Monthly Archives: January 2016

Free Fridays: The Blessing Cup


19886178052907Gripped by the depiction of a child’s understanding of fear and hardship at the opening of the book, I knew Patricia Polacco’s The Blessing Cup had a powerful message to tell. I read this story of hope and generosity for the first time last week, and I hope to read it again and again as I share it with students independently or in the classroom.

Polacco has written over 50 children’s books; The Keeping Quilt being one of the first published in 1988, and The Blessing Cup, published in 2013, being one of the most recent. Despite the time gap, both books share an almost identical illustration style and similar themes of family bonds and immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Polacco’s combination of rich themes, exquisite story telling, and beautiful pencil and acetone marker illustrations work together to create a masterpiece. Polacco has a background in Fine Art and did not start writing children’s books until age 41. As she writes on her website, Polacco’s ability to enthrall readers with her stories comes from being “raised on hearing stories” instead of “seeing them” on television. She comes from a family of great storytellers and becomes quite enchanting when telling them herself.images-1

In her story, The Blessing Cup, Polacco takes us on the journey of her great-grandmother, Anna, who was a little girl growing up near Tver, Russia. The czar’s soldiers would prowl around outside of Anna’s family’s small shtetl, and only when it was safe would the family come out into the kitchen and listen to Momma tell of how Aunt Rebecca sent a magical china tea set that brought blessings to their home. In a note inside the tea set, Aunt Rebecca wrote of how anyone who drinks from the tea set will never know a day of hunger, will always live a life full of flavor, will know love and joy, and will never be poor!  Even when Anna and her family are uprooted from their home and must travel in the cold with little food and often no place to stay, Anna remembers what her father and mother have told her about God’s blessings resting upon them. Anna’s mother whispers, “We shall always know love, and as long as we are together we shall never be poor.”


While conveying the importance of family and community, Polacco does not shy away from portraying the gravity of hardships and difficulty. As Papa becomes so sick that he cannot take another step and collapses on the outskirts of another new town, the reader feels the weights upon this dear refugee family.

You might be wondering where the powerful message of hope and generosity comes into play. How does this china tea set continue to bring blessing? Polacco does indeed resolve the story, even bringing it to her own story of present day. And she does so in an almost miraculous way.

Dive into her miracle, her family, and her culture. Polacco does not disappoint.

-Flora Neuhoff

Traditional Thursday’s: Timeless + Tradition = The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco



It has been over 15 years since I first heard of this book, and have read it countless times since. Now when rereading the original book, the story and message that the book conveys to m, resonates even more strongly today than it did when I was younger.

Narrated in the first person by Patricia Polacco, The Keeping Quilt, tacitly links six generations of women, one to the other, in a story that celebrates the importance of continuity. The story begins with Polaccos Great Gramma Anna who emigrates as a child with her parents from Russia to New York.  Life is different in America, but for Anna it becomes her new home. As she quickly learns English, her dress and red babushka are the only things that connect her to her Russian past. Determined to not let Anna forget where she came from, her mother, with the help of the women in t4he neighborhood, craft a quilt using Annas own blue dress and the fabric from pieces of clothing belonging to Annas family back home. They border the quilt with Annas red babushka. This quilt represents more than pieces of old clothing brought over from Russia. Rather, the quilt embodies the spirit of connection of recent immigrants, coming together to sew a history, a memory, a family heirloom, a timeless gift and to help young Anna as she acculturates in a new country to remain connected and always remember home.

Not surprisingly, the quilt becomes more than simply having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night. The quilt assumes an integral place in the traditions of the authors family, showcas5ing for the reader that although circumstances do change, customs can continue. The quilt became the tablecloth at the weekly Sabbath dinner of Annas family, at Annas 98th birthday and at the authors first birthday party.  It was also used as the blanket on which Anna sat when she fell in love and became engaged, to keep her warm as she grew older, and to foster the authors creativity as she played or told stories. From the wedding canopy under which Anna, and later her daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter were married to the blanket in which new lives were wrapped. The quilt becomes a beautiful link between generations of women, mother and daughter – a reminder of their past as well as the promise of the future. The original edition of the book ends with the author Patricia holding her own daughter in the quilt, but the story of the quilt does not end there. The last image suggests that the quilt will continue to be an integral part of future generations.


