Monday, October 28, 2013

The Castle in the Attic

Seven years ago, I began reading this with my 4th grade reading classes and all of us fell in love with it.  The story begins by introducing us to ten-year-old William and his British nanny Mrs. Phillips.  William's parents are both working professionals who also volunteer within their community.  Mrs. Phillips has been taking care of William since he was a baby and they have an easy, close relationship. 

Mrs. Phillips has decided to retire and return to England and spend the rest of her life near her family.  William is devastated and makes several attempts to keep her from leaving, but Mrs. Phillips remains resolved to go home. 

She brings William a gift to remember her by - a large stone and wood castle that has been in her family for generations.  She has shared stories about the castle all of William's life and he is thrilled to receive it, but still refuses to accept the fact that she will be leaving soon.

As they explore the castle together, Mrs. Phillips gives William a box containing the Silver Knight, a small lead knight.  She asks him to open it when he is alone.  When he does, the adventure begins.

The Silver Knight comes alive the instant he comes in contact with William's skin and that magical moment starts a chain of events that leads to William coming to terms with growing up.

I don't want to spoil the storyline, so I'll just say that there are some beautiful moments between William and Mrs. Phillips.  One of my favorites is her explanation of why it will be good for his family to have her leave.  William is clearly not having it, but it will tug at the reader's heartstrings when she explains that the two of them are almost too close, it leaves others out and if she leaves, his parents will have to arrange their lives around him.  If I tell you my other golden moments, it will spoil the story, so I'll let find out for yourself.

This adventure spans two continents, two eras of time, and tests the love and loyalty of a young boy.

Just get this book and read it already!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Lonely Scarecrow

The scarecrow wants friends, but none of the animals will come near him because he looks...scary.  He wistfully watches the animals play and wishes they would come near him.  As the seasons progress, he feels increasingly lonely and as winter approaches, he loses all hope of making friends. 

But with the first snow comes a small miracle.  The snow covers the scarecrow and makes him look like a snowman and the animals begin to play happily around him each day.  In the back of his mind, the scarecrow worries that when he loses his snowy coat, he will also lose his friends.

As the snow slowly begins to thaw, the animals realize that their new friend is actually "the same scary creature they had feared for so long," but they stay with their new friend.

The Lonely Scarecrow is an appealing book for several reasons.  First, the illustrations, by Maggie Kneen, are beautiful (sidenote: I understand that the hardcover edition is embossed).  Several of the pages have small detailing around the central image, reminiscent of Jan Brett's work.

I love the language in this book!  Too often today's authors simplify the language in children's books TOO MUCH!  It needs to stop - can we start a campaign?

When I read Beverly Cleary or E.B. White or Laura Ingalls Wilder to my students, very few of them are able to stay interested and it's not because these authors aren't tremendous.  I think it's because children don't have enough opportunities to develop the vocabulary they are capable of developing so they can't follow the stories without significant adult guidance (and don't get me started on how digital pastimes have ruined their attention spans).  Phrases like "the ravaged acres of mud," "marooned in his golden sea," and "a sly breeze that stole the leaves from the trees," should be the rule rather than the exception.

Finally, I appreciate the moral(s) of the story.  Appearances can be deceiving, don't judge a book by it's cover, everyone deserves a chance, all of these adages (and more) about friendship and acceptance are wonderfully illustrated in this story. 

The Lonely Scarecrow needs to be in your home or classroom library.  I hear the hard cover edition has embossed illustrations - I'm salivating! :)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Halloween Night: Twenty-One Spooktacular Poems

This collection of humorous Halloween poems by Charles Ghigna is illustrated in 5 colors by Adam McCauley, who also illustrated the Time Warp Trio series and the Wayside School series.

The poems will go right over the heads of young readers, the humor is more suited for the 8 and up crowd.  Ghigna writes about houses that give out the best treats, costume dilemmas, being afraid, werewolves, monsters, pumpkins, ghouls, gargoyles, haunted houses, witches, and trick-or-treating.

My favorite poem in the collection?  The Candy Check - a must-read for parents :)

Dear Mr. Henshaw

Dear Mr. Henshaw by beloved children's author Beverly Cleary, is a series of letters from young Leigh Botts to author Boyd Henshaw.  It begins in 2nd grade when Leigh writes to his favorite author about his favorite book by the same.  Each year, he repeats the process when this assignment comes up - same author, same book.  Finally, in 5th grade, when Leigh sends a series of 10 questions his teacher wants them to ask an author, Mr. Henshaw has had enough and replies with 10 questions of his own.

In the midst of all this pen-palling, Leigh's parents get divorced and he and his mother move to a different town, leaving Leigh to make new friends at a new school.  His dad, a truck driver, is never around, and his beloved dog, Bandit, is on the road with Dad. To top it off, someone is stealing all the good stuff out of his lunch. 

