The Best Man

Richard Peck is a master storyteller who delivers laughs, tears, and a full cast of well-developed characters who can all teach us about becoming the best people we can be.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest Level: 4-7; Reading Level: 4.1
Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Winner 2017: Fiction & Poetry
5 out of 5 stars


Richard Peck is truly an amazing creator of stories. His characters are well-developed and he doesn’t require huge actions or majestic scenarios to create a storyline that compels you to keep reading. The Best Man is the story of Archer Magill. Most of the story takes place during his 5th and 6th-grade years at school, where we see Archer start to really notice the world around him.

Archer has three very important men in his life — his grandfather, father, and Uncle Paul. Each of these men, in different ways, contributes to Archer’s understanding of life and development of who he is as a person. Most of the story takes place in school, but school and home life intersect throughout the story.

I love the tone of Richard Peck’s writing. I imagine in real life that he has a very sarcastic sense of humor and his dry wit makes for many laugh out loud moments in this story. Like life though, the laughter is balanced by moments of insight as well as sadness. One of the best ways to describe it is to say this book feels very real.

Archer confronts bullying and homophobia during the story. Peck has his main character navigate these harmful scenes with openness and an insightful manner that encourages readers to not slap labels or definitions on people, but to celebrate everyone’s right to happiness and acceptance.

At 232 pages, the book is a nice length for a full-class read-aloud, and the humor and cast or characters will engage students. I highly recommend this book for the wonderful story, strength of characters, humor, inclusion of diversity, and willingness to address homosexuality.


The Best Man
by Richard Peck
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes

Todd Parr is an author who combines fun illustrations with heart-warming messages that affirm the strength and goodness in every person.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: Pre-K through 2nd grade; Reading Level: 2.1
4 out of 5 stars


It’s Okay to Make Mistakes lets readers know that everybody makes mistakes and that mistakes can lead to good things, such as discovering something new, or something that might be seen as a mistake could really just be a different way of doing something.

The overall message is that “Everyone has ‘uh-oh’ moments. That’s how you learn!”
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Parr’s illustrations are bright and whimsical and appeal to a wide variety of young readers. I find that students with special needs are often fans of Todd Parr because of the engaging illustrations and the accessible message that he shares.

Adults need to realize that children are often afraid to make a mistake. Whether it’s because they don’t want to appear silly in front of peers or sometimes they just fear not doing something “correct,” children need to learn that mistakes can be good, especially if we learn from them or create something new. This book would make a good intro to a maker space activity in a school library and could lead into a discussion of the engineering design process, where mistakes lead to rethinking and modification, not failure.


It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
by Todd Parr
Little, Brown and Company, 2014

A Dog Wearing Shoes

Mini learns a valuable lesson when she discovers a lost dog wearing yellow shoes.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 2.0
4 out of 5 stars


I love this story about a little girl and her mom who find a lost dog who happens to be wearing a yellow pair of shoes. Mini is delighted and wants to keep the dog. During a walk in the park, the dog gets away again, and Mini is extremely distraught. Her mom takes her to the animal shelter where they find the dog, and Mini realizes that as worried and upset as she was when the dog was missing, that must mean that the dog’s original owner feels the same way.

This is a wonderful story that helps children understand that lost dogs are being missed by someone, and as much as you may want to keep one, you should try to reunite them with their owner. The added bonus is that Mini and her mom return to the animal shelter and find a dog that needs a home and is just right for them.

In the back of the book, the author includes information about adopting an animal from an animal shelter, and includes links to some national organizations.
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The pictures are black and white sketches, with splashes of color coming from the dog’s yellow shoes and the red leash Mini and her mom buy. The dog is absolutely adorable with her floppy, fuzzy ears and it’s easy to see why Mini and her mom fall in love. Some of the illustrations are rather small, so this would not be ideal for a large read-aloud group.


A Dog Wearing Shoes
by Sangmi Ko
schwartz & wade books, 2015

Save Me a Seat

Told in alternating points of view, this book offers several unique teaching points.

