Subscribe to The Horn Book

Chapter books | Class #3, fall 2016


This week we are reading three chapter books — The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos, and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Each is the first book in a series and each has a strong central character, an element that I think is essential in early chapter books.

We’re also reading two articles to go along with these books. One is Robin Smith‘s “Teaching New Readers to Love Books,” where, among other things, she describes reading The Birchbark House aloud to her second graders every year. The other article is an interview with Jack Gantos from the Embracing the Child website. I find that teachers tend to have a lot of questions about Gantos’s credentials for writing about ADHD, and he addresses them especially well here.

I hope you will join our discussions of these readings in the comments below.

Special comments this week will be coming from

  • Alice W. on Ann Cameron
  • Nana S. on Louise Erdrich
  • Kat H. on Jack Gantos
  • Grace PZ on Heavy Medal blog
  • Carli Spina (TF) on Oyate website


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Ann Cameron is the bestselling author of many popular books for children, including The Stories Julian Tells, More Stories Julian Tells, The Stories Huey Tells, and More Stories Huey Tells.

    Ann Cameron was born and grew up in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Her grandfather, Oscar Lofgren, taught her Swedish and told her stories. When she was in third grade, she decided she wanted to be a writer. She got her B.A. with honors from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts in 1965. There she studied poetry writing with Robert Lowell and R. S. Fitzgerald, two well-known poets.

    She moved to New York after college to work in publishing. She became an assistant editor in the adult trade department at Harcourt, Brace. She read lots of manuscripts, also the letters of advice, from which she learned to avoid the mistakes the authors had made. The first draft of some of her books was the final one and hardly a word was changed—The Stories Julian Tells, More Stories Julian Tells, and The Most Beautiful Place in the World.
    In 1968, she got a full fellowship at the University of Iowa, where she got a master’s degree in Fine Arts in 1974. She started two more adult novels and abandoned them. Then she started writing for children. After Iowa, she lived in Berkeley, California, for a year and then returned to New York. In 1983, she traveled to Guatemala. In 1989, she met Bill Cherry, who was then working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping develop laws on agriculture. In 1990, they got married. Now Bill is retired, and they both live in Guatemala. Ten of her children’s books follow the adventures of children in middle-class African-American families. Two are set in the mountains of Guatemala.
    Ann believed that the most important rule for writing is: “Apply seat of pants to bottom of chair.” She said that when writing stories, she didn’t have the whole story in mind. Usually she would be groping and stumbling toward it. She said, “the landscapes and scenes become real to you and you feel as if you’re wandering around inside them—as if in a dream stage set, where you move pieces of the set around in a wondering, experimental way, a kind of concentrated daze.”

    The most famous series of her works are Julian Stories and Huey Stories:
    Julian Stories
    The Stories Julian Tells (for ages 5 to 9)
    More Stories Julian Tells (for ages 5 to 9)
    Julian’s Glorious Summer (for ages 7 to 10)
    Julian, Secret Agent (for ages 7 to 10)
    Julian, Dream Doctor (for ages 7 to 10)

    Huey Stories
    The Stories Huey Tells (for ages 6 to 10)
    More Stories Huey Tells (for ages 6 to 10)
    Spunky Tells All (for ages 8-11)

    Interview with Ann Cameron from the Random House website:

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I wanted to add one thing. During the interview at the link at the bottom of Alice’s comment (just above this one), Cameron addresses the question of the origins of the Julian stories and her choice to NOT address any issues of racism:

    “My first book about Julian was inspired by stories a friend from South Africa, Julian DeWette, told me in 1975 about his childhood. Julian is a poet and novelist himself—a very fine one—and was then writing an adult novel about his childhood. He was most interested in writing about the painful parts of the story—about living with apartheid, the system of segregation by race that forcibly kept people apart in South Africa until it was abolished. When I used Julian’s stories, I moved the characters out of South Africa. I set the stories in an imaginary country without racism—a country that represents the world we could have, someday.”

  3. Emily Nadel says:

    Assorted thoughts upon reading:
    Reading “The Stories Julian Tells,” I first looked at the back cover and noted the “RL,” reading level, 2.3. I do not know much about the leveling system and was curious while reading so see what characteristics of the text might inform this rating.

    Here are five words about my engagement with the book: mischievous, heartfelt, word play, family, black characters. I think each of these words points to a distinguishing element of the series.

