The Oldest Student

Hubbard, Rita Lorraine. The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020.
Once in a while, a book soars above the rest. The illustrations convey emotions as well as plot details. The size and style of the font matches the tone of the text and the age of the intended readers. The words sing with the rhythm of a story told over and over aloud, and the design turns it all into a work of brilliance.
This picture book is brilliant right from the beginning. It tells the story of Mary Walker, born a slave in 1848 and growing up to labour in the cotton fields, toil in the Big House, and follow the rules: work, work, work. Do not learn to read. When Mary was fifteen years old, freedom came, but she was desperately poor and still had to work. Mary Walker married, gave birth to a son, was widowed, married again and gave birth to two more sons. Year after year, she kept working and working – and dreaming of being able to decipher the squiggles she saw on billboards and signs. Finally, when she was 114 years old, she decided it was time she learned how to read. And she did!
This inspiring picture book – illustrated by Oge Mora – is most highly recommended for all readers 8 years old and up.

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Little People, Big Dreams

Looking for a series about people who have made a difference in our world?
Looking for books at an easy reading level?

Try Little People, Big Dreams published in English by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Each book in the series – originally written in Spanish – is by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara. The design is simple: a plain font with only a few sentences on each page along with full-page illustrations by a variety of artists. The style is informative rather than poetic and the reading level is suitable for children 8 years old and up. There are several dozen titles, so the the books would be useful for classroom teachers starting students on basic research projects or book reports. However, children who prefer nonfiction reading would also enjoy many of these titles, and therefore they are highly recommended for curious readers 8 to 12 years old.

Available online and in-store from Hemingway’s

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Paper Son

Leung, Julie. Paper Son : the Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019.
In 1919, a nine-year-old boy left his home in China to move to America with his father. Every night on the long voyage across the ocean, he memorized the answers he would need to correctly answer the questions sure to be asked by immigration officials. Years later, after studying art in California, he became one of the animators who helped create Disney’s famous film, Bambi. This beautiful picture book – accompanied by photographs and historical information – is highly recommended for readers 8 years old and up.

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Tillie the Terrible Swede

Stauffacher, Sue. Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

I read Tillie the Terrible Swede, a picture book about a girl who left Sweden to come to America. Most girls came to America with a dream. Tillie was no different. But all she had was a needle. So she worked in a tailor shop and waited for a dream to come find her. One day, a man sped by her shop on a bicycle. Now she had a dream! She dreamed of riding a bicycle, too. But girls were not allowed to ride bicycles. Tillie proved that they could. This picture book biography is recommended for girls who want to be inspired to make a difference in their own world. – Avneet, grade 6 

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Chris Hadfield

Hadfield, Chris and Kate Fillion. The Darkest Dark. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2016.

“Do you know the first Canadian to walk in space? If not, I will tell you all about him.

“On August 29, 1959, Chris Hadfield was born in Sarnia, Ontario. As he grew up, he dreamed of being an astronaut. He studied hard in school and after graduating, he attended military college, earning a degree in mechanical engineering. He then trained as a fighter pilot, but he still dreamed of going into space.

“Nine years later, Space Canada announced it was hiring more astronauts. What great news! Hadfield sent in his application, along with 5000 other people. He waited and waited, What would happen? Would he be chosen? Would he achieve his dream?

“Good news came later that year. Hadfield was chosen as one of four new astronauts to go into space!

“For the next three years, Hadfield spent time practising the systems he would be using in space. Finally, on the day of lift-off, the shuttle blasted off. Hadfield went to space for eight days. In 2001, he went back for a second time and walked in space, creating history.

“Many years later, Hadfield got chosen again. On December 19, 2012, Hadfield took off one more time in the biggest spacecraft ever created! Hadfield was in command this time; he and his crew kept busy, sharing more than one hundred videos. When Hadfield came back to earth a few months later, he had become one of the most famous astronauts in the world!

“Today, Hadfield is retired and spends his time telling people what it is like to be an astronaut. He reminds people to work hard to reach their dreams. He inspires them to be prepared for the adventures of life.” – by Rabia in grade six             

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I want to read!

Bryant, Jen. Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Energetic, impetuous, determined, brilliant. This picture book biography – illustrated by Boris Kulikov – of the young boy who grew up to invent a way for blind people to read is highly recommended for readers of all ages. An author’s note, additional information about Louis Braille, and a bibliography and list of websites are provided at the end of the story.

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