Monday, October 26, 2015

A Gift for Abuelita

It's an understatement to say that my life has been crazy lately.  I'm now teaching the English component of a multi-age Spanish Immersion program. I love a challenge and this new assignment fits the bill. Now that I'm out from under the heavy load that a teacher new to a site experiences, I can start posting again.

One of the fun things about teaching in this program is that I have the opportunity to participate in many experiences unique to Hispanic cultures. Before this week, I did not understand the purpose of the holiday The Day of the Dead, or El Dia de Los Muertos.  Since I was unfamiliar with its meaning, I'll admit to being a bit put off by both the name and the symbols associated with it. I'm not big on much of Halloween either, for the record. But now that our program is immersing itself in preparing for the big day, I find that I am touched and appreciative rather than apprehensive.

This afternoon, my teaching partner gave me a book to read to the first and second graders to help prepare them for our upcoming El Dia de los Muertos celebration.  She had read it to them in Spanish, but thought they might like to hear it in English for better comprehension.  And so, I began reading A Gift for Abuelita: Celebrating the Day of the Dead.

Sweet is the perfect adjective to describe this story. It begins with a young girl, Rosita and her grandmother having quiet, meaningful conversations as Abuelita teaches Rosita how to braid, make tortillas, tend a garden and many other tasks. When Abuelita becomes ill and passes away, Rosita misses her dearly.

As El Dia de Los Muertos approaches, the entire family begins to create their offerings -  remembrances for each of their loved ones who have passed. Rosita begins a braid for Abuelita.  It becomes clear as preparations are made that Rosita has misunderstood.the events of El Dia de Los Muertos and believes that Abuelita will be there, just as she was in life.

The family gathers to celebrate and Rosita keeps asking why Abuelita has not arrived yet.  Finally, her father realizes that Rosita doesn't understand and clarifies for her that Abuelita will not be there in person, but that Rosita will feel her spirit and know when she is there.

I fought tears throughout the story, but as the author describes Rosita's gift to her grandmother in tender detail and the moment when Rosita feels her near, I could not hold them back. While this is a fairly common occurrence for me, my new littles hadn't seen it yet.  Well, they saw it today and while it wasn't an "ugly cry," it was one of those squeaky, I-can-barely-read-aloud cries.  The good news is that this group of children understood what I meant when I explained the difference between my crying at that moment and crying because of anger, sadness, or pain. We had a great discussion, and several of them shared their personal experiences with crying because something sweet touches your heart.

I highly recommend this book - as an introduction to Day of the Dead or just to comfort a child who has recently lost a loved one.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Guest Post #2 - Elise

This is Elise, a 5th grader with a ravenous appetite for literature. She enjoys writing short stories, she is a jump rope expert, and a delightful young woman.

Today, she'd like to tell you why she loved reading City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende.

I think you should read City of the Beasts because it includes adventure, fantasy and there are two main characters, so the reader gets to hear the story from two points of view. They have a mission to accomplish, which adds to the suspense.  I really like her writing style - she weaves multiple plots into her storytelling, which adds depth to the characters and the plot. 

Alexander Cold goes to his grandmother's apartment in New York for the summer while his mother is being treated for cancer, only to find that they are going on a trip to the Amazon rain forest.  They've been sent to verify the existence of a creature known to locals as the Beast and provide health care to the indigenous tribes.  While there, Alex makes a friend, a girl his age named Nadia.  At camp, they are kidnapped by a local tribe that doesn't want their whereabouts revealed. Alex and Nadia must learn the tribe's way of life while they are waiting to be rescued. 

The tribe decides to show Alex and Nadia that the Beast does exist in a fascinating visit to a city where more than one of his kind dwell.  They each find a magical item that will help someone they love and must find a way to retrieve the items and safely return to their camp.

This is book one in a trilogy.  You should get them from the library or anywhere you can and start reading today!

Thanks to Elise for being a guest poster. You can trust this girl's taste in books - she has read enough genres and authors to know what she likes.

Here's a link to two TED Talks by author Isabel Allende.

Elise's picture was published with the permission of her parents.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

St. Patrick's Day - Part 3

My last St. Patrick's Day installment...for this year :)  These three gems come to us from 3 well-known children's authors: Teresa Bateman, Eve Bunting and Patricia Polacco.

