Sunday, April 5, 2015

Searching for Sarah Rector


Bolden, Tonya. Searching for Sarah Rector. Abrams, 2014. 80pp. Lexile 1050.

In my experience, many kids care about the topic  of money, making a book about the once-wealthiest black girl in America inherently interesting to them.  Sarah Rector was the descendant of slaves owned by the Creek Indian nation, who took them from the South to the West.  After the Civil War, those former slaves became known Creek freedmen and each one, including children, received an allotment of land in the area that is now Oklahoma.  In 1914, when Sarah Rector was 12, oil was found on her allotment and she started receiving royalties from a drilling company.  Along with the new wealth came problems such as who could be trusted to be her financial guardian.  Bolden sets the story skillfully in historical context of the slavery and the West.  Since facts about Sarah Rector are sparse and not always reliable, Bolden shares her research process with readers.  A gorgeous piece of bookmaking, the volume integrates photographs and other graphics to convey time, place, and people. Back matter includes an author’s note, glossary, source notes, bibliography, and index. 

Reading Information Std #3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.  One of the key elements in Rector's story is the relationship between the Creek Indians and their African-American slaves, including what happened after the Civil War.  Have students trace that relationship through this book, and also compare each group's relationship with whites.  Interested students might pursue research about the Seminole Indians and black slaves.







Thursday, February 26, 2015


Murphy, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Clarion, 2003. 165pp. Lexile 1130.

In 1793, yellow fever swept Philadelphia, then the nation’s temporary capital, a tragedy brilliantly recounted in this Sibert Award Winner and Newbery Honor Book.  The topic is inherently intriguing and Murphy’s enthusiasm for the topic comes across clearly. The author brings to life key figures like Dr. Benjamin Rush and lesser known ones such as members of the Free African Society who nursed the sick.  The dynamic text, which targets the reader’s senses with quotes about sights, sounds, and smells, looks at how yellow fever came to the city, how it spread, and how various segments of the city reacted.  Doctors tried to treat it, with very limited knowledge, disagreeing with each other on the best approach.  With the national government centered in Philadelphia, the political consequences were severe.  A readable open design effectively uses maps, newspaper clippings, etchings, and other visuals that combine with the excellent writing to make this one of the best nonfiction books for teens.

Fiction tie-ins:  Pair this with Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson or Path of the Pale Horse by Paul Fleischman (out of print), both excellent novels about the yellow fever epidemic, set in Philadelphia.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Setterington, Ken. Branded by the Pink Triangle. Second Story, 2013. 196pp. Lexile 1110.
Although the Holocaust holds an important place in the curriculum, the subject of how Nazis persecuted the gay population rarely gets much attention.  This moving book fills in that gap, combining historical facts and true, often heartbreaking, stories. The text offers historical context, then discusses how gays--mostly men--were located, sent to concentration camps, and suffered and died there. Even those who survived the war continued to suffer since they couldn’t speak out about their experiences in a world where homosexuality was illegal (and still is in many places, as the author discusses at the end).  Black-and-white photographs, pictures of artifacts, notes, an index, and a timeline all add to the effectiveness of this important narrative.  A Stonewall Honor Book.

Reading Std #1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and implicitly, citing specific textual evidence to support conclusions drawn from it. The author excels at integrating stories that make the persecution and suffering feel personal, including one about a male couple who held a commitment ceremony in the early 1930s, only to be separated forever after the Nazis arrested them.  Have students identify several such stories and analyze them in terms of language and how they add to the emotional impact of the text.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother



Nazario, Sonia. Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. Delacorte, 2013. 288pp. Lexile 770.

This complex, moving story focuses on one of the 100,000 children and teens who leave Central America and Mexico each year to try to cross the border into the U.S. Nazario, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her L.A. Times series on the topic, located and interviewed an impoverished boy from Honduras whom she calls Enrique.  His mother left for the U.S. when he was five, hoping to send money back to Enrique and his sister to build a better life.  When he was 17, the boy decided to seek out the mother he hadn’t seen since she left. He tries multiple times to make his way to the U.S. border but is sent back by immigration officials.  The journey entails riding on the roofs of trains where many young people are injured or die. They are also vulnerable to bandits and corrupt officials, illness and lack of food.  Stark details about his attempts and his mother’s tough life in the U.S. will draw in readers and open their eyes to a modern tragedy.

