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Education Matters: Reading Together

Dive into these books to unplug—and recharge—over winter break

Brian Thomas: Associate head of school / head of the upper school at Bentley.

December break is upon us. The time away from school, usually one to three weeks, flies by very quickly when you factor in the holidays and the New Year’s celebration. But it is a good time to unplug, recharge and reconnect with your children.

One of the best ways to encourage your children to both unplug and keep their brains’ hard drive going is to read a book together. Finding a book that is both age appropriate and just plain old appropriate, however, can be challenging. I would like to recommend two books that may work for your whole family.

First, the Rick Riordan novel Heroes of Olympus (Book 1), The Lost Hero, about Jason Grace and two of his other demi-god friends, is very entertaining. If you’ve read the Percy Jackson series, you’ll probably love The Lost Hero series even more. Mount Diablo, Walnut Creek, the Berkeley Hills, and Mount Tamalpais make a guest appearance in The Lost Hero. Riordan was a middle school humanities teacher at a school in San Francisco in the ‘90s and he understands how middle school readers think. Riordan uses Greek and Roman mythology to fortify his writing, and explains the various aspects of the two similar mythological systems that the Greeks used and the Romans riffed on, making the Jason Grace series worth devouring.

Born to Run // chrismcdougall.comAnother good choice that readers of all ages will thoroughly enjoy is Christopher McDougall’s nonfiction offering called Born to Run: The Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Born to Run captivates as it tells the story of the most grueling athletic contests known to humanity, ultra running. The book’s narrative traces the journey of the greatest runners on the planet, a native tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who are said to have amazing powers of endurance. The Tarahumara can run hundreds of miles at a time with joyful ease; but they tend not to compete in ultra running, which many people who run for pleasure and for a living have gotten hooked on. McDougall tells of a mysterious American by the name of Caballo Blanco who bridges many cultures to run the ultimate ultra race. Born to Run is a book worth spending a couple of afternoons and evenings plowing through.

My daughter, Olivia, recommended both books to me, which is more than enough to pull me in. She’s read Born to Run four times because of the strength of the-edge-of-your-seat true story. I will often have her critique my own writing and speaking because she can cut straight to the point about what works and what doesn’t work in a narrative. As a head of a school, that’s a tough critic to have around all the time: a child who knows her own mind, plus what she likes and doesn’t like in a story. Indeed, one of our jobs as parents and guardians with our children is to teach them in their own lives what is a good, solid narrative, and how they can build that exemplary narrative from the lives they lead.

This winter break take some time out to read together with your children. Choose a book that you all may enjoy. I particularly love books on tape (see Audible.com) because you can then “read” together at home or on long journeys.

Below are more suggestions from librarians from both Bentley School campuses, Kathy Ilyin and Susan Bogas.

Brian Thomas (@brianwthomas) is the Associate Head of School and Head of the Upper School at Bentley School in Lafayette whose Latin motto, Scire Desider, means, “I desire to know.” 


Still looking for the perfect 2012 book for the holiday break?

Here are a few books that are perfect for sparking children’s interest and imagination.

Unspoken: A Story of the Underground Railroad // scholastic.comPicture books with engaging characters and dynamic art:

Henry Cole’s Unspoken: A Story of the Underground Railroad (gr. 3–5)
A compelling wordless story about a Southern farm girl who discovers an escaped slave among the cornstalks in the barn. An author’s note details the Civil War stories Cole heard as a young boy and underscores his intention of showing not the division, anger, and violence of the Civil War, but “the courage of everyday people who were brave in quiet ways.”

Mo Willems’ Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (gr.K–2)
A ferociously funny recasting of the traditional tale, told with exuberant language and mirthful artwork.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness (gr. 2–5)
A child learns a painful lesson when she and her classmates exclude a new girl and ignore her overtures of friendship. With its powerful message and striking art, this story offers food for thought.

Humorous fiction titles or ones set in a fantastical world:

Andres Vera Martinez and Na Liu’s graphic Little White Duck (gr. 4–8)
This captivating graphic memoir --based on the author's own life-- gives readers a unique look at what it was like to grow up in Wuhan, China following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976.

Polly Horvath’s One Year in Coal Harbor (gr. 5–7)
Readers rejoice--Primrose Squarp is back! The wise and curious heroine of the Newbery Honor Book Everything on a Waffle is facing another adventure-filled year in her small Canadian town of Coal Harbor.

In a Glass Grimmly // goodreads.comAdam Gidwitz’s In a Glass Grimmly (gr. 3–8)
In this companion to the hilarious and scary A Tale Dark and Grimm, cousins Jack and Jill run away from home and embark on a quest to find a magic mirror and earn their hearts’ desire.

Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (gr.6–8)
In the kingdom of Goredd, where dragons and humans have forged a fragile alliance, Seraphina, a gifted court musician who must hide the truth about her mixed heritage, now finds that she must use all her special abilities to solve a royal murder.

