BookTalk: Books About Fibonacci and His Numbers

By Sharon Kane

fibonacciNumbers fascinated Italian mathematician Fibonacci. He probably would have liked 2010; that year saw the publication of three intriguing picture books featuring the number sequence named for him (in 2016, the books are worth revisiting). I think I would first share with students Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, by Sarah C. Campbell (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press). The short, simple text on each page instructs readers to count the petals on various flowers. (Photographs are by the author and Richard P. Campbell.) The pattern is noted, as is the rule “in order to get the next number, you add the two numbers before it” (p. 13). Later pages contain a bit more text, explaining how the principle applies to spirals in nature. Pine cones, sunflowers, pineapples, and snails are pictured in vivid color.

After students have had time to appreciate the mathematical and visual beauty they encounter in nature, I’d offer them Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnese (New York: Henry Holt and Company. Illustrated by John O’Brien). The author fictionalizes some details of Fibonacci’s youth and his relationships with family and friends, since little is known about the mathematician. Readers become involved in the solution to a riddle about rabbit reproduction and discover, along with Fibonacci, that “These are the numbers Mother Nature uses to order the universe” (p. 36). On the last page the author invites readers to go beyond the pages of the book, offering clues as to where to look for more Fibonacci number patterns in nature.

rabbit-problemBoth books speak of a mathematical rabbit problem Fibonacci posed more than 800 years ago. So, head next to Emily Gravett’s picture book/calendar The Rabbit Problem (Simon & Schuster). You’ll see what happens when two rabbits fall in love in Fibonacci’s Field and must stay there for a year with their growing family. A delightful surprise occurs in December, when they are allowed out and the population of the field changes from 144 pairs to 0.

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

math, ELA, art, science

Book Talk: Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems

by Sharon Kane

visions-of-infinityIf you hear a student complain that a math problem is taking too long to solve, you can encourage her with this sentence from Ian Stewart’s Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems (2013, Basic Books): “Fermat’s last theorem was an enigma for 350 years until Andrew Wiles dispatched it after seven years of toil” (ix). If someone asks what math has to do with life outside of school, or if this person thinks math is something static and unchanging, you can quote Stewart again: “At a rough estimate, the world’s research mathematicians number about a hundred thousand, and they produce more than two million pages of new mathematics every year (pp. ix–x).” And if students think math is done in solitude, or that it’s not important to show their work, you can offer this gem of a metaphor:

One recent piece of algebra, carried out by a team of some 25 mathematicians, was described as “a calculation the size of Manhattan.” That wasn’t quite true, but it erred on the side of conservatism. The answer was the size of Manhattan; the calculation was a lot bigger. (p. x)

I got all this from just the Preface, so you can imagine the richness of the material in the rest of the book as it describes the great mathematical problems. Ian Stewart is a mathematical storyteller, or a storytelling mathematician. (You can see a BookTalk on Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries previously posted on this site.) In his final chapter, he offers twelve unsolved problems that mathematicians are working on, with intriguing names like “Odd Perfect Numbers,” “Lonely Runner Conjecture,” “Langton’s Ant,” and “Existence of Perfect Cuboids.” Who can resist?

I will never be famous for solving a math problem, but if I have Visions of Infinity in my classroom library maybe one of my students will be. I’ll end this BookTalk with another quote that I could offer to a student who thinks mathematics is boring or dry; notice how Stewart uses imagery to invite readers into his world:

Mathematics… is… like a natural landscape, where you can never really say where the valley ends and the foothills begin, where the forest merges into woodland, scrub, and grassy plains, where lakes insert regions of water into every other kind of terrain, where rivers link the snow-clad slopes of the mountains to the distant, low-lying oceans. But this ever-changing mathematical landscape consists not of rocks, water, and plants, but of ideas; it is tied together not by geography, but by logic. And it is a dynamic landscape, which changes as new ideas and methods are discovered or invented … Over time, some of the peaks and obstacles acquire iconic status. These are the great problems. (pp. 7–8)

Appropriate for high school

math, ELA


Book Talk: You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen

by Sharon Kane

tuskegee airmenMany powerful history lessons are packed into Carole Boston Weatherford’s collection of verses, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (2016, Simon & Schuster). The poems give numerous examples of the courage and skills of the African American pilots as well as the challenges they faced due to racism at all levels of American society. Credit is given to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, flew in a plane piloted by an African American, and then convinced her husband Franklin Roosevelt to order the army to “give black pilots a shot” (p. 6). We learn of breakthroughs by various individuals: Dorie Miller, the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross; Joe Lewis, who in 1938 took advantage of his chance “to knock out Nazism and to hand Hitler an upset” (p. 29); and James G. Thompson, who began a “Double V” campaign, calling on African Americans “to support the war on foreign soil and to push for justice at home” (p. 37).

