Tuesday, September 28, 2010

David Wiesner

Art & Max

Written and Illustrated by: David Wiesner
Recommended Ages: 4-8

If you are not already familiar with David Wiesner, I highly recommend hightailing it to the nearest bookstore or library and checking out his children's picture books. He has received the Caldecott Medal three times (for Tuesday, The Three Pigs and for Flotsam), and is only the second person in history to do so. His newest book Art & Max will be released on October 4, and it's definitely worth checking out.

Art & Max is the story of two desert-dwelling, art-loving lizards. Arthur is the larger, more dignified lizard with a real talent for painting. His smaller, more frenetic companion Max desperately wants to paint too, but lacks ideas. When Art suggests that he paint him, Max takes it literally and then the fun begins. The story that follows is an adventure filled with silly moments, as well as a study of the creative process. In the end, one of the nice touches is that Arthur (the teacher) manages to learn something from Max (the student).

While I'm sure your kids will enjoy Art & Max for the sheer fun of the story, it's the pictures that make it such a special book. After I read through it the first time, I found myself going back and studying every picture he created. Each page is a work of art, and there are lots of little details to study when you go through it a second or third time. With their expressive faces and zest for life, Art and Max are lovable lizards your kids will be happy to welcome into their lives.

For an interesting look at the creative process involved in the evolution of Art & Max, here's an interview with David Wiesner. It's fascinating to see how his mind worked as he experimented with different media and even more interesting to see how he came up with the idea of the two lizards as the two protaganists.

For people who live in the Seattle or Bainbridge Island area, David Wiesner will be at Eagle Harbor Books on Sunday, October 10 at 3:00 pm. It should be an informative and entertaining talk. Here's a link with more information.

Here's a complete list of books written and illustrated by David Wiesner:

by David Wiesner. 2006
Three Pigs by David Wiesner. 2001
Sector 7 by David Wiesner. 1999

June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner. 1992
Tuesday by David Wiesner. 1991
Hurricane by David Wiesner. 1990
Free Fall by David Wiesner. 1988

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Smells Like Dog

Smells Like Dog
Written by: Suzanne Selfors
Recommended Ages: 8-12

Smells Like Dog is a delightful book that will appeal to boys and girls alike. There's a timeless feel to the book that reminds me of some of my favorite reads as a child. Roald Dahl, in particular, comes to mind.

Homer Pudding is a fairly ordinary, slightly pudgy farm boy who dreams of being a treasure hunter like his dashing Uncle Drake Pudding. Unfortunately, one day he and his family get the horrible news that Uncle Drake has been killed by a killer tortoise. The news also comes to them, via the law office of Snooty and Snooty, that he has left all of his worldly possessions to Homer. These worldly possessions consist of a pair of boots (all that was left of poor Uncle Drake), a Bassett hound who can't smell, and a mysterious coin attached to the dog's collar with the letters L.O.S.T. on it. While Homer is honored that his uncle left everything to him, he also begins to think that things look slightly suspicious. After he accidentally burns down the town's library while researching the origins of the coin, he decides to do some investigating.

Homer takes off for The City (a place where, his father warns, bad things happen) to find out what type of coin he has, what L.O.S.T. stands for and to locate a treasure map of his uncle's. Along the way, Homer meets some fantastic, eccentric characters, all of whom add to the delicious twists and turns he encounters. There's the giantess Zelda, the wacky inventor Ajitabh, and the little orphan girl Lorelei. But the most delectable character of all is Madame La Directeur. She is over-the-top evil and a great nemesis for Homer to face.

Smells Like Dog is quite a romp, with parts that are laugh out loud funny and parts where you will be holding your breath wondering how exactly Homer is going to get out of a pickle. Homer and Dog quickly warm their way into your heart, so that the whole time you are rooting for their success.

I think Smells Like Dog would be a wonderful book for a third or fourth grade class to read aloud. Girls and Boys will be enthralled by Homer's adventures and it will appeal to even the most reluctant of readers. Oh did I mention that it's the first book of a trilogy? So the adventures of Homer Pudding and Dog continue on. I can't wait to see what and who they come up against!

BookNosher Activity: On Suzanne Selfor's website she has a page for teachers which contains curriculum ideas, art activities and worksheets. It's definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kids Care: 75 Ways to Make a Difference for People, Animals and the Environment

Kids Care!: 75 Ways to Make a Difference for People, Animals & the Environment

Written by: Rebecca Olien
Illustrated by: Michael Kline
Recommended Ages: 7-12

The simple premise of Kids Care is that kids really do care and want to make a difference in the world. The book offers suggestions for bringing some great ideas to fruition, and most projects can be done individually or in a group. Kids Care is a great resource for a classroom or a family to have on hand, if only to give a little nudge.

