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We Can't Lose Those Middle and High School Readers!

Middle and high school teachers know what a fight it is to lure reluctant readers (who once loved reading as children) back into the fold. When I spoke at a school outside Atlanta last month, I met two wonderful teachers who are spreading book love in their school - with phenomenal results in their test scores and library circulation. I encouraged them to write about what they're doing to inspire other teachers to try their methods. Here's the link to the details of their highly successful program. Please pass it on to teacher friends. Thanks, Dennis and Justin, for sharing. And thanks Nerdy Book Club for hosting the article and serving as a wonderful resource for educators at all levels! (Teachers, you can find Nerdy Book Club on Facebook and Twitter.)

Muggles Can Make Magic Too! Turning Non-Readers into Readers and Writers


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Posted in 2013


Book List for Sandy Hook Project

I'm thrilled that so many of you asked for the completed list of books for the Sandy Hook project and are considering donating to your community or school libraries, too. Just FYI, I found it's best to give the money and the list to the library and let them order, as it speeds up the process when they get "shelf-ready" books from their own sources. They were happy to use my list; in fact, our librarian said it was a "great list" of books that would circulate well - hooray! The cost is about $340, so maybe you could get a few other friends to join with you (or suggest it as a project for your book club or faculty or church or college group or civic organization.) Thanks so much to my mom, Martha Brigman, who wanted to join with me and helped out with a portion of the cost. Thanks also to my teacher and librarian friends who offered advice and book suggestions. I included the characteristics of the victims shared by parents, relatives, and neighbors that led me to choose each book, but please contact me if you have questions. Again, I don't presume to know them, but I took great care in choosing books I thought they might like from what little I know about them.


Books to Be Donated in Honor of Sandy Hook Victims 

For Charlotte BaconMy Heart is Like a Zoo, by Michael Hall

Never met an animal she didn't love, wanted to be a veterinarian; loved dresses and wearing pink; was learning Tae Kwon Do with father and brother

For Daniel BardenDrum City, by Thea Guidone

Played drums in band with brother and sister (dad – musician); swam and played soccer; loved foosball and making s’mores; dreamed of being a firefighter; would sit with kids who were alone in school

For Olivia EngelAngelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holibird (25th Anniv. Ed.)

Loved to dance, twirled in her pink tutu; loved to sing and do theater; was to be angel in church Christmas play; played soccer and swam; liked to draw and paint; favorite toy was stuffed lamb 

For Josephine GayThe Best Bike Ride Ever, by James Proimos

Loved riding her bike in the street; set up lemonade stand in summer; favorite color-purple; nicknamed “Boo” for resemblance to Monsters Inc. character

For Ana Marquez-GreeneJazz Baby, by Lisa Wheeler

Had gift for melody, pitch, and rhythm; from musical family (dad - jazz musician); loved to sing even before she could talk; “danced to all the music she heard … in air or in her head; loved God and reading the Bible

For Dylan HockleyFirst the Egg, Laura Vaccaro Seeger

When asked why he flapped his arms when excited, he answered, “Because I’m a beautiful butterfly.” Loved to cuddle, bounce on trampoline, watch movies, and look at the moon; was so proud when he read book each day

For Madeline F. HsuAnd Then It’s Spring, by Julie Fogliano

Loved bright flowery dresses; neighbor said eyes lit up when she got off bus and saw neighbor’s dog; upbeat and kind; shy, always had a smile

For Catherine V. HubbardThis Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers

Passion for animals; asked for pets every Christmas; had asked Santa for a pair of fish; was taking horseback riding lessons; pink was favorite color

For Chase Kowalski Pete the Cat, Play Ball! By James Dean

Budding athlete who recently completed and won his first mini-triathlon; ran in community races, played baseball and loved riding his bike; Cub Scout

For Jesse LewisRose’s Foal, by Scarlett Lewis (written by Jesse’s mother and read to him often; the last sentence is “Love never ends.”)

