5 Ways I Learned from the Caldecott Experience

I have not been posting for many months as I have been immersed in reading, rereading and preparing for the Caldecott discussions that took place in January (as well as keeping up with the madness of the middle school library!).  After much sleep and an attempt to catch up on the rest of my life, I am returning to the blog!  For the first post back, I must begin with some thoughts on the incredible Caldecott experience.

Serving on the 2016 Caldecott Selection Committee was the fulfillment of a longtime dream.  As a young elementary school teacher, I vividly remember sharing the books bearing these special seals with my students. Together we enjoyed the stories, observed the art, and discussed what made each book special. So many times my readers and I were guilty of judging the book by its cover (I know! Gasp!), later to be delightfully surprised by what we discovered inside. Secretly, I pondered what it would be like to be part of THE committee that selected the winning books. Now, I have experienced this incredible privilege.  And what an honor and fantastic learning experience it was.

At one of our first meetings, Viki Ash, our priority chair consultant, advised us to, "Come in as learners."  This really struck me.  I am a learner by nature, but this was a reminder that it was perfectly all right not to come in with all of the answers.  That was not the expectation.  Nor should it be your attitude!  What a relief.  Because I certainly didn't have all the answers.  But, I did have a passion for children's literature and illustration, a dedication to the task I'd been given, a commitment to work hard, and a willingness to learn every step of the way! Here are five ways I learned and grew personally and professionally from this experience:

1. I learned from the books themselves. 
I am amazed at all the information I learned this year about the world by reading the 2015 picture books!  I learned about people who made a difference in their communities, about people who overcame incredible hardships to follow their dreams, and about people who are creating amazing art and music to bring beauty into the world.  I learned about the ocean, animals, nature, and natural disasters.  I laughed out loud at clever stories for the young (and the young at heart) and cried at stories of tragedy and loss.  I experienced beautiful poetic verse and was moved to view the world around me in new ways.  What a testament to the high quality of books that are being published every year for young readers and to the rich education that is available through books!  And what a reminder of what picture books have to offer to readers of all ages.

2.  I learned from my students. 
This year I formed a Caldecott Club to solicit input from readers. Each month a brought a big stack books to our after school meeting; then, our club, a small group of committed, opinionated ;) students, a few teachers, and my co-librarian Katherine, read, explored, observed, and shared their thoughts.  My students are in grades 5 - 8, so they came at the task as readers, but also as art appreciators and critics. Most took it very seriously and had a lot to say about the books and the artwork.  We didn't have a formal Mock Caldecott, but I gleaned a great deal from their observations and opinions at each meeting.  They were thoughtful and articulate.  They noticed things I did not. They often liked books I didn't think they would and vice versa.  In short, they reminded me of how smart they are, how important it is that the books recognize this intelligence, and how delightful it is to experience literature through the eyes of younger readers!

A few members of the Caldecott Club diligently evaluating  

3.  I learned from my committee members. 
In preparation for our discussions, I read, reread, observed, reread again, and took careful notes on the many, many eligible books.  But, when we came together and began discussing each title, members of the committee pointed out things I NEVER noticed.  The discussion of each book was greatly enriched because of what each member brought to the table.  My fellow committee members broadened my experience of every title by noticing, questioning, and adding more.  They challenged me to think differently and made me a deeper reader.  I am forever thankful for what I learned from each member.  This truly was the the deepest, richest, most exhausting, and most rewarding book discussion I have ever been a part of.  And, I am a better literary professional because of it.

One of our very official photos 

4. I learned from the process.
From Day One, the advice given to ALSC selection committee members is, "Trust the process."  Our process is confidential, but I will say that I did come to trust this valuable system.  Without going into specifics, I will say that for me "trusting the process" came to mean ...

  • Thankfulness for a committee.  As I mentioned above working with a committee of readers who are passionate about children's literature and committed to the task at hand means that we all have strong opinions.  But, those strong opinions made us challenge each other and led to stronger, more thoughtful decisions in the end.  
  • Thankfulness for the Caldecott Medal criteria.  The specific criteria guided us throughout the process.  We went back to them again and again, making sure we were staying true to our charge and that the books on the table were meeting or exceeding these criteria - not our personal criteria, the Caldecott criteria. They were our beacon and navigated us throughout the process.  
  • Thankfulness for the system.  There is a system in place for the nominating, discussing, and voting.  And it works.  Each year is different. There is a whole new bounty of amazing books to enjoy, explore, and evaluate.  The selection committee brings new opinions and perspectives.  There is passionate debate.  But, the criteria and the system stay the same. And in the end, it all works and the most distinguished American picture book for children (and honors?) is named and children's literature is celebrated! 

