Friday, June 30, 2017

DNA Extraction STEAM Program

STEAM Program, DNA
This week I got to re-visit my former career as a research microbiologist and introduce kids to molecular biology with a crude DNA extraction experiment. DNA extraction is something I used to do routinely in my work which involved sequencing, cloning, and engineering DNA as a part of HIV research and vaccine development in my previous life.

While the procedures I used were a little bit more complicated and required sterile conditions in order to have DNA of the purity required for further use and analysis, this procedure is simple, uses ordinary household materials, and yields impressive amounts of DNA due to the unique octoploid nature of commercially-grown stawberries. As a result of hydbridization, this variety of strawberry has eight copies of each chromosome, rather that the usual two. I combined this experiment with a simple DNA model construction activity, viewing strawberry cells, stained human chromosomes, and our extracted DNA under the microscope, as well as extension activities to try later in the classroom or at home. 

I began with a very brief explanation of what DNA was and how the 4 bases create 3-letter "words" and that this code controls everything that goes on in the cell, and thus your body, much like code controls what a computer does. I also showed a diagram of the cell, explaining how the DNA is inside the nucleus, and that we were going to use detergent to break down the lipid cell & nuclear membranes to release the DNA, and then precipitate it with alcohol so that we could see it.

Recommended Ages: 8 to 16

Recommended Group Size: No more than 20

Time: 1-1/4 hour for all activities (allow more time for a larger group)

Budget: TBD, but low if you disregard the microscope & prepared slides


DNA Extraction STEAM Program

  • Strawberries (other soft fruits can work, but strawberries yield the most DNA)
  • Zip-lock bags (sandwich or pint sized)
  • Water (I just used tap water)
  • Dawn dish detergent (original)
  • Salt, not iodized
  • Small plastic cup
  • 4-Cup coffee filter
  • Rubber band
  • Cold isopropyl alcohol (either 70% or 91% will work)
  • Clear plastic test tube, vial, medicine cup, or shot “glass” (optional)
  • Coffee stirrer or bamboo skewer (not pictured)
  • Graduated cylinders or measuring cup & spoons


1. Prepare Lysis Buffer. For every 100 ml of buffer (about 3 oz), mix 90 ml of water with 10 ml (1 Tbsp) of detergent, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Let sit at room temperature until bubbles subside.

DNA Extraction STEAM Program

2. Place 1 large strawberry (or 2 small-medium) in a zip-lock bag, squeeze all the air out and seal. Then start squishing the strawberry with your hands and fingers until no large chunks remain.

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

3. Add 15 ml (or 1 Tbsp) of the Lysis Buffer (we pre-measured it and gave it to them in small cups) to the smashed strawberry in bag and mix gently; do not create foam. Let sit for 2-3 minutes.

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

3. Meanwhile, prepare the cup and filter. Push the coffee filter partially into the cup, folding the top inch or so over the side and securing with a rubber band. Then pour contents of zip-lock bag into the filter and let drip for 15-20 minutes. [It may need a little "help" by VERY gently stirring with a plastic spoon, but you must be very careful not to tear or puncture the filter!]

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

4. Once you have enough liquid to cover the bottom of the cup, carefully remove and discard the filter and remaining contents. This is the step we had the most accidents as the kids would tip the cups over or spill the contents of the filter. The remaining liquid is your filtrate. Optional (but recommended): transfer filtrate to a smaller, clear container for better observation.

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

5. Measure out 10-15 ml (1 Tbsp) of alcohol and carefully pour down the side of the cup so that it forms a separate layer on top of the filtrate, and observe over the next 10 minutes or so as the DNA comes out of solution and is pulled into the alcohol layer as it precipitates. (We measure the alcohol and helped them pour it properly.) Remind the kids not to breathe directly over the cup once the alcohol has been added.

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

6. At first, a cloudy layer and a few tiny bubbles will form at the interface of the alcohol and filtrate, then as the DNA precipitates, it floats higher up in the alcohol layer and pulls more DNA filaments with it. It first appears as a somewhat gelatinous stringy mass.

Strawberry DNA Extraction Program

7. As the DNA preciptates, it become white, condenses, and floats towards the top of the alcohol layer and is very visible. If desired, spool out some of the DNA with a stirrer or skewer. You can make a wet mount and look at it under the microscope, but there really isn't much to see, especially without a stain; it will just look like a clear, beige stringy mass.

