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Lynda Mullaly Hunt FISH IN A TREE Review


It’s one of the rare pleasures of being a part of a large reading community to receive a book a little earlier than its release date. This was the case with FISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Nancy Paulsen made sure that I had a copy of this book as far back as what felt like summer (but it couldn’t have been that early, could it?) One of the downfalls of holding a book this early is that one really should wait until closer to the release date to begin to celebrate that book. Such is the business of ARCs and early releases. What’s now new to the reading public is somehow a little “older” on your shelf. The mark of a great book for me is when I cannot wait to dash to the shelf to pull it down on its book birthday to share it with the world.

But when I came out to celebrate this release of this book on Thursday, here is what I found: lots and lots of internet buzz and love already out there. And my heart couldn’t be happier for Lynda Mullaly Hunt or for her book.


FISH IN A TREE is the sophomore title by an up-and-coming, already-there author whose first title, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS captured the hearts of lead readers and their charges across the country. We could make an argument to let the two books be celebrated apart for their own merit, but in having read both of the author’s books, I can tell you that to read them both is to see the author’s heart and then to look deeper to see how that author’s heart is developed. What I mean is this. If ONE FOR THE MURPHYS is a story that is reprsentative of Hunt’s “heart-view” of the world, then FISH IN A TREE is the prequel which shares how that view was born, nurtured, and developed.

It may not be fair to share in a review for fear of reviewer bias, but I have had some short conversations with the author which really help me to appreciate in new, insider-but-insightful ways the heart of FISH IN A TREE.  Hunt’s newest book follows a plucky young lady, Ally Nickerson who finds herself in a sort of transition that many students face each year. Her teacher is leaving for maternity leave and she will have a new teacher in the room on Monday. The perfect set-up for these kinds of stories is that “who is the new nanny that’s coming” kind of approach, but Hunt makes it work here to demonstrate more than a change of leadership. This is a swing for a student who has had difficulty in the past. This is a fork in the road for a fish in a tree. It’s the Call to Adventure so familiar to students and fans of the Hero’s Journey.

If the best approach to character conflict is to drive that character up a tree and throw stones at him or her, Hunt’s story takes aim at this tree-mounted fish with a variety of familiar, sometimes-set-in-stone situations that do not call up incredulity for readers. We know Ally right away. We may not know all of the details of her life which unfold in the narrative later, but Hunt puts us into the tree’s canopy with the opening chapters wherein Ally is asked to write a letter to her new teacher and she creates a faux-paus in her attempt to send her old teacher off to maternity leave. Comic and tragic altogether, the first ten pages of FISH IN A TREE make you laugh uncomfortably at Ally’s antics as our empathy for her is just starting to warm by the end of the second chapter.

And the reader still has over two-hundred and sixty pages to go. This is the kind of book that Hunt has written here. It’s a heart book.

You send that fish up a tree and you throw stones at her. Ally’s father is a deployed tank commander which puts him out of the picture for most of the book. Her mother works at a local restaurant which becomes a sort of after-school rendevous and refuge for Ally, even when antagonists are able to patronize the same eatery. Whispered one-liners in the classrooms and cafeteria asides are part of the outside voices that work in chorus to affirm Ally’s inner voice.

Within Hunt’s plucky protagonist, we see little slivers of hurt and disappointment, but the author weaves in plenty of silver in moments of humanity and celebration throughout the story which helps us all to avoid the slow-clap ending of a book that makes us wait to have our heart strings plucked. This is what Hunt has created here. A story the reader feels that they can laugh in. . .they can love in. . .they can learn in. . and they can live in. FISH IN A TREE is truly a super example of what I would call a THESE 4 CORNERS kind of book. Within the four corners of a classsroom, a community. . .and a chessboard, Hunt has given us plenty of moments and members to celebrate through the reading of the  book.

What Hunt has done in FISH IN A TREE is to create a cast of characters that make you feel like you are really a part of a classroom community as the reader. This is The Bad News Bears where you cheer for the team. This is The Goonies where you cheer for the neighborhood outcasts. Oliver, Albert, Keisha, Suki. . .Mr. Daniels. They are all in attendance and the reader is just waiting for the call to pull out his or her own vocabulary book for the day’s lesson. In this regard, Hunt has recreated what makes these kinds of books so popular with teachers and students alike. This is Rob Buyea’s Because of Mr. Terupt. This is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. This is Kate Messner’s Marty McGuire series. This is your favorite Patricia Polacco book. We, the lead readers, pick these books up because we see ourselves in them. And if we don’t, we really want to.

