Curriculum Guides




Grades 3-5

The A+ Custodian. By Borden, Louise. (Pansy Fryman)

Cabin on Trouble Creek. By Van Leeuwen, Jean. (Lori Swiercinsky)

The Cats in Krasinski Square. By Hesse, Karen. (Elaine Shannon)

Hachiko Waits. By Newman, Leslea. (Amy Brownlee)

Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize Fun Avoid

Disaster and (Possibly) Save the World. By Hannigan, Katherine. (Amy Brownlee)

The Last Holiday Concert. By Clements, Andrew. (Bev Nye)

Operation Clean Sweep. By Beard Darleen Bailey. (Julie Tomlianovich)

The President’s Daughter. By Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. (Donna Wartman)

The Report Card. By Clements, Andrew. (Wendy Morris)

S is for Sunflower: a Kansas Alphabet. By Scillian, Devin. (Retta Eiland)

Thunder From the Sea. By Harlow, Joan Hiatt. (Arlene Wiler)

What Is Goodbye? By Grimes, Nikki. (Heather Collins)

Grades 6-8

Al Capone Does My Shirts. By Choldenko, Gennifer. (Barb Bahm)

Becoming Naomi Leon. By Ryan, Pam Munoz. (Barb Bahm)

The Breaker Boys. By Hughes, Patrice Raccio. (Angie Price)

Chasing Vermeer. By Balliett, Blue. (Amy Brownlee)

Chu Ju’s House. By Whelan, Gloria. (Kim Glover)

The Double Life of Zoe Flynn. By Carey, Janet Lee. (Julie Tomlianovich)

Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930’s. By Cooper, Michael. (Arvel White)

Escape to West Berlin. By Dahlberg, Maurine. (Heather Collins)

A House of Tailors. By Giff, Patricia Reilly. (Kim Glover)

Little Cricket. By Brown, Jackie. (Rita Sevart)

Never Mind! A Twin Novel. By Vail, Avi and Rachel. (Bev Nye)

The Old Willis Place. By Hahn, Mary Downing. (Beverley Buller)

Peter and the Starcatchers. By Barry, Dave and Pearson, Ridley. (Barb Bahm)

So B. It. By Weeks, Sarah. (Lou Brewer)

The Spirit Line. By Thurlo, Aimee and David. (Barb Stransky)

The Teacher’s Funeral; a Comedy in Three Parts. By Peck, Richard. (Retta Eiland)

Thin Wood Walls. By Patneaude, David. (Barb Bahm)

Wintering Well. By Wait, Lea. (Lori Swiercinsky)

Yankee Girl. By Rodman, Mary Ann. (Arlene Wiler)

The A+ Custodian

The A+ Custodian: Louise Borden, Margaret K. McElderry Books-Simon and Schuster, 2004

Grade Level: 3 rd-5 th

ISBN: 0-689-84995-8 Cost: $15.95

Synopsis: Through their early morning contact with the school custodian, Zack and Gracie learn of his commitment to his job and their school…Together they devise a plan to recognize his hard work.

General Review: Using a common situation and a simple growth of awareness from the main characters, a believable plot unfolds with a realistic conclusion.

Themes: Work Ethic, Craftsmanship, Careers, Recognition of Work, Awards

Author Information: Site has author biography and discussion about other titles written. Site has summary of The A+ Custodian.

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. What job skills does a custodian need?
  2. What are the responsibilities of a custodian?
  3. What does the word custodian mean?
  4. Why did Gracie and Zack follow Mr. Carillo around the school?
  5. Why did Dublin School decide to honor Mr. Carillo?

Activity Suggestions:

Standard 4 Benchmark 1 (Careers)

1. Ask a custodian or custodial supervisor to visit with students about job requirements for the position. Discuss workload, hours, safety issues, areas of expertise, level of education, and additional training required.

Standard 3 Benchmark 3 (Problem Solving)

2. Initiate a discussion with students about respect for work done in various other departments of the school ( food service, transportation, office staff, health services, as well as custodial).

Standard 2 Benchmark 2 ( Fact, Opinion, point of view)

3. Utilize another title from the list below and compare/contrast the point of view of the main character(s) to Zack and Gracie in The A+ Custodian.

Repeat the compare/contrast activity for the value placed on the work done by custodial staff.

Custodians by Debbie Yanuck

Custodian from the Black Lagoon by Mike Thaler

Janitor’s Boy by Andrew Clements

Feet in the Gym by Daniels


Allow students to plan and execute a recognition day for custodial and/or other support staff.

Cabin on Trouble Creek

Jean Van Leeuwen; Dial Books, 2004
Grade Level : Grades 3 to 5
ISBN & Cost: 0803725485 $16.99

Author Information: Jean has written over 40 books for children and young adults. This book is actually written about a true story she wished to share. This book was on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Masters List. Jean has 2 grown children and lives with her husband in New York.

Something About the Author, Volume 153

Synopsis: After arriving at their new homestead, Daniel and Will encounter several obstacles that must be overcome. Bears, wolves and heavy snow are some of the dangers they must face. After Pa doesn’t return for several weeks, the boys, with the help of an unexpected teacher, learn to survive in the wilderness.

General Review: With an 1803 wilderness setting, this book serves well as an elementary curricular tie-in. Survival and suspense keep even older students reading.

Themes: Frontier and pioneer life, Ohio, self-reliance, brothers

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. What were the boys, jobs when their father left?
  2. Who was watching the boys from afar?
  3. What did the Indian teach the boys first?
  4. How did the boys first catch fish? What was the second way?
  5. What animal attacked Daniel?
  6. What was used to help heal Daniel’s leg?
  7. When did Ma and Pa return to the cabin?
  8. What took Ma and Pa so long to return?

Suggested Activities: 

 1. Build a log cabin (use twigs, sticks, dowel rods or tongue depressors); the children could also use small rocks to build a fireplace on the outside of the cabin. (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

2. (Since Will and Daniel whittled bowls out of trees) Make bowls out of molding clay. (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

3. Using a Venn diagram, compare and contrast the two brothers. What skills do they have which help in their survival? Which skills do they share? (Standard 3, Benchmark 1)

4. Choose an appropriate source (print or internet) and see what you can find out about Indians living in Ohio around the time of this book. (Standard 1, Benchmark 4 and 5)

The Cats in Krasinksi Square  

The Cats in Krasinski Square. Hesse, Karen; ill. Watson, Wendy; Scholastic Press, 2004.

Grade Level: 3-5

ISBN 0-439-43540-4; $16.95

General Themes: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Holocaust, Jewish-Poland-Warsaw; Sisters; Heroes; Cats; Altruism; Historical Fiction


In this historical fiction, set in Warsaw, Poland, in 1942, the protagonist and her older sister are Jewish refugees who have escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. As the sole survivors of their family, the sisters are active participants in the Jewish Resistance Movement whose mission is to smuggle food through crevices in the wall back to their Jewish friends in the Ghetto. With no other friends, the young narrator befriends the abandoned cats in Krasinski Square. The sisters collaborate with other Jews to bring contraband food to their compatriots in the ghetto. To their dismay, members of the Resistance Movement discover that the Gestapo has learned of their plan and will meet the train with police dogs to sniff out the smuggled food and betray the Resistance members. The role of the cats in the story is elevated when the young narrator convinces others that the cats can be loaded into baskets, carried to the train station, and used as a distraction to help their friends.

General Review:

The beauty of this simple, but poetic narrative makes this book an appropriate read for helping younger students understand the courage and wisdom needed as survival skills for Jewish children in Warsaw in the early 1940s. In eloquent and memorable text, the young narrator hides her past, claiming, “I look like any child playing with cats…I wear my Polish look, I walk my Polish walk. Polish words float from my lips, and I am almost safe, almost invisible, moving through Krasinski Square.” While fulfilling a mutual need by befriending the cats, the narrator, wise beyond her years, describes the felines in a metaphor appropriate for the lost lives of the Jewish refugees themselves. “They belonged once to someone. They slept on sofa cushions and ate from crystal dishes. They purred, furrowing the chests, and nuzzling the chins of their beloveds. Now they have no one to kiss their velvety heads.” The illustrations of Wendy Watson contribute a dramatic, yet ethereal enhancement to the story. Borders that resemble the restrictive, intersecting lines of a fence and the Gestapo patrolling the streets with their snarling dogs convey danger but in a manner not graphically disturbing to young readers. Her soft drawings complement, yet add a sense of light and hope to the text. Clearly, Hesse sends children the message that we can always help others in spite of personal adversity. However, the content of this story makes adult-led discussion and guidance necessary. The Author’s Note at the end of the text is a must-read to help students understand and appreciate the historical events on which the story is based.

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. Why are the cats in Krasinksi Square drawn to the girl who is the narrator? Cite the language in the story that tells you this.
  2. What are the similarities and differences between the narrator and the other children playing in Krasinski Square?
  3. This is a historical fiction. What event/time period in history is used as the setting for this story? Discuss the following terms: The Wall, The Ghetto, Jewish Resistance Movement, and Gestapo.
  4. Define “hero.” What makes a person a hero? Make a connection between this story and an event or person that you know about.


1. Learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto. Use one print source and one electronic source to identify four key points in chronological order. Create a timeline using Microsoft Word or Kidspiration, labeling the events you have documented. (Standard 3; Benchmark 2)

2. Interview someone you feel has made the world a better place in some way. If possible, invite this person to visit your classroom and speak to the class. Create a photo montage of guests who are your heroes. Challenge your class to perform acts of kindness. Record those on hearts to add to your bulletin board. (Standard 7; Benchmark 1) (Standard 9; Benchmark 2)

3. Locate Warsaw, Poland on a map. Research the continent in which Poland is located, the population of Warsaw, geographic land forms in the area, and the distance to three other major cities: Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and London, England (three important cities during World War II). (Standard 2; Benchmark 4)

Other books on the holocaust for younger readers:

Ackerman, Karen. Night Crossing. Alfred A. Knopf

Adler, David. A Picture Book of Anne Frank. Holiday House

Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche. Harcourt Brace

Levine, Karen. Hana’s Suitcase. Whitman

Polacco, Patricia. The Butterfly. Penguin Young Readers

Russo, Marisabina. Always Remember Me. Atheneum

Volavkova, Hana. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Schocken Books

The United States Holocaust Museum’s website has sections for teachers and for students which might be helpful as well:<>

Hachiko Waits

Hachiko Waits

Leslea Newman; Ill. by Machiyo Kodaira;

Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2004

Grade Level 3-5

ISBN & COST 0-8050-7336-1 $15.95


Themes: Loyalty, devotion, death, responsibility, Japanese culture

Author Information: Author’s Website: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.

