J.D. and the Great Barber Battle: An Excellent Kids Book About Perseverance

J.D. and the Great Barber Battle, by J. Dillard (Copyright 2021)


J.D.’s mom gives him a terrible haircut before his first day of third grade. He gets teased by his friends and classmates for days. Then J.D. decides to do something about it. He realizes his artistic talents could also help him cut hair. He gives himself a sharp new haircut that makes him feel proud. Then he starts cutting the hair of his classmates. It doesn’t take long for J.D. to have a long list of kids who want him to cut their hair. Unfortunately, the man who owns the local barbershop doesn’t like that J.D. is stealing so many of his clients. He threatens to shut down J.D.’s in-home barbershop, but J.D. refuses to quit doing something he loves. J.D. and a friend think of a creative solution that helps the local barbershop get more business and allows J.D. to continue giving amazing haircuts to the kids in town. It’s a wonderful example of how creative thinking can benefit lots of people.

Teachable Moments

J.D. earns good money cutting hair. I love how the author writes the math equations that J.D. uses to calculate his income. However, J.D. gets the most joy from seeing how happy people are after he cuts their hair. J.D.’s first haircut is on his younger brother, Justin. When he finishes, J.D. thinks, “Making Justin happy with something I did filled me with a warm feeling. Like I’d just finished a plate of fried fish and French fries that my mom made every Saturday in the summer.”

I also love how J.D. thought of ways to fix his terrible haircut instead of just complaining about it. As he brainstorms solutions in the first few chapters, he realizes he’s always been good at drawing. He wonders if this talent will help him cut hair — and it does! J.D.’s self-talk throughout the book is great for your students to read. I also love how he hypes himself up when he gives his first few haircuts.

Finally, I hope your students see how important it is to encourage others. J.D. appreciates the support from his family throughout the book. It means the world to him as he starts cutting hair and when he is in the competition with the local barber.


I’ve created writing prompts and quizzes to help you teach this awesome book. You can check them out in my TpT store.

I hope you will have a chance to read J.D. and the Great Barber Battle with your students. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you so much for all that you do for your students.

The Great Pet Heist and The Newspaper Club — Kids Books About Pets and Friendship

If you are around kids who enjoy reading books where animals do brave things and act like people — The Great Pet Heist is a wonderful book for them.

If you are around introverted kids who are struggling to adjust to living in a new place — The Newspaper Club has characters who they should be able to relate to.

If you are around kids who just want to read fun books — I recommend both! Keep reading for more details about these books that are perfect for grades 3-5.

The Great Pet Heist The Newspaper Club

The Great Pet Heist, by Emily Ecton (copyright 2020)

Brief Summary

This story is about five pets who worry their owner will never return after she suffers a serious injury. A dog, cat, bird, and two mice team up to think of ways that they can keep living in an apartment without a human to take care of them.

They realize a neighbor has lots of coins. If the animals can get those coins out of this evil man’s apartment, they can have enough money to take care of themselves. They spend lots of time discussing detailed plans to get this money, some of which depend on a young girl who periodically stops by to take care of them. Their plans change drastically near the end when they realize this girl’s safety is more important than money.

Teachable Moments

I love the way each pet uses their unique talents to pull off the heist. It’s a cool way for kids to learn that working as a group can be a positive experience when everyone uses their own talents to achieve a goal.

I also like how the pets keep working toward their goal when their plans are not successful. There are several scenes where they spend a long time making detailed plans, but something goes wrong. They have to keep trying and revising their plan until it works. It’s a wonderful way for kids to learn why they should not give up.

Things to Keep an Eye On

The man with the bag of coins is NOT a nice guy, so it’s easy to cheer for the pets to be successful in their heist. However, one part of the book bothered me a bit. As the pets are gathering evidence to prove that this man isn’t nice, they see him not say anything to the doorman as he leaves the apartment building. This is one of several events that lead them to believe the man isn’t nice.

I’d make sure kids realize that seeing a person quietly walk past someone without greeting them is NOT a sign of that person being evil. There are several other scenes where the man’s actions show he’s not nice, like when he talks to the young girl in a super rude manner. However, I’d make sure kids understand that not saying “hello” to the doorman should not count as evidence that he’s a mean person.

Final Grade: A-

A review by School Library Journal on the back cover says, “A story sure to charm children who like to imagine what their beloved pets are up to when they are away.” This perfectly summarizes why The Great Pet Heist will be a hit with kids who love animals!


I’ve created 10 quizzes and 10 writing prompts to help you teach this book. They are available for $4.95 in my TpT store. These are great for quick comprehension checks and for helping your kids think about the events on a deeper level. Everything is in a Google Form too.

The Newspaper Club, by Beth Vrabel (copyright 2020)

Brief Summary

Nellie is a young girl who has to get used to some big changes in her life. Her parents used to work at a newspaper until they recently got laid off. Nellie, who loves journalism, misses visiting their newsroom and helping them with their stories. Additionally, her mom has decided to move them to a small town called Bear Creek. Nellie misses living in a big city, where there were parks, shops, and street vendors everywhere. Nellie has no idea how she’ll ever be happy in Bear Creek until she notices some suspicious activity at the park. Since the local newspaper won’t cover this story, Nellie puts her journalism skills to good use to uncover what is happening. She also makes friends with several kids who help her publish a newspaper that provides the locals with some much-needed news about Bear Creek.

