Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Student Essay

Our school added several new students in September, as it does every year. One of those students, who I will call Kasey, is in fifth grade. A recent essay he wrote for class caught my eye and I have asked him if I can copy it hear on the blog. I wanted it first because I think it is well written and also because he writes about Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, a book which is also a favorite of mine.

One of My Most Favorite Books

A favorite book of mine is called Buddy, Not Buddy. It was very interesting and amazing. It had a monster and a boy named Bud. The boy hated having to deal with people calling him Buddy.

I thought the book had lots of details and lots of excitement. It was very interesting the way they explained the book and the order they put the story in. Although there were some parts I didn't like at all and they were very heart breaking. It has some favorites, too, like the time he was out on his own. I didn't know that people back then were living on their own. If I lived on my own it would be a disaster waiting to happen and I most likely would not have survived without my mother, father, or my little brother. In fact, this book taught me something. It's not all about you and your needs and wants. You're lucky for what you have and you should appreciate all of it. The book talked about a monster int he beginning as I said and before it was very creepy. There was running up a hill as a monster chases them. I am pretty sure they were scared because I was scared and I was just reading the book. If you ever get to read it, I thought it was fabulous.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Non-Fiction is True Enjoyment

Non-fiction is not dull reading. New and beautiful books on topics from poetry to pandas and biographies to ball games come out every month. While I will indicate ages of the intended on audience on this, keep in mind that non-fiction appeals to all ages.

  1. Panda Kindergarten by Joanne Ryder is aimed at humans in kindergarten through second grade but everyone will enjoy the photographs of panda babies at play. Learn how panda rescue efforts are keeping these amazing creatures alive.

  2. Can You Survive the Titanic? An Interactive Survival Adventure by Allison Louise Lassieur is part of an interesting new series of choose your own adventures. In these historically accurate stories, the reader is asked to make decisions that a person would have had to make in the actual situation. Should a young person on the Titanic go above deck or wait for friends or family? Should he jump overboard and try to swim to safety? A wrong choice can lead to death. A great deal of historical fact is presented in a format that will appeal to readers in grades three and up.

  3. Odd Ball: Hilarious, Unusual and Bizarre Baseball Moments by Timothy Tocher helps verify what I have always suspected--part of baseball's appeal is the expectation of the unexpected. With funny drawings to illustrate the many odd facts, this will be enjoyed by baseball fanatics who will surely share the stories with everyone within ear shot. This book will hit a home run with readers in grades three and up.

  4. Demi creates some of the most beautiful biographies in any collections. Her illustrations are detailed and intricate and so are the stories she tells. Look for biographies of a wide range of people such as Tutankhamun, Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus, Marco Polo, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and many more. The illustrations make these seem as though they may be picture books, but you will find solid, well researched biographies inside the covers. It will take reading ability at the fourth grade level or above to digest all of the information provided.

  5. Lemonade: and Other Poems Squeezed From a Single Word by Bob Raczka with illustrations by Nancy Doniger is a playful exploration of words, anagrams, and poetry that delights those who are able to see how the poem grows out of a single word. The revelation of this trait and the often pun filled nature of the poems are perfectly amplified with simple illustrations. The illustrations in my other favorite poetry book of the year are lush and filled with fairy tale charm. Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer with illustrations by Josee Massee offers two views of familiar fairy tales in poetry that reads up and down to offer differing perspectives. Poetry lovers, aficionados of word play, and those who simply enjoy a fairy tale will all enjoy this unique collection.

  6. I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat : History's Strangest Cures by Carlyn Beccia admittedly plays on the gross factor while introducing medical treatments from days gone by. Who doesn't squirm at the thought of swallowing live frogs or sprinkling ground up mummies on a wound? The book's multiple choice quiz format encourages discussion and sharing with others. Many of the cures that may seem crazy are shown to have a sound scientific basis while others are revealed to be more harmful than helpful. Readers in grades two and up will find much to share in this unusual book.

Enjoy the facts and fun of a good non-fiction book.

Middle School: Not Too Busy for a Good Book

It seems as though middle school and high school students barely have time to think let alone read for pleasure between homework, friends, sports, music, and all the other things they do. Just like adults, however, many find that escaping into a good book can rejuvenate them. Publishers are eager to find books that will fascinate and hold the attention of this group. It can be difficult, however, for middle school students to pick among the many Young Adult titles. Some offer much more mature subject matter than these younger young adults want. Here are a few titles that I have enjoyed recently. Parents need to know that many are good for adult reading, too.

  1. This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Viktor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel is truly creepy which befits a "prequel" to Frankenstein. This novel looks at the family life if the young Frankenstein boys Viktor and Konrad. When the young twins and their cousin stumble upon The Dark Library filled with tomes on alchemy and the dark sciences, their father forbids them to ever visit the room again. Viktor is drawn to the the library, especially when Konrad falls deathly ill and the doctors seem unable to cure him. Filled with hope and foreboding, I imagine that Mary Shelley would enjoy this novel. My first stop after reading it was to revisit the original which I predict is what middle school readers will do as well. This is not a story for younger readers nor for the faint of heart. Oppel also wrote the adventure series about bats that begins with Silverwing, a fascinating adventure for readers in grades four through six. More recently he wrote Half Brother which takes middle school readers into the world of a young man whose family chooses to study and raise as chimpanzee in their family, soon to become a beloved half brother.

  2. A real horror is depicted in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys which begins with the night in that Soviet officers barge into the home Lina, a young Lithuanian girl. The family is separated from the father and sent to Siberia where Stalin orders them to work in the beet fields under cruel conditions. Lina consoles herself and her family by drawing pictures and trying to find ways to get them to her father. The author is a Lithuanian refugee and much of this book is based on stories from her own family.

  3. The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is capturing the hearts and minds of strong young women, whether they are runners or not. Jessica, a high school junior, looks to be in line for scholarships and accolades for her running prowess when an accident claims her leg. The novels traces her sorrow, depression, and climb back into an appreciation of her life and how she can use what she has to help others as well as herself. This could be a terribly treacly story, but it rises above this through the author's talent, humanity, and clear appreciation of running. Van Draanen has also written the Sammy Keyes detective girl series for readers in grades four and up. Runaway, a touching novel in the form of the journal of a girl who runs away from home and must fend for herself, is another Van Draanen novel that will be enjoyed by middle school readers.

  4. The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter is a truly odd book. It is this oddness that makes it so enjoyable. The three Hardscrabble children are used to having their father go off for weeks at a time to paint portraits of royal families around the world, but never before have they stayed with their odd great-aunt Haddie who lives in a full size playhouse near an old castle once owned by the Kneebone family. What follows is explorations of folk histories, magic, and some harsh realities. The story is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is book that demands a reader who is willing to ride its roller coaster of emotions.

  5. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is simply beautiful as it tells the autobiographical story of a young Vietnamese refugee who is resettled in Alabama. Told in free verse, the story conveys the beauty of Saigon, the agonies of refugee camps, the slow process of adapting to a new country and customs, and the strength of family and hope. The poems are often humorous and almost always poignant.

  6. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park follows the lives of two young people in Sudan. Salva is only 11 in 1985 when his home town is attacked by rebel soldiers. The story of his escape across the war torn countryside to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya and eventually to the United States is told honestly but without too much graphic description of the horrors. His inspiring efforts to help his homeland are mirrored in the alternating chapters about Nya. In 2008, Nya must walk long distances to get drinking water for her family. It seems like a miracle when Salva and his organization drill a well in the village, which also makes possible Nya's dream of going to school.

You may notice a conspicuous lack of fantasy on this list. You will have no problem finding this genre from middle school readers. These titles will help those who want more than vampires in their reading list.

Reading Up a Storm

Once a child discovers a love of reading there is often no stopping the demand for more and more and more books. Authors and publishers know this so there is always something new on the bookshelves. The problem for parents is that tastes are being more clearly defined. Some students in grades 2-5 will only read fantasy and others want nothing but historical fiction. So your first step is to know your customer. Then you can simply enjoy the ride. The list of interesting and exciting books for this age is long. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. The Flint Heart by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson is a generously adapted folk tale . The tale begins during the Stone Age when a man asks for ultimate power through the creation of a talisman. The spirits breathe such power into the little stone heart that the wearer becomes an unbearable tyrant. When the original owner dies the heart is buried and left untouched until the early 20th century. Then it can only be destroyed with the help of a brother and sister team, their dog, a German made hot water bottle, and legions of fairies. The book is easy enough for many second graders yet interesting enough for much older readers. Humor and adventure abound in both the text and the vibrant illustrations by John Rocco. It would make a great family read.

