Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Teacher Tuesday with Lilliput

Grades 4-6

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the first novels in history to spark the phenomenon now known as “fan fiction.” Today, we find hundreds of novels, short stories, TV shows, and movies that give a different perspective on some of our most famous works; for example, the Wicked Witch of the West is secretly misunderstood—and also very musically talented—Elizabeth Bennett becomes the next new zombie slayer, Joanna replaces Katniss as the leader of the revolution against the Capitol, and, finally, the untold story of what happens to Gulliver after he returns becomes a fight for hope and freedom.

Lilliput contains many lessons within its pages—the importance of hope and the preciousness of a single moment to name a few—but perhaps its biggest takeaway is that imagination is limitless. Not only does Lily, the main character, think of brilliant ways to return to her home, but Sam Gayton, the author himself, also employs Lilly’s imaginative mindset in deciding to create a sequel to the beloved classic, Gulliver’s Travels.


Imagination is precious at all ages, but it is particularly important during one’s adolescence. Lilliput provides an avenue to discuss Gulliver’s Travels and the events that take place after its conclusion, but it also serves as a platform to discuss the untold stories behind novels that students already love. After discussing Gulliver’s Travels and reading Lilliput with your class, ask your students how Lilliput has changed their perspective on Gulliver’s Travels, if at all. Then, spark another conversation about the student’s favorite books; have they ever wondered if there was a different side to those stories? After discussing the possibilities for a few moments, give your students the freedom to write their own versions of those stories. They will practice their writing skills, but more importantly, they will be challenged creatively. 

Click here for the full summary of Lilliput.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Picnic with Don Tate


My aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, is a children’s book author. While visiting her a few years ago in North Carolina, I shared one of my book ideas with her. The story, I told her, would be about a teenage slave, who escaped an abusive master by using some awesome acquired super power. I didn’t know what that super power would be; maybe some recessed Kryptonian-like gene would come forth at just the right moment to help save the day. A teenage slave with cool gadgets to defeat his villains.

My aunt listened quietly as I told her my idea. She looked down and then away from me. I recognized that disapproving gesture. Something was going very wrong. She was annoyed.

“African-Americans were not slaves,” she interrupted, “we were enslaved.”

Her response made my face burn. Not because she was criticizing my story, but because she was correcting me on the use of a word. We were talking semantics, I thought. Political correctness? Slave vs. enslaved? Really? What difference does it make? Now I was annoyed.

My aunt explained her position, stating that our African-American ancestors were human beings—free human beings, born with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just the same as white people or anyone else. She spoke about how Africans had been kidnapped from their native homeland, torn away from their families and friends, stripped of their language, their religion. “The word ‘slave’ denies our forefathers of their humanity,” she explained. “They were human beings who were enslaved.”


I was dumbfounded. I’d never really thought about the word “slave” so profoundly. I wasn’t trying to deny anyone’s humanity—heck, the word “slave” was used in all the history books that I grew up with as a child. I was simply using the word I’d been taught to use my entire life. The use of the word did not bother me at that time.

The conversation made me worry about another book, though, a book that I’d already written and was being shopped around to publishers by my agent. The title of that book: Slave Poet: The Story of George Moses Horton. It was the story of the first African-American to get published in the South. 


Not long after the conversation with my aunt, Slave Poet sold to Kathy Landwher at Peachtree Publishers. 

I was elated! It had taken several years, but my Slave Poet was really going to be a book! And I loved its title, which seemed perfect to me. Slave Poet was simple, easy to remember, it had a nice rhythm. Enslaved Poet, with its extra syllables, sounded clunky to me, like someone talking with their mouth full of food. I had to keep my beloved title.

Just to be sure, however, I emailed Kelly Starling Lyons and Tameka Fryer Brown, two respected author friends of mine who run the Brown Bookshelf website along with me. Kelly had written the book Hope’s Gift, a story about a family during slavery, which I had illustrated. I didn’t tell them about what my aunt had said, but Kelly and Tameka responded to the word “slave” in much the same as my aunt had. “It’s about humanity and dignity,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s words resonated with me. It was time to change the name of my book.

I’d been a children’s book illustrator for more than 25 years before I discovered how much I enjoyed telling stories with words. If there’s one thing I learned in my journey to becoming a writer, it’s the power of words. They can uplift or edify, or they can cut someone like a sword. As a storyteller of history for children, I needed to choose my words more wisely. Moving forward, I decided that when writing about slavery, I would honor my ancestors—my people—by describing their circumstances more accurately. My aunt was right. They were not slaves; they were human beings who were enslaved.


