Upper Elementary Book Club – Fantasy and the Hero’s Journey

For the month of November, the Upper Elementary Book Club voted on which genre to explore. And the winner is: fantasy and the hero’s journey! Each of the novels below offer nontraditional takes on traditional fantasy or fairy tale elements. Upper Elementary readers will follow characters through adventure and danger as they face their fears, overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and find their true heroic selves.


In the mythical town of Zombay, a young orphan named Rownie is determined to find his missing brother. Like all the town’s orphans, Rownie lives in the house of an evil witch named Graba, who uses him as a servant. As he is out on one of Graba’s errands, Rownie meets a troupe of goblins who travel and put on plays, an activity which is strictly forbidden in Zombay. When Rownie learns the goblins can help him find his brother, he escapes Graba’s house and joins their troupe. What follows is an adventure that is sometimes very dark, sometimes funny and always exciting. Goblin Secrets combines elements of fairy tale magic and steampunk fantasy to create an incredible world filled with unforgettable characters.

Breadcrumbs is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” set in modern-day Minnesota and told from the perspective of 11-year-old Hazel. Hazel’s life is not easy. She is adopted and the only dark-skinned person in her family. She doesn’t have many friends and is misunderstood by her teachers. And her father left. The one thing Hazel had was Jack, her best friend. But one day, out of nowhere, Jack stopped talking to Hazel. Everyone tells Hazel that boys and girls just grow apart, that it’s just a part of growing up, but Hazel knows better. She knows that Jack is cursed and she sets out into the terrifying, snowy woods to find him. Breadcrumbs blends a classic fairy tale with mythology, pop-culture and literary references, and real-life problems into a rich and emotionally powerful story.

On her twelfth birthday, Farah and her two best friends must go on a quest to find her little brother Ahmed, who is lost inside an ancient and magical game. Inside the game, the friends find themselves in Paheli, a land full of beautiful Islamic architecture and a bustling market that remind Farah of Bangladesh and India—places that are part of her family’s history. The friends must face the game’s challenges and defeat the Architect to rescue Ahmed and escape. With the help of a lizard and the pilot of a hot air balloon, the friends face all sorts of magical, mythical creatures, as well as the Architect’s spies. The Gauntlet weaves Islamic culture and history together with fantasy and adventure to tell a story of family, friendship and loyalty. This book is also the first book of a series, so readers can follow even more of Farah’s adventures!

Lola Budge is not like other wombats. She is inquisitive, curious, chatty and bored. All she wants to do is explore. So when all the other wombats are asleep, Lola sneaks out of her burrow to explore Tassie Island, to find out what else is out there in the world. She meets a platypus with a secret message, but doesn’t understand it. She heads back to her burrow and finds the other wombats, including her family, being carted away in a cage by the Tasmanian devils. Lola’s mother sees her from the cage and shouts out to her to find her uncle. Lola sets off to find him, alone and afraid. Along the way, she meets Melvin and Blue, a rat and a baby penguin, who join her adventure and help her find her true courage and strength. Braver is pure anthropomorphic fantasy, filled with fun, quirky characters and lively adventure.

We are VdM: The Macke Family

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today we’ll meet Jaime, Chris, Tommy and Oliver Macke who joined VdM in 2015. Tommy is in his third year in the Checkerboard Lower Elementary classroom and Oliver just started this year in the Young Children’s Community.

Villa di Maria: Tell us a bit about you and your family.

The Mackes: We are a family of four—Chris, Jaime, Tommy (8 years old in Checkerboard) and Oliver (2.5 years old in YCC). We live in Fox Park in St. Louis city with our two cats, Murray and Zero, and guinea pig Tootsie. I (Jaime) grew up in Wood River, IL, about 25 minutes away, and Chris grew up in the city. When we met, I started spending more time in the city and really loved it, so we decided to stay. We bought a 130 year-old house that seems to need constant attention ?, but we love the old architecture and we have wonderful neighbors. Our extended families are also all in the St. Louis metro area and we’re all pretty close. It gets complicated during the holidays (although, this may be the quietest holiday we’ve ever had!), but we love that the boys get to grow up playing with their cousins.

VdM: How did you find Montessori and what brought you to VdM?

Jaime: We found Villa before we really knew much about Montessori ?. Tommy was 3 and we had looked at some other preschools and mainstream-type schools but they didn’t feel like a good fit—we were looking for something different. It was also really important to us to find a place that extended all the way through elementary—we didn’t want to school-hop every few years. Villa had popped up in a few of our searches and so we decided to check it out. I still remember that our first conversation with Laura was so wonderful and then when we toured the school and saw one of the primary classes at work, it was exactly what we were looking for.

