Friday, August 10, 2018

A Place to Start a Family (David L. Harrison)

Illustrator:  Giles Laroche

Target Ages:  5-10

Genre:  Non-Fiction Poetry

Publisher Summary:
Many animals build in order to find a mate, lay eggs, give birth, and protect their babies.  The types of structures they create are often extraordinary.  From the prairie dog to the pufferfish and from the termite to the stork, discover how and why many animals build.

Poem Samples (Click for Larger View):

Earlier this year, I reviewed another Harrison-Laroche collaboration Now You See Them, Now You Don't.  Like the previous book, this one deserves to be in every library, classroom, and home.  

The poems are insightful. Harrison features many animals and attributes I was not previously familiar with, like the only snake that builds a nest and the spider that feeds its young for weeks after birth.  Young and old will be engaged and fascinated with the creatures’ preparation for and care of their babies. 

The poems are entertaining.  For instance, “Red Ovenbird” has short stanzas with repetition. Similarly, “Termite” uses repetition and predictive phrasing.  Both are perfect for choral reading.  Others connect animals to human behaviors like the animals that kiss and play king of the hill or the animals that keep their babies safe and dry. 

Laroche’s illustrations are stunning and brilliant.  I love the textures, the contrasts,  the colors.  Each sight feels like a peek into the secret lives of these creatures with all its vividness and beauty. 

Whether you come for the illustrations and stay for the poetry or come for the poetry and stay for the illustrations, you are going to love both in A Place to Start a Family.

Ideas for Extension Activities at Home or Lesson Plans for Teachers:
  • Science:  Use poems in a unit related to mammals, fish, insects, reptiles, or baby animals. 
  • Poetry vs. Prose: Each creature is featured in a short prose paragraph at the end book.  Both the prose paragraph and the poetry include many of the same facts, but one uses figurative elements and experiences the facts imaginatively.  Put the prose and the poetry side by side and compare them to teach the difference of these two writing forms.
  • Poetry:  Using a short paragraph of information from science or other subject area, write poems that imaginatively experience the facts. 
  • Categorization:  Break the animals into groups like type (mammal, fish), location (air, water, underground), type of home, caring for young, and so forth.  To extend to math, create one or more charts of information.
  • Comparison:  Pick two creatures to compare and contrast.  How are they similar?  Different?
  • Language:  Identify rhyming words and alliteration.  For younger children, use them as a spring board for reading instruction.  For instance, list the words that rhyme in the poem. (“European Paper Wasp” is a good poem for this exercise.)  Point out similarities in spelling and sound.  Write out new words that rhyme.  Allow early readers to decipher them. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Stella by Starlight (Sharon M. Draper)

Target Ages:  8-12

Genre:  Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Publisher Summary:
Stella lives in the segregated south—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it.  Some stores she can go into.  Some stores she can’t.  Some folks are right pleasant.  Others are a lot less.  To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years.  But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something that they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, change not welcome by any stretch of the imagination.  As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire, and learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify the end…

First Lines:
Nine robed figures dressed all in white.  Heads covered with softly pointed hoods.  Against the black of night, a single wooden cross blazed.  Reflections of peppery-red flames shimmered across the otherwise dark surface of Kilkenny Pond.

Two children, crouched behind the low-handing branches of a hulking oak tree on the other side of the pond, watched the flickers of scarlet in the distance in fearful silence.  Dressed only in nightshirts, Stella Mills and her broker Jojo shivered in the midnight October chill.

I am writing this review months after I finished the novel, so it is not fresh in my mind.  However, I want to share some of my thoughts and impressions of the book.  

Coming from my perspective as an English teacher, I especially enjoyed the protagonist's struggle with writing. It borders on cliché that so many protagonists are inspired or gifted writers.  Unfortunately, it gives young and old the impression that writing is a inborn gift—some have it, and some don’t.  Stella has good ideas.  Like most people, though, she has difficulty expressing them.  Nevertheless, she finds a quiet place to practice her writing.  Stella does not just wait for a school assignment.  Instead, she writes about what is going on in her life and town to help her improve her school writing.