Not only is Patricia Polacco an engaging story teller, but an exceptional artist whose realistic drawings are true to each generation. Her original illustrations enhance the captivating story and capture the familys spirit, character and mood as the circumstances demand while detailing the past and present culture of the family even with the passing of time. The quilt is the focus of her story and the quilt remains the focus of her drawings and the only part of her illustration that includes color, amidst the brown pencil illustrations that take up much of the pages. In every illustration there is the quilt, a symbol of her familys heritage and of the love and the value the family place on their past, helping them deal with the present and the hope for the future. Although it is a picture book written primarily for children, I feel the book will resonate with readers of any age and every religion because traditions, even when adapted to changing times as it does from generation to generation in the book, allows memories to be triggered and tthe value of memory and tradition is timeless.

On the 25th anniversary of the books original publication, a revised edition was released, continuing to share the story of the quilt. I desperately wanted to see this edition but could not find it in the library-somebody else must have been enjoying reading it. Shamefaced I admit the only place I could find the additional images was online, but at least my curiosity was satisfied. It was the wedding canopy at each of her childrens weddings, and accompanied Polacco when she visited schools. After so many years, the quilt, not surprisingly, was extremely fragile and, as a surprise, Patricias children had an exact replica of the quilt made for their mother as a birthday present. The original quilt now hangs in the Mazza Museum in Findlay, Ohio which houses a vast and diverse collection of the original artwork of childrens book illustrators. Now, the public too gets to enjoy the quilt, a wonderful reminder that tradition creates memories and strengthens the bond of family from one generation to the next. 

I feel this book can successfully be used to expose students to a variety of topics, including family ancestry, family bonds, research on family history, family trees, intergenerational connections, immigration at the turn of the 20th century and customs and traditions in different religions and cultures. So the next time you’re looking for a book to share with your class consider The Keeping Quilt. It will not matter if it is the original or the new publication- the message is the same in both. 

– Michelle Sandler

Winner Wednesdays- Number the Stars


“And they are beginning to realize that the world they live in is a place where the right thing is often hard, sometimes dangerous, and frequently unpopular.” -Lois Lowry, Number the Stars

One of my favorite books in elementary school was one that has stuck with me for years, and I’ve gone back to read it many times. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a book close to many due to its hard hitting subject and intense familial relationships. Since today is Winner Wednesday, though, I’ll start out by listing the awards this book has won:

John Newbery Medal- 1990

Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award- 1991

National Jewish Book Award for Children- 1990


This acclaimed book was published in 1989, meaning that only a year after it was printed, it was already winning awards and creating a whirlwind of responses and emotions in readers. I think this is because of how approachable and relatable the book is, while still addressing a difficult and important topic. The book is from the point of view of Annemarie Johnson and her family and friends in Nazi Germany. The book begins with Annemarie’s family rescuing a young Danish Jew and Annmarie’s best friend, Ellen, by pretending that she is Annemarie’s dead sister, Lise. Annmarie’s dad does everything in his power to keep Ellen and the family safe, which takes them on an incredible and terrifying journey. Annmarie and Ellen learn about being brave and doing the right thing, even when it might not seem like the easiest or most lawfully correct action. The topic of the Holocaust and Hitler’s rule over Germany is not the easiest, nor most understandable, but by addressing it with friendships and familial interactions, students of all ages can comprehend and appreciate Annmarie’s situation and feel for her in this scary time of her life.


In the end, Annmarie says goodbye to Ellen so that she will be safe from the Nazis until the war’s end. Ellen is shipped away, which is difficult for Annmarie to come to terms with. The war ends and it is revealed that Lise, Annmarie’s sister, was actually a member of the Resistance, the group that saved Ellen. Lise had been killed by Germans during her involvement with the group. Annmarie is proud to know that her own sister played such an important role in saving people like her best friend.

