The Beasts and Children, Day 4: The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant, by Jacqueline Rogers (1989)

I didn’t realize when I picked this book up that the author/illustrator is the woman who provides the cover art for the new Ramona reprints and for Calvin Coconut (a series I discovered in the school library recently). The style is very different from those books–much more realistic–but it’s clear that she has varied talent!

This book shows the story of the dress rehearsal and performance of a rural Christmas pageant (performed in a barn surrounded by snowy hills and not much else!), and the text represents the contents of the pageant (matching up with the scene the pictures illustrate), including songs with sheet music! The picture story begins with final preparations of costumes and set pieces. From there, we see the angel Gabriel making his announcements to Mary and then Joseph (while set work continues in the background). Then Joseph pulls a wagon (with a donkey cut-out taped to the front and Mary perched on a box inside) across the stage, and we see the toddler (a little girl, according to the cast list on the title pages) who is playing Baby Jesus pestering an innkeeper behind the inn set while another child leads some real animals into the barn for the performance. Mary and Joseph have some trouble keeping the “baby” in the manger once she sees the cow and sheep on stage, and one of the sheep chews on a shepherd’s head covering while the angel appears to proclaim the birth. Then an angel choir (with appropriately mixed behavior) sings as the shepherds make their way to the stable (where Jesus sucks on a pacifier and tries to pull off the head covering of another shepherd). The real program begins at this point of the illustrations as the costumed wise men (one carrying the camel cut-out) trek through the snow on the country road leading to the barn where cars fill the plowed out area that is serving as a parking lot. They track snow across the stage while the audience looks on with pride. The faux Jesus has actually fallen asleep for this evening performance, and Mary and Joseph smile as they place her in the stage manger. Then all the cast gathers around the sleeping child for the final song (“Joy to the World”) and curtain call. As the performers and their families file out of the barn after the performance, snow is falling, delighting the children.

With as much charm as a real performance of a Christmas pageant, the text of the book could actually be used as the basis for a production (with directors reminded by the illustrations of what pitfalls exist with child performers!). It is not verbatim text from the Bible, but it summarizes and condenses much like any Christmas pageant would (and, like most pageants and nativity sets, features the wise men–inaccurately–at the birth for the purpose of seamlessly including their part of the account.) The characters in the illustrations are actually based on real people, credited by the author/illustrator on the page facing the title page. While the director’s hairstyle, outfit, and glasses might give away the 1989 publication date, it’s not jarring (or prevalent) enough to distract from the art, and the kids look like any kids from any time in the late 20th to early 21st century. (The biggest hint of the publication date might actually be that none of the audience is holding up a cell phone to record the performance!) This book would make a great read-aloud for preschoolers, and readers in middle elementary grades could probably handle it independently.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 3: Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse, by Caralyn Buehner, pictures by Mark Buehner (2015)

This is another one that BoyChild really enjoyed. Part of the fun of this is the built in hidden pictures–but we still haven’t found the cat, T-rex, and rabbit in all of the illustrations! (And I really wish I knew the backstory behind the dedication: “For Mr. Joe, who’s as handsome as a bus and as clever as a tractor”!)

Mr. Mouse hears that there is a spot available for sale under a kitchen stove, so he and his family (a wife and seventeen small mice) move in. As Mr. Mouse is exploring the human house one day, he discovers an evergreen tree covered with lights has been brought in and notices all kinds of new smells and new activities going on. He and his family observe and wonder the reason for all the festivities, so Mouse creeps upstairs and overhears the nativity account and the story of Santa being told. “All that fussing upstairs is for Christmas, and Christmas means joy, and love,” he reports back to his wife. She decides it would be a good idea to decorate and celebrate, too. Mr. Mouse goes around borrowing small items to recreate the decorations he has seen upstairs while Mrs. Mouse makes pajamas for everyone, and they wrap the gifts in scraps of colorful paper. Crumbs of gingerbread and bits of candy cane serve as their treats. Then they gather the whole family for the celebration with games and music, treats and gifts, and a retelling of the Christmas story. They each hang a tiny stocking before bed, just in case. To Mr. Mouse’s surprise, they awaken to find a small gift for each parent and a chocolate chip and a bit of cheese for each little mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Mouse decide that Christmas is worth celebrating every year.