What Lynda Mullaly Hunt has done with FISH IN A TREE is give classroom teachers an opportunity to revisit the Vivian Gussin Paley titles of the early 90’s. Titles like You Can’t Say You Can’t Play and The Girl with the Brown Crayon. These intimate looks into the classroom as a community of not only pupils but personalities would make wonderful teacher resources to “ladder” with FISH IN A TREE as conversations begin to develop around how we meet the needs of the Allys within our learning communities but also offering interventions and supports for the Shays.

In the time that you read this review, you may have already finished the first two chapters we celebrated here. For this distraction away from the book, I offer a heart-felt apology to you, the reader. But to the author of this wonderful book, I offer a heart-felt thank you. Thank you for letting me share the time I built a cumbersome wooden-board game with sliver-edged pieces if only to garner the favor of my fifth-grade English teacher. When I shared that story, I could still feel the chill of the breeze from the hardened branch upon which I sat in memory. But you showed me the leafiness of the story when you shared your own story with me. A twig can carry many leaves. Those leaves make a bunch. And a bunch of leaves eventually creates a canopy.

Lynda Mullaly Hunt–your book will draw readers out from the safety of the bark out onto the branch. A fish could do well here. A classroom of fish would thrive here. A school of fish. . .

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Poetry Friday Round-Up: January 30th!



Wow! It’s January 30th! We get to host the Poetry Friday Round-Up today!

That would have been a great introduction had I remembered that I was hosting the Poetry Friday Round-Up today. Totally spaced this opportunity (oh. . .what you must think of me). But really, what happens here is that I didn’t get the opportunity to have that week-long anticipation of what I might write here or how I might invite the community of poets into a poetic place.

And then I remembered. . .we are already here, aren’t we? We’ve been thinking poetically long before it was my turn to host Poetry Friday. This is the gift of poetry whether we remember that we are the featured reader or the host of the poems for a particular day (this is my attempt to let myself off the hook. . .perhaps I should have used a hook as my image).

Two weeks ago, I stayed home with Maddie (12.5) who was not feeling well. It was Maddie who was under the weather, but taking a little time to surf TED.com, I found an opportunity for us to experience being under the “infinite blue.”

The spirit of These 4 Corners is not to build a confining space but rather to create an opportunity to think about Loving. . .Living. . .Laughing. . .and Learning (the L’s become the “corners” which Donald Graves might have suggested as “framing corners” that could be adjusted as needed within a lesson or an approach) as we go about our daily work, whatever that work me be. It is my hope that you may see one or more of the 4 Corners in our share today.

We have been sharing Cristina Domenech’s “Poetry That Frees the Soul” in Room 407 this week, and I would love to share this message and this poem with you. I would love to hear your comments on the message today–or at some point. This is one of the few TED talks that just really sticks with me and it will probably be a staple within my learning community for years to come. The video is just over twelve minutes, but it is a very good message with an incredible pay-off at the end. I think I would like to end the post with this and include my poem for the day in the comments along with all of  you:


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A Few Wonders from Room 407: OF MICE AND MEN Edition

We’ve had a great week here at These 4 Corners sharing how we use Wonderopolis in Room 407 with the juniors who make up our learning community. On Monday, I told you that we would share one of the projects that our students have done and I picked some from last year’s experience with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.


This idea was born of my own wonder regarding readers and the kinds of assessments they are given after having read a book. I often wondered if we had our students answering our questions without considering what questions the students might have after having read the book. What might be lost in the transaction.

The directions were very simple. I went to a local craft store to purchase some scrapbooking paper. As I wanted the projects to have that vintage feel, I felt I could assert this desire onto the individual projects while still affording an element of choice for the student to select from the various papers. This also kept the canvases a uniform size. Our goal was to create one-page wonders of a 1.0 modality using the Wonderopolis site as our template.

