Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rhopalic Sentences

Until ran a contest for a rhopalic newspaper headline a couple weeks ago, there is no way that I could have defined "rhopal" for you. Now I know that it is a sentence or poem which either grows or decreases by one syllable or one letter as it progresses.

This kind of writing is not easy. Students in a couple of library class know this very well because they attempted to write rhopalic sentences. They did a great job, but ran into the same difficulties that I did with getting a great idea only to realize that the next word I wanted did not fit the rules.

Here are some of the sentences that students in grades four and five created in under 30 minutes, many with time left over to look for books they wanted to read.

With increasing/decreasing number of letters:

I do not like candy.

Is dog love enough?

Is cat love enough?

Special winter night--ever!

People fight lots for it.

Birds sing for it.

I do not like crazy people.

A no tow sign makes people quickly withdraw.

I am not good after dinner, Chicken Annelore.

I am the cool super person.

Why am I?

I am Jen Mood.

I am not nice.

With increasing/decreasing number of syllables.

Some person vomited Technicolors disastrously.

What lovely butterflies.

I played Mancala.

Kids-- skiing, snowboarding, outrageously extraordinary!

If you rearrange the sentences you can create some amazing poetry, especially if you stick in a couple of rhopalic sentences of your own. Let me know what you can create.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Holidays

The holidays can be a tricky time for a school librarian. While it seems impossible to not mention the holidays, it is important to attempt to give equal emphasis to the various practices of my students. This year I headed for the safety of the connection of light that in some way ties the major holidays of this time of year. We touched briefly on Divali despite the fact that came very early this year. The other holidays we discussed were the winter solstice, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day. As you have noticed, that still tips the balance toward Christianity. I try to include other religious and secular holidays throughout the year and hope that this offers a better balance by the end of the year.

In sharing books with the students, my goal is to offer those with little religion and lots of holiday customs. The library owns books that describe the religious stories of the holiday. I put these on display and hope that families will find the books that best serve their own beliefs and practices.

There are hundreds of books about Christmas. Some of them are good and some are just plain awful. Here are a few of my favorites for sharing with my students or personal enjoyment. All of the books on this list are picture books.

When I was a child, the Christmas Eve ritual was for my mother to read Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas. I still can recite long portions of it from memory. Bookstores abound with different illustrations for this classic. What appeals to you may be all wrong for someone else. Jan Brett did some beautiful illustrations a few years ago, but I have heard people grumble that they are too busy. You will have to be your own judge.

Another classic is How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. This is not as much fun to read to children any more because they all think about the movie and think they know the story. They do not relax and enjoy the rhyme as well as the true scoop on the Grinch.

Also affected by the movie is the beautiful Polar Express by Chris Van Allsberg. Don't think you know the charm of this book if all you have done is watched the movie. This is a good book to read with a child snuggled on your lap.

The favorite book for my youngest listeners this year was clearly Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve by Janet Morgan Stoeke. If you have not met this very literal chicken, Christmas may the best time for an introduction to the many books with this winsome protagonist. Minerva Louise sees fancy fireflies on the tree outside her farmers' house. Then she spies a farmer in a red hat on the roof. He falls down the brick well up there so Minerva Louise follows to offer help, soon finding herself inside the house. There are many more confusions as Minerva Louise tries to understand things through the eyes of a chicken. The illustrations are bright and bold and the simple one or two sentence per page text draws even very young listeners into the book as they eagerly correct her mistakes.

Alan Say always uses beautiful illustrations to convey a cross-cultural story. Tree of Cranes takes the reader to Japan where a young boy's mother is remembering Christmas when she lived in the United States. The boy doesn't understand exactly what is happening but appreciates the beautiful tree that his mother makes.

A familiar message is conveyed in The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Pat McKissack. We all remember that perfect gift that we wanted so desperately that we were willing to make all kinds of deals for it, like promising to never ask for anything else ever again. The young girl in this story wants a doll that is beyond the family's budget but she is very convincing and her mother acquiesces. Her sisters want to play with this perfect doll, too, but she is not about to share. That is when she learns the lesson of this story. Adults with laugh and cry with this story and most children will find themselves nodding knowingly at the conclusion.

The surprise ending is just a small part of the fun in Three French Hens by Margie Palatini. Three French hens are sent to a true love, but get lost in the mail and end up not in Paris but in New York City. These three girls want to fulfill their duty so they seek out Phillippe Renard, settling for plain, old Phil Fox whose only friend is the cockroach who shares his apartment. When the hens arrive Phil sees breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but these hens are too kind to ever be eaten. Palatini is a master of puns. Read this and laugh.

For sheer goofiness around the tree, try Where Did They Hide My Presents? by Alan Katz which sticks some new words into familiar Christmas songs.

Books about Hanukkah are not as easy to find. The best stories for this holiday seem to be all be written by Eric A. Kimmel who also writes great picture books about many other topics. Three of my favorites by Kimmel are The Chanukkah Guest in which a grandmother thinks that the Old Bear who comes to her house is the rabbi, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which is full of magic and trickery, and Jar of Fools: Eight Hanukkah Stories from Chelm which presents the humorous tales of Chelm in a very accessible format. The last of those three books is not a picture book, but an enjoyable story collection with a few illustrations.

Another Hanukkah story that my first and second grade students enjoy is The Inside-Out Grandma by Joan Rothenberg. Rosie notices that her grandma is wearing all of her clothes inside out and asks why. This leads to a long list of memories that finally lead to remembering to buy enough oil to fry latkes for the entire family. My classes follow up the story with good discussions of how to remember things and what is important things to remember.

Kwanzaa has even fewer good books. There are only a handful of books that I have found that explain this uniquely American holiday. Of the ones in our school library, the best is Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Because there is so much to explain about the holiday, the students are soon bored with all of the wordiness required. This would be great to read one night at a time so that the new Swahili words as well as the difficult concepts are fresh in the reader's mind.

Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela Shelf Medaris is a good story from Africa that makes the principles of Kwanzaa more easily understood. The story is one of the few that I have had older students come back to re-read. They are impressed by the cooperation of the brothers involved in the story and clever solution to their problem.

Whatever holidays you will be celebrating this year, my best wishes go out for them to be happy for one and all. My holidays will include travel, family, and friends and several good books.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Getting Susie to Read

A friend recently asked me for reading suggestions for a friend's daughter. It seems this six year old girl was not reading as much as her older sister had at that age. The parent's wanted to "fix" this problem. The six year old was able to read; the teacher said she was reading and comprehending as well as any of the other students in the class. The problem, as the parent's saw it was, that she was not reading for fun. They wanted to books to give her that would make her enjoy reading and start to be an avid reader like her big sister.

This is a problem that is often not really a problem. If Susie, as I will call her though I don't know her real name, is not falling behind in class, perhaps she just has not found the right book yet. Unfortunately for her parents, having them push books on her may well make her withdraw from books even further. The worst thing to do may be to tell her she has to read "for fun" every day for a certain length of time. I sometimes wonder if I grew to dislike physical exercise because my gym teacher used exercise as a punishment. Being forced to read seems like a punishment, though it will be hard for Susie to understand why she is being punished.

While I gave my friend several title suggestions for the most interesting and enjoyable books that I could think of, I am now wishing that I had added more instructions for the parents. I would tell them to any or all of the following:
  • Find some good books--perhaps from my suggestions, perhaps from a favorite librarian or bookseller, or perhaps just things that looked interesting to them--and leave them around the house where Susie will see them. Don't make an issue about them. Just have them around where she will see them when she is bored. The bathroom is one good location. Somewhere near her bed is another.
  • Read to Susie. When she is totally engrossed in the story, find an excuse to leave her alone with the book. If she is enjoying the story, she may well finish it before you have another chance to read it. Some parents even say, "Please don't finish this without me because I want to know how it ends." You have to know your child to try this, because she may put your request above her own interests.
  • Have her see her parents read for pleasure. Some studies suggest that seeing the father read for pleasure is the most powerful impetus for children to read. It is important that this be reading for pleasure. If parents read only work related things or child rearing books or anything that may make them sigh or groan the idea of reading as work or punishment will be re-enforced.
  • Don't stress. I have seen so many kids who did not read for pleasure in the early grades suddenly become avid reason for no apparent reason. Just a few weeks ago a young man who used to hate--he would have put it in capital letters, HATE--to read. I don't what it was that changed all that, but now he is reading at a very high level and willing to have good discussions about the books he has read. (Last week we discussed Moby Dick.)

