In the Classroom: Letters to Alice and Others

In my recent Horn Book Magazine article, “Alice, the Transformer” I described my approach to reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to contemporary 4th graders. After finishing the book we always have a tea party and the children do some sort of response to the book. This year I invited the children to write to Lewis Carroll or one of their favorite characters in the book. The results were terrific. You can read a selection of the letters in their entirety here, but to give you a taste here are a few excerpts (frequently done in a font based on Lewis Carroll’s own handwriting and sometimes in purple, an ink color he often used):

My name is N and I am a big fan of yours [the Mad Hatter]. I love to drink tea, my favorite tea is chamomile, and jasmine. My sister and I have tea together almost every day.

Oh Bill [the Lizard], I have read Alice in Wonderland and I liked it a lot. You were my favorite character because I felt so bad for you for all the things the other characters did to you.

I am writing you [Alice] because I was outraged by the way you behaved in Wonderland. One of the ways you behaved badly was by making rude remarks…. You were also physically mean. LIKE WHEN YOU KICKED POOR BILL THE LIZARD UP A CHIMNEY LIKE HE WAS A WORTHLESS ROCK!!!!!!!!! ”

It is an interesting book, and it has a great plot. Except, it is completely unfair to you [the Queen of Hearts]! This is why I am writing. Alice is always being rude to you. She says, “How should I know?” Then, “It’s no business of MINE.” The nerve. Your juries are also lazy and not well educated. In fact, they are stupid. Plus, your executioner never obeys your orders! He refused to execute the Cheshire Cat. Most importantly, the book portrays you as a crazy, evil ruler! You have my sympathies.

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An Ancient Prophecy That Tells of a Boy

Now where have you heard that one before? Harry Potter? Anakin Skywalker? How about….

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RIF’s 2015 Multicultural Booklist (Grades K to 5)

I am so honored that RIF (Reading is Fundamental) has selected Africa is My Home for their 2015 Multicultural Book list.  For it they’ve done this wonderful guide for parent, families, and teachers for the book. Thank you so so much!

Our 2015 Multicultural Book Collection includes 39 children’s books specially selected to encourage children’s interest and learning in a broad range of topics, from science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) to history and social studies. The Collection also emphasizes multiculturalism and diversity in its books’ content, characters, authors, and illustrators.

Each book is vetted by children’s literacy experts, and comes with accompanying Common Core-aligned learning resources and activities for parents, teachers, and caregivers to deepen students’ engagement with the texts. The Multicultural Book Collection and its companion activities were an integral part of our landmark Read for Success research study and program model. Learn more about how the Collection can help students stop the summer slide and keep learning throughout the year.

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CLAT: Level III Children’s Literature Application Test

My partner in crim — fellow test creator Roxanne Feldman reminded me of the CLAT: Level III Children’s Literature Application Test we created some years ago for the Horn Book Magazine.  Go do it and then come back and let us know in the comments how you did….go on. Don’t worry — it is tongue-in-cheek and fun.

Here are the beliefs we articulated when we created the test in 2007 along with notes from me about how they look in 2015.

Never assume. Every year we interact with children new to us, children we already know, remixed classes of those children, and a myriad of other situations, giving us constant new and altered puzzlements. And we often discover that what we think we know for sure . . . we don’t.

This seems more true than ever.

Trust readers. Time and again we watch children select books that appear to be too hard for them. Sometimes the child will eventually abandon the book as it was indeed too difficult, but sometimes the child will be highly motivated to read the book and enjoy every hard page of it. By letting them take these books, by saying nothing to discourage them, we show children that we trust them to decide for themselves.

This was deep in the time of Harry Potter when younger and younger kids were reading the books (or, more likely, the parents were reading them to them). It and similar large fantasy books seemed to –in our school at least — be a sort of test. I always remember the fall after the 4th Harry Potter book came out. It was big and a large number of my students brought copies to school. I was certain some of them had them only because of buzz, not because they really wanted to read it and I was right. Once they felt comfortable there was no judgement in not finishing it the books stayed in their cubbies and they went off to read books that really spoke to them. (Of course, there were some rabid Harry Potter readers in the class too.)

Peers are powerful. While the enthusiastic recommendations of teachers and librarians matter, those of kids can matter even more. We have watched many a book or series (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Candyfloss) become enormously popular due to word of mouth.

See above. Peer and popular culture pressure can be both positive and negative. These days I see graphic novels making the rounds in my classroom. Fortunately, my students’ parents are largely relaxed about what their children read.

Collecting counts. Over and over we have observed the enjoyment many children, just like many adults, derive from collecting things: all the titles in a series, all the books by an author, all the books on a topic, or everything in a particular genre.

This is certainly true today of Wimpy Kid, the various Percy Jackson series, and certain graphic novel series.

Design matters. A book speaks to its readers not only via the text but also through its cover art, trim size, interior decorations, font choices, and other design aspects.

These days this is attended to much more — especially the power of the cover.