The book is divided into 5 sections, so children are able to migrate towards those areas they are most drawn to. The sections include:
  • Kids Care About People
  • Kids Care About Pets
  • Kids Care About Wildlife
  • Kids Care About The Environment
  • Kids Join Together

Here are some of the projects I particularly liked:

The Boredom Buster Box is designed for someone who is sick and has to stay quiet. Kids decorate (and personalize) a cardboard box and fill it with items designed to keep the recipient busy. The book offers all sorts of fun activities kids can make themselves such as mazes, word searches and dot-to-dots. It also suggests putting in an extra surprise such as a deck of cards or a bottle of bubbles. The list is endless, and stresses that the recipient can be an adult too. The Boredom Buster Box is a caring gesture that a class could put together for a sick classmate or teacher, or an individual could put together for a friend.

Hosting a Dog Wash was another idea that resonated with me. Kids advertise the event ahead of time and sell tickets. Proceeds from the dog wash can go to a charity of their choice (humane society, pet rescue organizations etc.). The book outlines the steps one takes in organizing the event, as well as a section called "How to Wash a Dog." I, for one, would be eager to come across a group of kids offering their services to wash my dogs.

The Better Than New Toy Shop suggests that many kids have perfectly good toys they no longer play with, that just need a little fixing up so they can be donated to those in need. Many toys just need a good washing, while others may need new paint or some mending. Wouldn't this be a great classroom project to take on just before the holidays? I think there would be a lot of enthusiasm for this particular project, and it's a great way to introduce the concept of recycling.

There are 72 other worthwhile projects in Kids Care. Just browsing through the book will help kids understand the many ways (big and small) they can help others.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anastasia's Album: The last tsar's youngest daughter tells her own story

Anastasia's album

Written by: Hugh Brewster
Recommended Ages: 10 and up

When I was around ten years old, I became fascinated by the story of the Romanov family. I read everything I could about that particular time in Russian history, and was especially intrigued with the youngest daughter Anastasia. For at the time there was a woman living in Canada who claimed that she was Anastasia, and to my ten-year-old imagination it was the perfect ending to the otherwise tragic story of the Romanovs. Anastasia's Album is a great introduction to the story of Nicholas, Alexandra and the entire Romanov family.

Anastasia's Album
is designed to look like a scrapbook, and is, in fact, filled with actual photographs taken by different members of the royal family, but most especially Anastasia. These photos and other personal effects were long hidden in Soviet archives. The book opens with the birth of Anastasia, the fourth daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. While disappointed at first that she wasn't a boy (they needed a male heir), she quickly warms her way into their hearts. There are marvelous pictures of her and her sisters in all manner of clothes such as sailor suits, old-fashioned striped bathing suits and of course dressier fare. Three years later, her brother Alexei is born, and the family is complete.

Besides the photographs, which are very clear and remarkably preserved, there are narratives from actual letters Anastasia and other members of her family and friends wrote. For instance, the children's French tutor wrote in regards to Anastasia:

"She was the imp of the whole house and the glummest faces would always brighten in her presence, for it was impossible to resist her jokes and nonsense."

The text by Hugh Brewster is clear and does a very nice job articulating the Romanov children's lives. Yes, it was privileged. They lived in a winter palace and attended balls, concerts and ballets. But they were also expected to make their own beds and their mother wanted the daughters to be educated more than what was usual for upper class girls. They studied four languages-Russian, French, English and German, and had private tutors. But they also played together as a family, and there are old photos of them bicycling and playing tennis. There are also pictures of Anastasia's artwork sprinkled throughout, which show her to be quite accomplished at an early age.

The book ends tragically with a description of the massacre of the family that took place in 1918. It also talks about the woman who came forward a year later in Germany, claiming she was Anastasia. While this mystery was never completely solved, it should pique the reader's interest. I think Anastasia's Album is quite a special book, perfect for a research paper or just an interesting read.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Two New Picture Books to Consider

I just came across two new picture books that are worth taking a look at.


Written and Illustrated by: Loren Long
Recommended Ages: 4-8

Otis is a visual delight. The illustrations have a delightful old-fashioned feel to them that immediately draw you in. The story is about Otis, a little tractor who works hard on the farm by day, and plays equally hard after work. One evening the farmer brings a new baby calf into the barn. The calf is homesick for her mother, but the gentle putt puff sounds coming from Otis lull the calf to sleep. Otis and the calf soon become fast friends, as they play and just sit together under the apple tree (this particular illustration reminded me of Ferdinand).

Soon a big, shiny, new tractor is introduced and Otis is forgotten. I won't go into the whole story of how Otis re-emerges from his exile, but it's a sweet story of determination, friendship and love. Plus there's just the right amount of action on each page to keep even a young child interested.

If you have a child who is fascinated by heavy equipment (my oldest son went through this stage), then you will love Otis. But I think all kids will love Otis's story about an unlikely friendship. The artwork gives it a timeless feel, and the expressions on Otis's face are priceless. This is a story that should emerge as a classic.