I hope that Susie soon finds the joys of reading. It seems likely that at this point, though, that the best route is for her parents to make books convenient and enjoyable companions for her and then let nature take its course.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Middle School Might Like...

By middle school most readers have decided on a genre or two that they really like. No one will like all of these books, but there should be something of interest here to the average middle schooler, should such a person exist.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins leave the reader barely able to wait for the next in the series. I have talked about this trilogy at some length on my blog so will just repeat that this is a book that middle school students and their parents are enjoying thoroughly.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins is aimed at a little bit younger students than The Hunger Games series, but it is an equally compelling start to a popular series. It features a young boy who is looking after his baby sister, giant spiders, and myriad interesting creatures, all looking for the one who is meant to fulfill an ancient prophecy.

Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadahota won wide acclaim and numerous awards, including the Newbery Award, all of which were merited. This novel tells of the struggles of a Japanese family in the 1950s when they move from Iowa to rural Georgia and try to fit in. The writing is stunning, pulling the reader deep into the lives of the family’s two daughters.

A Step From Heaven by An Na is at least partly autobiographical as it recounts the life of a young girl who moves with her family from Korea to California. The family struggles to learn English and to adapt to their new home. The title comes from the girl thinking that since they fly to America and heaven is in the sky that America must be heaven. Her uncle assures her that it is a “step from heaven”. Life is not easy for the family and none of the harsh realities of a troubled family are glossed over in this telling.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is set in Texas in 1899. Calpurnia resents the restrictions that are placed on girls. She wants to be out exploring nature, not home cooking and sewing. Only her grandfather understands and helps her explore the world around her. Read this with the intriguing new biography of Charles Darwin, Charles and Emma: the Darwins ’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman which deals with the conflicts that Darwin felt between his findings and his wife’s deep religious beliefs.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon was written for adults but soon became a hit with young adults. The narrator is autistic with the ability to view everything through math. While these may not make him popular or comfortable with people his age—or with adults—it does ultimately help him solve a mystery about his family and a dog he finds dead in his back yard.

The Schwa was Here by Neal Shusterman is an unusual novel, in no small part because one of the main characters in invisible. The Schwa, as he is called, is not really invisible, but people rarely notice him. Can this talent—or curse—be put to good use? The boys in this book seem very real. The story is both moving and humorous.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks has been mentioned before on my blog so let me just say that it is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. It gives a distinctly different view of vampires than you will find in the Twilight books.

The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiole portrays middle school at its worst where bullying and power groups run rampant. The leaders in this story maintain their power by strategically spraying water onto those whom they wish to humiliate. A popular person can be put down with a single shot. This clever school story that will appeal to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in middle school—and isn’t that anyone who has ever gone to middle school.

Canned by Alex Shearer finds a young boy who does not fit in well in middle school. It soon becomes obvious that part of this may be because he collects cans that have lost their labels. He lines them up neatly and keeps a close tally when and where he acquired them. When he finally opens one, he finds a severed human finger in it. Other strange things appear in the cans. Then he meets a girl who also collects cans without labels. Together they have to solve a sordid mystery. This has a very British feel that adds to the humor.

Erratum by Walter Sorrells is an adventure that takes a young girl into a book to save herself and her friends from odd people and strange surroundings. Only she can finish the book of her life properly, but she must decide just what that means.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson reveals what so few people realize—that librarians control all knowledge. Alas, the librarians in Alcatraz’s life manipulate this information into cruel lies that allow them to control the world. Alcatraz thinks he is just a normal boy with an odd name (all of his family is named after famous prisons) until his grandfather arrives to show him his special talent that he must use to help save the universe.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex may be the funniest book I have read in years. The world has been taken over by space aliens and 11 year old Gratuity Tucci sets out to drive herself to the relocation center in Florida after her mother disappears. She is soon joined by an alien who wants to fit into American society so has named himself J-Lo. The story is a comedy of errors but also a thoughtful look at how colonizers treat the indigenous peoples they conquer.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede combines history and magic to tell the story of a girl who is the thirteenth child born into a family magic practitioners. Her father is a well-respected professor of the magical arts. Her twin brother is the seventh son of a seventh son which is supposed to mean extra magical powers. She, however, is bad luck as the thirteenth child. When the family moves to the edge of the American West, they must deal with believers and non-believers, magic and the hardships that were faced by all who moved west to settle this country.

The Dead and the Gone and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer are disaster stories at their finest. They offer essentially the same story—the moon has bit hit by an asteroid which has thrown it out of orbit, changing the tides, climate, and life of the earth. The Dead and Gone is told by a boy living in a Latino area of New York City. Life as We Knew It is in the voice of a girl who lives in central Pennsylvania. You will look at the moon a little differently when you read these stories.

Novels for Grades 2-5

The Christmas Genie by Dan Gutman disappoints because without the Christmas tie-in this book would appeal to more readers throughout the year. When a classroom discovers a belligerent genie who offers them one wish, each student tries to think of the perfect wish. Each wish is discussed for its ethical and practical value. This could lead to some great discussions of what is fair and how best to share in order to do what best serves the community.

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen tells of a young boy who gets a riding lawn mower for his birthday. With little else to do during the summer, he goes out to mow the lawn. Soon, neighbors are asking for his services and he is suddenly very busy and getting rich. When he meets a stock trader, his life grows even more complicated. This book will be enjoyed by kids and bring back memories for adults.

The Dream Stealer by Side Fleischman springs from a folk tale that Fleischman heard while traveling in Mexico. A strange creature comes to steal dreams. Usually this is good because the dream stealer takes bad dreams back to his home which is filled with creatures from the dreams. When he steals a little girl’s dream just when it is getting to the important part, the girl goes after her dream to get it back so she can finish it. The illustrations by Peter Sis add much to this short chapter book.

Oggie Cooder by Sarah Weeks is the story of a boy who tries to fit in without losing his real self. When an “America Has Talent” style show comes to town, he tries out with his talent for “chawing” cheese into the shapes of states. The fame that follows his performance complicates his life further as he learns who likes him just for his strange talent and the fame it has brought him.

Dying to Meet You: Book One of the 43 Old Cemetery Road Series by Kate Klise is told entirely in letters, notes, and other papers. A boy finds himself alone (or is he?) in an old house after his parents leave town. He meets an odd old author when he tries to sell the house. Perhaps the ghost who lives in one of the rooms will be what makes or breaks the sale.

The Desperado Who Stole Baseball by John H. Ritter tells of the early history of the American West as well as the history of baseball with a wild story that involves a runaway boy, Billy the Kid, and a baseball team in the midst of the Gold Rush of 1849. I know little about baseball but I found much to enjoy in this story.

Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley is a collection of stories about a snake and a lizard who are friends who must deal with their differences and make the most of what they have in common. This is simply a charming book that is perfect for those who have just mastered chapter books.

The Secret History of Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck reveals little known history of the origins of fairy tales. It is the job of the Trueheart brothers to live the fairy tale before it can be included in a book. When all of his brothers are gone on their adventures, Tom, the youngest, is called to create a very difficult fairy tale. Those who enjoy the traditional tales will surely enjoy this book as well.

Sticks by Joan Bauer includes math, pool, and an interesting family in one compact novel. The family owns a pool hall, with grandmother serving as the wise matriarch. When it comes time to win a pool competition her grandson must use everything his father taught him plus some clever insights from his math whiz friend to secure the coveted title.

Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School by Ruth McNally Barshaw is in some ways the girl equivalent of the Wimpy Kid (another series that is well loved for its humor). Ellie keeps a notebook of her thoughts and sketches. She has a keen eye for seeing those things that are meaningful but often overlooked. As one boy pointed out to me, the boys tend to be more sarcastic than Ellie but she makes some pretty astute observations that boys might miss.

