Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Before you begin to read If You Were the Moon by Laura Purdie Salas, turn this music on in the background.

Illustrated in dreamlike images by Jaime Kim, Laura takes us on a journey of discovery about the moon. In the beginning, the young girl muses on how easy the moon’s job is, but the moon explains. “If you were the moon, you would…” Along with delightful metaphor are embedded facts from how the moon was formed to Neil Armstrong’s iconic walk. Artists are inspired by the moon. Hence the musical piece, “Clair de Lune.” I remember listening to my mother play this on the grande in our living room.
A glossary and further reading section make this book teacher-friendly.

I often use picture books to lead my students to their own writing. I can imagine prompting my students with the words “If you were _________.” Students could research their favorite planet or natural disasters (my students love them!). Then they could write and illustrate their own books including interesting facts along the way. Finding a way to tie a book to writing enriches the classroom experience.

Laura sent me this amazing teacher’s guide written by Randi Miller Sonnenshine. This guide includes activities across the curriculum.

If You Were the Moon releases March 1st, 2017. Get your copy today!

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I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in Jackson, Mississippi. I didn’t really know about prejudice, but I remember well when our schools were integrated. I was in the fourth grade. We went home for two weeks and came back (I still attended a neighborhood school) to new students and new teachers. Mrs. Love was my new 4th grade teacher, the first African American teacher I had ever met. She beamed with joy and kindness. Her name completely expressed who she was. Her classroom was fun and engaging. The color of her skin made no difference to me. I was just so happy to be back in school.

In Ruby Lee and Me, the schools of Shady Creek, North Carolina, were being integrated. Sarah would attend school with her best friend Ruby Lee, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Sarah is dealing with a huge load of guilt. Her sister was hit by a car and hurt badly, and Sarah thinks it was her fault. While her sister is in the hospital, Sarah stays with her grandparents. She messes things up with her good friend Ruby Lee and calls her the “N” word. Apologizing in the midst of small town racial issues is difficult. Can Sarah save her friendship?

Sarah and Ruby Lee meet their new seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Smyre who reminded me of Mrs. Love, the new African American teacher in a previously all white school. I was curious about author Shannon Hitchcock’s process to publishing this book. She shares some of her story in the end pages. Like me, she was raised during this time period of school integration. Her favorite teacher, like Mrs. Love and Mrs. Smyre, was Mrs. Pauline Porter.

I contacted Shannon and interviewed her by email.

When writing about the past for children of today, I focus on the universal. RUBY LEE & ME is about the love Sarah has for her sister and her best friend. Those are feelings kids still experience today, and along with the universal, I sprinkle in a generous dose of history. Kids may be surprised that Ruby Lee couldn’t swim in the town pool, or eat in Bubba’s Grill, but hopefully, they’ll be outraged on Ruby’s behalf. Historical fiction touches our hearts because we experience the past through characters we care about.

Interracial friendship is at the heart of RUBY LEE & ME. I hope the book sheds light on how hard it was for blacks and whites to be friends in the 1950s and 60s. That may even lead to a discussion of how things have changed and remained the same. For instance, have today’s students faced friendship challenges with kids who are disabled, or of a different religion, or maybe speak a different language? We all struggle to understand people who aren’t like us.

My advice for writers is to read, read, read, especially books that have been published in the last five years or so. I’m also a big proponent of SCBWI. I met my editor at the Orlando SCBWI conference, and sold RUBY LEE & ME to her after revising on spec. I also love taking writing workshops because authors never stop learning.

From her post on Nerdy Book Club, April 4, 2016: The 1960’s were a turbulent time in my family and in my town. Though Brown v. Board of Education became the law of the land in 1954, our public schools remained segregated until 1967. I started first grade that year, and my school’s first African-American teacher taught in the classroom beside mine.

Mrs. Porter had a special gift for working with reluctant readers. So every afternoon, she changed classrooms with my teacher and worked with those of us struggling to read… I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d never caught up.

Thanks, Shannon, for your bravery in writing this book, for sharing a piece of your own life story, and helping students to see how things have changed, and how some things, like friendship, love, and understanding, are universal.


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Find more celebration posts at Ruth's blog.

Find more celebration posts at Ruth’s blog.

There are those weeks that seem to go on and on, yet offer nothing to be celebrated. Sometimes I have to look harder to find the bright spots. I am actually ashamed that I felt this way yesterday because this morning I looked through my mail and found so much to celebrate.

I signed up for a poetry postcard exchange. I thought the giving and receiving was over, but this week I got three more poetry postcards.

