10 to Try: Poetry (Yes, poetry. Kids love it.)

In keeping with Kwame Alexander’s recommendation that poetry can often draw young people into enjoying books, our volunteers have compiled some favorites:

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Show, don’t tell: Poetry, relevance sell middle schoolers on reading


By Dawn Miller

“What would you say to the kids in the room to encourage them to read?” Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander was asked at the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston.

“I wouldn’t say anything,” Alexander answered.

“Who wants to be told? If you really want to connect and make somebody feel engaged, show them. That’s the real way to reach anybody. Make them feel something.”

From one of the readers in the crowd, Alexander borrowed a copy of his novel Rebound, a story about a 12-year-old boy who is dealing with loss, who can’t play basketball, but wishes he could. “This is what I would do,” he said, and recited an excerpt from the novel, which like all his books, is written in almost singable poetry.

It’s so singable, Alexander’s musician best friend Randy Preston, a retired teacher, brought hs guitar and sang a song from it. The two perform together now. They have visited almost 900 schools in the last three years.

“I don’t think you have to tell kids why they need to read,” Alexander said. “I think you’ve got to show them.”

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Great American Read: Favorite novel to be named Oct. 23

The Great American Read, a project of PBS for viewers to vote on their favorite novels of all time, will air its grand finale at 8 p.m. on Oct. 23.

This project creates opportunities for families and classrooms to discuss books and engage each other in what they are reading.

Is it even possible to choose America’s favorite novelists? Turns out you can, writes Adam Kirsch in the Wall Street Journal essay, “The Way We Read Now.” It’s storytelling that moves people, more than literary quality, the results show.

The power of story will be no surprise to Read Aloud volunteers or their classroom teachers.

PBS has just published The Book of Books, a companion volume to the series, full of short essays about the books by guests, sure to appeal to readers looking for the next great read.

You can keep up with The Great American Read at pbs.org/the-great-american-read/home/. Fair warning: You are likely to encounter Charlotte’s Web.

You can connect with The Great American Read on Facebook and through West Virginia public libraries.

This summer, E.B. White’s niece invited me out to the farm

E.B. White, who wrote for The New Yorker before he established himself in the childhood memories of millions with his now-classic children’s books, wrote on this typewriter, carefully kept at the family farm.
(Photo courtesy of Jennie Fitzkee)

By Jennie Fitzkee

I read aloud every day in my classroom, and weekly at the library. Picture books are a mainstay, yet reading aloud chapter books can move the world.

Are you surprised? Don’t be. Thirty years of reading Charlotte’s Web is proof, my proof. Every year former students return to be a guest reader. I don’t invite them. They want to come. Their parents pull me aside to tell me their child has become a voracious reader. Many return as high schoolers to volunteer in my class.

If I go back to when they were preschoolers in my class, glued to chapter reading, their favorite book every year was Charlotte’s Web. At the end of each school year we vote on our favorite chapter book, and the winner is always Charlotte’s Web. Always.

My public library hosted a special event, E.B. White’s grandniece speaking about her beloved grand-uncle. The librarian was beside herself to tell me.

“Jennie, she has his typewriter. She’s bringing it. And do you know that she calls him Andy? That’s E.B. White’s nickname.”

Yes, I know. I read Some Writer by Melissa Swift. If you want to know everything about E.B. White, it is the book.

I was out of town and unable to attend the event. To say that I was devastated is an understatement. Perhaps E.B. White’s grandniece would see the library poster of me reading Charlotte’s Web.

A week after the big event, the librarian said, “Jennie, E.B. White’s grandniece (Lindsay) would like to meet you. She knows about you, and has heard about how you read aloud Charlotte’s Web.”

Well, that’s about the best invitation I ever had. And so, with a note to me that was addressed, “Salutations, Jennie!” I was invited to her farm for a visit!

Lindsay’s grandfather was E.B. (Andy) White’s brother, Albert. He was the keeper of the letters and memorabilia (most went to Cornell University). He cared. Lindsay inherited her grandfather’s genes, and also much of what he kept. Albert was one of six children. His brother, Andy, was the youngest. Lindsay has the same look and expression as her grandfather in a family photo.

And there I was, standing in a room filled with E.B. White memorabilia. And, with E.B. White’s grandniece. Humbling and exciting. Words escaped me. I felt like Wilbur.

First, there was the typewriter, an Underwood, upon which Andy wrote his books. I don’t know about you, but seeing and touching that typewriter, something real and dear, was a piece of heaven for me.

Alongside is Lindsay’s first edition of Charlotte’s Web, signed to her: “To Lindsay with love from her great-uncle Andy. E.B. White.”

His wife, Katherine, was the love of his life.

“She was a strong woman,” said Lindsay. “She was older than he was, 11 years older. He adored her. His mother was a strong woman, too. She was much older when Andy was born.”

We talked a great deal about Charlotte’s Web. “Would you like to hear a recording of Andy reading the book?” Lindsay asked.

“Of course!” I said.

As we listened to the opening of the book, I found myself whispering the words I knew so well, along with Andy. Yet, I was surprised to hear how he read the story.

”I don’t read aloud the words like that at all. His voice is calm and steady. Mine is emotional.” And so I recited a few sentences aloud. Lindsay smiled.

