Review: The Book Whisperer

The Book Whisperer  (2009) by Donalyn Miller

Suggested Readers: Educators, Parents, Every Adult

(John Wiley and Sons, 228 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Library but buying Personal Copy

book whisperer

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” -Maya Angelou

The Book: Though it was published in 2009, somehow I did not stumble upon The Book Whisperer until this past fall. The subtitle of the book “Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” gives you a clue as to its focus, and this goal is certainly something that many educators and parents are thinking about in the 21st century. Written by 6th grade reading teacher, Donalyn Miller, the text is practical, inspiring, and relevant for any language arts teacher, librarian, or parent. Miller asks her 6th grade students to read 40 books a year. That’s right: 40!! And many of them read more than this!

Essentially, as Miller puts it in the introduction, this is a book about motivating students to read. It fills a gap; Miller wanted a book that linked her passion for reading with the way she was teaching reading in the classroom. She relied firmly on her own background as a lifelong reader in order to help her students develop into lifelong readers. At first, it might seem simple. But Miller’s points and suggestions are right on target, and urge many teachers to shift their thinking about what works in the classroom.

For example, Chapter 6, “Cutting the Teacher Strings,” includes the voices of some of Miller’s students about activities related to reading response. Miller encourages teachers to reconsider using a whole-class novel, and to teach readers, instead of books. She suggests a focus away from comprehension tests as the sole purpose for reading a book, and instead of book reports, she presents book commercials and book reviews. I have to say I heartily agree with Miller about the danger in allowing students to think the main purpose of their reading a book is to fill out a worksheet about it. Yes, a student must comprehend a book in order to understand its literary elements and talk about its themes, and so why not make this the primary activity for their reading?

Here’s a passage from the beginning of the chapter, a quote from one of Miller’s students, Christina: “I think my worst nightmare was last year, when we all had to read the same book, and do worksheets, and make journals after every chapter.” I think that would be my worst nightmare too! Since when do I, as an adult, ever have to fill out a worksheet on a book I’ve read? I don’t. What I do enjoy is discussing that book with other people and writing a review of that book. With my own students, I found that they loved making book trailers and even talk shows in which they discussed their responses to a book.

Why It’s Good for Teachers & Parents: The Book Whisperer contains loads of practical tips for generating a love for reading in the classroom. There are surveys in the appendix and many examples of strategies Miller uses to develop lifelong readers. Topics in the book include Miller’s own views as a lifelong reader, practical ideas for the classroom, passages from students, and scenes from Miller’s experiences in the classroom developing lifelong readers. Chapter titles include “Everybody is a Reader,” “There’s a Time and a Place,” “Reading Freedom,” and “Cutting the Teacher Strings.”

Needless to say, this book is refreshing, and definitely shifted my thinking about developing readers in the classroom even more. I am inspired and excited about Miller’s ideas and perspective, and am looking forward to her brand new book that has just been released, called Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Guide to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (2013).

The Final Word: As a teacher and researcher of children’s literature, I loved this book! Many of Miller’s ideas about nurturing a love of reading in her students were similar to mine, but the way she carries these ideas out practically in her classroom introduced new strategies to me. Though my own 6th graders would have 25-30 minutes of reading every day in class, Miller’s points about giving students time to read reinforced to me that this is a non-negotiable when it comes to planning the day. This is now one of my top books related to nurturing readers, and I think it should be required reading for every language arts and English teacher!

You can check out The Book Whisperer’s website here.


A Carousel Picturebook

The Carousel by Liz Rosenberg, Illustrations by Jim LaMarche

Suggested age range: 6 and up

(HMH Books for Young Readers, 32 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Borrowed from a family member


The Book: One magical, snowy evening, a girl and her sister are walking home, and they happen to pass by a tent covering a broken carousel. They hear noises, and realize the horses are very much alive. Thus begins a fantastic journey for the two sisters in which they fly through the air on these beautiful carousel creatures. When it is apparent the horses are a little wilder than normal, the protagonist’s sister says, “ ‘They’re wild because they are broken.’” The girls then use their mother’s toolkit in an attempt to fix what is broken in the carousel itself.

The illustrations are beautiful, “acrylic washes with colored pencil on Arches watercolor paper.” The result is a stunning landscape picturebook featuring many “almost” double-page spreads with text in a column on either the left or right page.

