Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading: Tuck Everlasting

Courtesy of
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
in 1975
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit is one of those books I've always wanted to read.  I always saw it at the library or on the bookshelf, but it seemed my hands were always filled with titles and that book got "saved for later."  Well, no longer was I going to save it anymore!  I finally read this long-awaited book, and while it was different than I was expecting (um, yeah, I was expecting more of a love story, I suppose, BUT this was way better), it was totally worth the wait!  

The Tuck's are a family like no other because they won't die.  They unknowingly drank from the Fountain of Youth and haven't aged a day since.  It sounds great, doesn't it?  But for the Tuck family, it's not. While they don't have to meet the ultimate fate that befalls all of mankind - death - they also don't get to live fulfilling lives.  

“You can't have living without dying," they explain. "So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”  And that is how the Tuck's live.  They can't go into town too often or people will recognize them and wonder why they don't age!  They can't get married because people will find out their anti-aging secret and get suspicious!  And while they themselves go through life unchanged, their other friends pass on, and the Tuck's are lonely.  

This is obvious when ten-year-old Winnie goes wandering into her family's forest and almost drinks from the fountain when seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck stops her. Despite their age difference, Jesse tries to persuade Winnie to drink from the fountain when she turns seventeen so that the two can get married and stay young together forever.  Meanwhile, the Tuck family sweeps her away on their horse to tell her the story about the fountain when a devious man in a yellow suit overhears their story and plots to capitalize on the Fountain of Youth.  His first order of business:  Reveal Winnie's whereabouts to her worried-sick family in exchange for their forest. The deal is set, but when the man in the yellow suit approaches the Tuck household to "save" Winnie, Mae Tuck takes her husband's gun and kills the man in the yellow suit.  Because he brought the town's constable with him, he is witness to the crime, and Mae's punishment is to be hung.  But if she is hanged, the whole world will find out her secret.  

I like Tuck Everlasting for many reasons:  It showcases a relatable main character coming-of-age and going through many changes with conflicting opinions; it causes readers to question if the Tucks are really crazy (which I believe they are, though I suppose anyone would be with eternal life); and it illustrates an empathetic young girl with a thoughtful head on her shoulders.  

Throughout her time with the Tuck's, Winnie has diverse feelings, from feeling mistreated by the crazy kidnappers who had no right to take her from her family to feeling that they are her friends.  At times, she wonders if the Tuck's are crazy.  At times, I wondered if they were crazy!  Certainly, they were lonely, bored, wistful.  And these things certainly may have drove them a little crazy, but by the end of the novel, Winnie has decided that the Tuck's are indeed her friends after all.  

I especially enjoyed the final event of the novel with Winnie showing compassion for a friend and heeding the advice offered by her "crazy" friends.  I don't like to reveal spoilers, but I found her actions to be heart-warming.  Years later, the response of the Tuck family is heart-wrenching and illustrates how painful eternal life could be. 

While reading, I couldn't help but wonder what the Tuck's would be doing today! Would they have learned how to drive cars?  What would their occupations be?  It would be interesting to pose these questions to students and have them extend this story to reveal a modern-day version of the Tuck family. 

Tuck Everlasting is an unforgettable story for me that has been turned into a Disney movie and even a musical.  According to the ALA, "it should have won a Newbery," but even though it didn't, it still has the power to transform lives.  For more information about Natalie Babbit, including a book list and interview, click here.  To check out Tuck Everlasting, visit your local library.   

Reading: A Time of Miracles

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In 1997, I was in the fourth grade at Webster Elementary School in attendance with one of the most transformative teachers I ever knew.  After a summer spent at the swimming pool with my sister and our neighbor friends, I began the year alongside my best friend and fell in love with the book Shiloh.  I got to have lunch with my teacher and ride in the front seat of her car (major big deal), I went ice-skating for the first time, and I spent a weekend fishing with my uncles, in which I got the greatest quantity and largest fish of any of my (boy) cousins.  It was also the year that I lost my first dog to old age and my grandmother to cancer, the first year in which I experienced what it felt like to lose somebody.  At this time, I had no concept of the word "refugee" or of the predicament young Blaise Fortune encountered as he traveled with Gloria, his mother by chance, across the countryside and cities of the Caucasus, walking "straight ahead towards new horizons," losing almost everything he ever knew - except for hope.   

In A Time of Miracles by Anne-Laure Bondoux, a Batchelder Award winner originally written in French and published in 2009, tells the story of Blaise, a boy reportedly rescued from a wrecked train.  His travel companion and maternal figure, Gloria, rescued the boy from the train wreck and believes his mother to still be alive after being taken to a hospital due to the unfortunate incident.  Gloria says that she is from a wealthy fruit orchard and fell in love with a man named Zemzem when Blaise came along.  Although they are no longer together, Gloria tells Blaise that Zemzem left her with the greatest gift of all but won't reveal what it is. 

As she and Blaise travel, their ultimate goal is to arrive in France, where people have civil rights, and the two companions won't have to spend cold nights at campsites anymore, breathing in unhealthy, corrupt air.  In France, Blaise will have a chance to reunite with his birth mother and go to school.  But the journey to France is not easy with war following in their footsteps, and Blaise finds himself saying "good-bye" to many friends that he meets along the journey - Hoop Earring, the gypsy boy; Emil; Baska; Rebeka; and Fatima, who he hopes will remember him by his heart and violin. 

As I read A Time of Miracles, I was not expecting the story to span from Blaise's childhood (age eleven) to his college career, but it does.  Although the story spends most of its time with Blaise as an eleven-year-old, I enjoyed reading and watching the timeline of his life unfold.  Throughout his journey, I felt rather smart, as I was able to piece together the clues early into the story to figure out the mysteries behind Blaise's unknown life.  Who was his mother?  What was Zem-Zem's gift?  Why did Gloria often sneak away when the two weary travelers arrived somewhere new?  If students are reading carefully, they too should be able to piece together the clues and make many inferences and predictions and enjoy having their thoughts challenged as they journey through the book with Gloria and Blaise.  It was a journey that I was deeply engaged with, as I had trouble putting the book down and probably stayed up too late traveling with them.  