Was learning to ride horseback and loved family’s horses, dogs, and chickens; liked to ask “What if . . . and spin hypothetical tales; wrote “I love you,” on the car window in the frost the day before he was killed.

For James MattioliPress Here, by Herve Tullet

Loved math and came up with insights beyond his years to explain relationship between numbers; sang at the top of his lungs; loved swimming, diving, biking, and wore shorts and t-shirts no matter the weather; always said, “I need to go outside, Mom. I need fresh air.”

For Grace McDonnellThe Secret World of Walter Anderson, by Hester Bass

Wanted to live on the beach and be a painter; loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses and painted fish; danced, worked at gymnastics, and was a “fashionista” with a love of sparkles and a passion for cooking and cupcakes

For Emilie ParkerEach Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson

Always had something kind to say; carried around markers and pencils and would rush to draw a picture or make a card if someone was feeling sad or frustrated; gave hugs and kisses to younger siblings when they would fall

For Jack Pinto -  Sports Illustrated Kids 1st and 10: Top Ten Lists of Everything in Football 101, by Sports Illustrated

Huge NY Giants fan; loved football, skiing, baseball, and wrestling; described as having a “steely determination;” loved reading and his school

For Noah PoznerDragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin

Loved tacos so much he wanted to be a taco factory manager; loved to read, build Legos and have pretend sword fights with twin sister Arielle; liked to figure things out mechanically; when his mom told him she loved him, he always said, not as much as I love you

For Caroline PrevidiHappy, by Miles Van Hout

Always wanted others to smile; sat with neighbor child on bus to cheer him up when he was scared; emptied piggy bank to give money to church for presents for less fortunate children; loved to draw and dance

For Jessica RekosHello, Hello, by Matthew Cordell

Loved everything about horses and wanted one of her own; watched horse movies, read horse books, drew horses and wrote stories about horses. “CEO of family” - looked up YouTube video to teach self to tie shoes; left love notes all over house for her family - one was found the day after they lost her.

For Avielle RichmanEvery Cowgirl Needs a Horse, by Rebecca Janni

Happiest when she was on a horse; giggled when she trotted in her pink cowboy boots; loved swimming, archery practice, kung fu- also music, the library, telling stories and participating in super-hero adventures

For Benjamin WheelerSubway, by Christophe Niemann

Loved taking 7 train to NYC; “more interested in subways than museums and zoos;” played piano, sang; loved lighthouses, swimming, soccer, big brother Nate, and the Beatles; blew kisses and said, Catch it and put it in your heart.”

For Allison N WyattSky Color, by Peter H. Reynolds

Wanted to be an artist; turned her room into a studio and covered the house with her drawings; wonderful sense of humor that left family crying with laugher; generous – offered snacks to stranger on airplane

For Rachel D’avinoGiraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae

Boyfriend was about to propose; passion was work with autistic children as behavioral therapist; loved karate, cooking, animals, and photography

For Dawn HochsprungOlivia and the Fairy Princesses, by Ian Falconer

Dressed as book fairy once; led conga line at sock hop; infectious smile, pride in her work, accessible and welcoming, knew names of all 600+ students

For Anne Marie MurphyBeautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg

Artistic, fun-loving painter; witty and hardworking; loved walking outdoors; a happy soul

For Lauren RousseauThe Very Busy Spider, by Eric Carle

Always busy, always working; boyfriend called her Busy Bee; would change clothes in car between jobs; always wanted to teach; ecstatic to land full-time sub job; her mom said it was best year of her life; so kind she wouldn’t honk horn at people - said it was mean; loved Broadway shows and her cat, Laila

For Mary SherlachThe Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn

Cared deeply about the children she counseled; looked forward to retirement in a year and time at lake cabin with husband; sat on porch in wicker loveseat

For Victoria SotoSylvie, by Jennifer Sattler

Loved the beach, flamingoes; was the organizer of Christmas for her family; her black lab, Roxie waited for her every day and is lost without her; loved the NY Yankees






