Congratulations to Darby Karchut!

Gideon'sSPearfinalcoverflat (2)Congratulations to our author Darby Karchut!

Her novel, Gideon’s Spear, sequel to Finn Finnegan, just took home a 2014 International Readers’ Favorite Bronze Medal Award  in the Children-Preteen category. We are so proud of you!

To check out Darby’s story behind the story of Finn and his adventures click here.

And don’t forget to check out the third book in the series, The Hound at the Gate.houndatthegate-web


Follow the Piper: Fiction in the Classroom



by Ray Ballantyne




I have walked on Mars.


I have paddled an outrigger canoe over the Pacific Ocean.


Al Capone has done my shirts.


And all without stirring from my chair.


For, you see, I read fiction.


Not only have I experienced all this through books, I have lived it. And I remember them.


Storytelling is a part of our nature. We are built to tell and remember stories. What we experience in fiction becomes a part of us. That is the “Piper” we must follow. Not the Pied Piper who took the children away, but one who satisfies the deep need for story we all share.


That alone is enough reason for fiction to a part of every language program at every level. However, you as a teacher may feel bound to justify that fiction should be included. Then know this—: all the language skills you are responsible for can be learned through fiction.


Vocabulary? In any good work of children’s literature, the child reader will find words they don’t know, but they will encounter them in context. Many times that is all the child will need to understand the word. Other times it will snap into place later in the story. In the hands of a good author, the story will continue to flow, and the meaning of individual words will take shape.


Children don’t learn vocabulary with worksheets and drills.  They learn by being immersed in quality writing. That is what I mean by following the Piper.


Grammar and usage? Keep them reading fiction. It provides a sure model of the very best of the English language.


And read this from the Common Core: “Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.”


So there you have it. Fiction is in. It can be justified with many different learning objectives in your curriculum.


But the most important reasons for including fiction are the hardest to measure. Nonetheless, most are immeasurably more important. We educators have a frightening tendency to include in our curriculum those things that can be most easily measured.


But to quote Einstein, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.


So what counts?


Wonder. Wisdom. Empathy.


There is a quality of rehearsal, of practice inherent in fiction. We can experience problems and dilemmas through someone else—a character in a story— before we experience it ourselves. We watch fictional characters struggle, err and work through difficulties.  We feel what they feel. We end up just a little more prepared for life.


How did Harriet extract herself from the social mess she finds herself in? How did Anna and Caleb cope with having this tall stranger named Sarah enter their lives as their stepmother?  How did Juan de Pareja deal with being an art apprentice in a hostile place?


Every well-wrought protagonist has character flaws. Fiction demonstrates how a person survives these flaws and grows in the process. We live it with the character.


It is no magic bullet, no easy fix. It comes from years of immersion in the best fiction we can offer children.


Then there is imagination. Oh, how fiction stirs our imagination. Every fiction writer depends on that. With a few deft details, an author sketches a world and leaves the reader to fill in the rest of the details with our imaginations. And we do, and imagination blossoms.


To quote our dear Einstein one more time, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.


Finally, fiction allows us to see the world through another pair of eyes, to know life as someone different from us knows it.  We can live another culture. The other gender. A different time in history. As it says at the beginning of Sharon Creech’s  Newberry-winning book, Walk Two Moons, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”


Fiction helps us not view the rest of the world as “others,” people to be avoided or even feared. When we “walk two moons,” it is very difficult to do that.


Finally, there’s the wisdom inherent in fiction, perhaps in children’s fiction most of all. I’m not talking about the “sermons” of those pedantic stories children must all-too-often endure. Wisdom is deeper, older; it is shared by of a great character in a great story.  Wisdom, passed down through multiple folktales, through stories that have stood the test of time.  Wisdom that is endemic in the best of children’s literature. And fiction gives children an opportunity to not just hear this wisdom, but see it lived out. To live it themselves. Following the Piper.


With fiction.


With story.


Book Discussion Questons, Silent Starsong

silentstarsongforweb1. Throughout recorded history, the stars have driven scientists, artists, writers, and more to explore and wonder. People still wish upon stars. What are some stories and beliefs about stars that might have inspired the author to think about a group of people who could hear the future based on the “songs of the stars”?



2. When we first meet Kyra Starbard, she is coming home from an operation that failed to fix her hearing. Who do you know, or know about, who is deaf or has a disability? What are ways people treat others who can’t or don’t do things the way others do? How might these people feel when everyone around them expects them to “fix” their life so they better fit in?