The story is told in rhyming verse (ABCB pattern), but it’s not overly rhythmic, so it doesn’t feel too forced. The illustrations, in addition to the hidden images in each one, feature rich, vibrant colors, and the contents of the Mouse home, in particular, are creatively made using regular household items (much like in The Borrowers, a childhood favorite of mine). Small readers can try to figure out the origins of all the items, from the paperclips and buttons on the sprig tree to the chili powder can they use as a fireplace and the dominoes, Tinker-Toys, and blocks they use as seats for the children. (There’s even the little Scottie dog from a Monopoly game as a table-top decoration and birthday candles used for light!) (In an added twist, I recognized the cover of another Christmas book I’ve reviewed, Christmas Day in the Morning, on the page where the mouse is listening to the humans share Christmas stories–because the illustrator of this book is the one who illustrated that one!)

Even though it’s not heavily emphasized, it’s easy to take the central message of the book and apply it in the lives of our little readers–“Mouse learned that on that night long ago/was born the Lord of the earth,/and the lights and the songs and the giving/were to celebrate His birth.” Great for preschool and early elementary read-alouds.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 2: Christmas in the Country

Christmas in the Country

Christmas in the Country, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode (2002)

I may have liked this book more than BoyChild, but I suppose he’s not quite old enough yet to be the sentimental sort. Although I’m not sure it’s entirely autobiographical, the author often includes episodes and people from her life in her works, so there is every possibility that much of the story is true.

The narrator looks back to when she was a little girl living with her grandparents in the country. Each season brings new experiences, and this book focuses on winter and the anticipation of Christmas. In her family, her grandfather goes to chop down a tree while she and her grandmother get out the ornaments, each one a reminder of years past. Christmas Eve is a chance to sing with the other children in front of the church and get a small gift of fruit and candy after the service. Before she goes to bed when they get home, she writes a nice note for Santa to leave with the milk and cookies. Early Christmas morning, she wakes her grandparents to go see what Santa has brought her, and she is always pleased to receive the new doll she has asked for and a special second gift that’s a surprise. After opening her gifts, they go to church once again for a quick reminder of what Christmas is about, then they return home to entertain the friends and family who visit throughout the day. When Christmas is done and the New Year comes, the tree comes down, the ornaments are packed away, and the anticipation of each new season–and other Christmases–begins again.

Most page spreads have one page with a decent amount of text in a frame with a small illustration and a full page illustration on the opposite side. A few feature a paragraph of text that takes second place to the full spread illustration. I find myself once again wishing I had the knowledge and vocabulary to describe the art! The setting is clearly in the past, but the illustrations depict the kind of timeless country home that could still be found represented all over. (This one has electric lights but is heated by “an old coal stove,” so the time can’t be firmly established.) Plenty of details give young readers something to study on each page, and many will find the three dogs’ activities interesting enough to warrant a longer look.

