Category Archives: SMART Lists

SMART LIST: Heros Undercover


I can think of nothing better than settling into a long winter afternoon with a spy story. There’s something particularly delicious about all of that intrigue, undercover drama and, if you’re lucky, the abundance of nifty spy gadgets. Here is a selection of some of my favourite books featuring spies, or at least, some serious sneaking around.

The Spellman Files (Lisa Lutz) – OK, so not strictly a YA title, but teens will love this too. The Spellmans are a family of Private Investigators who are never off the case. Find out what it’s like for Isabel Spellman as she tries to escape the family business. When your parents are P.I.s, you can forget boundaries. Hilarious, quirky and just plain awesome.

Tamar (Mal Peet) – Two friends are resistance fighters in the Netherlands during World War II. They are under constant threat of discovery and they learn that the deepest secrets may be the ones they hold from each other.

I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Ally Carter) – Elite spy school for girls. Need I say more? The Gallagher Academy is not what it seems, and Cammie Morgan, daughter of the school’s headmistress, has a lot to learn – about covert operations, culture and assimilation, and boys. Fun from page one. Oh… and plenty of girly gadgets. A series.

The Plain Janes (Cecil Castellucci) – This isn’t really a spy book, but at the centre of the graphic novel is a group of girls who form a secret society. They plan and conduct a bunch of “art attacks,” so there is an element of conspiracy and a strong sneak-factor. Fresh, thought-provoking and funny, with diverse characters for girl readers to connect to.

Kiki Strike (Kirsten Miller) – The first in the series, Inside the Shadow City, is a girl-power adventure story in which the Irregulars, a group of talented girlfriends, discover a series of tunnels underneath Manhattan. They find that there is a plot in the works that puts the whole city in terrible danger. Good thing Kiki Strike is on the case. There’s great comedy here, and you’ll cheer on the Irregulars as they step out of their ordinary day-to-day lives, heading towards real adventure.

Alex Rider (Anthony Horowitz) – This series is wildly popular with boy readers, but the stories are such page-turners that everyone should read them, just for pure pleasure. After his uncle’s mysterious death, Alex Rider learns that his uncle had more than a few secrets. He was a spy, and now the organization wants Alex to take over the mission. So begins the first of many adventures. The spy toys in these books are particularly inventive (metal-eating Zit cream, for instance). It has also been turned into a great graphic novel.

Young James Bond (Charlie Higson) – Much like the Alex Rider series, here we have James Bond, back when he was just learning to be a super spy. Silverfin is the first in the series, and it has one of the creepiest, goosebump-ifying first chapters of any book I’ve read. (Eels… lots of ’em. That’s all I need to say).

Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink (MAC) – Anna Smudge has found her calling. She’s a listener. She’s Manhattan’s only eleven-year-old shrink, and she has plenty of business. Anna gets caught up in the nasty schemes of the infamous mastermind, Mr. Who, and she and her friends team up to crush the Who’s evil plans. Funny, clever and packed with action. Kids will love the great comic illustrations too.

Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) – I hardly need to introduce this one. Curious and smart-as-a-whip, Harriet finds her talent for spying gets her into heaps of trouble when her secret notebook falls into the wrong hands. A classic that remains entirely readable and heart-warming.


SMART List #12: Gripping Greek Mythology

I think Greek mythology has it all: gripping plot, flawed / beautiful / proud / powerful / doomed characters, tragedy, humour, great quests, love affairs and plenty of revenge going on. Is it any wonder that kids eat it this stuff up? There’s something so satisfying about piecing together the relationships between all of the gods too. This seems to be another feature of Greek mythology that kids really buy into. They love making those connections. It’s like a giant puzzle they can fit together, the more myths they hear. (“Oh, Hera is Zeus’ wife. OK… got it. And she’s his sister too? Gross.”) The Mythology section of my unit on Ancient Civilizations is always the biggest hit with my students. They could sit and listen to me read from Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths for a whole afternoon – and I would be more than happy to oblige.

