Tag Archive for literacy skills

To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

Written by Skila Brown

By focusing on one member of the Donner party, the author makes one of the most mysterious episodes in American history come to life. Written in verse, the story comes across well as the voice of the real nineteen-year-old traveler.

Mary Ann’s father decided to move the family from Illinois to California in 1846, just as the gold rush and the Mexican-American War were beginning. They set out with husband and wife, nine children, a son-in-law, and a hired hand. Seemingly, they planned well and took along sufficient supplies. It was a few mistakes, the decisions of others on the trail, and the very early winter that proved to be the party’s downfall.

Due to the unusually harsh nature of the story, this book is not recommended for younger children.

From Father (p. 218)

If there was a final moment,

last glance,

thick sigh as all the air left his lungs

for good,

I missed it.

However, the reality of the situation and learning about the fragility of life can be important for young adults. The author takes a matter-of-fact attitude and is open about the natural revulsion present in the cannibalism that did occur. Most of the story is about the long, long journey prior to the great snowstorm, with the heat of the desert and lack of water, plus many other factors.  

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  • to-stay-aliveTitle: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
  • Author: Skila Brown
  • Published: Candlewick Publishers, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Novel in verse, history
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-7811-1

Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence

Written by Ann Downer

This fascinating book asks the question “What is intelligence?” There are many examples of beings that lack a spinal column being able reason and learn. Each chapter outlines the life of a different beast and how it qualifies for the distinction “intelligent.” Charles Darwin was captivated by worms. Ordinary earthworms will increase activity in response to music. They cover the entrances to burrows with pebbles. They will learn to avoid the areas of mazes where electric shocks are introduced and vibrations similar to those made by predators. Jumping spiders know many different ways to approach their prey and can reason out which approach to use. Octopuses are unbelievable escape artists. Honey bees are great communicators. Paper wasps can recognize a friend’s face. Argentine ants build megacolonies. Mantis shrimps are fast and, more importantly, accurate predators. Box jellyfish can accurately navigate mazes. Slime molds seem to form giant brains. Tarantula hawk wasps will measure their prey before digging a hole to bury it for food for hatching babies.

The best use for this book is as a resource. It is so packed full of information, the student will want to return again and again to pick up the details for further study. Sixth grade literacy skills will be enhanced by the frequent use of scientific terms and by the excellent organization of the text. Throughout, the author highlights recent scientific studies. The numerous photos are wonderful illustrations.

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  • Smart and SpinelessTitle: Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence
  • Author: Ann Downer
  • Published: Twenty First Century Books, August, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 88 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Nonfiction, animals
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-3739-5
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Source Notes, Glossary, Selected Bibliography, extensive For Further Information section, Index, About the Author, Author Acknowledgments, Photo Acknowledgments

Mark of the Thief

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Riding on the back of a griffin flying over ancient Rome, Nic escapes only to fight again. Without knowing it, the first time Nic saw, Caela, the griffin, deep in the gold mines, it scratched his back leaving the mark of the Divine Star. It gives Nic the powers of Diana, one being his ability to talk to animals. Magic travels through that mark, but even more magic strengthens Nic through the bulla of Julius Caesar that he found and kept for himself.

This is the first in a new series by the New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Ancient Rome comes alive through its treatment of slaves in the mines to its treatment of the animals being put to death for entertainment in the arena.

There are factions of senators trying to overtake the emperor and sometimes it all becomes quite entangled, just as it does in real life. The poorest of the poor hide Nic in underground water tunnels to keep him safe from those chasing him. They want his power, his bulla and the precious jewels hidden within it. But at the end of book one, the last laugh belongs to Nic. Except, of course, that it isn’t really the last laugh as even he realizes his battle has just begun.

Fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and those beyond will strengthen their literacy skills while also finding out what ancient Roman life and government was like. History standards can be met by discovering and discussing this new knowledge.

It is an exciting new series. Many teachers, librarians and parents will be looking forward to the publication of book #2.

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  • Mark of the ThiefTitle: Mark of the Thief
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 339 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-56154-9
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy, history
  • Grade level: 4 to 7


Like a River: A Civil War Novel

Written by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Have you ever heard of the steamboat, Sultana? No? Well then it might surprise you to find out when it exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1865, more people died than died on the Titantic.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman has done excellent research into this mostly unknown event of the Civil War. In like manner she has studied the Andersonville prison daily life. Her ability to take the findings of her studies and turn it all into a compelling story is commending.

Her main characters are well developed and face authentic problems of the day. The tension begins early and draws the reader in quickly, keeping them focused and always wanting to continue to read that one more chapter.

Grade five and grade six students will become enthralled with this story and look for others like it. Teachers and librarians can use the text to fulfill core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, American history, historical fiction, character development, comparison of fiction and nonfiction as well as the effects of war.

