Stella by Starlight

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally finished reading all of the nominees for the 2016-17 South Carolina Book Award, and it seems that I saved one of the most powerful books on the list for last. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the book, Stella by Starlight, was written by Sharon Draper.

Stella by Starlight is not a comfortable read, and I think that’s what makes it so important. This book, which takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.


I don’t know what more I can say about Stella by Starlight. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

For more information on Stella by Starlight and other books by Sharon Draper, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Ms. Draper on Facebook and Twitter.

Wish

I’m usually not one to go for books with dogs on the covers (as I believe I’ve mentioned here before). I threw that out the window, though, when NetGalley gave me the chance to read an early copy of Wish by Barbara O’Connor.

I was first introduced to this author’s work when I became an elementary librarian back in 2010. Since then, I’ve come to rely on O’Connor to provide both me and my students with heart-warming, relatable characters and charming, well-written stories. Wish, which will be released on August 30th, delivers on all counts.

In Wish, readers are introduced to eleven-year-old Charlie Reese. Charlie believes in the power of wishes. She’s been making the same wish for a long time, and she’s convinced that it will come true one of these days. She is ever hopeful.

Due to several issues with her parents, Charlie has been uprooted from her home in Raleigh and sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus–people she’s never met–in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlie is not happy about this situation, and she makes her displeasure known to nearly everyone. She can’t wait to leave these hillbilly kids behind and get back to where she belongs.

Well, not everyone takes Charlie’s attitude at face-value. Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus are thrilled to have Charlie in their home. They treat Charlie like their own child and do whatever they can to make her feel welcome. There’s also Howard, a young boy who never lets anything bother him. He’s assigned to be Charlie’s Backpack Buddy on her first day in a new school, but he takes it few steps further and tries to become Charlie’s friend.

Charlie doesn’t quite know what to make of these people being so nice to her, and she lashes out at them quite a bit. She eventually comes to realize, though, that they’ll still be there no matter how mean she is to them. Maybe this place and the people here aren’t so bad after all.

As Charlie begins to adapt to her new surroundings, she also crosses paths with a stray dog. Charlie feels a kinship with this dog–who she names Wishbone–and she’s determined to give him a great home. Charlie knows that Wishbone longs for a family and a place to belong just like she does.

Days and weeks pass, and Charlie grows more and more comfortable with her new life with Bertha, Gus, Howard, and Wishbone. What will happen, though, when it comes time for her to return to Raleigh? Will she have to leave behind the family and friends she’s found in the mountains? Is returning home to her parents really what’s best for her now?

Charlie doesn’t know which way to turn, but maybe all that wishing she’s done–with an assist from those who really love her–will help everything to turn out for the best. Find out how one girl’s special wish comes true–but maybe not in the way she expected–when you read Wish by Barbara O’Connor.


I cannot say enough good things about this book. I laughed, I cried, and I reflected on my own childhood. Like Charlie, I spent my summers weeding the garden, picking vegetables, and going to Vacation Bible School. Those are experiences my students continue to have.

Then there’s the food. Aunt Bertha’s cooking in Wish makes me think of my mom’s cooking. Fried green tomatoes, cobbler, potato salad, biscuits, etc. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. (Seriously, there’s nothing like good ol’ Southern food.) I’m betting many readers will feel the same way.

Aside from summer life and food, Wish also addresses things like friendships (with both humans and canines), dealing with anger, and what home and family really mean. Charlie has to come to terms with all of these things, and she does so in her own special way. Those around Charlie help her to see that things may not always turn out like she expects, but that doesn’t mean that her life is lacking in any way. With friends and family who love her, she gets everything she ever wished for.

I can hardly wait to share this wonderful book with my students and teachers (which I guess is good since I go back to school tomorrow). I’m now even more excited that Barbara O’Connor is visiting my school in October, and I hope my excitement is shared by everyone in my school. I plan to buy a copy of Wish for all of my 3rd-5th grade teachers so that we can all share the love prior to this special visit. I’m confident that everyone who reads it will adore Wish as much as I do.

To learn more about Wish and other books by Barbara O’Connor, visit the author’s website.

Happy reading!

 

Anybody Shining

As another school year draws near, I’m once again scrambling to finish all of the current nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award. As of today, I’ve managed to read 17 of the 20 titles, and I started number 18. Can I finish the rest before next Tuesday? We’ll see.

Anyhoo, I finished reading Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell, one of this year’s SCCBA nominees, this afternoon. Historical fiction is not typically my go-to genre, but I found this book to be a quick, moving read that I think many of my students will enjoy.

