Category Archives: Charlotte’s Web
Will Strunk in the house but don’t call me junior
Grammatical genius. Number one word groomer.
I teach English 8 at the school of Cornell
Choose your words carefully or I’ll put you through hell.
E.B. White on the mic, former student of Strunk
A story that flows is all I need to get crunk
Write for the New Yorker, papers marked up in scarlet
I spin webs with words like my name was Charlotte.
The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.
For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)
As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books. Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:
This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.
Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman
A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.
Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close
What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself. Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.
This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman. Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.
Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez
This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.
Island: A Story of the Galápagos by Jason Chin
A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.
Currently the ccbc-net discussion group is considering the following topic:
Rebirth of Middle Grade Fiction: Yes, young adult literature continues to outpace middle grade in terms of numbers, but we’ve noticed lately that tucked between the seemingly endless volumes of y.a. angst, dystopias and romance (supernatural and otherwise) is a growing number of solid middle grade novels. During the first half of July, we’ll talk about middle grade fiction on CCBC-Net: inviting you to share how do you define it, what makes a great middle grade read, and some of your recent favorites.
Since I have been an elementary classroom teacher for decades now, I figured I’d weigh in on this beginning with the question of definition. Already some have suggested (go here to subscribe if you are interested in following or participating in the conversation) that these readers include early teens while others suggest those just moving into chapter books should also be considered. That is too broad for me. I see middle grade readers as those in grades 4-6, so approximately ages 9-12. These are kids who have the nuts and bolts of reading under their belts and are now able to focus more exclusively on content; kids who are working out the sort of readers they are, exploring different genres, seeing the pleasure of reading; kids who are heading we hope toward a lifetime of reading.
This being a time when children are often dealing with the complications of friendship, cliques, mean peers, and other relationship situations, these young readers often gravitate to stories involving these issues. Some of these can be quiet and interior-focused while others can be loud and very much out in the world. For some kids, contemporary stories, often school-centered, are what appeal while for others it is those set in other worlds, say a fantasy one or one set in the past, that are the attraction. Most prefer strong pacing and plots, be they about kids dealing with a bully in school, a sad family situation, or saving the world from something highly evil. Humorous books, graphic novels, and even picture books for older readers are all highly successful ways of engaging this age group.
As for the next question, what makes a great middle grade read? —- for me it is great writing. Unique and engaging plots, well-developed characters that encourage empathetic responses, and well-crafted sentences all figure into what I admire most in works of fiction for this age group. And the best of the best for me is that iconic American children’s book E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (#1 on Betsy Bird’s latest chapter book poll). I’ve written realms about this book so won’t go on about it here other than to say that years of rereading and teaching it has me considering it one of the most perfect children’s books ever written. What it and other great middle grade readers offer are not only great plotting, characterization, and writing, but themes that are compelling, moving, and age-appropriate. That is, kids of this age are contemplating death, the circle of life, friendship, changes, growing older, and the other ideas so beautifully considered in this wonderful book. In fact, White features some of these in his other two books for children, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, along with another important topic for this age group, family.
And then there is the final question –what are some of my recent fictional favorites? (To see some of my 4th grade students’ recent favorites please check out this post filled with them.) Here are ten of many more.
Five from last year:
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. This was a great hit when I read it aloud to my fourth graders last year. Writers often reference people, ideas, and such as Easter eggs for adult readers and indeed this book is full of clever Dickensian bon motes, but they stand alone as clever bits of writing all by themselves. Take the opening, introducing the cat hero, “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.” You don’t need to know the reference to enjoy it and my students certainly did. A grand romp with a heart and delightful writing.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. I never wrote a proper review of this one (although I did suggest it as a possible Newbery winner), but after reading it aloud to my class this past year many of them included it in their summer reading suggestions. One wrote that it “…is an fantastic book for kids that are interested in adventures, laugh-out-loud, exciting books. Jack Gantos puts himself in a child character, who goes on throughout a classic plot story, including gripping chapters, amazing twists, and possibly murder? It also gives your imagination a boost, and makes you want to relate to it after.”
