A Book of My Choice by Native American Authors

1. Bibliography

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Ed.). 2021. Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. New York: Heartdrum. ISBN 9780062869944

2. Plot Summary

In this middle grade anthology edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, fifteen Native authors write short stories and poetry about protagonists attending the Dance for Mother Earth Pow-wow in Ann Arbor, Michigan—an intertribal event celebrating Native Americans from across the continent. Whether the characters are dancing, selling artisan products, storytelling, or even learning more about their Native heritage for the first time, the themes of belonging, healing, and celebrating heritage take center stage. Authors represent the Nations of Nulhegan Abenaki, Cherokee, Upper Skagit, Onondaga, Anishinaabe, Métis, Diné (Navajo), Ojibwe, Ohkay Owingeh, Cree, Wichita, Muscogee Creek, Cree, Choctaw, Apache, and Chickasaw. The back of the book includes a glossary and pronunciation guide, notes/acknowledgements about each short story, short introductions to all contributors, and a letter of gratitude to the readers.

3.  Critical Analysis

Ancestors Approved makes it abundantly clear that Native Americans are not a monolith. Characters have a diversity of interests and talents: Mel (Muscogee Creek/Odawa) is an avid reader, Ray (Cherokee/Seminole) is a budding artist, Rory (Cree) is a fancy dancer, Tokala (Chiricahua/Anishinaabe) is an amateur detective, and Kevin (Navajo) is a basketball player. Characters have diverse living situations. Some characters, like Dalton (Tuscarora), live on “the Rez,” while others, like Aiden (Cree), do not. Characters come from different backgrounds. Some characters, like Alan (Seneca/Navajo), are of mixed Native ancestry while others, like Luksi (Choctaw), are not. Characters experience diverse problems. Maggie Wilson (Cherokee) is dealing with the death of her father, Marino (Ohkay Owingeh) is trying to raise money to save his grandmother’s house, and Jessie (Wichita) is trying to keep it together despite the fact that her mother’s been deployed to the Middle East. Characters are distinct.

Still, while the anthology celebrates the diversity of the Native American experience, it also emphasizes their unity. The themes of belonging, healing, and celebrating one’s heritage crop up in story after story, emphasizing the similarities that the Native characters share.  Refreshingly, the emphasis of the stories isn’t on winning dance competitions or artisan lotteries or storytelling notoriety. The focus of each story is on “winning” something much more profound, whether it’s the trust of a brother, the money to help a grandmother pay her house expenses, the pride in one’s heritage, or the perspective to see someone more compassionately.

The anthology also calls out Native American stereotypes in its many forms. In Tim Tingle’s story, “Warriors of Forgiveness,” the Choctaw elders provide a foil for the so-called Native American “warrior” stereotype. While the elders could choose to prosecute the young man who has stolen Mrs. Simmons’s credit card as “warriors of battle,” they choose to perverse human values as “warriors of forgiveness” instead. In Eric Gansworth’s “Indian Price,” Dalton points out racism against Native Americans in the Boy Scout’s Order of the Arrow Ceremony and refuses to be the “typical Indian” that one stereotyping teenager calls him. In Erika T. Wurth’s “Little Fox and the Case of the Missing Regalia,” Tokala and Shana’s teen slang invite readers to see Native Americans not as “relics of the past” but as real people living today.

As is the case in all anthologies, Ancestors Approved is written in a variety of styles and voices, some more appealing than others. Standouts included Tim Tingle’s “Warriors of Forgiveness”; David A. Robertson’s “Brothers”; Eric Gansworth’s “Indian Price”; Brian Young’s “Senecavajo” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet”; Dawn Quigley’s “Joey Reads the Sky”; Joseph Bruchac’s “Bad Dog”; and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s “Between the Lines.” Still, every story was surprisingly well written. There were no fillers. Readers, Native and non-Native alike, are in for a treat. This book is recommended for all middle grade collections.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

Horn Book Summer 2021 Middle School Selection

New York Public Library Summer 2021 Books for Kids Selection

CCBC Book of the Week (March 2021)

Amazon.com Editors’ Picks: Best Books Ages 9 – 12

Well-Read Native Youth Book of the Week

Dignity and Justice for All: Stories of Protest, Resistance, and Change: An Annotated Bibliography of New and Noteworthy Books for Young Readers, Published 2018 – 2021 from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

From AudioFile: “Sixteen Indigenous authors weave together diverse stories in celebration of coming together as a community while also highlighting the young protagonists’ many different personalities and experiences. . . . All will find much to love in this collection full of heart.”

