Esmé Raji Codell (1968-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1968, in Chicago, IL; Education: Northeastern Illinois University, graduated, 1992. Hobbies and other interests: "Besides being with my family, I love to dance and sing in my living room. I listen to jazz music and showtunes, and I especially like to sing gospel music and bang my tambourine very loudly. What I lack in talent I make up for in noise. (Some people have said the same about my writing.) I have always admired authors and illustrators and collect their autographed pictures. My first autograph was from one of my favorites, Roald Dahl, who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also enjoy cooking (but not cleaning, no, not cleaning at all), working on my Web site, studying the Chinese zodiac, palmistry, and gardening."
Office—PlanetEsme.com, 2646 West Pratt Blvd., Chicago, IL 60645.
Bookseller, teacher, librarian, and children's literature specialist. Worked in Chicago, IL, public school system; Planet Esmé (children's literature Web site and literary salon), founder.
Teaching award; Alex Award for Outstanding Adult Book, American Library Association, for Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year; first place for National Education Reporting, Education Writer's Association for "Call Me Madame"; Children's Book Award for Intermediate Fiction, International Reading Association, 2004, for Sahara Special.
Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1999.
How to Get Your Child to Love Reading: For Ravenous and Reluctant Readers Alike, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2003.
(Author of introduction) Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Five Owls, Reader's Digest, Five Owls for Parents, Instructor, and Our Children: The National PTA Magazine.
Sahara Special, Hyperion Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: Hard-to-Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
Diary of a Fairy Godmother, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2005.
Hannukah, Shmanukkah!, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2006.
Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year was adapted for audio cassette, HighBridge Audio, 1999; Sahara Special was adapted for audio cassette, read by Phylicia Rashad, Listening Library, 2003; Sing a Song of Tuna Fish was adapted for audio cassette, read by Codell, Listening Library, 2004; Diary of a Fairy Godmother was adapted for audio cassette, read by Rachael Lillis, Listening Library, 2005.
Esmé Raji Codell grew up in Chicago, and began teaching in Chicago's public school system after graduating from Northeastern Illinois University. Her memoir, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, documents her year teaching fifth grade in an inner-city school. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Megan Harlan called the book a "bristling journal well worth reading." "Her fierce enthusiasm overflows the page," wrote Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido.
Educating Esmé, in which Codell uses aliases for both the school and the staff, details the opposition that developed to her creative ways of teaching. She taught history by making a time machine from a refrigerator box. She organized a storytelling festival for the entire school that included a bake sale and games, published a class newsletter, and personally paid for the books she purchased for a classroom library. She exchanged places for a day with a disruptive student, forcing him to take her place and experience being a teacher. Codell asked the students to call her Madame Esmé, but the principal ruled against it and the costumes she often wore in class.
Peter Ames Carlin and Kelly Williams wrote in People that "even if her fellow teachers wondered about their eccentric (and, she now admits, arrogant) young colleague, they were soon impressed by Codell's way of giving once-dry topics like science and math jazzy names like Mad Scientist Time and Puzzling. They also admired the connection she made with her rambunctious, underprivileged students." Linda Rhone declared in MultiCultural Review that Codell "set standards against mediocrity and sustained creativity and laughter while students learned and achieved against many odds." "Educating Esmé is that exceptional education book about an even more exceptional teacher," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "It deserves to be read by anyone who cares about children."
While the reading and math scores of Codell's students soared, and she was named the region's best new reading teacher, she taught a self-contained classroom for only one year, after which she became a school librarian so that she could pursue her passion for rad-aloud. More recently, Codell has brought her expertise as a children's literature specialist to her highly trafficked Web site, from which she makes book recommendations to education groups throughout the country.
In 2003 Codell turned to writing fiction, publishing the young-adult novel Sahara Special, about the relationship between a talented but troubled student and her caring, inspirational teacher. On her Web site, PlanetEsme.com, Codell noted that the novel "started with remembering one particular girl I knew who was very, very quiet but a very good reader and writer. She liked collecting stickers and had a hard time making friends, and people didn't see all that was good in her right away. I always wished that I was a kid again so I could be her friend, but I was a teacher, so I was her ally instead."
In the work, readers are introduced to Sahara Jones, a Special Needs student who spends much of her time writing secret letters to her absent father. When Sahara's mother objects to her daughter's educational program, the youngster is reassigned to Madame Poitier's fifth-grade classroom. According to Booklist critic Stephanie Zvirin, Sahara's "new teacher is just what she needs to build confidence and set her on a path to becoming a writer." Madame Poitier, also known as Miss Pointy, uses unconventional methods to motivate and inspire her students, teaching "puzzling" and "time travel" and, most importantly for Sahara, encouraging journal writing as a means of creative expression.
Miss Pointy comes across as "a real teacher, plagued by worries and ego and a sharp tongue," observed Horn Book reviewer Robin Smith, who added that "on one unforgettable day, Miss Pointy proves to everyone in the room that Sahara is indeed a writer." In the words of a Kirkus Reviews critic, "Sahara's first-person account beautifully and poignantly captures her tenuous steps to a sense of self-understanding and maturity that is rare indeed." As Codell noted, Sahara Special "is a book about a person who has something unique to give to the world, but needs to believe that people like her before she really has the heart to give it."
