Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems

September 21, 2011

Elephants Cannot DanceEver been told you can’t do something?

This is the story of someone who tried anyway!

The Story

In this picture book for ages 4-8, a little pig in a tutu tries to get Gerald the elephant to dance. Despite Gerald’s insistence that even books say elephants cannot dance, he is convinced to at least try. Can he do it? What happens when he tries?

Kids who love music, the theater arts, and animal stories will be attracted to this book.

Boys in particular might relate to the idea of giving up on something they enjoy, such as dancing, because others say it’s something only girls should do. By seeing Gerald’s trials, kids might feel hopeful and encouraged to try something outside of what a boy supposedly should or should not do. Gerald and Piggie let the reader know it’s ok to try.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. Why do you think Piggie insisted that Gerald try to dance?
  2. What are some of the things you have not tried because you think you can’t?
  3. Why is it important to try to do something, even if you think you can’t?

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The worst-case scenario survival handbook: Junior edition, by Borgenicht & Epstein, Ill. C. Gonzales

August 31, 2011

Want to laugh?

Want to be grossed out?

Just open up this book!

The Skinny

The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook is for kids ages 9-12. It offers humorous and sometimes gross advice on the many perils of childhood. Every chapter revolves around a theme, such as “Survival skills for your social life”, which is then divided into small sections including different scenarios, such as “How to survive farting in public”.

Who will love this book?

Kids who love humor, the “gross factor”, and practical advice will love this book (some grownups will like this as well!). The titles of each scenario alone can draw the attention of readers, even those who are reluctant to pick up a book. The illustrations are colorful and slightly exaggerated for maximum laughter. Behind the humor and gross aspects, kids can also find trivia, helpful information on self-confidence, being bullied, doing well in school, and how to survive getting into trouble with grownups.  The practical advice is down to earth and believable.

This is one of those few, well-rounded books that has the capability of appealing to a very large audience.

What questions might you ask to get kids talking about the book?

  1. What methods have you tried to calm down an angry parent? Has any of it worked?
  2. What should you do when you get into trouble at home? Why?
  3. Have you ever felt you needed advice and did not know who to ask? What kind of advice were you looking for?

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Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

August 13, 2010

I’m always looking for books that have magic, mischief and some mayhem. When I came across The Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, I was intrigued:

“Running fast to save his life, Aldwyn ducks into an unusual pet store. Moments later Jack, a young wizard in training, comes in to choose a magical animal to be his familiar. Aldwyn’s always been clever. But magical? Jack thinks so—and Aldwyn is happy to play along.”

Magical animals?
A wizard in training?
Count me in!
The downside? The book isn’t out until September 7th, 2010.

The upside? The authors came to Once Upon A Book to write a guest post! (Thank you, guys!)

September 7th is slowly approaching, but in the meantime, check out what these authors have to say about their experience – er, lack of experience – with rejection letters.


Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters
Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, authors of The Familiars

We’ve all heard how every author has a box of a thousand rejection letters, from publishers, agents, and literary magazines. Many even have the sealed envelopes with the words “Return to Sender” boldly stamped across it. But sitting on our shelf in our office, there’s no box of rejection letters. You know why? Because in Hollywood, when you’re a screenwriter, you don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. They just never bother writing back. You send your script out to production companies, agents, and managers, and 99 percent of the time you simply never hear back. And occasionally, when you do, it’s to hear that they don’t accept unsolicited material.

In a sense, we envy the author who can save up their memories of struggle and have a wonderful paper trail of those who didn’t believe in them for when they become “overnight” successes. We instead are left with a series of undocumented failures. But no matter how many times you hear the phrase, “it all happened so fast,” or “it was the FIRST thing I ever wrote,” take it from us, it never is. So we always tell people to keep their fingers to the keyboard and their pens filled with ink, and to keep writing like we did, until the right person reads the right thing at the right time. It happened for us and it will happen for you.

You can learn more about The Familiars at www.thefamiliars.com. Tell us about your best rejection letters via email at thefamiliarsbook@gmail.com or on our blog at thefamiliars.blogspot.com.


ADAM JAY EPSTEIN spent his childhood in Great Neck, New York, while ANDREW JACOBSON grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the two met in a parking garage out in Los Angeles. They have been writing for film and television together ever since. The Familiars  is their first book.

