Saturday, December 29, 2018

Can't Catch Me (Timothy Knapman)

Author:  Timothy Knapman

Illustrator:   Simona Ciraolo

Target Ages:  3-7

Genre:  Picture Book


Publisher Summary: 
“I’m the fastest mouse in the world!”
Jake claims.  “I’m like the wind!
I’m faster than lightening!”

But will speed alone keep boastful
Jake from being caught by a cat,
a fox, a wolf, or a bear?

First Lines:
Here’s Jake,
the fastest mouse in the world.

OH, NO – he’s gone!
Quick!  After him!

Memorable Moment:
No spoilers on this one!  The ending is clever and memorable. 

This mischievous cumulative tale is reminiscent of The Gingerbread Man. Despite the similarities in the narratives, Can’t Catch Me has its own personality and twist. 

In this version, Jake the mouse takes on the role of the gingerbread man.   Jake boastfully taunts his predators.  He proves to be faster than the Old Tom Cat, the fox, the wolf, and the bear.  However, he is not as sly as the cat.  His arrogance blinds him to danger, which is a valuable lesson for all ages.

The pencil and watercolor illustrations capture the animation and energy of the mouse as well as the toil and frustration of the predatory animals.  The muted colors minimal backgrounds keep the focus on the action and characterization.

All in all, Can’t Catch Me is a cheeky, entertaining read!  It is one of those books kids will want to hear again and again.

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
  • Predicting Skills:  Before you read, ask the children to guess what the book is about.  As you read, allow them to guess what will happen in each encounter and how they think the book will end.
  • Comparative Literature:  Read both Can’t Catch Me and a version of The Gingerbread Man.  Compare and contrast the two stories using a Venn diagram or other graphic organizer.
  • Characterization:  Discuss the characters of Jake and Old Tom Cat.  For instance, Old Tom Cat is dramatic.  He acts like he is starving.  As he sits watching the mouse, he is getting “thinner and thinner.”  He later uses this hyperbolic language to trick Jake. 
  • Science:  Discuss how animals have different defense mechanisms.  For example, the mouse is fast so he can outrun larger animals while cats are cunning and patient so they can sneak up on fast prey. 
  • Choral Reading:  Children can be prompted to read along on repetitive parts like when each predator “runs and runs,” and Jake chants multiple times  "can’t catch me” and “I’m the fastest mouse in the world.”    

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Something Smells! (Blake Liliane Hellman)

Author:  Blake Liliane Hellman

Illustrator:  Steven Henry

Target Ages:  3-7

Genre:   Humorous Realistic Fiction Picture Book

Publisher Summary:  There is a smell.  A most terrible smell!  Is it the dog?  Is it the baby?  Is it the trash?  Or could it be Grandma’s Gefartzenschnaffel?  Something smells.  And Elliot is determined to find out what that something is!

First Lines:  
Early one morning,
Elliot woke up
to a most terrible smell. 
He looked around his room
and frowned. 
Something smells, he thought.

Memorable Moment:
“Elliot was disappointed he had not solved the mystery of the terrible smell.”  Readers will solve it—with the picture clues!

The title is intriguing!  I picked up this book because I wanted to know—What smells?!   Children are sure to be interested too!   Who doesn’t love a mystery?

The story is engaging!  As the curious protagonist goes through the house, he encounters all sorts of possible “terrible” smells.  Each smell is an opportunity to guess if he has found the “right” one.  

There is some subtle humor.  For instance, Elliot thinks it is “perfectly clean” under his bed, and he says his leftover snack from days earlier doesn’t smell—at least not much.   Children will laugh at grandma’s famous dish—Gefartzenschnaffer.  Whether they try to say it themselves or guess what might be in it, there are sure to be some giggles.  The funniest part:  Elliot is unable to figure out the source of the smell—even though it is right under his nose! 

The clever watercolor and gouache illustrations are wonderful.  The soft, muted colors and uncluttered layouts, vividly illustrate the text and add to it by providing clues to the mystery. 

Something Smells is one thing you need to add to your class or home library this year.  This amusing and mysterious read is sure to charm your little ones.

Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
  • Predicting Skills:  Ask the children to predict:  What do you think the terrible smell is?   How do you think Elliot will try to figure out the smell?
  • Math:  Narrow to the top 5 predictions of the terrible smell.  Children can pick their best guess with a show of hands.  Make a bar graph to show how the class voted.
  • Problem Solving:  Discuss how Elliot worked to solve the terrible smell mystery.  Connect this book with problem solving activities related to Math, Games, or Other Activities. 
  • Context Clues:  After reading, go back to discover the context clues.  For instance, the smell is something that follows him wherever he goes, his mom tells him he can’t wear his costume one more day, and he doesn’t want to take it off—ever (implying he has worn it a long time).
  • Five Senses:  Gather items with different smells—pleasant and unpleasant.  Blindfold one or more children.  Allow them to guess the smells.  Also discuss which smells are the best and which are the worst. 
  • Writing:  Pick one smell from the Five Senses activity.  Children can describe the smell using a simple sentence like:  “__________ smells like __________ and ___________.”    
  • Similes:  Teach about similes.  Point out examples in the book, such as “Digsy smelled like bacon” and “Lucy smelled like maple syrup.” Then, allow the children to write their own similes about the smell.  “Elliot’s costume is as stinky as a _______.“ 

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

Can't Catch Me (Timothy Knapman)

Title:   Can’t Catch Me! Author :   Timothy Knapman Illustrator :    Simona Ciraolo Target Ages :   3-7 Genre :   Pi...