Monday, July 30, 2012

Non-Fiction (Government): How the Government Works

I have always LOVED history and government.  Next to English, they are my favorite subjects.   During my usual scan through the new non-fiction section at the library, I found a new series from Lerner Publication Company.  It is part of their Searchlight Books collection.  The series answers the important question:   How Does Government Work?   There are 6 books that coverall the main areas:  Checks and Balances, The Congress, Documents of Freedom, Getting Elected, Judges & Courts, and The President, Vice President, & Cabinet.  The information is broken down into small, easy to understand sections.  Each book uses an abundance of photographs, from the past and present, which reveal people at work in various government capacities—from elected officials to staff to citizens.  Let’s take a closer look at two of the books.

(by Kathianne M. Kowalski)
The fascinating story of how our brilliant constitution was developed is described.  It provides a context for why checks and balances were so important to the founding fathers.  An overview of each branch of government fills out the middle three sections, making this book the ideal one to start with when reading on the topic.  The book concludes with the relationship that citizens and the states have to each other and the federal government.  Photographs show government officials, past and present, as well as everyday people working to make their country a better place. 

(by Robin Nelson & Sandy Donovan)
The book begins with a brief overview of the three branches.  Then, the focus is on the basics of the House of Representatives and the Senate, such as size and functions.   Next, the process of a bill becoming a law is described which begins with an idea and ends with a vote.  Congressmen and women are shown going through the various stages, such as discussing it in a committee and presenting it to other representatives. Finally, the bill is presented to the President who must decide to sign or to veto it.  This section illuminates what a president must consider as he makes his decision, the time frame he has for it, and the signing ceremony.  Several photographs depict presidents signing bills into laws.  The books, especially the ones on the 3 branches, do have some overlapping information.  It is beneficial for youngsters to see how interconnected they are with one another.  I, also, like that the narrative goes beyond simple fact. The authors work to make it personal and relevant. 

For more first-rate nonfiction titles, visit Check It Out, Nonfiction Monday host. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Middle Grade Reader: Mockingbird (Katherine Erskine)

For Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, I am thrilled to share one of the best books I have read in a while, definitely one of the best middle grade reads I have encountered.   I believe I first came across it at another middle grade blog a while back, but not sure which one (sorry!).    

Summary of Mockingbird (by Kathryn Erskine): 
(from School Library Journal)
From inside Caitlin's head, readers see the very personal aftermath of a middle school shooting that took the life of the older brother she adored. Caitlin is a bright fifth grader and a gifted artist. She also has Asperger's syndrome, and her brother, Devon, was the one who helped her interpret the world. Now she has only her father, a widower who is grieving anew and whose ability to relate to his daughter is limited. A compassionate school counselor works with her, trying to teach her the social skills that are so difficult for her. Through her own efforts and her therapy sessions, she begins to come to terms with her loss and makes her first, tentative steps toward friendship.

Mockingbird immediately grabbed me and did not let go until the last page was turned—even then, it still held my heart-strings.  I was absolutely fascinated with Caitlin’s thought-processes and the way she saw the world.  I laughed—a lot.  I was on the verge of tears—many times.  The characterization broadened my perspective on people in general, but most specifically, people who have disabilities.  Kathryn Erskine has written a novel that maintains that delicate balance of being relevant and engaging for middle graders while also being thought-provoking and timeless for all readers.  I, especially, recommend this book for teachers because it humanizes and illuminates those students we often misunderstand.  Mockingbird is a book that will not be soon forgotten.   

Check out the Marvelous Middle Grade Round Up at Ramblings of a Wanna Be Scribe.  

Picture Books (Science): Life Cycles

At my local library, there is an exciting new science series exploring the life cycles of plant and animals (both vertebrates and non-vertebrates).  They are written by L.L. Owens and published by The Child’s World.  Of course, the series covers the most commonly researched life cycles like butterflies and frogs, but they also delve into others like a fern, a clown fish, and a chicken.  I checked out The Life Cycle of an Earthworm and The Life Cycle of a Snail

Each book begins with a general overview defining a life cycle.  Then, it delves into background information about the subject.  There are so many fascinating facts about snails in the book, such as how they move, sense, and eat.  Even though children will likely be more familiar with earthworms, there is still much to learn.  For instance, they use their skin to detect light and to breath air.  Next, their origins, early lives, and adulthood are described, which includes their habits and predators.  Finally, the reproductive process is explained.  Interestingly, snails and earthworms have both parts necessary to reproduce.   Each book is rounded out with a colorful 2-page summary of the life cycle. 