I had a vintage (older) copy of the book and I told students that they could have the page from which their subject appeared in the book. This had students thumbing through the book to look for that reference to the Kewpie Doll Lamp, the barley, the luger, the ketcup, the solitaire.


In the image above, we see the student working with th question of barley. It’s stated in that essential question kind of way, isn’t it? Friends. . this was the question that wasn’t asked in class. The characters are “bucking barley” through the book, and this ended up being a student’s wonder at the end.


Here is a student looking at the game of solitaire wherein the student went just a step beyond to create a little collage in the upper left-hand corner to look as close to the Wonderopolis site as it could on paper.


Another student looked at the geography of the book. “Where is Soledad?” Just recently, I had a student tell me that the spanish translation of Soledad means, “alone” or “isolated.” I can tell you. . .after some seventy times of reading this book aloud, I had missed this insight. And it has changed in a big way how I approach this book now. In this wonder you can see that the student has taken the page from the book and included it within the wonder. It’s even highlighted (one of those reading strategies).


And then we come to Madison’s project. Madison was our residential scrapbook artist. And she’s done a lovely job of capturing the essense of the book she has just read in Room 407. Exploring the question “Who is John Steinbeck” is completed here as Madison found her own copy of the book and created this interesting piece.

Here is what I found after we had our English 11 students cull his or her wonder from the book, tearing from the book that wonder to be incorporated into his or her project. . .

On the pages that were left in the book, I found the questions I might have asked on a comprehenion-level, did-you-read-it kind of quiz. In the projects I found wonders about leads and liniment, about skinners and sycamores, and about bindles and bunkhouses.For my experience this is one of the strongest arguments for taking on a wonder approach out of a literature experience.

Teachers have questions that require answers; students have wonders that invite exploration.

Thank you for visiting the blog this week. I hope that the ideas presented all week long are inviting you to take a closer look at Wonderopolis! I’ll see you in the Wonder Ground!

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Wonderopolis as a Research Template



We are almost to end of this week’s exploration of Wonderopolis as a tool in the middle and high school classroom. We’ve explored the basics, the elements that aid word-building and vocabulary, and the elements that emulate the rhetorical modes tne writing we would like to see our middle and high school students doing. Thank you for letting me share some insights from having used Wonderopolis for the past two years. As I share these features and tips with you, I am affirmed in the practice of using Wonderopolis with the juniors that are a part of our learning community in Room 407.

Many of my juniors come to me with very little research experience. For some of these students, to have written a research response–or even a paper–probably began as a sort of invitation and ended as a kind of dare. Let’s be honest, many of our students when presented the opportunity to write an expository piece probably began shuffling their schedules for the extended opportunity to learn and to fellowship that is summer school.

Wonderopolis has archived almost 1400 different wonders at the site. I think what this really creates a sense of contained resource that middle and high school teachers could feel comfortable inviting the students to explore. In a texting conversation this week with a teacher-friend, I suggested that students might be invited–on a rotating basis–to find wonders related to the day’s lesson or shares in the classroom. In this way, these students would become “Wonder Jockeys” for the rest of the group (akin to ideas I have seen that invite students to serve as Google Jockeys during a lesson).

There are two features associated with each wonder that might lend students to further research. Each wonder comes with a STILL WONDERING tab to the right of the wonder that asks further questions related to that day’s wonder. This is a good tool for the young writer/research to continue asking questions of the subject until he or she arrives at the essential question that will ultimately become the extended response or piece. Additionally, each wonder has WONDER TAGS that can be searched by the student to offer multiple looks at the subject and related subjects.

To wrap up today’s look at Wonderopolis, I’d like to point to Wonderopolis’s key feature: the presentation of non-fiction material each day that not only looks like the kind of reading passage one might see on a standardized test, but the Wonder can be used as a start for an extended piece. And I cannot reiterate or emphasize enough:

This is all free.

I wanted to add, too, an invitation to Wonderopolis’s newest addition, The Wonder Ground where educators can come and share experiences and resources related to wonder! I hope to see you there (I joined in November when the platform went live. . .I’ve been waiting for you).





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Wonderopolis and a Writing Model for MS/HS Students



We are now midweek into this series of posts that feature Wonderopolis and how to use this amazing resource with middle and high school students.

On Monday, we talked about the basics of our approach in Room 407.