  2. Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins is in some ways a very typical school story. Hank is a young boy who is just a little bit different from the other kids at school. He is a bit of a loner, creates models out of matchsticks, and invents interesting ice cream flavors for the family store. One day he rescues an invisible (not imaginary) bandapat who demands food and shelter. The two, Hank and the bandapat, become partners in solving their problems with some hilarious results. The under story of the novel is about bullying. I have to agree with the critics who suggest that the school authorities do not do a particularly good job of handling the bullying, but if they had acted appropriately, the methods that the bandapat suggests would not be as interesting, amusing, or necessary. Emily Jenkins also has written the very enjoyable Toys Go Out series.

  3. What is zipping off my library shelves these days? Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce. Big Nate was originally a comic strip. Now Peirce has brought this spunky young man into novels that are full of energy and humor. One review I found called them a combination of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. That describes them so well that I don't need to add another word.

  4. Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder at first seems like yet another story of a family that is splitting up and the effect on the children. Yes, it is that, but it is so much more. Rebecca is hurt and angry when her mother moves the family away from Dad to another state to live with their grandmother. Gran tries to be understanding, even letting Rebecca claim items from the attic to use in her own room. One of these is an old fashioned breadbox that reveals magical powers. Whatever Rebecca wishes for appears in the box, as long as the wish will fit. At first it is a seagull to remind her of home but soon the requests grow to money and other ways to help her fit in at her new school. When Rebecca learns more about how things appear in the breadbox, she has to deal with some huge moral issues. This book offers an interesting twist to some familiar concepts.

  5. Louis Sachar recently wrote Card Turner, a young adult novel about playing bridge. Now Meg Wolitzer has written an enjoyable tale of Scrabble competition. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman begins with the revelation of Duncan's ability to read print with his fingertips, a talent that one of his new classmates soon realizes could be useful when playing Scrabble. From there the story widens to include other contestants in the Youth Scrabble Tournament. Duncan, April, and Nate all have their own reasons for going to the tournament, but only one team can win.

Please look at former posts on this blog for more of my suggestions. There are many good books just waiting to be discovered.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hone Reading Skills on These Titles

One of the most exciting times in a person's life is that moment when all those funny looking squiggles come together to make words and those words make sense and suddenly a new world is opened within the covers of a book. Those of us who grew up with Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot can appreciate the early readers of today more than young people who never knew life before The Cat in the Hat. I have talked about early readers before so I will simply urge you here to wander through that section of your library or bookstore to find those that interest your new reader. You will find some familiar friends who are just as much fun as you remembered--Frog and Toad, Mr. Putter and Tabby, Commander Toad, and Amelia Bedelia. Newer characters include Fly Guy and Piggie and Elephant. My biggest advice is to not buy only those tied to the latest pop culture. Let your child learn to read with some of the tried and true titles. They get lots of Pokemon, My Little Pony, Dora, and Diego on TV. Books with those characters won't hurt them, but do you really want them to be the only things they know?

Suddenly your child is ready for chapter books. These are sometimes hard to find because along with reading skills come definite opinions of what to read. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Girls have lots of options at this age like Junie B. Jones, Ivy and Bean, and, my favorite, Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. All of these have several books in the series and feature spunky, funny girls who will remind you of that perennial favorite, Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary.

  2. At first glance, it may seem that there are fewer books aimed at boys at this level but look again. Marvin Redpost by Louis Sachar, Ready, Freddy by Abby Klein, and The Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are all good starting points for getting boys to enjoy adventure and humor in the same book.

  3. Attach of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty will remind many people of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey or Fat Camp Commandos and others by Daniel Pinkwater because of its wild and weird events. This is something that may not please mom nearly as much as it pleases young readers, most of whom value odd attacks sugar crazed alien bunnies. Books of this type start many a reluctant reader down the road to fine literature.

  4. Kate DiCamillo has written some wonderful novels for older readers and dabbled in picture books yet it seems that her first chapter book series Mercy Watson often gets overlooked. Mercy is a very spoiled pig who likes good food, a trait that often leads to disaster. Her doting humans find a way to make everything seem normal and fine. These are always good for a smile.

  5. Everyone loves Doreen Cronin's picture books like Click, Clack, Moo, and Diary of a Worm, so it is no surprise that she has written a great chapter book. The mystery The Trouble with Chickens features J. J. Tully, a wise if not always patients dog who though he was retired until two chicks come asking for help to find their missing siblings. The story takes exciting and humorous twists on its way to a satisfying ending.

Enjoy the search that for those books that build the bridge to becoming a life long reader.

Pick Up These Picture Books

Picture books are the easiest of all books to select. The process is simple. Find a bookstore or library and head to their picture book section. Pick up books at random and leaf through them. I can spend hours (and much money) doing this. Picture books can be totally irresistible. They can also be pretty but not well written or beautifully written with illustrations that spoil it all. You have to be careful, but you are sure to find something that appeals to you.

The key is to have the picture book you select appeal to you and, if you plan to share the joy, your listener. Here are some picture books that appeal to me.

  1. Peter Brown is a fairly new discovery of mine. His two most recent books drew my eye to the large, friendly looking bear on the cover. Children Make Terrible Pets features that young bear hugging a small boy. The story and its charming illustration show Lucy,the bear. interacting with her new pet child. She appears to be having a wonderful time with Squeak, as she names him, until he exhibits behavior problems, just as her mother had warned. A suitable moral is learned at the end. In YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND (yes, it is in all caps.) Lucy is desperately searching for a friend. Her bumbling approach seems to make success impossible. Or is it? Could another clever moral await?

  2. Eric Litwin and James Dean have two charming, simple stories about Pete the Cat with another one coming out in May of 2012. In Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes this very cool cat puts on his new white shoes and proceeds to walk through various items (i.e. fresh fruit, mud) which change the color of his shoes but never interfere with their cool factor. Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes takes a tour of school letting his shoes make him feel confident in every location. The rhythm of the text makes these books a joy to read aloud.

  3. Ahhh... Jon Agee! This author, illustrator never lets me down. His most recent, My Rhinoceros, is no exception. A young boy goes to the exotic pet store and selects a rhinoceros. Initially it seems to be a real dud because it doesn't do anything of interest. Am expert tells him that he has a perfectly good rhino because all rhinos do is pop balloons and poke holes in kites. That seems boring until the rhinoceros proves that he is a super hero and saves the day. While you are in the Agee section, take a look at Milo's Hat Trick, Nothing, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, and all the others.

  4. I am sure I have said it before, but I will say it again. No child today should grow up without being introduced to Mo Willems. The Pigeon books (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and many more), the Knuffle Bunny books, and the Elephant and Piggie books are all destined to be classics. Read them all. Then read Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, Amanda and Her Alligator, and Leonardo the Terrible Monster. All of these will make you laugh. Finally, savor City Dog, Country Frog. It will fill you with joy. You can't go wrong with Willems.

  5. Eric Carle has a new book out called The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. It is a tribute to the artist Franz Marc but what young readers will care about is that it features Carle's bright and interesting illustration collages along a path to creative thinking. It is beautiful.

There are so many more great authors and illustrations of children's books that I could go on for hours. I will stop here and simply encourage you to go look for yourself.

Adults reading in the Fall

It is that time of year again when folks at school are gearing up for our annual book fair on November 13. My biggest contribution, aside from the joy of joining everyone for a remarkably fun evening, is making some suggested reading lists. Here are my top five suggestions for adults.

  1. Since River of Smoke the second in the Ibis trilogy has just come out, it seems the perfect time to suggest you read the first in that trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The Sea of Poppies is long and often complicated, but by the end of it I was totally absorbed in the story and the lives of the myriad characters is this story set in and around Calcutta, India shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. It has taken Ghosh several years to add the second book and I have not yet had the chance to read it. I forgive him this long writing time because it was clear in the first that he carefully researched his story and worked painstakingly to craft every word.

  2. Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres is another long and often complicated novel that is well worth the trip. Set in Anatolia as the Ottoman Empire is crumbling, the story takes the reader into the lives and minds of a wide range of people who populate a small town. There are the famous like Mustafa Kemal and the everyday people like the potter, the priest, and the children who interact within a system that is open to all. Muslim Turks, Christian Greeks, and Armenians support each other when they can while often gossiping about each other. As in Captain Corelli's Mandolin de Bernieres has a beautiful way with words.