Contemporary Authors, Vol. 107, p292-295.

Something About the Author, Vol. 71, p138-139; Vol. 128, p184-187 and Vol. 134, p124-127.

Synopsis: Every day just before 3:00, the loyal dog Hachi waits patiently for his master, Professor Ueno, to step off the train and accompany him home. One day, his master does not return, but Hachi never gives up waiting. The professor’s young friend, Yasuo, takes care of Hachi, though Hachi will never go home with him and become his dog.

General Review: This tender story of a dog’s loyalty to his master and a caring boy’s devotion to the dog will touch the hearts of children and adults. Readers are also introduced to the culture of Japan in the early 20 th century through detailed descriptions and a helpful glossary.

Also reviewed in BookList, (Jan.1, 2005, Vol. 101 Issue 9/10, p859), Publisher’s Weekly ( Dec. 13, 2004, Vol. 251 Issue 50, p68) and School Library Journal (Nov. 2004, Vol. 50 Issue 11, p113).

Hachiko Waits was a 2004 honor winner in the ASPCAHenry Bergh Children's Book Award for Fiction: Companion Animals.The award was established to honor books that promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things.

Discussion Questions: Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. Would you want a dog like Hachiko? Why or why not?
  2. How did Hachiko affect those people who met him?
  3. The sculptor asked Yasuo, “Tell me about Hachiko”. Why do you think he needed to know about Hachiko before making the sculpture?
  4. People came from all over for the unveiling of the sculpture. Why do you think people cared so much for Hachiko?
  5. Yasuo told his girlfriend to meet him by the statue of Hachiko at 3:00 so he could propose marriage. Why did Yasuo choose that time and place for his proposal to Miyuki? What does the sculpture represent?


 Activity Suggestions: 

1. “Akitas are known for their loyalty and extreme devotion.” Research another dog breed and find out its traits. Standard 3, benchmark 2.

2. Haiku is a type of Japanese poetry about nature. It has 3 lines and 17 syllables. The first and last line have 5 syllables and the second line has seven. Write a haiku about your favorite pet or other animal. Standard 3, benchmark 4.

3. Professor Ueno and Hachiko both died on Tango-no-Sekku or Boys’ Day in Japan. On Boy’s Day (now called Children’s Day) families fly carp shaped banners or windsocks. There is one banner for each child in the family. Using paper or fabric, make a carp banner for you or someone else in your family. What else do families do for Children’s Day? Standard 3, benchmarks 2 & 4.

4. Find Tokyo Japan on a map. What countries are close to Japan? What separates Japan from these countries? Standard 1, benchmark 5.


Children who enjoy Hachiko Waits may want to read the picture book Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner.

Ida B.... and Her Plans to Maximize Fun and Disaster and (Possibly) Save the World. 

Title: Ida B . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World

Author: Katherine Hannigan

Publisher: Greenwillow

Grade Level: 3 rd – 5th

ISBN # and cost: 0060730242, $15.99


Synopsis: Fourth grader Ida B spends happy hours being home-schooled and playing in her family’s apple orchard, until circumstances force her parents to sell part of the orchard and send her to public school.

General Review: Ida B’s voice comes shining through in this story of an unconventional girl whose idyllic world is shattered when her mother develops cancer. After a life of freedom playing and learning in her family’s apple orchard, the previously home-schooled girl is sent to public school after her mother becomes ill. Ida is miserable at school and must find a way to cope with not only school problems and her mother’s cancer, but also the fact that her family must sell part of the beloved orchard to pay medical bills. We see the extreme ups and downs of Ida’s world, from her carefree days exhibiting her irrepressible zest for life, to her days of despair and anger when she just doesn’t know how to cope. Ida B is an intriguing, exceptionally well-written character who is charming, quirky, honest, and, at times, heartbreaking.

Themes: Family life, School, Nature, Cancer, Orchards

Author Information: 

“Katherine Hannigan.” (The Booklist Interview) by Jennifer Mattson. Booklist, Jan 1, 2005 v101 i9-10 p843(1). (available online through free KanEd access to InfoTrac)

Katherine Hannigan: Pippin Properties Authors/Illustrators

Katherine Hannigan Official Web Page (HarperCollins)


An interview with the author (BookBrowse) author_number=1055

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3, Benchmark 3)

1. How does Ida B deal with her anger? How do you deal with anger? What advice could you give to Ida B on effective anger management techniques?

2. Ida B loves to talk to trees. What do you think this shows about her?

3. Ida B is an interesting character with such a unique voice. Reading this book makes you feel as if you know her very well. How would you describe Ida B to someone who had never met or read about her?

4. Were Ida B’s parents right to sell part of the orchard? Why is Ida so upset about it? If you were Ida B, would you have reacted the same way she did? Why or why not?


Activity Suggestions: 

1. Why do some students and parents choose to home school rather than going to public school? Is it something that would work for your family? What are the pros and cons? Check out some of the resources listed below to learn more. (Standard 2, Benchmark 4; Standard 3, Benchmark 3) 

The articles listed below are good introductions to home-schooling and are available through free statewide access to SIRS.

by Leslie Gorin

Aug./Sept. 2001, pp. 24-26

by Nell Roversi-Deal

Sept./Oct. 2000, pp. 9-11

by Mary M. Bradford – (fiction)

HOPSCOTCH Aug./Sept. 2001, pp. 12-15

2. Find out more about the orchard business and how apples are grown. Locate recipes that include apples and try cooking some of them. Prepare some recipes as a class, or have students prepare food at home to bring to school and share. (Standard 1, Benchmarks 4-5; Standard 3, Benchmark 3) 


3. Find out more about cancer. There are a number of good websites and books geared to kids with a family member or friend who has cancer. NOTE: Be sensitive to children with personal or family experiences with cancer. This activity may not be appropriate for everyone.Discuss: What could you do if you found out a friend or a friend’s parent had cancer? How could you support or help them? (Standard 2, Benchmark 4; Standard 3, Benchmark 3) 


There are a number of SIRS articles about cancer (there is free statewide access to SIRS). The one listed below is a good basic discussion of the disease that is easy to understand and not too scary or overwhelming. It features an excellent glossary of terms associated with cancer.


. . . Reprinted from WHEN SOMEONE IN YOUR FAMILY HAS CANCER, (National Cancer Institute), Dec. 1995, pp. 6-9

Picture books about cancer

Good Luck, Mrs. K! by Louise Borden

Victoria’s Smile by Rita Geller

Kathy’s Hats: a Story of Hope by Trudy Krishner

Follow-Up Books: 

If you liked Ida B, you might also want to try these books about kids overcoming obstacles or problems:

All the Way Home by Patricia Reilly Giff

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Small Steps: the Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret

The Graduation of Jake Moon by Barbara Park

The Last Holiday Concert

The Last Holiday Concert by Andrew Clements

Grade level: 4 – 7

Aladdin Paperback $5.99

ISBN: 0689845162


AUTHOR INFORMATION: Prolific writer Andrew Clements demonstrates understanding of student/teacher relationships in many of his well-written books. He is an award-winning author. His web site is

 He is currently working on Things Hoped For, a sequel to Things Not Seen.

 SYNOPSIS: Sixthgrader Hart Evans acts inappropriately one day in chorus class and the teacher, Mr. Meinert, loses his temper. What Hart doesn’t know is that Mr. Meinert will lose his job after January 1 because of budget cuts. In frustration that day in class Mr. Meinert then hands over to Hart the responsibility of overseeing/leading the holiday concert.

 The end product does indeed wow the audience, but we, the readers, see the challenging steps which both Hart and Mr. Meinert take along the way to prepare for the Last Holiday Concert.

 GENERAL REVIEW: Andrew Clements realistically captures the student point of view and the teacher point of view. The reader sympathizes with each’s frustrations and triumphs. The dialogue seems right on.

 THEMES: school situations (with control issues), leadership, music appreciation


  1. List all of the extra activities that Mr. Meinert does on his own time, according to his wife Lucy. (chapter 5)
  2. What are some ways that Mr. Meinert and Hart help each other with their leadership goals?
  3. What has the school district decided to do in the end? How does that effect Mr. Meinert? How does it effect Hart and the rest of the students?

 ACTIVITIES: Reading Standard One, Benchmark Four and Reading Standard Two, Benchmark One

1. Design a program for your school’s next music concert. How is the design of a vocal concert’s program different from the design of a band/strings concert’s program?

2. Draw a picture of your favorite scene from the novel.

3. After reading chapter 13, make a Venn Diagram and write the heading “Leadership Styles”. Then label one circle “Mr. Meinert” and the other circle “Hart Evans”. Using page 96-98 as a close reference, complete the separate sections(differences in leadership styles) and the concentric portion(similarities in their leadership styles) of the Venn.

Operation Clean Sweep

Beard, Darleen Bailey. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004

Gr. 3 rd-5 th

ISBN: 0374-38034-1; $16.00


Synopsis: In 1916, just four years after getting the right to vote, the women of Umatilla, Oregon, band together to throw the mayor and other city officials out of office, replacing them with women. Throw in the prospect of capturing a notorious pick-pocket and twelve year old Cornelius’ week takes on major complications with his mother’s secret political plans and his father’s re-election.

General Review: For any child trapped between two parents, the question of who to understand and the worry about them both, shines clear in this fast paced read. When Cornelius accidentally discovers what his mother and her friends are about to do, it places him in a position no child wants to be in. Beard has captured the times in both attitude and flavor. Would make a good classroom read aloud. "The lots of fun. A great addition to historical-fiction collections." – SLJ October 1, 2004

Themes: Families; American History-Fiction; Women’s Suffrage

Discussion Questions:

Standard 9; Benchmark 1

1. Why are the women so secretive about their plans to run for public office?

2. Who do you think would make the better mayor, Cornelius’ mother or father? Why and what would be the differences?

3. Did you think that adding information about Sticky Fingers Fred was important to the story? Why or why not?

4. Should Cornelius have told his father what his mother was planning to do?

5. In today’s world, why do you think there are so few women in public office?


1. Find out when women began voting in Kansas and who the first woman mayor was of what Kansas town. Standard 1; Benchmark 5

2. Look up which states currently have women governors, United States Senators and Congresswomen. Standard 1; Benchmark 5

3. Working in groups, plan a political campaign for mayor of your town. Tell what you think should be done to help your community. Write a campaign speech and make posters. Standard 3, Benchmark 1  and Standard 5, Benchmark 3

4. Invite an elected official to your school. Give them a tour, showing what makes your school excellent, what may need to be improved and eat lunch in the cafeteria. Standard 9, Benchmark 3

5. Research how many eligible voters voted in the 2004 Presidential election. How many women, men and the age groups, for the U.S. and Kansas. Why do you think not everyone who cans votes? Would you vote? Have you ever been to a voting site? Standard 1; Benchmark 5

The President's Daughter

The President’s Daughter. Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker

Delacorte Press, 2004

Grade Level : 3-5

ISBN : 0-385-73147-7

Cost : $16.87

Author information : Kimberly Brubaker Bradley studied chemistry in college but was talked into taking a children’s literature class with a friend. The teacher, Patricia MacLachlan, influenced her to write her first book. For more information see: or

Synopsis : This is the story of Ethel Roosevelt, who was ten years old when her father Theodore Roosevelt became president. The family livens up the White House with pets, skating in the basement, biking in the gardens, horseback rides, and “scrambles” throughout the neighboring parks. Ethel must stay away during the week at boarding school where no one seems to like her. Her older sister shares her secret for making friends, a secret which Ethel realizes she already had learned from her father.

