Art, Crafts and Artists through Books for Kids and Teens

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Classroom Activities, Picture Books, Nonfiction, and Novels for Preschool through Grade Nine

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With the arts and other "extras" all but eliminated in many schools, it's wonderful when you can incorporate art across the curriculum. Art, crafts and artists, as a unit study, goes across the school curriculum nicely. All the wonderful books below bring us quickly to the language arts. World history and cultures are somewhat obvious, but science and math are also deeply intertwined with arts and crafts.

There's mathematics in perspective drawing. The Golden Ratio (including the Golden Rectangle and the Golden Triangle), officially discovered by Pythagoras, has been everywhere in art since ancient times. Artwork is a great place to practice mathematical concepts like patterns (see our article on teaching math patterns with books), symmetry, and basic geometry shapes. Artists like da Vinci and Escher used math extensively in their art. Then there's the engineering involved in creating sculptures that won't collapse, the business finances of craftpeople and artists' colonies, and more.

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In science, art is beautifully represented in the work of Audubon and botanical drawing. Naturalists have a long history of drawing what they observe and there can be tremendous science and art value for students attempting that kind of drawing. Science is involved in the restoration of valuable art and in the methods used to authenticate a piece of art. Photography is used in current science observation and wonderful examples of science photography can be found in the books below on lizards and Snowflake Bentley.


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In the activities and books below you'll see many ways to integrate art with history, cultures and geography.

Classroom Activities

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Critical Thinking, Observation, Collaboration: How do you define art? Look at a wide range of images of art. Make individual lists that show what you consider to be art. Combine individual lists into a group list. Identify those ideas that all or most of you share. Look up professional debates and essays about what does and doesn't qualify as art.

Science, Technology, Social Studies, World History, US History Occupations: What roles have photographers played throughout history? What would it be like to be a photographer like Margaret Bourke-White or Ansel Adams? What demands did society place on them? What effect did their work have on society? What were their options? What were their rewards?

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Social Studies, World Cultures: Form groups to investigate an art form in a specific part of the world. Make displays to show the art form at its best.

Arts, Creativity: Take a piece of visual art and find suitable music and poetry to accompany it.

Social Studies, World History, US History: Gather books on quilting. Make a quilt book that shows quilt patterns. For each quilt, make up a story that reflects the area and time it might have come from. See our classroom unit on quilting for more ideas and books.

Social Studies, World History, US History, Cultures: Find utilitarian antiques that were decorated with some form of art to make them more pleasing to look at. What methods were used?

Arts, Art History: Find one work of art that intrigues or delights you. Find out as much as you can about its history. Sometimes art books will tell you when and where a piece of art was created. Sometimes an art museum will help you. Try the art department of the nearest college or university for more information. Find a way to share the information with the rest of the class.


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Language Arts, Critical Thinking, Writing: Read some art criticism of a work that you are able to see in person or online. Do you agree, disagree? With older students watch some of the Khan Academy's "Smarthistory" art history and critique videos. Write some of your own musings about a famous piece of art.

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Research: Look through art prints and art books. Find your favorite artist. Do research on that artist and then find the most interesting way of presenting what you've found.

Arts, Creativity: Experiment with several drawing and painting mediums: oil paint, poster paint, watercolors, chalk, pastels, crayons, pencils, etc. Make a sample book for each medium showing the work of other artists as well as your own.

Arts, Creativity: Experiment with clay and other molding materials.

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Arts, Creativity, Flexibility (creating things in reverse): Experiment with printing materials: cardboard, potatoes, sponges, linoleum, wood, leaves.

Science, Chemistry, Research: Investigate the chemistry involved in dyeing fabric.

Science, Chemistry, Making Predictions, Scientific Method: Some plants dye fabric in unexpected colors. Provide your students with items such as avocado skins (which make light pink) or dandelion roots (which are tan, but when dyed using alum make dark red) and ask them to predict what color they will dye white cloth. Have them try it under adult supervision. Why did the cloth turn the color it did? Devise some chemistry experiments to determine what happened. Consult with a high school or local college chemistry teacher for help.

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Language Arts, Illustrator Studies, Observation, Comparing and Contrast: Look carefully at picture books. Sort them according to type of illustrations. Decide how the artist created each one. Why did they choose that medium and style? How would different styles have changed the book?