Strawberry DNA extraction, STEM STEAM programs, biotech for kids
(Click on any image to view larger version)

DNA Model
Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program

While we were waiting for the strawberry mush to filter, we moved to another table and made models of DNA using Twizzlers, mini-marshmallows in 4 different colors, and toothpicks. The Twizzlers represent the ribophosphate backbone, or sides of the ladder, and each color of marshmallow represents one of the bases that make up the rungs: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. Remember to designate which base each color of marshmallow corresponds to, and that A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C on the rungs.

As they worked on the models, I talked a little more about how the 4 bases made up the genetic code, in 3-letter words called codons, and that these "words" are what tell the cell what to do and determine all of our physical characteristics. First they constructed the ladder, then simply grabbed each end and twisted to form the double helix. It does not hold the twist very long, however. We gave them zip-lock bags to put them in to take home.

Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM Program


Strawberry DNA Extraction STEAM ProgramWe also introduced them to the microscope. I sliced a very thin sliver of a strawberry and mounted it on a slide so that they could see the strawberry cells. These are unstained, so many of the organelles are not visible, but if you look closely you can see the nucleus (where the DNA is contained) and vacuoles. I also bought a prepared slide of stained animal (not sure if it's human or not) cells, showing one with an intact nucleus next to one that is getting ready to divide. The nucleus has broken down and the DNA condensed into chromosomes, which are visible when stained (the photo is blurry because it is very hard to take a picture through the microscope with a phone!
Extracting Strawberry DNA Library STEAM Program

Extension Activities

DNA Extraction STEAM Program
I had originally planned to have them do this origami DNA model that was developed by Dr. Alex Bateman, one of the researchers at the Sanger Institute, because I thought it turned out really well and wasn't that difficult (and I generally don't have the patience for origami). But, in the end we decided it might be too hard for kids to do, and substituted the candy model instead, which we knew they could do and knew they would enjoy. 

So, I sent the origami home with them instead. It comes in two versions, one already colored in with corresponding bases, or a blank one to color yourself, plus instructions. Links to the files are below:
There is also a video corresponding to the folding directions above by Dr. Bateman:

And another that shows a slightly different approach to doing the same thing (ignore the inaccurate rainbow coloration). It is in Spanish, but you really don't need the narrative, just watch the video:

I also gave them the written protocol for the extraction experiment so they could repeat it at home, with suggestions to try other soft fruits and compare the DNA yield to that of the strawberries [Spoiler: it will be less].

How It Went

I was excited for this program, and having a chance to put my previous degree & career to use, and just hoped the kids would enjoy it. I imagine that much of the information about DNA was a little over their heads, but hopefully at least introducing them to it will make it easier for them to learn later. I wasn't sure if they were at all familiar with DNA yet, so I tested them by telling them my dress would give them a clue as to what our experiment was about. To my surprise, a couple of them did recognize the DNA pattern (yes, I was channeling Miss Frizzle!).

They did really seem to like it. You mix things together and something happens, and even if you don't quite understand everything going on, it is still cool to watch. Several of them wanted to know if they could touch their DNA after they spooled it out, though others were a little squeamish about it. The yield they got from this batch of strawberries was particularly high and quite impressive! Even my boss, who is not a science person, thought it was cool.

We had 11 kids between the ages of 6 and 10 (this would be even better for a slightly older group). Of course they loved making the candy model of DNA, and though they weren't allowed to eat any of the candy there (this facility has extremely strict rules about food being healthy, organic, and locally sourced), they were allowed to take it home and let their parents decide if they could eat it.

Some were really interested in looking through the microscope, and others couldn't quite get the hang of it, but again, it was a good introduction (and a brand new toy for me, courtesy of my awesome manager). Now I need to come up with some other programs to make use of my new toy. I'm thinking something along the lines of The Fungus Among Us, Life In A Pond, Germs & Hygiene....Blood looks really cool under the microscope, but I'm not sure how to incorporate that into a program yet.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Trying Something Out - Changes Coming

When I first started this blog, it was focused solely on early literacy, storytime, and picture books. Then I decided I wanted to write posts about other topics, such as middle-grade and YA literature, STEAM programming, and more general topics like customer service, collection development, profession development, etc., so I started a separate blog called Jen's Library Tales. Unfortunately, that blog never really got any traction, and I'm finding it very hard to find time to keep up with two blogs.

