Monday, May 25, 2009

The End of the Year is Busy

This is just a quick up-date to any loyal readers who have been wondering where I have been. The simple answer is BUSY!

On May 1, we held the very successful and enjoyable concluding event to our Second and Third Grade Book Quest. Creativity and fun were the key words. I wish I had had time to take pictures of the many unique and challenging ways that the students and their coaches devised to test knowledge of the books. Bravo!!

May 6,7, and 8 was the annual used book sale. Whew! We moved and handled and sold a huge number of books. With most books going for just one, thin dime plus discounts on the last day, you can imagine our joy at making $295.00 which we donated to the Peace Neighborhood Center which helps children throughout the area.

The library is officially closed for the school year and inventory is about one half way to completion. The earlier closer and the quick turn around is because we are also packing all of the books as we go along. First the shelves of a given section are put in order. Then the books are inventoried using my trusty PHD. I feel very lucky when I think about how many people spend years and thousands of dollars to get a PhD and then wonder if they ever really use what they learned. I got my PHD through mail order and use it every year for a few weeks. Of course, my PHD is a Portable Handheld Device that is used for scanning the bar codes on the books and will never be good for much else. A Doctor of Philosophy probably would serve me well in other areas but I will settle for the PHD I now have.

If you come in the next few weeks you will see bare shelves and stacks of boxes. This hard work is just the preamble to the hard work of construction that is set to begin no later than June 15. It will get will get done... it will get done.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Nicola's Book Bash

To help get the library sprinkled with lovely new books to match the new fall digs, the school parent organization is sponsoring a Book Bash at Nicola's Bookstore in the Westgate Shopping Center right here in lovely Ann Arbor. The event runs from May 25 to May 31. If you mention Emerson when you shop, the school will get a generous percentage of the sale. Thank you, shoppers, and than you ESPO.

To aid with shopping I have put together a suggested reading list. It has gone out to all of our families, but here it is for others looking for a good read.

To create this list I started at the beginning of my books-read list (1993) to pick some oldies that I still remember. Then I jumped to the end of my list for books that I have read in 2009. In each case I picked only the best. I’ll note with an asterisk those that may be so old that you will be best served by having Nicola order them for you. I will keep my notations brief. If they interest you, ask me about them. Be sure to browse through all the other books at the store. The staff at Nicola's always has great suggestions. They all are avid readers with a wide range of tastes.

Alias Grace*and many more by Margaret Atwood are high on my list. While some of her books appeal to me more than others, I consider her to be a safe bet for an enjoyable novel. Alias Grace is historical fiction at its best, the saga of a young Canadian woman who is arrested for murder in 1843. Her other books encompass many genres.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum * is a rare book in that it considers and gives voice to German gentiles who had to make tough decisions to survive during the Third Reich. It shows compassion for the many on all sides of the issue who made tough decisions in order to survive.

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian is sure to stir debate with those who can convince to discuss this intriguing novel with you. Did the midwife of the title kill the mother or save the baby? For another discussion of midwifery, read The Birth House by Ami McKay which takes places in the early 20th century in Nova Scotia and focuses on the meeting of old ways of delivering babies with the new practices of obstetrics.

The Tortilla Curtain* by T. Coraghessan Boyle is just one of many fascinating novels by T. C. Boyle. Told from alternating points of view this will make you think again about the issues of illegal aliens settling in Southern California. Boyle's newest novel is about the many loves of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Paddy Clark, Ha, Ha, Ha by Roddy Doyle will take you to Ireland at its worst with this heart-wrenching but also sometimes hilarious story of a young boy growing up under less than perfect conditions. This is a good one to compare with Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

Ella Minnow Pea* by Mark Dunn has fun playing with language. The town in which Ella lives takes pride in the sentence about the “quick brown fox” that is famous for using all the letters of the alphabet. It was, they say, written by a resident of the town. It is emblazoned on a tower in the center of the city. When letters begin to fall, it is deemed a sign that those letters should no longer be used. It is an interesting premise with interesting results. Emerson students and I enjoy playing a game inspired by this book.

The Monster of Templeton by Lauren Graff is full of the kinds of strange, quirky characters that I enjoy. The town of Templeton is clearly based on Cooperstown, New York, but the story could take place nearly anywhere. A young woman returns to her familial home where she is forced to clean the skeletons out of the closet to fully understand who she is.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson was his first well-known novel and, in my opinion, remains his best. The story is of Japanese people living in Oregon after the Second World War. The characters are well developed and give insight into the feelings on all sides of the issues that arose at this time. A good young adult novel on the same themes of acceptance and understanding of Japanese Americans after WWII is Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff which looks at an all girl's 8th grade baseball team that includes both a Japanese girl and a girl whose father lost his life at Pearl Harbor.