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I tend to be wary of verse novels, but was taken in immediately when reading this powerful story of immigration based on the author’s own childhood. From the first page set in 1975 Vietnam to the last in Alabama, I was utterly engaged throughout as were my students. It was one of several books they chose from for a unit on immigrant historical fiction and it ended up being so popular I did not have enough. Several children were so eager to read it they bought their own copies rather than selecting one of the other available books. One child was so inspired by the form that she used it when writing her own work of historical fiction.
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. I was charmed by this Bollywood-inspired tale. In a review I wrote “Young readers will delight in this upbeat and entertaining tale, identifying with Dini as she meets new friends, gets to know her new town, and solve a mystery as well. Along the way they will get a taste of life in one small part of India, complete with monkeys, movie lore, and some absolutely scrumptious-sounding curry pastries.”
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. In a blog review I wrote, “As he did with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret … Selznick uses a unique mix of text and images to create a singular reading experience for children. There are two separate stories here, one told entirely in illustrations and the other in words. Set in different time periods, these tales of a mysterious girl and an unhappy boy twist and twirl around each other in nature, in museums, in New York City, finally coming together in a dramatic, moving, and satisfying ending.”
Five from this year:
Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey.In this post I wrote that “Egg [main character] tells his own story with humor and a likable lack of self-pity. There is adventure galore as he goes from one cliffhanger (one is literally a cliffhanger) to the next and wit as well. For it is Rodkey’s writing that made this rise for me above the others of its type — a dry sense of humor, the sort of throw-away lines Dickens does so well, great pacing, and excellent world building.” The first in a series (something this age group loves).
Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger. From my blog review: “So wacky this is (as another beloved Angleberger character might say) in the best way which is no easy feat. For funny is incredibly hard to pull off; what has me guffawing can just as easily leave another reader cold and vice versa. As someone who too often has been left cold by silliness I was wary when I started this one, but within pages I was completely won over.” My students fought over the copies of this one.
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. On goodreads I wrote, “Completely and utterly charming!” while one of my students wrote that it ”…is about Mo, a girl who loves mysteries. So when a strange detective comes to town, and an old man is murdered, she’s on the case with her friend Dale. This book is great if you adore action. Three Times Lucky is one of those books that has big parts that you know something’s going to happen but you don’t know what.”
Wonder by R. J. Palacio. On goodreads I wrote, “I went a bit kicking and screaming into the reading of this one because I thought — yet another soppy sad story of a kid with a serious problem. Not to mention realistic school stories too often feel forced to this veteran classroom teacher. But as I read further into it I was completely taken in. This is a truly lovely story and beautifully, beautifully told. The movement between different characters’ points of view is nicely done. The children and adults all seem real as can be, not a one seemed a straw man or someone pontificating a moral. There were moments when I was brought to tears, but they were genuine moments, not a one felt overly sacharine or manipulative. Nothing, in fact, is the slightest bit manipulative in this book.” Kids and teachers love this one for good reason.
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. I wanted to stick to books already available, but this one is out in a few weeks and to my mind exemplifies the best of what a middle grade book is so I’m putting it here anyway. The main character is in 7th grade, but in my experience, 4th graders like reading about those a bit older than themselves. The writing here is spare, elegant perfection; the characters well-developed and sympathetic; the plot a fascinating mystery. More when the book is out, but trust me — this is one gorgeous middle grade read.
I’ve written before here about my classroom work with Charlotte’s Web, in particular the glorious fun I have introducing my 4th graders to a scholarly approach to reading a book. I’d never considered that you could do such a thing with a children’s book until U.C. Knoepflmacher showed me how at a life-changing NEH seminar at Princeton in 1990 and have now done it ever since with my 4th graders.