New Year poem cards from Sylvia Vardell with a Wonder Woman stamp.

New Year poem cards from Sylvia Vardell with a Wonder Woman stamp.

Poem from Donna Smith: Listen to the sounds crunching, munching, lunch a foot Leaves nourishing earth

Poem from Donna Smith:
Listen to the sounds
crunching, munching, lunch a foot
Leaves nourishing earth

Handwritten poem and card from Kim Urband:

Summer Storm
Stone-gray clouds steal azure sky
Lightning stabs, singes
Liquid silver glazes hills
Relinquishes to Rhapsody

–Kim Urband

This sweet, uplifting message from Joy Acey:

My body feels electric like new years fireworks
blazing in starlight.
I want to raise my arms
to twirl and dance in the moonlight.
Poetry fills me
and runs out of my pen.
May the force be with your poetry.
–Joy Acey

And an invitation to my daughter’s wedding in March. Here we go again!


This week I read aloud Preaching to the Chickens about John Lewis’s childhood. I wanted my students to know his name and to have a better understanding of the fight for civil rights. This book is beautifully illustrated. One of my students, Madison, was inspired by the paintings to draw her own yard of chickens. I love the personalities of each of her chickens.

Chickens by Madison, 3rd grade.

Chickens by Madison, 3rd grade.

I didn’t have to look very hard to find these celebrations today. What are you celebrating?

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Carrie hosts the MustRead2017 roundup here.



Here I go again, joining another challenge.  I want to thank Carrie Gelson and her charge to read that stack of books, those books that I’ve bought on recommendations of others and let sit on the shelf.  And there are books that I haven’t caught up with yet, but I want to.

In 2015, I attended an SCBWI conference in Houston.  I didn’t know a soul.  On the walk across the street from the parking lot to the conference center, I met a delightful woman.  She had a charming Scottish accent.  She befriended me for the day.  We sat together, talked, shared, and ended up having lunch together.  Then within the next year, she got an agent and was on her way to publish the very book she was pitching at the conference, Wait for Me.  I can’t wait to get a copy when it comes out on January 31st.

At the same conference, I learned about Nicola Yoon and her debut novel, Everything, Everything.  I loved it and look forward to reading her second book, The Sun is Also a Star.

Is it cheating to put a book on my list that I just finished?  In truth I didn’t start it until 2017, but Wish by Barbara O’Connor was my companion this week while I was recovering from a nasty stomach bug.  This book completely drew me in.  The character’s voice was charming, real, and compelling.  I’m so glad I finally read it.

There are times in my teaching life that I just can’t seem to find the time to read.  I read at bedtime and sometimes only a paragraph before I fall asleep.  I am hoping my list of “must reads” inspires me to be more dedicated to my reading life.  I feel like a hypocrite when I push my students to read, read, read, and I don’t keep up a strong reading life myself.  Maybe you can help by checking in with me every once in a while.

And I hope you will share your reading list with me.  I think, in truth, that’s what this challenge is really about, connecting, sharing, and reading.



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Poetry Friday is at Donna's site: Mainly Write

Poetry Friday is at Donna’s site: Mainly Write

In November at NCTE16, I was privileged to finally meet poet Jeannine Atkins.  I got a copy of her upcoming book in verse, Stone Mirrors.  I didn’t know what this book was about.  I just loved the cover.



The beauty of this book is on the inside and the outside.  Jeannine tells the story of Edmonia Lewis, a Objibwe-Haitian-American woman, who in 1862, had the rare chance to attend Oberlin.  While there, she became mixed up in a controversy over poisoning.  She was acquitted, but forced to leave the school.  Her future took her to Boston and Italy where she became a successful sculptor.

The facts, however, are not the important aspects of this story.  What I found intriguing was Jeannine’s unique way of writing story in verse.  As I read, I was drawn in  by the melody of the language as well as the fascinating story. I loved following Edmonia through her growing confidence as an artist and as a woman.  I wonder how Jeannine got into the mind of Edmonia.  How did she know the feel of the stone she carved?  “She hammers out stillness, holding a life in mid-speech or stride, like a deer between danger and trust.”

Intertwined into the story of Edmonia Lewis are lines of wisdom, carved into Jeannine’s poems like the images Edmonia carved in stone.

Broken Colors

Edmonia carves the smokey smell of drawing pencils,
like a burned-down fire, and hardening clay,
with its whiff of a pond bottom.  She goes to the art room,
where each mark on paper offers a new chance.
She has nothing left but hunger for beauty,
small as the tip of a paintbrush.