This book is excellent for classroom use because it can be approached and analyzed in so many different ways. It has a lot of themes and symbols that can be traced and followed throughout, like Lise’s memory and Ellen’s necklace. By following one thread through the entire book, students can create different opinions and formulate their own thoughts on the situation. This is an easy way to introduce students to analyzing literature.

In addition, I think this book is important because it shows loyalty and love in their most pure forms. Each time I read it, I feel content knowing that even though a lot of lives were lost, people like Annmarie and Ellen existed during the Holocaust and made a difference in the lives of so many people. Number the Stars connects us to a time and place where things were so different than they are now, but it does it in a relatable and accessible way. This book is just as special and important to the world as its three awards and honors said in the 1990s, and it shares a message that any human can appreciate and understand.


Review by Tyler Knickerbocker



Winners Wednesday: A Pet for Fly Guy





Parents may love ipetforflyguyt, but children absolutely will. In “A Pet for Fly Guy”, parents and children will be laughing at the zzzzany adventures of a pet fly and his human companion Buzz. A finalist for the Children’s Book Council Kindergarten to Second Grade Children’s Choice of the Year, “A Pet for Fly Guy” is a new favorite among kids. But what is the buzz all about?


It begins with a story of an unconventional friendship between boy and fly. The silliness of their adventures together make for chuckles, but the illustrations are what really draw the readers in. Tedd Arnold creates a world of silliness through his writing and illustration of the various scenes. Without even going through the narrative of all the children playing with their pets, kids will be laughing as they point out a dancing bear, an octopus in a swimming pool, and a boy clad in armor to play with his pet hedgehog.


Despite all of the fun between boy and bug, Fly Guy wants a pet of his own. Together, they go on the hunt for the perfect pet for Fly Guy. Here, the silliness escalates even more as Fly Guy is licked by a dog, swatted by a cat, and chased by a frog. Despite all of the goofiness and fun of the story, it ends with a heart warming note as Fly Guy realizes Buzz can be his pet, something that will make every kid think differently about their own pet.


This book would be great to read out loud to a group, because the reader has the power to bring the book to life through the emphasize on all the buzzing and words like “yezzzz”. It could also be used for young new readers to practice reading phonetically, by pointing out the different “yezzs” instead of the word yes.flyguy


While this book is not winning critically acclaimed awards, it is winning the vote of children. Sometimes winners do not have to be deep and powerful in their message. This book is silly, fun, and packed with great illustrations, making it a great read-aloud for a kindergarten to second grade kid.

-Kristen Brady

Trendy Tuesdays: Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

Trendy Tuesdays: Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

Winnie-the-Pooh is a classic, timeless story loved by children and adults alike.  Now, the real bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh is taking the children’s literature world by storm!

In Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, Lindsay Mallick tells the true story of how her great-grandfather, veterinarian Harry Colebourn, rescued a bear cub, named her Winnie, and took her on a journey across the world as he traveled to England to treat injured horses during World War I.

As Harry Colebourn was on his way from Canada to England to serve in World War I, he spotted a man with a bear cub at the train station, and without practical reason, followed his heart and purchased the cub from the man, naming her after his home in Winnipeg.  The unconditional love Colebourn showed Winnie led to an unlikely friendship as Winnie accompanied the soldiers on their journey to the army base, charming them and becoming their mascot.

Fast forward to a second section of the story, where Mallick introduces another character who is familiar to many, Christopher Robin Milne, a young boy with a stuffed teddy bear who accompanied his father to the London Zoo one day and unexpectedly left having both made a new friend and inspired an amazing story of the unlikely friendship between a boy and a bear.

Mallick’s style of storytelling, including questions and commentary from her young son, Cole, makes this a perfect story to read to children of all ages, but the timelessness of Winnie-the-Pooh welcomes adults of all ages into the audience as well. Detailed watercolor illustrations and old photographs of the cub with Harry, the soldiers, and Christopher Robin draw the readers into the story as they follow Winnie’s journey from motherless cub to the true friend we all know and love.

