My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 20 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

August 16, 2016

A Very Special First Day of School

Warning:  This is a Mom Brag Blog, I just can’t help it.  BUT I’m also not one of those annoying moms who think their child can do no wrong and pretends it was all smooth sailing.  Elise and I have discussed writing a book (when she’s 30) titled My Teen’s Not Perfect, How ‘Bout Yours?  So,  yeah, I know better. J

So, onward…

I have had many first days of school, my own, of course, but those for the most part have faded.  I do remember sixth grade when my friends and I had discussed whether we’d wear dresses or pants on the first day.  I am old enough, that even having that choice was a bit new for us.  Until fourth grade, girls had to wear skirts or dresses, pants were not allowed.  Forgetting to wear shorts under our clothes on PE days usually resulted in that classic poem about European capitals and underwear.

But, the first days of school that are more important to me now are those of my daughters.  I remember Elise’s first day of kindergarten, looking at her hunched sleepily over her hot chocolate and thinking to myself, “This is my life for the next 15 years.”

Well, as they say, The days are long but the years are short, and those 15 years (plus 2) are over now. 

We still went shopping for school supplies this year though, not only for Sasha, our college sophomore, but also, in a very special way, for Elise.

This fall, Elise will be experiencing the first day of school from the other side of the desk.  She will be a student teacher, teaching math to seventh graders.  I look at the path she’s taken and who she is and I think how lucky these students are to have her.

Elise has always had a passion for education and for schools.  She started a major fundraiser for her school district in 5th grade, she has tutored or been a camp counselor since middle school and volunteered in multiple schools in Berkeley and Oakland during her college years.

She ‘gets’ this age and she gets math (that would be the paternal genes at work) but mainly, she is kind, loving and intelligent and she realizes that everyone, especially adolescents, need to feel seen and heard. 

Her eventual job goal is to work in educational research, but she realizes that to do research and to make recommendations, she needs to have practical teaching experience first.

Teaching, like parenting, is MUCH easier in theory, than in practice.

So, yes, it’s a different first day of school and an incredibly special one and I couldn’t be more proud.

May 10, 2016

Review: BREAKTHROUGH (aka Another Children's Book That Made Me Smarter)


Recently I picked up the book Breakthrough by Jim Murphy (Clarion Books, 2015) The subtitle is: How Three People Saved "Blue Babies" and Changed Medicine Forever

Now, I am not a major science reader, I leave that to the spousal unit.  I read some of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks but I mainly got my information from her Fresh Air interview and talking to others who read the book.  It's a fascinating story and very well written, it's a case of "It's not you, it's me." I'm not a big reader of really long non-fiction books. 

So, Breakthrough was absolutely perfect for me.  Fascinating medical history, civil rights (or lack thereof), well written and 101 pages (probably deliberate on the publisher's part, since some teachers insist a book be 100 pages to be 'worthy' of a book report. Yeah, don't get me started.)

But enough about me (hee hee, too late) let's talk about the book.  Breakthrough is about three doctors.  Nope, wait, two doctors and a research assistant.

It tells the story of Dr. Alfred Blalock, Dr. Helen Taussig and Vivien Thomas, Dr. Blalock's lab assistant and their radical new surgery to save the lives of 'blue babies'. These were babies born with a congenital heart defect, tetralogy of Fallot, that caused insufficient oxygen in the blood.  Since deoxygenated blood is blue and this color is seen where vessels are close to the surface (fingertips, etc.) babies with this defect were called "blue babies"

The survival rate of children born with this defect was very low, "Twenty-five percent of children born with tetralogy of Fallot died before their first birthday; 70 percent were dead by the age of ten."

Dr. Blalock was an internationally famous physician, due to his groundbreaking work on the causes and treatment of shock (which took many lives on the battlefield) while at Vanderbilt and then Johns Hopkins University.

