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

BookTalk: Secret Coders

by Sharon Kane

secret-codersI picked up Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes (2015, First Second), for two reasons. First, I recognized the first author as the creator of a number of award-winning graphic novels (a book talk for one of his graphic novels was posted on this site earlier this summer and can be seen here: and as the 2015–2016 National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Also, for a while I have been feeling the need, as the instructions on the bottom of the front cover say, to “Get with the PROGRAM.” I’ve been reading about the value of coding for students and the recommendations for promoting (or even requiring) coding courses in schools. I figured I should learn a bit about it, and what better way to learn how to program computers than through a story told using a graphic-novel format?

The protagonist of Secret Coders, Hopper, has just started at a new school with many creepy characteristics, including a scary janitor, birds that transmit messages through opening and closing their eyes, and binary numbers posted around the campus. Hopper and her new friend Eni figure out the combination to unlock the janitor’s shed; there they find a robot and the program that directs it to complete tasks. Readers are periodically invited to solve logic problems and actively code while following the mystery that is unfolding at the school.

The story stops abruptly, just as three middle school students are given a challenge by the janitor. “Here is another Path Portal, more complex than the one in the courtyard. Succeed in opening it and I will reveal to you the secret of Stately Academy. Fail and you are never to set foot on campus again” (p. 88). Readers are told that the story continues in Secret Coders: Paths & Portals (just released on August 30) and are instructed to visit if they are ready to start coding. Students who visit the site will find downloadable activities, coding lessons, videos, an art gallery, and an invitation to subscribe to Yang’s email list and receive a free comic describing his start in comics.

Secret Coders, with its companion website, offers an interdisciplinary, interactive reading experience. Here’s to the power of binary numbers!

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades

Math, technology, ELA


Book Talk: Tru and Nelle

by Sharon Kane
tru and nelleMany readers who love To Kill a Mockingbird go on to read one or more of the many biographies of Harper Lee. They discover that her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, provided many experiences that Nelle (as she was known) later wove into her classic novel set in the fictional Maycomb. Readers also learn of her friendship with little Truman (Streckfus Persons, later Capote), who also grew up in Monroeville. The children inspired each other and eventually influenced each other’s adult writing. Versions of Nelle appear in Capote’s work, and vice versa.

G. Neri, in Tru and Nelle (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), tells a fictionalized version of the friendship of these two young misfits. He explains that his story is based on real events, “but I’ve rearranged them into a single story and added more than a few fibs for spice, hopefully making for a flavorful bowl of southern homestyle yarns” (p. 318). The children, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories they have read, play detective games and eventually become embroiled in a mystery that involves an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. They write stories on a typewriter given to them by Nelle’s father; when Tru moves to New York, they promise to keep writing, and to go somewhere together when they grow up.

Teachers could offer this book as for additional reading while students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird; students will delight in finding episodes that are similar to the ones in the classic. They may also be inspired to write creatively about the childhood of one of their own favorite authors, conducting research and pondering the influences that led to the works they admire.

I’d pair this book with I am Am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields (reissued in 2015 by Square Fish Books).  A book talk about that biography was posted on this site in January 2014 and can be found here:

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

ELA, history



Book Talk: The Handy Chemistry Answer Book


By Sharon Kane

chemistry answer bookI knew I was going to like Justin P. Lomont and Ian C. Stewart’s teaching style when I read the following in the Introduction to The Handy Chemistry Answer Book (2013: Visible Ink Press): “We think that you’ve probably wondered … what sodium laureth sulfate is doing in your shampoo, but maybe never had the chance to ask. We are interested in explaining these things in plain language, and we’ve kept a conversational tone throughout the book” (p. xi). I confirmed that their teaching philosophy is consistent with mine when, after saying they’ve used a simplified drawing system to show chemical structures, they advise, “Take what you can from these abstract drawings, but don’t dwell on them. Focus on the stories we’re trying to tell” (p. xi).

Students were responsible for many of the queries in the book, so your own students might also be curious as to the answers to authentic questions as varied as: “What makes metals feel colder than air to the touch?” (p. 37); “Why can some batteries be recharged and others cannot?” (p. 107); “How is the presence of illegal narcotics detected?” (p. 109); “What is my credit card made of?” (p. 171); “When I get an MRI, what is the machine actually measuring?” (p. 196); “How do painkillers know what part of the body to target?” (p. 204); “Why does asparagus make pee smell weird?” (p. 211); and “How do ants know how to organize their colonies so efficiently?” (p. 215).

For answers to these questions and more, check out the book. You’ll also find whole chapters on sustainable “green” chemistry, kitchen chemistry, and experiments that can be done at home.

I loved reading this book. My favorite new knowledge is: “There are six types of quarks, which are referred to as different ‘flavors.’ These are named up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange” (p. 153). Who knew?

Appropriate for middle and high school

Science, 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

BookTalk: The Garden of Monsieur Monet

by Sharon Kane

garden of monetI recently visited one of the most famous gardens in the world: a garden in northern France, in the village of Giverny. My guides were Giancarlo Ascari and Pia Valentinis, author and illustrator of The Garden of Monsieur Monet (2015, Royal Academy of Arts). The first pages of this graphic novel show Claude Monet and his family arriving at their new home, but what I encountered upon opening the book gave me the context for the story that was to follow. Titled “The Belle Epoque,” an introduction describes the period at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, when arts and sciences were flourishing across Europe. Illustrations and captions give information about the cinema, motor cars, railway lines, electric lights, radio transmissions, the discovery of vaccines, aircraft, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and art and fashion from the newly explored Japan. Everything sounds positive until one sees the words in the bottom right-hand corner: “In 1914 the belle epoque came to a tragic end with the beginning of the First World War.”

