Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What I Read All Summer

It is that time of year that people in education--whether students or teachers--think back to the summer that is rapidly disappearing and take assessment of what they did. I remember the annual "What I Did Last Summer" essay from my youth. (Every fall, my junior high English teacher titled his "Painting Lines on Idaho Highways", a title that reassures me every year that my summer was pretty darn good.) In most ways this is one of those essays, but looks not so much at what I did, although it suggests that I spent a significant amount of time with my nose in a book, but what I read.

This summer I tried to pace myself by alternating my reading assignments. I would read an adult book for pleasure, then a children's or young adult novel, then a professional development book, and then another work of juvenile fiction. I mixed it up with picture books and simple non-fiction whenever the mood hit or I made a purchase for the library. As I look back at all that I read, I realized that this was not a summer of many truly great reads. For your sake, I will only include those that I am willing to suggest that others might enjoy reading.


City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon Muth is a perfect read for the beginning or the end of summer. It talks of the passing of the seasons and of friendships that grow and change. There is no need to mention that the illustrations are perfect, but it is there is no way I omit a reference to the smile on the face of a happy dog and a joyful frog.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E Stead is the work of a couple who spent a part of their year in Ann Arbor, which makes the book more special to those of us who live here. However, this book has merit no matter where one lives. The story is of a zookeeper who tends to the needs and concerns of his animals above and beyond the usual call of duty. The animals are beside themselves when Amos McGee is so sick that he can not come to work. They respond just the way that true and trusted friends should.

The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley is not a new book. In fact, finding it in the bookstore took me right back to when I read and re-read it with my children. At first take this tale of mice who befriend the old cat in a church seems a bit verbose, but then the charm of each character--from the mice to the cat to the old English vicar--takes over. The humor is perfect, as is the exciting climax. The illustrations by the author are rich with color and detail.

FICTION--Grades 5 and up
My Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis was not exactly what I expected and much better than I had anticipated. The narrator, Mina Edelman, is a 12 year old girl living in the Chicago area in 1966. She is convinced that her family is the reincarnation of the Abraham Lincoln family. She has figured out how their names and interests reflect those of the Lincoln's. The connection should be clear to everyone since her father whose initials are A. B. E. advertises his furniture as "Honest Abe's" and even puts on a stovepipe hat and beard for his television advertisements. Mina sets three goals for herself--not to die at age 12 like Willie Lincoln did, keep her mother from going crazy, and keep her father from being shot. The difficulty of these goals becomes more intense when her father gets increasingly involved with the Civil Rights movement and takes Mina along with him to meetings and protests. The story rapidly shifts from hilarious to serious and back again. I admire and respect Mina Edelman for all she thought and did and I admire the author for capturing the time and the feelings of a young girl so perfectly.

Whales on Stilts by M. T. Anderson is one of those books I have been meaning to read for years. It is one strange book. A team of middle schoolers with an eye for adventure--Lily who has yearns for adventure and keeps an eye out for the unusual, Katie the heroine of a popular series of horror stories who actually lives the stories, and Jasper who is known as the Boy Technonaut--spend their summer investigating the employer of Lily's father. Lily becomes suspicious because her dad's boss wears a paperback over his head and seems to be designing stilts for whales, whales that plan to take over the world. The story is full of high tech adventure, crazy ideas careening out of control, science gone mad, and friendship.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier is a biographical novel in graphic format. Entering middle school is challenging in the best of times, but looking decidedly different just makes it worse. Raina fell hard on her front teeth just weeks before beginning sixth grade. This led to months in complicated orthodontia gear while undergoing various surgeries to correct the problem. The story does not dwell on the medical aspects of this ordeal but on the additional burden it places on her struggles to be liked in school. The resulting story is well suited to the graphic format which helps move the story along, giving evidence of how truly out of place she looks without having to describe the look.

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar caused more than one head to turn when it was published earlier this year. Sachar is well-liked for his many successful books like Holes and Wayside School is Falling Down, but who can pull off a young adult novel about playing bridge? Sachar can. There is a strong story with adventure and magical reality here that will keep the reader ready to go to the next bridge tournament. The author teaches bridge, too, while thoughtfully marking those parts that are detailed strategy both so they can be skipped when reading for the story and re-read when the interest is on the game. Our school's resident bridge expert gave it his stamp of approval.

London Calling by Edward Bloor takes the protagonist through an old Philco radio back to the time of the London Blitz to experience war first hand. There is a lot of history here and a lot of heart. This a tough book because it takes a close-up look at life for the average working family in London in 1940. Equally important is its consideration of the accuracy of history and what makes someone a hero.

FICTION--Grades 3-5

I have to confess that I did not find much that really excited me in this section. Here are some titles that I am confident will be enjoyed by many, even if they did inspire me enough that I want to write about them.
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail
Whittington by Alan Armstrong
Amelia Rules by Jimmy Gownley (a graphic work)
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen of the Future by Dav Pilkey (a graphic work)
The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick


Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery with photos by Nic Bishop is worth looking at just for the pictures taken on an island of the coast of New Zealand where scientists are struggling to keep this strange, beautiful, and friendly bird from extinction. Once you see the pictures, however, you will want to read the text to find out more about this amazing bird and the scientists who work with it. As is always the case, Sy Montgomery tells her story well.