    As a narrator, Julian seems honest and open. I feel I am hearing the whole story from his perspective. And this viewpoint seems accurate for a young boy. At the same time, Julian’s narration informs my understanding of the other characters’ thoughts, actions, and feelings. While these are through the lens of a young boy, Ann Cameron skillfully signals that Julian may not have a complete understanding. I think this is a challenging distinction for both authors and readers to master. Perhaps analyzing the narrator is a specific skill that influences level rating? Either way, having a relatable and open narrator invites the reader into the story and creates the illusion that the reader is there right along with Julian, laying in the dark garden wishing to see the catalogue cats.

  4. Thank you Alice for your info on the author, and Emily for your discussion!
    I do feel that the book is well-written in the sense that it really comes from a child’s perspective. this is a very lovable book, where I can see how Julian explains catalog to his little brother Huey, and how his father goes with the story and protects the imagination of two little boys. “My very strange teeth” is very relatable to me: I can remember myself struggling with my almost-fallen-yet-not-quite tooth, and how it bothers me, and eventually fell out completely by accident. Thank you Molly for putting the background of this story. My personal feeling is that this story is a very common experience for a kid growing up in America, and can be quite relatable to any kid, on topics of family, mischief, friendship and imagination. Therefore my question is, why did Anne sets the protagonist as an African American? It is counter-intuitive for me to deliberately set the protagonist’s experience so drastically different from one’s own. I wonder what everybody thinks about this.

  5. Katherine Hu says:

    Jack Gantos

    Jack Gantos grew up moving around a lot, and his family moved to Barbados when he was 7. He says that his career started when he read his sister’s diary and he realized that he could write better than she could. Diaries meant a lot to him, and were a safe haven for him in a house with a lot of siblings.

    Instead of going to college, he moved to the Virgin Islands to work on construction projects with his father. That was where he was offered 10,000 to sail a boat filled with 2000 lbs of hashish from the Caribbean Sea to the US. Knowing that that sum of money could easily pay for college, he accepted, and it turned out to be a big mistake. He was caught, and went to prison for a sentence of six years. However, he only served one year. He would later write about this experience in a memoir that one Printz and Sibert honors, called Hole in My Life.

    After prison, he moved to our beautiful Boston and enrolled in Emerson College. The first book he published was called Rotten Ralph, in 1976. He decided to write books about what he knew, and used his early writings in his journals as inspiration for the rest of his books. Since then, he has written many award winning books, and continues to do so. He also teaches courses in children’s book writing and children’s literature.

    List of Works:
    Joey Pigza Series
    -Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
    -Joey Pigza Loses Control
    -What Would Joey Do?
    -I Am Not Joey Pigza
    -The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

    Jack Henry series
    -Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade
    -Jack’s New Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year
    -Jack’s Black Book
    -Jack on the Tracks
    -Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue

    Rotten Ralph series
    -Rotten Ralph
    -Three Strikes for Rotten Ralph
    -Rotten Ralph’s Rotten Family

    and more!

    His website:
    Other sources:

  6. I just finished reading “The Birchbark House” by Louise Erdrich. It was so lovely to be transported to another time and culture, and to join a year in the life of this family. Erdrich beautifully depicts life of a Omakayas and her family through well rounded characters, a descriptive setting, and lots of beautiful figurative language.
    One aspect of the story that I especially appreciated was how the author depicted the reverence of animals and nature. This is an essential aspect of Native American culture that I gained a better understanding of and appreciation for as I read the novel. I think this speaks to the unique ability of a well-crafted book to help us understand cultures and times that are much different than ours. Through Omakayas story I was able to comprehend and experience many aspects of Native American life, both beautiful and difficult. I may not have been as invested in these facts if they had been portrayed in a non-fiction text. Quality novels can truly bring a rich amount of background knowledge and understanding to students, about subjects they may never engage with in other ways.
    I could see this novel being engaging and eye opening for many students who know little about Native American culture, or life.

  7. Oyate ( “is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity, and that all people know that our stories belong to us.” To this end, they review a wide range of materials, including books, music and videos. The website includes the ability to search titles to find reviews as well as a section of resources that may be of use to teachers and others, such as guidelines for evaluating books. For those interested in learning more about this topic, Oyate offers workshops ( and is planning a Summer Institute ( for intensive training. The website also includes a shop section ( that features items that they “think portray Native peoples in authentic, honest and culturally appropriate ways.”

  8. Stone Dawson says:

    “The Stories Julian Tells” was a delight to read and seems like a great book for children just beginning to read chapter books. The stories were funny, entertaining, and clever both as individual stories and as a compilation on top of being entirely readable for a young audience. I also appreciated the full cast of African-American characters, something that I feel is rare in books for young readers.