Lois Lowry’s Son (gr. 5–8)
This long-awaited conclusion to The Giver ties together the lives of Kira, Jonas, Gabriel, and Claire in a story of love, endurance and sacrifice.

Well researched, beautifully designed nonfiction titles:

Russell Freedman’s Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: the Story Behind an American Friendship (gr. 4–8)
In alternating chapters, the Newbery-award winning author of Lincoln: A Photobiography, now brings us a carefully researched account accompanied by numerous archival photos to shine a light on some of the complex issues that faced our nation during the 19th-century and the parallel lives of  the two men who embodied them.

Phillip Hoose’s Moonbird: a Year on the Wind with The Great Survivor B95 (gr. 5–8)
With captivating photographs and maps this book chronicles the travels from the Canadian Artic to Tierra del Fuego of the rufa red knot, and the work of scientists and average citizens to map and protect stopover sites.

Looking at Lincoln // goodreads.comMaira Kalman’s Looking at Lincoln (gr.K–4)
From his boyhood in a log cabin to his famous presidency and untimely death, the little girl in this book discovers is that our sixteenth president was a man who believed in freedom for all, had a dog named Fido, loved Mozart, apples, and his wife's vanilla cake, and kept his notes in his hat.

Jabari Asim’s Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington (gr. 1–4)
A poetic narrative and award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier’s collage artwork bring to life Booker T. Washington's journey to read, to learn,  to realize a dream, and to become a legendary educator of freedmen.

Nic Bishop’s Snakes (gr. 1–4)
A text of awesome facts and stunning up-close photos showcase the physical characteristics and behaviors of these “strange, secretive, and suprising”predators,

Kadir Nelson’s magnificently illustrated version of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech” (gr. 1–8)
An excerpt from this iconic speech is gloriously illustrated by Caldecott Honor winner Kadir Nelson. From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King: “My father’s dream continues to live on from generation to generation, and this beautiful and powerful illustrated edition of his world-changing "I Have a Dream" speech brings his inspiring message of freedom, equality, and peace to the youngest among us—those who will one day carry his dream forward for everyone.”

Recommended holiday break reading for Upper School students (and their parents!)

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
Humor, pathos and compassion all abound in National Book Award winner Alexie’s work.  This combination of classic and new short stories has it all.  You will find it hard to stop after reading just one story!

Every Day by David Levithan
Imagine waking up every day as someone else – always the proper age, but sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl. Sometimes with normal teen problems, sometimes crazy or full of rage. And then imagine that you fall in love… What would you do to spend tomorrow with the girl of your dreams?

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Thirteen chapters told from the perspective of 13 narrators in 13 different styles (one chapter in Power Point) weave the story of Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker and current record executive and Sasha his troubled employee. Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Jennifer Egan’s novel spans over 50 years revealing the inner lives of Bennie, Sasha and other characters they meet over the years.

Where’d You Go Bernadette? By Maria Semple
Is Bee’s mother just a little odd or absolutely out to lunch? Seattle is full of eccentrics, but Bernadette Fox raises the bar. When she goes missing, her daughter digs through her emails, school memos, correspondence and legal transcripts to unravel the mystery. The best thing about this book is the mother-daughter relationship!

Building Stories // randomhouse.comBuilding Stories by Chris Ware
“Ware’s innovative graphic novel deepens and enriches the form by breaking it apart.  Packaged in a large box like a board game, the project contains 14 ‘easily misplaced elements’ – pamphlets, books, foldout pages – that together follow the residents of a Chicago triplex (and one anthropomorphized bee) through their ordinary lives.  In doing so, it tackles universal themes including art, sex, family and existential loneliness in a way that’s simultaneously playful and profound.” – New York Times Book Review December 9, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Some say this is John Green at his best!  Teenagers Hazel and Gus both have cancer, Hazel's terminal. Will Hazel, who has resisted loving Gus because she doesn't want to be the grenade that explodes in his life when she dies, finally allow herself to love?  This is an achingly beautiful and honest story about young adults dealing with life and loss, literature, family, relationships and friends.  It will make you laugh and cry.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Historical fiction at its best.  It's a WWII friendship story starring two strong women: one an English motorcycle mechanic turned pilot, the other a Scottish intellectual/spy who's captured by the Nazis and confesses all. Or does she? Worth reading and then re-reading for clues. If you pick up this book, it will be some time before you put your dog-eared, tear-stained copy back down… Both crushingly sad and hugely inspirational, this plausible, unsentimental novel will thoroughly move even the most cynical of readers.

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the schoolyard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate.   The more he seeks to be more like his white class mates the more he is hounded by his mysterious cousin, Chin Kee.  This is a funny, poignant graphic novel by a local author.


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