Margin Notes

Guest Writer Elizabeth Andrews Recommends: You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino


You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino may be aimed at middle level students but the complex ideas of family, ability, racism, and police violence are anything but juvenile. Using interwoven story lines, Gino challenges the reader to interrogate their own privilege and explore how they may be contributing to the marginalization of others—even if this was never their intention. This is done in a developmentally appropriate way that becomes the subtext of a heartwarming story.

The main character in the book, Jilly, is a white, middle class girl growing up in Oaktown. She lives with her mother and father, as well as a new baby sister. Her life has been safe and comfortable but as the book progresses, she becomes increasingly aware of how society marginalizes people (including her family and friends) because they are black, deaf, or LGBTQ+. Jilly learns that in order to change things, you have to first understand how you are contributing to the problem.

There are lots of moments that relieve the tension that Gino has created. From peanut butter sandwiches and online fandoms to best friends and silly secret codes, this book strikes the right balance to engage middle level readers (particularly grade 6 and 7) while challenging their thinking. There are many opportunities for mini-lessons, especially on form and text features but also for figurative language and how to use an appendix. It is the perfect book to use for a reading ladder that might also include titles such as Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas.

There are two sections at the end of the book that are definitely worth exploring with students: The Author’s Note and the Acknowledgements. You might be tempted to overlook them—don’t. Gino uses this as an opportunity to ask forgiveness for sharing the stories of marginalized people through a white protagonist with hearing and explains the reasons behind this choice. They (Gino’s preferred pronoun) also take the opportunity to explain their personal connections to the topics and provide context. I might be tempted to look at these final sections first, as they will help readers build understanding and create anchors prior to engaging in the text. It will provide you with some really interesting mini-lessons as well.

If you are looking for your next quick read-aloud, or simply need a suggestion for students that love realistic fiction, I highly recommend You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino.

Elizabeth Andrews is a guest blogger for Margin Notes. She teaches grade 6, 7, and 8 Language Arts, Art, and Music at Chipman Forest Avenue School in Chipman, New Brunswick. She is self-declared nerd and lover of science fiction and fantasy.

“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” ~ Tyrion Lannister (A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin)



NotYourPrincessIn #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Carleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota) writes a letter titled “Dear Past Self.” The letter acknowledges hardships, speaks personal truths, and provides inspiration and words of encouragement. Fillspipe gives herself permission to express her anger and sadness while also empowering herself to move beyond those feelings and love herself. The letter is written in a way that it could be for anyone, but whatever history and personal experiences Isabella holds are woven into the power of the words. The artwork and self-portrait make the letter even more personal and beautiful.

Dear Past Self

This letter could be used as a mentor text for students to write their own “Dear Past Self” letters in their Writer’s Notebook, as part of a multi-genre portfolio, or as a piece of narrative or persuasive writing.

If you would like to pull in other mentor texts with a similar style, The Player’s Tribune has a column titled “Letter To My Younger Self” with a collection of letters:

Book Recommendation: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson


In Harbor Me, we meet Haley, a grade 6 girl with a secret she has only told her best friend and a handful of adults. At school, she is grouped with 5 other students to meet at the end of the day in an empty classroom so they can talk and share.  Everyone is reluctant at first but Haley breaks the ice with her hand-held recorder as her new friends realize they want their stories to be heard and remembered.  As the middle schoolers begin to trust one another, their words pour out stories about immigration, racial profiling, bullying, incarceration, and death, and these wounds are filled in return with poetry, music, love, trust, forgiveness, and friendship.

This is a beauty of a book.  The topics are big, and refreshingly, not dumbed down for middle school students.  Instead, they are given the respect they deserve and the author, Jacqueline Woodson, clearly believes that young people can handle these topics; age does not prevent tough situations in life from happening.  This novel is such a great example of literature being both a window and a mirror for our students and having this in your classroom library will be a game changer for some readers.



What I Was Reading:vox.jpg

Vox by Christina Dalcher was a two-sitting read for me. Once I started this suspenseful, fast-paced thriller I didn’t want to put it down. Vox depicts a United States where women have been silenced by the President’s decision to limit them to only 100 words per day. Every woman and girl is forced to wear a word counter that provides a shock when the daily quota has been reached.

Early in the novel, the narrator, Dr. Jean McLellan, reflects on how things are for her now compared to how they used to be before the word allotment:

This is how things are now: We have allotments of one hundred words a day. My books, even the old copies of Julia Child and—here’s irony—the tattered red-and-white-checked Better Homes and Gardens a friend decided would be a cute joke for a wedding gift, are locked in a cupboard so Sonia can’t get at them. Which means I can’t get at them either. Patrick carries the keys around like a weight, and sometimes I think it’s the heaviness of this burden that makes him look older.