Plainsong* by Kent Haruf will take you right to the heartland of America with this story of needy young girl and the old farmers who take her in. The sequel Eventide is equally well-written and engrossing. I see that Haruf has many other books which I am eager to peruse.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is my favorite Kingsolver novel, but don’t overlook her many other fine novels. The story takes the reader to Congo with a missionary family at the time of much unrest in that country.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason follows the adventures of a piano tuner who is sent to Burma at the time of World War II. This novel kept me reading and made me want to learn much more about Burma.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett takes the reader into a fictional South American country to which a famous singer has gone to perform for dignitaries who have gathered for a world wide meeting. Suddenly the home where they are gathered for dinner is taken over by critics of the government and everyone is taken hostage. This is the story of the musician, the dignitaries, and the kidnappers and aptly shows the thinking of all involved. By the end of the story it is increasingly difficult to take sides.

Pobby and Dingan* by Ben Rice is set in the dry center of Australia where town residents earn their living mining. Pobby and Dingan are imaginary friends who, according to the little girl who imagines them, have gotten lost in a mine. The resulting story is touching and a good reminder of the feelings of young children and the strength of imagination.*

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a difficult read because of his many jumps from one thing to another. The language is beautiful and chock full of meanings. It is also one of the best books around about the partition of India. I needed some help from my husband to understand all of the story, but it would have been worth reading without his help.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came as a complete surprise to me. I was soon caught up in the letters that look at live on this little island when it was under Nazi control. Although it is fiction, the people in this novel quickly become real personalities. I predict that tourism to Guernsey will experience a boost thanks to this story.


Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali follows Ali’s life from her childhood in a strict Muslim family in Sudan through her political activism and criticism of Islam after she took refugee status in the Netherlands. She has strong opinions for which she makes no apologies.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas is exactly what the subtitle suggests, with the added bonus that the author is also a comedian who is able to see the humor in almost any situation.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What? by Dave Eggers show the range of Egger’s talents. The heartbreaking work is the necessity of having to take care of his much younger brother when their parents die. He deals with the changes in his life as a young college students with humor and love. What is the What? is based on the true story of one of the lost boys of Sudan, making it an extremely moving novel. Eggers is a national sponsor of the many 826 tutoring/writing centers around the country, including 826 Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also becoming a screenwriter with two new movies soon to be released. I am eager to see what he will do with Where the Wild Things Are?

Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine by Jonathan Garfinkel stresses that there is no easy way to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, especially if you were raised as an Orthodox Jew but are making your first trip to Israel in search of a sympathetic look at the Palestinians. Garfinkel reflects on his schooling at an Orthodox school in Canada, his questioning of these teachings as an adult, and his chance encounter with a Palestinian woman with an amazing story about a house shared by a Jew and a Muslim in Israel. For a another look at a house that was home to both Jews and Muslims—thought not at the same time—read The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan.

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville by Bernard Henri Levy was given to me by an Emerson parent. Levy, a French journalist, was asked in 2004-2005 to travel around the United States and write his impressions for “The Atlantic Monthly”. In addition to the collection of these essays, this book contains a final summary of his impressions. It is valuable for us all to have a look at our home country through the eyes of an outsider.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will rule the Future by Daniel Pink is the most readable book on the workings of the mind that I have read. It is a do-it-yourself manual for increasing your creativity as well as a look at the importance of developing creativity in ourselves and our children.

I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost is not a light beach read. This carefully—sometimes with too much detail for my taste—researched story is of a run-away slave who, with his young bride, made it to Detroit and finally to Toronto. It is a fascinating story that gives a real feel of the life and struggles of those who traveled on the Underground Railroad, even after they thought they were safely in the “glory land”.

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness* by Simon Wiesenthal was introduced to me by my daughter who read this for a college class. The book is thin with one half of it devoted to a simple story of a Jewish prisoner being asked to forgive a Nazi soldier. The second half of the book is a collection of responses to this question of forgiveness. Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others give their reasons to forgive or not to forgive. This book is made to be discussed.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is more fascinating than you would ever believe a story about a dictionary could be. The Meaning of Everything will give you more about the Oxford Dictionary. The kids at school were pretty tired of me talking about it for months after I first read it. When you finish reading those two or if dictionaries don't appeal to you, you might want to read others by Winchester whose areas of interest range from Calcutta and China to Krakatoa and maps.


