DIVERSE IDENTITIES: Middle Years Fiction

The novels listed below are linked by their diverse narratives of diverse circumstances. Race, Culture, Class and the refugee experience can be found in the books listed below, helping middle age readers to understand how our  identities shapes our lives and  how strength and courage can help us to combat intolerance and hate.

BLENDED by Sharon M. Draper

For me, Draper is best recognized for her beautiful novel Out Of My Mind. In this new novel, the author tells the story of eleven year old Isabella, who is the daughter of divorced parents, one black, one white. Isabella’s life, and the structure of the book is mostly divided into Mom weeks and Dad’s weeks where thus testing her flexibility and attempts to comply with the circumstances. Throughout the book, Isabella, a talented pianist, questions her identity as a blended person and this quest to understand the self and find a place of belonging is at the heart of the novel. An episode at the novel’s climax is rather surprising, somewhat unbelievable and in the end significant to help this girl and readers understand how society looks at us, particularly when someone of colour, or even blended.

MASCOT by Antony John

After surviving a car crash which killed his father, Noah Sorvino, paralyzed, is stuck in wheelchair. Readers are likely to feel empathy with Noah as he struggles with the realities of being disabled and the guilt of being the one to survive the accident. The game of baseball helps Noah to overcome his fears and move forward to meet life’s challenges, small and large. An important addition to novels helping readers to gain understanding of people who are physically challenged.


For those who like mystery stories, this novel is intriguing as two friends attempt to solve  the mystery of the Parker Inheritance which involves a huge amount of money and a generous anonymous donor. But more than a mystery, this story, jumping back and forth in time, is a strong story about injustice and prejudice against African Americans both past and present.


Styx Malone, a foster child,  becomes a hero for Caleb and his brother Bobby Gene. Despite the wishes of the brothers parents, the friendship develops as the boys get involved in shenanigans that involve firecrackers, a lawn mower and a moped. I felt I could have put this book down at any time, but the story gains momentum in the last third as character relationships are strengthened.

A LONG WALK TO WATER by Linda Sue Park

This book, based on a true story, brings to love the story of one ‘lost boy’ refugee who was forced to flee his village in war-torn Sudan and travel across Africa hoping to find salvation. Another strong feature of this book, is the additional narrative of  a young girl in South Sudan, 2008, who is responsible for making journeys to a faraway pond, twice a day, to gather water in jugs for her family. This is an essential book to share with middle year readers to gain understanding of refugees who persevered to survive strife and to find a place called home when they are caught in the horrors of war.


The family of Carter Jones falls into chaos each day. The arrival of Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick provides a dream solution to the family as he fulfills his duty as a butler perfectly. Not only is he a savior at bringing order and  pulling the family together, he has a special bond and helps  Carter Jones adjust to the challenges of middle school. A daschund that throws up easily and the game of cricket play an important part in this funny, warmly-engaging novel.


It is 2001 and Fadi and his family have left war-torn Afghanistan to find a better life, but sadly circumstances have forced the family to leave behind six-year-old Mariam. Fadi gradually settles  into his new school, finding comfort in a hobby for taking photographs. However with the events of 9/11, the young boy comes face to face with news incidents and hateful students who feel that people like Fadi and his family are responsible for terrorism.  A great read that should touch the hearts of young readers.

PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahan

Ten-year-old Manami and her family are forced by the government to leave their home and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp. Manami finds refuge by creating drawings, especially ones of her dog Yujin who was left be significant novel, helping young readers understand the injustices of forcing Japanese evacuate, relocate and live and work in internment camps.


In this free verse novel, Jude and her mother find refugee with family in Cincinnati while her father and brother remain behind in the turmoil threatening Syria.   Jude slowly adjusts to school life as she learns English and finds friends. However as Middle Eastern girl, she also comes against the harshness of Islamophobia. An important story of culture, identity and understanding of ‘home’.

SHOUT OUT (Picture Book)


by Kwame Alexander; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Evocative poem by Alexander intertwines with bright collages by Melissa Sweet shine a spotlight on this thing called reading.

Don’t rush through:

Your eyes need time to taste.

Your soul needs

Room to bloom.

How to Read a Book


What the titles in this posting have in common is the fact that they are each less than 200 pages, even if by a few pages. A lot of story power and heart are packed into these ‘shorter’ books.

BIRD GUY by David Booth (poetry) (134 pages)

Re-read this beautiful anthology of poems about birds by my dear friend David Booth presented as a young adolescent’s 9th grade English project. With illustrations by Maya Ishiura. Available through Amazon.ca

CRIME CLUB by Melodie Campbell (125 pages)

Crime Club is a breezy engaging read, particularly for reluctant readers. Campbell’s story efficiently presents the stuff of a mystery storie as a group of teenagers try to solve the mystery of a skeleton that has been hidden for over twenty years.

SWEEPING THE HEART by Kevin Henkes (183 pages)

Amelia Albright is not looking forward to spring break. Contemplating what the future brings for her, Amelia finds salvation in working with clay in the local studio and discovers a talent for making ceramic rabbit figures. Amelia’s mother died when the young girl was two years old and her father is rather secretive and hides secrets – even the fact that he is dating a woman who Amelia believes strongly resembles her mother.  A friendship with a boy, named Casey (who is angry over his parent’s imminent divorce) helps to strengthen  Amelia’s understanding of the past, the present and the future. The title has a literal and metaphorical connotation but the novel will sweep the hearts of readers who question the meaning of creativity, family, friendship, and love. Oh fine writer you are, Mr. Henkes!