  3. Love Marriage by V. V. Ganeshanathan takes the reader to Sri Lanka via Toronto as it looks at the long time fighting in Sri Lanka through the eyes of Yalini,a young woman who left the country with her family when she was two years old. Now her uncle has fled Sri Lanka to to die in Toronto. He is not allowed into the U.S. because he is a leader of the Tamil Tigers and branded as a terrorist. Various marriages--for love or arranged--offer the road map for a trip through the history of the family and the country, as well as the narrator herself. Ultimately it is a story of love through many definitions. Emerson School will host Ms. Ganeshanathan in November for an evening of discussion.

  4. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen sticks with me because it is so quirky. Any description of it should be accompanied by the same maps, diagrams, photos, and footnotes that fill the ample margins of the over-sized book. T.S. Spivet is a 12 year old boy living in rural Montana when his detail filled maps of nearly everything are submitted to the Smithsonian by an adult friend. Soon T. S. is riding the rails to accept a special post at the Smithsonian and his life is turned upside down. This is a coming of age story unlike any other.

  5. As I scanned my bookshelf this morning, my eye fell on a book that is one of my long-time favorites, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Like so many people, I read and enjoyed Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book takes a broader look at the writing of the dictionary and its impact on the lives of the people involved as well as the world as we know it. There is little more fascinating to me the words and this book made me wonder if I should have been a lexicographer.

There are so many good books to read and so little time. As always, I would enjoy hearing what you suggest as good reading in any genre.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It's Back to School We Go

Whether it is just coincidence on my part or a theme of authors and publishers this year, I discovered many new (at least new to me) books about going to school during my summer reading. I would like to share some of my favorites with you.

Young Adult Novels about school are often filled with teen angst and carry messages that adults think young teens need to hear from wiser minds. Of course, sometimes these messages are so heavy that no self-respective teen is going to pay it much heed. The novels that I enjoyed this summer were able to either ignore the need of a message or convey that message in a moving and memorable manner.

The Accidental Genius of Weasel High by Rick Detoria (grades 6 -9) features a boy with plenty of typical high school issues. This novel is plausible and enjoyable through the generous use of humor, interesting plot twists, and friendly, cartoon illustrations. Larkin has a quirky girl for a friend but is suddenly wishing for more in the relationship and he has a believably spoiled sister to add to his problems with adjusting to school and his quest to get himself a quality camcorder.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (gr. 8 and up) manages to deal with a very heavy topic in a believable and moving way while injecting much needed humor to break the tension. The protagonist was raped at a party just before the start of ninth grade. Frightened and confused, she called the police but never told a soul about the rape itself. For this act, her peers she her as a snitch and effectively shun her. The story shows the painful steps that help her regain her voice both literally and figuratively. This story has become a classic in the ten years since it was first published and is worthy of being read by every student embarking on the high school adventure. I found it much more moving, believable, and readable than the currently popular Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Scrawl by Mark Shulman (gr. 6-9) appeals to my bias for novel in journal form. This journal is assigned by a teacher as something of a last chance to escape expulsion from school. The teacher is to be admired for being strict and fair with her assessments as the writer moves from anger to inklings of understanding.

The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gardy Schmidt are two novels about connected characters but they are certainly stand alone books. The Wednesday Wars takes place in New York City in the late 1960s with a trouble-making student forced to stay after school to work with a teacher. He learns to appreciate Shakespeare and education in surprising ways. Less enjoyable to me was Okay for Now which follows a secondary character of the first book when his family moves to rural New York in search of work. It has many issues with family problems, crime, and even Vietnam War veterans. Both books feature good storytelling and generous dashes of humor.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Gr. 5-8), like too many books for readers of this age, tries to address too many issues in one story so that none is given the attention it deserves. That said, it is worth reading this book for the stellar writing and intriguing concept. Mr. Terupt is the new teacher for a group of angry and troubled students. Through the use of controversial and interesting teaching methods, Mr. Terupt gets the students to bond . When tragedy strikes, they deal with it individually and as a group. The book is told in multiple voices.

Writers for students in second through fifth grade tend to tread more lightly when dealing with school issues. These books are more apt to be humorous (think Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School) or historical (like Belle Teal by Ann M. Martin). That does not mean that there are not some good and clever books about school experiences, but you are more apt to laugh than cry while reading them.

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon (gr. 2-4) does a great job of dealing with being the different kid in the class by making the hero the only dragon in a school of more prosaic reptiles. There are plenty of cartoon illustrations, often with speech bubbles, so the reading is fun and appealing. The story has a lot that is familiar like unwanted homework, a bully, a nerdy but true friend, and struggling to meet parental standards, but mostly it has lots of humor. I predict that the series of which this is the first will be a big hit.

School! Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School by Kate McMullan (gr. 2-4) advertises itself as a "Very Punny Book" and that it is. The puns are what kept me reading as I discovered interesting names and clever turns of phrase. The stories themselves are light and short in a way that is reminiscent of Wayside School.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming (gr. 3-5) is another Wayside School look-alike that will appeal to young readers who want a laugh in a school setting.

It is the First Day of School...Forever by R. L. Stine (gr. 4-6) surprised me because I actually liked most of it. My students know that I am not wild about Stine's Goosebumps series because the stories seem more inclined toward gore and adrenalin rushes than actual plot. This story is not short on gore and excitement but it also has a solid plot, thus making me and the hoards of devoted R. L. Stine readers happy. The story may be every kid's worst nightmare--the first day at a new school keeps happening over and over and over, with each day a little more horrible than the last. It is the surprise ending that made it all worth the read for me.

Picture books generally are eager to make sure that the youngest readers and listeners are eager to go to school. They acknowledge that it is scary to leave the familiar and go off to a new school and thus strive to make school look fun and appealing. Much to my joy, more and more picture books about school are adding surprises and humor.

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh (gr. 1-4) offers a great twist on the new kid in school issue. The narrator is a student who thinks that this new kid, Marshall Armstrong, is just plain weird and wants nothing to do with him. The illustrations highlight Marshall's quirkiness that may at first be off-putting, but turns out to be truly awesome.

Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin (gr. K-2) shows all the great things to be discovered at school as Pete takes his cool school shoes on a tour of school life. There is little plot but lots of energy, rhythm, and vibrant illustrations.

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills (gr. K-2) is about an unconventional school, to say the least. Rocket is a dog doesn't know he wants to read until a friendly bird shows him how much fun it can be. The bird follows the same steps that teachers follow in every school as Rocket is introduced to the basic principles of the sounds of letters and how they go together to make words and sentences and stories.

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child (gr. K-2) is not new but it is too absolutely my favorite back-to-school book to miss mentioning it. (Many children now know Charlie and Lola from their television show. The TV success and a decline in the appeal of these books seem to have a direct correlation. This is one of the first of the Charlie and Lola books, perhaps even before the TV program.) When Charlie tells Lola that she will soon start school, she can think of many reasons why she does not need school and will not like school. Of course, it all ends well, but not before lots of questions about school have been humorously answered.

Head back to school knowing that you are not the first to have worries. As you read the books for older students, you can be glad that you don't have all of their issues and that the first day only happens once a year.

End of Summer Thoughts

Every year as school comes to an end in June I make a list of all the things I am going to accomplish during what at that time seems like a long summer that lies ahead. The list includes things for home (paint a room, clean thoroughly, fix something that is need of repair), for me (read, sew, craft a bit, socialize, lose weight), and for school (organize something so that it is more user friendly, get some new books, plan for the coming year). These lists have been a major project in themselves in years past. This year they were more scratched notes and thoughts.

Neither of these approaches seem to work completely. I did some of the things on my lists, but I am far from completing most of the things on my list. We did get one room painted, but the transition of that room into a guest room is still far from complete nor are the two other rooms that were a part of the transformation looking much different from than they did in June. Socialization was an important part of the summer, but there are still many people that I want to see. I also am into an intensive exercise program that is getting me on that bumpy road to fitness. The library is a little better organized, but much of what I did gave me ideas for other changes that must now wait until school gets under way.

One thing I did succeed in doing was to read some good books (and some not so great ones). As is always the case, however, I found more to add to my list of books that I want to read. Here are a few of the adult titles that I read and enjoyed this summer.