It’s the little stuff I miss most: jars of pens tucked into the corners of every room, notepads wedged in between cookbooks, the dry-erase shopping list on the wall next to the spice cabinet. Even my old refrigerator magnets, the ones Steven used to concoct ridiculous Italo-English sentences with, laughing himself to pieces. Gone, gone, gone. Like my email account.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

• This progression of the paragraphs contrasts how things are now from how they used to be. The descriptions of the “little things” Jean misses paint a picture of the impact of the word allotment.
• The first paragraph matter-of-factly introduces Jean’s current reality with the statement “This is how things are now” followed by a colon. With no build-up or mincing of words, the horrifying situation is laid out in one simple statement of fact: “We have allotments of one hundred words a day.” This is followed by a personal detail that illustrates just what these mean for a woman. Something as commonplace as a cookbook must be kept under lock and key.
• The second paragraph follows the same format to introduce a second list. This time she shares the things she misses in order to contrast her life before the allotment to her life now. Jean makes her current reality clear to us by telling us what it isn’t. The “little stuff” includes the tools for reading and writing—for consuming words—she was once surrounded by but are now forbidden. It is easy to recognize how quickly one could use up an allotment of 100 words.

Possibilities for Writers:

• Read this text as a writer to notice and name other interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader.
• Use this format to show a contrast between before and after. For example, writers might show the difference between elementary school and middle school or between Grade 9 to Grade 12 by using the same structure: “This is how things are now” and “It’s the little stuff I miss most.”
• Writers can describe what something is by describing what it is no longer, using specific images to illustrate the point.

Book Recommendation: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline


The beginning of The Marrow Thieves quickly pulls you into the dystopian world of a Canada nearly destroyed by climate change.  On top of the environmental destruction, the colonizers have lost the ability to dream, but discover that Indigenous people still can and the secret is in their bone marrow.  Recruiters are deployed to hunt down all the remaining First Nations people and bring them to residential “schools” and “hospitals” that are set up to harvest the marrow from their bones that is then injected into the colonizers so they can dream again.  This backdrop sets the stage for meeting the main character, Frenchie, a Métis teenager who has lost his family and is fleeing north to escape the Recruiters.  Along the way, he meets up with more of his people and they decide to travel together to find a safe place to live. And maybe even stop the madness. 

What you really need to know is that this book is exceptional-Cherie Dimaline is a writer you will want to know more about and The Marrow Thieves deserves a spot on your bookshelf.  This novel pulls off being both beautifully written and very exciting-something not every book can make a claim to.  The development of the characters is deep-to the point where you will undoubtedly find yourself in tears a number of times because they have completely stolen your heart.  The plot moves quickly, which makes this an enjoyable page turner, but the depth of the story also causes the reader to reflect on their own views and to learn.  At the end of the day, I can’t recommend this book enough.

This book has some very mature content that needs to be considered for younger readers but as always, you know your readers best!

Try This Tomorrow: Incidental Comics


Grant Snider’s website Incidental Comics is one of my favorite sources of inspiration, quick-write ideas, and book-love celebrations.

The combination of words and images in comics such as Fall Evening and Sunrises make wonderful models for writers to observe their worlds closely and create similar texts. There are also many wordless comics, including Making a Point and A Sketch for Autumn.

On this site, you’ll also find fantastic comics about reading and writing. Some of my favorites are My Library, Books Are, Please Do Not Leave Children Unattended in the Library, and What to Put in Your Notebook.

I also highly recommend Grant Snider’s book, The Shape of Ideas. It is a colorful and insightful celebration of the process of creation.



We are all made of moleculesIf you want an easy-to-digest, easy-to-love modern classic, we are all made of molecules by Susin Nielsen is the book for you!

I have to admit that at first I was wary of the multi-narrator novel, as it’s not usually my type of book, but I really enjoyed the perspectives of Stewart and Ashley. Not only was it necessary to understand that these two characters are from very different worlds (even though they live in the same one), but also to see that, in spite of their many differences, they really are both “made of molecules.”

Within the first few chapters of the book, I fluctuated from tears (on page 2…page 2!) to laughing out loud at the quote, “I am counting the days till I can become unconstipated!!” and this is truly representative of the broad range of emotions I experienced while reading this book. Before writing this recommendation, I also shared the novel with two students who had similar reactions. One of the students actually said, “Mrs. Jeong, the emotions in this book are exactly like my life; some days I laugh and cry on the same day and I don’t even know what will make me feel that way!”

