IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS by Cat Winters: Powerful YA Fiction Set During the 1918 Flu Epidemic

May 30, 2020

I’m not alone in recognizing this book as stunning:

014 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee
A School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

Imagine if the tragedy of a world war were happening at the same time as millions of people dying from the influenza.  Cat Winters weaves a meticulously researched book about this dire time.  Her characters are also caught up in the Spiritualism craze that is gripping much of the world.  The madness of life at the time– sickness, war, and a desperate search for answers–is captured in this YA novel that is also a love story and a mystery.  Portlander Mary Shelley Black is our protagonist, and must travel from Oregon to San Diego to stay with her aunt when her anti-war father is imprisoned.  At 16 years old, she is looking forward to being reunited with her childhood friend (and penpal) Stephen Embers.  Their correspondence has blossomed into first love, and when they are re-united, she learns he has enlisted and will be leaving right away for the front in France.  As the plot unfolds, readers learn about the ways that the  grief-stricken population  is being duped by “spirit photography.”  But as events get stranger and stranger, Mary Shelley comes to believe that connection to “the other side”may be possible.  There are elements of the fantasy and horror genres in this historical fiction, and they are used (successfully, I believe) not only to enlighten about the historical period, but to create compelling metaphors for the times.

I appreciate the inclusion of historical photos , as well as the Author’s Notes, which tell of the events on which she based her tale.  Strongly recommended for the YA crowd.


May 23, 2020

The Long March by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick

“Mary Louise-Fitzpatrick tells a story of the heart–a story that holds the promise of life and keeps our eyes always focused on a brighter future.  The story is a lesson for all people around the world today Yakoke.”

~Gregory E. Pyle, Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The story is indeed a moving one.  After the Long March, an enforced walk from Mississippi to Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation gather to discuss an important issue for their tribe.  The year is 1847 and the impoverished tribe has heard about the Irish Potato Famine, and collected $170.00 to send to Ireland.  Choona, the narrator, is a boy and his great-grandmother Talihoyo is an elder who speaks convincingly of why they should help the Irish people:

“We have walked the trail of tears.  The Irish People walk it now.  We can help them as we could not help ourselves.  Our help will be like an arrow shot through time.  It will land many winters from now to wait as a blessing for our unborn generations.” 

The book itself is not only written with a lyrical grace, but the illustrations are stunning.  Mary-Louise Fitzpatrick traveled from Ireland to Oklahoma and illustrated the book with detailed pencil drawings, including portraits of the story characters sketching Gary WhiteDeer’s family.  Truly timeless truth and beauty in this incredible story.

But wait, there’s more!  That arrow that was shot through time?  Well, the Irish people have not forgotten the Native Peoples and their help so long ago.  During this pandemic, they have sent money to help now, “repaying” the favor.  Check out this article from The Washington Post a few days ago.  It gives me goosebumps.

“The Irish are repaying a favor from 173 years ago in Native Americans’ Fight Against Corona Virus”


Teaching During the Pandemic

May 12, 2020

There are a wealth of teaching materials that can inspire educators and students during the pandemic.  This month, I hope to highlight a few that have grabbed my attention and made me feel hopeful about the possibilities for teaching for social justice even in these strange times. The Zinn Education Project tops my list (especially appropriate for high school students):

Zinn Education Project: Teaching People’s History in the Pandemic

Howard Zinn’s education work is highlighted in the contemporary teaching strategies shared on the Zinn Education Project Website. Based on the approach to history in his ground-breaking book A People’s History of the United States, their teaching materials aim to “emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history.” The website offers free, downloadable lessons and articles.  I highly recommend the whole website, of course.   The special section on teaching people’s history in the pandemic is particularly timely. They share two guides to teaching with film during the COVID-19 crisis, along with some strategies for using films with students. I also appreciated the list of podcasts that might be of interest to teens. You’ll also find the link to articles and one short video for teaching about the history of pandemics and the connection between climate change and the coronavirus. There’s much more; I urge you to check it out!

WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON: THE STORY OF A SONG by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

May 5, 2020

Pete Morgan’s May Day cloth art at Radical Tea Towels reminds us of the importance of the arts, in our world, and more particularly in social justice movements. We take our May photo for the Litforkids homepage from A Garland for May Day 1895.  It’s a perfect reminder of the original role of May Day for international workers, not to mention the importance of artists and musicians in the social reform movement, both historically and currently. Walter Crane, the designer of the poster, includes wonderful slogans in his art.  They’re impossible to read on our reproduction, but here are a few: ‘the land for the people’, ‘no child toilers’, ‘production for use not for profit’, ‘the plough is a better backbone than the factory’, ‘shorten working day and lengthen life.’  Crane’s work inspired us to look at other arts that have been crucial to social justice movements, and it’s clear that music is a key element as well as the visual arts.