General Review : This is a fascinating story describing Ethel’s life as a boarder at the National Cathedral School and her weekends at home at the White House. Students who enjoy history and presidential stories will be greatly entertained by all the information that is presented about the Roosevelt family.

Discussion Questions : ( Standard 3 Benchmark 3)

1. What makes a friend? Would you have been Ethel’s friend?

2. Do people who are in the public eye need to behave differently than

people like you and me? Do we expect them to behave differently?

3. This book is historical fiction. What parts are fiction and what parts

are history?

Activity Suggestions:


1. Research events of President Theodore Roosevelt’s life and perform a classroom skit based on the information.

(Standard 3, Benchmark 4)

2. Create a diorama of the Roosevelt family.

(Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

3. Students work in cooperative groups to create a timeline of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. (Standard 9, Benchmark 1)

Research Washington, D.C. and create brochures of places to visit there. (Standard 1, Benchmark 3, Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

The Report Card

The Report Card. Andrew Clements;

Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2004

Grade Level:  (3-5)

0-689-84515-4 and $7.74 and up:


Author Information:

click here for more.... 



Nora Rowley, fifth grader at Philbrook Elementary School, was a genius. She describes herself as having the opposite of amnesia she can remember everything. She loves facts and thinks everyone else over-reacts about grades. Nora decides she will come up with a plan to show others that grades are not important. Everything starts off going pretty good; she even gets her best friend Stephen to join in on her plan. When things take a turn for the worst can Nora talk her way through her plan?

General review:  

Andrew Clements’ has written another solid story about a real-life issue, “state testing”. He has highlighted the controversial issue of testing and grades from a students’ perspective while also expressing the pressures put on all involved; students, teachers, administration and parents. The fact that standardized tests cannot really tell you much about a child seems to be Clements’ main point. I enjoy the fact that Clements’ has included a variety of view points in this story and has also pointed out that not all teachers are fans of tests. The large print and bright cover will attract all readers and may be a title to hook a reluctant reader.

Themes: school, friendship, honesty, imagination, education, testing,

Discussion Questions: 

1. Nora has kept her intelligence a secret from her family, friends and teachers for a long time. Give several examples of ways Nora keeps her secret.

2. Do you think Nora made a good choice to keep this secret? Why or why not?

3. Nora says that she got her terrible report card for Stephen. Explain this statement.

4. List some of the ways Nora describes her friend Stephen. How do you think Nora really feels about Stephen? Do you think protecting Stephen is truly the only reason Nora decided to get a bad report card? 5. Describe what happens at your school and at home on a report card day.

6. Who opens your report card? How do you feel just before the report card is opened? What happens if you get especially good or bad grades?

7. Would you like to go to a school without tests or grades? Why or why not? List some of the possible positive and negative aspects of such a school.

Activity Suggestions:   

1. Nora describes how she first got to know her friend Stephen. Write a paragraph or short story about how you met one of your best friends. (Standard 3.1)

2. Nora and Stephen had an important message about testing and a desire to share their thoughts. Choose an issue, which you feel strongly and create a plan for sharing your feelings with others. (Standard 2.2)

3. Nora seems uncertain about her goals for life after high school while her sister Ann has clear goals. Write a paragraph describing what you hope to accomplish after high school. Share your paragraph with your class or a group of friends. How might you achieve your goals? (Standard 4.1)


Suggested follow-up Books:


The Landry News

The School Story

A Week in The Woods

The Janitor’s Boy

The Last Holiday Concert

Jake Drake books

S is for Sunflower: a Kansas Alphabet

Scillian, Devin. S is for Sunflower: A Kansas Alphabet.

Chelsea , MI , Sleeping Bear Press, 2004.
Hardback ISBN: 1585360619
Paperback: No
Other formats: No
Grade level: 3-5
Author Information:


Synopsis: Each letter represents people, places, objects or ideas unique to Kansas and uses rhymes to convey the information.

General Review: This book will be a valuable addition to all Kansas libraries. Teachers can incorporate it right into their Kansas Day lessons. The rhymes are perfect for any age including younger children while facts are placed in the margin for older students.

Themes: Kansas, English language alphabet

Discussion Questions:

1. Why is Kansas called the “World’s Breadbasket?”

2. Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System. How important is that to America?

3. Why did Kansas choose the sunflower as its state flower?

4. Name something new about Kansas that you didn’t know until you read this book.

Activity suggestions:

1. Begin your lesson on Kansas by assessing your student’s prior knowledge using a K-W-L chart. List on a chart the facts that you students already know about Kansas. Next ask them to tell you what they want to know. After reading the book, have students tell you what they have learned. (Standard 1, Benchmark 3)

2. Interview your mom, dad, or grandparents and see what stories they have about coming to Kansas. You might want to record the interview(s) on cassette or videotape. (Standard 7, Benchmark 1)

3. As a class project, publish a “little book” of facts about Kansas. (Standard 3, Benchmark 2)

4. Arrange to have a senior citizen visit the classroom to talk with the students after they have read the book. Have the students decide on some questions they would like to ask. (Standard 7, Benchmark 1

Thunder From the Sea

Thunder from the Sea, Joan Hiatt Harlow

Margaret K. McElderry ( May 4, 2004)

Ages 9-12

ISBN 0689864035

Cost $14.95

SYNOPSIS: Tom Campbell, a 13-year-old orphan, travels to Back o’the Moon Island to live with Enoch and Fiona Murray in 1929. After he rescues a young Newfoundland dog, Thunder, during a storm his life seems nearly perfect until trouble with his neighbors and the impending birth of a new baby threaten to change everything.


GENERAL REVIEW: This is an exciting adventure story that will appeal especially to dog lovers. Tom and Thunder face danger from an earthquake, a tidal wave, and the jealousy of their neighbors and overcome all in the end. The setting gives the reader a picture of northern life on the sea and the joys of living in this remote region. Tom’s worries about not being able to stay as part of the family are realistic and the happy ending feels good. It’s a great dog book where the dog doesn’t die.


THEMES: Orphans, Dogs, Family Life, Newfoundland and Labrador


AUTHOR INFORMATION: Joan Hiatt Harlow is an internationally known author of children’s books including a 2003-2004 WAW nominee Joshua’s Song. She grew up in New England and her mother was a Newfoundlander. She currently spends the spring and summer in New Hampshire and the fall and winter in Venice, Florida. Her website is


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. Why did Enoch and Fiona like living on this remote island? What did it offer that they couldn’t find in town?
  2. Why would Enoch want to be in partnership with Amos ? Why was it difficult? How would you deal with a partner like Amos?
  3. What is jannie talk? Why do Mummers use it? What is cheek music? What is it used for?
  4. Why did the earthquake cause a tidal wave? How might Thunder have sensed it before the people?


1. This is a fictional story of a dog who is a hero. Find some examples of real animal heroes and report on the ways dogs can help people. How can a dog’s senses make a difference in detecting an emergency or saving a person? Standard 1 Benchmark 5

2. Look at an atlas of Canada and look for small islands like Back o’the Moon. Where are some real islands? What can you discover about the people that live there? Standard 7 Benchmark 1

3. Research real earthquakes and tsunamis and the current attempts to create early warning systems? Standard 3 Benchmark 3

What is Goodbye? 

Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Raul Colon   
Hyperion Books for Children, NY
Grade Level: 3-5
ISBN 0786807784  


Synopsis: Through poetry, a brother and sister juxtapose their raw emotions surrounding the recent death of an older brother. Various coping mechanisms, questions and feelings unique to children are depicted as each reacts differently to the sudden change and progress slowly to find healing.

General Review: Grimes’ skillful use of free verse, rhyme and pattern snapshots the sentiments of Jesse and Jerilyn, brother and sister, who have lost an older sibling. Throughout a year, stages of grief, coping, and finally preliminary healing are powerfully portrayed with the unique perspective of a child. Guilt, anger, depression, escapism, happy nostalgia, loss of control, and other feelings are juxtaposed as each sibling follows a unique path of grief. Grimes added in the author’s note, “There is no right or wrong way to feel when someone close to you dies.” Jesse and Jerilyn exemplify the basic human struggles which transpire gender, race, culture and status.

Themes: death, grief, juvenile poetry, brothers and sisters, family, bibliotherapy

Author Information: , SATA v. 136

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3, Benchmark 3)

  1. See Nikki Grimes Discussion Guide
  2. When Jerilyn tries to talk about Jaron to her parents, they don’t want to talk about him. Why do you think that is? Why does Jerilyn want to talk? Why do her parents not want to talk? Do you think they need to talk together? When?
  3. What do you think each of the characters in the book will be like in 10 years?
  4. What have you learned about grief from reading this book?