On Tuesday, we discussed how Wonderopolis can be utilized as a word-building, vocabulary resource that would probably dove-tail very nicely with the vocabulary program and lists that are used in the traditional middle and high school classroom.

Today, we’ll spend a little bit of time talking about how middle and high school teachers can utilize Wonderopolis as a writing resource.

First, Wonderopolis provides new text every day for students to read. Wonderopolis moves away from the 5 paragraph essay format which is a good demonstration that our non-fiction , expository responses do not need to follow a five-paragraph formula.

If you follow #WonderoplisHS, you’ll note that we often share the rhetorical mode that the wonder of the day employs. That’s right; Wonderopolis can be a free, web-based resource for introducing the rhetorical modes (or how we approach a subject).

One feature of the daily wonders I’d like to point to right way is the introduction to the wonder each day. The authors of the daily wonders do an excellent job of modeling inviting introductions to each wonder with a two-point approach: a welcome and a frame of reference. These are good models for middle and high school writers to welcome in a reader (exordium) and provide some invitation to consider background knowledge an prior experiences (narratio).

Middle and high school teachers can look to the daily wonder to see what rhetorical mode is being employed that day. While we sometimes shy away from formulaic approaches in writing, the daily wonders can be used as a sort of template for how to approach a particular question or a subject.

Two of the popular approaches I see coming out the wonders I have visited seem to be classification and definition. These are two important modes for middle and high school students to have in their toolbox as they progress through their studies.

Another feature of the daily wonder is an opportunity to write for an audience in response to the wonder called “Join the Discussion.” The National Center for Families Learning which hosts Wonderopolis assures that each post that comes in gets a welcoming and thoughtful response.

I hope that this week’s series of posts will help middle and high school teachers to see how Wonderopolis can be a part of classroom activities that serves as a resource, a support, and a model for writing.

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Wonderopolis in the Middle and High School Classroom: Word-Building



We began this series of blog posts yesterday to talk about using Wonderopolis in the Middle and High School classroom. If you are joining us today, my name is Paul W. Hankins. I teach English 11 and AP English Language and Composition at Silver Creek High School in southern Indiana. I am one of the Wonder Lead Ambassadors with Wonderopolis, a non-fiction based websited offered by the National Center for Families Learning.

One of the features of Wonderopolis is the tab Wonder Words and Take the Wonder Word Challenge both of which appear at the right-hand side of the site. One way middle and high school teachers might use the wonders is to select one as a supplement to the vocabulary tests that are probably already a part of the coursework.

This approach would mirror the kind of reading experience and questions a student might encounter on a standardized test. Students would be reading words in context and then assessing their awareness of the words they just read in the passage. While this idea may seem rather simplistic, think in terms of what this same approach might cost if we sought this supplmentary material from another source. Wonderopolis is free. Approaching 1400 separate “wonders,” there are multiple opportunities to match a “wonder” to  thematic vocabulary list.

At #WonderopolisHS, I share as often as I can the Wonder Words that come out of the wonders that might be of interest to the middle or high school teacher, but then I am always thinking, too, that all of these words would be of interest to the middle and high school teacher.

I’d like to point you to some examples of archived wonders that address words and word usage. I am familiar with these wonders, but I can tell you that found them again for this post by entering the word “vocabulary” into the search feature on the main page of Wonderopolis

Wonder #127:    “How Do Words Get Added to the Dictionary?”

Would work along nicely with a conversation regarding newly-added words to the dictionary each year.

Introduces the notion that words we use everyday may have been a recent neologism (a high school vocabulary word from my experience)


Wonder #294:   “Why We Use Different Words for the Same Things?”

Introduces students to the concept of “regional dialect.”

Introduces students to DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English)


Wonder #724:   “Do You Like to Play with Words?”

Introduces students to the anagram.

Alludes to Harry Potter to bring in a literature connection.


One more point on using Wonderopolis as a word-building resources for your middle and high school students are those wonders that ask any question that lends itself to the rhetorical mode of Definition. These wonders open up opportunities for our middle and high school students to self-select words, phrases, and terms that would not only follow the template provided by the wonder, but provide, too, an opportunity for students to see how this rhetorical mode might work.

