Novel Madness 2018–ROUND TWO

To find out about this contest in my sixth grade classroom, go here. Here are the results of Round One, paired with their new opponents for Round Two, which takes place tomorrow. Good luck!




Matilda by Roald Dahl vs. The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Frindle by Andrew Clements vs. House of Hades by Rick Riordan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate vs. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech vs. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen


Novel Madness 2018

Every year in March, to coincide with basketball’s March Madness, my sixth graders participate in Novel Madness to choose their favorite novel of all time. They brainstorm their top sixteen favorites, then pair up to create persuasive speeches. Here are this year’s top 16:


The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Maze Runner by James Dashner

Holes by Louis Sachar

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Frindle by Andrew Clements

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

The Witches by Roald Dahl

House of Hades by Rick Riordan

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


This is an excellent lineup that includes old favorites like Matilda and Holes, and favorite authors like Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling. This list also include first-time appearances by Chomp, and Fever 1793. Good luck everyone!


I’ll Give You the Sun

jandy-nelson I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson, is one of the best magical realism books I’ve read for Young Adults. It features twins, a boy and a girl, named Noah and Jude. They are coming of age in a world where Jude regularly sees and receives advice from her dead grandmother, and Noah sees the world in the blazing color of possible paintings.

Jude has a ‘bible’ from her grandmother, who referred to God as Clark Gable, that contains spells and proverbs. Jude sums up every situation with one of these bits of wisdom. For example, to avoid serious illness, keep an onion in your pocket.

Both twins have artistic talent, but Noah is exceptionally talented. He’s also a serious misfit at school. This is further complicated when he develops a crush on another boy. All of his observations are punctuated by possible portrait titles. For example, when he’s angry with Jude, he thinks, PORTRAIT: My Spider Sister.

The death of the twins’ mother, as well as Jude and not Noah getting accepted at a special art school, begin to drive the twins apart. The story unfolds as they struggle to find their way back to each other and back to being comfortable in their own skin.

This is a book full of beautiful, lyrical language that evokes strong images. Some of my favorites:

“No woman can resist a man who has tidal waves and earthquakes beneath his skin.”

“Our eyes meet and we both crack up like we’re made of the same air.”

“We’re sprinting at the speed of light when the ground gives way and we rise into the air as if racing up stairs.”


True Love: Reading

booksFour years ago, my summer reading included The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. It changed my life. It also changed the lives of over a hundred students, so far, that have passed through my classroom. Simple truths in Miller’s book brought me to tears because of how deeply they resonated within me. Students don’t learn to love reading by doing worksheets. I know that. So why was I still assigning them? The books students love forever are not the books assigned by teachers. True. I don’t know anyone who has Billy Budd or Candide or (what else did I read in high school and college?) on their all-time favorite reading lists. Not books you admire, not books that made you think, but books that you LOVE and reread and must have on your bookshelf in real paper. The Book Whisperer validated everything I knew to be true about my own love of reading, and it gave me the courage to change.

In July of 2011, I began talking to fellow teachers about it and found others who were just as excited. That summer, a handful of us from a few schools in our district formed a secret club on Facebook. Everyone read the book. Spilling over with ideas, we met to discuss implementation. Doing a good job with Reader’s Workshop meant throwing out the district-approved textbook and workbook. That caused me some trepidation, but I had already seen the power of the workshop approach in writing. So our secret group continued to meet after school started and we began to try this new style of reading instruction.

I developed short lessons that taught the concepts students are required to master: connecting to ideas in the text, identifying main ideas and details, using context clues, etc. Students take these lessons and apply them to their self-selected silent reading books. Every day in class, they read. Once a week, they write me a letter about their reading that shows me how they are applying the skills learned. I continue to be blown away by how their literature analysis grows throughout the year. They now read their textbook only if they choose to. We never open the workbooks.

Parents always ask what they can do to help. It’s much easier for them if there’s a worksheet! The best thing parents can do for their children is to read. Read to the younger ones and with the older ones. I remember sitting with my sons and reading, each of our own book, but together and engaged. Read the same book as your child and discuss themes. You might be surprised at the depth of some of the themes in Young Adult literature!

Not yet convinced? Read this article:

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing, research from The Reading Agency finds

I’ve been very successful at getting my students to read. New challenge: get the parents reading for pleasure!


Excerpt From Under the Almond Trees

From Chapter 8, Ellen 1871final cover

Yellow has always been a color that is sunny, bright, and optimistic. No coincidence then that the suffrage movement has adopted it. This afternoon the hall we rent at the new Unity Church glows yellow. Early spring roses and daffodils, from the gardens of the ladies assembled here, fill tables covered in yellow cloth. The Women’s Suffrage Association gathers in style, as they have for the past year.