As an adult, I found myself expanding my own schema of knowledge, but the information is written in a manner that youngster will understand.  The text is well-written and appealing.   One of the highlights is the large, vibrant photographs of their stages and behaviors.  Many are rare action shots like a mole eating a worm or a snail laying eggs. 

I recommend this Life Cycle series for ages 7 and up.  In addition to the earthworm and snail, the following living things are covered: butterfly, chicken, clown fish, daisy, fern, frog, human, ladybug, polar bear, and snake. These books are a wonderful supplement or extension of a science curriculum.  Many families will, also, find them to be educational leisure reading.  

This post is linked up with Science Sunday at Adventures of Mommydom.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

Poetry Friday: Builder Goose: It’s Construction Rhyme Time!

I picked up Builder Goose:  It’s Construction Rhyme Time! a few weeks ago because it looked so darn adorable!  I finally had a chance to read it today.   I was right:  It is so darn adorable!  Boni Ashburn, of whom I am already a fan, has rewritten popular nursery rhymes and given each one a construction theme.   he book begins with “Here We Go ‘Round the Construction Site” where the precious animal characters “make the plans on a sunny Monday morning” and ends with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Wrecking Ball” which pictures a wrecking ball waiting for the next morning to knock down a wall.  The animals are clocking out and leaving the site.  In between, this entertaining anthology will delight young listeners with familiar tunes and trucks pouring concrete, fixing bridges, grading the soil, excavating the land, and much more.  Artist Sergio De Giorgi has created energetic illustrations, with lots of vivid colors and sweet expressions.  He uses the same group of animals throughout that include a pig, a duck, giraffe, dog, cat, and others.  I recommend Builder Goose:  It’s Construction Rhyme Time!  for youngsters ages 0-5.   

A couple selections below give readers a peek:

“The Itsy-Bitsy Skid Steer”
The itsy-bitsy skid steer
drove up the steep dirt hill,
stockpiled rock
with nimbleness and skill.
Up can the loader to haul it all away,
and the itsy-bitsy skid steer
kept working hard all day.

“Little Jackhammer”
Little jackhammer
gets all the glamour
of busting up worn-out concrete.
Gets rid of the old
(it’s hard work, I’m told!),
so  workers can pave the new street. 

Visit Life is Better with Books for other Poetry Friday posts! 

Fairy Tale Friday: Cinderella

In preparation for Fairy Tale Friday, I have been reading versions of Cinderella from various cultures.  I am making careful notes in my study.  I was hoping to complete it in time for this week's post, but I don’t want to rush it. The post will have to wait one more week.   Instead, I am sharing two of my favorite picture book retellings of Cinderella.  If you have a fairy tale post this week, add a link in the comments. 

Cinderella (illustrated by K.Y. Craft):
The text is adapted from The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (1923) and Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (1889).  The story follows the familiar plot line:  Father remarries and dies shortly after.  The stepmother and her two daughters treat Cinderella like a slave while they live lavishly.  Like the movie Ever After though, Cinderella actually meets the prince prior to the ball.  He sees her in the woods and becomes enamored with her beauty.  She is helping an injured bird, but quickly (and ashamedly) excuses herself and runs off.   After the step –sisters leave for the ball, the bird Cinderella helped turns into a beautiful fairy.  Like the Disney movie, the fairy turns a pumpkin, mice, rats, and lizards into the servants, horses, and coachmen.  There are two nights of dancing before Cinderella loses her glass slipper.  The prince scourers the kingdom until he finds her.  After they marry, they are renowned as “the fairest and kindest rulers the people had ever known.”  With only a few changes, this version follows the most commonly known one in America:  Disney’s.  The breath-taking illustrations in Craft's picture book make it stand out!  Craft states, “The illustrations for this story depict an imaginary setting around the time of Voltaire, who lived in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France.”  Most of the layouts have a full-paged framed picture on one side and the text on the other.  To highlight pivotal plot details, occasion two-page spreads are used.  I am a huge fan of Craft's soft coloring and intricate details which give the pictures a magical-essence.   Her style beautifully compliments fairy tale retellings.   If you (or a little one in your home) are a fan of Cinderella tale, you MUST check this one out!