Readers get a glimpse as she writes, struggles, and revises.  For instance, early in the narrative, she tries to write for a school assignment.  Nothing is coming to her.  Stella makes a decision, “If she [is] gonna really write with honesty she ought to start, like Mrs. Grayson said, with herself.”  It takes her five tries, but she finally succeeds.

Stella uses writing as a way to cope with difficulties.  Spoon Man for instance encourages her to “Trust the words.  Maybe that image will fade.”  She takes his advice and writes about that night she saw the KKK bonfire as well as her observations about racism, which is cathartic for her.

The writing struggle is valuable for middle grade readers to see.  They need to realize writing does not come naturally or easily for most people.  However with practice and determination, their skills can improve dramatically.

The novel depicts a strong sense of community and family.  For instance, when the Spoon Man arrives in town, everyone comes together for a potluck.  Later, when a family’s house is on fire, dozens of people rush to help put it out.  More importantly, neighbors give the family a place to stay and help them rebuild. 

There are some deeper, more serious issues as well.  The most prominent is the racism of the historical era.  As previously noted, Stella witnesses a Klan rally.  Later, she travels with her father to register to vote, where they are met with hostile resistance.  Afterwards, the Klan burns down a family’s home.  When her mother is bit by a poisonous snake, the town’s white doctor refuses to help her.  The evil actions that come out of racism are illustrate in a genuine way while being age-appropriate in detail.

Even though racism is an underlying issue from beginning to end, the narrative stays hopeful.  There are kind white people who do work together with the African American community.  Her teacher tells inspiring stories that instill strength and pride—even in racist and difficult times.  Stella (and others) empower themselves through education, self-discipline, and good character—which are the pillars of making personal and social change. 

The only aspect of the novel that I felt did not ring 100% authentic is the ending.  Stella ends up saving the daughter of the racist and cruel town doctor.   The positive aspect is the daughter is not racist like her father, which is hinted at in other parts of the novel as well. Nevertheless, it seemed too “neat” to have her drowning with Stella walking by right after Stella's mother is refused medical care by the girl's father.

Overall, I found the characterization and the storytelling engaging. I highly recommend Stella by Starlight for middle grade readers.

Ideas for Extension Activities at Home or Lesson Plans for Teachers:
  • Writing:  Model for students or children the writing process.  Let them see you free writing and then going back to revise.  Then, encourage them to do the same.  Praise them for the improvements and effort more than the initial draft.
  • History:  Include this novel in a study of 1930’s, segregation, and/or Jim Crow laws.
  • Research and Analysis:  Pull in one or more non-fiction texts that describe one of the historical aspects depicted in the novel.  (Older students can do their own research.)  Compare and contrast the non-fiction with the fiction for authenticity. 
  • Figurative Language:  Hyperbole and tall tales are used.  Discuss each one and their overall significance in the storytelling/culture.

Historical Connections:
Civil Rights
African American Voter Registration
Klu Klux Klan
Presidential Election 1932

Monday, July 30, 2018

Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths (Graham Annable)

Author:  Graham Annable

Illustrator:  Graham Annable

Target Ages:  5-10

Genre:  Early Reader Graphic Novel

Publisher Summary:
Peter and Ernesto are sloths.
Peter and Ernesto are friends.
But Peter and Ernesto are nothing alike.

Peter loves their tree and never wants to leave while Ernesto loves the sky and wants to see it from every place on earth. So Ernesto leaves to have a grand adventure and Peter stays behind and frets.

This first book in a new series by cartoonist Graham Annable is an flawless early reading experience. 

Adorable characters. Who doesn’t love sloths? Both have loveable character qualities.  Peter is set in his ways, but a devoted friend.  Ernesto is wide open, longing for adventure.  Their friendship is endearing. 

