Monday, August 31, 2009

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!
Written by Jonah Winter; Illustrated by Andre Carrilho
Recommended Ages: 4-8 (although I think 9-12 year olds would appreciate it, too)

Update: You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! was a 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category. Mazal Tov!

This is a big, beautiful book that does an admirable job describing one of the true enigmas of baseball-Sandy Koufax. Kids, especially baseball fans, will love reading the story of how Sandy Koufax became one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball history. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is a great gift for a sports lover.

The story is told in a conversational way by an unnamed person (teammate?), presumably connected with the Dodger organization. The style of writing is accessible and draws the reader immediately in.

Turns out Sandy earned most of it just warmin' the bench. See, he was new, a rookie...and rookies are known to lose a lot. It was 1955, and the Dodgers had a shot to win the pennant. The kid was too big a risk.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!
begins by describing Koufax as a standout high school athlete who got picked up by the Dodgers at the age of 19. However, those first few years were hardly stellar for him, as he walked lots of batters and threw more wild pitches in 1958 than any other pitcher in baseball. But he persevered through those early years of failure, and eventually became the Sandy Koufax of legend.

Besides being such an outstanding pitcher, one of the things that Koufax is remembered for was sitting out the first game of the 1965 World Series, which fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish High Holy Day. This gesture made him a hero to American Jews, and the book does a nice job of re-telling the story.

There are interesting baseball facts interspersed throughout the book (the one about Satchel Paige is mind-blowing), which will please the more ardent fans. There's also a glossary of baseball terms at the end.

Finally, the illustrations by Andre Carrillo are a wonder. They are caricature-like drawings, with bits of blue and red splashed across the pages. The baseball gear (gloves, bats and even the infield) are a striking gold and quite eye-catching. But the true highlight is the cover, which is of Koufax pitching. What makes it so unique is that it is actually three different images on a plastic sheet, and when you move the book a bit, he looks as if he is winding up and throwing a pitch.

BookNosher Activities: Random House has an excellent Teacher's Guide devoted to You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! Check it out!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Sad Goodbye to Reading Rainbow

"Butterfly in the sky. I can go twice as high! Take a look. It's in a book. A Reading Rainbow. I can go anywhere.... I can do anything...."

Yesterday on NPR I heard a story that saddened me. It turns out that the much beloved show--Reading Rainbow--is leaving the airways forever. Apparently, no one will put up the money (a few hundred thousand dollars) to renew the show's broadcast rights.

Reading Rainbow has run for 26 years, all of them hosted by Levar Burton. I imagine most of you are familiar with the overall format of the show. Burton introduced a children's book, followed by an in-depth adventure about the theme of the book (Reading Rainbow never shied away from difficult topics, such as homelessness and slavery). The show concluded with real kids introducing their favorite books. This last section was always fun to watch, as the kids' enthusiasm for reading and for books was contagious.

What the NPR broadcast went on to say was that beyond the financial difficulties the show faced, there was an overall shift in the philosophy of educational programming during the Bush administration. The Department of Education wanted to focus more on the basic tools of reading (ie. phonics and spelling). Apparently, the people in charge at PBS agreed and chose to place their focus here.

No one is arguing that giving kids the basic tools in learning to read isn't important. But it should be a two-pronged approach. While Reading Rainbow may not have taught kids HOW to read, the show did in fact, teach kids WHY we should read. By introducing great children's literature, kids are motivated to learn to read. This is not always easy to do in this fast-paced technology-based society we live in. For the last 26 years, Reading Rainbow brought the magic of books to scores of children. It will be very missed.

Click here to hear the entire NPR story.

There is a petition being circulated around to save Reading Rainbow. Here's a link. Send it to anyone you know who is interested in children's books and high quality children's programming. Perhaps we can bring it back!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Some More Zany Jan Thomas books

Rhyming Dust Bunnies and Can You Make A Scary Face by Jan Thomas
Recommended Ages 2-6

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote about a couple of Jan Thomas's picture books for young children. What I found so refreshing about them was their humor (stated in very few words) and their colorful, cartoon-like pictures. At the time, I placed a hold on another of her books- Rhyming Dust Bunnies-, which finally came in today. Plus, I discovered that she has a brand new book-Can You Make a Scary Face? Both were worth the wait.