Yet, I also had to keep reminding myself that this story takes place in the 1990's, and when Blaise is in college, it is actually 2005 - the year I was a junior in high school!  I feel ashamed that I had no idea that this war was even occurring during my lifetime, and it shows me how I must educate myself about these issues.  Besides telling an engaging story with characters that are easy to care about and befriend, A Time of Miracles shines on a light on issues that are not always on the front page of newspapers or on the evening news.  

I am so grateful that I discovered this book and would like to read more of Anne-Laure Bondoux's books, especially if they follow the same theme as A Time of Miracles.  This book opens the door to further research for students and tells a story that will not be forgotten.  To check it out for yourself, be sure to visit your local library

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reading: Time for Kids - X, Why, Z?

Published by Time for Kids Books in 2013
Photo courtesy of
Why do so many houses have a pointed roof? 

Why does an igloo keep people warm? 

Why do dogs dig holes?

If you've ever wondered about any of these questions, you can find the answer in Time for Kids - W, X, Why?, a book of questions and answers for children.  I purchased this book last month for my classroom library, and since then, it has been a big hit among my students.  This child-friendly informational text is filled with vibrant photographs, intriguing questions, and answers written in a simple form that even struggling readers can decode and comprehend.   While it is an excellent non-fiction book for struggling readers, it only answers questions at a surface level but does open the door for further research. 

With this text, students can practice using non-fiction text features in a meaningful way; they can use the table of contents to find sections they want to peruse, an index to find common words in the text, headings, and photographs to further expand their knowledge.  The contents of this text include human body, animals, nature, earth and space, inventions, places, and history.

For my own personal use, this book is great to go to as a reference.  For example, if we are studying animal adaptations and a student asks, "Why are flamingos pink?" we can quickly turn to this book to find a quick and simple answer.  The answers in this book are quick and simple, but they still leave me with many more questions to ponder.  In fact, some of the answers seem too rushed, too obvious, and if the authors of this book wanted to take the questions even deeper, I think they should have asked, "How?"  

For example, one of the questions that the authors explore is, "Why do cats purr?"  Their answer: "Purring makes cats feel good.  Cats will purr when they are happy.  Kittens purr to tell their mom, 'I'm okay!' "  Now, I have known for most of my life that cats purr when they are happy, but I still want to know: How can they purr?  Is it automatic, or is it something that they conscientiously do?  From one perspective, this book does not dive deep into rich answers that really give students a thorough understanding of anything.  From another perspective, it touches upon many subjects and cannot possibly go too deep without becoming an encyclopedia; however, it can open the door for further research if a child finds that he/she is especially interested in something.  The best thing open this book is that it encourages children to ask questions, as that is the way they will learn more and the way they will discover information about the things they are interested in. 

As a teacher, I love finding books that my students are engaged with, and this book has certainly been a favorite!  There are many other books in the Time for Kids series that you can find at your local library. 

Reading: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea

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Named a Siebert Honor Book, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea, was written by Sy Montgomery and includes beautiful photographs by Nic Bishop.  Including maps of New Guinea and discussions with actual scientists working in the field, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo shows children what a day in the life of a researcher is like, as the scientists in this book try to understand one of the "rarest, strangest, and least understood creatures on the planet."  (Have you ever heard of a tree kangaroo?  I hadn't!)  

As more and more trees in the Cloud Forest of New Guinea are destroyed, so too are the homes for many trees kangaroos.  Because there is little known about these rare creatures, and because they are becoming rarer with the demolition of their habitat, researchers went on a journey to learn more about them.  This journey is outlined in Quest, an excellent book for use alongside a unit about conservation.  

One of my favorite elements from this informational book is the photographs revealing many creatures that I have never seen or heard of before, including the blue-headed cassowary bird and, of course, the adorable tree kangaroo which "looks like a stuffed animal, or like something that Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up.  Impossibly soft with a rounded fact, button eyes, pink nose, pert upright ears, and a long, thick tail, it's about the size of a  small dog or an overweight cat with plush brown and golden fur."  Isn't that such an amazing description?  I wouldn't normally expect to find something so poetic in an informational book, but I did, and it allowed me to visualize the tree kangaroo before even observing the photos of it! 

And that is how Quest reads, like a book of poetry complete with photos of the researchers, the animals they see, the landscape of New Guinea, the village homes and people of New Guinea (including school-children attending classes), and the journey through the Cloud Forest.  Obviously, Quest is about more than the tree kangaroo.  It introduces children to a land they are probably unfamiliar with, to people that live in a place unlike their own homes but still do the same things!  It emphasizes the importance of conservation, while showing a real scientific journey that just might inspire some young readers to study science and grow into researchers that can continue to work for conservation like the researchers they read about in Quest. It even includes the translation for common words in New Guinea.  Other text features include an index, maps, photos, and captions.  

I found Quest for the Tree Kangaroo to be an engaging read for myself, as it introduced me to a topic that I knew little about.  Children will be more interested in the pictures, especially since the text is rather small, but I would encourage mine to read the captions and to read each page if the captions pique their interest.  To check out this informational book for yourself, visit your local library.  You can also learn more about conservation efforts for the tree kangaroo by visiting 

Reading: The Journey - Stories of Migration

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As a third grade teacher, one of the learning objectives that I am required to teach in science is that of animal adaptations.  Migration is one of the topics that is covered in this unit, and my students enjoy learning about animals and how they are able to survive.  As a review for the upcoming SOL, and certainly for my group of students next year, I plan to share the book The Journey: Stories of Migration by Cynthia Rylant with my students.  Not only does this picture book, published in 2006 by The Blue Sky Press, include useful, in-depth information about animals species and how/why they migrate, it also features beautiful paintings by Lambert David that bring the animals to live.