5.  I learned the joy of celebrating literature! 
This was more of a reminder.... a lesson I never grow weary of learning in new ways.  Celebrating literature is what I love to do; it's why I became I librarian.  But, this experience allowed me some new celebrations.  First, we were able to join our wonderful committee chair Rachel Payne in making the early morning phone calls to the winning illustrators to share the good news before it was announced to the world.  What an incredible experience!  There were sleepy hellos, screams, yells, and many, many tears.  At not yet 7 am., I had cried away most of my makeup (Why wasn't I wearing waterproof mascara??) and was absolutely exhausted!  But it was soooo worth it!

Then, it was onto the 2016 ALA Youth Media Awards.  I absolutely love these announcements each year.  There is not much better than cheering for the authors, illustrators, and publishers of books that engage, entertain, and inspire readers.  This year was so special, because I got to sit with my fellow committee members - and now dear friends - in our matching t-shirts :) and cheer for the books we had selected.  We were celebrating these amazing illustrators, their art and stories, as well as the work we had done together.  We were also able to cheer for the other winning authors and illustrators (such a treat to see many of our books win additional awards!) and to cheer for the work of our fellow committees, the first time for many of us, truly understanding the time, work and commitment that went into their decisions.

After a celebratory breakfast, we went on the exhibit floor and got to visit the winning publishers' booths and put the Caldecott Medal and Honor stickers on the winning books!!  Wow.  So much fun! We were videoed and tweeted by Little, Brown the publisher of Finding Winnie, and it was even posted on CNN.com. What??!

These celebrations are the big ones.  They are exhilarating and rejuvenating.  They allow us to cheer for the stars of children's literature and to celebrate the impact these books make on the lives of young readers.  They also remind us of why we do what we do.  But, the small, daily celebrations are just as important.  My heart leaps as much (or more!) when a student comes running in after reading a book I've recommended, thanking me, and demanding another. ;)  And, that's why it's okay that some personal favorites are always left out of the big announcements and award lists.  That's why it's such a privilege to be a librarian.  I can continue to celebrate books all year long by making sure those favorites find their way into the hands of their readers in the months and years to come.

So .... Many, many boxes of books delivered to my doorstep.  A year of reading, rereading, and note-taking.  Hours and hours of intense, incredible book discussion. Several lessons learned.  Fourteen new friends made.  One gold medal winner, four honors. and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

More ...

For more about our selections and about spreading the love for your annual favorites, read this lovely guest post on the Calling Caldecott blog of The Horn Book website written by our committee chair, Rachel Payne.

For more about the Caldecott process, read this post by my fellow committee member, librarian and reviewer, the brilliant Karen MacPherson.

For a tug at your heart, watch this video from the lovely and talented Sophie Blackall about winning the medal.  I've watched it again and again!


For an interview with Sophie B and the other winning illustrators, visit the one and only Mr. Schu's blog.  Mr. Schu is the ultimate Book Celebrator!!

It just keeps getting better and better!  Two very special treasures that recently arrived in the mail and will soon be added to my office walls!   I came sprinting into the house after each arrival jumping and screaming and basically had to be peeled off the ceiling!  :)

A letter TO ME from Kevin Henkes! 

A painting FOR ME from Sophie Blackall with letter on the back! 


Jillicious Reading: ALA Midwinter!

TLA is next week, so I thought I better get my post up from my last conference ... ALA Midwinter... In January! 

January is not my favorite month.  I am not a winter girl, and getting up early on cold, dreary days is not my gift.  But there is one thing I do love about January ... ALA Midwinter!  I started attending a few years ago, and now it one of my favorite things about the New Year.  The one down side is that the event is usually held in a cold weather city, BUT they are fabulous cities worth visiting so I can suffer through.  ;) 

This year's event was held in the grand metropolis of Chicago.  I flew in with several librarian friends; as soon as we arrived, the book events began!  Some of the highlights included: 

Macmillan Dinner
Macmillan hosted a lovely dinner with their editors.  I love the Macmillan team and was able to see old friends as well as meet new ones, including the lovely Christy Ottaviano who leads an imprint with Henry Holt.  One of Christy's authors is April Henry who is a very popular author in our library, but whose books have been a topic of discussion in the book debate in our school district this year.  I really enjoyed talking with Christy about Ms. Henry's books and other upcoming titles in her imprint. It was a cozy night of casual conversation with the maybe the most delicious chicken I've ever eaten (and I don't even really like chicken!)  

Previews, previews, previews! 
At these conferences, the publishers host previews of their upcoming titles and I love these events. They are like fashion shows of the upcoming trends and styles!  I come away with a long list of titles to order for the library, to recommend to teachers and friends, and to add to my reading list.  These amazing people even send you off with a bag of Advanced Reading Copies so you can start your reading immediately!  

The Little, Brown preview usually includes a surprise author visit.  This time it was Kate Hannigan who spoke about her new book, The Detective's Assistant.  This novel is based on the true story of Kate Warne, the first female detective. Ms. Hannigan's enthusiasm for Ms. Warne's story and the research she put into it had us all enthralled.  This one is at the top of my stack! 