From Kirkus: “A groundbreaking Indigenous anthology for young people. Readers can join the fun in this collection of 18 contemporary stories and poems about loving families from various parts of the U.S. and Canada who travel to meet, dance, sing, socialize, and honor Native traditions at an intertribal powwow. . . . A joyful invitation to celebrate the circle of ancestors together.”

5. Connections

Use this link (https://land.codeforanchorage.org/) to input the library’s zip code and show middle graders the Native nations whose land they are living on. Then find out more about those Nations by visiting the Nations’ official websites and checking out relevant library materials.

As part of a book club, ask middle graders to name their favorite Ancestors Approved stories. Invite them to discuss together the reasons why they liked the particular stories. Then have a “book show,” inviting middle graders to peruse other titles written by each of the book’s 16 authors.

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Poetry Book by David Bowles

1. Bibliography

Bowles, David. 2017. They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press. ISBN 9781947627062

2. Plot Summary

The book’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Güero (a Spanish nickname that means “pale skinned”), is a redheaded, freckle faced twelve-year-old Mexican American border kid with a penchant for poetry. The nerdy seventh grader, born of an American father and a Mexican mother, guides readers through the holidays, school days, family gatherings, oral traditions, and superstitions that fill his year. Güero, with his heart on his sleeve, even writes about his foray into the world of love with tough-girl Joanna who can call off the bullies with her tenacious spirit. This interlingual book of poetry includes the forms of haiku, sonnet, lullaby, music lyric, free verse, and a multitude of others. The book also includes a translated glossary of many of the Spanish words and phrases used throughout the story.

3.  Critical Analysis

In David Bowles’s book about a border kid, stereotypes are nonexistent. In fact, Güero’s poetry points out time and time again that Mexican Americans are not a monolith. Despite the fact that Güero is born of a Mexican mother and a father with skin that’s “deep brown like mesquite bark,” the boy has skin that’s “pasty white, covered in freckles.” Being Mexican American doesn’t mean Güero’s family only likes one type of music either. When Güero considers his family’s musical preferences, readers observe a wide variety of musical tastes: Grandma Manuel likes conjunto, Tío Mike is a Tejano fan, great-uncle Juan likes rock’n’roll, Tía Vero prefers disco, Uncle Danny’s a rap guy, Dad and Joe prefer country, Güero’s sister is into K-pop, reggae, and blues, and Güero likes a little bit of everything. Furthermore, people of many cultures live at the border: “Dominicans, / Koreans, Mexicans, Chicanos, / Black and Native. . .”

Bowles’s refreshingly non-stereotypical characters still hold their Latine culture close. Güero’s intergenerational family ties are deep and strong, as illustrated through his poetry. The boy credits his abuela’s stories, told as she sat in her rocking chair, as the fodder, “like larvae in a chrysalis,” for his storytelling passion. Latine family gatherings are also frequent and important. Christmas Eve day is the time to gather all the relatives, “my mother and her concuñas” plus tías and primas and even the great-grandmother, for tamale-making and all the male relatives for football-watching; and the Fourth of July is a day full of family, quesadillas, music, laughter, and singing (and maybe a little troublemaking too). Marriage and Easter Mass are similarly family-centric and always include just about everybody in the extended family too.

Bowles also entwines the narrative with food—bacon, atole, tacos, shrimp, grapefruit, pizza, raspa, tamales, takis—immersing readers in Güero’s world (a world that often pairs food with family). Interlingual texts that peppers the poetry (Spanish mingling with English) bring the world in which Güero chats “with strangers and friends in both languages” into even sharper focus. Truly, there’s no question that Bowles’s story bursts with authenticity. Readers will find themselves strolling down to the movies with Güero and his crew, the taste of takis on the tongue. Perfect for poetry fans and middle-graders looking for an entertaining slice-of-life, They Call Me Güero is a no-brainer addition to any children’s library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Tomàs Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, 2019, Winner

Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2019, Commended Title

Cybils Awards, 2018, Nominee, Poetry

Pura Belpré Award, 2019, Honor, Author

From Kirkus: “In this slim verse novel, Bowles splendidly translates border life via loosely connected vignettes in an eclectic mix of poetic forms.”