Teachable Moments

As someone who graduated with a journalism degree, I loved reading about a young kid with a passion for writing. I feel like writing is a skill that kids don’t pursue often enough. Writing gets overlooked for sports, music, etc. Those are great, but I’m sure you have some amazing writers in your class too! Hopefully, reading Nellie’s story will help kids see that writing can be a terrific way to make friends, have a positive impact in the community, and build confidence.

As someone who is introverted, I also enjoyed reading a book where the main character describes her struggles to make friends. Nellie is in gifted classes at school, but when she’s around kids, she has a difficult time thinking about what to say. That’s a big reason why she’s never had friends her age — until moving to Bear Creek. It was heart-warming to see Nellie make friends through her newspaper work. It gave her something to work on with kids her age, which also helped her think of things to talk about. By the end of the book, Nellie has a solid group of friends and feels much better about living in Bear Creek.

I also loved that one of the main characters, Thom, has two moms. When Nellie meets Thom for the first time, his moms invite Nellie into their home for dinner. Eating a meal with Thom’s warm, welcoming parents is the first positive thing that happens to Nellie in Bear Creek.

Things to Keep an Eye On

There are a few characters who discuss having their parents die recently. If you have any kids who have lost a close relative, you may want to prep them about the topic being discussed in a bit of detail near the end of the book. The characters discuss how much they miss their parents and things they do to help them cope.

Final Grade: A+

As an introverted journalism major who likes to write, how could I not give this book the best grade possible!!??


I’ve also written questions and prompts for this book, which are available for $4.95 in my TpT store.

ALSO — There is a sequel to this! It is called The Cubs Get the Scoop.

Black Brother, Black Brother and The Disaster Days: Must-Reads for Kids and Adults

What are some things you do that are good for your mental health?

For me, reading books that are written for grades 3-8 is the perfect way to calm my brain amidst all the craziness going on right now. I love it when authors can write about complex topics in a way that kids can understand. What an amazing talent to have!

Jewell Parker Rhodes and Rebecca Behrens certainly have this talent. I just finished books by these authors and WOW. Just WOW. I could type about 2,000 words to describe each book, but I’ll do my best to tell you about them without taking up your whole day.

Black Brother Black Brother Disaster Days Books

Black Brother, Black Brother, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Brief Summary

Donte is a middle-school student at a private school in suburban Massachusetts. He is the only visibly black student who goes there. Donte’s mom is black and his dad is white. Donte’s brother, Trey, is light-skinned and is adored by everyone at their school. Students and staff often ask Donte, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”

In the first section (this book gets right into it) the school’s headmaster has Donte arrested for an incredibly minor incident. Donte is handcuffed and led into a police car during dismissal, which means the entire school sees it. He has to spend an evening in jail.

Donte thinks of ways to get back at a classmate named Alan, who makes lots of racist comments to Donte and never gets in trouble for doing so. Donte often gets in trouble for things Alan does, like the one that had Donte in the headmaster’s office at the beginning of the book.

Alan is the captain of the school’s fencing team, so Donte imagines how great it would feel to humiliate Alan by beating him at a fencing bout. Donte has never played a sport before, but he is determined to put in the work.

It is amazing to read about Donte’s transformation as he learns to fence. He loves pushing himself to get in shape. He appreciates having amazing observation skills that help him anticipate moves that his opponent will do before they do them. He enjoys being challenged by opponents who see him as an equal. He makes incredible friends, including a former Olympic fencer who coaches him. By the end of the book, he doesn’t even care about beating Alan. He has made people see him as a smart, hard-working, athletic young man. He has forced people to SEE HIM. The word “see” is important to Donte throughout the book.

Teachable Moments

This book has so many important things for kids to reflect on. In the second section, when Donte’s parents arrived at the police station to get him out of jail, notice how Donte’s dad is treated compared to his mom. Later, when Donte has to appear in front of a judge because of the arrest, notice how the judge’s demeanor changes when he sees Donte’s dad and brother. Even though the complaint against Donte is dropped, Donte still doesn’t feel good about his first experience in a courtroom. Finally, I hope your students see the confidence that Donte gains in himself as he learns how to fence. Hopefully, it will encourage your students to try new things so they can discover talents they didn’t know they had. It’s an amazing way to gain self-confidence.

Things to Keep an Eye On

You may want to tell your students that if they try something new, they may not experience the success Donte had. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try! Hopefully, your students notice how Donte felt after he lost his first bout — he felt great! He loved the challenge. The loss made him love fencing even more.

You may also want to make sure your students understand what’s happening during his court hearing because everything happens SO FAST. It is sad that a court hearing, which will have a major impact on Donte’s life, is an experience that happens in a matter of minutes. It’s also sad when the judge reads the complaint against Donte as if it’s 100% fact when it CLEARLY is not! That made me so angry.

Final Grade: A+

A must-read. Period.


Rhodes includes outstanding discussion topics at the end of the book, but if you need more, I’ve created resources that are available in my TpT store for $4.95. My 11 quizzes and 11 writing prompts are also available in a Google Form.