The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is the story of a young man growing up in South Africa and the clash of race and culture. The story is beautifully told and will stay with you for a long time. My daughter firmly believes that everyone should have the chance to read this one.

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man* by Fanny Flagg is a good choice for light reading. I enjoy Flagg’s humor and this one, which I read with my daughters when they were in Middle and High school, is lesser known than Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe but a favorite in our house.

The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time by Mark Haddon was written as a young adult novel but quickly caught on with adults. The protagonist and narrator is an autistic young man with a talent for math. He uses this talent to unravel the mysteries surrounding his parent’s failing marriage and the death of a neighbor’s dog. (Confidentially, I find the orange cover quite appealing, too.)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle* by Shirley Jackson took me back at least 40 years to when I first read and enjoyed this frightening story. Perhaps this novel is when I first really honed my fascination with quirky characters.

Allegra Maud Goldman* by Edith Konecky is the story of a strong willed upper-middle class Jewish girl living in pre-World War II Brooklyn. The reader gets to know her as she goes from age three to 13, criticizing her life at every step. Allegra is clearly an early feminist with strong ideas about the role of women as it is and as it should be. There is plenty of humor to balance the tale.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a truly chilling novel told in a most unusual and compelling format. Part of it is a movie script being written by the young protagonist while another part is the court reporting on the case that has put that young man in jail. Many times even he is not clear about his guilt or innocence. It shows how powerful guilt by association can be. Myers also has books for younger readers including poetry and a memoir as well as several novels.

Meely LaBauve* by Ken Wells got rave reviews when it first arrived and then seemed to slip away. I thoroughly enjoyed this a coming of age novel set in the Louisiana bayous. Although this sounds like it comes directly from a poor review, it is true that I laughed and I cried while reading this short novel.


Be sure to look at all of the selections that Nicola’s has to offer. They probably have the best children and young adult section for miles in any direction. Linda, their buyer, is knowledgeable and always ready to help. If she is busy, ask around. Their multi-cultural stories collection is a real gem.

The Masterpiece by Elise Broach (gr. 4-7) is a little bit art history and a little bit mystery plus a lot realistic fiction and a solid dose of fantasy. A young beetle helps a young boy save a series of stolen Durer prints. I have never considered the possibility of a beetle creating miniatures by dipping its front legs in ink, but by the end of this novel I was ready to believe it could happen.

Frindle by Andrew Clements (gr. 3-6) is the story of a boy who invents a new word. His teacher refuses to let him use it—despite his convincing arguments and his power to get all of his classmates to use the new word—until the word appears in the dictionary. This becomes a good look at how language and proper usage develop. Clements has many other popular books that keep kids coming back for more.

Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis (gr. 4-8) touched my heart with a story of two little girls coming to grips with major changes in their lives, including the death of their baby sister and their mother’s inability to deal with this latest tragedy. Aurprisingly, it is also very funny at times.

Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (gr. 5-7) should be read by every family that travels between two cultures. Based in part on Nye’s childhood as the daughter of a mid-Western woman and a man from Palestine who came to the U.S. to study, this novel tells of a family’s move to Palestine and how a young girl and her brother deal with the culture shock along with the universal issues of growing up.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck (gr. 4-7) features one of the most outrageous and appealing grandmothers to be found anywhere in children’s literature. It is the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when a boy and his sister travel from the big city of Chicago to the small town where grandmother rules the roost. A Year Down Yonder, Here Lies the Librarian, and The Teacher's Funteral feature similarly interesting characters with a feel for another time in small town America. Peck has many other books, mostly historical fiction, including Fairweather about the Chicago World’s Fair at the end of the 19th century.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rats by Terry Pratchett (gr. 4-7) offers a clever take on the Pied Piper story. Pratchett is very popular for science fiction for older readers and adults as well as several fantasies for this younger age group.

I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman (gr. 2-5) is my favorite Pullman after the His Dark Materials trilogy which begins with The Golden Compass. This book for younger readers is told partially in narrative and partially through newspaper articles that help determine just who this boy was before he appeared at the elderly couple’s doorstep. There are many more books by Pullman, all of which are worthy of a look.