For many pages, we don’t have to think about war. We can join Monet as he decorates his home with Japanese art throughout; as he heads to the fields to paint in the open air; as he brings in guests to enjoy the flowering gardens. But war intrudes, and we see the gardeners leaving to fight. We learn that a depressed Monet, hearing the sound of the artillery in the distance, goes inside his home to re-create his water garden on huge canvases, even as his eyesight fails.

The closing pages are a delight, displaying an illustrated catalog of some of the flowers found in Monet’s garden: Japanese cherry, foxtail lily, snowdrop, white foxglove, flowering quince, gladiolus, and many more.

On one double-page spread we see eleven versions of Monet’s haystack paintings. “Monsieur Monet is so fascinated by the variations of light and color that he paints the same subject over and over again at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year” (unpaged). Students can follow the master’s example as they notice, and capture in some medium, the objects and scenes from their everyday lives. They can also apply the principle of perspective to Monet himself, by exploring other biographies of the artist to see what is emphasized and compare them to this biography.

Art, history, ELA

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades, and high school

BookTalk: Children’s Book of Philosophy

By Sharon Kane

children's book of philosophyDon’t be fooled by the word Children’s” in the title of DK’s Children’s Book of Philosophy: An Introduction to the World’s Great Thinkers and Their Big Ideas (2015). Based on what I learned as I read the book, I can assure you it is not just for children. It’s filled with thought-provoking questions such as “Is there life after death?” (p. 62), “How do I know if I am real?” (p. 38), “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (p. 14), “What is happiness?” (p. 70), “Can we think without language?” (p. 66), “Are people naturally good or bad?” (p. 118), and “Isn’t philosophy a little weird?” (p. 9).

The book is filled with biographical and other information about philosophers, beginning with the great ancient trio of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and taking us through the centuries with guides such as Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Plenty of photographs and a multitude of anecdotes explain and discuss philosophical principles. Sidebars contain timelines, symbols, quotes, and ethical dilemmas to contemplate.

As our students read novels and analyze disciplinary texts, perhaps they can apply some of what they learn, or are exposed to, in this book. It contains few, if any, definitive answers, but it does contain examples of convictions that various leaders, activists, and thinkers have acted on. Although philosophers may disagree over ways to answer questions such as “Will there ever be world peace?” and “Is war ever right?” (p. 114), it’s comforting to know there is one principle that any number of philosophies and religions espouse: the Golden Rule.

appropriate for middle and high school

philosophy, social studies, ELA, history, art, science

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: Booked

bookedEnergy. If I had to describe Kwame Alexander’s Booked (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in a word, that would be it. Energy shines through even on the book jacket, where a soccer player is poised to kick a ball. The book is composed of poems that use varying fonts, white space, and phrases to denote sounds, motion, excitement, and tension. For someone who claims to hate words, narrator Nick Hall uses them to good effect. He’s not thrilled at having a linguistics professor for a father, who forces him to read the dictionary he wrote called Weird and Wonderful Words (p. 4). Nick perceives himself as living in a prison of words, yet the reader can readily see how this immersion has provided him a vehicle for expressing his emotions. His emotions are strong as he faces his parents’ separation and impending divorce, as well as school dilemmas involving friends, teachers, a new girlfriend, bullies, and soccer.

One of my favorite characters in Booked is the school librarian, Mr. MacDonald. Perhaps it’s because I like his collection of t-shirts with slogans that promote reading. (The wearable text does not go unnoticed by our word hater, Nick.) Which shirt would I most like to have? “FREADOM” (p. 152)? “Similes are like metaphors….” (p. 77)? No, I think I would have to choose the shirt about my favorite literary element: “Irony: The Opposite of Wrinkly” (p. 42).


Appropriate for middle school and high school

physical education, ELA

A Pair of BookTalks about a Pair Bound in History: Part B

duelWhat could they have been thinking? I still cannot fathom how two of our young country’s leaders, both known for their intelligence, could have gotten themselves into the situation that resulted in Alexander Hamilton’s death. In The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (2009, Viking), Judith St. George compares the men at each stage of their lives. I learned some of the reasons for Hamilton’s growing opposition to Burr. They held opposing political views. I was surprised to learn that Alexander wrote an influential article defending the Boston Tea Party that was published in a New York newspaper, and gave speeches opposing the British, when he was a teenager! Additionally, at one point Burr was running for the United States Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law.

On the other hand, some of the things I read made it seem unlikely that the two could end up facing each other with loaded guns on that field in New Jersey in 1804. Here’s a list:

-Several years earlier, Hamilton, feeling his honor had been questioned, challenged James Monroe to a duel. Monroe asked Aaron Burr to be his “second,” but Burr acted as a peacemaker instead. “Thanks to Burr’s masterly art of persuasion, the duel never happened” (p. 66).

-Burr knew what it felt like to be in a duel. He had been in one with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, whose bullet struck Burr’s jacket. One would think that was a close enough call to serve as a deterrent to future duels.

-In 1801, Hamilton’s nineteen-year-old son died—in a duel! The family grieved deeply.

-That same year, his eighth child was born. It sure seems like Alexander had a lot to live for.

St. George tells us, “National shock and outrage greeted the news of Hamilton’s death. Boston and Philadelphia went into mourning… But it was New York City that suffered the greatest pain” (p. 85).

I feel shocked and outraged by the story too. I feel grief. The book did its job.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

history, ethics, ELA

Read Part A here.