TOO YOUNG TO ESCAPE: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (autobiography) (142 pages)

As a young girl, Van Ho discovers that her family hasvanished, escapin  the new communist regime that has taken over Ho Chi Minh City. Van Ho and her grandmother are both unable to embark upon the dangerous journey by boat and have left behind in Vietnam, awaiting sponsorship from her parents who have settled in North America. Until she is reunited with family, Van Ho is forced to work hard and also deal with a bully who has been tormenting her. A strong story of courage and hope that builds readers empathy as they read a true tale about a child who has been affected by war.  Interviews and photographs that conclude this Canadian title provide further insights. 

BEAST RIDER by Tony Johnston and Maria Eleana Fontanot De Rhoads (159 pages)

The Beast (La Bestia) is a train that takes illegal immigrants from Mexico to the United States. Twelve-year old Manuel, desperate to be re-united with his brother, leaves behind a family in a small village and jumps aboard the train and embarks on a perilous journey to Los Angeles, not knowing what awaits him there. A timely, gut-wrenching story (for older readers).

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (graphic novel) (176 pages)

Since it’s release in 1993, The Giver has been read by millions (particularly young adolescents).  This story of a boy who lives in a future community where everyone is the same has been transformed into a play, a movie, and an opera. The graphic adaptation is a perfect vehicle to tell the story in another art form. Much of the images are monochromatic black, white and washes of blue and splashes of colour emerge is given the power to maintain memories.

DREAM WITHIN A DREAM by Patricia MacLachlan (119 pages)

Ever since falling in love with the gem, Sarah Plan and Tall, I find myself wanting to read any novel by Patricia MacLachlan. In this short novel, Louisa and her brother are left their grandparents on Deer Island. Louisa (short for Louisiana) is very concerned when her grandfather Jake’s eyesight is failing. A friendship (and emerging love-interest) with a neighbour, George helps Louisa to deal with all the changes surrounding her. Admirers of MacLachlan’s writing will not be disappointed.

THE RUNAWAYS by Ulf Stark; illus. Kitty Crowther (129 pages)

Translated from the Swedish, with colourful illustrations by Kitty Crowther, this is a warm-hearted story between grandparent and child.  Gottfried Junior’s grumpy grandpa is stuck in the hospital. Together, the two characters hatch a planto escape.For one last time, Grandpa visits the island where he was happiest. Questions about dealing with death are filtered throughout the narrative. Lovely!

THE BRIDGE HOME by Padma Venkatraman (187 pages)

An unsettling story about four homeless children. Two sisters, Viji and Rukku escape their home from an abusive father and find refugee with two boys in an abandoned bridge. The four become friends, scavenging the city trash from day to day in order to survive. Rukku is mentally challenged and when she becomes ill,  the group is forced to decide whether to seek help from strangers or hold on to independence and freedom. A startling story of poverty set in India.



by Yayoi Kusama

The timeless, whimsical tale by Lewis Carroll is colourfully and whimsically illustrated by world-renowned pop artist Yayoi Kusama. (192 pages)

WHAT’S NEW?: Published in 2019

The titles in this posting have are new publications.  I have included both picture book, fiction and poetry selections (+ one memoir for adults)


MARTIN & ANNE: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Marthin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank by Nancy Churnin; illus. Yevgenia Nayburg

Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr. were both born in the same year (1929). Each faced racial hatred. Each reacted to hate with words of love. The connections and comparisons are made between these two iconic figures, spread by spread.  A gem of a book, inspiring hope.

I DIDN’T STAND UP by Lucy Falcone; illus. Jacqueline Hudson

“First they went after Jamal. / But I’m not black – so I didn’t stand up for him./ Then they went after Duncan. But I’m not a geek – So I didn’t stand up for him. A book that helps readers contemplate the bystander role and consider taking action to be an upstander. (see: Say Something by Peter H. Reynolds)

CIRCLE by Mac Barnett; illus by Jon Klassen; illus. by Mac Barnett; illus by Jon Klassen

The dynamo duo of Barnett and Klassen have presented a third book int heir shapes trilogy (Triangle, Square, and now Circle. A waterfall, the dark, and three good friends learning about rule-making – and rule breaking.

SAY SOMETHING! by Peter H. Reynolds

Last year, Reynolds The Word Collector was at the top of my favourites list. Great that he has another great picture book about activism, making a difference and  to SAY SOMETHING…If you see someone lonley; If you see an empty canvas; If you see someone being hurt; If you have a brilliant idea… because YOUR VOICE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD! (see: I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone)



NEW KID by Jerry Craft (Graphic novel)

Jordan Banks’ parents decide to enroll their son in a  private school where he discovers that he is one of the few kids of colour. A talented artist, Jordan strives to balance his life in his lower-income neighbourhood, with that of  prestigious school culture. Another great book about learning to fit in as a Middle School. Another great graphic novel narrative.

THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar

Celi Rivera,  a young half Jamaican, half Mexican girl is becoming a woman. Her mother insists on celebrating the occasion of Celi’s first period with a moon ceremony, an ancestral ritual. Life becomes even more complicated for Celi when she falls in love with a boy and has her loyalty tested with her best friend who is genderfluid. Told in free verse style.