The Desperado Who Stole Baseball by John H. Ritter (gr. 4-6) is the second in a series about baseball but the only one that I have had a chance to read. I am not a big baseball fan, but I enjoyed this Wild West adventure that features Billy the Kid, baseball, race relations, and a darn good story. If you like baseball fantasies you will also want to read The Baseball Card Adventures series by Dan Gutman which has as much history as it has baseball.

The Bomb by Theodore Taylor (gr. 4-8) was inspired by Taylor’s experiences in the Navy when he had to check Bikini Atoll to make sure it was free of human inhabitants before the bomb was tested there. This novel, however, is seen through the eyes of those people who were told to leave the only home they had ever known.

Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (gr. 3-6) are just two of her many retellings of familiar fairy tales; in this case they are Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.


How to Scratch a Wombat: Where to Find It…What to Feed it…Why It Sleeps All Day by Jackie French (gr. 3 and up) is packed with facts and stories about wombats by a woman who has lived with wombats in her backyard for many years. French also wrote the charming picture book Diary of a Wombat that is a perfect step into this enjoyable non-fiction.

What to Do About Alice? Who Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley (gr. 3-5) is one of the picture book format biographies that are increasingly popular these days. Upon reading this story of Alice Roosevelt one can only wonder why there are not more children’s biographies about this wild and crazy girl I love the idea of her carrying a snake in her purse to release at formal lady's teas in the White House.

The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, bumps and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull (gr. 3-5)will make you want to re-read all of the Oz books with a careful eye to see the connections to Baum’s life.

Motel of the Mysteries (gr. 5 and up) and Cathedral and Mosque and City and Pyramid and How Things Work by David Macaulay (all ages) are now classics in young non-fiction. Motel of the Mysteries is written with tongue firmly in cheek as it offers up an archaeological dig of the future at a motel on a site that was once the East Coast of the U.S. It is a marvelous send up of archaeology and our culture. The other books are all finely illustrated looks at the construction of various buildings and, in the last title, everyday items, including the political aspects as well as the engineering involved.

The Great Fire and Blizzard by Jim Murphy (gr.4 and up) are both great examples of non-fiction at its very best. The first title is a look at the Chicago Fire and the second is about the East Coast blizzard of 1888. Both books are well illustrated with plenty of maps and very readable and exciting stories of the people who lived through these catastrophes.

Mr. Lincoln’s Boys: Being the Mostly True Adventures of Abraham Lincoln’s Trouble Making Sons Tad and Willie by Staton Rabin (gr. 3-6) is one of many books about Lincoln that came in honor of his 200th birthday this year. This picture book biography is especially moving because it shows how important his children were to helping Lincoln mentally survive his very trying term as president.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (gr. 4-8) is the memoir of an author loved by all ages for his wacky view of the world. The short chapters in this book with a comic-book style cover look at the life of a typical boy growing up in Flint, Michigan, with three brothers and a wealth of ways to get into trouble. If you grew up in the 1950s or 1960s, the stories will ring especially true to you. Readers born in the late 20th century will enjoy the universal humor.

United Tweets of America by Hudson Talbot (all ages) is a humorous, fact filled introduction to the states through their state birds.

Eat, Shoots, and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference and Twenty-Odd Ducks: Why, Every Punctuation Mark Counts and The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes by Lynne Truss are three picture books that use goofy illustrations to show how the addition of a single punctuation mark can change the meaning of a sentence. Some usages are a little obscure, but all are designed to get a laugh as well as make a point. Even if you did not like the adult version of Truss's treatise on punctuation, you will probably enjoy the humor offered here.


Philip Ardaagh: The Eddie Dickens Trilogy is one of the funniest series I have ever read. Imaghine The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket set in Dickensian times with much more outrageous humor. (gr. 3-7)

Avi: Who Was that Masked Man Anyway?(gr. 5-8) and Poppy series (gr3-6) and The Man Who Was Poe (gr 4-7) and Perloo, the Bold (gr. 4-6) and many more mark the talents of Avi. The subject matter is about as diverse as anything you could possibly imagine from fantasy to animal stories to historical fiction to serious realistic fiction and short stories. Amazingly, I have yet to read an Avi book that I did not enjoy.

Sharon Creech: Walk Two Moons and Chasing Redbird and Love That Dog and Hate That Cat (all gr. 4-7) come from an author who was once considered to be writing for girls because so many of her titles were focused on young women, but with Love That Dog she not only wrote in verse, she turned to a male protagonist. Now boys are discovering the “girl” books and finding that a good story is a good story no matter who is the main character.