Universal conflicts.  All ages experience friendships, differences, and fears.  The overarching message is the importance of honoring and appreciating those differences.  When Ernesto returns, he brings new information and experiences to his time together with Peter.  For instance, he shares his knowledge of constellations and other animals. A secondary message is learning to overcome fears and to experience adventure (even small ones). 

Both characters grow.  Peter tackles his fears as he searches for his friend.  Ernesto comes to have a greater appreciation for his home and Peter.

Subtle humor.  For instance, Fox says, “What an odd duck.” Raccoon corrects him, “Sloth.” Also, after Peter crosses the river, he says, “And I didn’t need swim trunks!”  The encounter with the monkeys is hysterical. 

Appealing story.  The illustrations and well-chosen simple vocabulary work to create an engaging narrative.  Annable illustrates, for readers and writers alike, that you do not have to use complicate words to write a page-turning story.

When I was done, I thought:  I am ready for the next book.  Unfortunately, Peter and Ernest: The Lost Sloths does not come out until April 2019! 

I highly recommend Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths.  It is sure to appeal to early and reluctant readers alike. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Breaking News (Sarah Lynne Reul)

Author:  Sarah Lynne Reul

Illustrator:  Sarah Lynne Reul

Target Ages:  5-10

Genre:  Realistic Fiction Picture Book

Publisher Summary:
When devastating news rattles a young girl's community, her normally attentive parents and neighbors are suddenly exhausted and distracted. At school, her teacher tells the class to look for the helpers—the good people working to make things better in big and small ways. She wants more than anything to help in a BIG way, but maybe she can start with one small act of kindness instead . . . and then another, and another. Small things can compound, after all, to make a world of difference.
First Lines:
I remember when we heard the bad news.
Suddenly Mom is glued to the television.
Dad can’t stop checking his phone.
They whisper and I pretend not to hear.
It is more than a little scary.

Memorable Moment:
Small things don’t solve everything.
The bad new is still there, after all.
But then again…so…are…we.
(Sweeping illustration of neighbors working to make the community a better place.)

The Breaking News aptly captures our contemporary 24-hour new cycle, where not only do we hear about all the tragedies that occur—the information is played over and over, dissected into small parts, and heavily sensationalized.  If the situation isn’t bad enough, the news coverage is sure to depress you.

As a society, we do not think often enough about how all this news impacts children.  I grew up in a world of relative innocence.  I was not aware of tragedies.  As a result, I spent my days cheerful and free, playing outside.  The first tragic event I remember was the assassination attempt on President Reagan when I was 9 years old.  My teacher yelled at the class about it (as if we had something to do with it).  Outside of that incident, I had no idea how my parents and community felt or what was going on.  They did not let the news--something I had no control over--impact me.  I am glad they didn't.  

The devastating event is generic--no specific details are given.  The reader just knows an event occurred that is making people sad.  As a result, the story can be read to young children and applied to any news event or personal situation.   Teachers and parents can use it to begin a conversation on age-appropriate, positive coping tools.  

I was challenged to consider many questions:  How much should I expose my children to?  How is my response impacting them?  If the adults are angry, distressed, or depressed, how are the children going to learn positive coping?

Author Reul gives us a starting point: “Even when the news is bad, you can still find good people trying to make things better in big and small ways.”  This insight prompts the child protagonists to make a difference in their own way—helping out, being silly, brainstorming solutions.  When the parents do not initially cheer up, the children do not give up. (I love their resilience.) Eventually, not only do their parents pick themselves up and make an empowering change, the whole community does. 

I love the message of the story—you do not have to solve the world’s problems to make a positive impact and to be joyful. Keep doing good. One task at a time…even if you feel small and discouraged. Overcome your feelings with positive actions.  

I highly recommend The Breaking News for libraries, schools, and homes.  The story is insightful and optimistic--two qualities we desperately need.  