Chapter book, fiction, diversity
Interest Level: grades 4-6; Reading Level: 4.8
3 out of 5 stars


This book is told in alternating points of view between two fifth-grade boys: Ravi and Joe. Ravi and his family have just moved to America from Bangalore, India. Joe struggles in school and has Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP) which means he has “trouble listening” and attends therapy “to help my ears and my brain agree about what to listen to and what to tune out.” (p. 54)

At first the boys don’t seem to have much in common, but as they each tell their own stories, the readers are able to glimpse many connections they have before the boys in the story realize it themselves. For example, both boys love the whole class novel, Bud Not Buddy, they have doting mothers who take great pride in preparing their favorite foods, they are both outsiders in their class who struggle to communicate with others, and they are both being picked on by the class bully.

Teachers could read this story as a class read-aloud and find many unique topics that would be good for whole-class discussions:

*Both Ravi and Joe have trouble expressing themselves and communicating with peers. Joe because of his ADP is seen as different, and Ravi is misunderstood because of his accent and differences in culture.

*At first, Ravi’s teacher and classmates viewed him as unintelligent because he speaks with an accent.

*Joe’s ADP means he reacts different than his peers in loud situations.

*The format of the novel is each chapter is told in an alternating point of view.

The unique type of characters and alternating point of view are the strong points of Save My Seat. My one disappointment with the story are the stereotypical way the characters are portrayed. None of the characters display any depth outside of the typical role they were set up to play. Ravi is the smart Indian character who excels in math but is physical weak and unathletic. Joe is large and loves to eat. He is a pushover who never stands up for himself. Ravi’s grandparents live with their family and the grandmother constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law’s cooking.

The bully in the story is not original and every moment he is in the story he is doing nothing but tormenting Joe and Ravi. His character has no depth and exists only to antagonize the main characters. Teachers are oblivious to his constant bullying, such as when he hits Ravi with a fastball to the head when they were playing a game that was supposed to be underhand slow-pitch.

While I was personally turned off by the stereotyped character portrayals, their predictability could be something that young readers find relatable. Having a bully with no redeeming qualities provides a clear good guy/bad guy scenario and gives the reader a sense of justice at the end of the book.

Overall, there are good qualities to Save Me a Seat. I was hoping that the story would provide more of a glimpse into the intricate lives of a recent immigrant or a person with ADP, providing more depth and understanding about different cultures and conditions.


Save Me a Seat
by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-84660-8

When We Were Alone

David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett have come together to create a brilliant and important picture book that introduces to children an important part of First Nation history, which must be understood to put U.S. history in context.

Picture book, First Nation history, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; reading level: 3.6
5 out of 5 stars


Much of the history of First Nation people in North America is never presented in the history books that children encounter in schools. In the late 1800s First Nation boarding schools were established in the United States. The idea behind the boarding schools was to eradicate First Nation culture. Forcefully removed from homes and separated from their family members, First Nation students were forced to give up their culture and were made to dress the same, cut their hair, speak only English, and convert to Christianity.

In When We Were Alone Robertson has managed to deftly present the bleak and horrifying story of First Nation children without overwhelming young readers. He has presented the realities of the situation in a general way and paired it with hope and perseverance.

The story focuses on a young child having a conversation with her grandmother. The girl asks “why” questions and the grandmother’s answer focuses on how her time in the boarding school shaped her life as an adult.

“Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?’ I asked.
Nokom said, “Well, Nosisim…”

The grandmother responds that when she was a child and went away to school, all the children were forced to dress the same because “they wanted us to look like everybody else.”
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Flett’s monochromatic illustration of the children all dressed the same is a powerful image that illustrates how something as seemingly simple as having the authority to tell people what clothes they can wear can begin to erase an entire culture.

Robertson then follows up the bleak idea of the children’s identity being erased by boarding school rules with a message of inner strength and hope. The grandmother has a story about how each season, when the children found themselves alone together, they would remember their culture and heritage and secretly work to maintain their identity.

But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again.

And this made us happy.