She wishes the stove were lit,
though if smoke rose she might not be alone.
She smashes ice that sheathes
a jar of water to rinse a paintbrush.
She no longer draws goddesses, gods,
or anyone in transformation.
White people think metaphor belongs to them.

She opens a cupboard with boxes
printed with names, none hers.
She reads them as if studying a map
of places no one expects her to see.
The shelves and boxes are divided
like classrooms where walls come between
art, poetry, and myth. In history class,
teachers separate the dead from the living.
All through the school, lines are drawn between
right and wrong, white and colored, rich and poor,
truth and lies, facts and dreams, courage and fear,
what belongs to one person and what doesn’t.
They forget that every time the wind blows,
the world asks everyone to bend.

from Stone Mirrors, Jeannine Atkins, January 2017


On a recent trip through New Orleans, we crossed the Hale Boggs Bridge. My daughter was driving, so I could take this amazing picture. As the time changes over to a new year, I contemplate what may lie ahead.

Towers reach for time Carved into parting clouds Tuning my future Margaret Simon #haikuforhealing

Towers reach for time
Carved into parting clouds
Tuning a future
Margaret Simon

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On the left is Augusta Scattergood. We met in person at NCTE '14.

On the left is Augusta Scattergood. We met in person at NCTE ’14.

I met Augusta Scattergood face to face at NCTE in 2014, but I knew of her and her writing back in 2012 when a neighbor and friend of my parents came to a book signing for my book Blessen. He told me about growing up with her in Cleveland, MS. and how she had had a book signing for Glory Be just a few weeks before. I had to get the book and wanted to meet her from that moment on.

I sent her a message letting her know I would love an ARC of her latest book, Making Friends with Billy Long. Officially, the book will be out in August. You can pre-order a copy here.

My Goodreads and Amazon review:

Making friends sounds like it would be easy, but there is nothing easy for Azalea Morgan. Azalea starts her summer resenting the fact that she must leave her home and friends in Texas to help her grandmother who lives in Paris Junction, Arkansas. When Grandma Clark gathers a group of children to help in her garden, Azalea feels like an outsider. She is cautious of Willis DeLoach, a bully, and doesn’t warm up to Melinda Bowman, a girly girl. Yet Billy Wong is an outsider like her.

As Azalea adjusts to life in Paris Junction, she comes to understand her grandmother and enjoy spending time with Billy. Willis appears grumpy and mean, but Azalea knows his real problem is finding a safe place to live with his younger sister. While Azalea looks forward to going back home to Texas, her life is forever changed by her summer in Paris Junction.

This book will appeal to children ages 8-11 as they, too, navigate complicated relationships and learn how to accept others for who they are.


new Billy Wong hires Cvr

I am always curious about the decisions authors make in writing their books. I interviewed Augusta Scattergood about the writing of Making Friends with Billy Wong.

I am a collector of good opening lines for books, my favorite being E. B. White’s opening line for Charlotte’s Web, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Your first line for Making Friends with Billy Wong is “All it took to send my summer on the road to ruin was a fancy note and a three-cent stamp.” Can you talk about your process of getting to that line and if you had any other contenders?

What a great question! I also love first lines and yes, there were many contenders. What helped me settle on that final first line was the three-cent stamp mention which hinted at the time period, and the worry Azalea felt about meeting her grandmother and spending time with her.

Until I read something from somebody about not starting with a “Hello, my name is” opening, this was one of my early favorites. (I’m terrible about reading writing advice and thinking I must follow it. I need to work on this.) Though I do still like this one of (many) early drafts, it was possibly too abrupt to announce this tidbit before we actually know much about the story or the characters:

My name is Azalea Ann Morgan, and I’ve already heard all the jokes. Yes, I was named for a pink-flowered bush blooming outside the Kings Daughters’ Hospital room when Mama first laid eyes on me.

Making Friends is written mainly from the point of view of Azalea, (great name, BTW); however, we hear from Billy Wong in small sections of verse. What made you decide to include his voice and why verse?

Originally, I tried to write in THREE points-of-view, and a character named Noble was the third. He was much too strong to take a back seat to anybody. He was taking over the story! I’m saving him for another day. My critique group often comments on how I give characters the ax. Or combine their traits with another’s. I do a lot of wandering around before I figure out my stories.

I started writing Billy’s voice as straight narrative. It was awful, a huge info dump. I gave up. Now I was down to Azalea telling the story, but I despaired of losing Billy. There were certain things, events, impressions that only he could tell us. Plus, such a nice kid!
One day, I sat with a notebook doodling Billy Things (I even wrote that at the top of the page). What would Billy Wong be interested in? I doodled lists, newspaper notes, letters, Billy’s dreams, and I filled up a notebook with ideas. A true aha! moment.
I don’t think of them as verse exactly, but they spilled out with a certain poetic quality, and I liked that.