The Disaster Days, by Rebecca Behrens

Brief Summary

This book reminded me of Hatchet because it involves a young kid who is suddenly thrust into survival mode. Hannah, a 13-year-old girl, lives in a secluded area near Seattle. An earthquake that measures 9.0 on the Richter Scale hits when she is babysitting two kids. With no cell phone service, no electricity, and the threat of aftershocks that can happen at any moment, Hannah has to think quickly to keep everyone safe for several days. Since there are so few people who live in her area, and since transportation into the area isn’t possible, she has to do everything alone. Hannah works hard to keep the kids calm during some of the most stressful situations imaginable, like when a bear walks up to their tent at night. She also has to keep herself calm as she battles asthma attacks without her inhaler. By the end of the book, she has used every ounce of her strength and resourcefulness to lead them to a rescue boat that will get them help.

Teachable Moments

Behrens does a fantastic job of showing Hannah’s inner dialogue. There are several times when Hannah’s mind — understandably — starts imagining worst-case scenarios. “What if our parents were killed in the earthquake?” “What if there’s no way off the island?” She tells herself to “stop spiraling” and adjusts her thinking to things they can do, which is pretty remarkable for a 13-year-old in that situation.

Behrens also shows Hannah process the things she does wrong. At one point, Hannah thinks that she has been more dangerous to the kids than the earthquake has (insert broken-heart emoji here). Thankfully, she works on giving herself credit for the things she has done right, like getting the bear away from their tent in the middle of the night. Hopefully, your students will apply this same attitude when they are feeling critical of themselves. Sure, Hannah makes some mistakes, but she shouldn’t forget about ALL the brave things she does right in an impossible situation.

Things to Keep an Eye On

If any of your students have experienced an earthquake, this book may have some triggering scenes. If any of your students have had to scramble for basic necessities after a natural disaster, like a flood, tornado, hurricane, etc., you may also want to keep an eye on how they react to Hannah and the kids fighting for survival after the earthquake. It may be a good idea to give your students a heads up about some of the things they will read about in this book.

Final Grade: A+


I’ve created 11 quizzes and 11 writing prompts for this book. This resource is available in my TpT store for $4.95. Everything is available as a Google Form and PDF.

So much for keeping this brief! I hope you can read these books with your students or enjoy them on your own. Kids and adults can certainly benefit from reading books like these.

Great Books for Grades 3-6: Midnight at the Barclay Hotel and The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter

I just read two amazing new books that are perfect for kids in grades 3-6. Both involve ghosts and mysteries. They also have great characters who bravely help others and discover more about themselves in the process. The books are:

Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, by Fleur Bradley

The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, by Aaron Reynolds


Midnight at the Barclay Hotel

Brief Summary

Five guests are invited to spend a weekend at a historic hotel in Colorado, which is rumored to be haunted. Two of the guests have kids who get to come, much to the delight of a young girl who lives at the hotel with her family. The guests arrive expecting a relaxing weekend, but instead, they are thrust into a murder mystery involving the hotel’s owner. The kids work together to find several important clues that help the adults solve the mystery.

Teachable Moments — People are More Than a Label

One of the girls, Penny, is primarily known as a quiet, timid child who only enjoys reading. The text states, “Everyone saw her as ‘Bookworm Penny,’ but she wanted to be more.” She was determined to solve the mystery, even if it meant putting herself in dangerous situations. The other two kids gained tremendous respect for Penny’s detective skills. Penny proves to herself that she is more than a “bookworm.”

Things to Keep an Eye On — Several Plot Twists

Your students may need help keeping track of several big plot twists. Penny and her friends uncover lots of information that help them solve the mystery, but there were a few times when I had to flip back a few chapters to remind myself of some key details. The author does an outstanding job of tying up all the loose ends at the end, but some kids might need help remembering things that happened earlier in the book.

Final Grade: A-

This was a fun read and the characters are amazing! There were a few great one-liners where the kids gave funny perspectives about adults. When the boy was trying to persuade his mom to accept the invitation to the hotel, he repeatedly told her it had a hot tub. He thought, “Most adults are suckers for hot tubs. It’s like going swimming without making an effort.” As an adult who loves hot tubs, I CRACKED UP at this line!


I’ve created 11 quizzes and 11 writing prompts for this book, which is one for every five chapters.  The full resource, which includes each quiz and prompt in a Google Form, is available for $4.95 in my TpT store.

The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter

Brief Summary

Rex has always dreamed of owning a dog. He thinks he’s finally going to get one on his birthday, but instead, his parents give him a pet chicken. Rex is devastated. Then he gets cursed after losing a mysterious arcade game with the Grim Reaper. Because of this curse, Rex becomes the go-to guy for the ghosts of animals who have recently died at the zoo. Rex is overwhelmed at the thought of helping these animal-ghosts, then he slowly starts to piece together some clues about how they were killed. By the end of the story, Rex and these animals make a fantastic team that stops a person from harming animals. He never gets a dog, but he realizes his pet chicken is the best pet he could possibly ask for.

Teachable Moments — Sometimes, It’s Okay If You Don’t Get What You Want

At the beginning of the story, Rex makes it very clear that he wants a dog more than anything else in the world. By the end of the story, he barely thinks about it. He has so many memorable experiences with the ghost-animals. He learns that more than one thing in life can make him happy. His “ghost-pet” chicken, Drumstick, becomes his new official “sidekick” at the end of the story.

