Tales of an Elementary School Librarian

BOOK BATTLES! #1 The Dark vs. Orion and The Dark

thedark VS. orion

Happy Monday! This week, I’m trying out a new segment I’ll call BOOK BATTLES! Every Monday, I hope to compare and contrast two different books with similar topics, themes, characters, illustrations, or whatever. I haven’t really nailed down the rules yet. I’ll discuss both books, weigh the merits and flaws and then pick a winner. There will be no ties. To quote Mighty Ducks 3, ties are like kissing your brother. So, LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!

I already regret this idea. Both of these books are ones that I really like, and deciding is going to be kind of difficult. Let’s compare them first.


Both books are essentially about the same thing. The main character, a little boy, is afraid of the dark. The dark makes itself friendly to the boy, and the boy realizes that the dark is actually kind of cool. Plot wise, they are similar enough that they could have the same thing written on their side flap.

Another thing they kind of have in common is something that was brought to my attention by a six year old when I was reading The Dark to a class. “WHERE ARE THE PARENTS?” They are completely absent from The Dark. Lazlo seems to be completely alone in a big,spooky house. Orion’s mom is mentioned in Orion and the Dark, and we even hear her tell her son goodnight, but seriously?  How about a tuck in, Mom? You know your son’s afraid of everything. He’s visibly shaking here. What could you possibly be doing that you can’t stop for a minute and tuck your son in? My guess is Netflix binging, but we can’t know for sure.


Either way, neither Lazlo nor Orion get much help in facing their fears in the parents department. It’s something they have to do alone.


The differences are where the battle will be won or lost, so let’s see how the books differ.

The Illustrations

I love Jon Klassen, he’s one of my favorites, if not my very favorite illustrator, so The Dark had a slight edge from the start. There’s no denying that The Dark is spookier, which is what it was going for. Orion and the Dark is more cartoonish and friendly, but that’s what it was going for as well. Both books pull off what they set out to do. My students especially love it when the Dark reaches out to grab Orion’s hand, and when he embraces him. Both of those illustrations were very well done. While both books are lovely, and very well illustrated, I have to give this round to Klassen. The Dark is simply a darker book. It’s dark in a very beautiful way.

As a Read Aloud

I’ve had groups love both of these books. The Dark lends itself to a very spooky telling. I love using a very raspy, whispery voice for the Dark. The Dark in Orion comes out bubbly, and very friendly when I read it. The older kids, 3rd-5th grade seemed to respond better to The Dark. The younger groups K5-2nd seemed to like Orion better. I’ll call the read aloud an even match.

The Student Reviewer

I had a 5th grader, one of the best readers in the school, sit down and read both books, and give me her opinion. I thought for sure she was going to pick The Dark, since the older kids seemed to like it better, but she shocked me by picking Orion.

Me: You liked Orion, better?

Her: Yeah. I liked that the Dark was really friendly in that book.

Me: Ok.

So I guess this round goes to Orion.

The Verdict

In the end, it isn’t as close as I thought. The Dark is simply a better book. Orion is very good. I just ordered a copy for my kids, but personally, I like a scary book, and The Dark is pretty darn spooky. Orion is a charming, fun read, but Orion’s fear is never actually transferred to the reader like Lazlo’s, which makes The Dark a better read, in my opinion.

There’s also the very end. It’s one thing to come down and hang out with a kid, like The Dark does in Orion, but think about what Lazlo’s Dark did. He knew that he terrified the kid, so he gave him a light bulb. The very thing that would keep himself away. The very thing that destroys his essence, just to give him some ease and peace of mind.That’s some self-sacrificial love.



Next week: Extra Yarn vs. The Full Belly Bowl

If there are any books you would like to see battle, (picture books or middle grade) please let me know. I’ll try to make it happen. I’m thinking of doing a Franny K Stein vs. Frank Einstein soon, but both books are checked out right now.

Book Review (kind of): Float


My son loves when I bring books home from work. After “Daaaadddy!” The first thing that comes out of his mouth every day when I get home, is “Did you bring me any books?”

What he doesn’t love, is when I bring home wordless picture books. He doesn’t enjoy them at all. I tried The Farmer and the Clown, Journey,  and Quest. They were all rejected, and he was a little annoyed that he would have to wait until I brought something else home to get a book that he liked.

He’s the kind of kid who doesn’t want to work for the story. He wants to sit back, relax and let the story come it him. It’s a resting time, and that’s fine. It’s his way of enjoying a good book.

