Monday, October 15, 2018

Turning Pages: My Life Story

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor has shared the story of her life in an autobiography for adults, a story in Spanish for young adults and now as a picture book in both Spanish and English. Both Justice Sotomayor and Lulu Delacre, the illustrator of Turning Pages: My Life Story/Pasando Páginas share family traditions and memories from Puerto Rico. Young readers can look carefully at the illustrations to learn about life in Puerto Rico, in New York or at Princeton University and even to see newspapers the Justice’s family might have been reading when she was growing up. 

Justice Sotomayor remembers trips to sunny Puerto Rico when she could eat fresh mangoes and spicy chicken. From Puerto Rico to New York to Washington, D.C., books were always the Justice’s friends.  She called them her harbor, helping her escape the sadness of her father’s death; her snorkel and flippers, helping her explore life; a time machine inspiring her imagination; her launchpad, blasting her into her dreams. Now, in her life as a lawyer and judge, books are “maps to guide us to justice.”

The life of Justice Sonia Sotomayor is itself a launch pad for writing and discussions among students of any age.

·       What kind of books do you like to read and why? Did you have a favorite book when you were very little?

·       Justice Sotomayor remembers when her Abuelita, her grandmother, would “close her eyes and recite poems written long ago about the tropical land our family had left behind.” Does anyone in your family tell stories or sing songs when everyone gets together? What stories or songs do you remember?

·       Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes when she was just seven years old. She imagined she was brave and powerful like the superheroes in comic books so she could give herself daily injections.  What superpower would you like to have? What would you do with that power?

·       On the steps of the cover of the book is an opinion written by the Justice. Can you find her name and the title of the opinion?

·       Justice Sotomayor remembers receiving a set of encyclopedias at her home and learning about myosis, mitosis and molecule (all pictured in the bubbles) from diving into the pages of one volumeIs there a set of encyclopedias in your school or neighborhood library? If so, pick any volume, open to any page and read about something you find on that page.  What did you learn?

·       “Justice means treating people fairly under the law,” writes the Justice. Why is it important to have laws or rules for a country or a school or a classroom? Everyone in the class could write one reason on a 3x5 card; then the cards can be posted in the classroom or hallway for everyone to see. 

·       There are lots of family photographs of Sonia Sotomayor on the book’s endpapers – as a child, at special family events, with her colleagues on the Supreme Court. Take photos of each student with a favorite book. Students can write a few sentences or draw a picture to explain why that book is special.  The photos can be posted so students learn about new books they might also enjoy reading.

Justice Sotomayor talks about the importance of books from her childhood to her life on the Supreme court: “Books are keys that unlock of wisdom of yesterday and open the door to tomorrow.”

Note: An exhibit of Lulu Delacre’s illustrations for Sonia Sotomayor’s life story is on display at the ZimmerliArt Museum, Rutgers University, New Jersey. 

Monday, October 1, 2018


Freddie Ramos, the boy with super-powered purple sneakers, is back with a new adventure in Zapato Power #7: Freddie Ramos Hears It All.

In Freddie Ramos Hears It All, Freddie must adjust to the thrill and the challenge of having super hearing in addition to super speed and super bounce. He goes to a space museum with his class and realizes that he can overhear conversations everywhere. Should he help the museum guards find a lost child? Should he help a woman who dropped her bracelet? Freddie has a big heart and a thirst for being a hero. With super hearing he can find many more opportunities to use his super hero powers. He can also find opportunities to eavesdrop. Should he be listening through his friend's door? What is the line between being a snoop and a super hero?

After reading Freddie Ramos Hears It All, students can write about how they would use super hearing and how it might help or complicate their lives. 

Here are some questions to consider.

Would you listen through a closed door?
Would you share important information you overheard? Or keep it secret? 
Would you be tempted to listen in on others all the time? 
Who would you most like to eavesdrop on? Your parents? Brother or sister? Teacher?
What would you do if you heard someone crying? Would you run to get involved or respect his/her privacy?

Story Prompt Ideas:
·       You’ve overheard a conversation on the playground. Two friends are talking about another student. The information you heard is supposed to be a secret. What will you do?
·       You’ve heard your parents’ talking about your brother. The information surprised you. What is it? Will you tell your brother what you know?
·       You’ve overhead your teacher talking about a pop quiz for your class. Do you tell your friends to study? Do you study? What do you do?

Encourage your students to think of all possibilities. Information obtained through eavesdropping can be happy or sad. And the dilemma of knowing something you were not supposed to know can be very real. Happy Writing!

