starts his first year at a new prestigious school where he is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. Or Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, a story of the self-discovery and growth of a Black and transgender teen named Felix. Issue books also can take the form of historical fiction books, such as Ground Zero by Alan Gratz (reviewed earlier on this blog, be sure to check it out here!). There are many examples of issue books that can be found online and they are amazing ways for kids to learn about perspectives different from their own. They also hopefully provide a chance for kids to see themselves reflected in characters on the page. These stories can often be heavy and emotionally draining, though, and kids sometimes just want to read things that are fun and adventurous.

You probably don’t know me, but I am a huge fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres. My discovery of these speculative fiction genres at an early age understandably played an enormous role in turning me into the wild reader that I am today. But when it comes to the topics of diversity, these two genres have historically been pretty not-great. That may be an understatement as, for much of literary history, fantasy and sci-fi have often been exclusively written by and for white, cisgender, straight males. But in the last decade or two, that has been changing, and definitely for the better.

Authors are realizing that there aren’t any rules when it comes to building their fictional worlds, and that means they can have any type of character they want in these stories.

Can a boy attending wizarding school who needs to save his world from an evil power begin to fall in love with his best friend, who is also a boy? Absolutely (Carry On by Rainbow Rowell)! Can a Black girl who is next in line to be queen desperately wish to go off on a forbidden monster hunting adventure with her brother? Of course (A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong)!

This brings me to the second type of diverse storytelling, “incidental diversity.” Incidental diversity is when you have diversity in the cast of characters, but it is something that is only mentioned or secondary to the main, overarching plot. There are many realistic-fiction books that fall into this category, like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series by Jenny Han, a high school romance story about a girl who is Korean-American. You can also see why this is a special place for sci-fi and fantasy to really shine! So if you have kids who love escaping into adventures, I’ve got some great recommendations for you at the end of this post.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!! Not only can sci-fi and fantasy stories have great diverse characters, but they can also have diverse settings as well. Ever notice how a lot of fantasy stories are set in medieval, European-type settings (Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, basically every popular fantasy world…)? Well, there are actually a lot of books that are set outside of that stereotype and use other cultures and histories to provide framework for the fictional worldbuilding. The first story I read with a world like that is called Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, which is a YA fantasy story set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world. I couldn’t believe how much of a breath of fresh air the setting was and how much of an impact a seemingly small shift like that had on a story. And it’s not limited to the fantasy genre—Warcross by Marie Lu is a YA high-tech sci-fi story that takes place in futuristic Japan. It’s pretty neat what authors have been able to come up when they harness the full potential of the fantasy and sci-fi genres!

All of this is to say that diverse books are amazing.

And while there are many fantastic diverse books out there that are educational and conscience-expanding, we also want kids to read things that they devour and that will foster a passion for reading to last them well beyond their childhood.

I’m here to say that you can have the best of both worlds, and if your kids love sci-fi and fantasy as much as I did growing up, there are lots of incredible options out there, and many more to be published in the coming years. I want you, as parents, grandparents, and caregivers, to know that there is the perfect book out there for your kids—ones they can fall in love with, ones with characters who look or act or feel like them, and even ones that can take them on adventures, all while also providing literary diversity. If you or your kids ever feel stuck in finding a book, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school or local public librarian for some recommendations! Learning how to help people find the right books has been one of the most fulfilling and exciting parts of my library school education, and I am sure there are lots of librarians out there like me. You can also reach out to me directly, and I would be more than happy to help you out as well! I’ll leave my contact info in the bio below (I can even help you, as adults, find your next great read if you are interested).

Here are some recommendations for the best books I have read over the last couple years which fall into my favorite genres of sci-fi and fantasy and have components of diversity to them:

Middle Grade

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat – A retelling of the Les Mis story, but set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world. Pong is an escaped prisoner who must decide whether his own freedom is worth fighting for the equality of the people in his corrupt city.

A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong – Rowan is next in line to be queen, but all she wants to do is to trade places with her twin brother, Rhydd, who is the next in line to be the Royal Monster Hunter. When Rowan sets off on an expressly forbidden monster hunt on her own, she sets off a chain of events that shakes the very foundation of their kingdom.

­Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier – A historical-fantasy story about an orphaned Jewish girl who is raised as a child chimney sweep. When a mysterious creature rescues her from her dangerous job, Nan realizes she might just be able to change her corner of the world for the better with the help of her new friend and “monster”.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – Luna has been raised by a witch named Xan her whole life, but when she suddenly gains magical powers as she approaches her 13th birthday, the local village feels threatened by their existence. In order to protect the world she loves, Luna must figure out who she is and her connection to the villagers before it’s too late.

Young Adult

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn – 16-year-old Bree stumbles into a secret order founded by the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur while taking early college courses on UNC campus. As she fights to keep her own unique magical abilities hidden from them, she must also fight the systemic racism that is ingrained in the roots of both UNC and this top secret order.

Strange the Dreamer ­by Laini Taylor – Set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world, orphan and junior librarian Lazlo has been obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep ever since he was little. When he discovers that it is far more real than anyone could have imagined, he jumps at the chance of a lifetime to not only visit, but to help rescue the city from catastrophe.

The Beast Player by Uehashi Nahoko – Set in an ancient Japanese inspired fantasy world, Elin escapes to a mountain town when her mother is sentenced to death when the magical creatures she cares for a mysteriously killed. As Ellin grows up, she realizes that her love and special connection to the magical beasts of the kingdom is so unique that she is soon thrust into the center of a hostile political spotlight and only she can prevent or send the kingdom into war. 

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – Simon Snow is in his final year at Watford magical school, and he has to simultaneously grapple with his complicated feelings about his roommate, Baz, while also saving his universe from ruin by a magical entity called the Insidious Humdrum.

Warcross by Marie Lu – Centered around a futuristic Tokyo, Emika tries to make a quick buck by illegally hacking into the opening game of the World Championship of Warcross, a virtual reality platform and game. When she gets caught, she is shocked to be contacted by the creator of Warcross, and is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to use her skills as a hacker to help spy from the inside of the Warcross tournament as a player, launching her into a world of fame and fortune she has only ever dreamed of.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland – Set in alternate reality Civil-War Era America, Jane is training to be an Attendant, a personal body guard of wealthy white people, protecting them from the zombies that have started rising from the dead two years after the start of the Civil War. It’s the best position a Black girl like Jane can ever hope to achieve, but when she uncovers a conspiracy threatening to wipe out all of humanity, she has to fight for her life against some powerful enemies, the undead being the least of her

About the Author: Zach Reynolds is an almost-librarian and is set to graduate with his master’s degree in library and information science in May. With specializations in both youth and adult services, he is planning to work for a public library in the greater-Indianapolis area in the near future. He currently lives with his wife, Rachel, and his mini-dachshund, Brownie, just north of Indianapolis, and shockingly spends much of his free-time reading books for people of all ages. If you have any questions, or want any book recommendations, you can contact him by email at mrzachthelibrarian@gmail.com or follow him on GoodReads at https://www.goodreads.com/zmreynol

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Book Review: Ground Zero

Title: Ground Zero

Author: Alan Gratz

Publisher: Scholastic, 2021

ISBN # 978-1-338-24575-2

This is just so much more than a book about the events that took place on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan, so don’t judge this book by it’s cover. Told in alternating first person, Brandon is a 4th grader living in Brooklyn who heads to the North Tower of the World Trade Center with his father on that fateful morning and Reshmina is a 4th grader living in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2019. In typical Alan Gratz style, the characters do connect, in perhaps a bit more predictable way than in my favorite Gratz novel, Refugee. 

I’ll admit, this is the first historical fiction book I’ve read of which the event took place when I was an adult. (I was a first year teacher, with a class of 32 confused 4th graders who were looking at their very confused 22-year old teacher for answers.) In Gratz’s extensive Author’s Note, he shared he was an 8th grade teacher on 9/11 and he was just recently able to process the event well enough to be able to write about it. I think this is an important aspect to share with kids. It might be challenging for parents and teachers to read this book with kids because of the memories associated with that September day. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from this book isn’t the in-depth history lesson on 9/11 it provides for elementary and middle grade readers, but the soul-searching and heart-wrenching day spent with Reshmina.As she processes the end of childhood with her twin brother (Alan Gratz, I see what you did there…twin towers in NYC, twin kids in Afghanistan) and provides an American soldier with an inside look into her world, the reader is left questioning America’s role in Afghanistan (or any country, for that matter). I have watched many fourth grade kids over the year come to terms with America’s past decisions. Reshmina’s character is perhaps one of the most important kids can encounter because she represents the consequences of America’s current diplomatic strategy. It would make for incredible discussion- at home, among peers, or in a classroom mock debate. 