I hope that the suggestions offered here will be of some help to you as you explore the Wonderopolis site with your students. We’ll be back again tomorrow afternoon with a look at Wonderopolis and Reading with the Middle and High School Student!

Have a “Wonder”-ful Day!



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How and Why I Use Wonderopolis in Room 407: Part One (The Basics)



For the past month, I’ve been adding to the hashtag, #WonderopolisHS at Twitter. This idea came out the conversations which began at the Wonderopolis Breakfast hosted by the National Center for Families Learning at The National Convention of Teachers of English Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. . In that meeting, I was able to meet and greet with many teachers from middle and high school classrooms who shared what they are doing in their classrooms with Wonderopolis as the anchor.

Wonderopolis is a non-fiction based website offered by the National Center for Families Learning out of Louisville, KY. For the past two years, I have been happy to have volunteered with the website as one of its Wonder Lead Ambassadors. Each day, the website offers a “wonder” anchored by a short video that may be watched independently or shown to the group. There are multiple features of the daily wonder all geared to help the user navigate the wonder (including ReadSpeaker which highlights the text as the wonder is read to the user), new words encountered within that wonder (WonderWords), and deeper explorations into the subject presented by the wonder (Still Wondering).

What I hope to do with this series of posts is to put out some basic ideas for how to use Wonderopolis in the middle and secondary classroom. We have used Wonderopolis for the past three years at Silver Creek High School with an approach that looks like this:

Students select freely from the number of archived “wonders.” This might include the Wonder of the Day (students with SmartPhones or any other device can sign up for a daily text of the daily “wonder.”

In a two-paragraph response, students first cite the wonder and offer a little background information on that wonder. Additionally, the student writes about what was learned from the wonder and whether or not the wonder might be the start of an extended research project. 

In each marking period, a student will have done at least four or five of these wonder reflections or from eight to ten before the end of a semester. One can see how these reflections would grow exponentially by way of number of wonders visited and the number of paragraphs that would be written in reflection. 

At the end of a semester, students can be invited to think about the kinds of wonders they visited during that time frame. Middle and high school teachers might invite students to begin to categorize and classify the kinds of wonders the student has visited and reflected upon during that time frame. The language is right there in the invitation, “I wonder what kinds of subjects I have been visiting and reflecting upon during the last nine weeks.”

My basic goal for using Wonderopolis at the secondary level is to get the teens I see each day to wonder more than “what’s for dinner.” Wonder is a part of the language set we use in Room 407 and I am happy that the word, “wonder” is on our radar and a part of our culture in the room. During the course of the week, we will be pointing to and highlighting features of Wonderopolis that make it a tool to consider for use with middle and high school students from our perspective in Room 407.

Here is the plan for the week as we share out ideas for using Wonderopolis in the Middle and High School classroom.

Monday 5 January:          How We Have Used Wonderopolis in Room 407

Tuesday 6 January:          Wonderopolis and Reading/Vocabulary Builder in Middle and High School

Wednesday 7 January:    Wonderopolis: A Writing Model for Middle and High School

Thursday 8 January:        Wonderopolis as a Research Template in Middle and High School

Friday 9 January:               An Invitation for You to Share at #WonderopolisHS


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It’s Poetry Friday Round-Up: And I Am the Host!


Coming out of NCTE and ALAN, I knew that hosting a Poetry Friday Roundup would be exciting. During my stay in Washington, D. C., I had the joy of being the room with Janet Wong, Sylvia Vardell, Irene Latham, Pat Mora, Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, and Laura Purdie Salas and others (please forgive me, I am still coming down off of the awe if I didn’t list you specifically here).

But, I didn’t think I would be this excited about hosting Poetry Friday Roundup. I mean. . .I would get a little excited, to be sure, but then I took a look at some of the other Poetry Friday Roundup posts via Google.

And I found a HUGE community of poets doing this thing each week. Like. . .I knew. . .but I didn’t know. So, here I am. Hosting this thing YOU already do, and it is epic for me here in southern Indiana.

Of course, I’ll be the lead learner in Room 407 today, so I will try to round all of you up this afternoon or early this evening. Leave your poem’s title, a brief description of the poem, and the link to your blog and I will put it all in this post.