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Posted in 2013


Twenty-Six Books




Eight weeks ago my first novel was published – a book about a troubled gunman opening fire in a first-grade classroom. A book based on a recurring nightmare I’d had during the many years I taught, one every teacher holds at bay during waking hours as she shoulders complete responsibility for the students she loves. And last Friday, I watched in horror as parts of that nightmare, eerily similar to the book I wrote, played out on national television. Many authors will tell you their characters “come to life” as they write. It’s true; I grew to love the 18 first graders I invented, with their distinct personalities, almost as much as the hundreds of kids I’ve taught over the years. Friday I relived the scenes “my children” saw and heard in their classroom, sobbing with the rest of the country as we watched, devastated at the staggering number of victims – far worse than any scenario I’d imagined. I could protect my fictional children; but no one, not even the heroic teachers who willingly sacrificed themselves, could save these beautiful babies from the brutal rain of bullets that ended their lives.

I’ve struggled as we all have, searching for a way to comprehend this tragedy. Writing has always been my solace in times of pain, but for days I’ve been unable to finish a sentence. As important as gun control, mental health, and school safety issues are to me, I’ve maintained my silence, for the most part, while following the heated debates on social and mass media. I’ve kept vigil in my living room, unable to turn away from the heartbreaking photos of sweet-faced children who seem so familiar to me. I had hoped my book, about a soldier with PTSD, would draw attention to the plight of those with mental illness, but I find myself  sorely challenged to feel sympathy for the troubled boy who robbed 26 families of happiness in a heinous act of violence.

I wanted to “do” something, and my feeling of connection to these children and teachers I never knew demanded my best effort. After much thought I decided what my small offering will be - to donate a book, a first grade book, to my public library, for each of the victims. Twenty-six books with each name written in one – so that they will live on in my community. I spent several days making a list of current books that teachers listed online as kids’ favorites. I read reviews and descriptions and then studied them at the bookstore to make sure the message of each was happy and hopeful.

And then a strange thing happened. As I listened to the stories about each individual, their unique personalities began to mesh perfectly with the books I’d found. When Noah Pozner’s family said he loved tacos so much that he wanted to work in a taco factory, I knew he’d love Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin. I had ordered Matthew Cordell‘s Hello, Hello just a week earlier as a gift, and when Jessica Rekos’ family described how much she wanted a horse, I got chills picturing one of the most memorable scenes - a joyous young girl riding away on a horse. Emilie Parker’s parents told of the way she had a kind word for everyone; I thought of the beautiful lessons of Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. Grace McDonnell wanted to live on the beach and be a painter. She loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses, and she painted fish – like Walter Anderson, whose life is chronicled in The Secret World of Walter Anderson by my friend Hester Bass.  

I can’t presume to know these children, but I’ll gather as much information as I can find to help me choose the books that will tenderly preserve their memories in my community. I’ll ask for help from my elementary teacher friends, too. They’ll know which books would be appropriate for a soccer player, a future firefighter, a New York Giants fan, a budding musician, and a lovely principal who dressed as a Book Fairy to encourage her students to read. I’m happy to share the list when it’s finished if others would like to place a book with a Sandy Hook angel’s name in a school or community library.

I will write each of these names in a book: Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N Wyatt, Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Russeau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto.

And as I take them to my library for Huntsville children to enjoy, I’ll be remembering the Newtown families who are left with only memories of the precious ones they’ve lost. In the days ahead I will continue to pray that our country will have the courage to take definitive action in both increasing mental health provisions and legislating gun control measures to help keep our children safe.

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Posted in December, 2012


Safety Tips for Classrooms and School Libraries

While I was researching THIS IS NOT A DRILL, I found that there were a number of safety tips no one had ever told me while I was in the classroom. Some of them were common sense, things most people would do if an intruder entered the buiding, but some of them were less obvious. I decided to put together a list for teachers and librarians, so I'm posting it here:

Safety in the Classroom or School Library

 1.Pay attention to student comments. Alert the principal and security officers of any rumors of weapons or impending fights.