After reading a particularly heavy chapter from Brandon’s perspective, as he attempts to escape the North Tower, Reshmina provides a different perspective, when she tells Taz, an American soldier,

“Lost your house and everything in it? Here’s 4,724 American dollars. Lose a goat? Our sincerest apologies, and here is 106 dollars. Lose a daughter? Here’s $1,143 dollars. Not as much for a son, of course, because girls are not worth as much in Afghanistan.” (p. 298)

Ground zero by alan gratz

Of note, clearly this book contains violence and harrowing images. Brandon watches bodies fall from skyscrapers. Reshmina and her family are caught in gun battles between the U.S. and Taliban fighters. You know your child- if this is too much, you may hold off. However, it is clear Gratz is not writing this book for guts and glory and I didn’t find the story lines to contain “extra” violence to hook the reader. These stories are perilous enough. 

This book has a 3.57/5 star review on Goodreads and a 5/5 star review on Amazon. I gave it a 4 star review. I thought there were two cringy (to quote my kids) moments, but I won’t reveal them in case they don’t bother you! 

Other books by Alan Gratz: 

Works Cited:

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021.

Gratz, Alan. Refugee. Scholastic, 2017.

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Book Review: Echo Mountain

Title: Echo Mountain

Author: Lauren Wolk

Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN #: 9780525555568

Ellie (age 12) and her family, like millions of other Americans during the Great Depression, have drastically reinvented themselves. Father has given up his business as a tailor, Mother is no longer a music teacher, and kids Esther, Ellie, and Sam are adapting to life on Echo Mountain in rural Maine. The new lifestyle demands tremendous work for survival and the family discovers some members are more suited for it than others. While Ellie navigates her growing up years, she is fiercely determined to help those around her- whether she knows them or not. She learns to trust her instincts, find ways to learn what she doesn’t know, and love home and family deeply along the way. 

This book is fast-paced and while long (356 pages), great for those that like shorter chapters that frequently end in a cliffhanger! Ideal for readers in 4th-7th grade. 

Dog lovers, rejoice! Not only is this novel perfect for middle grade fans of nature, survival, and the great outdoors, there are more than a few dogs ready to steal hearts at your fingertips. 

With 6 (!) starred-reviews (copied below from Amazon), this book will not disappoint and would make for a great family read aloud (or family read along via audiobook on a road trip). With a 4.36/5 star review on Goodreads and 4 out of 5 stars from us, we predict this book will become a classic. 

★ “Wolk’s poetic prose and enticing foreshadowing warrant savoring as they carry the reader through the narrative, which gracefully unfolds over brief, steadily paced chapters. Historical fiction at its finest.” –The Horn Book, starred review

★ “Complex and fiercely loving, Ellie is a girl any reader would be proud to have as a friend…. Woven with music, puppies, and healing, Wolk’s beautiful storytelling turns this historical tale of family and survival into a captivating saga.” –Booklist, starred review

★ “[A] magnificently related story of the wide arc of responsibility, acceptance, and, ultimately, connectedness…. A luscious, shivery delight.” –Kirkus, starred review

★ “[An] exquisitely layered historical…. A powerful, well-paced portrait of interconnectedness, work and learning, and strength in a time of crisis.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review

★ “In this complex, memorable novel, Wolk explores themes of social responsibility, modern versus traditional medicine, biological versus chosen family and more.” –BookPage, starred review

★ “Wolk again spins a fascinating historical fiction novel with strong female characters. Her short chapters are infused with adventure and mystery, frequently end on cliff-hangers, and include abundant dialogue that will propel readers through this novel they will find hard to put down.” –SLC, starred review 

Wolk, Lauren. Beyond the Bright Sea. Puffin Books, 2018.

Wolk, Lauren. Echo Mountain. Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020. Wolk, Lauren.

Wolf Hollow. Puffin Books, 2018.

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Book Review: Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World

Title: Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World

Author: Jacqueline Davies

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021

ISBN #- 978-0-358-10631-9

Hop on over, Frog and Toad. Move to the side, Elephant and Piggie.  Fly to the next branch, friends from Owl Diaries. Make way for two new friends, Sydney & Taylor!

“Excuse me,” said Taylor. He was shy around strangers. “I hate to bother you, but well, I’m note quite sure how to do this.” 

“What are you trying to do?” asked one of the frogs. She was shiny, and green, with eyes the size of marbles. 