Rhyming Dust Bunnies is about, well, four dust bunnies that love to rhyme. Well, at least three of them do. Bob, the more observant dust bunny, is always on the lookout for danger. So while Ed, Ned and Ted rhyme bug with rug, hug and mug, Bob shouts out "Look Out."
"No Bob, look out doesn't rhyme with rug," shout the other dust bunnies.
Anyway, the story progresses and, as you probably guessed, comes complete with a broom, and ...a vacuum cleaner. Thomas has a great gift for story telling, and preschoolers will want to hear this over and over.

With Can You Make A Scary Face, Thomas sticks with the same brightly colored illustrations and silly humor, but now offers a more interactive book. This book begs to be read aloud, preferably to a gaggle of kids.

It starts off with a ladybug shouting to the reader "Hey, you! Yes, I'm talking to you! Stand up!"
Turn the page and the ladybug says: "No, I changed my mind...sit down!"
And so it goes. The commands come faster and faster and soon the ladybug is ordering the kids to wiggle their noses, laugh, dance the chicken dance and blow tiny, tickly bugs out of their mouths. It's contagious and sure to be a hit in every preschool classroom.

I guess you can see that I'm a big fan of Jan Thomas. I think she understands kids and writes her books for them. They are paced just right for preschoolers, and her humor is spot on. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Can You Do With An Old Red Shoe?

What Can You Do With An Old Red Shoe? by Anna Alter
Recommended Ages: 4-8

I admit it, the catchy title definitely drew me in. I was perusing the New Book Shelves at the library when my eyes rested on What Can You Do with an Old Red Shoe?: A Green Activity Book About Reuse. I couldn't resist. Anna Alter has written and illustrated a delightful book with twelve recycling projects that kids will love.

Each project stars a different animal character and begins with a short poem about a problem such as "What can you do with a ripped shower curtain." or "What can you do with empty tin cans?" Alter shows you ways to turn the old items into something new. She gives you a supply list and offers easy step-by-step instructions. She also tells you if and when parental assistance is needed. Soon the shower curtain becomes an apron, and the tin can becomes a lantern.

Most of the projects seem quite doable, and ones that kids will be interested in. She shows how to make stamps out of old flip-flops (a perfect end-of-summer project), art supply baskets out of old berry baskets and (my favorite) a flower planter out of an old red shoe.

At the end of the book, Alter offers some practical recycling and reuse tips for kids and adults. I can see a family or a class using this book as a jump-start to some great conversations about recycling. I think what makes What Can You Do With An Old Red Shoe so much fun is how hands-on it is. Kids will be interested in the projects, and along the way will come up with their own ideas of how to reuse things.

BookNosher Tidbit: A friend of mine has a blog called Our Kids' Earth. It's an environmentally-minded blog geared for parents with young kids. Check it out for all sorts of facts and tips.

BookNosher Activity: Anna Alter has a website with lots of suggestions for parents and teachers on how to use the book, including a curriculum guide, activity sheets and other recycling resources.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Praise for The Serial Garden!

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages 9-12

Thanks goes to our wonderful children's librarian who steered me to this utterly delightful series of short stories. Although many of the stories in Joan Aiken's The Serial Garden were originally published over fifty years ago, they were completely new to me. It's hard to believe I never discovered them before, and I'm sorry that my children (who are now teenagers) never had the pleasure of hearing them read aloud.

The Armitages are an English family in the 1950's who live a rather magical life. It all starts when Mrs. Armitage muses to Mr. Armitage on their honeymoon that she's worried that living happily ever after could be a bit boring. Serendipitously she finds a wishing stone and makes a wish that things won't be dull, and that interesting and unusual things will happen to them, perhaps on Mondays, but not always Mondays (because that could get boring too). She also wishes that her future children will have a fairy godmother. And that their house will have at least one ghost. Right then and there, the stories are born.

Fast forward twelve years or so, and you meet Harriet and Mark, their two plucky children who manage to handle all that comes their way with grace and humor. There are witches and unicorns and best friends who are six inches tall. Things often go awry, and yet these two continue on, seemingly unperturbed by the chaos that surrounds them. They are curious and fearless, whether they are encountering druid brothers fighting over a bathmat made of human hair, or magical gardens that grow out of cereal boxes. In one story, an invisibility cloak is even mentioned, and these were written years before Harry Potter came on the scene.