Vivien Thomas, an African American man, had wanted to go to medical school and had worked very hard to achieve that goal. He was accepted to Tennessee State College in 1929, but lost all his tuition money when the Depression hit and his bank closed its doors.

Dr. Helen Taussig was dyslexic (before that had a diagnosis or name) and a woman who wanted to become a doctor at a time when "only 5% of practicing doctors in the United States were women." Women were often denied admittance or even their degrees (after they had completed their studies).

Dr. Taussig did become a doctor and was actually asked to run the pediatric cardiac clinic at Johns Hopkins when it was created in 1930.

In 1938, Dr. Taussig read about an operation that gave her an  idea about an operation that could help her 'blue babies' that she was unable to save.   She discussed it with a Dr. Gross at Harvard who dismissed her idea out of hand.

*We now interrupt this review for a brief political point:  It is fascinating to see how Dr. Taussig and her staff were perceived.  Even though she and Blalock did end up working together he said that she was "difficult"...Dr Taussig (and her entire staff)) come around here and worry me so much."  By "worry" he meant that she wanted to make sure her ideas were not "dismissed out of hand" and that her patients and their parents were treated well.  Wow, how dare she? (sarcasm emoji).*

Why is this a political point?  Well, watching the election coverage, I would say that women (one in particular) are still subjected to such an extreme double standard when it comes to behavior.  A male doctor's concern would not have been seen through such a condescending lens.

She saw her chance to try again when Dr. Blalock came to Johns Hopkins.  She met with Blalock and Thomas and they were receptive to her ideas (and surprised she had a "pleasant personality" sigh).  Thomas immediately started studying the collection of defective hearts that Taussig had (she was literally surrounded by her failures, making her more determined to find a cure) and coming up with ideas for an operation.

It is also fascinating (and aggravating) to note that although Thomas perfected the surgery, he was never allowed to operate on human patients (he practiced on dogs, and the book does talk about protests against animal experimentation), he would have to stand behind Blalock and advise him.

Breakthrough not only tells the story of a life changing/life saving medical procedure, it gives us a window into what it was like for women and people of color

Warning:  There is a photo in this book of two lynched African Americans dangling from a bridge.  It is horrifying and jarring and shows the heartlessness of the lynch mob.  They took souvenir photos which they often made into postcards.

April 26, 2016


Emily Gravett has done it again! She has written a DELIGHTFUL book and an easy hand sell (and my bookselling persona thanks her for that).

Bear & Hare:  Where's Bear? (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016) is an engaging and hilarious book for ages 2-6 (and 53)

Bear and Hare are back and in this book they're playing Hide and Seek.  Bear hides first and Hare gleefully counts to ten, with brightly colored (wait, coloured, since Gravett is British) numerals dancing across the page. 

Bear is easily found hiding behind a thin floor lamp, a stack of books (this would DEFINITELY have worked in my house, I could hide an ELEPHANT and still have books left over) and an aquarium. 

Bear goes looking for Hare next and cannot find him anywhere, but then Bear disappears!  Hare looks frantically for him to no avail.  What will happen?!?!?!?

What makes the book more fun are all the little visual jokes and nods to literature that Gravett puts in.  The end papers (always look at picture books' end papers, they are often delightful and sometimes part of the story) show Hare in 'search mode' in the front and Bear searching on the back end papers.

One of the books in the stack of books is Gravett's own Monkey and Me and the artwork on the wall is from Bear and Hare: Snow!  The headboard on the bed has Hare jumping over the moon and feels a bit Goodnight Moon-ish.  My favorite (given the maturity of my sense of humor) is the chamber pot under the bed with an illustration of bear sitting on a chamber pot in the woods (FINALLY answering that age old question) and holding a roll of toilet paper. *

There are also numerous images of goldfish, in the aquarium (duh), on the lampshade, on the spine of a book.  I wonder if they're alluding to Gravett's next book.