The Worst Hard Times by Tim Egan offers a fascinating and clearly well researched look at life in the heart of the Dust Bowl. It is not as well written as I would have liked, at times repeating itself or making confusing leaps in time or place, but it made up for those lapses by offering a very complete story of people who lived in this time and place. The relationships between the environment and politics should give us pause in today's world.

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson looks at yet another devastating time in America, the summer that the Freedom Riders headed south to register African Americans to vote. The story is difficult as it gives straight forward accounts of the people who were killed in tortured in this agonizing and powerful time.

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared Together by Alice Ozma is a memoir that centers around a pact between a young girl (the author) and her father, a school librarian. They agree to read together every night for 1,000 nights. There are tales of having to read in a parking lot or even over the phone so that they can meet their deadline as they move beyond those 1,000 nights. It is high praise for the joys of reading together and a good reminder that no one is too old to enjoy sharing a book. Keep reading to your children.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is not the only fiction I read this summer, but is what I enjoyed most because it is a wonderful melange of odd characters in unbelievable yet realistic settings. The Bigtree family has owned Swamplandia since Grandpa moved to Florida to find his fortune. Instead he finds lots of large gators to wrestle and from their a show grows. The story begins, however, as the glory days are ending. Grandfather is now in a nursing home. Grandfather Sawtooth's son, Chief, is struggling to keep things going after his wife, the star of the show, dies. The three children all try in their own ways to save the park. The symbolism of The World of Darkness amusement park is worthy of a literature class discussion. I know not everyone likes quirky stories, so I will forgive you if you are put off by this book. However, if you like a wild romp, this could be just the book for you.

Now, I am composing lists of things to accomplish during the school year. Let's hope that get some of those things done.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Suggestions from Parents

At a recent meeting of the parent organization, the parents offered a list of some of their favorite titles. I happy to share it with everyone.

For Young Readers to Young Adults
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper grades 4-8
  • The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen grades 5-8
  • The Candymakers byWendy Mass grades 4-6
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan grades 4-7
  • World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky grades 3 to adult
  • The Cardturner by Louis Sachar grades 6 to adult
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley grades 7 to adult
For Adult Readers
  • Unique Ability: Creating the Life You Want by Catherine Nomura, Julia Waller and Shanon Waller non-fiction
  • The Presence Process by Michael Brown non-fiction
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett fiction
  • Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jun Chang non-fiction
  • Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks non-fiction
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky fiction
  • Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga PosesI by Claire Dederer non-fiction
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova fiction
I hope this list helps people find some good reading. I know that I have now added some more titles to my "to be read" list.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Plenty of Picture Books

Picture books are so personal and so easy to browse that I will spare you long descriptions and offer instead a list of authors and titles that I enjoy, with brief comments.

Beatric Rodriquez tells wonderful stories without writing a single word in the richly illustrated The Chicken Thief and its follow-up Fox and Hen Together.

Melanie Watt amuses young and old with her Chester books, You're Finally Here, and Have I Got a Book For You?.

Lane Smith brought joy to book lovers with It's a Book. Book lovers also appreciate Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates, Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein, and The Little Red Pen by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummell.

Personal histories can be found in the autobiographical Everything But the Horse by Holly Hobbie of Toot and Puddle fame and the story of Jane Goodall's childhood aspirations in Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell who also wrote South, Just Like Heaven, and the Mutts comics.

I have a deep affinity for the illustrations of Quentin Blake and find great pleasures in his picture books such as Loveykins, Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave, and Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road.

The illustrations of David Wiesner are quite different from those of Blake, but they should not be missed. Try Art and Max, The Three Little Pigs, or the almost wordless Tuesday.

Bob Graham has a soft heart and gentle humor in his books like Max, How to Heal a Broken Wing, and April and Esme, Tooth Fairies.

Bonny Becker has a trio of stories about unexpected friendships and understanding in A Visitor for Bear, A Birthday for Bear, and Bedtime for Bear.

If you like puns and silly jokes mixed with familiar folk tales you cannot beat Kevin O"Malley's Animal Crackers Fly the Coop and Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share.

Finally, Mo Willems is almost unstoppable with one hilarious book after another, each with a pigeon hidden somewhere in the book.

  • The Elephant and Piggie series of beginning readers.

  • The Cat the Cat series for beginning readers

  • Knuffle Bunny and its sequels

  • Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

  • Don't Let Pigeon Drive the Bus and others in the series

  • Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator

City Dog, Country Dog is by Williams with illustrations by Jon Muth. It is a touching story of friendship that will warm your heart. It is not like any other Williams book and I don't remember any pigeons in it.

Everyone can appreciate a good picture book. Don't miss them just because you are over six.

For Upper Elementary and Middle School Readers

There are some marvelous new middle grade and young adult novels just waiting to be enjoyed. Here are some that I have enjoyed recently.

The Unnameables by Elen Booraem takes place in a dystopian world on an island on which America's Puritan roots have been allowed to stagnate into increasing rigidity. When a young boy is washed up on the shore he is given to a kind family to raise, but he always feels like an outsider. This is especially true when he reaches the age at which he is about to be given his profession and a name that matches that occupation. Only those things that are useful have names and what Medford Runyuin likes to do is carve wood into pieces of art and those are not deemed useful at all. There are some rather creepy characters in this story of the value of self and of artistic expression. I liked Booraem's book Small Persons With Wings so much that I have an earlier blog post devoted to it.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is the moving story of a young girl who has cerebral palsy and an active mind. Her biggest problem is that few people take the time to understand her grunts and gestures. When she gets a machine similar to that used by Stephen Hawking, she can suddenly display her brilliance, except that it takes people a long time to believe it is real. There is plenty of heartbreak and plenty of hope in this realistic contemporary novel.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thankha Lai is one of the most beautifully written stories of immigration that I have ever read. Ha, her mother, and three brothers flee Saigon as the city is beginning to fall and eventually find their way to Alabama where they must start a new life. Written in free verse that is beautiful, heart-wrenching, and humorous, this is a clear and poignant look at refugees, their travails, and their strengths.

Gods of Manhatten by Scott Mebus will keep those who enjoy tales of adventure and intriguing asking for the next in this series which has Manhatten being ruled by those who have gained fame in this famous borough. Politicians, sports stars, and others are given important roles in the mythology that has become the city, but it is the original residents, the Munsee people, who are fighting to regain the city after being locked in Central Park. The blend of actual people and settings with high fantasy makes this a pleasure to read.

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton finds Persimmony Smudge leading a dull life on the Island at the Center of Everything until she finds a magic pot that leads her on the adventure of a lifetime. Guafnoggle the Jester and Worvil the Worrier join her as Persimmony searches to see if the odd rise and fall of their island is really the slow breathing of the a sleeping giant under the soil. Plot twists and interesting characters appear at every turn.

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams won a 2011 Stonewall Honor Book Award. It tells the story of 12-year old Dennis who likes soccer and fashion designing. When his fashion-forward friend (and school "hottie") Lisa convinces him that he should put on a dress that she has designed and come to school as her French exchange students friend, he discovers that wearing a dress can be comfortable. The confusion and problems that arise are predictable, but the story and accompanying illustrations by Quentin Blake make for enjoyable reading.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia perfectly grasps the interactions of sisters everywhere while addressing a troubled and often troubling slice of American history. In the summer of 1968 Delphine and her two younger sisters are sent from New York City to Oakland, California, to visit the mother they have not seen since the youngest girl was born. Cecile, their mother, is less than thrilled to see them and promptly tells them to go out to buy their dinner at the Chinese take-out around the corner and to stay out of the kitchen where she prints fliers and writes poetry. During the day, the girls get breakfast and attend a camp run by the Black Panther Party. The girls get an education in politics and people as they gain an understanding of their family's foibles.

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series) by Maryrose Wood is a take-off on many themes of classic literature. A sweet, innocent young girl, Penelope Lumly is sent from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females to become the governess for three surprising children at Ashton Place. Lord Frederick has found three children raised by wolves and now wants to benefit from them in any way he can. (He belives in the idea of "Finder's Keepers".) His new bride Lady Constance sees them as savage nuisances but hopes that Penelope can tame and educate them in time for the Christmas Party she is planning. This is a humorous mix of Jane Eyre and Lemony Snicket that improves on both former stories in ways that are totally unexpected.