TO NIGHT OWL FROM DOGFISH by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer

Two popular authors have collaborated to present a heartwarming and engaging novel about friends and family. Avery Bloom from New York city (Night Owl) and Bett Devlin,from Los Angeles (Dogfish)  engage correspond when they discover that their fathers have fallen in love. The novel is told almost entirely in Email format, from different points of view adding to the authenticity of the voices. Sloan Wolitzer certainly know tweenagers and readers easily become friends with these two characters in a story that includes, summer camp adventures, a grandmother who become a Broadway actress, two fathers journeying through China on motorcycles and gay dating.

CHICKEN GIRL by Heather Smith (YA)

Ebb & Flow, and The Agony of Bun O’Keefe were absolutely two of my favourite reads last year and I so looked forward to Heather Smith’s new novel.  It’s fantastic! Poppy and Cam are two twin teenagers whose relationship is deepened by their varied outlooks on life. Poppy has issues with body images and is hired to dress up as  a chicken mascot to advertise the local restaurant. Cam is an openly gay teen who strives to maintain an optimistic outlook on life with all that he encounters. When Poppy meets a young girl named Miracle who is sheltered by a group of homeless people, she struggles to come to terms with the good and bad in the world. This novel is full of heart, albeit an aching one at times, and unforgettable characters. Kudos to Poppy, Cam, Miracle.. and Heather Smith.

FING by David Walliams; illus. Tony Ross

I bought a copy of this new novel in the airport in Rome and read it on a return trip to Toronto, laughing out loud while miles in the sky. Myrtle Meek is the most irreverent of fictional characters and would probably lead the troupe of Roald Dahl’s obnoxious folk. Myrtle wants /demands to own a Fing, and her parents, Mr.  & Mrs. Meek will go to the ends of the earth to make their daughter happy (and shut her up.)  Walliams and Ross and the brilliant design team have thrilled a multitude of readers with a mighty formula of story, vocabulary, art and graphics and I say praise the literacy lords for that formula of  frivolity and hysteria (Make sure to read the footnotes that appear throughout. )  I am ready for the any next hysterically funny Fing that Walliams gives birth to.



BOOM! BELLOW! BLEAT! Animal poems for Two or More Voices by Georgia Heard; illus. Aaron DeWitt

Georgia Heard brilliant plays around with the sounds of animals (Alligators/Hiss; Chimpanzees/Hoot; Goats/Bleat; Ferrets/Dook) in this collection of poems, beautifully illustrated, which two (or more) voices can enjoy and read aloud together.

TREES by Verlie Hutches; illus. by Jing Jing Tsong

Short poems painting vivid images of trees, accompanied by wonderful paintings which add tribute to nature’s tall and graceful, wise and gnarled heroes. (e.g., Willow dances/in her narrow kimono/with elegant sweeping leaves/wafting/in gentle wind.)



TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH: A memoir of fumbling toward adulthood by Andrew Rannells (memoir)

Gay Broadway actor Andrew Rannells recounts his journey from Omaha Nebraska to the Broadway stage. It is a story of dreams, desires, and determination, likely shared by thousands who have made (or hope to make) the same journey to the theatre – or otherwise.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (graphic novel)

Since it’s release in 1993, The Giver has been read by millions (particularly young adolescents).  This story of a boy who lives in a future community where everyone is the same has been transformed into a play, a movie, and an opera. The graphic adaptation is a perfect vehicle to tell the story in another art form. Much of the images are monochromatic black, white and washes of blue and splashes of colour emerge is given the power to maintain memories.




by Kwame Alexander; illus.  Kadir Nelson

A stirring poem that is a love letter to Black American artists, athletes and activists by Kwame Alexander with striking illustrations by Kadir Nelson.  A staggering book. An important book underlining ‘the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present.’ (from book jacket). This one will will awards. Please!

This is for the undeniableThe Undefeated

The ones who scored

with chains

on one hand

and faith

in the other.


Warning! This list may be somewhat expensive as you read about some fantastic Nonfiction books which are treasures of information and art. You may be enticed to add titles to your shopping cart after reading about these picture book gems.

THE UNDEFEATED by Kwame Alexander; illus.A Kadir Nelson

A stirring poem that is a love letter  to Black American artists, athletes and activists by Kwame Alexander with striking illustrations by Kadir Nelson.  A staggering book. An important book underlining ‘the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present.’ (from book jacket). This one will will awards. Please!

THE STUFF OF STARS by Marion Dane Bauer; illus. Ekua Holmes

A time before space existed, a time when stars exploded, planets emerged, Earth was born. And so were animals. And so were we. Lushly illustrated stuff-of-stars journey told in poetic language (“Again and again/ stardust/gave birth to startdust.”)

MARTIN & ANNE: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Marthin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank by Nancy Churnin; illus. Yevgenia Nayburg

Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr. were both born in the same year (1929). Each faced racial hatred. Each reacted to hate with words of love. The connections and comparisons are made between these two iconic figures, spread by spread.  A gem of a book, inspiring hope.

THE HONEYBEE by Kirsten Hall; illus. Isabelle Arsenault

Facts! Facts! Facts! and more facts about the life and behaviour of bees. The arrangement of verbal text and visuals and the choice of words, make this a remarkably striking picture book. Ideas are presented in a variety of text formats (question and answer, speech bubbles, rhyming, repeated text.)  This one deserves an award!