My daughter is the exact opposite. She wants to suck everything out of the story that she can. She is constantly interrupting our story time asking questions, and pointing to the illustrations, asking, “What’s he doing?” “Who is she?” She wants to get know and understand everything about the story, and it isn’t a resting time or relaxing at all. It can actually be a little exhausting, but that’s all right too. It’s how she enjoys a story.

So, I had her in mind when I brought Float home. She enjoys a good wordless picture book because she can look at the pictures, figure out what’s going on, and most of all, she doesn’t really need me to read it to her. She’s very independent.

Of course, my son was disappointed in my selection, but I promised him we would look at it together, and if he needed me to, I would tell him the story. The funny thing is, even though it’s a wordless picture book, he didn’t need me at all for Float. He just looked at the illustrations, and the story just opened itself up to him. I could see it happening. He wasn’t having to work for it. The illustrations were so simple, but so revealing that he really only spoke to me twice.

Right here, he asked me, ‘Is he sad because he lost his boat?”


And here, at the end, he told me, “Look! He’s happy because he has an airplane,” and he added, “I like airplanes.”


We immediately moved on to something else. I wasn’t sure, then, if he liked it or not, but I was happy that he understood what was going on, and figured it out on his own.

The next morning I was getting ready for work. I picked up Float to return to the library. My son stopped me.

” Are you taking that book back to work?”

“Yeah,” I said.”I’ll pick you out something else.”

“Don’t take that one back! Take Pete back instead!”

He picked up Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons, and waved it at me.

“Wait. What?” He loves Pete the Cat. He never wants me to take those books back.”You want me to take that one  instead?”

“Yeah. I’m not done with the boat book, yet.”

“Ok. How about we just keep them both for a few more days?”

“Ok. Can I look at the boat book now?”

I handed it to him, and he sat on the couch, and let Float tell him it’s lovely story again.

It was beautiful. Float is beautiful.

7 Things I’m Excited About This Week

  1. Book talks-I gave my first book talks of the year, and Circus Mirandus is checked out, and being read. There’s also a pretty long waiting list for it. It may be time to order a new copy.


2. A Wrinkle in Time- This week, Sara Ralph and I read and reviewed A Wrinkle in Time for Newbery Pie. A few years ago, I read the book and didn’t much care for it. After reading it again, I’ve been converted. I’m glad to no longer feel like I’m out of the loop.


3. An Elephant and Piggie Shortage

For the first time ever, my library is completely out of Elephant and Piggie books. We have several copies of each book, so it’s a ton of books that are checked out. I get asked where the Elephant and Piggie books are every day, several times a day, so I just moved them all to  table in the very front of the library. A week later, they were all gone. I’m thrilled that my students love them as much as I do.


4. Orion and the Dark

I wasn’t sure how this book would read aloud, but the first graders loved it. The response was better for that book than any other book I read this week, (that wasn’t written by Mo Willems.)


5. The Golden Specific

I read and loved The Glass Sentence months ago, over Christmas break. I was very happy to get a copy of the sequel, The Golden Specific. So far, (80 pages in out of a billion) I like it even better than the first.


6. Lauren Tarshis

This week is was confirmed that Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series is going to be doing a Skype visit with my students in October. We are all super-excited about it!


7. The New Martin Baby!!!!!

Here she is!


Just kidding. That’s her big sister two and a half years ago. The new Martin baby isn’t here yet, but she’s expected any day now. We’re very excited to meet her!

Stuff People Use as Bookmarks

I’ve only been a librarian for five years, but I’ve found a lot of different things in returned books being used as bookmarks. I’ve found Dave Matthews concert tickets, movie tickets, candy bar wrappers, wrappers of other items which shall not be named here (I’m  serious), lots of origami Yodas, notes from middle school girls threatening to steal other middle school girls’ boyfriends, sometimes I find a cute note from a student that was actually meant for me, occasionally I’ll even find a dollar bill. Yesterday, though. I hit the mother load. This was definitely the most valuable thing I’ve found in a library book, so far.

confederate money

At first I thought it was one of those fake million dollar bills, because I’ve found several of those, and they’re pretty popular among elementary students. It was in a plastic sleeve, though, so I looked at it a little closer, and saw that it was a Confederate 50 dollar bill. Now if you lived during the end Civil War, this was actually probably worth about 2 cents, Confederate money was pretty worthless by then. But an eBay search has these going from 80 bucks to as much as $200.

