Book Club: “All Four Stars” by Tara Dairman

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I’ve had trouble keeping up with our book club sharing, but we’ve been having loads of fun with books this year!  All Four Stars was one of those books.


Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brulee accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.  But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City – all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

There are so many things that I wanted to do with my book clubbers for this book!  The possibilities are endless, and they’re so very fun, but …. I couldn’t decide, so this one became a multi-day event!
Book Club All Four Stars
On the first day of our All Four Stars book club event, we headed to Durham to the India Gate, a family-owned restaurant with a lunch buffet.  This seemed like a great way for our kids, none of whom had ever tasted Indian food before, to sample some of the things that made up Gladys’ best meal ever.
The people at the India Gate couldn’t have been kinder, even though we took up fully half of their tables during their busy lunch rush.  If you’re in the Triangle area of North Carolina, the India Gate is definitely worth a visit.
Gazar Halwa
One reason I chose the India Gate over other local Indian restaurants is that they feature Gazar al Halwa on their menu.  The orange-y dish in the front is this one.  Several of the book clubbers were also excited to try goat, as they’d never eaten it before, and so one family ordered goat biryani and shared it with the group.  
Book Clubbers Foodie Review
Following our delicious lunch, we headed to a Chick Fil-A down the street – not because we were still hungry, but because we wanted a quiet place to sit and write a review, Gladys-style, of the food we had just eaten without being overheard by the India Gate staff.  The kids got in groups and wrote their reviews, trying hard to use foodie phrases and colorful, descriptive words just like Gladys.
The next day we continued our Indian foodie theme.  A former missionary to India came to visit us, and she was wonderful!  She brought photos of her life in India, told stories about cultural differences, and even brought a sari that she wore to a wedding during her time there.  She helped each female put on the main piece of the sari to get a feel for what the traditional clothing was like.  It was a beautiful sari!
Money from India
She also brought money from India for us to pass around and compare to our American money.  She brought storybooks, snacks, and more, too.  It was truly a wonderful and informative visit.
Matcha Green Tea Cupcakes
After that, we baked Gladys’ green tea cupcakes with sesame icing.  I love that Dairman has some of Gladys’ recipes on her website!  We really had no idea what these would taste like, but we were all pleasantly surprised.  Rather than tasting strongly of a new flavor (which would have been okay, just new), they were mild, with the icing tasting like peanut butter.  Several of the kids had seconds!
For our last All Four Stars project, we Skyped with Tara Dairman herself!  She was very nice and told great stories.  I loved hearing the kids ask about her writing journey and her world travels.  (I was so focused on the conversation that I forgot to take pictures!)  I’m so glad that she was willing to speak with us.  Why is it so important to meet friendly authors like Dairman?  Find out here.
All in all, I loved our experiences with All Four Stars.  We tried new things right along with Gladys, we learned about other cultures, and we tried our hand at writing restaurant reviews.  If you have a fellow foodie or are looking for a fun, foodie read, definitely check out All Four Stars.
For even more learning fun, check out these projects:
All Four Stars Cover
Vocab Writing Prompts Cover
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NEW! “All Four Stars” Writing and Novel Study Packs

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I love when we find a book that’s exciting to read but full of springboards for learning, too, and that’s exactly what Tara Dairman’s All Four Stars is. 

It’s the wonderful story of Gladys, a young girl who dreams of writing restaurant and foodie reviews for a major New York newspaper.  We read this book in our book clubs (more about that soon!) and I created a unit study and a vocabulary/writing pack with All Four Stars in mind.

All Four Stars Cover

Throughout the story, Gladys takes trips into New York City, where she visits landmarks and navigates the city.  She also eats food from around the world and is a great writer, and all of these make great springboards to study things like the anatomy of the brain, idioms, and the architecture of Penn Station.   This novel study is 45 pages of creative learning activities.  Want to know more?  Check it out here.