The idea for Codell's Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: Hard-to-Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade stemmed from a visit to her former school. When the students in a fifth-grade classroom asked Codell to tell them a story, she tried—unsuccessfully—to recall an incident from her childhood. As Codell explained on her Web site, "It was surprisingly difficult to recollect a story off of the top of my head. I promised I would think about it and see if I could come up with anything else." The result, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, described as a "warmly humorous memoir" by a Publishers Weekly critic, appeared in 2004. "I decided to try to get these personal stories published because I would like children to see that even though it's fun to write about things like robots and car chases and haunted houses, there are lots of stories in everyday things, in things that really happen," Codell remarked. "I want children to know that you don't have to make something up to be interesting, you just have to become observant and appreciate what's going on all around you."
Set in the late 1970s, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish provides a look at Codell's upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. The author tells of her unhappy stay at an unstructured alternative school, a ferocious snowstorm that shut down the city, and her mother's plan to egg an expensive car that was blocking a fire hydrant. Remarked Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper, "Codell's small, intimate work is the very model of what this kind of book should be."
Diary of a Fairy Godmother was borne of the author's dissatisfaction with the story of Cinderella. "I didn't understand her," Codell explained to SATA. "She asked for a coach, a new dress, glass shoes. Why didn't she ask for a wand?" In Codell's story, a top student at witch school decides to study "wishcraft" instead of witchcraft, working from a textbook titled Be the One with the Wand.
Codell's holiday offering, Hanukkah, Shmannukah follows the format of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, the tyrant boss of a waistcoat factory is visited by three spirits on the last night of Hanukkah, delivering "Scroogemacher" to scenes of battling Macabees, new immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, New York's tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and a vision of his grandchildren keeping traditions in the face of assimilation. "As funny as it may seem to turn a Christmas story into a Hanukkah story, it seemed a natural fit," the author noted. "What I always liked about Dickens' work was that his stories often involved finding a home, a place where one belonged, a stature in a social system that was not always welcoming. Though he may not have intended it, these same themes reverberated in the lives of Jewish people during the mass migration of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century." Codell used the real-life letters of labor abuses printed in the Jewish Daily Forward as the inspiration for her tale.
Codell is also the author of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading: For Ravenous and Reluctant Readers Alike, "an exuberant treasure trove for parents who want to help their children develop a love of reading," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. In it, Codell shares her "Three I" theory of "reading motivations," in which interest, integration, and invention are the keys to unlock a child's potential to become a lifelong reader. "Children's literature is our best hope for creating equal education in America," Codell noted. "A great book in the hands of a rich child is the same in the hands of a poor child." In 2005, using the principles in How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, Codell opened a literary salon that would become a real-world entity of her place in cyberspace, PlanetEsme.com. The personal collection of over 10,000 children's books that are shared with the community as a non-circulating resource is the cornerstone of "Chicago's literary living room," but family storytimes, book talks, and visits by national authors and illustrators are also staples of the PlanetEsme Book-room programming.
Codell has traveled to over fifty cities as a public speaker on the subject of teacher empowerment and literacy, giving keynotes for the National Education Association, the American Library Association, the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. As Codell stated on her Web site, "Helping grown-ups see how important it is to share the best children's books with children is still my favorite job."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Codell, Esmé Raji, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1999.
Booklist, March 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Educating Esmé, p. 1263; April 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Educating Esmé, p. 1449; April 1, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Sahara Special, p. 1397; October 15, 2003, Patricia Austin, review of Sahara Special, p. 445; November 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: Hard-to-Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade, p. 480.
Entertainment Weekly, April 16, 1999, Megan Harlan, review of Educating Esmé, p. 54.
Horn Book, May-June, 2003, Robin Smith, review of Sahara Special, pp. 340-342.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1999, review of Educating Esmé, p. 191; March 15, 2003, review of Sahara Special, p. 462.
MultiCultural Review, September, 1999, Linda Rhone, review of Educating Esmé, pp. 78-79.
People, October 4, 1999, Peter Ames Carlin and Kelly Williams, "Class Act: Spunky Chicago Educator Esmé Raji Codell Shares a Passion for Storytelling," p. 95.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1999, review of Educating Esmé, p. 39; March 17, 2003, review of Sahara Special, p. 77; May 19, 2003, review of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading: For Ravenous and Reluctant Readers Alike, pp. 70-71; December 13, 2004, review of Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, p. 69.
Reading Today, August-September, 2004, Jocelyn Jones, "Back in the Classroom: Former Teacher, Librarian Uses Classroom Setting for IRA Award-winning Novel," p. 18.
School Library Journal, July, 1999, Theo Heras, review of Educating Esmé, p. 117; July, 2003, Linda Beck, review of Sahara Special, pp. 124-125.
Bookselling This Week Web site, http://news.bookweb.org/ (September 4, 2003), Nomi Schwartz, "Esmé Raji Codell Expounds on Potato Pedagogy and the Power of Books."
PlanetEsme.com, http://www.planetesme.com/ (April 25, 2005).