Great Graphic Novels

Graphic novels (and non-fiction) are gaining in popularity every day. Many of them provide great writing along with stunning illustration. Here are a few that you might enjoy.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is the story of a young Chinese boy trying to fit into America without losing his Chinese heritage. This graphic novel includes some old Chinese stories mingled with magical realism as the boy copes with teen life that is suddenly complicated by the arrival of a cousin from China. This is aimed at middle school students.

Into the Volcano by Don Wood has some pretty dramatic pictures to carry the dramatic story of two brothers who are suddenly taken to a remote Pacific Island and forced to go into a volcano which is erupting. Readers in grades four and up will enjoy this adventure.

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan is truly a work of art. The illustrations are filled with grays and blues to portray life in the Dust Bowl. The magical realism is further defined by references to The Wizard of Oz. Middle school readers will appreciate this unique story.

Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires will appeal to all ages of graphic novel readers because Binky is such a real cat with high aspirations. He thinks that insects are aliens about to take over the planet and he springs into action as only a cat would.

Joey Fly, Private Eye in Creepy Crawly Crime by Aaron Reynolds will have fans of detective novels rejoicing. Adults will see familiar writing styles as Joey tries to find a missing diamond pencil box that belongs to a beautiful butterfly. If you like this book, read the Chet Gecko stories by Bruce Hale, they are detective parody at its best. Readers in grades three or four and up will enjoy all of these books.

Bone by Jeff Smith has made readers out of many a reluctant third to sixth grader with its crazy characters who get into outlandish adventures.

To Dance: A Memoir by Siena Cherson Siegel shows that graphic novels do not have to be funny. This is a touching memoir of a girl who dreamed of being a professional ballet dancer and how difficult it is to succeed, even at prestigious ballet school. Ballet lovers in grades four and up will be moved by this story.

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso uses the graphic format to tell a moving story of sharecroppers and the Negro Baseball League when Satchel Paige was a just beginning to make his mark. Baseball is one tool that the sharecroppers to have to put Jim Crow in his place.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Books for Readers in Grades 2-5

As we prepare for our annual book fair, here is another book list of things that will be enjoyed by students in grades 2 to 5 and by anyone who likes a good story.

The Christmas Genie by Dan Gutman disappoints because without the Christmas tie-in this book would appeal to more readers throughout the year. When a classroom discovers a belligerent genie who offers them one wish, each student tries to think of the perfect wish. Each wish is discussed for its ethical and practical value. This could lead to some great discussions of what is fair and how best to share in order to do what best serves the community.

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen tells of a young boy who gets a riding lawn mower for his birthday. With little else to do during the summer, he goes out to mow the lawn. Soon, neighbors are asking for his services and he is suddenly very busy and getting rich. When he meets a stock trader, his life grows even more complicated. This book will be enjoyed by kids and bring back memories for adults.

The Dream Stealer by Side Fleischman springs from a folk tale that Fleischman heard while traveling in Mexico. A strange creature comes to steal dreams. Usually this is good because the dream stealer takes bad dreams back to his home which is filled with creatures from the dreams. When he steals a little girl’s dream just when it is getting to the important part, the girl goes after her dream to get it back so she can finish it. The illustrations by Peter Sis add much to this short chapter book.

Oggie Cooder by Sarah Weeks is the story of a boy who tries to fit in without losing his real self. When an “America Has Talent” style show comes to town, he tries out with his talent for “charving” (A blend of chewing and carving) cheese into the shapes of states. The fame that follows his performance complicates his life further as he learns who likes him just for his strange talent and the fame it has brought him.

Dying to Meet You: Book One of the 43 Old Cemetery Road Series by Kate Klise is told entirely in letters, notes, and other papers. A boy finds himself alone (or is he?) in an old house after his parents leave town. He meets an odd old author when he tries to sell the house. Perhaps the ghost who lives in one of the rooms will be what makes or breaks the sale.

The Desperado Who Stole Baseball by John H. Ritter tells of the early history of the American West as well as the history of baseball with a wild story that involves a runaway boy, Billy the Kid, and a baseball team in the midst of the Gold Rush of 1849. I know little about baseball but I found much to enjoy in this story.

Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley is a collection of stories about a snake and a lizard who are friends who must deal with their differences and make the most of what they have in common. This is simply a charming book that is perfect for those who have just mastered chapter books.

The Secret History of Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck reveals little known history of the origins of fairy tales. It is the job of the Trueheart brothers to live the fairy tale before it can be included in a book. When all of his brothers are gone on their adventures, Tom, the youngest, is called to create a very difficult fairy tale. Those who enjoy the traditional tales will surely enjoy this book as well.

Sticks by Joan Bauer includes math, pool, and an interesting family in one compact novel. The family owns a pool hall, with grandmother serving as the wise matriarch. When it comes time to win a pool competition her grandson must use everything his father taught him plus some clever insights from his math whiz friend to secure the coveted title.

Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School by Ruth McNally Barshaw is in some ways the girl equivalent of the Wimpy Kid (another series that is well loved for its humor). Ellie keeps a notebook of her thoughts and sketches. She has a keen eye for seeing those things that are meaningful but often overlooked. As one boy pointed out to me, the boys tend to be more sarcastic than Ellie but she makes some pretty astute observations that boys might miss.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Some Good Picture Books


Picture books offer something for everyone. I tell my students that picture books have a call number that begins with "E" for just that reason. Everyone can find something to enjoy on this list.


A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee may actually appeal more to adults than to children. When two young boys spend a week-end with the grandparents of one of the boys, they experience things in ways that are familiar to any one who ever been a child. Grandpa’s driving gets them to the beach house, but also adds to their vocabularies. They simply soak up all that the freedom of outdoor play has to offer, finding that this is the key to having a great week. The illustrations are filled with humor and add greatly to the story.

Epossumandus Plays Possum by Colleen Salley is the fourth in this series which features one of the world’s few truly cute possums. The diaper he wears adds to the humor and the appeal. Once again, Epossumandus takes an old story to make it new. Every one of these books is worth a look.

Dragon’s Love by Stephen Parlato does not have much of a plot, but that really does not matter because they illustrations are so beautiful and creative. When the dragon says its loves feathers, the illustration shows a dragon made entirely of feathers. If the dragon loves butterflies or lizards or something else, that love fills the entire page with color. This is a treat for the eye and a great excuse to study each picture for hours on end.

Thunder Boomer by Shutta Crum (who lives in Ann Arbor) is a lovely story of a young girl and her family as they experience an exciting, slightly frightening, and amazing thunder storm. This newest by Crum is my personal favorite of her many picture books.

Learning to Fly and Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser are my favorite finds of this fall. Learning to Fly begins with a man finding a penguin who tried to fly and could until others told him that penguins don’t fly. The man helps the penguin in many amusing and impractical ways. The conclusion is a lovely moral. Waiting for Winter captures the excitement of the first taste of snow by showing a squirrel and his friends as they imagine snow and then celebrate the arrival of winter. The illustrations make both of these books stand out. Never before have I seen such few lines carry so much humor and feeling.

Egg Drop by Mini Grey is the hilarious tale of a little egg who wants to fly. The bold little egg climbs to the top of a tall tower (kids love the drops of sweat on the poor egg’s forehead/shell) and then jumps off. He thinks he is flying, but, of course, he merely falls. Despite all efforts, he can’t be put back together. Don’t stop reading until you find the twist at the end.

Chicken Little by Rebecca Emberly and Ed Emberly gives free reign to this daughter/father team to add colorful illustrations and a few surprises to the familiar tale. There are many versions of this story available, with this being one of the most recent and certainly one of the brightest, in many senses of the word.


There are more and more non-fiction picture books from biographies to science to folk tales. I will include more in other lists, but here are some to get you started.

This is the Oasis by Miriam Moss effectively captures the vast open spaces of the Sahara Desert and then shows the color and activity of the oasis. The text is simple and blends well with the illustrations. There is enough information to offer the start of a good research paper while also being a good recreational read.

Tarra & Bella: The Elephant and the Dog Who Became Best Friends by Carol Buckley joins many other books that feature surprising animal friendships. Like the others (If you haven’t read Owen and Mzee about the hippo and the turtle who become friends, please go find it and its sequels as soon as you can.) There is more text than the usual picture book and a wealth of nice photographs. It is hard not to love a dog or an elephant, so it is hard not to ooh and ahhh over this book.