One day, Adam asked Andrew, “Are you familiar with what a familiar is?” And from that simple question, Vastia was born, a fantastical world filled with the authors’ shared love of animals and magic. They wrote every word, sentence, and page together, sitting opposite each other.

Adam Jay Epstein lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jane, their daughters, Penny and Olive, and a black-and-white alley cat who hangs out in their backyard. Andrew Jacobson lives with his wife, Ashley, and their dog, Elvis, four traffic lights away.

THE FAMILIARS will be produced for film by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation.

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Naruto volume 1, by Masashi Kishimoto

July 15, 2010

Rating: 5/5

You’re probably thinking: “You’re kidding me. She’s reviewing Naruto volume 1?! I know I’m quite late to jump on this particular bandwagon, though it was suggested to me about 5 years ago. Honestly, I should listen to my students when they tell me to read some of these titles! (Except for Death Note…that’s not a manga I would recommend to anyone K-12. Period.)

Naruto never attracted my attention, despite the hordes of students eating them up and begging for more. Now, however, I’m trying to catch up to the latest volumes and avoiding any fans so they don’t spoil the story for me. So, what’s to like about Naruto?

First, if you’ve been under a rock, self-imposed or otherwise, here’s the skinny: this is the story of a young ninja in training whose body was sacrificed to save his village from a 9-tailed demon fox, now imprisoned inside him. For the longest time he was the village reject without knowing why. When he discovers the secret locked in his body, his story truly begins. It’s one of exploring, creating, testing, and transforming the bonds that we form with others.

In the first volume, when we meet Naruto for the first time, he is the cocky class clown who can’t do anything right. It’s time for him to take his final exam, for the third time, so he can graduate from ninja school, earn his leaf headband, and continue his training. However, he fails a fourth time. Dejected and desperate, he is easily tricked into stealing one of the village’s most dangerous scrolls. Now the whole village is after him but all he wants is to learn what’s in the scroll so he can graduate.

I’ve met many teachers who have some reservations about this series, such as the violence and the occasional skirting of adult themes, but I believe the pros outweigh the cons. To be fair, here are some of the cons of this manga:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: The way an entire village sacrifices the life of a baby by imprisoning a demon inside and then shunning said child, is quite horrible.
  • Violence: 12-year-olds are trained in the ninja ways and once they graduate they are expected to take on missions and risk their lives for the village. The fight scenes are lengthy and many characters get beaten to within an inch of their lives (and in later volumes they die).
  • Adult themes: Part of Naruto’s pranks includes a transformation into a sexy, naked blonde to unnerve his teachers and peers. Little poof of clouds are the only objects standing in the way of full frontal nudity.
  • The main character disregards rules and authority.

These are valid points, but to dwell on simplistic ideas of violence and what is or is not “appropriate” would be to completely miss the point in Naruto. Compared to most of what passes for entertainment in television these days, this series is quite mild and it actually has a lot to offer. Here’s how:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: this is a controversial topic that can open the door to a lot of discussion in the classroom. For example, we could compare what happens in the story to the way soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country and the way they sacrifice the lives of others for the same reason. No longer so clear-cut, is it?
  • Violence: There are many types of violence in life and bullying is one of them, to which children are no strangers. In the beginning of this series there is a lot of bullying of Naruto by peers and adults. This could open the door to conversations on how to address bullying in school.
  • Adult themes: Some of these inappropriate scenes are brought on by Naruto’s yearning to be acknowledged. This could begin an insightful discussion on what people are willing to do for others to pay attention to them and why. Kids can easily relate to Naruto’s feelings. He desperately wants to belong and make friends, so he resorts to becoming the trickster and become the center of attention.
  • Disregard for authority and rules: This is very prevalent in schools and can open the door to discussions concerning respect  and the meaning behind having and following rules.
  • Perseverance: Naruto lacks talent, intelligence and common sense, as he’s reminded constantly, yet he defies all odds  with hard work, perseverance and big heart. Children can discuss if this idea of working hard to achieve one’s dreams is realistic. Indeed, Naruto provides many examples where he apparently fails despite how hard he tries. But, does he really “lose”?
  • Bonds: Naruto does not have a family, but he begins to make one for himself through bonds with instructors and peers. Students can discuss the importance of forming bonds with others and different types of families extant.
  • Acceptance: This term is quite different from “tolerance”, which is so popular yet implies that there is something negative we have to put up with. Naruto, in having experienced hardship, pain, segregation and loneliness has developed empathy for others, which allows him to give people the benefit of the doubt and see beyond the surface.  This facilitates discussion about differences and how they inform our lives.
  • Growth: This is what keeps me going back to Naruto. From the first volume we witness his growth as a ninja, as a friend, and as a human being. It’s this growth that encourages inquiry and sends a clear message: It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and continue to move forward.

