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

Book Talk: Boxers and Saints

by Sharon Kane

boxers and saintsJoan of Arc was my way in.

I have been planning to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints (2013, First Second) for a while. The two books in this set have won major awards, and Yang is presently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But the books never seemed to make it to the top of my “To Read” pile. I’m not totally comfortable with graphic novels, nor am I comfortable with books about war—especially when the violence is depicted visually.

I admit that I struggled through Boxers. I cringed as I, along with Little Bao, watched a Christian cleric smash the village’s sacred idol, accompanied by the caption, “This is Good News of Jesus Christ!” (p. 19). Readers encounter much blood and too many deaths, and it was especially hard to read knowing that the work was well researched and based on actual events that took place during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899.

I found the beginning of Saints very sad—a young girl so rejected and abused that she chose to embrace her devil self. When she found acceptance in a Christian missionary community, I was glad for her. She had been called Girl-Four since infancy, when her grandfather refused to even give her a name. Now she was Vibiana; she had an identity and a purpose, caring for children in an orphanage. And she had a spiritual guide—Joan of Arc! Joan had had visions several centuries earlier, and now she was appearing in Vibiana’s visions.

I won’t go into how Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories intersect. Rather, I’ll reflect on the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. As soon as Joan came into the picture (literally), I was engaged in a new way and could make valuable connections. At one point Vibiana has the opportunity to save her life if she will deny her faith; there could be no better guide as she makes her decision than Joan of Arc, who was offered that same choice as she faced being burned at the stake in 1431.

I finished Saints and went back to Boxers, able to tackle it with new appreciation. I was amazed at Yang’s ability to describe the Boxer Rebellion from opposing perspectives, without ever tipping the scales in terms of which side was better or more right. Readers are the winners as they learn Chinese history through art and story.


Appropriate for high school

history, ELA, art, religion

BookTalk: Do No Harm

by Sharon Kane

donoharmWe would like to think that brain surgeons are infallible, though of course that is an unrealistic expectation, as Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) demonstrates. Marsh shares his weaknesses, misjudgments, and anxieties as a neurosurgeon along with fascinating details of adventures he’s had in the operating room. We come to admire his talents in both his medical specialty and his writing as he “attempt[s] to give an honest account of what it is like to be a neurosurgeon” (p. x).

Most of the chapter titles indicate the conditions that lead to the need for Marsh’s services. The chapters include details of particular surgeries (most of which include a lot of blood), conversations with patients pre-and-post surgery, and explanations of how Marsh makes decisions in situations that are fraught with risk. Readers can feel his remorse and anguish when patients worsen after surgery, and his exhilaration when a seemingly hopeless scenario turns around due to his skill.

In one chapter, Marsh describes himself as a patient. He explains, “Most medical students go through a brief period when they develop all manner of imaginary illnesses . . . until they learn, as a matter of self-preservation, that illnesses happen to patients, not to doctors” (p. 215). He notes that doctors often dismiss their own initial symptoms and can be slow to diagnose themselves. But he could not ignore the effects of a vitreous detachment and thus had to place himself in the hands of a retinal surgeon. Another time, he broke his leg, and after that surgery his doctor “insisted on keeping me in hospital for five days on the grounds that I was a doctor and would not listen to his medical advice that I should rest my leg. . .” (p. 228). Some of his colleagues saw him in the hospital and “looked somewhat startled to see me disguised as a patient in a dressing gown with a leg in plaster” (p. 229).

Marsh manages to turn everything into a story, which is what makes this nonfiction account of his career so fascinating. He presents ethical dilemmas and then brings us along on his rounds as he deals with them. Marsh is an expert in his field and is someone I would trust.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

biology, ethics, careers, 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.

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

AAThe famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr leaves me questioning: What were they thinking? How could they have found any logic in settling differences in a manner that would leave at least one of them dead? And, what thoughts were going through their minds as they prepared for the duel, then faced each other?