We’ve learned more about Montessori over the years through Villa’s parent talks, reading books and meeting with the guides. The best thing, though, was that we attended the Silent Journey a few years ago. It was really amazing getting to be in each of the environments and experience it for ourselves. For us, it really pulled together everything that we had learned and read and completed the picture for us to understand what Montessori is really about.

VdM: Tell us about your backgrounds, what do you and your spouse do career-wise? 

Jaime: I studied Spanish at SIUE and abroad at a university near Mexico City; I also have a Masters in English from SIUE. I work at a pharmaceutical company as a global business director, but language is still my true passion! Chris received his degree in Business at UMSL and was previously also in the corporate world, working in a global sales management position. But both of us having jobs with lots of international travel was getting to be too much for our family. So last summer, Chris exchanged his corporate job for a stay-at-home dad title, and we haven’t looked back! I have no idea how we would have gotten through this year if we hadn’t made that change. Chris’s passion is acting and movie production, so he and some local contacts formed a partnership and they’re working on producing a film.

VdM: Do you have any hobbies? How do you and your family enjoy spending your spare time?

Jaime: We travel a lot (or, we did) and it’s our favorite thing to do! We love taking the boys to new places. Our family also loves the water, so we do a lot of swimming year round. At home, we walk to parks when the weather cooperates and when it doesn’t, we do a lot of game and movie nights. Both boys have a LOT of energy, so we try to stay busy ?.

VdM: What are you most looking forward to this school year?

Jaime: We are honestly just so happy that our boys have the opportunity to be in school. Distance learning, even with one of us being a full-time stay-at-home parent, was challenging for our family, and Tommy really loves being in his classroom, working with his peers. We’re also super excited that Oliver has been able to join Villa in the YCC. We were so excited when the program was announced and we couldn’t have been happier when we learned that he would be with Reghan and Jess every day (Tommy had a wonderful experience in their primary environment!). Oliver really loves being at Villa and has been thriving in the new environment!

VdM: A question for Tommy – What is one of your favorite memories of Villa di Maria, so far? 

Tommy: When I moved up to Lower Elementary and found out that I was in the same class as my friends!

Thank you, Jaime, Chris, Tommy and Oliver!

Photos courtesy of the Macke family, Melissa LeBeau and Carrie Tallon.

What a Great Question! Cultivating Curiosity in Montessori

Some photos in this post were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother [for] the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity. Eleanor Roosevelt

Over the years, our guides have hosted numerous on-campus events to deepen our community’s understanding of Montessori and how we implement it here at Villa di Maria. As a parent and a staff member I’ve attended quite a few of these events and I can honestly say that each and every one has reinforced my appreciation for our guides’ and assistants’ dedication to our students.

I could write an entire post gushing about the wisdom our guides share at each of these events, but that is a topic for another day. Today I want to share something from the events that has especially resonated with me because it so simply and precisely sums up one of the most important principles of a Montessori education: the cultivation of a lifelong love of learning through the encouragement and promotion of the child’s innate curiosity. This topic comes up regularly at events, in conversations about what sets Montessori apart from traditional methods of education. And the best summary of it I’ve heard was given by Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callendar when she said that her favorite way to meet her students’ questions is with… What a great question!  

This response, as simple as it seems, is really quite powerful. If you’ve spent any time with children, you know that they are dedicated, persistent (sometimes relentless) question-askers. The sky, their breakfast, the neighbor’s car, the leaves on the trees, the street lights, the huge eyebrows on that man at the grocery store… nothing is spared the curiosity of children. They will ask questions about all of it. All. Of. It.

When they are very young, children are taking in everything around them—collecting endless data from their surroundings. They begin to store, categorize, quantify and sort that data, to process the world with countless repetitions of  who?, what?, when?, where? and, of course, WHY?

As they get older, their questions increase and become more complicated as they begin to use their reasoning minds and develop their imaginations—as they begin to practice abstract thought.

Asking questions is the primary method children use to learn. So when adults meet their questions with statements like What a great question!, we are sending a powerful message. Multiple powerful messages, in fact. We are teaching children that they are allowed to actively participate, and even take control, in their learning; that their curiosity, their drive to know more and more about the world, is a positive (a great!) thing; and that their voice matters and is being heard.

And that’s not all! In addition to the confidence-promoting benefits listed above, there’s something else happening, something a bit more… strategic. When we say, What a great question!, we are actually withholding an answer. Think back again to any time you’ve spent with any child, to when those questions started flowing. The easiest thing to do would be to just answer. Or to change the subject or invoke the quiet game. But ending a question with an answer or a redirect puts a stop to the learning.