    One particular critique I had for the book pertains to the illustrations. I found that as I was reading I was entirely uninterested in the illustrations. I think this was due to a number of factors such as a lack of consistency in the placement and spacing of the illustrations as well as a feeling that the illustrations didn’t add much to the story or clarify what was happening. I’m curious to see what other people think about this facet of the book and whether or not they see value in these illustrations.

  9. Melissa Christ says:

    “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” was one of the most fascinating chapter books that I have read in quite some time. I was captivated by the story of Joey, a student with ADD, with an abusive grandmother, absent father, and early on in his life an absent mother, who struggles both at school and with home life. The mix of difficult subject matter was addressed in this humorous book with a character that you as the reader, couldn’t help but hope would have something positive happen to him in the end.
    The author, Jack Gantos, did a fabulous job in my opinion, of helping the reader get a sense of what it may feel like to be hyperactive. Gantos did this by using the sentence structure of long run-on sentences that portray the hyperactivity of Joey. Page 5 is a good example of this, as Joey is in the hallway after being kicked out of class temporarily to calm himself, but instead is using his belt and shoelaces to attempt to whirl around like the Tasmanian Devil. “I nodded, and when she was gone I wrapped the belt and laces around my middle and gave it a good tug and began to spin and spin and slam into the lockers and I got going so good the gum I had under my tongue flew out and my Superball slipped out of my hand and went bouncing down the hall and I kept going and going like when you roll down a steep hill and before long I was bumping on the glass walls around the principal’s office like a dizzy fish in a tank.”

    On another note, I am curious how other readers felt about the difficult subject matter that was addressed in the book such as the abusive grandmother directing Joey to get into the refrigerator (p. 12-13), the alcoholic mother (as noted throughout the book when Joey is asked to mix drinks for her; the mother also admits to drinking “a glass of wine with dinner and an Amaretto sour after” while she was pregnant with Joey), the absent father (who Joey’s mother shares in an alcoholic), and the school system at Joey’s school with the Special Education classroom located in the basement of the school and the threats to send him there. I’d love to discuss these aspects of the book further with other readers. I found the book hard to put down, but I’m very interested in discussing how other readers think students would react to the subject matter it addresses.

  10. In her blog post, Robin Smith writes, “I had never thought about reading as something to learn, any more than I thought about taking lessons for talking or walking.”

    In thinking about my own reading experience, this sentence succinctly sums up what I don’t think I’ve ever found such a clear way to express before. Just as I observed and interacted with others, like my parents, walking and talking, then tried these things out myself, so did I experience reading – through observation and interaction. I began “reading” when I was three, though I put reading in quotations because I’m not sure how exactly one would define reading at this stage – does simply recognizing the words on the page and being able to recite them from memory after hearing and seeing them countless times qualify? I certainly couldn’t decipher multisyllabic words and had no notion of phonics or phonetics, but I could navigate on my own for a short time without adult support, like a baby taking a few steps before falling over. And soon, walking turned into running and there was no turning back.

    Until I began working with children. Similar to Robin’s experience, it was only when I began to work with children who were struggling with reading that I realized it is not an intuitive, seamless process for all of us. Given the undeniable impacts reading has had on my life, my development, and my understanding of the world around me, these kids are the ones who have inspired me to learn more about how the mechanics of reading work and how I can be a source of support and inspiration in a purposeful way. Like Robin, I want all children to find joy in books, and I hope I can exude even half the enthusiasm that was leaping off the screen as I read her passionate descriptions and excited suggestions. Basically, I’m pretty sure I want to be her when I grow up.

  11. Catherine says:

    I agree with Melissa’s comments about “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.” I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading the book, and it took me by surprise; I don’t think I have ever encountered a children’s character quite like Joey. Of course, Joey’s ADHD looms large throughout the book, and his outward behavior often conflicts with the kind and earnest kid that the reader gets to know as the story unfolds. This simple idea that appearances often deceive is something Joey himself thinks about quite often. One of the book’s many heartrending moments is when Joey starts to fear he will enter the foster care system. Then, when he meets an actual foster kid, he thinks: “I looked at him and he didn’t look much different than me, so I closed my eyes because it was too sad” (p. 95). Joey is also constantly dwelling on the “wrong” inside of him, thinking: “I had already seen so many kids with bad brains and the worst part is that some of them looked just like me. Looked normal. But like me, there was something wrong inside” (p. 118). There are additional examples of this throughout the book, moments when Joey is disturbed by the gap that exists between outward appearances and inner realities. One of the things I loved most about this book was simply its portrayal of Joey’s rich inner life as he sizes up the world around him and grows increasingly determined to make the best of things, even as the reader learns more and more about the obstacles he faces both at home and at school.