I've been on the fence about what to do for the last year. Keep both blogs and continue limping along with the second one and hope it eventually gains readership, drop the second blog and just blog about early literacy and storytime, or somehow try to integrate the two? I hate to completely drop the second blog, because I really want to share my STEAM programs, and a few other things. I've gone back and forth, and I'm really wishing I had had a better vision of what I would eventually want to do at the beginning because now I have a very focused domain name, but now want to include more, but don't want to start all over with a new name, either.

I am going to experiment with keeping the name, but expanding the description and including some of the things I had been putting on the other blog, primarily STEAM programming and occasional commentary about various library-related topics and experiences, and switching to using Goodreads for most book reviews.

So, you may notice a bit more diversity in content, and some slight changes in menus and organization. I won't delete the old blog, but will probably stop posting new content, and if I think this integration is going to work, I will eventually copy some of the existing content back to this blog. 

So, does this sound like a good plan? Please comment! Will an expanded scope be confusing, distracting, or inspiring?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Unusual Things, or, A Hastily Planned Storytime Without an [Intentional] Theme

So the last two weeks have been really crazy with planning and conducting extra summer STEAM programs for the school-aged kids. I hate to admit it, but I had no chance to plan my storytime for today, and found myself at home on Thursday night with no plan, and no books pulled, so the theme was going to have to be "Whatever Books Miss Jennifer Happens to Own and Feels Like Doing"!

So I looked through my rather small collection of picture books, and pulled out an old favorite, Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant, and a more recent discovery, Hieronymus Betts and His Unusual Pets. My daughter loved Froggy, so we have several Froggy books, and I selected Froggy Learns To Swim since it was summer and some of the kids were likely taking lessons or had at least been to the pool. As I looked at them, I realized I had unintentionally created a loose theme of "Unusual Things", with a very unusual plant, unusual pets, and a frog who can't swim (that's unusual, right?).

We started with our welcome song and brief introduction, then sang our story song to help us get focused and ready for our first book, Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant. I have always loved this lesser known story by H. A. Rey, creator of Curious George, partly because I've always been fascinated by carnivorous plants. 

But it's also a cute, funny story told in a pleasant rhyming text that has a great rhythm for reading aloud, and it has some great vocabulary words, like: carnivorous, botanist, frankfurter, and laboratory.

I also showed them a picture of a real carnivorous plant, the Venus FlyTrap, then we talked about the ordinary flowers we see growing around the daycare, and did a cute little action rhyme about planting a rose:
Plant A Seed

Dig a little hole, plant a little seed.

Pour a little water, pull a little weed.

Chase a little bug. Look, there he goes!

Give a little sunshine, grow a little rose.

I told them to smell the rose, and one little girl said it would make you sneeze if you were allergic. I said that was true, but these are pretend roses, so they won't make you sneeze. And of course when we repeated it, about half the group sneezed after smelling their pretend rose, and thought they were soooo funny! 

Next we moved from unusual plants to unusual animals with Hieronymus Betts and his Unusual Pets by M. P. Robertson. I came across this book a couple of years ago, and I love it! Hieronymus Betts has some very ususual pets, like a slugapotamus, a sabre-toothed rhino-toad, a porcupython, and a whatchamacalit! 

But, guess what is even slimier, louder, greedier, scarier, fiercer, stinkier, and stranger than all of those?? Very funny with some fun nonsense words, imaginative illustrations, and an unexpected twist at the end.

Next, we talked about what kinds of pets (and little brothers) we all had, and since most of the kids had dogs, we followed up with singing a round of "B-I-N-G-O"; after the first verse substituting a clap for a letter, and repeating until we were clapping all five letters, and finishing by singing a final verse saying and clapping each letter.


There was a farmer who had a dog,
and BINGO was his name-oh.
B - I - N - G - O,
B - I - N - G - O,
B - I - N - G - O,
And BINGO was his name-oh!