Things to Keep an Eye On — Rex’s Sarcasm

I love Rex’s honesty. He doesn’t hold back on expressing his thoughts throughout the book. However, there are a few times when the sarcasm might go over your students’ heads. It’s also important to teach your students when it’s appropriate to THINK something as opposed to SAYING it.

Final Grade: B+

The ghost-animals are a lot of fun! Rex can hear them speak because they are dead and he is the only person who can see them. He even brings them to school. I also enjoyed seeing how Rex matured during the story. By the end, he accepts responsibility for a poor grade on a report, telling his parents he could have done more research. He also tells his parents that he understands if they don’t get him a dog.


I’ve created 10 quizzes and 10 writing prompts for this book, which is one for every four chapters. The full resource, which includes each quiz and prompt in a Google Form, is available for $4.95 in my TpT store.

The Amelia Six — A Fun Mystery Book for Kids

I love books that show kids how to have an inner dialogue with themselves in stressful situations.

The Amelia Six, by Kristin L. Gray, does just that.

First, the basics — This book is a wonderful “Who-Did-It?” with lots of plot twists. It’s fantastic for kids in grades 3-6 who enjoy piecing clues together to figure out a mystery. The main character, Millie, wins a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the night in the house where Amelia Earhart grew up. Millie is expecting an evening where she gets to play fun games and learn about one of her heroes. Those plans go out the window when a famous pair of Earhart’s goggles are lost. The adults blame the kids. The kids blame the adults. Everything is wrapped up perfectly at the end.

The Amelia Six

The plot is fun and there are some SERIOUS cliffhangers at the end of most chapters, but I feel like kids who are shy and anxious in new situations could benefit by reading this book. Millie, who is 10 years old, doesn’t have many friends. She gets anxious around new people and those feelings come out in full force when she arrives at Earhart’s house and meets five other girls her age who are also spending the night. Part of her wants to turn around and go home, but she reminds herself that she was one of six girls chosen to spend the night here. I love the way she reminds herself that she deserves to be there.

Millie keeps a Rubik’s Cube with her at all times. She works on solving it when she starts feeling anxious. Moving her hands eases her nerves. If you have students who feel like Millie, it should help them think about things they can do to calm their nerves in stressful situations. This could lead to some outstanding class discussions.

After the goggles are stolen, Millie bravely steps into a leadership role as the girls try to figure out where the goggles are. Near the end of the book, Millie “channels her inner boss” to help them escape a dangerous situation. She sees how her talent at observing and remembering small details is a massive help in this situation. Near the end, she feels proud of herself for how much she’s accomplished in just one night at this house. She also gives herself credit for making five new friends.

It’s so important for young kids to learn how to talk to themselves. The Amelia Six does an outstanding job of modeling how to do so. And who doesn’t love a good mystery!!??

I’ve created 12 quizzes and 12 writing prompts for this book. They are available for $4.95 in my TpT store.

Thank you for all that you do for your students!

Charlie & Frog (Another Fun New Book I Just Read!)

If you’re looking for a new book to read with your students, I highly recommend Charlie & Frog, a book by Karen Kane that was published in 2018.

Charlie & Frog

It’s a feel-good story about a young boy who finally finds friends who want him around and a young girl whose determined spirit is helpful throughout the story’s plot. It’s also a fun mystery that will have your students always wanting to read more.

Since several of the characters in the story are Deaf, Kane describes how they use American Sign Language to communicate. Your students are likely to remember a few words in ASL after they finish this book. The illustrations at the beginning of most chapters show how to make the sign for a word or phrase. Kane does an outstanding job during the story of describing how the characters make signs to communicate.

The story is about a young boy (Charlie) and girl (Frog) who work together to solve a mystery in a small town. Charlie, who can hear, works hard to learn ASL so he can communicate with several of his new friends. He makes lots of new friends during his adventure while learning the importance of communicating in different ways and being there for the people you care about.

Charlie & Frog is another awesome book from the 2021-22 Florida Sunshine book list for grades 3-5. This annual list of 15 newer books always give me great ideas for new books to check out. There’s a list of books for grades 6-8 too.

I’ve created resources to help you teach Charlie & Frog with your students. My quizzes are great for quick comprehension checks. I’ve also written prompts that work well for writing assignments and/or discussion starters. Everything is in a Google Form as well. It’s available in my TpT store for $4.95.

I can’t wait to keep reading more books for kids this summer! I hope you have some time to read some good books too, but if not, feel free to keep an eye on my blog for more book recommendations.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington (June 2021 Book Recommendation)

One of my favorite things about teaching in Florida was reading the books on the SSYRA list. Every year, the Sunshine State Young Readers Award Program compiles a list of 15 amazing books for students in grades 3-5 (and a separate list for grades 6-8). Near the end of the year, students across Florida vote for a winner. The kids get really into it!

I love it because the books are usually ones that have been published recently. It’s an excellent way to read some new material without having to Google “New Books for Elementary” and sift through ALL the titles that pop up. I hope you’ll check out those lists.

