Monday, November 17, 2014

Playing Sardines

Playing Sardines by Beverly Major was published in 1989, so it might be difficult to find, but would be well worth the trouble.

One of my pet peeves about children's literature today is that far too much of it has been dumbed down.  While I understand that there need to be options for children who are just learning to read, I believe children's books can meet that need without sacrificing the quality of the writing.

Told through the eyes of a young girl, this is the story of a warm summer night in a firefly-lit neighborhood.  Children gather on the lawns and in the street to play together while parents sit on the porches and relax.  As it grows later, the younger children are bathed and put to bed and the older children begin a game of Sardines.

If you've never played Sardines, you're missing out.  One person hides and everyone looks for them.  Sounds like Hide and Seek, you say?  Yes, it does, but with one important difference:  the game is not over when the hider is found.  The game does not end until everyone has found the hider.  As each seeker finds the hider, they quietly hide with him/her.  The last person to join the group becomes the hider.  This is particularly fun on the dunes at Dillon Beach, but that's a story for another time.

Beverly Major could have told this story as simply as I explained the rules for Sardines.  Instead. she created a vision for her readers using descriptive language, rich vocabulary and a variety of sentence structures.  The illustrations by Andrew Glass are muted and warm, giving the reader the feeling of a warm summer night when everything seems magical and when you look back on it later, it all seems like a dream.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Would Win?

The Who Would Win? series by Jerry Pallotta and Ray Bolster was a huge hit with my students, particularly the boys.  I will confess right now that I put off reading them because I thought they would cater to kids' fascination with fighting and winning.  I finally decided I had to read at least one to see if I could figure out why kids like them so much.

My apologies to Mr. Pallotta - I should have known that anything written by you would be filled with interesting facts, definitions, and thought-provoking questions.

Instead of a book focused on an imaginary battle between two animals, readers are presented with both basic and little-known facts about the two animals in compare/contrast style to prompt the reader to think about how the characteristics listed would benefit or work against that animal in a battle. Each page also has multiple text boxes containing facts, questions, and definitions.

The final few pages lay out a possible battle scenario and each book ends with a "Who Has the Advantage? Checklist  and the following author's note; "This is one way the fight might have ended.  How would you write the ending?"

The series currently contains 12 books.  You can't go wrong if your child is interested in animals or nonfiction in general.  Be sure to check out other books by Jerry Pallotta.  He knows how deliver content in interesting ways that keep kids coming back for more.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots

This sweet story by Rebecca Janni  shows girls the importance of persistence, being true to yourself and having a friend.  Nellie Sue is a cowgirl, right down to her brand-new pink cowgirl boots.  She has a bike she calls Beauty and a faithful dog, Ginger.  But she is lonely.  When a new family with 3 daughters moves in next door, Mama encourages Nellie Sue to befriend them, so when the Glitter Girls tell her that ballerinas don't ride in ballet shoes, she decides to host a barn dance (ballerinas dance, right?) and invites the whole neighborhood.  But the Glitter Girls tell her ballerinas don't belong in barns.

Still, Nellie Sue works like a champ to get everything ready for her big barn dance and when it looks like no one is coming, Dad, decked out like a cowboy, insists on being her dance partner.  As they spin around, they see the rest of the neighborhood coming to join them..  Everyone has a foot-stomping good time and the youngest Glitter Girl decides she's rather be a cowgirl.

The illustrations by Lynne Avril are colorful with pink as the anchor color, emphasizing Nellie Sue's cowGIRLness and the fact that whether you're a cowgirl or a ballerina, a girl is a girl is a girl.

If you've got a little girl, spend some together with Nellie Sue and Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Avoid the Summer Slide!

I cannot say enough about how important it is for your child to keep READING during the summer.  Some families take the attitude that their children should not have to do anything academic during the summer. After all, summer is the time for fun, right?  Right.  However, I can't help but point out that reading is a part of living, not just a part of school.

I don't know about you, but I read constantly - I read street signs, grocery lists, menus, directions, Facebook posts, text messages, recipes, catalogs, Tweets, magazines, poems, advertisements, scriptures, and the list goes on.  I am able to do this because my parents read to me, they read with me, they took me to the library, they let me order from the monthly book order at school, and they read in front of me, modeling how important it is to continually feed the mind with nutritious, delicious morsels - even during the summer.  Literacy knows no season.