In her book, Rylant outlines the migration of the following species: locusts, whales, eels, butterflies, caribou (my favorite illustrations!), and terns.  For each species, Rylant begins by describing where they live, where they migrate to, and why they must migrate.  She explains how migration helps each species to survive.  For example, the whales must migrate from the Arctic waters to southern waters to give birth to their calves.  Caribou must migrate to have their babies because it is not safe to have them in a forest filled with wolves!  While this book is filled with information, it is told with the same feeling of a story.  About the butterflies, Rylant writes, "The monarchs will settle themselves thickly over the limbs of the great California evergreen trees - thousands of butterflies to a tree - and the forests will be transformed.  What a wondrous sight!  Here on the tall trees, the beautiful monarchs will hibernate through the winter months safely away from the freezing snow and ice of their northern homes."  What a wondrous way to write non-fiction!  Rylant's words are much more engaging and personable than those of a science text book; this book is quite effective in presenting the idea of migration to children through many examples and details.  If I were sharing it with my students, I would share it story by story, instead of all at once.   

The element of this book that made it most memorable are the beautiful pictures included with each story!  Each story of migration includes full-bleed illustrations that are vibrant in color and show the same details of the animals as a photograph would - perhaps even mores!  On the caterpillar, for example, readers can glimpse fringed hair on the caterpillar feet.  The colors are rich and engaging and immediately drew me to this book.  

If you are teaching migration to your students or just want to learn more about it for yourself, I highly recommend The Journey!   You can check it out at your local library. To view more illustrations by Lambert Davis, visit his personal website, too. 

Reading: Unlikely Friendships

Unlikely Friendships was written by National
Geographic writer, Jennifer Holland. 
I know it's said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but when I saw a photograph of a monkey and a pigeon cuddling on the front of the photographic book Unlikely Friendships by National Geographic writer Jennifer Holland and published by Workman Publishing in 2011, I judged.  I judged this book to be sweet.  I judged this book to be filled with cute photographs that would make me go "Aww!"  I judged this book to contain real-life accounts of unusual friendships between animals.  And this book lived up to its expectations!  
My own unlikely friendship pair
at home! 

Unlikely Friendships includes several photographs of unlikely friendships between animals that usually operate as predator/prey in the food chain.  A story is included for each photograph to tell how the animals became friends and what the creatures are doing today.  While I enjoyed reading about all of the unusual pairings, a few that stuck out to me include: 

•The Black Bear and the Black Cat: This friendship was born with a sneaky stray cat snuck into the black bear exhibit at the zoo.  When zoo staff found her, she was cuddled up with the black bear, and when the bear's exhibit was renovated and the cat could no longer see her dear friend, zoo staff reported that she appeared deeply distressed.  Once the repairs were made and the bear was brought back to the exhibit, bear and cat resumed their friendship which, at the time of publication, had lasted for a decade. 

•The Bobbed Tail Dog and the Bobbed Tail Cat:  After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, rescue workers discovered a dog with a bobbed tail and a cat with a bobbed tail traveling the streets together.  The dog, who had been tied up, had apparently gotten away and still had pieces of the chain link around his collar, which constantly clanked to the ground.  The animals were sent to a rescue center where dogs and cats were housed separately; however, this upset the dog (named Bobbi by rescue workers), causing him to howl out in anguish.  The rescue workers allowed the two friends to stay together and discovered that the cat was totally blind (and probably had been that way prior to the disaster).  They believe that the clanking of the dog's collar helped the cat along as the two walked through disaster-torn streets together and eventually were adopted into the same home. 

Tink and Pink make an unlikely friendship pair.
Courtesy of
•The Dachshund and the Piglet: Pink was a baby pig born early and too small to survive with the rest of her piglet brother and sisters.  At the same time she was born, a litter of dachshund puppies was born inside the farmhouse to a mamma named Tink.  Tink nurtured Pink to health, and Pink grew up in a similar fashion to other dogs.  While she now resides in the barn, Tink and Pink still visit each other from time to time.  (This story was also written as a children's book in Little Pink Pup by Johanna Kerby, the owner of Pink and Tink.  

Unlikely Friendships is the kind of book I always wanted to read in school but was never allowed to.  Every year, our science teachers would open with, "What do you want to learn about in science this year?"  Every year, I said the same thing: "Animals."  But we never did, so soon, I stopped asking.  My students love reading about animals and would enjoy the stories in this book that show how animals have feelings, emotions, and the capacity for friendship.  Reading a passage from this book from time to time will show my students that they can get along with others, just like the unlikely friends in this book!  For more unusual pairings to share with your students, visit the website of Unlikely Friendships! 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reading: Coral Reef

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Every year, it seems that the non-fiction books in my class library are the first to be selected by eager hands.  They are passed around with anticipation, as students await diving into the deliciously rich photographs.  In Coral Reef, a photographic journey of coral reefs and written by Steven Parker for the Priddy Books company (Big Ideas for Little People), readers can explore the depths of the ocean ecosystem through vibrant, enchanting photos that consume entire pages.  Even as an adult, I enjoyed reading Coral Reef, though like many non-fiction books, it does not have to be read like a traditional book from front to back.  

Each page in Coral Reef includes a bold heading in interesting, bubble-letter font.  The text is almost overlooked amongst the amazing photos, but each page includes a short paragraph to tell about coral reefs with the most important words highlighted in blue, yellow, pink, purple, green, brown, and orange.   These words also appear in the glossary at the back of the book.

Besides photographs and headings, this informational book is chock full of other non-fiction text features that students can use in meaningful ways.  There are various charts and diagrams found throughout the book, including a double-page spread of a world map.  On this map, each coral reef is numbered, and an accompanied chart is on the same page with a name for each number.  Color coding is used to indicate warm reefs and cold reefs, and this key is included on these pages, as well.  Circular photos are displayed beneath the map, and their content is explained with helpful captions.

On other pages, boxes containing "fun facts" pop out at students, as well as a rating scale to indicate the endangered level of particular plants and animals, such as coral polyps and the green turtle.  These ratings are shown with seashells.  Other creatures that are explored in Coral Reef are the moray eel, the parrotfish, a sea snake, sea slugs, cleaner shrimp, sea dragons, lionfish, stingrays, and many others!   