Books for Adults

Emerson is getting ready for its annual book fair. Here are some suggestions for the adult readers in our community and beyond.

Lost on Planet China, J. Maarten Troost’s new book joins The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages as a unique, humorous, and informative travel book. Troost leaves behind the tropical islands that he visited in his previous books and his wife and two sons to spend several months trying to understand China and its role in the modern world. There are parts that will make you laugh and other parts that will startle and amaze you. It is a very different look at China than one gets from the news or other travel and history books. Add China to your list of places to visit and view with a new eye.

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other national papers, is a memoir that follows her journey from growing up in the ruling class in Liberia to her teen years as a refugee in the United States and then to her return to the country of her youth. In addition to a well-written story, this book presents a history of Liberia from the viewpoints of the people who were living there for generations as well as the freed slaves that the U.S. sponsored to go there to set up a new country.

Pretty Birds by NPR reporter Scott Simon is a novel that was inspired by Simon’s time spent reporting from Sarajevo. The protagonist is a young girl whose family is forced from their home when the fighting started. As the family struggles to survive, she finds that she can earn money and food by becoming a sniper. The mixing of a fairly innocent teen-age girl with the cold, hard brutality of war makes a moving story, despite some flaws in the writing.

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte packs a lot of power into a slender volume. It ponders the question of what the impact is of the photographers who get the close-ups of war that we see on the evening news and in print materials. There were descriptions of brutality that were almost impossible to read, but the story was so compelling and the questions so important that I barely stopped to breathe as I read,

The Help by Katherine Stockett gives a somewhat different view to relations between the races in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. It has been quite popular recently so you probably have heard about this novel of an upper middle class white woman who interviews the African American maids who serve her family and the families of her friends. Maids know about a family than any family probably cares to admit. These maids also know pain, sorrow, and racism at its worst.

Step back in time a little more than a decade from the time of The Help and you will be in the South that is portrayed in Mudbound by Hillary Jordan which tells the differing lives found by two men, one black and one white, who return from World War II. While serving in Europe they were treated almost equally. Now they need to pick up their very separate lives. These were hard times for hardened people.

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs is one of the strangest books I have read in a long time. I suspect that it is a book that people either love or hate with little middle ground. I enjoyed the questions that it stirs about religion, Autism, genetic engineering, and child rearing. This story got my book club looking at the history of the Netherlands and the surrounding areas as well discussions of the role of the Catholic Church in the area. Be warned—the writing is designed to get under your skin, and it does.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid covers only a few hours as it relates an interaction between an unnamed American tourist and a Pakistani in a café in Lahore. The Pakistani fellow tries to explain his country and his feelings about by recalling his college experiences at Princeton and how his life fell apart because of a failed love and then was further complicated by 9/11. Despite a weak ending, this story will give you much to think about as Pakistan remains in the forefront of so much of our news.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova takes the reader inside the mind of a sufferer of early onset Alzheimer’s. The author is a psychologist who works with the aging and specifically with Alzheimer patients. The story shows the fateful progression of the disease as well as the fear that Alice feels as she loses her memory in bits and in large pieces.

Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes by Mark Crick is a quick diversion that will bring a smile to your face and perhaps some good food to your table. Each of the 14 recipes is written in the style of a different well-known author.

It seems as though everyone I know has already read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows by now, but just in case you haven’t, let me suggest you give it a try. In letters and journal entries, this long-on-the-best-seller-list novel makes readers want to visit the island of Guernsey while recounting the life the islanders led during the Nazi occupation of their home. Along with the history and a look into the culture of the island is a sweet and believable love story. In short, it has something for almost everyone.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich M. Nguyen has been chosen as a statewide read this year. I can’t tell you what activities there will be around this book, but I can tell you that it is sure to stir some food memories for you no matter who you are. Nguyen, her father, sister, and grandmother found their way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1975 as Vietnamese refugees. This is a story of trying to fit into a new society without losing one’s roots.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink was read by many of the Emerson teachers this summer. While not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did, I am going to suggest that it is worth your time to read it and think about some of Pink’s interesting ideas. Will right brainers rule the future? It is hard to tell, but developing some right brain traits can’t hurt.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Hallloween

The school's Halloween parade has come and gone. The rain kept us inside but everyone had a wonderful time parading through the school, including a gym filled with parents.

As difficult as this may be to believe, I do not like to wear a costume and I stress more than is necessary about finding the perfect costume. This year's costume was very uncomfortable, but it provided a week of library classes. Most of the third to fifth grade classes were involved with the creation of a book costume. The continue to come to the library to see the finished product, even though it no longer graces my shoulders.

One class chose the catchy title of Linda Gets Stuck in a Book and another picked Bookabee Poochy as the suitable pseudonym for the multiple authors. Many children pointed out how this is much like the non-existent Erin Hunter who represents the team that writes the Warriors series. Which lead to a good discussion about why people would want to use a pseudonym. A third class designed the colorful cover which was In all three instances there were close votes to determine the ultimate winners. This means, of course, that there were many good ideas that could not be used this time.

Two classes were called upon for the ultimate in collaboration to create the story--or at least page one of it.

Reading the text in the picture is more than a little difficult so let me reproduce the entire text here:

One day Linda was reading a book to little green men from Venus. Suddenly the book attacked her. Linda fought back but the book kept trying to eat her. The book was too strong. Linda got pulled into the book. She tried to pry the book open but it was a like a steel trap. Soon all you could see were Linda's arms, legs, and head.

"Oh, well," said Linda, "I've always wanted to be in a good book."

Since there was nothing better to do inside the book, Linda read all of the pages. Then she got tired and fell asleep. The little green men from Venus woke her up by shouting, "Where's Linda?"

When she was awake, Linda realized that she was craving a bagel. Luckily she found one that the book had eaten earlier that week. But the bagel was stale.

Even though only her arms, legs, and head stuck out of the book, Linda walked to the store to get a fresh bagel. When she was full of bagel, she wanted some apple cider. On the way to the orchard, Linda passed a bookstore. The bookstore owner ran after her shouting, "Get back here book."

The bookstore owner caught Linda and put her on the shelf next to The Book About Books.
Two months later, a little girl came into the bookstore. She saw the book with Linda in it and thought it looked good. The little girl opened the book and

So, ends the story, unless your imagination can carry it to page two and beyond.

Referring to the picture of the open book, you will also notice that we spent some time dreaming up a publishing company. This book, copyright 2009, was published by Vampire Princess Press, a division of How to Eat a Whole Pie in Under 30
Seconds Publishers, Inc., 1877 Chicken Fingers and Fries Street, Emerson, Michigan.

The back cover was decorated by a second grade class with a few additions by others. You will notice that the price that students determined to be appropriate was $5,000,000.00 (higher in Canada). They had a hard time choosing between $0.01, $5.99 9/10, $14.99, and millions of dollars for this one-of-a-kind collaboration.

So ends the story, or does it?

Friday, October 23, 2009

More Halloween Poetry

Today the poetry comes from a fourth grade who, as you will see, put some thought into their pseudonyms.

Zombie Hamster by Piffy and Chip (who encourage you to read this as a rap or a song)

Once live a hamster name PChip
It had Purple hips,
It had a huge head
Like a mad scientist.
Its eyes were black with white pupils.
Its legs and arms were shaped like hills.
And that was the Zombie Hamster!

Skeleton by Emily Hickory and Alex Numbers

Sickly icky bones
Kids scr-
Likes to scare people
Everyone's scared of it
Outrageously scary skeleton
Never lives.

Mysterious Hole by Hermione Ranger

I once went for a stroll
But then I bumped into a pole
then fell through a hole
I got hurt
And fell in the dirt
And got a new name, Mirt.

The Black Cat by Mooing Moose and Morgan Mock

There was a black cat
On the cat
There was a hat
On the hat
Thee was a bat...
The ghost appeared.

The Cat and Rat
by Bailey Staginahw

I once met a fat black cat.
That can knew a rat.
The little rat ran
Just as fast he can.
Though the cat was chasing his tail.
The RAt started tow ail.
A boat took off to sail.
Because the cat was chasing the rat's tail.