Fiction For Those Just Getting Into Longer Books

I struggled with the title of this post. Giving grade guidelines for good reading is more than a little tricky. Some first graders will find much to enjoy in the books on this list but so will many people in grades five or six. Clearly, I enjoyed reading them and sixth grade is only a vague memory for me. Nonetheless, they are aimed at those people who have reading abilities that are blossoming and life experiences that do not need to be colored by more mature works.

The first on my list appears to be a picture book but its story is one that needs more maturity to appreciate than is required by Goodnight, Moon or Babar. The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polocco, like many of her stories, is autobiographical. It talks about the experience of moving to a new school where she dreams of now longer being in a special class. She has a new friend and a new teacher who tells all the students in her class that they fit the definition of "genius". Alas, the other classes soon make this group of interesting children aware that they are the "junkyard" and Trisha learns that she is again in a special class. She does not realize how special it is until the teacher challenges them to bring out their genius in a way that will surprise, amuse and amaze.

Doreen Cronin is already a beloved picture book author for titles like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type and The Diary of a Fly so it should be easy to get readers to try her new novel The Trouble with Chickens: A J. J. Tully Mystery. No one will be disappointed. Here is a classic detective story featuring a dog Private Investigator, a family of confused chickens, lots of twists, and plenty of puns. It is the start of a series so we can look forward to investigating and laughing with J. J. Tully in many more tales.

Jon Scieszka has proven over and over again that he can write for kids whether in picture books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man, and Math Curse, series like The Time Warp Trio, collections of stories like Guys Read, or his memoir Knucklehead. Now he has a hilarious new series about space aliens in the classroom. Spaceheadz (SPHDZ, Book #1) introduces Michael on his first day at a new school. Things don't look good when he is in a group with two weird kids who claim they are Spaceheadz from another planet and talk in TV jingles. These kids expect him to save the world. Not far away, in a tiny one-room apartment, Agent Umber is put on alert by his employer, the Anti Alien Agency. Umber will remind adults of Maxwell Smart but the Spaceheadz defy comparison. The slapstick humor is matched with interesting graphics and pages of odd facts.

Strong characters are popular for readers at this level so I will leave you with lists of authors and titles that are somewhat similar. If you like one of these strong and mostly humorous books the odds are you will enjoy the others. Remember, the main character does not have to be of the same gender as the reader for the story to be enjoyed.

Books and series with boys as the central character:
Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
Big Nate (series) by Lincoln Peirce
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series) by Jeff Kinney
Marvin K. Redpost (series) by Louis Sachar
Shredderman (series) by Wendelin Van Draanen
Stink (series) by Megan McDonald Stink is the little brother of Judy Moody.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and other Scary Things by Leonore Look

Books with girls as the central character:
Clementine (series) by Sara Penny Packer
Allie Finkle (series) by Meg Cabot
Ramona Quimby (series) by Beverly Cleary
Judy Moody (series) by Megan McDonald
Amber Brown (series) by Paula Danziger
Ruby Lu, Brace and True by Leonore Look
Ellie McDoodle (series) by Ruth McNally Barshaw
Ivy and Bean (series) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall
Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee
Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat by Grace Lin

Happy reading.

Non-Fiction Not to be Missed

Non-fiction for young readers becomes more interesting and and eye-catching every day. The books on this list are not so much designed for research as for enjoyment. They tell interesting stories that just happen to be true. To add to the pleasure, they are full of fabulous illustrations or, in a couple of the titles, amazing photographs. These are a great way to get younger readers to realize that there is much to enjoy in non-fiction and an ever better way to spark interests that may well lead to deeper investigations.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill ( grades 2 and up) won both a Caldecott Honor award and the Coretta Scott King Artist Award this year for its amazing illustrations by Brian Collier. With little text, this magnificent work of art tells of an impressive artist who was also a slave known only as Dave the Potter. Dave crafted huge clay pots for the plantation owners but his special touch is obvious in their beauty. Additionally, he added a simple poem to each of his pieces which are still be uncovered today. Even if you don't feel the urge to rush out and make a pot, you will be moved by the stunning book.

Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse by Emily Arnold McCully (grades K-4) tells of another slave who did amazing things. Bill Key was born a slave in 1833 and grew up with a special affinity for animals. After Emancipation, he became a veterinarian who believed in the power of kindness which led him to raise an injured Arabian colt that he taught to recognize letters, identify the primary colors, tap out answers to simple arithmetic, make change, and dance. Key took his horse out on the road, billing it as an "Equine Wonder". When a newspaper questioned the horse's intelligence, Key brought in Harvard professors to confirm that his horse was no a hoax. Do not overlook the final notes that talk about discrimination that Key faced as well as the work of organizations like the SPCA.

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery (grades 4-8) is the latest in the Scientist in the Field series. This one takes the reader to a small island off of New Zealand to meet the flightless, nocturnal Kakapo who, at about nine pounds, weighs in as the world's heaviest parrot. They have cat-like whiskers and a growl like a dog. Although they can live to be 100, there are only 87 of them left in the world, in large part because they have never thought of humans as a threat. Montgomery covers just one short part of the hatching season, showing the ups and downs that are all part of the hard work, scientific methods and pure luck that fill each day. The photos by Nic Bishop beautifully capture both the birds and the scientists who are working to save them.

Nic Bishop also publishes books of his own work. His latest is Nic Bishop's Lizards. If you have not seen Bishop's other books you will be rushing out to find them after seeing the brilliant, colorful, energy packed photos here. Each photo is accompanied by a brief essay filled with fascinating facts. Don't forget to read the author's note at the back of the book which describes the lengths to which Bishop will go to get the perfect picture. Other subjects that have been "shot" by Bishop include Butterflies and Moths, Frogs, Marsupials, and Spiders as well as many more critters in books with other authors.

A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston (grades K-5) features beautiful soft illustrations by Sylvia Long. The illustrations are matched with descriptions and facts that are almost poetic as they lead to new appreciations of butterflies. Equally beautiful and informative are two other titles by the same author and illustrator--A Seed is Sleepy and An Egg is Quiet.

The bright colors of Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia by Jeanette Winter (grades K-6) will catch your eyes but is the story that will capture your heart. Luis Soriano is a teacher in a remote area of Columbia who decided that people in the villages around him needed access to books. He loaded up his two donkeys, Alpha and Beta, with a small collection of books and set off with stories to tell and books to loan. That collection has grown since he began in 2000 and now even has a building in which it is stored. Students who have easy access to books and libraries can find new appreciation through this simple story that includes not just books and donkeys, but also bandits.

Chris Van Allsburg, a master illustrator best know for fantastic fantasy picture books like Jumanji, now offers us non-fiction that suits his black and white illustrations to a tee. Queen of the Falls (grades 1-5) is the story of Annie Edson Taylor who at 62 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She hoped for fame and fortune but found little of either. People were skeptical of an elderly woman claiming to be such a daredevil. Van Allsburg captures the magnitude of both her courage and her disappointment.

Pop! The Invention of Bubblegum by Meghan McCarthy ( grades K-4) is as bold and pink as a chunk of Double Bubble and as full of surprises as a bubble that pops just a minutes too soon. Walter Diemer was an accountant at the Fleer family candy factory who could not give up on a project in the next door office to find a gum that made bubbles. His boss had long given up hope, but Walter kept working until, in 1928, he found a recipe that worked. The rest, it could be said, is history, though if you want more history and trivia of gum and bubbles there is plenty of that here too.

Poetry for Readers Young and Old

This week I briefly listened in as poet and prose author Sarah Messer presented a poetry workshop for second grade students. One of the things that was immediately evident was that children enjoy poetry and many were able to jump right in to create some thoughtful, humorous, imaginative poems.

Often adults neglect to bring the joys of poetry to the children around them. My theory is that many of us had that natural appreciation of poetry chased from us through many long hours in English classes that asked us to delve into the hidden meanings of each and every word until we no longer heard the heart of the work. (I have seen reviews of a book called Readicide: How Schools are Killing Readings and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I have not read it, but it is a tempting title, isn't it?)

To counteract this feeling that poetry is deep and difficult, even painful, many people turn to humorous children's poets like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. Both of these men have created poetry that kids love to memorize and share. My favorite Silverstein book is Runny Babbit and you won't want to overlook Prelutsky's Scranimals or the beautiful illustrations and haiku in If Not for the Cat.