Here are some of my favourite Greek myth collections, and stories inspired by the original tales:

Collections & Picture Books
Z is for Zeus – Helen L. Wilbur
Persephone and the Pomegranate – Kris Waldherr
Pegasus – Marianna Mayer
D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths – Ingri D’Aulaire
Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths – Lucy Coats
Black Ships Before Troy – Rosemary Sutcliff
Mythology (Ologies series) – Lady Hestia Evans

Middle Grade / Teen Novels
It’s All Greek to Me (Time Warp Trio Series) – Jon Scieszka
The Lightning Thief (and subsequent titles in the series) – Rick Riordan
Medusa Jones – Ross Collins
Myth-o-Mania Series (#1: Have a Hot Time Hades) – Kate McMullan
Ithaka – Adele Geras
Quiver and Quicksilver – Stephanie Spinner

SMART LIST #11: Flights of Fancy

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I’m a nervous flyer, but give me a book about flight, and I’ll be happy for hours. So many wonderful flight-themed books have been written for kids, and the topic can be stretched in countless directions so it’s possible to match some form of flight story to just about any child. Think dragons, airships, famous pilots, inventors, kites, hot air balloons, WWII fighter planes. Teachers could easily create dynamite integrated units on flight, incorporating fiction and nonfiction works: science, history, poetry and fantasy.

So here’s a list of a bunch of my favourite flight books, a smattering of fiction and nonfiction, picture books and chapter books. There are some captivating adventures stories here, some imagined, some true:

Fiction – Chapter Books
Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space – Philip Reeve
and Skybreaker – Kenneth Oppel
Airman – Eoin Colfer
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment – James Patterson
Flight from Big Tangle – Anita Daher
The Desert Hawk: The Story of Stocky Edwards, WWII Flying Ace – Barbara Hehner
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik

Fiction – Picture Books
Wing Shop – Elvira Woodruff
Tuesday – David Wiesner
The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot – Alice & Martin Provensen

Non-Fiction – Picture Books
Kids’ Paper Airplane Book – Ken Blackburn
Animals in Flight – Robin Page
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride – Pam Munoz Ryan
Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot Air Balloon Ride – Marjorie Priceman
Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright – Mary Collins

SMART List #10: Other People’s Mail


In her most recent podcast, Fuse #8 booktalks Audrey Shafer’s amazing-sounding book: The Mailbox. (Received today from the library… check!) This led to me thinking about all of the kids’ books near and dear to my heart that concern letters and letter-writing. The magic of mail. I am kinda nosey and there’s something about being allowed to read “other people’s letters” in a story that feels wonderfully not-allowed. Like someone is whispering somebody else’s secrets in your ear.

So here are a few of my favorite titles related to letters – some are written entirely in letters, in others, letters play a central role in the story. They appear in order of age-appropriateness. (You will note that the upcoming Clementine made this list. I have not read it. I simply have tremendous faith in the genius of Ms. Sara Pennypacker).

SMART LIST #10: Other People’s Mail

Dear Greenpeace – Simon James

The Jolly Postman and Other People’s Letters – Allan Ahlberg

Meerkat Mail – Emily Gravett

Letters from Felix: A Little Rabbit on a World Tour – Annette Langen

The Gardener – Sarah Stewart

Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School – Mark Teague

Clementine’s Letter – Sarah Pennypacker

Beatrice Letters: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

P.S. Longer Letter Later – Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin

Letters from Rapunzel – Sara Lewis Holmes

The Mailbox – Audrey Shafer

Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriarty

The Year of Secret Assignments –Jaclyn Moriarty

Go partake in a little harmless snooping.
(You don’t even have to steam these puppies open).

SMART LIST #9: Stories for the Season


Falling asleep under a book next to a lit-up Christmas tree has to be one of the best things about this time of year.