Kate Hannigan speaking about The Detective's Assistant while Victoria Stapleton
displays some of the old books used for her research.  :)

The Simon Schuster preview was a super fun event.  First, we heard from the amazing Sharon Draper!  Yowza.  She is such a talent and an absolute firecracker!   Then, we had "speed dating" with the editors.  They each visited our tables and told us about some of the books coming out this spring.  It was so much fun, and again, I left with a long list and stack of books!  

Sharon Draper talking about the release of her new book, Stella by Starlight.  
Scholastic is beginning a new partnership with a UK imprint led by David Fickling.  They hosted an event that showcased the types of books this collaboration will provide.  Oh my word.  This was one of my favorite parts of the conference.  David Fickling is a British rock star!  Clapping and bubbling with enthusiasm, he took the stage, accompanied by loud music (I think it was David Bowie, but I was too swept away to remember), and within in moments had the room on their feet cheering. He went on to eloquently, cleverly and riotously talk about his authors and their books and concluded by praising librarians for the work we do and challenging us to continue to carry our torches our high!  It was so inspiring and so much fun.  If I could start each day with David Fickling launching me of into the world of books and libraries, oh what mountains I could move!  

The Great David Fickling complete with signature bow tie! 
Thank you to these publishers and to Candlewick and BoydsMill Press who also hosted lovely previews.  I was honored to be included in each event. 

Random House Dinner
The amazing Laura Antonacci always hosts the most delightful events, and this conference was no different.  The Random House dinner offered a chance to dine with beloved authors Chris Grabenstein, Liesl Shurtliff, and Rebecca Stead. They are all so talented, down-to-earth, and delightful.  Another highlight getting to sit across the table from celebrity librarian Mr. Schu who literally knows everyone and everything!  It was a fabulous night. 

Rebecca Stead talking with Wendy Lamb about her new book Goodbye Stranger (which is A+, by the way!) 
Jack and Liesl!  :) 

Chris Grabenstein talking about new book The Island of Dr. Libris and making the
crowd roar with his hilarious stories! 

Mr. Schu!

Penguin Middle Grade Round Table 
A few librarians and teachers from various settings were invited to be a part of a discussion about middle grade readers hosted by Penguin.  I was delighted to be a part of this conversation and really enjoyed hearing from others about their readers.  It was also a great chance to get to know some new people, which I always love.  

Ms. Bradley signing a book for my friend Karen Kessel! 
At the end of discussion, we were joined by author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  Ms. Bradley talked about her new book The War that Saved My Life.  This moving historical novel tells the story of two siblings who, like thousands of children during WWII, were evacuated from London to the British countryside under the fear of German bombings on the city. Through the eyes of Ada, a young girl who has experienced incredible abuse and trauma, Ms. Bradley provides a fascinating glimpse of history and a story of perseverance and triumph. It was a treat to hear more about the inspiration for the novel and the research that went into the writing. The-girl-who-still-wants-a-pony in me was also delighted to hear more about Ms. Bradley's horse that was the inspiration for Butter, the horse in the novel.  ;)  And we were all excited to hear that the author is working on the sequel!   

Penguin One Book Dinner
The beautiful and talented Venessa Carson hosts the most fabulous events for Penguin. The One Book Dinner was the perfect last party of the conference.  We weathered the cold temps and snow drifts to make our way to this cozy gathering in the basement of The Gage restaurant... And we were in for a treat!  The editors each told us about their ONE favorite release of 2015.  What a fun way to hear about new books.  I am so excited about each of the new titles they spotlighted and have been madly reading since then!  One of my first favorites is the YA novel Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly. The unique format of the evening and my hilarious table of new friends made for a fabulous night. 

Caldecott Committee
Of course, the high point of the conference was getting to attend my first meeting as a member of the 2016 Caldecott Selection Committee.  I am so thrilled to be a part of this committee; it's a dream come true.  It was great to finally meet everyone face-to-face and to begin this exciting process.  I believe our different perspectives and variety of experiences will come together to create a strong, knowledgeable committee.  And, we all have two very important things in common: a passion for children's picture books and a desire to make the best selections possible!  It's going to be a challenge, but, I trust, a very rewarding experience. May the most distinguished contribution to picture books win!

ALA YMA #2015 Announcements! 
My conference always ends with the announcement of the year's ALA Youth Media Awards. This annual event is so much fun.  The room is abuzz with anticipation ... everyone making predictions and hoping to hear their favorites announced.  When the announcements begin, there are wild cheers, gasps of surprise, and Twitter is set afire!  

Minutes before the announcements begin!

The Texan librarians in the room! 
This year was no different .... except for when the Caldecott awards were named... my heart was aflutter knowing that next year, I will have had a hand in making these selections!  Wow. What a privilege. 

This year's medal winner was The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat.  An endearing story featuring the adorable Beekle who daringly travels to the world to find his Imaginary Friend. The illustrations are delightfully unique making this is a charmer for sure.   