In the Author’s Note, Weatherford gives further information about the Tuskegee Airmen and the respect they earned as a fighter squadron, paving the way for President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces in 1948. A time line that starts with the abolishing of slavery in 1865 ends with 2007, when “Tuskegee Airmen are presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol” and 2009, when “Tuskegee Airmen are invited guests at the inauguration of Barack Obama” (p. 76). Scratchboard illustrations throughout are provided by Jeffery Boston Weatherford, who based his work on archival photographs.

In my classes, I plan to pair this with Steve Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 (2014), a nonfiction account of another group of African Americans in the armed forces who faced discrimination and injustice during their service in World War II. These two stories—one from the east coast and one from the west—will help us understand the enormity of the injustices that African Americans faced in the military as they risked and gave their lives for their country.

Appropriate for middle school and high school

history, ELA

Book Talk: True Stories Set during the Civil War

by Sharon Kane

When asked to think about the Civil War, often students will first recall the major battles, the tremendous number of lives lost on both sides, the leaders, the causes, and the results. As they should. But we as teachers can also introduce students to what might be considered side stories. These people and events are important, too.

Teachers who are pressed for time—since there is so much else to cover as we try to help students understand more than two centuries of American history—can turn to picture books; many are sophisticated enough to be appropriate for the high school level. I’ll discuss two here.

Louisa May Alcott civil warKathleen Krull, one of my favorite writers of nonfiction, has given us Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women (Bloomsbury, 2013). The first line is a quote from Louisa May Alcott at age 15: “‘I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!'” (unpaged). Obviously, she dreamed big (especially considering that women were rarely allowed to work outside the home, and her family was poor). In 1862, at the age of 30, Louisa May did leave home, to serve as a nurse in Washington, D.C. It was the only way she could contribute to the Union cause, since women were not allowed to fight. In addition to tending to the wounds of hundreds of soldiers, she helped them write letters home, and she read to them from books by her favorite author, Charles Dickens. She wrote many detailed letters home herself, describing events such as the bells ringing at midnight on January 1, 1863, marking the emancipation of slaves in ten states.

Alcott’s letters were eventually published in a collection titled Hospital Sketches. It was a success, and her career as a writer took off; she had learned to write from her own experience, and she had developed a unique style. You can probably see by now the aptness of the subtitle of Krull’s book. I’ll save further details for you to discover on your own.

seven miles to freedomWho was Robert Smalls? Before I discovered the picture book Seven Miles to Freedom, by Janet Halfmann (2008, Lee & Low), I would not have been able to tell you. Now that I have read it, I want all my students to become acquainted and introduce him to their friends. As a 6-year-old house slave in South Carolina, Robert was the favorite of his master. But he witnessed many evils, which caused him to hate the institution of slavery. This only increased when he became a father and had to live with the knowledge that his daughter was the property of his wife’s master. When war broke out in 1861, Robert knew that slavery would cease to exist if the North won, but he was forced to use his skills to help the Confederacy. He was given the responsibility of steering a steamer; when a Union fleet blockaded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, he could see their ships only seven miles away. Robert came up with a daring plan. Am I going to tell you what the plan was or if it succeeded? Of course not. But I will tell you that there is plenty of suspense, and readers of all ages will acquire knowledge and inspiration from this almost unbelievable story. (I think Louisa May Alcott, whose family harbored runaway slaves in their Massachusetts home, would have loved this true account of Robert Smalls.)

appropriate for middle and high school

history, ELA

BookTalk: Miller’s Valley

by Sharon Kane

millersvalleyThough Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen (2016, Random House), has a very specific setting, much is presented in the story that seems universal. We learn early on that Miller’s Valley is gone, having been submerged for the sake of a reservoir, all in the name of progress. The inhabitants have already lost the fight to those wielding political and economic power. Yet the story of that battle, encompassing narrator Mimi Miller’s childhood and teen years, is still of interest to us, as are the many other battles—within families and within individuals.