Suggested Activities: 

1. Choose one of Raul Colon’s illustrations from the book. Make a list of all the objects, actions, and colors in the picture. Write about why he used those things to tell us about the poem. (Standard 5, Benchmark 2)

2. Read about the stages of grief. Pick one poem from the book which you believe best shows that stage and write about why. (Standard 2, Benchmark 4)

3. Procure an emotions poster. (An emotions poster is one which depicts dozens of various faces, cartoon or photographs, each with a different emotion. They are available through library curriculum resource centers or through educational materials companies.) While reading the book, find the emotion(s) depicted on the poster, which relate to the poem being studied. Select the words from the poem (verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs) which best support the face you have chosen. (Standard 5, Benchmark 2)

Grades 6-8

Al Capone Does My Shirts. By Choldenko, Gennifer. (Barb Bahm)

Becoming Naomi Leon. By Ryan, Pam Munoz. (Barb Bahm)

The Breaker Boys. By Hughes, Patrice Raccio. (Angie Price)

Chasing Vermeer. By Balliett, Blue. (Amy Brownlee)

Chu Ju’s House. By Whelan, Gloria. (Kim Glover)

The Double Life of Zoe Flynn. By Carey, Janet Lee. (Julie Tomlianovich)

Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930’s. By Cooper, Michael. (Arvel White)

Escape to West Berlin. By Dahlberg, Maurine. (Heather Collins)

A House of Tailors. By Giff, Patricia Reilly. (Kim Glover)

Little Cricket. By Brown, Jackie. (Rita Sevart)

Never Mind! A Twin Novel. By Vail, Avi and Rachel. (Bev Nye)

The Old Willis Place. By Hahn, Mary Downing. (Beverley Buller)

Peter and the Starcatchers. By Barry, Dave and Pearson, Ridley. (Barb Bahm)

So B. It. By Weeks, Sarah. (Jason Brabander)

The Spirit Line. By Thurlo, Aimee and David. (Barb Stransky)

The Teacher’s Funeral; a Comedy in Three Parts. By Peck, Richard. (Retta Eiland)

Thin Wood Walls. By Patneaude, David. (Barb Bahm)

Wintering Well. By Wait, Lea. (Lori Swiercinsky)

Yankee Girl. By Rodman, Mary Ann. (Margaret K. McElderry)

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Al Capone Does My Shirts. Gennifer Choldenko; Putnam, 2004.

Grade Level: 6-8
Hardback ISBN: 0399238611 $16.99
Paperback ISBN: 0142403709 $6.99
Paperback ISBN: 0439692377 $3.99


Synopsis: Set in 1935, when guards actually lived on Alcatraz Island with their families, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family move from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island where his father gets a job as an electrician at the prison and his mother hopes to send his autistic older sister to a special school in San Francisco.

General Review: Family dilemmas are the main component of the story, but history and setting--including plenty of references to the prison's most infamous inmate, mob boss Al Capone--play an important part, too. The Flanagan family is believable in the way each member handles Natalie and her difficulties. The story, told with humor and skill, will fascinate readers with an interest in what it was like for the children of prison guards and other workers to actually grow up on Alcatraz Island. With its unique setting and well-developed characters, this engaging coming-of-age

Story has plenty of appeal.

Themes: Alcatraz Island (CA), Autism, Family Problems, Brothers & Sisters, Coming of Age

Author Information:

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. How does Moose Flanagan sleep during his first night on Alcatraz Island?
  2. Who is “105” and why does this person cause Moose so much anxiety?
  3. From the beginning to the end of the novel, which characters seem to show signs of changing? How do they change? Do you think these changes will last?
  4. Based on the title of the book, what did you think this book would be about before you read it? How was the story different from what you originally expected?
  5. Moose finds himself both attracted to Piper and very suspicious of her. If you could give Moose some advice about how to handle Piper, what would you say? How do you think Moose ought to respond to her?


1. Research to learn more about Al Capone or another famous criminal mentioned in the novel who spent time at Alcatraz. Draw a timeline to depict the criminal’s life, using drawings and descriptions to show important events. Standard 3, Benchmark 3; Standard 5, Benchmark 1.

2. If Moose believes that Al Capone is responsible for Natalie’s admission into the school, how would he thank him? If he wrote a letter to Capone, what would he say? Write a thank you letter from Moose to Capone. Standard 3, Benchmark 1.

3. What is autism? Use the Internet or reference books to learn more about autism, and create a poster to help educate your fellow classmates about this disorder. Be ready to explain which signs of autism Natalie displays. Also, how has the treatment of autism changed since the 1930s? Standard 1, Benchmark 2 & 5; Standard 5, Benchmark 3.

Becoming Naomi Leon

Becoming Naomi Leon. Pam Munoz Ryan; Scholastic, 2004. 
Grade Level: 6-8
Hardcover ISBN: 0439269695 $ 16.95
Paperback ISBN: 0439803772 $ 4.99


Half-Mexican Naomi Soledad, 11, and her younger disabled brother, Owen, have been brought up by their tough, loving great-grandmother in a California trailer park, and they feel at home in the multiracial community. When their alcoholic mom reappears after seven years hoping to take Naomi (not Owen) back, Gram is determined not to let that happen. A quiet life in Lemon Tree, California, becomes a runaway journey to find an estranged father in exotic Oaxaca, Mexico.

General Review:

Naomi's tale is one of becoming, of finding one's heritage, of discovering one's true talent while overcoming the odds of abandonment, anxiety, and disappointment. This is also a story of strength, devotion and the search for family. All of the characters are well drawn, and readers will share Naomi's fear about her future. A moving book about family dynamics.

Themes: Names, Journeys, Freedom, Goals, Family, Mexican-Americans

Author Information:

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. Why does Naomi speak so softly? Does she act differently in school than she does at home? Why is it so easy for her to make friends with Blanca?
  2. What makes life in Lemon Tree so special to Naomi and Owen?
  3. Which are the important friendships portrayed in the story? What does friendship mean to people and how does it affect their lives?
  4. Look carefully at the names of the chapters. Why does the author name each chapter a group of animals? How do the collective nouns describe the animals? How do they relate to what is happening in each chapter?
  5. At the end of the book, Mr. Marble says that Naomi has grown from a mouse to a lion. What did he mean by that? In addition to Naomi, which other characters in the book change and grow to understand themselves better?


1. Interview a character from the book. Write at least ten questions that will give the character the opportunity to discuss his/her thoughts and feelings about his/her role in the story. However you choose to present you interview is up to you. Standard 1, Benchmark 3.

2. Write a feature article (with a headline) that tells the story of the book as it might be found on the front page of a newspaper in the town where the story takes place. Standard 5, Benchmark 3.

3. Find the top 10 web sites a character in the book would most frequently visit. Include 2-3 sentences for each on why the character likes each of the sites. Standard 2, Benchmark 1.


4. Make a travel brochure for Oaxaca, Mexico. Standard 5, Benchmark 3.

The Breaker Boys

The Breaker Boys. by Pat Hughes. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004

Grade Level : 6-8

ISBN and cost :  0374309566; $15.40

Author Information: A relatively new author, Pat’s web site is just being developed. It does show that The Breaker Boys is her second of three books. Go to her website at:

Synopsis :  This historical novel is set in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, in 1897. Twelve-year-old Nate Tanner, the son of a coal mine owner, has been expelled from boarding school and returns home to befriend a mineworkers son. He finds himself caught between the needs of the miners and the fears of his family about the future of their business.

General review :  Don’t judge this book by its cover. It is far from dull. Boys will especially find it interesting because of the colorful main character, Nate, that has difficulty staying out of trouble and in making and keeping friends. Nate becomes friends with the sons of miners, especially Johnny, a Polish-American, but he doesn’t reveal the fact that he is the mine owner’s son. Most of these boys are “breaker boys”, workers in the coalmines at young age. When Nate becomes close to Johnny and his whole family he struggles with his feelings of loyalty to his own family and a close insight to the needs of the workers when the miners go on strike. The author does a fine job of creating real characters that the reader will truly care about, and at the same time teaching the reader about a not-so-well known group of workers that were important in the historical makeup of our country, the coalminers and the breaker boys.

Themes : Friendship; honesty; loyalty; family; forgiveness; doing what is right; immigrants; labor & labor unions.

Discussion Questions : Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. Describe the main character, Nate.
  2. Compare and contrast Nate and his friend Johnny.
  3. Give examples of times when Nate struggled with honesty.
  4. What so you think is the most serious mistake that Nate made in the story, The Breaker Boys? What would you have done?

Activity Suggestions :   

1. Research the lives of “Breaker Boys”. (1:4; 1:5; 7:1; 8:2)

2. Find out what labor unions are and what their roles were in the development of our country, especially at the turn of the century and especially the coal workers unions. (2:4; 6:1; 7:1)

3. Compare and contrast the relationship that Nate had with his father and the relationship he had with his grandfather in a Venn diagram. (3:1; 3:3)

4. Debate the decision that Nate had to make when comparing the issues of the miners and the issues of the owners. (2:1; 2:2; 2:4; 3:4

Chasing Vermeer

Title: Chasing Vermeer
Author: Blue Balliett
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Grade Level: 6 th-8 th
ISBN # and cost: 0-439-70318-2, $16.95

Synopsis: When a priceless Vermeer painting is stolen on its way to Chicago for a special exhibition, sixth graders Petra and Calder team up and follow a wild assortment of clues in an attempt to solve the mystery and rescue the painting from destruction.

General Review: Sixth graders Petra and Calder become friends when they are drawn into a suspenseful mystery revolving around a stolen Vermeer painting. This story combines mystery, art, puzzles and codes, patterns, and coincidences to produce a fascinating tale that invites the reader to play “armchair detective” to discover how all the pieces of the story fit together. Illustrator Brett Helquist adds to the fun by hiding clues and a secret code in the pictures. Mystery fans will love this intriguing book that breaks the mold of the traditional mystery story.

Themes: Mysteries; Art; Coincidence; Secret Codes; Johannes Vermeer (artist).

Author Information: 

BookPage Interview with Blue Balliett: Mystery at the Museum Author & Illustrator Index. Scroll down and click on Blue Balliett. Moderated Author Chat

Blue Balliett. Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005. (available online through free Kan-Ed access to Literature Resource Center)

“Story behind the story: Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer.” (Interview) Ilene Cooper. Booklist, May 1, 2004 v100 i17 p1496(1) (available online through free Kan-Ed access to InfoTrac)

Scholastic Book Fair video Fall 2005 includes a feature on Chasing Vermeer and interview with the author.

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. What is art? What makes a piece of art valuable?
  2. Discuss events in the story that seem like coincidences but come together at the end to help solve the mystery.
  3. Identify events from the story that are classic parts of a mystery: the crime, clues, motive, alibi, red herring, etc. You will find a great list of mystery terms at (part of the online lesson plan What's in a Mystery? Exploring and Identifying Mystery Elements ).
  4. Discuss the importance of patterns in the story, especially the use of pentominoes.