From Booklist: “Filled with Spanish dichos and terms, diverse cultures, and Mexican myths, this novel in poems is a clear lens into the life of a Mexican American boy with an identity tied to the struggles, legends, and rich heritage of his ancestors and family, who uses what he learns to move forward.”

5. Connections

There are several poetic forms found in They Call Me Güero— haiku, sonnet, lullaby, music lyric, free verse, and a multitude of others. Show middle-graders to describe their Sundays (like Güero does in his poem “Sundays”) using one of the poetic forms found in the book. If middle-graders feel comfortable, ask them to share their completed poems.

Create a display of They Call Me Güero and other Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award winners, which may include some of the following selections:

  • Morales, Yuyi. Dreamers. ISBN 9780823440559
  • Tonatiuh, Duncan. Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth. ISBN 9781419746772
  • Quintero, Isabel. My Papi Has a Motorcycle. ISBN 9780525553410
  • Pérez, Celia C. The First Rule of Punk. ISBN 9780425290408
  • Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. ISBN 9781524700485
  • Stork, Francisco X. The Memory of Light. ISBN 9780545474320

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Novel by Nikki Grimes

1. Bibliography

Grimes, Nikki. 2019. Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir. Honesdale, PA: WordSong. ISBN 978-1-62979-881-3

2. Plot Summary

In Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir told in verse, Nikki Grimes recounts her own personal history from her birth in 1950 until her mid-teenagerhood in 1966. Grimes’s story is one of great trauma. As the second child of a marriage doomed to fail, Nikki remembers lots of yelling. When her father moves out, Nikki’s alcoholic, schizophrenic mother goes to find a job, leaving Nikki and her older sister, Carol, in the hands of an abusive “babysitter” who locks the girls in the closet until just before their mother gets home in the evening. A little later, when their mom can’t seem to make ends meet, Nikki and Carol move in with cousins who “shoot up” regularly. Foster care, splitting Nikki and Carol apart, comes quickly thereafter. It is while staying with her foster family that Nikki learns the power of the pen to calm her fears and manage her burdens. When Nikki returns to her mother, she is beset by gang violence, sexual abuse, racism, and the death of a loved one. Yet, while her childhood is traumatic, Nikki finds her footing with her writing, her religious convictions, and the support of her sister, her writing teacher, and her best friend Debra. The end of Grimes’s memoir includes personal photographs from various periods of her childhood and young adulthood.

3.  Critical Analysis

There’s no doubt about it: Nikki Grimes has the gift of language. From page one, readers will want to invest in the story of the woman whose name is a lie, her first “invention” to protect herself from the real name that “wasn’t worth a lot.” Nikki quickly reveals the book’s title in an early poem, “On Our Own,” writing that she was never warned that “the world was full of / ordinary hazards / like closets with locks and keys.” For Nikki, a key becomes an “ordinary hazard” that locks her in a closet for hours on end while to an outside observer, a key appears to be an object of security just like mothers and grandmothers are supposed to be people of security (although for Nikki, they’re not) and bedrooms are supposed to be places of security (although for Nikki, it’s not).

Yet, while Nikki’s “ordinary hazards” provoke readers to horror, her adolescent life—though exceedingly difficult—is punctuated by what Nikki sees as God’s grace. For her, “hard evidence appears / round every corner.” It’s in the Christian church that Nikki is drawn to that leads her to her best friend, Debra. It’s in her reacquaintance with her father who becomes Nikki’s ally and confidante. It’s in her metamorphosis, as the slip cover shows, of a pitiful black moth—blurry on the edges—into a striking butterfly of neon light revealed underneath. Readers will come away from Nikki’s trauma-filled story full of that same hope she feels as an aspiring poet when the famous writer James Baldwin reads her writing, looks her in the eye, and asks her to give him a call.