  12. I began reading “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” as I was waiting for a dentist appointment, and I brought it up to the chair, kept reading it, and kept reading it as I walked all the way back home!

    Gantos does an amazing job of taking us in to Joey Pigza’s world through this fast-paced novel. Joey’s voice is sharp and frenetic; he uses run-on sentences, commas, and connectors. And as he veers out of control, we see the run-ons and commas pile on. Gantos really was very successful in tackling a lot of difficult topics (ADHD, emotional abuse, neglect, alcoholism, etc.) and weaving it into a triumphant and thoughtful story. The book is a wonderful empathy tool, and I could imagine it being extremely helpful to younger students in a well-facilitated discussion group. And a large part of the charm: I also loved and identified with the character of Joey. At times he was hard to love, as he made bad decision after bad decision, but ultimately, Joey himself is right — he is a “good kid.”

    I also enjoyed “The Stories Julian Tells,” especially in the casual way that Julian and his family were black, but it was not a central focus on the story. I do believe that children’s book authors do have some responsibility in some way to address social issues in the world, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat. To be frank, I was perturbed by Ann Cameron’s choice, as a white author, to NOT include racism in her book, despite that it must have been formative in the real Julian’s childhood. At the same time, there must be great joy for a child of color to read about themselves in contexts that are not about oppression, racism, and injustice. These books might bring the same kind of happiness that Grace Lin’s books about characters who happen to be Chinese — but not STRUGGLE with it — bring to young Asian readers. I want to respectfully question:
    – Whose voices are being heard, and who makes these narrative choices?
    – Why do we choose to hear those voices? Or highlight those voices? Who chooses to highlight them?
    – Who has the power to depict imagined worlds free of oppression?

    I’m reminded of a Tony Millionaire quote that I love: “You’ve got to give kids really beautiful children’s books in order to turn them into revolutionaries. Because if they see these beautiful things when they’re young, when they grow up they’ll see the real world and say, ‘Why is the world so ugly?! I remember when the world was beautiful.’ And then they’ll fight, and they’ll have a revolution. They’ll fight against all of our corruption in the world, they’ll fight to try to make the world more beautiful. That’s the job of a good children’s book illustrator.”

  13. As I was reading “The Stories Julian Tells,” I was struck by Julian’s fun and magical storytelling– I truly felt that I was reading from the perspective a child, the narrative so delightfully filled with wonder. In particular, the book’s descriptive language really helped bring the imaginative stories to life. For example, as Julian describes his father, he notes, “When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes. When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs” (p. 2). I also especially enjoyed the fig tree story, in which Julian (quite logically) reasons that “Maybe what makes you grow will make me grow,” deciding to eat the fig tree’s new leaves in hopes that, in combination with a “growing dance,” he will successfully grow taller (p. 40). I love that this moment captures children’s ability to experiment with the world as they strive to make connections and find explanations for why things are the way they are. For young readers, the characters feel relatable; for older readers, the characters can ground us in what it’s like to see the world as new and undiscovered– yet, this prompts recognition that the book is admittedly set in a context without racism (as Lolly’s quote from the author notes), and the potential (unintended) consequences of the author’s choice in doing so.

  14. Katie Stack says:

    Lauren, I agree with you that quality literature can be a unique and powerful tool for gaining insight and perspective of other cultures. I especially felt this when Omakayas and Angeline overheard their father speaking with two other men about the chimookomanung’s pressure to force the Ojibwa westward. This dialogue could be juxtaposed against both the perspective of the settlers and information from a textbook to pull out biases in a discussion of how history is recorded (i.e., the idea of the victor/powerful writing history). Doing so could be a powerful way to teach students the necessity of considering multiple perspectives.

    There were also some literary elements of The Birchbark House that I appreciated. For example, full page section titles clearly denote the passage of time, ensuring the reader recognizes it. Another visual element is when Deydey was telling his ghost story. The text became italicized and centered on the page, clearly indicating to the reader that something is being inserted within the linear plot of the story. Additionally, the ghost story equipped the reader with background knowledge for the subsequent chapter when Omakayas and Angeline eavesdropped on the conversation during which there was talk of “hungry” spirits. These examples, which are only a few of many, demonstrate how Louise Erdrich was attentive in making the text accessible so that the reader can focus attention on and experience the (possibly unfamiliar) culture of the Ojibwa.

  15. Heavy Medal is a mock-Newbery blog run from the School Library Journal website. The blog is run by Jonathan Hunt, County Schools Librarian in San Diego, and Sharon McKellar, Community Relations Librarian for Oakland Public Library. Both Hunt and McKellar have served on a variety of book awards committees. The blog provides reading lists, evaluates the merits of new children’s books, and reports on the mock book awards that others run. The blog also discusses the Newbery award itself, including its history and terms and conditions. There are links to sites with more information about the Newbery award, as well as links to other mock Newbery sites.