Christopher Paul Curtis: The Watson’s Go to Birmingham—1963 (gr. 4-7) and Bud, Not Buddy (gr 4-7) and Elijah of Buxton (gr. 6-8) are the work of a master storyteller. Curtis, who has visited Emerson twice over the years, is a genuinely pleasant man who knows how to write in the voice of a young person. Every one of his books easily becomes my favorite.

Edward Eager: Half Magic (gr. 2-5) and the others in this series began my passion for fantasy as a youngster. To this day, you can’t beat these friendly stories of four children and their summer adventures, though the books of E. Nisbitt come close.

Nancy Farmer: The Warm Place (gr. 3-6) and A Girl Named Disaster (gr. 5-8) and The House of the Scorpion (gr. 5-8) and The Ear, the Eye, and The Arm (gr. 5-8) are works of pure genius. They include history, social awareness, and fantasy at their very best and all mixed together to create stories that will stay with you for years to come.

Cornelia Funke: Inkheart (gr. 4-7) is the first in one of the most popular trilogies today. The concept of someone reading so well that characters come out of the books leads to very exciting fantasy. Funke has many popular fantasy novels that put her in a league of popularity with J. K. Rowling.

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (gr. 4-7; also in graphic) is an amazing dark fantasy of family that was recently made into a movie. The Graveyard Book (gr. 5-8) is an odd, dark book that won the Newbery Award this year. The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (gr. 2-5) are very unique and appealing picture books that some younger children may find a bit frightening but older readers will enjoy. Gaiman also writes fantasy for adults.

Margaret Haddix Peterson becomes more popular with each new publication. I have liked her Just Ella (gr. 4-6) retelling of Cinderella for a long time, preferring it to Levinie’s Ella Enchanted. Then I read Turn About (gr. 5-8), attracted by its odd cover. This is a story of people who are aging backwards and now must find someone to care for them in their increasingly younger ages. (Imagine a 15 year old come to you and saying "I am your great-great grandmother, please take care of me as a baby." Yes, it does have shades of Benjamin Button.) The Among the Hidden (gr. 4-7) series is amazingly popular, with good reason. Running out of Time (gr. 5-7) offers a unique twist to the idea of time travel. Uprising (gr. 6-8) views the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through the eyes of three different young women and is the only one in this series without a bit of fantasy, just solid historical research in novel format. Found (gr. 4-7) is the first of a new series that features adopted children who are mysteriously forced together and then to embark on travels back in time.

Karen Hesse experiments freely with different forms of writing. My two favorites are written in free verse that easily becomes a gripping story. Out of the Dust is set during the Dust Bowl. Witness features the voices of residents of a small New England town when the Ku Klux Klan is trying to gain a stronghold there. (gr. 5-8)

Eva Ibbotson reminds me of Roald Dahl in many of her fantasy books because of their empowerment of children, sometimes at the expense of the adults. This is especially true in Island of the Aunts (gr. 3-5) which features unlikable parents plus a menagerie of mythical creatures. Which Witch? (gr. 3-6) is a classic battle for superiority, this time amongst some rather inept witches. The Secret of Platform 13 (gr. 3-6) may remind some of Harry Potter because it features a special gate in the train station that leads to a magical world. Journey to the River Sea (gr.5-8) moves away from magic and into historical fiction as a young girl joins her aunt on an Amazon River cruise in the early 20th century, though there is some magical realism included in this mesmerizing story.

Richard Jennings has a very twisted sense of humor that he expresses through some wild ideas. Orwell’s Luck (gr.4-7) features a lucky rabbit and a wise girl who knows how to use that magic. Ferret Island (gr. 5-8) is a hilarious story of a boy who lands on an island inhabited by giant ferrets and a crazy author with ideas of saving the world from a perceived horror. Hint: the horror involvestrans fats.

Alan Katz now has several books of Silly Songs that are parodies of familiar folk tunes. These would be perfect to take on a long drive to be enjoyed by the entire family.

Dick King-Smith is the former pig farmer who introduced the world to Babe, the Gallant Pig. Three of his many titles for readers who are just beginning at read chapter books (gr. 2-4) are Lady Lollipop about a princess who gets a good education in manners from a pig, Titus Rules about the queen of England’s pet dogs, and George Speaks about a boy who is born with the ability to speak.