3. Marne begins his journey in the book being sold as a slave. How does that affect his life? As Kyra becomes friends with him, it’s clear he is a “person,” and not just property. What are ways that the culture on Kyra’s planet supports the slavery of the Narratsets? How do they keep people thinking they are “property”, instead of “persons”?



4. Kyra and Marne both consider the other to be “alien.” There are definitely some things they consider “weird” about each other. What are some of these things? How do you feel about Marne’s alien differences? How do you feel about the human things Marne considers “alien”? How do Kyra and Marne overcome these differences to become friends?


5. Marne has telepathy, which is the power to read minds and speak directly into a person’s mind. How is this ability treated by the different people in Kyra’s family? If you had this ability, how would you use it? Would it scare people? What would you be scared of if someone you knew had this power? If you could have any alien power, what would it be and why?


6. When Kyra meets her grandfather and tells him of her deafness being “unfixable”, he says, “If they couldn’t fix you, perhaps you really didn’t need to be fixed.” What are some things Kyra learns because she is deaf? What are things she notices and does that others could not do? What other ways does she sense the world when she cannot hear? Why would he say that she doesn’t need to be fixed?


7. When Kyra decides to run away because she is certain there is no better option, Marne disagrees but goes with her anyway. When has there been a time when you’ve had a friend who needed your help with something you didn’t agree with? How did you handle that situation? Have you ever made a decision that a friend thought was foolish or dangerous? How did you work through your friendship during these times?

Read a sample of Silent Starsong here.

Discussion Questions and Classroom Unit for The Last Child of Hamelin

The Last Child of Hamelin by Ray Ballantyne

Classroom Study Unit for The Last Child of Hamelin


You may be reading The Last Child of Hamelin to your class or they might be reading it themselves. Either way, before they experience the novel, be sure your students are familiar with “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale.

  • 1.0 Tell the story out loud if possible.
  • 2.0 If you are reading it out loud:
  • -with older kids, you might read the Browning poem/story of the Pied Piper. Pick one where the illustrator does  not sentimentalize the ending.
  • -with younger children, find a retelling that is straight-forward and honest. Again, avoid a sentimental ending, that emphasizes the wonder of the land inside the mountain without examining the tragedy inherent in the story.

-compare illustrations in various versions.

-Ask: which ones capture your sense of the story?

3.0 Discuss the tale:

  • 3.1 How did you react to the ending of “The Pied Piper?” What were your emotions?
  • 3.2 What do think the ending was like for the children?
  • 3.3 What do think the ending was like for the parents?
  • 3.4 How would other people in Hamelin have reacted to losing the children?
  • 3.5 Did Hamelin deserve to lose the children? Why or why not?
  • 3.6 What might it be like for the children inside the mountain in a month? a year? five years?
  • 3.7 If you were the child left behind like the lame boy, what might you be feeling


Study the illustration on the cover. Look carefully. Share what you see.

2.0Pieter’s Life in Hamelin

  • 2.1 What surprised you about how people lived in the 1300s A.D.?
  • 2.2 Why do you think Hamelin was surrounded by walls?
  • 2.3 Why was no music allowed in Hamelin?
  • 2.4 Draw a plan of Pieter’s house.
  1. -where is the cooking fire?
  2. -where is the “center post?”
  3. -what was it like inside the house?
  4. -what do you see?
  5. -what sounds would you hear?
  6. -what would the table top feel like? the floor? The wood in the doors?
  7. -what smells would be present?

[Teachers: Similar questions can be used with any of the buildings in the story: Keeper’s house, The Square Pig, The Tower of the Lays, etc.]

  • 2.5 Find Hamelin on the map in the front of the book. Locate Koppelberg Mountain. Where do you think Pieter’s secret valley is located?