-Sarah Williams

Marvelous New Picture Books Mondays: Cooper and the Big Apple by Camille Cohn, Illustrated by Riley Cohn


new doc 1_1 In this week’s Marvelous New Picture book, Cooper and the Big Apple by Camille Cohn and illustrated by Riley Cohn, a cat from a small Texas town takes the trip of a lifetime to New York City. Visiting places such as the Statue of Liberty and China Town and riding on a subway, the feline details his fabulous adventure and all the neat things he sees and does. However, for Cooper the cat, the experiences he has in the city are quite different than what he expects. After being told he is traveling to the Big Apple, Cooper is surprised to arrive in a city filled with skyscrapers rather than the red, large fruit he had previously imagined. As his friend Jennifer continues to describe their travel itinerary, Cooper is continuously caught off-guard, shocked to discover that the New York Stock Market does not involve livestock and visiting the site of Breakfast at Tiffany’s doesn’t actually include breakfast!

As the reader ventures with Cooper, wondering what new discovery he will make next, his literal thinking continues to be charming and fun time and time again. Furthermore, his literal interpretations, conveyed primarily through illustrations, prove to be humorous and entertaining. The illustrations further impress as they combine a variety of mediums, including watercolor and backgrounds made of relevant materials, such as a New York subway map and sheet music for “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. These lovely details combined with the delightful misinterpretations of the feline protagonist work to create a fun-filled reading experience.

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Cooper’s idea of the Stock Market

Not only is this new picture book a great, seemingly silly read for adults and children alike, but it can also be used to engender teachable moments and spark valuable conversations. While it may not be apparent upon the first read, Riley Cohn both created the masterful artwork and served as the inspiration for the story of Cooper the cat, which was written by her mother. Riley, a high school student who has autism, is similar to the cat in that she often interprets language quite literally, a common characteristic among those with autism. Thus, Cooper’s misinterpretations prove to portray the different way in which the brain with autism sometimes works. As a result, Cooper and the Big Apple serves as the perfect conversation starter, especially for the siblings and classmates of those with autism who may not immediately comprehend the different way in which their brother,            sister, or peer may think.

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Cooper was relieved to find out that China Town isn’t actually breakable!

Whether one is using the book to foster important autism awareness, explain the difference between literal and symbolic language, anticipate a trip to New York City, or simply giggle at Cooper’s adventures, Cooper and the Big Apple is definitely a must-read!


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Loved Cooper and the Big Apple and want more readers to know about it?

Nominate it for the Texas Bluebonnet Award for Texas authors! Just follow this link:

-Mattie Lastovica

Free Friday: Frederick


Looking for a classic book that’s still relevant today? Leo Lionni’s Frederick will not disappoint! A 1968 Caldecott Honor recipient, Frederick combines beautifully simple artwork with poetic language to deliver a powerful message that still resonates with today’s children and adults.


The story begins by introducing a group of five mice who are busy preparing for the fast-approaching winter. While four of the mice work tirelessly hauling wheat, corn, nuts, and straw to their home, Frederick seems to sit lazily apart from the others.


When asked “why don’t you work?” Frederick patiently explains that he is indeed working. Rather than gathering physical supplies for the winter, Frederick reveals that he is collecting more abstract things such as sun rays, colors, and words. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other mice are not impressed by such statements, and continue to build their store of food.(null)

The winter begins nicely as the mice retreat to their shelter in a pile of stones. Everyone is cheerful and food is plentiful. Yet, as the days drag on and supplies deplete, the mice become bitter and unhappy. However, they remember the things Frederick collected and ask him to produce his supplies. Drawing on his store of simple, natural beauty, Frederick fills the cold, dreary shelter with light from warm sun rays, colors from flowering fields, and even elegant poetry. The other mice are in awe of Frederick’s abilities, and find themselves finally appreciating artistry and valuing simple beauty.IMG_8015

Although this story is simple, complex themes arise and are strengthened by both the words and illustrations. For example, Lionni develops the sophisticated message that art and nature’s beauty are crucial for survival by creating a believable need for both. Because children will understand the hardships faced by the mice as they isolate themselves in a bleak stony shelter, the simple plot makes it easy for children to grasp the more complicated message that artistry and simple, everyday beauty have as much importance as other basic human needs. Furthermore, since the plot is centered around mice in a field rather than people in a specific city, the characters and events take on a timeless quality and could reasonably take place almost anywhere in any time period. Thus, the story and its theme are well-developed, believable, and relatable to today’s children.