Activity Suggestions: 

1. Go to Scholastic’s Chasing Vermeer site to play an online pentominoes game, get the Reader’s Challenge hints and solution (no peeking until you’ve tried it on your own!), and to print your own set of pentominoes. (Standard 3, Benchmark 3) 

2. Library Sparks magazine online has a wonderful FREE web resource file of word puzzles and codes in their January 2005 edition at Students don’t have to have read Chasing Vermeer to enjoy these activities, and it could be a great way to introduce the book to students. (Standard 3, Benchmark 3)

3. Study the work of Vermeer or other famous artists. Study different types and styles of art. Compare and contrast the work of different artists. Visit an art museum, either in person, through a book, or virtually through the web. Students could create their own “art museum” by choosing their favorite pieces of art and explaining why they would have them in their personal collection. (Standard 1, Benchmark 1; Standard 3, Benchmark 2; Standard 5, Benchmark 2)


National Gallery of Art: links to Vermeer works

Other good art resources online: 

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

2. ArtCyclopedia (a guide to great art on the Internet)

Search for works by Vermeer or another artist of your choice.

3. The Louvre in Paris, France

4. Author Blue Balliett was awarded the 2004 Chicago Tribune Prize for Young Adult Fiction (see article online at Do you think her book deserves this award? Why or why not? Imagine you have been chosen to introduce her. Write a speech that explains why Chasing Vermeer won this award and why the author deserves to be honored. (Standard 3, Benchmark 3; Standard 3, Benchmark 4)

Follow-Up Books: 

If you liked Chasing Vermeer, you might also want to try:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (winner of both the Newbery Medal and William Allen White Award)

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (Newbery Medal, past WAW nominee)

The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base (a picture book mystery with codes and clues hidden in the illustrations)

Short mysteries to be solved: 

Dr. Quicksolve Mystery books by Jim Sukach

MysteryNet’s Kids Mysteries --

Chu Ju's House

Chu Ju's House Gloria Whelan
Grade Level: 5-8
Harper Collins Publishers ISBN: 0-06-050724-1 $10.87
Author Information:


Chu Ju has to make a hard and terrifying decision to keep her baby sister safe with her family. At the age of 15 Chu Ju will set off on her own through China to find a home for herself. During her adventure Chu Ju will discover many things but she will face danger and hardship but she will grow and discover the many different facets of life in her country.

GENERAL REVIEW: Chu Ju’s House is a cultural and historical insight into the lives of the Chinese people living in Mainland China. Gloria Whelan demonstrates some of the effects of the “One Child Policy” in China on its people. She also looks at the effects of communism concerning freedom of speech and censorship. The heroine, Chu Ju leaves her secure family life so that her little sister will not be sold and her family can try for a little boy. Though her adventures on the fisherman’s boat, her work on a silkworm farm, and her final destination on rice farm the reader is able to experience some of the different social and cultural aspects of life in China.


China ’s one child policy, politics, freedom of speech, gender roles, culture, cultural revolution, family, orphans, and agriculture.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. What do you think of China’s one child policy, or for country people and minorities, a two child policy? What are some other solutions for their large population problem?
  2. Why do you think it was so important for Chu Ju’s family to have a son? How does Chu Ju prove that daughters are just as valuable as sons?
  3. Name the different ways that Chu Ju helped others. What was the result of her bravery and generosity?
  4. The author includes some Chinese words in her story. Do you remember what those words are?  Did you know what they meant? How did you figure out what they meant?


1. Activity suggestions:  Look in a map for the size of China and the size of the United States. Next look up in an Almanac the population for both China and the United States.  Compare the size and population of both countries. (Standard 1, Benchmark 4 and 5)

2. Using an encyclopedia or other resources read about China and make a list of the new things you learned about China. (Standard 1, Benchmark 4 and 5 and Standard 5, Benchmark 1)

3. China is a communist country; look up in a dictionary or encyclopedia to find out what communism means. (Standard 1, Benchmark 5 and Standard 8, Benchmark 1)

4. Think about the first part of the story when Chu Ju encounters censorship. Write down whether you think censorship happens in the United States. Write down what freedom of speech means to you and examples of freedom of speech in the United States. (Standard 3, Benchmark 3 and Standard 8, Benchmark 1)

The Double Life of Zoe Flynn

Janet Lee Carey; Atheneum, 2004.
Gr. 6 th-8 th
ISBN: 0-689—85604-0; $16.95


Synopsis: When Zoe's father loses his teaching job and book store, the family has to leave California and what Zoe calls the best house. Ending up in a small town in Oregon and living in the family van, Zoe struggles with dramatic change, embarrassment and keeping the family’s plight a secret from everyone.

General Review: The situation presented will open the eyes of children to the plight of classmates who may be in the same situation. The family is believable as are the supporting characters, which is what makes it so believable. While one sympathizes with Zoe, the reader may lose patience with her determination to return to a life that is gone. “The struggles of this middle-class family to keep their heads above water are realistically and sympathetically presented.” SLJ August 1, 2004

Themes: Homelessness; Family Life; School Stories

Discussion Questions:

Standard 9; Benchmark 1

  1. Without naming names, have you ever had someone say something in class that embarrassed you, like Zoe’s experience with the pink moon?
  2. If you had to leave your home, what would be the one thing you would absolutely have to take? Why?
  3. Why will Zoe not tell Aliya about how she is living? What are the parts of Zoe’s life that are double?
  4. After reading about Zoe’s family being homeless, has it made you look at homeless people and families in a different way?
  5. Are any of Zoe’s plans realistic? The lottery tickets, Galaxy Burgers etc… Standard 9; Benchmark 1
  6. What is the secret doorway? How is it different for different people?


1. Check out: Helping Families Hopelink Standard 9; Benchmark 1

2. National Coalition for the Homeless Standard 9; Benchmark 1

3. Research what is in your town or community that helps homeless or poor families. Find out what these organizations need, then organize a class project to help one of these agencies. Standard 1; Benchmark 3 and 4; Standard 9; Benchmark 1

4. On her website Carey says that a child must have courage. What are the four requirements of courage according to Carey? Write how they apply to you and what you can do to attain the sense of courage. Standard 7; Benchmark 1

5. Have the local police or sheriff’s department do bicycle safety program at your school. Have them talk about some of the more dangerous area in your community for bicycle riders. Standard 7; Benchmark 1

6. Go to the library and find information about selkies. What other stories about selkies can you find beside the one Zoe’s dad tells? Standard 1; Benchmark 5

7. Zoe’s dad has her and Juke close their eyes for “movies of the mind.” Have volunteers from the class tell a story while the rest close their eyes. Standard 7; Benchmark 1

Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930's

Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930s; Cooper, Michael L.; Clarion Books; 2004

Grade Level: 6-8
ISBN:0618154493; $15.00

Synopsis: The author clearly, interestingly, and succinctly describes what led to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and economic distress of the 1930s in the U. S. Midwest, how these events impacted citizens of the United States, and the New Deal under Roosevelt and the U. S. entering World War II, events that helped to end this very difficult and traumatic time in the nation’s history.

Written in clear prose and abundantly illustrated with historical photos of the 1930s, many of them by Dorothea Lange, the author introduces the young reader to the stock market crash of 1929, defines the Dust Bowl, and aptly uses quotes, pictures, and stories by John Steinbeck, Caroline Henderson, Dorthy Lange, and Woody Guthrie to give readers a real flavor of the times through the eyes and words of those who lived it.

General Review:

Packed with information and images that vividly recall a by-gone era in American history, Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930s by Michael L. Cooper is an excellent introduction to this era for upper elementary and middle school students. Cooper illustrates in clear and compelling writing and by the use of heart-rending photos from Dorothea Langue, noted Depression-era photographer, and others from the Library of Congress, factors that led to the Depression and Dust Bowl and how these events affected life in the United States.

Other excellent sources he employs include a diary from Caroline Henderson, a settler in the Oklahoma Panhandle who wrote poignantly of the effect of dirt and poverty, and lyrics from Woody Guthrie. He includes information from John Steinbeck’s visits of the actual California immigrant camps with discussion of his literary triumph, The Grapes of Wrath. For a slim (81 pages) volume, this one packs a wallop and sets the stage for further study of a fascinating yet tragic page in American history.

Themes: Dust Bowl, Great Depression, Migrant Camps, Civilian Conservation Corps, Literature of the Great Depression

Discussion Questions :

  1. Read this quote to students: “I felt I was becoming a slave to the land. But I held on to the thought that this land had to be stopped from blowing. Often I was so full of dust that I drove blind, unable to see even the radiator cap on my tractor or hear the roar of the engines. But I kept driving on and on, by guess and instinct. I was making my last stand in the Dust Bowl.” If you had been part of one of these farm families during the 30s, do you think you would have wanted to stay on your farm or leave? Why or why not? What would you lose by leaving? What would you gain?
  2. Compare the reactions of the people of California to the “Okies” during the 1930s to the reactions today of many people to illegal immigrants from Mexico. Have we really changed? What are some issues facing Kansas today in dealing with immigrants that might be similar to the ones faced by California during the Depression?
  3. Woody Guthrie wrote folk songs about the common man and his plight during the Depression. Compare his song-writing to songs and raps being written today. What are the differences in the protest music? What are the similarities?
  4. After viewing the many historical photos in the book and reading first-hand accounts, what is your reaction to the hardships children were experiencing during the Dust Bowl and Depression? How have the lives of children in the U. S. improved since this time period? Are there ways that we may be worse off today? Discuss.
  5. The New Deal was the beginning of the many of the social programs we have in this country. Discuss ways welfare, food stamps, social security, and Medicare have improved people’s lives. Are there any downsides to any of these programs?


Activity Suggestions :

  1. Interview someone in your family or your town who lived through the Dust Bowl. Write a short paper about how they adapted to the hardships, such as everyday living conditions, diet, care of farm animals, taking care of crops, and clothing. (Standard 3: Benchmark 2:)
  2. Do research to find a Civil Conservation Corps project that was built in your area. Try to visit it or find a picture, find out the cost of the project, number of men who worked on it, time it took to build or plant (such as a tree belt, swimming pool in Garden City, KS, etc.). (Standard 7: Benchmark 1:)
  3. Research Route 66, its history, nicknames, route through the U. S., stories surrounding it; if possible find someone who drove it and interview him or her about their experiences. Find pictures of landmarks along Route 66. Combine all these elements into a short report, Power Point, or poster. (Standard 5: Benchmark 3:)
  4. Choose an area in Kansas and find the rainfall for years in the 1930s and 1950s. See if there are similarities. Research the 1950s for signs of another “Dust Bowl.” (Standard 1: Benchmark 5:)
  5. Write a diary entry or letter from one of the following points of view: a farmer who is trying to decide whether to stay on his land; a mother nursing a child sick with dust pneumonia; or a healthy child watching the adults cope with the disaster. (Standard 3: Benchmark 2:)
  6. Research the various relief programs offered by the New Deal. What would have happened to people if relief checks and food handouts were not available? Was this an appropriate governmental response? A group of students could discuss both sides of the issues in a classroom debate. (Standard 3: Benchmark 3:)


An excellent resource for research of these topics is the website on PBS dedicated to “Surviving the Dust Bowl.”