 2.Leave doors open and windows uncovered so that hall passersby can observe a developing situation inside the room, especially if you teach students who may have anger issues or could be considered volatile.

 3.Close the door if there is gunfire or threat of an intruder. Lock or barricade it with table and chairs.

 4.Instruct students to remain in the restroom or other classroom if danger erupts – or if they’re in the hall to move quickly to the nearest classroom.

 5.Remain calm. Students take their cues from you. Your ability to hide fear can set the tone.

 6.If someone has a gun, inform him in a matter-or-fact tone that you are sending the other students to a nearby teacher’s room (or library, etc.) so that you can talk with him about the problem. If he agrees or doesn’t answer, have them leave their things and move out of the room quickly and silently. If he refuses, instruct students to be seated and quiet.

 7.Sit at your desk to show you’re calm - and to place distance between yourself and the armed person. Don’t move between him and the exit. Don’t try to stop a fleeing student. Alert the principal if he leaves room. 

 8.Tell the person you will not approach or confront him. Ask him politely to point the gun away from you while you talk. Use a quiet, calm voice and non-threatening actions. Don’t take anything he says personally; respond in a professional manner. Clear your mind of any assumptions about the person and treat him as you’d like to be treated if you became unstable

 9.If you or your students become hostages, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be empathetic. Say that you’ll help in any way you can. Just try to slow things down until professional help arrives. Statistically, most hostage situations are resolved without violence, so time is on your side.

10.If shooting erupts, drop to the floor and tell your students to do so also. When police officers arrive, listen for commands, obey instructions, and stay out of their way


(I hope you never need them, but it seemed like a good thing to think about - in the same way we plan for a fire or tornado at school, even though they are unlikely occurrences.) 



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Posted in November, 2012


A Great Week with My Teacher Tribe

NCTE/ALAN 2012 in Vegas, Baby!

I LOVE being an author, but I’ll ALWAYS have a teacher’s heart, so traveling to Vegas to do a presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English was a long anticipated event.  Any time I’m around teachers, I feel like I’m home, and this group proved to be my “tribe” in so many ways.


First, I’d only met my presentation group online, so getting to know them in person was AMAZING! I actually met our fearless leader, Kelle Moye, an amazing “ideas” person, organizer, and dedicated reading teacher of very lucky middle schoolers, in the elevator, then had breakfast next morning with the rest of my articulate and uber-competent group: Gordon Hultberg, Lynne Eichel, Kellee Moye, Jennifer Fountain, and Katherine Sokolowski.



I'm pretty sure there’s not a person on the planet who cares more about books, kids, and the perfect matching of the two than these folks. If you’re a teacher, parent, or reader, you'll learn something new every single day if you follow and


Our presentation, Igniting the Love of Reading in Your Struggling Readers, was held in a basement room at the end of a maze of stairs and hallways so complicated, we were sure NO ONE would find us. But when the doors opened and teachers started pouring in, we found ourselves with a full house – complete with extra chairs brought in and people sitting on the floor along every wall. 



It was such a great feeling to see so many eager faces and open minds - educators who wanted to know MORE about the creative ways these master teachers are enticing kids to love reading. 


Another highlight of the week was the Nerdy Book Club party, where I got to talk with so many teachers and authors, including Kellee’s blog partner - the effervescent Jen Vincent, the three Nerdy Book Club founders: Donalyn Miller - author of The Book Whisperer (every teacher needs this!), Colby Sharp - star of the so-much-fun video “I Love Books,” and Cindy Minnich - talented computer guru for the group, and with my Twitter buddy, "John360," who made a special trip back to the exhibit hall right before it closed so I could sign his book (sweet). It was a night of great food, company, and fun – made even better with my Alabama author buddy Irene Latham there.  I also loved chatting with authors Jenni Holm and Lindsey Leavitt, and great impromptu entertainment was provided by Jonathan Auxier, author of Peter Nimble, yo-yo master, and engaging storyteller.