Our final book was Froggy Learns To Swim by Jonathan London & Frank Remkiewicz. What could be more unusual that a frog who doesn't know how to swim and is afraid of the water?? This is a great summer-time read, as many of the kids are going to the pool or beach, and some are taking swimming lessions, so they can relate. It is also very interactive, as they can join in saying "Bubble, bubble; Toot, toot" and "Chicken, airplane, soldier" as well as doing the arm motions. And of course everyone will get a big laugh when Froggy looses his swimsuit!

We finished with our closing song and passed out stickers.

How It Went 
I'll be honest, I did feel a little guilty for putting so little thought into this week's storytime. But you know what? It ended up coming together amazingly well, and not only were the kids clueless about how quickly I threw it together, they really enjoyed it and listened very attentively to the stories! This is one skill for which I have my current position to thank. I also do a mobile storytime, with as many as 6 back-to-back storytimes a day, with ages ranging from 3 to 5. I have a bin full of books to use, and have to do everything on the fly, adjusting to each class, with no real planning. This job has really helped me to learn not to obsess and over-plan things, and how to go with the flow, making last minute changes when needed, which is a wonderful skill to have!

The kids really liked everything we did! They listened very well and were really engaged in everything. They were fascinated by the idea of carnivorous plants, and predictably laughed when Elizabite bit the maid's butt. The loved all of Hieronymus Betts' fantastic pets, and enjoyed sharing what pets they had. They sung along with "BINGO" and planted seeds with the rhyme, and really got into joining Froggy saying "Bubble, bubble; Toot, toot" and "Chicken, airplane, soldier" as well as doing the motions. And of course they thought it was hilarious when Froggy lost his swimsuit.

So it turned out to be a great storytime, after all.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Flannel Friday Round-up for 6-16-17

Here's the Round-Up for June 16th, such as it is. As of 10:00 PM EDT, there is still only one lonely submission. If anyone else has anything to add, go ahead and put your link in the comments on Saturday, and I'll add it!
Kate of "Felt Board Magic" has our lone submission for this week with a "Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat" party hat hide-and-seek game, presumably inspired by the ever-popular "Little Mouse" game. This could be used to discuss colors and patterns, and would fit with a variety of themes, such as cats, birthdays, parties, hats, colors, etc. There is also a link to purchase the pattern if you need one. 

Visit the Flannel Friday Pinterest Board for past Round-Up's and tons of inspiration. For more information about Flannel Friday and how to participate, visit the Flannel Friday site.

The Ups and Downs of Library Programming

This week was a roller-coaster ride of successful and not-so-successful programs. There is nothing like the high you get from a successful program, but there is also nothing like the low from an unsuccessful one, and it's even worse when that same program was previously successful.

On Wednesday we repeated my "DoodleBot" program from last year. This program uses the motor from cheap electric toothbrushes, pool noodles, and markers to build a simple "robot" that creates art. When I did this program last year, it was a huge hit. There was a little bit of troubleshooting, but it was not a major issue, and it has been my most popular blogpost.

This time around, we had lots of problems. To start with, it was a much larger group (35 versus 10), probably too large for a program of this type, that is a little more complex and sophisticated, and prone to bugs. Second, we were expecting 35 kids, but they were supposed to have several teen aides to help, along with the camp director and the three of us from the library. So, we thought we would have enough help and supervision to handle a group this size. But, then the teen counselors decided they wanted to make their own DoodleBot, which brought our number of particpants up to 40, and reduced our "adult" help to 4, and stretched our very limited supplies past what we were prepared for.

Then, after the kids finished personalizing their bots and were ready for the motor, at least half the motors wouldn't work right! For some reason, the connections were being much more finicky that before, and were loosening or shifting just enough to break the flow of current through the circuit. This had happened before, but not to the extent it did this time. The motors would only work intermittently, and this particular group was not as good at problem-solving on their own as the previous, so were constantly getting upset and asking for help. It was a very frustrating experience for me, the kids, and my co-workers, and I felt completely defeated.

I still do not understand why we had so much more trouble this time around. The bot prototype I made that has been sitting on my desk for a year still works fine. So, I have a lot of trouble-shooting and creative problem solving ahead of me with this one.