Hot Chocolate by Beafy Beaf Lover
(This is a concrete poem that I will try to scan in later, but the words are too good to miss. Picture these words sitting in a green cup with the first line as steamy steam.)

I want
hot chocolate
And I want it now.
Hot Heat rising from the mug.
Steamy steam steaming from the mug.
As I said,
I want hot chocolate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Halloween Poetry

Today I had a third grade class write some poetry. After many discussions, they were not left with much time to write their poems, but as you can see below, they rose to the challenge. In addition to thinking about poetry forms, we worked in a little talk about pseudonyms and Internet safety as we thought about the dangers of putting your full name out for the world to see. You will note some pretty creative pseudonyms here. We also talked about copyright. Each student signed a release allowing me to put their poetry on this blog. There will be more poems coming soon from other students as well as concrete poems that will require my scanner to be fully operative.

And now, some poems.

The Bat by "blah, blah, blah"

The bat that wanted
A cat
Was eating
I think,
Ah Yes,
A rat.
The rat was big, he thought
So he sold the rat
And got a cat.
The cat wanted to eat
A Kit Kat
So the bat gave
A Kit Kat
To the cat.
And the bat
Ate another rat.

Lizard by Omar


Cat by Benyo-man

Always are

Owls by A. W.


Rat by P.G.


Cat by Michael H.

A big cat
The fat rat.

Witch by Jessica

Witches fly on
Gnarled wood
Smoke in the air.

Pumpkin by Elie

Unicorns fly through the mushy pumpkin pie.
Mommy carves jack-o-lanterns.
Pumpkin pies don't like unicorns.
Kenny is fat because he eats pumpkins raw.
I like Halloween.
Nice Halloween Pumpkins.

Pumpkin by Emma

Pumpkin pie
Kind of squishy
Insides are gooey
Nice orange pumpkins.

Halloween's Night by Madeleine

At Halloween's night
We go to trick-or-treating.
When dark falls
Witches with their cats
Come out. When all is dark
And midnight strokes
Witches gather together
And tell stories.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Happy Diwali

Yes, it is Diwali time again and folks all over the world have been lighting oil lamps to welcome good fortune to their doorstep. As the bride of someone India, I have gotten a number of Diwali greetings. The truth is that in 36 plus years of marriage we have never really celebrated Diwali at our house. My husband tells me that in the far south of India where he grew up, it is a festival for the husband to visit the home of his in-laws. He would not have gotten much celebration by going to visit my folks in Montana. Maybe we can make a big deal over our future sons-in-law, though I doubt that my girls will think of it.

I have gotten to know more about Diwali from the parents of Indian origin at the school. They have generously shared with me and with our students many of their customs and foods. These are the same folks who will soon be celebrating Children's Day with the school.

I wish I could tell you more about Diwali, but all could give you would be pretty slim or collected from books and the Internet. I suggest that you go to this brief blog article called Ganesha, Diwali, and Ravi Shankar, Too to get another perspective on this holiday.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Let's Start at the Beginning

Many people have been asking me for age specific book lists. Let's start with those designed for the beginning reader.

Easy Readers are the first books that people usually read by themselves. This trend started with Dr. Seuss and The Cat in the Hat which has a controlled vocabulary of just over 200 words. This book was inspired by a magazine article that wondered if children had a hard time learning to read because the first books we gave them were not very interesting and had illustrations that did not build on the plot. Seuss tested this theory and found great success for himself and for young readers.

The story goes that Bennett Cerf then bet Seuss $50.00 that he could not write a book using only 50 words. Green Eggs and Ham, the response to that challenge, is one of the most popular books in the English language—in 2001 Publisher’s Weekly said it was the fourth most popular book in the English language. I love the story, perhaps not entirely based on fact, that when Seuss went to give a speech at MIT or some other important and serious university, the entire student audience stood to recent that beloved book back to its audience.

From Seuss’s beginning grew a new genre of books—the Easy Reader.

Here are a few of my favorites. You will recognize some from your own childhood or from reading them to a special child. I hope that some are new to you and start you on exploring all of the quality literature that has been written for those just beginning a life long love of reading. (As you look for these titles, remember that every publisher seems to have a different system of marking the titles. What is a level 2 in one series may be level 4 in something else. Be sure to look in the book to see if it suits your particular needs, both in terms of reading level and interest.)

Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold introduces young readers to an amazing and very funny fly.

Minnie and Moo will soon become your bovine favorites in this series by Denys Cazet.

Sam and the Firefly, Are You My Mother, and Go Dog Go are just a few of the well-loved books by P. D. Eastman.

Danny and the Dinosaur by Sid Hoff endures as a favorite.

Pinky and Rex adventures are brought to you from the pen of James Howe.

Frog and Toad and the many more in this series and others by Arnold Lobel are read over and over again.

Fox All Week and the rest of this series by Edward Marshall made my husband laugh out loud when he read them to our daughters.

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik will always hold a special spot in my heart.

Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parrish and continued today by Herman Parrish is loved by any child old enough to enjoy playing with words and their meanings.

Cynthia Rylant writes for all ages and her three Easy Reader series are a great introduction— Take a look at Henry and Mudge, Pinky and Rex and Mr. Putter and Tabby.

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat has inspired many a young detective.

Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas a perfect bedtime story and a fun story to read at any time of the day.

Amanda Pig and her brother Oliver Pig bring humor and life to several books by Jean Van Leeuwen.

Commander Toad by Jane Yolen commands a series of wild space adventures.


Several publisher have started putting out quality non-fiction in an easy reader format.

Dorling Kindersly (DK) has several non-fiction readers that feature the same kinds of great pictures in the Eyewitness books but with more straight forward information.

Scholastic Rookie books are feature bright illustrations and photos along with simple text to talk about topics in health, science, geography, and biography.

Seymour Simon produces fact-filled books with amazing photos for slightly older kids and now has a series of See More Readers for the youngest readers.

Time for Kids, Random House, and Golden Books also have good non-fiction books on the market.

Two of my favorite non-fiction titles are The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford and George Washington and the General’s Dog by Frank Murphy.

As you begin to look at these books you will soon realize that simple sentences and a controlled vocabulary does not mean the the lose of a good story or some solid information.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Series-ously speaking

Every year at this time, parents come to me with the deep concern that their child is reading and rereading a entire series. Often it is a series that was read (and maybe reread several times) last year. "Is she regressing?" they ask. "Will Susie ever read fine literature?" "Why won't Billy move on?" I don't know the research on this topic, but I do have some thoughts.

The start of the new school year can be stressful--new teacher, new classmates, new requirements, and other real and imagined changes. A series offers familiar friends in familiar settings. Even the language is familiar. All of that can be very comforting.

I have never known an adult who still reads nothing but Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Tin Tin, but I know of many successful adults who read those books as fast as they could get their hands on them, our newest Supreme Court Justice being a case in point.

Everybody needs some relaxing reading. Adults are encouraged to read for relaxation. Kids have that same right and that same need. For many adults and children, series offer than relaxation.

There is currently one of may library patrons who is rereading all of the Babysitters' Club as fast as she can, often at the rate of four a day. She says they are just fun. Then she turns around and asks for something that will challenge her outstanding fourth grade reading skills. I am always impressed by her versatile and voracious reading habits. She is getting new things from those babysitters and she is branching out in many directions. Some day she will realize how similar all of the Babysitters' stories are. She may even did what my daughter did.

One of my daughters joined her friends at a certain age in reading every Babysitters' Club book she could find. She wanted to change her name to Stacy. She wanted to have a club. She wanted to discuss whether it was Jesse or Mallory who was the most interesting. Then one fine day, she said, "I figured out what would happen in this book by about page 10. I am not going to read any more of these." To the best of my knowledge she has never read another one. Now she suggests some pretty tough reading material for me as well as some good relaxing stuff.

Not only are there now a lot more Babysitters' Club by Ann M. Martin books available than there were when my daughter was young, there are a lot more series in general. Here are few old favorites as well as some that are newer. They just scratch the surface of the series books out there, with more coming out every day.

Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene and Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon (you all know of course that those are pseudonyms for the many authors who contributed to the creation of these series) are detective stories that will live on for generations. The older ones are still more popular with most kids than the newer ones. None of my students seem to care for the graphic format ones.

Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol have also been around for a long while and have kept many a young reader happily entertained.

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat is loved for getting beginning readers hooked on mysteries, series, and reading in general.

Today's Wall Street Journal had an article on the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. I confess that I don't remember whether I ever read these or not, but Meg Cabot gives a good argument in this article for why these books are still popular nearly 70 years after they first appeared.

You know many other well-loved series that are considered fine literature as well--The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling and Winne-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne to name just a few.

There are some new series that should not be missed.

I have mentioned Babymouse by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm before but must mention it again because it offers very funny stories with interesting twists and turns in a graphic format.

Also in the graphic format are the Bone books by Jeff Smith. More than one young man credits a new found joy of reading to these wild and wacky tales.

The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan are set to become classics because of their timely twist on mythology, their humor, and their adventures.

Nicola's Bookstore brought Story Pirate performers to introduce The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan to Emerson School a week ago. Those kids who were not interested in this adventure-filled series before are now reading it at a rapid clip. The children's book buyer at Nicola's has seen the pre-publication copy of the next in the series and says it is even better than the last two, which she also thought were great. That is high praise.

American Chillers and Michigan Chillers by Jonathan Rand are almost impossible to keep on the library shelves. These stories of monsters devouring cities in Michigan and entire states are devoured by boys in grades three and up. They have a generous dose of humor plus lots of adventure. We also like them because Rand lives in Michigan.

For those who like animal adventures--as in animals with human characteristics who fight major battles--there are the owls of The Guardians of Ga'Hoole by Kathryn Lasky and the cats of Warriors by Erin Hunter.

Finally, let me comment on the new 39 Clues series. The kids tell me that some of them are great and others are not so good. This is not surprising because each one is by a different author. I am put off by the number of commercial tie-ins. You can collect the cards, enter the contest, and make repeated visits to the web-site for more tie-ins. Groan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Owls, Owls, Owls

Yesterday evening my husband and I went on an owl walk at one of the local Metroparks. After an interesting and informative talk about owls, their habits and their habitats, the group headed down to a clearing near both woods and the Huron River. The leader of the group pulled out her i-pod and played recordings of screech owl calls. (Isn't modern technology great! Her i-pod may not have rap or even the Beatles, but it has nature sounds of all sorts.) The calls were interesting but the only wildlife that reacted were some cardinals who sent out a warning that danger was nearby. After the cardinals left the area, we kept listening to the recorded calls and watched the sky. All we saw were happy bats scooping up insects by the mouthful. The kids in the group were getting bored as we waited and waited. About 8:00 another ploy was tried. The i-pod sent out calls of a great horned owl, a lower, rumbling call almost alike a dog barking in the distance. Soon there was a reply from a horned owl somewhere off in the distance. The owl called a few times but lost interest in our calls--perhaps they were not as realistic sounding as we believed. Just as those of us who had stayed in the rapidly chilling night longer than we had planned were thinking that it was time to give up, someone pointed at the sky and followed a silent shadow as it flew to a nearby branch. The leader soon focused her powerful flashlight on a barred owl who had thoughtfully placed himself in perfect position for us to get a good look. He did not seem scared but did not look at the light often or for very long. He sat in perfect view for a several minutes and then spread his large wings and silently disappeared into the woods. Those few minutes made the evening a success for all of us on the walk.

As we walked back to our car, I began thinking of the many great books about owls. Let me start with my very favorite, Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. As a boy growing up on the plains of Saskatchewan, Mowat found and raised two great horned owls. This book is a fictionalized telling of the adventures of boys and their owls, based on his own memories. At times these tales are just plain hilarious--as when one of the owls follows him to school. In other parts of the books you will find some fascinating facts about owls. I confess that I cry at the ending every time I read this book. It is written for upper elementary, but, as I found with my own daughters, it makes a great read aloud for younger children. When my girls needed camp nicknames when they helped me be a counselor at Girl Scout day camp, they chose Wol and Weeps, the names of the two owls in this book. Mowat wrote many great books of adventure and life. There are three other of his books, written for young adult/adult readers, are also prominent on my list of favorite books. Check out The Dog Who Wouldn't Be for memories of Mowat's favorite childhood dog. It is another story that will make you cry from laughing and cry from the sadness. (Yes, it is a dog story with the all too common dog story ending.) Lost in the Barrens and Never Cry Wolf are adventure and nature stories of the highest caliber, based on Mowat's adventures exploring Canada's far north.

If you are looking for owls in a picture book, try one of these. Little Hoot by Amy Krause Rosenthal is about a little owl who just wants to go bed early. Kids love this twist on their desire to stay up late. Little Hoot proclaims that he will let his kids go to bed at any time they choose. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson has some of the most endearing pictures of owls that I have ever seen. Elf Owl by Mary and Conrad Buff was a favorite of mine when I was young. It was published in 1958 and is now hard to find. I honestly do not remember the story, but the cover illustration of a little owl peering out of a saguaro cactus is still clear in my mind.

There are some classics in the easy reader genre that feature owls: Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman and Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel are stories that never grow old because of their subtle humor and well-told stories.

There is an Owl in the Shower by Jean Craighead George is somewhat similar to Owls in the Family. It also recounts stories based on human interactions with owls living in the house. George is an expert at sharing her love of nature in an interesting and appealing manner.

Carl Haissen takes a different route to encourage elementary and middle school age readers to appreciate nature. He wrote a mystery novel with lots of humor and pleas for taking care of owls in Hoot. Readers solve the mystery both of the owls and of how to fit in as the new kid at school.

There are too many wonderfully illustrated, fact-filled non-fiction on owls for me to cover them here. Make a trip to your library and look at them all to find some that have the information that fits your needs.

Finally, find a copy of The Owl and Pussycat by Edward Lear and read it just for the pure fun of it. Many illustrators have put their stamp on this classic nonsense poem. You will have to decide for yourself which ones fit your image of the tale.

Next time you are outside at dusk, keep your eyes open for an owl sighting. If you do not see one, read one of these books. If you do see one, you will enjoy these books even more.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Slaying the Dragon

The start of the school year can be something like slaying a dragon. You enter the doors and the quest begins. It does not seem to matter how prepared you thought you were. The excitement, the nerves, the things you have actually forgotten soon overtake you. Because you are a dragon slayer, you carry on, slashing at the problems and hoarding the successes. Soon the successes, the joy of reuniting with friends, and the clock bring you to the end of the day, reinvigorated and ready to face the next day and the one after that. The year begins and you are ready.

It has been a good start for the new library facility. Teacher, parents, and, most importantly, students have poured into the library and scattered praise into every corner. They walk in the doors--yes, those are new, as in we have never before had doors--and generally stop to take a deep breath. The usual response is along the line of those that came from girls I never saw to identify but I am guessing they are in middle school. "Look! It's, like, OMG!" So far the new library is working well. The students are finding the books they want and, amazingly, so am I (Most of the time). If you are in the area, be sure to come to the grand dedication on October 2. There will be some surprises waiting for you even if you have already dropped by to see it.

There are some new books in the library, as well. To bring this post full circle let me mention just one of them. Babymouse: Dragonslayer is the latest in a series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, a brother and sister team who have created a new graphic novel heroine. Babymouse is something of a Walter Mitty in little, pink, mouse clothing. She has a vivid imagination that helps her solve the problems of life as an elementary school student. In this story, her math teacher offers the option of accepting a poor grade or joining the math competition team. She reluctantly heads off to become a mathlete even though she feels she has no talent--and certainly no love--for math. On the way she has an interaction with characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They help inspire her but don't necessarily help her math skills. Will she help the team regain the golden slide rule? Is she the person of good heart that the prophecy said was coming to save the team? Will she ever understand math? The humor in this book will appeal to older readers (parents and teachers will enjoy it, I promise) while emergent readers will enjoy the energy and the graphics even if they miss a few of the math jokes and references to classic works of fantasy.

