A Jewish look at Thanksgiving

My third grader came home yesterday talking about a book that her teacher was reading aloud to the class – Molly’s Pilgrim. Since Thanksgiving is two days away, it is good to be taking a look at different perspective when it comes to this holiday. I’m thrilled that her teacher shared this book with their class, especially with all that is currently going on in the world in terms of refugees.

mollys pilgrim coverMolly’s Pilgrim is about a young girl in the early 1900s whose family moved to America from Russia due to religious persecution. After a brief time living in New York City, her family moved to Winter Hill, MA where she finds herself sticking out as the lone Jew in her third grade class. Because she looks different and talks with an accent, she is often the subject of ridicule from her classmates.

As November rolls around, her class begins to read about Thanksgiving. Molly has never heard of the holiday, which of course prompts her classmates to laugh at her foreign ways. The subject came up, however, because her teacher is having them read the story of Thanksgiving, so Molly slowly begins to understand what Thanksgiving is all about.

Rather than focusing on the traditional pumpkins, turkeys and fall symbols often associated with Thanksgiving, her teacher gives the students an assignment to make Pilgrims and Indians for a class display. When Molly gets home and tries to explain the project to her mother, she has to find a way to explain Pilgrims to her as well, since Molly’s mother’s English is quite minimal.

“Pilgrims came to this country from the other side,” I said.
“Like us,” Mama said.
That was true. “They came for religious freedom,” I added. “They came so they could worship God as they pleased.”
Mama’s eyes lit up. She seemed to understand.

The reason that Mama could understand is that the early Pilgrims were just like Molly’s family – they had come to America to escape religious persecution. Mama makes a clothespin doll for Molly, but rather than looking like a traditional Pilgrim, Molly’s doll looks like someone of Russian or Polish descent. When Molly goes to class, this prompts taunts and jeers from her classmates, but Molly explained why her mother did it that way and her teacher agrees that the doll is a Pilgrim, just a modern one.

Molly’s teacher proceeds to explain to the class that the initial Thanksgiving feast was actually based on the Jewish holiday Sukkot that the Pilgrims had read about in the Bible.

Molly’s teacher thinks that her doll is wonderful and displays it on her desk to remind everyone that “Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

I managed to read a copy of this today and thought is was fabulous. I’m always impressed to find bits of Jewish history find their way into the classroom, especially since my daughter is the token Jew in her class (although there are 3 Jewish third graders at her school). It is also incredibly timely given the Syrian refugee issue going on right now across the world. In today’s day and age, the fact that there continues to be religious persecution requiring people to flee their homeland is heart-wrenching.

While the book comments about how the Thanksgiving feast was modeled on Sukkot, we were just discussing in Hebrew school this past weekend about the similarities between Thanksgiving and Passover. This year for Thanksgiving, my family will be following a Thanksgiving seder which will include telling the story of the Pilgrims and why they came to America. I love the idea of making this holiday a bit more meaningful and a reminder of all that we have to be thankful for.

A book lover’s adventure

J has been on a great kick of reading a slightly wider variety of books these days. Not that she doesn’t still love her fairy tale themed stories, but we are definitely taking a look at other options. Since she is truly a mini-me, she has the annoying habit of constantly adding to her to-read list, so it can be hard to keep track of everything. Such a horrible problem to have – just kidding! You simply can’t argue with a child who has a deep and profound love of books. So deep is her love that at a recent fund raiser for her school, we were more than thrilled to win J getting to be “Librarian for the Day.”

One of her recent favorites is “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” by Chris Grabenstein. I read it when it first came out and enjoyed it, but reading it through the eyes of a book loving child made it that much better. What is so fabulous about this book is that it tackles a wide variety of topics through the guise of a treasure hunt in one of the most amazing libraries of all time – if only it was real!

The main premise of the book is that twelve children get to experience a lock-in at their brand-new, local library. The next morning, they are also challenged to find a way out. The main character, Kyle, is an an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. He isn’t much of a student and definitely is not a fan of reading. However, he desperately wants a chance to participate in the lock-in when he discovers that the library was built by his idol, game-maker extraordinaire, Luigi Lemoncello.