Since we did not really have enough motors left because of the extra participants, and I didn't have enough time to get them all working again, I decided to change gears at the last minute for Friday's program at a different location and do my "Mirror, Mirror" program, which has the demonstration of a couple of cool special effects using mirrors and reflection, followed by making kaleidoscopes. For complete details, see my previous post.

I LOVE this program! It is very cheap, uses easily obtainable supplies, relatively easy, no complicated prep, it really can't go wrong, and the kids really like it! So yesterday I quickly got everything together, and the program was a big hit. At first I could tell the kids (16 kids around ages 8-10) weren't thrilled to have to put away their games and come sit at the tables for the program, and were thinking "this is going to be lame". But when I showed them the mirascope's holographic image projection and the infinity mirror, they started coming around.

By the end, we heard exclamations of "So cool!" over and over, and several asked how long we were staying and if we were coming back next week! They were trading back and forth, looking at each others' designs and patterns. I really like how all their kaleidoscopes looked different, and that no matter how much or little time they put in their designs, they still looked cool when you looked through the kaleidoscope. Here are some of their kaleidoscopes:

And here are some of the images they created (if you look closely at the second one on the bottom row you will see a dinosaur in the pattern):

I am so glad I got to end the week on a positive note, but I am still really bummed and frustrated that we had so much trouble with the Doodlebot program after it worked well the previous time. If you want more details and step-by-step of what we did, check out my previous "DoodleBot" and "Mirror, Mirror" posts.

Now, off to take a nap, then relax and read a book before I tackle trouble-shooting tomorrow...

Friday, June 9, 2017

We Love Dinosaurs!

I think almost everyone is fascinated by dinosaurs as a kid, and some of us never outgrow it. I had a serious interest in paleontology, but realized it wasn't the most practical career choice. But I still love dinosaurs, and do at least one round of dinosaur stories every year.

We started with our welcome song, then I introduced the topic, and quickly moved to our story song before they could get too worked up since they were all sitting so nicely when I got there.

For our first book I choose one that is kind of silly and always attention getting, Ten Little Dinosaurs by Pattie Schnetzler and Jim Harris. I love this book! It is fun to read, and has wonderful illustrations, and counts down from 10 to 0 with rhyming quatrains, but best of all, it is big spherical wiggly eyes that really bring the dinosaurs to life. Each page has die cut holes for the eyes to fit through, so each dinosaur has them. The kids love this! It is a bit of a pain when it comes to shelving or stacking this book, but so worth it! There are other versions without the wiggle eyes that would be more practical for shelving in a circulating collection, but for an office or personal collection, I would definitely want the eyes!

I followed that with the "Ten Big Dinosaurs" counting song to count up to 10, then back down, for extra counting and fine motor practice.

Ten BIG Dinosaurs

One big, two big, three big dinosaurs,
Four big, five big, six big dinosaurs,
Seven big, eight big, nine big dinosaurs,
Ten big dinosaurs!

They all lived a long, long time ago,
They all lived a long, long, time ago,
The all lived a long, long time ago.
Now there are no more.

Ten big, nine big, eight big dinosaurs,
Seven big, six big, five big dinosaurs,
Four big, three big, two big dinosaurs, 
One big dinosaur!

Next up was another fun book kids always love, Snappy Little Dinosaurs by Dugald Steer. If you don't already know, the Snappy Little... books are a great series of pop-up books on many different subjects. I think they are currently out of print, but you could try buying used copies, just look for sellers that have high ratings and clearly describe the condition of the pop-ups. 

This book has big, bright pop-ups, along with the scientific names for each dinosaur and a rhyming text. Sometimes I read the text, sometimes I just show the pictures, have them repeat the name, and talk about the type of dinosaur (which is what I did this time).

We followed that with a song, and then an action rhyme, that let us act like dinosaurs:

The Dinosaur Goes...
(to the tune of "Wheels On The Bus")

Tyrannosaurus rex goes roar, roar, roar;
Roar, roar, roar; roar, roar, raor
Tyrannsaurus rex goes roar, roar, roar;
All day long.

The pteranodon's wings go flap, flap, flap....

The velociraptor goes run, run, run....

The brontosaurus' feet go stomp, stomp, stomp....

The mosasaurus' tail goes splash, splash, splash....