Arts, Creativity, Making Predictions: Several children's books have a character whose drawings or paintings come to life such as Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (see individual titles below). Paint a picture that you'd like to see come to life and tell why. What could you paint that would have disastrous results if it came to life? What would have wonderful results?

Arts, Creativity: Many of the books reflect how artists choose things they love as subjects. Choose something that you love very much. Decide which available art medium best suits the subject and create a piece of art.

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Social Studies, World History: Choose a particular subject, such as whales, and look at current and historical depictions of them. How and why has our view of this subject changed? Some other subjects could be children, nature or pets.

Social Studies, Community, Creativity, Occupations: Invite someone from a craft guild, a college art student or even a high school student to teach a lesson. Spending time with someone who is passionate about art can be a real eye opener for students deprived of an art teacher.

Math, Economics, Social Studies, Collaboration, Occupations, Arts, Creativity: Choose a craft that everyone can participate in to make items for a fundraiser. Ask a craftsperson to come talk with your class about the business and math side of their art and get advice for your fundraiser. For older students this could go all the way into business plans, cash flow projections, taxes, business loans, and other business and accounting issues. Research the cost of materials for your project. Decide how you will sell your creations: at school, a craft fair, downtown or online. Calculate the costs of marketing. Do it.

Science, Physics: Investigate light, colors and pigments. What happens when you combine blue and red pigments? What happens when you combine blue and red light? Why?

Science, Chemistry: What happens, on a molecular level, to make clay less brittle when it is fired in a kiln?

Arts, Art Appreciation, Observation: With all ages, even up to high school, collect a wide range of picture book biographies of artists and craftspeople. Collect prints, adult books, or online links to as much of their work as possible and fill your classroom with their lives and art. Encourage discussions about their art, their cultures and their lives. Which pieces do you like the most? Which pieces or styles do you find hardest to understand? Why did the various artists choose the different mediums, subjects and styles?

Mathematics: Investigate the equations in fractal art, the geometric proportions used in drawing faces, and the coding necessary for 3D animation programs for more examples of math in art.

World History: Investigate clothing and personal ornamentation, the technology of making textiles over time, and the use of various art materials for more connections to world history.


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Picture Books (fiction)

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Grades PreK - 9
The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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In his first book in four years Eric Carle honors one of the great artists who inspired his singular style. The title gives a hint as to the identity of the boy narrator of the story. However, the story itself is a simple, almost wordless, tale of a child painting--a blue horse, a red alligator, a pink rabbit, a yellow cow and more. Our narrator closes with, "I am a good artist." It is only after this that Carle includes a reproduction of "Blue Horse" by Franz Marc along with a short biography. Read More.

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Grades PreK - 3
Draw! by Raul Colon. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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In this wordless book, a boy is stuck in bed with asthma. He has a book about Africa and a sketchbook. We follow along as he imagines that he is in Africa drawing the animals. Starting with a sedate artist-at-his-easel pose in front of an elephant, the illustrations become less and less predictable as he rides on the elephant to find a herd of zebras to draw, poses for a portrait drawn by a baboon, and narrowly escapes a charging rhinoceros. This is a wonderful, inspired work on the power of the imagination and art to engage us and transport us. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades PreK - 5
The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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This satirical work tells of the artist’s dilemma when faced with commercial success. Set in France, Clousseau paints simple pictures that come to life. The crowd demands more and more until the paintings begin to cause problems. Then the people turn on him and his is imprisoned for the damage they cause. All is forgiven when a dog in one of his paintings catches a thief, but Clousseu has had enough. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades K - 3
Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look. Illustrated by Meilo So. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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This is the fictionalized story of Wu Daozi (689-759), who was one of the great masters in eighth century ancient China during the T'ang Dynasty. He introduced movement into the previously staid Chinese painting style. More playful than realistic picture book biographies, this story's fantasy elements are based on the legend that, at the end of his life, he simply walked into the mural he had created for the emperor. Beautifully written and gloriously illustrated, this is a fanciful and rewarding trip to ancient China. Read More.