Vocab Writing Prompts Cover

All Four Stars is smoothly and well written.  It takes place entirely in New York, but it is very culturally diverse, and so there are words from a variety of languages throughout the book.  There are also ethical dilemmas, dreams for the future, and quite a lot of the main character’s writing throughout the story.  This pack is full of vocabulary activities and writing/discussion prompts that come directly from these story elements.  Want to know more?  Check it out here.

These All Four Stars packs are designed to keep your students learning from the first page of the book until the last.  If your students love to read – or don’t, but you’d like them to – these studies are the perfect way to combine their learning with their reading.

Find these and other fun learning projects at my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.

10 Reasons Why Should Kids Meet Authors

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Many people see the benefit of kids being good readers, or, at the very least, of reading good books while in school.

Fewer people see the benefit, it would seem, of meeting the people who write the fantastic books that we believe should be a part of our kids’ education.

Of course, in many cases that’s difficult, or even impossible.  Meeting J.K. Rowling would surely be an amazing experience, but since she lives in Europe, that’s not possible for us.  Meeting Melissa Savage, who’s new book Lemons we devoured as our October book club pick, would be awesome – but she lives in the Midwest somewhere – closer, but still not in our current range of possibility.  My Little Man is currently reading Journey to the Center of the Earth and I know he’d love to speak with Jules Verne, but since he’s long dead – again, not possible.

But sometimes it’s more possible than you think to speak with authors.  Many have active websites, where you can get background information about them and their work.  Others have YouTube channels or active Facebook pages, where you can spend virtual time with the, learning about their journey.  Chris Grabenstein says that kids tend to ask him the same questions, so he periodically records a video of his answers.  It’s a fantastic way to gain information!

None of those are actually meeting them, though, and that might require a little bit more work – but only a little bit.  Many authors go on book tours when releasing a new work.  Others are willing to Skype with classes or book clubs who have read one or more of their books.

That does require work on your part.  You might have to drive to a distant bookstore, wait in line for pictures or autographs, or arrange for Skype visits in advance.  You might fight technology, traffic, or a busy schedule.

Why should you?

10 Reasons Why Kids Should Meet Authors

I think it’s important.  I think it’s worth the time and effort we, as parents and teachers, put in to meet these amazingly creative people.  I think our kids are worth that time and effort.

Why?  What benefit comes from it?

Here are ten reasons why I think we should make meeting authors, either in person or virtually, a priority.