What you need:
1) a quiet house, midafternoon
2) a cat
3) a beverage
4) a small plate of cookies
5) 3-4 books, stacked, within reaching distance

The number of times I manage to do this over Christmas is a pretty good measure of how perfect the holiday was. I think I’d better get started today. Here are some books I revisit each year – some old, some new, just right for this sort of delightful laziness:

Stories for the Season

An Elk Dropped In – Andreas Steinhofel

The Polar Express – Chris Van Allsburg

A Wish for Wings that Work – Berkeley Breathed

The Snowman – Raymond Briggs

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey – Susan Wojciechowski

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

The Box of Delights – John Masefield

The Christmas Orange – Don Gilmour

The Best Christmas Ever – Chih-Yuan Chen

Bear Stays Up For Christmas – Karma Wilson

Merry Christmas, Merry Crow – Kathi Appelt

Snow – Uri Shulevitz

Little Tree – e e cummings

Three French Hens – Margie Palatini

Wenceslas – Geraldine Mccaughrean

Time for cookies and a nap.

SMART List #9: Picture Books for Peace

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As Remembrance Day approaches, there are plenty of picture books that deserve particular attention in the classroom. This is not to say that books with themes around war, remembrance, conflict, respect and courage should not take centre stage at any time of the year. Far from it. Many children have profound interest in stories of war and survival. I’ve seen lots of “reluctant readers” completely captivated by these books.

Some of my favorite, dearest picture books follow in this list. They are arranged roughly according to age-appropriateness (younger to older readers), although I find that some of the more juvenile titles have much to offer older children too. Be advised that many of these books are intense and emotional, with mature content, so they should be read / introduced carefully.

What does Peace Feel Like? – Vladimir Radunksy

A Little Peace – Barbara Kerley

The Peace Book – Todd Parr

Why War is Never a Good Idea – Alice Walker

A Poppy is to Remember – Heather Patterson

The Librarian of Basra – Jeanette Winter

The Cello of Mr. O – Jane Cutler

Playing War – Kathy Beckwith

This Place I Know: Poems of ComfortGeorgia Heard

Rose Blanche – Ian McEwan

I Never Saw Another Butterfly – Hana Volavkova

Gleam and Glow – Eve Bunting

Anne Frank – Josephine Poole

Faithful Elephants – Yukio Tsuchiya

Talking Walls – Margy Burns Knight

Peace One DayJeremy Gilley

Paths to Peace – Jane Breskin Zalbin

There are many lists of books out there that address themes related to conflict. The Jane Addams Peace Association presents awards yearly to books that tackle such topics with honesty and grace.

SMART List #8: Andrew Clements gets them talking

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Andrew Clements is a recent discovery for me.  Summertime tends to be a time when I try to read books by those authors I’ve never read before and about whom I feel REALLY guilty and irresponsible due to my general cluelessness about their work. Enter Andrew Clements. This summer, I completed a little Andrew Clements marathon, with much rejoicing and satisfaction. Since completing this lovely immersion experience into Clements’ work, it is now my greatest desire to use a bunch of his books in a literature circle / author study with my Grade 5 munchkins.

Here are a bunch of themes / topics that Clements handles with balance, thoughtfulness and entirely kid-friendly (but completely tight) writing (these themes would be good discussion points / unit themes for lit. circles in the junior grades):

– kid world vs. grown up world

– standing up for your beliefs

– rules (who makes them, breaks them, why we need them)

– being different / judging people with differences

– different ways we communicate

– innovation / invention / creating a “master plan” 

– multiple intelligences – different kinds of “smart”

These are just a few ideas.  His books may be short, but they are rich and thought-provoking, which makes them perfect for lit circles in grades where the reading levels may be wide-ranging.

So here’s a list of Andrew Clements books I think will work best to get kids talking, at home or in school:

No Talking

Lunch Money

The Report Card


A Week in the Woods

The Janitor’s Boy

The Landry News

Experiment time… I wonder if my little children partake of Andrew Clements’s stories, will they become creative thinkers, bold questioners and determined (but appropriate) rule-challengers?

Experiment results to follow.

SMART List #8: Halloween stories for spooking (or smiling)

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Halloween was my favorite holiday growing up. No doubt about it. Every year my sister and I created killer haunted houses in our basement (Blindfolds, grapes, red food colouring, cooked noodles and vaseline… that’s all you need people- I swear). All of our friends came over after school and my mom threw the best halloween party any kid could imagine. After make-up and costuming, we would pile into the station wagon, and before heading into the happening hamlet of Schomberg, Ontario, we hit up all of the old farmer’s wives on our concession for embarrassingly generous offerings of treats (when you only get 3 kids at your door each Halloween, there is no place for stingyness).