The triceratops goes munch, munch, munch....


Long Ago

Dinosaurs lived long ago.
Some walked, 
Some swam, 
And some flew, you know.

Some were big,
Some were small.
Some were gigantic,
V-e-r-y tall!

Our last story was Dinosaurs After Dark by Jonathan Emmett and Curtis Jobling. Little Bobby is in bed when he hears a noise outside. When he looks outside, he sees a dinosaur walking by! Bobby rushes out and follows him downtown, where there are dinosaurs everywhere. First they want to eat him, but then decide to let him play for a while first.

 A cute story with bright, simple illustrations with black outlines, and a twist at the end. The kids may not get the twist at the end, or may not agree on what it means, but either way it is still a cute story that they will enjoy.

I finished up by re-iterating that dinosaurs are now extinct, and all we have left is their fossilized bones. I explained that "fossilized" meant the bones had been changed to stone, and went on to tell them that bones weren't the only fossils that dinosaurs left behind; there are also fossilized eggs, and fossilized dinosaur......POOP! I told them it even had a special name, "coprolite", and reminded them since it was fossilized that meant it had turned to stone, so it wasn't messy or stinky anymore.

Then we sang our closing song and passed out stickers.

How It Went

Today was an awesome storytime! Probably one of the best in a while. When I got there the kids were all seated and waiting for me, very calm and quiet, and they did a much better job listening today than the last couple of times. Of course with a theme of Dinosaurs, they did get a little loud out times, but were never out of control.

The LOVED the Ten Little Dinosaurs with the big googly eyes and all the sillyness, and cracking up laughing hysterically everytime I turned the page. The also laughed at how each dinosaur was called a silly name, like "bonehead" for Pachycephalosaurus and "nut brain" for Stegasaurus, and I paused to explain how those names were based on characteristics of each dinosaur. 

Snappy Little Dinosaurs was a big hit, too, with the pretending to be scared as each one popped out at them. They didn't really see the twist in the ending of Dinosaurs After Dark, but enjoyed the story anyway. And they had a lot of fun acting like dinosaurs with the songs and rhymes.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Glad That's Over!

So as you may or may not know, I started an MLIS program last fall, focusing on public libraries and youth services. This May I took a crazy, intense 3-week class in Multicultural Youth Literature. Let me tell you, I don't recommend it! Taking a regular class crammed into 3-weeks that is; the pace and workload were grueling, and I don't think I got as much out of it as if it had been a full semester class. However, I highly recommend a course in Multicultural Literature for all librarians, but especially youth services. 

In just 3 weeks, we had to write 16 critical book reviews, participate in 5 online discussions, write two 2-page papers, and a big bibliography project. Fortunately, the professor gave us the reading list in advance, so I was able to obtain and read all the books before class started (luckily, I read very fast). But, I did learn a lot about selecting diverse literature. I've had a few people ask for the reading list out of curiousity, so I thought I'd go ahead and post it here, with a very brief mini-review of each, starting with picture books. 

Each of these books is written by a cultural "insider", and most (if not all) have received literary awards that consider quality and authenticity. I've put an asterisk on the ones I particularly liked (there were only two I really didn't like).

Picture Books

*Let's Talk About Race (2005), by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour. 

Julius Lester explains the concept of race and racism in simple, age appropriate terms, without emotion or blame. He explains that we each have our own story, and that race is one part of that story. He goes on to say that some people try to say that their race is better than others, but that story is not true, and that under our skin we are all the same.

I think this is an excellent book for introducing the topic of race and racism with children.

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Chocktaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom (2006), by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges.

Tim Tingle, a recognized Choctaw storyteller and author, tells an Old Choctaw tale about a friendship that developed between a slave family and a Choctaw tribe, and how the Choctaw helped them escape to freedom across the Bok Chitto River.

An interesing legend, and shows how people of different races help each other.

Just A Minute: A Trickster's Tale and Counting Book (2003), by Yuyi Morales.

Senior Calavera (similar to the Grim Reaper) has arrived to escort Grandma Beetle "home", but she is not quite ready to go, and keeps asking him for "just a minute" to finish up another chore, culminating in her birthday party and Senior Calavera deciding to leave her with her granchildren.

Authentic illustrations, and counting from 1 to 10 in both Spanish and English.