Let's start with Harp O' Gold, written by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Jill Weber.  Tom is a wandering minstrel who envisioned for himself a life of leisure, sharing his musical talents with the rich and famous.  His music is beautiful and his audiences love it, but he and his wooden harp entertain the common folk and his livelihood depends on them sharing their food and offering him a place to stay for the night.  Tom is confident that if he had a finer looking harp, his life would change.

He gets the chance to find out when a leprechaun trades him a fine, gold harp for his battered wooden one.  Despite the fact that the strings make his fingers sore and the harp produces a hollow, tinny, soulless sound, but his new audiences - the rich and famous - applaud him loudly.  He finds that it isn't all he hoped it would be - the nobles and their friends don't really care about music, they just like showing off the golden harp and having another underling to boss around.

The king hears about the golden harp and the musician who plays it and Tom soon finds himself living in the king's castle, entertaining the king on demand.

He realizes after a few days that he is actually a prisoner in the palace, so he disguises himself and flees to the forest to find the leprechaun and regain his harp and his freedom.

Tom finds the leprechaun and gets his worn, wooden harp back.  As he begins to play,  "the sound resonated and filled an empty place in his heart."  Tom is content to play for those who appreciate his beautiful music as much as he loves playing it.

Bright, colorful pictures created with acrylics and acrylic-based watercolors add to the happy feeling of this tale.  The story is written simply, but includes rich vocabulary for young ones.  The message is clear - be careful what you wish for ;)

St. Patrick's Day in the Morning, written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Jan Brett is a sweet tale of little Jamie who is not old enough to participate in the village parade to the top of Acorn Hill.  He wakes up early and sees the rest of the family's parade clothing laid out and decides to don a piece of each family member's clothing and hike Acorn Hill alone because, "what do they know?"

He and his dog, Nell, walk through the town, stopping to visit with townspeople along the way.  He makes it to the top of Acorn Hill and heads back down as the sun peeks over the hill.

He returns home and curls up in the rocking chair and falls fast asleep.  His family wakens to find him sleeping soundly and as his brother comments that he must be sad that he is too little to walk in the parade, Jamie smiles to himself and thinks, "what did he know?"

Jan Brett's 4-color illustrations (green, yellow, white, and black) are charming and prove yet again, that Jan Brett knows how to draw the wonder of childhood.  She shows the town's preparations for the holiday with a light touch, keeping the focus on Jamie's determination.

Eve Bunting deftly tells the tale a young boy's determination to prove he's not too little to do something he really wants to do. While the holiday is the underlying theme, it doesn't dominate the story, but is acknowledged mostly through the illustration.

A fine tale, indeed, for a St. Patrick's day morning.

Last, but definitely not least, is Patricia Polacco's Fiona's Lace.  Polacco's stories are treasures - heartfelt, homey, rich and touching - she writes about the things that are important to her and her love for the characters is palpable on every page.  Published last August, it is her latest book and well worth a trip to the library.

Fiona and her little sister love to hear the story of how their mother made the most beautiful lace in all of Ireland.  Her father wanted to court her, but none of her workmates would tell him where she lived.  One day, he discovers that bits of lace are tied to tree branches, fence posts, and other landmarks and he follows them all the way to Annie's home.  They marry and now their daughter's are learning to make Irish lace while Annie's hands are suffering from arthritis.

The little family leaves Ireland when the closing of the mill makes it difficult for anyone to survive in their village.  They sign a contract to work for a wealthy family in Chicago until their passage is paid off, so they pack the belongings they are able to take with them and the long journey begins, with Fiona making lace the entire time.

When they arrive, they discover they are not living in quarters at the home of the wealthy family, but in a tenement filled with other immigrants who have to work 2 or 3 jobs to survive because they don't receive their first paycheck from the wealthy family until they have paid back their passage.  While their parents work day and night, Fiona continues to make lace and a local dressmaker is so impressed, he offers to pay "a pretty penny" for as much as she can make.

Before the family can save enough money to buy their own hone, the Great Chicago Fire sweeps through the town and Fiona and her sister must run to safety.  With mother and father away at their second jobs, the girls fear they will never see them again.  The story of their parents' courtship pops into Fiona's mind and she quickly begins to tie bits of her lace onto everything she can find to mark their path.  They run until "they tasted blood in the backs of their throats" and hide in a basement through the night, hoping that their parents are alive and will be able to find them.

It is everything you would expect from a Patricia Polacco book.  Need I say more?