Unexpected Change in Plans
I mentioned my conference always ends with the announcements.  Well, not this year. Due to a huge snowstorm, my flight was cancelled and I ended up spending another night in Chicago. Although ready to get home, I enjoyed some extra time with friends. Wonderful Thom Barthelmess invited us to his home (a transformed church!) for dinner.  It was a cozy, fun evening that became the perfect end to the Midwinter 2015.

Thom's super cool living area!
June and Olive waiting for me at home.  I was definitely glad to see them the next day!
So, another ALA Midwinter is in the books.  New friends, new books, new opportunities, and the perfect remedy for my winter blues.  

Now spring has sprung, and it's time for the Texas Library Association Annual Conference.  I head to Austin on Monday for a week full of learning, connecting, and fest-ing!  Let the fun begin.  

NEW FEATURE... Shop this post! 


Jillicious Reading - Fourteen (Plus One!) Favs of 2014

The past semester has been crazy busy.  They all are, but with added responsibilities at work, it seems I have struggled more than ever to find time for all I want to do.  I haven't read as much as I like and have blogged even less.  But, it's a New Year, a fresh start, and a chance to begin anew!  

I thought I'd start with some of my favorites of the past year.  Then, I'll try to post my recent read more regularly in 2015 ... and maybe even actually keep up with my progress on Good Reads!  

Here's to great books and new beginnings! 

Picture Books

1.  Sparky
by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans
This unusual pet can't do many tricks but turns out to be the perfect companion. I adore sloths, so that drew me right in.  But, I quickly fell in love with the charming illustrations, the humor, and the hand-lettered text.  Sparky! is a true delight.  

2.  Gaston 
by Kelly KiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Gaston isn't quite like his sisters, and Antoinette isn't quite like her brothers.  But, as it turns out, each pup is in the right dog house.  I love this book's bold, abstract artwork, sense of humor, and messages of acceptance and belonging.  And, of course, all the dogs! ... with funny names ..... and some wearing kerchiefs!   :)     

3.  The Farmer and the Clown 
by Marla Frazee
When a little clown bounces off of a circus train, an old farmer rescues him. I am a longtime admirer of Marla Frazee and pretty much love everything she does.  But, this wordless book is a true stunner.  Frazee packs so much story, feeling, and heart in the pages of this book.  From the big open skies and the wide horizons to the expressions and movements of the little clown, every stroke is perfect and meaningful.  This gentle story of unexpected surprises and journeys home is a grand achievement.  
** This is my prediction for the winner of the Caldecott Medal :) 


4.  Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla 
by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
My first reading of Ivan was the display copy in the exhibit hall at ALA Annual and within minutes I was in tears.  I loved The One and Only Ivan so much, and I felt this was the PERFECT picture book companion.  Katherine Applegate retells the story brilliantly and G. Brian Karas's artwork is so compelling, expertly depicting the gorilla and his journey.  After reading, it took me several minutes to pull myself together.  The book's editor was standing there; she felt so sorry for this crazy, sniffling mess of a woman that she gave me an Ivan tote bag!  :/ 

5. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life
by Lois Ehlert 
I would love to be an artist and love all things having to do with art.  So, of course, I adored Ehlert's book telling how she grew as an artist, developed her unique collage style, and became a book illustrator and author.  My favorite page says: "I created lots of art, though not for books right away. But I didn't worry. Everyone needs time to develop their dreams.  An egg in the nest doesn't become a bird overnight."  This is wonderful encouragement to a dreamer who is still developing.  ;) 

6.  Brown Girl Dreaming 
by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson contributed a beautiful memoir to the world this year.  Brown Girl Dreaming tells her story of growing up in two very different worlds - South Carolina with her grandparents and then Brooklyn with her single mother.  She describes how she overcame a struggle to read and eventually found her voice in the gift of weaving words into amazing stories.  Click here for my original post about this outstanding book.
** This is my prediction for the winner of the Newbery Medal  :)   

7. El Deafo 
by Cece Bell 
Another memoir, I loved this year was El Deafo.  This is Cece Bell's story of growing up hearing impaired and how she learned to embrace her difference and see it as a superpower!  I wrote about this unique, inspiring graphic novel memoir in this post too

Middle Grade

8.  The Meaning of Maggie 
by Megan Jean Sovern
Maggie is not your typical 11 year old and is also very different from her two older sisters.  While they are interested in boys, make-up and popularity, Maggie is focused on her grades, stocks, defending her Science Fair win, and being President of the United States one day.  That is until the whole family's life is turned upside down when her father is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair.  This is the story of "the year that changed everything." 

Maggie is a hilarious, honest, spunky character.  I love her uniqueness, and the way she deals with her family, more the parent than the youngest daughter.  The novel is an authentic look at how a family pulls together to face the challenges of illness .... there are moments of laughter, tears, breakdowns, and triumphs.  And Maggie is an unforgettable narrator, calling it all like she sees it every step of the way.  