I think what I liked most about this book is the focus on memories of traditions. None of the things she writes about are big, showy things, but they are childhood experiences that have importance in her mind. Our family has a tradition of adding an ornament to the tree each year that represents a family experience of the year; some years, everybody gets their own for some special memory from the year. (BoyChild’s is BB-8 this year, in tribute to his new Star Wars obsession, and our family ornament is from our visit to Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine this past summer. (Our kids earned Junior Ranger badges there, and GirlChild did some extra work and got the patch!) We’re still deciding on what part of GirlChild’s busy year we’re going to commemorate with an ornament!) We parents also have our childhood ornaments that were given to us by our parents for our new tree for our first Christmas when we were married. Decorating the tree each year is a drawn-out process. Each person hangs his or her own ornaments, and there are usually stories shared about when we got each ornament or who gave it to us or what we remember about the experience that prompted the choice. We don’t relive every Christmas tradition our families had growing up, but we’ve selected some from each side and have developed our own that work for our little family, too. From the apple, orange, and nuts in each stocking from my husband’s family to the multiple advent calendars from mine, we build tradition and meaning into the whole month. Our most firm tradition, though, is to always read the Christmas account from Luke 2 on Christmas Eve right before bed. Like the narrator’s preacher on Christmas morning, we find it important to always remind ourselves what Christmas is about so it carries with us through the rest of our celebrations and gives them a foundation in love and giving.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 1: Christmas Cricket

Christmas Cricket

Christmas Cricket, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Timothy Bush (2002)

The dedication page implies the inspiration for the story. The author writes, “To the Christmas choir in my garden. You sing like angels.” This book tells the story of a cold, wet, and dejected cricket who makes his way indoors and takes shelter in a brightly lit tree he finds there. Once he hides himself there, he begins to sing, and he is startled by sudden voices nearby. When the larger of the voices agrees with the smaller voice (who says she thinks she heard the angel ornament sing) that he thinks he hears singing, too, Cricket is surprised to hear him also say, “Did you know that angels sing in the songs of birds, and frogs and people and crickets?” Cricket is calmed and encouraged by the thought, and he joins in with the voices as they sing “Joy to the World” with joy in his own heart.

BoyChild really enjoyed this book. He even gave sounding out a few lines a try: “What should he do? He must not be found. Should he jump? Should he try to get away? Should he stay hidden?” (Clearly, not all of that can be sounded out, but he tried!) When we reread it the next day, he willingly tried it out again, only missing a few tricky words, so I’m encouraged by his effort! While he liked the part when Cricket is crossing the kitchen tiles (“jump-jumped across something, cold as frozen snow”), the hardwood floor (“skid-skidded across somewhere, slippery as pond ice”), and onto a rug (“a place as soft and fresh as grass”), he really loved the illustration showing Cricket hopping across the living room floor and up into the tree. I think he found it funny how Cricket interpreted the different flooring types based on his own experience with the outside, and the implied movement of the illustration was fun for him. The art is done in watercolor and features an assortment of perspectives that keep the illustrations interesting and make the reader feel close to the action of the story. While the claim that angels sing in the songs of animals and people is a little suspect, I explained to BoyChild that the Bible says that nature proclaims God’s glory (Psalm 19), so the author probably means that it’s as if the angels are singing when creatures in nature make their music. The point of the story, then, is found in the following passage: “He was small, then. But not worthless. What a great discovery!” For little children feeling small and powerless (and perhaps their parents, feeling insignificant in a big world), the reminder that even the smallest voice–each member of God’s creation–speaks a bit of heaven is a refreshing and empowering thought.

Great for a read-aloud for preschool to early elementary, this book has large illustrations and small chunks of text that would make it a great independent read for an early reader as well. Definitely BoyChild approved, and GirlChild thought it was cute, too.

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The Twelve Reviews of Christmas 2016: The Beasts and Children

It’s that time of the year again, and it’s time for the sixth annual Rushing to Read Twelve Reviews of Christmas! Starting tomorrow and each of the first twelve days of December, I’ll post reviews of children’s Christmas books, both secular and religious, that feature animals and/or children as the main characters. Stay tuned! (If you want some ideas of Christmas books for your kids and don’t want to wait for this whole list to come out, you can find my old lists here!)

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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 2000-2009

Themed Third Throwback Thursday this month will clearly require some throwing back as it is not being posted anywhere near the third Thursday (despite the fact that I got it to post as being published over a week ago!)…I hope you can forgive me for that!😉

Again, we’re definitely in a time frame where “classic” or “lasting” is a relative term, so I enlisted the help of my local children’s librarian to find out what books from this decade already have a following among young readers. This list reflects her suggestions as well as my own experience with and guesses based on what kind of children’s books have been, in the past, popular in the long term.

