A Poetry Collection from Donald Graves

Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash   As I’ve continued to branch out my reading into the world of poetry, I picked up a book called Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves, an author who is best known for his work with improving writing instruction in schools. This collection of poems written about Graves’s childhood has a nice variety of topics, which will allow children and adults alike to find a few to which they can relate. The subjects in the poems range from struggling with math to interacting with family members to getting into some childhood mischief. One of my favorites is “The Firemen”, a poem in which Graves writes about how the desire of boys to pretend to be firefighters leads to the accidental starting of a wildfire that is barely  contained. I really enjoyed the imagery in this poem, like when the fire starts to get out of control:

“but a gust of wind

whips real red fire

past our buckets,

and the dry grass snaps

us awake, flowing now

like an angry yellow wave

toward an open field.”

I feel like this collection will especially speak to boys, as they will most easily be able to put themselves in the writers’ shoes and visualize the poems with themselves as the narrator. Poems that especially stand out in this regard involve struggling with handwriting, playing baseball in an open field, and talking about a crush on a classmate with a group of boys at recess, each boy declaring his love in turn.

Many of the poems in the collection bring happy and light visuals to mind, even though the reader knows from the start that life wasn’t necessarily easy for Donald and his family. In the poem “First Baseball Glove,” the reader finds out that the first mitt Graves ever owned was purchased with the family’s food money. Graves also has poems where he deals with bullying, struggles with learning to ride a bike, or loses the family dog in a car accident.

The poems in Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash are of the variety which will not elicit a “What did that mean?” response from children due to the down-to-earth nature of the topics and writing. If you are looking for a book of poetry to use with a child who has struggled with poems or is disinterested, this collection might be a good place to start.

Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes   Confession time: I am not much for picking up a book of poetry and simply reading it for enjoyment. Sure, I see the value in reading poetry not only for my own thinking and writing but also for finding resources for my students, but it rarely sits on my to-be-read pile. Although I have been reading more verse novels lately, I still see these to be much different from the collections of poetry which I tend to avoid. As a reader, I need to do a better job expanding my palate, and that begins with Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

I have read and enjoyed some of Hughes’s poetry before, but this volume helped me to better understand where he was coming from thanks to the introduction at the beginning which provided background on his life. In this section, there is useful information about where Hughes got his ideas from, and it also includes quotes from him; one that stuck out to me encompasses much of Hughes’s poetry: “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,… songs that had the pulse beat of the people who keep going.”

The idea of resilience mentioned in the quote is woven throughout many of the poems in this

Langston Hughes Picture

anthology, including “Mother to Son” and “Still Here.” Hughes manages to portray an optimism that not many African Americans of his time may have felt due to their treatment at the hands of whites in America. He repeatedly brings up the idea that people should never lose sight of their dreams, like in “Dream Variations” and “The Dream Keeper.” The poem “Hey! Hey!” continues this idea that people need to look on the bright side, but it is accompanied by “Hey!”, a poem in which the narrator has the blues.

A common device found in Hughes’s poems is repetition, like in “Aunt Sue’s Stories.” The repetition enhances the important ideas for readers while alluding to Hughes’s love for music. He also has many extended metaphors, like that of life as a rickety staircase in “Mother to Son,” or a personified piano in “The Weary Blues.”

Anyone looking for strong multicultural literature or powerful figurative language will find a lot to like about Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

Below, you can hear Langston Hughes reading “I, Too,” one of the poems included in this anthology.

Happy reading!

A Sports Novel in Verse: Beanball by Gene Fehler

Terrible things can happen in sports. Seasons, careers, and even lives can end in the blink of an eye.  Although Beanball covermany of us cheer on participants in both youth and adult sporting events, we all know that entertainment can turn to horror in a split second. This sort of unfortunate turn is what happens to a young baseball player in the verse-novel Beanball by Gene Fehler. At the center of the plot is Luke “Wizard” Wallace, a star player on his high school’s baseball team who is unable to remove himself from the path of an errant fastball. This awful occurrence and its effects on a community are the focus for the rest of the book.

The story is told from the perspectives of a large cast of characters, some who witness the event and others who know people who were involved. After reading the book, this seems like the only possible way for this story to be told as well as it is. Readers are able to get many different viewpoints on this  event and its aftermath. For example, the umpire from the game is the one who describes the terrible life-changing moment:

“I still see it all in slow motion,

hear the sounds:

The pitcher shouting

A crack, but not like when ball hits bat or helmet.