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy greets you with a bright cover that, yes, truly pops. Who could resist the life story of bubble gum with any cover but the cartoonish illustrations in this simple, picture book style history capture the joy of the subject from the very first bite.

Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia by Jeanette Winter is another picture book style non-fiction that will capture readers of all ages. Deep in the wilds of Colombia lives a teacher named Luis who has more books than his small home can hold. In an act of good will that warms the hearts of librarians everywhere, he loads his books on the back of his burro and sets out to share them with the children of neighboring villages. The illustrations capture the feel of South America and the story will captivate young readers and listeners. The author includes more information about Luis and his work to share the joys of a good book.


The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen appealed to me on many levels. First, the format of the book is wider than the usual novel, allowing for copious footnotes and illustrations in the sidebar. These are the notes of the young narrator who has an eye for detail. Secondly, the narrator is a young man coming of age in an unusual age. Who wouldn't like that?
Thirdly, he lives in a small town in my home state and is fairly eager to leave. Finally, it is primarily a long (rail)road trip. It is almost impossible to describe the story so I will leave it to you to discover it for yourself just as T. S. Spivet discovers his world.

The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing by Rupert Isaacson is part travelogue with beautiful descriptions of the trip between Ulaan Baatar and the forest of Siberia on the edge of Mongolia where the reindeer people live, part spiritual journey as the author's family learns about the beliefs of the area and explores their own thoughts, and part a study of autism. Somehow this books melds those diverse aspects into a usually cohesive story. If treating an autistic child with shamans in remote corners of the world works for them, who am I to argue? I saw the movie of this book earlier in the year and would recommend it along with the book.

Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato is yet another book written in the voice of a twelve year old. (This must have been my summer of remembering adolescence.) Here is a girl trying to understand the death of her older sister and why her parents have totally shut down. That is pretty heavy stuff but throw in the concerns about terrorism that are everywhere around her and you will be doubly surprised by the humor that abounds throughout the book.


Unless you ask I will spare you the details of the books I read that were supposed to make me a better teacher, librarian, and person. I will put only the title information so you can decide if you want to pursue them further.
Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms by Gloria Ladson-Billings
The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School by Linda F. Nathan
Brain Rules by John Medina
Race Matters by Cornel West

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

I read over 70 books this summer from picture books to the heavy stuff and these are the only ones that really spoke to me. Go figure.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Yes, I have now successfully completed the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It didn't take long because this is a "can't put it down" novel. I am not going to give you a review of these books other than to tell you that I enjoyed them and can easily understand why millions of people aged 12 to 80 have devoured these dystopian, young adult novels.

What has fascinated me is the discussions that I have been having with my young (as in middle school and high school) friends. Many spent the early part of August counting down the days to the Mockingjay release that marked the conclusion of the trilogy. They wondered if the author would adequately tie up all the loose ends. They worried that it would not be as exciting as the first two in the series (The Hunger Games and Catching Fire). They were stressed that someone would tell them how it ends before they had a chance to read it. (Note to all readers: Don't spoil the ending for others, no matter how much you want to gloat about reading the book first or how excited/upset/disappointed you are by it. Plain and simple, that is unfair to other readers.)

Now these young adults are debating the fine points of the plot and the writing. What is the message? Why did the people who survived live while others who we loved died? Was there too much violence or not enough? Was the writing equal to the plot or the plot equal to the writing?

The protagonist and narrator of the series is a young woman but most of the discussions I have seen and heard from my group have been between young men. That, to me, is the sign of a good young adult novel. Both boys and girls are reading and discussing the book. And they are proud to have read some fine literature and not in the least upset that the book focuses first on a woman. I am very lucky to have gotten a chance to be a part of these discussions, especially when I can merely eavesdrop. Thank you, Facebook.

Adults, some time to read these books and discuss them with the young adults in your life. Or just read them because they are good stories. Here is an essay from the New York Times Book Review about the joys of reading young adult books. Start reading or you will never know what you have been missing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chickens to the Rescue!

As I searched for books to share with campers this summer and as I put them away, I kept seeing picture books featuring chickens. Two of my recent acquisitions are also picture books that talk about chickens. I do not know how poultry flew to the top of interesting picture books, but they seem to be everywhere. Here are some of the best of the flock.

Chickens to the Rescue by John Himmelman is a joy to read aloud. Make sure everyone can see the illustrations showing the chickens in swimsuits as they rescue things down the well or showing amazing strength as they stop the pick-up and save a cow stuck in the tree because they are half the story. Listeners are soon chanting along "Chickens to the rescue!" whenever the humans or other farm animals have another problem. They won't be prepared for the twist at the end.

The Chicken of the Family by Mary Amato will likely strike a chord with anyone who has an older sibling who was not immune to some heavy duty teasing. I can easily imagine my older brother convincing his rather gullible little sister that she is, in fact, a chicken. The older sisters in this charming story go to the extent of putting eggs and some feathers in their sister's bed. She gets the last laugh and they get in trouble with Mom and Dad.