Luckily, the book I found it in, The Madman of Piney Woods had only been read by me and the owner of the lost money.


I returned it to the kid, and he seemed pretty happy to see it.

This morning, I saw his mom, and she stopped to thank me for returning it.

“It was in that book he returned yesterday, right?”

She was referring to The Accidental Hero by Matt Myklusch.

“No, it was actually in the Christopher Paul Curtis book he read last year.” I told her.

“It WAS? He told us he had just lost it. It’s been sitting in the library all summer?”

Uh oh. It looked like I had gotten the kid in trouble. “Ummm… is there any way I can change my story, and say I found it in The Accidental Hero?”

When Your Lives Get Confused.

Last week, I was checking some books out to a student, and one of her classmates ran up to the circulation desk.

“Mr. Martin! He’s trying to hit me with Pete!”

I looked over to where she was pointing, and sure enough, one of her classmates was trying to hide our big Pete the Cat doll behind his back.


I was still tying to scan a stubborn barcode and I was kind of on auto-pilot, so I called out, “Quit hitting your sister.”

The students all stopped and stared at me like I had lost my mind.

Finally, one of the students asked, “Did you think they were brother and sister? They don’t look anything alike.”

She was right. They are actually of different ethnic origin.

I shrugged my shoulders, kind of embarrassed, and said, “Sorry guys. I guess I have that saved on auto-response.”

It seems I have a lot of auto-responses saved for work and for school, because the other day, my wife and I were with the kids in Target, and my son was going nuts, running all over the place. When he almost got run over by the buggy, I stopped him and said. “Look. This isn’t the gym or the playground. It’s the librar….Store. It’s a store.”

I’ve been a librarian for five years now, and this has never happened to me before, I guess because my kids were too little to be one of my students. Now they’re getting to be old enough, and it’s happening more and more frequently.

The Penderwicks, Pregnancy and Cancer *Spoilers*


I was getting kind of worried. More than half of 2015 had come and gone, and I still had not found that book. Every year it seems, there’s one special title that I get really evangelistic about and try to get into the hands of as many students as I can. I had read lots of good 2015 books, my favorite being Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, but that one is a little too old for my elementary students because of some of the mature themes in the book.


It’s a very, very good book, but it’s really hard for me to get overly enthusiastic about a title that I can’t give my elementary kids.

Finally, I read Penderwicks in Spring, (It took me a while to get my copy back. A 5th grader checked it out and kept it all summer.) and I knew that I had found the book.

I already knew it was going to be really good. All of the Penderwicks novels are. But this one is the cream of the crop, it’s what the other novels have been building up to. I found myself crying reading the first chapter, (It’s a personal record) and through several later chapters. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming. It takes everything I loved about the previous Penderwicks books, (the characters, the relationships, the humor), and multiplies them. I finally found the book I want to champion. Is it Newbery worthy? Yes, I think so. It’s the fourth book in a series, so it might be difficult, but I think it might be able to stand on its own. I can’t know for sure, since I can’t unread the other books, but I am going to try to get one of my former students, a middle schooler, who hasn’t read the other Pendwrick novels to read it, and see if she thinks it makes a good stand alone.

If you haven’t read Penderwicks in Spring and plan to, please stop reading at this point. There are Spoilers ahead.

After I finished Penderwicks in Spring. I wanted to talk about it. Right away. So I got on Twitter, and started a conversation with a friend and fellow Penderwick lover. We talked about the book for a while, about lots of different aspects of it. The conversation got really good, and another Twitter friend hopped on. We started discussing Lizzy Penderwick’s cancer, and how she chose to not be treated because she was afraid it would harm, not-yet-born Batty. We talked about how they consulted several different doctors and the hope was that the pregnancy would slow down the cancer, so that Lizzy could be treated after Batty was born. The friend who, admittedly, hadn’t read the book commented that this wasn’t true. It’s pretty common knowledge that the growth hormone produced during pregnancy actually speeds cancer up. She suggested that maybe Birdsall didn’t research cancer and pregnancy thoroughly before writing. This kind of bummed me out. This would not only be a flaw in the book, but a critical one. And it, wouldn’t just spoil the book for me. but the whole series. Lizzy’s death is a major plot point in the series as a whole, and its repercussions are discussed and felt in every Penderwicks novel.