The sound of bone shattering.

Then silence. I know it lasts only for a split second,

but with Luke lying there, it seems more like an eternity

before screams come from everywhere.

Probably even from me,

but I don’t remember that.”

Others who offer their perspective include the devastated pitcher who threw the ball, Wallace’s girlfriend, teammates, teachers, and many others. Readers get real insight into the characters, especially when outward appearances are much different from the thoughts running through their heads.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed the sprinkling of fantastic figurative language that Fehler used, especially for the injured Wallace whose life has fallen apart and he is trying to make some sense of how to put together the pieces. While Wallace is in the hospital and he is not sure what will happen, many people come to visit him, though he does not generally show any appreciation for these visits; however, his feelings tell a different story:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped on a desert island.

Once in awhile a ship comes in.

But not to save me.

Not to take me away.

A visitor shows up and then leaves.

The ship sails into the sunset,

and I’m alone again.”

Even though this is a book with a central focus around a sport, I would recommend this novel to readers who may not necessarily like sports books. Anyone who enjoys realistic fiction and who wants to see how characters deal with the trials they are faced with should pick up this book. Due to some repeated use of minor curses by an aggressive coach, as well as the terrible event at the center of the plot, Beanball is probably most appropriate for middle-grade readers.

Check out Beanball by Gene Fehler today!

Places for Reading Part 4

For this series of posts on classroom libraries, I have already shared some great things that teachers are doing with classroom libraries in a variety of schools. In this final post, I will explain how I have organized my own library, something that I have wrestled with at the start of every year because I want my students to be able to get the most out of our classroom books.


Even though I have read about many teachers (and even shown some here) who organize their libraries by genre, the main section of my fiction library is in alphabetical order by author’s last name. This allows me to have a better idea of where books are that I am looking for and it also helps students get to know authors they like because all of these books are right next to each other so they can easily move from one book to the next, even when these are not necessarily the same genre. Within this structure, I do keep tabs on the genres of my novels by adding colored labels to the spines; these colors correspond to a key that is located over the check out list, so when a student is looking for a fantasy book, all he or she has to do is find a novel with a red sticker. By labeling this way, I can also put half-color labels for books that fit into multiple genres (like blue and yellow for a mystery set in the past) without having to remember which genre bin I put something in.

Shelves 3

The library dragon makes an appearance.

The library dragon makes an appearance.

Shelves 2

I still make plenty of use of bins, however. Poetry, picture books, and graphic novels all have their own bins throughout the room. Some authors who have many different books receive bins, too. Authors like Gary Paulsen, Gordon Korman, and Rick Riordan even have two bins apiece!

Bins Poetry and Traditional Literature




Nonfiction 2

Nonfiction 1













My nonfiction is organized into book bins as well. I love that my students can see the covers of these books and be enticed into reading some nonfiction that they might have otherwise ignored. It has been my goal in the past year to increase this section of my library because it truly is lacking compared to the vast quantities of fiction available. Not only have I been on the look out for these books, but have also talked-up more of these books on a frequent basis.









After building five additional shelving units this summer, I finally have extra shelf space which has been awesome. I have used these shelves to display Rebecca Caudill nominees, mock Newbery books, and seasonal books (like the spooky ones in October). Then I turned to my classroom librarians because one of the shelves was pretty boring and they came up with having a Classroom Favorites section where students could put books that they really enjoyed.

Classroom Favorites

This year I changed the way that I check books out to students because we were losing track of too many books that other students wanted to read but couldn’t because the texts had mysteriously disappeared. Now each student in my room (and some students from other rooms) has his or her own 4 x 6 notecard that has been hole-punched and put on a ring on top of one of the shelves. This has helped with tracking down “lost” books and also allows other readers to easily see what their peers have been enjoying.

I hope this series of posts has given at least one teacher a push into establishing a classroom library or adding to the one in current existence. Want more information about classroom libraries? Give this site this a try! Happy reading!

Places for Reading Part 3

Before including descriptions from the third of four posts on the topic of classroom libraries, I must answer I question that has been directed at mebook tops and teachers like me who insist students need a classroom library: Why spend money on this when there is a perfectly good library available to the students in your building? That’s a fair question, and the following are three of the reasons why I see it as something worth my time and money.