African American culture plays a part in Nikki’s formation. Through it, she experiences deep trauma: For example, in June 1964, she mourns the “white-hooded devils” who killed black men like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and she’s physically scarred when she refuses to join a neighborhood gang. But through her culture, she also experiences deep peace: attending the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, dubbed a “Black church” by Nikki, brings her the family she’d never had and gives her the strength to “brave the darkness at home, once again.” Her father teaches Nikki about Black history, Black painters, Black musicians, and Black writers, allowing Nikki to see “Black so beautiful,” and to dream of herself as a singer, a dancer, and a writer. Never before have I read a book so unapologetically candid about both the negative and the positive aspects of a culture.

Nikki Grimes’s book invites readers of all backgrounds to rise above their difficulties and cultivate their talents. Raw, gripping, and packing a powerful poetic punch, Ordinary Hazards deserves a place on every young adult shelf. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2019, Finalist, Poetry

Michael L. Printz Award, 2020, Honor

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, 2020, Honor

Horn Book Fanfare Title, 2020, Nonfiction

From Kirkus: “Grimes recounts her story as a memoir in verse, writing with a poet’s lyricism through the lens of memory fractured by trauma. Fans of her poetry and prose will appreciate this intimate look at the forces that shaped her as an artist and as a person determined to find the light in the darkest of circumstances. A raw, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting story of trauma, loss, and the healing power of words.”

From Booklist: “The memoir has heartbreaking moment—seven soul-crushing ones—that will make readers ache for young Grimes and teens grappling with similar circumstances. But inspiring moments bolster her raw, resonant story, showing that there is always light at the end of the darkest of tunnels.”

5. Connections

Ordinary Hazards is a memoir told in verse. Invite teens to write a few memoir poems of their own. Then invite them to share their poems in an online library showcase if comfortable.

Create a display of Ordinary Hazards and other children/YA books written by Nikki Grimes, such as the following selections:

  • One Last Word. ISBN 9781619635548
  • Garvey’s Choice. ISBN 9781501964695
  • Bronx Masquerade. ISBN 9780803725690
  • Words With Wings. ISBN 9781590789858
  • Off to See the Sea. ISBN 9781492638292
  • Legacy: Women’s Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. ISBN 9781681199450

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson

1. Bibliography

Woodson, Jacqueline. 2020. Before the Ever After. New York: Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780399545436

2. Plot Summary

Playing pro football made ZJ’s dad a hero. Daddy is “Zachariah 44,” the famous scorer, the Super Bowl winner, the darling of the press. But lately, he’s been acting strange. Daddy’s forgetting things—famous football players’ names, his own teammates’ names, even ZJ’s name—he’s experiencing horribly painful migraines that leave him bedridden, and sometimes he’s even yelling at ZJ, something he never used to do. ZJ is baffled at first, then shocked, then scared. Why can’t doctors fix Daddy, turning him from this puzzling new man back into the football-loving, music-jamming, kind, and encouraging man that he used to be? Luckily, ZJ has his family, “his boys,” and his music to keep him grounded despite his family’s devastating new reality. Set in the late ‘90s, this family drama written in verse sheds light on CTE, a degenerative brain disease affecting football players (and their families) that remains woefully understudied.

3.  Critical Analysis

Before the Ever After tells the story of one eleven-year-old Black boyas he watches a football-inflicted brain injury change his father forever. Told through Woodsen’s lyrical free verse, ZJ’s easygoing-turned-heartbreaking son-father relationship holds its readers transfixed, especially since it’s clear that ZJ, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the story, loves and admires his father and that his father loves and admires ZJ back. When asked whether his dad is his hero, ZJ replies that “Zachariah 44” is more than a hero. His dad is ZJ’s “every single thing.” The two jam out to music and bond over Tupac, Beastie Boys, and Rufus Wainwright. Daddy also becomes like a second father to Ollie, one of ZJ’s best friends. So when ZJ’s father becomes unresponsive, angry, and indecipherable, readers will feel the family’s—and especially ZJ’s—immense sadness and loss. Middle-graders probably won’t have experienced the devastation of CTE in their own home, but they will understand the connection that ZJ yearns to feel with his father and the bittersweetness of losing him over and over again.