The stories are imaginative and well written, with surprise twists and turns on almost every page. Children who are avid readers will delight in visiting the world that Aiken has created. But, even more importantly, I think this would be a wonderful read aloud book for reluctant readers. Parents could read a story a night to a child, or teachers could read a story a day to a class. It's a classic example of great storytelling and begs to be read aloud. This is one book I think every family should own!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Power of Literature

I've been on vacation for the past week, and am just getting settled back into my routine. Today I want to share a short video that a friend recently sent me. It's a trailer from the PBS series Point-of-View, and features Rafe Esquith, a fifth grade teacher of inner-city kids at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles. After watching this, the power of literature (and the power of a great teacher) will never be disputed. Click here to watch the five-minute trailer.

If this whetted your appetite, check out Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans' website. With the new school year beginning in a couple of weeks, his site is inspirational for parents and teachers alike. His motto-Be Nice. Work Hard-is posted at the top of the page. A simple, potent message we should all remember.

He has also written three books: There Are No Shortcuts; Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 and Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World. While I haven't read any of them yet, I have already placed a hold at my local library on There are No Shortcuts. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Stone Fox

Stone Fox
by John Reynolds Gardiner
Recommended Ages: 7-12

Stone Fox holds a special place in my family. It was one of the first chapter books all three kids read on their own. They loved the story, even though they were teary at the end.

Little Willy lives with his grandfather on a potato farm in Wyoming. The story begins with the grandfather taking to his bed, quite ill and unable to talk. Willy is concerned but manages to continue on with the chores. One day the tax collector visits them and Willy finds out they owe $500 in back taxes, or they will lose their farm.

So little Willy tries to figure out how to raise the $500. He talks to the bank, his teacher and the general store manager, and receives the same advice from everyone: Sell the Farm. But he's determined to keep the farm in the family. When he's at the store he sees a poster advertising the National Dogsled Race in Jackson Wyoming, with first place prize money of $500. This prompts him into action. He and his dog Searchlight will enter the contest and win the prize money.

For the next week, little Willy and Searchlight go over and over the 10-mile track. Even after a brief encounter with Stone Fox and his five Samoyeds, who are the clear favorites in the race, little Willie and Searchlight plod on, determined to win the $500. Stone Fox is a Native American who has always won the race. They say that he uses the prize money from the races to buy back land so that his people, the Shoshone, can return to their homeland.

The day of the race comes, and I'm not going to say anything further. Suffice it to say, it's a page-turner and a heartbreaker. You won't be disappointed. If your child is reading this alone, I recommend you be on hand. It's a sad ending, but one sure to generate rich conversation.

I think this would be a great book for a third or fourth grade class to read aloud. As I said before, there's a lot to talk about afterward, and little Willy is a strong character who shows determination and grit in the face of adversity. The ending is powerful and there are a few heroes to celebrate.

BookNosher Tidbits: Stone Fox has a few notable mentions including:
a 1981 Notable Book Children's Literature Council of Southern California
1987 Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Project - Minnesota Book Awards;

1987 George G. Stone Center for Children's Book Recognition of Merit Award

BookNosher Activities: There are a lot of sites devoted to classroom activities and Stone Fox. This one from Mountain City Elementary School in Tennessee is comprehensive, and offers both academic and fun activities.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel

Sometimes after I read a book I particularly like, I go on a search for other books by the same author. This is what happened after I read Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor. I discovered a picture book that is worth writing about.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel tells the story of immigrant Miss Bridie who chose to bring a shovel with her across the sea, instead of a porcelain figurine or a chiming clock. The book follows Miss Bridie as a new immigrant who, with the help of the shovel, plants a small garden in the back of her rooming house and grows flowers to sell. The shovel also helps her dig through the snow, plant orchards and dig into the hill for a root cellar. The book follows Miss Bridie's life, and we watch as she experiences life's ups and downs, raises a family and grows old.

The language is lyrical and spare. There are some beautiful turns of phrases, such as: "She sold her fruit and flowers at a stand by the road, where the people and summers just kept passing by." Or after her husband dies: "She planted him a tree and some flowers underneath that come up like a memory with the warmth of every spring."

The illustrations are woodcuts and seem the perfect choice for this picture book, lending it an old fashioned air. Mary Azarian is the illustrator, and is a Caldecott medalist. For more information about her, visit her website.

I don't expect this to be a book that children will pick up on their own. There's not enough action in it. However, this is a wonderful book for a parent to read to a child, or a teacher to read to a class. There's much to discuss and savor afterwards.

BookNosher Activity: Since many of us have an immigrant story in our past, Miss Bridie Chose A Shovel is a perfect jumping off point for kids to learn about their family's stories. If you are a parent, see if you can find something that's been in your family and share a story about it. If you are a teacher, ask the kids to talk to their parents about their family's past. This could be the start of a fabulous show and tell!