Cuddle now, rest.

Join our nest.

Huddle and cuddle,

The winter’s our text.

A HISTORY OF PICTURES: For children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford; illus. Rose Blake

Bologna Book Fair (2019): Winner of the New Horizons book award given for innovative books that introduce readers to new horizons.

I am a fan of the artist David Hockney and was thrilled to purchase this beautiful book that the artist and the art critic Martin Gayford take readers on a journey through art history.  The authors offer their personal insights into a range of significant art pieces and explain their creation and the significance of these pieces. The art plates along with the illustrations to accompany the text help to make this a WOW! of a book, certainly one that is more engaging than the art history books we were assigned to read in high school.

THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY: The creation of diamonds and the Life of H. Tracy Hall by Hannah Holt; illus. Jay Fleck

The very best of a nonfiction picture book creation, full of information about diamonds, organized under topic headings (e.g., Heat; Pressure; An Eruption; The Change). Narrative and facts are cleverly presented in a unique dual narrative format following the stories of the diamonds from rock to gem, and Tracy Hall, inventor of diamond-making machines. This jewel of book sparkles and shines, like a diamond!

A BUNCH OF PUNCTUATION Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins; illus. Serge Bloch

A hybrid of poetry and information writing in a collection of poems that pay tribute to the range of punctuation. (e..g, Forgotten: A Colon’s Complaint; Stubby the Hyphen; Apostrophe).

THEY SHE HE ME: Free to be! by Maya and Matthew

The words of the title are repeated throughout this book to provide very young children with awareness of gender differences… and the use of different pronouns.

28 DAYS: Moment in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr; illus. Shane W. Evans

Brilliantly using a variety of poetry formats and succinct informational text, the author present twenty-eight extraordinary events that changed the course of black history. The perfect vehicle for Black History Month – and of course any of the other 11 months – to have students consider the importance of people places and events that can change the world. This book is both powerful and essential.

EMMANUEL’S DREAM: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson; illus. Sean Qualls.

The inspiring true story of Abelism about a young boy who, with only one strong leg, cycled four hundred miles across Ghana, West Africa.

SEPARATE IS NEVER EQUAL: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Young Sylvia Mendez demands to understand why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend separate schools? The Mendez family took matters into their own hands and organized a lawsuit that brought an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947.

All About AnneSHOUT OUT


by Meno Metselaar and Piet Ledden / Anne Frank House

This is a very informative resource produced by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (available in Canada through Second Story Press). The book is divided into 6 chapters that provide a chronology of events of Anne Frank’s life and death before during and after being hidden in the Secret Annex.  Special text features include numerous photographs, illustrations, information organized under questions and answers.  Very insightful and clear expectations of the iconic historical figure and the events of World War II when Jews were persecuted. Teaching resource guide available through Second Story Press.


Five Canadian NonfictionTitles, 2018

GO SHOW THE WORLD: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes by Wab Kinew; illus. Joe Morse

EARTHRISE: Apollo 8 and the photo that changed the world by James Gladstone; illus Christy Lundy

TURTLE POND by James Gladstone; illus Karen Reczuch

WALKING IN THE CITY WITH JANE: A story of Jane Jacobs by Susan Hughes, illus. Valerie Boivin



The titles listed below are recent picture book purchases of titles published before 2019.  If there are themes that connect these selections,  I would say that I tend to choose picture books that show character strength, celebrate differences and tell stories of belonging.


CROWN: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes; illus Gordon C. James (Newbery Honor; Caldecott Honor, 2018)

When it’s your turn in the chair,

you stand at attention and forget about

who you were when

you walked through that door.


HELLO LIGHTHOUSE by Sophie Blackall /Caldecott Medal Winner 2019

On the highest rock of a tiny island

at the edge of the world stands a lighthouse.

It is built to last forever

Sending its light out to sea.


THE GOLDEN GLOW by Benjamin Flouw

Every evening, sitting in his armchair, Fox likes to leaf through old botany books, looking for the next new plant to add to his collection.


YO SOY MUSLIM by Mark Gonzales; illus. Mehrdok Amini

No matter what they say,

know that you are wondrous.

A child of crescent moons,

a builder of mosques,

a descendant of brilliance,

an ancestor in training.


IDEA JAR by Adam Lehrhaupt; illus. Deb Pilutti

This is my teacher’s Idea Jar.

We keep our story ideas in it.

My teacher says a story

can be anything we want.


ALMA: And how she got her name by Juana Martinez-Zeal (Caldecott Honor, 2019)

Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela had a long name – too long if you asked her.


I JUST ATE MY FRIEND by Heidi McKinnon

I just ate my friend.

He was a good friend,

but now he’s gone.


ALL ARE WELCOME by Alexandra Penfold: illus. Suzanne Kaufman

In our classroom safe and sound.

Fears are lost and hope is found.

Raise your hand, we’ll go around.

All are welcome here.


PINK IS FOR BOYS by Robb Pearlman; illus. Eda Kaban

Pink is for boys.

And girls.

Blues if for girls.

And boys.


BEAR AND WOLF by Daniel Salmieri

Bear was out walking, when she spotted something poking out from the glistening white.

At the same time, Wolf was out walking, when he spotted something poking out from the glistening white.


HIDDEN (a graphic story)

by Loic Dauvillier; illus Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo

A grandmother shares memories with her granddaughter about the time she wore a Star of David in Paris in 1942. It is a story of living in fear and of strangers’ kindnesses.

 Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust



Would you like to fly with the pelicans or swim with the fish?


At a recent visit to the Bologna Book Fair, I ple

More Would You Rather

On a recent trip to the Bologna Book Fair, I pleaded with the sales representative from Random House UK to let me have a copy of this book.  David Booth brought the original Would You Rather …  (1978)  to Canada in the  and I witnessed him sharing it with many audiences, helping them to understand the power of story and imaginative play.  It would, for sure, be one of my desert island picture books.  When I saw this new version, I  a strong emotional attachment overcame me, remembering David’s delivery of the text and the beautiful article he wrote about drama and imaginative play. The sales representative gave me the book as a gift.  I include this title as a special shout out, since John Burningham, master illustrator, master storyteller passed away in January 2019.  Thank you for Would You Rather...Thank you for you words and pictures, Mr. Burningham.

Mr. Gumpy’s Outing


Come Away from the Water, Shirley



Oi, Get Off the Train

John Patrick Norman McHennessy: the boy who was always late

Wind in the Willows (illustrations)

READING FICTION (ages 9 -13): A good start to 2019

Yikes! My ‘to read’ list is growing and growing.  I blame the New York Times review. I blame award announcement season. I blame Amazon. I also blame friends who keep saying, ‘you have to read this!’.  I will get through the pile, book by book, but am mostly eager to start with novels ages 9 through 13. I’m really going to try not to buy any new titles for at least 60 days!!!!


IN YOUR SHOES by Donna Gephart

Miles and Amy are two very likeable characters each coping with the trials of middle school, the  strengthening  of family ties and the sorry of death. Miles is an avid bowler (his family owns the local bowling alley in town). Amy lives in a funeral home run by her uncle. She is the new girl in the school, trying to fit in and cope with a disability that requires her to wear special shoes. An enjoyable and rather breezy read.


Alex Gino, author of the book George, has written a great book to help young readers think about differences, about family and about friendships. Jilly’s sister is born deaf and Jilly wants to be the best sister she can be, learning to become an ASL user and doing the right things medically, politically. Jilly engages with a group of friends online and these conversations help her learn more about diversity which grows when she connects with Derek who is a Deaf Black ASL user. This novel is one of my favourites in this list.


All burnt-out teacher, Mr. Zachary Kermit wants to do is retire.  He just needs to stick it out for one more school year. Alas, he has been assigned a group of students – the unteachables – special needs ‘misfits’ that nobody wants to teach, especially Mr. Kermit who’d rather hand out daily worksheets while he does his crossword puzzle. Over the course of the year, these special kids get wiser and Ribbit (the kids name for their teacher) awakens to the challenges of life and teaching and caring. Another funny engaging novel from a terrific author. (Note: I invite educators to read The Troublemakers:  Lessons in freedom from young children at school by Carala Shalaby as a companion to this novel).

NOWHERE BOY by Katherine Marsh

When his father finds a new job,thirteen year old Max and his family have moved to Brussels Belgium. Ahmed a fourteen year old Syrian refugee finds himself stranded in Brussels and ends up hiding in the wine cellar of the house that Max and his family are staying in. Max eventually learns about Ahmed’s plight and is determined to get him to a place of safety. The adventure is a good distraction from the unhappiness that Max feels at home and at school. As the book proceeds the narrative is episodic and cinematic in nature as the two boys plot to defy the odds and struggle to find a hopeful life for a refugee. Highly recommended story of the refugee experience. Note: The graphic book The Unwanted by Don Brown provides is an important companion read to help readers further understand the plight of those Syrians who were forced to flee their country)


Newbery prize winner 2019. An engaging read about a Latino girl and the special people in her life.  Merci is a clever young lady and as a result she receives a scholarhship student at Seaward Pines Academy. Like many young adolescent girls, she tries to find a place of belonging. She is worried about friendships about her grandfather who has Alzheimers and being the best she can be as daughter, grandaughter, friend and student. Great to have a book with Spanish lingo and a caring family. I enjoyed the book but not as much as the Newbery Award committee did. (I prefered Ghost Boys and The Front Desk and Harbor Me)

THE BOOK OF BOY by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This title was recently given a 2019 Newbery Honor award. The medieval setting and pilgrim quest is filled with mystery and miracles.  I would say however, that the narrative adventure has a strong appeal for particular readers who reading of long ago times, particularly regarding religious quests combined with fantasy adventures.. I would say that The Book of Boy would is particularly deemed for strong  readers. The writing is fantastic and the rich production of the book (woodcut illustrations introducing each chapter, bevelled pages) is striking.

MAX EINSTEIN: THE GENIUS EXPERIMENT by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Another adventure from the James Patterson factory. Max Einstein, an orphaned girl, is a genius who is challenged to do some good in the world. Max would certainly become best friends  (rivals?) with Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. A frenetic plot has her and a group of other genius students solve the solar power problem in the Congo.  This book is for readers who are intrigued with espionage adventures and who connect strongly to the world of science. I am neither and sort of lost interest about 2/3 of the way through andfelt the ending sort of drizzled, because lo and behold there will be a sequel.