Mimi contrasts her two childhood friends for us. “Donald’s personality was like vanilla ice cream, and LaRhonda was like that weird Neapolitan kind, with the layers of strawberry and vanilla and chocolate, that turned a tan color when it melted in your bowl and you made ice cream soup” (pp. 21-22). We also get to know the adults through Mimi’s eyes. She observes her Aunt Ruth’s refusal to leave her house; she listens to her mother make snide remarks that Ruth can hear, though the sisters haven’t spoken in years. She hears her pragmatist mother and her idealist father arguing over when, or whether, to give up and sell the house that the government will take over either way. Her brother, Tommy, leaves behind wreckage each time he gets in trouble, including abandoning her nephew when he eventually disappears.

Mimi doesn’t complain (because she is not the whiny type) though she handles an awful lot of responsibility throughout her adolescence. When she’s not in school or studying she’s working at a restaurant or babysitting her nephew. She’s responsible and sensible with one exception—her boyfriend is a loser. I wanted to warn her urgently, Why can’t you see that he’s no good for you? You deserve so much better, Mimi Miller!

Does she ever find her brother? Does she go to college? Does she leave her unhealthy relationship? Does she ever see her childhood friend Donald again? (Actually, we know the answer to that one, since she slips in a sentence about it along the way.  But we’re dying to know when, and how, and what happens after that . . .)  I’d better stop now, before I give too much away. I invite you to enter Miller’s Valley and learn why it is—or, sadly, was—such a special place.


Appropriate for high school and beyond

Economics, politics, ELA, psychology


Response to Round Two of the Battle of the Kids’ Books

by Sharon Kane

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If you read my post reflecting on Round One of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, and if you followed the tournament this week on their site, you know that my predictions for the books that would move to Round 3 were mostly wrong. Even worse, I went 0 for 4 in terms of the books I wanted to move on. Oh, well, I’ve given myself a little grieving time, and now I must regroup.

The good news is that having my graduate students, as well as teens in an alternative high school housed on the SUNY Oswego campus, participate in the tournament has accomplished what I hoped it would. They are engaged, invested, and UPSET when things don’t go their way. They’re reading the judges’ essays carefully, and then conceding that those judges might have some good points. They are reading like writers, sometimes critiquing parts of the essays. Just as I am doing, they are looking ahead and making new predictions and wishes. They are continuing to read contenders so that they’ll be ready for Round Three. Perhaps what they are most looking forward to is seeing which book will come back from The Dead on March 30 to join the two books that will have advanced to the final round. (Some of them voted in the Undead Poll.) Ann M. Martin will be the official judge deciding the winner on March 31, but I’m proud that a couple dozen self-proclaimed judges in Oswego will be able to back up their choices with well-developed rationales using evidence from the books.

So, I will put my predictions and preferences on record again, despite the risk of being wrong. The books I want to advance to the final round are Echo and The Marvels. These are also the titles I predict will move on. I’d be happy with any of the following coming back from the dead: Goodbye Stranger, I Crawl through It, The Nest, or Challenger Deep.

My prediction for the announcement on March 31: Echo will go all the way.

BlogTalk: Reflections after Round One of the Battle of the Kids’ Books

by Sharon Kane

School Library Journal’s 8th annual Battle of the Kids’ Books might be the most exciting one yet. I have been involved in seven discussion groups involving followers of the contest this month, and I can tell you that emotions are running strong. Readers ranging from middle school to graduate school have expressed disappointment and frustration when their favorites are eliminated by the judges. They’ve been equally delighted as their preferred titles move on to the next round. I am thrilled at the rich discussions instigated by readers comparing books and delving deeply into the analysis of single texts. Participants have read the judges’ (all respected authors of children’s or YA literature) essays on the School Library Journal site  and have crafted their own. Oswego’s River’s End Bookstore has involved the public by hosting a book club.

Graduate students in my Literacy Education class are corresponding with students who attend an alternative high school that is housed on our SUNY Oswego campus. Some of the high school students have created remarkable artwork as their response to the literature selections. Others are filming themselves giving book talks and explaining their preferences and predictions for the next round. There are limitless educational and creative possibilities for students in conjunction with the tournament—truly a teacher’s dream!


If you’d like to join in the literary madness of March, you can comment here, and/or visit the online book club. You can find updated printable brackets here.

