Allison's Book Bag

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2011, there is….

Somedays I like to plop on a sofa and read formulaic books that are about as memorable as toilet paper and require as much thought as an amusement park. Other days I prefer to stretch out with multifaceted books into which their authors have obviously divulged their souls. While such complex fare requires me to slow down the way one does for a yellow light and to put forth the effort one might for a first date, they also linger with me and ultimately alter my perspective on life. When in the mood for THAT type of book, pick up Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.

The Logan children (Stacey, Cassie, Christopher John, and Little Man) and T.J. are friends. Yet if one’s main buddy is an individual like T.J., one might think twice about whether to even have friends. T. J. knows all the town gossip and teases the Logan children with his knowledge of it, until they find themselves eager to hear even the most horrific tale. At times, it seems that his only reason for being their friend is that their mother is a teacher and he seeks to pry test answers from them. In contrast, Jeremy risks his family’s wrath to hang out with the Logans. He invites them to visit when family is away. At Christmas, instead of tricking Stacey out of a much-needed new winter coat the way T.J. did, Jeremy gives a hand-made recorder to Stacy. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about friendship.

Cassie and Lillian Jean have never been friends. They do not walk together, talk with one another, or attend the same school. They probably could have neatly avoided each other except for that dastardly visit to the dinky town of Strawberry. There, Cassie accidentally banged into Lillian Jean, who demanded Cassie to kneel and apologize. Cassie submitted to Lillian Jean under duress of adult pressure, but revenge would be hers in time. In the same way, every morning the Logans had to jump out of the way of a school bus to avoid being run down, but revenge would be theirs in time. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about bullies.

The Logan children dress up and walk an hour to school by direct order of their parents. They help maintain the family farm by daily doing chores. They even retire to bed when instructed. Despite moments of disobedience, they are respectful and good children. Their parents both work, so that the Logans might keep their home and land. The mother makes rain gear out of calf skins. She also defends her children when they protest against prejudice at school. The father, partly out of fear for their safety, forbids the children to shop at the Wallace store. They are caring parents. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about family.

By now, it should be clear Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is not your average children’s book. Yet the book is about even more than relationships. It is also about social injustice. Jeremy risks punishment when he walks with the Logans, because his family is white and the Logans are black. Lillian Jean demands Cassie to kneel, because she feels in being white she is superior to Cassie who is black. The land is important to the Logans, because many blacks do not have land and so have to work as sharecroppers to whites. Some of T. J’s. tales involve beatings and burnings of blacks. Ultimately, to be black meant to fear that those tales could become about oneself.

Unlike most books about social injustice, which tend to read like broccoli that has been smothered with peanut butter, characters and settings have not been sacrificed for the sake of the message. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is far more than a tract. Underneath its layers, you will not only find the story of an African-American family in Mississippi during the Great Depression, but also universal values of family, friendship, loyalty, integrity, independence, and choice. As such, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is an important and unforgettable book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2010, there is….

Titles intrigue me. Consider for example: The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly. Immediately, the title prompts all kinds of questions. For example, how can a cat teach a seagull to fly? I’d like to know, wouldn’t you? Or when is the last time I have read a book about a seagull? Books abound about dogs and cats, to a lesser extent about mice and rats, but not so much about birds. Finally, when is the last time I have read a book that isn’t about a lost or stranded animal seeking its owner? The title alone made me read this book.

As for the book, sigh, it reads like a first novel. Some parts worked well; others not so well. The main flaws were the sentimental, sometimes preachy tone, along with an overly large cast of minor characters. There are skinny Secretario, the Colonel, smart Einstein, two more unnamed  alley cats…. and these are just the cats. There’s also a chimp, a gang of rats, and three humans. In a book of just over 100 pages, that’s far too many characters to keep track of. Fortunately, the two main characters, Zobra the cat and Lucky the seagull, are sympathetic characters whom I care enough about to put up with the overwhelming cast ensemble. In addition, the tale engages. How can it not? After all, it’s about the unlikely pairing of a cat and a seagull. As a bonus, there is also a spattering of humor throughout–especially in the second half.

An adult seagull (Larus michahellis)

Image via Wikipedia

Children’s books, especially older ones, often contain morals. Yet the less explicit the author is about the message, the more palatable it is. Unfortunately, some pages of this book read like an educational video–or, worse, a tract. For example, Sepulved teaches that “oil glues to the wings of a bird” thereby immobilizing and eventually killing them.