Gordon Korman began writing books when he was a teen-ager and he just keeps turning them out. His first stories, based on his experiences in a bordering school, are both realistic and hilarious. Look for any of his MacDonald Hall books (gr. 4-7) for a good laugh. No More Dead Dogs (gr. 5-8) and Schooled (gr. 5-8) both offer new ideas about the old favorite topic of school.

Amy Goldman Koss really knows pre-teen and teen-age girls. My favorite is The Girls (gr. 5-8) which uses the voices of several girls to show the impact that a clique can have on all of its members, including those they push to power and those they push out. If you know a girl who is having some issues with friendships, this may be the perfect read. Then read other books by Koss that deal with similar issues with equal skill.

Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series (gr. 4-7) is very similar to Harry Potter and some people believe it is even more exciting.

Mary Pope Osborne keeps turning out Magic Tree House books (gr. 1-4). The readers of these fantasies are so fond of them that they often simply call them “Jack and Annie” books. Along with the fiction stories Osborne has written many non-fiction books that accompany the stories.

John Scieszka offers a crazier version of magical time travel in The Time Warp Trio series which features three goofy boys and a book that allows them to travel to new times to learn a little history and make a lot of truly awful jokes. You will also want to take a look at his many crazy picture books like The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and my personal favorite Baloney (Henry P.) If you are thinking about science or math this summer, take time to laugh at those often serious subjects with Science Verse and The Math Curse.

Wendelin Van Draanen has a series for girls in grades 4 to 7 about Sammy Keyes who solves mysteries without losing her young energy. Shredderman (gr. 2-5) will appeal to younger brothers as he is a younger, goofy brother who solves problems in his own way, often using modern technology. Runaway (gr. 5-8) was inspired by a character that Sammy Keyes meets, a girl who has run away from home. This book is that runaway’s journal writings as she tries to find her way. I found it moving and realistic.


Picture books are always good for all ages. The nice thing about them is that you can get a good idea of whether or not you like the book by flipping through it to enjoy the pictures and get a sense of the story. Look at the amazing selection that Nicola has and pick for yourself. Their children's book shopper has a wealth of good suggestions for all levels of reading from the simplest board books to sophisticated young adult novels.

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel is an alphabet book with a twist. Kitty gets upset when offered new food and turns into a crazy beast out to destroy everything in sight. All turns out well when new food arrives, but not before Bad Kitty takes a bite out of the book itself. The sequel is an easy chapter book (gr. 2-4) called Bad Kitty Gets a Bath.

Stuck in the Mud by Jane Clark seems like a familiar tale of critters rushing to help a young chick who is stuck in the mud, but this one has a clever twist at the end.

Olivia by Ian Falconer is destined to be a classic that will be read for generations to come. It is hard to resist this spunky little pig with a taste for exaggeration and flights of imagination. If you haven't met Olivia yet, you are in for a treat.

A Book by Mordecai Gerstein introduces you to the character in a book who can't decide what kind of book she wants to be. This crazy little story does an excellent job of explaining genres without being preachy. I have great plans for using it with classes of all ages next year.

Turtle’s Penguin Day by Valeri Gorbachev won my admiration when the teacher in the story runs with the topic that has inspired Turtle. He comes to class in a homemade penguin outfit and teacher lets him get the entire class imagining life as a penguin. The illustrations add to the humor.

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek : A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing the Forgotten Frontier Friend) by Deborah Hopikinson is a tall tale based on scant historical hints of an adventure that Abe Lincoln had with a childhood friend. Lincoln becomes more than a stodgy president when one knows about his wild, adventurous childhood. The message of the story is something that is often forgotten or overlooked--even if you are never famous, what you do can change the course of history.

Tacky Goes to Camp by Helen Lester is the latest about Tacky, the penguin, and perfect for summer when you might be planning a camping trip yourself. Tacky has a different approach to camping than his very neat, good, perfect friends. Thank goodness he does because his oddity is once again what saves the day.

Monkey with a Tool Belt by Chris Monroe can fix anything with the huge array of tools in his belt. The humor is in no small part the naming of all of these tools. The adventure comes when he has to save himself from a tricky situation. The sequel Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem offers new tools and new problems to solve.

Fancy Nancy’s Favorite Fancy Words From Accessories to Zany by Jane O’Connor is a pink an glttery alphabet books of words appropriate to explain Fancy Nancy's lifestyle and the many things she loves. I am a big fan of alphabet books and this one is unique and often inspired.