Issues raise their heads and roar, each one clouding the main cause of the vote. I support temperance and abolition, but I long to vote. In Santa Cruz, my Women’s Suffrage Association works with the churches and the other ladies’ clubs to bring progress to each of our causes. There is a lot of work to do, but at least suffrage now has a face in our fair town.

“Good evening, Mrs. VanValkenburgh.” The speaker is younger than I am, but a married woman. “So glad to be a part of this fine effort.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hihn, thank you again for coming,” I tell her with a polite smile.

“She says that every month,” L’Amie, standing beside me, whispers.

“Yes, dear sister, but her husband is a member of the County Assembly and has real power to help us.” For two years L’Amie has been back at my side where she belongs.

A few men, mostly husbands of the members, sit in a row of chairs along the back wall. I wish I could measure the depth of their devotion to the cause so as to determine if and when they are willing to act. I fear most are merely waiting for their wives.

Continuing to scan the room, I spot Marion pouring tea at the refreshment table. My oldest daughter has excellent posture, poise, and erudition, and her character is above reproach. Not bad for fifteen years old. When Mama passed three years ago, she left us money that keeps us housed and fed and pays for the simple but stylish dresses we wear. It is not enough, however, to fill the space she left in my heart or to attract a suitor for Marion. My political views are even more of a detriment, and now she has allied herself with the suffragists, possibly sealing her fate as a radical spinster. Her entire life has been molded by strong women with strong ideas, though, and I am proud of the young woman she is becoming.

The president’s gavel brings the meeting to order, and I see Mrs. Hihn hurry to sit with Mrs. Kirby and Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Manor. They are the elite of Santa Cruz society, leaders of every civic group that supports the arts and the downtrodden. Their presence is a benediction, but I need warriors. They’ve not yet proven themselves as such.

“Hundreds of those freed negroes have arrived in Santa Cruz County,” our president, Mrs. Howay, declares with just the right mix of pride and horror.

Having yielded my year-long presidency to the pretty woman with more vision than action, I stifle a groan. Abolition of slavery is a victory, even if it means former slaves will be our neighbors. The women here don’t all agree. Heads nod, but are accompanied by nervous titters. I am tired of nervous titters. I am tired of head nods, too. We must do something to make our struggle visible to the community.

“Actually, the group was not that large.” Marion’s interruption draws attention, and a roomful of skirts rustle as everyone turns toward her. “They joined a negro group already in Watsonville. That is not the issue.”

“She’s magnificent, Ellen,” L’Amie whispers.

I agree. Marion is afire with youthful passion, idealism at its best, clad in one of her first grown-up floor-length skirts.

“What, pray tell, is the issue?” Mrs. Howay’s tone is frostier than it should be. I frown in her direction. All other eyes are on my daughter, who reminds me of L’Amie at the same age.

“The Fifteenth Amendment has been ratified. Those negroes will be voting on our new trustee.” Silence follows her words, and I know Marion has captured them. Everyone’s face reflects outraged horror at the idea of negro men being able to vote but not fine upstanding female citizens. The trustee election will put a new member on the board that runs our county and our town.

“Whatever will we do?” A theatrical gasp punctuates Mrs. Howay’s words. It’s a blatant attempt to retake control of the meeting. It doesn’t work.

Marion is young. She has made her observation, but has no idea what to do now. She looks to me, panic starting to show on her face. Last year, when I started this organization, I was proud to serve as its first president. The ladies are eager to attend the meetings, but they dither about like a flock of chickens with a dog in the pen—lots of noise and motion, but no progress. They read the newspapers from New York and San Francisco. They held a grand party when Wyoming women won the vote in 1867, and they elected Mrs. Howay for our second president. Clearly they are lost. They need a leader. I step forward.

“The Fourteenth Amendment clearly states that all persons born in the United States are citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying citizens the right to vote.” At my words Marion smiles with relief, and the others are listening. “I think we should take advantage of that and register to vote in the next election.”

A cacophony of clucking erupts.

“But those amendments were meant for the negroes!”

“Can we do that?”

“The Sentinel would support us.”

“The Surf would ridicule us!”

“My husband would not approve.”

That last comment deadens the room. More than one of the ladies present agrees, or suspects it’s true. I’m not sure how many will risk disapproval that will rock their homes, but I must continue. “We can sit here and sip tea, whining about what we want, or we can go get it. Some of our opponents say that women wouldn’t vote if they had the right. We can refute that. The election is in April. That gives us a month.”

Mrs. Howay proves she has worth. “An excellent idea, Mrs. VanValkenburgh. Shall we vote on the idea?”