Anybody Shining takes place in the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1920s, and the language used definitely reflects the setting. To be perfectly honest, I felt like I was reading something that one of my older relatives could have written. I still hear some of the same vocabulary encountered in this book, and I’m willing to bet that many readers, particularly those who’ve grown up in the South, will be able to relate.

Arie Mae Sparks wants just one friend to call her own. She’s hopeful that her cousin Caroline, who lives all the way in Raleigh, will respond to her letters one of these days–and be the friend she’s always wanted–but it’s not looking good at the moment. Still…Arie Mae keeps on writing, telling her cousin about everything happening in Bone Gap, North Carolina.

Though Arie Mae despairs of ever finding one true friend, newcomers in her little town may provide some hope. These new folks–who’ve arrived all the way from Baltimore, Maryland–have come to the mountains to learn about the nearby settlement school. Almost immediately, Arie Mae sees the potential for friendship in Tom, a boy who has a special shine about him.

Even though Tom has a bad leg and can’t do everything the other kids can, he and Arie Mae form a fast friendship. He doesn’t care at all that Arie Mae is not as fancy as his sisters or that her family doesn’t have as much as his. He simply wants to hear her stories and go on adventures with her.

Arie Mae is all for seeking adventure, but she soon learns that Tom has more difficulties than just a bad leg. His mother warns Arie Mae that her new friend has a weak heart and shouldn’t exert himself too much. Arie Mae worries about this, but Tom is determined to do just what he wants. What’s a friend to do?

Through her continuing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae reflects on her friendship with Tom, her feelings about his condition, her family and their life on the mountain, and all sorts of other things. She thinks about what makes her world so odd to some and so special to others. Can people be true friends when they see the world so differently?

Learn more about the power of friendship, reaching out, and overcoming differences when you read Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell.


Like some of the other SCCBA nominees this year, Anybody Shining is an excellent book for exploring the concept of voice. Arie Mae’s voice, in both her letters and the book’s narrative, shines through, and I think readers will delight in how she views the world around her. I’m hoping they’ll even follow her example and write their own friendly letters, allowing their own distinct voices to shine.

To learn more about Anybody Shining and other books by Frances O’Roark Dowell, visit the author’s website.

I’m hoping to have a book trailer up for this book soon. You can check my school YouTube channel for that in the near future.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff

Warning: Read Serafina and the Black Cloak before proceeding. Spoilers ahead.

Late last night, I finished reading Serafina and the Twisted Staff, the sequel to Robert Beatty’s acclaimed Serafina and the Black Cloak. I kind of knew what to expect going into this second book, but I don’t think I was prepared for exactly how terrifying it would be. If the first book was dark, this one was pitch black. I read the bulk of this book at night, and I was jumping at every little sound I heard. (If you know me at all, this is not surprising. I’m a wuss.) At any rate, Serafina and the Twisted Staff definitely delivers if you’re looking for a good story and a good scare.

Our tale begins almost immediately following the events of the first book. The year is 1899, and the Biltmore Estate is beginning preparations for Christmas.

Serafina, now known to all who inhabit the Biltmore, is searching for her place in the world, but she doesn’t know exactly where she belongs. Is it with Braeden Vanderbilt and her pa at Biltmore? Or is it with her mother and the catamounts in the surrounding forest? And how can she possibly find a measure of peace when her home is once again in danger?

While patrolling the forest surrounding Biltmore one night, Serafina notices that animals are fleeing the area. What could possibly make so many animals behave so oddly? Serafina isn’t sure, but she thinks it has something to do with the strange man and his vicious wolfhounds who attempt to kill her. She’s saved by her mother and a new ally, but it’s clear that the forest is no longer safe…for anyone or anything.

Serafina knows the old man in the forest is not working alone. He comes onto the scene at the same time that a mysterious carriage arrives at Biltmore. But who is in the carriage, and what danger could this person be bringing to Biltmore?

As odd things begin happening at the palatial estate–and Serafina is blamed–she grows more convinced that danger is afoot, but she doesn’t know how she can help. Someone is trying to drive Serafina out and tear her from her one and only friend. But who? And why?

Serafina leaves Biltmore and tries to find some solace in the forest, but danger surrounds her on all fronts. She soon realizes that there’s no way to escape the horror unfolding, and she will have to do everything in her power to save both Biltmore and everything and everyone around it.

Who will join her in the fight to come? Who will betray her? And will Serafina finally be able to unleash her true self before the evil forces targeting Biltmore succeed in their ghastly mission? Read Serafina and the Twisted Staff to find out!