Is Naruto worth the read? Should we tap into this story in the classroom? It’s my hope that you will pick up the first volume and decide for yourself. It gets two thumbs up from me!

Topics in this series (so far) include: persevering, sacrifice, friendship, family, humanity, freedom, independence, choice, justice, survival, community, oppression…


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Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes, by Linda Rash Pilkington

May 6, 2010

Young Arthur Collins’ mom is obsessed with anything having to do with the classic story of King Arthur-hence his name. Unfortunately, the stories she is so fond of have done little to help his current situation. Arthur has withdrawn into himself. He is like a mouse, skittering from one place to the other while trying to find the courage to stand up to school bullies. Courage, however, is elusive and his brother Lance seems to have inherited all of it, leaving him none. Arthur’s frustration mounts as he is tormented by the Ruffians. These bullies don’t know the meaning of mercy and they might soon set their sights on Arthur’s cousin, Gwynie.  It doesn’t help that he is very embarrassed by her, which increases his frustration tenfold.

As tensions mount, Arthur unknowingly receives the tools of bravery from his family, starting with a book and the idea of magic. On a night when a sudden fever overpowers him, he wakes up in the past, where the legendary Arthur Pendragon, the boy who would be king, has disappeared and he must take his place! An adventure ensues and the story is filled with fear, confusion, hope, magic and, of course, witches and a dragon!
Author Linda Rash Pilkington has weaved an Arthurian tale where a boy plagued with contemporary problems finds that people, no matter what era they may be born to, are faced with similar problems and must rise above them or be crushed underneath.  The journey to bravery is not easy and even near the moment of truth, our weaknesses are there to test us. However, like one of the characters states: “Even weak people can become strong.”
The language in the book has a fairy-tale quality and sometimes reminded me of a play. The characters are quick to think out loud and state their intentions. This may not appeal to some audiences, but those who appreciate a straightforward approach will enjoy the combination of the whimsical and candid. One aspect of the story that made it difficult to read was that the action took too long to begin. With each chapter I was eager for progression, but it was not until chapter five that the story began to take off. This is something that, unfortunately, could turn away reluctant readers.
Overall it was an interesting read and a different spin to the Arthurian tales that elementary school children can appreciate.


To learn more about the author and the book, check out the Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes site.

To learn about Arthur Collins and The Great American Book Race! TM , the effort on behalf of children’s literacy, check out City Castles Publishing. Don’t forget to click on “Media Kit” at the bottom of that page!

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Middle School Confidential: What’s Up With My Family?, by Annie Fox

April 29, 2010

Rating: 5/5

The word “family” evokes many feelings; some happy, others nostalgic.

Sometimes we would like to think it stops at that. In reality, happiness and nostalgia are also accompanied by anger, worries and problems that plague every family, which range in scope and intensity. Some can hang these negative feelings in a closet and put on a happy face in the morning as they walk out the door. Others carry their feelings tucked under their clothes—an uncomfortable fit that is difficult to hide—or buried deep in the pit of their stomach, struggling to claw their way out. Still others constantly work through their problems and grow as individuals and as a family.

That’s just us adults. Imagine how these problems affect kids.

When I was still a middle school teacher, I witnessed many students suffering due to family problems they were ill-equipped to deal with. Those who felt they could confide in a grownup would share concerns like: “My dad hates me because he’s having a new baby with a lady who is not my mom”; “My sister got pregnant and she’s just sixteen”; and “My family is worried I might end up in jail.”
While it is helpful to talk to these children and send them to a guidance counselor who can begin to work with the child and family, it is important for kids to learn about others who are dealing with similar issues. Many kids feel constantly talked down to by adults and family members, so they are more open to shared experiences and plans of action suggested by other kids their own age.