A motion is quickly made and seconded. It passes. We’ll be showing up to vote at the trustee election. Somber faces look at me.

“All of us?” I ask.

“I don’t think that will happen,” a reluctant voice near Marion says.

“Maybe we can elect a representative,” suggests Mrs. Howay.

Everyone’s already looking at me. They continue to do so as my name is suggested, a motion made and seconded, and the vote taken. Not long ago, L’Amie would have been included, but she is to be married later this week. She will be on her wedding trip during my attempt to register for the vote.

“Mrs. Ellen VanValkenburgh will be our representative. She will present herself to the registrar’s office for the next election.” I can’t decide if Mrs. Howay is proud of me or relieved they didn’t ask this of her.

A wail from the back corner announces that my younger children are bored with the proceedings and beginning to bicker. At nine, Henry’s main source of amusement seems to be eliciting a shriek from his twelve-year-old sister, usually with a pinch. Ellie obliges, her blue eyes outraged. Marion hurries over to chastise her brother and soothe her sister, but the mood is broken and the meeting adjourns.



Novel Madness 2014

book turning pages_animated


First Round Winners have been determined in my students’ quest to find their favorite book of 2014. Winners are listed below, with new opponents for the next debate on March 26! Stay tuned!

The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
by Marissa Meyer
by Veronica Roth
by Christopher Paolini
Sea of Monsters
by Rick Riordan

The Candy Shop War
by Brandon Mull
The Two Towers
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Novel Madness 2014

book turning pages_animatedNOVEL MADNESS is here again! This annual contest crowns my students’ all-time favorite book. In teams of six, they brainstormed titles. The initial list was 25 books. As a class, they voted on the top sixteen. Although some favorites are consistent, new titles appeared too. Hunger Games and Holes are  here for the third time. Maze of Athena, Hobbit, Pie, Cinder, and Lightning Thief are all making their second appearance.

On Monday, March 21, 2013, pairs of students will present arguments in favor of the book they’ve selected. The class will vote, eliminating half the books in the first round. Click on the book’s title to read the students’ persuasive essays, intended to influence their classmates’ vote. Stay tuned here for the results!

The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien
by Brandon Mull
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Mark of Athena
by Rick Riordan
by Louis Sachar
by Veronica Roth
The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan
by Marissa Meyer
by Christopher Paolini      
Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
The Sea of Monsters
by Rick Riordan
No Talking
by Andrew Clements
The Candy Shop War
by Brandon Mull
by Karin Rita Gastreich
The Two Towers
by J.R.R. Tolkien
by Sarah Weeks

Click HERE to see the winners of Round One!

About Reading

Book Lover Problems


Lists like this exist in a lot of places on the Internet, but these problems speak to the true heart of any book lover so I’d like to share my top ten book lover problems.

1. When you finish a book and have to wait a year  (or longer) for the sequel. As an author, I appreciate the difficulty of cranking out more than one novel a year, but as a reader I want them to appear more frequently–maybe monthly? weekly?

2. When someone says you read too much. Who are they to decide on ‘too much’? Do they play too many video games or spend too much time on sports? Obviously, ‘too much time’ is an irrelevant notion to a true lover of books.

3. When you forget to eat or sleep because a book is so good. Or you do fall asleep and dream yourself into the story. Ah, exquisite torture!

4. When someone interrupts your reading. I remember one of the Harry Potter books that was released on my birthday. I received the book as a gift, but also uninterrupted time to read it. I curled on the couch and lost myself for twelve hours. Bliss.

5. When someone asks you to pick your favorite book and you can’t pick just one. My students are always asking for my favorite book. I can say I love historical fiction and fantasy, but once I start remembering great books the titles spill from me. Choosing one just seems unfair to the rest of them.

6. When someon tells you they don’t like to read. My first reaction is, “Oh, we’ll change THAT by the end of the year!” And we usually do. If not, I am truly saddened.

7. When your favorite character dies. In one book, it’s unexpected, but if you’ve followed a character through a series then that character’s death is a blow.

8. When someone spoils the ending of a book. Sure, I’ll continue to read it anyway, but something special is missing if I already know how it’s going to go. I don’t tell you the score of the game you recorded, do I?

9. When you lend someone a book and get it back in terrible condition or not al all. As a teacher, I lend books every day. I see students laying them face down on the desk or stuffing them inside it. Covers get rumpled and torn. I don’t mind well-loved usage, but neglect gets me angry. Even worse is if it’s not returned at all. It’s not unusual for me to lose 100 books a year out of my classroom library.

