Archive | July, 2011

Historical Fiction: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

31 Jul



Schmidt, Gary D.. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster boy . New York: Clarion Books, 2004.

Turner Buckminster is having a terrible time adjusting to his new home in small town Phippsburg, Maine.  The expectations are high for the 13 year old son of the newly recruited Reverend Buckminster.   Turner soon learns that all eyes are watching and reporting his every move back to his father and before long Turner is convinced that he is as useless as the people of Phippsburg think he is.  Meanwhile, Lizzie Bright Griffin from the islandof Malagasneaks her way along the shoreline of Phippsburg, careful not to be noticed as she collects clams for the day’s meal.  After a chance encounter Turner and Lizzie become great companions and Turner is finally able to feel happy in his new home.  Unfortunately their new friendship does not last long as the townspeople soon learn that Turner has been spending time with the “negroe girl” from Malaga.  He is forbidden to see her or return to the island ever again.  Even worse, Turner learns that the First Congressional Ministry intends to force the “shanties, thieves and lazy sots” off the islandof Malagabecause they are sure that the “shanties” (former slaves) are what are keeping tourists away from Phippsburg.  Turner finds himself caught in a firestorm of hate, propaganda and love of his new friend.  Turner stands up to the racism of the town, only to see Malagaburn to rubble and his father die in the heat of the controversy.  Author Gary Schmidt tells a compelling story of innocence and virtue at the height of American racism in this historical fiction.

While the characters and storyline in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy are fictional, the story ofMalaga community and its trials with the city ofPhippsburg are true.  Inhabitants of theMalagaIsland were indeed evicted from their homes and sent to a nearby insane asylum.  Their homes and shacks were ordered to be burned by the then governor ofMaine.

Author Gary Schmidt does an excellent job of transforming this historical incident into a story that is relatable to adolescents.  Turner, the minister’s son, has a character no different from that of many modern day 13 year old boys.  Picked on by the local boys, the loneliness of moving to anew cityand the feelings of disappointment as a son are all traits that many young boys can relate to.  Schmidt touches on the innocence of children at a time when hatred and discrimination were the norm.

“You never touch a girl before, Turner Ernest Buckminster?  Or is it just that you never touched a girl with black skin before?”

“I never even talked to someone with black skin before.”

“Well,” she said, “never mind.  You’re holding up your end just fine.”

Schmidt captures American dialect in 1912 through the voices of the characters in the story, a feature of the book that makes it an easy read for adolescents while still keeping true to the era.  While racism is one of the key plot elements, Schmidt keeps it simple and straightforward without bogging the reader down with details.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is recommended for children in grades 6-9.  Children should have some basic knowledge of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in order to thoroughly understand the book.


“Gloriously figurative language…brilliantly evokes both time and place…both beautiful and emotionally honest, both funny and piercingly sad.” Kirkus Reviews, Starred

“an evocative novel…with fully developed, memorable characters…fascinating, little-known piece of history…will leave a powerful impression on readers.” School Library Journal, Starred

“historical incident ignites a rich novel…a drama that examines the best and worst of humanity.”  Horn Book


  • Teacher’s Guide available at:  www.

Informational Books: Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice

22 Jul


Hoose, Phillip M.. Claudette Colvin: twice toward justice. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009.

Plot Summary:

This book tells the story of one of the key unsung heroes during the Civil Rights movement.  History has largely overlooked the story of Claudette Colvin, the fifteen year old girl that sparked a flurry of controversy in Montgomery, Alabama when she refused to give up her seat on the bus.  Yes, before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin.

Hoose tells the story of Claudette, her checkered upbringing in the poorest of neighborhoods, her inspiration that led to the stance on the bus, her relationship with Rosa Parks and the events that caused her to be overlooked as a Civil Rights leader.

Critical Analysis:

The story is laid out in a way to provide multiple accounts of what happened during this time.  The author narrates the story with inserts of Claudette’s own words as she described the events that unfolded.  Hoose compliments the accounts with original black and white photos, newspaper cut outs from the time and text boxes that define some of the people and events mentioned in the narration.  The book is largely chronological beginning with Claudette as a child and moving into adulthood.