Cinderella (by Amy Ehrlich, illustrated by Susan Jeffers):
Ehrlich uses the Charles Perrault version which has many similarities to the accounts Craft utilized.  Interestingly, in this one the father does not die, but rather, he is ruled by his new wife entirely. As a result, Cinderella does not ever complain to him.  There is no pre-ball meeting between her and the prince.  Her godmother, a fairy, visits her after everyone has left for the ball. She uses magic to transform objects into all that Cinderella needs for a memorable arrival at the palace.  While at the ball, Cinderella shows her good-nature by sharing a special treat with her sisters.  At the end, the two sisters beg for forgiveness.  Not only does she forgive them, but she also gives them a place in the palace.  I adore Jeffers' illustrations which use fine-lines and delicate colors.  Like Craft, she uses the eighteenth-century attire and setting as her inspiration.  Her life-like expressions and details spill over to make two-page spreads that envelop and energize the narrative, making this book a must-read!

What is your favorite version of Cinderella?  Please share in the comments, which enters you in the Fairy Tale Friday July Giveaway.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Love, Mouserella (by David Ezra Stein)

Summary of Love,Mouserella (by David Ezra Stein):
Young Mouserella misses her Grandmouse after a recent visit with her.  On her mother’s prompting, Mouserella writes a letter to her Grandmouse, sharing some of the highlights of the past week like visiting a museum, experiencing a blackout, and creating sunflower seed parachutes.  The letter is full of snapshots of the family activities and drawings from Mouserella.  It ends with a picture of the young mouse blowing a kiss to her Grandmouse.   

Love,Mouserella is an entertaining read.   Mouserella’s creative and playful personality exudes from the pages.  The illustrations are exuberant and colorful.   The writing is in a child-like crayon print, including fixed mistakes and doodles.   I decided to highlight this book because I hope it will be a spring board for letter writing, at home or school.  Children can see that writing a letter is not difficult, nor does it have to be “perfect.”  A personal letter can be lots of fun to create with personal touches, like drawn pictures, photographs, and even small “gifts.”

Teaching Opportunities:
Home:  Pick a friend or family member to write to.  Plan a week of fun experiences which can range from home activities (crafts, games, experiments, cooking) to outings (movies, parks,  museums, local attractions).  Throughout the week, allow your child(ren) to write (using  pens, color pencils, crayons, or markers) a couple sentences about the day and illustrate them and/or add pictures (print them from the computer).  At the end of the week, send it off in the mail.  (Make sure it includes a date, greeting, and salutation).  

School:   Read Love, Mouserella during a unit on personal letter writing.   Provide colored pencils, crayons, and markers.  Allow children to write following Mouserella’s model—using pictures, photographs, and daily experiences.  

Back to School: Toddlers and Early Childhood

To prepare toddlers for school in the near or distant future, there are a couple adorable selections from beloved authors.  

Eric Hill, author of the Spot series, has created a flap book called Spot Goes to School.   When Spot arrives at school with his mother, the child-listener opens a door flap, revealing the teacher and a group of students welcoming him.  This depiction allows children to see that school is a safe and friendly place.  Next, Spot feels a little apprehensive during song time (something he feels he is not prepared to do).  The child-listener opens a flap to see him hiding under a table with the caption, “I can’t sing…”  This situation is ideal for discussing a child’s fears about school or strategies for dealing with uncomfortable moments.  Then, the youngsters play dress-up, build with block, and paint on easels.  Each page has a flap where the child-listener can “find” Spot having fun with his classmates.  Other activities that are depicted are story time, recess, and show and tell.  Parents can talk about the various fun activities (such as the ones pictured) that the child can look forward to.  When Spot’s mom arrives to take him home, he is so involved in all the excitement of the day that he does not want to leave!   