City Dog, Country Frog

Written by: Mo Willems
Illustrated by: John Muth
Recommended Ages: 4-8

City Dog, Country Frog
is another book about friendship. City Dog arrives in the country for the first time in the spring. While out running the countryside (without a leash!), City Dog meets Country Frog. The two start playing together, as Country Frog teaches City Dog all sorts of Country Frog games like jumping, splashing and croaking. And that's the way they spend the spring.

The book moves through the seasons, and their friendship deepens. They each teach the other special tricks, and sometimes they just sit together on their rock. The watercolor illustrations do a wonderful job depicting the passage of time. Winter comes and City Dog goes looking for Country Frog, only to find him not on his rock. There's a beautiful two-page spread of City Dog sitting forlornly on the rock overlooking the snow-covered field. I will warn you, it is sad and you should probably be prepared for some questions from your child. But when spring rolls around again, and City Dog is sitting on the rock "waiting for a friend," he meets Country Chipmunk. The story ends on a hopeful note and offers a nice reflection of remembering old friends while making new ones.

So there you have it. Two new picture books about friendship that are definitely worth checking out. Both books would make wonderful gifts for a pre-schooler.

BookNosher Activities: Loren Long has a page of activities tied into Otis.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wordless Picture Books

Wordless picture books are a wonderful genre for you and your child to explore. Without words on the page, young children are able to tell YOU the story in their own words. Language and creativity are unleashed as a child relates the story that unfolds before them, often becoming more and more elaborate with each retelling. I've written before how I used to use wordless picture books in my family literacy classes. For parents for whom English wasn't their first language, it allowed them to tell a story in their own words to their children. For parents with low literacy skills, they were able to "read" the story to their child with a fluidity that wasn't always possible with regular picture books. I picked up three wordless picture books at the library last week that are definitely worth sharing.

The Adventures of Polo

Illustrated by: Regis Faller
Recommended Ages: 4-10

The Adventures of Polo is a magical book that transports you (and Polo) to many different worlds. Polo is a dog in a red jacket and purple pants who in the course of a day goes up into the clouds, down to the bottom of the sea, to an icecap where he rescues a trapped snowman and on and on. There's a lot on each page, so that each time you read it more details will crop up. I think that even the youngest child will enjoy Polo and the many encounters he comes across. If it's a hit in your house, there are five other Polo books available.

The Red Scarf

Illustrated by: Anne Villeneuve
Recommended Ages: 4-10

The Red Scarf does start off with the words: "Another gray day, says Turpin, the taxi driver," but after that it's all pictures. Turpin is a little white mole that drives a taxi. It seems to be an ordinary day until one of the passengers (a man in a black cape) leaves his red scarf behind. Turpin runs after him trying to return it, and from there the adventure begins. The trail leads to the circus and there are encounters with a frog on a unicycle, a bear on roller skates, a hungry lion and a mischievous monkey. Kids will love the scrapes that Turpin gets himself into, and will turn each page wondering what will happen next. It's a fun-filled romp that is sure to please young readers.


Illustrated by: Suzy Lee
Recommended Ages: 3-7

Wave is a quieter book than the previous two, but equally stunning. It shows a little girl at the beach as she runs back and forth where the waves break, as seagulls hover nearby. The wave soon becomes her friend and the two of them play with each other with a back and forth intensity that can only end in a big splash. It's playful and your senses are awakened so that you truly feel like you can smell the ocean and taste the salt.

So the next time you are at the library give a wordless picture book a try. You may be amazed at the story that comes out of your child's mouth as the pictures set free their imaginations.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Welcome to Nonfiction Monday!

Greetings and welcome to Nonfiction Monday! Every Monday, kidlit bloggers celebrate nonfiction books for kids, and today is my day to host. So bloggers, please post your links in the comment section and I will update periodically throughout the day.

Below the list of Nonfiction Monday posts, you will find my review of Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life's Song.

1. Jeff Barger posted a review of The Secret Life of a Snowflake at NC Teacher Stuff:

2. Angela Craft reviewed I Am an Emotional Creature at Bookish Blather. http://bookishblather.blogspot.com/2010/08/nonfiction-monday-review-i-am-emotional.html

3. Shelf-employed reviewed Janice Weaver’s biography of Henry Hudson, due on shelves next month. http://shelf-employed.blogspot.com/2010/08/hudson.html

4. At Madigan Reads, there is a review on Orangutans are Ticklish

5. Scope Notes reviewed Ideas that Changed the World at

6. The Wild About Nature Writers have a review of Going Home: The Mystery of Animal Migration by Marianne Berkes .

7. Jennifer at Jean Little Library has a review of Old Abe, the story of a Civil War mascot http://jeanlittlelibrary.blogspot.com/2010/08/nonfiction-monday-old-abe-eagle-hero.html

8. Rasco from RIF posted a review of Fractions, Decimals and Percents at http://www.rascofromrif.org/?p=12061

9. Roberta at Wrapped in Foil has a review of the pop-up book Wild Alphabet by Dan Green at http://blog.wrappedinfoil.com/2010/08/wild-wild-alphabet/

10. Amanda at A Patchwork of Books has a review up of The Bat Scientists: http://apatchworkofbooks.blogspot.com/2010/08/non-fiction-monday-bat-scientists.html

11. Shirley at Simply Science reviewed Chemistry--Getting a Big Reaction.
12. Tammy at Apples with Many Seeds reviewed the incredible book,
The Deep. Amazing deep sea creatures beautifully photographed.

