Monday, May 18, 2015

Ira's Shakespeare Dream

Ira’s Shakespeare Dream
Written by Glenda Armand and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Published in 2015 by Lee and Low Books
Grades 2-7

ISBN: 9781620141557

Book Review

“This above all,--To thine own self be true…” As a young African American boy, Ira Frederick Aldridge sat spellbound as Shakespeare’s Hamlet was brought to life on the stage of the Park Theater in New York City. It was the early 1800s and only white actors were allowed to perform Shakespeare. Yet, Ira Aldridge was determined to perform the works of the Bard. He pursued his dream by crossing the Atlantic to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of his time in England and Europe. In this fictionalized biography, readers witness the impact of race, discrimination, family, and country on Ira’s life choices. Born to free Black parents, Ira travels down South where he witnesses the slave trade. This experience leaves a lasting impression that would drive his support of the abolitionist movement in years to come.  Floyd Cooper’s signature illustration style of oil washes and erasers creates an ethereal effect mirroring the central message of Ira’s steadfast pursuit of his dream. Cooper’s use of shades of yellow bridges natural and stage lighting and is used to cue readers of important moments in the text. Glenda Armand’s text invites young readers to understand the social and cultural significance of Ira’s life through simple sentences coupled with intermittent Shakespearean lines from Hamlet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Ira’s Shakespeare Dream provides classrooms a life story of struggle, grit, and ultimately success alongside an introduction to Shakespeare that will inspire students to consider their own dreams and the ways they can be true to themselves.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Grades 2-7
All the World’s A Stage: Bringing Shakespeare to Life. Transform your classroom into the Globe Theater or Theatre Royal Haymarket where Ira Aldridge performed. Gather famous lines or scenes from Shakespearean plays and have students perform these lines with fervor drawing on Ira as an inspiration. You can start by lifting the Shakespearean lines Armand incorporated which are catalogued in the back matter of the book.  Pair Ira’s Shakespeare Dream with a play from the Shakespeare Can Be Fun! series by Lois Burdett to support students in deeper study of a particular play. Written in rhyming couplets, Burdett’s series supports staging a class play but works equally well as a read aloud.  Gather techniques for supporting the budding dramatists and playwrights in your classroom from Ken Ludwig’s esteemed How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.

Turning Points: Noticing Character Change. There are several key moments throughout this telling of Ira Aldrige’s life. As part of your initial read aloud of the text, have students jot their thinking about what happened, questions that arise for them, and their predictions for what is to come next using text evidence. Then, support students with their own copies of the text to closely study the words and illustrations that convey turning points. Have students create multilayered timelines using words and images to “retell” these critical moments. Finally, have students present their timelines to one another in partnerships or small groups noticing similarities and differences in their turning point selections and depictions.

Dream Mapping: To Thine Own Self Be True.  Use an adapted version of Georgia Heard’s heart mapping technique by having students create their own dream maps using words and pictures to brainstorm or mind map their dreams. Drawing on Ira Aldridge’s example as an inspiration, what do they hope for themselves? What do they imagine is possible? What obstacles will they need to overcome? What are they willing to give up in pursuit of their dreams?

Shakespeare Text Set. Build a multigenre, multimodal text set of Shakespearean resources for students to learn more about the Bard and his works. Use Marcia Williams’ Tales from Shakespeare to introduce some of Shakespeare’s most famous works through this series of comic strips. Read aloud a collection of Shakespeare’s stories written for younger audiences such as E. Nesbit’s Shakespearean Stories for Young Readers or Usborne’s Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare. Read aloud Ian Lendler’s comical The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth and John McCann, Monica Sweeney and Becky Thomas’s Brick Shakespeare which uses Lego figures to bring Shakespearean plays to life. Visit the online Folger Shakespeare Library for Kids to learn more about Shakespeare’s life and works alongside famous quotations, fun facts, and even games and puzzles. View Shakespearean scenes, particularly from plays mentioned in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, through the PBS Shakespeare Uncovered page and the MIT Global Shakespeare Project. Support students to discuss the difference between reading versus viewing Shakespeare’s works.  Finally, use the Sonnet Project app available for smart phones or tablets to watch 154 sonnets told by 154 actors in 154 New York City locations.