Realization aside, there was still the issue of writing a new title. I tried a few things out, but nothing seemed to work. I solved my problem by doing more research. While flipping through one of my source books, I discovered a moment in 1883 in which, after Horton had been freed and was living as a writer in Philadelphia, a Chapel Hill professor visited him. This was someone who knew and respected Horton during the years he was enslaved. The professor addressed him as “Poet,” to which Horton responded: “That pleases me greatly . . . you are using my proper title.” 


That was it!

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton would be the perfect title for a book about George Moses Horton—one that would please Horton himself, one that would honor him as the talented wordsmith that he was, and one that would not define his humanity as a piece of property.



As for my enslaved super hero idea…I let that one die along with the use of the word “slave” when describing my ancestors.


This guest post was written by Don Tate, author and illustrator of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New Book Wednesday: Poet written and illustrated by Don Tate

George Moses Horton loves words more than anything else. But despite this dedication to the beauty of language, George faces many challenges in learning how to read and write the words he is so curious about.

George is a slave growing up in Chatham County, North Carolina. Although reading is not common among slaves, George listens to his master’s children as they learn their ABCs, he studies a hymnal given to him by his mother, and he absorbs words spoken in sermons and read from the Bible. George learns more and more each day and he quickly develops a love for poetry. Eventually, after much hard work and dedication, George becomes the first African-American man to publish a book in the South.

At its heart, Poet is an inspirational story. The book highlights many historical events and shows how each event affects George’s life. His perseverance is timeless and in reading this book, your eyes will be opened to a lesser-known, yet incredible, piece of history. George is able to express the injustices and heartbreaks he has endured through his poetry, and it eventually becomes his only solace. This story is a remarkable one, and it eases young readers into understanding slavery, how it worked, and how many people suffered greatly from it. George’s story is unique, and it seems only fitting that it be expressed—finally—in the words he valued above all else. 


Click here for the full summary of Poet and here for the full teacher’s guide. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Teacher Tuesday with Random Body Parts

Grades 2-5

This unique book combines a detailed anatomy lesson with a Shakespearian sonnet. Although these two topics are not ordinarily paired, Random Body Parts provides humorous riddles for students to discover interesting details about how their bodies function. This book is perfect for reading out loud with a health or science class, and having the students laugh along as they try to decipher which body part each riddle references. Try this activity with your class as you read Random Body Parts aloud.
  •  Divide your class into groups of five.
  • Cut out shapes or print pictures of the following body parts. Make sure each group of five has one copy of each paper body part. Body parts: ear, eye, bone, spleen, kidney, nose, pancreas, liver, eyelid, brain, lung, heart, tongue, teeth, stomach, skin, blood, red blood cells, white blood cells, and muscles. Be sure to label each body part.
  • As you read the story aloud, have the group quietly decide which body part the poem references before you get to the end of the particular riddle.
  • The first group to hold up the correct body part gets 3 points. Each group that holds up the correct body part thereafter receives one point.
  • Keep score on a white board or chalk board.
  • After the story is completed, the team with the most points wins!


Click here for the full summary of Random Body Parts and here for the full teacher’s guide. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New Book Wednesday: Watch Out for Flying Kids! written by Cynthia Levinson

The term “social justice” calls to mind many complex topics: wealth, privilege, prejudice, opportunities, discrimination, and more. However, one item that is not often associated with discussions of social justice makes its appearance in Watch Out for Flying Kids!: the circus.  In this book, circus is used as a platform for youth to look past their differences and stand together despite conflict. In both St. Louis, Missouri and Israel, two youth circus groups, Circus Harmony and Circus Galilee, are able to use these unique organizations to hoist them beyond their surroundings and into a world of multicultural harmony.

Watch Out for Flying Kids! reaches new heights in many ways, but one thing that makes this book stand out is that the author, Cynthia Levinson, follows the nine characters of her book for five years as they grow up. The kids Levinson chronicles experience various problems, ranging from athletic injuries to joining the Israel Defense Force, and Levinson is with them every step of the way. Levinson’s dedication clearly reflects the commitment of the characters themselves in achieving their goals and also joining a safe environment through their circus group.

Circuses Harmony and Galilee cross paths many times throughout Watch Out for Flying Kids, as each group makes multiple trips to visit the other. These trips provide a crossroads for acrobatic and circus talent, but more importantly, they challenge the youth circus members to reflect upon their own privileges and to be thankful for them. The five years Levinson follows these children are formative in multiple ways, and by the time the book closes, the children who were once joining their youth circus have transformed into adults forging their own paths.

Watch Out for Flying Kids! provides unique insight into the complexity of acceptance. Although the book tackles heavy items, it does so with a hopeful tone. After all, the kids in this book are light enough to fly, and they would not be able to do so without the circus' ability to lift the heavy chains of inequality away. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Brunch with Sam Gayton



I have five copies of Gulliver’s Travels, the incredible fantasy tale that first got told back around the time when George Washington still had his baby teeth. Yesterday I bought my sixth. Here they all are on my desk, awaiting their newest member (they better not bully him when he arrives).