Whatever your dragons, go forth and conquer them. Have a great start to the new school year.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Read to Get Ready for School

The five year old daughter of my niece starts kindergarten tomorrow. (They live in California where they don't wait until after Labor Day to begin the school year.) Elise, like five year olds across the country, is excited about going to school but she is also a little bit worried about what to expect. She will do fine, I am sure, but I know how she feels. If it is any consolation to those of you who are starting school soon, I have never met a teacher who did not worry about the start of the new year. I know I will have trouble sleeping the night before school starts--both from excitement and from worry that things may not go as smoothly as hoped.

To help Elise and her mother and everyone else, here is a list of some of the picture books that I use at the start of the school year to help ease the worries and find the fun of school.

The two authors who come to mind first are Kevin Henkes and Rosemary Wells. Both of these well-loved authors have written many picture books about school. Look for Wemberly Worried and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse for those of Henkes' books that most relate to school worries. He has so many books from which to choose that you could spend weeks with them and get good advice for being young from them all. Wells is similarly talented in making life a little more understandable. The titles that first come to mind from Wells that relate to school are those about Timothy (Timothy Goes To School) and the stories about Yoko.

For those young ones with a good sense of humor and the ability to understand that rumors are often wrong, the Black Lagoon books by Mike Thaler (titles include The Librarian from the Black Lagoon, The Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon, The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, and many more) can be a great deal of fun. If your child will be scared off by tales of a librarian who laminates children and other evil school personnel, you might want to wait until they are safely ensconced in school routines before introducing these books, but keep them in mind when you want to laugh about these early school jitters.

Speaking of jitters, A Very Full Morning by Eva Montari uses gentle illustrations and a rabbit with expressive body language to make the point that everyone worries about the first day of school. This little rabbit named One Tooth can't sleep the night before the first day of school, but she dutifully gets up, gets dress, and heads off to the classroom. The illustrations are soft but the angles they take convey the worry inherent in the day. The surprise and reassurance comes on the final pages. One review I read warned that this might add to worries of some so read it to yourself if you worry about your worrier. (Pre-reading the picture book you are about to share with your child is always a good idea. Of course sometimes the persistent "read it now" is more important than that judicious scan.)

Froggy Goes to School by Jonathan London starts with an all too familiar dream. Froggy dreams that he forgets to put on his pants before setting off to school. After surviving such a humiliating dream, the real school day can not help but go smoothly.

The School in Murky Wood by Malcolm Bird distracts young students from their school worries by getting them looking for the monster students who use the school in the night time. These goofy looking monsters come out when all of the kids go home. They have classes that are similar to those that the humans take but with distinctly monster-ish twists. When I read this to a class I prepare myself for reports of monster track sitings for many days to come.

If you have a child who loves playing with language, Butterflies in my Stomach and Other School Hazards by Serge Bloch is just for you. Each page features a familiar idiom that applies to a young boy setting off to school. He "gets up on the wrong side of the bed" with "butterflies in his stomach" about going to school. He is asked about his "long face" and meets the "Big Cheese" principal. It takes a wise teacher to get to the root of his biggest concerns. It took a talented artist to depict each idiom as a literal statement while helping the reader to understand the implied meanings. This is a book that is worth reading again and again for there is much to discover and discuss on each page and in each surprisingly simple illustration.

Do you have a real worrier? The Worryworts by Pamela Edwards is not about school but it is about the wonderful world of worry. Wombat, Weasel, and Woodchuck want to go out to wander the world but they worry about what could go wrong. What if a whirlwind from the west whisks them away? What if wasps wander around them? Every what if is addressed with a wonderfully wacky solution. This book is one that our school counselor uses often with students who are worriers. It is a delight to read aloud because it goes well out of its way to use "w" words wildly.

I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas is a little too saccharine for my usual taste and the illustrations are a little too pastel. Nonetheless, I get a little misty-eyed when I read this reassuring little tale. Owen the pig is worried about being left alone at school. His mother tells him that she loves even when he is not with her and then gives concrete examples. It is sweet and sappy and sometimes just what is needed.

If you are up for reading something longer than a picture book, the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park are funny stories about a mischievous little kindergarten girl. (In later books in this very large series she heads on to first grade.) Some folks get upset by her wild behavior and bad grammar but others love to laugh at her antics and find consolation in her coping skills. These books are written as first chapter books so if you read one to your beginning reader, she may take off with them on her own. (Boys are not as likely to want to try these books at first glance but I have had several boys that read them all once that first reluctance was gone.)

See my earlier post about Jump Start Camp for a few more titles that you might want to try as well.

Parents need reassurances about the first day of school, too. I am sorry that I don't have any books just for adults to help you cope. Enjoying any of these books with your child should offer you plenty of support. Take a minute on the first day of school to meet some of the other parents and get comfortable with the school. You will be spending a lot of time there and you need to feel as comfortable as your child does.

A Room Full of Laughter

Years and years ago I saw a book called Children's Faces Looking Up. This book by Dorothy Dewit is out of print but is something of a classic of storytelling ideas. Unfortunately, I did not grab a copy of the book when I first saw it. (I had no idea at the time that I would "grow up" to be a school librarian with an interest in storytelling.) The title has stuck with me and comes to mind often when I am telling stories or reading to a group of children. Those faces looking up are one of the greatest joys of my job.

An even greater joy, however, comes when the entire class spontaneously bursts into laughter. That doesn't happen often. Usually there is at least one child who is either disengaged or just does not get the joke.

On Friday at Jump Start Camp, the magical room full of laughter occurred while I read Monkey With a Tool Belt by Chris Monroe. I have read this book several times before and while the kids always enjoy the story, I have never had such a simultaneous roar of laughter.

The monkey in the title is named Chico Bon Bon (for the rest of the day several children called themselves Chico Bon Bon--it is a catchy name, don't you think?). He is never far from his trusty tool belt which is illustrated in great detail, pointing out tools like a monkey wrench, a donkey wrench, a turkey wrench, and other real and imagined tools. In this first of the tool belt series, Chico is captured by an appropriately evil-looking organ grinder. Chico uses his tools to mastermind an escape. It was when we got to the part of the escape that involved a large hammer coming in contact with the organ grinder's big toe that the room burst into laughter.

Is there any better sound than 19 children laughing with pure delight?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting a Jump Start

This week my camp is designed just for the folks who will be in Emerson's kindergarten this fall. We have 19 four to five year olds (mostly five), all of whom are worried and excited about school.
This is over 50% of the class that will start in September. Mrs. B., the music teacher, and I are thrilled to be getting to know so many of them and begin some very special friendships.

Let me start by saying, that we are favorably impressed with this group. Yes, we have had some tears and some behavior that could have been better but mostly we have had happy, helpful, clever, charming children share the past four mornings with us. This morning's recess included soccer players, monkeys on the monkey bars, folks (mostly of royal lineage) setting up housekeeping while making sure all the rock/dishes were washed and put away, and a stealthy few who were doing secret reconnaissance missions. How's that for variety?

One of my favorite things about this camp is getting to know the incoming kindergarten students in a relaxed atmosphere. We spend a lot of time outside plus have time for stories, games, songs, and crafts. Some of these times are more relaxed than others. Today we had what may have been the greatest chaos of any Jump Start Camp to date. We had a brilliant idea to make rain sticks using items we found in the general camp left overs. There were this wonderful, heavy cardboard tubes that we knew would be perfect. Then we found some parachute material in bright colors, some strong rubber bands, and rice beyond its optimum eating potential. Perfect? Not quite. We underestimated how much rice the kids would feel they needed to make the best rain sound. Our counselor and junior counselors had to go do other things, so Mrs. B. and I were on our own for much of the time. The kids needed help with the rubber bands. They needed help pouring rice. Those who finished first decided to test the rain sticks with vigor. A cup of rice easily overcomes a simple rubber band when the it is shaken with enthusiasm. Out came the rice--often flying in every direction or, to one camper's delight, in a nice square on the floor. This is when members of administration decided to visit the camp for a meet and greet. Let me say, that we have a wonderful new head, assistant head, and admissions director. They jumped right in to help the kids make their rain sticks and then listened to the more rain than people who live their entire lives in a rain forest probably ever hear. The kids loved the craft. They loved the cleaning up even more. So chaos was fun.

Just to sneak books in here, let me briefly mention a few of the books that we have enjoyed this read. Getting ready for school is a popular topic with this group.

