Monday, April 8, 2019

I Call Dibs!

Dibs, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Marcin Piwowarski, is the story of two brothers. Julian calls “dibs” so frequently that his baby brother Clancy ends up saying “dibs” as his very first word. Things get out of control when Clancy starts calling dibs on a bakery, an airplane, and even the White House! But when Clancy gets trapped in space, it is Julian who needs to harness the power of dibs to rescue his little brother.

 After reading Dibs out loud, try these writing activities with your students:

1. If you could call dibs on ANYTHING, the way Clancy does, what would you call dibs on? Why?

2. Julian gets frustrated when Clancy doesn’t follow the “rules” of Dibs. Even though these rules are not written down, most kids know you can call dibs on the biggest cookie but not on a whole bakery. You can call dibs on sitting in the window seat in an airplane, but you can’t call dibs on a whole airplane. Think about rules in your life. What rules at home or school do you wish you could break? What rules do you wish other people followed? Do you have a sibling, cousin, or friend who breaks rules? How do you feel about that when it happens?

3. Some kids who read the book Dibs already know the expression “calling dibs,” and some kids have never heard the expression before. Make a list of expressions that you know. Which of these expressions do you actually use when you talk to your friends?

4. Look at your list of expressions that you know from #3. Can you imagine how a kid could take one of those expressions too far, the way Clancy takes dibs too far in the book Dibs? How could you turn that into a story? For example, think about the expression “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” What if a kid decided that she would eat ten apples—or a hundred apples—or a thousand apples—every day so that she would never, ever get sick? And then she ate so many apples that it actually made her sick! Or maybe she turned into an apple and then her grandma wanted to turn her into apple pie! Take one of the expressions from your list and write a story in which a kid takes the expression too far.
Bio: Laura Gehl is the author of picture books including One Big Pair of Underwear (Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, International Literacy Association Honor Book, Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice); Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel, And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, and Koala Challah (all PJ Library selections); the Peep and Egg series (Parents’ Choice Recommendation, Amazon Editors’ Pick, Children’s Choice Book Award Finalist); My Pillow Keeps Moving (Junior Library Guild selection, NYPL Best Books of 2018 selection); and I Got a Chicken for my Birthday (Kirkus Best Picture Books of 2018 selection). 2019 releases include Except When They Don’t (Little Bee), Dibs! (Lerner), Juniper Kai: Super Spy (Two Lions); Judge Juliette (Sterling); Always Looking Up: A Story of Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman (Whitman); and the Baby Scientist series (HarperCollins). Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband and four children.  Visit her online at

Monday, March 25, 2019

Words Have Power

“Let us pick up our books and pens…
One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”
            United Nations, July 12, 2013

The words of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot for defending the right of all children to be educated, have echoed around the world.  She continues to travel and speak out, highlighting the dim future for girls forced to leave school early and children forced to flee their homes.

The new edition of Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words (2019, Lee & Low)  tells Malala’s story from the blog she began writing for the BBC at age 11 to her Nobel Prize in 2014 and the organizations she continues to inspire as a 21-year-old college student.

When she returned from her Girl Power Trip around the world in 2017, she said she “wants every girl and boy to stand up and speak out for the millions of children worldwide who are not yet able to attend school.”  The book includes extensive back matter on Pakistan, the Taliban, the Malala Fund and other organizations young people can join to support the cause of global education for all.

Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words is a perfect launchpad for children from elementary school even through high school to think and write about civic engagement, as well as their own lives contrasted with Malala and the children for whom she advocates. Here are a few suggestions:

·       Malala was forced to flee her own home with just a small backpack when the Pakistani Army began fighting the Taliban.  Aside from whatever food and clothes you could carry, what three things would you take if you had to leave your home suddenly and why? (Give this assignment very carefully if there are children in your class who may actually have experienced such displacement.)

·       Children have an immediate understanding of things that are not fair. Have them write about something in their school or community that is unfair – and what they could do about it.

·       For an art project, have students consider this illustration showing Malala’s family when they returned to their town after it had been heavily damaged by fighting. Illustrator Susan L. Roth says she is not precise in her art, which she makes with paper, fabric and other “found” objects. But the emotions in this illustration are very clear. What is the family feeling? Ask students to use paper and found objects to make a portrait showing an emotion. 

·       Older students may scoff at the idea of reading a picture book, but they too can write about how illustrations help tell the story (visual literacy). Students can also react to the ideas in this Washington Post article about the moral authority of children – including Malala. Why do her ideas resonate? Why do students think protests, marches and other civic action by children have a greater impact than actions by adults (or not)?

·       A long-term project: Identify an issue or cause that is supported by the majority of students in class and talk about ways to make the change they would like to see. Write letters to the appropriate authority, design flyers and write online messages to spread the word.

Malala rarely draws attention to herself when she speaks. When she accepted the Nobel Prize, she said, “This award is…for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.”

Indeed, says the young warrior with words, “our words can change the world.”