Lauren Thompson, creator of Mouse’s First series, has a wonderful book called Mouse’s First Day of School.    Mouse crawls into a new hiding place:  A backpack.  He ends up in a new place to explore.  Using vivid colors and endearing illustrations, mouse finds many wonderful objects in the classroom.  He jumps down and finds blocks,  a car, and a drum.  He scurries up on the shelf where he discovers books and plants.   In a corner, there are shapes and puzzles.  All around the room there are thrilling sights!  Thompson also utilizes onomatopoeia in many of her descriptions, such as “Sssip, slurp, crunch snacks!” and “Clang, bang, stir pots!”  Other pictures have wonderful descriptive words like “Viny, climby, twiny plants!” and “Feathery, floppy, boppy hats!”  The best part of the room is that it is full of “wiggly, giggly, best of all friends!”   Mouse’s First Day of School is a wonderful book for developing early language and reading skills as parents can point out rhyming words, alliteration, sound words (onomatopoeia), action words, and much more!  The simple poetic text makes it fun for children to read along.  Ultimately, the book  portrays school as a stimulating and lively place.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Fairy Tale Friday: Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (by John Steptoe)

It is Fairy Tale Friday!  As much as I love fairy tales, I have been so busy that I have had little time to read them lately.  I am revisiting a tale I have read for years.  It was actually introduced to me in my first children’s literature course.   As I reread it, I was struck by the gorgeous illustrations and pleased with the beautiful storytelling. 

Mufaro lives in a small village with his two beautiful daughters:  Manyara and Nyasha.   Manyara is bad tempered and proud.  She treats her sister cruelly, but carefully, for her father is oblivious to it.   Nyasha always responds with kindness and humbleness.  She spends her time working a small plot of land that grows food abundantly.  A snake, she calls him Nyoka, is her companion as she works.  One day, the king calls for all the worthy single women to come to the city, so he can choose a wife.   Manyara leaves for the journey in the middle of the night, in hopes of beating her sister and the others.    She comes across a hungry boy who requests a bite to eat.  Of course, Manyara yells at him and leaves him with nothing.  Then, she is warned by an old woman of some situations ahead, but in her pride Manyara ignores her.  When she finally goes before the king, she finds a hideous monster who reveals her faults to her.  Nyasha travels with her village the next morning.  Seeing the young boy, she immediately offers him her lunch.   For the old woman, she gives her a pouch of sunflower seeds.  The pure-hearted daughter passes the tests that lie ahead.  When she goes in to see the king, there is something entirely different in the chamber.   

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters won the Caldecott Honor award for its illustrations.  For inspiration, Steptoe effectively used the ruins of an ancient city in Zimbabwe as well as the flora and fauna of the region.   The true nature’s and personalities’ of the girls comes through his realistic and powerful depictions.   The storytelling is tight, not a wasted word or scene.  Everything comes full-circle, producing a satisfying ending both emotionally and structurally.  Even though the plot elements are very different than the Western Cinderella stories, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is categorized as one.  It challenged me to consider:  What makes a fairy tale a “Cinderella” story?    I’d like to hear what you think.  I will share my thoughts next week.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Back to School: Hooray for the First Day!

To balance the First Day Anxiety post, these selections build up excitement for the first day of school!   The first two are specific to kindergarten, but the last two have a general “back to school” theme. 

The countdown has begun:  School starts in one week!  Each day, enthusiasm for kindergarten is built up as the child thinks about what she will learn (counting, writing, letters) and what she will experience (show & tell, making friends, playing games).  The narrative is written in a lively poetic form with rhyming words and other sound devices foundational for early reading skills.  In addition, the days of the week, numbers, and counting backwards are reviewed seamlessly in the narrative.  The pictures exude imagination and energy as the child goes through her daily activities in preparation for the big day, doing things like counting, observing, and packing up.  Kindergarten Countdown focuses on all there is to anticipate as the school year approaches, offering listeners an opportunity to share what they look forward to learning and to doing. 

Using the famed “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem model, Wing builds anticipation for the first day.  The narrative begins with both a boy and a girl making preparations for the big day.  Once they fall asleep, “visions of school supplies [dance] in their heads.”  Next, the pictures show scenes from a typical morning and end with “kids [posing] for pictures with eyes sparkling bright.”  There is lots of zest as parents bring their children into the classroom and, then, observe them playing and singing.  The children are adjusting well, but the parents are a different story:

When what to her wondering eyes
should appear
but sad moms and dads
who were holding back tears!

Their noses—so sniffly!
Their eyes---red and wet!
This was the saddest good-bye
Miss Sunrise had seen yet!

The children give their parents a final hug before they leave.   Young listeners will enjoy this entertaining reversal while being assured that school will be a positive experience.  I recommend The Night Before Kindergarten as a First Day Eve read. 