Of course there are some questions that call for simple answers, but I would go out on a limb to say that most questions being asked by a child aren’t simple. Most questions are an indication that synapses are firing, that intellectual curiosity is at work, that discovery is happening, that we are in a moment when the child is inspired and motivated to learn.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Albert Einstein

What a great question! seizes that moment of inspiration and motivation and turns into an opportunity for deeper learning. What a great question! isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s the beginning. It is followed by any number of prompts to further engage the child in learning. The guide might suggest the child seek out a friend to discuss the question; she might offer a list of resources for the child to explore and find answers; she might suggest a research project or report; or she might guide the child toward more questions, toward a deeper exploration. Because here’s the strategy: the ultimate goal of the guide in a Montessori environment is not to fill a child’s head with answers and facts. The ultimate goal is to foster a true, lifelong ability to learn.

Higher Order Thinking and Metacognition

As academic as these concepts might sound, higher order thinking and metacognition are routine practices that most of us engage in every day. If you’ve been to a book club, deliberated over a large purchase or argued over politics, you’ve engaged in higher order thinking. And if you’ve ever thought about what you’re thinking—if you’ve caught yourself being distracted or questioned your own thoughts on something—that’s metacognition. I’ve included some resources at the bottom of this post if you want to read more about these concepts and their more formal applications in the field of education.

Higher order thinking is the thinking we do that goes beyond memorization and recollection of facts. It’s the deeper cognitive processing that happens when we analyze, evaluate, compare, contrast, synthesize information, think critically, think creatively, use metaphors and analogies, make inferences, express opinions, make judgments and engage in what-if thinking.

Strictly speaking, metacognition is a form of higher order thinking. I’m giving it its own spotlight here because it carries with it something I believe the world could use a little more of these days. Research shows that when we think about our own thinking, we become more self-aware and possibly more empathetic.

So, higher order thinking, including metacognition, is the ultimate goal for the Montessori-educated child. But why? It is the kind of thinking that’s more complex, requires more concentration, more time, more work. It is, frankly, harder. And it also the kind of thinking that inspires deeper research and encourages students to explore. It fosters creativity and leads to discoveries. It helps children navigate difficult social situations and develops empathy. It has been shown to strengthen the brain by creating new synapses. And most importantly it instills in children a confidence in their own intellect. It gives them a true love of learning.

And it all starts with something that children bring with them naturally—an endless, wonder-filled curiosity.

References and Additional Resources

Photos courtesy of Melinda Smith and Melissa LeBeau. 

Upper Elementary Book Club – October Edition

The Upper Elementary Book Club takes monthly deep-dives into curated selections of books in a range of genres. Our on- and off-campus UE students work to complete the books by a deadline, along with complementary work to help them organize their thoughts and plan for discussion. Then they gather online each Friday to discuss the themes, settings, characters, plot lines and literary devices of their chosen books.

For October, UE readers have chosen from three middle-grade novels centered around characters with physical/mobility disabilities, each written in an engaging first-person narrative.

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly tells the story of 12-year-old Iris, a deaf girl compelled to find and help Blue 55, a whale who is forced to live in isolation because he is unable to communicate with his pod. Iris is surrounded by people who misunderstand and underestimate her because she is deaf, and when she learns about Blue 55, she pours her heart and soul into helping him. A genius with electronics and technology, Iris decides to invent a way to help Blue 55 sing so he can communicate with other whales and find a pod. To accomplish her goal, she has to take a lot of risks and break a lot of rules. She has to venture out into the world alone. Song for a Whale is the adventurous, suspenseful and inspiring story of two misfits finding a connection.


Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper tells the story of Melody, born with cerebral palsy, who cannot walk, talk or write. All of Melody’s life, most people have been telling her she’s incapable and not smart. One doctor even tells her parents she should be sent to a nursing home. But she knows she is smart, maybe smarter than anyone she knows… she’s just trapped inside her head. By the time she’s in fifth grade, Melody is determined to find a way to express her true self. With the help of a communication device, an integrating program at school, and a classroom aide, Melody begins to find her voice. Melody’s path is not easy—she faces cruelty from her classmates and constant doubting from some of her teachers. But she keeps going, relying on her grit, her love of music and her sense of humor to ultimately express her true self.


In Wonder by P.J. Palacio, we meet fifth grader Auggie, born with severe birth defects which left him with hearing loss and severe facial disfigurement. Auggie is never surprised by people’s reactions when they see his face. He’s used to it but he wishes he could just be seen as a normal kid. When his parents move him from homeschooling to a prep school, Auggie has to navigate the reactions of his new classmates and teachers. He is bullied, gawked at and betrayed by a new friend—all he wants is to quit school. Wonder is written in sections, told from different characters’ points of view—Auggie’s older sister, her friend and boyfriend, and two of Auggie’s new friends. Through each of these character’s stories, we learn more about Auggie and how hard life has been for him. And we also learn that there are people on his side, lifting him up. Auggie makes real friendships; with their support and the support of his family, he continues going to school and finds a place in the world.

Similar Titles to Explore

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
  • Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
  • Firegirl by Tony Abbott
  • Mascot by Antony John