Coral Reef not only enhances students' knowledge about various sea animal and plant species, it also explores dangers to this fragile ecosystem and can be used to integrate geographical knowledge.  The beauty and wonder found within each page make books exciting for children - Coral Reef has been a "buzz-book" among my students since I added it to our classroom last month, and I was excited to take a look at it for myself!  To consider adding this book to your library, or to look at more informational and engaging books for your students, check out the Priddy Books Website!

Reading: But I'll Be Back Again

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I didn't grow up in the 1960's, but I have sometimes wished I did, mostly because of all of the flowers that were around.  In another life, I'd like to think I'd be peacefully trapezing the streets of San Francisco, a flower tucked behind my ear, catching trolleys to work among the wind-blown hills of my favorite city.  I know this is a rather romanticized notion, and yes, I've been influenced by my mother's vintage pins and antiques (not to mention my own love for flowers), but I have always been interested in learning about the past, particularly the 1960's and the culture of the United States at that time.  Reading But I'll Be Back Again, an autobiography by children's writer Cynthia Rylant, gave me a peek into that world and taught me more about one of the most well-rounded writers today.  

As I was reading, I wanted to make connections between Rylant's early life and some of the books she has written.  It seems as if some of her childhood experiences have affected the books she writes, while other books she has written seemingly for pure entertainment and enjoyment.  For example, When I Was Young in the Mountains is told from a reminiscent perspective about life in the mountains.  Growing up, Cynthia Rylant spent time with her grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia.  Of her time in the mountains, Rylant writes, "I had big stacks of pancakes and hot cocoa, hound dogs and chickens, teaberry leaves and honeysuckle, and aunts and cousins to sleep with at night and hug until someone could return for me."  This particular line makes me feel that Rylant thought fondly of her time in the mountains; further, it connects me to another famous Rylant book: The Relatives Came.  

In this book, the relatives come "up from Virginia" and there is a lot of laughter and hugging as the family spends time together.  Rylant has written several other books about Appalachia or featuring country settings, including Appalachia: The Voices of Singing Birds and Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story.  Many of Cynthia's children's books focus on older people, including The Old Woman Who Named Things, An Angel for Solomon Singer, and Mr. Griggs; Work. I wonder if any of these stories are meant to honor her grandparents, who raised her for four years while her mother was at nursing school.  Sometimes, it seems as if Cynthia Rylant has written a story for every occasion, but it is important to note how her own life experiences have inspired her to write more.  This makes her an authority about many of the books she has written. I am sure that there are many other connections between her own childhood and the books she writes, in which she tries to right the wrongs that she experienced when she was young, but I have not read enough of her work to make these links.

The element I found most fundamental in Rylant's writing is that she shares with young adults that her childhood was not perfect; her father was an alcoholic, her parents were divorced, and there was not always electriicity or running water in her home.  (Think about the latrine in When I Was Young in the Mountains!)  Not to mention all of the growing pains and coming-of-age encounters she had: an eternal crush on Paul McCartney, kissing boys, and the art of shaving.  A line in the book that I found most compelling has nothing to do with any of these incidents, however, but is a revelation that Rylant learned (and that I still need to figure out for myself sometimes):  "I believe I grew up with this big feeling inside that said, 'Whenever anyone who is with you is unhappy, it is you fault.' I didn't know, growing up, that I didn't have to make people happy."   This is such an important thing to know, that we must find happiness within ourselves and cannot make other people be happy, nor must we always look to others to make ourselves happy.  Certainly, we can contribute positivity to a person's life, but if we ourselves are not content with ourselves, then it seems that we never will be. But I'll Be Back Again is an encouraging read for all students, as it lets them know that they can achieve greatness despite their circumstances (and that they can feel happy, too, despite those obstacles).  

I also appreciated how each chapter of this book began with a related Beatles quote.  I thought that this was a unique link with a topic that was important to her and also showed how she connected with the Beatles and why they were so essential to her life.  What a challenge it must be, too, (or perhaps not if you're well-versed in their music) to find lyrics that mesh perfectly with your own thoughts!  

I enjoyed reading But I'll Be Back Again to learn more about a famous author.  I love teaching my students about their favorite writers (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Patricia Polacco, Jan Brett, Louis Sachar) and love learning about writers on my own, too.  If you are interested in reading this autobiography, or any other book written by Cynthia Rylant, visit your local library! 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reading: A Splash of Red - The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

Courtesy of a
Recently awarded the Schneider Family Book Award, an honor given to books that embody the "artistic experience of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences," A Splash of Red is a beautifully crafted book in ways that I never thought about a book being beautiful before.

First, and most obvious, are the illustrations by Melissa Sweet.  Since Horace Pippin was an artist, it only makes sense that the drawings in a biography of his life as an artist be beautiful and colorful, splashed with red.  Created with watercolor, gouache, and mixed media, each page contains sweet surprises hidden within the drawings.  The illustrations of Horace's home as a child invite me inside and make me want to stay with bright colors on the wall and vibrant patterned curtains decorating each window.  Many of the pictures made me want to reach out and try to touch them, to feel the texture.  Upon doing this, I realized that all of the illustrations are two-dimensional, but oh!  How they appear otherwise.

For example, there is a page revealing a "funny face in a magazine" that Horace recreated to win his first prize as an artist.  It looks as if his actual drawing had been attached to the page, as if I could feel the creases of the blue-lined stationary he used that sat atop a glossy scrapbook background.  The following page shows some of Horace's art supplies - paintbrushes and a box of paints, for example - and I feel as if I could pull each colored pencil off the page, one by one.  There is another page detailing Horace's entry into the army in which a boat is sailing on the Atlantic Ocean.  The word "Atlantic Ocean" is written in what appears to be cut-out letters.  They look as if they have an uneven, rough paper, but upon feeling them, they are merely two-dimensional, just as every other image in this magical book.  

The breadth of media used to create the aesthetically indulgent book makes it a tactile experience for young readers, who will want to touch each page to fully experience it.  It will inspire your artists to be creative in their own illustrations.

I also enjoyed the beautiful writing that was found on each page, as well.  Usually, I find biographies that are written for the purpose of educating children about a person's life but are not really written for children.  In A Splash of Red, author Jen Bryant tells about Horace's life in a meaningful way.  This biography unfolds like a story.  