I’ve left a ton out of this post, but it would take forever to cover everything. I don’t have that kind of time (and I’m ready for my Sunday afternoon nap). Read the book for yourself. You can also check out the official book trailer below. It’s a little spoilery, but it covers a lot of what I’ve left out.

Given how this second book ended, I’m confident that we’ll see more of Serafina in the future. At this time, however, there’s no word yet on a third book.

For more Serafina fun, visit author Robert Beatty’s website or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing

A word to the wise: Read Three Times Lucky before diving into The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing…or this post. While it’s not absolutely necessary to read the first book before the second, it is a good idea. Also, if you read the second book, you’re going to want to see what preceded it, so you might as well read the books in order.

A few years ago, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage was a nominee for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. Now, the sequel, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, has made it to the same list for 2016-17. If you go back and read my post on the first book, all the same stuff applies to this one. This series–which currently includes three books–has one of the best examples of character voice and descriptive language that I’ve come across in my six years as an elementary school librarian. Readers of all ages are sure to adore Mo LoBeau and her trusty sidekick, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, and the trouble they find with their work in the Desperado Detective Agency.

All anyone can talk about lately in the small town of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, is the auction of the old–supposedly haunted–inn. Mo LoBeau, co-founder of the Desperado Detective Agency, doesn’t go looking to take on a haunted inn as one of her cases, but things have a way of falling into her lap, especially when Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacy Thornton sort of accidentally purchase the inn in question.

Pretty soon, Mo and Dale are doing their best to solve the big mystery of the Tupelo Inn…while getting a bona fide supernatural source for their big history report. Sure, it gets scary at times, but these Mo and Dale–along with a new and unexpected ally–are on the case, and they’re determined to find out what this ghost’s story is.

As often happens, especially when it comes to matters involving Mo LoBeau, things get complicated quickly. Someone–or something–is trying to keep Mo and company out of the inn. What could anyone else possibly want with an old, broken down inn? Besides a ghost, what other secrets could this old place be hiding?

Mo and Dale are getting closer and closer to discovering the truth about the Tupelo Inn and its ghostly inhabitant, but what else will they discover along the way? Some people may not encounter an actual ghost, but they may be haunted by their pasts just the same. Can Mo and Dale solve more than one mystery surrounding this inn…before it’s too late?

Help Mo and Dale unravel the mystery of the Tupelo Inn when you read The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage!


I don’t think this post in any way captures what an outstanding book this is. It is moving, mysterious, and laugh-out-loud funny. That’s not a combo one sees all that often, but Sheila Turnage makes it look effortless. I am now super-eager to get my hands on the third Mo and Dale book, The Odds of Getting Even. Like Three Times Lucky and The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, the third installment stays checked out of my library, so I’ve got a wait ahead of me.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing and the other books in this series would serve as excellent class read-alouds, particularly when discussing voice or figurative language. Readers will fall in love with the character of Mo, but they’ll also appreciate all of the other unique characters in these books. Many readers who live in small towns may find something familiar–and rather comforting–about Tupelo Landing and its odd assortment of citizens. Maybe they’ll be inspired to write their own hometown tales.

If you’d like to learn more about The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing and the other books in this series, be sure to visit author Sheila Turnage’s website. You can also like her Facebook page and check out the totally spoiler-free book trailer below. Enjoy!

Serafina and the Black Cloak

My latest read, Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty, was recommended by several of my students (and one teacher). It takes place at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Now, given that I live roughly 80 miles from the historic home, you’d think that I would have visited it more than twice in my life. You would be wrong. (Tickets are kind of expensive, and I hate driving.) If my memory serves me, the last time I toured the Biltmore Estate was on a field trip when I was in the third grade. (Yeah…it’s been a while.) Now that I’ve read Serafina and the Black Cloak, though, I may have to remedy that situation. It would be nice to rely on fresh memories when envisioning the events of this book.

The year is 1899. Serafina lives at the famous Biltmore Estate. The only person who knows of her existence is her pa, one of the home’s maintenance men, and no one realizes that the two of them secretly live in the basement of the Biltmore. Serafina’s pa cautions her to remain out of sight. Should her presence be discovered, it could mean the loss of her father’s job and their home.

When children begin disappearing from the estate, however, Serafina may need to make herself known. She witnesses a strange figure in a black cloak take a child, and she knows she must tell someone what she saw. But who would believe her? And can she confide in someone without losing the only home she’s ever known?

Serafina finds an unlikely ally in the form of Braeden Vanderbilt, the nephew of the Biltmore’s owner. He vows to keep her secret and somehow help her discover who–or what–is taking children from the house and grounds. The two look all over the estate for clues as to the identity of the mysterious figure in the black cloak, but children continue to disappear without a trace.