Then she said, “Do you know it took him 17 takes to read the final chapter, The Last Day? Seventeen. He couldn’t stop crying. You see, in Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur was actually Andy, and Charlotte was his wife Katherine. He was devoted to her and adored her. She was his best friend, as Charlotte was to Wilbur. Reading that chapter aloud brought back all the memories of his wife.”

I did not know that. It makes perfect sense. E.B. White is Wilbur the pig, and his beloved wife Katherine is Charlotte the spider.


Jennie Fitzkee, a preschool teacher for 30 years, is originally from West Virginia, now lives in Massachusetts and is a supporter of Read Aloud West Virginia. This article is abridged from a version that first appeared on her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections.

Newbery winner to speak at West Virginia Book Festival Oct. 27, 2018

Newbery winner Kwame Alexander will appear at the West Virginia Book Festival.

By Kaitlyn Guynn

The West Virginia Book Festival is returning to the Charleston Civic Center on October 26 and 27 with Newbery Award-winning children’s author Kwame Alexander.

His series The Crossover is about a boy and his brother who love basketball, but face challenges together much deeper than who wins a game of one-on-one.

Alexander and singer-songwriter Randy Preston will perform “A Literary Concert with Kwame Alexander and Randy Preston,” from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27 in Conference Rooms 202-205.

One of Alexander’s latest novels, Rebound, is a prequel to The Crossover, which is about brothers, loss of a father and becoming a man. Another novel, Solo, is a poetic verse novel about a 17-year old girl who learns that the life of a rockstar isn’t all the glamour it seemed.

Alexander has also published picture books and poetry books.

Leading up to the festival, Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore will give the annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24 in Riggleman Hall at the University of Charleston.

Among her many books, Lepore wrote Book of Ages, a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s little-known sister, and The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which won the American History Book Prize. Her new book, These Truths: A History of the United States, was published in September.

Also appearing at this year’s Book Festival schedule are:

— Debbie Macomber, author of the popular Cedar Cove and Rose Harbor series.

— Dennis Lehane, staff writer of the HBO series “The Wire” and author of many bestsellers including Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone.

— John Scalzi, award-winning science fiction writer and blogger, author of Redshirts, among many others.

— David Grann, another New Yorker writer and author of The Lost City of Z, whose stories frequently make it to the screen.

The festival is free to the public. For more information about the schedule, writing workshops or other events visit wvbookfestival.org.

Kaitlyn Guynn is a senior at the University of Charleston.


When children drive the boat at story time

I’ve often said that the best learning and most meaningful experiences with children happen unexpectedly. And it happens all the time, especially with picture books. You just have to seize the moment and be ready to let go of the scripted text, the one that’s in your head.

I’d like to tell you about two outstanding books where this happened, each with very different experiences:

Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston. Yes, reading those words from Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio to the children started it all. They cracked up (it really was funny), so I read it again. More laughing, and I laughed, too. The words in the text repeated the dogs’ names. I paused, looked at the children, and read the names again—this time with a voice and an accent. Well, we roared, together. I couldn’t stop laughing. My tears blocked seeing the words in the book.

Was this planned? Of course not. It just happened. Why was this important? It made their teacher (me) more human. It was a class bonding moment. If anyone was having a bad day, they weren’t any longer. Laughter is the best medicine. Next, we finished reading the book, and we learned a few impromptu words in French. Oui, oui.

The story is about Gaston, who is clearly not at all like his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. The dogs meet another family, Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette, who is not like her brothers. The two mother dogs discuss what appears to be the obvious, a dog in each family that doesn’t belong:

It seems there’s been a terrible mistake. Whatever shall we do? I guess we’ll let them decide.

What happens next is a story of diversity, belonging, and love. Laced with humor, the book appeals to children and adults. It certainly appeals to my children! Belly laughing made it a memory. Oh, we now sing “Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston” as a catchy tune.

Sometimes a simple text can be powerful. I discovered just that when I read aloud Life, by West Virginia native Cynthia Rylant.

The book starts with these words:

Life begins small. Even for elephants. Then it grows. Beneath the sun. And the moon. Life grows.

Powerful, indeed. I read the words slowly, taking time to stop and let the words sink in, and show the illustrations. Children were silent. The story depicts not only the elephant, but many other animals. In a matter-of-fact way, it tells the tale of how things are not always easy. Life. Yet, there is always hope and wonder ahead as we go through life. The book ends with these words:

And it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen. Because life begins small. And grows.

When I finished reading to this silent group, I clutched the book to my chest and paused. I said, “I love life. What do I like the most?”

Long pause and thinking.

“Singing! I love singing. Everyone knows Jennie loves singing.”

And then I looked at all those little faces, looking at me. I knew what I needed to do; I asked each child what they love about life. I was stunned. I never expected to hear these answers:

“Hearts and love. Legos. Trees. The moon. Dancing. Santa. Hearts. Rainbows. Big hearts. My big sister. Playing with Alex and Hunter. My big brother. My Mom and Dad.”

My goodness!

No wonder this book has been recommended as an alternative to Dr. Seuss’ book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, as a graduation gift.

If you think books and words and stories aren’t powerful, think again. When you seize the moment as you read a book aloud, and follow your instinct and heart, you will make that book far more meaningful for children. Whether it is filled with humor or worldly advice, it really doesn’t matter. You will make that book come alive. You will make a difference.

Jennie Fitzkee, a West Virginia native who lives in Massachusetts, has been teaching and reading to preschoolers for 30 years. Her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections, chronicles lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.