Both Robertson and Flett are Cree descendants, so the voice of the story is authentic. My only wish is that the book contained some type of author’s note or bibliography so that parents, teachers, or children would have further information about this topic. Some readers could believe this is a made up story, not realizing that it wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that First Nation parents had the right to determine if their child was placed in a boarding school.

This is an incredibly powerful and important book that sensitively introduces a difficult, and little known part of U.S. history to young children.

Parent/teacher guide: There is a free parent/teacher guide available at http://www.portageandmainpress.com/product/parentteacher-guide-for-when-we-were-alone/. The guide includes some talking points, prepping ideas, and follow-up discussions.


When We Were Alone
by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett
Highwater Press, 2016
ISBN 978

Juana & Lucas

This is a shorter chapter book that is perfect for independent readers who are transitioning into longer reads than picture books. Juana is a young girl who lives in Bogota, Colombia and loves drawing, Astroman, brussel sprouts, reading books, and especially her dog Lucas.

Beginning chapter book
Interest Level: 1-3; Reading Level: 3.6
Pura Belpre author award winner, 2017
5 out of 5 stars


On the first day of school, Juana’s isn’t having a great day, but things go positively downhill for her when her teacher announces, “Today you are going to begin learning the English.” Juana struggles to learn all the strange words and figure out the weird sounds made by English letters. Juana dislikes learning this new language and can’t figure out why she even has to.

Juana & Lucas is a winner of the Pura Belpre award which is given to a work of children’s literature that best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience. Set in Bogota, Colombia, readers are given a glimpse of life in another country. What makes this story so exceptional is that young readers see a character who is not that different from themselves–struggles to learn in school, riding a school bus, playing soccer at recess…these are all experiences that children in Indiana go through as well.

Juana’s struggles to learn a second language will be familiar to anyone who has learned a foreign language. It doesn’t come easily and Juana sees no use for a second language. When Juana is told that she needs to get her grades up in order to go to Spaceland in the USA and see her favorite hero, Astroman, she suddenly has a reason to learn English. For many children (and adults) motivation to learn increases when learning is given a real-world context and meaning. Juana suddenly lives and breathes learning English and begins to excel.
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Juana is a spunky main character who young readers will easily relate to and enjoy. Juana Medina’s illustrations are fun and engaging and the text contains many features that capture the eye and add visual interest to the page. Spanish words are interspersed throughout the text, but are easily translated through the context of the sentence.

Juana & Lucas introduces a main character who is from a different culture but doesn’t focus on the differences, and instead shows the commonalities among people. Juana is an energetic young lady who will appeal to a wide variety of children.


Juana & Lucas
Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-7208-9

The Journey

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children.

Picture book, fiction, refugees
Interest Level: grades 1-4; Reading Level: 3.7
5 out of 5 stars


In the author’s note at the back of the book, Francesca Sanna states:

Almost every day on the news we hear the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take. This book is a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”

Sanna’s story begins with a family of four creating sandcastles on the beach. Upon turning the page, the beach scene has been transformed by the words, “The war began.” A dark shadow that appears to have menacing hands is sweeping across the the beach scene, shattering buildings, and causing the family to flee off of the page. The image is powerful, yet not overwhelming to younger readers.
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The father is killed in the war and the mother and two children end up having to flee their home to search for safety. The following images show the small family traveling by car, hiding in delivery trucks, and finally traveling by bicycle until they reach the border. The narrator, who is one of the two children, delivers an important message by stating that “the further we go…the more we leave behind.” This is another instance where adults will understand the multiple meanings and deep implications behind the words and images, but young children will not be overwhelmed.

Guards try to keep the family from climbing the border wall and overly large figures chase the family through a dark, fairy-tale like forest. An unknown man takes money to help them over the wall and then the dark images disappear and is replaced with sunlight and feelings of hope. The journey is not over and the family travels by boat and then train hoping to find a new home “where we can be safe and begin our story again.”

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children. Parents or teachers can talk about why people must flee their homes and then present some general information about the difficulties of this journey for families. This is a great book for building empathy for the plight of refugees by allowing children to connect with the voice of the young narrator.


The Journey
by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-909263-99-4