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child is one of my favorites. I like it so much that I overlook the fact that the two characters in it are now best known for a TV series. Lola is convinced that she does not need or want school. It is up to her big brother Charlie to counter her arguments that she does not need to count or read nor does she want to be all alone at school. The illustrations of all of Child's books are fabulous collages and this is no exception. It is a humorous, friendly way to address many of the concerns about school.

Minerva Louise at School by Janet Morgan Stoeke never fails to get a laugh. It shows school as seen through the eyes of a chicken. From Minerva Louise's point of view the school is a barn with the farmer running his laundry up the flagpole. She finds nesting boxes (cubbies) and is impressed by how decorated they are, though she worries about an egg (baseball) that seems to be neglected by its mother. The kids loved catching all of her mistakes and then thinking of what else might confuse a chicken.

One of our campers is named Simon so he was particularly impressed with I Don't Want to Go to School by Stephanie Blake. Simon (in the book, not our camper who is very much a boy) is a rabbit who tells his parents "No Way" when they announce that he will soon start school. This phrase is repeated throughout the story. It did not take long for every child listening to me read to join in every time Simon said "no way!" My favorite part of the story is that after his mother leaves Simon first cries a little but is soon drawn into the school day, having so much fun that when it is time to go home, he says, "no way!"

There are many more books about school, but those are the ones we have read and enjoyed in Jump Start this week. We are ready for school to start. I hope others are getting into that mind set, too.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Schwa Worth Knowing

Last night I finished reading a unique middle school/young adult novel--The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman.

It is unique first and foremost because good, humorous, realistic novels for boys of this age are few and far between. This is narrated by an eighth grade boy in a style and voice that rang true for me. (Of course, I have never been an eighth grade boy, but it surely sounds like the eighth grade boys I hear talking in the halls of school.) There are other books that try to capture the voice of middle school boys who are toying with the idea of being interested in girls, but aren't quite sure where to begin. The first that come to my mind are those in the Bingo Brown series by Betsy Byars. The immediate difference is that while Bingo Brown narrates the story the voice is all too often the voice of the female author. It is more of a book about a boy that is written for a girl. (It is also a favorite of mine. You might want to read those books and compare.) While girls will like the Schwa, this books is clearly by and for males.

The premise of the story is not unique--Calvin Schwa is a boy who is looking for his long missing mother and trying to figure out his own place in the world. The development of that idea is unlike any I have ever read. As Anthony (Antsy) Bonano tells it, the Schwa is nearly invisible even while in plain sight. People just do not notice him. He seems to appear out of nowhere, surprising even teachers, despite his hand waving in the middle of the classroom. There are some great scenes of the boys (Antsy and his two best friends Howie and Ira) testing how invisible the Schwa is, proving the effectiveness of what they dub the Schwa effect. Things get complicated when both Antsy and the Schwa are interested in the same girl and more interesting when the Schwa sets out to be noticed by the world. Antsy steps in to heal their friendship and help find Calvin's mother. The story is touching at times, but not too often as the boys know they must rise above sentimentality.

For all that going on, the story is uniquely funny. The chapter titles give away the twisted humor that runs through the story with titles like "Vortex in Aisle Three--Can Someone Please Clean Up the Ectoplasmic Slime?" and "The Weird Things Kids Do Don't Even Come Close to the Weird Things Parents Do". (Isn't that last title a bit of truth that is often overlooked?)

Read The Schwa Was Here. You will laugh and then want to go put a schwa somewhere just to spread the joy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hunger Games

This morning I finished a young adult novel that was compelling from the first chapter to the final words that promise a sequel. I found it very difficult to put down and can clearly understand why I have seen more than one middle school students re-reading it for the umpteenth time.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins draws on classic literature like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game. In this future society located in what used to be North America, the twelve outlying districts must submit one boy and one girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games. The participants are chosen by a random drawing to be sent to the Capitol where they will compete to the death for honors and wealth for themselves and their district. They essentially are sent out to hunt each other, using whatever skills they have accumulated in their short lives. Some of the children in the more affluent districts train for the event; those from the poorer areas learn survival skills from necessity.

The games are the government's way of reminding all the districts that their should never be a rebellion because the government has the power to crush all who question them. Years earlier there were thirteen districts who dared to unite to try to destroy the dictatorship of the Capitol. District 13 was destroyed entirely. The remaining districts are carefully watched and kept subservient.

Kitmiss, the narrator of the story, steps forward to go to the games when your younger sister's name is drawn. Kitmiss has long been breaking the law by sneaking into the woods with her friend Gale to hunt for the animals that keep her family alive. Joining her is the baker's son Peeta, a boy who she scarcely knows except for a memory that when her family was starving he gave her some bread. The spectacle that they now join reminded me first of The Miss America Pageant with its carefully choreographed show, right down to clothing designed to show off the special qualities of the districts and the high pressure interview session. Then it becomes the lowest possible reality show. The twenty four young people are set out in harsh terrain to not only kill off their opponents but also to survive all that a carefully controlled version of nature has to offer. Yes, just as Survivor and other TV shows do, the contestants have sudden obstacles thrown in their path and horrendous twists of rules and fate are carefully coordinated by the Gamemasters. The entire nation is forced to watch all of this on live television and in highlight summaries throughout the several weeks of the competition.

This could have been a gruesome book, as tortuous to read as the story it tells. But it is not. It is exciting and thought provoking and ultimately a tender love story. Pick up this book when you have time to devote to it. You will not welcome the call to supper if comes when Kitmiss and Peeta are close to starvation.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tale Twisters-Part 2

The week of camp is over. While there were times when I wondered if I was keeping everyone busy enough, the end today was filled with joy and at least one little girl telling me how much she will miss me. I will miss all 15 of the little munchkins.

On Thursday we used up some old but still shiny CDs--thank you tech team--by gluing felt on one side of them to use for mini-felt boards. Then the kids made little felt scenery, people, and animals to stick on the boards. There were some very creative stories from that project. We discovered that you can also stick a sticker to felt and have a ready-made character for the felt board. Now I will be thinking of other ways to use my felt board.

This quick project was followed by the reading of two simple but vastly enjoyable books--Not a Stick and Not a Box by Antoinette Portis. These were a huge hit when I did this camp last year and they garnered praise and excitement again this summer. The premise of each book is that while adults may see a stick or a box, kids can see much more. After reading the books, boxes of all sizes and shapes were distributed to the campers who spent the rest of the morning using scraps and things from the summer stockpile to make something that was definitely NOT a box. In fact, the word b-o-x was officially banned from the camp. We ended up with a wide range of things including many fairy houses and bat caves as well as canoe with a paddle, a book, a race car, and a telephone booth. I can never again look at a box without seeing a wee bit of its potential to be so much more.

Today we set in to finish all of the unfinished projects that accumulated throughout the week plus used up left over boxes and other items to take use wherever the creative urge took us. Our day was broken up with a reptile exhibit by the Reptilemania camp. I even got to hold (or was he holding me?) Shaggy, the carpet python, who is quite charming. There were several other geckos, snakes, and other critters to touch and appreciate along with informational talks from the campers. Later we saw four short puppet shows that were created by the campers in Playwriting in Puppetry. Paper bag puppets, all wildly decorated, told the story of The Five Fiends. The Very Hungry Caterpillar came to life through shadow puppets. The campers created a script and amazing cloth puppets for Where the Wild Things Are and paper plates were used to make stunning fish to tell the story of The Rainbow Fish. The stories fit perfectly with the theme of our tale twisting camp.

We ended the day with just enough time to read Pete's a Pizza by William Steig and No Such Thing by Jackie French Koller. A rainy day that needs some cheering up is what inspires Pete's dad to turn him into a pizza. I wish I had a young Pete to knead, roll, toss, and cover with oil, flour, cheese and tomatoes before tossing him into the sofa oven. Young monsters, or so our second book says, are just as afraid of being eaten by boys as young boys are of being eaten by monsters. I think that there may be a monster under my bed but I have never had the nerve to look. I am a mother; I know that there is no such thing.

I will take next week off from camp and then go back for my favorite camp of the summer. Jump Start is just for those students who will be beginning kindergarten at Emerson this September. It is a special privilege to get to meet and spend time with those young ones before even their teachers meet them.