Spirituality in The Carousel: The fantasy in The Carousel plays a role in one of the spiritual layers of the story. For example, the reader is not explicitly told what makes the carousel horses come alive for the girls, but perhaps it is the faith and the girls’ openness to wonder that engineers the magic of their evening. The first few pages (in both illustration and text) position the girls as those who have expectation and hope for surprises.

The author does not explicitly go into the fact that the girls’ mother is either passed away or absent, but there are enough hints to assume this. The girls’ meeting with their father at the end of the book portrays a close family unit, in spite of the missing mother. In this way, there is a spirituality of connectedness that is reflected in the story. The mother plays a role in the narrative, even though she is absent, for it is her toolbox that allows the girls to fix the carousel.

Hope, magic, and restoration are three words I would use the describe the spirituality of the tale.

Exploring this Book with Readers: As a read aloud, this book is perfect for elementary or even middle school. If teachers wanted to incorporate a nonfiction aspect to the reading experience, students could research famous carousels and share their own experience riding them. Teachers and parents could invite readers to search the pictures for details undetected at first glance. A cool art activity: Each student draws a picture of his/her ideal carousel horse. This could be done with actual paper or on an iPad/laptop. Students must think of two abilities a rider of that particular horse would have.

The Final Word: I appreciated the magic of this story and the atmospheric illustrations—especially the way the pictures spread across the pages in a landscape format. However, there were quite a few gaps in the story that I wanted to see filled. On the other hand, the intent was that this book included such wide open opportunities for readers to make speculations.

The Miraculous Journey of Arts-based Responses to Children’s Literature

If you are an educator in an elementary or middle school classroom, or if you work with young readers in any capacity, and are interested in learning about arts-based response activities, please check out a new page in our Educator’s Corner!

A link is provided to Catherine’s activity guide for arts-based activities related to Kate DiCamillo’s fantasy, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. However, these activities can be adapted for use with almost any work of children’s literature. Even if every student was reading a different book in the classroom, these activities could enhance their responses to those books.

Have you ever used the arts in your language arts classroom with the literature your students are reading? Or with book clubs? Drama, drawing, and dance are just several ways young readers can express their ideas and questions about literature they read. It is a wonderful journey for both educators and students!


Connecting with Cakes


A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff (2013)

Suggested age range: 8 and up

(Philomel, 233 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Library

“Life is the grandest adventures one can go on, isn’t it?”

I love to bake and I love to read. Lisa Graff’s new book connects these two hobbies in A Tangle of Knots and I thought this book a true delight! Many characters in this story possess a “Talent,” a special ability. For Will it is the talent of getting lost; for Zane, it is spitting with precision. For eleven year old Cady, it is cake baking. She is able to bake the perfect cake for each individual she meets, and these delectable cake recipes are featured between different chapters in the novel. Will’s S’more Cake. The Owner’s Peanut Butter Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting. Miss Mallory’s Peach Cake. These are just a few. Readers could be baking and reading simultaneously if they really wanted.

There is a mystery behind Cady’s birth; she is an orphan and doesn’t know much about where she came from or about her parents. At the beginning of the story, she moves into a room above the Lost Luggage Emporium with Toby, who also has some secrets from his past. Her new home just happens to be in the same building as a family who may be more connected with her destiny than she realizes.

The perspective in the story changes from chapter to chapter. So, even though the reader might assume the point of view will remain Cady’s throughout the book, that isn’t actually how the story unfolds. The presence of the recipes gives the story texture and detail, and even gives readers something concrete to take away (if they wish!).

In addition to the perspective changes, I also liked the way Graff features both child and adult characters as important players in the story. In some ways this book reminded me of Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo as well as The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Both books feature children in search of identity and belonging and also reflect adults who are changed through the course of the story. The connectivity that develops among the various characters and the ideas of destiny and purpose are two ways I think this novel reflects the spirituality of children’s literature. Characters are stirred to take certain action or move in particular directions; it is as if something is driving them to do so. To be honest, I think something is driving me to bake and test “Cady’s Chocolate-Almond Cherry Cake”!

I wonder if teachers could use this novel to connect language arts and baking in their classrooms—how fun would that be?

I whipped through this book, and was sad to see it conclude, yet happy I had discovered such a gem. I think you will be too.