Little Oink and Little Pea and Little Hoot and Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal are clever little books that mark the differences between human cultures and those of other things while showing how we are all alike. Yes, we are even like a spoon because we may be envious of the human equivalent of knives, forks, and chopsticks. Even the older students search these books out in the library and laugh at the absurdity and the familiarity of the stories.

Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton features one of the most appealing cats in children's literature. Splat is naive, sweet, shy, and a great ball of fluff. The story has some surprising twists that mirror things that might happen at human school. Scotton also creates greeting cards, posters, and other art which is quite popular in England. The illustrations are irresistable. I also enjoy Scotton's Russell the Sheep.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems has a moral, good illustrations, and the appeal that comes with everything Willems does. In this story, there is one mole rat who does not want to be naked. He likes dressing for every occasion. The others are shocked at his behavior and take him before the wisest old mole rat who makes a very wise decree that surprises and pleases everyone. It is hard to beat anything that Willems has done with his picture books or his new early readers.


Graphic is the way to go these days as the graphic works move beyond comic books and manga. There are now non-fiction as well as fiction works that feature both high quality art and a good story. Here are a few that I enjoy.

Phonics Comics series by various authors is perfect for the beginning reader (gr. k-2). The pictures and the stories are both quirky and interesting. The illustrations help with comprehension and make the story more appealing to most young readers.

Baby Mouse by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (grs. 1-4) has a series of stories that include many worries of elementary school girls plus a solid dose of imagination and humor. My biggest complaint is that they have too much pink. When I can get a boy to read them, he is usually caught by the stories, but the pink is a real turn-off for a lot of boys. The girls love them.

To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel (gr. 4-7) is perfect for the young dancer. This autobiography shows the struggles and heartbreaks of a girl trying to get into the best ballet school in the country and then how hard it is to keep up the pace. It is a fascinating story. The illustrations are done by her husband who is sympathetic to her story without being sappy about it.

Bone by Jeff Smith (gr. 4 -7) is growing to a large series about an odd little creature and his many adventures. I have seen more than a few boys discover the joy of reading through these books and move on to be voracious readers of all genres.

Jellaby by Kean Soo (gr. 3-7) had people waiting on the edge of their seats until book two came out just a few weeks ago. It is a tender story of a young girl who befriends a lonely creature. Together they set off to find their family histories with plenty of adventure along the way.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (gr. 5 to adult) is one of the most beautiful books I have ever encountered. With no pictures, it tells the story of a person emmigrating to a new, unfamiliar land. The seventh grade used this book for their immigration unit this year and created some amazing things based on what they found in the book. It is the kind of book that will bring some new understanding with every reading. Tan's latest work is a collection of short stories called Tales from Outer Suburbia.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (gr 6 and up) mixes realistic fiction with fantasy to look inside the mind and life of a Chinese boy trying to come to an understanding and acceptance of having to juggle two cultures. This book has won many well-deserved awards.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What's Special About This Week--May 4-8

May 4, 1715--First folding umbrella debuts. One of my father's favorite riddles goes like this: "What goes up the chimney down but can't go up the chimney up?" You can add in more confusing statements like "down the chimney up" if you want to complicate the thought process further. The answer, of course, is an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, but a folding one. A Frenchman named Jean Marius previewed the first folding umbrella on this date in 1715. The metal structure of that umbrella was almost exactly like an umbrella you would buy today. This remarkable invention was not cheap. The first folding umbrellas cost between $750 and $1,100. Thank goodness that price has dropped so we don't get wet when it is rain that drops. Read more about the history of the umbrella here.

May 4--Dreamer's Day Frankly, I have no idea where I got information on this day. The World Wide Web doesn't seem to know much about it so it probably does not really exist. Nevertheless, that does not mean we are not allowed to dream. Dream on. Dream well.

May 5--Cinco de Mayo On May 5, 1862, French troops number over 6000 tried to capture two forts in Puebla de Los Angeles, Mexico. Two thousand Mexicans under the leadership of General Zaragoza fought back and managed to hold onto the forts. The French eventually won the war and briefly ruled Mexico. Even under French rule the people of Mexico celebrated the fifth of May victory, changing the name of the town to Puebla de Zaragoza. To this day, Mexicans celebrate this day with fiestas. If you were in Los Angeles, California, you would see hundreds of people dressed in the red, white and green of the Mexican flag outside the city hall. There are bands, dancing, and political speeches as well as sports competitions and, of course, lots of good food. Read all about it here.

