Monday, July 27, 2009

Waiting for Normal

If you have an 8 to 12 year old looking for a good summer read, then you might want to check out Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor. Once I started it, I couldn't put it down, and once I finished it, I couldn't get it out of my head. It is that good.

It's told in the voice of Addie, a 12 year old who lives with her mom ("Mommers") in a trailer in the middle of a vacant lot in Schenectady, NY. Previously they had lived with her wonderful stepfather Dwight and two little sisters ("the littles"). But after Dwight and her mom got divorced, he got custody of the two little girls because of maternal neglect. Unfortunately, Addie is not his daughter and has to stay with her self-centered mom.

Addie is a character that kids will relate to. In the beginning, she comes across as just a regular kid. School is hard for her, and she lacks self-confidence. It doesn't help that her mom has told her she doesn't have the "Love of Learning," and Addie feels below average. But throughout the story, you begin to see that she is anything but average, and her growth is discernible by the end. She yearns to play the piccolo so she takes up the flute as a beginning instrument. Through hard work she makes the Stage Orchestra at school. There's a whole subplot going on about her "stolen" flute, which climaxes at the Winter Holiday Show.

Addie is resilient, to say the least. She has great coping mechanisms, which come in handy at home and at school. School is difficult for her, but she works hard at it. Towards the end of the book, Wayne explains to her that she has dyslexia, which is why learning is not easy for her. This helps her realize that she's not "dumb", but, in fact, just learns a little differently.

Slowly, she builds her own community which is made up of the workers at the nearby mini mart (Elliott and Soula), a couple of good girl friends at school, a wonderful music teacher and a hamster named Piccolo. Connor develops each of these characters beautifully, and you end up caring for them as much as Addie does. Elliott and Soula, in particular, are not your average 12- year-old girl's friends. Soula is a large woman going through chemotherapy for breast cancer and Elliott is a gay man. Both of them befriend and watch out for Addie on the home front, something her mom seems utterly incapable of doing. Even "Mommers" is portrayed in a way that doesn't make her out as a total monster. Is she selfish? Yes. Is she incapable of caring for her child? Yes. But there's an underlying sadness to her that makes her more than just a one-dimensional character.

One of the things I liked best about this book was the portrayal of Addie's stepfather Wayne. How many good stepfathers can you think of in children's literature? Not many, huh. Well, he is a jewel. All throughout the book, I found myself wishing Addie could go and live with him and the "littles." I really was invested in all of their lives. If that's not a sign of a good read, then I don't know what is. Waiting for Normal is a heartwarming tale that reminds us that there is goodness in this world, even in the most unexpected places.

BookNosher Tidbit: Waiting for Normal won the Schneider Family Book Award. The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.

BookNosher Activity: Although I read Waiting for Normal to myself, I think this would be a great read-aloud for a 5th, 6th or 7th grade class. There are a lot of great topics to discuss in it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tim Egan-A Children's Book Author You Should Check Out

Today at the library, our wonderful children's librarian asked me if I had read any of Tim Egan's picture books. I hadn't, so she loaded me up with five that happened to be on the shelves. It was love at first sight! The first one I read was The Pink Refrigerator. The story was so original and offbeat, that I immediately read the others. I'm hooked and I can't wait to see what else he has written.

The Pink Refrigerator stars Dodsworth, a little mouse who leads a rather routine life. Every day he visits the junkyard to find things to sell in his thrift shop. And while he manages to make a living from it, it doesn't keep him very busy, so he takes long naps, watches a lot of TV and goes to bed early.

One morning he spots a pink refrigerator at the junkyard with a note attached to it that says "Make Pictures." He opens the fridge, and discovers a sketchbook and paints and paintbrushes on the shelves. He decides that he should bring them back to his thrift store, but at the last moment doesn't sell them to a customer and he paints a picture of an ocean instead, and "it turned out pretty good."

The next day he goes back to the junkyard and sees the pink refrigerator with a new note on it that says "Read More." He opens up the door and finds the shelves filled with literary classics. He notes that they are worth a fortune and brings them back to his store to sell. But, once again, at the last moment he can't bring himself to part with them, and instead reads them and discovers a world of incredible stories.