Books are literature. While the best books invariably provoke important conversations about love, courage, community, exclusion/inclusion, social justice, and other life issues, we prefer to select books for our students to consider as literature rather than as teaching tools, confident that all those other issues will be an organic part of the classroom experience.

Interestingly, the issue today is more about reading for reading’s sake — what with all the test taking prep and CCSS going on in classrooms.

Value art for art’s sake. We believe strongly that books are works of art and that any form of art is crucial in anyone’s life. It does not have to serve another purpose other than to bring deep and satisfying pleasure to one’s life. While we both are addicted to reading, we know that reading does not necessarily make someone a better person. We both have encountered avid readers who do not prove to be upright citizens of the community. Similarly, we are not alarmed when a child turns out to be a nonreader. There are so many forms of art and entertainment, so many character-building activities in life. Just because a child is a nonreader, it doesn’t mean he or she won’t turn out to be a successful and contributing member of the world.

Sadly, I think this needs more attention than ever. The focus these days is so utilitarian in schools — preparing children to make it in some sort of financial way. The aesthetic experience of reading seems to be overlooked. As is art in general in schools. This is too bad and hopefully will change before long.

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Alice, the Transformer

Check out my latest article in the May/June Horn Book, “Alice, the Transformer.” I had fun looking at the ways the little girl has been constantly reinvented over the 150 years of her literary existence. The whole issue, by the way, is great!

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Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Tangle of Gold

Because I enjoyed tremendously A Corner of White and A Crack in the Kingdom, the first two titles in Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Colors of Madeleine series, I have been eagerly awaiting word of the final book. And so I was very happy to come across the following here:

In A TANGLE OF GOLD, the thrilling conclusion to The Colors of Madeleine series, Cello is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the Kingdom is outraged; the Jagged Edge Elite have taken control, placing the Princess and two members of the RYA under arrest and ordering their execution; the King’s attempts to negotiate their release have failed; Color storms are rampant; and nobody has heard the Cello wind blowing in months.

The story is told from the perspectives of Elliot, who has returned to Cello and is in hiding with a branch of the Hostiles; Keira, who is living under an assumed identity in Bonfire, the Farms; and Madeleine, desolate in a world without Cello or magic. Without knowing it, Madeleine and Elliot are on a collision course which will ultimately lead to their confrontation in Cello’s mysterious Undisclosed Province.

Madeleine and Elliot must eventually learn the art of making gold, and, more importantly, how to disentangle, find the true threads, and weave them together again.

If you haven’t read the first two, I highly recommend them. Fabulous and original world building (involving colors), great characters, and plot (involving multiple worlds).

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Kelly Jones’ Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Kelly Jones’ terrific Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is described by its publisher as quirky a word that, for me, doesn’t really get across the warm-heartedness of this eccentric epistolary story. Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has, along with her parents,  just moved from LA to a seemingly animal-free farm they have inherited from her Great-Uncle Jim. The lonely Sophie, seeing a flyer for the Redwood Farm Supply company in the barn and being unable to find them on the Internet, takes her mother’s suggestion, and writes them an old-fashioned letter requesting a catalog. After all, “…if I have to live on a farm, I think it ought to be an interesting one, with chickens and ducks and some peacocks or something.” Frustrated not to receive an answer she writes again irritatedly and then, as things started getting more complicated, more urgently.

Mixed in with these letters are others. Say the wistful diary-like letters Sophie writes to her beloved deceased abuelita. “I know you’re dead, and I don’t believe in zombies, so you don’t need to write back or anything. I just wanted to write someone.” Or the lighter ones she writes to her late Great-Uncle Jim as things get…er….even…more….complicated.

For the farm isn’t animal-free for very long. One of Sophia’s Great-Uncle’s chickens shows up followed by several more and Sophie quickly learns that they have just slightly special qualities that makes them very much the unusual chickens of the book’s title. Now Sophia has to learn how to take care of them — finding some new local friends who help– as well as protect them from someone else who seems to have her eye on them and not in a good way.

Sophie’s voice is delightful. She eagerly explores the place, finds that first chicken, and is off taking care of her (and the others that follow). I loved that she read them The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and found other books about chickens, helped by the local librarian, Ms. O’Malley.This isn’t a girl who mopes about, but one who gets to work, whether cleaning up the barn, tracking down missing chickens, or writing letters. That said, in those letters to her grandmother, scattered among her descriptions of her practical rolling-up-sleeves activities, are the occasional acknowledgements of much she misses her. Refreshing, as well, are her occasional mentions of how someone or another in the small rural town perceives the bi-racial Sophia and/or her Latina mother within some very limited racial stereotypes.

In addition to the letters there are other documents: a test, a correspondence course about chickens, newspaper articles, posters for the annual poultry show, and so forth. And mixed throughout are Katie Kath’s lively illustrations.

This is definitely a favorite of mine this year — enough for me to want to look at it again in terms of Newbery. I think it is that good.

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