They’re all different. One of them is full of maps. Another was a bargain at £2. The third is full of tiny, Lilliputian-sized handwriting that I can barely read. The weirdest one has a picture of a little goblin dressed up as a snail at the end. I’m serious. We will never know why.


I didn’t buy a single one of them off the net. I liked to find them unexpectedly, you see. You’d be amazed at how many Gulliver’s there are, lurking down the back of charity shop bookcases, prices pencilled in the top corner of their title pages, sitting dusty and forgotten, waiting to be discovered.

It was sort of an obsession, for a while. Like baseball cards, or Pok√©mon. I just had to collect them. I didn’t know why.

I used to wonder, though. Was it because I wanted to give all these old classics a shelf to call home? Maybe I was just fascinated by the miniature. (I am, by the way - I have loads of small stuff, including a small guitar, a small book, two small people sitting on a small rock and a small creepy doll’s house up in the attic that could definitely feature in a Goosebumps book.)


But then I realised. Maybe it was something else. Maybe I was collecting all these copies so I could see the different ways Gulliver’s Travels had been reprinted, reinterpreted, retold, and redrawn (sometimes with weird snail-goblins).

It took me a while to figure it out, but that was it. That was the reason! I was collecting all these re-tellings because somewhere, deep down the secret paths of my brain where stories wander, I wanted to have a go at reinterpreting Gulliver’s Travels myself.

So I sat down at my desk, and started writing.

I didn’t really know what story I was telling, or how it would be different from Gulliver’s Travels. I didn’t know where it was set, or who it would be about. I was like Gulliver at that point: I travelled to a lot of strange places and got lost in each one.

Some writers hate that wandering feeling of not knowing where a story is going, but I like it. It’s exciting. And I find that if I keep wandering over the page for long enough, I discover something important.

That’s how I found my main character: Lily.



I’d been writing about Gulliver for a couple of months before she showed up.

Before that, I’d explored the idea of Gulliver deciding to journey to a whole bunch of strange new lands. But whatever I wrote, it didn’t seem to feel right. Gulliver didn’t seem like a very nice hero to me. He’s miserable and mean by the end of his travels, and he isn’t exactly Dad of the Year either. He leaves his family for decades, and by the time he comes back, he decides he hates them!

But who else could be my main character? I had no idea.



Then, one day, I found myself writing a chapter about Gulliver’s meeting with two thieves. Their names were Brindle and Petterkin.

This is roughly what I wrote: Brindle and Petterkin hide in a barn during a thunderstorm. They sell a stolen birdcage to a strange traveller called Gulliver, who pays them in tiny golden coins.

During the chapter, one of the thieves (Petterkin, I think) starts to wonder why Gulliver might need a birdcage. And then he notices that Gulliver’s pockets are sewn shut. And finally, at the end of the chapter, Petterkin swears he can hear the tiny, distant sound of someone crying.

Now, Brindle and Petterkin soon got cut out of my story. They weren’t very important characters. But they did help me discover something important – Gulliver wasn’t the hero of my tale, he was the villain! And he’d done something truly terrible. He’d kidnapped a Lilliputian child.

I remember finishing that chapter, and feeling very excited, even though I knew that nothing I had just written would go into my final book.

It didn’t matter. Suddenly, I knew what my twist on Gulliver’s Travels was about.

It was about a tiny girl, three inches tall.

Taken from Lilliput.

Trying to get back.



So that’s the story behind the story. That’s why I found myself buying up copies of Gulliver’s Travels, and how I first discovered my main character, Lily.

But if you’re still wondering why I’m so obsessed with tiny things in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. As Stephen Millhauser says: ‘Wherein lies the fascination of the miniature?’

If you’d like to read the short chapter featuring Brindle and Petterkin (and Lily) click here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Free Book Friday: Out of Bounds


Out of Bounds is a story about excellent sportsmanship and true athleticism. Nate must make a hard decision for his whole team when one of his opponents in injured on the field: should he score a goal or send the ball out of bounds to give the player a chance to recover? Enter to win this free book today for any young athlete in your life!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Teacher Tuesday with About Habitats: Polar Regions


Science Exploration: Grades 1-4

The About series has a new installment! About Habitats: Polar Regions details life in both the North and South Poles and shows how the two environments differ. Each page provides an interesting fact along with a beautiful illustration to provide context for the information.

