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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

Lolly Robinson is a freelance designer and consultant with degrees in studio art and children’s literature. She is the former creative director for The Horn Book, Inc., and has taught 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 blogged for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.


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Jack Gantos

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

Posted : Nov 03, 2016 07:26

Longy H

“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"...

Posted : Oct 25, 2016 02:22


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.

Posted : Oct 25, 2016 01:34

Andrea M.

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.

Posted : Oct 24, 2016 09:50

Mia Branco

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.

Posted : Oct 24, 2016 09:17

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