The explanation within the Author’s Notes pertaining to what is true and what is fiction is valuable. Photographs from the Library of Congress add a richness to this difficult story. This book would be a superb addition to elementary, middle school, and public libraries

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  • like a riverTitle: Like a River
  • Author: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
  • Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-62979-209-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 8
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Selected Bibliography, Photographs, Picture Credits

Fleabrain Loves Franny

Written by Joanne Rocklin

Pittsburgh, 1952. Recovering from polio, Franny Katzenback listens to the sounds of her friends playing outside as she lies in bed and wishes her legs would move. With only books for comfort, she falls in love with the newly published Charlotte’s Web. If only she had a Charlotte in her life, she thinks. Her wish comes true when she receives a mysterious letter written in blood-red ink. The author happens to be a highly intelligent flea named Fleabrain, who lives on her dog’s tail.

The two strike up a correspondence. Fleabrain shares with Franny a love of literature as well as music and languages. Not only can he talk, but his saliva contains superpowers, which allow him to take Franny on all kinds of fantastical adventures based on his extensive reading. He flies her around at night on a magical horseback ride, he miniaturizes her á la Alice in Wonderland, and he zooms her around the globe to tour the Seven Wonders of the World. Their relationship strains, however, when she learns he cannot use his powers to cure her of polio. Issues of social injustice are touched upon when Franny faces discrimination upon her return to school.

Sixth graders will likely find the historical elements of this story interesting as it paints a solid picture of the polio scare during the 1950’s and what it was like to be on the receiving end of that terrible disease. While there certainly is enough advanced vocabulary and thematic elements to enhance one’s comprehension and literacy skills, the overreaching plot and fantastical elements may leave readers scratching their heads just like the poor dog who hosts Fleabrain.

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  • FleabrainTitle: Fleabrain Loves Franny
  • Author: Joanne Rocklin
  • Publisher: Amulet Books / Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1068-0
  • Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction


September 17

Written by Amanda West Lewis

War, as seen from the eyes of 10, 13 and 15 year olds is quite different from that of adults. In this carefully researched historical fiction we find that many children being sent away to Canada from England on a large cruise ship see it as an adventure.

This startling tale is about a time when England was so sure it would fall to the Nazis that a plan was established to send away a whole generation of children. Some would be sent, supposedly, to Canada. Others would go to Australia or New Zealand.

The alarming rate of bombing in London caused parents to make very fast decisions under duress. Children were sent away with only a change of clothes and, if lucky, one packed lunch.

Unfortunately, the title of the book is the date that one such ship carrying a group of over 90 children was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazi U-boat. There were survivors, but very few. Perhaps the most breathtaking part of the story is the several days that one group of children spent in a tiny lifeboat dreaming of survival. One of the things that still kept the children going was their thought of having an adventure at sea with real sailors.

Core curriculum standards for history, geography and literacy skills can be met for grade 6 readers and beyond whether the book is used in a classroom, library or book club setting. It is history we have not read before and it is provided in a fascinating narrative style that puts the reader right in that scary frigid water.

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  • September 17Title: September 17
  • Author: Amanda West Lewis
  • Publisher: Red Deer Press, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Paperback, 313 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-88995-507-3
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 6 and up
  • Extras: Afterward, Recommended Reading, Interview and Photograph of the Author

The Stepsister’s Tale

Written by Tracy Barrett

Sixth graders and above will love this quirky re-take on the familiar story of Cinderella. Looking beyond the unambiguous version where Cinderella was the good little servant and the stepsisters were malevolent, Barrett wonders what might have happened if all the characters were well-developed. Maybe Cinderella was a spoiled brat who told lies to elicit sympathy. Maybe the family was destitute after years of trying to live without the men who had promised to take care of them. (High-born women, in fact, weren’t allowed to do men’s work.) Maybe the prince was also spoiled and not even worthy of further thought.

Young Jane Montjoy is doing her best to keep her family together. Mamma is ineffectual and Maude is much younger than she is. Both Jane and Maude work very hard making butter and cheese and taking care of the house. They share with the people who live in the forest. One day, Mamma goes to market and comes back with a new husband and a new stepsister. The man does not live long. He was in debt and his daughter has no skills. A harsh winter nearly kills them all, until Jane has the good sense to ask the forest people for help. When the prince tries to marry Ella, adventure ensues.

The many details the author uses to explain away Cinderella’s story make this extra delightful and also very funny. It’s the humor which will make many boys enjoy this book. The pumpkin coach and the glass slippers are items Ella’s father spoils her with before his death. Ella doesn’t even think the coach looks like a pumpkin. The beautiful dress was Ella’s mother’s, which hasn’t been touched in years. Ella plays in the ashes in order to be close to where the heat was. Of course, some details remain unexplainable. Fairies?

As I said, the characters are well-developed, making this great for extending literacy skills and comprehension. There is a lot in this book about not taking things at face value and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Wonderful new book worth a look.