I don’t know that you need a writing invitation, but I can offer one. I’ve been thinking a lot about shapes lately. Or even the idea of something taking shape. Like this holiday season. It’s beginning to take shape. What is the shape of this season? December? Winter? The holidays and how you spend them. They are all taking shape. . .perhaps we could play with concrete poems or poems that naturally take a shape like a diamante.

Oh. . .you poets you. . .you already know what to do.

Here is my poem on the fly. . .

“Square Thirty-1″


these are rectangle days

seem wider in the middle

the sun knows a border

a morning from night.


the windows are still,

snug-square in frames,

reflecting a day’s passing

an end-of-year slideshow.


each panel’s numbered

and they stand in rows

waiting to be checked

for the coming season.


that they would be enough

to hold a memory-maybe two,

until we reach our thirty-one

and look with hope toward new.


…………………….and now the roundup……………………………………………………..

Joy Acey gives us our first poem today: “Lizard.” Joy also promises pictures from her safari trip in Kenya. Visit Joy’s blog site:


Tara Smith offers “How Is It That the Snow?” by Robert Haight at her blog, A Teaching Life:


Amy Ludwig VanDerwater shares a familiar scene with a familial connection. This poem reminds me of a friend who collects Nativity scenes of all types:


Mary Lee Hahn shares from her favorite Haiku-a-Day poems and sends an invitation to be a host for the Poetry Friday Roundup in the New Year!



Tabatha shares a favorite New Years poem by Oksana Lutshyshyna:


Heidi Mordhorst is a poet I met at NCTE (and I have been enjoying her books since returning from that trip).


And now I am off to do some lead learning in Room 407. . .I will be back at about 9:30 to capture some more of these wonderful poems.

At 9:30, I came back to see that so many had posted their comments with their links, so I added as I went along. Of course, with each posting, I was looking forward to a time when I could go and look at what was being offered to the community.

The end of the school day offered another chance to see just how many people participate in the round-up. What a joy this has been.

More than any of this, I was over-joyed to see so many positive responses to the poem I had to offer this morning. It was a quick-write for me, wanting to have something to offer to all of you on the day of the round-up. I’ve already gone back to do some revision. Perhaps looking at the way the piece might take shape upon the page.

Of course, my students in Room 407 are vetting out some cinquain formatted pieces as they work on their literary analysis piece. I have found that asking a student to move from the poetic form to the paragraph formal loses nothing in translation as the ideas remain intact and bring the poetic language with all of its figurative devices into the writing. You can find a post about this approach here at this blog.

It’s been a wonderful day of poetry and I look forward now to visiting all of the posts you have left today in the comments.

And now, I look forward to attending and offering some verse to the next poetry round-up.


The very best of the season to all of you. . .


Paul W. Hankins





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“One of You” for Veteran’s Day 2014



“One of You”: For Veteran’s Day 2014


Standing and taking an Oath of Service,

I saw three pictures in my mind:

two sailors

one medic

And I wondered, “Which one of you

put this pounding in my chest that sounds

like the cadence of a million marching feet?”


Was it you, Pete, staring out from a faded picture,

and the work you did with the seabees in the Pacific?

Or you, George, with the white hat that sits squarely

and the time you spent in a submarine underwater?

Or. . .Vernon. . .was it you.  .  .I see the medical symbols

upon your lapel and I hear the patients on the trains.


Surely, it has to be one of you, because I feel you there

as I sign a piece of paper that puts me on a bus, a plane, a boat.

I feel you there with the first morning wake-up of training.

And I feel you there the first time I miss someone back home.


I’ll bet one of you or all of you had felt this way at one time.


And while I never pressed forward into enemy territory

or found myself taking incoming fire from a hostile force,

I learned the most important lesson of military service:

that a sense of duty is a vocation. . .you answer the call.


And sometimes it seems that it wasn’t enough to note

on a day set aside to remember one of you. . .and all of them,

but I stood a post at the bedside of many retired servicemen

who were once like me. . .and one of you.


I lost all of you before I crossed the gate of Naval Hospital Oakland,

but you were never too far from my thoughts, I kept thinking,

“Any one of these. . .could be one of you.”

And so I learned to salute, to be reverent, and to care.


I’ve come to find that sandbags and IV bags have similar purpose.