Ideas for Extension Activities at Home or Lesson Plans for Teachers:
  • Gratitude:  As part of the daily class or home routine, practice being grateful.  Not just grateful for the “good” but for the “bad.”  Not just grateful for what is solved now, but for what will be solved.
  • Current Events:  Next time there is a tragic event, begin the day reading The Breaking News. Then discuss ways children can be empowered.  Limit children’s exposure to the news coverage, especially if the children are in elementary school or younger.
  • Communication: Encourage children to express their fears and concerns about the event.
  • Community Service:  Brainstorm ways students or the family can make a positive difference.  In a class, have the children bring in a picture of something they did to help out a person in need at home or in the neighborhood.  Or volunteer to do a task in the community or around the school—pulling weeds, picking up trash, or cleaning up the lunch room.  Make something for people in need.  For instance, replant flowers in small pots.  Visit a hospital or nursing home to give out.  Draw pictures or write a note to someone in the hospital or in need.
Historical Connections:
No one event is mentioned, but it can be applied to a discussion on any tragic event like...
School Shootings
Terrorist Attacks

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Way a Door Closes (Hope Anita Smith )

Illustrator:  Shane W. Evans

Target Ages:  8-12

Genre:  Poetry Narrative Picture Book Format

Publisher Summary: With a click, a bang, a whisper—or no noise at all.  There are so many ways that a door can close, but it’s not just the closing; it's the knowing.  And thirteen-year-old C.J. knows too much—about disappearing father, his family’s pain, and especially about what it means to hold things together when times are tough. 

Sample Poem:
“The Way a Door Closes”
When Grandmomma comes through a door
it closes quietly.
It is whispered shut
by the breath of God—
who acts as a doorman for
one of His good and faithful servants.
When my brother and I
go out the door,
it closes like a clap of thunder.
We are always in a hurry
to be somewhere.
My little sister closes the door
just so.
As if there were a prize for
getting it right.
My momma likes doors open.
It's her way of inviting the world in.
But last night
Daddy said,
“I’m going out,”
and he stood buttoning his coat
just so.
As if there were a prize for
getting it right. 
Then he looked at each of us
 a moment too long.
And when he went out the door
he held on to the knob.
The door closed with a
I felt all the air leave the room
and we were vacuum-sealed inside.
I shook it off.
I told myself it was nothing
somewhere deep inside
I knew better.
I can tell a lot by
the way a door closes.

The poet uses startling and profound imagery to convey a wide-range of emotion and experience, all in just 34 poems. Each one centers around 12 year old C.J.’s family experience.  They read like journal entries, giving snapshots of what is going on and what he is feeling at each moment of time.  The early poems depict a strong, close family—at least by all appearances.

Then, the cracks begin to show when his father loses his job and struggles to find a new one.  The protagonist’s conflicting emotions about his father come out when he says, “He gives me words, each one a gem, words I wish someone had given him.”  At this point, no definite reason is give for this passive aggressive hostility. 

The next poem entry, which discusses various fears and pain, reveals C.J. is praying for his dad to get another job.  As time goes on and “each day bring nothing,” the tension thickens to the point the father leaves the family. 

C.J. does what he can to hold it together for his family and his own well being.  He struggles with feeling jaded.  On his birthday, he refuses to make a wish because he knows “how much it hurts when wishes don’t come true.”  On the other hand, he tells his friend, “My dad is coming back.”  When his friend says, “that only happens one in a blue moon,” C.J. responses with “but it happens.”   He feels angry, hurt, lost, and broken.  Despite all of it,  he holds on to hope.  C.J. desperately wants his family back together. 

The poems aptly illustrate the loss and pain that comes from a broken home in a realistic way as well as the facets of dealing with it—within the individual, the family, and the community.  This picture book is ideal for the elementary and middle school classroom because it is concise, yet powerful.  Many children and tweens will be able to relate to the experience and feel solace that they are not alone.