  • Stepsisters TaleTitle: The Stepsister’s Tale
  • Author: Tracy Barrett
  • Publisher: Harlequin Teen, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
  • Genre: Retold fairy tale
  • ISBN: 978-0-373-21121-0
  • Extras: Discussion questions to keep the thinking going


The Boy on the Wooden Box

Written by Leon Leyson

Leon Leyson was one of the boys on Schindler’s list. As explained in this memoir, he was so small at the time that he had to stand on a box to reach the buttons and dials of the machine he was operating. This sad, but not graphic depiction of the Holocaust, is important for fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and beyond,

It is important that the world not forget what happened in our recent history. But it is also important that it be told in such a way that will not cause nightmares or fear of exploring the world. Lesson does an excellent job of separating the German people from those in the Nazi party. He trusted Germans before the war and returned to Germany after the war.

A remarkable thing about this memoir is the strength of hope exhibited and the resiliency of this young man. Again and again it seemed he would never see his family again. Over and over he was put in a line that would lead to his death. But still he survived. Thanks to Oscar Schindler. Most people were unaware of the heroic deeds of that one man until a movie was made. However, students in grades five an up might not be aware of the film.

As students, teachers and librarians continue to read and teach The Diary of Anne Frank, they should also be reading and teaching this memoir. This story continued on past the ghetto, the camps, and the death. Perhaps because of his age, young Leon was able to pick up his hopes and dreams and immigrate into the United States. He continued on to live a happy and productive life. For decades, his own children did not know the story of his being a Schindler’s boy in his teens.

How thrilled Leon was, though, in the fall of 1965 in Los Angeles, to have Oscar Schindler recognize and remember him.

This book will fulfill multiple literacy skills as well as history and social studies requirements in the core curriculum and should be part of every school library collection.

  • Boy on Wooden BoxTitle: The Boy on the Wooden Box
  • Author: Leon Leyson
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-4424-9781-8
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Grade Level: 6
  • Extras: Photographs, additional resources for learning about the Holocaust


Written by Gary Blackwood

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If you have ever stopped while on vacation at an automated wax museum or one of those museums of oddities from the past, this book will fascinate you. It is Gary Blackwood’s newest historical fiction. It revolves around the story of a real automated chess playing device called The Turk. It was very a very popular attraction invented by the same man who invented the metronome. People were intrigued by this machine that could play chess against a real person and actually win. It was part of a traveling show between the years 1826 and 1838.

Rufus is the main character in this story. He is a young penniless lad who is curious about everything. When his father is thrown into debtor’s prison, Rufus gets sent to a terrible House of Refuge. The description of this place will make the reader think immediately of Dickens houses for orphans. But this young man has a most refined skill at the game of chess. It is something his father taught him, and because of a weak body and sickly childhood, Rufus spent hours entertaining himself with the game until he became a master in his own right.

For a time, Rufus played against grownups in one of Philadelphia’s Chess Clubs. Later, he got to work with the Turk and be the keeper of all of its secrets. He worked well, but was neither paid nor fed. Even though his only flaw is “asking too many questions,” which is a phrase that many grade five or grade six readers will find familiar. His story is intriguing and well told. Middle school students will enjoy the adventure and suspense.

Teachers, librarians and parents can use the book to meet core curriculum standards and teach literacy skills. This story provides excellent opportunities for students to distinguish between fact and fiction by researching unfamiliar terms like phrenology or hunchbacked. It also provides a great opportunity to discover the exciting development of mechanical devices during the 1800’s.

As with Gary Blackwood’s previous historical novels, this is well researched and smoothly told. Its title was particularly well chosen as curiosity completely envelopes the reader from the first page to the last.


  • CuriosityTitle: Curiosity
  • Author: Gary Blackwood
  • Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 313 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-8037-3924-6
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Grade level: 4 to 7
  • Extras: Afterword on Historical Content

Poem Depot: Aisles of Smiles

Written and illustrated by Douglas Florian

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Belly laughs and snickers will be heard from the fourth grade readers, fifth grade readers and sixth grade readers that carry this book on the bus or anywhere else they like to read. The poems are short, simple and catchy. They talk about the things kids enjoy: getting swallowed by an alligator, being hungry enough to eat the whole world or getting stuck in an overstuffed chair.

Douglas Florian clearly knows his readers and how to engage them with his words and his art.

Students will be using his sketches as models for learning how to make new drawings of their own.

Some of his poems start with the beginning lines of well-known nursery rhymes or often repeated poems, but he takes them off in a new, often humorous direction.

Teachers and librarians can use this fun example of poetry in meeting core curriculum goals and literacy skills. Art teachers can have students design their own sketches to go along with the poems. Students can use their favorite poems for their public speaking requirements and have fun doing them. Many of these will become often repeated verses learned by those pesky little brothers and sisters that we all love to make giggle.

  • Poem DepotTitle: Poem Depot: Aisles of Smiles
  • Author/Illustrator: Douglas Florian
  • Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 154 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-8037-4042-6
  • Genre: Poetry
  • Grade level: 4 to 6
  • Extras: Index of Titles/ Index of First Lines
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