A teacher once dubbed me an “information giver” and I’ve lived up to his assessment ever since. I love reading and then sharing what I’ve learned. What better way to do this than through my own writing—one reader at a time?
I write for all ages, both fiction and nonfiction, and on a variety of topics, including history, science, nature and the environment, law and society, self-esteem, and social issues. My school and library programs blend a love of learning, natural curiosity, and interest in nature, science, and history to engage the audience through activities and literacy exercises.
I grew up in Michigan in a family of 8 children and I spent a lot of time reading as a child. It was no surprise to my family when I showed a flair for making up stories and putting on puppet plays for the neighborhood. I think I always knew I’d grow up to write books. At least, that was my plan, from about grade 4 on.
I also spent a great deal of time playing in the creek and exploring the outdoors. Spending time with nature is still one of my hobbies. I grew up around lakes, so swimming was a common pastime. It still is, only I now enjoy it from my home in Florida. I also enjoy canoeing, bird watching, gardening, camping, hiking, and photographing nature and wildlife. The trees, flowers, birds, insects, and sunshine inspire me. Since most of my writing is nonfiction, my creative well is refilled whenever I’m outside.
Swans and the creek at Higgins Lake State Park in Michigan. Marco Island, Florida sunset.
Even though I’ve moved (and joined a closer parish) I’ve continued to write book “reviews” for the St. William bulletin. Here are a few that have appeared in recent weeks.
God Gave Us You / written by Lisa Town Bergren; illustrated by Laura J. Bryant (Water Books Press, 2000)
Mama tucks in little cub for the night but little cub isn’t ready for sleep. She wants to hear about how she came from God. As she hears Mama tell her where she came from, she learns how very loved and special she is. Charming and whimsical illustrations show polar bear couple through the stages of pregnancy and preparations to bring a baby cub home to celebrate the miracle of family and children. For Pre-K—younger elementary.
Good Night Little One / written by Margaret Wise Brown (Parragon, 2012)
A beautiful bedtime book with bright but calming illustrations and quiet, rhyming and receptive text to lull your little one to close their eyes. The story, by the author of Goodnight Moon features various animals ending the day’s activities and settling to sleep. Silly sheep chew grass beneath the sky and baby pigs squeal beneath the sky. Eventually the story leads to a little child tucked into bed for the night. Beneath the surface is the impression of the majesty of the stars and all God’s creations.
Whatever You Grow Up to Be / written by Karen Kingsbury; illustrated by Valeria DeCampo (ZanderKids, 2014)
A tribute to babies and the hopes and dreams of parents. A wonderful book to give as a newborn gift. In this charming book with bright, contemporary illustrations, new parents imagine the life of their child from infancy to having children of their own. It is a celebration of joy of life and all the stages along with possible careers, “if that’s what you grow up to be.” Rhyming text will capture little ones while an underlying messages appeals to the adult reader: “At ten you drive your fire truck, and rescue folks when they get stuck.” Each spread includes a related NIV Bible verse.
A.K.A. Genius / written by Marilee Haynes (Pauline Teen, 2013)
A humorous and realistic novel for grades 6 and up. Gabe has just tested at genius level at St. Jude Middle School. This baffles him since he routinely gets B’s in his classes, can’t even open his locker, and is hopeless in any sport (to the disappointment of his father). These are not the least of his problems since his “second best friend,” Maya, now won’t speak to him AND the principal has created a special class: Greater Achieving Students (nicknamed G.A.S.) and he ends up as co-captain for an academic olympics—with Maya. How he comes to terms with what “genius” means for his life and learns to deal with the usual adolescent issues (like asking his sister’s best friend on a date) are funny as well as touching and a good model for learning self-acceptance.
Though my presentation on October 3, “Books for Grandkids,” had a small turnout due to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, we offered it again to a large crowd. I also did two “book talks” for CCD parents earlier this month. I had a blast making book suggestions from noted Catholic publishers as well as secular books by a variety of authors starring Catholic characters. Titles included books for pre-school to teens. I passed out bookmarks and a list of questions parents and grandparents can use to open discussion about any type of fiction. (If any other parishes out there want me to do it for them, I’d be happy to repeat it!)
Here are some of the books I talked about during the presentation and had on display for browsing afterward.