ZJ is a believable middle-grade protagonist. His story feels authentic to 1999, from the ‘90s music he jams to (like Prince, Public Enemy, Digable Planets) and the hang-outs he enjoys as part of his group of friends (which he dubs the “Fantastic Four”) to the old pop culture references mentioned by his dad (like The Partridge Family, Minnie Riperton, and Earth, Wind & Fire). He’s also a believable Black character, although Black culture’s place in the novel is discreet, rather than overt. Skin color, for example, is only signaled in the text once when ZJ describes his “daddy’s brown hand” and on the cover art showing ZJ riding on his father’s shoulders. However, reader’s will note that ZJ’s mom believes in God and converses with Him as she tries to understand the reason for her husband’s condition. They will also note that the extended family is important to ZJ’s family dynamic. ZJ is in close contact with grandmothers, cousins, and various aunts and uncles who jump in to help his struggling family. In ZJ’s home, Christianity and the extended family carry immense value and weight.

Although not a “happily ever after” story, Jacqueline Woodson has written a lyrical novel that that takes a powerful stand on football, head trauma, and the rights of athletes. Readers won’t soon forget this one. Before the Ever After would make a great addition to any middle school collection. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2021, Author Winner

Cybils Award, 2020, Middle Grade Fiction Nominee

Goodreads Choice Award, 2020, Middle Grade Nominee

Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books, 2020

Booklist Book Review Star, 2020

From Booklist: “Woodson again shows herself to be a masterful writer, and her meaningful exploration of concussions and head injuries in football, a subject rarely broached in middle-grade fiction, provides young athletes with necessary insights into sport’s less glamorous side. In addition to this, it is a novel that explores family, mental illness, and the healing that a tight-knit, loving community can provide.”

From Kirkus: “Using spare and lyrical language for ZJ’s present-tense narration, which moves back and forth through time, Woodson skillfully portrays the confusion, fear, and sadness when a family member suffers from brain injury and the personality changes it brings. . . . The well-rounded secondary characters complete a mosaic of a loving African American family and their community of friends. . . . A poignant and achingly beautiful narrative shedding light on the price of a violent sport.”

5. Connections

Music plays a large role in ZJ’s life and in his relationship with his father. Play September by Earth, Wind & Fire and Memory Lane by Minnie Riperton, and I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, asking middle graders to listen to the lyrics. Then ask them why these songs might be important to ZJ. Ask middle graders to think about what songs are meaningful to them and, if appropriate, allow them to share their selections with the group.

Create a display of Jacqueline Woodson’s books. This selection might include the following:

  • Coming on Home Soon. ISBN 9780399237485
  • Visiting Day. ISBN 9780590552622
  • Brown Girl Dreaming. ISBN 9780399252518
  • Locomotion. ISBN 9780399231155
  • Show Way. ISBN 9780399237492
  • The Other Side. ISBN 9780399231162

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Novel in Verse


Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. New York: Harper, 2011. ISBN 9780061962783


Told in verse, Inside Out & Back Again is the story of a girl and her journey from her war-torn home country, Vietnam, to a strange, often difficult new one in America. The novel begins in February 1975 in Saigon, where Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers. With the country in the throes of war and her father taken by the communists, Hà and her family are shepherded aboard a runaway navy ship by a kind uncle. For over three weeks, the family and other Vietnamese refugees live at sea on cut rations and one bathroom break a day, hoping to be spotted and saved by rescue boats. Finally, Americans come, bringing food and transport to camps in Guam and then in Florida, where the family waits for weeks on end, hoping and praying for an American sponsor. When a “cowboy” comes to the camp looking for a car mechanic, Hà’s brother Quang, who studied engineering in Vietnam, catches his eye and cowboy man decides to bring the whole family home with him to Alabama. The move to the state is difficult for school-smart Hà, who now struggles to learn English and keep up with her classmates. Bullies and racist neighbors make life even more difficult. Still, Hà manages to rise above her difficulties, holding tightly to her family, a kindly next-door neighbor, and school friends who care. One full year after Inside Out begins, Hà senses that her future is bright.