I just started reading the books for 2021-22 and, wow, we are off to a fantastic start! I recently finished From the ​Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks, (copyright 2020) and I’d highly recommend it.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

The book is about a 12-year-old girl, Zoe, who returns from her birthday party to find a letter from her biological father in the mailbox. Zoe has never met her father, Marcus, because he’s been in jail her whole life. Zoe’s mom has never allowed her to contact Marcus because she doesn’t want her daughter communicating with a criminal. However, Zoe notices that Marcus seems nice in his letters. He likes cooking, just like she does. Zoe loves his music recommendations too.

One day, when Marcus writes to Zoe and says he’s innocent, Zoe assumes he’s lying. She wonders how a man could have been sentenced to 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. She decides to read more about this and is shocked at the number of people who are wrongfully imprisoned — most of whom are Black men. Zoe then dedicates herself to finding out as much as she can about her father’s trial, the crime he was arrested for, and a person who can help prove his innocence.

Zoe does all of this while interning at a bakery, proving she has the talent to appear on a kids baking TV show, and mending a friendship with a neighbor who she had been friends with for years.

I’ve created 12 quizzes and 12 writing prompts if you need resources to help you teach this book. The quizzes are perfect for quick comprehension checks. The writing prompts can be used to start discussions if you’d prefer. Everything is available in a Google Form and PDF. It’s available in my TpT store for $4.95.

I just started reading a second book on the SSYRA list, Charlie & Frog. I’ll write another post here with details about this book as soon as I finish it.

Thank you for all that you do for your students!

Florida SSYRA Book Summaries (2019-2020, Grades 3-5)

One of my favorite things about teaching in Florida was reading SSYRA books with my students! It was always an excellent list of 15 newer books, most of which I had not read before.

If you want to learn more about each book, but don’t have time to read them all on your own, I’ve written short summaries of each one. I hope this will help you pick which books would be the best to read with your students. I’ve also linked to novel study units I’ve created for each book so you can use them in ELA lessons, small groups, or however else you want. Just click on each book’s title to see those resources.

If you don’t teach in Florida, I hope you’ll check out a few of these new books if you’re looking for something different to read with your students. They are all amazing books!

These books are on the SSYRA (Sunshine State Young Readers Award) list for grades 3-5. There’s also a list of 15 books for grades 6-8.

The Bicycle Spy is about a young boy, Marcel, who lives in France during World War II. When German soldiers arrive in his town, he notices everyone is a lot more tense than normal. When a new girl arrives in his class, they bond over their love of cycling. However, when she reveals a secret about her family, Marcel works hard to keep their secret, even if it means putting himself in dangerous situations.

There’s a good chance you have a few students in your class who can relate to the main character in Stella Diaz Has Something to Say. This third-grade girl, whose family is from Mexico, is not confident in her ability to speak English. Other girls tease her about this, which makes Stella even more hesitant to speak. She gets incredibly nervous when the teacher assigns a project which involves a five-minute presentation. Stella’s friends and family give her excellent advice that makes speaking a less-daunting task. Their advice and encouragement help Stella feel much more confident in her speaking ability by the end of the book. Your students who feel nervous about speaking will learn some EXCELLENT tips. Your students will also learn the power of kind words and encouragement.

Bob is a heartwarming story about two friends who go to great lengths to help each other learn more about their past. The main character is an 11-year-old-girl named Olivia. When she visits her grandmother in Australia for the first time in five years, Olivia finds an old friend, Bob, whom she had forgotten about. Why can’t she remember him? Why can’t he remember where he came from? Why did Bob spend five years waiting for Olivia in a closet in Olivia’s grandma’s house? Olivia and Bob work together to figure out these questions in a book that is sure to keep your students turning the pages.

EngiNerds is about four boys who love intellectual challenges. The main character, a boy named Ken, receives a mysterious package full of metal pieces. Those pieces are used to build a robot that has the ability to consume all the food in Ken’s house! At first, Ken thinks it’s amazing to have his own robot. Eventually, he realizes that taking care of a robot is much more challenging than he first thought — especially when more of them appear around town. Ken and his friends have to use their creativity to figure out a way to prevent the robots from destroying the town.

Ben Franklin’s in my Bathroom also begins with a mysterious package arriving at the main character’s house. This story is about Nolan and Olive, a brother and sister, who open the package to see an old radio. Once they figure out how to make it work, Ben Franklin suddenly appears in their house. Nolan wants to figure out a way to get Ben back to the year 1784 ASAP, but Olive and Ben want him to maximize the experiences he has in the 21st century. All three of these characters learn valuable lessons from each other by the end of the story.

Cosmic Commandos is about a young boy, Jeremy, who uses a special power to save the world when enemies from his favorite video game attack in real life. There is also a nice subplot about Jeremy learning how to get along with his twin brother, Justin. In the end, Jeremy and Justin gain a newfound respect for each other that they didn’t think was possible.

Wedgie & Gizmo tells the story of two animals with completely opposite personalities who are forced to live in the same house. When Gizmo’s family moves in with Wedgie’s family, Gizmo is forced to adjust his evil plan to take over the world. At first, he views Wedgie as a dog who he needs to get rid of in order to accomplish his plan. However, by the end of the story, Wedgie is no longer Gizmo’s #1 enemy. While the narrative focuses on these two animals, you’ll also read about how a young boy adjusts to living in a new home and how these animals help him out.