9.  Courage for Beginners 
by Karen Harrington
Seventh grade is not going how Mysti planned at all.  Her longtime friend, Anibal, is suddenly popular and has left her at the table of misfits in the cafeteria.  Her father is in the hospital and she is having to hold the family together because her mother doesn't leave the house - something no one knows about.  It's all getting to be a bit too much.  But maybe a new friend and a quirky Texas History teacher will help Mysti find the courage she needs to carry on. 

Karen Harrington is one of my new favorite authors.  I love her Texas settings, her quirky characters, her female heroines who are stronger than they think they are, and the way she explores mental illnesses.  Courage for Beginners is funny, honest, heart-wrenching, and hopeful. I can't wait for her next book!   

10.  Revolution 
by Deborah Wiles
This follow-up to Countdown takes place in the summer of 1964 - the Freedom Summer - in Greenwood, Mississippi.  Sunny doesn't know what it all means, just that volunteers are coming to the town from up North to register blacks to vote and the town's adults are not happy about it.  Sunny has her own problems as she is trying to get used to her new stepmother and siblings. As the summer progresses, though, her world view starts to expand.  Local businesses start to close so they don't have to serve blacks, and Sunny starts to wonder what's right and what she really believes.  

Wiles once again effectively uses newspaper clippings, song lyrics, photographs, excerpts from speeches, Bible verses, and other memorabilia to set the stage and provide details of the time period.  She skillfully blends Sunny's story with the historical landscape.  Sunny is plucky and daring - the right character to question what is happening and to begin to think for herself.  The book is tied to the characters in Countdown in a clever way.  This is a quality novel and an excellent introduction to (or a brush up on!) the Freedom Summer.  

Young Adult 

11.  To All the Boys I've Loved Before 
by Jenny Han
To Jenny Han:  I love your books and this one is my favorite!  Click here to read my original post about this engaging novel that explores the challenges of family, loss, identity, and first loves. 

12.  The Winner's Curse 
by Marie Rutkoski
The Winner's Curse is a very original novel. That's what I loved about it.  It was quite different from anything I'd read in a while.  And the cover ... Isn't it awesome?  Click here to read my original post about this novel that will pull you into a new, compelling world.  

13.  We Were Liars 
by E. Lockhart
This is the most talked about book of the year.  And for good reason.  It is beautifully written and completely surprising.  E. Lockhart is such a talented writer, and she stuns and succeeds with this gem.  Click here to read my original post about this incredible novel. 
**  This is my prediction for the winner of the Printz Award  :) 

14. Belzhar 
by Meg Wolitzer 
Jam's boyfriend Reeve has been gone for over a year but she is still mourning and cannot move on.  Her parents enroll her in a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont - The Wooden Barn - hoping there she will receive the help she needs.  When she arrives, Jam finds herself enrolled in a Special Topics in English class, a highly coveted course, that will be studying only the works of Sylvia Plath.  When she and her few fellow students in the class begin the journal assignments, they are mysteriously pulled into another world where they can return to their pasts.  But, as the pages of her journal begin to fill up, Jam must face some truths and make some important decisions about her reality. 

A boarding school in New England + an exclusive English course + an inspiring teacher + troubled teens who heal through reading and writing + surprising plot twists + an amazing cover featuring a book, a journal, pens, and Keds! :) = an outstanding book and an instant hit with me!  I loved it. 

**  my prediction for a Printz Honor ;) 

And one more ... 
I Kill the Mockingbird
by Paul Acampora
Three 8th graders are excited about their summer reading list, because they love to read.  But, since everyone doesn't, they decide to launch a campaign to increase interest around To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved novel of their former teacher.  This involves hiding the book on bookstore and library shelves to increase demand.  Their efforts start to take off and do get people reading and talking about the classic novel.  But things quickly start to spin out of control. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is, not surprisingly, one of my favorite novels, so I was intrigued with the premise of this book right off.  Then add a beloved teacher, kids who love to read, and a campaign to get others to read .... sold!  And that's not all!  There's snappy dialogue, oodles of talk about books and reading (so many great quotes!), clever humor, and important lessons learned.  This book is a must-read for book lovers and middle school teachers. 

2014 was filled with many, many great books.  I could easily have listed 14 plus one more! What were YOUR favorites?   

Here's to hoping for more time to read and blog in 2015!  Cheers!  


Jillicious Reading: The Paper Cowboy

The Paper Cowboy 
by Kristin Levine

Summary: Tommy is a good looking kid who is liked and followed by the kids at his school.  But what they don't know is that he is hiding many secrets.  At home, his mother is prone to severe mood swings and Tommy has to help a great deal with his little sisters. When his older sister is severely burned in an accident, things go from bad to worse.  As Mary Lou, his only ally in the house, heals in the hospital,Tommy must take over Mary Lou's early morning paper route and try to hold things together at home as his mother becomes more and more violent. Tommy lashes out, becoming a cruel bully at school, stealing from a neighborhood store, and even framing the store owner. 