This is a difficult story to tell for multiple reasons.  Claudette’s story opens the door to some of the political hierarchies present during the Civil Rights movement.  Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr are widely revered for their tremendous work and advocacy during this time.  The story of Claudette tells a different story, the story of a young girl that took a stand without political ties.  A young black girl with very dark skin.  A girl from a terrible neighborhood.  A girl that became an unwed pregnant teenager.  Already leery of her background, Civil Rights leaders turned their back on this courageous young teenager when she became pregnant.  Even with such tough subject matter Hoose does an excellent job of remaining objective and telling the story through facts and accounts.  The book closes with an extensive bibliography and reference notes broken down chapter by chapter as to where the information was obtained.  This is a testament to the accuracy of the book.  The author also explains how he came about the idea to write the story and how he came to interview Claudette.

This would be an excellent read for middle or high school students.  The story of Claudette Colvin supplements history and has a remarkable ability to elicit critical thinking for young students.


“This inspiring title shows the incredible difference that a single young person can make.” Starred, Booklist

“Inspiring.” —Kirkus Reviews    

“Outstanding.” Starred, School Library Journal  

“Hoose reasserts her [Claudette Colvin] place in history with this vivid and dramatic account, complemented with photographs, sidebars, and liberal excerpts from interviews conducted with Colvin.” —Starred, The Horn Book


Other Connections:

Phillip Hoose’s Official Website

Hey Little Ant Website – Phillip and Hannah Hoose

Video- Claudette Colin: Twice Towards Justice
Author, Phillip Hoose Explains Montgomery Bus Boycott at Portland, ME Schools

Informational Books: Inclined Planes and Wedges

22 Jul


Walker, Sally M., Roseann Feldmann, and Andy King.Inclined planes and wedges . Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Group, 2002.


Plot Summary:

Inclined Planes and Wedges introduces young learners to the concept of simple machines, gravity and force.  Several examples are given of simple vs. complex machines and the author provides activities that children can do with household materials to create their own planes and wedges.  The book is accompanied by photographs of the material as well as photographs of children creating their own simple machines.


Critical Analysis:

Inclined Planes and Wedges is one of many in Sally Walker’s Early Bird Physics series.  The series is designed introduce students in grades 2 to 5 to basic Physics concepts and vocabulary.  The book uses very simple language with photos of children demonstrating what is being described in the text.  The author provides a list of related vocabulary at the beginning of the book and encourages children to be a “word detective,” and look for these words as they are reading.  A Glossary is provided at the end of the book.

Inclined Planes and Wedges is a simple, quick read and students will gain a much better understanding of the concepts through the visuals that are used.  Walker also provides examples of simple machines and experiments that students can perform easily in their own homes.  Walker uses common examples that children will understand and can relate to.  For example, nails are shown as an example of a wedge, doorknobs an example of simple machines and escaladers as examples of complex machines.  Walker also provides suggestions for adults on how to introduce children to books and encourage reading.


  • Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year
  • National Science Teachers Association Recommended Books


“The print is clear, the graphics are excellent, and every page contains an illustration. The Early Bird Physics series is a much-needed and valuable resource for integrating informational reading and providing authentic experiences in physical science for young children.” —Science and Children magazine

Children’s Literature Review: This entry in the “Early Bird Physics” textbook series explains what work is, defines the simple machine under discussion, introduces special terminology such as fulcrum, fixed pulley, third class lever, or friction, and shows variations on that machine that make it more complicated. Simple hands-on activities explore some of the properties of inclined planes and wedges and illustrate ways to increase or decrease the force needed to lift objects by varying aspects of the simple machine. A multiracial cast of children who look to be about nine or ten are photographed in posed situations to illustrate concepts and most look realistic. Diagrams also help children see where force is applied or what can be altered to make work easier. An end note to adults presents helpful discussion questions and ways to explore the vocabulary specific to each machine, while a bibliography of other books about the topic and two generic web sites suggest further exploration. A glossary and index with a note about how to help children use these sources are included. All in all, this book present solid support for adults in introducing simple machines to elementary age children in an appealing package that children can also read for themselves. Reviewed by Susan Hepler.

