Happy Valentine’s Day

Some years ago, my optimistic neighbor told me that he considers Valentine’s Day to be the unofficial start of spring. Given the ridiculous winter we are having in the northeast, this year I am holding him to it! So, in desperate hope for the start of spring, I am dedicating this post to Valentine’s Day. And what would Valentine’s Day be without . . . sugar?!

I like to search for compelling narrative nonfiction texts to suit a wide range of middle school students. I particularly watch for texts that won’t overwhelm reluctant readers.  Nonfiction titles can pose challenges for our early adolescent readers. Historical or scientific context, content-specific vocabulary and text structure can add layers of complexity to a nonfiction reading experience. With such challenges, many readers abandon nonfiction titles all too willingly. Therefore, when I find topics that draw readers in — and writers that champion a narrative — I scoop them up. They’re even better when they highlight sweets!

tunnell candybomber1 Happy Valentines DayI recently devoured (ok, pun intended) Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot” by Michael O. Tunnell. This book celebrates the courageous exuberance of US Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen. Lt. Halvorsen flew cargo planes to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade in the years immediately following World War II. After a chance meeting with thirty children who had survived the destruction of their city, the pilot made a plan to parachute-drop candy to the youth of West Berlin. His idea launched a project that gained momentum and continued until the blockade was lifted in 1949.

Although the historical antecedents of the Cold War are indeed complex, readers never lose site of Halvorsen’s extraordinary commitment to Berlin’s children. Tunnell includes many captivating photos and letters from Halvorsen’s private collection. As a result, each chapter is a digestible piece of the story that balances text and visual imagery. My hunch is that many middle school readers will happily work their way through this one.

kops GreatMolassesFlood Happy Valentines DayA second sugary text is The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 by Deborah Kops. On January 15, 1919, an enormous metal tank filled with molasses exploded on the Boston waterfront. The sticky substance flooded the city, destroyed buildings, and pushed houses off their foundations. By the end of that fateful day, twenty-one people had died.

Kops crafts her text like a mystery novel. She follows a diverse cast of real life characters from the day of the flood to the trial against the tank owners. Kops includes remarkable photographs of the devastation. She also incorporates subheadings into the chapters. These signal to readers that she is shifting the scene from one character to another, providing scaffolding and redirection for students who may find the technical or legal language challenging. This is certainly a text worth putting in a classroom library!waterfront. The sticky substance flooded the city, destroyed buildings and pushed houses off their foundations. By the end of that fateful day, 21 people had died.

I hope you get a chance to “taste” these sweet nonfiction treats in the coming weeks. And, here’s hoping Valentine’s Day really is the start of spring!

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Joanna Lieberman About Joanna Lieberman

Joanna Lieberman is a district literacy coach in the Cambridge Public Schools in Cambridge, MA. She also works as a literacy consultant. Joanna has taught elementary, middle and high school during her 20-year career. She recently co-authored a book chapter entitled “Multiple Texts in Practice: Fostering Accessibility, Engagement and Comprehension.”

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