Tommy dreams of being a cowboy, like the great Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon.  But instead, he is acting like one of the bad guys.  Is it too late for Tommy to make things right?   

Thoughts:  The Paper Cowboy is a powerful, authentic story of a young boy's struggle to deal with a troubled home life and to figure out who he is in the process.  Levine adeptly pulls the reader into the fragile setting where everything depends on Tommy's mother's mood and his overwhelmed father has no idea how to handle the situation.  Levine develops a complex character in Tommy - he bravely withstands his mother's abuse, tenderly protects his little sisters, and worries about the healing of his older sister; then the next day, he harshly treats kids at school, steals, and lies.  But, his inner struggle with his behaviors and the way he grows with each chapter provides hope and has the reader cheering for Tommy to do the right things. 

The historical backdrop of McCarthyism adds depth and interest to the novel.  Levine's excellent connections between the boys' bullying on the schoolyard to the adult targeting of alleged Communists allow for much thought and discussion. The theme of bullying is contrasted perfectly with the caring friendships that develop in the community once Tommy takes the time to truly get to know the people in his school and in his neighborhood.  

The Paper Cowboy is a thoughtful novel about acceptance, compassion, and overcoming life's struggles. Inspired by the author's father's childhood, the book ends with interesting notes and photographs.  

Read The Paper Cowboy if you ...  
  • enjoyed Kristin Levine's previous novels
  • like engaging historical fiction that is well-researched and immediately transports you to a different place in time
  • have ever been a bully or the victim of a bully
  • are inspired by stories of characters overcoming difficult circumstances
  • enjoy books where the characters greatly develop and grow 
  • ever wanted to be a cowboy, a hero, or just one of the good guys 
Visit Kristin Levine's website for more information about The Paper Cowboy and Ms. Levine's writing.  

NOTE:  Last year several of our 7th grade classes read Ms. Levine's The Lions of Little Rock as a class novel.  At the completion of the novel study, we Skyped with the author.  What a great experience!   She is a fun, inspiring lady.  


Jillicious Reading: Memoirs

These talented authors use unique formats to tell their unforgettable life stories.  Don't miss these two outstanding additions to the memoir genre.  

Brown Girl Dreaming 
by Jacqueline Woodson

In this lyrical novel-in-verse, Newbery Honor/Coretta Scott King/Edwards Award winning author Woodson tells her story of growing up in the 1960s and 70s in two completely different places - Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.  

Most of Woodson's early years were spent with her mother's parents in South Carolina.  There, Jackie saw firsthand the prejudices and racial injustices that still dominated the South. But she also experienced a stable, loving home with her grandparents full of home cooking, starched dresses, and weekly visits to church.  When she moved to Brooklyn with her siblings and her single mother, she entered a different world.  The big city of New York was concrete and cold without gardens and nights on the front porch.  But, there Jackie also found more diversity, less prejudice, and dear new friends.

In addition to expressing her search for her place in two different worlds, Woodson's soulful poems also explore the struggles of growing up in a single parent home and living in the shadow of a brilliant older sister.  While her sister seemed to excel at everything, Jackie wrestled with learning to read.  In spite of this initial difficulty, she developed a love for words and stories.  When she received her first composition notebook, Jackie discovered that "words [were her] brilliance" and dreamed of one day becoming a writer.   
Brown Girl Dreaming is an eloquent memoir that beautifully explores a young girl's search for home and for her own unique voice.  Fans of Woodson's writing will love getting to know the observant, spunky young Jackie and learning what sparked her writing journey. Those new to her work will want to read everything else she's written.  And everyone will want to reflect on their own memories and tell their own story ... most likely in a crisp, new composition book! 

Watch this video to hear author Jacqueline Woodson talk about writing Brown Girl Dreaming

El Deafo
by Cece Bell

When Cece Bell was four years old, she contracted meningitis which resulted in a severe hearing loss.  This began a struggle with hearing aides, feelings of isolation, and a search for a friend who would treat her as an equal. In this creative graphic novel, Bell tells her touching, relatable story.  

As a kindergartner, Cece was able to attend a class with other deaf students.  But then her family moved and her new school didn't offer separate classes.  It's hard enough that she has to go to a new school and try to make new friends, but she also worries about her hearing aide. The Phonic Ear connects to a microphone worn by her teacher which makes hearing easier, but it is also bulky and makes Cece feel so different from the other students.  She soon discovers, however, that her teacher would forget about the microphone so Cece could hear her when she was talking in the teacher's lounge or even in the bathroom.  :)  These "special powers" and an After School Special led her to imagine an alter ego El Deafo who helps her through difficult days. Over the next few years with the help of her loving, supportive family, friends who appreciate her for who she is, and El Deafo who gives her courage, Cece begins to grow in confidence and acceptance of her disability.  