At the same time that these kids are learning about classic literature, the dewey decimal system, and utilizing logic skills to solve clues, there is also a great deal being taught about friendship, fair play, and teamwork. There of course is the “bad guy” character who will stop at nothing to win. There are kids who have reasons that they want to win the challenge that have nothing to do with a love of books or games. We also watch as some of the kids decide to join into alliances understanding that collective strengths can work better than relying on individual knowledge at times. In addition to dealing with different characters, the reader also gets the opportunity to help solve some of the clues and encourages new looks at logic puzzles.

I think that this book has a little bit of something for everyone. J specifically felt a kinship with Sierra Russell. Sierra lives for reading and spends the early parts of the book as a loner, but she grows as a person by participating on a team and forging friendships. Reluctant readers will probably identify with Kyle. Through his adventures in the library, Kyle realizes that there are all kinds of books and that the stories in some can be quite exciting and even pose challenges just like his games. As he proceeds through the challenge, he keeps finding books that he should add to his own brand new to-read list. Each of the characters has strengths and weaknesses that make them seem like people you might actually meet in a school.

One of the assignments in J’s class this year is that every week they have to write a letter to a classmate about a book that they are reading. She not only wrote about this book, but has started loaning out the book to her classmates. That’s the power of a good book!


The Peanut-Free Cafe – a book about dealing with school lunch

In our present world of allergies, I’m actually rather surprised that I haven’t seen more book like “The Peanut-Free Cafe.” In this well written book we are presented with two dueling issues that more and more kids in elementary school are having to face – kids that can’t eat peanuts and kids who are incredibly picky.

Simon, the main character of this story, is a picky eater and only eats 4 foods – “bagels, green grapes, purple lollipops, and his favorite – Peanut Butter.” Grant is the new kid at school who has a severe peanut allergy.

When Grant comes to the Nutley school, Principal Filbert was conflicted. She wanted a safe space for Grant, but knew that many of her students brought peanut butter and jelly for lunch every day. The compromise that she came up with was to have a peanut-free table in the lunchroom.

Simon and Grant become fast friends, but at lunchtime Grant sat alone at the peanut-free table. Ms. Filbert talked to some kids to try and find a better solution and they came up with a way to encourage nut-free foods. Kids started to bring in some different lunches, but poor Simon was afraid to try anything new. Now he had found a way so that Grant wouldn’t have to sit alone at lunch, but instead, he found that he was having to sit by himself.

Simon finally relents and begs his mother to pack something else so that he can sit with his friends. He still eats his peanut butter, but saves it for after-school and on weekends.

When I found this book over the summer, I had not yet found out that J’s school had gone completely nut free this year. Now, a few months into the school year, this book truly hits home with our household. Nuts were a healthy way to get protein in my daughter’s diet and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were one of the few things she would actually eat in her lunch and almonds were a staple. I picked up this book at the library again and she agreed this this story is pretty spot on.

We have had to have a number of conversations about why our school has gone nut free. Children can bring nuts for lunch, but then they have to sit at the one table in the lunchroom that allows them. Since J has a number of friends that have allergies, she does understand, but it is still hard to figure out how to send in a healthy lunch with a finicky child.

It is important for kids who don’t have allergies to understand the world of those that do. Grant explains to all of the kids that if he eats “just one peanut or anything made with peanut oil,” he can’t breathe. He shows them his epi-pen to reinforce the fact. People often misuse the word “allergy,” but for so many kids true allergies are a serious issue. “The Peanut Free Cafe” is a great way to explain a difficult situation to young kids.

Halloween Chapter Books

Keeping with my Halloween theme, I wanted to explore books that were not picture books, but that enticed young readers to get into the Halloween spirit. Part of this has to do with the fact that the book club that we have for our third graders attempted to pick a book for this month that had to do with Halloween somehow, so it got me thinking.