    There is a range of themes for the blog posts, including exploration of this year’s best books fitting within a particular genre (recent posts explore poetry and biography) and evaluations of single books. The focus is on both merit and suitability for the Newbery, and occasionally the authors suggest that a given book may be better suited to a different award. The comments section includes ongoing conversation between the blog hosts and readers.

    Check out the blog here:

  16. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    Louise Erdrich was born in Minnesota to a German-American father and Chippewa Indian mother. She grew up in North Dakota. She was part of the first class of women admitted to Dartmouth College. She took class in Dartmouth’s Native-American studies department. Michael Dorris, the department chair, taught classes in which Erdrich was able to explore her heritage. Dorris and Erdrich eventually got married and collaborated on short stories such as “The World’s Greatest Fisherman”.
    Erdrich went on to write fifteen novels as well as children’s books and poetry. Her writing has Native American themes that are inspired by her heritage. Her Birchbark House series follows the life of a Native American family. This series comprises of five books: The Birchbark House,
    The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, Chickadee and Makoons.

  17. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:
  18. Amanda MacMiillan says:

    Similar to Lizz’s comments, I also had a very personal reaction after reading Robin Smith’s “Teaching New Readers to Love Books” article. Three quotes from the article have resonated with me:
    “…sitting with Laura as she struggled through Mr. Pine’s Mixed-up Signs and The Cat in the Hat was a small epiphany for my third-grade mind: it was possible to make reading difficult, frustrating. Phonics? Sight words? Sounding out? She was totally confused and discouraged, and no one seemed to be able to help her.”
    “Books were my ticket to different ways of thinking. They challenged my myopic view of the world and pushed me to college.”
    “I think of what my job is: I teach very new readers to read. I teach very new readers to love books. Despite the pressures of parents and the winds of educational change, I do not teach children to read because it is good for them. To me, books are not meant to be the path to Harvard or even the best high school. I do not think of them as “tools for learning,” a phrase I read in a teacher catalog. I read with children because I enjoy it. I read because they enjoy it.”

    As a preschool teacher and future reading specialist, Robin’s explanation of her relationship with books and reading are significant to me for two reasons: my job also involves teaching young children how to love books, and I have also been an avid fan of reading for as long as I can remember. Hearing Robin recount her thoughts as she watched her sister learn to read reminds me of how I watched my own brother approach reading at a young age. While the task was effortless and enjoyable for me, my brother had zero interest in reading and struggled in sounding out words and sounds. At the time, 8 -year- old me was baffled by his low motivation. How could anyone not like reading? How could this fun activity ever be seen as HARD?
    As I currently work to earn my certification as a reading specialist, I now understand how the task of reading can be so hard for so many readers, especially new readers. For students who struggle with letter-sound correspondence, text comprehension, and/or other reading difficulties, its no wonder these kids feel unmotivated- who can find joy in something that is extremely hard for them? One challenge for me personally as a teacher has been hearing students claim that they hate books and that reading is boring. These reactions from students have me constantly asking myself what I can do to help children see books as both a tool for learning and as a key to a world of enjoyment. The selected texts for this week definitely help to answer my question. Exposing students to books such as The Birchbark House may allow students to learn about different cultural perspectives and customs while also enjoying the emotional, personal journey told throughout the text.

  19. I found Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key to be compelling and poignant. I found myself fascinated with the nuance in the portrayal of the adult characters. While Joey struggles with his self-esteem and rarely focuses any blame on the adults around him (apart from his abusive grandmother and occasional lashing out at his mother), as an adult reader it’s easy to lament how much the adults in his life fail him.

    Like Melissa, I wonder how child readers respond to the events of this book, and in particular what their interpretations of the characters would be. I wonder if they would be more likely to accept the adults at the school as authority figures who were acting appropriately in response to Joey’s behavior, or if they would see their actions as misguided. It does seem to me that teaching this book in the classroom would present a potentially valuable opportunity to have a conversation about adults’ responsibilities towards children. It might also be a great text to use when talking about unreliable narration, giving students a chance to form their own opinions based on the information Joey provides.