Serafina’s search for answers leads her to the forest surrounding the Biltmore. Her pa always taught her to fear the darkness of the forest, but Serafina feels oddly at home here. Yes, there are strange things happening in the forest, but it may just hold the key to the mystery of the black cloak…and Serafina’s past.

What will Serafina discover about herself during the course of her investigation? And can she and Braeden uncover the terrifying truth…before they are the next victims of the Man in the Black Cloak?


It’s easy for me to see why Serafina and the Black Cloak is so popular with my students. It’s an enthralling, multi-layered mystery–with some spooky supernatural elements–set in a fairly familiar place. Many of the kids requesting this book do so after they’ve visited the Biltmore Estate. This book might also make a good class read-aloud or novel study before a field trip to the estate.

Local connection aside, this book is a great fit for those who devour the works of Mary Downing Hahn. If you have upper elementary or middle grade readers looking for a good scare, point them to Serafina.

There is at least one more Serafina book to look forward to. Serafina and the Twisted Staff, which also takes place in and around the Biltmore Estate, will be released on August 6th. I’ll definitely need this sequel on hand when we start back to school in the fall.

To learn more about Serafina and the Black Cloak, visit author Robert Beatty’s website or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. You may also want to take a look at the book trailer below. While the video totally captures the mood of the book, I think it gives a little too much away. Proceed with caution.

If you’re intrigued by Serafina and the Black Cloak and would like to visit the home that inspired the book, click here. I have a feeling I’ll be paying the Biltmore Estate a visit myself in the not-too-distant future.

 

How to Steal a Dog

Sometimes my job as an elementary school librarian forces me to pick up books that I normally wouldn’t. My latest read is one of those books. It’s How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, and it’s one of the titles selected for my district’s Battle of the Books competition this year. I can’t really quiz my kids on the book if I haven’t read it myself, so I devoted much of last night to reading this one.

Normally, I shy away from books with dogs on the cover. I blame Old Yeller for this. It’s difficult, however, to work in an elementary school and stay away from “dog books” completely. They’re everywhere. (There are two on this year’s Battle of the Books list and more on the South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee list.) Luckily, How to Steal a Dog wasn’t quite as painfully heart-wrenching as most. It did have its emotional moments, but it didn’t leave me with a crying-induced headache at the end. That’s a good thing.

Georgina Hayes needs to find a way to make some quick money. Her dad left Georgina, her mom, and her little brother with almost nothing, and they’ve been living in their car for way too long. They need a home, but Georgina’s mom is working two jobs and still struggling to make the money needed to make a deposit on a house or apartment. Georgina knows there’s got to be a way to help her mom, but what is this young girl supposed to do?

Well, after seeing a reward poster for a missing dog, Georgina gets the bright idea to steal a dog. But it can’t be just any dog. It has to be a quiet, friendly dog. A dog that is loved by its owner. A dog that someone would pay a lot of money to get back.

Georgina writes down her dog-theft plan in her notebook, and, with the help of her little brother Toby, she puts her plan into action. She finds the perfect dog, nabs him, and waits for the reward posters to go up. But nothing really happens the way Georgina wants it to. She feels guilty about what she’s done, and the dog’s owner may not have enough money for a big reward. This sticky situation is quickly spiraling out of control, and Georgina doesn’t know which way to turn.

Can Georgina turn things around and get the money she and her family need? Will she do the right thing, or will she see her dognapping through to the bitter end? What will happen to make Georgina face all the wrongs in her life and do what she must to make things right? Read How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor to find out!

_______________

On a rather serious note, How to Steal a Dog, like Almost Home by Joan Bauer, shines a light on something that gets way too little attention…homeless children. When most people think of the homeless, they envision older people who live on the streets. They don’t realize that some of those people have children, children who still have to go to school, do their homework, and deal with social pressures…all while worrying about where they will sleep at night, if they’ll get a shower this week, or where their next meal is coming from. For me, I think this book made me more aware of what my students may be going through outside of the school walls. Not all of them have a nice house to go home to every day. Not everyone has a mom and a dad there every night to help with homework. Some kids don’t have that extra money needed for class parties, club fees, or even school lunch. That’s something that many educators–myself included–don’t really think about enough. My hope is that How to Steal a Dog will make other readers reflect on these issues and maybe–just maybe–foster just a little more empathy for those around them.

I look forward to discussing this book with my Battle of the Books team. I think they–and many of my other students–will have a lot to say about Georgina’s desperate situation and what they may have done differently.

For more information about How to Steal a Dog and other books by Barbara O’Connor, check out the author’s website.