Gravett's books are always delightful, she truly gets what is happening in the minds of children (or their animal stand ins) and portrays their emotions so well. Get this and put it on the shelf next to Again (and if you don't have Again! get it NOW! There are princess panties in it!)

Immaturely yours,


*This reminded me Trina Schart Hyman's 'interesting' table leg illustration in King Stork

March 15, 2016

Raising a Reader

Trying to find a booklist for talks I'm giving this weekend and found this.  It builds on (and repeats) some of the information from the How to Get Your Child to Hate Reading post.  I just moderated a panel this past week and one of the questions we got was how to get our children to read.  Since I pointed out my 'negative' post to the attendees, I figured I might as well post this more positive one. 

As a children’s literature reviewer who gives talks to parent or professional groups, I often get asked, “My child/student is not reading, how do I get her/him to like reading?

Most everyone knows the basic advice, read aloud to your child, have a variety of reading material, etc.  Let’s go on to factors that are often not considered in raising a child who find pleasure in reading.

We know a love of reading is often a good indicator of academic success.  So, what does it take to raise a reader and what are some of the common mistakes that both parents and teachers make? 

My first question to parents and teachers is “Do you read for pleasure?”  A majority of the time the answer is “Oh no, I’m too busy.”  Well, as long as the message is that reading is not fun, not an activity we CHOOSE to do and make the time for, then no amount of lip service will convince a child otherwise.  Likewise, most classrooms have an SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time and it breaks my heart when I see that the teacher not following her own rules.  “It’s a good time to get some work done.” is what I often hear.  I understand, I completely sympathize that there are not enough hours in a teacher’s day.  However, there is a huge impact for a child in seeing her teacher prioritizing and enjoying reading time.

Reading aloud in the classroom is always a great choice.  Ignore test prep, reading aloud IS test prep.  Go for something funny.  I have read The Giggler Treatment to classes from first through six grade and it’s a HUGE hit every year (have ‘poo’, um chocolate pudding at the end, you’ll see why when you read the book). 

It’s never too early to start reading aloud to children. When they’re young, go for rhythm.  Sun Song (by Jean Marzollo, Harper/Trophy, 1997) has beautiful language and a luminescent portrayal of the Woodside Hills by local illustrator, Laura Regan.  Possum Come A-Knockin’ by Nancy Van Laan (Dragonfly Books, 1992) is a fun, lively read aloud.

Remember, not all books are good or interesting to everyone.  Just because a child doesn’t like a particular book or books, does not mean that they don’t like to read, they just haven’t found the right book yet.  Shannon Hale (Princess Academy) talks about this in her school presentations.  She asks the self-identified non-readers to raise their hands and then they find books that the kids have enjoyed and she says, “See, it’s not that you don’t like to read, we just have to find the right books for you.”  She then has them take an oath to PUT DOWN a book they are not enjoying (unless it is a school assignment) and go in search of one they like better.

We have higher standards for children than we do for ourselves.   We don’t just want them to read, we want them to read GOOD stuff.  Books that will teach lessons, stretch their minds, build their vocabularies, CHALLENGE them (ah yes, one of the most overused words in education).

Think about this for a minute.  Have you ever had a friend recommend a book to you because it would teach you a good lesson and expand your vocabulary or do they simply tell you it’s a good, enjoyable read?

Why do we think that literature for children needs to be edifying, can’t it simply be entertaining?  If a child reads for pleasure, your battle is won.  They WILL read hard books, sigh, challenging books, as well – but first, they have to actually want to pick them up.

If they hesitate to pick up books, get them storytelling or books on CD.  They get the story and a sense of narrative. There are various ways to approach literature

What else do we put on them that we don’t put on ourselves?  Reading levels.  It has to be at or above their level for it to be ‘worthy’.  Well, first of all, reading levels are hooey (this is not the normal term I use, but this is a family website).  On Lexile scores, a score evaluated by vocabulary alone, Byron Barton’s BOARD BOOK The Wee Little Woman (Harper/Collins, 1995) evaluates at a college sophomore level (the word ‘wee’ is considered unfamiliar and shows up multiple times).  On the other hand, The Old Man and the Sea comes up as third grade, because Hemingway never used three syllables when he could use two.