  20. I believed that all three of the chapter books this week were new to me, but as soon as I started reading The Stories Julian Tells, realized that I had read it before–I suddenly had a very clear memory of wondering what lemon pudding was! (I still have never eaten it.) I vividly remember the description of the taste being like “a whole raft of lemons.” The book has many lovely metaphors–this one, the pudding after Huey and Julian pick at it looking “like craters on the moon,” (p. 8) the wish-kite with its tail “like a long white snake.” (p. 69)

    Partly in response to Stone’s comment, I wanted to talk a little more about the illustrations in this book in particular. I noticed a really lovely progression in the book hinted at by both the words and the illustrations. Though the illustrations appear less frequently than they might in a picture book or early reader, the illustrations around chapter headings were very evocative and hinted at what was to come. But in general, as Julian matures, the fantastical elements of the illustrations recede until eventually, in the last story, they are not present at all–in the first chapter we see an entire the raft of lemons over a night sea that also permeates the kitchen; the catalog cats dance around in the garden and in dreams. But by the time Julian gets his fig tree, during the course of which an entire year passes, we see a more realistic picture (that still contains some imaginative elements, like the shower of figs.) “My Very Strange Teeth”‘s only fantastic element in the illustrations is the dinosaur poking its head in through the classroom window, and by the last story Gloria and Julian are depicted very realistically, friendship and measured imagination perhaps taking the place of the stories in which the fantastic is more central. Maybe Julian is growing up?

  21. Liza Raino-Ogden says:

    I absolutely loved “The Stories Julian Tells,” by Ann Cameron for a few reasons. First of all, the voice of Julian is so believable and evokes extremely relatable feelings that brought me right back to being 8 years old. I remember hiding and hoping I would avoid trouble after doing something that qualified as less than good behavior. Julian is able to be simultaneously sweet and funny and draws the reader in, even though the book is written with fairly simple language. That is the second reason I like this book: as a teacher who worked one on one with dyslexic students, the language used in the book is, for the most part, very accessible by second grade readers while still being engaging–a very difficult task to accomplish!

  22. Liza, I also found “The Stories Julian Tells” very relatable. The fact that the stories deal with something that is almost everyday makes it approachable and engaging. I’m sure that students would be able to relate to some of the silly things that Julian does unintentionally to Huey or to some of the experiences like getting new teeth. Another thing that I also appreciated was how the father was a nurturing figure in the story. The bond between the boys and the father is heartwarming. Julian and Huey help their father make pudding for their mother. Julian’s father does the cleaning of pots and pans, and waits for the Julian’s mother to come home. He also does the gardening and orders catalogues. That is not to say that the mother isn’t responsible at all. She does her fair share of chores. Along with having characters that live in a world with no racism and segregation, I think Cameron also creates a world without sexism.

  23. Jinwen Ye says:

    “The Stories Julian Tells”
    Now we moved from pictures books to chapter books, which do not have many illustrations in. I am wondering how old the children could be to read chapter books. The stories in this book are short, so children could focus on reading very easily. Additionally, the story lines are very interesting and they can inspire lots of imagination for children. Every story could make children to get excited to try things like making pudding, gardening, and making kites for wishes. Furthermore, all stories contain teachable moments, which caregivers could have conversations with children about. For example, when Julian’s father told him that the tree did not grow at all and they might need to remove the tree, Julian realized that he could not be selfish and he should stop eating the leaves from the tree. Children could learn something from engaging in reading these interesting stories.

  24. Like Nell, all three of these books were new to me, but I was particularly struck by the distance we’ve traveled since my own childhood — and, thinking back, from stories of my parents’ childhood — when reading “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.” One of my parents struggled with reading due to a lifelong struggle with dyslexia, which was undiagnosed in the 1940s-1960s, when he was in school. In my own time, the idea of grappling with the complex, nested issues presented in the book — from Joey’s challenges with learning to his sometimes harrowing experiences at home — and further, to his own internal processing of all this — isn’t something that I can imagine us reading in my own school experience from the 1980s and early 90s. The reality depicted in the book is a very real part of life for many students we may encounter as educators, whether we see those struggles clearly present in the classroom or not.

    In contrast, the bright and hopeful — perhaps even a touch idealistic (as the author herself admits!) — world portrayed in “The Stories Julian Tells” for me felt similar to how Liza characterizes it above, but I was left with many of the same questions Shaina so eloquently lays out above. In stories where an obvious element ‘missing’ creates questions in readers’ minds about the role of power and the importance of the narrator (or author) in choosing which voices are more loud and soft — or even silenced? What responsibility do we as educators have to bring these voices into dialogue with the text when working with students? What truth can be gleaned from such a portrait as it is written (and not how we might have rewritten it)?

  25. Joyce Rafla says:

    In the stories that Julian tells, there seems to be a general trend of building up fear from the father’s reaction but then the father would do something very witty that would teach the kids a lesson as well as let the enjoy. I’m not sure if the author is trying to provoke some stereotypes about fathers and trying to challenge our stereotypes or it’s just a way of building an expectation and surprising the audience somehow.