1-Recently Updated5The reality is, there are not a great number of books that really showcase Halloween for young readers who are past picture books. Part of this, I believe, has to do with the fact that books stop having particular holiday themes and just try to tell a good story. Except for classic ghost stories, which I will touch on, chapter books that do have a Halloween theme tend to be for much younger readers.

halloween treeOur book club picked Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree for this month’s selection. We are still figuring out the best way to encourage our readers to be enticed by a book club and so we incorporate a movie into the meeting. That can get challenging from time to time. A number of the boys in the group have really been enjoying The Halloween Tree, or so I’ve been told, but J and I really struggled to get through it. This is not the kind of book that a third grader can read on their own, even my advanced reader. Bradbury uses incredibly descriptive language and it can be difficult to follow. I will admit that J and I haven’t finished it, but I’m letting her watch the movie on Friday. The story focuses on 8 twelve-year-old boys who wind up on a journey through time and space learning about the history of Halloween as part of an attempt to save their 9th friend from the Grim Reaper. I love the concept of this book, but even I had a hard time following it. (Lexile 800)

For an easier books to digest that still have Halloween flair, some of the better series have books that touch on the Halloween theme. Here are four examples from popular series:

nate the greatNate the Great and the Halloween Hunt (Lexile 370) – It’s Halloween and Nate’s friend has lost her cat. Nate investigates and experiences lots of Halloween fun from cool costumes to an old house that might be haunted. Nate the Great books have been around for over 30 years and feature quirky characters and fun story lines. This is a great option for this time of year.

magic tree house hollowsThe Magic Treehouse – Haunted Castle on All Hallows Eve (Lexile 390) – Jack and Annie are whisked away to Camelot on All Hallows Eve. While this doesn’t deal specifically with Halloween, it is a mystery that has spooky elements of disappearing characters and menacing ravens. The Magic Tree House books are always a hit.

sleepy hollow sleepoverA-Z Mysteries – Sleepy Hollow Sleepover (Lexile 510) – Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose are spending Halloween in Sleepy Hollow, home of the legendary Headless Horseman. They are going to sleep in an old cabin, take a haunted hayride, and check out the Old Dutch Church. That’s where some people say they’ve spotted the ghostly horseman. But strange things start happening that don’t seem to be part of the planned spooky fun. Is there a real Headless Horseman haunting Sleepy Hollow? These books are a great way to engage readers to look a little more closely at the original Washington Irving story.

trixieRainbow Magic – Trixie the Halloween Fairy (Lexile 700) – I have to admit, I’m a bit shocked by the Lexile of this book. I would have rated it lower, but I guess because this is one of the special editions in the series and it is longer, it got a higher rating. Years ago this was J’s favorite series and she even dressed up as Trixie for Halloween when she was in kindergarten. In this book, it’s Halloween and of course Jack Frost is up to his usual tricks If Rachel and Kirsty can’t find three missing pieces of magical candy, the holiday could be ruined forever! It is a fun way to look at Halloween traditions.

The fun part about Halloween and growing readers is the hope to use the holiday as a way to look at other aspects and times in history.

sleepy graphicAs mentioned, actually reading the Legend of Sleepy Hollow would be a great place to start. There is a graphic novel that was published which looks pretty true to the story and told in an accessible way. But the story is dark and it is aimed at fifth through eighth graders.

what were salem witchAnother interesting take would be to read about the Salem Witch Trials. While we are definitely not ready for The Crucible, I would love it if J were willing to read What Were the Salem Witch Trials? The What Was series is so excellently done that I might even have to buy this book just because I’m fascinated by it.

Hope you have a Happy Halloween!

Halloween Picture Books

Halloween is almost upon us. Costumes are purchased and all of our local schools are gearing up for Fall Fests and Trunk or Treats. J only gets one store-bought costume a year, so she is enjoying making costumes out of things we already have for all of the events that precede Halloween. For Fall Fest she dressed up as a student from Shiz. Shiz is a school from the musical Wicked, and her actual costume is dressing up as Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West). For her friend’s Trunk or Treat she is dressing up as a rock star and being mighty inventive by covering a pair of black tights and a black shirt with silvery duck tape and topping them with a skirt from her last tap recital.