Children and adults alike will also adore Lionni’s artwork on every page. These marvelous illustrations help develop the theme of artistry and simple beauty. By layering vibrant colors and detailed textures on top of simple, almost abstract shapes, Lionni essentially proves the validity of the story’s message. Although the shapes themselves are very basic and placed on a white background, a closer look reveals that the colors and textures integrated into these shapes are quite intricate, creating images that are both soft and vibrant, simple and complex at the same time. Thus, Lionni’s masterful artwork not only provides a visual representation of the words in the story, but also proves and extends the idea that much value lies in creativity and simple beauty.

Ultimately, many children (and adults) may find themselves relating closely to Frederick. Artistic children who spend their time quietly taking in the simple magnificence of the world (and especially children who are nagged or looked down upon for doing so) will find hope in this little mouse. They will see that their artistic contributions and appreciation for everyday beauty are just as essential for human life as those pursuits typically deemed more important. Thus, Frederick helps children answer a question that persists to this day: what is art, and why is it important? In an age where math, science, and other such subjects are increasingly favored over art, and where nature’s beauty is constantly threatened by human activity, this beautiful book and its message about the importance of art and simple beauty in times of darkness remain relevant and applicable to today’s children. Plus, aren’t those mice just positively adorable?

-Sarah Beck

Traditional Thursdays: Sideways Stories from Wayside School


I have always loved Louis Sachar’s zany book – ever since it first crossed my school desk circa the fourth grade. Seeing the play interpretation at our local children’s theatre in a later field trip was a delight, and reading it years later to my dormmates as a college kid was like revisiting one of my funniest old friends.

What makes this story so timeless? Sachar’s ’78 classic is a crazy kooky and sidewayscoverfun read that brings in the ridiculous and unbelievable and makes it perfectly normal.

A teacher who thinks her students are so cute they must be monkeys?

Ice cream that tastes like your personality, but you can’t taste it?

Dead rats sneaking into school?

A boy who just can’t stop kicking things?

Just a normal day in a school that was accidentally built 30 stories high (without a 19th)!

Sideways Stories is a chapter book that collects 30 stories, each one starring a different member of the Wayside School community. Each chapter is about four pages long, and has a different tone, determined by the character.sidewayspaul

Some are driven by narration, some by action, some by descriptions – something for every type of reader. Paul, for example, engages in intense debate with Leslie’s pigtails over whether or not he should pull them. Sharie, on the other hand, is asleep her entire chapter.


What I most like about this story is its snappy wit. The children all have their youthful good-natured (and sometimes self-serving) naïveté, but so do the adults. And everyone states the obvious…except the obvious just happens to also be hopelessly silly. I would highly recommend this as a read aloud or a silent chuckle-aloud!


By: Julia McCorvey

Winners Wednesdays: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn


Like many of the young children who heard A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travellers by Nancy Willard as a bedtime story, I have nenew doc 1_1ver read any work by Blake. Nevertheless, the child in me found the book’s poems delightful while my college student-self marveled at Willard’s literary prowess. In 1981, the illustrations, by Alice and Martin Provensen, received a Caldecott Honor while the book itself won the Newberry Medal – the first Caldecott honoree to do so. The drawings reflect the book’s playful and imaginative tone, while the poems themselves depict a wondrous world full of dragons, angels, and characters such as the Man in the Marmalade Hat and the King of Cats. Parents and children will be able to enjoy this book together thanks to Willard’s attention to detail and the extravagant world she creates.

In entering the book, the reader is taken on a journey through William Blake’s inn along with a young resident. Before even entering the inn Willard makes it clear that the world in her book is certainly not the same one Blake lived on. “Blake’s Celestial Limousine” carries us to the inn. After shrinking his large luggage down to the size of a small envelope, the young narrator declares, “Uneasily I stepped inside/ and found the seats so green and wide,/ the grass so soft, the view so far/ it scarcely could be called a car,/ rather a wish that only flew when I climbed in and found it true.” The author’s message is clear: anything you read in this book can be true if only you believe it to be so.