Monday, March 11, 2019

Traveling Back in Time

What would it be like to travel back in time and meet the early presidents and their families? That’s what the fifth graders in George Washington & the Magic Hat and its sequel, John Adams & the Magic Bobblehead, get to do.

Sam and Ava are regular 21st century kids, living across the street from each other in Bethesda, Maryland, dealing with issues a lot of kids face. Sam and his former best friend, Andrew, aren’t speaking to each other any more. Ava, in a newly blended family, can’t stand her stepbrother, J.P.

And then, thanks to a crotchety hat, in Sam’s case, and a talking bobblehead, in Ava’s, they are transported into a completely different time.

Students can focus on the historical figures--George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and more. What do they know about the Founding Fathers and Mothers? Is there one that they’re particularly interested in and why? What do they think these historical figures would make of today’s world if the time travel were reversed?

And then there are the contemporary issues. How do the students identify with Sam? With Ava? How do the students try to resolve the issues that bother them?

If they had a magic hat or a magic bobblehead, which time period would they like to visit, and why? Is there a particular person they’d like to get to know? 

Any of these questions can prompt a discussion or writing assignment that will get students thinking about history or today’s issues or a combination of both.

Deborah Kalb is a freelance writer and editor. She spent two decades working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for news organizations including Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, U.S. News & World Report, and The Hill, mostly covering Congress and politics. Her book blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, which she started in 2012, features hundreds of interviews she has conducted with a wide variety of authors. She is the author of the new children’s book The President and Me: John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead (Schiffer, 2018), the second in a series — after The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat (Schiffer, 2016) Visit

Monday, February 25, 2019

Book Gardens

“Nestled in the branches of a tree,
Arlo opened his book and breathed in.

“Beginnings were always the best part.
They smelled as if anything were possible.”

I illustrated The Book Tree, written by Paul Czajak – a wonderful story about a boy who sits on the branches of a tree to read. When one of his books falls on the Mayor’s head, the Mayor decides to tear up every book in town – with disastrous consequences for teachers and their students, chefs and their restaurants, actors and their theatres and of course, libraries.

But then there was a miracle: “a sprout springing from where the page had been buried. It began to open its leaves. It reached for Arlo’s words, begging for more.” Pretty soon, Arlo was imagining and writing stories about giants and swans and fire-breathing beasts.

“People grew hungry for reading again. Some wrote their own stories and became book gardeners themselves.”

Even the Mayor finally shared the wonder of books.

My illustrations feature oil paint, ink and collages. I used natural materials to bring  depth and contrast to my drawings, like using real feathers, pieces of wood, fabrics and metals to make the collages more tangible.

People of the town have different skin tones with blue hair or mustaches. They look funny and whimsical.  The book tree itself is been printed with golden ink to give it a magical shine. The books that actually grow on the tree branches are in different languages.

The Book Tree can inspire student writing and even turn a whole school into book gardeners – limited only by your imagination.

Here are a few ideas to get started:
1 –  Have students draw a book tree full of their favorite books.
2 –  The teacher can draw a tree and each student draw or attach his/her favorite book to it.
3 – Draw the Mayor and Arlo as friends, reading a book together – or have students write a paragraph about what books the Mayor and Arlo enjoyed reading together. Perhaps they could even write a story together.
4 – Look at the illustrations in the book and find places where materials other than paint and paper have been used.  Make your own collage with lots of different materials.

The motto of publisher Barefoot Books is to “step inside a story.”  What stories would your students like to step inside?  The Book Tree celebrates the themes Barefoot Books seeks to highlight: “encourage independence of spirit, enthusiasm for learning and respect for the world’s diversity.”

Monday, February 11, 2019

Read Africa

How often do you make a list for the grocery store and then leave the list at home and have to remember what you wrote down?  That is Fatima’s dilemma in Grandma’s List, a Children’s Africana Book Award winner by Portia Dery, illustrated by Toby Newsome. 

Calling Grandma’s List an excellent read-aloud book, Africa Access Review says the illustrations “show a neighborhood in Ghana that is very typical of many African towns with shops, gardens, small livestock, and many people outside working and playing. Children not familiar with West Africa can learn about palm nut soup, groundnuts (peanuts) and Bissap drink.”

Africa Access highlights the best books about Africa especially during its February Read Africa initiative but throughout the year as well.

Fatima has convinced her grandmother she can help with the chores on Grandma’s list of errands – but she loses the list and has to remember all the details, mixing up just about everything.  Contrary to expectations, Fatima’s family is very forgiving and she concludes that being a child isn’t so bad after all.

This is an excellent book for children to study the illustrations:
·       How does the dinner table look the same as yours? Different?
·       What about the village scene – what looks familiar? Can you draw a picture of your neighborhood on a Saturday morning?
·       Have children write their own list of grocery items or household tasks and imagine they lost the list. Ask them to write a paragraph about how they could help themselves remember items without that list.
·       Encourage children to consider the importance of details. Find out about cornflour – the kind Fatima mistakenly purchased – and write a paragraph about how it is used differently from wheat flour. Try to find a Ghanaian recipe using cornflour (usually called cornstarch in the United States).
·       Fatima doesn’t like her nickname “Fati.”  Do you have a nickname you like – or don’t like? Write about your nickname – or a nickname you would like to have.