The Pumpkin Patch Parable / written by Liz Curtis Higgs; illustrated by Nancy Munger (Tommy Nelson, 1995)
This board book presents an alternative to traditional Halloween. Each spread include a related spiritual verse. The story describes the farmer who grows pumpkins and all the stages from planting seeds to harvest and how they each require patience and tending. But in October the farmer chooses the perfect pumpkin to carve. A candle is placed inside to glow, a reminder of how God turns the simple into the glorious.
Everybody Has a Body: God Made Boys nd Girls / written by Monica Ashour; illustrated by Karol Kaminski (Pauline Kids, 2015)
This board book with bold, cartoon-like illustrations, serves as a first introduction to the difference between girls and boys. God makes everybody alike, yet he made our bodies different, too. Parents were once children but now they have specific roles, as children will when they grow up. This is a celebration of bodies and the roles they play in God’s plan. Pre-K.
Forever You: A book about your Soul and Body / written by Nicole Lataif; illustrated by Mary Rojas (Pauline Books and Media, 2012)
For pre-K—elementary with gentle text and illustrations to match, this book is a celebration of our bodies and what they can do (legs to climb) and how our soul gives our bodies life:
“It’s not made of light, but warms you like the sun.”
“It’s not like the wind, but sings like a gentle breeze.”
The soul is a part of all we do, whether singing or bathing. It lets people see us from the inside out, in what we feel, what we like, what we love, and in our special gifts and talents.
The Song of Francis / written by Tomie dePaola (GP Putnam’s Sons, 2009)
Francis wants to sing, to sing of the love of God he feels. But he is a alone. An angel encourages him to sing anyway. His singing attracts birds, the sun and moon. When he stops, they leave and Francis vows to sing again tomorrow and each day thereafter. This simple book of bold colors and minimal text has a gentle yet powerful message as it depicts Saint Francis singing his love for God to the sun, moon, and birds.
He Said Yes: The Story of Father Michael Judge / written by Kelly Ann Lynch; illustrated by M. Scott Oatman (Paulist Press, 2007)
Biography of Father Judge from his days as a student through his answering God’s calling (in many different ways) to his heroism on 9/11. Each “spread” in the book features a different challenge God presented for him, from becoming a priest to working with the homeless and through to his role as chaplain for the NYC Fire Dept. For advanced beginning readers through upper elementary (grades 3-6).
The Old Shepherd’s Tale / written by Christopher Nye; illustrated by Henri Sørensen ( Housatonic Press, 2004)
This storybook for older listeners and readers (grades K and up) with appealing illustrations shares the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of the animals and an old shepherd that cares for them. Each gentle animal is blessed with gifts for their part in that most holy of nights—to aid the Christ child, but also for all of mankind: food and nourishment from the cow, strength from the ox, and protection from danger from the donkey. Their story doesn’t end on that night, however. The old shepherd continues to care for them as teach people how important animals are—in many ways. A wonderful expansion on the message from the night of Jesus’ birth and a great family story.
So “Book and Bagels,” which was supposed to only be a summer program, is continuing every month. We’re moving onto other authors and rotating through different genres now. All that reading, though, had me wondering, Where are the Catholic characters among the books for children and teens? To answer this question, I headed to the Collier Public Library. I was surprised (and delighted) to find quite a few books when I searched for Catholic juvenile fiction and by well-known authors. Here are a few I read this summer:
Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day by Gary Paulsen
A fun, slim book about finding balance between strict organization and realities of life.
Molly is ultra organized, A binder helps her keep every aspect of her life—and her grandmother’s—on track. This is essential since she lives with her super spontaneous grandmother, Irene, who is an animal talent agent.
But on Senior Citizen’s Day at Our Lady of Mercy Middle School, Molly’s binder goes missing. Like a missing security blanket, it sets her off kilter and she has mishap after mishap. Plus, she is trying to keep her grandmother out of trouble, which isn’t easy when her best friends Mary Margaret, Mary Pat, and Mary Bridget egg on Irene’s chaotic and creative approach to life. As the day goes on, Molly’s attitude changes (with nudges and pokes from Irene) and Molly “survives” without her notebook (only to find it where she never thought to look).
A fun book about coming to understand what (and who) we can and cannot control and finding balance in life.
Revenge of the Green Banana by Jim Murphy (Clarion Books)
A mostly autobiographical account of Murphy’s 6th grade year at St. Stephens Catholic School (New Jersey) in 1958 makes for hilarious reading and a great family book. (Adults will reminisce and see the juvenile logic that leads to miscommunication between the nuns and their students.)