Unfortunately, many people stop with those two stellar poets. This means that they may never learn about nature with Joyce Sidman in stellar collections like Ubiquitous, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, and Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems. Sidman has also made one of my favorite poetry book to read to cover-to-cover; This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness which is filled with humor and a generous shot of heart-wrenching emotion. For concrete poetry at its best, Sidman gives us Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry which appears to tell a simple story unless you take the time to read the free verse that is a part of every picture.

Speaking of concrete poetry--poetry that is in the form of a picture--be sure to look at A Poke in the Eye: A Collection of Concrete Poetry presented by Paul B. Janeczko. These poems pack a lot of punch. Then you can join Janeczko in other explorations of poetic forms in A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Form and A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing and Shout.

Douglas Florian always presents beautiful illustrations along with his poems, many of which explore nature in new and interesting ways such as in Insectlopedia which introduces insects, Poetrees that talks of trees, Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings, and Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs. Look for the many more titles Florian has presented. They will amazes, delight, and inform you.

Naomi Shihab Nye visited Emerson School several years ago so I hold a special place in my heart for her. Her poetry is a little more challenging than some of those above but do not let that deter anyone over eight or ten from giving it a try. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East speaks to Nye's connections to the Middle East and her concerns for its future with one of the poems telling of her experiences on September 11, 2001. Explore her other books, both of her own writings and collections of the works of others. You are sure to find words that will move and inspire you.

Humor is not out of the question for older poetry readers. Check out the concrete poetry arranged to tell a story in two by John Grandits. Blue Lipstick introduces fifteen year old Jessie as she tackles life with often humorous observations. I laughed out loud the first time I read through this book. Technically, It's Not My Fault offers a similar look at Jessie's eleven year old brother Robert.

Poetry offers many options--humor, pathos, description, excitement, heart, history, stories, and visual images. Enjoy it all in bites large and small.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

8 Months of Interesting Reading

If it is spring, it must be time to thing back on what I have read this past school year.

Much like the Michigan spring weather this year, great adult reading was not readily evident for much of what should have been spring. Nonetheless, here are some of my recent reads that I enjoyed and think others might as well.


Beautiful Creatures by Tracy Chevalier introduces readers to an under-appreciated woman of the 19th century, Mary Anning, who was the first woman to find and assemble skeletons of previously unknown prehistoric animals. Chevalier chooses not to dwell so much on the scientific importance of the work of Mary Anning as on the friendship between Mary, who was the Sunday school educated daughter of a carpenter in Lyme Regis, England, and the London born and raised, upper class Elizabeth Philpot. The result is a story of crossing usual social boundaries in ways that benefit and burden both women, while introducing and a woman and a field of study often overlooked in the literary world.

Room by Emma Donoghue got a great deal of hype this year. It is not a perfect book but it is an interesting imagining of what life would be like for a five year old raised without any contact with the outside world. It is a testament to the strength of a young woman, the boy's mother, who was kidnapped and, in one of those horror stories we hope to never hear about again, kept against her will by a man who keeps her for his personal use. She has her kidnapper's child and it is that child who, five years later, narrates this story. Ma has made the 11' x 11' room that is their home a world of its own. What is most upsetting for Jack is when he and his mother escape from the only home he has ever known. I am particularly impressed with the conclusion of this story. Too many books, like news coverage of these events, would end with the escape and let us assume that they all lived happily ever after.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonsen appealed to me with its very British feel and its look at racial and class conflicts. When a retired British major, a widower, begins to find the widowed proprietress of a local shop interesting, this breach of class standards is further complicated by the fact that she is Pakistani. There are some pithy insights when Major Pettigrew takes Mrs. Ali to his local golf club. The humor throughout the book is firmly grounded in a recognition of the absurdities of life.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown presents some of the most fascinating and readable non-fiction I have encountered in years. I know little and generally care even less about astronomy, but Mike Brown has a knack for making it interesting, exciting, and even fun. While he did not actually kill Pluto, it is Brown's work that lead to the decision by those who make such decrees that Pluto did not merit being called a planet unless we wanted to suddenly have myriad new planets. I was most intrigued by the process of locating new celestial bodies and then the politics and protocols of naming them.

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper is a good read for a lazy afternoon. It is not profound but it is enjoyable to read about a young woman (the author) who adopts a blind cat and finds that he has changed her life. She could have bogged this down with life lessons, but she manages to primarily keep to the story of love and persistence for both Homer and herself.

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder follows the pattern of many of Kidder's books of introducing a person who has faced a difficult past and/or is now giving back to the world in amazing ways. Deogratias, the subject of this book, was nearing completion of medical school in his homeland of Burundi when the genocide began. With much bravery and a generous dose of luck, he escapes with his life and eventually makes his way to New York City. The reader follows his paranoia driven attempts to find direction in his life. It is through chance meetings with some remarkable Americans that doors open for Deogratias, but it is personal drive that leads him back to Burundi to build clinics and spread medical care to those people who were not so lucky.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore is an interesting look at how just a few small events can change a life. Wes Moore, the author, discovered another Wes Moore whose life almost mirrored his own. Both men are African Americans who were born in Baltimore at approximately the same time, both were raised by single mothers, and both had ample opportunity to join gangs and deal drugs. What are the differences that made one a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, and author with many more indicators of success while the other is currently in prison for shooting a police officer?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who in 1951 was in her twenties and dying of cervical cancer. It also tells the story of cells that were scraped from her body and encouraged to replicate themselves to be used in medical and scientific research for the past sixty years. Neither Henrietta nor her family understood what was happening; her surviving children did not even know of the existence of HeLa cells and their connection to their mother until decades later. Skloot interviewed Henrietta's family, primarily her daughter, to give voice to their story. While some people made millions of dollars from research with HeLa cells, the Lacks family can not afford medical care for themselves. On the other hand, the cells have helped to save millions of lives. Henrietta's family struggles to come to terms with this dichotomy. So do I.

There are so many good books waiting to be read. I hope we all find them and the time to read scads of them this summer.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Stimulating My Thinking

My school is searching for the perfect books to suggest for faculty and staff to read over the summer so I have been frantically trying to read things to suggest for everyone. Let me list some of them here and hope that other ideas will come our way.

Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms by Gloria Ladson-Billings was suggested by my daughter who is a mathematics teacher in a California high school. She was wise to suggest it for me. While talking more about inner city "at risk" classes than those of a private school in the mid-West, Ladson makes many valid points for every teacher. My favorite quote, "Apathy is not an option," sums up much of what she is suggesting we should all do to get to know each student as an individual, including the role of various cultures in our teaching and learning processes.

The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School by Linda F. Nathan may at first seem to have little to do with an elementary school in a mid-sized college town, but that misconception is quickly dispelled. Nathan speaks eloquently of what all schools can do and need to do to serve all students. She talks of three areas of focus:

  • Structuring a school to give guidelines for establishing a unifying framework and shared values.

  • Supporting teachers to help foster good teachers and the good administrators who support them.

  • Addressing inequality through how we and why we need to discuss racial issues.

Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman found its way to me shortly after I read The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson. This proved to be great timing for Cushman shares many of the same ideas as Robinson but applies them to how we reach students in ways that help to put those young learners into their element. I like the idea of finding ways to apply the concepts in real life situations.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle keeps appearing in my thoughts these days, perhaps because the new technologies are so ubiquitous in our lives today. This book deals first with the social and psychological impact of using interactive "caring" robots to replace human caregivers or to offer solace to people who are otherwise disengaged. Then it goes into the uses of our social networking capabilities from text messages to Facebook and more. Turkle is quite convincing in her arguments that we need to look carefully at where we are allowing these new technologies to take us.

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau is old enough that there will be an update from ten years later coming out later this year. Lareau presents a sociological study of home life and school success of upper elementary students of varied socio-economic and racial groups. It is important to teachers to think about how one's culture, especially, it appears, one's socio-economic status, affects their approach to working with teachers and the educational system. All parents want the best for their children, they simply have different backgrounds that define both what is wanted and how to seek it. Lareau does a good job of pointing out both the positive and negative effects of each differing approach to child rearing. This is a book that helps one remember that a child is more than the person who a teacher sees for six hours a day.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein looks at both the economic and behavioral side of how it is possible to shape decisions without taking away any of the choices. They dub this "libertarian paternalism", a term which took me awhile to understand enough to embrace or reject. While their topics of discussion range from Medicare benefit selection to same sex marriage, they also have much to offer that could be applied to life and helping students to make improved decisions. At the very least, it makes one more aware of the nudges that we encounter daily as well as how many things could be changed to offer more positive or productive nudging.

Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele is what I am reading right now. At the mid-point of the book, I am totally fascinated by the social psychological findings of how stereotypes affect student performance. Steele is quick to note that all of us are affected by stereotypes and that often those stereotypes can have negative effects on our performance. Does the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men make women more likely to do poorly at math? The studies suggest that it does. Similarly, race, age, class, and much more affect our self-perceptions and thus how we perform. I am optimistic that Steel will provide not only more insight into these differences in the second half of the book as well as some ways that teachers and society can help to counteract this stereotype threat.

These are a good start. I would love to hear what others are reading in these areas.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Thursday, March 17, found me at the Annual Conference of the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL). Cobo Hall in Detroit was hopping with approximately 4,000 educators from around the state. All of them were interested in the hows and whys of using the latest technology in the classroom. There were lectures and workshops and a room full of vendors all eager to share what is exciting to them.

Of all the things that I heard and saw, the most exciting was a talk by two Michigan school librarians who last summer had the kind of experience that makes any librarian green with envy. They spent a week with other librarians from around the country training and sharing at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C. Their primary goal was to help the LOC improve its website and its outreach to teachers. This site is listed as My LOC and is slightly different from the main LOC site. Both sites are well worth visiting.

They began with some basic facts about the nation's library which contains some 147,000,000 items on 838 miles of shelves. LOC resources also include 15 million digitized works with more coming on line all the time. The smallest book in the Library of Congress is Old King Cole fit onto pages measuring just 1/25th of an inch square. The pages must be turned with a needle. More interesting facts rotate on the LOC sites so visit them often if you like trivia.

Teachers perked up their ears when we were presented with examples of the vast array of primary sources available on-line at the LOC. We saw the rough draft of the Gettysburg Address, copies of period sheet music, pictures of great Americans along with copies of their speeches, and just touched the tip of the iceberg.

I encourage everyone who has any interest in American history, to search these sites often, whether for research or just for the fun of it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to tell you that I have found the perfect book or books to read for St. Patrick's Day? Alas, that will not be the case today. There is not much to get excited about in terms of books for good St. Paddy. There are few stories that directly name the day and none of those that I have seen are good to read aloud.

So, we go to books of leprechauns and Irish lore. Both Tomie DePaola and Gerald McDermott have retold Irish folk lore. Depaola has two tales of Jamie O'Rourke who is said to be the laziest man in all of Ireland. These stories are good for a laugh but are long for the youngest listeners. McDermott's books can also be wordy but it is worth taking a look at Tim O'Toole and the Wee Folk or Daniel O'Rourke. If you like telling stories rather than reading, any of these would be a good choice to fit to your own style.

Clever Tom and the Leprechauns by Linda Shute is better suited to reading to younger groups (kindergarten or first grade) who are excited about leprechauns. Our first grades are visited by leprechauns at this time of the year, so I leave this book for them to share. After all, they are the ones who introduced it to me.

For older students, there is the option of looking at Irish history. While there are many lengthy informational books about Ireland and its history, the best one I can think of for reading aloud in one sitting is The Long March: The Choctaw's Gift to Irish Famine Relief by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. This is an illustrated telling of a little known story of American aid to victims of the Irish the Potato Famine. The Choctaw Indians themselves suffered much loss and hardship in 1847, yet the group empathized with the the Irish enough to collect $170 (equivalent to about $5000 today) to send across the seas to help. It is a moving tale of giving even when times are hard.

What will I be doing with classes this St. Patrick's Day? I will pick and choose between facts about Ireland and Irish tales. A to Z Ireland by Justine and Ron Fontes offers colorful pictures and 26 interesting snippets about the Emerald Isle which is a good, quick introduction.
Then we will talk about snakes, which were supposedly driven from Ireland by St. Patrick. (Of course, most people agree that there never were snakes on the island and that the snake is symbolic of evil, but we will not let that stop me from spreading the old legend to the youngest classes.) Older students will learn about the Blarney Stone and we will play a game we call "Blarney" which is loosely based on that great old game show, "To Tell the Truth". Since our school teaches students to prepare for all kinds of careers, I figure knowing how to tell half truths convincingly may someday prove valuable for someone.

I am sad to report that I won't be wearing my giant shamrock earrings this year. I will be a conference on March 17 and my substitute will get the joy of working with the super excited children. I hope she remembers to wear green.

The Joys of Visiting Authors

It is my goal to bring at least one author to the school each year so in my eleven years as the school librarian I have met a number of different authors. It is fairly easy for me to impress the kids with some name dropping, even it is a name they have never heard before. It is fun to meet fellow book lovers, especially those who have written books that are on my list of favorites. Every author has important things to share with the students and with me.

Usually, I am a nervous wreck before the visiting author comes. This year I was much more relaxed. I knew things could go wrong but I also knew the author would take it all in stride. For once I could tell the students that not only was there a visiting author coming but that she was my personal friend. I have known Valerie Scho Carey since her daughter and mine were in first grade together, more than twenty five years ago. We go out for a meal together every so often just to keep track of what the kids are doing and to share ideas. Valerie is a brilliant woman who just happens to have a knack for writing picture books and retelling folk tales. When her very first book Harriet and William and the Terrible Creature was reissued this year, it seemed like the perfect time to invite her to talk to our students.

Even the wiggliest of classes settled down when Valerie began to tell them a story or read from her own works. The kindergarten and first grade classes have asked me about Quail Song several times since Valerie read it to them. Of course they loved the story but they also wanted to know more about how it came to be and to compare other stories. They are also eager to demonstrate a coyote wail for me. The third through fifth grade students enjoyed Tsugele's Broom in a presentation that was made more interesting by the inclusion of pictures of a shtetl. Valerie shared these to show us how her father's memories of childhood in shtetl inspired the story. I enjoyed listening to the students who came to her for advice on how to improve their won writing. Since Valerie has taught writing, she was the perfect person to ask about these issues.

It is indeed a pleasure to have had a friend come to speak as an authority on writing. She is an authority but I could relax and enjoy the presentations because she is also a friend.

There have been many other author visits over the years. Some were wonderful. Some were not. Here are a few of the highlights.

I will forever treasure the wonderful day spent with Naomi Shihab Nye that ended with driving her across the state and sharing a wonderful, relaxed, fun filled dinner with her. Now I not only enjoy her novels (especially Habibi) and her many volumes of poetry, I have that personal experience to read into every word she writes. I think that our students felt the same about her visit several years ago because they were writing poetry for many weeks and months afterward.

Mark Crilley was someone I frankly invited in large part because he lives not far away. I barely knew his books and had had only minor success getting students to read them. He brought his Akiko books to life for me and for every person who listened to him. It was like having a stand-up comedian with a highly polished act come to the school. The fact that we could read his books and learned about the writing process was a wonderful bonus. He, too, inspired many creative stories and fantastic illustrations long after he had headed home. I still can not keep his books on the shelves even though few of our current students were here when Mr. Crilley came but many have heard the legendary tales about him.

Christopher Paul Curtis is as nice, funny, and caring as the characters in his books. I take a little vicarious pride in being able to say that when he visited our school for the second time, he handed me his laptop for self-keeping, telling me that he had the manuscript for his next book right there and did want to risk losing it. That manuscript turned into Elijah of Buxton which is a book I think everyone over the age of twelve should read at least once. Mr. Curtis is a serious author, but he clearly still has a lot of joyfully young boy in him and he channels that into every book he writes.

There have, alas, been some real bombs. These authors will remain nameless here because I know they tried and their writing is much better than their presentation skills. However, I am still haunted by the man who scared several students with his somewhat cross-eyed stare. He drew derision from others when he dozed off almost in mid speech. Another author was just plain B-O-R-I-N-G. My daughter says that she can not remember a thing about that author's book other than that it nearly bored her into a stupor.

There is another author visit coming this year for our middle school students. Again, I am not too stressed. Will Purves is another friend and former co-worker who is eagerly awaiting the finished copy of his first young adult novel. He will be at the school in April. We are all hoping that big box of beautiful books will arrive before then.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Small Persons with Wings

Usually on this blog I try to give you a list of books, but I can't wait to create a list to tell you about a book I just finished reading.