There are more classroom ideas in the Africa Access Review of Grandma’s List as well as recommended picture books (Anansi Reads) and chapter books (Sankofa Reads), book marks and reviews of Children’s Africana Book Award winners. 

Children and teachers may add their own comments about the books they read at - which becomes a student writing activity in itself.  It is also possible for students to submit videos or posters about the books they read, write a letter to the author or illustrator and even request a visit from a Read Africa Teaching Artist. 

 The 2018 CABA awards  will be celebrated with a reception on April 5 and a family festival April 6 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  

Monday, January 28, 2019

An Amazing Classroom Resource!

Where can a teacher easily find interesting pieces to share in the classroom? Look no further than Issue 8 of Balloons Lit. Journal.

This magazine for upper elementary and middle school students is an amazing resource of poetry, fiction, and art. What’s more, it includes contributions from all over the world and features student work alongside professional adults. Poems are attractively presented in full page layouts sure to inspire the imagination. I am thrilled that one of my poems,  “Egret” appears on page 41.

I wrote “Egret” while I was out on a brisk walk near a body of water and this beautifully immobile creature stopped me in my tracks. Ask your students to describe an animal or plant so enchanting they couldn’t help but pause for a moment to gaze. Better yet, take your students outside and ask them to stand silently for five minutes, watching the natural world. What did they see, hear, smell? How did they feel? Can they make an effort to pay attention to the grass, the trees, the clouds, the insects, and everything else which flutters unnoticed when we hurry too much? Mindfulness can enrich one’s life as well as one’s writing.   

Listening to an author read their own work can be a meaningful experience for students. Balloons Lit. Journal also offers audio clips on selected pieces. Scroll down the page where Issue 8 appears and you will see an audio section and an opportunity to hear me read my poem, “Egret” as well as three other poets in this issue.  

I highly recommend sharing 14 year old Braxton Schieler’s voice reading his work, “Someday I’ll Be—An Autobiography.” Braxton writes about his life from the age of three till an imagined old age, describing emotional transitions with clarity and insight. Hearing a student read his own personal narrative aloud should jump start many a reluctant pen in your classroom.

Other pieces in Balloons Lit. Issue 8, such as the poems, “I Think My Teacher is a Witch” and  “Pillow Problems” could be great models for humorous writing.

Finally the artwork in Balloons Lit. Issue 8 is stunning. Available in PDF form on the website, images could be projected to present the ekphrastic challenge of providing a written response to and/or description of artwork.

Don’t miss this amazing resource for the classroom! Check out Issue 8 of Balloons Lit. Journal today!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Capturing Black and White America

“The youngest of fifteen, Parks arrives stillborn
And is nearly left for dead until a dip
In ice water shocks his tiny heart to beat.

The baby is named for the man who saved his life, Dr. Gordon.”

Gordon Parks would grow up to become a professional photographer, cataloging American life on film for the Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information, Standard Oil, Ebony, Vogue, Fortune and Life.

His early work (1940-50) is the focus of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from November 4, 2018 until February 18, 2019. He is also the subject of Carole Boston Weatherford’s biography, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America.

For Gordon Parks, photography was the tool he used to expose “the unfairness of segregation,” and the African American struggle against racism. “He not only documented but also served as an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement.”  

Parks photographs often featured everyday Americans in their daily lives, including cleaning woman Ella Watson – a photo that became known as American Gothic. “In one iconic photo,” writes Weatherford, “Parks conveyed both the African American struggle against racism and the contradiction between segregation and freedom.”

“Standing before
the flag of freedom,
cleaning lady Ella Watson
holds the tools of her trade
and the hopes of her grandchildren.” 

·       Ella Watson lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.
·       What do you think she hoped for her grandchildren? For students whose grandparents are living, have them find out their hopes for their grandchildren. Write about it or share those hopes with the class.  Students can also imagine what they might hope for their own children.
·       Ask students to write about three things in their own daily lives that they would photograph – and why they selected these people, events or places. 
·       Perhaps a few single use cameras could be purchased to enable students to photograph a story about their school that could be published online, in the school newspaper or in a local community newspaper. (This would be an opportunity for students to learn about obtaining the rights  to print photographs of other people.)

Parks was not only a photographer. He wrote a novel, directed a film and wrote poetry and music as well.

·       If you wanted to change people’s minds about an issue in society, what do you think would be the best medium and why? 
Gordon Parks is one of many famous Americans profiled by Carole Boston Weatherford. She is the 2019 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner  and will speak in Washington at the award celebration on May 11, 2019.  Make plans to come and hear what she has to say – students welcome!