Even though Grandma's hards are big, like Horace's, they "were just fine for giving Horace hugs."  The story of Horace's life begins by telling readers what Horace does with his "big hands."  First, he uses them to help his family around the house.  Then, he uses them to draw at school (sometimes on his spelling tests).  Later, he uses them to go to work when his father leaves home.  No matter how busy he gets, when someone says, "Make a picture for us, Horace," he does.  

When Horace is away at war in Germany, he is shot in the shoulder and can no longer make pictures.  When he returns to the United States, he meets Jennie, "a hard worker.  She loved to cook.  Horace was a hard worker, too.  And he loved to eat!  It was a good match."  (I delighted in this short scene of the book!)  Every time Horace walks down the street, he sees things he wants to draw: flowers, curtains, cats!  He slowly attempts to start drawing again by using his left hand to help his right.  Eventually, he regains strength in his hand and begins to paint famous pieces of art.  

This biography serves many uses in a classroom.  There are many events that lightly skimmed but not dived into.  Why did Horace's father leave?  Students might wonder.  Did Horace have any kids?  (For some reason, my third graders always want to know this question!)  Is he still alive?  (That's another they're always curious about.)  This book will open the door to many questions that students have, allowing them to explore more books and credible websites on their own.  

This biography is also authentic, as it provides more biographical information about Horace in the book, as well as an author's note and illustrator's note in the back detailing the entire process of creating A Splash of Red.  It also includes a list of other books for further reading.  Personal quotes attributed to Horace also grace the pages of A Splash of Red, helping readers to understand more about this talented man. 

After viewing the map in the map of the book, indicating where audiences can see Horace Pippin's work, I was disappointed to note that Virginia does not have any art galleries with his work at the moment!  However, his work can be viewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, about an hour from my other home, so perhaps I will have the opportunity to visit this summer.  If you would like to see some of Horace Pippin's art for yourself, visit Museum Syndicate Online. For more information about his biography, A Splash of Red, visit the book's official website. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reading: Pocket Poems Selected by Bobbi Katz

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"With a poem in your pocket and a pocket in your pants, you can rock with new rhythms.  You can sing. You can dance.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, [...] that poem in your pocket will be a part of you," Bobbi Katz writes in the introduction to Pocket Poems, a compilation of 54 children's poems published in 2004 by Dutton Children's Books.  

I like Pocket Poems because the poems are short and easy to memorize for young readers.  I can imagine this poem book being utilized throughout the year with each student receiving an assigned "pocket" cut-out on a bulletin board with new poems in place to read or to hold new poems that the child has written to become a part of him, as Katz suggests in the opening poem.  

Pocket Poems includes a variety of poems, from shape poems to rhyming poems to bilingual poems!  I like this variety and think that all of the poems, while different, include poetic language and will be easy for students to decipher.  One of my favorite poems is called "Jack Frost" written by Helen Bayley David and goes like this: 

"Someone painted pictures on my window pane last night - Willow trees with trailing boughs and flowers - frosty white.  And lovely crystal butterflies; But when the morning sun touched them with its golden beams, they vanished one by one!"  

I love the rhythm of the above poem, and think it's an excellent poem to be used when teaching the comprehension strategy of visualizing!  Imagine: Crystal butterflies!  Willow trees with trailing boughs!  And the touch of sun beams!  Children would enjoy drawing what they see when the poem is read-aloud to them.  Perhaps teachers could save the title for last and let the students try to piece together the clues and figure out what the painted pictures are from.   

There are also poems that can be used across the curriculum to extend students' learning.  For example, the poems "The Period" and "The Question Mark" are rhythmically enjoyable and short with only four-sentences each.  They will be easy for students to memorize, and also emphasize the importance of these punctuation marks.  Some of the excerpted poems are written from authors that I am familiar with, such as Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg.   These poems could lead themselves to further study of these authors.  And all of the poems include some sort of colorful, vivid, child-appropriate illustration that helps breathe life into each piece of writing.  

I enjoyed reading Pocket Poems and found it to be an easily-accessible book for my third graders to read and understand, too.  There are a variety of poems for any occasion that children will enjoy and remember.  To find a poem for your pocket, visit your local library to check out this winning compilation. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reading: Mister Orange

Published by Enchanted Lion Books
Courtesy of
The year is 1943, and World War II is in full-swing.  For pre-teen Linus Muller, the pendulum of life is swinging from one direction to the next.  His older brother, Albie, has volunteered to leave for Europe and go to war, leaving Linus new responsibilities and a bunk to share with his other older, yet less fun, brother Simon.  At first, Linus is proud of his brother's bravery about going off to war but soon learns that war is not all fun and games, as he once thought.  In this coming-of-age story, he befriends an older gentleman that he fondly calls "Mister Orange" who helps Linus to rediscover the power of imagination in an age when it could be a dangerous possession.  

Like many young boys, Linus loves superheroes, and he often daydreams about Mister Superspeed.  The author highlights these daydreams in italics, showing Linus often having conversations with this imagination being that his brother created.  Linus turns to Mister Superspeed for strength when his brother first departs for war, admiring his fictional superhero for his agility, speed, strength, and ability to defeat the enemy.  It is this same quality that Linus admires in Albie and causes him to question why his parents just won't put a blue star in their market window to tell the whole city of New York that they have a son at war, and they are proud!  

As the story continues, Linus is responsible for delivering produce to homebound customers, a job that he inherited from Albie, when he befriends Mister Orange, a customer whose real name confuses him.  He learns that Mister Orange came to America to escape the war in Europe and is able to confide in Mister Orange in a way that he cannot do with anyone else.  As the war progresses and Linus learns that people can't be saved from make believe superheroes like Superspeed, he expresses his frustration at the powerlessness of imagination to Mister Orange, an artist, who in turn expresses his hope in the powerfulness of imagination to transform the future!  
Mr. Orange's real artwork, "Victory Boogie Woogie"

In reality, author Truus Matti created Mister Orange in the likeness of artist Piet Mondrian who actually created the same artwork that Mister Orange is credited for in this book - "Victory Boogie Woogie"!  After reading Mister Orange, the first thing that I did was google this famous artwork to see what it looked like, to see if it bared a resemblance to the way I had imagined it to look based on the author's description.  If I had seen this artwork without knowing about its creator and being ignorant to what the artist intended it to mean, I probably wouldn't pay much notice to it.  But since I know what the artist was trying to convey, and since I came to adore "Mister Orange" in this novel, I do have an appreciation for what the artist did and an understanding for why he did it.  