Lai’s mastery of imagery, exemplified in her descriptions of papaya, is astoundingly good. First, Hà introduces readers to the papaya seed she has planted, “a seed like / a fish eye, / slippery / shiny / black”—and then to the freshly picked papaya itself, which Hà describes as “soft as a yam / gliding down / after three easy, / thrilling chews”—and lastly, to a different kind of papaya given to her in her new home in Alabama: “Three pouches of dried papaya / chewy / sugary / waxy / sticky / not the same / at all.” The imagery of the fruit, “middle sweet / between a mango and a pear,” imbues itself into the pages so descriptively, so palpably that readers will feel as though they can almost taste the exotic fruit—and with it, Hà’s joys and sorrows.

Lai hasn’t just mastered imagery; she’s mastered language itself. There’s no doubt that her poetic verse packs a Bruce Lee punch, despite the brevity of the lines. Readers will smile behind the curtains with Mother as Hà’s brother Vu teaches neighbors combat techniques in the front yard, slowly winning over the community after having eggs thrown through their door and bricks smashed through their window. Readers will join Hà in despair when “Mother runs in after work, / hands clenched into white balls,” her amethyst wedding stone—and the last hope of her husband—lost forever. Readers will sympathize with Hà as her friendly neighbor, “MiSSiss WaSShington,” begins to teach her English, the hissy language she can’t pronounce. Finally, readers will cheer with Hà as she reveals her New Year’s hope: to “truly learn . . . to fly.” Hà’s emotions—and, inevitably, the reader’s own—will run the gamut, from scared and sorrowful to exultant.

This book is an important one. It is a book that will likely resonate with refugees and, perhaps more importantly, provide those who have never had a refugee experience with important insights. Furthermore, its format gives middle-graders an impressive introduction to verse poetry, and its imagery and emotional appeal provide unquestionable literary merit to middle-grade, teen, and adult readers alike. This book should be part of every library’s collection.


Newbery Medal Nominee (2012)

National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2011)

Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Nominee for Older Children (2012)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Narrating in sparse free-verse poems, 10-year-old Hà brings a strong, memorable voice to the immigrant experience as her family moves from war-torn South Vietnam to Alabama in 1975.”

From BookPage Reviews: “Lai’s spare poetry, full of emotion and infused with humor, is accessible to young children and adults alike. This moving and beautifully told story is a must-read for anyone who works with children new to the country.”

From Kirkus Reviews: “In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.”


  • Read Inside Out & Back Again as an introduction to the Vietnam War. Then suggest the following books on the Vietnam War for teens to read and discuss in groups:
    • Crowe, Chris. Death Coming Up a Hill. ISBN 9780544302150
    • Schmidt, Gary D. Okay for Now. ISBN 9780547152608
    • Kadohata, Cynthia. Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam. ISBN 9780547152608
  • Read Lai’s free verse poems about the papaya. Discuss how she uses imagery to bring her poetry to life. Invite middle-graders to write their own free verse poetry about fruit. Then, bring papaya and other fruits for a fruit party while children share their poems.
  • After reading Inside Out & Back Again, invite middle-graders and teens to read other books and short stories by Thanhha Lai. Then, have a discussion about which they liked best and why:
    • Lai, Thanhha. Listen, Slowly. ISBN 9780062229182
    • Lai, Thanhha. Butterfly Yellow. ISBN 9780062229236
    • Scieszka, Jon (editor). True Stories. ISBN 9780062316523
  • After reading Inside Out & Back Again, invite teens to read other verse poetry. Then, vote on which they liked best and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite verse novel. The list could include the following:
    • Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. ISBN 9781481438254
    • Anderson, Laurie H. SHOUT. ISBN 9780670012107
    • Wolff, Virginia E. Make Lemonade. ISBN 9780805080704

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Book by Douglas Florian


Florian, Douglas. Poetrees. New York: Beach Lane Books, 2010. ISBN 9781416986720


In Poetrees, Douglas Florian has created a poetry collection dedicated to all things tree—its seed, its bark, its roots and rings. His poems also go beyond tree anatomy to teach readers about a wide variety of tree species—among others, the baobab (“Vat tree. / Fat tree. / Bottle tree. / Brown tree”), the giant sequoia (“Grow by degrees / To world’s tallest trees”), and the bristlecone pine (“One of the oldest trees on Earth, / With swirling branches, twirling girth”). The book’s original format turns the book sideways to read top to bottom rather than left to right, and its original art was created using a variety of mediums on top of brown paper bags. The book includes a “glosatree” and a list of other tree resources for the blossoming arbor lover.