Each day Dodsworth goes to the junkyard there's a new message on the pink refrigerator and he learns to try new things (like cooking, playing music and gardening). By the end of the book, Dodsworth's outlook on life has changed. No longer is he content to just sit by as an idle participant, instead he actively seeks out new things to try.

Kids (and adults) will like Dodsworth and his metamorphosis from couch potato to Renaissance Mouse. I have already decided that this will be a great gift for MY friends in coming years that are celebrating "round birthdays." It's a good reminder to push ourselves outside our comfort zones and continue to discover new things as we get older.

The other books by Tim Egan I grabbed today from our library include: Dodsworth in New York (which is a nice continuation of Dodsworth as he goes on an adventure); The Trial of Cardigan Jones; A Mile from Ellington Station; Burnt Toast on Davenport Street and Metropolitan Cow. All of them feature animals with distinctive personalities grappling with life. I highly recommend these books, and I think your kids will thank you for introducing them into their lives. In fact, I liked them so much, I may post about one of his other books at another time.

BookNosher Activity: It might be kind of fun to post a note for your child on your refrigerator that will expand their horizons. You could write something like Keep a Journal (and have a journal inside), or Make a Dinosaur (and have a some clay inside). Anything goes in an activity like this!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 came out just in time for the 40th anniversary of the first manned flight to the moon. There has been a lot of coverage about it this week, and Brian Floca's book will give younger readers the chance to learn about that historic flight in a wonderful picture book format.

Moonshot is written in simple, yet lyrical, prose and details the astronauts' journey from donning their astronaut gear pre-flight to their ultimate splash down a week later in the Pacific Ocean. In between, readers will pick up some remarkable facts about the flight of Apollo 11.

There are the specifics of the actual spaceships, the Columbia and Eagle and the massive Saturn V that powered them into space. The role of Mission Control is shown, and readers will see how they tracked every movement of the flight from take off to splash down. They'll also learn about the astronauts-Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Details of their journey are addressed in a readable, kid-friendly way. For instance, the book talks about how they ate and slept and kept track of their things in the floating cabin, and yes, even how they used the toilet.

The watercolor drawings are quite detailed and very well done. It's a big book that lends itself to lots of double page spreads. I think it would be a fine read aloud for a teacher to a class, as long as the kids could take it to a corner afterwards and pour over it.

I was a little girl when Armstrong and Aldrin first walked on the moon and I remember my mom sitting us in front of the television to watch this historic moment. There's a wonderful picture in the book of a family seated around the t.v., celebrating when the Eagle landed. Moonshot captures the mood of the time perfectly and educates today's children on this remarkable event. Five lunar landings followed Apollo 11, and it's hard to believe that no one has been back to the moon since 1972.

BookNosher Tidbit: In the short time since it came out, Moonshot has picked up number of starred reviews including: Booklist, Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal and Kirkus Review.
You can also go to Brian Floca's website and read an in depth article about the drawings in the book. It's fascinating to read all the things he thought about in the creation of this book.

BookNosher Activity: If you find your child is fascinated with all things related to space, check out NASA's website for kids. There are lots of games and projects for kids of all ages. (It's also available in Spanish.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Help Me, Mr. Mutt! A Must Read Picturebook for Dog Lovers

Help Me, Mr. Mutt! is a must read for dog lovers (and cat lovers too). It's a hilarious book that kids and adults will want to read over and over again. The full title is: Help Me, Mr. Mutt!: Expert Answers for Dogs with People Problems and it's by the indomitable sister-team of Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel.

Mr. Mutt is the Dear Abby to the dog world. He is there to offer his sage advice to dogs everywhere. The book is written in a letter format. Dogs write Mr. Mutt with their problem(s), and he writes back with his answer(s). There are a lot of digs at cats, and The Queen (who happens to share an office with Mr. Mutt) has the final say in her letters back to Mr. Mutt, on pink stationery.

Here's a sample:

"Dear Mr. Mutt,
I'm a barker. Hear me bark!
Doorbell. BARK!
Mailman. BARK!
Thunder. BARK!
Telephone. BARK!
My people yell, "Don't Bark!"
Then they tell me, "Do a trick! Speak! Speak!
For a treat! Doesn't speak mean bark?
What do I do? To bark or not to bark?
That is the question.
Help me, Mr. Mutt!