10. When a book makes you cry in public and everyone thinks you’re crazy. One of the books I sometimes read aloud to my class is Where the Red Fern Grows. I have a big note on it: Don’t read chapter 19 aloud! That is the chapter where the boy’s beloved dogs die, and I simply can’t read it without crying. Every time.

That’s my top ten. Which resonated with you? Do you have any other book lover problems? feel free to share in comments!

About Reading

Evidence in the Text

readerAs California begins the process of adopting the federal Common Core Standards, teachers are required to examine their teaching. The Common Core, as I understand it so far, focuses on teaching content in a deeper way. Students will be required to think critically, be creative, collaborate, and communicate. Much of this we already do.

In my district this year, we are focusing students on providing evidence from the text for their conclusions. In my Reading Workshop, students write letters to me once a week about what they are reading. They are required to respond to my last letter to them, summarize oh so briefly the section they read this week, and fill one page of thoughts about their thinking–supported with evidence from the text.

Here is an example of a student letter (even cooler because it’s about my novel!):

Dear Mrs. Ulleseit,

Thank you for complimenting me on last week’s letter. I really did try to include all the points you covered in class. You make it so easy because you read us so many books.

This week I continued reading In the Winds of Danger by Linda Ulleseit. In this section, Nia has an encounter with Jenett, pregnant wife of the barn leader.

Early on, the text says, “With her snarkiest tone, Nia asked, ‘Having a bad morning, Jenett?'” This tells me that Nia is upset with Jenett. When I use a snarky tone with my mother, it’s usually because she’s not letting me do something I want to do. I love and respect her, but I am upset with her. Since Jenett is the wife of Nia’s barn leader, Nia probably respects her. In this section, however, Jenett is spying on her and acting weird. Nia is self-conscious and ends up being snarky.

Showing how different Nia is with Jenett than other characters, there are more friendly interactions with Gregory and Ana. When Nia is in the tavern, she approaches Ana and politely asks to join her. Ana agrees, and the text says, “Ana sounded delighted.” Clearly Ana likes Nia. Later in the chapter, when Jenett stalks off after a confrontation with Nia, Geoffrey asks Nia if she’s okay. A bit later, he leaves her some flowers and a nice note. These are things boys do if they like you, which Geoffrey wouldn’t if Nia wasn’t nice to him.

I predict Nia and Geoffrey will work together to start a new barn that will dominate the Aerial Games. The text has already said that Nia will lead. It’s only a matter of who she will work for. I think she will work for Geoffrey.


(Susie Student)


This student referred to the text and quoted it in a couple of places. Nice job! Bring on the Common Core. My students are ready!

Teaching Reading

Like TV With Words

Recently I had the opportunity to interview a variety of students for our school yearbook. The questions ranged from favorite subject to future goals. One young girl responded eagerly when I asked what her favorite subject was. “Reading,” she told me. “It’s like watching TV except you have to read the words.” This is a student I want in my class when she reaches sixth grade!

Visualizing is a key concept in reading, and not all readers do it the same way with every book. If you can see a picture in your head while you read, it makes the text more interesting and more memorable. That, in turn, leads to comprehension. Some books pull the reader in more deeply, and you can visualize scenes as if you were watching a movie. The very best books envelop you so completely that you are actually in the scene. These are the books that make you gasp when the monster jumps out from hiding.

When visualization is taught in the classroom, many teachers have students draw a picture of what comes to mind as they read. This encourages students to pay attention to the setting details so they can draw the background and time of day or season. It also means they have to know which characters are present, and where they are in relation to each other. All of this is very important for understanding the scene.

This is a wonderful beginning, but I want my students to visualize more deeply. They are used to action, to movies and video games that move. I want books to move for them, too. The second stage of visualization is to imagine the story moving before you like a TV show or a movie. Having students draw a comic strip or a storyboard encourages this type of thinking. They can follow the story as the characters move from the park to the library, payin attention to details like how the characters got there. Did they go in a car? Who drove? Understanding character motivation and relationships is important for this type of visualization.

The pinnacle of visualization, however, is dependent upon a wonderfully written book. Some books never reach this level, no matter how hard you try to stuff yourself into them. The best books are the ones where, long after you put them down, you are thinking of yourself interacting with the characters in the scene. While reading, the world around you disappears and the world of the written word surrounds you. If you can read the words and put yourself into the world, you can imagine what is in the scene that the author didn’t tell you about, what should be there based on what you are told. You can hear cars rushing along the streets or smell the heat off the asphalt. Most importantly, when the protagonist faces the antagonist, you wield the sword right next to them. These are the books you remember, and the ones you recommend to your friends with an enthusiastic, “Oh, this was so good!”

The most recent YA books that have been that good for me are Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Cinder by Marissa Myers.

What are the most recent books you’ve read that make you feel that way?