1) My librarian is in charge of purchasing materials for grades K-6, so she can’t focus on quality examples of texts for only my 6th graders. I can do a better job of focusing in on the books they enjoy and the materials that I think I can book-talk into their hands. There are many books I have purchased that kids have devoured, loved, and pushed on their friends that our library does not even own.  My students still get practice going to the library and looking for books there every week so they don’t end up missing out on that authentic experience which they will take part in outside of school.

2) I have quick access to books when necessary. Is a student looking for an example of science fiction to try? We can walk over to the shelves and pull a few out to look through. Did I want a good nonfiction book for illustrating how to use text structure? I know of a dozen that I can grab and show on the ELMO. Do kids need good examples of hooks to use as models for a piece of their writing? There are hundreds to peruse, and these are only a few feet away. If I own the books, I know what I have immediately available for my use to help support student readers.

3) It’s very easy to demonstrate my love of reading. When I spend time reading books from my library, I can put them up on my shelves or pass them to students without worrying about due dates or having them lost from the school library and incurring fines. Books can be handed off to readers and put back on shelves in a few minutes time. Plus, my ownership of books helps to show students that owning books is something people do when they find books they enjoy.

If anyone has other reasons they think owning a classroom library is important, feel free to leave them in the comments section at the bottom of this post. And now to continue with three more classroom libraries:

Liz is a 5th grade teacher who provided the following photos and description of her recently revamped library:

Featured books

My decision to organize the books in my library into genres this year was based on the idea of embedding reading into my writing curriculum. My genres are color-coded in correlation with our 30 Book Club expectations as as the monthly theme utilizing our Six Traits Writing modes. I have already found that 

Liz's Library 1

students can find books more easily since books are organized the way students look for them.

     We are also able to find holes in our collection this way. After only two weeks of school, I have already ordered more books for our horror section. The sports, humor, and mystery sections seem pretty sufficient for my readers so they are not a priority at this time. I am a fan of anything that makes shelving easier and this project definitely does. My students are learning to define genre during their search for good-fit books, as well as by pointing out when someone put a book away incorrectly. I now have no doubt that by the end of the year my students will easily understand genre, a state-tested concept for elementary language arts. 

The pictures below are from a husband and wife team of teachers who constantly share their love of reading with their students. The summary below is written by Dr. Biggs-Tucker who shares her thoughts about the books in her library:

My classroom library is the “heart and soul” of our classroom and takes up most of the perimeter of the classroom space with the rest of the roomMr. Biggs-Tucker's Room being filled with student desks!?!?! It houses about 1000 books that range from middle grade readers to young adult novels. I work hard to have many current titles that students may not have read already and pride myself on having things on my shelf that even the library doesn’t carry yet! :)) The library is organized alphabetically by author so that students from any of the other fifth grade classrooms can easily come in and find a title that they might be looking for during their reading time to check out to read… My motto is “a book for every child and a child for every book” and it might even be on one of my bookshelves!

photo (11)

photo (8)









Part four coming soon! Happy reading!

Places for Reading Part 2

With the New Year here, many teachers are looking to create resolutions related to their teaching and personal lives. If I may make a suggestion, I think one of those resolutions should be to update and improve the classroom libraries which students have access to everyday. It is my belief that for children to see reading as important and worthwhile, all elementary school teachers, as well as all middle and high school Language Arts teachers, need to have vast, organized, and updated classroom libraries. Visitors should immediately get a sense that reading is important to all who ‘live’ in that classroom.

Today’s post helps to show how important books are in the lives of a few teachers and their lucky students. The following classroom libraries all have their own unique features that will provide new and veteran teachers alike plenty to think about for improving their classroom libraries or for establishing a classroom library in the New Year (it’s never too late!).  Thanks to everyone who opened their classrooms and contributed to my “Places for Reading” posts! Without further ado…

Amber (who writes about children’s books at Miss Reedy Reads) is a 4th grade teacher who this year has adjusted the types of books in her library and the way she organizes the books:

On the spine [of each book] is a label that says, “This book belongs to Miss Reedy”; below that is the genre. On the shelves or baskets are matching labels. In the “Pinterest” crates (I made on our week off from MLIT) I store my picture book read alouds. On the tall shelf are informational texts, Bluestem/Rebecca Caudill Nominees, books I check out from the public library, and special books, like the Harry Potter collection.