Small Persons with Wings
by Ellen Booraem was a true joy to read. The story has it all--humor, school with its many social issues, hints of romance, art, science, French, Latin, and fairies. The first thing you will learn is that the little folks in this story prefer to be called "small persons with wings" or Parvi Pennati from the Latin parvi homines (small persons) and pennati (with wings). Call them parvi, for short. Mellie, who narrates in a voice that rings true, had a friend who was a parvi pennati until one fateful day when she was in kindergarten. It was then that, in an attempt to make friends and get invited to a popular girl's birthday party, she told the other children that she had a fairy and would bring him to school for show and tell. Fidius, her parvi friend, was aghast at the idea and flew off in a huff, leaving behind nothing but memories and a little toy man made of china. Her school friends promptly named her Fairy Fat adding the fairy story to their previous taunts about her weight. They tormented her mercilessly for years in a classic example of bullying at its worst.

Mellie did not give up easily. In face, she talked so much about her small person with wings that she was sent to the school counselor to talk about her "issues". When her parents were called in to drive home the point that fairies were only in one's imagination, Mellie felt she could no longer trust herself and fell to memorizing lists and learning interesting facts about artists in attempt to no longer worry about her social problems or her memories of Fidius. These facts appear throughout the rest of the book. I learned artist trivia that I am sure I will be sharing for years. (Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh had a sunflower named after him or that someone made a portrait of Queen Elizabeth out of 1,000 tea bags?)

Things change when Mellie is thirteen and her family quite unexpectedly inherits the tavern that had been run by her paternal grandfather who no one in the family really liked. The family moves to the tavern where they meet a cast of interesting characters and Mellie learns about the family pact with the Parvi Pennati that must now be addressed some 1300 years after first came to be.

There is so much to this book that I could go on for pages. Girls in grades five and up should especially enjoy this book, but I can not imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy here. Find it! Read it! You will believe in small persons with wings--or at least hope that they have more stories to share.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All School Read In

Yesterday, February 18, the school was amazingly, beautifully quiet as all students, teachers, and administrators spent half an hour reading. It was almost magical.

Also almost magical was the introducing of books by African American authors to the students. Wednesday afternoon a fifth grade class came to me. During their check out time, the kids looked at my displays of books by African Americans and picked out ones that they thought they would like to read. I was so glad I had put out my multiple copies of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis because two girls chose copies to read. Later in the day, they came back with two classmates who wanted to read the same book. "We are going to read it," they said, "and then have our own book discussion." This was all on their own. I am proud and hope to hear soon of the success of their book discussion group. It could lead to even more discussions.

Other children have already come back to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what they read and asked for similar books to read over break. I was thrilled when an eighth grade boy rushed over to put dibs on a biography of Spike Lee. Another brought back The Old African by Julius Lester and stopped to tell me how interesting it was.

The only drawback to the day came with the realization (I keep forgetting this obvious fact) that if I pull out 200 books for display they will eventually all need to be put away. Although many of the books will go home with kids over the break, I put away an awful lot of books yesterday afternoon.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Books by African Americans

The morning of Friday, February 18, will find a hush falling over our school as we engage in an African American Read In sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The goal is to have everyone in the school from the youngest kindergarten student to the head of school take 30 minutes to Drop Everything and Read. The NCTE encourages us to take this time during Black History Month to read a book by an African American author.

The goal of finding reading material for each member of our school community got me thinking about many issues. Last spring when I heard Christopher Paul Curtis speak at a luncheon, he pointed out that there are still only two widely published male African American authors for young men in grades three to eight, Curtis and Walter Dean Myers. As I found books in our collection that comment kept coming to mind.

Our middle grade fiction by African American authors is something that I think about often as a part of collection development. Pulling books by African American authors makes clear how difficult it is to find good books--perhaps any books--that fit in this category.

Bud, Not Buddy, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis are all popular in our collection though his Mr. Chickee books are a bit harder sell, perhaps because they do not have the historical aspect and the more intense stories or simply that they are aimed at a big younger audience. I have met Curtis and listened to him talk several times and he seems to be just what we want as a model for our young men. He is caring, thoughtful, philosophical, and filled with energy, enthusiasm, and humor.

Walter Dean Myers is amazing but harder to get young men in our school to read. I am not sure why. My favorite of his books is Monster, but that is only for the oldest of our students as it is a difficult topic, dealing as it does with a young man standing trial for robbery and murder. Fallen Angels and Handbook for Boys are also good titles that I clearly need to promote more actively. Myers has a wide array of titles in addition to his fiction. Poetry, history, picture books, and even a memoir (Bad Boy) are brought to us by this talented author. Don't miss Walter Dean Myers son Christopher Myers' exciting adaptation through illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. It is a book that any basketball player will love.

We have a few fiction works by Julius Lester (Days of Tears, This Strange New Feeling), but, once again, they are for older readers and a hard sell for me. Lester has done one of the most beautiful versions of an African American legend in The Old African and has some history and even a picture book discussion of race, Let's Talk about Race, in our collection. I have great admiration for everything that Lester has created and urge you to seek out his writings.

Other fiction African American fiction for middle grade readers is almost exclusively written by women--Virginia Halmilton, Pat McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Mildred Taylor and Sharon M. Draper. All of these authors well deserve the accolades that they have received for their many works of fiction.

We have more non-fiction by African American authors than we do fiction. Not surprisingly, I suppose, many of them deal with the civil rights movement and the history of slavery. There are a few titles that I must mention that fit in this category. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Beals is a just what the title promises. Being among the first to integrate a hostile high school was an honor of sorts but also a horrible experience. Picture, if you will, being escorted to high school with the National Guard not always willingly being called in to protect you from jeering and threatening fellow students.

Toni Morrison offers a somewhat gentler look at school integration in Remember: The Journey to School Integration though the stunning black and white photos will grip at your heart on each page.

Two other historical works that are worthy of your consideration: Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers which looks at the the 369 Infantry of World War I, an African American regiment that had to fight both the war and the battles of racism. They stood up for democracy when few American would stand up for them. Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African American Whalers by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack looks at another under-recognized group when they look at the impact of African Americans on whaling ships and how they helped shape the abolition movements.

Non-fiction by African Americans is not limited to history and social movements. Wynton Marsalis has a beautiful book about jazz called A-B-Z Jazz which uses poetry and modern art to present brief looks at 26 jazz musicians. This is not a simple picture book, but a work of art and biographical collection for readers with the time and interest to pursue it in detail.

Sports lovers will find that many of their favorite athletes like Tiki Barber and Venus Williams have written about their sports. Other people have written biographies of some of the greats. Walter Dean Myers has written ultimate boxing biography in The Greatest:Muhammad Ali. The most beautiful sports book I have ever seen is We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. Pick it up just for the pictures and you will soon be drawn into the narrative.

There are some beautifully illustrated works of some poetic greats. The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes is beautifully illustrated by E. B. Lewis in a book which drew accolades when it was published in 2009 and has drawn many to discover this moving work. Maya Angelou's Life Doesn't Frighten Me is perfectly suited for the bright and powerful paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I wish I had Angelou's voice to read this aloud with the proper impact, but whatever your voice it cries to be read out with emotion. Ntozake Shange uses poetry to remember growing up in presence of African American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson and others. It is history told with love and lyricism.

The most beautiful new art book is an award winner this year (Coretta Scott King Award, Caldecott Honor Book). Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill uses amazing illustrations by Bryan Collier to supplement the text about a slave who created beautiful pottery. Dave has no last name because he was a slave, but he left his simple poems on each pot he created so historians are able to trace a bit of his story. This is a must have book for anyone who loves pottery, especially those who have had the chance to use the wheel.

Don't forget the beautiful folk tales by such people as Verna Aardema (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain), Ashley Bryan (Beautiful Blackbird), Virginia Hamilton (The People Could Sing, Her Stories), and John Steptoe (Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters). There are many, many more that fit in this section, but this will give you a start.

Finally, look to the picture book section. This section offers much from which to choose, so I will simply list a few of my favorites. My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me by Maya Angelou, The Big Box by Toni Morrison, Precious and the Boo Hag by Pat McKissack, Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Boston Weatherford, and Sweet Music in Harlem by Debbie A. Taylor, an Ann Arbor author.

While the number of African American authors for young people is slowly growing, the books that are currently available will offer something for every reader and listener. Consider joining us at 8:30 on Friday, February 18, 2011, to take some time to enjoy some fascinating writing by an African American author.