Category Archives: Teacher Titles

The definition of dramedy: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

henrylarsenI’ve been in a reading rut the past couple of months, and Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is one of the books that finally pulled me out of it. If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. It is both heartbreaking and funny-bone-tickling – and when I tell you what it’s about, you’ll probably find the promise of funny hard to believe.

Thirteen-year-old Henry and his family face the unthinkable when his older brother Jesse takes his father’s hunting rifle to school one morning and kills the bully who has been making his life a living hell for months. Henry’s family moves to a new city in an attempt to “start over” and there Henry begins seeing a therapist. The therapist wants him to keep a journal. At first Henry thinks this is stupid. Eventually, the journal becomes a place for him to share his thoughts about his new situation, including what he thinks of the oddball group of nerds he finds himself hanging out with at school, and his new neighbours in their apartment building. Henry tries as hard as he can to make sure what happened to his family stays a secret, but it isn’t easy keeping something so awful and life-changing in the past.

It’s Henry’s voice that really gets you and makes this book memorable. Nielsen excels at capturing the mix of emotions Henry feels – crushing sadness and guilt and anger – but she also makes it clear that Henry is a pretty hilarious boy. I loved how Henry speaks in “Robot Voice” when his therapist (or anyone else) tries to get him to talk about anything painful. It is funny, but also incredibly touching, because it’s something so true to what a kid would likely do to protect himself emotionally in such a situation. You can tell that Henry is one bright kid.

I also appreciated that Nielsen doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff in this book. She makes you think about whether or not you’d be like the people in the community who shut out Henry’s family after this tragedy. She makes you sympathize with Henry when he goes to visit the victim’s sister and her dad turns Henry away, horrified, at the same time as you kind of understand where the father is coming from in the moment. Nielsen doesn’t sugar coat, but there is nothing inappropriate in the content for an intermediate reader. She handles the subject matter with perfect sensitivity. I think kids and adults will appreciate her honest but thoughtful scrutiny of this mature and intense topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen is a book that should make you think about stories you’ve heard in the news a little bit differently. It’s very sad in places, but I promise, there will be moments when you laugh out loud. In my opinion, it takes a unique writer to offer readers such great dramedy. 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is published by Tundra Books.


The Elf breaks her silence with a dramatic update…

It’s been quiet here on the Shelf for a while – too long. I get pretty antsy when I’m not keeping this little place current.

So here’s the story.

Man, am I:

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Why? It’s a long story. There have been changes brewing in my job over the past month, changes I hadn’t seen coming and probably wouldn’t have thought could lead to things I really wanted. Let’s just say that I haven’t felt so stressed for a long while. On Friday this week everything was finally resolved, and I confess that first, I was a little bit:

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But that passed quickly, and now I finally feel:

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Here’s the scoop. Next year, I won’t be a teacher librarian anymore, but I will sure be needing a lot of brilliant books close at hand, particularly this one… Continue reading

A big shout out for “!” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal


In late March, most people can use a little more ! in their lives. I know I sure do. So when I spotted Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s sunny new picture book, I had hope that a smiley happy boost was headed my way.

I was not wrong. It’d be near impossible to read Exclamation Mark and not be charmed and cheered.

Here’s the trailer:

You know when you read a book, and you can just tell the creators had a blast making it? That’s this book. In fact, I’d say that I get this feeling when I read all of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books. This is a woman I’d like to spend the day with. I imagine we’d do something fun and probably kooky and we’d be laughing nonstop. Our conversations would be full of clever puns and silly stuff and we’d feel smart and giddy and just plain delighted to be alive.

Not to mention, I love me a book that I could imagine using with wee folk right on up to Grade 8. (Cuz you know those Grade 8s aren’t all pros with their punctuation. Shocker). Exclamation Mark has a message that little guys can relate to, but the concept and execution are so clever that older kids will laugh on every page.

So Amy, if by small chance you ever read this tiny shout out for Exclamation Mark, I’d like to say thanks for making stories as witty as they are wise.

Exclamation Mark is published by Scholastic.