NCTE was another reminder that I’m so fortunate to be a part of the wonderful Penguin team. It was also my first chance to meet the amazing staffers who support THIS IS NOT A DRILL with their tireless energy and infectious enthusiasm. The amazing Scottie Bowditch, Penguin School & Library Marketing Director, remembers everyone and knows everything about Penguin books, wonderful Laura Antonacci planned our fabulous Penguin dinner party and arranged my schedule for two booth signings, awesome Kathryn Bhirud helped me at my presentation with publicity material, adorable Bridget Ryan was a powerful Midge-force for book sales in our booth, and the ever-efficient Mary Raymond helped me figure out where I was supposed to be. Our dinner at Fixe at the Bellagio was delicious and memorable – and what amazing company! We also celebrated author Ruta Sepetys' birthday (below with Scottie.)



Kellee and Katherine and I chatted with super-smart Ruta and authors Paul Griffin and Joan Bauer (love her books!) and charming editor Kendra Levin. Paul is quite possibly the nicest guy in the business and most definitely the best listener. Authors seated at the other table were Jon Scieszka, Marie Lu, Kristin Cashore, Beth Revis, Kathleen Krull, and T.A. Barron, so I got to meet a lot of my colleagues for the first time – so exciting! 


Joan Kaywell was the very first person I met in Vegas (on the airport shuttle) and she and I kept crossing paths until it almost became funny. What a great conference buddy to have; she's a former president of ALAN and was this year's recipient of the prestigious Ted Hipple award for her many contributions to young adult literature. She is a dynomo, for sure.



One of the biggest thrills for me at the conference was sitting in on a Round Table discussion led by the amazing Liz Hester Schults featuring Matt de la Pena and his work. Such a rewarding experience to see my former students become terrific teachers! So proud of Liz! The circle of life!




I also loved finally meeting the very talented Todd Strasser, author of Give a Boy a Gun, who was kind enough to write a blurb for the cover of This is Not a Drill. Todd has written over 100 children's/YA books! He was so generous in his praise for my book, and I'm very grateful.



I did manage to escape the convention hall and go out on the strip for a bit on a beautiful afternoon.


 I saw Elvis standing next to  Elmo on the sidewalk, which seemed about right for Vegas - and where else would you find a Jelly Bean Statue of Liberty?



I had a great view of the strip and got to watch Vegas come alive as the sky darkened each night. 


My fun roommate Wendy Stephens (fabulous librarian and another former student – I’m so lucky) treated me to my first Cirque de Soliel, which was jaw-dropping. We found a great restaurant, Mon Ami Gabi, where we sat outside and watched the Bellagio fountains – most relaxing meal of the week.



On my last night, I went down to the casino to play a few hands of blackjack because I knew my brother-in-law Tommy would give me hell if I spent a week in Vegas without gambling at all. I took $100 and left with $150 . . . three hours later. Met really nice people and had fun, even though I’m not much of a gambler. I used my “big” winnings to get a neck and shoulder massage on my airport layover – money well spent.

We’re living in a time in our country’s history when teacher morale is plummeting. Superintendents without education backgrounds are replacing experienced classroom veterans with Teach for America workers, unions are constantly under attack, cost-of-living raises are not even discussed, and the workload grows heavier as classroom sizes increase and staff is cut to save money. But you’d never know it from the teachers I met at NCTE/ALAN. Their enthusiasm for books and their love for kids cannot be dampened by the burdens heaped on them by a tough economy.  Many of them paid their own expenses and all of them left their families right before Thanksgiving to learn, to listen, to share, to grow. My spirits were lifted by their energy and commitment and my heart was warmed by their friendship.

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Posted in November, 2012

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