Book Clubbing in the Wild West: Climbing Mountains

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I love being able to make hands-on plans for book club.  I love that we’re not only about books and discussion but about really getting into the books with all of our senses.  That’s why I was so excited for the kids to read Missing on Superstition Mountain by Elise Broach this month, and just like Henry and his friends, we climbed a mountain.

Hanging Rock

On a warm Saturday morning, we met at Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, North Carolina for a mountain adventure.  After quickly discussing the role of the dangerous Superstition Mountain to Henry, we set off.

Although our group set a brisk pace at the beginning, it wasn’t long before we slowed down considerably.  While the park service ranks the main Hanging Rock trail as a moderate one, the first half is very steep, and the second half requires climbing up rough, rustic rock steps. 

Hanging Rock

We paused for a picture before heading up those steps.  Where were we going, exactly?

Hanging Rock

We were going to the top of this! 

Hanging Rock

We stopped along the way to play in some neat rock formations.  The kids loved climbing into fissures, small craggy areas, and mini caves, then posing for pictures everywhere they went.  It was fun to see them enjoying it so much.

Hanging Rock

After lots more climbing, we made it to the top!  We stopped for a picture before scattering to the far corners of the large rock on top of the mountain.

Hanging Rock

So where were we, really?  My husband and My Big Helper ventured out onto Hanging Rock itself, but it was so crowded that they didn’t stay long.  They said that it felt too much as if a random elbow-bump could knock one off.  Given that, they didn’t hang around.  There were other places that were just as pretty ….

Hanging Rock

Like these huge boulders just around the corner from Hanging Rock itself.  Even though we were far away from the edge, this made My Little Man nervous, and he went back to the mountain as soon as we were done.  We all enjoyed snacking on the rock and enjoying the views, though.

Hanging Rock

Though the cliff side of the rocks were not his favorite thing, My Little Man loved the underside of the upper rocks.  How strong would one have to be to hold this one up?

Hanging Rock

Climbing the mountain was a major adventure.  It was difficult and exhausting, with a few banged knees and racing pulses.  We were tempted to quit and worried about the danger from the uneven ground, 2500-foot drop, and the crowds at the top.  We realized, though, like Henry, that blazing a new trail was fun.  It made us feel strong.  That conquering the mountain made us more observant of the nature around us and the strength within our muscles. 

If you’ve never pitted yourself against a mountain, give it a try.  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn.

For more mountain-climbing resources, check out these:



Book Clubbing on the Orphan Train: “A Family Apart”

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This month’s girls’ book club selection was one I’ve had for years:  about twenty years, in fact.  We read A Family Apart by Joan Lowry Nixon, the first in the Orphan Train Adventure series.

The story opens in New York City with an Irish family whose father has died.  Ma is trying hard to keep everyone fed and clothed, but when one of the boys makes a poor choice, she gives them all to Reverend Brace-Loring, who sends them west on the Orphan Train for new homes and better lives.  A Family Apart is about the adventures of Frances, the oldest sister in the family, as she struggles to adjust to life on a Midwestern farm.

Book Club

Frances encounters an abundance of food not found in her New York tenement, and so we baked one of those dishes:  an apple pie.  We used Grandma’s recipe and made it just as she taught me – which is how her grandma taught her.  Counting back all those years, that puts this recipe originating at about the same time as when Frances enjoyed it!

None of the girls had ever peeled an apple before, so that was our first adventure.  It took some practice to get it right, but they soon conquered the piles of apples we needed.

After mixing up the crust, they took turns rolling it out and assembling the pies.

Book Club

Doesn’t it look yummy?

Book Club

Next we went outside to write letters to Frances’ Ma.  Throughout the book, Frances is angry with her mother for ending her west, and the theme of sacrifice is discussed from many angles.  The girls pretended to be Frances at the end of the story, when she has gained some understanding of this difficult concept, and wrote to Ma to explain.

Book Club

Frances had a lot going on in the story, though, and missing her mother didn’t top the list.  She had to learn how to live on the frontier, and for a city girl, that was difficult.  One of her new chores was to milk the family cow. 

Book Club

The girls practiced on these gloves.  They raced to see who could milk their ‘gloves’ fastest.

Book Club

Then, since one of the early chores was to then carry the milk, the girls grabbed the handles of their ‘pails’ and ran it around the yard, trying not to spill any of their milk.

Book Club

We also talked about the Pony Express and how it worked.  To simulate that, the girls donned messenger bags, straddled bamboo poles, and formed teams to compete in a relay race, Pony Express style.

Book Club

By the time they had done all of that, the pies were out of the oven and ready to eat. 

Book Club

It didn’t last long, though – the girls devoured that pie!

Book Club

We had lots of fun celebrating A Family Apart.  There are many more threads to tug if you choose to read this book.  I’d love to hear what you choose to do!

Book Clubbing and STEMing with Mr. Lemoncello

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Our book club year has started off with a bang – with Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics!  We combined the boys’ and girls’ clubs to interact with this fun Chris Grabenstein bestseller.

Chris Grabenstein

We started out by summarizing the book and then discussing the choices made by the characters.  After that, we split up into teams of four like in the book.  Each team worked together to choose a name and logo, which we then pinned to the back of each teammate’s shirt like the tag on a marathon runner.


Next, the teams worked together to solve the first STEM challenge.  I asked them to build something to solve a problem similar to what Mr. Lemoncello tasks the teams with in the book.


The teams were really creative with this project.

The challenges continued after that.  We played several games, including the First Lines game, just like in the story.  The worked together in teams to complete more STEM challenges and a few other literary ones, too.

The final set of challenges involve water balloons, and the kids loved these! 


The challenges don’t have to be done with water balloons, but with temperatures soaring into the ’90s and 12 bouncy kids, we all enjoyed the opportunity to learn with cool water.


These six challenges are based on literary skill and STEM challenges, and you can challenge your students in these same ways.  These challenges are for sale in one packet in my Teachers Pay Teachers store for only $4.    The packet includes printable medals for the winners, a sample schedule, directions for each challenge, and the materials for the First Lines game.

Who will be your Library Lover winner?

Do you still need a copy of the book?  Get yours here!



NEW! Literacy & STEM Challenges for “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics”

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You might have noticed that we’re big fans of Chris Grabenstein’s Lemoncello books around here.  That’s because they’re chalk-ful of learning opportunities.  There are so many ways that you can learn with these books – and that’s why I’ve written another series of lesson plans for Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics.

Chris Grabenstein 

These lessons are different from any of the others I’ve written: instead of being a series of multidisciplinary research projects, these are all literacy- and STEM-related.  Each project can be carried out multiple ways to best fit the learning style of your students the and space available. 

These projects will test your students creativity and ability to work together.  They will be challenged to solve puzzles, name books, and build contraptions to solve problems.  Each project is directly related to one of Lemoncello’s Olympic tests for his heroes, and the packet includes printable medals that you can copy to distribute to your students.

These projects are perfect for public-schoolers and homeschoolers alike.  They would work beautifully for a book club or for literature circles.  They provide a way to celebrate the book and check for learning while having fun.

Isn’t that the most engaging and memorable kind of lesson?

You can find this and other learning activities here.

If you haven’t read Chris Grabenstein’s books yet, start with these:


NEW! Questions & Writing Prompts for “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics”

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It’s no secret – we’re big Chris Grabenstein fans around here, and our favorites are the Lemoncello books.

Chris Grabenstein

That’s why I’ve written a series of discussion questions organized by chapter and writing prompts designed to make students think logically and critically.  I love when learning is fun, and nothing is more amusing that wacky Mr. Lemoncello; he’s the perfect way to make education exciting.

This packet is completely printable and a total of 22 pages.  It’s currently available here for only $3.

So what are you waiting for?  Hop over and check it out!

Haven’t read any Lemoncello books yet?  You can find them here:


New! A Linked Novel Study for ‘Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter’

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Beth Fantaskey

I’ve been hard at work writing a new novel study, and it’s ready! 

Beth Fantaskey‘s newest book Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is a great way for tweens to learn about the Roarin’ ’20s.  Isabel is a ten-year-old who skips school to sell papers for the Tribune to help her mother when she hears a murder in a nearby alley.  She’s determined to defend the friend who gets blamed for the crime, and becomes friends with the female reporter and the detectives investigating the case. 

This linked unit study will guide your students to safe websites to research the culture of the 20s.  While using a variety of learning styles, your students will learn about the evolution of jazz, the rule of the mobsters, the gender roles of the time, flapper fashion, and popular foods of the time. 

If your students will be studying the 1920s, Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter and this accompanying linked novel study will guide them to the information they need.

Check out these other fun and educational projects:


Writing History at Epic Patriot Camp

Living History

Last week my kids experienced the most amazing camp ever.  It was Epic Patriot Camp, sponsored by the National Park Service, held at the Abingdon Muster Grounds, and taught, in part, by the wonderful author Jenny L. Cote.

Living History

For six hours each day, the lived the Revolutionary Battle of King’s Mountain.  Over the course of the week, they were given a real person who participated in some way at the Battle.  They researched this person and wrote his/her story – while wearing period clothing and receiving technical writing lessons from Cote herself.

It wasn’t just costumes and quills, though – the National Park Service went all out.  The week was full of hands-on lessons about colonial life.  The kids did weapons drills with wooden muskets and watched a reenactor shoot a real one, and then they made musket balls and powder cartridges.  They hiked around the Grounds and examined the native plants, learning about herbal remedies and properties of many of them.  They learned how to write with a quill pen and ink and used wax and seals to mark their journals.  Each day, they continued to research their historical people, add to their stories, and conference with Cote herself.

Living History

The final day was huge, though.  The campers stayed the night at the grounds and slept in colonial-style canvas tents!  They helped to cook their dinner over the campfire, washed dishes, played graces, and spent time around the fire.  The Little Man in the picture above?  The picture doesn’t do him justice.  He was incredibly mud-spattered and stinky when I picked him up – but he couldn’t stop smiling.

The next morning we were treated to a special tea and ceremony.  The kids had the chance to show off what they had learned by sharing parts of their stories.

Living History

They also performed a reenactment of the Battle of King’s Mountain for us.  They really got into it!

Living History

I was impressed each day with the tight, well-planned lessons planned by Cote and the leaders from the NPS.  I loved the hands-on activities and the enthusiasm which I saw pouring out of my kids – but there was one aspect I didn’t expect:  homework.

As homeschoolers, we don’t encounter homework very often.  We’re typically done with our schoolwork long before dinnertime – and so we had planned some fun outings for our evenings away.

Those didn’t go quite as expected, partly because there was homework.  Extra credit assignments, really, that weren’t required, but the kids were adamant that they do them.  They wanted to know more than what they were learning at camp.  They wanted to do their very best for Jenny L. Cote – and they wanted to win her prize.

The kids excitedly shared after their first day at camp that Cote would be watching for the most epic story to be written that week and that the writer of that very story would make an appearance as an animal character in her next book.

As big fans of Cote’s work, that’s all it took: we adjusted our evening outings to accommodate (several hours of) extra credit work each night.  As crazy as it sounds – because who gets excited about homework in the summertime? – the kids couldn’t wait to settle in at the kitchen table and get started each night.

At the final tea, however, we all found ourselves nervous.  There were 18 campers in attendance and many were older than my kids.  Knowing how badly they wanted to win, I was crossing my fingers for them both, but realistically speaking, I knew that the camp was full of smart, talented writers. 

The campers turned out to be so smart and talented that Cote created many more awards than just her original one.  I loved hearing the descriptions of what the campers had done throughout the week to earn these honors.

In the end, however, Cote announced that My Big Helper had won the chance to be an animal in her next book – and we were so shocked that neither of us were certain whose name she called!  (Turns out we each asked other people when the ceremony was over.)

My Big Helper is looking forward to that future day when she’s found in the pages of a Cote book, but she didn’t learn only about writing.  Writing was a big part of it – she came home with pages of notes and techniques, her mind full of stories and examples Cote told during the lessons.

Both kids came home with so much more, though.  They’re more confident writers.  They’re more enthusiastic about writing than ever before, but they’ve also fallen deeper in love with history.  They’re able to put themselves into the story and see the events from multiple perspectives.  They’re able to see each scene with all their senses, describing in detail how it might smell and feel and taste to be there.  They’re full of stories of Patriots and Loyalists of whom I had never heard and know how they’re interconnected.  They know how they changed history and know how to do the research to find out more.  Better yet, they know how to analyze it to see what it all means.  They even met other kids from Tennessee, New Jersey, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Missouri – because that’s how far other people traveled to attend.

When I discovered this camp on Cote’s website, I never imagined anything this amazing – and that’s saying something; I know I’m a pretty tough critic of lesson plans and teaching.  I expected some writing excitement and fun history projects, but Epic Patriot Camp truly lived up to its name.  With tight lessons, generous supplies, kind and enthusiastic teachers, and the encouragement to take their projects as far and as hard as they wanted, Epic Patriot Camp is the best experience we’ve had in years.

The NPS’s Camp Leader, Katherine Lynne, is sure that Epic Patriot Camp will return next year, possibly to some new locations.  I’d encourage you to watch for the announcement that registration is open and to sign your kids up if it’s at all possible for you to get there.  It’s well worth the effort.

*I shared only pictures that I personally took, but there are many more fabulous pictures available on Jenny L. Cote’s Facebook page.  Scroll down to find her Epic Patriot Camp 2016 posts and check them out.

Book Club, Girls’ Edition: “Love, Ruby Lavender”

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When I first read Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles, I knew it would make a great book club pick.

About  a young girl dealing with the loss of her father, a busy mother, and her best-friend Grandma who’s away for the summer, it’s full of chickens, zucchini, and adventures with the new girl next door.  It’s the most realistic modern story we’ve read in a while, but recreating some of Ruby Lavender’s adventures guaranteed to be fun.

Girls' Book Club

Whenever Ruby Lavender started really missing her grandmother, she’d visit her house and slip into one of her bright pink Hawaiian muu-muus.  I decided that we couldn’t really celebrate this story without attempting to make our own.

Girls' Book Club

We started with plain white twin bedsheets cut in half.  The girls each ironed theirs and then pinned it in half again to make a basic sheath.  We folded raw edges under and sewed them and cut out necklines and stitched those.

Girls' Book Club

While I helped the girls iron, pin, and stitch in turn, the other girls decorated notebooks to use with someone special.  In the story, Ruby Lavender hid letters to her grandmother in a knot in a special tree just outside of town, and her grandmother would find the notes and reply.  We decided to do the same thing in a special notebook, so the girls collaged, glued, and stickered away to make something unique.


A few of the girls had never used a sewing machine before, and for others it had been a long time.  My Big Helper and one other young seamstress did a great job about answering questions and helping their friends get ready to sew while I was busy elsewhere. 

Girls' Book Club

After finishing their notebooks, the girls who were waiting for help with their muu-muus moved on to a cooking project.  Ruby Lavender’s mother works as a home economist and was challenged with creating new zucchini recipes, so I gave the same project to the girls.  One girl decided to chop hers and scramble it with some eggs.

Girls' Book Club

These girls paired up to marinate and grill their zucchini.  They made a great team!

Girls' Book Club

My Big Helper decided to saute hers and make her own sauce.  She really enjoyed experimenting with ingredients and flavor combinations.

After the muu-muus were completely stitched, the girls painted flower outlines on them with Elmer’s glue.  We hung them on a makeshift clothesline in the sun to dry, and then dipped the whole thing into fuschia fabric dye.

The glue acted as a batik and repelled the dye, creating beautiful white flowers on the muu-muus sewn out of t-shirt fabric.  The other, slipperier fabric didn’t hold the glue as well, and their muu-muus are more solid in color, but still a pretty pink.

There was a lot happening in this book club event, and it lasted all day!  Still, the girls did a great job sewing their muu-muus and creating new recipes.  They were careful and responsible, and I heard them discussing the story while they worked.

I love that – when a book makes such an impression that it pulls your attention away from the art project or craft at hand.


What are your kids reading this week?

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NEW! “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics” Linked Novel Study

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You might remember that we love Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.  We loved it so much that we made it a book club pick for both the boys and the girls and we’ve read it over and over.

That’s why we were over the moon excited to find out that Grabenstein wrote a sequel – Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics!

Chris Grabenstein

This book is just as exciting as the first one.  Grabenstein again layered in history and science among library science and codes and painted the whole thing fun.

There are so many threads to pull, in fact, that I wrote curriculum and extension activities to go with it!  You’ll find everything from the typical vocabulary and essay assignments to more creative science, history, and art projects.  Also included are printables, cooking projects, and a recipe for Mr. Lemoncello’s favorite drink, Lemonberry Fizz.

The activities in this packet are great for upper elementary and middle school kids, as well as homeschoolers and book clubbers.  With nearly 80 pages of projects and a wide range of responses, you’ll find something to suit every learning style here.

You can find out more and download your own copy in my TpT store here.  I’d love to know what you think!

What are your kids reading?

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Book Club, Survival Edition: “The Secret Island”

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I first heard about The Secret Island by Enid Blyton while eavesdropping in the library. 

Awful, right?

I didn’t mean to – but some kids were super excited about a book that they’d read and were happily discussing it with the librarian.  They all seemed so in love with it that I knew we had to check it out.

We loved it as much as those other kids did, and so we chose it for April’s book club pick.

The Secret Island was written long ago and is about a group of children who were living with extended family and were all being mistreated.  They band together and run away to a small island in the middle of a lake, where the live for six months, building a shelter, earning money, and finding food.  While the beginning is sad and the children rather rebellious, there are many opportunities for discussion, and the survival lessons within the book are wonderful.

Book Club

That’s why we went for survival training for this club meeting.  One student’s older brother is a Trail Life-er and volunteered to teach.  He did an amazing job!  Since someone else was teaching, we had a joint boys-and-girls meeting for this book, and while that definitely upped the ‘crazy’ factor for all of us, the kids had a great time.

After we discussed the book, our young teacher got us started with paracord.  He based our meeting on ‘what if we were stranded in the wilderness with only a knife, some paracord, and a survival blanket?’ 

After learning about the benefits of this cording, we headed out into the woods to simulate being lost.  The kids loved this activity.  They quickly banded together into groups and looked for materials with which to build shelters.

Some went for a teepee-style structure, which looked pretty easy to build – but where would all these kids sleep?

Book Club

Others tried to build a more traditional house, with sides and a roof, using the blanket as the roof.  (Still another group went lean-to style, but I never was able to get a picture of theirs.)

Book Club

Upon returning to our house, we returned our attention to paracord.  Our leader taught the kids how to make paracord bracelets that they could wear to be prepared in an emergency.  It took a little while for the kids to figure out how to make them, but as each one caught on, s/he taught another, well demonstrating the ‘each one teach one’ philosophy.  Soon everyone was sporting a camo paracord bracelet!

Book Club

While we had been doing all of this, a peach cobbler prepared by our teacher had been cooking away in a Dutch oven in the driveway.  With only a small amount of time left, he broke out the ice cream and cobbler and we celebrated our new survival skills in a very delicious way.

Our young teacher had other activities planned, as well, that would have taught amazing other skills, but the kids were so enthralled with shelter building and bracelet making that time didn’t allow for any more. 

Although a young teenager, our leader did a great job of planning and sharing his skills with our group of kids.  Their enthusiasm always keeps me on my toes, and despite the fact that he’s not much older than some of the book clubbers themselves, he was quite professional and was able to answer all of their questions.  I love when I see one of our younger ones showing responsibility and dependability, and this young man has it in spades.

Although it’s been several days since the book club event, my kids have been peppering me with questions about what they learned from their survival guide.  They’re interested in heading to REI to look at survival equipment and in trying out their new skills. 

The Secret Island would be a story great for arcing into an overnight campout, a camping unit, or a mission project to help kids – like the ones in the book – whose at-home conditions are less than ideal.

What sort of survival skills do your kids have?

Check out these survival products to host your own Secret Island-style event:


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