Jim is determined that 6th grade will be a fresh start. But this last for about 12 minutes because his new teacher, Sister Angelica, won’t see beyond the thick red folder of his past. His humiliation escalates when he is forced to sing and dance, dressed as green banana, with the 2nd graders in a school assembly. He and his best friends devise an elaborate prank to humiliate Sister Angelica. But revenge can get out of control, especially when the girl he secretly likes may end up as the victim of their prank. Can he stop that from happening in time?
Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman
This is a charming, laugh out loud funny, and touching story about change, prompted by both moving and loss—and the grief that points us toward growth.
When Justine’s family moves from New Rochelle, New York to Greenwich, Connecticut, she greatly misses Bubbe, her father’s mother, but she soon makes a new friend, Mary Catherine McAllister. The McAllisters are Catholic and their family life is chaotic but loving which fascinates Justine. This prompts Justine in trying to convince her family to keep Kosher, like Bubbe. Justine’s perfect older sister teases her and her mother and Grandpa Leon and Grandma Lila aren’t exactly encouraging either.
Feeling they are only Jewish by birth and wanting the family life of her friend, Justine announces that she is giving up being Jewish for Lent—to fit into her new home town and to be like her new friend. She enjoys spending time with the McAllisters because it is fun and busy at their house, their mother bakes cookies from scratch and is engaged with the children.
Justine is so fascinated with Catholicism that she secretly practices going to confession—in her closet with her Teddy bear as the priest (Father Ted)—and she practices communion using grape juice and matzah, despite her mother’s strict rules about no food in the bedrooms.
When Bubbe has a serious stroke on the day Justine begged to attend mass with the McAallisers, she is convinced God is punishing Bubbe for her own sin. Guilt creates drama AND humor as mice are discovered in the bedrooms and an exterminator uncovers Father Ted and the closeted remains of communion. Drama escalates in her family BUT Bubbe is on her side, though growing weaker every day.
“Reaching Reluctant Writers with Wordless Picture Books” at MyTownTutors (August 27, 2104). Shares how I’ve successfully used wordless picture books, such as Zoom! by Istvan Banyai to get elementary students writing. Perfect advice for starting out a new school year. Here are some I’ve used with my students:
A new school year is a fresh exciting start for most students, but reluctant writers often feel more anxiety than normal at this time of year. Even if your students are eager to write, you’ll find benefits in using wordless picture books with them. They’re a great way to ease into writing because the illustrations tell a story using zero (or minimal) words allowing students to focus on what happens. A story through pictures forces the students to:
Identify key details to pick up on the storyline
Predict what the next scene might be
Use their own words to understand the story
As you read the story, ask students to share their thoughts on “what’s happening.” Simply listen and encourage further sharing. Reluctant students can see that this is about what each student notices and are provided “clues” to piecing together the storyline from their classmates.
After “reading” the book, students write a summary of the story. Ask them to write down the story events as they understand them, emphasizing there really isn’t a “wrong” way to interpret it. This takes away some of the anxiety for reluctant writers. (If they still struggle, ask them to tell you verbally about the book, then ask them to write what they’ve just told you.) Encourage them to think of this task as “sharing” the story with someone who has not “read” the book. These writings provide a good idea of the students’ comprehension and writing skills after summer break.
My favorites include (click through at link above to read more about how I use them):
It’s summer and time for fun, but kids need to keep their reading muscles in shape too. So, we’re creating a family lending library for the ministry center at my parish. To help publicize it, I’m writing brief book reviews for the bulletin. We’re calling it “Book Nook.” Here are titles for children and teens I’ve read for upcoming issues. Hope you find something that will engage the young people in your life. I’ve searched for titles hat parents (and grandparents) can feel good about recommending.
Lucy: A Light for Jesus / written by Barbara Yoffie (Liguori)
Vivid illustrations in the style of animated film tell the story of St. Lucy, an early Christian and hero of our faith who died for her belief in Jesus. Readers will see Lucy as a real-life role model who loved to pray, helped the lonely or sad, took food to the hungry, and gave money to the poor. Following the story of her life is information on the tradition behind celebrating her saint’s day during Advent. This is part of the Saints and Me series from Liguori Press and of interest to ages 5-8.