Sepulved also preaches, through the cats, that “it’s with the best intentions that humans cause the greatest damage”. To illustrate, the cats refer to human Harry who knows his chimp is fond of beer. Every time the chimp is thirsty, Harry hands him a beer. Now the chimp is an alcoholic. As for the seagulls, they’re dying because of all the pollution humans put into their oceans.

In a way, the message is effective: I must have learned it, because I am paraphrasing it back to you. Yet truly, how many of us remember school videos for any other reason that they represented escape from schoolwork? As for tracts, well, if we even bother to read them, we all know where we toss them in the end. :-(

Yet there is still that title to contend with: How can a cat teach a seagull to fly? For that matter, how do a cat and a seagull even meet? Well, once upon a time, a cat came across a dying seagull who made him promise to watch over her egg, and to not EAT it, and when the time is right to teach her baby to fly…. For the rest of the story, check out The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught her to Fly.

Not every page of this book held my attention, but I still recommend the book. Luis Sepulved’s passion for the care of nature sparkles on every page, which is something I commend. One day I hope to integrate such passion for nature into my stories. Moreover, this is a short and sweet tale about honor. Zobra fights alley cats and rats and eventually even breaks a cat taboo–all in an attempt to honor his vow to a dying seagull. I like both Zobra and Lucky, the latter who initially sees herself as a cat. If you can ignore the few flaws of the book, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught her to Fly is worth the read.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate it?

This month, my posts have focused on writing projects. That’s because, for two weeks in July, I took on the new venture of teaching summer clubs. I posted reviews of four guides. I also posted twice about Writers to the Rescue, which was for grade-four students, and that club’s various special guests.

Now I’d like to post about my other club, Crafty Writers, which was for grade-two students. Early in July, I shared scans of an About Me poster, nature entry, and a hand-bound journal. These samples all represented my own creative projects over the years. Students in Crafty Writers replicated these projects, along with many others related to stationary, humor, nature, and pop-up books.

For stationary, students created letterheads, greeting cards, and bookmarks. The letterheads were created with a watercolor background and marker-based text design. So were the bookmarks. As for the greeting cards, these took the most time, due to being the most complicated. On the front is a greeting, inside is a maze on one side and a message on the other side, and finally on the back is a dot-to-dot image. Two samples are below. They’re opened up, so you can see all four sides.

GreetingCard_Lea GreetingCard_Noel

On that day, we also experimented with various art mediums and created what I call a “feeling” story. Basically, colors and sizes are used to convey the emotion of the story. One sample is below.


For nature, our group took an outdoor walk. After an hour of trekking around in the grass and sun, we returned inside to create. I read a book about analogies and then students wrote their own. I read a book about haiku and then students wrote their own. We also talked about synonyms and antonyms. As you can see, I connected nature to literary language! A few samples are below.





All of the above projects I already had experience teaching from previous clubs. Showing students how to create pop-ups was new to me. I drew heavily on examples from pop-up guru, Paul Johnson. We created a pocketbook listing our Likes and Dislikes. We created a pop-up monster story. Finally, we created a pop-up castle and wrote a fairy tale on it. A few samples are below, all of which are in the draft stage.





As I mentioned at the start, my students replicated some favorite projects of mine, including an About Me Poster and a hand-bound book. For the first, students use magazines instead of actual photos. For the latter, students created an autograph book with yarn instead of a hand-bound journal. Photos are below.

My being hired to teach two writing clubs this summer prompted me to focus my posts this month on writing projects. I hope you check out my recommended guides, as well as enjoy the reports about clubs and samples of our work. With another school year just around the corner, I’ll return in a week with my regular schedule. :-)

Love animals? Love to write? Then this is the club for you! Some animals need to be rescued. We’ll talk about why, look at lots of pictures, create ads and posters, and write adventure stories. Other animals rescue us. Learn about how animals are used to find people, save them from danger, alert them in medical emergencies, and all kinds of other animal heroics. If we’re lucky, we may even have some special human and furry guests..

The above blurb was the description used to advertise one of the writing clubs I taught this summer through Community Learning Centers. In “Writers to the Rescue,” students spent the first day learning about general pet care, the next two days learning how companion animals need rescue, and the last two days learning how animals rescue people.