This video would also be good to watch with students after reading the book because people who survived the Dust Bowl are interviewed, and there is also an extensive article from a book of an eyewitness in Elkhart, KS. This website would be a wonderful resource for a unit on the Dust Bowl.

Suggested reading:

Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley

Dust Bowl by Patricia Lauber

The Journal of CJ Jackson by William Durbin

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Treasures in the Dust by Tracey Porter

Red-dirt Jesse by Anna Myers

Rose’s Journal by Marissa Moss

Suggested viewing:

The Plow that Broke the Plains

Surviving the Dust Bowl

Escape to West Berlin

Escape to West Berlin

Maurine F. Dahlberg   
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. 
Grade Level: 6-8
ISBN 0374309590  


Synopsis: During the summer of 1961, Heidi grapples with drastic change, growing up, friendship and loss as she and her family plot to flee East Berlin before the border is closed. Heidi’s perilous flight draws upon her inner courage, adaptability, and stretches the ties of family and friendship.

General Review: Dahlberg depicts the events and emotions surrounding the rise of the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961 through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Heidi Klenk, whose life epitomizes change. She struggles to become more independent, relate to friends, and adapt to a new baby in the family. Most disturbingly, she and her family must adapt and make secret plans as the socialist government clamps down on those passing from East to West Berlin, eventually closing the Berlin Wall. Dahlberg’s humanist eyes lock onto the strain in communist society and the divisions created by cold war mentality. Dahlberg captures the angst of families and friends torn apart by the closing, and the teens who consider their futures under both socialist and democratic systems.

Themes: Berlin 1961, Cold War, Family Life, Growing Up, Friendship, Courage

Author Information: Maurine F. Dahlberg is the author of Play to the Angel and The Sprit and Gilly Bucket. An editor for a Navy research institute, she lives with her husband in Springfield, Virginia. (Escape to West Berlin, book jacket)

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3, Benchmark 3):

  1. If Heidi and Petra lived to see the fall of the Wall in 1989-90 they would be about 41 years old. Do you think they would try to find each other? If so, what do you think the first encounter would be like? What do you imagine they would say to each other? How would they feel about the differences in each other’s lives?
  2. In chapter 5, Heidi’s mother urges Heidi to make up with Petra. What would have been the consequences of not reconciling versus reconciling?
  3. At the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four, Heidi’s family encounters pressure and threats because Heidi’s father is a border crosser. Discuss the rationale and conditions behind those who posted the two signs about boarder crossers, the angry neighbors, Petra’s plea to Heidi, and Herr Brecht’s actions.
  4. In pages 73-78, why do you think Heidi’s perception of the “ideal society” was different from her parent’s? What was important in convincing Heidi to agree to her parent’s plan?


Suggested Activities: 

  1. Read true stories of escape and/or attempted escape from East Berlin (or East Germany). Write a report on the context and the mode of the escape using resources such as (Standard 1, Benchmark 5)
  2. Write a newspaper article interviewing Heidi immediately after she is helped out of the canal (p.174-175). (Standard 5, benchmark 3)
  3. Watch Night Crossing, the true story of the Strelzyk Family’s escape (1981, Disney Pictures) and create a chart comparing the escape attempts made in 1979 versus 1961. Include transportation mode, clandestine tactics, risk of being caught, danger levels, resources, support from the West, feelings of teenagers and family members who are leaving, conditions in East and West Berlin, reasons for going, etc. (Standard 5, Benchmark 2; Standard 3, Benchmark 2)
  4. Give the students an outline map of Germany. Have the students draw in and label Berlin, the Muggelsee, the Spree River, Riesen, Dresden, Freital. (Other major landmarks not mentioned in the book, such as Hamburg, Munich, The Danube and Stuttgart etc. can also be plotted) Have the students hypothesize where Dahlberg’s fictitious ‘Alt Mittelheim’ might have been using clues from the book and trace the heroine’s flight from Alt Mittelheim to West Berlin. Calculate the distance. Use a detailed map of Berlin and find the city transportation stops. Hypothesize using clues from the book, where Heidi might have lived in East Berlin and also where her cottage might have been, based on the transportation stops she describes. On an outline map of Berlin, plot these points as well as the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Zoo, the Spree River, the Wedding District, Teltow Canal, and the Tiergarten. Also calculate the distance Heidi Swam across the canal, 50 meters, (p.166) in feet and yards. (Standard 5, Benchmarks 2 & 3; Standard 6, Benchmark 1)

A House of Tailors


House of Taylors Patricia Reilly Giff
Grade Level: 5-8
Wendy Lamb Books, ISBN 0-385-73066-7 $10.85



When Dina left her home in Breisach, Germany to go to America she believed she was also leaving behind the dreaded sewing, her family's tailor business. In America life would be easier and more fun. Instead, Dina found poverty, deadly diseases and fires, and more sewing…but she also found family, opportunity, and love.

General Review: Patricia Reilly Giff has written a novel that demonstrates the effects of war and the challenges facing immigrants coming to America in the 20th century through the eyes of a young girl. Students will be engaged in and inspired by Dina’s adventure to America and all the trials she faces in the new country.

Themes: War, immigration, family, and social conditions.

Discussion Questions: Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. What major event was going on in Dina's home country that indirectly allowed her to go to America rather than her sister?
  2. Dina's mother was fond of saying, "If only…" What do you think would have happened if Dina had not snuck out to meet her little French friend from across the river? Do you believe things happen for a reason? Can you name a time that something good would not have happened if you had done something first?
  3. There is a saying that, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Dina thought that “the grass was greener” in America but she soon found out that her situation worsened in America. Can you think of time when you thought something would be better then it actually turned out to be?
  4. One of the challenges for Dina in America was learning the language. What are some other challenges that immigrants have?


  1. The author, Patricia Reilly Giff, wrote A House of Tailors, about her great grandmother Dina. Interview members of your family to learn more about one of your ancestors. Write a short story from what you learned about your ancestor. (Standard 3, Benchmark 2 and Standard 5, Benchmark 1)
  2. Create a family tree and see how far back you can go. Include, when possible where they came from. (Standard 5, Benchmark 1)
  3. Learn about an immigrant group in the United States. What are the challenges that they face? Do they have a similar culture or language that makes it easier for them to assimilate (become a part of) to their new home? (Standard 1, Benchmark 5 and Standard 3, Benchmark 3)

Little Cricket

Brown, Jacquelyn M. Little Cricket

Hyperion Books for Children, 2005

ISBN & Price: 0786818522 $15.49

Synopsis: Following the destruction of their Laotian village by North Vietnamese soldiers, twelve-year-old Kia and her Hmong family flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. Eventually Kia, her brother, and her grandfather travel to St. Paul, Minnesota, to begin a new life.

General Review: This book contains much to interest both boys and girls. The third-person narration sweeps the story along, and readers will find themselves becoming involved in the lives of the believable characters. They will learn from Grandfather’s wisdom, empathize with Xigi’s confusion, and cheer Kia’s strength of character which arises from the extreme conditions in which the family finds themselves.

Themes: Laos, Refugees, Immigration, Hmong culture

Discussion Questions: Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1.  Discuss how the Hmong proverb in the front of the book applies to Kia or to Xigi.
  2.  Discuss whether or not Kia’s mother should have been required to give up the birth necklaces to the man driving the family to the refugee camp. Give reasons for your views.
  3.  Discuss how the people of St. Paul did not show acceptance of Kia and her family and what you might have done if you were in their place. What would be some simple signs to show acceptance?

 Suggested Activities: 

 Standard 5 Benchmark 3

1. Using the pa ndau (pronounced pa ndow) embroidered story cloths as guides, have students use pencils and fabric paint to paint on cloth squares an important part of their own lives. If possible, show a variety of embroidery stitches and have them sew around the edges by hand, using their own style of stitching. Paper and markers may be used in place of cloth and paints. 

 Standard 7 Benchmark 1

2. Use a Venn Diagram to compare/contrast Laos and St. Paul, using scenery, weather, and living conditions as starting points. 

 Standard 1 Benchmark 5

3. Research the current Hmong culture in Minnesota using a variety of information sources. 

 Standard 3 Benchmark 4

4. Research the Vietnam War: causes, countries involved and outcome. Present in a variety of ways.

Never mind! A twin novel

Never Mind by Avi and Rachel Vail, Harper Trophy Paperback, May ’05, also Scholastic Paperback

Grade level: 6-8
Scholastic Paperback $5.99

 AUTHOR(S) INFORMATION: Avi is an award-winning, prolific writer for children and young adults. He is a twin. His web site is

 There has been a biography written about him entitled Avi by Michael A. Sommers.

 Rachel Vail, a friend and fellow writer, is the co-author. She wrote a “Meg” chapter and then sent it to her friend, Avi. Avi wrote an “Edward” chapter and then sent it back to Rachel. Back and forth they wrote until the book was completed. Each writer is a talented humorist.

 SYNOPSIS: Seventh grade twins Meg and Edward Runyon live in New York City with their parents. They are as different as twelve noon and midnight. They do not have a close relationship; in fact, they attend different school even. Meg is tall, smart, and pretty, yet suffers from low self-esteem. She is full of anguish and greatly wants to be accepted into the High Achievers Club at her school. Edward is small in stature, an underachiever who attends an alternative school. His pattern of eavesdropping on Meg’s phone calls triggers a series of events which confuse each other, their parents, and their friends. Yet this series of events also highly entertains the readers.

 At the height of their miscommunication, everyone at Meg’s school thinks she has a tall, gorgeous, rockstar twin brother named Ted.

 GENERAL REVIEW: Meg and Edward take turns giving their first-person narratives. Avi (who is a twin in real life) wrote the chapters spoken by Edward, and Rachel Vail wrote the chapters spoken by Meg. The voices of the twins are very realistic and so very funny. The dialogue of each of the characters prove that Avi and Rachel Vail know exactly how seventh graders speak.

 THEMES: Tolerance, loyalty, jealousy, sibling rivalry


  1. If you had a rock band, what would you name it? Make a list of the names you’d consider. Was “Never Mind” an appropriate name for Edward’s band?
  2. What are some difference between a book that’s written from the point of view of one person and a book that’s written from the point of view of two different people, such as Never Mind? How did this point of view affect you? Which twin was more likeable to you? Why?
  3. Why, in your opinion, is Edward so determined to embarrass his sister?
  4. Write a list of 10 descriptive words (adjectives) for Kimberly Wu Woodson. Would she be popular with the “in crowd” at your school? Why or why not?