Someday I will see the Broadway play “Hamilton,” and examine how the playwright and actors interpret the characters. In the meantime, I read Aaron and Alexander (2015, Roaring Brook Press), written and illustrated by Don Brown. Through an explicit compare/contrast pattern of organization the author shows baby Aaron being held at Princeton, surrounded by scholars, while on the opposite page a barefoot Alexander grows up on the island of St. Croix amidst sailors, pirates, merchants, plantation owners, and slaves. Both boys were orphaned early in life; both were smart; both “staked their lives on independence” (unpaged) during the American Revolution; both became lawyers in New York City, sometimes even working together. But they ended up in separate political camps, and went about fulfilling their visions in different ways.

As Brown describes, Alexander opposes Aaron, speaking out against him when the House of Representatives holds a run-off vote after Burr and Thomas Jefferson tie in the race for president. After a subsequent verbal attack, Aaron demands an apology and then challenges Alexander to a duel.  Brown explains that settling differences this way was not unusual at the time (though it will never make sense to me). In the minutes leading up to the event Brown shows the men attending a party, acting as though things were normal.

The last page shows Aaron walking through Europe, looking aged and unhappy, saying, “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Wow.

In the Author’s Note, Brown reveals his own thoughts:

Despite his tarnished reputation, I find myself in Burr’s corner. His flaws appear to me less as failings and more as unsubstantiated bad press. And I’m drawn to his apparent humanity and genuineness, especially in regard to his devotion to his beloved wife and daughter.

Burr and Hamilton were ensnared by the cultural conventions of their day; the death of one was ostensibly needed to satisfy the honor of the other. In the end, nothing was accomplished but tragedy. (unpaged)

Brown lists several intriguing titles in his bibliography, including Judith St. George’s The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. I’m eager to compare the two authors’ treatments of the topic in next week’s BookTalk. Stay tuned.


Appropriate for intermediate, middle school, and high school grades

History, ethics, ELA, art

Read Part B here.

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


BookTalk: The Nest

by Sharon Kane

nestA label on a book classifying it in the horror genre attracts some readers and deters others. I am in the latter group. If I see the phrase “psychological thriller” on a book cover, I quickly walk away. On the binding of my public library’s copy of Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (2015, Simon & Schuster) there is a symbol consisting of two red eyes and the word “SCARY” right below the juvenile section indicator. However, when my graduate students told me that I had to read it, I felt pressured to at least try it. I found Jon Klassen’s illustrations appropriately creepy but quite intriguing, and the first few sentences were aesthetically pleasing:

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them? Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me. They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born. (p. 1)

I found I could not abandon narrator Steve as he told the story of his baby brother, born with congenital defects that made his future uncertain. The infant already had multiple health problems resulting in numerous rushed trips to the hospital. The prognosis was poor in terms of his level of mental functioning. Steve was old enough to surmise from hushed conversations that the baby might not survive. But oh, how the family loved that baby, Theo.

Steve discovers that the creatures in his dreams are not angels, but wasps. He communicates with the queen, who assures him they have come to help. She tells him that because Baby Theo is damaged they are working on a replacement baby. Everyone knows that a perfect child is so much better than a damaged child. All will be well.

Steve inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the queen’s tactics by the time he figures out what evil is being planned. Horror mounts. You will have to read the details for yourself; I cannot bear to tell you.

The Nest is a good book for introducing the topic of archetypes. Steve is on a hero’s journey. He goes reluctantly; he does not feel brave; he does not have the capacity to overcome the obstacles he encounters. There are mentors as well as trials. There is a goal worth pursuing. Steve will do what it takes to protect the baby, even if that means descending to an underworld, or—despite his allergy—fighting his way through hordes of wasps.

I was afraid to read this book , but Steve had to face much bigger fears than I. I’m glad that I “met” him, which would not have happened had I let fear keep me from this valuable, inspirational story. Steve became a mentor on my reading journey.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

ELA, science, psychology, ethics