-Confused in Connecticut

P.S. The loudmouth cat gets to meow constantly. Why isn't THAT a problem?"

Mr. Mutt writes back in full agreement with "Confused" pointing out that it's the way we communicate. Would people tell a duck not to quack? A cow not to moo?

He continues on by explaining that it's a brain thing. The dog brain is enormous. The people brain is the size of a pea (there are illustrations to prove it). People are just confused. He then advises the letter writer to have some fun with his/her people. The next time they ask Confused in Connecticut to "Speak!" look them in the eye and let out a big Moooo. They'll be so surprised, they'll drop the bag of treats (it's all yours).

The Queen responds to Confused in Connecticut by pointing out "A meow is like music to the ears. A lullaby. A symphony."

See, it's funny! Other "problems" that the dogs write about include being put on diets of dry kibble while the cat gets moist food out of the can, being dressed up for holiday pictures (and the cat is never dressed up) and being given too many baths (and of course, no one would dare give the cat a bath).

It's witty and there's also a grain of truth to each and every one of the dog's laments. I have two much-loved dogs and both of them could have written a letter to Mr. Mutt (Edgar's would be about being put on a diet, Sierra's would be about barking). The illustrations are fun and quite realistic. You will recognize these dogs.

BookNosher Activity: Teachers (or parents) can use Help Me Mr. Mutt for a lesson on letter writing. Mr. Mutt writes proper letters which include his address, the recipient's address, date, body and signature. Have your child write a letter from a pet to a pet owner. They can be as wild and imaginative Help Me Mr. Mutt!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mrs. Katz and Tush

Patricia Polacco writes heartwarming children's stories that stay with you long after you've put the book down. Today I'm going to write about Mrs. Katz and Tush, but there will be posts in the future that talk about some of her other books.

Mrs. Katz and Tush remains one of my favorite books from my own children's early years. It tells the story of an elderly Jewish woman and a young African-American boy, and the unlikely friendship that develops between them. Mrs. Katz lives alone, and one day Larnel goes with his mother to visit her. Larnel's mother explains to him that Mrs. Katz's husband has just died, and she is lonely. Larnel sees how sad she is and asks her if she'd be interested in taking in a kitten that nobody wants. Mrs. Katz agrees, but only if he will help her raise the cat, whom she eventually names Tush. Thus begins a lifelong friendship between the two of them.

Larnel visits Mrs. Katz every day after school and she tells him stories about the old country, her husband Myron, as well as different Jewish customs. She tells him about the days when Jews weren't allowed in certain places and Larnel remembers stories from his grandmother, and realizes that their cultures have a lot of similarities. Slowly Larnel and Mrs. Katz become like a family to one another.

Mrs. Katz and Tush does a nice job of both honoring our differences, while at the same time pointing out our similarities. It gives a snapshot into Jewish life, and deals with life cycle events as well as the holidays of Chanukah and Passover. There will be some unfamiliar words like kugel, huppa and kaddish, but they are placed in context and children should be able to understand their meaning.

Polacco is a masterful storyteller and her books are filled with memorable characters and a lot of emotion. I have to admit I have never been able to read Mrs. Katz and Tush out loud without my voice catching in a particular place towards the end of the book. It's one of those books that can be savored over and over again.

BookNosher Activity: The Reading Rainbow website has a couple of activities related to Mrs. Katz and Tush, as well as some related books. I especially like Wilford Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. It's an old favorite of mine that I'll have to post about soon!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Gooney Bird: A Fun Summer Read

Lois Lowry has created a memorable character in second-grader Gooney Bird. Gooney Bird Is So Absurd is the fourth book in the series (it came out in Spring of 2009), and kids will find her addicting. She IS absurd, and lovable and smart and odd and utterly charming.

Gooney Bird is a second-grader at Watertower Elementary School, and her teacher is Mrs. Pidgeon. It's January and threatening to snow, and Mrs. Pidgeon is ready to embark on the poetry unit. The atmosphere in the classroom is warm and supportive under her delightful guidance. She's the kind of teacher we all hope our kids will have; she has an innate understanding of what makes each kid tick.