Which Side Are You On: The Story of a Song by George Ella Lyons

I love books that explore historical events that are timely in our present day.  Twenty-first-century readers will appreciate this old song that has renewed relevance. George Ella Lyon, herself a native Kentuckian and daughter of a coal miner, brings us back to Depression-era coal country and the birth of the song that became a rallying cry for labor organizers.  This incredible true story tells of Florence Reese and her 7 children literally dodging  bullets in their home while her coal miner husband, a union man, is hiding in the mountains.  On the back of a calendar, Florence jots down the words to the song, hoping to give courage to the miners striking for better pay and working conditions.

The lyrics of the famous song appear in script that unfurls in golden banners: “Come all you poor workers,/ Good news to you I’ll tell,/ Of how the good old union,/ Has come in here to dwell.” Again and again comes the haunting refrain, which parents and educators will want to invite children to sing: “Which side are you on,/ Which side are you on?” For a moving rendition, I suggest playing Pete Seeger on YouTube.


DEATH BY AIRSHIP by Arthur Slade: Revisiting Steampunk Books

April 26, 2020

Death by Airship by Arthur Slade

Remember when we did a flight on steampunk reads for the whole family?  Pretty engaging, right?  Now that we are all home and looking for a subject that might be a little different, I thought it would be fun to return to the steampunk theme, and recommend a new book at the same time.  So checkout the Steampunk Family Flight, then come back for this short but very entertaining read:  Death by Airship.

In this alternate world, pirates fly the skies in airships.  But I must say, the pirate world is quite similar to what we imagine as taking place on the high seas.  Prince Conn is a young teen, but captain of his airship, leading his crew of misfits as they raid and plunder through the skies.  His father is king of the pirates, but Prince Conn has little chance of inheriting the throne, as he is ninth in line.  But he’s fine with that, enjoying his life, his friends, and his ship.  But his brothers and sisters are being murdered, and whoever is doing the killing is trying to frame Conn. To prove his innocence, Conn must make his way to Skull Island, navigating his airship through a gauntlet of villains, explosions and betrayals.There are lots of puns, high adventure, and enough silliness to please the young adolescent audience it is intended for.  And I really enjoyed it as well.  It’s a quick read, more like a novella than a novel. Perfect for a break from on-line schoolwork.

A Trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium: Virtually, Of Course

April 20, 2020

I think we are all up for a trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium!  And it’s a visit we can do safely from home, thanks to the virtual tours that are an enticing part of the Aquarium’s website. I suggest you start with The Monterey Bay Jelly cam  which allows you to watch the stunning–and remarkably soothing–motion of the jelly fish from the camera.  There are actually ten live cams to choose from!  I liked the kelp forest, the jellyfish, and the otters at play best, but there are so many places you can visit virtually!  We urge you and your family to check them out.

At the Aquarium website, there is a wealth of information to help guide your family’s  digital “visit.”  For example, I loved reading all about the jellyfish on their information pages 

And here are a few additional books to guide your virtual trip to the Aquarium:

Jelly Fish: (A Day in the Life:  Sea Animals) by Louise Spilsbury

A perfect book for young readers in early elementary grades.  Thoughtfully written non-fiction with compelling photos.



Oscar:  A Sea Otter Pup by Carol Harrison

The artwork is the real winner of this book, but I found it worthwhile.  I thought the text rhyming was a bit forced, though I loved that it actually explores the environment for sea otters right at Monterey Bay



Kelp Forests (Monterey Bay Aquarium Natural History Series)by Judith Connor and Charles Baxter

I had never experienced these amazing underwater forests, that nourish and protect sea life in every nook and cranny, from swaying canopies to hideouts in the holdfasts. The illustrations are fantastic, and the whole family will enjoy delving into this magical world.




March 24, 2020

Mo Willems:  Lunch Doodles and More

We love Mo Willems, and have blogged about him often (see links below).  But right now, during social distancing times (2020!), what we want to talk about is his daily lunchtime live doodling show on YouTube.  You can also watch the recorded Lunch Doodles later in the day if you like.  Here’s what Willems says about his daily show:

When I became the Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence, I didn’t realize the most impactful word in that title would be ‘Residence.’ With millions of learners attempting to grow and educate themselves in new circumstances, I have decided to invite everyone into my studio once a day for the next few weeks.Grab some paper and pencils, pens, or crayons.  We are going to doodle together and explore ways of writing and making.

Today’s episode (March 24th) is simply delightful.  Mo Willems dresses up in something fancy and silly and encourages his audience to do the same.  His rapport with children is wonderful; I appreciate his calmness and his acknowledgement that this is a strange time.  At the same time, he is comforting and funny and teaches some great little art lessons. Check it out!

