Mockingbird

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Erskine, Kathryn (2011). Mockingbird. New York: Puffin Books.

After more than a quarter of a century teaching special education, my favorite population to work with remains those kids with “autism spectrum disorder”. Over the years the American Psychiatric Association has redefined exactly what this includes, and with the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was no longer its own, separate category. While similar to autism in many ways, I personally find its characteristics to be different enough to warrant its own diagnosis, and anticipate that some day in the future, it will have this once again.

In Mockingbird Kathryn Erskine weaves two circumstances close to her heart into a memorable story for upper elementary students: Asperger’s syndrome, which her own daughter was diagnosed with, and in memory of the Virginia Tech massacre, school shootings. Told in first person narrative by ten-year old Caitlin, who has Asperger’s, the story is propelled forward by her search for closure after her older brother is gunned down in his middle school. With the completion of a project her brother had started she, her dad, and the entire community step closer to the healing they so desperately need.

Aspergers is characterized by a disconnect in emotional understanding and consequently, social skills. Caitlin has difficulty “stepping into someone else’s shoes”. She is extremely literal and likes her world to be well-defined. Even when drawing, which she does exceeding well, her pictures need to be done in black and white. Very bright, Caitlin is in a regular fifth grade classroom, preparing to transition to middle school, learning to make friends, and coping with extreme sensitivities to sensory stimuli.

Reading as Caitlin can be a little tricky if Aspergers is new to you. When she speaks there is usually less inflection than other characters in the dialogue. While suitable as an independent reader, reading aloud the first chapter or two may help give your kids a firmer grasp on her characterization, and will provide an opportunity to discuss the two issues Erskine is addressing more directly.

This National Book Award winner is a valuable book for teaching about perspective, disabilities, and empathy.

Emily Dickinson

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“There is no frigate like a book                                                                                                                                To take us lands away,                                                                                                                                            Nor any coursers like a page                                                                                                                                     Of prancing poetry.”  Emily Dickinson

Poetry is an often overlooked genre in homeschool literature and in children’s literature in general. One of my favorite collections is the Poetry for Young People series published by Sterling Children’s Books. Originally copyrighted in 1994, their 2014 editions now include no less than twenty-two well-known poets to learn about. I have chosen Emily Dickinson because there are a number of excellent fiction and non-fiction resources readily available to create a beautiful family unit study.

The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires is told by the character of “Emmaline”, a mouse who has taken up residence in Emily’s room. Through an exchange of poems between herself and Emily Dickinson, we learn about events in Emily’s life, and develop a picture of her as a person. This book is an excellent read aloud for ages six and up, although I would say my upper elementary aged kids have appreciated it the most.

Author Eileen Spinelli’s Another Day as Emily is a fun read for fourth through sixth graders- especially for girls with younger brothers! Written in non-rhyming poetry it is a way to demonstrate that not all poems need to rhyme. Also, it’s short enough to assign as an independent read on top of other programs.

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For preschoolers and lower elementary students my first choice in picture books would be Marty Rhodes Figley’s Emily and Carlo. Carlo was Emily’s Newfoundland, and her constant companion as she explored the meadows around her New England home. One other picture book about this well-known poet is Michael Bedard’s Emily, which takes the perspective of a little girl who lives on her street.

Jane Yolen writes in couplets, taking the voices of Emily, and others in her life in The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson. All of the books provide historical information and could be utilized to gather facts for a biographical assignment. Poetry for Young People’s Emily Dickinson provides definitions of less familiar words used in her poems and makes an excellent framework for the other titles.

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Bedard, Michael (1992). Emily. New York, New York: Doubleday Book for Young Readers.

Bolin, Frances Schoonmaker (editor)(2014). Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson. New York, NY: 2014

Figley, Marty Rhodes (2012). Emily and Carlo. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Spinelli, Eileen (2015). Another Day as Emily. New York, NY: Yearling.

Spires, Elizabeth (1999). The Mouse of Amherst. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Yolen, Jane (2012). The Emily Sonnets. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

The Kite Fighters

Park, Linda (2000). The Kite Fighters. New York, NY: Random House.

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Linda Sue Park is one of my all time favorite authors. In October of 2012 I had the privilege not only of hearing her speak, but of sitting beside her for both lunch and a campfire, when I attended the Books That Rise Above conference offered by the Highlights Foundation. She is best known for her Newbery award winner A Single Shard, however my personal favorite of all her books for children is The Kite Fighters.

Set in 1473, The Kite Fighters is the story of a second born Korean son coming to terms with his role in the family. Young-sup, and his older brother, Kee-sup, are more than excited about the annual New Year kite fighting competition. Kee-sup is gifted at kite design, but it is Young-sup who naturally possesses skill at flying. As the elder brother it is Kee-sup who is expected to bring honor to the family name, and who subsequently receives the boys’ father’s attention. Young-sup and Kee-sup remain close even as the expectations change when Kee-sup is “capped” (recognized as an adult in Korean culture).

I love the way Linda Sue Park keeps the brothers’ friendship strong, even allowing Kee-sup to risk correction for disagreeing with their father. And I love how she weaves in the young king’s loneliness for friends his own age. I also really like that it isn’t until the end of the story that the boys’ father begins to see things differently.

Rich in cultural knowledge, The Kite Fighters is an excellent example for upper elementary aged readers of a radically different set of  customs and traditions. It is brimming with experiences easy for young readers to identify with: sibling and parent relationships, fairness and honesty, and competition. They will hardly notice they are learning history- and if they’re anything like me, Young-sup, Kee-sup, and their friend, the king, will remain favorite characters for years to come.

Also recommended by Linda Sue Park: A Single Shard, A Long Walk to Water, The Firekeeper’s Son, and Seesaw Girl.