book list, nature, science

List: Our Friends in the Garden

Tokyo Digs A Garden (Groundwood Books)
Written by Jon-Erik Lappano
Illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka

For ages: 3-7
Tokyo lives in an urban center choked by pollution and concrete. There used to be forests, streams, and grass fields here, but the people ate it all up with their construction. One day a mysterious old woman bikes by and gives Tokyo some seeds telling him that if he plants them, they will grow into whatever he wishes. Tokyo does so in his backyard, hoping for a garden. The entire city is covered in plants, vines, trees, and flowers the following day. Rivers have busted through and flow where streets once were. A modern fairy tale in a world where the specter of climate change and the loss of the wild grows ever closer.

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science, social-emotional

Spotlight – Jabari Jumps/Salamander Sky

Jabari Jumps (Candlewick)
Written & Illustrated by Gaia Cornwall

For ages: 3-6
Jabari has decided this is the day he will jump from the diving board into the city swimming pool. His father and baby sister accompany him on this day out, with the little boy constantly stating aloud that he’s a good jumper & he’s not scared. Jabari is psyching himself up to do something he is somewhat frightened of. But he’s determined, though. As Jabari gets in line and moves closer to the ladder that will take him to the board he feels the butterflies set in. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all? He keeps finding ways to stall, like needing to stretch first. Dad never pressures him but reminds his son that being scared is okay. Of course, Jabari conquers his fear and learns a lesson. So do we.

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book list, humor, science

Book List: Gross Books

In Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher, the author talks about how the female-dominated landscape of elementary school has created a culture clash. Female teachers often (not always, it is certainly getting better as the younger generation become teachers) have a very particular way they like things, and that often clashes with the types of humor that appeal to boys (and many, many girls as well). It doesn’t mean either “side” is wrong, but rather that we need to meet our students on their terms. If you want someone to read & write, you can’t just let them read books that you like or write in a way that pleases you. The job is to teach them the skills and let them find their own voice & opinion. This means being open to horror, science fiction, and toilet humor. But, of course, it must remain appropriate for the school setting. Still, these books would be fantastic ways to get kids excited about reading.

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graphic novels, middle grade, science

Middle Grade Must-Read: The Leak

The Leak (First Second)
Written by Kate Reed Perry
Illustrated by Andrea Bell

We are in year nine of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. This event has existed through the Obama and Trump presidencies and now into the Biden administration with no sign that the federal government will help these people or even hold state leadership responsible in any meaningful way. The result of providing the citizens of Flint with lead-contaminated water has been an increase in birth defects and a marked increase in the number of children needing special education services in public schools. Flint is a showcase of the complete failure of the system to protect the people. It’s no coincidence that a majority Black city is getting neglected and allowed to suffer. It’s essential for there to be voices speaking up for these people, not letting the rest of us become complacent & ignoring this gross inequity.

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black history, black lives, climate collapse, science

Nonfiction Corner – To Change a Planet/Song for the Unsung

To Change a Planet ( Scholastic Press)
Written by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

For ages: 4-8

It’s become evident that the continuance of life as we know it on this planet is over. A small percentage of humanity hoards the way resources, the environment has been left ravaged over centuries of extraction, and the pollution caused by fossil fuels all clearly indicate that we cannot keep living like this. Based on the severity of the problems, they will not be solved handily in a single election cycle but throughout the next generation and likely the one that follows (if we can keep humanity alive). This means it is vital that we empower our children to understand the role they will need to play in this global rescue mission & how necessary collective action will be.

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asian-american, humor, illustration, science, spotlight

Spotlight: The Upside Down Detective Agency/Usha and the Big Digger

The Upside Down Detective Agency (Kane Miller Books / EDC Publishing)
Written by Ellie Hattie
Illustrated by Brendan Kearney

For ages: 4-8
As a child, I loved books with intricate maze-like illustrations. You could spend hours on a single two-page spread pouring over the details. Within those illustrations were other small stories that sparked my imagination. As a teacher, I have seen that these types of books always draw in even the most hesitant independent readers. It gives them something to latch onto through the illustrations so that even if they cannot read every printed word they are experiencing storytelling. The Upside Down Detective Agency is exactly that sort of book and it made me grin ear to ear while I was reading it.