If you're looking for a fun, easy prep St. Paddy's math activity, head on over to my TPT store! I've got Lucky Charms math packs for bother upper and lower elementary classes.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How Emily Blair Got Her Fabulous Hair

Ever had Hair Envy?  First grader Emily Blair hates her hair.  It's just too darned straight!  She ties grapevines tendrils to to head, eats carrot curls, rubs heads with a poodle, makes a wish on the tail of a pig, and makes a wig our of macaroni, but nothing works. Even when she puts it in rollers, it won't hold a curl, so when she finds a new friend, Pamela Paine, "whose whole head rippled with golden waves," she is in pretend beauty parlor heaven.

Emily creates a whole set of gorgeous hairstyles for Pamela, each to match a different glamorous personality. But when Pamela asks for a braid, Emily can't quite make it work because Pamela's hair is TOO curly.  So Pamela offers to braid Emily's hair and they discover that Emily has perfect hair for braiding.

Emily learns to braid her own hair and creates intricate braids to match her many personas - and voila - Emily loves her very straight hair.

Little girls will love this story - the whimsical illustrations put the reader right in the center of the first grade beauty shop chaos.  Parents will appreciate the light lesson that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

St. Patrick's Day, Part 2

This is the St. Patrick's Day Girl Power edition!

O'Sullivan Stew - written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott
Kate O'Sullivan is a resourceful girl with a gift for storytelling.  The trouble starts when the village won't help the witch when the king's soldiers take her horse.  Their reasoning is that she's not one of them.  This ticks her off and she curses the village with a famine.

Kate decides she's had enough of starvation, so she proposes that she and her father and brothers go to the castle and steal back the horse.  They are reluctant, but she convinces them with this logic - "We're facing death in either case, by the hangman's rope of the empty plate.  Which way do you prefer to go?"

They get caught thanks to her clumsy father and are scheduled to be hung. But Kate's talent for storytelling with more than a touch of blarney earns them their freedom, one fantastical story and one family member at a time.

Once Kate has returned the horse, the witch lifts the curse and the village celebrates.  The king can't get Kate out of his mind, of course, so he comes to the village to find her and ask her to be his wife.  I won't spoil it, but her response is completely awesome.

Three of my favorite things about this book:  1)  Kate's utter confidence,  2)  her response to the king's proposal, and 3) the sign hanging above the village's celebration that reads "Everyone is One of Us."

There's something to be said for the continuity that comes when an author illustrates his own books. Talbott's illustrations are perfect for this story. - just the right blues and greens for an Irish village by the sea, the red hair is just the right tone, each picture is detailed, realistic and bright without being overwhelming.

Fun facts - Hudson Talbott traveled to Ireland to do research for this book.  His traveling companion was an O'Sullivan and they stayed with the O'Sullivan clan in Crookhaven.  You won't find these facts fun until you read the book, so I guess you need to do that. :)

Brave Margaret: An Irish Adventure - written by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
San Souci, who passed away less than three months ago, is known for his adaptations of various forms of folklore.  One of his strengths is painting a vivid verbal picture of his characters and he has done that well with Margaret.

Margaret longs to see the world and when a prince docks his ship in the cove below her farm and comes to her asking for some of her livestock, she agrees to let him take her cattle IF she can travel with them.

A few days into the trip, they run into a sea serpent who demands they throw Margaret overboard or he will devour them.  While the men prepare to fight the serpent, Margaret rows out to meet the serpent and kills him.  She is tossed ashore and hits her head, falling unconscious.  When she comes to, she finds a small cottage and asks the old woman living within for shelter.

She stays for a few days, waiting for the storm to stop and as she is leaving, the price arrives.  When they try to leave together, they are unable to and soon discover that the old woman is a hag of sorceries.

This is where the story gets a little bit crazy, so I'm going to stick with the bare essentials. The hag sends Simon on a mission to slay a giant and he fails.  Margaret saves the day and Simon.  They are rewarded for accomplishing the mission and head for home.

A favorite line:  "I am the champion you have waited for!  What fools we are for thinking it must be a man who slays that great, dirty giant!"

This story is definitely for upper elementary ages, little ones will lose interest quickly.  San Souci uses rich vocabulary, a weaves an intriguing tale of courage and perseverance.

The illustrations, done in pastel, are beautiful, and have a dream-like quality to them.

Please include these books in your St. Patrick's Day collection!