Of course, schools are also incorporating great books and activities into their curriculums to encourage kids during this exciting, candy-filled, holiday. Since this is a book blog (even though you might have figured we disappeared after a tough few months with no posting), we felt that our readers deserved some Halloween titles. Here are a few picture books that we have enjoyed and we will follow up with some books for older readers.


room on the broomRoom on the Broom – We could read this book all year round, and we probably do! It is a great tale of friendship that just happens to feature a witch on her broom. When this witch flies through the air, she keeps losing things from her hair ribbon to her wand. Each item is something that she can’t part with and she lands to find it, only to have it found by an animal. Of course, each animal seems to want to join her and asks if there is room on her broom for them. The animals keep adding up until a frog jumps for joy and breaks the broom in two! Unfortunately for the witch, she lands in a witch eating dragon’s bog who wants to make her supper until her new animal friends find a way to save the day. This book makes me smile every time we read it and the section with the dragon lends itself way to some fun voices. A great addition at Halloween time.

wild thingsWhere the Wild Things Are – I never would have classified this one as a Halloween book, but my daughter’s 4 year old preschool class used it this past week to bring in monsters and dress-up. This was a great way to bring in a classic story, create awesome monster masks out of paper bags, and allow the kids to have a rumpus party. Considering that head-coverings and masks had long freaked out my daughter and now she is running around the house roaring at people, I think the project worked perfectly.

frankensteinFrankenstein: A Monstrous Parody – This book is a really fun parody of the classic Madeline. Instead of telling a story of 12 well behaved girls in two straight lines, this story focuses on 12 ugly monsters in two crooked lines, “the ugliest one was Frankenstein.” My 5 year old absolutely adores Madeline, so this is quite the cute concept as a story for Halloween or year round.

eat booksI want to Eat your Books – This brand new book is about a zombie who terrorizes a school by eating all of their books. It is aimed at the 3-6 year old crowd, which is pretty spot on as my 8 year old was bored by it.She is also mad that someone would not like books. The book is very silly, but told in a fun rhyme it allows kids to recognize the words and repeat the refrain, “I want to eat your books!” The hero of the story stops the zombie from eating the books by finding him a book about brains which completely excites him with its pictures and charts. When a mummy who is unwinding enters the library and starts to destroy the books to fix her bandages, the zombie saves the day by using tape from the first aid kit and then reads the mummy a book. Obviously, I’m a big fan of all books book related, so this was a fun twist on monster stories.

need monsterI Need My Monster – This is a truly funny story about having monsters under your bed. Young Ethan has a monster under his bed, but when he goes to look for him one night, he finds a note instead that tells him that his monster, Gabe, has “gone fishing.” While we usually think that little kids don’t want a monster under their bed, Ethan can’t sleep without his beloved monster and tries to get a substitute. He works his way through a few temps, but none of them will work. Finally Gabe comes back because fishing wasn’t nearly as challenging as trying to frighten Ethan. A wonderful romp with great illustrations.

five pumpkinsPete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins – We have a strong affinity for Pete the Cat in our house. My 5 year old absolutely loves his books, partially because they are often read at her preschool. Last week, she came home and wanted to tell me a five finger tale, but we needed to be in the bathroom to hear it. Turns out it was this story, which she had learned to recite at school, and we needed the bathroom so that she could turn out the lights at a specific point. A great way to practice counting backwards from five and a fun Halloween rhyme.


Bouncing Back from a Bad Mood

Recently I picked up a cute little book called Badger’s Bad Mood at the local library. When I started to write about it for the blog, I realized that it might make more of an impact to be connected with other books about moods and how to deal with them, so a new trip to the library was hatched. Here are a few books that we have found that talk about depression, mood and emotions. What I find impressive is how the books talk about getting out of a funk. They try to point out that it is important to help those around you and to help yourself. Try as we might, there are days when we feel down. I know that my kids have learned from the new movie, Inside Out, that there is nothing wrong with sadness. As my daughters and I agreed, the best memories in the film were those that were created with a mix of sadness and joy.


badger coverIn the book that started me on this thought process, Badger’s Bad Mood, poor Badger has got the blues and no one knows what to do about it. The animals in the forest depend on Badger and look to him as their rock, so they are at a loss when Badger can’t get out of his funk (somewhat like a parent).

Lucky for Badger, his friend Mole sticks it out and just is there for Badger hoping that time will make him feel more like his old self. When that doesn’t work, Mole comes up with another plan. Mole decides to throw an awards ceremony with music and food afterwards. Even Badger seems to come out of his stupor when Mole says, “You’ll have to come, of course. A little bird tells me you may be getting something.”