El Deafo is a true autobiographical achievement.  The graphic format is perfect;  the depiction of the characters as rabbits puts an immediate focus on ears (genius!), and the dialogue bubbles allow the reader to experience what Cece is hearing ("eh sounz lah yur unnah wawah!").  The book explores the struggles unique to one with hearing loss, but also explores universal experiences of wanting to fit in, searching for true friends, first crushes, and self-discovery.  All are handled with honesty and humor that make for an unforgettable memoir that soars right into your heart.  The book ends with a thoughtful author's note telling more about Cece Bell's later experiences and how she has now come to see her disability as a gift, noting that "Our differences are our superpowers."  El Deafo will make you want to grab your red cape and celebrate what makes you special!   

Watch this video of author Cece Bell talking about The Phonic Ear and El Deafo:

Fun fact:  Author/Illustrator Cece Bell is married to Tom Angleberger who created the amazing & hilarious Origami Yoda series and other terrific books (Crankee Doodle is another one of my favs which was illustrated by CeCe).  Holy smokes, Batman.  That is one power couple!  


Jillicious Reading: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven

Summary: Theodore Finch. He is a tortured soul, completely obsessed with death.  Everyday he thinks of ways he might die, but also desperately seeks something -  anything - that will keep him here. 

Violet Markey. She is struggling to make it through each day without her sister.  She is counting down the days until graduation when she can get out of her town and begin to live again, away from the memories and the pain.  

And, then Finch and Violet meet.  On the ledge of the bell tower at school. One rescues the other, and a relationship begins that changes everyone's' lives forever.  

ThoughtsAll the Bright Places grabs you from page 1 and never lets go.  Teens Finch and Violet are both seriously struggling.  Finch is an outsider.  Getting up, making it through the day, and finding a reason to do it again the next is a constant challenge.  Violet's struggle is new.  It began when her sister died in a car accident in which Violet was a passenger and survived.  Everyone wants her to start moving on, getting back into life.  But she just can't do it.  Being a sole survivor is incredibly difficult, and Violet is consumed by guilt.  When the two meet, both find a kindred spirit that neither expected, but is exactly who both need. 

This powerful novel and these afflicted characters are unforgettable.  Inspired from events from her own high school experience, Jennifer Niven tells a story that is gripping, honest, and completely heart-breaking.  It explores these teens' struggle to truly live as well as navigating difficult family relationships and intense first love.  It inspires readers to look for the bright places in their lives and to also look for those around them who might be silently suffering.  Get your tissues (and your Post-its!) ready. This one will touch your heart forever.  

Read All the Bright Places if you ... 
  • enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor and Park, Thirteen Reasons Why or If I Stay 
  • have lost someone close to you
  • sometimes feel lost - or like a "weary traveler" - in this world
  • are a tortured soul or commiserate with those who are
  • you remember (or dream of!) your first true love
Click here to read more about All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven, and her critically-acclaimed books published for adults. 

Note: The movie rights of All the Bright Places have already been sold, and Elle Fanning has been cast to play Violet!  

I created a wall of some of my bright places and was honored that author Jennifer Niven added it to her blog!  :) 


Jillicious Reading: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All The Boys I've Loved Before
by Jenny Han

Summary:  Lara Jean has never really dated.  But, she has loved several boys who, unknowingly, have broken her heart.  She writes to each, pouring out her soul in letters that she never mails; all notes are kept safely in a hatbox under her bed.  Until one day the secret letters are mysteriously mailed.  Suddenly, eyes that were never meant to see the letters are exactly the ones who receive them. Overnight Lara Jean's very private love life becomes very public, and she is forced to deal with the mess. 

Thoughts:  This is a delicious novel, and I just gobbled it up.  It is a romance, but it also tackles important themes of family relationships, loss, and identity with the perfect combination of depth and humor. 

Lara Jean is the middle daughter of three who lost their mother at a young age.  The oldest, Margot, is going away to college and the family is dealing with this change.  Skilled author Jenny Han explores the complicated relationships of the sisters - their strong bond as they care for each other and their father, but also the added pressures they put on one another in the absence of their mother.  

The debacle of the mailed letters is a creative premise.  It brings different characters into Lara Jean's life, forces her to face her feelings, and allows her to begin to realize who she really is.  Han works it all adeptly, not bringing in too many past loves, and perfectly pacing the chaos with character development and self-discovery.  The boys are believable, intriguing characters, full of personality and surprises. The youngest sister, Kitty, brings additional humor and heart to the story.  The result is a delightful novel that explores what happens when one is faced with the truth and new possibilities. 

Read To All the Boys I've Loved Before if you ... 
  • enjoyed Jenny Han's previous writing
  • like books by Stephanie Perkins or Lindsey Leavitt
  • have ever had a secret crush
  • have a sister 
  • have a complicated family relationship 
  • wonder what would happen if your private thoughts were made public! Gasp!
Click here to read more about the hilarious Jenny Han, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and her other novels.  

