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.