That blood is blood whether it is taken. . .or given.

That vital signs are as important on the floor as in the field.

That it comes down to breathing. . .and a beating.


I don’t know much of sand or landing on a beach;

I’ve never dug a trench and stayed, quiet and low.

I’ve never heard the rallying cry of a charge.

I’ve never raised a flag over a place that’s been won.


But I have come to know the way a person stands

near the telemetry screen, quietly watching.

And to carefully take the report of a charge nurse

even when it means erasing the name of a life given.


And that names that appear on stones, on walls, on charts

are all an effort to remember. Each and every one of you.

No greater honor could there have been to have been

there–at a bedside–when the roll of one of you had been called.


This is the way. This is the watch. This the work.

When they raise a flag today; it is for every one of you.

Whether you stand tall on the line, or are read from the lines

of a love letter held in the hand of one who stays at home.


And so. . .I am one of you. . .today. I’ve come a long way

to revisit your pictures in my mind, to revisit your youth,

to revisit your service to your country, to come to terms

with the notion that today. . .I am one of you.


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Sharon Draper’s STELLA BY STARLIGHT and the “Gift” of Reading



This is Sharon Draper. You may know her from her long list of popular young adult titles. Perhaps you have read her New York Times Bestseller (it’s spent a year on this list), OUT OF MY MIND. Perhaps, like me, you were first introduced to Sharon Draper’s work in a middle grade or young adult literature survey course and you read TEARS OF A TIGER and the companion books after you were hooked by this one. In this picture, Sharon is trying to pull me a little lower, “You’re so tall,” she says.

A month or two ago, Sharon contacted me to let me know that she had a number of young adult titles that she had been reading during her appointment to the National Book Award committee. She was wondering how we might get those books to my Room 407 Readers. We batted it back and forth in Facebook messages eventually moving to the more personal email to make this connection happen. We finally came upon Sharon’s upcoming visit to the Kentucky Reading Association, a perfect opportunity to meet as I am only a twelve minute, door-to-door commute from Hankins Ranch to the historic Galt House in Louisville.

As the day approached, we traded emails once again to coordinate our meeting time. My stomach was all a-flutter. Here’s the thing. I have seen Sharon Draper a number of times in passing at national conferences. Either passing in the hallway or catching a glimpse of her in a signing booth thinking, “THAT’S Sharon Draper.” But, now, I would be meeting her face-to-face. No conference as catalyst. I’m going to meet Sharon Draper. We’ve all had these moments, haven’t we?

When I arrived at the Galt House, Sharon came down to meet me, but if you’ve never been to the Galt House with its two towers separated by the end of the very busy 4th Street, meeting anyone in one spot can be tricky indeed, especially when the Riverboat Festival is in full-float. I couldn’t stay parked on the street, so Sharon jumped into my Expedition (Noah and Maddie are aware that the family vehicle has been transport to super authors and educators like Donalyn Miller, Barry Lane, Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, Terry Thompson, and super educators like Teresa Bunner, Kelly Vorhis, and Jillian Heise). Sharon Draper is riding in my vehicle. I hadn’t vacuumed. And Sharon was gracious to not have noted this.

Now, we are on the first level of the Galt House parking garage. This is like something out of the opening scenes of a Police Academy movie. We are the only ones parked together as we make the exchange of over a hundred young adult titles published in 2014. After I have loaded the nine boxes into the Expedition, I ask Sharon what she is working on at the moment. And this is when Sharon reached into her traveling case to pull out what looks to be an advanced reader copy of something. Sharon doubled over and laughed, clutching her book to her chest as she recognized my primal reaction to anything new and bookish. I literally went to grab the book out of Sharon’s hands.

Don’t judge me. You would have. You would have probably used the maze-like structure of the parking garage to make your get-away.

Before handing the book to me, Sharon had something to say about this new book. I’m holding it in my hands at this point and I can feel the newness of it all. The pages. The story. The book. Sharon has granted her permission for me to talk about STELLA BY STARLIGHT.

And I am going to talk about STELLA BY STARLIGHT from a first person point of view. This is a unique and trusted position into which Sharon has placed me as one of the first persons to have read the galley of the galley.