The Wolf and the Shield: An Adventure with Saint Patrick / written by Sherry Weaver Smith (Pauline Books & Media)
This is an exciting story set in Ireland during the time of Saint Patrick. Kieran misses his father and now must take care of his mother and younger brother Riordan. That means hunting wolves and trying to impress the warrior Carrick. When Kieran finds a wolf pup instead, he can’t bring himself to kill it. How will he impress Carrick now and be trained to be a warrior and better protect his family? He hides the wolf pup and is slowly influenced by a mysterious man in the woods.
The Sign of the Carved Cross / written by Lisa M. Henley (Servant Books/Franciscan Media)
This is book 2 in the Chime Travelers series in which twins Katie and Patrick take turns traveling to the past to meet a saint and learn about an issue he or she is facing in the present. In The Sign of the Carved Cross, Katie and her friends are not very welcoming to the new girl. But as Katie is helping to clean the chapel on Saturday, she hears chimes and finds herself in the longhouse of Tekakwitha. Now Katie is the new girl but is befriended by Tekakwitha without question. As Katie tries to find a way to return to the present, she learns what friendship truly is and witnesses Kateri Tekakwitha’s deep faith—and the lengths she must go to to practice it.
The Voice: A story about faith and trust / written by R.W. Metten (Paulist Press, 1999/2001)
This delightful book is perfect for family reading. The Voice is a fable for all ages with simple, evocative line drawings accompanied by simple yet powerful text. A man is fishing when the first hears the Voice. “Follow me,” says the Voice. But he is content in his life and the timing of the invitation is inconvenient. He jus wants to enjoy fishing. But the Voice is persistent and though the man ignores it, the invitation is repeated in ever more insistent manner. Eventually the man’s safe little boat (and life) spring a leak. Minor complications mount—with humorous reactions from the man—that will ring familiar with adult readers. Complications ensue until the man realizes he must trust the Voice and listen.
Sister Anne’s Hands / written by Mary Beth Lorbeicki, illustrated by K. Wendy Papp Dial Books for Young Readers)
Illustrated with luminous artwork, his beautiful picture book reads like a memoir, sharing the story of finding common ground among amid change and coming to terms with racial differences. It’s the early 1960s and Anna has a new teacher at her Catholic school. Anna is shy and a bit fearful since she’s never seen a person with dark skin. But Sister Anne is warm and tells jokes. She makes math and reading fun. But ignorance causes confusion and pain as parents begin to pull their children from the school. Eventually during class someone sails a cruel message folded into a paper airplane at Sister yet she calmly turns it into a powerful teachable moment which has a profound impact on Anna and her classmates. A wonderful story with opportunity for discussion about the pain ignorance and prejudice can cause.
God Knows / written by Kevin Shortsleeve, illustrated by Joan Hutson (Pauline Books and Media)
This beautiful book uses softly colored illustrations and rhyming text to reassure children that God knows everything and care for everyone and everything—the whole world. It a warm and loving celebration of creation and unconditional love.
A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion called “Books and Bagels” that meets at a parish down the street. When I discovered we would be reading C.S. Lewis this summer I was thrilled. While it won’t include his children’s book, The Chronicles of Narnia, I do love his writing and am eager to read titles by Lewis I haven’t yet read.
This got me thinking of favorite classics, then simply favorite books I read as a kid. Finally, I headed to my bookshelves to see what titles I might suggest to my niece as well as grand nieces and nephews. I was surprised to find several classics by Leo Lionni as well as these gems. I own these books because I wrote reviews for them years ago for Christian Library Journal and others. Then I hunted up the reviews to share here. Enjoy!
Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers / written by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene (Sleeping Bear Press)
Award-winning author Gloria Whelan crafts a rich historical tale in Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers. Lyrical prose vividly weaves details and customs of ancient Japan into a story of a young girl using observation and impressions to ease homesickness. Yan Nascimbene’s watercolor illustrations suffuse muted backgrounds with vibrant kimonos and foregrounds to evoke the time period. Yuki’s mother instructs her to pack for a long journey. Yuki does not want to leave but does as she is told. Her teacher gives her lessons to complete on the journey. She must write one haiku each day. So in a basket she packs brushes, ink, and rice paper for her assignment.
They travel the historic Tokaido Road on their 300-mile journey between Kyoto, the city of the emperor and imperial court, and Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Japan’s political center. Shouters head the long procession. They announce the passage of the governor, Yuki’s father. Next come the samurai, then Father on his horse. Six men carry the palanquin sheltering Yuki, her little dog, and her mother. Lastly, one thousand men carry the family’s possessions.