We can turn off children from reading by denigrating their reading choices.  I’ve seen readers turned into non-readers by well-meaning teachers who have forbidden ‘too easy’ books from entering their classrooms.

As I always tell kids when doing presentations, if anyone tries to take away my People magazine because it’s not at my reading level, things are going to get ugly.

And, most of all, don’t give up hope. Even multi-award winning author Katherine Paterson had a  daughter who did not understand the big deal about reading until she was fourteen and read Catcher in the Rye.  Just make sure they have a lot of reading (and listening) choices and they will eventually discover the joys of literature.

February 16, 2016

Children's Books Make Me Smarter (please keep all smart aleck comments to yourself)

There are so many Children's and Young Adult books that I have learned so much from.  SO MANY that I think I will make this a monthly blog topic (assuming I post each week, as is my intention, if not my reality).

If you have ever heard me give a book talk (and if not, um HIRE ME! *This is the end of the shameless self promotion segment of this blog*) you will have heard me say that children's books make me smarter and I always give this example:

A few years ago my eldest asked me to take a community college course (with her) on the Civil Rights Era that was being taught by one of the Little Rock Nine,  Minnijean Brown Trickey and Jeff Steinburg who runs the AMAZING 'field trip' Sojourn to the Past       Yes, she did come to regret asking me, because I was that student who always, ALWAYS had her hand in the air.  Mr. Steinburg would think he was asking a hard or obscure question about 20th century African-American history or the Civil Rights movement, and I'd have the answer.  He finally said, "How? HOW do you know all this?"

I said, "I read children's books.  EVERY question I've answered has come from a children's book."  I wasn't kidding. Here's a partial list (partial, because my sieve like brain can't remember all the questions from four years ago) of the books that made me look smart.  :-)

When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007)  In the 1930's Marian Anderson was a world famous opera singer who had performed all over the world.  In 1939, concert promoters wanted to have her perform at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. Constitution Hall was run by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and they refused to allow an African American artist to perform in their hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did everything she could to get them to change their minds, but when they refused, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR and offered the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall as the venue instead.  The concert was free, integrated and drew 75,000 people. Pam Muñoz Ryan's well researched story and Brian Selznick's inspiring illustrations bring this piece of American History to life in an interesting and accessible way.  You can read a more detailed account of this at

We all know about Rosa Parks, right?  If you don't, you have NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION!  Get thee to a library! So, I'm going to assume a knowledge of Mrs. Parks and move on from there.  I do want to preface this by saying that Mrs. Parks has my utmost respect and gratitude, I am not trying to diminish her heroic deed.

However, before Rosa Parks, who was an educated woman, whose protest was planned, and who had the backing of the NAACP, there was Claudette Colvin. Nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was tired and sitting on a bus.  She refused to give up her seat to a white woman (even under segregation laws, she was actually in a seat that was 'legal' for her to sit in).  She was dragged off the bus (having gone limp, precursor to many of the civil rights protests to come) saying "I know my rights." Sadly, instead of being hailed as a hero, she was shunned by her community.  Her story is heartbreaking and deserves to be told.  Phillip Hoose did tell her story, and tells it incredibly well, in his National Book Award winning book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009)

My Mother the Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow (Harper Teen 2007) was a book I avoided for awhile.  I wasn't really interested in a book about someone's mother who was a Rah Rah (the term we used in high school for cheerleaders).  Oh no, this is not THAT kind of cheerleader.  These cheerleaders were the women who stood outside schools that were being integrated and yelling at the African American children as they tried to enter the school, specifically in New Orleans.  From the KnowLA website:

"Gangs of “cheerleaders”—young, white, working-class mothers—gathered in front of McDonogh and William Frantz to block the paths of the children and their parents heading into school. The cheerleaders also spat at the children, hurled racial invectives, slashed tires, and threatened much worse"

Now, before I go on about the book, I just have to share that this section on desegregation is titled, New Orleans School Crisis. Crisis is a loaded word and seems as if it could refer to the desegregation itself as the crisis.  Perhaps, "Unrest"  or "Debate" but not "Crisis"

I digress (yup again).  So, back to Sharenow's book.  Louise helps her mother run their boarding house and thinks that her home, the 9th Ward in New Orleans is pretty dull.  When desegregation starts, Louise is pulled from school and her mother enthusiastically joins the cheerleaders.  As things heat up, Louise questions her mother, her community and the truths she thought she knew.

As I said, this is just the beginning of books that make me smarter (and pretty damn good at Trivia Nights).  If you have title suggestions for me, by all means, send them my way.

Also, on a complete side note, the size of the photos of the book covers has nothing to do with how I feel about the books.  I just don't know how to make them all the same size.

January 12, 2016

Recognizing My Own Anti-Female Bias: Reflection on Kirby Larson's Strong Women Post

I've been mulling over Kirby's post (okay, and drinking eggnog with Rumchata, so I haven't used my hiatus all that constructively) and I've had some interesting and disturbing insights into my own psyche.  Yes, I know, there are MANY disturbing things in my psyche, but let's just focus on this one for the moment, shall we?

I agree with Kirby, we shouldn't use the term 'strong woman' as if there's any other kind.  I'm completely onboard with empowered women, valuing women, etc.  What I realized I DON'T do is value things that are considered 'girl', in fact, I denigrate them (careful, you may see yourself in here by the end).

After rereading Kirby's post, I thought about something I do when booktalking the HILARIOUS Phoebe and Her Unicorn  book by Dana Simpson.

Now, I LOVE this book!!  I love handselling the heck out of this book!  Do you know what I say (said) when talking about it?  I say, "Look past the pink and sparkly cover"  Why do (did) I say this? Because I thought that being stereotypically 'girly' was bad, something to be avoided.

I have reacted similarly to the Babymouse series

I LOVE this series with the wonderful Walter Mittyesque (ooh, how that's for a word) heroine, Babymouse.  I've often handsold it by saying "Ignore the pink cover" and the response I get is often a nod of agreement: YES, I will consider this book IN SPITE OF its girly feel.

Until I reread Kirby's article, I really had never considered how I negatively view anything considered stereotypically female.  I remember being happy that my eldest daughter wasn't into princesses, Barbie, etc. I even said, "Yup, we're raising her right." RAISING HER RIGHT because she didn't care for things that society sees as the purview of girls. Has any parent of a boy said, "Yup, he hates sports, we're raising him right."?

I am now consciously NOT putting down 'girly' covers, but it actually takes effort.  I am aware of rethinking my biases anytime I talk about pink covered or sparkly books.  I feel that I want to explain it to my customers.  Would I ever explain/excuse my handing them a blue book or a book with some male athlete on the cover?  In case you don't know the answer to that, it's "NO".  Sigh.

If you have read my earlier posts I wrote about the 'nose wrinkle' adults make when handing a book about a girl to a boy, or actually NOT handing a book about a girl to a boy.  I have never told boys they wouldn't like a book about a girl (cuz we're interesting DAMN IT) but I HAVE done the nose wrinkle when handselling a pink book to a girl or her parent.

I have been a feminist all my life and it is incredibly disturbing to me to realize at the advanced age of 53 (okay, not advanced, but past, sigh, middle age) that I have looked at my own gender or  'attributes' of my gender with disdain. Worse (or just as bad) I have looked at many 'male attributes' as positive, something to be valued more than female ones. 

I'm now struggling to wrap up this post with something wise or pithy (No, NOT lisping) and I've got nothin'  So, a la prochaine (because everything sounds wiser, or at least classier, in French).