Lailah's Lunchbox (2015), by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Lea Lyon.

Lailah has just moved from Abu Dhabi to Peachtree, Georgia, and is excited that she is going to be allowed to fast for Ramadan for the first time. But then she begins to worry about how to explain to her new teacher and classmates why she can't eat lunch, and takes refuge in the library, where the librarian helps her find the right words.

A great story for explaining what Ramadan is all about to children that is culturally authentic.

Heather Has Two Mommies (2015, first published in 1991), by Leslea Newmann, illustrated by Laura Cornell.

Heather has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two pets, and two mommies. On her first day of school she enjoys making new friends, playing at different centers, and snack time. During circle time the children talk about their parents and Heather realizes she is the only one with two mommies, and wonders if she is the only one without a daddy. But they all learn that every family is different, and special, and that all that matters is they love each other.

Middle Grade

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (2017), by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette.

This book tells about Fred Korematsu, who was interred along with many other Japanese-Americans during WWII, and filed suit against the U.S. Though he initially lost, many years later the case was reopened after evidence was discovered showing the U.S. attorneys had lied, and ultimately the case was decided in favor of Korematsu.

An important subject, but I didn't care for this particular book. It is told in alternating formats, one in free verse, and the other a jumble of historic facts, events, pictures, and timelines. Informative, but hard to read because of the lack of continuity, and Fred was portrayed as more of a legendary hero, in a superficial, flat way rather than as a real person. I would look for better books on this subject before buying this one, but it's OK.

*Amina's Voice (2017), by Hena Kahn.

This tells the story of Amina, the child of Pakistani immigrants, who loves to sing but is too shy to perform, and is dealing with all the changes that middle school brings. Her best friend Soojin is thinking of changing her name to something more "American" and has suddenly started acting chummy with their former "enemy". She also has to adjust to her much more conservative uncle visiting from Pakistan, and their community mosque being vandalized.

This is a great story that shows the plurality of the Muslim religion, and how people from various religions and cultures can be friends and pull together to support each other as a community. I highly recommend!

*El Deafo (2014), by Cece Bell.

In graphic novel format, Cece Bell shares her childhood experience with losing her hearing due to meningitis, learning how to adapt, and being self-concious about her hearing aids. She later realizes that her hearing aids and microphone give her "super powers", such as being able to warn the class when the teacher is about to return, and "El Deafo" is born. Cece not only struggles with being able to hear, she also has trouble finidng her voice when one friend becomes pushy and domineering, and another is well-intentioned, but insensitive.

Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), by Jacqueline Woodson.

In this memoir written in free verse, Jacqueline Woodson describes her early childhood, when she was first uprooted from Columbus, Ohio and moved to Greenville, North Carolina, after her parents split up, and then again after her mother moved them to New York. She describes hard times, tragedy, and living with segregation in the South, but through it all were the bonds of a close-knit, loving family and her developing dream to be a writer.

Not for those who need more action and drama, but other dreamers who enjoy a more thoughtful book, and particularly other aspiring writers, would appreciate.

Teen/Young Adult

*Gabi: A Girl In Pieces (2014), by Isabel Quintero.

We see all the struggles Gabi and her friends and family go through during her senior year in the form of Gabi's diary. And Gabi has a lot to deal with: body image, a domineering mother who expects her to be a "good Latina girl", a meth-addicted father, a best friend that's pregnant, another that has just come out as gay, and trying to find romance. Gabi copes with it all with humor, food, and discovering her talent for poetry, which leads to some truly beautiful poems within the book.

I highly recommend this book; well-written, authentic, and all teens can find something to relate to.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (2014), by Meg Medina.

If it weren't bad enough that Piddy's mother suddenly decides to move to a different neighborhood without considering Piddy's feelings at all about changing schools in the middle of her junior year, Piddy is suddenly faced with finding out some girl she doesn't even know wants to kick her ass for no apparent reason.

This story focuses on the issue of bullying, but also has Spanish phrases and Latin culture sprinkled throughout. It is painful and frustrating to see how Piddy continues to suffer in silence, letting fear and pride get in the way of asking for help.

American Born Chinese (2007), by Gene Luen Yang.

