Words by Heart

Sebestyen, Ouida (1979). Words by Heart. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.


Words by Heart is a strongly written story about forgiveness, set in the racially tense South, in the early 1900s. Twelve year old Lena’s father chooses to move his family into a white community ,where she would have more opportunities than if they remained in their African American neighborhood in Scatterbrook. In the story Lena first becomes aware that she isn’t accepted based on the color of her skin.

Lena’s father is the person she most loves and admires. He is one of the most Christ-like characters to ever grace the pages of a work of fiction, children’s or otherwise. Not only does he continually forgive his enemies, but he chooses to do what is right even when he is afraid, and points his daughter to walk in love when nothing could be more contrary to human nature.

Words by Heart is a heavy story, which is likely the reason it hasn’t found much popularity in children’s literature. It is a shamefully realistic picture of what our country was like at the turn of the century. There is little to lighten it up: the subject matter, the fear of its characters, and some language (Lena’s father’s employer does a fair amount of swearing), make it most suitable for young adult readers. Just the same, it is a book families passionate about both faith and stories shouldn’t miss: a book that teaches more about loving your enemies than this one would be hard to find.



Ouida Sebestyen’s first novel (incidentally, published when she was fifty-five years old) was awarded an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, was the winner of the IRA Children’s Book Award, and A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble

Dalgliesh, Alice (1952). The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

Dalgliesh, Alice (1954). The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).


Rarely are two of my favorite books for an age level by the same author, but Newbery honor books The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh are the exception.

In The Bears on Hemlock Mountain eight year old Jonathan isn’t so sure about going over the hill to fetch an iron pot from his aunt, as it is early spring:


“Me?” said Jonathan. “All alone? They say there are bears on Hemlock Mountain.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said his mother. “Many’s the time I’ve been over Hemlock Mountain and not a bear did I see.”

.                                                                                               (Dalgliesh, p. 15)


And I’m sure you can guess what happens…

This book is just plain fun to read. Based on a Pennsylvania “tall tale”, it depicts early American culture with humor and charm, and rewards both ingenuity and bravery. With unforgettable rhythm, Jonathan and his mother keep up their courage by telling themselves, “THERE are NO BEARS ON HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN, NO BEARS, NO BEARS AT ALL”, over and over, until young listeners are reciting this along with the story. Simple, and full of faith, I never tire of reading this to my kids.

The Courage of Sarah Noble is based on the true account of an eight year old girl who came with her father into the Connecticut wilderness in 1707. Far from her mother and her large family of brothers and sisters, Sarah must face fears of wild animals, Indians, and being separated from those she loves. In just fifty-five pages Alice Dalgliesh shows young readers that “To be afraid and to be brave is the best courage of all,” (Dalgliesh, p.36).

I love how this third person narrative shows not only a child’s perspective, but a loving father’s as well. And I especially appreciate the way it shows the love of a Christian home by contrast of another:


“Soon we shall have a fine house like Mistress Robinson’s.”

“No,” said Sarah. “Like our own.”

“And why not like Mistress Robinsons?”

“Because there is no love in that house,” said Sarah.

“You are too wise for your years.”

(Dalgliesh, p. 14)


Both The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble are sure to continue inspiring Christian families for years to come.



Heart of a Samurai

Preus, Margi (2010). Heart of a Samurai. New York: Amulet Books.



Heart of a Samurai is the fictional account of a Japanese teenager’s unprecedented encounter with America in the mid 1800’s. Shipwrecked at the age of fourteen, Manjiro, (also known by his American name, John Mung), is rescued by a whaling vessel, along with four of his Japanese shipmates. After sailing for two years with the crew of the John Howland, Manjiro returns to the United States with Captain Whitfield, who later adopts him. In the book, Manjiro must address fears based on preconceived ideas,  homesickness, and choose between a myriad of opportunities placed before him.

To give you a taste of Pruis’ writing style, here is an excerpt that shows the inner struggle Manjiro is going through. He has just been informed by a Japanese shipmate that the choice to stay with the rescued sailors from his own country, or go on to America with Captain Whitfield, was to be his own:

“Manjiro opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Thoughts collided in his mind. To see America…but to possibly miss a chance to return home to his mother and family. To learn a thousand new things…but to go to a strange place where people might hate and reject him. To feel again the lift of his heart when the sails filled with wind and the ship seemed to soar over the ocean…but to have to say goodbye to his comrades with whom he’d shared so much…” (Pruis, p,74)


In Japan Manjiro was being raised as a Buddhist. Not much mention is made of this, other than a reference to early missionaries trying to change not only the beliefs of the Japanese people, but their lifestyles as well. John Mung’s adoptive family must change churches twice before finding one accepting of their new son, but it is clear that somewhere along the way, he was presented with the gospel, for in his final letter to Captain Whitfield  before returning to Japan he writes:

“I hope you will never forget me, for I have thought about you day after day; you are my best friend on earth, besides the great God.” (Pruis, p.251)