So, on top of being enjoyable for a teacher to read, it is also relatable for teens, as it covers so many different topics/issues of interest to young people: love, school, friendships, and the many combinations of people who constitute a family.

The experiences of Stewart and Ashley, including learning to navigate their new family dynamic, make we are all made of molecules a must-read. Teens will find a story that both mirrors their own questions and insecurities AND models how to deal with said insecurities. Teachers will find a mirror into the minds of the students who sit in front of them every day, students who try to be the most well-adjusted set of molecules they can be (in spite of whatever might be going on in life.)

Noella Jeong is a grade 9 teacher, mother of 4, and avid reader. She loves to explore young adult fiction as a way to connect with her students, and to also help guide them in their choices.

Try This Tomorrow: Book Spine Poetry


If you’re looking for a fun way to get students making poetry, and at the same time get new titles into their hands, try using book spine poetry. This is an easy activity that makes us all poets. Just scan your bookshelf for interesting titles. Each title will make up a line of your poem. Arrange the titles so that they run together as a poem. Stack them in a pile and take a picture!

Here is a link to some 2018 book spine poetry winning poems (with the youngest category being 5-8 year olds!).

And here are some of ours:

Here is a link to our post from last year that includes a link to real world mentor texts of book spine poetry from 2015 when the Toronto Library and the Kansas City library used spine book poetry to trash talk when their baseball teams were both vying for a spot in the World Series

Posting these on class twitter and Instagram accounts is a great way to share the book spine poetry created in your classroom.

Try This Tomorrow: How-To Writing


In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner describes the five-paragraph essay as “an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are the ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom.” He goes on to say that “by steering students toward the five-paragraph essay we are denying them the chance to practice real writing by confronting the choices writers must navigate.”

One of the best ways to move away from the fill-in-the-blanks writing that inevitably results from assigning five-paragraph essays and toward making students decision-makers about the best ways to organize their ideas to impact their audience is to provide them with models of what the kind of writing they are doing looks like in the world outside of school. Katie Wood Ray suggest in What You Know by Heart that teachers of writing read with two questions in mind: How is this written? How can my students write like this? The world is a mentor text and when we read it with these two questions in mind, we can see that the world is full of possibilities for writing curriculum. When we encourage students to read with these questions in mind, we are empowering them to find their own writing models so that they don’t feel the need to rely on prescriptive writing structures and formats. The New York Times Guides column is an example of something I found while reading with my writing-teacher lens activated. These examples show students that how-to writing doesn’t have to read like a list of steps introduced with first, then, next…instead, they combine images with text features such as subheadings, bulleted lists, and hyperlinks. For example:

-How to Be More Empathetic is organized into five categories set off with a bolded title. Within each, readers find sub-headings and bulleted lists of suggestions for taking action.

-How to Give a Great Gift demonstrates how to incorporate a question-answer structure.

-How to Read a Food Label uses bulleted lists to organize lots of detailed information so it is more manageable for the reader.

Students can read a selection of Guides on a variety of topics and generate a list of organizing strategies and craft moves they notice the writers using before they begin crafting their own versions. Their Guides can be based on an area of expertise they can teach to others about or a topic of curiosity they want to research first.



EducatedTara Westover’s Educated is a must for your high school reading library. In this heart-wrenching introspective, Westover recounts her Mormon upbringing in the isolated mountains of Idaho. She is one of 7 siblings, many of whom have never stepped foot in a classroom or a doctor’s office. Westover is entrenched in a patriarchal world where women’s bodies are shamed for merely existing. As Tara ages, her interest in life beyond the mountain grows; she becomes interested in theatre, and ultimately discovers a thirst for knowledge. Her eventual enrollment in a college program catapults her on a journey of self-discovery from which there is no turning back.

Westover’s eyes are soon opened to a world beyond the fearful and paranoid one her father has constructed for her. She discovers feminism and experiences freedom through learning. Away from the mountain, Westover’s worldview is continually challenged and she soon finds that, despite the magnetic pull of the mountain calling her home, the ties that bind her to family are beginning to wane.

Educated enthralls readers, forcing them to the edge of their seat gasping in both shock and awe. Westover’s experiences are a testament to the power of learning, and will instantly allure any reader invested in education.

Let this be the next book you purchase for your classroom; be sure to put it in the hands of as many readers as you can.

Amy Bourgaize teaches at Fredericton High School. She read 51 books last year.