I have my kids write down the books they check out and write the date when they return them. I go through the list with the class periodically for inventory.  

                            Sidekicks is very popular. Also, BabymouseFrankie Pickle, and Super Amoeba






Lori  is a teacher who has many layers of organization to her library:

 My library consists of multiple levels of books. The picture books are organized by g

enre and topic (i.e. animal fiction, people fiction, biographies, poems, jokes and riddles, nonfiction animals, nonfiction science, etc. ). The chapter books are also in bins and they are organized by series if possible (i.e. Magic Tree HouseJunie B. JonesHorrible Harry). I have three small bins labeled Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 for students who are struggling readers to help them choose a just-right book at the start of the school year. 

Each student has a book box (a plastic bin with his or her name on it) in which to keep three books that are being read. I encourage them to have different genres in the bin. They may switch books out at any time. 

  My reading area used to consist of a couch and even some bean bag chairs (kids loved this!) but due to recent outbreaks of lice, we now just have a rug. The students do get comfy on the rug, but I sure miss the bean bag chairs.

Amy, a kindergarten teacher, provided the following picture of her classroom library. It looks like a great place for a young student to get a book and then read comfortably!

 Stay tuned for two additional posts in this series dedicated to classroom libraries.  If you have a photo or description of your own classroom library, please feel free to provide a link in the comments section below this post. I would love to see it!

Ghostly Reads for October

Crisp, colorful leaves. A chill in the air. The routines of school are established. Ah, it must be almost time for Halloween. In preparation, I always like to have some creepy books on hand to share with students. Now, I am not a fan of horror movies (there’s a lot of cringing), but I do love a good ghost story so I figured it would be the perfect time to share some of the titles and authors I have enjoyed in the past.

 Most recently, I finished the book The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki. This story follows a brother and sister, Neil and Bree, who move in with their aunts after their father moves out to the west coast to follow his acting dreams and their mother has a nervous breakdown. Neil enjoys watching a show about ghost investigators so he is immediately enthralled by the local legend of Graylock Hall, an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) hospital for people with mental disorders. He enlists his new friend Wesley and Wesley’s older brother, Eric, to explore the old building with him, but he is unable to escape without his older sister insist on coming along.

The foursome begins to explore the building while looking for the ghost of Nurse Janet, an employee who was suspected of drowning three children at the institution. Soon after beginning to explore the decrepit structure, weird things happen and Neil gets injured so the kids escape into the woods and are driven back to town by a kind local man, Andy.

It’s not long after that Bree and Neil begin to have terrifying dreams and experience strange events in their aunt’s house. Did something really follow them home from Graylock? And if so, what does it want?

I made the mistake of starting this book after 10:00 one night and had to keep reading until Chapter 8 just so I could go to sleep at a place that wasn’t going to leave me in a cold sweat that night. I enjoyed the imagery that Poblocki uses to create a consistently creepy world that I was (unfortunately) able to picture myself inside. Here’s an example from when the group first enters Graylock: “Shards of glass glimmered in the dim light at the group’s feet. A slimy green stripe of mildew and moss clung to the wall, dripping down from the makeshift entry. A shadowy horizontal line, about five feet high, stretched around the room, reminding Neil of a grimy bathtub ring.” Lines like these help to show students the importance of setting and they are great for mentoring to students how to write descriptively in their own papers. This is a book that I would recommend to middle grade students looking for a ghostly mystery and children who want a book to use as a model for some spooky writing of their own.

I picked up this book due to my enjoyment (read: fear) of Poblocki’s The Nightmarys when I read it last year. There were a few moments in this story where I actually felt myself getting goosebumps because of the creepy occurrences in the book. After I book-talked this novel at the start of the school year, both of my copies disappeared off the shelves and readers are waiting eagerly for a chance to read this book. My copy of The Stone Child, also by Poblocki, has not had an opportunity to gather dust either.

Another book that my students have enjoyed and spread throughout the classroom in the past is Bad Girls Don’t Die. This is another one of those books that I told myself I wouldn’t read after a certain time of the night because otherwise I knew this story of ghostly possession would haunt my dreams. See the video trailer here.

And who can forget two tellers of ghost stories, Mary Downing Hahn and Betty Ren Wright, who have extensive catalogs of books for children. See the book covers below for some of their books that I have enjoyed in the past.

Which ghost stories do you recommend to students who are looking for a good fright?