I highly recommend The Way a Door Closes as a profound look at the modern family in crisis.

There is also a sequel, Keeping the Night Watch, which I hope to read soon.

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Reading to the Core today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Carlos and Carmen Early Reader Series

I just received set 1 of the Carlos and Carmen early reader series.  I was immediately impressed with the quality of the illustrations and the books’ durable construction.  Then, I read them.  I am officially a fan of this superb series! 

The Carlos and Carmen books are available in Spanish and English.  I read the English version.  However, Spanish words are sprinkled throughout which provides two learning opportunities. First, children are exposed to a second language.  With as many as 50 million people speaking Spanish in the United States, it is valuable for English-speaking children to be exposed early to common Spanish words. In addition, the foreign words allow children to practice using context clues.  They can figure out what the unknown word is by identifying clues in the text and by looking at the illustrations.  There is also a Spanish to English key at the back of each book. 

Each book is divided into five short chapters.  The text is written at a second to third grade reading level.  McDonald does not make the stories feel like a Basal or easy reader though.  She incorporates suspense, humor, and personality into each chapter. 

The series is family oriented.  The parents are active and present. When the twins are running around the backyard, the parents are looking on.  When their yard floods, the parents play in the water and mud with their children. When Carlos and Carmen are concerned about a noise in the night, their dad takes it seriously and investigates. The family sits down together at mealtimes.  Extended family members come over to help out or to spend time with the twins.  The Garcias are a warm and close family.

Author Kirsten McDonald has created multi-faceted young Latino protagonists who have qualities parents want their children to emulate.  They are kind, fun, inquisitive, respectful, and helpful.  They demonstrate a wide range of experiences from fear and boredom to enthusiasm and playfulness. 

Erika Meza’s illustrations are vivid and gorgeous.  The actions are lively, and the facial expressions are wide-ranging.  The best part is how the parents are represented.  They are shown working and parenting side by side.  Their expressions toward each other convey love, playfulness, and admiration.  The illustrations work in perfect harmony with the text.

I highly recommend the Carlos and Carmen series—in Spanish and in English—for public and elementary school libraries.   Parents and teachers should also consider adding these books to their classroom or home collection. 

There are currently 16 books in series.  I read the following four.  I have included the publisher’s summaries.

Carlos and Carmen get some unexpected news. They're moving to a new house. The new house is big, red, and has one tire. What! A house with one tire?! The twins worry and worry but soon discover a house with one tire can be fun.

Carlos and Carmen have a hard time falling asleep in separate rooms. Once they solve that problem, they're kept awake by a spooky noise. The twins get their mom and dad to help them solve the mystery of the noise, which turns out to be something not very scary at all.

It's been raining and raining and raining. When the sun finally peeks out from behind the clouds, Carlos and Carmen find their entire backyard is one big puddle. But the twins don't mind once they discover it's not just a puddle of water--it's a puddle of fun!

The Green Surprise
Tío Alex is joining the Garcia family for a cookout, and he's bringing a surprise. A big green surprise. At first, Carlos and Carmen are disappointed in the lumpy green surprise. But with their mom's help and a few poles and stakes, the lump becomes a green surprise filled with fun. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Best New Picture Books for Bedtime

I love a good bedtime story.  There are so many classic favorites.  Here is a list of more recently published picture books, perfect for little ones—birth to however long your kids (or grandkids) will allow you to read to them.

Barney Saltzberg, author & illustrator

Everyone is asleep in the bamboo grove, except Chengdu.  He tosses, turns, and twitches, but he just cannot get into the a comfortable enough position to drift off.  Then he tries rolling and hanging.  Still, wide-awake.  Chengdu finally finds a solution…unfortunately, it has unintended consequences.  If your little ones love panda bears (like me), they won’t be able to resist this bedtime book. 