Lowry does an admirable job in making all of the students in the class come to life. There's Tyrone who often speaks in rap, Felicia Ann who is missing her front teeth and so speaks with a lisp, Malcolm who laments the day his mother had triplets and Keiko who is sensitive to everything. The kids seem to genuinely care for each other, idiosyncrasies and all.

But it is Gooney Bird who steals the show. She is unique in a class full of unique personalities. Her outfits lean towards thrift store chic, and she's proud of her good buys. Since it's January and it's cold, Gooney Bird decides that she needs a brain-warming hat. So she puts a pair of frilly underpants on her head, pulls her pigtails through the leg holes, and voila she's instantly smarter. At first the kids think it's a little strange, but the idea spreads across the classroom and soon all of them are wearing their panties atop their noggins. The book is primarily centered around the poetry unit, and the little things that happen in the classroom during this time period. When something sad happens to Mrs. Pidgeon, it's Gooney Bird who rallies the class together for the perfect gift (and a perfect ending to the poetry unit).

The reading level is listed at 9 to 12 year olds, but I think younger children will enjoy hearing it read aloud. One of the bi-products of Gooney Bird is Absurd is that poetry is sprinkled throughout the book. Along the way readers will learn about haiku, couplets and limericks and not even realize that they're learning.

There are three other Gooney Bird books: Gooney Bird Greene, Gooney Bird and the Room Mother and Gooney the Fabulous. Make it a summer challenge to read all four. You won't regret it.

BookNosher Activity: You may discover your child has a new-found love of poetry after reading Looney Bird is So Absurd. The Reading is Fundamental (RIF) website has a fun poetry page that will have your kids creating poems on the computer. It's called Poetry Splatter, and is a good way to let kids explore their inner poet. My guess is that after creating poems on Poetry Splatter, they'll put the computer aside and want to create their own poems from scratch.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Three Cups of Tea (for Children!)

Two years ago I read the book Three Cups of Tea and was both moved and awestruck by the story of how one man-Greg Mortenson-made such a big difference in the lives of the children of Pakistan. His determination to bring schools to children, in even the most remote villages, was an inspiration. So what a pleasant surprise to find that there's a children's picture book that tells his story.

Listen to the Wind by Greg Mortenson and Susan Roth tells the story of how "Dr. Greg" first wandered into the village of Korphe as a lost and sick mountain climber, and how he was nursed back to health by the village residents. It's told in the voices of the children of Korphe, which should appeal to young readers. "Dr. Greg" saw that the children of the village didn't have a full time teacher and often learned outside, drawing their lessons in the dirt with a stick. He also witnessed the deep desire they had to learn. Mortenson was grateful for the kindness they showed him during his stay, and promised the villagers that he would come back and build them a school. The first part of Listen to the Wind tells the story of his return and of the obstacles he (and the villagers) faced as they built that first school. The second part is a scrapbook of actual photographs of the people and events surrounding his amazing venture. Both parts of the book are worth exploring in depth with your child.

Susan Roth's colorful, bold collages are made of scrap paper, fabric, and actual artifacts from Pakistan. They bring a tactile quality to the page that makes you want to touch each picture. There's an extensive Artist's Note in the back where Roth explains her thought process. She describes how she was inspired by the Pakistani's resourcefulness and ability to use everything, and not throw away anything.

Listen to the Wind is an exceptional book that should be required reading for all elementary aged children. Greg Mortenson's story is amazing, but the more compelling message is the difference one individual can make in the world.

BookNosher Tidbit: Parents and teachers can take some time to explore the Three Cups of Tea website. There you will find out more information about Greg Mortenson and his non-profit organization the Central Asia Institute. There's also a Reading Guide and a Question and Answer Interview for use in classrooms, book clubs etc.

BookNosher Activity: Greg Mortenson started another non-profit organization-Pennies for Peace- that has tens of thousands of participants around the globe. Mortenson recognized that a penny by itself is virtually worthless, but when pooled together it can become a powerful tool in helping alleviate illiteracy in impoverished countries. Click here for more information about Pennies for Peace. But in the meantime, grab an empty jar and have your child start collecting pennies. It's an easy way for them to feel like they are helping other children in the world.