In this her first novel, Margi Preus successfully weaves together a number of historical accuracies into creative writing. The book is informative in its descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, the codes of the Samurai, the  California Gold Rush, and Japanese and American perceptions of one another in the mid-nineteenth century. Heart of a Samurai is suitable as a read-aloud for any age, and as an independent read for grades six through eight. It could be used in conjunction with Commodore Perry and Land of the Shogun, perhaps reading  this aloud and having the kids read Preus’ book on their own. (Manjiro’s adventure, and consequent ability to counsel and interpret for the Japanese government, was instrumental in paving the way for the end to 250 years of Japanese isolationsism). It can also be connected to Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, as after returning to Japan, Manjiro translates his book The New American Practical Navigator into Japanese. (Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr. Bowditch was awarded the Newbery medal in 1956).

In addition to being a Newbery honor (2011), Heart of a Samurai made the Best Children’s Books of the Year lists for Bank Street College, the New York Public Library, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Beautifully done!

Little Blue Truck

Schertle, Alice (2008). Little Blue Truck. Boston: Harcourt, Inc.


At first I was remiss that I’d left Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck off of my “Top Ten Picks for Toddlers” post, but then I realized that with three sequels, it has probably earned a post all to itself. Filled with two of little boys’ favorite interests, trucks and animals, this story of a friendly truck helping others, and being helped himself, is a favorite among my early intervention students. The premise is simple: after helping out a self-centered dump  truck who gets himself in a fix, Little Blue Truck, likewise, needs a hand. Because he is well-loved by his many animal friends, they work together to come to his rescue. In the end the big, yellow dump truck learns a valuable lesson.

Sequel Little Blue Truck Leads the Way teaches about taking turns and putting others ahead of oneself, and Little Blue Truck’s Christmas is just pure, counting backwards fun- complete with twinkling lights adorning the final page. Illustrator Jill McElmurry also deserves praise for her colorful, engaging drawings.

Marketed as a preschool book, this series is especially appropriate for ages 2 1/2 to 4 years.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Lin, Grace (2009). Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Company.


In this middle grade fantasy author Grace Lin does an outstanding job of weaving Chinese folktales into an original, engaging story. Living beside “Fruitless Mountain”, Minli’s hard life working the rice fields alongside her parents, is brightened by only one thing: her father’s stories. When a talking goldfish provides her with directions to “Never-Ending Mountain”, Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon and change her family’s fortune. Like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a dragon who cannot fly joins the heroine in her quest when he is freed. Together they embark on a journey of courage and self-discovery, meeting more than a few interesting characters along the way.

This book is phenomenal for character studies and comparisons: Ba’s contentment versus Ma’s discontentment, Magistrate Tiger’s selfishness versus Jade Dragon’s children’s and other characters’ self-sacrifice, and Minli’s courage, to name a few. It is a perfect introduction to Chinese folktales, and a wonderful way to capture student interest when studying this culture. Opportunities to incorporate geography (the origins of the Jade, Pearl, Yellow, Long, and Black rivers, as given in folklore, are included), technology (Minli must make a compass for her journey), creative writing (they can attempt to write their own folktales), and history, abound. Grace Lin’s website offers a reader’s guide with ten questions that make excellent writing prompts. (These can also be found at the end of the Little, Brown, and Company 2011 edition of the book).

And the best news is Lin doesn’t stop here: sequels Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver are nearly as good as the first book of the series. The books are quite intricately woven, and I would suggest students journal or illustrate the story as they read to aid in following them, especially the last in the trilogy.


Recommended for ages eight to twelve, (grades three to seven), this Newbery Honor Book and New York Times best seller is too good to be missed, so if your teens haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy it, use it as a family read aloud. It is one of the finest works of children’s literature published since the century began, and I expect will remain in my top five favorites for upper elementary fiction for years to come.

Sugarbush Spring

Chall, Marsha Wilson (2000). Sugarbush Spring. New York, NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.


It is February in the Finger Lakes, and the maple syrup makers are expectantly tapping trees, running lines, and watching the forecast to see when the first sap collections will be made. My husband is no exception. Any day now I will lose him to the sugarhouse (which luckily I can see from several windows of our home). My kitchen will be overtaken by giant pots, bottles, gauges, and scents of sweetness. And in the evenings, when the kids are snuggled on the couch, sleepily watching DVDs, I will sneak out and join him for the familiar annual sounds of boiling sap and crackling timber.


Marsha Wilson Chall depicts the experience exquisitely in her book, Sugarbush Spring. Through the eyes of a child, from tapping to bottling, a day of sap harvesting and syrup making is revealed in beautiful word pictures:

“I hang a pail beneath each of them and wait. The sun side spills first. Ping…ping…dripple, dripple-dripple.” (p.7)

“All around the sugarbush I measure who is ready, filling up my arms with trees.” (p.8)


But the writing is only the half of it; Jim Daly’s illustrations are nothing short of frameable. Year after year the kids and I pour over the beautiful paintings, enjoying them every bit as much as the story itself.