This year, for the first time, I decided to see if we could rearrange the desks into a true seminar table. It worked and you can see the results here. The kids as always are blowing me away with their discoveries; I’m thrilled at all the new amazing things (even to me after so many years) in this remarkable book. This year, after the seminar is finished, I’m going to ask them to select a few of their favorite quotes and we are going to organize them as a display. It will be so interesting to see which they select and why.
Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library raised an interesting question after I nominated Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat for the Cybil’s middle grade fiction catagory. Asks Charlotte, “… when is a book with sentient animals acting as Persons and effecting the course of human events fantasy?”
I immediately apologized, writing, “My bad. I’ve been thinking about Cheshire Cheese Cat in terms of Newbery and was focusing on age and content not genre. You are absolutely right.” It looks like the Cybils’ folks agreed because they’ve moved my nomination to the fantasy/science fiction section. But then Charlotte responded to my comment, “I think it’s a fuzzy line–The Underneath, for instance, ended up in straight middle grade when it was nominated a few years ago.”
And this got me thinking about the way we parse genre. I’ve been reading aloud The Cheshire Cat Cheese to my class because I thought it would work nicely with our current study of E. B. White’s three children’s books, all featuring talking animals. Now of those three, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan seem clearly fantasy to me with Stuart being the son of a human and Louis with his trumpet and interactions with Sam and others. But Charlotte’s Web? That seems a harder call. After all, the animals never talk to humans (although Fern listens which worries her mother) and seem very, er, animal-like, more like those in The Incredible Journey and Black Beauty (both mentioned by Charlotte), books where animals talk to each other, but otherwise seem very realistic.
The more I think about it I do think The Cheshire Cheese Cat is more fantasy as the animals interact with people, read, and do other very human-like things. But Charlotte’s Web and other stories where the animals basically act as animals, don’t interact with humans (other than in the ways we expect in real life), and talk to each other? I wonder.
Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:
So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while. I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great. I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category. My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why). What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?
Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question. But actually, it is hard. First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels). That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.
For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):
- Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it. Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
- Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers. Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley. The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
- Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group. I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
- Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite. I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year. Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own. The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
- Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads. I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
- More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure. The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
- Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
- Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
- Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.
And for the second part — my all-time favorite? There I can go with just one, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year. As are the kids. The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.
*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.
My personally annotated copy of Charlotte’s Web is a sad-looking thing, a paperback edition that was already showing its age in 1990 when I plucked it off my classroom library shelf to use at a Princeton University summer seminar on classical children’s literature. Having never particularly cared for the book (too soppy), I figured an old copy would do me just fine. Twenty-one years later I’m still sorry. By way of a close reading, the brilliant Uli Knoepfmacher showed me just what an extraordinary book Charlotte’s Web is and, using that tattered paperback, I’ve been doing the same for my fourth grade students ever since.
This long personal history with one of America’s great children’s books caused me to approach Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web with a great deal of trepidation. I was somewhat assuaged after seeing that Sims had previously annotated one of White’s and my favorite poetry collections, Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but still wary. What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White’s opus that hadn’t already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better? Having read it I can now answer: plenty. Sims gives White and his story a bright new light —- refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well. Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.
Sims makes clear his path from the start — his focus is on the aspects of White’s life that connect to Charlotte’s Web. It may be that those more well-versed in his biography than I will feel there are missing parts, but I was most satisfied with the way Sims brought in details I knew such as White’s childhood love of nature and writing, his family, and his early love of Maine. And I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say Sims’ careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read — reviewing, for example, what else was in the editions of the well-known-at-the-time St. Nicholas Magazine to which the young White contributed. And his overview of the debate going on nature writing between those who were more scientifically-inclined (e.g. John Muir) versus those who went for a more dramatic and fictionalized approach (e.g William J. Long) was new and fascinating to me.
Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White’s development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine. He also gives us a lot about spiders, both general information and a history of White’s particular fascination with them. As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte’s Web — even though much of it was familiar to me, I was engrossed in Sims’ telling.