A peek into Augusta's notebook as she thought about Billy.

A peek into Augusta’s notebook as she thought about Billy.

You grew up in the segregated South. Billy Wong lives in Arkansas and Azalea is from Texas. Were you intentional about the setting? How does the setting influence the events in the story?

I love reading books where setting is a crucial part of the story. Right now, I’m reading THE HIRED GIRL, which takes place in Baltimore where I lived for a while. And that city is so wonderfully portrayed.

For me, setting is a huge part of my own writing. I don’t think I could set a book in the frozen north (though I did live in New Jersey for over 25 years, come to think of it), if I tried!
My childhood was bike rides, climbing trees to read a book, playing kick-the-can till it got dark. I can still feel the mosquito bites (and smell the DDT truck, sadly). Those are the details I know, and yes, they seem very southern.

But there were other things we didn’t see, or took for granted. There was a white side of my town and a black side. I learned from research that the Chinese often fit into both worlds. Even if I’m not describing some of these details, they slip subtly into my writing.
Perhaps I don’t write the kinds of books that could take place anywhere. But I think I write about family and friendship and feelings that are universal.

Willis DeLoach is an unlikable character, yet you build in some obvious reasons for his meanness. Willis does not change during the course of the novel. I was hoping he would somehow “see the light” and change his ways. Can you tell us about your impression of Willis and his character arc?

In my mind, Willis has small hints of seeing the light! But he’s a product of the times (1950s) and his environment. He worries that somebody’s going to take his place in his small world, replace him in school sports, usurp his tree hideaway. Unlikeable yes, yet he has a soft spot for his little sister. I think his eyes will open this year in school. Remember, before that time most people had never crossed paths with anybody who was different from them. Cross cultural and interracial friendships were not encouraged, and actually, there was little opportunity for someone like Willis DeLoach to truly know a boy like Billy Wong until the schools allowed Chinese American students to attend. I had to make his story true to the times.

Also, my book only spans a few weeks at the end of a summer. I decided it would be unrealistic to have Willis do a complete about-face and change his ways in that brief moment.

In the author’s note, you write about the research you did for historical context. Were there any surprises for you as you did this research?

As I mention in my note, I started writing after reading a very poignant essay written by a friend, Bobby Joe Moon, who also grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi. Children and even teenagers in the early 1960s in small southern towns could be oblivious to what was happening all around them. Bobby’s essay about the difficulties of growing up Chinese in the Deep South surprised me and made me think about sharing this story with young readers.

Many readers of my author’s note may be surprised to learn how many Chinese immigrants came to the south to open grocery stores. I’d shopped almost every day with my grandmother or my mother at those same stores and I knew they were there. But I was fascinated to discover why this happened. My research and my unrelenting questions posed to Chinese American friends uncovered so many fascinating details. I could not have told this story without asking a lot of questions.

All three of my novels have been historical fiction, requiring reading and digging deep, which I love. Uncovering surprises is really the best part of research, isn’t it?


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Discover. Play. Build.

Ruth Ayres invites us the celebrate each week. Click over to her site Discover. Play. Build. to read more celebrations.

photo by Margaret Gibson Simon enhanced on Picmonkey

photo by Margaret Gibson Simon enhanced on Picmonkey

With the selection of my OLW, Presence, I thought about my classroom(s) and how I could be more present there. At the beginning of the school year, I wanted to make reading aloud an every day occurrence. It is a challenge with my teaching situation because I have students in different grades rotating in and out. With my morning group, I realized that most days we were all there at 10:30 AM, and they leave between 10:50 and 11:00, so Read Aloud became constant on the schedule.

This week we finished Fish in a Treeby Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the middle-grade Global Read Aloud choice. Being so closely involved with a book, so intimate, my voice cracked through the whole last chapter. I think I cried not only because Ally had triumphed, but also because I was looking out at the wide eyes of my students and feeling their love for Ally, too. When we finished, before I knew it, Emily had written a quote and taped it to the wall, “Nothing is Impossible. The very word says, I’m Possible!”

I have had more trouble getting a time to read aloud with my afternoon group, so this week I made it a priority. All work stopped at 2:40 and we read until 3:00. I started Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. I loved it when Noah said, “Mrs. Simon, can we watch Crenshaw?” Isn’t that what read aloud is all about? Watching a book together.

Today, I celebrate special moments with my students to be truly present.

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