To put it mildly, Leigh is struggling. He continues to reach out to Mr. Henshaw periodically, and bless the author's heart, he recognizes a child's cry for help and occasionally writes back with encouragement and suggestions. As Leigh follows his counsel, he begins to come to terms with his new life and chart a course for his future.

Beverly Cleary writes children well.  She knows how they think, act, and feel and she carefully crafts the relationships between them and the adults in their lives.  With their guidance, Leigh trudges through his life changes and begins to solve his own problems and accept responsibility for his own happiness.

Kids need to know that they have lots of company in the worlds of single parent families and being the new kid at school, and Cleary doesn't shy away from the strong emotions involved in divorce or schoolyard embarrassments. Instead, she uses them to show children that they are not alone. In Leigh, they find a friend and, if my classes over the years are any indication, they find comfort in knowing that their trials are not only survivable, but become stepping stones to new possibilities.

If this book hits the spot for you, check out the sequel, Strider.

Read Every Day Campaign

Scholastic Books is one of my favorite companies.  Why?  Because they offer books to children at very reasonable prices and since I want my students to love reading, that's a win.  Their current literacy campaign is "Read Every Day, Lead a Better Life."  Normally I don't pay much attention to campaigns, but I noticed a link to the art of the campaign and fell in love with it.

When you click on the individual posters, you can watch interviews with the artists, hear them read short portions from books, download their poster, get a list of other works by that artist, and download discussion guides to help you generate a class discussion about the artist's work.

If you're a parent and you're not ordering from Scholastic each month through your child's teacher, shame on you!  ;)  It's so easy now - parents can order online once the teacher opens an online account.  Teachers still send home the flyers, but you don't have to mark those teeny tiny boxes, clip the order form, and write a check/come up with correct change.  Plus, Scholastic offers more specials to those who shop online.  Buying books at midnight in my jammies?  Yes, please!

Another tidbit of Scholastic awesomeness - they hold warehouse sales around the country 2-3 times a year.  Usually right before school starts, close to Christmas, and again in the spring.  Click here to find out if there will be a sale in your area soon!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything

Every year during the week of Halloween, our 1st grade teachers play this song at Morning Stretch.  The kids love it!  The older kids are reluctant to enjoy it at the start, but by the end, everyone is singing along. 

The repetitive phrases beg for actions to go along with them, so let your kids come up with some that are fun and comfortable for them. 

The illustrations are darker in tone, but the central images are still colorful.  The floating clothing has a cartoony quality that keeps it from being too scary for younger readers.

I love the ending.  No spoilers here, you'll have to read it and see :)

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything is a great read for Halloween, a sleepover, or even a camping trip.


National Geographic Kids Halloween

In our classrooms, we are being "encouraged" to focus more and more on nonfiction to meet all of the standards put into place by those who wouldn't be caught dead doing our job. 
Bitterness aside, I've taught 4th grade for the past 7 years and each week when my class would go to the library, I would check their books in and out while the librarian helped them find their favorite genres, topics and authors.  In the process, I noticed that most of my students (and I had 60-90 each school year) were selecting nonfiction.
My second graders - not so much.  But one of my goals this year is to open their eyes to the magic of this genre, impress upon them the idea that knowledge is power, and help them develop a genuine affection for nonfiction.
This nonfiction Halloween book by National Geographic Kids is only 32 pages long, but it's jam-packed with interesting kid-friendly facts - did you know that pumpkins contain about 500 seeds and they can be orange, red, green, yellow, tan and white?  There are good ideas for giving trick-or-treaters a creepy welcome, tidbits about candy corn, how Halloween came to be, ideas for Halloween crafts, information about Day of the Dead, and in true nonfiction style, a (very small) glossary.  There are even some Halloween jokes.
It's the perfect reading level for 2nd & 3rd graders, which makes it a great starting for their love of nonfiction!  With a table of contents, glossary, photographs, captions, label, and headings, this book can also reinforce basic nonfiction text features.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

For older elementary readers, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a great Halloween read.  This retelling of Washington Irving's original tale is by Jane Mason and she has done a great job of abridging it for young readers. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, snooty school teacher Ichabod Crane moves to Tarry Town and becomes smitten with Katrina Van Tassel.  Unfortunately for Ichabod, town bully and roustabout ringleader Brom Bones also has his eye on Katrina and he decides he must find a way to get rid of Ichabod.

Tarry Town loves ghost stories and they are particularly enamoured of "The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."  At party at the Van Tassel estate, townsfolk begin to share their favorite ghost stories and Brom regales the crowd with tales of his own encounters with the Headless Horseman, hoping to scare his competitor right out of Tarry Town.

Instead of being frightened, Ichabod prattles on about his own fearsome adventures and the party breaks up late into the night.

On his way home, Ichabod encounters none other than the Headless Horseman, who chases him through the hollow until he is able to knock Ichabod out by hitting him in the back of the head with his own jack-o-lantern head.  The reader is left to decide if Brom had a hand in this fortuitous turn of events.