Ugly Vegetables Have Feelings Too: Little Sweet Potato by Amy Beth Bloom

Admit it. You’ve looked at a sweet potato and thought, “Man, now that is one ugly vegetable.” Don’t try and deny it, because we’ve all done it. But, while sweet potatoes are not known for their beauty, they certainly are delicious little tubers. We probably shouldn’t be talking about that fact here, since Amy Beth Bloom’s picture book, Little Sweet Potato, features a sweet potato hero so cute that he may make you feel a little bit guilty the next time you tuck into a pile o’ sweet potato fries.

This is a classic “looking for where you belong” story, set in the veggie patch. When a rumbly tractor shakes Little Sweet Potato right out of his comfy garden home, there’s nothing left for him to do but to venture out into the world, looking for somewhere to put down roots. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). After being insulted by some conceited carrots and egotistical eggplants, he concludes that the world has some pretty “mean vegetation” in it. But just when he’s about to give up, Little Sweet Potato discovers a place where all veggies are welcome, no matter how lumpy and bumpy they might be.

While the narrative is fairly predictable and in places, a touch wordy, the quirkiness of Noah Z. Jones’ bright cartoon illustrations brings Little Sweet Potato to life and makes the whole package charming. This is a keeper for classrooms and school libraries, sure to remind kids that beauty is empty without kindness.

Little Sweet Potato is published by Katherine Tegen Books.

Day 13, book 13: Think Big by Liz Garton Scanlon

Part of the fun of my 30 Days, 30 Picture Books Plan is discovering some new favourite illustrators. Am I ever glad I ordered Think Big from the library, because Vanessa Brantley Newton is the latest illustrator to make it onto my list of favourites. It makes me think that there must be so many brilliantly talented people out there whose work I’ve never seen, but would love if I did. That’s exciting, isn’t it?

Thing Big has TEACHER written all over it. I’m sure it will get a lot of circulation when I get a copy for my library, since it would be the perfect read aloud to launch an art class… or drama class… or music class…or photography class… or any class, since it’s really about taking risks, embracing creativity, and being a thinker. It’s a celebration of creating and cooperating through art, music, theater, cooking, dance, pottery, crafts and more.

Liz Garton Scanlon’s text is a bouncy, perfectly crafted poem that captures big ideas in the fewest possible words. No page has more than four words, which could be the launching point for a cool poetry lesson on what it means to pare ideas down. Since I first read the book, I’ve been thinking that I need to make a big poster to hang in the library to show off the fantastic ending to Scanlon’s poem:

Big breath,
Brave heart
Ready, set
Make art!

Vanessa Brantley Newton’s art is full of so much energy and spirit that you can practically feel the creative juices bubbling up inside of you as you notice the details on every page. She uses gouache and collage elements to put together scenes that delight on first glance but even more as you notice the clever details when you take a closer look, like the real rainbow tutu on the dancing cat, and the way that thematically appropriate dictionary definitions, for words like “inspire” and “happy” and “future,” are integrated into the collages at various points.

This book is full of kids who “do.” I love this, because that’s what learning and living is. I don’t think it could be communicated and celebrated any better than it is in Thing Big. Kinda makes me want to cheer, and then pass it on. The perfect pep talk for artists everywhere.

Think Big is published by Bloomsbury.

Day 9, book 9: Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds

There are some picture books that I buy for the library with a particular teacher in mind, something that might not find its way into everyone’s classroom, but that will be just perfect for that one person’s program. And then there are books like Sky Color, the third in Peter H. Reynolds’ “Creatrilogy,” after The Dot and Ish. It’s going to get snapped up before I can even put it out on display. This I know for sure. Teachers have a lotta love for The Dot and Ish. I will be a hero when they find Sky Color in the library.

“How am I going to make the sky without blue paint?” This is Marisol’s problem when she agrees to paint the sky for the library mural, but finds that there isn’t any blue in her box of paint. So, quite literally, she is forced to think outside the box. Where else to look for answers than out the window? This is exactly what Marisol does on the way home, and that night she dreams of a whole different kind of sky, “swirling with colors.” In the end, Marisol finds her way, and she finds sky color.