May 5--Children's Day or Boy's Day in Japan Children's day became a Japanese national holiday in 1948 but it has been a part of Japanese culture since ancient times. The fifth day of the fifth month is designated as Boy's Day. Girls get the third day of the third month as their day. Traditionally on May 5, families with a boy fly a big kite shaped like a carp fish outside of their home. Inside the house there are special displays of warriors and other heroes. Kid's Web Japan has a lot more information on Children's Day. It also has links to games, history, language, and other interesting and enjoyable topics.

May 6--Gillikins of Oz Day Have you read The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum yet? It is a classic and worth reading even if you have seen the movie a million times. The Gillikins appear in a later book in the series. They live in the northern corner of the country. The inhabitants of this area all wear purple. Most of the countryside is purple as well. If you would like to read a fascinating biography of L. Frank Baum, check out The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull. This picture book style biography for grades 3 to 6 portrays Baum will all of his troubles as well as his enthusiasm for life. Baum failed at many vocations including actor, breeder of prize chickens, and a store manager in the wild west before acknowledging his love of telling stories. Kathleen Krull always writes with humor and joy. This biography, the first time that Baum's story has been told for children, is easy to enjoy and should lead many people to travel to the Land of Oz.

May 6, 1994--The Chunnel opened The idea of a tunnel under the English Channel to connect England and France was first proposed in 1802 but the Chunnel (Channel tunnel) was not completed until almost 200 years later. The Chunnel which is utilized by high speed trains, freight trains, and the Eurotunnel Roll-on/Roll-off vehicle transport (like a ferry for passenger cars) has been declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It is a major engineering feat. The tunnel is a 31.4 mile undersea tunnel that travels to a low point of 250 feet below the sea as it travels from Folkestone, Kent in England to Coquilles near Calais, France. It was officially opened on this date in 1994 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England and the then President Mitterand of France. It appears that all kinds of people document their trips into the Chunnel and post them on the Internet. This video didn't really make me want to travel to the Chunnel, but you might enjoy watching it anyway.

May 7--Beaufort Scale Day When I was in school we learned all about the Beaufort Scale. I still look at a flag flapping in the wind and try to remember--rarely too successfully--what the Scale would tell is the probably wind speed. In 1805 Sir Francis Beaufort developed a scale of wind speed for use by men at sea to determine the dangers that the wind posed for them. This scale based on looking at the water's surface was surprisingly accurate. Since I did not grow up at sea, we used the flag as our scale. Take a look at a description of what the Beaufort Scale says. There is a fascinating book with great pictures and bites of information about storms, nautical history, and life on a ship called Close to the Wind: The Beaufort Scale by Peter Malone. The illustrations of Beaufort's ship the Zephyr at sea give a real feel of what the wind is doing. Insets offer more information.

May 7, 1941--Glenn Miller records his hit song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" Just last week I told a couple of young girls the story about Roy Rogers getting new, blue shoes. He was very proud of them and wore them as he walked around town all afternoon. Alas, by the time Roy got home, his feet were tired. After he showed off his shoes to his wife Dale, Roy went out to relax on the front porch of his ranch home. He took of his shoes, placing them carefully in a a place of honor near his rocking chair. Then he fell asleep, only to be woken up a few minutes later to see a cougar sneaking off of the porch with the lovely, blue shoes in its mouth. Roy whistled for Trigger and hopped on his faithful horse's back. Dale ran out of the house as they rushed off. An hour or so later, Roy returned with the cougar slung over the back of his horse. Seeing him ride in, Dale sang out, "Pardon me, Roy, is that cat who chewed your blue shoes?" Adults walking by laughed and even joined in the singing, but the girls just shook their heads, wondering what in the world I was thinking. To hear the Andrews Sisters sing "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and hear the real words, click here.

May 8--No Socks Day It should be warm enough. Kick of your socks. Put on your summer sandals. Let your toes wiggle. Enjoy.

May 8, 1877--First Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show I don't really know why I liked watching dog shows on TV. I am a veteran dog lover, but dog shows are not like petting a real dog. Still, I am fascinated by watching the dogs perform and the trainers show them off so elegantly. It fascinates, and some repels, me to think of how the dogs are bred and trained to be champions. The only American sporting event that is older than the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the Kentucky Derby so I guess there are a lot of other people who are fascinated by the show. Read more about it on "the poop" which includes links to pictures from dog shows.