Newbery Medalists of the decade are:

2000–Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis
2001–A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck
2002–A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park
2003–Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi
2004–The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, by Kate DiCamillo
2005–Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata
2006–Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins
2007–The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
2008–Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz
2009–The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

The Caldecott Medalists are:

2000–Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback
2001–So You Want to Be President?, by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small
2002–The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner
2003–My Friend Rabbit, by Eric Rohmann
2004–The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordecai Gerstein
2005–Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes
2006–The Hello, Goodbye Window, by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka
2007–Flotsam, by David Wiesner
2008–The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
2009–The House in the Night, by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes

Kate DiCamilloBecause of Winn-DixieHer first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, was published in 2000, was named a Newbery Honor in 2001, and was made into a movie in 2005. The Tale of Despereaux, her 2004 Newbery Medalist, became an animated film in 2008. She won the Newbery a second time in 2015 with Flora & Ulysses (featured in my post about superhero books). However, middle grade fiction is not her only strength! My kids both enjoy her funny Mercy Watson series (GirlChild as an easy independent read, BoyChild as a Tumblebook read-along!), an early chapter book, and she’s also tried her hand at a couple picture books. She often tackles tough topics that kids can understand (divorce, loneliness, homelessness, etc.) and empowers her characters to overcome their circumstances and be the heroes of their own stories. The consistent quality of her works suggest that longevity is almost inevitable!

Neil GaimanThe first Gaiman Coralinebook I encountered was actually Stardust, through the movie (recommended by my sister, whom I shall call “Marian the Librarian” (if I haven’t already done so) since she is a youth services librarian in a public library), published in 1999 (and definitely a YA or above book–not for readers younger than high school). He has an extensive bibliography, however, that starts in the mid-80s and continues to now and is primarily in the speculative fiction genre. Many of his efforts are in comics and adult literature, often short stories or poetry, but shortly after Stardust, he started publishing more child-friendly books (although most still with an edge). Some of my favorites for middle elementary to middle school are Coraline (although I can’t look at the illustrations for long!) and The Graveyard Book (the Newbery Medalist which I experienced as an audiobook read to perfection by the author). And of his picture books, I enjoyed The Wolves in the Walls and loved Chu’s Day (as did my children). He seems to be the kind of author that will continue to be read far into the future!

Lemony SnicketSeries of Unfortunate EventsI started purchasing The Series of Unfortunate Events for my classroom shortly after the first book was published in 1999. By the time I was done teaching 5th grade in 2007, the series had been completed. I remember picking up most of them from the Scholastic book order, but the last few were purchased at a local bookstore when I couldn’t wait for them to come out in paperback! Wikipedia suggests “mock-gothic” as a genre, and a setting is hard to nail down. (It feels almost steampunk to me with its Victorian vibe and a variety of anachronistic technologies, but it is less focused on the technology than on the woe the main characters face near-constantly.) Another term Wikipedia uses is “absurdist”–the characters seem like Gothic caricatures, villains and heroes alike, and the plot events are often sadly absurd. Snicket’s understated melodrama and dire and dreary commentary are hallmarks of his work. Some children read the books and get depressed; others (like me) find the understated absurdity to be absolutely hilarious. Besides the author’s other prolific writings, the series has been translated into many languages and is in the process of being made into a second movie.

Mo WillemsMo Willems‘ first books for childrenDon't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! came about after a stint as a writer and animator on Sesame Street; he decided to become a stay-at-home dad to his daughter, Trixie (who became the protagonist in his Knuffle Bunny series). Between his Pigeon books, Knuffle Bunny, and Elephant and Piggie books, it’s hard to believe that there are any youthful readers who haven’t come across and enjoyed something he has written! (My children strongly adore all of his works and are mesmerized by the Scholastic animated versions they got from Grandma! I wrote about how much we adore him in a Themed Third Thursday post a few years ago.) He received Caldecott Honors for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and Knuffle Bunny, Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity.