Mole goes back to his home and creates awards for all of the forest animals and a whole bunch for Badger. Badger makes it to the part and is honored with a wide variety of awards. Badger realizes that Mole thought up the whole thing and is incredibly appreciative. He thinks Mole deserves his own award because sometimes everyone needs to know how much they are loved and appreciated.

This is an important lesson for all of us, parents and children alike. Sometimes we all just need to hear that we are appreciated for what we do – cleaning up a bedroom when no one asked, bringing in your dinner dishes, making a special meal.

VirginiaWolf-Cover-250px1In the beautifully illustrated Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, the book shows both literal and metaphorical realities of depression. One day Vanessa’s sister woke up feeling wolfish. She didn’t want to be around anyone and was bothered by noises that her sister made. “The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.” The person who is depressed often doesn’t realize it, but one person’s depression can impact an entire house. Vanessa tried to cheer Virginia up in many ways. Finally, she was inspired to create a beautiful new world full of a lush magical garden and wide open spaces. Virginia finally started to come out of her shell and see the beauty in the world around her and her wolfish demeanor morphs back to reveal her normal girlish form. Adults know of the true Virginia Wolf who suffered so terribly from depression. This book can touch children and adults in a variety of ways showing the lightness and darkness that are inside of all of us.

pout poutThe Pout-Pout Fish is a well known book about a fish who believes that it is his destiny to spread the “dreary-wearies all over the place.” All of the other sea animals try to convince him to turn his frown upside down. They let him know that they don’t really like being greeted with scowls and would rather that he radiate a little joy and hope. He always responds that he has no choice because he is a pout-pout fish. One day a new fish swims in, plants a kiss on his face and swims away. Mr. Pout-pout realizes that he had it all wrong. He isn’t a pouting fish, but a kissing fish who spreads cheery-cheeries all over the place. The book is silly, but it gets the point across beautifully that no one really likes being around someone who is sad all the time and that we need to find the positives in the world around us and in ourselves.

bucketAnother book that is great for talking about how our actions impact those around us is the marvelous book, How Full is Your Bucket?  We first heard of this book when J entered kindergarten and her class had a bucket to fill instead of each child being somewhere on the red light/green light spectrum. This book explains that we all have invisible buckets of water over our heads. When people are mean to us, or when we are mean to others, our buckets can empty a little. But when we are kind to others or when others are kind to us, our buckets get filled. Young Felix learns about this from his grandfather when he is unkind to his little sister. He wakes up the next morning with an actual bucket over his head and sees how it gets filled and emptied throughout the day. This is a nicely illustrated way to show how your actions have a bigger impact then you might think and has been used wonderfully as a teaching tool for younger elementary school classes.

Alexander-and-the-Terrible-Horrible-No-Good-Very-Bad-DayYou can’t talk about bad moods without talking about the perennially classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. As the book starts out, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”  This book might seem like a child whining and repeatedly threatening to move to Australia, but then again, it is and there is a time and a place for that. The book is written in a way that totally works for kids and many often clamor for it to be read over and over again. Everything is a run-on sentence and little issues feel more like huge events that will make this “the worst day of my entire life.” That’s a phrase that my kids like to say. We are constantly vacillating between the worst day and the best day, in a matter of 10 minutes! Everyone can commiserate with Alexander and realize that their problems aren’t so very bad after all and tomorrow is always another day.

yesterdayFinally, I came across the book Yesterday I had the Blues. Yesterday one boy had the blues and had them bad–not just the ordinary blues, the “deep down in my shoes” blues, the “go away Mr. Sun quit smilin’ at me” blues. But today he’s traded in those blues for greens, the “runnin’ my hands along the hedges” greens, the kind of greens that make him want to be Somebody. This book does a marvelous job looking at the emotions we face on a day to day basis and also highlights that our family members go through different emotions as well. His dad has they grays and his ballet happy sister has the pinks. Gram has the yellows, which seem like a golden ray of sunshine to me (especially when compared to Mama’s reds on the next page). There are a rainbow of emotions out there that we have to deal with on a daily basis and this book does a great job of showing a wide variety of them.

It is hard to teach children about emotions. I’ve loved being able to have conversations about them due to the movie Inside Out, but these books are another great resource for us.