3.0 Know the Characters

  • 3.1 Make a character sketch of Pieter.
  • 3.11 With words or short phrases, list descriptions of:
  1. -Appearance – face, hair, eyes, build, clothes, unusual features (scars, tattoos, physical deformities, etc.), age, body language. What does he most dislike about his appearance and body?
  2. -Strengths/Gifts – What does this character do well? What are his or her gifts?
  3. -Flaws and Weaknesses – What does this character do poorly? Which of these causes problems for him? What is his weakest trait? What does he or she most dislike about himself?
  4. -Ethics/Beliefs – What does this character believe strongly? How is that shown in actions or words? How             do those beliefs help? When do they get in the way?
  5. -Relationships – Who does this character care about the most? Who are his best friends? How does he treat people he meets?
  6. -Emotions – What are this character’s usual emotions? What makes him? How often? What makes him happy? What do you think he is most afraid of?
  7. -Change and Growth – Return to this as you read the book. Jot down ways in which he or she was changed or grown throughout the story.
  • 3.12 What do you wish you knew about him?
  • 3.13 What do you think you know about him, even though it is not stated in the text.
  • 3.2 Make a character sketch of Simon.
  • 3.21 With words or short phrases, list descriptions of his:
  1. -appearance
  2. -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6. -emotions
  • 3.22 What do you wish you knew about him?
  • 3.23 What do you think you know about him, even though it is not stated in the text.
  • 3.3 What do you think makes Pieter’s father so angry?
  • 3.4 Describe Pieter’s relationship with Agnes, his little sister.

4.0 Early Events — Chapters 1 to 6

  • 4.1Why did Pieter return again and again to Koppelberg Mountain?
  • 4.2 Do you have a secret place like Pieter does? What do you do there? Describe it.
  • 4.3 Why didn’t Pieter obey the law against music?
  • 4.4 Why did Simon return again and again to Koppelberg Mountain? How do his reasons differ from Pieter’s?
  • 4.5 What do you think makes Simon such a sad man?

5.0      Leaving Hamelin – Chapters 7 to 14

  • 5.1 Why did Pieter leave Hamelin with Simon?
  • 5.2 Why did he continue traveling with Simon from Tracker’s cabin?
  • 5.3 Simon reads “The Piper’s Song,” which they find hard to understand. Pick a verse and discuss what it might mean.
  • 5.4 Why do you think the clues are so difficult to unravel?
  • 5.5 Who does Simon think Pieter will become?
  • 5.6 Follow Pieter on the map as they travel.

6.0      Silverfoot

  • 6.1 Why is Pieter unafraid of the wolf?
  • 6.2 What do you think is happening between Silverfoot and Pieter?
  • 6.3 If you could choose an animal friend like the wolf, what animal would you choose?
  • 6.4 Is Simon right to fear Silverfoot? Why or why not?

7.0      Gretchen – Chapters 15 and 16

  • 7.1 Make a character sketch of Gretchen.
  • 7.11 With words or phrases, list descriptions of her:
  1.   -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3.  -flaws and weaknesses
  4.  -ethics and beliefs
  5.   -relationships
  6.   -emotions
  •  7.11 What do you wish you knew about her?
  •  7.12 What do you think you know about her, even though it is not stated in the text.
  •  7.2 Pieter and Gretchen don’t seem to be getting along. Why do you think this is?
  •  7.3 Was Simon right to take Gretchen with them? Why or why not?
  •  7.4 When the two children played and sang, why did Simon  weep?

8.0      The First Two Clues – Chapters 17 to 20

  • 8.1 Why were they confused about the first and second clues?
  • 8.2 How might the story have been different if they had missed Harmony Vale?

9.0      Harmony Vale – Chapters 21 to 24

  •  9.1 How is Harmony Vale different from an ordinary valley?
  •  9.2 Make a character sketch of Keeper.
  •  9.11 With words or phrases, list descriptions of him:
  1.   -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6.  -emotions
  •  9.21 What do you wish you knew about him?
  •   9.22 What do you think you know about him, even though it is not stated in the text?
  • 9.23 Is there something wrong with Keeper or is he just different? What makes you think this?
  • 9.3 Do you think you would have been frightened by Keeper? Why or why not?
  •  9.4 How does Keeper “keep” the music?
  •  9.5 Draw a picture of Harmony Vale.

10.0    The Square Pig and the Monastery – Chapters 25 to 39

  • 10.1 Why were Pieter and Gretchen so successful in performing?
  •  10.11 Describe two or three things that were unusual about their music.
  •  10.12 How are Pieter and Gretchen getting along now? When do they argue? When do they not argue? Why?
  •  10.2 Make a character sketch of Theodus, the minstrel.
  •  10.11 With words or phrases, list descriptions of him:
  1. -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6.  -emotions
  • 10.21 What do you wish you knew about him?
  • 10.22 What do you think you know about him, even though it is not stated in the text?
  • 10.23 Would you want him to teach you music? Why or why not?
  • 10.3    Make a character sketch of the monk, Brother Rufus.
  •  10.31 With words or phrases, list descriptions of him:
  1. -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6.  -emotions
  •  10.32 What do you wish you knew about him?
  •  10.33 What do you think you know about him, even though it is not stated in the text?
  • 10.4 Mark the journey to Verden on the map.