Yuki’s haiku are sprinkled through the story and share her growing delight in the places and events she experiences. “We are a dragon / Our one thousand carriers / the dragon’s long tale.” They stay at 53 inns, she sleeps using a wooden pillow, and learns “Fuji is a sacred mountain were spirits live.”
Beneath the story lies several benefits to readers. The book is entertaining but also provides information on ancient Japan. Values of honoring parents, showing respect, and finding joy in present circumstances are reinforced through this story. A note from the author precedes the story, supplying background on the topic.
Many Moons / written by James Thurber, illustrated by Louis Slodobkin (Voyager Books/Harcourt Brace & Company)
We sometimes complicate issues when using common sense is the answer. This is the message Many Moons by James Thurber shares in a classic storybook originally published in 1943. After eating too many raspberry tarts, Princess Lenore feels ill. Hoping to make her feel well again, her father offers to bring her anything her heart desires. When she asks for the moon – literally – the king calls on the wisest men in his court. The Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician each balk at the request, reminding the king of the long list of items they have found when asked. The king worries about his promise to – and the health of – the princess. Calling on the court jester to ease his sorrows, it is the jester who makes a logical suggestion – asking Lenore exactly what she is expecting. The solution to the king’s problem is simple and the jester succeeds in giving Lenore the moon.
This story is as charming today as it was when it won the Caldecott Medal in 1944. Louis Slobodkin’s ink and color illustrations, though at a glance sketchy, are rich in action and hint at the ornate detail of Lenore’s royal life. Though story groups will enjoy the simple solution to such a demanding request, this book is especially appropriate for one-on-one sharing. It shows the appeal of childish logic along with imparting the message that parents or adults really do wish to give children “the moon.” More importantly, it shows that what is wished (or prayed) for may be answered in an unexpected way.
The dragon’s child : a story of Angel Island / written by Laurence Yep with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep. (HarperCollins).
In The Dragon’s Child: A story of Angel Island, Laurence Yep weaves a quietly suspenseful tale packed with information on the Chinese immigration experience in early twentieth century California. His niece Dr. Kathleen S. Yep discovered immigration interviews while researching family history and the two crafted a story based on them. Each chapter opens with questions posed to Gim Lew Yep in the present followed with the story through the eyes of the ten-year-old boy.
Lung Gon Yep was born in America where he lives and works. When he visits his wife and children in China, Lung Gon decides his youngest son will return with him to California. Gim Lew is torn between leaving his mother and disappointing his father. For the journey he must prepare for the interrogation all Asian immigrants undergo. But Gim Lew stutters. His father worries the immigration officials will believe it is because he is lying. So Gim Lew must memorize family facts and details and work to tame his stutter.
As they journey, first to Hong Kong and then on a ship to San Francisco, Gim Lew’s insights provide comparisons between American and Chinese customs. Issues of prejudice against Chinese are woven throughout the plot. When they reach Angel Island, sometimes called the Ellis Island of the west coast, Gim Lew’s anxiety intensifies. He has not yet tamed his stutter, which builds tension in the story.
The book concludes with facts about Chinese American immigration and photos of Yep’s father and grandfather. This story is a wonderful way to introduce family heritage and early twentieth century history and to launch discussion about prejudice and treatment of immigrants.
Queen Esther Saves Her People / retold by Rita Golden Gelman, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Scholastic)
Bright and lively illustrations portray the intensity of this bible story, which is closely based on the Book of Esther, in a folk art style that provides a sense of the Persian time period. This retelling of the Purim story portrays the courage and clever thinking of young Esther who risks her life to save the Jewish people. When Esther is chosen, Cinderella-like, to be the Queen of Persia, she discovers that her husband, King Ahasuerus, would rather drink and play cards and allows his prime minster, Hamen, to take care of business. When Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, refuses to bow down to Hamen, the prime minister is infuriated and vows that Mordecai, along with every Jew in Persia, must be killed. Esther gathers her courage to approach her hot-tempered husband who doesn’t know until that moment that Esther, too, is Jewish. Through clever thinking Esther succeeds in thwarting Hamen. The book includes a “Purim Notebook” at the end that provides information on the holiday and the noisy, joyous celebration.