Ghost Attack is a terrific story about the importance of teamwork. Two cousins, Alex and Sarah, work together to clear the name of a person who was wrongly committed of a crime long ago. Their week at their grandparents’ country home is full of surprises as they deal with mysterious rashes, a ghost that only they can see, and a town that has lots of hidden secrets. Alex and Sarah constantly share ideas with each other, which is why they are town heroes by the end of the story.

Sled Dog School is the perfect book for students who are self-conscious because they are bad at math. The story is about a sixth-grader named Matt who has always struggled in math class, but he is terrific at guiding his dogs while dogsledding around his home in northern Michigan. Matt is in danger of failing math and being sent to remedial math class, so he jumps at his teacher’s extra-credit assignment to create a real business. Matt’s dogsledding talents help him start a helpful business, but he makes lots of mistakes along the way. By the end of the story, Matt has learned from his mistakes, made two terrific friends, and realizes he should feel good about his talents instead of dwelling on things he’s bad at. BONUS — the story includes an amazing scene of Matt standing up to a kid who’s bullied him for a long time. It’s a terrific way to model how kids should stand up to bullies!

If you like stories that are written in different styles, then Annie’s Life in Lists is the book for you! Annie is a fifth-grader who loves writing lists, so the story is written as a series of lists from Annie’s notebook. The author, Kristin Mahoney, does a fabulous job of telling the story this way. Annie is a young girl with an amazing memory, but it gets her in trouble one day at school in Brooklyn. Annie spends months after that trying to blend in, stay quiet, and hide the fact that she can remember lots of things about people. The story also describes her family’s adjustment as they move from Brooklyn to a small town. This book has lots of good lessons about accepting who you are, adjusting to a new city/town, and working with your family to help you do these things.

I taught so many students who loved reading about the Titanic. Now, kids can read a story about what it was like for animals who were on the ship. Survival Tails: The Titanic, is written from the point of view of a dog and cat who were on board. These animals have very different owners, which affects their experiences on the ship, but they end up coming together to help each other in ways they didn’t think were possible. Students will learn a lot by reading what the animals did before the ship hit the iceberg. Kids will also gain a unique perspective by reading what the animals saw and experienced as the ship sank. The end of this story does an amazing job of showing what it was like for those who survived this tragedy.

If you’re looking for a book with unexpected plot twists, check out The Ambrose Deception. Three middle school students — to the surprise of their counselors — are chosen to participate in a competition for $10,000 in scholarship money. They have to solve three mysterious clues that require them to do a lot of research and explore their hometown of Chicago. The three students are told to work individually, but once they start working together, they learn that they are participating in something much bigger than a scholarship competition. This is a longer read, but each section is short, so there are plenty of places you can pause while you’re reading this. Side note: I LOVED the characters in this story!!!

If you’re a fan of Rules, you should like Superstar, which is a book written from the perspective of a fifth-grade boy who has autism. Lester loves science, watching meteor showers with his mom, and reading books at the library, and being taught by his mom at home. However, when Lester’s mom gets a full-time job, Lester is forced to attend public school for the first time. He has a difficult time adjusting to the schedule, teachers, rude classmates, and cafeteria noise. Thankfully, Lester is surrounded by teachers who help Lester feel more comfortable at school. As Lester learns more about school, he also learns more about himself — like how his knowledge of science can help him get better at kickball.

Tumble & Blue is one of the longest books on this SSYRA list, but if you have the time to read it, it’s well worth it! This is a story about two kids who learn that they are cursed. Blue always loses. Tumble wants to be a hero, but she always ends up being the one who needs to be saved. Blue’s great-grandmother holds a long competition where her huge family competes against each other. She chooses the winner, who then gets to learn how they can change their fate. Blue refuses to participate in this cutthroat competition. Instead, he takes his fate into his own hands. As Tumble does everything she can to help, she realizes she needs to join Blue and do the same. By the end of the story, Tumble and Blue feel a lot better about themselves. You’ll love reading why!

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a terrific way to model positive self-talk for your students. The main character, Adventurine, is transformed from a dragon into a human just as she discovers that chocolate is her passion in life. She works hard to learn how to interact with humans, make friends, and become an apprentice at a chocolate house. At one point, Adventurine makes a terrible mistake. She is devastated because she thinks she will never be allowed to make chocolate again. An entire chapter describes the self-doubt she has. After that, the book describes how she motivates herself to get back in the chocolate-making business. Through sheer determination and positive self-talk, Adventurine discovers that she is more powerful than she could ever imagine while making enemies become friends. I LOVE the way this story shows the exact words that Adventurine speaks to herself to give her the confidence to pursue her passion and NOT listen to all the doubts she has about herself.

If you’d like novel studies for all 15 books, you can save money by purchasing my bundle.

How To Use Novels For Morning Work

Ideas to help you use novels for morning work

“Did you say boring work or morning work?”

I asked a student this question early in my teaching career.  He wanted to know where to turn in his morning work.  I could have sworn he said “boring work.”  The normally respectful student answered “morning work” and I told him where to turn it in.

I had the following goals for morning work during my first few years of teaching:

  • Make it routine so I don’t have to answer questions while I collect homework.
  • Make it something that will get the kids quiet.
  • Make it a worksheet because I can easily prepare it.