Douglas Florian has a strong sense of rhythm, and the arrangement of each poem’s meter and line reflects deliberate writing. In his first poem, “The Seed,” Florian uses a single, unbroken poetic line in the shape of the infinity symbol to deftly depict the never-ending cycle of the tree (and the seed and the tree . . . ). In “Coconut Palm,” Florian creates a short, bouncy ABAB rhyme scheme to echo the light tone of the poem’s text. In “Monkey Puzzle Tree,” Florian pens a true limerick, the perfect vessel for his humorous musings. Each of Florian’s poems has a rhythm that matches its tone, a true feat in the poetry world. Furthermore, Florian’s poetry never feels forced and his poems hold to an unfaltering rhythm, reminiscent of the unfaltering stability of trees.

The design of the book itself is also commendable. The pages turn vertically, allowing trees to reach great heights on the paper. But the quality of the illustrations themselves is a mélange. Some reflect the mood of the poem exceptionally well. (These include “Giant Sequoias” with its breathtaking collage of ecological coexistence, and the gorgeous watercolor circles in “Tree Rings” which complement the wonder of discovering a tree’s history.) However, some illustrations are so bizarre that they make otherwise strong poems seem at best badly matched with their visual counterparts and at worst unappealing. (These include “Roots,” paired with an unsettling and seemingly random brown watercolor of a shirtless man, and “Banyan,” accompanied by underdeveloped tree outlines and a strange Weiner-dog-esque creature lying at the root).

As for the language of Poetrees, one characteristic of the collection is the ample use of the pun. In fact, puns can be found in almost every poem in the collection, in both the poetry itself (cold-climate paper birch is renamed “paper birrrrrrrrrrrrrch”) and in the illustrations (dogs peek out from underneath the “bark”). While clever puns are sure to delight clever children, on occasion the puns feel too ample. In “Japanese Ceder,” for example, the puns “ex-seed-ingly” and “tree-mendous” are repeated five times in the short ten-line poem, making it seem more trite than witty. Occasionally, Florian produces poetry that feels underdeveloped. Take “Oak,” for example, with its four short lines—“From the acorn / Grows the tree— / Slowly, / Slowly.” In summary, Florian’s Poetrees shows a grasp of rhythm and rhyme, but the illustrations and language aren’t consistent enough to merit true excellence.


From School Library Journal: “This exquisite collection, with its thoughtful wordplay and timely subject, rewards careful reading and should resonate with a wide audience.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Trees need all the help they can muster in today’s world; this quirky entry may well enlist interest.” 

From Booklist: “Starting with the book’s title and ending with a final glossatree, the wordplay in Florian’s latest poetry collection provides plenty of fun.”

From Kirkus Reviews: “Trees receive a witty and informative rhyming appreciation. . . . Although some of [Florian’s] wordplay falls flat (sequoias are “Ancient seers / Of three thousand years”), by and large the poems live up to his usual high standard. . . . Readers and listeners will learn and laugh.”


  • Read the shape poem “Tree Rings” together. Then invite children to create shape poems of their own.
  • Show children a local field guide of trees and go on a neighborhood walk together, allowing children to collect leaves, seeds, and bark. Then, use the book to identify tree species together and create a “neighborhood tree guide” by pasting leaves and seeds onto paper and writing the species name underneath. The following book could be a helpful reference:
    • Gibbons, Gail. Tell Me, Tree: All About Trees for Kids. ISBN 9780316309035
  • Read excerpts from Poetrees with other excerpts from Douglas Florian. Ask children which book or poem is their favorite and why.
    • Florian, Douglas. Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings. ISBN 9780152053727
    • Florian, Douglas. Insectlopedia. ISBN 9780152163358
    • Florian, Douglas. Winter Eyes. ISBN 9780688164584
  • Read Poetrees with other picture books about trees. Then, ask children to write and illustrate their own tree story.
    • Napoli, Donna J., and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. ISBN 9781416935056
    • Hopkins, H. J., and Jill McElmurry (illustrator). The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. ISBN 9781442414020
    • Zweibel, Alan, and David Catrow (illustrator). Our Tree Named Steve. ISBN 9780142407431