Ivy Green, along with her peers, is preparing for school by buying new shoes and purchasing school supplies.  Meanwhile, the school workers (custodian, teacher, principle, bus driver) are seen preparing for the children’s arrival.  Next, the night time routines are shown of the school workers and Ivy.  As they fall into a slumber, their dreams illustrate their first day fears. Finally, the day arrives, and everything runs smoothly.   First Day, Hooray! is unique because it reveals how each person has a part in making the school day successful, urges children to see things through the perspectives of others, and assures them that they are not the only ones with anxiety and preparations.  It ends on the assumption that school is something to savor and to enjoy.

Nicholas and his father go into town for school preparations—hair cut, school supplies, shoes—and for some last minute summer fun.  They meet various friends who share their experiences preparing for the new school year as well as their concerns when they started last year.  Each situation ends with humor and/or optimism.  As the day comes to a close, Nicholas cannot wait for his new year to begin!  The illustrations are vivid and animated.  Rockwell’s First Day of School is remarkable because it focuses on older children sharing their experiences and eagerness which can be comforting to younger listeners looking to their peers for solace.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back to School: First Day Anxiety

This time of year, many families are getting ready to send their youngsters to school for the first time.  For some children (and parents), there is a mix of emotions—ranging from excitement to apprehension.  Books are wonderful springboards for discussing these feelings and building up enthusiasm for the big day.   Local public libraries have a large selection of books for this important milestone as well as other related areas.  Topics to search in the card catalog are First Day of School, Nursery Schools, Schools, School Buses, and Kindergarten. 

It is tough to divide the books available into categories because there is so much overlap.  For this post, the focus is on the anxiety related to the first day, such as separating from parents, experiencing a new place/routine, avoiding embarrassing moments, and making new friends.   Most of these stories can be used with either preschool and kindergarten children. 

My First Day at Nursery School (by Becky Edwards)
The narrative opens with a young girl eating breakfast and thinking about the very important day ahead of her.  It is her first day of nursery school.  When she arrives at school though, she has second thoughts about staying.  Despite the colorful environment and warm people, only one thing is on this young girl’s mind: “I want my mommy.”  She becomes distracted by the various new toys all around her.  After a while, she begins missing her mommy again—but not for long.  Painting with her classmates quickly and positively redirects her attentions.  Her longing for mother continues to creep up, each time with less intensity as those feelings are replaced with the wonder and energy of classroom exploration.  When her mommy comes to pick her up, the young girl has one thing on her mind:  “I want to stay at nursery school.”  This book beautifully depicts those mixed emotions that many children feel during this vital transition into independence.  The colorful pictures are appealing and active.  My First Day at Nursery School is the perfect way to prepare your preschooler for this new adventure. 

What Did You Do Today? (by Toby Forward)
Mother and son pack their lunches together on the first day of school.   After one last hug, they separate.  The narrative shows the corresponding experiences of the pair.  While the child is learning his classmates’ names, his mother is greeting her co-workers by name.  As the boy practices his letters, his mother is at her computer typing and working.  During clean-up at school, mother is washing up her coffee cup in the break room.  As their routines come to a close, the mother rushes to pick her son up.  They walk away hand-in-hand, talking about the day.  The narrative is general enough it can apply to either preschool or kindergarten. The parallel activities make this story an enriching read.  The child listener can see that his/her routine has many similarities to the adult work world.  Also, it is clear that even though they are apart, the mother often thinks of her son and she can’t wait to be reunited with him.  This depiction assures children that they remain close in heart, if not in proximity. 

Lola does not believe she is big enough to go to school.   Besides, she could hardly find the time to go with everything there is to do at home.  Charlie, her older brother, attempts to entice her with the idea of school by sharing with her everything she will learn, such as her numbers up to 100 (which she does not need to know because there is no reason to have to count further than 10) and her letters (which she does believes is unnecessary because she can call people on the phone instead of writing).  Charlie creates entertaining scenarios for why she needs to learn these skills.  Then, she expresses her fears on what to wear, making friends, and eating in the cafeteria.  Lola’s fears are evaded with a little big brother wisdom.  She has a successful first day…she even brings home a new friend.  I Am Too Absolutely Small for School tackles many first day anxieties with sensitivity and humor.