Maple syruping abounds in children’s literature, as I shared in the unit study I wrote several years ago (see The Old Schoolhouse magazine, Fall 2008 issue, or TOS Digital Products WeE Book “From the Tree to the Table: A Maple Syrup Story”). Miracles on Maple Hill, A Gathering of Days, The Birchbark House, Calico Bush, and Little House in the Big Woods, all include descriptions of the process in various times and places. Sugarbush Spring works especially well as a read aloud for younger children. It goes beyond the technical knowledge of syrup making (although this isn’t neglected) to the beauty of one of God’s gifts- hidden in trees for thousands of years before its discovery.


Enjoy a sign that spring is on its way. If you can, make it to the sugarbush yourself, (and if you come to ours, be sure to wear boots!). If you can’t, find yourself a copy of Sugarbush Spring.

Emily Dickinson


“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.


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.


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 Valentine Cat


Bulla, Clyde Robert (1959). The Valentine Cat. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, Inc.

One of the blessings of having half a dozen kids is that you get to enjoy certain read alouds time and time again. The Valentine Cat by Clyde Robert Bulla is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I’m sharing this post in advance in hopes that you may be able to get your hands on a copy before February 14th.

When Tell, who makes his living as a shoemaker’s assistant, takes in a half-starved, little cat with a white heart marking his black head, it not only brings companionship to his lonely evenings, but awakens the painter he once was. Brushing off his old paints he covers the walls of his flat with paintings of the cat playing and exploring. One day the cat is stolen by the local chimney sweep, Ketch, who hides him and uses him as a “magic broom” to clean tight spots in chimneys. Word of his cleaning success reaches the palace, and he is called to sweep out a chimney for the red room, where Princess Florinda is excitedly planning a Valentine’s Day party.

While completing the assignment, the evil chimney sweep slips on the snow covered roof. Down the chimney plops the cat, terrifying the palace staff below. Princess Florinda gets a new pet- until the Valentine Cat escapes during the holiday parade, and finds his way home to Tell. The guards are just about to arrest the humble Tell for stealing the royal feline when the princess notices the paintings, and defends his innocence:

“I believe him,” said the princess. “It’s plain to see the cat once lived here. There are pictures of him all over the walls.” She said again, “What a beautiful room!” She asked, “Could you paint my room like this?” (Bulla, p.50)

And so Tell finds himself living in the palace, doing what he loves best, and reunited with the stray he had found. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Clyde Robert Bulla wrote more than fifty books for young readers, among them A Lion to Guard Us, Viking Adventure, The Sword in the Tree, and Daniel’s Duck. His titles also include several excellent historical fiction resources for young readers.

The Kite Fighters

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



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.

Top Ten Picks for Toddlers


As a homeschooling mom of six and an early intervention provider for more than twenty years, I have held more board books in my hand than almost anyone- save perhaps those stocking the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Before I list some wonderful titles, I’d like to provide you with a crash course in toddlers and books.

  • A six month old will eat a book.
  • A nine month old will explore the mechanics of turning board book pages.
  • A twelve month old will look at pictures in a book.
  • A fifteen month old will point to pictures in a book.
  • An eighteen month old will name pictures of familiar objects and animals in books.
  • A twenty-one month old will turn paper pages and name even more.
  • A twenty-four month old realizes there is more to books than just pictures.
  • A twenty-seven month old is beginning to enjoy hearing familiar picture books read.
  • A thirty month old will listen to a picture book story for five minutes.
  • A thirty-six month old will fill in familiar words and phrases in picture book stories.


This, of course, is just a reference point for typical learners. Some children will be more interested in books than others, and consequently will explore them earlier or later. Up until about eighteen or twenty-one months of age, books that allow children to recognize and learn the names of new objects and animals are the way to go, starting with those that only have one on each side of the page. Once they are consistently pointing to pictures of single objects, books with five or six photos on a page allow them to learn scanning. At around a year and a half to two years, short picture book stories can be shared. Super short books can be read to a child whose attention span is only about two minutes, and can be a great way to start. Stories that can be read rhythmically should be, because all language has rhythm and cadence. Books that actually have a plot will be better understood by a two and a half year old, and humor in books may not be recognized by kids until they are closer to three.


So without further ado, my recommendations for a two year old’s library are as follows:

Alborough, Jez (2000). Hug. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

Brown, Margaret Wise (2007). Goodnight, Moon. New York, NY: HarperFestival.

Henderson, Kathy (1998). Counting Farm. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

Horacek, Petr (2008). Choo Choo. London: Walker Books Ltd.

Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Rathmann, Peggy (1994). Goodnight Gorilla. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Rosen, Michael (1989). We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. New York, New York: Scholastic Inc., by arrangement with Little Simon.

Spinelli, Eileen (2001). When Mama Comes Home Tonight. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Stickland, Paul and Henrietta (1997).Dinosaur Roar. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Stickland, Paul (2006). One Bear, One Dog. Wincanton Somersat, UK: Backpack Books by arrangement with Ragged Bears Publishing Ltd.