Since my graduate students and the high school students are listing their preferences and predictions for Round Two and beyond, for the record, here are mine:

  • Books I hope will move on to Round Three: Challenger Deep, I Crawl through It, The Nest, and Symphony for the City of the Dead.
  • Books I predict will move on: Challenger Deep, I Crawl through It, The Marvels, and Symphony for the City of the Dead.
  • Title I voted for in the Undead Poll: I Crawl through It
  • Eliminated title I most want to see come back from the dead: Goodbye Stranger.

Yes, this is literary March madness indeed.

BlogTalk: Contenders for the Battle of the Kids’ Books Revealed

by Sharon Kane

Did you know there’s a literary equivalent to March Madness, sponsored by the School Library Journal? Just as with basketball, fans can fill out brackets and follow the contest as contenders either win or get eliminated along the road to the championship. I have been following the Battle of the Kids’ Books (BoB) for several years, and this year I waited anxiously for the announcement of the sixteen selected contenders, which came today. I am excited about the wonderful variety in terms of genre, format, target age range, and topic. Diversity is well represented in both authors and characters. You can find the complete list and details about the competition here.

I have previously posted BookTalks about two of the contenders—The Boys Who Challenged Hitler and X: A Novel. I intend to add several reflections relating to other BoB titles over the next several weeks.

In Oswego, New York, where I work, several book clubs are preparing to participate in the 2016 Battle of the Kids’ Books. Sites include a middle school, a high school, an alternative high school (housed on my campus), and a public venue (book store or library, most likely). My graduate literacy education class will be discussing and writing about the books, and we are creating an online book club so that anyone can weigh in on their favorites or respond to other readers’ opinions. I’ll let you know how you can access that group once we get the site set up.

One of the things I like best about this annual program is that the judges (all respected children’s and YA authors) explain their rationale for sending a particular book on to the next bracket. These reviews are authentic examples of the kind of writing the Common Core State Standards emphasize. Each judge clearly states his or her stance and, using evidence from the text, defends that position. Some of the essays are literary works of art themselves! Essays from previous years are readily available on the official SLJ website. I consider the Battle of the Kids’ Books to be a teacher’s dream.

So, let the reading commence! And don’t forget to vote for the book you would like to bring back from the dead—yes, they have an Undead Poll, too.

BlogTalk: Musings on the 2016 ALA Youth Media Awards

by Sharon Kane

On January 11, I watched the live broadcast of the announcement of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards with my reading buddies at the alternative high school housed at my campus (SUNY Oswego). We had been following the Someday my Printz Will Come blog and reading possible contenders for the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award during the preceding weeks. We gave a cheer when Bone Gap won the Gold.

You can scroll to earlier posts to find my responses to some of the books that the ALA committees honored in various categories on Monday, including Enchanted Air, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, X: A Novel, This Strange Wilderness, The Boy in the Black Suit, The Boys who Challenged Hitler, and Bone Gap. I will be adding others soon.

During the past few months mock Newbery groups and online sites had readers predicting winners and arguing for their favorite children’s books that were published during 2015. Few, if any, considered that the medal might go to Matt de la Peña’s 32-page picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, given its genre, sparse text, and targeted audience (very young). I was thrilled for Matt, and proud to tell my high school colleagues that I know this author! Here is the introduction I gave for him at last summer’s Oswego Writing Institute:


Here you see a picture of me with a very good friend. I met him last summer at Louisiana State University’s Young Adult Literature Conference, where he was a keynote speaker and I was an instructor-in-residence.

He might not know (yet) that we’re such good friends, but I assure you he meets the criteria. For example:

A friend is dependable. I can depend on Matt when I have students who typically have difficulty engaging with literature. When I give them We Were Here, Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie, and The Living, their resistance fades away. Thanks, friend.

A friend is honest. Matt is so honest that he is willing to admit, even to English teachers and reading teachers, that he didn’t read a novel all the way through until AFTER high school.

I could give a dozen more examples of his “friend” qualities. But instead, I’ll just remind you of the famous last lines of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Here is true friend and good writer, Matt de la Peña.

You can find a list of all the 2016 winners at Enjoy!

BlogTalk: Gayle A. Zeiter YA and Children’s Literature Conference

by Sharon Kane

There’s good news to share about the upcoming Gayle A. Zeiter YA and Children’s Literature Conference that will take place in June, 2016 at UNLV. “Dr. Bickmore’s YA Wednesday” blog has information about the outstanding keynote authors and scholars already scheduled, as well as other relevant information, including a bit about submitting a proposal for a workshop or breakout session. Hope to see you there!