Nostalgic Note:  Every week during the summer, my mom took my sisters and I to the public library.  We were allowed to check out as many books as we would like and I took advantage of that, walking out the door each week with 10-15 books.  You would have thought I'd won the lottery, I could hardly contain my excitement and was anxious to get home, crack open those covers and begin devouring the adventures inside.

Sometimes I selected books I'd read before - yes, I am one of THOSE people - I love to reread favorites and revisit the worlds of my fictional friends.  I read the Little House books until the covers fell off (my own copies, of course).  Other oft-repreated favorites included the Ginnie and Geneva series and the Cherry Ames series.  If you have a daughter in the 9-13 age range, see if your public library has these.  Neither of these series are classics by any means, but they struck my fancy and I read them over and over.

Most public libraries have summer reading programs and many have recommended reading lists on their websites.  Get your child involved in your library's summer reading program!  Most libraries have wonderful kick-off events, great prizes for those who participate and a fun end-of-summer party.

Be sure to keep current on what's happening at your local library by checking their website once a week. Most have calendars, pages for special events, book club information, etc., all posted online.  One of my favorite libraries is a great resource for recommended titles - Provo City Library.  Their neighbor, the Orem City Library has staff recommendations alongside printable booklists.  I know these libraries well because those were the libraries I took my own children to every week during the summer.  My current local library, El Dorado County Library, has a list of links to free ebooks, sites about reading, books, upcoming sequels, etc...  Every library with a website will have a different way of sharing information to encourage their patrons to keep reading.  If your library doesn't have an online presence, I encourage you to advocate for it.

Friday, May 9, 2014

My School Library

My school has one of the best school librarians I have ever seen.  Other schools may have more space, more books, more seating, more whatever.  But no one else has Mrs. Book!  She is wonderful  - patient, kind, knowledgeable, and she always has fun contests and programs going on to keep our kiddos wanting to be in the library.
These flowers are made from the winning bookmarks from our annual Design-A-Bookmark Contest.  The students receive a blackline and crystal clear instructions.  Anyone who wants to participate, draws a cover for their favorite book on the blackline and submits it.  One winner is chosen from each grade level and she arranges for them to receive 50 full-color copies of their bookmark to share with family and friends.
She's always got a fun author display or two - Dr. Seuss is a favorite.  She also makes sure she has topical displays and if a grade level is doing book reports from a certain genre, she creates a display and goes out of her way to make sure that genre is easily accessible.
Meet Spitfire and Red, our library mascots - two frogs, whose presence, incidentally, require the students to use quiet voices so they don't get frightened.  Genius.  Above our dear froggies is a display of the nominated titles for the California Young Readers Medal.  Each year, she reads one title per week to the students during their library time.  At the end of the story, each class puts an object that represents the story into the Mystery Box.  When the class returns in subsequent weeks, they take each item out of the Mystery Box, repeat the title, give a quick summary and listen to the next story.  When all the nominees have been read, the students vote and our school choice is compared to the state choice.  The kids love it!
Mrs. Book doing her thing with my class.  Love these kids!
She makes it easy for the kids to find what they want - no aggravating "look it up" attitude.
She creates welcoming spaces throughout our tiny library.

Mrs. Book also runs an Accelerated Reader contest - my class won every month in the 2nd grade "division" :) so we got to hang the AR "bling" sign in our room and have our picture taken for display.  She awards Rock Star Reader awards each month to the student in each grade who has read the most words (determined by AR) and those students pose with giant blow-up electric guitars for pictures that cover the wall of the computer lab next door to the library.,  Mrs. Book has a special shelf for our Principal's Picks.  Any student who checks out and reads one of Mrs. Miller's picks gets to put his/her name in a golden treasure box and one name is drawn each month to receive a special prize.

This is just the tip of the library iceberg.  She is always coming up with fun, creative ways to welcome our students into the library and encourage them to read.  She hosts a Scholastic Book Fair twice a year to earn funds for our library, gets teacher input in order to add the best possible educational dvds to our collection, spearheads the Six Flags reading incentive, and more.

I love her Library Aide program - students must be trained to check in returned books properly using the scanner and to shelve books.  Once they pass their training, they may come in at recess anytime they wish to help her with those tasks.  What a boon for those students who don't enjoy the playground!