Dinosaur Starts School (by Pamela Duncan Edwards)
The format of this picture book is different from all the others I reviewed.  The roles are reversed.  A young boy receives some "coaching” on how to prepare his dinosaur friend for his first day of school.   Hypothetical questions are asked and answered.  For example: 

“What if you got to the school gates, but Dinosaur wrapped his sharp claws around the fence and said in his timid dinosaur voice, ‘But it’s too big.  I’ll get lost.’ 
You’d say, ‘Don’t be silly!  You can’t get lost because our classroom is just the right size for dinosaurs.’”

Several common fears are addressed in a similar manner with a positive outlook and entertaining illustrations portraying typical school preparation and activities.   Dinosaur Starts School effectively uses humor and a child “expert” to help navigate the first day nervousness felt by many children. 

Further Reading:
I Am Not Going to School Today (by Robie H. Harris)
I Don’t Want to Go to School! (by Stephanie Blake)
My First Day of School (by Nancy Skarmeas)
Tinyflock Nursery School (by Suzy-Jane Tanner)
Will I Have a Friend? (by Miriam Cohen)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Non-Fiction Monday: Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter (by David Sheldon)

Summary of Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter (by David Sheldon):
On February 12, 1873, William and Clara Brown were blessed with a son.  Inspired by the great showman P.T. Barnum, they named their child Barnum.  Like his name sake, he grew into an extraordinary young man.  His family farm was on a site that had once been an ocean.  He loved spending his days exploring and finding fossils of ancient sea creatures.  His family often read the newspaper accounts of great dinosaur discoveries. These experiences prompted Barnum to long to discover a new dinosaur.  After studying paleontology, he landed a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  He was sent on in search of dinosaur fossils.  His many discoveries are highlighted, leading scientists to a greater understanding of the field and prompting a fascination in the American public. 

David Sheldon wrote and illustrated Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter.  The textured, multi-dimensional illustrations are a mixture of India ink, gouache, and acrylic paint.  They often mix the fantastic with the realistic, illuminating Barnum’s imagination and reality. Sheldon pulls relevant details from Barnum’s early life to reveal how he developed his passion and work ethic.  The high points of his professional contributions are depicted with enthusiasm and fascination.  This book is a wonderful contribution to biography, history, and science.  Much is published about the discoveries but little is readily available about those who helped develop and shape the knowledge we possess.   I recommend Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter as part of a dinosaur unit study or leisure reading at home.  It is ideal for ages 7 and up. 

This post is linked up with other Non-Fiction Monday reviews posted at Practically Paradise.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Middle Grade Reader: Middle School the Worst Years of My Life

It is Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, hosted by Shannon Messenger.  I have seen James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts’ Middle School the Worst Years of My Life everywhere, from the Barnes and Nobles to Kroger to the library.   I had to read what it is all about…

Rafe, a sixth grader, struggles with his peer relationships, his classes, and his home life.  His sole friend is Leo the Silent. The only thing Rafe finds fulfilling about middle school is figuring out how to break all the rules in the school handbook.  Home is anything but ideal.  His mother works all of the time to support the family while her “fiancĂ©” lies around watching TV and emptying the fridge.  Rafe, along with Leo, makes breaking all the school rules not only a goal, but a game.  His “accomplishments” temporarily make him feel successful, but his failing grades and strained relationship with his mom make him feel sad and worthless.  Rafe is desperately trying to figure out how he fits into the world.   Unfortunately, he is drawing A LOT of negative attention to himself in the process.   

The Good…The journal format is VERY popular right now.  The protagonist has an amazing imagination and artistic gift. The creative drawings, interesting plot elements, and the engaging narrative voice make it a big draw for middle grade readers, especially reluctant ones.  I was drawn in right away and highly motivated to keep reading.  

The Bad…In much of the narrative, Rafe is making poor choices, like bullying a bully, breaking school rules, lying to his mother, stealing from others, and ignoring his class assignments. 

The Conflicting…There are a few things that I felt conflicted by as I read.  [SPOILER] Several pages into the novel, Rafe reveals that his best friend is not a person.  He is an imaginary friend.  This element seemed off to me.  Rafe is not six.  He is in sixth grade!  At the end of the novel though, his origin is revealed, which makes his function in the book more meaningful and understandable. Also, I was really creeped out by the fiancĂ© (referred to as “Bear”) living with the family.  He is mean to the children, treats the mother poorly, and does not even earn his keep.  Even though the children hate him (and for good reason), the mother allows him to be their primary guardian since she is working most of the time.  The situation made me feel uneasy.  Finally, as an adult reader, I could see that Rafe is acting out as a result of his home life and his lack of self-identity.  Part of the self-identity crisis is that Rafe is a non-traditional, but gifted student.  Fortunately, he has a teacher who recognizes the situation and works to help him.  While I could see that Rafe's mischief is a cry for help, I wonder if middle grade readers will pick up on it or if they will see the narrative as a glorification of defiance and irreverence.  