I feel like I’m overlooking someone (or a few someones!) really talented and prolific with a strong body of work in this decade, and I’d love it if you’d help me out by telling me in the comments about the authors/series from this decade that have the potential to make a lasting impression on children’s literature!

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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1990-1999

It’s kind of hard at this point to know just what children’s literature of the 1990s will have staying power in the distant future, so I’m choosing a few books and authors who had a real impact on the decade or that had a strong body of their work published in the 1990s and which I know kids are still reading today. It’s hard for me to realize that many of these books were written over twenty years ago because, well, the 1990s doesn’t seem so far in the past to me! It may have become clear to readers by now that I am particularly fond of historical fiction and fantasy titles, but I have a few picture books and realistic fiction titles included in my list, and if you notice any glaring omissions from the decade, chime in below.

[1990-to-1999-book-list]

A sampling of some significant events in history for the decade (including a number of which I actually remember!):

1990–Nelson Mandela freed
1991–Collapse of the Soviet Union
1992–Los Angeles riots after Rodney King verdict
1993–World Trade Center bombed
1994–Nelson Mandela elected president of South Africa
1995–eBay founded
1996–Unabomber arrested
1997–Pathfinder sends images of Mars
1998–U.S. President Bill Clinton impeached
1999–Euro becomes new European currency

Newbery Medals for the decade are:

1990–Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
1991–Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli
1992–Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1993–Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant
1994–The Giver, by Lois Lowry
1995–Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
1996–The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman
1997–The View From Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg
1998–Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse
1999–Holes, by Louis Sachar

Caldecotts for the decade are:

1990–Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China, by Ed Young
1991–Black and White, by David Macaulay
1992–Tuesday, by David Weisner
1993–Mirette on the High Wire, by Emily Arnold McCully
1994–Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say
1995–Smoky Night, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz
1996–Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann
1997–Golum, by David Wisniewski
1998–Rapunzel, by David O. Zelinsky
1999–Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

Product DetailsAndrew Clements: I don’t know if I’ve expressed how much I love Andrew Clements’ books (I have, a few times), but I do very much love Andrew Clements’ books! Suitable for readers as young as third or fourth grade, they usually have a school-based setting, have a varied cast of characters and conflicts, and you never have to worry that the content will be inappropriate for young readers despite some of the issues they tackle. My first and always favorite is Frindle (1996), his first novel for children, but Extra Credit (2009) and About Average (2012) are up there, too, for different reasons. (I consider him the Joan Bauer of children’s literature…and Joan Bauer is the Andrew Clements of YA literature–always appropriate to recommend!)

Sharon Creech: Sharon CreechProduct Details doesn’t write series books, but my classroom library when I taught fifth grade had quite a long Creech segment anyway! My personal favorites are Love That Dog (2001) and Granny Torrelli Makes Soup (2003). Her characters are also real and relatable, and she doesn’t shy away from hard topics. I would recommend most of her works for fifth grade and up, actually, because of the topics and age of the protagonists, but my two favorites can work for slightly younger students. Walk Two Moons (1994), the story of a young teenage girl who is dealing with her grief over the loss of her mother in her own particular way, won the Newbery in 1995. Absolutely Normal Chaos (1990), another book for upper elementary to middle school readers, was published first in the UK and again in the US after the success of Walk Two Moons.

