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.