Other Connections:

Sally Walker has a large collection of non-fiction books which may be found on her website.

Here are a few examples:


The author accepts requests for school visits!

Information on further books and contact information can be found here:

Informational Books: Our Eleanor, A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life

22 Jul


Fleming, Candace. Our Eleanor: a scrapbook look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s remarkable life. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Plot Summary:

Our Eleanor introduces young readers to a key figure in American political history, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book visualizes the life of Eleanor, from the child of New York socialites, until her death as an activist and political leader.  Eleanor Roosevelt epitomizes female empowerment from her time.  As one of the most active and prominent first ladies in American history Eleanor Roosevelt worked on everything from housing the poor, to women’s issues, from helping her husband get elected president, to serving in the United Nations.  The book follows the life of this remarkable woman including excerpts from Eleanor herself, photos from throughout her life and photocopies of letters and speeches she gave.

Critical Analysis:

A Scrapbook at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life is a thoroughly accurate description of what readers will find when they open this book.  While the book does tell a narrative, every page of the book is filled with pictures, captions and copies of documents that supplement the story being told.  I was most impressed by the personalized nature of many of the chapters.  Fleming touches on Eleanor as the “ugly duckling” of her family, a child that had good reason to feel that she was unwanted by her family.  She talks about her families struggles with alcohol abuse, violence and suicide.  Many will be surprised to learn that Eleanor and Franklin are fifth cousins and came from extraordinarily different upbringings.  Yet even as a young child Eleanor greatly enjoyed feeding the poor and serving the public.

The strength of the book resides in its layout and its honesty.  The multitude of pictures and captions make the book easy to interpret for young readers.  Students can see the early pictures of Eleanor and Franklin embracing each other in the park in contrast to their lives in later years where Franklin’s mistress sits between them in a car.  The photos tell the story of Eleanor’s rocky relationship with her mother in law and with her children.

This book would make an excellent compliment in Social Studies classes and would be well suited to a book report or presentation.

*Classroom Guide available on author’s website.

Awards and Honors:
ALA Notable Book
Best Book for Young Adults
Jefferson Cup winner,Virginia Library Association
Junior Library Guild Selection
New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2005
Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Medal Winner
Parent’s Choice Gold Medal
Publisher’s Weekly Best Book 2005
School Library Journal Best Book 2005


“Candace Fleming has chronicled the life of Eleanor Roosevelt as no other. With photographs on every page and with special attention having been given each important person, place, and project, this book provides an exciting glimpse into a remarkable life. It will appeal to young and old alike.”

–Chandler Roosevelt Lindsley and Elliott Roosevelt Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandsons

“Candace Fleming’s portrait bursts at the seams with energy, and makes brilliantly clear why Eleanor Roosevelt is a perfect role model for American kids, and for kids around the world. Mrs. Roosevelt wasn’t the head of her time, she’s the head of our time.”

–James Carville

“Creating a unique form for biography—the collage—the author has given us a superbly rounded and penetrating portrait of one of our greatest women, Eleanor Roosevelt. No one can read it and not feel deeply grateful for her long service to the American people and to human rights the world round.”

–Milton Meltzer, five-time National Book Award finalist


Other Connections:

The author has a large collection of books including novels, biographies and historical picture books.  Collection as well as teacher guides can be found at


Poetry for Children: The Surrender Tree

3 Jul


Engle, Margarita. The surrender tree: poems of Cuba’s struggle for freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008.



This verse novel follows the stories of Rosa, Jose, Sylvia and others as they live through the tumultuous struggle for Cuba’s freedom.  Three wars devastated the country, burning towns and plantations, separating families and causing widespread death and disease.  From slavery, to escape; from freedom to concentration camps; the characters in this novel share their journey in a historically accurate, incredibly potent portrait of life in Cuba from 1810 to 1899.


Margarita Engle has created an exceedingly powerful yet incredibly elegant memoir to her grandparents and those that lived through the Cuban wars in this verse novel.  “Lieutenant Death’s” passages are eerily placed throughout the book, giving depth to the hatred of slaves and rebels by the Spanish Army.  Of slaves he says:

“Even then, many run away again,

or kill themselves.