And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations. Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is not only for E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte’s Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction.
The children who spent their first day of fourth grade with me when the towers fell downtown are freshmen in college this year while my new class of fourth graders were babies when it happened. And so with every anniversary my classroom experience is different. No longer will I have fourth graders coming in with their own vivid memories of the day, now they will be coming in knowing about it secondhand, through other people’s stories, through the media, through books.
In 2001 books addressing anything related to the event were the last thing my students wanted. Those were hard days for all of us with the painful signs of the missing everywhere, the smoke, the smell, the sound of fighter planes and helicopters constantly overhead, our school’s incessant bomb threats that took some children completely over the edge, school closings, anthrax scares (with a policeman coming to my classroom to check on a package I received scaring the kids even more), National Guard with machine guns out standing outside subway stations, military vehicles moving down Broadway, and more. We had school community members who had experienced personal loss and trauma and others who were displaced from their downtown homes and jobs. I wrote about our experiences on various online discussion groups and in response well-intentioned and concerned people from outside New York offered unsolicited book suggestions about other equally horrible events, about war — books meant to create understanding, but books that weren’t for us at that time. In late September 2001 I wrote:
… Yesterday, our first full day in the fourth grade, I wondered all day about my end of day read-aloud. The children were thrilled to see it on the schedule, but I worried about what I should read. Finally, after looking over my sure-fire hits I stuck with my pre-Tuesday book selection, The Best School Year Ever. It is a school story, completely off the wall funny, and it has a theme of tolerance and understanding (yes, it does, really!) I started reading and immediately worried as the narrator wrote of the Herdmans being like outlaws, that if they had lived in the Wild West they would have “blown” it up. I wondered, would those words scare? I discretely looked at the faces around me, (one of my most important teacher skills is this ability, long honed) but they just looked intrigued. I read further to the description of Imogene’s science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) and they giggled. By the time I stopped, half way through the first chapter one, I relaxed; it seemed be a good choice. (But I’m sure going to keep on watching. The smoke may go away, but not the pain.)
One other book provided us with special solace: E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a book that allowed us to consider life and death in a different place, a book that each child could enter and connect to as he or she needed to. A book I’d been starting the year with before 2001, it is one I continue to use as it brings out everything I want for children as they start their fourth grade year. As for books about September 11th, I still don’t feel a need for them as I have so many artifacts and stories of my own. But I realize that books can be helpful for those who haven’t the firsthand experience I had, for those who have children asking questions about 9/11, for those who want to begin a conversation with young children about that day. For those of you, here are four books I recommend:
- Maira Kalman’s Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey was one of the first to appear in 2002. Spectacularly beautiful it also unnerved me and my fourth graders that year, but no doubt we were still too close to the events to consider it objectively. Kalman pulls no punches that is for sure, but for many children this book would be the right stepping-off point to talk about the day.
- In 2003 we were graced with Mordecai Gerstein’s sublime presentation of Philippe Petit’s extraordinary tightrope stunt between the towers in 1974, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This is my personal favorite of all the post-9/11 picture books for children, an exquisite memorial, celebrating this wild and unbelievable event in a place that is no longer there.
- Jeanette Winter’s simple yet evocative, September Roses came out in 2004, telling the story two women from South Africa and the thousands of roses they brought to New York after 9/11. It is spare and moving and feels like a great book to start a conversation. As with all of these books, depending on the age of the children, you may want to supplement with other materials, say a careful use of primary sources (as the images might be too disturbing for young children so I urge caution).
- Carmen Agra Deedy, Thomas Gonzalez, and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah came out with 14 Cows for America last year, the true story of a Kenyan Maasai village’s response to the events of September 11th. I like the different perspective this book provides, one from outside America, and think it could generate some excellent discussion in classrooms and families.
Also at my Huffington Post blog