“Hunt!” said Taylor proudly. 

“Hunt what?” asked another frog. 

“Well…you,” said Taylor, who was a very honest hedgehog. 

The frogs began to laugh. One of them laughed so hard he fell off his rock. 

(p. 44-47)

Sydney, a brave(ish) skunk, and Taylor, a fun-loving hedgehog, decide to hit the road and see the whole wide world. Which means…leaving the burrow they live in in under Miss Nancy’s potting shed! They spend much of their lives feeling warm and content, but begin to develop a bit of an itch to explore the “wide, wide world” (as documented on the map in their burrow). 

The look of contentment, after a long day of exploring the whole wide world.

Reminiscent of Melanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel with all the page-turning qualities of Mo Willems’ beloved characters, this new series is sure to be a big hit with families, pre-schools, and primary grades in schools everywhere. 

For children ready to graduate to chapter books, readers will feel successful with the short chapters (3-5 pages) with large font. As early readers navigate the way the setting can influence the plot, encourage them to use the map found in the front.

Just for fun: 

  •  A “cut-away” is a graphic feature that shows a “slice” of an item not usually able to be seen. Make sure you point out the cut-away of Sydney & Taylor’s underground burrow before the first chapter! 
  • Miss Nancy is featured on several pages. What do you notice about how the illustrator drew her? I wonder if we’ll see her face in Sydney & Taylor Take a Flying Leap?
  • Make tuna fish sandwiches (a favorite of Sydney and Taylor) and enjoy a picnic in your own “wide, wide world.” 
  • As your child grows, so should his/her emotional vocabulary. Revisit each chapter and use specific words to describe the characters’ feelings. For example, in Chapter 3, the characters are overwhelmed, nervous, but also hopeful. 
  • Find more information (books, websites, pet stores) about hedgehogs. I love the illustration on p. 69 when Sydney curls up in a ball!
  • At 80 pages, your child can reread to practice reading with expression as the characters become more familiar. 
  • Skunks can have a bad reputation, but use Taylor as an excuse to learn more! We even have a skunk rescue near our house. She attends many local events and brings her skunks (even an albino one) with her for people to pet! 

This book has a 4.10/5 stars on Goodreads and 4.5 stars/5 on Amazon. 

★ “With a nod to The Wind in the Willows… Davies sends an odd-couple pair of animal burrow mates out to explore the “whole wide world.”—Booklist, STARRED review

Davies, Jacqueline. Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

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Fighting Words, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: Fighting Words

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN#: 978-1-9848-1568-2

I don’t think I’ve ever naturally  categorized my thoughts about a book into a Top 10 list before, but Fighting Words, a 2021 Newbery Honor, lends itself to a list. 

Top 10 List of Things to Know About Fighting Words BEFORE Your Child Dives In

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

  1. Della, the 10-year old main character, is a nickname for Delicious. Her 16-year old’s sister’s name is Suki. Neither know where their names come from. Neither know who their fathers are. 
  2. Their mother is incarcerated for blowing up a motel room. Della and Suki were inside, while she was cooking meth in the bathroom. She is in a Kansas prison, while the girls live in Tennessee.
  3. The girls have just been placed with Francine, a foster care provider, following the arrest of Clifton, the man they have lived with since their mother was incarcerated. 
  4. Clifton is arrested for sexually molesting Della one time, after Suki takes a photo for evidence. 
  5. Clifton has been molesting Suki for years. 
  6. Suki attempts suicide with a knife and Della witnesses it. Suki spends weeks in a psychiatric hospital and improves. 
  7. Della likes to cuss. It allows her to release her anger. The cuss words are replaced with the word “snow.” For example, Della might call someone an asshole in real life, but in the book, she calls him a “snowman.” 
  8. This book also deals with consent in the school setting as well. Trevor, a classmate of Della’s, pinches girls in the back where their bras would be, should they be wearing one. As Della learns about consent in therapy, she teaches the girls in her class (and the staff at the school) that Trevor has no right to touch them without permission. 
  9. Suki and Della get tattoos (yes, real tattoos) to symbolize their journey of growth and healing. 
  10. The supporting characters in this book are genuine, authentic, and are the people that give hope for healing: Suki’s boss/Della’s basketball mentor at the Y, Maybelline (the deli worker), Teena (neighbor), therapist, and most importantly, Francine, the foster parent.  
  11. (A bonus!) It does have a realistic, yet positive, ending for these two sisters. 