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Several different poems describe a day in the life at Blake’s inn. The sun and the moon interact freely with other guests, who can proudly proclaim themselves to be rabbits, tigers, and bears. At one point, Blake leads several guests through a walk on the Milky Way. The rabbit, cat, tiger, and young boy all marvel at the stars surrounding them while the rat grumpily says that he should have stayed in bed. Blake responds by giving “silver stars to the rabbit/ and golden stars to the cat/ and emerald stars to the tiger and me/ but a handful of dirt to the rat.” Again, the author is imploring her reader to suspend his or her disbelief and travel along with Blake on his magical journey.

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The book opens with an introduction by the author. She tells the story of how she was introduced to the poems of William Blake, and, while she does not say it explicitly, it is obvious that she hopes her book will be the spark kids need to find Blake themselves. I myself intend to immediately find myself copies of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in order to not only understand the literary techniques used by the author (English geek that I am), but to experience the same wonder that inspired her to create such an intricate and welcoming world.

– Allia Calkins (2016)

Trendy Tuesdays: Goodbye Stranger


As 2016 begins, publications and bookstores are releasing their Best of 2015 lists, and if anyone is trending it’s Rebecca Stead. She won the Newbery Medal in 2010 for her Middle Grade mystery When You Reach Me, but her 2015 novel Goodbye Stranger tackles the social pressures of middle school with even more charming detail and subtlety, landing it on Best of 2015 lists from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, The New York Times,, and more. It could not be more deserving.


Due to its three very different perspectives, Goodbye Stranger is the book that will connect with any 10-15 year-old in your classroom or life. Bridge, who goes by Bridge, the main narrator, is a twelve-year-old girl who survived a roller skating accident when she was younger and was told by doctors that she must have lived for a special reason. Regardless of where the reader is at in his or her own soul searching, they will see themselves reflected in Bridge as she searches for that reason, wears cat ears to school, and figures out where she fits in with her best friends, her family, and a new friend that’s a boy.

Sherm, said new friend, has his voice heard in short chapters that are letters from him to his grandfather who recently moved out of his house, leaving his grandmother and family reeling. Sherm gives us a boy’s view of his and Bridge’s friendship, something that feels different and needed. The bearer of the third perspective is a mystery, but she is an older girl who is skipping school to avoid the repercussions of betraying one friend to meet the demands of another. Her story is a window into what lies ahead for Bridge and her friends as they go on to 8th grade and High School, where toxic friendships and crushes will become a lot more serious. Her identity is revealed in the end, along with every other loose end that Stead expertly ties up.

While each character in this book comes fully alive, such as Bridge’s brother who competes with his manipulative best friend to win crazy bets, my favorites would have to be Bridge’s two best friends Emily and Tab. With all the “mean girl” groups of friends in Middle Grade literature, Emily, Tab, and Bridge actually love each other. Even when they say or do the wrong thing, they always have the intention of being there for one another and their friend-chemistry is refreshing and fun. Emily has developed curves over the summer and is flirting with an older boy, while Tab begins to idolize her teacher Ms. Berman, who calls herself The Berperson, and leads Tab to view their friendship and boy drama through a feminist perspective. They are so different, but so loyal to each other, and it is a great thing to see.

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When I finished this book and was asked what it was about, I couldn’t say. It is far too layered for that. To me, this book didn’t produce a message or a story as much as it did a feeling of connectedness. This book brings us into the lives of all different people in Bridge’s circle trying to figure out who they are and why they’re here. It doesn’t give an answer and will surely leave readers with questions for discussion, but it does show how all of the little things that people do for each other mean something, which is something all kids (and even teens and adults) need to hear.

“Life is where you sleep and what you see when you wake up in the morning, and who you tell about your weird dream, and what you eat for breakfast and who you eat it with. Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make yourself, all the time.”

– Rebecca Stead, Goodbye Stranger


– Rebecca Bendheim