 ACTIVITIES: Reading Standard One, Benchmark 4

  1. Audiotape Meg’s chapters read by a female student. Then audiotape Edward’s chapters read by a male student. Encourage them to work on getting just the right 7 th-grade voice and attitude. If agreeable to these student readers, play back the audiotape so that the entire class can politely critique the fluency. Library Standard 5, Benchmark 1
  2. The events of this novel take place over one week. Create a timeline of events from the novel, Tuesday through Saturday. Display in classroom or hallway. Lib. Standard 2, Benchmark 4
  3. Find a city bus schedule, one from a larger city if possible. Pick out two stops., location A and location B. See if you can figure out at what time you would need to board the bus early in the morning in order to get to location B by 8:30AM. Lib. Standard 2, Benchmark 4


Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

The Young Man and the Sea by Rodman Philbrick

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story

 The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story. Mary Downing Hahn; Clarion Books, 2004
Grade Level: 6 th -8 th
ISBN & Cost: 0618430180, $15


Synopsis: With the help of her new friend Lissa, Diana faces the truth about her past and with her little brother Georgie takes steps to release the ties that have bound them to the old Willis place for so many years.

General Review: Sympathetic and believable characters, a strong plot with many twists and turns leading to a satisfying conclusion, and an overlay of suspense make this a book which engages students’ minds as well as hearts.

Themes: Ghosts, Haunted houses, Brothers and sisters, Friendship

 Author Information: 



Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3


  1. Describe Diana, the narrator of the book. What do she and Lissa have in common?
  2. This book is subtitled “a ghost story”. At what point did you realize Diana and her brother are ghosts? What were some clues the author provided?
  3. “The rules kept us where we were, as much a part of the farm now as the trees, more firmly rooted to its earth than the deer and foxes.” (pg. 133) what are therules? How do they change?
  4. Why do you think the author included entries from Lissa’s diary from time to time?
  5. Miss Lilian is described by Diana as “…the snake in the garden, the witch in the gingerbread house, someone to fear, even though she was dead.” (pg. 4) How and why do Diana’s feelings about Miss Lilian change?
  6. What are some things Lissa learns during her time at Oak Hill Manor?



 1. An illustrator’s idea of the old Willis place can be found on the cover of the book. Draw a picture or make a model of how you imagined the old house to look as you read the book. (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

Note: to see photos of the actual house the author used as a model, visit:

 2. Read one of Mary Downing Hahn’s other ghost stories, such as DOLL IN THE GARDEN, and compare it to this book using a Venn Diagram or other graphic organizer. (Standard 3, Benchmark 1)

3. There are many allusions in this book. Select one or two from the list below and use the internet to find out more about them:

Nero Romulus and Remus Mowgli

MacDuff Alladin Rapunzel

Roy Rogers LASSIE, COME HOME “Moonlight Sonata”

CLEMATIS by Bertha B. and Ernest Cobb (see if you can find out what this out-of-print book could be worth!)

Share what you’ve learned in a final product of your choice. (Standard 1, Benchmark 3)

4. This book follows a classic plot pattern of rising and falling action followed by resolution. When Lissa moves to the property, it sets a chain of events into motion. Create a timeline of the major events in the book which lead up to the final event. (Standard 3, Benchmark 1)

Similar books for further reading: 

Bauer, Marion Dane. A TASTE OF SMOKE Houghton Mifflin

Bunting, Eve. THE PRESENCE: A Ghost Story Clarion Books

Conrad, Pam. STONEWORDS: A Ghost Story HarperCollins

DeFelice, Cynthia. GHOST OF FOSSIL GLEN HarperCollins

Griffin, Peni. THE GHOST SITTER Penguin Young Readers


Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. JADE GREEN: A Ghost Story Simon & Schuster


Peter and the Starcatchers

Peter and the Starcatchers. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; Hyperion, 2004.

Grade Level: 6-8

Hardcover ISBN: 0786854456 $17.99

Paperback ISBN: 078684907X $7.99


Fast-paced adventure of young orphan Peter and his mates as they are dispatched to an island ruled by the evil King Zarboff. They set sail aboard the Never Land, a ship carrying a precious and mysterious trunk in its cargo hold - and the journey quickly becomes fraught with excitement and adventure. With treacherous battles with pirates and foreboding thunderstorms at sea, you soon reveal the secrets and mysteries of the beloved Peter Pan.

General Review:

The authors weave multiple story lines together in short, fast-moving chapters. Bringing in familiar material, this adventure sets the stage for Peter's later exploits. Richly drawn characters, especially the villains and the nonstop action will keep the pages turning. Although this is a long book, very short chapters make it manageable for younger readers. A story for all ages. A great read a-loud for family reading time or the classroom.

Themes: Magic, Pirates, Orphans, Friendship, Islands

Author Information:

Dave Barry

Ridley Pearson


Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. In the beginning, Peter is powerless to change his own destiny and is a virtual prisoner aboard the Never Land, unable to escape or even feed himself properly. How does he gain power over his own life by the end? What can we learn from Peter and his actions?
  2. Peter takes risks for the safety and well-being of his friends. Do they reciprocate his honorable actions? Who is the better friend? How do people prove their friendship to one another? Who do you think are the best examples of friends in the story? Why?
  3. This is an action packed high-seas adventure. Which scenes of the book were your favorites? Why? How do the authors develop and sustain the suspense of this long novel?
  4. A unique aspect of Peter and the Starcatchers is the cast of more than one nemesis. Describe Stache and Smee and compare them to the other antagonists in the story, Slank and Little Richard. Which pair frightened you more? Why? What qualities did they have in common?
  5. How do Barry and Pearson connect this story to the original Peter Pan? What elements and details are kept and which ones are spared? What do you think was important to maintain in creating a prequel? Were there any questions you were excited to learn the answers to by reading this book? What were they?

Suggested Activities:

  1. Write a prequel to a folktale or fairy tale of your choice. Be sure to stay true to the original characters and don’t get bogged down explaining yourself, just begin with an exciting scene as the authors do in Peter and the Starcatchers! Standard 5 Benchmark 1
  2. Create a timeline or map of the location of the trunk and the starstuff for the whole book. Your graphic should make clear not only the location of the trunk, but who controls it. Standard 5 Benchmark 1
  3. Scope out locations for at least three scenes for the movie adaptation of the novel and explain in detail why you think they would work. You must provide either sketches for the director to view or pictures of the actual places. Standard 5 Benchmark 3
  4. Using only dialogue, write a scene between Peter and Molly after the close of Starcatchers and before the original Peter Pan opens. Standard 5 Benchmark 3

So B. It

Sarah Weeks; Laura Geringer Book, 2004

Gr. 3 rd-5 th

ISBN: 0066236223

Cost: $16.89


Heidi’s mom has a vocabulary of only twenty-three words, but the most unusual one is “soof,” a word that only she knows the meaning of. Heidi’s unconventional home life has her looking after her mentally retarded mother and their “unique” neighbor Bernadette. Bernadette has been Heidi’s teacher in many areas, but Bernadette has a problem – she refuses to go outside her apartment.

Heidi has a lucky streak that always seems to make good things happen just when she needs it. Heidi’s desire to learn the truth behind her mother’s early life and the meaning of her mother’s mysterious word, leads her on a journey across the country in search of the past.

General Review: Heidi’s desire to learn more about her mother’s background will resonate with many students as they pursue information about their own families. Starred reviews in Booklist and VOYA.

Themes: Family, Identity, Mothers and Daughters, Friendship, Mental Illness, Social Issues


Author web sites:

Discussion Questions: Standard 2: Benchmark 2

  1. The title, So B. It, could have several meanings. What do you think the title means?
  2. One of the themes of the book is “What is truth?” Explain what you think this means in relationship to the book.
  3. Heidi has tremendous responsibilities for someone so young. She shops for her mother, runs errands for Bernie, and baby-sits for a neighbor in order to earn money they need. How do these experiences influence Heidi as she grows up?
  4. Heidi is afraid she will end up like her mother, full of missing pieces, if she does no go to Liberty to discover her past (p. 85). Do you think that taking this journey is worth the pain it causes Bernie?
  5. Heidi seems to be a very lucky person, but after the journey to learn about her personal history ends, her lucky streak seems to disappear. What is the significance of Heidi losing her luck?

Activity Suggestions: 

  1. Mama’s mysterious word soof is an important part of the story. If you were writing a similar story, is there a different word that you would make Mama’s mysterious word? Why? What is the significance of the word you would choose to use? (Standard 2: Benchmark 2)
  2. One of the lessons that Heidi learns is that life is not fair. Discuss the people and events in Heidi’s life, and then create a Venn Diagram that shows which people and events were fair and which were unfair. (Standard 2: Benchmark 2)
  3. Bernadette selflessly and patiently takes care of Heidi and her mother, who both need a caretaker. Why do you think she is willing to spend her time and money on people she does not know? What benefits, if any, does Bernadette receive? Consider and discuss these questions, and then write a short paper – 2 or 3 paragraphs – about a person that means so much to you that you would do the kind of things Bernadette did? (Standard 2: Benchmark 4 and Standard 4: Benchmark 2)
  4. Perform the Reader’s Theatre script for So B. It found on Sarah Weeks website, and then hold a class discussion about the performance. (Standard 3: Benchmark 4)

The Spirit Line

The Spirit Line. Thurlo, Aimee and David; Viking, 2004.

Grade level: 6-8

ISBN & Cost: 06070036455 $15.99

Author Information:

Synopsis: Crystal, still grieving her mother's death, has been given the gift of unmatched ability to weave rugs, a talent which closely ties her to memories of her mother, also a weaver of exquisite tapestries in the Navajo tradition. Crystal greatly treasures the time she spends working at the loom, even as it forces her to devote herself to an ancient art experience of her ancestors. She sees herself as above the old-fashioned practice of including a “spirit line,” an intentional flaw woven into rugs which Native American tradition teaches will allow her spirit to escape the rug as she weaves, rather than trapping it there forever. Crystal plans to use the money she can earn from selling her perfect creations to attend school in the world far away from the need to follow Native ways. Her close friendship with Junior, a boy who is learning the customs and rituals of the tribal medicine man from his father, is put to the test when the rug she is weaving disappears from the loom. Together, Crystal and Junior form a bond of shared heritage and friendship, as they work together to recover the tapestry, experiencing hair-raising adventures in search of this rug which may provide a bridge between different ways of experiencing their common culture.