After reading About Habitats: Polar Regions aloud with your class, try this activity for further study on Polar Regions and the animals and plants that live there.
  • List the animals covered in About Habitats: Polar Regions on the board after completing the book.
  • Split the class into groups of three and ask each group to choose one animal from the polar habitats.
  • Take a class trip to the library and have each group find a book about their chosen animal (If possible, ask the librarian to preselect books for the appropriate reading level).
  • Then, allow the groups to take turns reading the book aloud to one another. Two students will take notes while the remaining student reads. Notes should be about simple facts such as habitat, color, food it eats, size, activity level, time of day it’s awake, average litter size, etc.
  • Have each group create a poster about their animal using the simple facts that they gathered as well as images.
  • Allow each group to present and enjoy learning more in depth about the animals living in Polar Regions!
Click here for the full teacher’s guide for the About Habitats series.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Book Wednesday: Out of Bounds written by Fred Bowen


Eighth-grader Nate Osborne plays forward for his U-14 soccer team, the Strikers. Nate lives for the game of soccer, and his team is very competitive. Every game, every practice, and every P.E. running challenge provides Nate with a chance to practice his skills and become a better player. The Stikers’ game against their rival team, the Monarchs, is fast approaching, and Nate’s team wants to be ready.

When their first game against the Monarchs finally arrives, there is a moment during the game where Nate must choose between continuing to play—and possibly even scoring a goal— or pausing after a player from the Monarchs is injured. In an act of good sportsmanship, Nate sends the ball sailing out of bounds, much to the chagrin of his other teammates, particularly his friend Sergio. After the game, Nate struggles with his decision, but with the help of his Aunt Lizzie, an accomplished soccer player herself, Nate learns that playing fairly and to the best of one’s ability is what makes a true athlete.

What is special about this book is that the referenced examples of excellent sportsmanship actually happened. Aunt Lizzie emails a video to Nate showing how a professional soccer team allowed their opponent to score in order to make the game fair; this occurred in 2006 in the match between AFC Ajax and SC Cambuur. Fred Bowen, the author of this story, used other real-life examples as inspiration for the theme of the book. For example, during the 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds, the United States kept Mexico’s dreams of making it to the World Cup alive when the U.S. played their hardest against Panama, despite already qualifying for the World Cup themselves. The next day, Mexican newspapers ran headlines that thanked America for not giving up.

Teamwork and sportsmanship are two lessons that kids can take with them through the rest of their lives, and this book teaches that, above all else, it is best to win fairly rather than to take advantage of an unfortunate situation. Bowen gives excellent color to this lesson and truly exemplifies what it means to be an athlete.

Check out the rest of the Fred Bowen Sports Stories here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Brunch with Cynthia Levinson



Watch Out for Flying Kids is the book I couldn’t write. I was so convinced—and kept telling my editor, Kathy Landwehr—that I couldn’t write it, she sent me a copy of this:

Text© 2007 by Watty Piper. Illustrations© 2007 by Loren Long. (Philomel)
How did I know it was impossible to write this book? Here are a few of the reasons:
  •  There are nine—9!—main “characters,” all of them real-life teenagers.
  • They speak three different languages—English, Hebrew, and Arabic. And not all of them speak English, the only language I know.
  • They live in two different countries—Israel and America—in way different time zones.
  • They’re experts in subjects I knew nothing about—diabolo, firestaff, the difference between rockets and missiles, the tensions in Ferguson.
  • Almost all of the information in this nonfiction book had to come from personal interviews because there were practically no secondary sources.
  • Did I mention that they’re teenagers, with much better things to do than talk with a nosy writer?
So, how did I finally write Watch Out for Flying Kids?
  • I spent weeks in St.Louis and in Israel with families in the Jewish town of Karmiel and the Arab village, Deiral-Asad.
  • I conducted over 120 hours of interviews, figuring out ways to communicate through translators over Skype, Facebook, telephone, text messaging....
  • I spent three straight months working here:
(The clown nose on my monitor kept me company the whole time.)
Given these complications, why did I persist?
Each one of the nine—twoIsraeli Arabs and two Jews plus threewhite kids and two black kids in St. Louis—tell fascinating true stories about overcoming personal, physical, and political obstacles. Iking Bateman, for instance, faced off against gang members. ShaiBen Yosef faced being teased. In the process, all of them became professional-level performers with CircusHarmony (in action here) and the Galilee Circus (in action here).

Most of all, I kept on because of what these young people taught me:
  • “There’s a universal language between humans, and it’s not necessarily through speech.” (AlexGabliani)
  • “I learned how to rely on myself and believe in me.” (HalaAsadi)
  • “Arabs and Jewish people can be together. There’s nothing impossible.” (HlaAsadi)
  • “Circus is not about competition.” (Shai Ben Yosef)
  • “Without boxes, borders or boundaries, I built dreams.” (Iking Bateman) 


Click here for more information about circus and how Cynthia wrote this book.