Indeed, I did adore Mister Orange and his wise persona.  Never quick to anger - in fact, never seeming angry at all - he was a calm gentleman who seemed to never waste words.  He thought "outside of the box" and sought to do something purposeful with his artwork.  The only reason that Mister Orange came to America in the first place was so that he could create the artwork he wanted to without worrying about it being destroyed or burned by the Nazi Party.  Besides being a deep thinker and a creative soul, Mister Orange was also empathetic towards the feelings of other and extremely sweet-natured.  When he tossed Linus an orange, causing Linus to fall down the stairs, he asked, "Did you very much hurt yourself?"  Then, he immediately set out to bandage Linus' scraped knee.  When he introduced Linus to his friend, Harry, he heartfully explained, "Linus asks the best questions in all of New York."  This was after Linus had expressed concern about asking "stupid" questions.

Further, young Linus was also a character that I adored and that I could achingly relate to as a young, nearly-a-teenager myself.  He so badly wants to be respected and to prove himself, yet something always seems to stand in the way!  His brother sends him on an important mission, detailed in a letter from war, that involves a milk carton, spiders, and a birthday card.  Linus is determined to do it right and to do it himself.  But when the family receives Albie's follow-up letter, Linus thinks that he ruined the whole mission.  He later realizes his selfishness and forces himself to grow up, only to find out that he may have had the right mindset to begin with!  Not sure of his place in the world, and stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Linus struggles to prove himself, loses a friend, gains a friend, and even develops a hopeful sort of crush that never really develops anywhere.  Most young readers will be able to relate with Linus, too. 

One of the most interesting aspects about Mister Orange to me is that it was originally published in Dutch before being translated in English.  Its translation by Laura Watkinson earned it the Batchelder Award in 2014 for translated texts. (See the website for more information.)  In the back of the book, the author cites research that she did to create an accurate portrait of the artist, the war, and life in New York City in 1943.  I often read books by American authors, or at least initially written in English, about people in other countries, and it's uncommon for me to read a book about Americans that was not written by an American author or an English-speaker!  The translation of this book makes it a delectable, enriching read, and I truly enjoyed the story of Mister Orange and the message that it conveys about imagination.  As a teacher, I often wonder why standardized tests often emphasize recall of information.  Certainly, basic knowledge is important, but the highest level of thinking is creation, and we progress as a society when people create new things - new thoughts, new books, new ideologies, new pieces of art, new technological devices, and so forth!  I am often perplexed as to why research shows that creativity dwindles when children age and that most people reach their creative peaks at the age of six - the same age when children usually enroll in school.  Coincidence?  

While Mister Orange does not discuss the implementation or absence of creativity in school, it does have an important message for readers of all ages.  To check it out at your local library, visit the WorldCat website.  And to view more artwork by Piet Mondrian, click here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reading: Good Dog

Courtesy of
It's no secret that I love dogs.  I once wrote a required writing assignment about my dog, Nellie, the red-headed dachshund that I grew up with by my side.  My teacher said it probably couldn't be done, but for whatever the reason, she relented and let me do it.  I wistfully had to delete sentences and entire paragraphs to fit within the required page limit, as I just had so much to profile about my beloved.  Why, a person doesn't have to spend a lot of time with a dog to realize that it has feelings, nor does he/she have to spend time with lots of different dogs to realize that each dog has its own personality.  In the poetry book Good Dog written by Maya Gottfried and published in 2005 by Alfed A. Knopf, the dogs telling the poem each have their own personalities!  When read aloud and with expression, I can imagine many dogs that I have known standing proudly behind the words of these poems, a smile on their faces and a wag of their tails! 

My sweet Randy
Some of the dogs portrayed in this quick-read of poetry are small and mighty, like the small brown chihuahua who proclaims, "I may be small, but I am swift.  Don't you mess with me."  Some are sweet and cuddly, like the spaniel who says, "Tired, resting on the big blanket.  Beside you."  Some of them express fury towards their owners, like the pomeranian with the bouffant who complains, "You did it again!  And you promised.  You promised! [...] Look at me!  Hair!  Hair!  Hair!  I can barely see!  Now I'm as round as a powder puff.  This is just embarrassing." (I think my dog Ralphie would say that.)  Others express their apologies, writing, "I feel terrible about chewing on your custom-made leather shoes.  Though, they were on the floor." My favorite poem includes the heart-felt lines, "For you, only you, I will always be there."  (My dog Randy would say that.) 

My happy Ralphie!
The poems in Good Dog are simple, occupying only a page each, as well as an accompanying picture on the opposite page.  The poems are not long, and the language is concrete.  However, the poems lend themselves to great dramatics and could be very fun for elementary students to act out.  I can just imagine one of my students indignantly proclaiming, "You promised.  You promised!"  The poems are also quite relatable for anyone who has spent time with a dog, as they are sure to find a poem to fit their beloved companion.  

The illustrations in Good Dog, by Robert Rahway Zakanitch, are realistic and rather simple.  Each poem features a black and white charcoal drawing of a dog, as well as a full-bleed painted illustration of each dog amongst a black background.  I feel that this sort of illustration highlights the importance of dogs, as it reminds me of the way a president's portrait would be painted.    