FRANTICALLY FANTASTIC by Adam Wallace; illus. James Hart

My friend Jim brought me this amusing chapter book title by Australian author Adam Wallace and artist James Hart. The authors have a popular series (Accidentally Awesome, Blunderingly Brilliant) that tell describe the farcical antics of kids caught in amusing circumstances. The hero of this funny story is challenged to find out who is stealing the chickens from the farm owned by his grandparents.


The bestselling author, Eric Walters has done it again with another terrific book.  Reading fiction can also be like reading nonfiction and with this novel, the author’s extensive research into the life of elephants (and wolly mammoths is evident. An engaging adventure about a girl and her father who run an elephant sanctuary. The plot thickens when a philanthropist enters the picture with a life-changing scheme that is certain to rock the world of biology. Nominated for a Silver Birch award 2018.



WISHTREE by Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate’s titles have appeared on several of Dr. Larry Recommends postings and Wishtree is worth mentioning again. And again.

His novel MUST be shared with students. A perfect read aloud for 8 – 11 years olds. A tree talks. The people in the tree’s community makewishes on the tree. A community of animals depend on the tree. A hateful message is carved into the tree. To help students work towards an understanding of what friendship really means, of racism, of Islamophobia, this book is mandatory reading. Thank you for your exquisite writing and heartbreaking narrative. Ms Applegate. Teachers, parents, please, please get this book! (I just bought 6 more copies!)

SHOUT OUT: Larry has a new book!!!

WORD BY WORD by Larry Swartz

101 ways to inspire and engage students by building vocabulary, improving spelling and enriching reading, writing and learning.



A recent order from Amazon brought a batch of Graphic texts. The comic format continues to be a strong and vital medium to tell both imagined and real stories.  For this posting, it is worth repeating two previously mentioned entries that are graphic adaptations of iconic texts: The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill A Mockingbird. Also, two of the titles below wouldn’t be classified as graphic, but they are heavily illustrated so I am including the in this posting. 


BE PREPARED by Vera Brosgol

The story of a young girl. A young Russian girl. A Russian girl who goes to a camp in the U.S. for Russian Youth.  Told in graphic format. Based on author’s personal experiences.  Quality  graphic illustrations presented in monographic olive green formatting. An engaging story that takes readers into summer camp life and the tribulations of staying positive despite some primitive conditions and loneliness. A stronger edit would have helped clarify some narrative gaps at times.


THE UNWANTED: Stories of Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

In 2011, a flood of refugees  escape from their country which is under the tyrannical rule of Bahar al-Assid.  Dan Brown’s stark images and clear exposition present a powerful example of non-fiction graphic text, helping readers to understand the chaos and turmoil and resentment that the ‘unwanted’ encountered as Syrian refugees spread throughout Europe.

NOTE: Text to text connection: Nowhere Boy a novel by Katherine Marsh, tells the story of a young adolescent Syrian who is forced to hide in the wine cellar of a house in Brussels and provides readers with a strong narrative about one boy’s refugee experience)


HEY, KIDDO by Jarret J. Krosoczka

The subtitle of this book provides an efficient summary to this powerful graphic autobiography: “How I lost my mother, found my father, and dealt with family addiction.”

Kroosoczka is a popular author/ illustrator (Lunch Lady graphic novels, Platypus Police) and in this memoir, he takes readers an on journey about growing up in a family grappling with addiction and pays tribute to the people who supported him and helped him survive and helped him to grow into a talented artist. It is worth watching Jared J. Kroscoczka’s TED Talk which gives voice to many events outlined in Hey, Kiddo.


TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD  by Harper Lee / Graphic adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham for a graphic novel version

Fordham has faithfully used Harper Lee’s words and conversations and story events in this graphic novel version of the iconic story. Having recently seen theatre productions of the at the Stratford Festival and on Broadway, I decided to spend time with this book, which still resonates for today’s generation. And will continue to be taught and taught in schools.


THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK: Graphic Adaption by Ari Folman; illustrations by David Polonksy

I approached this publication with some trepidation, believing that iconic The Diary of Anne Frank be left untouched, because it is iconic and because it’s authenticity shouldn’t really be tampered with. More people are familiar with Nazi Germany with this book, more than any other. This version was an extremely powerful read, faithful to the beloved book. The visual images are often quite staggering, extending the feelings, moods and questions of a young adolescent girl. Expressions and gestures and musings of the characters along with the cramped attic quarter setting and war-torn landscapes are artfully captured. The graphic adds further interpretation and clarity to Anne’s narrative. Portions of the original text are retained throughout.


DOG MAN: BRAWL OF THE WILD (series) by Dav Pilkey

Do yourself a favour and read a Dog Man book and you’ll know why a billion kids love Dav Pilkey.   He’s funny. The colourful, zazzy graphic format definitely appeals. Repeating the punchline to several jokes as ‘diarrhea’, is bound to get giggles.



Prince Sebastian loves to wear fabulous  dresses and does so both secretly and in disguise. When Frances, the talented dressmaker comes into the Prince’s life and becomes his personal designer, the pursuit of dreams (for both characters) meets its challenges – and truths. Will Sebastian be trapped into marriage? Will Frances reveal Sebastian’s secret and give up her quest to be famous?  An entertaining fairy tale of a Prince. Charming!



A VELOCITY OF BEING: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick (non-fiction)

 In the introduction to this collection, the editors explain that they “reached out to many people to write a short letter to the young readers of today and tomorrow about how reading sculpted their character and their destiny”.  Adam Gopnik, Daniel Handler, Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson and Neil Gaiman are examples the 125+  voices that provided inspiration for the benefits of reading. . Each letter was paired with an illustrator, artist or graphic designer to visually bring its message to life (e.g., Peter Brown, Roz Chast, Maria Kalman, Mo Willems, Marianne Dubuc). 