Reading and re-reading The Land of Stories

A few years ago I started hearing about the book The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer. The book sounded perfect for me – fairy tales, adventure, and strong young characters. I was quickly sucked into the story and when J heard me listening to the audiobook version of book 2, she heard the names of some princesses that she recognized and got curious. Since then, she has been sucked into the stories herself and has read and listened to them all. We also just received our copy of the 4th book in the series which came out this week, but she is rereading the first three before jumping into book 4.

book blog7Kids have a tendency to read books more than once and watch movies over and over. There is something comforting in repetition. I asked J about this once and here is what she said: “A good story never gets old, but the first time you read it is always the best. Why? Because when you read it for the first time it is so new. So many interesting facts pop up that you’ve never heard of before. Books should be interesting. BUT…a good story never gets old. I go back to some because they are so good.”

For us, The Land of Stories series is one of those series that we can read over and over again. Harry Potter is definitely another. For the Land of Stories it has to do with taking something that we are so familiar with (fairy tales) and looking at them in a different light, as if the fairy tale world was simply another dimension that keeps going on even after the stories that we know are over. I will admit that the writing isn’t perfect, but the stories are fun and it is entertaining to have adventures with characters you think you knew re-imagined. J and I think that the first two books have been the most compelling because the characters were on a quest, but book 3 being a bit slower hasn’t stopped us from being super excited about book 4.

Book 1 The Wishing Spell is a quest through the world of fairy tales.  Twins Alex and Connor Bailey had lost their father about a year before the story starts. On their 12th birthday their  grandmother gives them a treasured fairy-tale book. Soon they discover that the book is not your average book as it brings them into the realm of fairy tales. Alex and Conner soon discover that the stories they know so well haven’t ended in this magical land—Goldilocks is now a wanted fugitive, Red Riding Hood has her own kingdom, and Queen Cinderella is about to become a mother! To get home they have to complete the wishing spell which requires them to solve riddles to find objects in order to make a spell that will allow them to leave the Land of Stories. They meet favorite characters and have quite the adventure.


In the following books, they continue to have adventures in and out of the fairy tale world, but I don’t want to give away any of the fun details. Book four will apparently lead us through Oz, Neverland, Camelot, Wonderland and Sherwood Forrest.

While these are not the most wonderfully written books, they are wonderfully enchanting and they have definitely captured our attention. J and I were talking about these books in the car the other morning and she said “the reason you love the Land of Stories books is because Chris Colfer comes up with reasons why everything in fairy tales that we know happens.” They are just possible explanations, but they start your mind thinking that there are more to these stories and characters then what we have been shown by Disney.

The books have a lexile level at around 720 and run over 400 pages a piece.

The Lemonade War – A subtle way to teach about conflicts, resolutions, math and business

As an adult who is obsessed with books, I don’t often pay that much attention to how books are categorized by the publishing companies. Young adult books have long been on my radar with no remorse. I will admit, however, that until recently, I hadn’t picked up a ton of middle-grade books and read them unless I was reading them aloud to my daughter or reading them before she had a chance to read them in order to make sure they were okay. When I went to go write this blog post, however, I realized that I couldn’t actually write an educated article without reading the book myself. I was pleasantly shocked at what a well written book it is and the multitude of levels it is written on.

The Lemonade War is the first in a series of books that was written in 2009 and has been highly popular for the upper elementary grades. The School Library Journal summarizes the book as follows: “Evan Treski and his younger sister, Jessie, get along well in many ways. They play together, and their natural talents are complementary. Jessie is a whiz in math and other school subjects, but feelings were her weakest subject. Evan is competent in the social arena, but he is not such a good student. Their relationship changes the summer between Evan’s third and fourth grades, when a letter arrives announcing what the boy sees as total disaster for him. He and his bright, skipping-third-grade sister will be in the same class. Thus begins the Lemonade War over which child can make the most money during the last week before school.”

J picked this book up one day after a long day at tennis camp and finished it in one afternoon. When I asked her specifics, I got some of the following details.