Here's to Mrs. Book and her counterparts all over the world - we need you, we appreciate you, we hope to always have you in our schools.  Thanks, Vickie.  You're the best!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Golden Egg Book

I found this oversized version of The Golden Egg Book on Amazon and I just had to have it.  This book was a favorite for my youngest son - we read it until he had it memorized and beyond.  If I could peek into his 3-year-old mind, I would guess that the illustrations were the big draw - if you click on the link, you can take a sneak peek at them and see what I mean.  I think he was especially intrigued by the illustrations where the bunny imagines what could be inside the egg.  Seriously - who wouldn't love the idea of an elephant inside a duck egg?

A bunny finds an egg and begins to poke and prod and roll it and try to figure out what kind of egg it is.  He imagines it might contain a boy, an elephant, a mouse or even another bunny.  He gets so tired from his musings and attempts to get the egg to open, that he lays down to take a nap.  As he sleeps, the egg hatches and a duckling emerges.

Margaret Wise Brown continues her renown use of repetition by having the newly-hatched duckling attempt to wake the bunny in all of the same ways in which the bunny attempted to get the egg open.  When the duckling emerges, they become fast friends, the perfect Easter pair!

Nostalgic Note:  When I was studying elementary education at Utah Valley State College (now known as Utah Valley University), my Golden Egg-loving son spent my class time at the preschool on campus.  My Children's Lit teacher (favorite class ever, BTW) asked us if anyone had a child they could bring in and do a reading-with-your-child demo.  I volunteered Michael's services and he joined us for our next class.  We read The Golden Egg Book together, of course.  He sat on my lap in front of the class and stared shyly at all my classmates, who stared right back at him with gigantic smiles on their faces.  Once we began reading, he forgot where we were and became completely engulfed in our usual read-aloud routine.  I would let him finish the sentences, ask him a few questions about the pictures, and he chimed in with the comments we always made at certain junctures of the story.  He was completely adorable and the entire class was amazed by his "reading."  Proud mommy moment.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Miss Smith's Incredible Storybook

Zack hopes this school year won't be like every other year - BORING!  When Miss Smith walks in the door with her spiky red hair, leather jacket, red high tops and "The Clash" button, he has high hopes.  The school day proceeds normally until...Miss Smith begins to read aloud to her class.

As she reads, the storybook characters come to life and leap off the pages, enveloping the class in a swashbuckling pirate tale.  Story time becomes his favorite part of the day and he can't wait to go to school.

One day, Miss Smith gets stuck in traffic and the principal comes to class to read aloud until she arrives. But when the storybook characters begin to leap off the pages, Principal Rittenrotten panics and runs for help.  The students begin to grab for the book, each starting a new story, which ends as the book is yanked from their grasp and a new story is started by another student.  The room, the hallways, and soon the entire school is filled with storybook characters who refuse to go back inside the book.  Zack figures out that the stories must be finished in order for the characters to return to the book, but the characters don't want to go back, so they begin a tug-o-war over the book.

Fortunately, Miss Smith arrives to save the day.

Michael Garland is the author and the illustrator of this book and his clever illustrations assist young readers with the difficult skill of inference without them even realizing it.  One of my favorite pages shows the outside of the school as Miss Smith pulls up - kids will enjoy identifying all of the storybook characters swarming around the school.

Readers will be reminded of the first time they got lost in a story because of a parent's or teacher's ability to not just read to them, but to make the story come alive.  I only get to spend 15-20 minutes of my school day reading aloud for pleasure, but this book reminds me just how important those minutes are to my students.

Miss Smith's Incredible Storybook is the first in a series of books about this adventurous, creative young teacher.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Adults, perhaps even more so than children, will enjoy this detailed, beautifully written account of a place in the Arizona desert where children's imaginations ran wild.

Author Alice McLerran based this book on events in her mother's life and Roxaboxen actually exists on a hill in the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Second Avenue in Yuma.  McLerran consulted her mother's childhood manuscripts, letters and maps created by the former inhabitants of Roxaboxen,and interviewed relatives to get the information she ultimately wove into a rich tale of the joys of childhood.