13. Three Turtles and their Pet Librarian has two new books from Lerner's "Best Dogs
Ever" series at:

14. The Cat and the Fiddle offers a post on setting in picture book biographies. http://michellemarkel.blogspot.com

15. At Picture Book of the Day I have a booktalk and a giveaway for Astro: the Stellar Sea Lion

16. Over at Wendie's Wanderings, they're exploring Symbiosis with How to
Clean a Hippopotamus, a Look at Unusual Animal partnerships by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page.

17. Today at The Fourth Musketeer I'm reviewing Candace Fleming's biography of P. T. Barnum!

18. Here's one from Chris Barton Charles Darwin & James Bond: The
Intersection Between Fiction and Nonfiction

Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life's Song

Written and illustrated by: Ashley Bryan
Photographs by: Bill Meguinness
Recommended Ages: 9 and up

This beautiful autobiography about three-time Coretta Scott King award winner Ashley Bryan is worth spending some time savoring over. It's a kaleidoscope of colors strung together by his inspiring life story. For kids and adults who want to understand how one artist overcame many obstacles and remained true to his calling, this is an important and stimulating book.

Ashley Bryan was born to Antiguan immigrants and grew up in the Bronx. His parents were creative people themselves, and kept their small apartment filled with flowers, song and birds. He writes, "at one time I counted over one hundred birds: canaries, finches, warblers, and parakeets." They encouraged Ashley to draw and paint, and since his dad was in the printing trade, there was never a shortage of paper.

When Ashley was sixteen, he graduated from high school. He wanted to go on to an art institute, but it was not an easy task for a Black in those days. He writes, "I remembered my parents saying that if you are doing something creative and constructive, don't let anyone or anything ever stop you." Someone told him about Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, where the evaluators didn't view the artists. He was accepted, and was the only Black in his class.

Ashley goes on to chronicle his life, including time spent in the army during WWII, an internship spent up in Maine, his time at Columbia University, France and later as a Fulbright scholar in Germany. His autobiography is written with an open-heartedness that makes you embrace both him and his artwork. When he talks about slowing down and picking up "tide-smoothed stones," and sea glass, it makes you want to slow down too. His appreciation for everything that surrounds us is abundant and contagious, and reminds us to turn an appreciative eye towards the natural world. Highly recommended.

BookNosher Tidbit: Bryan is the illustrator or author of more than 30 books, and has won many awards:
  • Coretta Scott King Award Winner for outstanding illustration in Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum
  • Coretta Scott King Award Honor for outstanding illustration in I'm Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals
  • Coretta Scott King AwardHonor for outstanding author in Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and Other African Folk Tales
  • Coretta Scott King Award Honor for outstanding illustration in Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and Other African Folk Tales
  • Coretta Scott King Award Honor for outstanding illustration in What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals
  • Coretta Scott King Award Honor for outstanding illustration in All Night, All Day: A Child's First Book of African American Spirituals
  • Coretta Scott King Award Honor for outstanding illustration in Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry
  • Coretta Scott King Award Winner for outstanding illustration in Beautiful Blackbird
  • The Atlanta literary festival was named for him.
  • Coretta Scott King AwardWinner for outstanding illustration in Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals
  • 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature

BookNosher Activity: I think you will be inspired to take a walk on the beach, or in the woods or just in a city park and look for the treasures that are always there. Start a collection of something. I know my own family has kept jars of sea glass for years, and it never fails to enthrall us.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Some Books to Quell Those First Day of School Jitters

The first day of school is always a little anxiety producing, even when it's highly anticipated. For young children entering kindergarten, the unknown can make it even more intimidating. Luckily, there are quite a few books out there to read ahead of time to help prepare your new student for the big day.

Countdown to Kindergarten

Written by: Alison McGhee
Illustrated by: Harry Bliss
Recommended Ages: 4-7

It's ten days until the first day of kindergarten, and the little girl in Countdown to Kindergarten is in "Big Trouble." For everyone knows that the number one rule in kindergarten is that you must know how to tie your own shoes (and you're not allowed to ask for help). So as each day passes by and the first day gets closer and closer, the little girl tries everything possible to get out of going. She tries losing her shoes, then her shoelaces and nothing works. Alas, the big day arrives, and wouldn't you know it, she discovers that she's not the only one who doesn't know how to tie her own shoes. In fact, only three kids in the entire kindergarten know how to tie their own shoes. And furthermore, the teacher is willing to teach them how to do it. Countdown to Kindergarten is a witty book with fun illustrations that should help allay some of those first day fears.