Vin Vogel, author & illustrator

Yeti and his stuffed friend do everything together—swing, snack, play.  They look forward to snuggling together at bedtime.  When his friend goes missing, Yeti looks everywhere for him.   He ends up having to go to bed without him, but he is afraid of the shadows and noises.  A flash of lightening from a thunderstorm illuminates his room. Yeti spies his friend surrounded by danger.  Yeti must find the courage to save him.  It is a delightful story for children with bedtime fears and stuff-animal dependence.

Lauren Thompson, author
Stephanie Yue, illustrator

In this soothing and endearing bedtime story, Bunny says good night to his world—the flowers, the insects, the birds, and other creatures.  Rhythmic lines like “Good night, sun and bright red sky.  Good night, swallows swooping by” help lull little ones to sleep. The stunning watercolor illustrations help create a perfect nighttime read. 

Lane Fredrickson, author
Michael Robertson, illustrator

Winifred Schnitzel is not afraid of anything—not pirates, not scary movies, and not even monsters.  At bedtime, though, the neighborhood monsters will not leave her alone so she could sleep.  She tries all sorts of clever ways to keep them at bay, but they keep coming back…until she finally discovers their one silly weakness!  This imaginative story takes the idea of keeping away the monsters to a whole new level! 

Candace Fleming, author
Lori Nichols, illustrator

It is bedtime on the farm—but many of the animals have fallen asleep in the wrong spot!  Pig toddles to his sty. When he plops down, he hears a “moooo!” Who could that be?  Cow!  Pig tells her, “Go Sleep in your own bed!”  Cow tromps to her stall, but she hears a loud “bwaaaak!” It’s chicken. The story follows the same predictable repetitive pattern until all the animals have settled in the correct beds.  The sound clues encourage listeners to guess who is in the wrong bed each time.  Go Sleep in Your Own Bed! is a comical, interactive bedtime narrative..

Rachel Isadora, author & illustrator

The day is coming to a close.  The moon is out.  Lala is not ready to go to sleep though.  With a stunning African village backdrop, the young girl visits the nearby animals—cat, goat, monkey, bird—to tell them “good night.”  Grasping for a way to stay awake, she wishes the ants, the rocks, and even her book a “good night.” The vivid pictures and increasingly soothing colors, make for a lovely diverse reading experience that illustrates a universal nighttime ritual.  The story ends with a sweet tribute to Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon.

Christie Matheson, author & illustrator

Children are invited to help make the “magic” of the night happen.  They press on the firefly to help him glow, blow a quiet breeze, pat the deer, make a wish on a star, and much more.  The simple text and illustrations introduce listeners to the sights and sounds of the night while lulling them off to sleep.  The winning interactive text makes this story stand out from the pack. 

Jana Novotny Hunter, author
Paula Bowles, illustrator

Little Monster can’t go to bed—his knees aren’t tired yet, or his bottom, or is tail.  He is full of wiggles, swings, and boings!  Big Monster helps Little Monster get out all his left over energy and, finally, drift off to sleep.  This one is perfect for the rambunctious child who needs help settling down. 

Bunmi Laditan, author
Tom Knight, illustrator

Reluctant to sleep in her own bed, the smart and witty protagonists attempts to convince her parents she needs to sleep in their big bed—but, only with mommy.  She anticipates their objections and refutes each one (including the peeing the bed issue).  The argument ends with an “ideal” solution for where daddy will sleep. Full of humor and spunk, this story is sure to make kids and adults laugh.

Kate Dopirak, author
Mary Peterson, illustrator

It’s bedtime, but little car wants to drive instead.  Using the rhythmic tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he travels around town wishing the other cars and trucks goodnight.  Finally feeling tired out, he returns home so his beep-beep dreams can start.  It is the perfect story for car and truck enthusiasts. 

Here are reviews for a couple other recent bedtime stories... 

Other Stories to Check Out

A Place to Start a Family (David L. Harrison)

Title :   A Place to Start a Family Author :   David L. Harrison Illustrator :   Giles Laroche Target Ages :   5-10 Gen...