In her third book in the series, Middle School Confidential: What’s Up With My Family?, Annie Fox once again provides this vicarious experience for children, where they can find questions and advice from other kids from various backgrounds who also struggle with family problems. The book again incorporates a magazine-like design and beautiful graphic novel-style illustrations by Matt Kindt, which are always a visual treat. New, reluctant and returning readers of this series will easily be attracted by this style, as it encourages the reader to scan, choose and interact with any page in any order. The quizzes, character conversations and kids’ quotes invite the reader to form part of a conversation and constantly explore ways to actively participate and work effectively in a family.

What’s Up With My Family? simply and straightforwardly states some of the most annoying, problematic and emotionally difficult family situations, such as Mateo’s case, whose family will not stop asking questions and invading his privacy, to the child who is forced to only interact with other children from his family’s culture. As always with this series, the rose-colored lenses are tossed in favor of reality, which every child can appreciate. There is no lecture, nor does it speak down to the reader. The text is a safe place to ask, wonder, reflect and look for more information on family issues.

Annie Fox delivers valuable, practical advice on family relationships with real life examples that tug at the heartstrings. I highly recommend this book to children, families and educators. Though its intended audience is middle school children, all families can find some comfort and friendly advice between the pages of this book.

Amidst the questions, confusion, anger and fuel-ish thoughts in the family, the need for things to change is always at the forefront. For this to happen, there is one concept from the book that should be pervasive. As Annie Fox writes: “It has to start with you.”

Check out her site here.

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Middle School Confidential: Be Confident in Who You Are, by Annie Fox

October 21, 2009

In the years I was still a middle school teacher, students would come up to me with difficult questions which I would try my best to answer, or send them to someone who could help. You might be familiar with some of these questions: “Why is it that I can never be good enough?”; “Why doesn’t anyone like me?”; “I try to be more like X. Why can’t I be more like X?”

Regardless how much I (or the school counselor) tried to help and soothe their insecurities, my students were rarely satisfied and struggled daily to fit in. In their eyes we were, after all, “clueless” grownups who were out of touch with today’s middle school realities. We can try to relate. We can even pull up painful memories from the past and share our stories. However, while the advice we give can be helpful, kids will appreciate and relate better with ideas and advice from other kids their own age.

Rating: 5/5

Rating: 5/5

This is exactly what Annie Fox’s easy to read Middle School Confidential series provides. I had the opportunity to read book one of the series, Be Confident in Who You Are, and was hooked from page one. (Actually I was hooked on the cover first, illustrated by Matt Kindt, but don’t tell anyone! Repeat after me: never judge a book by its cover.)

The book is both a visual and intellectual treat. Boys and girls learn how to deal with bullies, friendships and self esteem issues while navigating pages written partly in graphic-novel style and designed to look like a magazine. This will certainly attract habitual and reluctant readers alike! Readers feel free to read the book from cover to cover or flip through the pages, stopping at a section of interest. They are also encouraged to stop once in a while to take quizzes, ask themselves questions, put themselves in someone else’s shoes and, (the best part), read what other kids their age have to say about being confident in who you are!

Don’t assume that this book is illustrated in pink, nor written with rose-colored lenses. Hard questions are asked and kids from all backgrounds are given voice: from the tallest kid in the classroom to the gay student who is terrified of coming out to family and friends.  The frankness in every kid’s shared frustration or idea is refreshing and real.

The book does not boast a quick method for fitting in or being liked by everyone. It simply states reality and gives advice on how to build confidence and play to your strengths. It does not lecture, nor does it speak down to the reader. In a friendly, engaging voice, the text provides the reader with a safe place to ask and wonder about those tough middle school questions.

Some of the sections of the book include: Sometimes I just Lose It; Meet The Opinionator; and I Don’t Get It. My favorite part, and one that applies to tweens and adults alike, is the Relax & Re-Center section, where Annie Fox lists some ways to reduce stress. It’s so effective, by step five I’m not only relaxed, but laughing.

In case you’re wondering, step one is to stop whatever you are doing. By the time you get to step five your eyes are closed, you’re focused on breathing and then…”Relax your hands and fingers, feet and toes. Relax your butt muscles…”

After you’ve relaxed those butt muscles (and hopefully had a good laugh like I did), head over to Annie Fox’s website to learn more about her other books and advice for students, parents and teachers.
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