What Did You Do Today?: The First Day of School

Written by: Toby Forward
Illustrated by: Carol Thompson
Recommended Ages: 4-7

This delightful book is told in the voice of a child going to school for the first time. On one side of the page he describes his day, and on the opposite page you see his mother going through her day at work. Their lives parallel each other in ways that are really quite sweet. For instance, when he says, "After lunch I was sleepy, but there was lots more to do," you see a picture of him sitting next to his teacher in front of a book yawning. On the opposite page is a picture of his mother at her desk, stifling a yawn. Their days are remarkably similar in their content, which should be a comfort to young children reading this book. What Did You Do Today? is a reassuring read to kids as it shows a child going through a typical school day.

Wemberly Worried

Written and Illustrated by: Kevin Henkes
Recommended Ages: 4-8

If you have a kid who worries a lot, then Wemberley Worried may be just the right book. Wemberley is a mouse who worries about, well, pretty much everything. She worries in the morning, in the evening and all day in between. Most of all, she is worried about the first day of school.
"What if the teacher is mean?
What if the room smells bad?
What if they make fun of my name?
What if I can't find the bathroom?
What if I hate the snack?
What if I have to cry?"
When she finally gets to school, the teacher Mrs. Peachum introduces her to a kindred spirit, who is also wearing stripes and holding a doll. The two girls play together, and even though Wemberley continued to worry, it was no more than usual ("and sometimes even less").

Keisha Ann Can!

Written and Illustrated by: Daniel Kirk
Recommended Ages: 4-7

This upbeat book has a great cadence and rhythm to it, making it a perfect read-aloud. Keisha Ann is a delightful character ready to tackle any and all projects. It's a brightly colored book that shows a classroom filled with children of all different ethnicities, and Keisha Ann's smiling face is center stage. It ends on a positive note by asking the question:
"Who can learn and work, and play, and make her dreams come true?
Keisha Ann can do these things, and YOU can do them, too!"

These are just a few of the many good books out there. You should also check out:
Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten
The Night Before Kindergarten
First Day Jitters
The Kissing Hand
Billy and the Big New School

Bus Stop, Bus Go

Best of luck to you and your child as you both embark on this exciting new adventure!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World

We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World

Written by: Stuart Stotts
Illustrated by: Terrance Cummings
With a foreword by: Pete Seeger
Recommended Ages: 9 and up

This is a very smart, beautifully layed out book that details the origins of the song "We Shall Overcome." I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked it up at the library, but by the time I finished I was convinced that this is a must-have for school libraries everywhere. By using the book as a starting point, teachers could build a wonderful lesson plan around this seemingly simple song that has played such a rich part in our history.

We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World
chronicles the importance of song throughout our history. Early in the book, Stotts points out "in hunting, in planting, in battle or in any other task that requires strength, singing helps. It coordinates breathing and focuses energy and effort." It's thought that song has helped people prepare for battle, and face difficult situations for thousands of years.

"We Shall Overcome" was originally used by the labor movement to promote social change. The Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930's to help unions in the South. The school was very serious about teaching people about strike tactics and union elections, and yet the founders also realized the importance of music. It was at the Highlander Folk School that Pete Seeger first heard the song called "We Will Overcome," which he later changed to "We Shall Overcome."

During the late 1950's, "We Shall Overcome" began to be used in the Civil Rights Movement.
It's said that the first time Martin Luther King heard it sung by Peter Seeger he kept humming the tune and later told his driver "that song really sticks with you, doesn't it?"

So what is it about "We Shall Overcome" that makes it so memorable? The first verse is very simple, and only has 23 words:

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday.

The book goes into detail about why it is so powerful when sung together in a group. It has to do with its melodic shape and the way certain words are held. Stotts tells many wonderful stories of times when the song was used, and times when the power of its words was felt. The book details how Joan Baez sang it at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, and then later at Woodstock where it became a part of the anti-war movement. When Bruce Springsteen made a recording of it for a Pete Seeger tribute album in 1998, people viewed it as a song about personal strength. The producer of the record received letters from parents of children who had leukemia who said they were singing Bruce's version of the song to them.

A CD by Pete Seeger singing the song is included in the book, and offers a very nice touch for readers. By learning about the song, I believe that children will learn about the role that "We Shall Overcome" played in the labor, Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the United States.

BookNosher Activity: There are so many wonderful activities one could tie into the book. It would be fun to try and track down other versions of the song (ie. Springsteen, Baez and others) and play them alongside the Pete Seeger version. The music is included in the book, so it would be great to have a class learn the words and have them sing it in a circle, arms crossed and holding hands. I imagine they would experience the chilling power of "We Shall Overcome" firsthand.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Story Behind Toilets

I just discovered a wonderful series of non-fiction books that tackles all sorts of really interesting and diverse subjects. Kids who love learning facts about different topics (and being able to spew them out later) will love the True Stories series. It covers everything you might want to know about the fascinating history of everyday things. A quick look at their website, reveals twelve topics from The Story Behind Bread to The Story Behind Gravity. My local library had four of their books in their newly arrived section, and I just had to pull the one I thought kids would be the most drawn to.