The Role of Fiction in Biography. Glenda Armand uses simple sentences to portray a series of impacting events in Ira Aldrige’s life. She also uses a variety of craft techniques to bring this story to life for readers. In particular, draw your students’ attention to her use of dialogue, internal thinking, and imagined scenes. Discuss as a class why authors of biographies would include fictionalized moments in biographies and for what effect. Engage students in a debate hotly contested in the field about whether or not a biography can include fictionalized moments and still be considered a biography. Compare Ira’s Shakespeare Dream to a picture book biography that does not have fictionalized dialogue, internal thinking, or imagined scenes. Notice the ways other authors of fictionalized biographies use the same techniques in their work, particularly Jeanette Winter’s Malala: Brave Girl from Pakistan/ Iqbal: Brave Boy from Pakistan and Gretchen Woelfe’s Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence previously blogged about at The Classroom Bookshelf. Engage students in their own study of historical figures that interest them, particularly figures that overcame barriers such as race, class, or gender to achieve their dreams. Have students turn to Ira’s Shakespeare Dream as a mentor text to write their own fictionalized biographies of the historical figures they researched.

Author/Illustrator Study. Study the work of Glenda Armand by comparing Ira’s Shakespeare Dream with her earlier book Love Twelve Miles Long. Consider topics that resonate across her works including family and slavery as well as themes such as overcoming odds to accomplish great things. Read Armand’s blog and visit her website to learn more about her story as a teacher and writer and the ways her study of history influences her writing process.  Then, study the illustrations of Lloyd Cooper by visiting his website and by reading books by a variety of authors whose work he illustrated such as Grandpa’s Face by Eloise Greenfield, A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Duncan Dempsey and The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas. Support students to describe his signature style providing text evidence for their thinking by describing his use of color, texture, light, and use of space.

Backmatter Matters: Noticing Reading Preferences. More frequently, authors of nonfiction for children are providing additional information in the form of “back matter” in their books. Guide students to examine the back matter in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, including the afterword, quotations, and suggested books and websites. Support students to notice the expository text structure used in the afterword. Support students to notice the ways in which each text type supports the other. Have students consider which kind of reading they prefer: the fictionalized biographical text or the expository afterword. Which is most useful for gathering information? Which would they want to read again and again?

Critical Literacy
Why So Long? Critiquing the Genre and Bridging Gaps.  Ira Aldridge was born in 1807 and died in 1867, nearly 150 years ago. Consider with students why it has taken so long for Ira Aldridge’s life story to reach our bookshelves. In what ways does Ira’s story support our understanding of our diverse society both historically and today? Analyze with students your classroom bookshelf noticing gaps in representation. Study biographies, in particular, noting the social locations of the figures featured. Then, visit the Lee and Low Books website for a series of diversity gap studies including analysis of children’s literature and Hollywood productions. Support students to ask such questions as whose stories are being centered? Whose are underrepresented or even missing? Search Lee and Low Books and other independent children’s book presses for life stories to fill your own classroom bookshelf gaps. 

Critiquing Casting. Ira Aldridge became the first Black man to portray Othello in a staged Shakespeare production in England. Othello is often played by a Black male since the character is defined as a Moor in Shakespeare’s play. Critique with students the ways in which this break through for Aldridge both afforded him the opportunity to perform in a Shakespeare play in a lead role but how it also potentially limited the ways in which producers cast him in roles in the future. Read an interview on the Lee and Low Book blogsite with Christine Toy Johnson to learn about diversity or lack thereof in theater today. Support students to critique casting in films and in theatrical productions. Explore with students through a Google search the ways in which racebent characters are being created to counter the whitewashed literature and film industries.

Further Investigations

Online Resources
Glenda Armand’s Site

Floyd Cooper’s Site

Folger Shakespeare Library

MIT Global Shakespeare Project

PBS Shakespeare Uncovered

The Sonnet Project

School Library Journal Suggested Shakespeare Resources

Lee and Low Books Diversity Gap Studies
(see further links within page)


Aagesen, C. (1999). Shakespeare for kids: His life and times, 21 activities. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.

Burdett, L. (2000). Hamlet for kids: Shakespeare can be fun series. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books. 

Ludwig, K. (2014). How to teach your children Shakespeare. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Nesbit, E. (2006). Shakespeare's stories for young readers. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Usborne Publications. (2010). Illustrated stories from Shakespeare (clothbound story collections). London, England: Usborne Publishing.