To be fair, I have a bunny, too! 
Good Dog is an excellent book of poems to be used in conjunction with fluency and expressive reading practice, especially for young readers and people who cherish their precious pooches. However, I wish the book had been a little longer, as there are sixteen poems, and all of them are relatively short.  I would have preferred for the author to write about good dogs that may have come from a shelter and now to get to glorify in their new homes!  I also would have enjoyed reading a selection of poetry focused on this topic that included a trifle more vivid language, rich expressions, and other poetic devices.  While the poems are funny, cute, or sweet, they are not particularly enriching, nor do they demonstrate writing of the highest caliber.  Even so, I would like to use some of the poems in Good Dog to encourage my students to be expressive as oral readers and speakers. 

Interestingly, Maya Gottfried and Robert Rahway Zakanitch have worked together on other literacy projects.  In fact, it seems that all of Maya's books have been illustrated by Robert.  I could not find an exclusive website devoted to Maya's work, but her works are listed on her Amazon page if you are interested in viewing this book or any others that she has written.  

Reading: Joyful Noise - Poems for Two Voices

Courtesy of 
Written by Paul Fleischman, Joyful Noise is a compilation of poems that are arranged to be read by two readers "with two parts meshing as a musical duet."  Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1989, Joyful Noise is truly a joyful read with its various poems and also accessible to struggling readers with its advocation of reading in partnership.  However, I was not initially excited to read this book for what I felt were rather bland illustrations inside. 

To me, the title Joyful Noise carries multiple meanings. The sound of a poem is joyful. The sound of children reading poems together is joyful. The sound of their "musical duet" is joyful.  The silent sounds of bugs outside is joyful, as it reminds me of summer, and all of the poems focus on the movements of bugs. Some sample poem titles that I enjoyed are "Chrysalis Diary," which details the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly over five months, and "Honeybees," which juxtaposes the life of a queen bee with the life of a worker bee.  

The partner reading that is expected to accompany this book brings the poems to life and makes them more meaningful.  When I first read "Honeybees" in my mind - in one voice - I didn't appreciate the poem.  I didn't think about how one voice is the queen, while the other is a worker.   But then I asked a coworker friend to read the poem with me, and I truly enjoyed it and also felt that this particular poem called into play some dramatics!  

My third graders love the chance to be dramatic, but I do feel that Joyful Noise is best-suited for older readers for its challenging word choice and vocabulary.  For example, the poem "Whirligig Beetles" contains the words gyrating, serpentine, and tortuous.   Reading this particular poem also made me dizzy because of the whirling illustrations and the misalignment of text.  In fact, the text alignment on all of the pages made me somewhat dizzy and confused.  I understand the author constructed his book this way so that readers could identify their own parts, but without the parts being highlighted for me, it was a struggle to get through this book because of the format.  At the same time, this is not a book intended to be read in one sitting as I attempted to read it and may have been easier for me to digest if I had read it the way the author intended: with a partner and sparingly.  

The illustrations, too, deducted the joy of reading this book.  They are all black and white, and some quite small.  Some of the bugs appear real, especially the honeybee, while others are quite fantastical and portray bugs putting their arms around each other and smiling.  I am also just not partial to bugs and was a bit squeamish about some poems and their illustrations, particularly "Book Lice."  (It made me want to put the book down and wash my hands!) 

Overall, I love the idea of Joyful Noise and believe that two partners reading together with expression and fluency would bring these poems to life!   I can imagine high school students in a theatre class benefitting from and enjoying this book.  In fact, I did find several videos on Youtube of high school speech students performing poems from this book, including this one.  Even some of my own students may enjoy acting out some of the poems together.  But I would not recommended reading this book all at once but saving it to devour poem by poem, or piece by piece, on rainy days, like that pint of chocolate Haagen-Dazs is my freezer!  To experience this for yourself, check out Joyful Noise from your local library. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading: Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night

I enjoy incorporating poetry books into my classroom fluency center, but I'll admit that I do not use poetry as often as I would like to.   I tend to find thematic poems that align with our current studies, the current season, or student interests, but I do not have a variety of poetry compilations in my class library.  Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin is an excellent book of poems that gives students a sneak-peek into the woods at nighttime.  Most children are asleep in their beds at night and can only dream about the wilderness, and Dark Emperor allows them to get a glimpse of this other world that might be right outside their windows. 

Inviting readers into this Newbery Honor Book is the first poem, "Welcome to the Night."  This fun, rhythmic poem sets the tone for the theme of the book and gives readers clues as to what they will be reading about.  "The night's a sea of dappled dark," the author writes, "the night's a feast of sound and spark, the night's a wild, enchanted park.  Welcome to the night."  

As might be expected in a book of poems, Dark Emperor includes a myriad of romantic, beautifully written phrases.  In the poem "Love Poem of the Primrose Moth," the moth storyteller explains, "At dawn, I fold my sherbet-colored wings and become a primrose."  This juxtaposition between the moth and the flower that she resembles and admires is thought-provoking, and I appreciate how the author describes the moth's wings as "sherbet-colored" as opposed to pink. 

While I enjoyed all of the poems in this composition, my very favorite is "Ballad of the Wandering Eft" for its quick rhythm, repetitive chorus, and rich language.  The eft explains that in the woods, "wild and windy[...]moss grows like candy."  In case you're wondering what an eft is, as I would have were it not for the pictorial clues, each poem includes an adjoined page with non-fiction information about the subject of each page.  In the non-fiction page opposite this particular poem, the author writes that an eft is "like other newts and salamanders."  I appreciate how the author ties information into this book of poems, making it unique and applicable across the curriculum.  

Finally, the illustrations in Dark Emperor are engaging.  Each poem includes a large, framed illustration, as well as a few small pictures mingling with the poems themselves.  The illustrator, Rick Allen, has employed the use of dark colors to emphasize the words at night.  It appears that he has used printmaking to illustrate this book, as is evident with the deep, bold lines composing each picture.  This is a unique style of illustration that I have not seen present in many picture books that I have deeply analyzed; it fits the tranquil feel of Dark Emperor, and I would like to see more of this artwork in other picture books. 