Reynolds loves exploring the notion of self-expression and the individual’s creative journey beyond perceived limitations and rules. On the last page, he dedicates the book to someone in his life who “took the blue paint away and helped me paint – and think – in sky color.” I like that while Reynolds’ books are certainly about creation and art, the ideas and lessons in them can be extended beyond these areas, informing how kids think and see the world in general.

The illustrations start off quite muted, mostly black and white and shades of grey with only touches of colour, until the sky comes in, and then Reynolds shows off a gorgeous wash of orange and yellow and pink and purple. The last two pages contain the children’s mural, in a wordless double-page spread filled with colour, and all of the young artists standing in front of it, taking it in. I’m sure Sky Color will inspire a similar response in all who read it. If you need a little awe in your day, look no further.

Sky Color is published by Candlewick.

The One and Only Ivan

Often, the longer a book sits in my TBR pile, the less likely I am to read it. It gets forgotten, or it loses its initial appeal. Then there are the books in the pile that you look at and you think, “Oh, yeah! I still really want to read that one. I’ve got to get to it.” And months pass. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, somehow ended up stuck for ages in TBR status, and reading it has made me wonder what other miracle books might be in that pile, because I think this book is one miraculous book.

The One and Only Ivan is the story of a gorilla who lives in a cement and metal “domain” in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He’s been there for 27 years. There’s a jungle scene painted on one wall of his cage and people pay to see him, though not as many as when he was young. Ivan is alone in his domain, but he has friends: Stella the elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who forages for scraps in the Mall trash. There’s also Julia, the daughter of the man who cleans the mall at night. She likes to draw the animals, and talk to them. Ivan is an artist too. He paints what he sees in his cage, mostly apple cores and banana peels. He wishes he could draw something that doesn’t yet exist, that he only imagines, but he’s not unhappy with his ordinary pictures. As the mall starts losing money, the owner, Mack, brings a baby elephant to be part of the show and hopefully to drum up business. Ruby’s arrival signals a change in Ivan. He promises Stella that he will protect Ruby no matter what and find a way to get Ruby to a safe place. It will take all of his courage, creativity, and hope, to make good on that promise.

And FYI, you will be needing tissues.

Applegate’s prose has a pared down quality that brings it close to poetry. The directness and simplicity of the language fits with how you might imagine a gorilla to think and perceive the world. Each short chapter is perfectly shaped for great emotional impact. It’s not often you find a book that will not intimidate a less confident reader but that still has such rich themes and gorgeous writing. I’d feel confident putting this one in the hands of a child who is more reluctant as well as an avid reader. It will prompt thinking and discussion about the issues connected to humans’ use of animals for profit, but also inter-species understanding, and compassion. The gentle sweetness of Patricia Castelao’s spot illustrations enhance the reading experience. Can you say perfect read aloud? Teachers everywhere, take note. You want this one.

Here’s a Q&A with Katherine Applegate, and you should take a look at the website for the book where there’s some extra information for curious readers and for teachers to bring into the classroom.

The One and Only Ivan is published by Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Book Speak! Poems About Books

Whenever I come across a great new picture book poetry collection, it takes me no time at all to think of all sorts of possible lesson ideas for the small people I hang out with everyday. One of Laura Purdie Salas’s most recent books, Book Speak! Poems About Books, has to be every Teacher Librarian’s happy place. A book filled with poems about books? Yes please! It is loaded with read-aloud possibility. It would be a wonderful book to integrate into library welcome tours in September. Guess I’m ready for next year already. Check!

The collage artwork by illustrator, Josee Bisaillon, offers a quirky and whimsical counterpoint to Salas’s clever and thought-provoking verses. Some of the subjects for the poems include: the sadness of an unread book, cliffhangers, falling asleep while reading, book plates, conflict, and what happens when the lights go out at the bookstore (which we already know about, thanks to this).