Williams, M. (2004). Tales from Shakespeare. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Williams, M. (2005). Further tales from Shakespeare. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
Written by Franck Prevot and Illustrated by Aurelia Fronty
Published in 2015 by Charlesbridge
ISBN 978-1-58089-626-9

Grades 3 - 8

Book Review

“Wangari’s mother gives her a little garden. Wangari learns to dig and plant. In the shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression that Wangari never forgets.” In a striking picture book biography, French author Franck Prevot describes how these seeds, sewn early, led to a lifetime of advocacy for environmentalist and social activist, Wangari Maathai. Prevot’s provocative text explores the political context for Wangari’s advocacy efforts, highlighting the complexities of Kenya’s efforts toward establishing democracy,  economic independence, and equal rights. Against this backdrop, Wangari Maathai, “the woman who planted millions of trees,” founds the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to reforestation, which engages women across the African continent in the replanting of African trees. Fronty’s illustrations immerse readers in the colors of Kenya and add emotional tension to Wangari’s unwaivering commitment to the landscape and peoples of her beloved Kenya. The helpful back matter includes photographs, a timeline, a map of Kenya’s vegetation, quotations, and an update on deforestation across the globe. Equally useful in curriculum units on women’s rights, movements for social justice, environmentalism, and African heritage, this stunning biography will inspire readers to plant their own seeds of hope and change.  

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Picture Book Biographies of Maathai. Learn more about Wangari Maathai by reading multiple picture book biographies that narrate her life story. Compare the presentation of Wangari’s childhood and adult accomplishments across five books: Seeds of change: Planting a Path to Peace, Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (see full references for these titles listed below). This excellent collection offers your students the opportunity to learn more about Wangari and about the process of writing biography. Construct a chart to compare aspects of the books including: titles, text structures, narrative arc, presentation of key events, included back matter, and the role of the illustrations. If content learning is your focus, extend your study of Wangari’s life by exploring the array of digital resources that elaborate her life and work. The links below include the Green Belt Movement website, Wangari’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and her obituary.

The Colors of Kenya.  French illustrator Aurelia Fronty’s illustrations immerse readers in the colors and culture of Kenya. Use an overhead projector to display National Geographic’s collection of photgraphs of Kenya. Invite your students to compare the colors and images with those used by Fronty to narrate Wangari’s life story. Next, recruit the help of your art specialist to emulate Fronty’s style, creating landscape images from your surroundings. Notice how Fronty uses varied background colors. Invite students to take photographs of scenes outdoors near their homes. Next, study the photographs to identify predominant colors in the scenes. Use these colors as backdrops for students’ paintings, inviting students to interpret their surroundings against a color saturated background.

Role of the Tree in an Ecosystem. Expand students’ understanding of the role that trees play within an ecosystem by reading additional texts in a solar system model (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry). Suggested texts include: April Pulley Sayre’s Trout are Made of Trees, Wendy Pfeffer’s A Log’s Life, Shawn Sheehy’s Welcome to the Neighborwood, and Melissa Stewart’s No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Students working in small groups to read these texts can create a visual display (using poster paper or a digital tool such as Prezi or Coggle) to represent the interrelationships illustrated in their text.

Advocates for Trees. Compare Wangari’s life story and accomplishments with those of other individuals who have advocated for the restoration or planting of trees. Nonfiction picture books are an excellent starting point for this investigation. Joseph Hopkins’s The Tree Lady: The True Story Of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever describes Kate Sessions’s efforts to create parks and green spaces in San Diego. Susan Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees To Save Families describes Dr. Gordon Sato’s efforts to alleviate hunger in the African country of Eritrea through the planting of Mangrove trees. Sy Montgomery’s photo-essay Quest For The Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition To The Cloud Forest Of New Guinea highlights efforts to protect an endangered species through the preservation of a forest habitat. Students can work in small groups to read these texts, noting: the motivations of the individual or organization involved, the focus of advocacy, the pathways / processes of advocacy, the accomplishments, and how efforts are being continued. Bring the conversation back to your local community by finding an individual or organization focused on tree conservation. Invite a speaker to your classroom to discuss this work.

Trees in Your Area. Conduct a tree inventory in your town or neighborhood to get a full range of the tree population. Your local town, city, county, or state forest or park service be a useful resource for getting started. Next, with the help of your local reference librarian or local historical society, find maps of your town or city over the past one hundred and fifty years. What areas of town or neighborhoods within the city still have trees compared to the 19th century? Mid-20th century? Are there any areas that are more forested than they were a century ago because of a decline in farming? What are some ways that your students can take action to further preserve local trees? Are there any particularly old or unique trees that might deserve special status? Are there areas of your town or neighbors in your city that might benefit from additional trees? What can your students do to make this happen? 

Mapping the World’s Trees. Explore the diversity of the tree as a species, investigating a variety of trees from around the world. With your students, create an oversized map of the world and assign students to each continent with the task of researching the trees that grow in this geographic area and creating a three dimensional model of the tree to place on the map. You will want to agree on a common scale so that students can ultimately compare the relative size of the trees as part of a discussion of the relationship between the trees and their climates. Extend this activity by using Google Earth 3D Trees.  

Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to an individual or organization who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” In 2004, Wangari was awarded this prize "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Invite your students to learn more about additional individuals who have been awarded this prize. While the official website for Nobel Prize Laureates provides a wealth of information, you will want to dig deeper, exploring the links between life experiences and the role of advocate for social change.  Picture book biographies of the recipients are an excellent starting point. Familiar prize recipients include:  Barak Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and  Theodore Roosevelt. Begin with biographies of these familiar subject and then explore the work of those recipients to whom students may not yet have been introduced.

“Mining the Back Matter.” More frequently, authors of nonfiction for children are providing additional information in the form of “back matter” in their books. Guide students to examine the back matter in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, creating a two column chart naming the kinds of information found there and describing the benefit of this information to the reader, for example: a timeline provides a broader time framework for the events described in the book. Offer students a collection of nonfiction texts with back matter, listing the variety in kinds of information and formatting that students notice across the texts. If students are composing nonfiction texts themselves, guide them to consider how adding back matter could enhance the text they are creating.

Critical Literacy

Short Term Gain, Long Term Loss: Deforestation. “If the current rate of deforestation were to continue, the earth’s forests would be gone in two hundred years.” This startling quote, found on page 44, has deep implications for the future of our planet. Engage your students in an investigation of deforestation across the globe. Use the digital resources below as a starting point to investigate why deforestation is happening, what products we consume that are produced through deforestation, and what are the potential effects of deforestation. Be sure to tease out the complexities of this issue. As starting point, return to Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees to note how deforestation continued after Kenyans gained independence. Wangari needed to convince her fellow native Kenyans that the long term loss created by cutting trees was greater than the potential short term economic gain. Following an exploration of the issues worldwide, invite students to make connections locally – how can they take a stance on the issue? What can they do to create change? Be sure to find an authentic audience for students’ findings and advocacy statements.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Charlesbridge Activity and Discussion Guide

Time for Kids: Seeds of Hope

Aurelia Fronty: Illustrator Website

National Geographic Photos: Kenya

NYTimes Sunday Book Review: She Speaks for the Trees

Wangari Maathai, The Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai Obituary, The New York Times

Wangari Maathai Obituary, The Guardian, London

“Wangari Maathai: Death of a Visionary,” The British Broadcasting Corporation

Wangari Maathai Biography, The Nobel Prize Official Site

“Taking Root” Documentary of Wangari Maathai

Wengari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture Excerpt, December 2004

NPR Interviews with Wangari Maathai

Nobel Peace Prize

Teaching with Text Sets: Tree Text Set: Digital Resources

The Asahi Glass Foundation: Blue Planet Prize: Dr. Gordon Sato, 2005

Manzanar Mangrove Initiative

The Manzanar Project

National Geographic: 'Mangroves, Forests of the Tide”

Rodrido Baleia: Amazon by Cessna 2008

WSJ: Paradise Lost: Aerial Images of Deforestation in the Amazon

WWF: Deforestation and Climate Change

Google Earth 3D Trees

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations

Forests and Forestry, Times Topics, The New York Times

National Arbor Day Foundation

Forests: Policy and Practice


Florian, D. (2010). Poetrees. Beach Lane Books.

Hopkins, H.J. (2013). The Tree Lady: The True Story Of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever. Illustrated by J. McElmurry. Beach Lane Books.

Johnson, J.C. (2010). Seeds of change: Planting a Path to Peace. Illustrated by S.L. Sadler. Lee & Low.

Montgomery, S. (2006). Quest For The Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition To The Cloud Forest Of New Guinea. Houghton Mifflin.

Napoli, D.J. (2010). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Illustrated by K. Nelson. Simon & Schuster.

Nivola, C.A. (2008). Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Pfeffer, W. (1997). A Log’s Life. Illustrated by R. Brickman. Simon & Schuster.

Roth, S., Trumbore, C. (2011). The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees To Save Families. Ill. by S. Roth. New York: Lee and Low.

Sayre, A. P. (2008). Trout are Made of Trees. Illustrated by K. Endle. Charlesbridge.

Sheehy, S. (2015). Welcome to the Neighborwood. Candlewick Pess.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at

Stewart, M. (2013). No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Illustrated by N. Wong. Charlesbridge.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at

Winter, J. (2014). Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan. Beach Lane Books.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at:

Winter, J. (2008). Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. Harcourt.