After reading this compilation from my library, I plan to purchase a copy to store in my classroom library (and occasionally pull poems from for the fluency center).  It is the perfect book to share with students before summer vacation, perhaps embedding it with a thematic unit of camping out!  If you would like to experience it for yourself, check it out at your local library! You can also view the book trailer at Joyce Sidman's website

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reading: Esperanza Rising

Courtesy of
Esperanza Ortega was anticipating the celebration of her thirteenth birthday: fresh papayas from Papa, a brand new doll, joy and merriment abundant at El Rancho de las Rosas, or the Ranch of the Roses.  Her dreams come to a sudden halt, however, when her father is killed by Mexican bandits and her home is burned to the ground.  Escaping the beautiful land of Mexico that she and her father shared a love for, Esperanza and her mother flee to the United States where they can be employed as migrant workers.  Now, Esperanza no longer sends her old dresses to the "poor box" at church; instead, she receives them.  

Esperanza Rising, winner of the Pura Belpré Award and published by Scholastic in 2000, is one of the most devastating, yet beautiful, novels I have ever read.  I was engrossed in the story and captivated with the rich language expressed by author Pam Munoz Ryan.  For young readers who have ever had the experience of moving to a new land with a new language, or for young readers who have ever lost a person close to their heart, or for young readers experiencing immense pain, or just for young readers who like to read good books, Esperanza Rising has something for everyone.  

One of the themes that I noticed expressed by Ms. Ryan is how often she explores the land of Mexico and the land of the United States.  In Mexico, Esperanza's father owns a large, plentiful ranch that specializes in growing las uvas, or grapes.  Each chapter of the book is titled with an in-season fruit (Las Uvas, Los Papayas, and so forth) to show the seasons transforming and repeating, one after the other.  Esperanza feels connected to the land on the ranch, which is evident on the first page when the author writes, " 'Our land is alive, Esperanza,' said Papa.  Esperanza [gazed] at him and [watched] his eyes dance for the love of the land.  [Isn't that so beautiful, though?] 'Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe?  That you can feel its heart beating?' " After this exchange, they slink "down like caterpillars" and lay with their hands on the ground and listen for the heartbeat of the earth.  

When Esperanza and her mother arrive in California, Esperanza does the same thing.  But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot hear the heartbeat of the earth.  Not only has she moved to a new, unusual place, but her mother gets sick; her Abuelita is still in Mexico; she is in a completely different social class than she had been in Mexico; people are talking about strikes and creating violence and danger for the rest of the migrants; and Esperanza isn't voted May Queen.  Instead, the honor is given to a small, blonde-headed girl instead.  Esperanza must endure these difficult times in this coming-of-age story that presents issues of injustice to young readers in an authentic way. 

In fact, the author of Esperanza Rising has written many books that feature Hispanic children, and many of her books has been honored with the Pura Belpré award and other awards.  In the afterwords of this novel, Ms. Ryan explains that this book was written to honor her grandmother who was a migrant worker from Mexico in the 1920's.  She includes an interview telling about her interests and how she became a writer, a recipe for a beverage mentioned in the book (Jamaica Flower Punch), translated sayings from the book, and directions for creating a yarn doll similar to the one Esperanza made while at a migrant camp.  

I am planning to use this novel as my next read-aloud in class, as it provides lessons in history, geography, and empathy.  With its challenging, fun-to-read vocabulary ("Esperanza loved Abuelita more for her capricious ways than for her propriety") and concrete lesson that "It is never too late to start over," I am excited to share Esperanza Rising with my class. If you would like to read this richly crafted novel for yourself, visit your local library.  You can also check out other books Ms. Ryan has written at her personal website, along with classroom activities, and check out other Pura Belpré winners at the award site, too! 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reading: My Senator and Me - A Dog's-Eye View of Washington D.C.

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Some things make me happy to think about: children's books, for example.  A good shoe sale.  A day spent on the beach.  My mom's strawberry shortcake.  Running.  Dogs.  Some things don't make me so happy to think about: government, for example.  Hairy scary spiders in the backseat of my car.   You get the idea.  However, in My Senator and Me: A Dog's-Eye View of Washington D.C., written by Edward M. Kennedy and published in 2006 by Scholastic, a dog talking about the government just makes things better!  This book is an excellent tool to use in classrooms learning about the functions of  government, particularly the legislative branch, and the dog telling the story makes it delightful. 

The story begins with an introduction to Washington D.C. with whimsical illustrations of the nation's capital crafted by David Small.  Splash, Kennedy's Portuguese Water Dog,  tells us, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."  And that is what Kennedy does.  After driving to a farm in Virginia and picking out the perfect pup, the family journeys back to D.C., where Splash takes us through a typical day in the life of a senator.  Get up early, read the paper.  Go to work, write an education bill.  Debate with the House of Representatives, make education better for everyone!  Of course, there is playtime and lunchtime and more thorough explanation of how things work, but this is truly the first book that I have read that explains the functions of government that I truly enjoyed! 

Told from the perspective of a dog, this book is more relatable for children than a textbook.  It's told in an engaging, affable manner and still relays the functions of government effectively.  Illustrations of PEOPLE in the Senate and House of Representatives bring these two groups to life for children.  I love how the illustrator includes pictures of the Capital Building, the Washington Monument, the White House, and other famous monuments in D.C.  Because of this inclusion, My Senator and Me is not only a helpful supplement when learning about the three branches of government but also reliable for showing and discussing important landmarks in our nation's capital.  

My only complaint about this book is how the author glorifies Portuguese Water Dogs.  I am sure that there are many shelters in Washington, D.C. housing hundreds of dogs in need of love and affection that are less likely to be adopted than a highly-prasied breed.  As a leader in our country, I wish that Edward Kennedy had considered this option and opted not to look for the "perfect dog" but to look for a dog in need of a  good home!  It has been said that judging a dog by its breed is like judging a human by the color of his skin.  All dogs have  unique personalities, and all dogs should be celebrated!  I also felt such sadness for the dog that "sat alone" when Edward and his family went in search of this "perfect dog."  When I got to adopt a puppy at the age of ten, I decided to choose the puppy that "sat alone" because she looked like she needed a friend.  She was the best friend I could have ever had!  

Besides that, I enjoyed reading My Senator and Me and would love it if more informational books were written in this personable manner.  If you'd like to check it out for yourself, visit your local library