Sharon tells me that the book is a “gift.” And she says it in a way that I get her multiple meanings. The book is a gift some thirty years in the making. Back in 1983, Sharon was given the one remaining journal that belonged to her grandmother, Estella Mills. If you follow Sharon at Facebook, you will note her full name Sharon Mills Draper. On the covers of her books, you see this as Sharon M. Draper. ESTELLA BY STARLIGHT is a means of brining to light that “silent M” that has appeared on a number of treasured titles.

Sharon has carried that journal like a treasure. As she is handing me this new book, I sense that I am now carrying a part of that journal. I am holding something special. This is not just an ARC I’ve picked up in the booth. This is something that has been passed over a span of thirty years. . .eighty years. In one moment, we have shared a history. A gift. A charge.

Sharon tells me that she respects my opinion in regard to young adult literature. And I am glad of the atmosphere in which we are standing. She cannot see me blush in the half-light provided by the dome lights of the parking garage. I tell her that I will probably read the book later that day, and she repeats the word “gift.” The gift of my reading her book. The gift of my sharing her book.

And I read STELLA BY STARLIGHT. Starting at about five o’clock and staying with Stella until eight o’clock. I’ve been down by the river. I’ve been to the store. I’ve been to the polling place. I’ve been at the dinner table. I’ve been at the bedside. I have been to all of the places of this “gift” peeling back a corner here, a corner there, untying the threaded ribbon of a storyline through this “gift.”

Let’s do what I often do with new books and draw some notable comparisons of STELLA BY STARLIGHT to other well-known works. By doing this, I hope to draw you to STELLA BY STARLIGHT by way of what I connected to as I read. As much as the book has been inspired by Sharon’s grandmother, the new book is a fictional account drawn from that journal. There are vignettes of community members gathering about on a porch to share examples of what we might call “the dozens,” playful one-liners designed to bring the reader into a sense of community with the characters.  This is very much like Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD as we catch glimpses of the human interactions that make the characters feel like persons with whom we might trade barbs. As Stella reads the newspaper clippings, and we get a glimpse into the interests expressed and collected by this main character, we are getting a history lesson in 1932. Reading “ladders” and connections abound here. And, I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but an anecdote shared by the teacher, Mrs. Grayson, will have lead learners grabbing–or at least looking for–Virginia Hamilton’s 1985  Corretta Scott King Award-Winning, THE PEOPLE COULD FLY.

Sharon’s new title explores a difficult subject in balancing the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the internal drive of the black man to want to cast his vote in a presidential election. The tension between the domestic and democratic is at play in  STELLA BY STARLIGHT and Sharon creates a wonderful bridge across this tension with a main character who appreciates the cadence of The Pledge of Allegiance and can recite the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence (a rote skill learned in a one-room school house under the guidance of a lead learner who will make teachers stand up and cheer for the representation provided by Mrs. Grayson).

Anyone who knows my work will know I am given to follow a hero’s journey type of schema as I read. STELLA BY STARLIGHT hits all of the markers in a manner by which we will all be talking about “dragons” real and imagined. Stella Mills is a plucky hero with fallible guides and a quest we can all share, readers, writers, teachers, and students alike. And you won’t want to miss a cameo character in “the Spoon Man” who appears to peddle his wares, but leaves the reader with the first story that demonstrates the deep love between Stella and her mother.

Readers will see Stella struggle with the writing process throughout the book and this will make an excellent talking point during and after reading the work. Mr. Hankins suggests that STELLA BY STARLIGHT be read aloud to students to capture the pace and prosody of the narrative and Stella’s attempts at rendering elements of narrative into her own prose. But the encouragement that Stella receives from her teacher, her family, and her special friend, Tony can serve as a model for the kind of encouragement our own young writers might enjoy.


Yes. STELLA BY STARLIGHT is indeed a gift. And it will be a gift that keeps on giving by way of exploration, by way of exposition, and by way of explaining through the importance of recognizing and carrying forth a charge.

“You’re so tall. . .” she says.

Sharon. . .we all stand a little taller when we are affirmed by the authors we read and the authors we love. In real life–when you are not sharing your work with me before the rest of the reading world–we are actually the same height. But, we stand upon the memories, the experiences. . .the reading we have done and the writing we have attempted and the charges that come to us to continue to doing both.

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