Let me say that this book is extremely important. It will hopefully help those that have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, heal and learn. It may help others recognize the importance (and difficulty) of reporting abuse. It may be helpful to those living in foster homes. It may help others who have experienced or witnessed attempts at suicide and the aftermath it leaves behind. 

However, a parent or caregiver should be aware of the issues in this book. It would be best to read it together, and that’s IF you feel your child can handle it. While the recommendations for this book are for 10-14, I noticed on Goodreads that the recommendation in the U.K. is for 12 and up. While we know that there are many (too many) 10-year old Dellas in the world, this book is a LOT to handle for many middle grade readers, especially if read independently. 

Here, author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley shares her thoughts on why this book is appropriate for even 10-year olds.

“This is to remind me of the best day of my life.”

She looks down at me. For a wonder, she smiles back. “When was that?” she asks.

“Tomorrow,” I say.” (p. 259)

Fighting words, kimberly brubaker bradley (p. 259)

While I give this book a 5/5, something to note is the 4.73/5 rating on Goodreads. With 3,445 raters, that might be the highest rated book I’ve read in a long time. It has 7 starred reviews. Wowzas!

“Della’s matter-of-fact narration manages to be as funny and charming as it is devastatingly sad. . . . This is a novel about trauma and the scars it leaves on bodies, minds and hearts. But more than that, it’s a book about resilience, strength and healing.” New York Times Book Review

Braden, Ann. The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Sky Pony, 2018Bradley,

Kimberly Brubaker. Fighting Words. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020

DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. Candlewick, 2015. 

DiCamillo, Kate. Raymie Nightingale Trilogy. Candlewick, 2019.

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Book Review: A Wish in the Dark, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: A Wish in the Dark

Author: Christina Soontornvat

Publisher: Candlewick, 2020

ISBN#978-1-5362-0494-0

In Chattana, the Governor rules. After a devastating fire that destroyed the village, the Governor appeared, bringing with him a new way to create light and all was good again. However, power can illuminate divisions and further separate those that have from the have not. While the three main characters Pong, Somkit, and Nok first cross paths in a prison at age 10, it’s the return of their forces 4 years later (and the experiences they’ve had while apart) that allow Chattana to reconsider power and how to yield it. 

“You can’t run away from darkness,” Pong whispered. “It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” p. 324

This book has a bit something for every middle grade reader (recommended reading age is 8-12 or grades 3-7), which is why I think it makes for an ideal read aloud, either at home on the couch with the whole family or in a classroom full of students. Pong (male prison inmate, mother was arrested, but died at childbirth) and Nok (female, daughter of prison warden) take turns telling the story,  This would also be a high interest read for an older student reading below grade level. 

Try this checklist to see if it meets the criteria for YOUR readers!

  • Male and female characters who are brave, yet vulnerable, with a variety of skill sets
  • Fantasy setting (with connections to Thai culture), but with realistic elements of today’s society
  • Plot twists told through revealing of new information previously unknown to the characters that change their trajectory (and your opinion of them)
  • Social justice issues, specifically relating to power and poverty
  • Survival story
  • Rule followers
  • Rule breakers
  • Martial Arts
  • Orphans
  • Humor
  • Police chase
  • Elements of light vs. dark/good vs. evil
  • Buddhist monks
  • Issues surrounding homelessness and food insecurity
  • Wise sages everyone can learn from
  • Prison break
  • Kids with tattoos
  • Fans of Les Mis
  • Chapter books with wide margins, making for less text per page (can be less overwhelming for many middle grade readers, despite the length of 375 pages)

This was an easy 5/5 for me on Goodreads, where the book has a 4.43 star rating. It has a 4.7/5 rating on Amazon. And while readers give it high praises, clearly the American Library Association loved it when it was named a 2021 Newbery Honor.

“It’s a novel—a stand- alone, no less—that seems to have it all: a sympathetic hero, a colorful setting, humor, heart, philosophy, and an epic conflict that relates the complexity and humanity of social justice without heavy-handed storytelling. Soontornvat deftly blends it all together, salting the tale with a dash of magic that enhances the underlying emotions in this masterfully paced adventure. An important book that not only shines a light but also shows young readers how to shine their own. Luminous.”

Booklist, (starred review

Check out this book trailer from the publisher to further tempt your readers!

Soontornvat, Christina. A Wish in the Dark. Candlewick, 2020.

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