My students were given a math review worksheet when they entered my classroom.  It met my goals every day.  It kept the kids quiet.  The questions were simple review problems that most students could easily complete.  It gave me time to quickly check homework and take attendance…

…and it was DEFINITELY “boring work.”  So I added the following to my list of goals for morning work:

Make it engaging.

I had been wanting to increase the number of novels my students read.  So I decided to incorporate them into my morning work.   I went to my board after school and wrote, “Morning Work:  Read pages 1-10 of Loser.”

Hmmmm, that was not any more engaging than my math worksheets.  And how was I going to get 25 copies of the book?

I spent a few days pondering how to make this work, but couldn’t think of an idea that was practical.  Then I saw a student dozing off while completing his “boring work” math worksheet.  This student LOVED talking.  Then I realized the solution.

Have kids read 5-10 pages with a partner and give them a discussion topic each morning.

I put students in groups of 2 or 3 based on their reading level.  I wrote the book title and pages they needed to read during the first 15 minutes of the day.  All I had to do was change the page numbers each day.

How to use novels for your morning work


The day’s discussion question for each group was displayed on the projector.  All I had to do was type a question from the book’s novel study for that chapter (see links at the end).

How to use novels for your morning work

Before students started reading, they had to leave their homework assignment on their desk.  I collected homework while they read, marking who had completed homework and who had not.

After time was up, I randomly called on one or two students for each book to tell me what they discussed.  Then we began our day.

Discussing quality literature was more beneficial to students than quietly completing a math worksheet.  It’s difficult to explain, but it seemed like my students’ brains were flipped to “learn” instead of “zoned out” when our first subject started.  Some of my fifth-grade students fell asleep less often during the morning.

This new system was never perfect.  It required some tinkering every now and then, but the student engagement made the work worth my time.  Here are a few pointers to help this system run well in your room.

Tip #1: Use Novels That Are A Bit Lower Than The Students’ Reading Level

I usually used three or four novels at a time.  I wanted each book to be a bit lower than each of my fifth graders’ reading level.  I did not want this to be a frustrating reading experience.  But if a student ran into problems, that’s where reading with a partner could help.

Tip #2:  Use Novels That Students Can Finish In 3-4 Weeks

When I first started this, I made the mistake of assigning Hoot to a few groups of students.  Since Hoot is 292 pages, and kids could only make it through about 8 pages each morning, this took forever to finish.  Kids lost interest if their book took more than a month to finish.  Books like Loser, The Hero Two Doors Down, Shiloh, Hatchet, and Inside Out & Back Again were perfect lengths.  Some of your groups will be able to read more or less each day, so that affects which books you can assign.  Use your judgment.  Just try to avoid having a group read one book for more than 3-4 weeks.

Tip #3:  Ask Your Librarian For Copies

Librarians are rock stars.  A few weeks before I needed a new set of books, I asked my librarian to ask for copies from other libraries in our district.  This usually provided enough copies for every student.  If kids have the book on their Kindle, I got parental permission for students to bring the Kindle to school.

Tip #4:  Be Ready For These Books To Be In Demand

Some students will want to read the book their classmates are reading.  When I had a few groups read Loser during morning work, they laughed at several events in the book.  Other students saw this.  Then they asked to read Loser on their own.  This became a perfect way to promote reading.

Tip #5:  Make This A Reading Participation Grade

I created one assignment in my grade book called “Morning Work Participation.”  Everyone started the grading period with a 100%.  If a student refused to read, I took 5 points off the grade.  If a student refused to respond to the discussion question when called upon, I took off 5 points.  With all the difficult reading tests kids are graded on, I liked to have at least one or two assignments like this where they could earn a 100% as long as they gave an honest effort every day.  It also provided the perfect amount of accountability.

Tip #6:  Don’t Rush An Occasional Extended Discussion

Did you notice the topic for Shiloh above?  Students had to think about whether the main character should lie to his parents about keeping a stray dog or be honest and return the dog to an abusive owner.  Students had strong opinions on this.  Even kids who weren’t reading Shiloh chimed in.  ELA class started about 10 minutes later that day because my students wanted to discuss this.  There was no way I was saying, “Sorry class, we have to stop this discussion so we can begin Language Arts on time.”  If your students are wanting to spend 40 minutes discussing books every day, that’s a different story.  But you should certainly allow time for the occasional extended discussion.

Need Discussion Ideas?

If you’d like discussion ideas, I have created novel studies for over 40 books.  My writing prompts and quiz questions make perfect discussion topics for morning work.  You can download the first novel study for free!

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Don’t see a novel study for a book you love?  Click here to browse over 40 novel studies I have created.

A Book That Will Help Students Learn Why They Should Speak Out Against Hate

I’m writing this a few days after white supremacists marched around Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting horrible things.  Thankfully, I’ve seen many teachers post messages on Facebook saying they will help their students understand the importance of speaking up against white supremacists and the hate they stand for.  One of my favorite posts was written by Love, Teach which said,

#1 teaching objective in my class this year: Love is louder than hate, but only if we choose to open our mouths.  Clearly, the rest of my curriculum can wait.”

I have also seen teachers post the importance of using specific vocabulary when describing the events of Charlottesville, like this, by Digital Divide & Conquer.