Monday, September 17, 2018


Delivery Bear, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Paco Sordo, is the story of a large bear named Zogby whose lifelong dream is to deliver cookies for the Fluffy Tail Cookies Company—a company staffed entirely by bunnies.

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

1. Imagine you are in charge of the Fluffy Tail Cookies Company. You get to decide all of the different types of cookies that customers can order. Will you sell classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin? Or creative new recipes like Peanut Butter Potato Chip Delight? Or a mix? Write or draw a list of the cookies you will sell.

2. Even when he is a small cub, Zogby knows what he wants to do when he grows up. What do YOU want to do when you grow up? What is your dream job? Why?

3. When all of the customers are scared of Zogby, he is tempted to give up on his dream. But in the end he thinks of a new way to approach the deliveries and succeeds in his own way. Think of a time in your own life when you were tempted to give up. What happened? How did you manage to overcome your frustration? Was there someone who helped you?

4. When Mrs. Rabbit hears the Fluffy Tail Cookies delivery song and opens the door, she expects to see a small bunny. Instead, she sees a large bear and screams “AAAAAAHHHH!” In this case, Mrs. Rabbit is judging Zogby based on his appearance. Have you ever judged someone based on her/his appearance? Has anyone judged you by your appearance? Do you think Mrs. Rabbit’s reaction is reasonable or unreasonable? If you were a rabbit and opened the door to a bear, what do you think your reaction would be?

Monday, September 3, 2018

“The Caterpillars Marvelous Transformation…”

“Small, silent,
swelling to
I do not yet know
what secrets I hold
what marvels await me.”

Joyce Sidman’s poem is written from the point of view of a butterfly egg, the first chapter in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies – How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science.

Maria was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647.  Her father ran a publishing shop until he died when Maria was only three years old.  Her mother married an artist who painted flowers and insects, which Maria often collected for him. No one knew at that time how insects grew. Some people thought butterflies flew in from somewhere else; others thought they emerged from dew, dung, dead animals or mud. Maria was fascinated.

She learned to paint and draw from her stepfather. But she also collected insects in glass jars to watch them grow and change – silk worms and then moths and butterflies.  Her interest in art and especially science set her apart from other girls in the 17th century. She was different – she had to be careful and clever about how she worked. 

In 1679, at the age of 32, she published a book with a long and fabulous title, typical of the time – The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food. She engraved every print in the book herself and hand-painted many of them, like this title page. You can see her name in the branches at the bottom. 

First published 1679, digitized by the Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg

Maria did not have a happy marriage, leaving her husband to live in the Netherlands with her mother and daughters. She even moved to Surinam, a South American country with Dutch colonists.

“She rented a house, cultivated a large garden, and plunged into the work of discovering and breeding caterpillars.”

When she returned to Amsterdam several years later, “Maria’s beautiful, accessible art and text electrified her fellow naturalists. Most of the species she discovered were unknown to Europeans at the time, and her observations were widely quoted and discussed.” 

Joyce Sidman raised caterpillars herself while she was writing about Merian and also read her books, including The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation – a primary source for her research. Sidman wrote a short poem for each stage of a butterfly’s life, from egg to approaching death.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is the tale of a young woman who stepped far outside the typical world of 17th century girls to become a botanical illustrator and scientist who “saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections – and changed our view of it forever.”

Here are several ideas to let Maria Merian’s work spark creativity in modern-day young people.

1.    Take a walk outside.  Ask students to look carefully at any living thing – plant, insect, bird. Write a short poem describing the plant or animal – or written from the point of view of that plant or animal, like Sidman’s poems.  Budding artists could instead draw their chosen creature or plant with all the detail of Merian’s illustrations.

2.    Maria Merian traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana, and now spelled Suriname. Where in the world would you want to travel and why? What would you want to see or learn there?

3.    Are you passionate about something that you would like to make your career? It’s ok if you have no great passion yet, but if you do, write about why you would like to spend your life working in that field.

In her poem about a butterfly in flight, Joyce Sidman mused,

“How vast
the swirling dome
of the sky!
How strong the wings
I have grown
for myself!!”

Encourage young writers and readers to grow strong wings for themselves by writing, drawing and carefully observing the details of their world.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Reader’s Theater for Pluto Demoted Day & Beyond

Did you know that August 24th is Pluto Demoted Day?  That’s the day the International Astronomical Union voted to downgrade Pluto’s status from the ninth planet in our solar system to belong, instead, to a group of dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt.

In my new book, Pluto is Peeved: An Ex-Planet Searches for Answers, Pluto seeks answers in a museum. After meeting Earth, some wild-and-crazy germs, a friendly dinosaur, and others, Pluto learns that his change in status is not unique in scientific history. Earth was once considered the center of the solar system. The Apatosaurus was originally named Brontosaurus.