  26. Siyuan Lu says:

    I really loved reading those short and funny stories in the book ‘The Stories Julian Tells’. I am very impressed by the smart ways the father solved those ‘tough’ problems. For example, in the very first story, instead of simply punishing the boys directly, he gave the boys a chance to make up their mistake. During this process the boys would have a chance to understand how hard it is to make a pie and how bad it is to destroy other people’s efforts. Or in the story ‘catalog cat’, instead of just pointing out Julian’s lie, the father offered another story to tell the boys the importance of hardworking.
    In addition, as mentioned by some students already, I love the way that his book is written from a child’s perspective with children’s language. I believe this would help the young readers understand and the stories much better.

  27. Wow, Joey Pigza was an endlessly complex novel. The choice of 1st person was powerful, as it captures Joey’s believably manic inner monologue. I love Gantos’ Rotten Ralph series, but Joey’s behaviors are so much more extreme with very real consequences. Of course there are moments of levity, but I could hardly smile in face of the intense drama that unfolds.
    The Pigza family is flawed and frustrating and heartbreakingly human all at once. You think Grandma is an undisciplined but fun, “wired” caretaker, but her character quickly becomes dark with the fridge incident, and even darker when Joey finally informs the reader about her emotional abuse at the windowsill. Mom (Fran) returns to make amends and struggles to raise him, but is always loving. Yet, when Joey shares about his home life with Special Ed, all of Mom’s foibles are made apparent. Later, she shares about her dark struggles while she was absent.
    Yet, for all the blame that can be placed on the entire Pigza family, they are not irredeemable or downright malicious (even Grandma, whose cruelty seems to stem from problems with her mental state). There is no real villain in the book; all the teachers and professionals at school are surprisingly (perhaps, unrealistically) fair and even patient with Joey.
    The ending is a bit too clean-cut. Why is Joey magically in control of his behavior now? Is it because of the miracle patch? Of course, it’s a children’s book, and for all the boundaries it pushes, it’s only right for Joey to get his happy ending, even if it’s too neat. I also loved that he named his dog Pablo Pigza—like Pablo Picasso, another maverick who was wonderfully weird and had a unique way of looking at the world.

  28. As I was reading “The Stories Julian Tells,” I was reminded of my younger cousins and how much they probably would have liked it when they were in third grade. One of the reviews calls Julian the “everychild,” and that definitely rings true. The narrative, with its easygoing writing style and engaging illustrations, is universal, exciting, and humorous, and it grapples with issues every child would face. The author is willing to identify Julian’s emotions (he is nervous when he has a loose tooth) and help the child-readers process them. What it does well and interestingly is combine magic and imagination with a child’s everyday life, and I can see that resonating with children.

    I also really appreciated that it discusses certain lessons and morals (i.e. the pudding and it’s okay to make mistakes) without being overly preachy.

    My favorite story is the one when Julian meets Gloria. I loved the part where he tries to copy her in a cartwheel, and when she doesn’t laugh at him when he falls, they become friends. It is such a nice example of kindness and of friendship, and I really enjoyed reading it!

  29. Monique H. says:

    “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” is a book I wish I’d read as a child. I think it would’ve made me more empathetic to the similarly “wired” kids I knew, rather than being annoyed by their disruptive behavior. The portrayal of Joey felt so genuine; I loved the clarity of his voice. He was such a kind, bright child who very obviously didn’t want to cause trouble, but he couldn’t regulate himself sometimes. Also, the fact that both his father and grandmother suffer from some form of mental illness means that he was susceptible to all types of problems; never mind the fact that his home life was abusive and unstable. With all the cards stacked against him (in regards to both nature and nurture), Joey is so fortunate to have supportive adults in his life who see him for his potential and not his shortcomings. Joey is something of a reformed tragic hero.

    I admire how well Jack Gantos did at characterizing a child with ADHD. Joey’s thoughts and the way he sees the world were written in such a frantic way that I felt a little “wired” myself, while reading it. This was a great book that I’m sure has been transformative for a lot of children and families.

  30. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    I enjoyed reading “The Stories Julian Tells”. I was able to relate to it because I have a younger sister whom I used to tell stories to. I really like the point Joyce brought about up about the author bringing up stereotypes about fathers and then writing reactions contrary to those stereotypes. In “The Pudding Like a Night on the Sea”, Julian and Huey’s father tells them it’s time for their beating and whipping. I liked the play on words here. They boys understood it as punishment for eating the pudding whereas their father meant they were going to make pudding. I caught on before reading what he really meant but I imagine that kids might not and that would make the reveal exciting for them.