I think the book trailer is pretty adorable – great concept that links perfectly with the title and I think could easily inspire kids to write a poem or two in the voice of a book:

Book Speak! Poems About Books is published by Clarion.

You Are What You Eat and Other Mealtime Hazards

If the saying “you are what you eat” is true, then this week, guess what I am?

That would be a red velvet birthday cupcake, ‘cuz this weekend I was a birthday girl. (By the way, this pretty birthday cupcake came from here. I think it would be hard to find a tastier one. That’s cream cheese icing folks – a big ol’ swirl of it. And sparkly sugar crystals on top. Fine indeed).

With You Are What You Eat and Other Mealtime Hazards, Serge Bloch has created a delightful little romp of a book that could lead into a fun lesson on idioms with the side benefit of offering kids some “food for thought” (sorry, couldn’t resist) about making healthy and adventurous food choices. Every page contains a food-related expression that is integrated into a loose narrative about a kid who “eats like a bird” and faces the challenge of having to eat a strange meal at his best friend’s house. The storyline is a bit forced, but this doesn’t really matter too much because the cartoon ink drawings integrated with photographic elements are what really makes this little book satisfying. It’s witty and clean and it’s darn cute. I should think it would pair nicely with any of Saxton Freymann’s wonderful food centered picture books. Perfect for picky eaters and language lovers.

You Are What You Eat and Other Mealtime Hazards is published by Sterling.

March Break Review-a-palooza: Love, Mouserella

As a librarian, you know a book has got that special something if it kind of causes you pain to part with it, even though you know that it is fulfilling its booky destiny to go out into the world and be read and loved and shared.

It was hard for me to hand love, Mouserella over for the first time to one of my colleagues who was looking for picture books with letter writing connections. I confess I almost (almost I said), kept love, Mouserella hidden away in the box of new books in the back room, in a state of pristine perfection. But I didn’t. I set it free. I knew that I was sending the book to a first audience of pretty fabulous Grade 3s, and that was The Right Thing to Do. I passed it over to the teacher and told her that when she was done, she needed to bring it right back to me and “put it into my hands.” Obviously she knew I wasn’t kidding, because that is exactly what she did (at the same time she shared some rave reviews from her students). I am working my way towards lending it out again. It will happen. Pinky swear.

You shouldn’t judge me until you’ve seen the sheer cuteness of this little book by David Ezra Stein. I’ll bet that if you do get your hands on it, you won’t want to be letting it go any time soon either.

The book is written as one long letter from Mouserella to her Grandmouse, who has recently gone back home again (to Fluffington!!! A-dorable!) after visiting Mouserella in the city. Mouserella writes to her Grandmouse about all of the things she has been doing since they were together: visiting a mean cat in the zoo, teaching her pet ladybug to fetch, practicing her posture by balancing a book on her tail, and visiting the museum. It’s the details about ordinary kid life in a family that really make this small book endearing, like the game of x’s and o’s played by Mouserella and her dad on the back of the letter, and Mouserella’s story about having to eat all of the popsicles in the freezer during a blackout and making shadow puppets with a flashlight.

Many of the illustrations are created to look like photographs taken by Mouserella, and there are lots of sweet crayon doodles and stickers added on the edges of the letter. On one page, Mouserella has ‘attached’ a squishy ketchup packet because she thinks her Grandmouse probably has never seen one. Speaking of the design aspect of the book, it opens vertically, like a letter (basically swing the image you see up top around by 90 degrees). I like that attention to detail, plus it gets you in the spirit of things.

Love, Mouserella is a darling book that could open up discussion and teaching about city and country life, family relationships, making connections through letter writing, and what having fun can look like if we turn off our televisions / video games / tablets / computers. For primary teachers, you definitely want to include it as a fun launch to your letter writing unit, as it could be helpful in teaching kids about including details to bring experiences to life, editing, and letter format. The only trouble you might have is getting your librarian to lend it to you.

Before you go, you must check out 7 Imp’s wonderful interview with David Ezra Stein.

love, Mouserella is published by Nancy Paulsen Books.