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Grades K - 4
Art & Max by David Wiesner. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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Art and Max are lizards. Art has painted a beautiful portrait and now Max is excited to learn how to paint too. Art is not thrilled with the idea, but he suggests that Max paint him. Taking the suggestion literally, Max paints Art himself at which point a furious Art shakes off the paint and, somehow, his original color and scales. Max's attempts to help only make things worse until Art is just an outline, which, of course, unravels. Read More.

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Grades PreK - 4
The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen. Illustrated by Elaine Greenstein. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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Sarah, an old lady, lives by herself. She misses her grown children, so, she watches the children who wait for the school bus near the big evergreen tree. Although Sarah smiles at them as she walks by, they ignore her. When she notices a little boy, dressed in blue, who can't enjoy the snow play because he has no mittens, she finds some blue yarn, knits a pair of mittens, and hangs them on the tree. Nobody sees her do it, but the little boy in blue arrives first at the bus stop that morning and seems to know the mittens are for him. Read More.

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Grades K - 2
Frederick by Leo Lionni. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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The mice that live in the stone wall are busy gathering and storing food for the long winter ahead. Frederick, however, is using his time to gather sunrays, colors, and words. The other mice don't appreciate Frederick's "work" until their supplies have run out and Frederick shares his wonderful collection.

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Grades K - 5
You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman. Illustrated by Glasser, Robin Preiss. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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This wordless book uses color sparingly to highlight the events. A little girl and her grandmother attempt to enter the art museum only to be told that they cannot take the girl's yellow balloon into the museum. The guard ties it to a banister near the entrance and they go inside. Unbeknownst to them, a pigeon unties the balloon and starts off with it, pursued by the guard. From that point on, every scene inside the museum is echoed by an exterior scene involving the balloon. The repeated pattern is often subtle and very funny. The effect is to make the art experience light and enjoyable. Read More.

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Grades K - 3
Art Lesson by Tomie dePaola. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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Tommy loves art and has been encouraged to imagine and create since he was tiny. As school time approaches, he is thrilled because he's been told that the school has an art teacher and Tommy wants to know more and do more with art. He is frustrated however to find that he must only use certain colors and must copy the teacher's own work.

Nonfiction

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Grades 3 - 7
The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg. Nonfiction. 56 pages.
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Born in the mid-1800s in Mississippi, Ohr produced an astounding number of wheel-thrown pots, which he then distorted into artistic shapes. He made a living selling knickknacks in a studio/showroom where he also displayed his art pottery and advertised with outrageous slogans and wild antics. The art community looked down on his work until after his death when he was rediscovered and became famous. A well-written exploration of a fascinating character.

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Grades 3 - 9
The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook by Shaun Tan. Nonfiction. 128 pages.
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Looking through these pages offers us a wonderful glimpse into the workings of Tan's genius. Again and again we see how he is fascinated with the combination of organic and mechanical. We see amazing ideas jotted out, played with, and elaborated. Tan opens the book with a wonderful introduction about creating art in general and his process in particular. Surprisingly this book is great for just browsing and for appreciating the world of imagination. Grab this book to give to budding artists, but also to students who think they can't draw or who have trouble deciding what to draw. Tan's work breaks open our assumptions about what drawing is and where it can take us. Take a look, you will be drawn in. Read More.

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Grades 7 - 10
Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life by Catherine Reef. Nonfiction. 176 pages.
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The two most famous Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera are covered in this wonderful book. There are great insights into their artistic development, their politics, and their complex relationship here. They are a compelling couple and the book is illustrated with old photos and many examples of their inspiring art.

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Grades K - 4
My Name Is Georgia: A Portrait by Jeanette Winter. Picture Book. 48 pages.
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This fictionalized account of the life of Georgia O'Keefe begins at age twelve. We see her as the strong-minded girl who will become the equally strong minded adult. She thought differently, dressed differently and enjoyed her own company. The text is simple and leads up to a view of the 98-year-old artist.

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Grades PreK - 9
Art Lab for Kids: 52 Creative Adventures in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Paper, and Mixed Media-For Budding Artists of All Ages by Schwake Susan. Nonfiction. 144 pages.
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This title along with the others in the Art Lab series are wonderful additions to any classroom, library or home school setting. Great photos, inspiring examples and invitations to open-ended experimenting (as opposed to prescribed projects) make these essential resources. Other titles include: Art Lab for Little Kids: 52 Playful Projects for Preschoolers, 3D Art Lab for Kids: 32 Hands-on Adventures in Sculpture and Mixed Media--Including fun projects using clay, plaster, cardboard, paper, fiber beads and more!, and Art For All Seasons.

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Grades 6 - 10
Everybody Paints: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Rubin Goldman. Nonfiction. 105 pages.
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This book covers three members of the family: N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew Wyeth, and grandson Jamie Wyeth. Illustrator, painter of people/landscapes and painter of people/animals respectively, each found a career as an artist. The book is illustrated with many of their paintings and the realism makes a good contrast to books about more abstract or impressionistic styles.

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Grades 4 - 9
Drawing from Memory by Allen Say. Nonfiction. 72 pages.
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In 1937 near Tokyo, Japan, Allen Say was born to parents who didn't understand his passion for drawing. "When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn't need toys or friends or parents." His parents, especially his father, thought that artists were lazy and scruffy. They expected him to stop drawing, even as a child, and focus on preparing himself to earn a respectable living. Read More.

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Grades 2 - 9
The Art of Eric Carle by Eric Carle. Nonfiction. 128 pages.
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This is a wonderful source book for information about Eric Carle and his work. Carle includes a delightful autobiography amply illustrated with photographs and sketches, but there is much more in the book. An editor relates her experiences with Carle. There's a section about the way he creates his work and writings by Carle and some of his colleagues. Best of all, the book is a compendium of his artwork.

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Grades 1 - 5
It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Nonfiction Picture Book. 32 pages.
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Traylor was 85 and homeless when he first discovered his love of drawing. Using scraps of paper and anything else he could find, he drew powerful scenes from his childhood in slavery and the years that followed. This title goes across many areas of the curriculum: occupations, art and artists, African American history, slavery, reconstruction, aging and biographies. An introduction and afterword expand on the information offered in the story.

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Grades 7 - 10
This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. Nonfiction. 136 pages.
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Audubon was born in Haiti and raised in France where he became obsessed with nature and especially birds. In 1803, at the age of 18, he came to America to avoid fighting in Napoleon’s army. It was there that he became an expert naturalist and artist. In 1839 he started the book of paintings titled The Birds of America which, in a time before photography, documented almost 500 birds in gorgeous paintings, many of which illustrate this wonderful biography. Exceedingly well documented.

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Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Picture Book, Nonfiction. 32 pages.
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Wilson Bentley was fascinated by snowflakes. Born in Vermont in 1865, his parents supported his interest, spending their savings to buy him a camera and microscope. His thousands of photographs are still used in studies today. Martin tells the tale simply with sidebars adding further information about the science behind Bentley's studies. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades PreK - 9
Lizards by Nic Bishop. Nonfiction. 48 pages.
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Great science photography. This is a visual feast of lush photos with enough detail to allow careful observation of individual traits. You can feel the texture of each individual scale, eyelid, nostril and tooth. This book is also full of examples of these reptiles' adaptations. Many photos also include information on which country or continent the lizard is from and so there are opportunities to integrate this science topic with geography, especially geography units which survey large areas of the world or geography units on the desert or the rain forest. Read More.

Novels

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Grades 4 - 9
Mister Orange by Truus Matti. Novel. 156 pages.
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It's 1943 in New York City and Linus's older brother is headed off to fight in World War II. In their lower class family the children "move up" a job and 12-year-old Linus takes over his brother's delivery route for the family produce store. It's while making regular deliveries of a case of oranges to an artist he calls Mister Orange that he gets to know the man who turns out to be the Dutch modern painter Piet Mondrian (whose style is echoed on the cover). This coming-of-age novel is a nice introduction to modern art seen through the fresh eyes of a working class boy encountering it for the first time. Read More.

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Grades 9 - 12
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Novel. 384 pages.
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Noah and his sister, Jude, are thirteen-year-old twins in this Printz Award winner. They share an artistic ability and have been very close until recently. There are two narration streams that alternate, beginning with the gay Noah who narrates in the present. When Jude starts narrating, it's three years later and much has changed, including the death of their mother. As the two stories weave together in this emotionally compelling novel we slowly piece together what has happened in the intervening years and where that leaves their individual lives, their art, and their relationship. Noah's chapters are a striking description of how visually some artists interpret the world around them. Read More.

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Grades 3 - 6
Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Novel. 304 pages.
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Eleven-year-old James and a small beetle named Marvin become friends and join forces to prevent a crime at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wonderfully written, this book evokes The Borrowers, Charlotte's Web and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 6 - 9
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Novel. 368 pages.
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Set in 1968 small town New York, this is a stand-alone companion book to The Wednesday Wars, this time focusing on the prankster Doug. He is starting eighth grade, which is bad enough, even worse his father abuses him and his brothers—even when one of them returns from Vietnam having lost both legs. Doug escapes to the local library where he discovers the bird paintings of Audubon, some of which are printed at the start of each chapter. The librarian teaches Doug to paint and to see the world with the eye of an artist. A powerful statement on the transformative effects of creativity. Read More.

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Grades 9 - 12
The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone: A Novel by Adele Griffin. Novel. 256 pages.
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Seventeen-year-old Addison is dead. Deeply committed to her art and possessed of an innate wildness she became famous in New York City creating portraits and performance art. Was her death an accident? Suicide? Murder? Adele Griffin writes this novel as if it's a real person whom she is documenting. Extensive photos and the purported artwork of the main character further sweep us into the illusion that we are reading fact instead of a novel. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 8
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. Novel. 152 pages.
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In this Newbery Award winner, Tree-ear is homeless, living under a bridge, in twelfth-century Korea. A physically disabled man, the proud and ethical Crane-man, is raising him. Tree-ear loves to hide behind one of the master potters' houses in the village and watch Master Min use the potter's wheel to make delicate and beautiful celadon pottery. When Tree-ear accidentally breaks one of Min's pieces, he must work for Min to pay for the damage. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 6 - 9
The Monument by Gary Paulsen. Novel. 149 pages.
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Thirteen-year-old Rocky's life is changed by a remarkable artist (Mick) who comes to her small Kansas town of Bolton to design a war memorial. Growing up in an orphanage, never expecting to be adopted, before Emma and Fred adopted her at the age of nine, biracial Rocky is limited by a fused knee and is extremely self-conscious about it. She adopts Python (a large dog), gains courage, and learns to draw the world around her with the help of the very unconventional Mick. Read More.

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Grades 3 - 6
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Novel. 176 pages.
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Claudia Kincaid feels unappreciated at home and so decides to run away. Being a good planner, but poor money manager, she allows her younger brother, Jamie, to join her. They hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it seems they have thought of everything. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 5 - 9
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Novel. 288 pages.
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This is a wonderful book around which to center a study of medieval times. Catherine, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a minor knight, in 1290, tells us in daily entries about her life. Catherine's father, whom she constantly compares to a beast, has promised her hand in marriage to an old and disgusting knight. As she ponders her life and her options, she spends a lot of time painting scenes on her bedroom wall. We soon grow to love this outrageous, funny, spirited and rebellious young woman and, in the process of getting to know Catherine, we get to know a lot about life in medieval England. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 5 - 7
Kit's Wilderness by David Almond. Novel. 240 pages.
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Kit has recently moved to Stoneygate where his ancestors worked in the mines along with most of the other villagers. Evidence of the coalmines is everywhere but, most compellingly, it is in a monument on which are engraved the names of those who died in the mines. Kit's name is on it as he is named for a distant uncle. Likewise, the name of John Askew appears on the monument and his namesake, an artistically talented peer, has become a leader in a game of death played by the present-day children of the village. The rituals surrounding this game, the tales told by those who have lain "dead" in the abandoned mine, become ever more important and it is inevitable that, sooner or later, Kit will take his turn being "dead." Read More.

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Grades 5 - 9
Lyddie by Katherine Paterson. Novel. 192 pages.
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In 1843, Lyddie Worthen, an impoverished Vermont farm girl, is determined to gain her independence (and money to pay off the debts of the farm). Her father left the farm to earn money, but has not been heard from since. Her mother, crazed by her obsession with an End-of-the-World religion, rents the farm and hires out Charlie (10) and Lyddie (13) into a kind of bondage. Charlie, accepted into the family he was hired out to, does well. Lyddie is hired out to a tavern where, after observing the apparently successful life of a young female textile factory worker, she decides to go to the factories in Lowell, Massachusetts. The remainder of the book is set in and around the mills with their exploitation and paternal regulation of the workers. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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