  31. Santi Dewa Ayu says:

    Similar to many others, I found myself wondering how youth would engage with the characters, particularly the adults in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even though this book has an older target audience then Mo Willems’s books, I thought about one of his quotes where he mentions the difficulty of being a kid. Joey has a good heart, but there is a lot going on in his life that he his actions haven’t directly caused. I think that many youth and adults will be able to relate to those feelings. This tells a narrative of Joey with ADHD however, I hope it’s not the only narrative that youth are exposed to as ADHD can be exhibited in many ways (not identical to Joey’s). I would be interested in learning more about the series and about how teachers discuss Joey’s ADHD. The ideas of community, exclusion, and acceptance loom large in this text. Although this was a short read, it was difficult for me to process the text as I kept thinking about how the book would be taught.

  32. Mia Branco says:

    I had never read “The Birchbark House” by Louise Erdrich, and I was really moved by the story. The descriptions of the island they live on, the work they do, and the emotions they feel was beautiful, detailed, and straightforward. Yet, the issues they face and work they did were in no way simple or minimized. I especially loved the way Eldrich did not shy away from examining the sorrow that encircles you when a loved one is lost. Finally, I was also intrigued by the use of stories within the story , such as when her Father and Grandmother told stories of spirits and other lessons.

  33. Andrea M. says:

    I enjoyed the book “The Stories Julian Tells” since it reminded me of my brother who also loves to make up stories similar to the catalog cats, and my father who loves to joke about things like when Julian’s father suggested using pliers to take out his tooth.

    Contrary to what Stone commented about the illustrations, I think they do add to the story, specially the ones that show what Julian is imagining or dreaming about: cats painting the house, cats working in the garden, the fig tree growing taller than his house.

    In addition to what Grace mentioned about how adults in Joey’s life failed him in “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key”, I thought a lot about his teachers. The different situations described throughout the story brought up memories to my mind about my own experience as a teacher dealing with students similar to Joey, and made me reflect on the times that as a teacher you need to be “unfair” to keep a student safe, like when Joey is not allowed to carve a pumpkin with a knife.

    Knowing that these books are series, I would definitely like to continue reading them.

  34. Like Liz and Amanda I was also drawn to Robin Smith’s piece “Teaching New Readers to Love Reading”. One of the takeaways for me was the importance finding the right book for the individual child. Any child can love reading if he or she is given books to delight in. I think one of the truly valuable lessons I am learning in our class and in our readings is that there are so many, many wonderful books available, far beyond the children’s book classics we all know and love. In this vast array of books is the perfect book for an individual child experiencing a particular moment in his or her development. Ms. Smith hit on this particular topic when she discussed Stone Fox as a wonderful book for her male students emotional development. Overall, I really appreciated Ms. Smith’s message that there are so many wonderful books and that by finding the right book at the right moment for an individual student we can provide an invaluable learning tool.

  35. “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” was interesting for me because its content / topic is unfamiliar to me. It’s narrated by a hyperactive boy who gives readers an inside view of attention-deficit disorders. It certainly helped me glean some insights into the life of someone with ADD. I found it a little painful to read because I really sympathised with Joey. In a way, I think the way that this novel is written, filled with energy, conveys both Joey’s activity and his thought processes. Its style (where words are screaming / jumping out at the reader) reminded me of another book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”…

  36. argh! I keep pressing a mystery key and vanishing.
    I love Birchbark House and the Julian Stories. I would have loved them as a boy, just as I love them now. As for JOEY, now 18 years in print, I find during my school visits that students read the book, and we all can laugh gleefully at the antics (there is also a lot of mayhem in JP LOSES CONTROL). However, when we discuss the family issues not all the kids are laughing. And it is at these moments where I can sense that the reader/kid has touched on something in the text which has caused them to feel uncomfortable–or caused them to finally put words to a bad feeling or event and now they can articulate it to themselves and in doing so they are struggling to judge and manage like-events in their own lives. Joey has a good arc in the book–from out of control to in control. But the reader must wonder, ‘Am I in control?’–‘Is my world chaotic?’–‘Are the adults in my life unreliable, even frightening?’. These are big questions for such young readers, and they are stirred up through literature where the main character has a good ending and where the love between family members remains true even when their actions are so chaotic. Its a complex world for Joey and the reader to navigate. I visit 40 schools a year and ‘Joey’ is always present–in the text or in the flesh. He or she is out there. And probably hoping one of you will find him or her. Thanks for reading my novel and for your considered comments which are very thought provoking.
    All Best, Jack Gantos

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind