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“Ghosts and Dragons”: An Essay by R. M. Romero

As a teenager, I felt compelled to visit Poland. This may sound odd—how much did I even know about Poland? I’m not Polish—but I decided I wanted to see the city of Kraków, and I felt I also needed to go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

I was met with a chorus of disbelief whenever I discussed my plans with friends and family. No one understood why I wanted to travel to places that felt remote and strange to most Westerners. The comments ranged from:

“What if you get lost? You don’t speak Polish.”

“A concentration camp is so depressing! Is that really how you want to spend your time?” to

“Aren’t you scared to be by yourself in a big city? You’re a girl.”

And I was able to answer, with no doubts in my mind, I am not afraid. The thousand disasters that could have befallen me in a foreign country where few people spoke English never occurred to me. My youth armed me with a kind of fierceness.

But even if I had been scared, I still would have gone. I couldn’t explain it, but I had to.

***

I spent three days in the town of Oświęcim, where the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is located.

Every night when I returned to my youth hostel, I paced around my room, thinking about what I had seen during the day. I tried to understand how people could have done such things to one another . . . only to realize that I never really could. How can that depth of evil be explained? It cannot.

From Auschwitz, I went to Kraków. On the train, I was finally able to cry and release all the overwhelming feelings inside me.

When I reached the city, I sent my parents an email so they would know I was safe. Then I sent another, more honest email to my best friend. “I don’t know how to talk about what I saw there,” I told her. “I don’t think I can ever go back.”

Eleven years later, I did return, as a part of a volunteer group assisting in the maintenance of a local Jewish cemetery. Once again, I felt it was something I needed to do.

Today, more people than ever go to Auschwitz to educate themselves, to mourn the loss of their people and their loved ones, and to bear witness. I imagine that, like I did, they feel that they must go, however difficult it is to be there.

***

I fell in love with the city of Kraków on my first trip, and my feelings have remained constant since.

Years and regime changes have barely altered the dawn-pink facades of the buildings in the main square. The Wawel Castle, which has been the home of kings, tyrants, and—supposedly—a dragon that was slain by the city’s legendary founder, is standing strong. Planty Park encircles what is left of the medieval city’s walls like an emerald ring. You can buy apples, braided bread rings (obwarzanek krakowski), and giant sunflower heads from stalls in every neighborhood, just as you could a century ago.

It is a city that remains full of dragons and ghosts.

However, in one sense, the real Kraków is not wholly untouched by time. Returning to the city as an adult, I was struck by the small differences.

I recognized on my second trip that Jewish life was more visible than a decade earlier; there is even a Jewish Community Center in Kazimierz, the district where the majority of Kraków’s Jewish residents lived for five hundred years. Many locals speak English. The factory that belonged to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish Poles and was made famous in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, is no longer a crumbling relic; it is a museum. And at the train station where the Jews and non-Jews who were targeted for death departed for concentration camps, there is a glossy shopping mall. But there are still dragons on every postcard and hidden in every painting.

And there are still ghosts around every corner.

***

It took me nine years to find the right words to describe the beauty of Kraków and the horror of Auschwitz. Those words came to me in an unexpected way, when, in my imagination and then on paper, I wrote a conversation between a spirited talking doll and the gentle man who had made her.

Some stories demand to be told; for me, this was one of them. It became The Dollmaker of Kraków.

Learn more about author R. M. Romero by visiting her at rmromero.com.

Back to School Already?!

Ease into the new school year with these irresistibly fun picture books!

There is always a lot happening on the first day of school. These picture books are perfect for addressing first-day jitters and adjusting any misinformed expectations, as sometimes needs to happen when the school year starts. Whether you have Amanda Pandas or loud and boisterous students in your class, these books will help everyone get ready!

Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten By Candice Ransom; illustrated by Christine Grove

Amanda Panda has big plans for her first day of kindergarten, but not everything goes as intended. So she walks out of kindergarten and right into her brother’s second-grade classroom. It takes an unlikely partner to save Amanda’s terrible day and to teach her about friendship, tolerance, and how to cope with life’s ups and downs.

In this funny, thoughtful launch of a brand-new character—reminiscent of the strength and charm of Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances the Badger, Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, and Peggy Rathmann’s Ruby the Copycat—veteran children’s author Candice Ransom has perfectly captured the spirit, motivations, and voice of a headstrong five-year-old girl. Amanda Panda is ready to join this treasured group of self-assured, if slightly flawed, female picture-book characters.

How to Get Your Teacher Ready

How to Get Your Teacher Ready By Jean Reagan; illustrated by Lee Wildish

This humorous new book in the beloved and bestselling How To . . . series takes readers through a fun and busy school year. Written in an instructional style, we see a class of adorable students give tips and tricks for getting a teacher ready for the first day of school and all the other events and milestones of the year. (Picture day! The holiday concert! The hundredth day of school! Field day!) Filled with charming role-reversal humor, this is a playful and heartwarming celebration of teachers and students.

Freckleface Strawberry and the Really Big Voice

Freckleface Strawberry and the Really Big Voice By Julianne Moore; illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Freckleface Strawberry’s very best friend, Windy Pants Patrick, has a big problem. His outside voice doesn’t seem to fit inside school. From the lunchroom to the classroom, he’s just TOO LOUD! Is there any place in school where his big voice can fit? From Academy Award–winning actress and New York Times bestselling author Julianne Moore comes this funny, endearing tale about friendship and what makes each of us unique!

Teach-Alike Pairings

August Teach-Alike: The Future Is Female! Using Female-Centric Texts to Educate and Inspire Readers of All Ages

Using texts in classrooms—from picture books in preschool to novels and essays in college—that offer a variety of perspectives is not only important but necessary. This includes, but is not limited to, texts featuring different genders, races, religions, ethnicities, and sexualities.

The phrase “the future is female” has been around since the 1970s, but it gained widespread momentum and popularity with the most recent presidential election. Female leadership is on the rise in our historically male-dominated world, and it is important to expose students to the idea of equality at an early age. Texts featuring strong female characters have long been staples in the classroom environment, because teachers know how important it is to expose their students to texts that accurately reflect our society and provide positive role models for all. We’ve been captivated by the spunk of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking series, the tenacity of Shabanu in Suzanne Fisher Staples’s Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, and, of course, the unbreakable spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s Jo from Little Women. Using these classics in the classroom allows students to understand a history of female voices, and pairing them with contemporary texts will reinforce that the future is, in fact, right now.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

Wonder Woman: Warbringer By Leigh Bardugo

For young adult readers: Wonder Woman: Warbringer (8/29/2017). Who doesn’t love Wonder Woman? She’s been a cultural icon for seventy-five years, and for good reason. In this story by #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo, Diana, the young Amazon princess, has entered a race in the Amazons’ games, and losing isn’t an option. But during the race, Diana sees something that will change the future. Armed with her Lasso of Truth and her bulletproof bracelets, Diana sets off on an adventure to right the wrongs that have been committed, discovering friendship and betrayal as she learns what it means to be a true hero.

To incorporate Wonder Woman: Warbringer into your classroom, assign the text as a small-group reading book in a unit where students are learning about character growth. Have students trace Diana’s intent, mistakes, lessons learned, and ultimate success as the story unfolds.

Bonus Content: See the film!

Lemons

Lemons By Melissa Savage

For middle-grade readers: Lemons (5/2/2017). Debut author Melissa Savage has written a charming, voice-driven novel filled with adventure about a girl who needs to rebuild her life, and the quirky neighbor she befriends as they go on a search for Bigfoot. Yes, you read that correctly: Bigfoot. Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mother always told her: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But now her mom is dead and those lemons have grown so big that she’s forgotten her recipe. Lemons is about navigating relationships and embarking on adventures, and also about a young girl learning to overcome some of life’s ugliest messes and finding confidence within herself.

For a classroom lesson, use this novel in a unit where students learn about the importance of time and setting. (Hint: both play a big role in this adventure!)

Bonus Content: Learn more about the history of Bigfoot!

Margaret and the Moon

Margaret and the Moon By Dean Robbins; illustrated by Lucy Knisley

For primary school readers: Margaret and the Moon (5/16/2017). This nonfiction picture book by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley, is a biography of Margaret Hamilton, the first female software engineer, whose code helped launch the Apollo missions! Nonfiction is on the rise in primary classrooms, and this biography is perfect for the youngest readers to learn about Margaret’s history: how she loved numbers as a kid and studied hard to gain a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and how she earned a position working for NASA and handwrote the code that would allow the spacecraft’s computer to solve any problems it might encounter!

Use Margaret and the Moon in a classroom unit that focuses on biographies of important historical figures or anything space-related!

Bonus Content: Use the Margaret and the Moon poster activities to learn more!

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Praise for Wonder Woman: Warbringer

★ “Cinematic battles and a race against time keep the excitement high, but the focus on girls looking out for each other is what makes this tie-in shine.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

Praise for Lemons

“Savage injects enough humor, mystery, and lively interaction among the characters to give this two-hanky debut a buoyant tone.” —Booklist

Praise for Margaret and the Moon

★ “A superb introduction to the life of one girl whose dreams were out-of-this-world.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

Graphic Novels for Everyone!

We absolutely love graphic novels—whether for a classroom story lesson or for creative inspiration or just for fun—and the format’s fan base is growing! The HILO series has been called “high energy and hilarious!” by Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; Jeffrey Brown, author of the LUCY & ANDY series, was noted for being “brilliant at creating characters you instantly adore” by Brian Anderson, author of “Monster Chefs”; and Booklist, in a starred review, noted that the 5 WORLDS series is one “to keep an eye on.” And the Rickety Stitch series already has THREE starred reviews, with Publishers Weekly saying, “Parks and Costa impressively evolve their tale into a compelling epic quest with deeper themes than the initial chapters hint.” Learn more about the newest books in these series, and check out the suggested activities for the ultimate reading experience!

Hilo Book 3: The Great Big Boom

Hilo Book 3: The Great Big Boom By Judd Winick

DJ and Gina are TOTALLY ordinary kids. But Hilo isn’t! When we last saw our INTREPID TRIO, Gina had been sucked into a mysterious portal to who knows where?! But friends don’t let friends disappear into NOWHERE! It’s up to D.J. and Hilo to follow her! Will there be danger? YES! Will there be amazing surprises? OF COURSE! Will Gina end up being the one to save them? DEFINITELY! With the help of Polly, the magical warrior cat, the friends will have to battle bad guys and face disgusting food, an angry mom, terrible knock-knock jokes, powerful magic, and more! Will they survive…and make it back to earth before the portal closes again?!

Activity: Use this comprehensive Graphic Novels Educators’ Guide to incorporate these visually stimulating texts into the classroom!

Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age

Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age By Jeffrey Brown; illustrated by Jeffrey Brown

From the New York Times bestselling author of the Star Wars: Jedi Academy books comes the first installment in a new, humorous, graphic novel series about two Neanderthal siblings living 40,000 years ago. In the hilarious tale of Lucy and her goofball brother Andy, the duo handles a wandering baby brother, bossy teens, cave paintings, and a mammoth hunt. A special paleontologist section at the end of the book helps to dispel common Neanderthal myths.

Activity: Use the Lucy & Andy Neanderthal Scavenger Hunt to learn facts and theories about the actual Neanderthals!

5 Worlds Book 1: The Sand Warrior

5 Worlds Book 1: The Sand Warrior By Mark Siegel and Alexis Siegel; illustrated by Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun

Oona is the clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy. It’s her older sister–the one who ran away–who’s supposed to light the beacons and save the worlds. So how come Oona can create a Sand Warrior? An Tzu is an orphaned boy from the slums. He has lots of street smarts but no idea how to stop the illness that’s turning him invisible! And why do plants react to his music? Jax Amboy is THE star athlete of the 5 Worlds. If only he were human! A robot in disguise, he may hold the secret to why the Toki are invading. Time is running out in the 5 Worlds. Can this unlikely trio rise to the challenge and face down the forces of evil in time to light the five beacons and save the worlds?

Activity: Here’s an engaging “Comics and Graphic Novels” lesson plan on readwritethink.org that teaches students how to create their own comics.

Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo Book 1: The Road to Epoli

Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo Book 1: The Road to Epoli By James Parks and Ben Costa

Rickety Stitch is a walking, talking, singing skeleton minstrel, the only animated skeleton in the dungeon who seems to have retained his soul. He has no idea who he used to be when he was covered in a living, breathing sack of meat and skin. His only clue to his former identity is a song he hears snippets of in his dreams, an epic bard’s tale that could also explain the old fog covering the comical fantasy land of Eem… Oh, and his sidekick and only friend is a cube of sentient goo. In this rollicking first volume, Rickety encounters imps, gnomes, giants, unicorns, a mysterious lady knight, and other fantasy dwellers on his quest to uncover his identity and spread his (painfully bad) music far and wide.

Activity: Watch the incredible book trailer for Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo Book 1: The Road to Epoli!

Meet Isadora Moon

Isadora Moon is a character who was actually a long time in the making although I didn’t know it at the time! When I was eighteen and on my art foundation course I created a character called Victoria Stitch who was a mean, spiky looking adult fairy. I poured a lot of passion into Victoria Stitch and from then on she became a sort of alter ego for me. She had messy black hair and bat wings and a little stitched pink rabbit who she dragged everywhere with her. Whilst on my foundation course and then my degree, I illustrated two (unpublished) books about her. Over that time she evolved as my illustration style evolved until I got to a point where I was drawing her in only black and pink. I really liked the aesthetic of this but whenever I showed Victoria Stitch to publishers I was always told that she was too mean, adult and spiky for a children’s picture book. At the time I didn’t understand but after having a baby myself I now do understand. I believe it is so important to introduce children to good role models – not like Victoria Stich who is a character with no redemption. However, I really liked the aesthetic of my Victoria Stitch pictures, the gothic vibe juxtaposed against the candyfloss pink, so I decided to create something with the same look to it but more accessible for children. I started by drawing a friendlier version of Victoria Stitch as a little girl. I gave her messy hair and bat wings and a pink rabbit toy. I added fangs just to try them out but then I loved them because I thought they looked so cute! I decide to keep the fangs and that got me thinking about what kind of character would have fangs and wings at the same time? It became obvious to me then that this little girl was half vampire, half fairy. After that the world fell into place easily.  I decided that in an unlikely pairing, Isadora’s mum would be a fairy and her dad would be a vampire. Two very different worlds would collide. The darker, gothic vampire world and the sunshiney, pink fairy world. I loved the contrast and it gave me a lot of scope for story ideas. By this point Isadora Moon had become very much a character in her own right, completely separate from Victoria Stitch but with the same aesthetic. The only thing that stayed constant was Pink Rabbit. Victoria Stitch was annoyed to lose him but he has a much nicer life now with the friendlier and kinder Isadora Moon!

Harriet Muncaster

Harriet Muncaster

HARRIET MUNCASTER is the author/illustrator of the picture books I Am a Witch's Cat and Happy Halloween, Witch's Cat! She holds two degrees in illustration and has lived on the same hill in Hertfordshire, England, for as long as she can remember. Isadora Moon is her first chapter book series.