The Story Behind Toilets (True Stories)
Written by: Elizabeth Raum
Recommended Ages: 8-12

While kids may initially be drawn to the potty humor of the title (and clever cover), this book is actually chock-full of fascinating facts about toilets. So let them snicker at first, you will soon find them learning lots of facts about toilets past, present and future.

The Story Behind Toilets starts off with a short history of toilets. Did you know that the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete had the first toilets that flushed (4000 years ago)? Or that chamber pots in the 1700's and 1800's often had the face of an unpopular leader painted on the bottom? During the American Revolution, Britain's King George III's face was used.

But the book goes on to deliver many more facts than just toilets. Kids will learn about how moats were often used as dumping grounds for sewage and hence smelled terrible. They'll also learn about early sewage and septic systems. One part I found particularly fascinating was how NASA scientists began using flowering water plants like hyacinths and lilies to clean wastewater. These flowering plants take in waste gases and give off clean air. Later on, the scientists would crush the plants and use them as fertilizer.

The use of toilet paper is also addressed. As early as 1400 CE, the Chinese were using soft toilet paper. Later on, in Europe in the 1500's, wealthy people ripped out pages of books to use for cleaning themselves. And in 2005, $5.7 billion worth of toilet paper was sold in the United States.

Toward the end of the book, toilets of tomorrow are addressed. In the "toilet-to-tap" system, wastewater is turned into drinking water. There are currently about 15 cities and towns in the U.S. using this system. The health dangers of not having toilets and sewer systems are also discussed, and a world map shows how many parts of the world do not have acceptable levels of sanitation. For kids in the U.S., this will be an eye-opening experience.

The True Stories series would be a wonderful addition to a third or fourth grade classroom. Whether a child needs to choose a topic to report on, or just wants to find out a little more information about something like salt, there is a lot of information packed into these slim volumes. Here's a list of the titles currently available:

The Story Behind Bread

The Story Behind Chocolate

The Story Behind Cotton

The Story Behind Diamonds
The Story Behind Electricity

The Story Behind Gold

The Story Behind Gravity

The Story Behind Oil

The Story Behind Salt

The Story Behind Skyscrapers
The Story Behind Time

The Story Behind Toilets

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mole Music

Mole Music

Written and Illustrated by: David McPhail
Recommended Ages: 4-8

Mole Music is an example of a perfect picture book. In 32 pages, David McPhail manages to tell a simple, poignant story on the surface, with an underlying deeper message. It's the kind of book you want every child to read over and over again. If you are looking for a gift for a young child (or someone who loves music), you really can't go wrong with Mole Music.

Mole lives alone underground, spending his days digging tunnels and his evenings watching TV. One evening he hears a man playing the violin on TV. It is the most beautiful music he has ever heard, and he decides he wants to make music himself. So he sends away for a violin. Alas, when it comes the sounds he makes on it are nothing like the sounds the man made. But Mole is persistent and he practices and practices until he plays better than the man on TV. Sometimes he wonders what it would be like to play for people, wondering if "his music could reach into people's hearts and melt away their anger and sadness."

What Mole doesn't realize is that his music is drifting above ground, drawing people to it and making them happy. For above Mole's subterranean world there is a world that is listening to his music and being changed by it.

Mole Music is beautifully enhanced by the pen and ink and watercolor illustrations that blend seamlessly with the text. There are so many wonderful lessons tied up in this book, and yet none of them seems heavy handed. What better message is there to pass on to a child than the power that one person has to change the world for the better? I highly recommend adding Mole Music to your personal library.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Two Early Reader Chapter Books

I've written before about the challenge of finding interesting early chapter books for the emerging reader. These are readers who are ready to move beyond picture books, but not ready for a full chapter book. So I'm always on the lookout for something new and interesting in this genre. Here are two early chapter books I've recently discovered to introduce to your kids during these waning days of summer.

The Cool Crazy Crickets

Written by: David Elliott
Illustrated by: Paul Meisel
Recommended Ages: 4-7

The Cool Crazy Crickets follows four friends as they go through the stages of forming a club, naming it, making a clubhouse and finding a mascot. It's a 48-page book divided into four chapters. The sentences are short and easy to read, and there's a lot of dialogue which makes reading it fun. I like it that the friends are two girls and two boys, and ethnically diverse. There's an everyday feeling to the book that young readers will relate to. It's just four kids hanging out on a hot summer day making their own fun. Readers may in fact be motivated to go and form a club and build their own clubhouse out of an old box.

Daisy Dawson Is on Her Way!