When I taught 4th grade, I would show the Disney version of this story after reading the book in small groups.  I have the VHS version and it is cheesy - with Bing Crosby as the singing narrator - but it tempers some of the scariness of the tale.

Teachers, keep a close eye on Scholastic's reading clubs.  Often, they will offer a chapter book for $1, which is how I get most of my class and small group sets.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Frankie Stein

Prolific children's author Lola M. Schaefer teams up with Kevan Atteberry to create this adorable tale about learning to accept who you are. 
Mr. & Mrs. Frank N. Stein are mortified when their firstborn, Frankie Stein, is...cute.  He doesn't look like them or act like them.  His parents try everything to make him scary - they paint his hair, cover his skin with green stickers, shower him with scariness, and try to inspire him by telling him tales of the horrific deeds of his very scary ancestors.  Frankie tries to move, talk, and act like his parents, but finally decides to be himself, which makes him the scariest Stein of all. 
Delightful digital illustrations and a story that reminds readers that it's always best to be true to yourself. If you like this book, and I'm sure you will, there is a sequel, Frankie Stein Goes to School.

Halloween Rhythm and Rhyme

It's October and that means we're reading Halloween books in our 2nd grade class.  I have never been a person who enjoys being scared.  I don't watch scary movies, I don't read scary books, and I have never been able to understand why on earth anyone would enjoy those things.  I am all about Cute Halloween.

I love rhyming text for young readers, so this entire Halloween post will be dedicated exclusively to rhyming stories. 

This first gem is an innovation on the song "Over in the Meadow" and could easily be sung as well as read.  As required by Carrie's Halloween Law, all the characters are - wait for it - cute.  Even the zombies aren't completely repellent.  The author introduces some great language to the wee ones: gnarled oak tree, fierce winds roar, shadows come alive, hovel made of sticks, mossy green heaven, deep green glen - all of these phrases evoke vivid images for readers and provide ample teaching moments.  Little Goblins Ten is a gently spooky counting book that toddlers will enjoy over and over again.

Kids like to dance and they like to act silly and this book gives them the chance to do both.  Enjoy the onomatopoeia and a graveyard full of playful movement words like rollicking, syncopating, swooped, swayed, rhythmic.  More chant than story, this rhyme about "that wild, wild night when the moon on the graveyard shone so bright" is a fun read for kids and anyone else who doesn't mind getting silly and doing the Rattlebone Rock.

Shake dem Halloween Bones  (written by W. Nikola-Lisa and illustrated by Mike Reed) is another boisterous Halloween romp.  Like "Rattlebone," this really isn't a story, but a chant. Set at a Halloween party, the kids at the party are costumed as folk/fairy tale characters with a verse about each one, and a repeating chorus that kids will quickly begin to chant right along with you.  Mike Reed's illustrations are colorful and bright.  Readers will feel the movement of the party dancers through the pictures.  The MC at the party is my favorite character with his jack-o-lantern head (including a burning candle sitting inside his mouth), his skeleton bone jacket and bat bling.
Little Harry Potter fans will love this story.  The rhyming text introduces Thornapple School, Miss Zorch, the headmistress, and a gaggle of little girl witches who fly to school in their rickety, magical bus.  There's a haunted forest, a school choir, flying lessons, and dorms filled with cobwebs.  The food however, is much, much worse than the food at Hogwarts.  At Thornapple, apparently they serve eyeballs and tentacles.  My second grade girls have been competing for this book for two weeks now, so if you have a young reader who is fascinated by all things HP, Which Way to Witch School is the perfect Halloween book for him/her!
Ten Timid Ghosts is Halloween counting book with a twist.  A tricky witch finds a house and wants the resident ghosts to move out.  So she scares them away with all kinds of foul creatures.  The final ghost notices the mummy that is chasing her out of the house is unraveling and realizes it is the witch!  The ghosts plot revenge and reclaim their home from the clever witch.
Children will enjoy discovering that the creatures that are scaring away the ghosts aren't real, but are costumes and props the witch has created in order to take over the house.
P.K. Hallinan has written a series of "special day" books and This is Halloween! focuses on the big event of Halloween - trick-or-treating!  Subtle reminders about manners and safety are woven into a rhyming text with colorful, full-page illustrations, also by Hallinan. The board book is the only version in print at this time.

I gave this brightly illustrated counting book to both my sweet nieces for Halloween.   The illustrations are cute, with a rhyming text that keeps children engaged. 10 Trick-or-Treaters is the perfect Halloween book for toddlers and bonus - it's a board book, so it's sturdy!

This cheerful book is my Halloween gift to my smarty nephew.  An innovation on "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore, this fun book shows all manner of Halloween creatures preparing for the arrival of trick-or-treaters.  I like this for young ones because the monsters, mummies, witches, vampires, and other scary creatures don't look scary at all.  They are smiling and excited about the arrival of the children.  Be sure to check out The Night Before Halloween.