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Award Winning Poetry Book


Hoberman, Mary A., and Linda Winston (editors). The Tree That Time Built. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009. ISBN 9781402225178


Science and poetry are more alike than we might think. That’s what a children’s poet laureate–schoolteacher duo are out to prove in a book dedicated to the greatest naturalist of all time—Charles Darwin. This compilation of over 100 poems by more than 70 poets is divided into nine sections honoring topics such as the sea, the trees, prehistoric life, reptiles, and our role in taking care of the planet. Classic poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Ogden Nash make an appearance. Yet the duo is also careful to select poems from modern award-winners like Joseph Bruchac, Douglas Florian, Kristine O’Connell George, and Tony Johnston, as well as lesser-known writers. Poems are sometimes accompanied by minimalistic art and brief comments or questions for the reader to ponder. The back of the book includes a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and short summaries of each poet.


The organization in The Tree That Time Built is well done and the design is clean and clear. Each section is marked with a thoughtful introduction and a breathtaking tree illustration. Teachers, parents, and middle-graders need look no further for a poetry collection that bridges the gap between juvenile and adult poetry. The book includes not only oral readings of many of the poems, but also a helpful glossary, poet bibliography, and additional resources for further naturalistic and poetic study. And, with questions reflecting on what the world would be like without trees or what would happen if we lost our connection to the natural world, the book prompts thoughtful middle-graders to think more deeply, helping them to gain important analytical skills and a deeper appreciation for poetry, science, and the connections we share with all living things.

Furthermore, poems run the emotional gamut. Some are funny like “The Jellyfish and the Clam”—one “‘no more than a lump of wet squish,’” the other “‘just a thick shell.’”  Some are philosophical like “If They Spoke,” a poem in which Mark Van Doren wonders what animals would tell us if they could talk. Some are comforting like “The Sea is Our Mother,” and others melancholy like “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In a truly incredible display of their selection powers, Hoberman and Winston have successfully balanced an enormous variety of poetical voices, no one outtalking the others.

One especially captivating poem is an excerpt from March ’79, translated from its original Swedish. The translator writes, “I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow. / Language but no words.” Here, readers uncover an original and wholly surprising insight—that animal tracks tell a story. As delightful as this poem was to read, even more delightful is the fact that each and every poem has its own insight to ponder. In this collection, there are no duds.


Cybils Award Nominee for Poetry (2009)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Taken in total, the poems encompass nature’s multitudinous qualities, from harsher realities (‘On my early walk/ I passed the Frog Prince/ dead in a rut of the road,’ in Virginia Hamilton Adair’s Early Walk) to its ability to inspire at its most microscopic, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, ‘Atom from atom yawns as far/ As moon from earth,/ as star from star.’”

From Booklist: “Selected by Winston, an anthropologist and teacher, and Hoberman, the current U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate, this attractive, accessible anthology collects poems that celebrate both the facts and the mysteries of the natural world.”

From Library Media Connection: “Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman gives us an exciting collection of over 100 poems that make connections between poetry and science. . . . This collection would be a great choice to use as a collaborative tool with Middle School Science and English classes.”

From School Library Journal: “From the playful to the profound, the poems invite reflection and inspire further investigation.”


  • Ask middle-schoolers to pick one favorite poem from the collection and memorize it. Then have a recitation party together.
  • Focus on one of the poems from the collection that includes commentary from Hoberman and Winston. Talk through their commentary and discussion prompt together.
  • Listen to one section of the poetry collection audio CD together while middle-schoolers create a piece of artwork that relates to that poetry section. Then, put on an art show and allow them to present their work.
  • After reading The Tree That Time Built, read through some of the poet biographies in the back of the book and present children with these poets’ other works. The following books could be possible candidates:
    • Hoberman, Mary A., and Betty Fraser (illustrator). The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems. ISBN 9780152055714
    • Prelutsky, Jack, and James Stevenson (illustrator). The New Kid on the Block. ISBN 9780688022716
    • Sidman, Joyce, and Beth Krommes (illustrator). Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature. ISBN 9780547315836
    • Singer, Marilyn, and Josée Masse (illustrator). Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems. ISBN 9780525479017

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.