WHAT THE NIGHT SINGS by Vesper Stamper (a novel)

The Nazi’s have destroyed everything in Gerta’s life. Liberated from the concentration camps, the teenager must find strength to move forward. Falling in love, re-gaining her talent for music, and making choices about a future life as a Jewish presents many questions and many choices for Gerta as a displaced person. Lushly illustrated throughout by the author.


SHOUT OUT: Larry has a new book!!!

WORD BY WORD by Larry Swartz

101 ways to inspire and engage students by building vocabulary, improving spelling and enriching reading, writing and learning.

YEAH FOR YA! Fiction 12+

The Young Adult titles listed below present adolescenthood  in a variety of contexts and settings that courtroom n the deep south, a modern day high school, and a Russian forest.  ‘Shout Out’ books highlight two recent non-fiction publications centred on the Holocaust.


SWING by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

I’ve so enjoyed reading free verse novels by award-winning author, Alexander (Booked, Rebound, Solo) and was looking forward to reading his latest YA release, but I’m afraid I put the book down after reaching page 133. Noah has had a crush on Sam for many years and although she is part of his friendship circle, a romantic relationship doesn’t seem to be coming their way. Walt, Noah’s confident is determined to change all that, but I really wasn’t interested in how it unfolded and knowing that I had about 300 pages to go, I didn’t particularly care, even though I sort of wanted to find out about why American flags are being left around town.  Looking forward to reading other Alexander books.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN: The Novel by Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

I was fortunate enough to see the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen in New York and I feel it is a play that every adolescent should see. It is the story of a boy who feels invisible. Pretending that he was best friends with Connor Murphy, a troubled teenager who committed suicide, Evan must deal with the trap of lies he is building for himself, despite the huge success of a Social Media initiative where teenagers across the country are also trying to find a place to belong. I approached this novel with some hesitancy since I so admire the musical, but in the end this is a great read that helps readers get into the mind of a boy dealing with mental health issues. Usually a play or movie is based on a book, but in this case the book adapts the play’s characters and storyline and even without music sings an anthem about connectedness and the need ‘to be found’.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee / Graphic adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham for a graphic novel version.

Fordham has faithfully used Harper Lee’s words and conversations and story events in this graphic novel version of the iconic story. Having recently seen theatre productions of the  at the Stratford Festival and on Broadway, I decided to spend time with this book, which  still resonates for today’s generation.  And will continue to be taught and taught in schools.


In the year following 9/11, Shirin,  a Muslim girl, is caught in the tribulations of being a teenager. Her race, her religion and her hijab force her to withdraw from the degrading comments and taunts that are part of her schoolday experiences. A love of breakdancing and a growing friendship (and first love) with a white boy changes Shirin’s life as she learns to let her guard down and come to terms with the struggles of belonging and the impact of prejudice. A fierce and honest read, relevant to the lives of adolescents like, or unlike Shirin.

A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE by Robert Newton Peck

Olga Stephenson, dear teacher-librarian at my school handed this novel over to me forty-one years ago when my father passed away and before Gary Paulsen and Jerry Spinelli, I would say Robert Newton Peck was a favourite author. I decided to re-read this novel that I so long ago enjoyed. Don’t know why I connect to Peck’s story of a young Shaker Boy and the relationships he has with his family, neighbours and his own pet pig named Pinky, but I was still impressed reading about  the teachings of Pecks’ father and father and son’s faithful dedication to taking care of the farm.  I wept at novel’s end just as I did four decades ago.

TALES FROM THE INNER CITY by Shaun Tan (short stories, poems)

Shaun Tan, author of The Arrival, Lost & Found and Tales from Outer Suburbia must have some pretty wild dreams. His surreal paintings are always staggering and in this collection they overpower Tan’s strange stories about animals, real and fantasized such as crocodiles trapped in a high rise building, a monstrous shark, a rhino on a freeway, and frogs who were once members of the business board. What an imagination! What a talent! As with any short story collection, I liked some (‘Parrot’ ‘Lungfish’), more than others (‘Bears’).


In this contemporary retelling of Baba Yaga folklore, Jane Yolen, in free verse style, presents a story of the iconic Russian fairy tale witch in novel that is at times dark, dream-like, sad and sophisticated.



ANNE FRANK’S DIARY: The Graphic Adaptation (not a novel)

Adapted by Ari Folman

Illustrations by David Polonsky

I approached this publication with some trepidation, believing that iconic The Diary of Anne Frank be left untouched, because it is iconic and because it’s authenticity shouldn’t really be tampered with. More people are familiar with Nazi Germany with this book, more than any other. This version was an extremely powerful read, faithful to the beloved book. The visual images are often quite staggering, extending the feelings, moods and questions of a young adolescent girl. Expressions and gestures and musings of the characters  along with the cramped attic quarter setting and war-torn landscapes are artfully captured. The  graphic adds further interpretation and clarity to Anne’s narrative. Portions of the original text are retained throughout.

Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation



by Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz (non-fiction)

In 2015,  nineteen-year old Jordana Lebowitz attended the war criminal trial of Oskar Groening, “‘The bookkeper of Auschwitz” who was complicit in the deaths of more than 300 000 Jews. Kacer outlines Groening’s testimony as well as shares the voices and hard stories of Holocaust survivors who came to testify against them.  As witness to the events, Jordana helps readers understand why it is important to remember history and move forward for social justice causes.

To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A teen's account of a war criminal trial


Recent ‘grown-up’ reads had me embarking on a variety of genres, and a range of topics that includes the mourning ritual of a Jamaican family, the episodic life of a black slave, young kids who can’t behave and oh yes, the remarkable poetry of POTUS (Don’t ask!).



I often enjoy reading scripts of plays that I’ve seen. Was lucky enough to make a trip to London, England to see some wonderful theatre and very munch enjoyed seeing these three plays and reading them in play script format.

NINE NIGHT by Natasha Gordon

Nine Night is a ritual tradition where Jamaican families mourn for nine nights. In this play, the passing of Gloria brings her children and grandchildren together for parties, stories and hidden revelations.  The dialect is somewhat more challenging to read than to listen to, but universal themes of faith, squabbles and connectedness come through strongly in this play, the first play by a black woman to be produced in the West End.

THE INHERITANCE by Matthew Lopez

I so loved this play about the lives and loves of gay men across generations in the past three decades. The beauty of Stephen Daldry’s inspired direction and the impact of the staggering acting does not of course come through   on the printed page but Matthew Lopez’s words reveal stark conversations and  powerful stories. Inspired by E. M Forster’s novel Howard’s End (on my reading pile).


I went to see this play because of the playwright (The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, Hangman) and it starred the fine actor Jim Broadbent and it tells a story (a peculiar, wild story)of Hans Christian Anderson who, according to McDonagh sheltered a one-legged black Pygmy woman  in his attack in Copenhagen because she, after all, was the composer of  Anderson’s beloved children’s literature. A very dark, very twisted, and yes, very funny tale.




Here are a couple of examples:

I Love to Read

I’ve read John Updike. I’ve read Orhan Pamuk. I’ve read Philip Roth.
I believe a lot of the stories are pure fiction.
They just pull it out of the air.
Gang of liars.

Little Marco: a Haiku

Not presidential
Like a little boy on stage
Very short and lies



TROUBLEMAKERS: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby

Thanks to colleague Cassie Brownlee for recommending this important book that helps educators and parents think abut the oppressive responses we tend to give to problematic student behaviours. By presenting four case studies of young children, the author  considers the essential need for young people to grow as whole free humans.

WEEDS IN BLOOM: Autobiography of an Ordinary Man by Robert Newton Peck

Early in my teaching career Robert Newton Peck was one of my favourite authors (A Day No Pigs Would Die, The Soup Series).  I hunted this book down on Amazon and received a used copy of this author’s fine memoir about the life and fascinating folks he remembered growing up on a Vermont farm, and later experiences when he moved to Florida. The twenty six chapters provide a tribute to those who may go unnoticed, unheard.  I wish I could write like Robert Newton Peck.




Washington Black’s life is first introduced to us when he was an eleven year old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. When ‘Wash’ is selected to become the manservant to explorer and inventor Christopher Wilde (brother to the plantation master), Black’s journey through life takes him on  hot-air balloon, a ship captained by a hunter, the Underground Railroad, the Arctic, the aquariums of London and the deserts of Morocco. Edugyan’s narrative is cinematic, telling the story of the brilliant, resourceful  Washington Black forever contemplating loyalty, power and a place for freedom. ‘Epic’, ‘gripping’,  ‘enthralling’ and ‘exhilarating’ are words that have been used to describe this Giller Prize winning novel. For the most part, I would agree with the praise (a bit ‘too’ epic for my tastes).

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne can’t live with each othe and can’t live without each other. Very different in personalities, these two characters really seem to understand each other and we are witness to their on-again off-again relationship from later years in high school, through university and beyond. A novel about the desire to love and be loved, Normal People has been declared ‘book of the year’ according to Waterstone’s bookseller, so naturally I bought it. A good read, but not the ‘book of the year’ for Larry.


Here’s a list of some of my favourite things, 2018. I’ve reduced lists to five items, except for children’s novels. All listed in alphabetical order.   Shout outs have been marked with *



Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights by Rob Sanders; illus. Jared Andrew Schorr

Most People by Michael Leanna; illus. Jennifer E. Morris

Dreamers by Yuyi Moralis

*The Word Collector by Peter Reynolds

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi & Margie Wolfe; illus Isabelle Cardinal


NOVELS (ages 9-13)

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

The Truth According to Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Missing Mike by Shari Green

*No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

*Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith

The Front Desk by Kelly Yang



Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, Steve Levisnon, Benj Pasek, Justing Paul

*The Landing by John Ibbitson

The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

90 Days of Different by Eric Walters



The Storm by Arif Anwar

*Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

Pops by Michael Chabon

Calypso by David Sedaris



The Cakemaker
*The Rider
The Shoplifters



Nothing Like a Dame
Three Identical Strangers
*Won’t You Be My Neighbour


THEATRE (local)

Every Brilliant Thing
Fun Home
Punk Rock
Secret Life of a Mother


THEATRE (London/ New York+)

*The Inheritance
Lifespan of a Fact
To Kill a Mockingbird+



You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston (poetry)

Bird Guy by David Booth

Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman; illus. David Polonsky