And for your reading pleasure, a few posts from our archives:

Mo Willems, My Hero

Literary Vacations

More Mo:  Behind the Scenes with Mo Willems

SUPERMAN: DAWNBREAKER by Matt de la Peña: A YA Superman Coming of Age Novel

March 7, 2020

Superman:  Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

If you haven’t yet heard of the new YA series, DC Icons, be sure to check it out.  Imagine Wonder  Woman through the eyes of Leigh Bardugo; Marie Lu’s reimagining of Bat Man; or Sarah J. Maas writing an epic Cat Woman tale.  Wait. . .you don’t have to imagine it; these stories already exist, with more to come from other YA authors.  The new Matt de la Peña Superman novel is a wonderful addition.  In fact, I might even recommend that you start the series here.  After all, Superman is DC’s first superhero.  In this contemporary retelling, Clark Kent is just coming into his powers, and struggling to understand them, as well as his changing role in the world.  Smallville is still rural, but has a far more diverse population than the 1950’s version, and Clark is very aware of his role as an “alien” in a parallel to the immigrants in his community.  I loved how compassionate and caring this version of the Man (Young Man) of Steel is as he teams up with his best friend Lana Lang to fight against racial prejudice, abduction, and genetic experimentation in Smallville.  They even encounter a young version of Lex Luther!

Wonderful for YA readers, as well as those in middle school. Not to mention those of us who grew up reading Superman comics.

THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE by Dan Gemeinhart: Heartwarming Story for Tweens and Early Adolescents. . .and their Parents and Teachers

February 21, 2020

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Some of the most compelling stories have at their heart a metaphorical journey, or a quest.  Coyote Sunrise’s hero quest is literal:  she and her father Rodeo are traveling from Florida to Washington state in their renovated school bus home-on-wheels.  Of course, the metaphorical side of their journey is also present.  Coyote and Rodeo are the only survivors of a horrific car accident that killed Coyote’s two sisters and her mother.  Since that tragic day five years ago, these two have been on the road, never looking back and never ever talking about the past.  (That’s one of Rodeo’s coping strategies, and a hard and fast rule, a “no-go.” ) But Coyote learns that a park where she and her sisters and mother buried a “memory box” is set to be demolished.  Coyote must travel thousands of miles in a few days and rescue the memory box–all without letting Rodeo know she (and their bus) are headed back to her original home.  Along the way, they pick up different travelers who join the adventure:  a gay teenager whose parents kicked her out, a young man traveling to reunite with his girlfriend, and a family of immigrants looking for work.  Oh, and the sweetest, smartest cat in the world, Ivan.

I put off reading this book since I bought it last summer.  Meghan read it right away–bingeing through it, with many a tear coming down her cheeks.  Though I often love a heart-tugging read, I put it off until just this week.  Big mistake!  I can only hope you don’t do the same.  It’s an award-winner and perfect family read, though of course, kids can read it on their own.  Here are some of the numerous accolades the book earned:

A 2019 Parents’ Choice Award Gold Medal Winner
Winner of the 2019 CYBILS Award for Middle Grade Fiction
An Amazon Top 20 Children’s Book of 2019
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Authenticity is a trait that shines  through all the characters, as well as their life experiences.  Beautiful writing and emotional depth are also characteristics of this fine book.  Highly recommended!


February 15, 2020

A couple of years ago, I heard about a new magazine for girls and I decided to give it a try for the girls in my life, family and friends alike.  KAZOO  is everything I hoped it would be, as you can tell from my rave review in the post “New Magazines for Girls.”   Fast forward to 2020, and I am a satisfied reader of Kazoo, and delighted to hold in my hands their new graphic collection:  Noisemakers:  25 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World. Whatever your passion (and those of the young people you know and love), you’ll find stellar role models:  activists, artists, scientists, explorers, chefs, and fascinating “Noisemakers” in lots of other creative endeavors.  Erin Bride, the Editor-in-Chief of Kazoo Magazine, writes in the foreword:  “The world is what it is today only because these Noisemakers dared to be strong, smart, fierce, and true to themselves.  And hopefully, just knowing they came before you will give you all the extra courage and strength you ever need to follow your own amazing path, no matter where it may lead.”  I quote her because it is so quintessentially “Kazoo”:  inspiring, and also including readers in the vision creators of the magazine are sharing.  I must admit, I am only half-way through the collection, but I am already relishing the artwork of the different artists, as well as the stories the cartoonists share.  Some are favorite role models, like Frida Kahlo and Nellie Bly, but others are fascinating new heroes, like Eugenie Clark, The Shark Whisperer, or Raye Montague, The Ship Designer.  Perfect timing for mid-winter inspiration and binge reading, especially for readers 8-13 years old (and their parents and teachers).