I stopped tweeting and thought for a bit. It didn’t make sense that Birdsall, (and her editor) usually a tremendous writer would let something like this slip without conducting any research at all.  Maybe she did research. After all, the pregnancy didn’t  slow the cancer down at all. Lizzy died. Maybe the doctors were just wrong. It seems like common knowledge now, but what if the doctors didn’t know about the growth hormone speeding cancer up back when Batty was born?

This got me thinking. The first thing I needed to do was use the clues we have to find out when the pregnancy happened. This isn’t an easy task. When the Penderwicks series is set, is a notoriously hard question to answer. It has been discussed before, but I haven’t really see an answer. At first, the only clue I could think of is the fact that Nick wrote his cell phone number on Batty’s arm and Ben’s belly. That only helped me set the book some time after the 90’s, when cell phones started to become common. My friend argued that Nick’s military service seems to hint that the book is taking place some time in the 2000’s. I agreed. After thinking about it, I remembered a few clues and I think we have some definite proof that The Penderwicks in Spring happened after 2008.

The 10th Doctor on Skye’s Doctor Who shirt is one hint. The tenth doctor episodes aired from 2005 to the end of 2009. This narrowed the gap considerably. The next clue I thought of was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer figures that Ben plays with. That didn’t help me much. Buffy aired until 2003, but the toys were old, and Ben seemed to have no idea who the characters were. The clue that finally led me to believe that Penderwicks in Spring takes place in 2008 or after, is the fact that Batty is doing a book report on Cosmic  by Frank Cottrell Boyce, which was published in 2008.

So if the events in Penderwicks in Spring are happening around 2008, then Batty was probably born around 1997. Is it plausible that doctors in 1997 didn’t know enough about pregnancy and cancer and that they gave the Penderwicks bad advice?

Well, I conducted some (I refuse to call the Googling that I did “research”) inquiries, and the answer seems to be, that yes, it is plausible. Almost all of the data, and the studies that I saw were from the last 2-3 years. The data that is there isn’t that complete, either. The Canadian Cancer center says, ” Cancer during pregnancy is rare. Because it’s rare, not a lot of research has been done.”  Belief until very recently, was “that all chemo would harm an unborn baby no matter when it was given.”- from  Now we know that isn’t true. There are certain types of chemo that can be given a patient during certain times of the pregnancy that won’t harm the baby, (at least not in the short term. Long-term studies don’t seem to have been conducted, yet).

You can read some very touching survivor stories at

My impression from what I read is that cancer research is ongoing and we are finding out more every day, but in 1997, we knew very little, and that  maybe, Birdsall not only researched, but researched thoroughly. What  seems like a research flaw in the novel actually isn’t at all. The doctors in the novel gave the advice that doctors around 1997 might have given. Side note, Mr. Penderwick starts to say “The consensus was” but changes his word choice to “the hope was” that the pregnancy  would slow down the cancer. This word change led me to believe that maybe, there wasn’t a complete consensus from the doctors, even in 1997. They thought that the chemo might hurt Batty, (almost all doctors thought that then) and Lizzy decided against receiving it. She had made her mind up, and at that point, they could only hope that there would be time for treatment after Batty was born, and they didn’t know enough at that point to say definitively either way.

After looking into it, I feel certain that Penderwicks in Spring does not have a critical flaw, and my belief that it is the best 2015 novel I’ve read so far, remains firm.

Review: Interstellar Cinderella


Interstellar Cinderella

By Deborah Underwood

Illustrated by Meg Hunt

I’m not usually a big fan of picture book fairy-tale retellings, especially when it comes to Cinderella. I’ve read one too many stories about a penguin Cinderalla losing her glass flipper, where the creativity and originality is limited to a change of species. So I was wasn’t expecting great things with Interstellar Cinderella.

Usually, I’m not the biggest fan of picture books in rhyme. A lot of the time, a good plot is obviously changed in an unpleasant way to force the rhyme. The risk for cheesiness is also bigger with a rhyming story. I almost always wish that the story had been left alone and that the author had just written in prose or free verse. It takes a word master to write a really good picture book in rhyme. Someone who can tame the story and squeeze it perfectly into the rhyme without making it seem forced.

Fortunately, Deborah Underwood is that kind of writer. She managed to defy the odds and wrote a picture book that is both a Cinderella retelling and a story in rhyme and won me over completely. Despite the Cinderella factor it is original and clever. Even though it rhymes, it’s pleasant and charming.