General Review: Authors Aimee and David Thurlo relate tales of two Native American youth who are confronting the world outside reservation life in very different ways, facing mixed societal views of the understanding of Navajo tribal teachings. Should they follow the customs of their tribe as taught by their ancestors, or will they be left in the dust of the reservation if they don't become part of the cutting edge of the contemporary world? Teenagers who are becoming aware of the many differences in backgrounds and cultural teachings of those around them will enjoy this fast-paced book which emphasizes the importance of friendship and family ties even when world views are very different.

Themes: Generational differences, cultural beliefs.

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3 Benchmark 3)

  1. What traditions do you follow in your family based on what you have learned from your grandparents or other relatives?
  2. Consider the medicine men as described in this Native American culture, and Junior's plans to learn these tasks. How is this role of medicine man filled in our society today?
  3. Do you know anyone from a culture different from yours? How have they been raised to see the world differently than you? What traditions do they carry out which seem foreign to you?
  4. How are images of Native Americans stereotyped in our everyday world?

Activity Suggestions:

  1. Interview your grandparents about their lives when they were your age. Write an essay which compares differences in outside influences in their lives with yours. Standard 2 Benchmark 2
  2. Research the Native American art of weaving rugs, and the symbolism of particular patterns. Draw a design for a possible rug of your own, indicating the meaning of the different symbols you are including. Standard 3 benchmark 1; Standard 5 benchmark 3
  3. Locate three Native American terms that are new to you as used in the book. Define each, and explain clearly how each in used to further the points made in the story line. Standard 1 Benchmark 3
  4. Research Native American art by perusing Ebay and other online sources for offerings that can be purchased in our world today, How does our contemporary consumerism relate to the Spirit Line controversy of Native ways vs. tradition? Standard 1, Benchmark 4; Standard 2 benchmark 2
  5. Research the connection between holistic medical practices today and the Native American healers as described in Spirit Line. Are there commonalities you perceive, or only totally different ends of the spectrum? Standard 6, Benchmark 1

The Teacher's Funeral; a Comedy in Three Parts

Peck, Richard. The teacher’s funeral; a comedy in three parts/ 

New York, Dial Books, 2004. 
Hardback ISBN: 0803727364
Paperback: April 2006
Other formats: No
Grade Level: 6-8

Author Information:

Synopsis: In rural Indiana, in 1904, fifteen-year-old Russell’s dreams of quitting school and joining a wheat-threshing crew are disrupted when his older sister takes over the teaching of his one-room schoolhouse after mean old Myrt Arbuckle dies.

General Review: This was an amusing book with strong characters which gave the reader a sense of the days of one room schoolhouses. Russell Culver, 15 years old and tired of school, hopes he can quit and go to North Dakota to work with a threshing crew after the teacher dies. But Tansy his sister takes over, and he knows he has to stay. Russell finds Tansy more than a match for his mischief, pranks, and ill-considered plans. In the end, Tansy has 3 suitors-- two of whom are pupils-- but her biggest challenge is the superintendent's visit. This would make a great introduction to the study of pioneer days and one room schoolhouses.

Themes: One Room Schools, Country life, Teachers

Discussion Questions:

  1. Focus on classroom rules and contrasting the consequences for breaking them. What specific rules did teachers have to follow? What rules were imposed on students of the past? Are there any rules that continue to be important? How have consequences or punishments changed over time? Why? What rules do you think will be relevant for children of the future?
  2. Examine the similarities and differences between objects and people of the past and present. How are they alike/different? What have students always had in common? (opportunity for learning, need to acquire knowledge and skills for future success, desire to play, rules to guide behavior, etc...)
  3. Would the type of education that students received in the 20th century be adequate for the demands facing students of the 21st century? What materials, knowledge and skills will students of the future need to possess? How will schools of the future differ from those of the present day?

Activity suggestions:

  1. Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast one room schools to today’s schools. Standard 3, Benchmark 1
  2. Interview your mom, dad, or grandparents and see what stories they have about one room schools. You might want to record the interview(s) on cassette or videotape. Standard 7, Benchmark 1
  3. Arrange to have a senior citizen visit the classroom to talk with the students after they have read the book. Have the students decide on some questions they would like to ask about their school days. Standard 7, Benchmark 1
  4. Visit a one room schoolhouse or tour by way of internet.

Standard 1, Benchmark 4

5. Re-create the school day that a 20th century child would’ve experienced. What was it like to go to school in 1904? How would your day have been different from your present school day? Are any of the events the same? Standard 9, Benchmark 4

Thin wood walls

Thin Wood Walls. David Patneaude; Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Grade Level: 6-8
Hardback ISBN: 0618342907 $ 16.00
Paperback ISBN: not available at this time


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Joe Hanada and his family face growing prejudice, eventually being torn away from their home and sent to a relocation camp in California.

General Review:

In this first-person narrative, readers find out what it was like to be a young Japanese American boy in Seattle after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Patneaude reports the facts and shows the wide range of attitudes among Japanese Americans and whites, citizens and immigrants, even among members of one family that makes history the drama. The inclusion of many differing viewpoints within the Japanese-American community makes this book unique. This well-written novel features a main character who grows and develops as historical events unfold. Great companion piece for students wanting to read beyond the Holocaust part of World War II.

Themes: Evacuation & Rolocation, Japanese Americans, Prejudice & Racism, World War, 1939-1945.

Discussion Questions: Standard 3, Benchmark 3

  1. When the Hanadas are relocated they must pack quickly and can take with them only as much as they can carry. What items would you take with you if you were in a similar situations?
  2. What are some of the things that the Hanadas do to keep themselves happy and hopeful despite their situation? Why is Mike so anxious to join the army? Which situation do you think is better, the army or the relocation camp? Why?
  3. What do you think Joe will be doing in ten years? What about Mae or Phillip?
  4. Why is it important to not forget what happened to the Japanese-Americans during World War II? What can we learn from Joe’s story?



  1. Take a virtual tour through the relocation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II at Standard 1, Benchmark 4 .
  2. Research the relocation of the American Indians to reservations then compare how they were treated with how the Japanese-Americans were treated during their relocation. Standard 1, Benchmark 2; Standard 5.
  3. Write a haiku or poem about something that has happened in your life. Standard 4, Benchmark 2.

Wintering Well

Wintering Well
Lea Wait, Margaret K. McElderry Books, NY 2004
Grade Level: 6-8
Cost & ISBN : 0689856466 $16.95 (Hardback) 
Reading Level : 4.9/6 pts for accelerated reader

Author Information: Wait is the author of 2 other children’s novels. In 2001 her book was named a Smithsonian Notable Book and was named on of the best children’s book of the year by Bank Street College of education.

Synopsis: The door to his cherished plans have been closed forever. What now lies ahead for Will? After an awful accident fifteen-year-old Will must decide what to do with his life. As he discovers his talent, his sister Cassie also learns there are more opportunities a young woman can pursue.

General Review: A realistic relationship between siblings, a dramatic accident, rich historic background, and a young adult finding a new dream make for riveting reading in this book set in 1820 Maine. Diary entries from the sister enhance the third person narration.

Themes: Family life, brothers and sisters, people with disabilities

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Why did Will’s father tell him he could never be a farmer?
  2.  What skill did Will acquire to help pass time?
  3.  What kinds of opportunities were offered to Will in the city?
  4.  Who did Will carve at the end of the story?
  5.  How is life different in this book, set in the 1820’s, than today?
  6.  How do you think you would cope with such a disappointment as Will has in this book?
  7.  How would the story be different if Will’s accident occurred in modern times?
  8.  What does it mean to “winter well”? How does this expression apply to Cassie and Will’s story?

 Suggested Activities:

1. (Since Will enjoyed whittling animals) Make your favorite animal out of molding clay. (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

2. (Make Dr. Theobold’s wife’s favorite flower!) Roses (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

3. Serve cider and molasses cakes after reading a description of such from the book.

Several topics for research are available in the Historical Notes:

Wiscasset , Maine, early medical procedures, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Thanksgiving or in the book: New England farming techniques, ship figureheads, apothecaries. (Standard 1, Benchmark 5)

4. Design/sketch a figurehead you’d like to see on a ship. (Standard 5,

Benchmark 3

Yankee Girl

Yankee Girl, Mary Ann Rodman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux ( April 11, 2004)
Ages 9-12
ISBN 0374386617
Cost $17.00


SYNOPSIS: When her FBI agent father is transferred to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, eleven-year-old Alice wants to be popular but also wants to reach out to the one black girl in her class in a newly-integrated school.


Yankee Girl is based on the author’s childhood experiences and has a very realistic feel for the time and place. Alice has moved many times since her father is a FBI agent and she has always been able to make friends. This move is different and she is unprepared for life in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. The southern accents and customs are puzzling, the relationships between the races shocking, and the power of the popular click intimidating. Her struggles to fit in and the compromises she makes to be accepted come back to haunt her by the end of the year. This book gives a very interesting glimpse into a troubled time.

THEMES: Race Relations, School Integration, Friendship, Civil Rights Workers

AUTHOR INFORMATION: This is Mary Ann Rodman’s first book and is based on her childhood experiences growing up in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement. She is a librarian and has since written a second book, My Best Friend. She lives in Alpharetta, Georgia. Her website is

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Standard 3 Benchmark 3

  1. What were the people in the South afraid would happen if the schools integrated? Are some of those fears still present today between different races or groups of people?
  2. Alice thought that you could tell bad people by how they looked or acted. That wasn’t true in this story. Who was a surprise to Alice? Have you ever been surprised by what you have learned about someone you know or someone in the news? How?
  3. Alice had difficulty understanding the southern accent. What accents do you find hard to understand? Do you think you have an accent? Why or why not?
  4. Different radio stations play different music. Alice loved the Beatles, Valerie preferred the Supremes, who do you like and what type of music do you listen to?
  5. The “Cheerleaders” were the popular girls in the sixth grade. They had power over most of the class. Are there groups in your class that are that popular? What would you be willing to do to be popular?


  1. Make a timeline of the real events mentioned in this book. Research these events and find non-fiction books that give more information about the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. Standard 3 Benchmark 2
  2. Different parts of the country have different customs, foods, and styles. Make a chart that shows some of the common or traditional ways to know you are in the Northern, Eastern, Western or Southern United States. Which of those areas do you find most fun to live in or visit and why? Standard 3 Benchmark 4
  3. Explore the clothing, music and customs of the 1960’s. Write a report about what you find and how you would be different if you were living in the 60’s. Standard 3 Benchmark 1
  4. Talk to your parents and/or grandparents about the 1960’s, where they were living, what they were doing, and how the Civil Rights movement affected their lives. Write a report of your findings. Standard 2 Benchmark 2