Use Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry to teach students to speak up against hate.

Teachers can talk about this every day in their classroom, but we all know students learn much better through engaging lessons.  I love using books to teach students important lessons because kids can develop a strong connection to the characters of an awesome book.  Once that connection is made, the lesson you’re trying to teach can be learned much more effectively.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry is an excellent book you can use to teach your students about the hatred that white supremacists stand for and the importance of speaking up for people who are oppressed.

The book is set in Mississippi in the 1930s, but it’s important that students realize there are still many people who act like the hateful, racist people they read about in the book.  Curriculum often implies that racism is something that happened a long time ago.  Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry teaches students what it’s like for a black family to constantly be affected by hateful things racist people do.  It’s up to teachers to ensure their students realize this sort of hatred still exists.

Brief Synopsis of the Book

The main character is a young girl named Cassie.  She lives with her three brothers, mother, father, and grandmother.  They are very proud of the fact that they own land.  Cassie’s parents simply want to enjoy their land and take care of their children.  Unfortunately, they constantly hear stories of white people doing horrible things to black people they know.  This causes a lot of tension for the family throughout the book.  By the end of the story, the violence hits close to home for Cassie, whose father is forced to make a drastic decision in order to keep people safe.

Several events in this book are powerful teaching tools to help students understand the importance of speaking out against racism.  

Cassie’s family is amazing.  Your students will develop a strong connection with them.  Cassie experiences many things your students can relate to.  She argues with her siblings, but will do anything to protect them.  She has to help with lots of chores at home, but she loves her family deeply.  She has some difficulties at school, but she wants to get a good education.  It’s impossible for the reader to dislike Cassie’s family.

Since your students will develop a connection to Cassie and her family, your students will also feel the tension of the violence and racism that occurs in the book.  (Sadly, you may have students who can relate to it.)  While this may make students uncomfortable, it opens the door for many teachable moments.  For example:

Event #1:  Early in the book, when Cassie and her siblings are walking to school, a white bus driver swerves toward them and forces them to jump off the road into a muddy ditch to avoid being hit.  Your students need to realize there are still white people who would like to do this to black children.  Also, that bus was full of white students.  Ask your students what they would do if they witnessed something similar today.  Hopefully, they would tell their parents to call a school official and get that bus driver fired.  Teach students that someone on that bus should have spoken up against the bus driver for what he did to Cassie and her siblings.  Students must realize this is NOT Cassie’s responsibility.

Event #2:  In chapter five, Cassie helps her grandmother sell milk and eggs at a town market.  Cassie is angry because they have to set up their stand at the back of the market.  Only white people can sell at the front.  Even though Cassie is angry about this unfair rule, she knows she can’t say anything because someone would hurt her.  Your students need to realize there are still ways that black people are not given the same chances as white people to succeed.  Also, discuss with your students how amazing it would have been for some white people at the market to speak up and say that black people should not be forced to the back.

That’s a theme that keeps occurring throughout the book.  Terrible things happen to black people, but Cassie’s parents feel like saying something will only put their family in danger.  Emphasize the importance of speaking up for people who are the victims of racism.  Be sure your students understand things like this happen today.  Again, that won’t come as a shock to some of your students.

Event #3:  A white girl yells at Cassie for accidentally bumping into her at the market.  The white girl then says horrible things to Cassie.  The girl’s dad grabs Cassie’s arm and starts yelling at her too.  As a crowd starts to gather, Cassie’s grandmother is terrified that things could soon become violent, so she tells Cassie to apologize to the girl.  Cassie is furious that her grandmother made her apologize.  When Cassie gets home and tells her mother about it in chapter six, her mother says, “Baby, you had to grow up a little today.  I wish…well, no matter what I wish.  It happened and you have to accept the fact that in the world outside this house, things are not always as we would have them to be.”  The conversation continues for several pages.  Some of your students probably haven’t been forced to have conversations like this with their parents.  It’s important these students realize that many kids today, including some of their classmates, are forced to have difficult conversations similar to this with their parents.  Based on the Facebook posts I’ve read about conversations black parents must have with their children, too many kids today are forced to “grow up” far too soon.

There are several other events where racist white people do horrible things to the black characters in the story.  Students need to understand that these kinds of things still happen.  It’s also important for students to think about what they’d do if they witnessed something like that.

If you need more resources to teach Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, I have created writing prompts and quizzes that are available in my TpT store.  Click here to learn more.

If you’re looking for more lesson ideas, here are some websites and blog posts that may help.

Teaching Tolerance 

Their website states, “From film kits and lesson plans to the building blocks of a customized Learning Plan—texts, student tasks and teaching strategies—our resources will help you bring relevance, rigor and social emotional learning into your classroom—all for FREE.”

A Collection of Resources for Teaching Social Justice, by the Cult of Pedagogy

In addition to resources, this blog post offers helpful advice for teachers who are planning lessons about social justice.

Social Justice Book List (August 2017) compiled by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year

This PDF gives short descriptions of numerous books sorted by early learning grades, elementary, middle school, and high school.  You can definitely find an awesome book to read on this list.

Words can’t express how grateful I am for all that you do for your students.  Teaching becomes a more important profession every day.  I hope this blog post has given you a few ideas that will help your students understand the importance of speaking up against hateful people.