Product DetailsChristopher Paul Curtis: Because they were both published after I had begun high school, I read the Newbery medalist Bud, Not Buddy (1999) and Newbery runner-up The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 (1995) as an adult, but I think if they had been around when I was in grade school, they would have been just as impactful, and I hope a teacher would have exposed me to them! (They were certainly both in my classroom library when I taught fifth grade, but our history curriculum didn’t teach those eras in my grade level, so I didn’t use them in class.) Historical fiction is my favorite way to learn (and teach!) about the past, and a well-researched novel is, to me, the most immersive and moving way to learn about an era in history from the point of view of a character who is a part of a group to which I don’t belong. My historical knowledge of these eras (Great Depression and Civil Rights Movement) is embarrassingly weak, but these characters pulled me in and made me feel for them and with them, those little girls in their Sunday best and that trumpet-playing, jazz-loving boy, characters who were like me in as many ways as they were unlike me, and that is a definite mark of a well-written story! Because of the very tragic (and very real) climax of The Watsons Go to Birmingham:1963 (the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church which killed four little girls), I’d suggest it for upper elementary and middle school aged readers, but Bud, Not Buddy and more recent works, like Elijah of Buxton (2007) and The Mighty Miss Malone (2012) (both now on my reading list!) might be suitable for readers in the middle to upper elementary grades.

Kevin Henkes: Kevin Henkes Product Detailshas been publishing since the early 1980s, but his works that are most familiar to me, like Chrysanthemum (1991) and Julius, the Baby of the World (1990), were written in the 1990s and later. My children own a number of his mouse-based books (Owen’s Marshmallow Chick (2002) was one of GirlChild’s favorites when she was but a wee lass, and it still comes out every Easter!), and the Henkes shelf gets a lot of circulation at both the public and school library locally. His characters (despite usually being animals in this period of his writing) are realistic with recognizable childlike qualities (both good and not so good), and children really identify with the emotions his characters express. He is both author and illustrator, and his first black and white picture book, Kitten’s First Full Moon (2004), won a Caldecott in 2005.

Product DetailsPatricia Polacco: Patricia Polacco’s picture books are a staple of primary school libraries, and she published quite a few during the 1990s (and beyond). Some of her best and most famous works include Thank You, Mr. Falker (1998), Chicken Sunday (1992), and Thunder Cake (1990). (I reviewed Babushka’s Doll in my Themed Third Thursday: Dolls and Toyland post.) The author weaves her heritage and personal history into her books, including her Russian Jewish and Irish family stories and style, and her art is engaging and easily recognizable.

J.K. Rowling: Product DetailsIf we’re talking in terms of popularity, visibility, and continuing impact on culture, I’d have to say J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) made the biggest splash of the 1990s. (It even made it onto the history timeline I reference for my events of the decade portion of the post!) My first introduction to the series was in a children’s literature class for my education degree, and I soon caught up on the series and waited like so many others for each next book to come out. (I’m a pre-order kind of fan, not a Barnes-and-Noble-at-midnight-in-costume kind of fan…) While GirlChild has not yet read the series, all of her older cousins have, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. (I’m pretty sure that if I introduced GirlChild to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as a character right now, she’d never finish the books (or forgive me!), so I’m not going to ruin that for her!) Readers enjoy the well-developed fantastical elements of the stories, of course, but also the realistically portrayed, flawed, and lovable characters, the relatable emotions and themes, and the complex and interwoven plot lines. Not only has this series spawned a hugely popular movie series, but even books within the books are now being published and made into movies of their own!

Product DetailsJerry Spinelli: Looking at Jerry Spinelli’s extensive publication list from the 1990s, I realize that I was growing up with these books! I turned eleven as this decade began, so I spent my early adolescence picking these up as they filtered into the library. My youthful memories include Maniac Magee (1990, 1991 Newbery Medal), There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock (1991), and that literary classic Who Ran My Underwear Up the Flagpole? (1992). GirlChild recently read Fourth Grade Rats (1991) in school, and my fifth grade classroom library included Wringer (1997, 1998 Newbery Honor), The Library Card (1997), and Picklemania (1993). Spinelli has continued to publish children’s and YA literature to the present.

 

What Do We Do All Day’s list had very little overlap because she aims for lesser-known works, and this list is her last to compare. I’m going to venture into the 2000s and even future favorites of the 2010s, so I’m on my own now!

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