Reading Std #3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.  Although Enrique hasn’t seen his mother since he was five, she has always played a large role in his life.  Have students cite specifics in the text to describe how Enrique and his mother interact over the course of the book, and how their relationship evolves.  What are their feelings about each other and how do those change?  How realistic are their hopes about reuniting and what it might mean to them?  Note:  Like many memoirs and biographies, this does not meet CCSS Lexile levels for middle school  yet it is a strong choice for that age group and will introduce many readers to a part of our world they don't know.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty


Bolden, Tonya. Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty. Abrams, 2012. 120pp. Lexile 1160.


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Directive,” he speaks of the past as a time “made simple by the loss of detail.”  Here Tonya Bolden examines details about Abraham Lincoln and his views on slavery, creating a picture that is far from simple.  While most people assume Lincoln was always adamantly against slavery, Bolden shows that his public stance shifted over time.  His main focus during the Civil War was to reunite the nation, even if it meant delaying the end of slavery, an attitude that infuriated abolitionists.  This fine book provides context about the war and what led up to it. The thoughtful narrative brims over with quotes from primary sources and scholars. It offers numerous visuals from photographs to documents with long captions that add information, and wraps up with a timeline, glossary, index, and bibliography.

Reading Std #9 for grades 6-8: Compare/contrast texts on similar themes or topics. Have students compare this to any more traditional biography of Lincoln, contrasting how the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s views on slavery are portrayed.

Reading Std #6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text. Bolden opens and closes the book using a first person plural narrative voice of abolitionists, black and white, who weren’t sure Lincoln would actually issue the proclamation.  The rest of the book is a traditional third-person point of view.  Have students analyze the use of these two points of view and the purposes they serve.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming



Gore, Albert, and Jane O'Connor. An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming. Viking, 2007. 191pp. Lexile 1070.

Although no long cutting edge in its details, this adaptation of Gore's bestseller for adults, which was also a documentary, does a powerful job of presenting information graphically and making an impact on the reader.  It introduces middle school readers to climate change through facts, figures, stories, and graphics, and makes it clear what the future holds unless we as a world address the crisis now.  Before-and-after photographs show devastation that had already started by the mid-2000s.  Gore is advocating here, not documenting in detail.  This is a call to arms, which young people are starting to answer.

Reading Std #9 for grades 6-8: Compare/contrast texts on similar themes or topics.  Pair this with Paul Fleischman's 2014 nonfiction title, Eyes Wide Open (Candlewick), which is more up-to-date and focuses on giving readers the tools to think critically about current issues, focusing on climate change.  This is the key issue of our time and of great concern to young people who are aware of it.  Have students compare the approaches in each book, the information each gives, and how it's presented.



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure

Meissner, David. Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure. Calkins Creek, 2013. 168pp. Lexile 1100.

Two Ivy League graduates who headed to the Klondike in 1897 when gold was discovered left a vivid record of their year in the North.  Friends Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond, both in their twenties, secured financial backing family, bought supplies, and boarded a ship.  They had some knowledge of mining but underestimated the dangers and difficulties of their goal.  Excerpts from letters, diaries, and newspaper articles they wrote combined with black-and-white photographs give this exciting history a sense of immediacy.  Not surprisingly, they didn't get rich and were more than ready to return to a more conventional life after their tough year.

Fiction tie-In:  One of the photographs shows the two young men with Jack London, who camped near them and later modeled his fictional dog Buck on one of Bond’s dogs.  Have students read Call of the Klondike in conjunction with London’s Call of the Wild, noting overlapping aspects and how much the London  novel is grounded in historical reality.