This Cinderella isn’t your usual Cinderella. She isn’t spending her time mopping floors and dusting. She’s “fixing robot dishawashers” and zoombrooms. But at night she sneaks away to study rocket ship repair, her one true love. The ending is great. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll say that it has a kind of Paperbag Princess feel to it. When a book succeeds despite my reservations and low expectations, I love it even more than I probably would have. I like to be wrong. I’ll be reading Interstellar Cinderella to my K5-2nd graders very soon.

The First Week is Behind Us

The first complete week of school has come and gone in a flash. If the rest of the year is like the first week was, it’s going to be a great year.

Here are some of the books we read.

It was really good to see all of the students again and to get back into the swing of things.

Since the end of last school year, I’ve been building a small collection of grown-up books for the teachers.


I spent a lot of the summer reading some grown-up fiction and reacquainting myself with the world of grown-up literature. I had a fun time and read some really good books. I did read some kids books, though. The best of the crop were:

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate.


Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley


and Sunny Side up by Jennifer and Matt Holm


It was a great reading summer, but I’m to be back reading Kid’s lit exclusively and continuing my Newbery journey over at Newbery Pie.

Putting the Narrator on Trial


I love picture books that generate some higher level discussion among my students. It’s great for a book to crack them up or  stir their imagination, but nothing makes me happier than a book that makes them really think. Books like Mo Willem’s We are in a Book , Mac Barnett’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and The Skunk have been generating some good discussion this year, but the arguments created by The Bear Ate Your Sandwich have gotten a bit fierce. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to skip the rest of the post until you have because, SPOILERS.

In every class, (I’ve read it to K4, K5, 1st 2nd and 3rd so far) a kid will yell out, “The dog ate the sandwich!” when I get to the end. I always get the class to vote at this point. Who thinks the dog ate the sandwich? Who believes the dog’s story and thinks the bear ate it. In every class so far the vote had been split in half. A lot of the kids still want to believe the dog’s story. I guess some kids are just naturally trusting, but a lot of them are skeptical and think that the dog just wolfed the sandwich down. (I think it’s incredible that a book like this can teach a four year old to not just immediately trust a narrator.) After a vote, I get the kids to tell me why they think the dog or the bear ate the sandwich. We’ve had some pretty interesting discussions. There is a case for both sides, really.

The Case for the Dog’s Story:

The main reason a lot of the kids believe the dog’s story is because there isn’t any concrete proof that he’s lying. Some of it may seem improbable, but it’s all possible. A bear could accidentally ride in the back of a pick -up truck into town. He could make his way to a park, and eat a sandwich, and I suppose, he could somehow get a ride on a boat back home. It’s all very unlikely, but not impossible, and I guess some kids like to trust a guy until they have a reason not to.

The Case Against the Dog’s Story:

The dog’s story really is very, very unlikely. A bear happens to find himself in town, and wonders around without being seen, happens into a park full of people (We assume it is full of people because of all the dogs waiting for their owners, right?) without being seen, eats a sandwich, leaves behind some lettuce, and then gets on a boat headed for home.  Seems kind of far-fetched. It’s much more likely that the dog just ate the sandwich, but this is America, folks. The dog is innocent until he’s proven guilty.

But….we do have some credibility problems. The dog was supposedly behind the fence in the park the whole time, right? He says he witnessed the bear eating the sandwich, and then he retrieved the lettuce for the sandwich’s owner, but how did he know about the before and after? How did he know how the bear got to the park? How did he know how he got home? Unless he made everything up himself?

Most of my students seem to think the lettuce is proof of the dog eating the sandwich, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true. If his story is true, then the bear could have dropped it. The lettuce can be used as proof by both the prosecution and the defense.

I find myself more skeptical of the story when the dog is describing the sandwich. He uses words like “beautiful” and “delicious” and “such a great sandwich” and talks about how much the bear loved it. To me, that’s a little bit too much excitement about a sandwich that he just happened to witness someone else eat.

After, we discuss all of the evidence, I have the kids vote again. Who ate the sandwich? The dog? Or the bear? Some of them switch sides, but in the end, the vote is still split. I guess there just isn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Maybe we should interview some of the other dog witnesses?

Verdict: Hung Jury

Today, the dog probably walks away free, but the girl will probably be keeping a closer eye on him (and her sandwiches) in the future.

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