As a parent and an educator, I recommend  Middle School the Worst Years of My Life  with some reservation.  I realize there are children out there like Rafe or those who have experienced many of the same situations/choices.  As a result, it is relevant to reflect it as a slice of life.  On the other hand, I do have great concern about the growing atmosphere of disrespect that all forms of media are fostering in young people with little guidance or consequences.  Many young readers will enjoy the voice, style, and plot.  The book could definitely be used as a discussion platform about bullying, poor choices, consequences, family relationships, and many other relevant areas.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fairy Tale Friday: Susan Jeffers

It is FairyTale Friday, a weekly meme I co-host with Literary Transgressions.  All bloggers are invited to link up their fairy tale posts here.  Everyone can join in by commenting.  Also, see the FairyTale Friday July Giveaway.

This week I am highlighting Susan Jeffers who has illustrated dozens of books.  She often partners with author Amy Ehrlich on fairy tale retellings.  The Wild Swans and The Snow Queen are lesser known tales from Han Christian Andersen’s nineteenth century collection.  These stories have a few things in common.  First, they do not offer idealistic Disney versions of life.  In both, the protagonists endure real hardships.  The people they encounter are often evil like the robbers who threaten to slit a girl’s throat, a child who enjoys watching animals suffer, and lamias clawing the Earth with long bony fingers!  Of course, early fairy tales did include such evils and much worst!  Furthermore, despite a few minor scary references, both protagonists are admirable. They suffer great hardships, even risking their own lives, to save people they love.   Positive character qualities abound, such as determination, goodness, innocence, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and perseverance.  These qualities appear to be important to the people of the nineteenth century since they are so often found in early fairy tale collections.  Finally, Susan Jeffers’ illustrations brilliantly capture the original era they were written in with intricate details as well as vivid colors contrasting with neutrals shades.  I love her realistic portrayals of the characters and settings with large, captivating illustrations, adding a wonderful layer to the stories. 

Kai and Gerda are next-door neighbors and bosom friends.  After a brief encounter with the Snow Queen one late winter’s night, Kai changes.  He becomes mean and distant.  The following winter he wishes to show off in front of the other boys by tying his sled to a cart traveling by.  Rather than freeing himself after a short ride, he becomes entranced by its driver:  The Snow Queen.  Kai disappears from the village.  All believe he died in the nearby frozen river.  Gerda doesn’t though.  She goes on a great quest in search of her beloved friend where she visits an old woman who enchants her into staying, a king and queen who provide her with supplies, and a group a robbers who take everything.  Nothing dissuades her from her search.  The mighty Snow Queen is no match for Gerda, whose love, goodness, and innocence easily break the spell enslaving Kai. 

 In a far away kingdom, a king lives in a palace with his 11 sons and 1 daughter.  The children have an idyllic life.  After some years have passed, the king marries a wicked woman who hates the children.  She sends the daughter, Elise, to live with some farmers.  The princes are condemned to live as wild swans, uttering strange and mournful cries while wandering through the skies.  When Elise turns 15 years old, she returns to the castle.  The queen is threatened by her beauty and goodness, so she once again successfully banishes her.  Elise goes in search of her beloved brothers.  When she finds them, they travel to a distant land together.  While there, she learns how to break the spell on her brothers, but it requires her to overcome physical and emotional hardships.  Not only that, Elise is not able to utter a word until the task is complete which becomes even more challenging when she is condemned to death for something she did not do.  Her love for her family and her perseverance, help her overcome and break the spell.  

I would love to hear about your experience with Jeffers' work or tell about your favorite lesser known fairy tale.  All comments are welcomed.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer Lovin Giveaway Hop

I am a Reader, Not a Writer is hosting the Summer Lovin Giveaway Hop.  The prize must be a romance novel for this giveaway.  I do not read a lot of romance novels, so I am going to highlight, again, Jessica Grey’s Awake since it was such a popular giveaway.  It is a modern fairy tale with romance, magic, and suspense.  Enter for a chance to win with the rafflecopter entry form below.   