SPOILER ALERT:  Ms. Han has already announced that there will be a sequel, P.S. I Still Love You. (Thank goodness!!)   I can hardly wait, and, judging from the Good Reads page, I am not the only one.  Many other fans are feeling equally tortured having to wait until 2015 for the story to continue!  But don't visit the page until you've finished the first novel.  :) 


Jillicious Reading: The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse
by Marie Rutkoski

Summary: Kestrel is the daughter of the general, part of the aristocracy.  She is used to winning and to getting what she wants.  On a whim, she purchases a slave, Arin, in an auction.  It is not long before he starts to change the way Kestrel thinks, the way she sees the world, the way she feels about everything.  But Arin is not what he seems.   

Thoughts: The Winner's Curse is a completely enthralling novel. It pulled me in from the very beginning because of its originality.... a world of indulgent aristocrats, a conquered people-turned-slaves, and a society that values military strategy and prowess in combat over the arts.  

Kestrel is passionate about music, but it is not seen as a worthy pursuit of the upper class.  Her father insists that she join the military or get married, so she looks for ways to exert control in her life.  This is quickly lost when her world is turned upside down.  The novel is lush and intoxicating, pulling the reader into a world of high society, political intrigue, secrets, forbidden love, and betrayal.  Kestrel and Arin are complex, well-developed characters, both full of surprises.  I look forward to their continued story in the next two books of the trilogy.                

Read The Winner's Curse if you ...
  • like books that pull you into a completely different, fully imagined new world
  • liked the Incarceron series by Catherine Fisher, the Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo or For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
  • look for atmospheric novels with a unique feel
  • enjoy stories with unexpected plot twists and turns
  • love stories of star-crossed love!  :)
Click here to read more about The Winner's Trilogy and author Marie Rutkoski. 


Jillicious Reading: Beach Reads

Beaches, summer, romance ...  all things I love and all elements of a good beach read.  Here are a few I enjoyed this summer while sunning at the beach ....   :)  

Nantucket Blue
by Leila Howland

Summary:  Cricket is elated when her best friend Jules asks her to spend the summer on Nantucket with her family.  Cricket adores the Claytons and is thrilled about the possibilities of the months ahead ... particularly since her longtime crush Jay Logan will also be summering on the island. But an unexpected tragedy changes everyone's plans. Cricket is still determined to spend her summer on Nantucket; but when she gets there, nothing turns out like she planned.

Thoughts: I must start by saying that I love Nantucket.  The grey shingled houses, the bursting blue hydrangea, the idyllic main street, lobster rolls ... it's like a postcard come to life.  I wish I could afford to summer there myself!  So, I was already excited about this book just because of the setting. And, author Leila Howland does an incredible job recreating this magical place, taking the reader right to the
quaint streets and sandy shores of Nantucket.  

But, I was surprised by the story.  It's a summer romance, but has a lot more depth and plot development than I expected.  I fell in love with the interesting cast of characters including Cricket, her family, and the many people she meets on the island.  The novel explores the challenges of friendship, family relationships, loss, and self-discovery in addition to navigating first love. I really enjoyed this book and immediately treated myself to the juicy sequel, Nantucket Red!   

I recommend the book duo to anyone looking for good beach reads, hoping to be transported to a picturesque summer town, or seeking a compelling story about figuring out who you are and who you really belong with in the world.  

Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend
by Katie Finn

Summary: Gemma is looking forward to the summer ahead and having time to spend with her perfect boyfriend, Teddy.  But when Teddy shocks her with a sudden breakup, she is devastated. Instead of traveling across the world with him, she ends up in the Hamptons with her father. The Hamptons is an amazing destination, to be sure, but it's also the place where Gemma must face her past and a friend she betrayed years ago. She wants to make things right; but a case of mistaken identity, an unforgettable, cute boy on the train, and the effort of keeping up a charade creates one complicated summer.

Thoughts: As soon as I heard Katie Finn is another pen name for author Morgan Matson, I was totally in.  I loved Matson's Second Chance Summer and was eager to try another novel
Photo: Long Island CVB
by her.  I also liked that this story was set in the Hamptons; it sounded like the perfect book for my beach bag! 

After I started, though, I wasn't sure about the mistaken identity storyline.  I don't always like excessive hijinks.  ;)  But, I did like the characters and felt the story had heart and promise.  Gemma is a funny, engaging character.  Nothing goes her way, and although her case is extreme, I think we can all relate to those times when things seem to be falling apart around us.  

I am really glad I stuck with the novel.  It's humorous, takes an interesting turn, and leaves the reader eager for the next book in the series, Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold (which comes out next spring).    
The author's Second Chance Summer is also a summer story, but it's a heavier drama dealing with intense loss and grief as well as finding love.  Although lighter, Broken Hearts, Fences, and Others Things to Mend does explore important themes of friendship, trust, betrayal, and family relationships.  I would recommend it to someone looking for a fun summer read, someone who can relate to having made mistakes and living with regrets, or someone looking for a book with humor and heart. 


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