Illustrator Barbara Cooney actually made two trips to Roxaboxen and, accompanied by McLerran's Aunt Frances, began to visualize "the magic and spirit of Roxaboxen" that helped her create the pictures that capture the spirit of childhood creativity and fantasy that came alive each time Roxaboxenites gathered on that small hill.

Roxaboxen chronicles the creation of an imaginary community on a small rise in the desert.  Their children created streets, stores, homes, a jail, a town hall, and even a cemetary in their tiny town and continued to play there until they were grown.  They use anything at their disposal - pebbles, sticks, stones, glass, wooden boxes, pieces of pottery - they made use of everything they found in the great outdoors.

I experienced a bittersweet feeling reading about 11 and 12-year olds playing outside with the younger children with complete abandon.  Memories of my own neighborhood adventures came flooding back - what a wonderful time we had on the cul-de-sac of 210th Street!  We lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but we created our own little world every day, miniature versions of adult life with a creative, unrelentingly optimistic flair.

I particularly love the end of the story when the author shares glimpses of the grown inhabitants of Roxaboxen - Marian's children falling asleep to stories of life in Roxaboxen, Charles picking up a pebble on the beach and remembering - McLerran creates a cocoon of warmth around her mother's memories that envelopes the reader and creates a longing to return to childhood, if only for a day.

There's an out-of-print non-fiction companion to this book titled The Legacy of Roxaboxen that contains copies of McLerran's mother's (Marian) original writings and drawings of the world of Roxaboxen.  I know I'll be looking for it in every library I visit.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ten Sly Piranhas

I love this book!  William Wise has crafted a delightful, gently macabre tale of "wickedness and worse" to help children learn to count backward.

In the grand tradition of "Ten Little Speckled Frogs" and "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed," Wise uses rhyme and repetition to reinforce counting in reverse.

Ten Sly Piranhas is really quite entertaining, although highly sensitive children might be rattled by the ruthlessness of those nasty old piranhas.  I gave this book to my nephew when he was 3 or 4 and it scared him a bit.

The text includes wonderful vocabulary and figurative language: roguish rascals, rotten to the core, slippery schemer, frolicsome, vanquished, cunning, and more.  What a great start for a writing activity/lesson!

The final page of the book includes a note about piranhas that provides interesting facts about this peculiar variety of fish.

Try giving your child 10 Goldfish crackers and let them eat one each time a piranha eats one of his companions "with a gulp and a gurgle."

The Greedy Triangle

The Greedy Triangle, the story of a triangle who gets bored with his limited function in this world, is one of author Marilyn Burns' most popular works.  The triangle decides he is tired of "holding up roofs, supporting bridges, making music..., catching the wind for sailboats, and being slices of pie and halves of sandwiches."  Each page finds him returning to the shapeshifter, asking to have one more side and one more angle added so that his life will be more interesting.  The shapeshifter happily, then wearily, obliges, until the triangle has so many sides and angles that he is nearly circular and can't maintain his balance.  After an alarming rolling incident, he decides life wasn't so bad as a triangle and returns, for the last time, to the shapeshifter.

The illustrations are colorful and bright, expressive and fun, and just plain cute!  Illustrator Gordon Silveria creatively includes many versions of the polygon de jour on each page and kids will enjoy finding all of the examples of the shape being featured on that page.

Accurate mathematical vocabulary is used throughout the text, which appeals to children's intelligence while the fantastical elements of the story keep things interesting and fun.  The story has the repetitive text so popular with younger readers and my class enjoyed chanting the repetitive portions as I read them aloud.

There's a section at the end of the book especially for parents and teachers, which touches on the mathematics in the book, how children think about shapes, and ways to extend their learning.  

Marilyn Burns is one of today’s most highly respected mathematics educators and children's authors. During the past  40 years, Marilyn has taught children, led inservice sessions, authored mathematics-themed books for children, and written a variety of professional development publications for teachers and administrators.  For a complete list of her work, click here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guest Post #1 - Dustin

Who better to recommend books to children than other children?  I'm going to try and do this at least once a month - hold me to it!  My February guest poster is...
My name is Dustin and I am 9 years old.
I am very intelligent with math and it’s my favorite subject, too. I like being silly, creative, and being a leader.  I enjoy riding scooters, bikes, and quadding in my free time along with pizza and pie.
Book title: Stink and the Ultimate Thumb-Wrestling Smackdown  
Author: Megan McDonald
Illustrator: Peter H. Reynolds
Brief summary of story: This story is about Stink and his friend making masks for their thumbs and having a battle. Later in the story his sister [Judy Moody] challenged Stink to a thumb wrestling war, and then they battle. Then Stink and his friend have the final battle. I will not tell you who wins so you will have to read it to find out. 
Thank you, Dustin - Judy and Stink are two of my favorite characters and I hope lots of kids decide to get to know them because of your enthusiasm!