But then my father chops each body

into four pieces, and locks each piece in a cage,

and hangs the four cages on four branches

of the same tree.”

“a chopped, caged spirit cannot fly away

to a better place.”


The book primarily features Rosa, a medicine woman that learned from the elders how to cure injury and illness with flowers and herbs.  We begin with Rosa as a child, referred to as “the little witch” by her owners.  Her innocence shines as a young girl:

“Hatred must be

a hard thing to learn.”


Rosa grows into a legendary nurse- “Rosa la Bayamesa,” the cave nurse from Bayamo. She and her husband Jose run secret hospitals in the jungles and caves of Cuba.  Ms. Engle creates a stunning portrait of life on the run, as Rosa becomes a target of the Spanish army.  The number of sick and wounded grows astronomically as Rosa states beautifully:

“I look around, and realize

that she came through the roof

because the door was too crowded

with families weeping, rebels moaning,

women begging…


This war is a serpent,

Growing, stretching….”

Besides Rosa, the book offers narratives and perspectives from Sylvia, a young orphaned girl that will likely follow in the footsteps of Rosa and the medicine women before her.  This book is extremely poignant and creates an emotional glimpse into the casualties of war.



BOOKLIST started review:  “Engle writes her new book in clear, short lines of stirring free verse. Caught by the compelling narrative voices, many readers will want to find out more.”

HORN BOOK: “A powerful narrative in free verse . . . haunting.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba’s troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments

KIRKUS REVIEWS: “Young readers will come away inspired by these portraits of courageous ordinary people.”

VOYA: “The poems are short but incredibly evocative.”



*can be connected to social studies lessons covering slavery, war, oppression and the use of concentration camps

Poetry for Children: Bronx Masquerade

2 Jul


Grimes, Nikki. Bronx masquerade . New York: Dial Books, 2002. 



A unit on the Harlem Renaissance inspires a group of students in Mr. Ward’s English class to begin writing their own poetry.  What first begins Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone’s refusal to write an essay becomes rap turned into verse, and verse turned into Open Mike Friday in English class. Soon rough and tumble Tyrone is creating his own writings, then Chaunkara, then Raul and one by one the student’s of Mr. Ward’s class begin to express their identities in prose.  As if writing in a journal of their thoughts, each day teenagers comment on the poetry of their peers, relating it to their own lives as teenagers in the Bronx and following with their own carefully crafted poem.



This book is a compilation of feelings and experiences of the hard life, living with alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness.  The themes of living in tumultuous surroundings are coupled with the emotional rollercoaster that teenagers in general are subject to, feeling judged, being overweight, the jock, the princess and the many stereotypes that peer pressure brings to young adults.  Because the poems are written through the ideas of many different characters, they each vary in rhythm, rhyme and style.  Raul, the artist creates his poem in the shape of a “Z” while expressing his feelings of being “categorized.”  He says, “The fact is you are more comfortable with myth than man.”  In similar fashion, Devon, the “jock” creates simple yet powerful sentences- “Don’t call me Jump Shot.  My name is Surprise.”

The value to young adults in this verse novel is that each poem is preceded by a quick narrative by the author, an explanation in common language that adds to the author’s character and can help young readers interpret the poem that follows.  The characters connect through the narratives.  Lupe longs to have a child of her own, longing to feel the love that she has never received from any man, including her father. Gloria, the single mother says “Lupe has no idea how lucky she is.  How can I get through to her?”  One by one the stories and poems connect to one another in a way that creates a global view of this class and the connections that they share.



KIRKUS REVIEWS, starred review:  “All of the [students], black, Latino, white, male, and female, talk about the unease and alienation endemic to their ages, and they do it in fresh and appealing voices. Rich and complex. “

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “As always, Grimes gives young people exactly what they’re looking for—real characters who show them they are not alone.”

BOOKLIST: “Readers will enjoy the lively, smart voices that talk bravely, about real issues and secret fears. A fantastic choice.”


*excellent for connecting during black history month;  read one passage and poem per day and discuss connections to previous entries

*have students write their own journal entries, see if it inspires their own poetry