11.0    On to Bondswick – Chapters 40 to 48

  • 11.1 Things seem tense between Brother Rufus and the old man, Simon. Why do you think this is?
  • 11. 2 Pieter did not want Gretchen to come with them. Yet she has been a help to them. List some specific ways she has      helped Pieter and/or Simon.
  • 11.3 How did Brother Rufus rescue them from the outlaws? Describe.
  • 11.4 On Cooper’s Island, Pieter becomes quite upset. What do you think is making him so angry? What does he fear?
  • 11.5 Follow Pieter on the map from the monastery to Bondswick.


12.0    Scopford and The Lady of the Lay – Chapters 48 to 52

  •  12.1 Vocabulary: Have you come across words that are new to you. Keep a list.
  • 12.2    Given how they are used in the story, what is your idea of  their meaning?
  •  12.3 Are you stumped by any of them? Use your dictionary when you finish reading for the day. Don’t stop and look up a word while you are reading. And don’t look them up too soon. Wait and see it the story makes  it clear later.
  •  12.4 Make a character sketch of the woman in the tower, Merle.
  •  12.41 With words or phrases, list descriptions of her:
  1. -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6.  -emotions
  • 12.5 What do you wish you knew about her?
  • 12.6 What do you think you know about her, even though it is not stated in the text?
  •  12.7 Who is Merle? How is she connected with Keeper?
  • 12.3 The last clue was not in the “Piper’s Song.” Where was it and how did they discover it?
  • 12.4 What do you think is happening between Merle and Gretchen?
  • 12.5  What did Gretchen do that surprised everyone (except perhaps, Merle)?
  •  12.51 How does Gretchen feel about this?
  •  12.52 How does Pieter feel about her new-found gift?


13.0    In the Mountains – Chapters 53 to 60

  • 13.1 Why did Pieter enter the cave by himself?
  •  13.2 What does the Pied Piper want Pieter to do?
  •  13.3 Make a character sketch of the Pied Piper.
  • 13.31 With words or phrases, list descriptions of him:
  1. -appearance
  2.  -strengths and gifts
  3. -flaws and weaknesses
  4. -ethics and beliefs
  5. -relationships
  6.  -emotions
  • 13.32 What do you wish you knew about him?
  • 13.33 What do you think you know about him?
  • 13.4 How do you feel about the Pied Piper now? Is he an antagonist or a protagonist? Explain your answer. 13.5 What flaws or weaknesses led the Pied Piper to take the children of Hamelin into the mountain?
  • 13.6 What must Pieter do to save the children?
  • 13.7 Why couldn’t Theodus, the minstrel, use the pipe?


14.0 On to Hamelin – Chapters 60 to 64

  • 14.1 What are some reasons Pieter does not want to return to Hamelin?
  • 14.2 What are some reasons he does want to?
  • 14.3 Why did Pieter cause the wolves to jump off the cliff?
  • 14.31 Was this the right thing to do? Why or why not?
  •  14.4 What has changed about the fellowship and Silverfoot?
  • 14.5 How are things different now that Keeper has joined them?


15.0    Hamelin Once More – Chapter 65

  • 15.1 Describe the reunion between Pieter and his mother and sister.
  • 15.2 Why did Pieter go to The Tong and Anvil to see his father? Was this a good idea? Why or why not?
  • What might have happened if Pieter’s father had tried to hurt him?
  • 15.3 What led the people of Hamelin to gather in the square to hear Pieter?
  • 15.4 Why did they follow him to Koppelberg Mountain? Would you have gone? Why or why not?
  • 15.5 Describe the land inside the mountain. Use words or art.
  • 15.51 Is it a place you would want to go? Why or why not?
  • 15.52 How do the children feel about this place?
  • 15.6 What are some problems the children will have when they return to Hamelin?
  • 15.6 What problems might the adults have?
  • 15.7 Summarize the song Pieter sang to the children inside the mountain. What was the main thing he was trying to tell them?
  • 15.8 After he’d been inside the mountain for a while, what did Simon decide to do? Were you surprised? Why or why not?
  • 15.9 The title of this book is The Last Child of Hamelin. Who is the last child? Explain your answer.


16.0 What Happens Next?

  • 16.1 What do you think the next year be like for the children?
  • 16.2    What will Pieter do next?
  • 16.3 What about Gretchen? What do you think is coming in her life?
  • 16.4    Write the next chapter, one that starts after the end of The Last Child of Hamelin.