Dustin's picture was posted with the permission of his parents.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Heidi Heckelbeck Series

One of my second graders recently recommended this series to me, so I purchased the box set of the first four books and began reading them aloud to my class after lunch.  They love it! Maddy recommended it to the class because "she is a witch and I liked it because she always to tries to cast spells to make things better, but she makes it worse."

Let me preface the rest of my remarks with this information:  this year is my first year back in the primary grades after spending the past 7 years as a 4th and 5th grade reading teacher.  During those years, I had the opportunity to introduce my students to some truly outstanding literature.  When I arrived in 2nd grade, I packed up 14 boxes of amazing chapter books and began to fill my shelves with books better suited to the needs of my young students.  It has been an adjustment :)  Every time I finish a read-aloud, I struggle to find one that my students will enjoy but will also not make me want to die.  It's not easy.  I love Beverly Cleary, Patricia MacLachlan, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My students are being raised in a Captain Underpants world.

Chapter books written to capture the fancy of young readers and encourage them to keep reading, by necessity, must be simple of phrase and plot. The Heidi Heckelbeck series meets that criteria.  It will never be considered great literature.  That said, I am delighted by the fact that my students are so engaged that they beg for more at the end of each brief chapter.  The plot is simple, but not too simplistic.  The language is plain and clear, a must for early chapter books.  The word "said" is used far too often, but it gives me an opportunity to hammer home our writing lessons on finding synonyms for overused words :)  Every character's name is an alliteration, which gets old for me, but the kids love it and, again, I can use that to my advantage during language arts lessons :)

Heidi Heckelbeck  is an 8-year-old who is just starting public school when we meet her.  To this point in her life, she has been homeschooled.  She is as upset about going to public school as her little Kindergarten brother is excited.  Once there, she meets the usual cast of characters in a school setting - the nerd, the bully, the mean girl, the new best friend, etc.  Naturally, Melanie, the mean girl, makes Heidi's life miserable and Heidi has to figure out a way to either live with it or make it stop.

Although author Wanda Coven drops subtle hints early in the first book, it took my class completely by surprise to find out that Heidi is a witch. Her mother is a witch, her grandmother is a witch, but her dad and her brother Henry are not. Anyone who grew up with "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie" understands the appeal of this development.  And...didn't the author's name just become more clever?

Heidi's challenge is to handle life's problems without using magic.  Of course, she always uses it anyway, it backfires, and she learns a lesson.  But that doesn't keep her from trying it again.

I foresee another Heidi Heckelbeck purchase in my near future because we are almost done with the 4th book.  My students ask every day when I am going to put them in our classroom library.  Thanks, Maddy for recommending it!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Memoirs of a Goldfish

Occasionally, I read a children's book that makes me laugh harder than the kids laugh. Memoirs of a Goldfish is one of those books.

Written in diary form, a goldfish is our main character and he chronicles his days in his tiny bowl.  At first, all he is able to document is that he spent the day swimming around his bowl.  But by Day 4, he begins to get some company and day by day, his little bowl begins to be filled with new water animals and aquarium decorations until he can't take it any more.  He is tired of being cramped and snapped at and is simultaneously disgusted by the increasing slime build up on the bowl and the fact that there is a creature who enjoys eating that slime.  He wants his bowl back!

Day 13 finds him getting his wish and he is separated from everyone and everything in his old bowl.  Joyfully, he swims around his clean new bowl.  However, he soon begins to wonder about his friends - where are they, don't they need him - and he begins to cry, which is "not easy for a fish to do."

On Day 14, he is dumped into a large, new aquarium where he finds the old gang waiting for him, along with a new friend, a goldfish named Gracie.