Stella & Stan are a pair of sloths that work as detectives. One day someone knocks on their office door. It’s Lady Veronica Velocity Speed, a famous race car driver whose specially designed diamond warp drive has been stolen. Stella & Stan rush into action…well, as quickly as sloths can rush and they need the reader’s help in noticing clues. There is no way this book can be read without audience interaction and that is going to make it a crowd pleaser in your home or classroom. It’s a book that helps children develop their observation and attention to detail, all while having fun in the process.


1. Have students pick their favorite page from the book. Discuss what elements make it their favorite page. Then have the student take what was talked about and compose a short paragraph about their favorite page.

2. Any good detective agency needs an advertisement to let people know they are there. Have students make a brochure for the Upside Down Detective Agency. They need to explain who the detectives are and give a testimonial from their latest client, Lady Veronica Velocity Speed.

3. For your students that want a big challenge, have them write the next adventure for the Upside Down Detective Agency. They will need a client, a crime, and a solution. A colorful detailed illustration should also be an expectation.

Usha and the Big Digger (Charlesbridge)
Written by Amitha Jagannath Knight
Illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat 

For ages: 4-8
While billed as part of a series of Math storytelling books, I wouldn’t say this book is a great example of the concept it’s trying to convey: orientation. It’s lacking some concrete STEM explanations in the back matter but that is okay because it’s an incredibly charming story. Usha is lying in the backyard with her big sister Aarti looking at the stars one night. Aarti points out the Big Dipper constellation but that is not what Usha sees. The little girl sees a big digging machine and insists that is what the stars are shaped like. Cousin Gloria arrives and contemplates things further by saying she sees a kite in that cluster of stars.

The illustrations here are perfectly done to draw in the eye. They burst with color and expressive faces. I appreciate the diversity on display with dark skinned Southeast Asian people represented. It is implied that Gloria is actually bi-racial (Black as well as South Asian). While the content isn’t hard math, it does provide some good social-emotional lessons in perspective. None of the three girls is wrong, they are just seeing something different in the same place and learning how to accept each other’s views is what is important. For a book about Math concepts, it was a little difficult for me to see it but this is a fantastic book overall.


1. Introduce the constellations to your students. There are a total of 88 so go with some of the more well-known ones (e.g. The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, etc.). Have students turn the images around until they see something. Have a discussion about why they see what they see.

2. Now that your students know about the constellation, have them write a short myth that explains how that constellation came to be in the sky. You will likely want to read a short fable from the past that does this so they have a sense of what their story should be like.

3. Have your students write an email to Aarti and Usha. They should help them figure out how not to get into such big arguments.

science, social-emotional, spotlight

Spotlight – Gardens Are For Growing/Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

Gardens Are For Growing (Familus)
Written by Chelsea Tornetto
Illustrated by Hsulynn Pang

For ages: 5-8
This will be a tearjerker for those adults reading it to their little ones. The pictures tell us about a father teaching his daughter about gardening in their backyard. Through the images, each step shows how the garden starts small and blooms into a lush, sprawling growth. However, the little girl is also growing, and we can count the measure of time by watching her and the plants. The father as well, a little gray in his red hair until it’s all white. That’s when the daughter visits home with her spouse and their child, the man’s granddaughter. 

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family, fantasy, science, social-emotional

Spotlight – Unicorns Are The Worst/The Great Whipplethorpe Bug Collection

Unicorns Are The Worst (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Alex Willan

For ages: 3-7
It’s easy to judge but harder to look at others with empathy. That’s a lesson the goblin narrator of this tale learns. He is sick of unicorns for many reasons, mainly because he feels that other magical creatures are ignored. The goblin also dislikes all the glitter the unicorns are sprinkling everywhere. He spends so much time talking to the reader about the unicorns he doesn’t spot the other magical creature stalking him. 

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climate collapse, middle grade, science, weather

Middle Grade Must-Reads – The Story of More

The Story of More (Adapted for Young Adults) (Delacorte Press)
By Hope Jahren

If you are an older Millennial like myself, you must come to terms with the idea that this planet is not ours. A solid argument can be made that the older generations clung to their positions of power for too long, resulting in a complete imbalance. Octogenarians run the American government, and activism is quickly becoming the realm of the young people. As a teacher, you must realize your crucial role in this dynamic. Despite not having the immediate power to upend the broken society crushing us, our students, their parents, etc., you must provide the youth with knowledge. You are arming them to face the devastation of climate collapse on this world in the hopes that, sometime after you are long gone, they create that better world of which we dream.

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