For a printable document of The Last Child of Hamelin STUDY QUESTIONS  click here!

Book Discussion Questions, Hapenny Magick


Happy Book Birthday!

  1. Why do you think the strange things hapenning on the farm make Gelbane so cross?
  2. What would your response be if a bird started talking to you? Would you follow him into the woods? Why or why not?
  3. Why does Mae think the idea of her being a Protector of the Wedge is a ridiculous idea? Would your size stop you from doing something you wanted to do?
  4. Mae returns to the farm instead of staying with the wizards. Is there something you love so much that you would have returned for it too even though staying away would mean a better life?
  5. Callum is impressed by the lesson learned in a simple human’s nursery rhyme. Can you think of other nursery rhymes or short stories that teach a lesson? What is the lesson it is trying to teach?
  6. With a swish of her wand, Maewyn brings some toadstools to life. What would you create if you had magick?
  7. River Weed Starr explains how he got his name. Using the Giant’s explanation, what would your name be if you were born a giant?
  8. If your best friend told you they had magick would you believe them? Why or why not? What kind of magick would you like to have? What kind of magick do you thin would be the most useful?
  9. How would you feel if you discovered that your mother was eaten by a troll?
  10. What was it that made Mae’s magick so strong that she could replace the protections on the bridge? What memories do you have that could create powerful magick?
  11. What adventures do you think Mae and Leif will stumble into next?

Read a sample from Hapenny Magick, here.

Stuck in the Middle: Why We Need Middle Grade Books

Recently there was a blog post on the Horn Book Blog by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the beloved Penderwicks series. In the post, Jeanne has this to say about middle grade books:

“…all children have to work out the role of creativity, fantasy, and learning in their lives, often at the same age I was when books saved me — nine to twelve, the years for reading middle grade books. This is when children are moving toward an identity apart from their families but haven’t yet submerged themselves in peer groups. For these brief and wondrous years, they are individuals open to and ripe for the very best we can give them, including those books written just for them, books that invite them into the world outside their families, their schoolrooms, their own lives.”

You can find the whole blog post here.

The beauty of middle grade fiction is that a child is free to explore his/her imagination, no permission required. Once a child hits eight years of age, she/he is under pressure from parents, peers, school–maybe even herself/himself–to become a grown-up, and to leave the elements of “babyhood” behind. While there’s nothing wrong with getting older and taking on more mature responsibilities, imagination and creativity are often sacrificed along the way.

So the child that loved Sesame Street is no longer allowed to watch her favorite characters, either because she’s in school or because her parents want to stimulate her with more mature material. Time that used to be spent playing make-believe is now used to master arithmetic and grammar, two arcane practices in and of themselves. Then, the child discovers a book; perhaps she/he receives it as a gift, perhaps a librarian recommends it, or maybe it was assigned reading. It could be any title, from the Island of the Blue Dolphins to Ramona Quimby, Age Eight to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she/he not only gets to use her/his imagination all over again, she/he realizes that she/he doesn’t have to be a grown-up all the time.

Many children are pushed to grow up too quickly, in their life choices as well as their reading choices. How many kids do you know have the free time to just play outside with their neighborhood cronies? Most of the kids you know probably have a tight schedule of school, extracurricular lessons like dance or martial arts, and sports team practice. Gone are the days where kids have streetlight rules (you know, the rule where your mom doesn’t want to see your face inside the house in the summer until the streetlights come on). And many kids are also encouraged to skip ahead in their reading choices because they need more of a “challenge”.

But kids encouraged to skip ahead are missing out on important emotional and cognitive development steps. They miss out on the working through of issues kids their age face in a safe place–through a fictional character found in books. Instead they are being confronted with more “adult” problems found in the books written for young adults (kids age 13-16). Every teacher I know would tell you that there is a huge difference in maturity between a 6th grader (11/12-year-old children who haven’t hit their growth spurts yet) and 8th graders (where the girls could pass for 19 and the boys have deep voices and are sprouting facial hair).

Now, we are not saying that some 12-year-old children aren’t ready to face the YA challenge–some definitely are. And we’re not saying that some 14-year-old children should automatically get pushed into the next category. Most children will move up when they are ready; we just have to trust them.

But having that middle step–that middle grade level book–helps each child reach their full potential. Appropriate books are their life-saver, their escape pod, their secret garden, as they transition from being a child to being a young adult. It’s a big jump! Giving them books meant for them makes that jump a little less scary and makes them a little more powerful.

See all of our middle grade books by following this link.