  • The war started because they wanted to decide who could get the most money. They were both going into the same grade because Jessie was skipping 3rd grade. So they are both trying to get $100 and they can get help, like asking friends to sell with them.
  • Jessie is book smart and Evan is people smart.
  • My favorite part was when Jessie saw that a piece of paper with Evan’s writing on it had Megan Moriarty and she realized that Evan liked her.
  • Jessie was going to donate her money to charity. Her friend Megan helped her and they made more than $200. She was going to donate the money to the animal rescue league, but didn’t get to because Evan’s friend Scott had stolen the money.
  • I would have donated to charity but I would also have used some of it to buy myself a book and puzzles.

I realize that these are pretty vague generalizations. J loves to read but she does not like to talk about the books, especially when someone actually asks her a question – unless we have a group of kids over and everyone is answering questions.  I think she is more forthcoming in school, but with me I get minimalistic answers. That was a big reason that I realized that I had to read the book. So here were some of the things that I found when reading the book.

  • The main conflict of the book comes from the fact that while Evan really likes his sister, when he finds that not only is she skipping third grade but that she will be in his class for fourth grade, he gets angry. Jessie is better in school than Evan and he doesn’t want his little sister showing him up in class. Evan doesn’t know how to explain this well to Jessie so instead he just ignores her. Normally the pair enjoy running a lemonade stand together, but because Evan wants to stay away from Jessie, they wind up running two separate stands.
  • The secondary conflict in this story has to do with miscommunications. Evan and Jessie are kids and they are having a hard time telling each other how they are feeling. Evan focuses on his anger about Jessie being in his class rather than admit his fears. Jessie keeps trying to get Evan to play with her and see how much fun she is, but he thinks that she is mocking him. If the two would just talk it out, they could have avoided the war in the first place.
  • Each chapter starts with a definition of a business term in words that make sense for younger kids. That term is also the main focus of that chapter, but it is a great way to teach some new vocabulary. Similarly, there are some great insights into running a business and dealing with people in general. Jessie collects these in her lock box for later use.IMG_9018
  • There are wonderful math problems throughout the book and interesting discussions about how to solve them. It even touches on the notion that different people approach math problems in different ways. It was nice to show kids how the topics that they are learning are relevant in everyday life. IMG_9016
  • Interesting approach to the fact that right around 2nd and 3rd grade there are a ton of social changes in kids. This was highlighted by the fact that Jessie is oblivious to social cues and needs direction from Evan. As much as we like to push our kids and see them excel, this is another reason that pushing gifted kids ahead a year can be detrimental. So much of what they learn in school is also about learning to deal with social situations. Some intellectually gifted children can need additional time developing social skills.

Both J and I really enjoyed this book. It has a lexile level of 630 and is aimed primarily at 2-5th graders. That seems pretty accurate to me. As seen from the different things that J and I took away from the book, kids in different grades will read it in different ways.

Author Jacqueline Davies also wrote a wonderful article for the International Literacy Association that you can read here. It includes some activities for teachers and homeschoolers or really amazing parents.

Regardless of any activities you do with this book, it is definitely one that you and your kids should read.

Opening yourself to new adventures – Because of Winn Dixie

In our attempt to broaden our reading horizons this summer, I have been encouraging J to read from the Battle of the Books list for the upcoming year. She is not allowed to participate yet, but the list of books is amazing and it definitely removes us from our normal comfort zone of witches, wizards, fairy tales and princesses. The first book that we managed to read off of the list was also one that we chose for our Book/Movie club and it was a rousing success.

Our school had already read Kate DiCamillo’s Edward Tulane as a part of the One School, One Book program, so we were accustomed to her writing style. That said, I don’t think either of us were prepared for how much we loved Because of Winn-Dixie.

winn-dixie coverIndia Opal Buloni is a lonely little girl who has just moved to Naomi, Florida with her father, the preacher. Her mother had left them years earlier and her father is often too busy in his role as preacher to perform his role of father. One day Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humor. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. This dog will manage to change her life.

In her loneliness, Opal opens up to Winn-Dixie and gathers up the courage to ask her father about her mother. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie also helps Opal make the friends that she so desperately craves. They are not exactly typical friends for a 10 year old girl, but each one helps her learn something about the world around her and about herself. First there is the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace and whose great-grandfather, Littmus W. Block, invented a candy makes you feel a touch sad. This is to help you understand about how to survive sorrow and the blending of sweetness and sadness in life (think Inside Out).  winn dixie quoteThen they meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and who helps Opal learn not to judge others by what she sees. Finally there is Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar. Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie, or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.