Written by: Steve Voake
Illustrated by: Jessica Meserve
Recommended Ages: 4-8

Daisy Dawson is on Her Way is a slightly more difficult early chapter book, but equally satisfying. It's a good choice for kids that are ready to move beyond the level of something like the Magic Treehouse series. Daisy Dawson is a dreamer and a dawdler. She is almost always late for school, but only because she finds so many interesting things to look at along the way. On this particular day, she rescues a butterfly from a spider web on her walk to school. After that, she discovers she has the ability to communicate with animals. What follows are all sorts of encounters with different animals.

Daisy is a spunky, independent little girl who has a lot of appeal. The book moves along at a quick pace, and before you know it you're wrapping it up on page 98. The talking animals give it a fun, whimsical quality, and the black and white illustrations lend an old fashioned air to it.

If you are looking for some good books for your emerging reader to read before school starts, either of these books would be a good choice. Both books have sequels, so if your kids like them there's more to choose from.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer

Written by: Rita Williams-Garcia
Recommended Ages: 9-12

One Crazy Summer takes place in the summer of 1968, a year of tumultuous change in the United States. Eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are on their first airplane ride to Oakland to visit their mother who abandoned them seven years ago. They are filled with both trepidation and excitement, as they leave the safety of their dad and grandma to reacquaint themselves with a mother who didn't want them.

Delphine tells their story and her voice rings loud and clear. She is the oldest and takes her responsibilities seriously. She is in charge of her sisters, and makes sure that they (and everyone else) understand that. The other sisters are beautifully drawn also. Vonetta is all "ham and show," always itching to be the center of attention. And Fern is the baby of the family, a tad needy and always clutching her baby doll.

When the girls meet their mother, Cecile, their worst fears are realized. She's late to pick them up at the airport, no hugs, clipped sentences and no home cooked meals. She's not exactly vying for mother of the year. She's a poet, and her kitchen is mysteriously off limits to the kids. She hands them money for take-out Chinese food, and forces them to attend a Black Panther-sponsored summer day camp.

As readers we learn so much about what was going on at the time, and we see it through the eyes of these three young sisters. We watch as they come to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, Huey Lewis and the true meaning of Revolution. When Delphine learns that they are supposed to participate in a rally, her fear is palpable. She's worried about the danger and tells one of the counselors that she doesn't want to participate, that she has to take care of her sisters. Sister Mukumbu tells her:

"We look out for each other. The rally is one way of looking out for all of our sisters. All of our brothers. Unity, Sister Delphine. We have to stand united."

Williams-Garcia does a beautiful job depicting the charged atmosphere that was such a part of the summer of 1968. And while there's danger in the air, there's also an incredible feeling of community amongst the people involved at the "summer camp." The rally is a pivotal point for each of the girls. For in their own ways, each one of them changes and matures during their month in Oakland. Their initial perceptions of many things are challenged, and by the end of the month they see things very differently.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the book for me is Delphine's journey. She discovers so much about herself, and about the mother that left her. For although Cecile never emerges as any sort of mother role model, you get a better sense of who she is, and why she did what she did.

One Crazy Summer
is one of those rare middle-grade books that I didn't want to end. Williams-Garcia does a masterful job writing about a time period I think kids will find fascinating and educational. There's no better way to learn about about history than by viewing it through the eyes of a child. Delphine is the perfect narrator for one of the most fascinating, turbulent periods of American history. I highly recommend One Crazy Summer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Two new baseball picture books to consider

Here are two new picture books (both published in 2010) that will introduce two baseball legends to a new generation of readers.

All Star!: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever

Written by: Jane Yolen
Illustrated by: Jim Burke
Recommended Ages: 6-10

All Star! opens with the story of how a Honus Wagner baseball card sold at auction for three million dollars in June 2007. It then goes back 134 years to a small town in Pennsylvania where a baby was born to a mining family. From here it chronicles Honus's humble beginnings in this impoverished town where boys entered the mines after the sixth grade. On their only day off, they played baseball. With all the work in the mines, Honus was strong. One legend has it that when he was twelve he came to bat and belted the ball out into the outfield. While running around the bases, he caught up to the other runner, picked him up and slung him over his back and dropped him on the brick they used for home plate.

The story has lots of moments about Honus as he worked his way up through the minors and finally to a place on a Paterson, NJ team. Kids will enjoy hearing that he was paid $125 per month (the average yearly pay for a worker then was $439). When he ultimately joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900, Honus won the National League batting championship eight times. There are many legends about Honus out there, and the book tells a few of them. He was considered one of the greatest baseball players ever. When he had the famous baseball card made of him, he had it pulled when he realized that it was sold in cigarette packs. He thought it would give his young fans the wrong idea about cigarettes. So the cards became very rare, and very valuable.

Honus Wagner was a player who played baseball for the sheer love of the game. In 1936, when the Baseball Hall of Fame was established, he was one of the first five men inducted into it.