Simple plot, right?  The beauty of this story is the voice of the goldfish as he describes each new addition to his bowl - his observations are funny, sweet, and teeny bit sarcastic as he realizes and accepts that he is part of a big family.

You need this book.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Name is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can a Little Girl Dream?

There's a little girl who attends both my school and my church.  She has a tremendous imagination and will often refuse to answer to her own name because she is being someone else for the moment.  I'm sure it wears on her family, but it's really pretty creative.  She is the real-life incarnation of Isabella.

Isabella's mother gently guides her through the day from getting out of bed in the morning to doing her homework to getting back in bed that night, by acknowledging the new persona each time she is told, "I'm not ____, I'm  ____."

Isabella starts the day as Sally Ride, morphs into Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, and finally into Mommy.

I love how Mom just goes with the flow and lets her daughter live in her imagination as she eats her meals, completes her chores and accomplishes everything a young girl must do in a busy day.  As Isabella updates Mom on her latest identity, the reader gets a clue as to that woman's contribution to society.  The final pages of the book gives a brief biography and photo of each of these amazing women who changed the world, or at least their corner of it.

Though I haven't read them yet, there are two sequels:  Isabella: Girl on the Go and Isabella: Star of the Story.  There is also a boy's version: My Name is Not Alexander: Just How Big Can a Little Kid Dream?  I'm looking forward to reading all three, which are all written by Jennifer Fosberry and illustrated by Mike Litwin.

My Name is Not Isabella would be a great addition to any girl's library.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I have a niece who LOVES her wardrobe.  She loves clothes, shoes, hats, purses, sunglasses, jewelry, hair baubles - if you can put it on your body, she can make it look cute.  She's four, so everything looks cute on her :)  She changes her clothes a zillion times a day to make good use of all of her amazing items.

As soon as I read the first few pages of Shoe-la-la, I knew it was destined to be one of her Aunt Carrie's Book of the Month Club offerings.

The story unfolds in rhyming verse about 4 little girls getting ready to attend a party.  They pick out their dresses, do their hair, but can't seem to find the perfect pairs of shoes for the big soiree.  So they venture out to Shoe-La-La, their local footwear establishment.

They cannot believe how many shoes there are for them to try on and the poor shopkeeper can hardly keep up with their insatiable appetite.  They try on shoes of all colors, styles and patterns, declaring, "We love this place!"  The girls keep the salesman busy until closing time but still cannot decide which pair of shoes they each want.  Sadly for Mr. Shoe Salesman, they are overwhelmed by their choices and go home empty-handed.

At home, they rack their brains for shoe ideas and  in the corner of the picture, we see one of the girls holding one of her comfy old shoes in her hand, wheels turning.  The next illustration fills both pages and shows all four girls on the floor, newspaper covering the floor and all sorts of crafting supplies spread over their work space, each girl creating intently.

They ultimately end up wearing their comfortable old shoes which have been bedazzled to each girl's liking.  "Perfect party shoes to wear!"

Such a cute story! Before anyone suggests that this book teaches children to behave abominably in shoes stores or encourages rampant consumerism (I've read some appalling criticisms of the Fancy Nancy series) - stop.  The book is fun and cute and that's that.

A great addition to your home library.  Your little fashionista will look a the pictures for hours and she'll probably want to create her own pair of party shoes, so be prepared to break out her old sneakers, your glue gun, and lots of ribbon, lace and glitter.  Have fun!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

One of my all-time favorites!  My 5th grade teacher read this to us after lunch, a chapter a day, and I hung on every word.  Today, reading it my own students, I am just as entertained by the adventures of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, just as fascinated by the highly intelligent, acerbic Mrs. Frankweiler, and my students are just as scandalized as my classmates and I were by the picture of Claudia and Jamie bathing in the fountain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

E.L. Konigsburg is a master storyteller.  Go ahead and click the link and read her profile - normally I don't use Wikipedia, but it seems to have the most info about this interesting writer.  She has a way of creating characters who are real to the children who read them.  She crafts this tale as a letter to her attorney, Saxonberg, to explain the changes she is requesting in her will.

Claudia Kincaid is a 12-year old girl who is sick and tired of being ordinary, tired of having to do "everything" at home.  She decides to run away from home to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia Appreciation.