Now, I am a city chick. But we live on the COOLEST street in Toronto when Halloween rolls around. Each year, a few houses down from us, a Halloween musical is performed by neighborhood adults and kids on a front lawn (stage, props, lights… last year a huge tv screen so that people could see from down the street). The show runs 3 times on Halloween night, and everyone who is anyone comes over to our place to check it out and to drink beer and eat pizza, skittles and wunderbars on the front porch. Naturally, I am a firm believer in Halloween kitsch. This year, our newest friend is a sparkly Halloween spider night-light. Who could resist?

But books… yes books (that’s what matters here). Below is a list of fab Halloween picture books – some spooky, some funny – all will get you ready for the big night.

The Highwayman (Visions in Poetry) – Alfred Noyes and Murray Kimber

The Follower – Richard Thompson

Hallowiener – Dav Pilkey

Slinky Malinky – Lynley Dodd

The Widow’s Broom – Chris Van Allsburg

Boris and Bella – Carolyn Crimi

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich – Adam Rex

Go Away Big Green Monster – Ed Emberley

The Graves Family – Patricia Polacco

Leonardo the Terrible Monster Mo Willems

The House that Drac Built – Judy Sierra

Winnie the Witch – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

Wolves in the Walls – Neil Gaiman


SMART List #7: Books for Giddy/Grumpy Kids and their Teachers

If you stepped into most primary classrooms on Friday afternoon, say around 3:00, you’d likely think that civilized society is more or less coming to an end. Kids and teachers have managed to keep it together for 4 and 3/4 days and everyone’s pretty much exhausted and/or giddy and/or grouchy.

At moments like these I sort of understand what makes teachers want to turn off the lights and get the kids to sit down and put their heads on their desks in total and complete silence. Si – lence! There are some Friday moments when the urge to shout “STOP THE INSANITY!” is almost impossible to suppress.

Instead, I reach a shaking hand into my “don’t touch these special books” bin, in search of a story to remind me why hanging out with kids is one of my favorite things to do.

SMART LIST #7: Books for Giddy/Grumpy Kids and their Teachers

(Note: these books work any day of the week, anytime, on most mid-sized munchkins. Some already seem to have lost touch with their sense of humor. All the more reason to read on!)

Runny Babbit – Shel Silverstein

What are you so grumpy about? – Tom Lichtenheld

Scaredy Squirrel – Melanie Watt

What Pete Ate – Maira Kalman

Wolves – Emily Gravett

Traction Man is Here! – Mini Grey

The Big, Bad Wolf and Me – Delphine Perret

Miss Nelson is Missing – Harry G. Allard

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy – Oliver Jeffers

Grumpy Bird – Jeremy Tankard

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type – Doreen Cronin

Diary of a Wombat – Jackie French

Russell the Sheep – Rob Scotton

SMART List #6: Lauren Child is absolutely and always forever a favorite

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Exhausted after a mere 24 hours of auntie-ness, I feel it is the moment to praise the sheer perfection of just about everything Lauren Child comes up with (hence the initiation of a new category: “Brit Hits”). Yes, I am a tad disappointed by the commercialization of little Lola, but I have to admit, if I were 5 years old, a Charlie and Lola haircut sticker book would be the essence of cool, and most of the time, Child still gets it smack on with the funny stuff. Besides, once you look beyond all of the Charlie and Lola craziness to the rest of her work, you see she’s no one-trick pony. (List arranged roughly according to age appeal – younger to older readers).

I will not ever NEVER eat a tomato

I am not sleepy and I will not go to bed

I am too absolutely small for school

That Pesky Rat

What Planet are you from Clarice Bean?

My Uncle is a Hunkle says Clarice Bean

Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent

The Princess and the Pea

Utterly Me Clarice Bean (chapter book series)

Lauren Child has a newish website – many sections are still in the works. The design of her bio page is brilliant and hilarious. Go directly to Official Lauren Child Website.

Why oh why does it seem like some people possess the creativity that should rightfully be shared by 50 of the rest of us? The world is cruel.