Written by: Willie Perdomo
Illustrated by: Bryan Collier
Recommended Ages: 6-9

This is a loving tribute to a man considered by many to be one of the finest baseball players ever--Roberto Clemente. The book is told in the first person by a little boy who is the son of the president of "The Greatest Fans of Roberto Clemente Club, Boogie-down Bronx chapter," who also happens to be named Clemente. Spanish is sprinkled throughout the book, as well as the impressive stats that Clemente acquired in his baseball career.

"4 batting titles,
.317 lifetime average,
came to bat 9454 times,
got 3,000 hits,
440 doubles,
166 triples,
240 home runs,
12 Golden Gloves...

What makes this book stand out is the way it portrays Roberto Clemente, not only as a great baseball player but as a wonderful human being. He lived his life admirably and never gave up, even when he was receiving ugly letters from people calling him names. His life ended tragically when the plane he was on, bound for Nicaragua with food, clothes and medicine for earthquake victims, crashed and disappeared. Unfortunately, Clemente's life was cut short, and baseball lost a great humanitarian athlete.

Both of these books portray two baseball legends playing in simpler times. Although, that's not to say that life was simple or easy for them. Both Wagner and Clemente confronted many obstacles along the way, and yet both overcame them with dignity. These days with athletes often in the news for all the wrong reasons, and salaries way out of proportion to the way normal people live, it's nice for kids to be reminded that true superstars in the past played for the love of the game.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bad to the Bone

Bad to the Bone (Down Girl and Sit)

Written by: Lucy Nolan
Illustrated by: Mike Reed
Recommended Ages: 5-8

Here's an early reader book that is laugh out loud funny. Bad to the Bone is the perfect book for the emerging reader who is ready to move beyond the 32-page picture book format. It has short, easy-to-read chapters, illustrations on every page and a snappy dialogue which makes reading it a breeze.

Bad to the Bone is written in first person from the viewpoint of a dog named Down Girl. (She thinks Down Girl is her name because that is what she hears her owner saying to her all the time.) Down Girl is a self-proclaimed cat hater who is always trying to train her human Rruff. When he doesn't give her the attention she thinks she deserves, she and her friend Sit decide to be "bad to the bone." Unfortunately, this only gets them into more trouble, resulting in the two dogs going to a dog training class. Only in Down Girl's mind, it's a class to teach their masters how to behave. What follows is a hilarious scene with the owners shouting out orders to the dogs, which makes the dogs think they've forgotten their actual names. As Down Girl notes at one point "Sit was a very popular name that day." Kids will find this scene of confused identity very funny, and may want to read it over and over again.

Young readers are naturally drawn to books about animals, and will enjoy reading a story told from a dog's point of view. Bad to the Bone is the third book in the "Down Girl and Sit" series, and even the most reluctant reader will have a hard to resisting the sly humor. By the way, if your child enjoys Bad to the Bone, you might want to check out the Bad Kitty series, which I wrote about here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Story of Ferdinand

The Story of Ferdinand

Written by: Munro leaf
Illustrated by: Robert Lawson
Recommended Ages: 3-8

In honor of Spain winning the World Cup, I was inspired to revisit the children's classic The Story of Ferdinand. As I started to read it, I realized that I still knew it by heart, even though it had been at least ten years since I last cracked its cover. For The Story of Ferdinand, along with Where the Wild Things Are, was one of the most beloved and widely read picture books in our house.

For those who don't know the story, Ferdinand was a little bull that "liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers." He was different than all of the other bulls who jumped and butted their heads together. Everything was fine in Ferdinand's life, until one day he sat on a bumble bee, which made him jump up with a snort and go a little crazy. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, some men from the city saw him at that exact moment and thought he would be the best bull to go to the big bullfights in Madrid. So they took him to the city with high hopes of having quite a show. But, no matter how hard the matadors tried, Ferdinand wouldn't fight. Instead he sat down in the middle of the bullring and smelled all of the flowers in the ladies' hats.

So what is it about the "little bull who would rather just sit and smell the flowers than fight," that finds its way into our hearts forever? I think it's because kids see from the beginning that Ferdinand is true to himself, even when everyone around him behaves differently. They see how much more appealing Ferdinand is being himself, rather than just one of the other bulls. It's a subtle lesson in individuality. Furthermore (and this is important), Ferdinand has one of the happiest, most satisfying endings in children's literature.

Of course, you can't talk about The Story of Ferdinand without talking about the whimsical (and often very humorous) black and white drawings by Robert Lawson. The facial expressions of the people, the cork tree, the matador dandies and the lovely ladies with flowers in their hair all make it so that multiple readings are enjoyable. There is always a fun new detail to point out, and I can honestly say that this is one book I never minded reading over and over again.

BookNosher Tidbit: The Story of Ferdinand was published just before the start of the Spanish Civil War (1934), and was seen by many supporters of Francisco Franco as a pacifist book. It became a target of the right wing and was banned in many countries. It was also one of the few non-Communist books promoted in Soviet-occupied Poland.