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Henry Aaron's Dream (by Matt Tavares)

Henry Aaron had a big dream:  Be a big-league baseball player.  Even though he did not have a real ball or bat, he used whatever he could—broom handle, stick, tin can, rags tied together.  He only played in his yard, but he imagined he was in the big leagues.  It was the 1940’s.  There were no colored ballplayers.  Henry held on to his dream though.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson, a black ballplayer, began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Henry started listening to every game on the radio and reading everything he could about Robinson.  He learned that his hero had to overcome great obstacles, such as discrimination, bullying, and death threats.  They did not stop Robinson from following his passion, and it did not deter Henry either!  In his late teens, Henry began playing with a semi-pro team.  He had ups and downs as he worked consistently and meticulously on his way to the pros.  In the spring of 1954, Henry Aaron’s dream came true! 

I found this gem tucked away in the biography section, not getting the attention it deserves!  Tavares does a commendable job portraying Henry (also known as Hank) Aaron’s rise to professional baseball stardom.  In the Author’s Note section, he further relates the accomplishments (both in baseball and for civil rights) and obstacles he overcame.  The illustrations in this oversized book are stunning!  They are sweeping and vibrant, pulling you in to this inspiring story.   Henry Aaron’s story is inspiring for anyone pursuing a dream, but minority children may be especially moved by it as it depicts a young person overcoming great odds and persecution to make positive change.  I HIGHLY recommend Henry Aaron’s Dream for ages 5 and up. 

Teaching Opportunities:

  • Compare/Contrast:  Compare Henry (Hank) Aaron's career with either one of his contemporaries (such as Jackie Robinson) or a modern player
  • History:  Research and learn more about segregation and the civil rights movement
  • Math:  Learn how to figure baseball statistics and/or solve problems uses the chart at the end of the book (For example: What is the difference between his batting average in 1952 and 1962?)
  • Journaling:  Write about your dreams and the obstacles you might have to overcome accomplishing them
  • Reading:  Read additional biographies about Hank Aaron and other pioneer baseball players
  • Writing:  Write a summary of some aspect of Hank Aaron's life you read about, use at least 2 sources
  • Character:  Discuss the positive character qualities that Aaron displayed in his life and career (courage, perseverance, hard-work, positive attitude)
Visit A Curious Thing for a complete list of Non-Fiction Monday titles.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Middle Grade Monday: Finally (by Wendy Mass)

Summary of Finally (by Wendy Mass):
Rory Swenson feels like everything in life is leading up to her 12th birthday!  She has been preparing by saving items and notes that remind her of all the things her parents promised she could do when she was 12, like get a cell phone, wear make-up, and own a pet.  Now she has her list ready—but will her overprotective parents finally allow her fulfill all her wishes for independence and maturity?  As she accomplishes each task—big and small—it is just one disaster after another.  Rory is so eager to be “grown-up,” she is missing out on the joys of friends and family as well as allowing things to happen in their own time.  Fortunately, she realizes that these milestones do not define her or make her special.  Instead, she is growing into an adult with good character by the deeds she does for others and the wise choices she makes with her life.

Finally is a kind of sequel to 11 Birthdays.  It stands on its own, but there are a few references to the former that make more sense if you have read it. The action occurs approximately one year later in the same town.  The main characters are different, but the main protagonists and some of the minor characters from the earlier novel have small roles in Finally.

I was drawn to Rory right away!  She has a genuine tween/teen voice.  I laughed in several places because she reminds me so much of my own daughter, who like Rory, thinks I am too strict, complains about my couponing, and is too anxious to grow up.  Rory, also, struggles with figuring out how she fits in with her peers. 

I also appreciated that overall Rory is not a sassy or disrespectful tween.  Her parents are actively involved in her life (sometimes more than she would like), and her family is relatively close (even though she sometimes gets embarrassed by them). 

My favorite part is the ending (which I will not spoil by giving the details).  Finally is really about figuring out who you are and determining what you want your life to be like.  There is a real positive message about how tweens/teens can begin to find that out.  It is not the superficial “grown up” things you do, but the choices you make in your daily life and relationships. 

I HIGHLY recommend Finally for ages 8-12. 

This post is linked up with Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wanna Be Scribe

Freedom Over Me (Ashley Bryan)

Title:   Freedom Over Me:  Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life Author :   Ashley Bryan Illustrator :   Ashley...