  1.  They become real people.  The authors that write our favorite books are usually people we look up to.  We admire their creativity and ability to create new worlds, share wisdom, and paint pictures in our heads with mere words – and we tend to put them on pedestals.  Meeting them in person or via Skype lets us see that they are real people, just like us.  It helps us to view them more realistically.
  2. It makes dreams of writing attainable.  Kids often want to pen books just like their favorite authors do, and while not all of them are meant to do that, some are.  Yet we often hear about how difficult an author’s life is, how hard it can be to make a living as a writer, and those things are discouraging.  The truth is that while it’s not an easy career, it is possible – and our kids need to  hear stories of writers whose dreams have come true.  Authors are also the perfect people to provide encouragement to future writers.  Jenny L. Cote has been a huge source of inspiration and encouragement to My Big Helper.  Since meeting her, Jenny’s kind words, fierce hugs, and sincere discussions of book plots, characters, and life in general have opened up new possibilities for My Big Helper’s future dreams.
  3. It helps to bring the stories to life.  I love hearing authors talk about their books.  I love that Chris Grabenstein chose Mr. Lemoncello’s name because of his close connection with his grandparents and their Greek ancestry.  I love knowing that Jennifer Chambliss Bertman based part of Emily’s character on her own book nerdiness.  I love hearing Jenny L. Cote’s stories of deep faith and about the adventures that writing the Epic Order of the Seven series bring her.  It adds to the background of the story, and the more that background is fleshed out, the more real it feels.
  4. It teaches them perseverance.  While Skyping with Bertman yesterday, we learned that she loves to write picture books, and she’s tried to sell 37 of them – and hasn’t had a single sale yet!  How discouraging that must have been, and yet she didn’t give up.  She switched genres and sold Book Scavenger very quickly – after spending 10 years writing it.  She’s found success, her dream has come true, and yet it took time – and she had to stick with it.  Incidentally, she’s planning to write more picture books – she’s keeping that particular dream alive.
  5. It teaches the value of hard work.  Bertman, the New York Times-bestselling author of Book Scavenger?  She didn’t just hang in there – she worked really hard, too.  She rewrote Book Scavenger 8 times, and she studied the craft of mystery writing to improve her work.  She didn’t just expect her dream to swoop in and land on her desk – she worked really hard to make it happen.  Our kids need to learn that there is value in a job well done – in doing your best, and then working some more.
  6. We learn that there’s more than one way to become an author.  When we Skyped with Beth Fantaskey, author of Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter, we learned that this book grew out of her research to attain her master’s degree (from Penn State – WE ARE!).  I never would have imagined that as the background for this book – but she’s done a masterful job of turning women’s rights, murder, and the mayhem of Chicago in the 1920s into an exciting and yet appropriate middle grade book.  Chris Grabenstein worked in advertising with James Patterson before he began writing novels.  Tara Dairman’s foodie knowledge for her All Four Stars series comes, in part, from her experience during her world-traveling honeymoon.  To write, we must know what we’re writing about, but that doesn’t mean that the basis for stories all come while sitting at a table with pen and paper.  It’s a journey, and hearing those stories are not only exciting in and of themselves, but it helps kids to see open doors in their lives.  And really, isn’t it true that there’s more than one way to become an X no matter what your dream is?
  7. In meeting great authors, our kids meet heroes.  No, I don’t mean that authors should be put on pedestals any more than professional football players or movie stars; no human should live on a pedestal.  But I do think that we can recognize greatness in each other, and we can appreciate that amidst our humanness.  We can do that same thing with authors.  I met Jennifer Chambliss Bertman yesterday via Skype, and I’d definitely consider her a great human – she’s creative and amazingly persistent!  Chris Grabenstein is funny, kind, generous, and humble.  I’ve met and Skyped with him several times now, and over time I’ve heard him reference tutoring at his church, giving books away, and the value he places on family.  He doesn’t draw attention to it, but these are things that he seems to value, and they’re quietly there to find if you’re looking.  I appreciate those values in him, and the way that he shares them, and I think it’s important for our kids to see that there are people out there who are famous who have great qualities.  
  8. Meeting authors helps to learn about the life of an author.  My Big Helper thinks this is important.  At times, she thinks she wants to be an author when she grows up, and so learning about how publication works, the editing and revision process, the way that publishing houses work – it’s all important career information to her.  Not every kid dreams of writing as a career, but, hey, we teach them about firefighters and police officers and doctors – why not writers, too?
  9. It can encourage kids to read more and a wider variety of books.  Sometimes we’ve gone to hear an author because s/he wrote a really great book, but we don’t know too much else about him.  When he gives a great presentation, that usually means that we’re all inspired to go home and find other books that he’s written and give them a read.  We’ve found lots of great books that way.  Also, invariably some kid asks the author what his/her favorite books are, and the answer is usually that “there are so many, but I’d have to say that X and Y and Z are way up there on the list.”  That means that we end up leaving with ideas for books we want to read that were not written by that particular author, but inspired him because of the style/genre/word choice/setting/characterization/something else, and we leave with lists of other great books to read, too.
  10. It encourages kids to speak up and speak properly to adults.  I’ve seen kids hesitate to speak to adults, but especially adults they view as important (I’m still working on this, personally – I’m completely tongue-tied every time I meet an author whose work I love: Chris Grabenstein, Jenny L. Cote, etc.)  I’ve watched my kids interact with authors over time, however, and their speaking skills have improved.  They’re becoming more comfortable in these situations, and, sure, we could set them up with public speaking gigs or sign them up for a debate class, but this is a lot more fun – and we get to become friends with some cool people, too.

So there you go – ten reasons why I think it’s super important to make the time and effort to meet authors.  What do you think?  Have you met any authors?

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The Homeschool Review Crew

Book Club: “Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone”

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We recently embarked on one of our most fun book clubs ever:  we read Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.  

My Big Helper worked with me to flesh out details of the book that we could bring to life.  We spent several days making labels and creating things to turn my yard into a wizarding world.

Book Club

The day of our book club event dawned bright and sunny with brilliant blue skies.  The kids hurriedly donned their Hogwarts gear and ran outside.

Harry Potter

After everyone had arrived, we kicked off the day with the Sorting Hat.  I sewed it out of some khaki-colored felt and carefully put a small pocket on the inside of the hat.  When it came time for our sorting, a friend called my phone, which we then hid in that pocket.  As I loudly called each child’s name, he declared the house each child would go into.  It was a very fun part of the day, and the kids cheered for their housemates as the sorting continued.

Harry Potter

Following the Sorting and welcoming speeches, we moved onto the back deck for History of Magic.  We decided to recreate most of the classes that Harry Potter and his friends attended, and we used this class to summarize and discuss the book.

Harry Potter

The kids also decorated paper neckties that matched their individual houses.  Then they wrote about what they thought they might see in the Mirror of Erised.

Harry Potter

Potions class had us relocating to the driveaway, where we used a mixture of powders to create neat reactions.

Harry Potter

They were very fun to watch!

Harry Potter

Lunch was especially fun.  We made many of the foods mentioned in this book, particularly those found on the lunch trolley on the Hogwarts Express, like Pumpkin Pasties …

Harry Potter

Golden Snitches ….


and Pumpkin Juice.

Harry Potter

We ended the day with a rousing game of Quidditch.  We modified it a bit, of course, since our brooms don’t actually fly, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.  They had a great time chasing their Snitch around our yard and trying to win the house cup.

The Harry Potter books have become cultural icons.  They’re amazing works of literature, but they’re loads of fun, too.  Give it a try and see what Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone can do for your book club.

NEW! “Lemoncello” Movie Pack and Bundles!

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series, and I’m not the only one – that first book spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.  The second in the series is just as good, and the third is due to be released in just a few weeks – I’m super excited!

There are a few things that makes these books so wonderful – first, that they’re entertaining but completely clean reads, which is a rare thing for a middle-grade book these days.  Just as good, though, is that they’re smart books.  Grabenstein writes philosophical truths, lessons about kindness, and educational skills throughout his books, but your kids won’t realize that they’re learning anything – they’ll be too busy laughing at Mr. Lemoncello’s antics and trying to solve the mysteries before Kyle Keeley does.

I’m all for maximizing learning opportunities, though, and so that’s why I’ve created some really fun extension activities and novel studies to accompany these books.  You can find them here – and I’m happy to share a few NEW products, just in time for the movie release!

That’s right –  Nickolodeon has turned Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library into a movie, and it premieres on October 9.

To go along with this fantabulous opportunity to compare book and movie, I’ve created a new movie pack – full of discussion questions, creative writing projects, recipes for your movie party, printables, and more!  You can get your own copy here.


You might want more than just those few pages of movie-related fun, though.  Perhaps you’re going all out for a big Lemoncello party, reading and watching for a book club event, or hosting your own library-style gala, just like in the book.  I’ve put together a bundle with both resources from Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which features three games, loads of printables, a recipe for Lemonberry Fizz, and more.  You’ll find both the original party pack and the new movie pack in this bundle – 89 pages of fun!


If you’re as big of a Lemoncello fan as we are, though, that might not be enough.  Maybe you also want to try your hand at Lemoncello-style scavenger hunts, STEAM activities, a unit study, plus all the printables, games, recipes, and more from the above bundle, then this is the one for you.  With 199 pages of Lemoncello-style fun, you’re guaranteed to find just the right learning projects and activities to maximize your child’s learning.


Who else is counting down the days ’til the movie and the new book release?

Interviewing Author Chris Grabenstein

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It started with the happiest of emails.  Not the fake “you’ve-won-a-million-dollars” type, but the a real from-the-personal-assistant “Congratulations!  You’ve won!” type.  In this instance, though, the prize was a thirty-minute interview with Chris Grabenstein for my students.

It would be exciting to interview any children’s author.  We love books and love reading, so being able to ‘get inside their heads’ is awesome in and of itself.  We’ve met Chris Grabenstein, however, and know that he’s not only a gifted and creative author, but also an incredibly kind man.  We knew this would be a fantastic opportunity.

Chris Grabenstein

We invited all of our book club kids, took interview questions from far-away friends, and planned our room set-up.  This was a big deal, since we don’t have access to projectors, big screens, or serious microphone power.   Because the interview would happen via Skype, I wanted everyone to be able to see the laptop screen as much as possible.  To personalize the interview and keep questions clear and easy to hear, Mr. Grabenstein requested that the question-asker sit directly in front of the laptop – so we needed to be able to move around, too.

Chris Grabenstein

We figured it out, and on the day of the interview, the kids showed up with papers full of questions and nervous giggles erupting frequently.  We talked about the time delay that happens when talking with Skype, about the importance of being polite, about listening to other people’s questions so we don’t repeat a lot, etc., and then it was time.

Skype didn’t connect at first, and then my phone rang:  it was Mr. Grabenstein, checking in for the interview!  We were soon able to make the Skype connection – but how wonderful is it that he would go that extra mile?

Mr. Grabenstein talked with us for a moment, and then let us jump right in with questions.  He continued that for the full half hour.  Several of the questions asked could have been answered with very short answers, but he told funny stories for each, sharing his history, giving lots of information, and making the asker feel important with each one.

Chris Grabenstein

I’m sure that many of the questions we asked are the same questions that he fields all the time, but what impressed me most about his answers was that he formatted them just like his books:  to be funny stories with great themes and truths in each one. 

When a student asked about his writing inspiration, he didn’t get just an answer, but a mini writing lesson in comic form.  When a student asked whether he always wanted to write, we heard about his professional journey, including his motivation, the hard work he put in, and the education he has that played a role.

I especially loved his writing-inspiration answer, and it made an impression on  my kids, too.  In fact, as we walked through the NC Museum of Art yesterday, I heard one of them muttering, “What if …. we were here, alone, at night, and ….”

Chris Grabenstein’s enthusiasm for writing has been a boost for my kids’ confidence in themselves as writers and as creative people.  We’re seeing story possibilities everywhere now, and I love how much happier they are to write.

Chalk up another win for Chris Grabenstein.

We’re big Grabenstein fans around here.  To read more about our other interactions, check out these posts:

These are our favorite Grabenstein books:

To find Grabenstein curriculum, including unit studies, party printables, recipes, and STEM activities, visit my TpT store here.

Book Club, Boys’ Edition: Gary Paulsen’s “Lawn Boy”

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Last month the boys read Gary Paulsen’s Lawn Boy for book club.  Maybe this seems like a strange choice for January, because it’s really about just what it sounds: a boy who creates a summer job mowing for lawns, but for our purposes, the winter weather suited us just fine.

In the book, the main character stumbles into a super successful lawn care service.  One of his customers turns out to be a stock broker, who invests his payment for the boy, and he has the golden touch:  soon the boy is rolling in money, more than he knows how to manage, and hilarity ensues.  It’s unrealistic, sure; but Paulsen does a fantastic job explaining some basic concepts in really fun ways.

Book Club

After discussing the book, we headed to the kitchen for a stock market analogy.  Money and numbers aren’t my thing, so I like when we can add visuals to the mix.  Each boy brought a soda, and we compared a large, empty pitcher to the company that I had been building.  Now ready to go public, I was ready for investors, and so the boys took turns pouring some soda into my pitcher.  After I had stirred it and worked it, I was ready to pay out to my investors, who then got some of the contents as dividends.  We worked the analogy a bit more through conversation, and the boys really got into it.  They seemed to understand how the basic process worked, and so the research began.

stock market

We sat down with research sheets I created as part of the Stock Market Challenge project, and each boy chose a publicly traded company and evaluated it’s basic info to see if it was a company in which he’d like to invest.  I have each kid a virtual $100, and they all checked stock prices, business headlines, and the like to make their choices.

By the time book club was over, each boy had done company research and ‘purchased’ his stock.  He’d filled out a purchase sheet that helped him make his money decisions and went home with a graph so that he could plot his purchases’ share value over the following month.

When the boys returned, 5 of the 6 had followed through on this project.  They were surprisingly excited to see how their stock prices compared to the purchase price, and while they knew their individual earnings, they couldn’t wait to see how their friends did.

In the end, one company tanked dismally; a few boys actually lost money, and a few earned, though very little.  Their findings followed traditional market patterns, however, as if they were to continue to follow their shares, they would have made a much more significant profit over time.

After lots of math, one boy was finally crowned the “Stock Market Master,” and he excitedly took home the free drink coupon that our local Sheetz store had donated as a prize.  I hear he thoroughly enjoyed his frozen lemonade after baseball practice that night.  Thanks, Sheetz!

Lawn Boy is a really funny book with some great educational lessons buried inside.  It’s definitely worth a read and venturing out, perhaps beyond your comfort zone, into the world of share prices and the stock market.

What are your kids reading right now?

If you’d like to do a similar stock market simulation, you can find all of the materials we used for this project here.


A Roarin’ ’20s Book Club: “Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter”

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Some books just scream out for a special event, and that’s exactly what happened when I read Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter.  I knew it would make a fantastic book club pick – not only because it offers myriads of possibilities for a special event, but because Fantaskey did an amazing job writing a book that highlights the danger and turmoil of the 1920s while keeping it kid-friendly and fun.

Yes.  It’s about murder and mayhem, but it’s kid friendly and fun.

Yes, those things are complete opposites.  No, the danger and depth of the topic is not downplayed, and no, I don’t know how she did it, either.  She’s that good of a writer.

So what’s Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter all about?  Check it out:

It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles into a real-life murder scene and her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case makes for a winning middle grade mystery.
Isabel Feeney
With the 1920s as our theme for the evening and murder and mayhem the idea, I set out to create an unforgettable book club experience, and, as soon as My Big Helper started to read the book, she joined in the fun.
 Isabel Feeney
Isabel Feeney
The girls arrived mid-afternoon with lots of gear in tow, prepared for an all-night book club event (because it just seemed wrong to talk about Isabel’s adventures in broad daylight when so many of them occurred at night).  They immediately changed into dresses and strands of pearls, then were made over by local high school students did their hair and make-up in perfect ’20s style.  With old showtunes playing in the background, they giggled and styled their way through updo’s and mascara until they rivaled Maude Collier for fashion flair.
Isabel Feeney
Then, with glass goblets of Kool-Aid clutched tightly in their hands (because Kool-Aid was invented in the 1920s, didn’t you know?), we talked about the book, focusing on the plot, the fate of Isabel, the role of friendship throughout the story, and how the girls felt about the events of the era.  All the while, they munched on the snacks researched as time-period friendly by My Big Helper:  salted nuts, carrots and celery, and cheese.
Isabel Feeney
Next, the girls broke into teams for a rousing game of Pictionary.  I prepared the materials ahead, with all of the items to be drawn chosen from the book and written on slips of paper.  I tucked these into a Mason jar, and, armed, with white boards and markers. the girls tried to draw each one. 
They really got into this game.  They played for a long time, until they had drawn out every slip of paper, sometimes asking me for more information about the buildings or terms from the story.  Some laughed until they fell over, and the competition of the game fell by the wayside as they giggled their way through drawing things like ‘crutches’ and ‘the Chicago-Tribune Tower.’
Isabel Feeney
After a short break, they moved to the kitchen for dinner.  Again, my Big Helper had planned the menu after researching popular foods of the era, and while this meal wasn’t something eaten by Isabel in the story, we think she would have enjoyed it.  The fancy dinner she planned required similar decoration, and so, with the incredible help of good friends, the girls ate under black and gold streamers, with gold lame curtains in the doorways, foil confetti on the tables, candles everywhere, and jazz playing softly in the background.  We served baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, Jell-O salad, and bread with peach butter.  The giggles continued as the girls pretended to be Maude’s counterparts but couldn’t look at each other without bursting out into laughter.  Dinner wasn’t over quickly, but it was a most enjoyable meal.
Isabel Feeney
Afterwards the girls got down to business.  With full tummies and the fall of night, it was time to be like Isabel and solve a murder mystery.  After so much time researching, planning, and prepping, my brain was exhausted by this point – and so I purchased a for-kids mystery online.  The girls broke into two teams and scoured fact sheets to find clues.  They answered questions, made charts, and came up empty – so they shared their information, and, as they talked it out, they solved the mystery.
Isabel Feeney
That success deserved a treat, so we served dessert next – ice cream sundaes with warm chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles – because, you guessed it, they were popular in the 1920s!  Having a kid who loves research is a beautiful thing.  The giggling continued as they downed the ice cream and moved to the living room, where they settled in to watch the original Cheaper by the Dozen.
Isabel Feeney
After a much-too-short night, we served bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast.  We cleaned up quickly, because Isabel author Beth Fantaskey was available to Skype!  This was a real treat.  I love when authors not only choose to write quality books for kids, but they’re also willing to invest some time in connecting in a real-world way with them.  The girls were nervous heading into this experience, but they had prepped questions in advance and were eager to ask them.  The time delay caused by the technology threw them for a loop at times, but they persevered and asked every question.  They wanted to know about writing history, story experience, personal experiences, and more.  The best part – to me – was when Fantaskey shared that there might be another Isabel story in the future.  As Isabel is smart, brave, and has big dreams for the future, I’d like to see another story featuring her.
Isabel Feeney
Our last activity was to attempt the Charleston.  While Isabel only got a glimpse into a speakeasy and didn’t live the glitzy life of the ’20s, she knew it existed and wanted parts of it for herself.  Armed with a YouTube tutorial and more giggles, the girls attempted to nail the steps while understanding the gist of the whole thing.  Nobody got very far, but it was fun!
Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is the perfect book for someone teaching about American life in the 1920s.  It made a great book club pick and introduction to our history unit of that time.  Because Fantaskey sets the scene so well, I wrote a unit study to accompany this book.  My Big Helper worked her way through that as she read Isabel, and she was well prepared for both book club and our historical studies.  If you’d like more information about this unit study, can find it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.  There’s much to be learned from this book, but it’s great fun, too, and includes many deep questions about culture, gender roles, and friendship.  It’s suitable for tweens, but I can see people much older reading and falling in love with Isabel.  Give it a try!
What are your kids reading right now?       
Check out these resources to get your Isabel Feeney party started!


Book Club, Girls’ Edition: “Tuesdays at the Castle”


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We read an exciting fantasy book this month called Tuesdays at the Castle.  It’s about a castle with feelings that grows and shifts on its own and the potential takeover of the kingdom from other lands when the king and queen go missing.  Heirs Rolf, Lilah, and Celie work to find their parents, learn about the castle, and stop the takeover before life as they know it is ruined.

Every Tuesday Castle Glower takes on a life of its own-magically inventing, moving, and even completely getting rid of some of its rooms. Good thing Princess Celie takes the time to map out these never-ending changes. Because when the castle is ambushed and Celie’s parents and oldest brother go missing, it’s up to Celie to protect their home and save their kingdom. A great new series that readers will devour! 

We started our time by summarizing and discussing the story.  The girls seemed most interested in what kind of castle they would have, or what kind of rooms they would want a castle to make for them, if they had a magical castle like Castle Glower.

We moved from there to talk about the Glower coat of arms and the flag. 

Book Club

After we looked at pictures of real, medieval heraldic symbols, I asked the girls to design their own flag – not necessarily using the strict 14th-century code, but a combination of symbols and colors that were representative of their family.  I love how my Big Helper thought her flag needed a bee!

Book Club

Next, we moved on to designing castles.  Since Castle Glower adds and subtracts rooms at will, as well as making life decisions and interacting with the royal family, I asked the girls to think about what special features they might want in their own living castle.  They worked together in pairs to come up with a design …

Book Club

and then they began to build.  Because icing can take so long to dry – and because I don’t know how to make the real, official kind of gingerbread icing – we used a combination of hot glue and icing to construct our castles.  Each girl brought supplies, and we had enough for each team to have a full box of graham crackers and their own tub of icing.

Book Club

This was a bigger-than-usual project, and it required a lot of time, so we didn’t cook or bake anything.  Instead, because there were graham crackers everywhere, I made a simple chocolate ganache and poured some into dipping cups for each girl.  They dipped and licked and snacked (and then washed their hands, because it is flu season, after all) while they were working.

Book Club

After construction was finished, the girls decorated with an assortment of candy.

In the end, each team designed a completely unique graham-cracker castle.  They were interesting sizes, shapes, and made use of different candies.  I loved seeing what they came up with!

There was a lot of learning happening here, too – think creative candy uses, structural engineering, and more – so you’ll see another post soon about some of these objectives and how this team carried them out.

Book Club

I asked the girls to dress like Princess Celie, because Celie is an especially fun princess, and so I had to get a group shot of the royalty.

So that’s how we partied with Tuesdays at the Castle.  What are your kids reading this month?

Looking for more?  Check out these resources:


Girls’ Book Club: “The Last Holiday Concert”

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The girls’ book club met this week, and it was all about Christmas as we talked about Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert
It’s a great story about a boy who ends up in charge of his middle school’s holiday concert just as the music teacher is laid off.  We had a great discussion about the teacher’s reaction to the news, the way that the teacher motivates his students and is ultimately inspired by them, and then about ways to bring hope and joy to others, since that ended up being the message chosen by the students for their program.

The girls each made brainstormed ideas for things to spread those particular messages around town, and then we chose a few common themes to put into action right away.

Book Club

We started off with a foam kit for making snowmen.  We decided to turn them into Christmas cards, and the girls wrote messages of hope on them.  Some were handwritten on the back, while others had foam-sticker messages right on the snowmen’s tummies.

Book Club


My Big Helper and My Little Man are passing out these cards to people as we’re out and about this month.  Grocery store clerks, restaurant wait staff, fellow shoppers – anybody might get a ‘Merry Christmas!” and be handed a snowman.  Most people seem pleasantly surprised, and some quite happy, to be handed a card.

Book Club

The girls also rolled out some gingerbread I had made ahead.  They took turns cutting out cookies and ornaments both.

Book Club

Then they wrapped the bottoms of a few pizza boxes with Christmas paper, a project that turned out to be much harder than expected.

Book Club

After baking the cookies, they painted them with happy messages in a white icing and filled the trays.  We delivered one tray to our local fire department and the other to the library we visit.  Both were met with happy smiles.

The gingerbread ornaments were decorated with simple white paint and red ribbons.  These, like the snowmen ornaments, we’re passing out to people we meet.

While time didn’t allow for putting together their own concert or Christmas performance, the girls did a great job of choosing activities that would spread hope to the people we meet this season.  I wish that we could have passed out their creations together, but time didn’t allow for that, either.  Instead, I heard lots of giggles as they learned to roll out the gingerbread, attempted to paint icing only where they wanted it, and tried to get snowman arms to stick only to snowman bodies. 

Book Club

They are many activities that you could do with Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert, and these are only a few.  If you’re a fan of Clements’ and his creative takes on school activities, you’ll love The Last Holiday Concert.