J and I first started reading this book together and it was the kind of book that you start and don’t want to put down. After the first three chapters I did make her go to bed and then the next day she picked the book back up without me and finished it on her own. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more if we had been able to read it together so that I could hear her thoughts as the book went along, but I was amazed by it all on my own. This is one of those magical books where you have no idea what to expect from the story and then it just completely touches your heart.

When I asked J about her favorite part, she told me that it was when they were having a party at the end of the book and Winn-Dixie went missing. She also simply loves using the word “pathological” now because she learned the Winn-Dixie had a pathological fear of thunder storms. I have to admit, the ending of the book when she believed Winn-Dixie was missing was one of my favorite parts as well, but probably because of how much I felt Opal had grown and how she was able to let go.

winn dixie quote 2We had the book/movie club meeting a few weeks ago and I was highly impressed by how well the book had captured everyone’s attention. They had really recalled a number of details and all seemed to enjoy the book. While I have read other books by Kate DiCamillo, this was the first one where I truly understood why people love her so much.

The lexile level for this book is 610 and is aimed at grades 3-5. This is one of those times where I think that the grade level is pretty accurate. Our group read it as they were all finishing 2nd grade. The biggest issue is less about whether they will actually be able to read the book on their own and more about if they are able to comprehend and appreciate the story. A great book of realistic fiction that kids really enjoy.

Separate is Never Equal

Most of us are well versed with the history of school segregation in the American South, but did you know that there was a massive issue in California as well? The issue in California was not with the segregation of African Americans, but rather, with the Hispanic community. When we found the book Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh at the library, it was eye-opening.

separate-is-never-equal-sylvia-mendez-and-her-familys-fight-for-desegragationAlmost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Instead, Sylvia and her siblings had to go to “the Mexican school.” Their school was a clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture. The kids had to eat outside, pestered by the flies from the cows, and there was no playground for them to use.

Her father’s initial course of action was to mobilize the other Hispanics in their community, but the other families didn’t want to rock the boat – they feared that they would lose their jobs if they supported his petition. A truck driver who had heard of their plight encouraged Mr. Mendez to file a lawsuit. Someone had recently done that in San Bernardino to help integrate the public swimming pools and won. Mr. Mendez hired the same lawyer who had won that case and they found other families dealing with segregation throughout Orange County, CA  who were willing to participate.Sylvia3

In 1945 the lawsuit went to court and the dialogue from the trial is horrifying. Duncan Tonatiuh actually interviewed Sylvia Mendez and took parts of the court scenes from actual transcripts of the trial. The superintendents at the time claimed that they were separating the Mexican children so that they could work on their English more, but they never tested their abilities. It was also claimed that they “need to learn cleanliness of mind, manner, and dress. They are not learning that at home.” The superintendent at the time honestly felt that white students were superior to Mexicans in personal hygiene, scholastic ability, economic outlook, clothing and ability to take part in the activities of the school. When children came forward to testify, they showed how senseless his comments had been.

RGB_SylviaMendez_INT_32largeIt took a year for the ruling, but the judge ruled in favor of the Mendez family. Of course, the School Board appealed, but since it had moved to state court, more organizations joined in the battle – the NAACP, Japanese Citizens League, American Jewish Congress and others. Sylvia’s mother puts it perfectly by saying, “when you fight for justice, others will follow.”

In April, 1947, the judges of the Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the Mendez family.

Sylvia found it difficult at the integrated school in Westminster, but she remembered how they fought to have her attend the school and to have equal opportunities. She ignored the whispers and pointed fingers and held her head high, “and by the end of the year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds.”

This book is so vitally important for children and adults and it is written in a truly accessible manner. Everyone needs to understand that when we talk about integration, it wasn’t just for African-Americans in the 1960s. The Mendez trial paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Freedom is something that we will continue to fight for, be it religious, social, political, racial or gender (or many other things). It is due to the fights and struggles that so many people have gone through in years gone by that allow us to have the freedoms we take for granted today. This book is wonderfully written about a topic you simply don’t hear a lot about.

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