This graphic novel uses three alternating stories that are interwoven in a very confusing timeline to tell the story of how an "ABC" boy struggles with his cultural identity, stereotyping, and facing the temtation to turn his back on his heritage for the sake of fitting in as an "All-American" teen.

Some people love this book, and I'm sure others could relate to the ridiculous stereotyping the protagonist faces as a child and struggling to fit in, but I wish it had just been told in a more straightforward, linear fashion. I found it very confusing and it took me reading a couple of other summaries and reviews, then re-reading before I could follow the story and what the message was.

*March: Book One (2013), by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell.

This graphic novel is a great way to get reluctant readers to read about history, and pays homage to the comic book that was used to teach members of the civil rights movement about passive-resistance and non-violent protest. In this first of the trilogy, Congressman Lewis tells about his childhood and early calling to the ministry, and his involvement in the civil rights movement, leading up to the march on the Nashville mayor's office. The print is on the small side and harder for adults to read, but the pictures bring history to life.

*The Hate U Give (2017), by Angie Thomas.

This story descibes Starr, a teenager living in the inner city who struggles with a dual identity as she splits her life between her friends and family in the neighborhood, and her more wealthy, predominantly white, suburban friends at the private school she attends. She has already witnessed the death of a childhood friend in a drive-by shooting, then tragically witnesses the shooting death of another friend in a traffic-stop gone bad, which causes her to question everything, and throws her neighborhood into turmoil.

This book has gotten rave reviews and is very well-written with wonderful character development. I loved Starr's close-knit family, and how hard her father worked to overcome his days as a gang member and become a good father and fight for their community. It is a very engaging story to read, but I have to confess I was a bit uncomfortable with the strong anti-cop message I perceived. While perhaps slighly less enjoyable to read, I prefer the message in Kekla Magoon's How It Went Down, which shows a similar shooting from many different perspectives, illustrating how no one can ever know what really happened, because each witness sees and hears something different, and it's all filtered through their own personal experiences and bias. THUG readers should keep in mind they are only getting one side of the story, albeit a very sympathetic and compelling one.

*Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015), by Becky Albertalli.

While Simon happens to be a gay teenage boy who is a bit hesitant to "come out of the closet" for fear of rocking the boat, this story is about all relationships, those with family, friends, and romantic interests. The main character has a good relationship with his parents and siblings, and a strong circle of friends, all of whom he thinks would be okay with his being gay, yet he still hesitates to tell anyone. Until a classmate accidentally sees a e-mail exchange between Simon and his secret pen-pal, and uses it to blackmail him into interceding on his behalf with a romantic interest.

A very touching, funny, and sweet story. Not too sappy or "polyanna", but not too heavy and serious, either. I highly recommend this one, as well.

Young Adult/Adult

Anna and the Swallow Man (2016), by Gavriel Savit.

Set in German-occupied Poland during WWII and written in a very detached, formal literary style some describe as poetic, this tells the story of a young Polish girl who is left alone in the streets after her father is taken away by the Nazis. She is taken in by a strange man with a gift for languages, and together they wander around the countryside, trying to stay invisible in order to survive.

Some give this book rave reviews, and I did really like it at first, but I think it gets lost in the middle, and then rushes to a non-ending with way too many things unexplained and too many questions unanswered (and I feel the author failed to properly research certain facts). Some have referred to this as magical realism, but I did not see it that way at all.

I personally would not have included this book in the reading for a multicultural youth literature class. For one thing, it seems to be written more for adults than kids. It is most definitely NOT a middle grade novel, despite the age of the main character. I could see it being assigned in high school English classes, but I think very few teens would find it appealing. The other thing is that many people have assumed Anna was Jewish, but the book gives no indication of this (unless I missed it), identifying her only as Polish, and saying her father was taken because he was an intellectual, thus an enemy of the Nazi empire. Furthermore, she did not speak fluent Yiddish, nor did she know the Hebrew prayers. It takes place during the Holocaust, but is not really about the Holocaust. I'm just not sure it really represents an identifiable culture. I would not recommend this book if you are like me: tend to be more literal, hate loose ends and things that don't quite add up, and need an ending that is more than just a stopping point with no closure. But other people loved it.

Have you already read some of these? Please share your thoughts in the comments!