After reading Pluto is Peeved with your class, challenge your students to research and write about scientific breakthroughs such as how Anton van Leeuwenhoek first saw tiny wiggling “animalcules” through a microscope in the 1670’s or how Louis Pasteur proved it was possible to kill germs through a heating process now known as pasteurization.  

Illustrations by Dave Roman

Scientists make observations and question everything—even ideas people have long considered to be facts. They spend years researching and collecting data. When new evidence is discovered, scientists present discoveries to the world, expanding our knowledge of the universe. Other topics your students can investigate include: The Fate of the Dinosaurs, The Center of the Solar System, The Discovery of Radium, Penicillin, or DNA, Plate Tectonics, and the New Horizons Space Mission. For a list of 11 Innovations That Changed the World see this list from The History Channel.

When research is completed, challenge your students to write a Reader’s Theater script in which one scientist describes his/her discovery to another person. Will the discovery be received with excitement or skepticism or confusion? Dialogues your students write could include spirited discussions.  

Reader’s Theater is a fun, interactive tool for developing oral reading skills and reading fluency. When your students have the opportunity to write their own scripts, it doubles the fun. In addition, a Reader’s Theater based on research can integrate science into the language arts curriculum.

For an example of a science-based Reader’s Theater, please visit my website and download a Reader’s Theater for Pluto is Peeved.


Monday, August 6, 2018

One Voice Can Change the World

Guest Post by Kathryn Erskine

It’s true ... with incredible determination and persistence, one person really can change the world. I was introduced to the voice of Miriam Makeba, dubbed Mama Africa, during the oppressive apartheid regime. Despite danger to herself and family, she told the world about the atrocities in her country. Singing was her art and talent, and using that, she forced the world to look at what was happening in South Africa, and to do something about it. We may not have her gifts, but we can all be brave. We can all speak out and change the world.

Young people often feel unheard. As a child, especially a girl in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, I took heart that a woman could speak out and that people would actually listen. I loved that she forced everyone to look at, and deal with, what was happening to her people –and not just in South Africa, but in the United States, and anywhere in the world. Her voice gave me hope that I could have a voice, too. I wanted to give that same feeling of empowerment to young readers today.

To that end, here are some writing activities you can use with Mama Africa:

1. Use Miriam’s story as a jumping off point to learn more about her or one of the other people mentioned in the book, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Also, see the timeline and Further Reading sections for more ideas, e.g., Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis. What contributions did these people make? What do you think was most important, and why? If you could ask one of these people a question, what would you ask?

2. What is an issue you feel strongly about? How would you use your voice to tell the world? In today’s world, unlike Miriam Makeba’s during the mid-twentieth century, what avenues do you have available to get your message out?

3. Mama Africa can also be used as an introduction to apartheid, and other oppressive regimes, and how such regimes can be called out and, eventually, brought down. What is happening in the world today that is similar to a tyrannical government like South Africa’s under apartheid? What do you think is an effective way to stop that regime?

And, any of the above activities can be written in the call-and-response style used in the book, either as a song or free verse poem, where the last word of the preceding line is also the first word in the following line.
An example from the book:
Still, that doesn’t stop Miriam from singing.
Singing always gives her strength.

Mama Africa: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, was named a 2018 Best Book for Young Children by CABA, Children’s Africana Book Awards.  It was also the 2018 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award winner.

Kathryn Erskine is the author of six novels for young people, including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Incredible Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us. She also recently wrote an award-winning picture book, Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba.  Kathryn Erskine draws on her life stories and world events for her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.  Visit her at

Monday, July 23, 2018

Birthdays, Chickens, and Writing Fun!

I Got A Chicken For My Birthday, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Sarah Horne, is about a little girl who wants tickets to the amusement park…but receives a chicken instead.

After you read I Got A Chicken For My Birthday to your students, you can use the story as a writing prompt in the classroom. Here are some suggestions to get kids writing:

1) In this book, the chicken builds Ana an amusement park in her back yard. If you received a magical engineering chicken for your birthday, what would you want your chicken to build for you? Describe the creation you would wish for.

2) Ana has a special relationship with her grandmother, Abuela Lola. Think of a member of your family, or a neighbor or family friend, who is special to you. Write about that person and why you feel close to him or her.

3) At first, Ana is disappointed that she received a chicken instead of tickets to the amusement park. Have you ever received a gift that you weren’t expecting or didn’t want? What was it? What did you want instead?

4) The chicken gives Ana a list of items needed for building the amusement park. The list has both practical items and silly items. Make up your own list of supplies for building an amusement park. What would you include on your list?