Her plan is amazingly well thought out and illustrates Claudia's intelligence quite clearly.  She chooses her younger brother Jamie to be her companion for some interesting reasons.  Jamie agrees under the misconception that they will be running away in the traditional sense - wandering outdoors with their knapsacks on their backs, building campfires and sleeping under the stars.  Boy, is he in for a surprise.  Claudia has planned for them to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Unfortunately for Jamie, he didn't think to ask where they were going until AFTER they left home :)

The children have an ingenious plan that allows them to stash their belongings and sleep in the Met, a strategy that would never work in today's world, which makes it all the more interesting to today's students.  While there, they have the opportunity to view the museum's newest acquisition, a sculpture of an angel, which is an auction purchase that came from the art collection of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  The sculptor's identity is unknown but some experts believe it to be the work of the great Michaelangelo.  Claudia is entranced by the beautiful sculpture and sets out to discover if Michaelangelo is indeed the sculptor.

As she and Jamie investigate the mystery of Angel, they hit dead end after dead end and find themselves low on cash.  Disheartened, Claudia agrees that they must go home.  As they prepare to buy their bus tickets home, Claudia suddenly decides they must pay a visit to the reclusive Mrs. Frankweiler, convinced that she is their last shot at finding the answer.

Mrs. Frankweiler is a crafty old gal and figures out that they are the runaways she has been reading about in the newspaper.  She wants information, they want information - hmmm.  She manages to get the information she needs from Jamie without much effort, but still offers them some hope at getting the information they came for.  She sets them loose in her file room, and this brings us to the name of the book.  The kids have to figure out her filing system in order to find out if Michaelangelo is the sculptor - and they have a time limit. 

Claudia is a clever girl and figures it out.  Mrs. Frankweiler agrees to leave the proof to them in her will IF they promise not to ever tell anyone else. 

I won't be a spoiler and tell you the fun reveal at the end of the story, but let me encourage you to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, with or without a youngster.  The characters are well-developed, the plot is intriguing and engaging, and the setting provides lots of opportunities to talk about the good old days.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

By the Great Horn Spoon

Learning about the California Gold Rush is the highlight of Social Studies in 4th grade.  At least I like to think so :) 

There are only a couple of really good historical fiction books out there about this time period, Patty Reed's Doll: The Story of the Donner Party being (arguably) the most popular, and  though my school had a class set of Patty Reeds when I started teaching 4th grade, another set of books caught my eye.  I opened the dusty cover, read a few pages and never looked back.  By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman, has been delighting 4th graders at my school ever since.  They beg for more at the end of each chapter, gasp, cheer, and groan along the way, feeling as though they are part of the story at every turn.

The story begins on the Lady Wilma, a gold ship bound for San Francisco, California.  We learn that two stowaways are aboard ship, a butler and a young boy. They meet the crusty, but soft-hearted Captain Swain, admit to being stowaways and accept their punishment - to spend the duration of the journey below decks, shoveling coal into the furnaces.

The author then flashes back to Boston earlier in the week when young Jack Flagg learns that his guardian, the young and beautiful Aunt Arabella, will soon be broke.  Eleven-year old Jack decides to solve this problem by making his way to California to fill his pockets with gold and save the family home and honor.  The family's trusty butler, Praiseworthy, figures out what is going on and chooses to accompany Jack on his adventure. 

We find ourselves in the present again, enjoying the journey as Jack and Praiseworthy travel around Cape Horn to San Francisco, travel up the river to Sacramento and take a stagecoach to Hangtown.  They outwit villains, solve a myriad of problems, make colorful new friends, earn nicknames from the other miners, and explore the area I live in while searching for gold (this might has something to do with the way I feel about this book ;) 

My classes love learning about our hometown and the surrounding areas.  We map their ascent from Sacramento to Placerville as we read about it, we map their journey from Hangtown (Placerville) to Coloma, and we compare photos of our area then and now.

As readers, we watch hard work, danger, and determination season Praiseworthy and Jack, recasting their relationship and opening their minds to new possibilities for their futures.

Praiseworthy is aptly named and earns his moniker many times over during their exploits.  He is astute, mannered, calm, proper, and becomes a true role model for Jack, who begins to see some of the fine gentleman's traits in himself.

I won't write any spoilers, but I will say that it is a very satisfying ending that leaves my class cheering each and every year.