As part of teaching about how animals rescue people, I distributed information about working dogs and cats. For working dogs, we talked about nine kinds: acting, assistance, herding, drug, hunting, landmine, rescue, sled, and termite. For working cats, we talked about four kinds: military, rodent, show, and therapy. We also talked about skills needed for these jobs and then applied this information to write job application letters and to write advertisements of services available.

Mid-week, I invited a guest speaker from Second Chance Pups. Melissa, Adoption Coordinator for Second Chance Pups, shared how the organization receives dogs from local area shelters and rescues. Then the organization matches the dogs to carefully selected volunteer inmate/handlers from the state penitentiary. Dogs live at the penitentiary while handlers provide nine-weeks of intense training and love. To date, Second Chance Pups has adopted out over 350 dogs and 220 inmates have participated in the program.

Dogs are housebroken and leash-trained. Inmates also train dogs to the standards of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizenship Program. Dogs learn to sit, come, stay, down, heel. They respond to “No” and to “Leave it”.

Melissa brought along her dog, a Labrador/Great Pyrenees named Mya who is a certified therapy dog. My students got to meet Mya, as well as ask tons of questions. Mya patiently allowed students to pet her. While students browsed brochures about Second-Chance Pups, they even got to give Mya an obedience command and reward her with a treat. What follows are a few photos from this session.





It’s a great rehabilitative measure for the inmates, offering them an opportunity to give back to society in a positive manner … Otherwise overlooked dogs get a second change at a lifelong relationship with a loving family.–second Chance Pups brochure

Students created a variety of projects over the week, including memory books, promotions, letters, news reports, and stories. I didn’t keep any of their creations and so can’t show you examples. However, they did apply their knowledge from the week to making Thank You Cards to Second-Chance Pups. Below is a group photo of my students, along with scans of some of their cards. You can click on them to get a bigger-size image.


“Pop-ups are easy!” So my students tell me. Except when they attempt to make pop-ups, my students find that maybe they could use some help. For that reason, I like to have handy books by Paul Johnson on creative paper-making projects. Johnson’s books are also useful in adding variety to the literary crafts I can introduce to my students. Today I’m reviewing Making Books and Get Writing, each of which boast over twenty book-related ideas.

Johnson is both a book artist and a teacher. He combines this knowledge to create guides that will prove fun and entertaining at home, as well as educationally useful in the classroom. Each of Making Books and Get Writing include a chapter on how to make basic book formats such as a concertina or zigzag book and origami book. Both guides includes templates, as well as tips on how to plan a book’s structure, design a cover if desired, and teach young people about folding techniques and needed tools. Finally, Johnson also explains how such projects relate to school curriculum and to literacy. In doing so, he even provides a chart that lists the type of writing required by each project, as well as possible themes.

Now what about those projects? Despite its title, Making Books actually has a great variety of crafts. Besides books, one can find instructions for making cards, brochures, fliers, frames, and diaries. The difference between Johnson’s crafts and those you might find in a graphic design or desktop publishing book is that these are aimed at students. The crafts also all involve playing with paper. Take for example, the invitation card. You might envision a project that involves folding paper twice, writing the invitation on the outside, and providing details on the inside. Instead Johnson explains how to create a folded card with the added bonus of a flap. Another perk about Making Books is that Johnson includes information about age range, intended goal, preparation, and hours needed for each project.

As for Get Writing, it focuses exclusively on creative book projects. Books can take on different structures such as folded, pop-up, varied shapes, pocket or wallet size, and bound or sewn. All of these build on the basic formats such as the aforementioned zigzag book and origami books. Such projects have been related to the curriculum by adding themes such as families, animals, theater, or puzzle. One project that Get Writing inspired for me is the teaching of basic fiction elements of people and places by use shape books. By using Get Writing, one could also create a theater with cast, props, and backgrounds.

Each book contains step-by-step instructions accompanied by diagrams. Although at times I wished for another person to guide me through them, I did end up creating samples of all the basic books to show my students. I also successfully completed some of the more complicated crafts. Then I enjoyed composing stories to fill the pages of my handmade projects, as will no doubt young people—even the most reluctant. Thank you, Paul Johnson, for encouraging creative use of words and paper.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

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August: Advanced Reader Copies

My ARCS are piling up again! I'll be reviewing a few picture books and a few chapter books. I'll also feature reviews of books for our multicultural committee and our local pet club. Enjoy!

  • Anni Moon, The Experimental Artifact by Melanie Abed
  • Two Kids by Richard Levine
  • Mom Made Us Write This Over The Summer by Ali Meir



Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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