The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane Auch features a book loving chicken who decides that she should write a book. She solicits the aid of three quirky hens and sets to work. Alas, publishers are less than excited about books by chickens. The entire story is filled with puns and plays on words that add fun to the working plot. That alone would make this a book worth reading, but there is the added bonus that it works as an good introduction to the writing process from start finish. Use it as a reference when writing a story of your own.

Speaking of chickens who like books, Book! Book! Book! by Deboarh Bruss turns an old joke about a chicken in the library into a full story with plenty of conflict. There is plenty of humor, too, as the farm animals head to the library--they are lonely and bored when all the kids go off to school--and try to ask for a book. The librarian can't interpret "Neigh, neigh" or "Bow Wow" but she knows just what to do when the chicken says, "Book! Book! Book!" (or "Bawk! Bawk! Bawk!). This is a story made for telling and dramatization.

The Featherless Chicken Chih-Yuan Chen offers a moral of acceptance of all, even those who look very different and have no sense of style. It is the wonderful, amusing illustrations that make the book soar above its moral to include humor and interesting discussion possibilities. It is never preachy and always fun.

Stuck int he Mud by Jane Clarke also plays with a familiar theme. We all know the story of a giant vegetable that requires everyone in the neighborhood to pull it out of the ground. In this telling of the tale, it is a little chick who is appears to be stuck in the mud. Its worried mother summons everyone to help save her baby. The twist at the end will bring smiles all around, except, perhaps, for the mother hen.

The Minerva Louise series by Janet Morgan Stoeke also plays with the unexpected. In this case it is the confusion that Minerva Louise, a chicken, has with the items that her farm family has around. Start the school year with Minerva Louise at School and then follow her escapades as she finds a hat, a friend, or decorations for Christmas and Easter.

If you have a high tolerance for puns and almost painfully bad jokes, you will enjoy two books by Kevin O'Malley. I find that fourth and fifth graders are the best audiences for Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share and Animal Crackers Fly the Coop. Both books are retelling of familiar folk tales with a twist that will keep readers laughing and groaning at the steady flow of jokes as they gradually realized what tale is really being told. They shout out, "Hey, isn't this that story about, you know, those animals who scare the crooks?" Yes, they are right, of course.

The most serious book on this is Ruler of the Courtyard by Rukhsana Khan which takes place in Pakistan. A little girl is afraid of the chickens in her courtyard so she scurries to get to the bath house. She tells herself that she must be brave but it is difficult. While working up the courage to recross the courtyard she spies what she is sure is a snake just a few feet from her feet. When she gets the courage to deal with the snake, she realizes that chickens are not as scary as she thought they were. The illustrations are bright and bold, capturing both the tensions and the relief that this charming girl feels.

My two newest additions are among the most appealing books I have encountered recently.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein will ring true to anyone who knows someone who interrupts. The young chicken wants a bedtime story but every time his father starts a familiar story, the chicken interrupts with a quick finish for the story. When father suggests that the interrupting young one tell the story, there is a flurry of activity as the story gets scribbled into a notebook. I especially like the colorful illustrations of the story itself juxtaposed with drab pictures in the storybook. The interruptions jump right into the storybook itself.

The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez has no words at all but tells an adventurous tale of a chicken taken from its friends by a fox. The detailed illustrations follow the fox as her runs off with his catch with her friends, a bear, a rabbit, and a rooster, in hot pursuit. The surprise ending is just what I wanted to happen and should thrill young readers who are sure to pour over this book again and again, creating their own explanations of what is happening between the chicken and her friends and then when she is with the fox.

Enjoy a chicken book or two. They will have you clucking for more.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Singapore Connections

Soon after school got out in June, I was treated to a visit from the librarian at the Canadian International School in Singapore. She is also Aunt Sarah to some of my favorite Emerson students. One of the wonders of the world is the connections that are made this way.

Sarah and I had a nice time speaking "librarian" together, comparing what we do and why we do it. I have high hopes that together we will find a way to connect our two schools on opposite sides of the world, sharing those things that make our schools special as well as the myriad things we have in common.

One of the interesting things done by the International Schools in Singapore--there are several--is to all vote on favorite books. The librarians of the schools nominate books to be short listed for the Red Dot Awards each year. Students in each of the schools vote to have the final say in choosing four titles to be anointed with the coveted Red Dot. Go to the Red Dot website to see the winners and the nominees for 2010. One of the most interesting things to me is the variety of choices at each of the four reading levels. They strive to have titles and authors that represent the world. This means that some of the books are very familiar to me while others have never crossed my path. Sadly, many of those in the latter category are not readily available in the USA, having been published in Singapore or Australia or some other interesting, but far away, place.

Wouldn't it be fun to get a group of loosely tied schools together here for something similar? I have my eyes and ears open for schools near and far that might want to develop a similar program.

Thank you, Sarah, for introducing me to this program. I will keep watching your suggestions. Who knows where this will lead us.