If you're looking for a fun, easy prep St. Paddy's math activity, head on over to my TPT store! I've got Lucky Charms math packs for bother upper and lower elementary classes.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving

Laurie Halse Anderson has been making some noise in the YA lit world for years thanks to her passion for discussing tough topics so that young people know they are not alone in their struggles.  Did you know that she also writes picture books?

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving is the story of Sarah Hale's (Anderson's ancestor, BTW) thirty-eight year campaign to have Thanksgiving become a national holiday.  Hale accomplished a great deal in her lifetime.  She was an author, magazine editor, teacher, publisher, and proponent of playgrounds, education for girls, and historical monuments.  She also wrote the song, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" when a lamb followed a student to school and waited outside all day for it's owner.  She raised five children on her own after her husband passed away while she was pregnant with their fifth child.  Superhero, indeed.

The text is conversational, interesting, and easy to follow, so younger readers will stay with it.  The information is well-researched, one of Anderson's strengths.  Be sure to read the Feast of Facts at the end of the book to learn more Thanksgiving, Sarah, and U.S. History during her lifetime. The messages are unmistakable and meaningful - one person can make a difference, the pen is mightier than the sword - but the star of this show is the illustrations by Matt Faulkner.  They sweep through the early history of our country with both detail and simplicity, leaving lasting images in the reader's mind.

This pair also teamed up to write and illustrate Independent Dames, another nonfiction book for young readers that is worthy of your time.  Anderson has also written several other picture books and and the Vet Volunteer series is aimed at young readers as well.

I had the opportunity to hear Anderson speak at BYU's Books for Young Readers Symposium several years ago.  She is charismatic and fervent in her desire to use her talents to not only entertain her readers, but provide hope and courage to those suffering in difficult situations - abuse, eating disorders, rape, bullying, etc...  and has written some heartfelt and heavy-hitting books to address these topics.

I highly recommend her young adult books, especially for young adults and teens who may be in need of some bibliotherapy, but parents of teens should read ahead of time to determine if they feel the content is appropriate for their teen - she deals with substantial issues in straightforward and sensitive ways.

Anderson is another fan-friendly author - she accepts friend requests on Facebook, writes a blog, and keeps her website up-to-date.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

St. Patrick's Day, Part 1

When I was a little girl, on the night before St. Patrick's Day, my dad would remind me (in his best Irish accent) that the leprechauns would be visiting that night.  Not just any leprechauns, mind you, but O'Shaunessey, O'Toole and O'Day.  They would tiptoe into my room and leave a small gift on my bed and I relished this tradition.  With my own children, I colored all of our food and drink green on St. Patrick's Day.  I can still picture Michael's little face, peeking into the pan as I prepared Cream of Wheat for breakfast.  I would add the grain to the milk, wave my spoon over the pan and say the magic words, "Bibbidi bobbidi boo!" and stir.  The Cream of Wheat would turn green and he would be delighted.  Sigh.

Despite the fact that every single holiday is now blown completely out of proportion - who ever thought that teachers would be making leprechaun traps with their students, making green eggs and ham, teaching math with Lucky Charms, and sprinkling glitter and stamping tiny footprints all over their classrooms - I love reading holiday books with my students.  It brings a playful element to the classroom that is too often missing as we spend our days preparing them for test after test after test, and they spark some interesting conversations.

Today I want to introduce the first four books in my St. Patrick's Day series:

St. Patrick's Day - written and illustrated by Gail Gibbons
Gibbons specializes in nonfiction for children and she has it down!  This book gives simple, factual information about the origins of St. Patrick's Day and the different ways in which it is celebrated.  The last few pages contain brief synopses of the various legends about Saint Patrick.  Her illustrations are bright and clean, perfect for young readers.  If I could add one thing to this book, it would be pronunciations for the Irish words.

The Leprechaun Under the Bed - written by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Paul Meisel
Loner leprechaun Brian O'Shea likes peace and quiet, so he is understandably distressed when Sean McDonald builds a home right on top of his comfortable burrow.  Over time, the two develop an unlikely friendship that benefits both of them.  I enjoyed the fact that the main character doesn't become a greedy tyrant once he figures out a leprechaun is living under his bed.  He considers it to be luck he can't afford to lose, so he begins to feed the leprechaun and the mischief comes from outside the walls of their home and that's a nice twist.  Click here to read an interview with author Teresa Bateman.

That's What Leprechauns Do - written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
A group of leprechauns see a storm coming and set off to move their pot of gold to the end of the rainbow.  They can't resist playing some tricks along the way, of course, but they get the pot of gold in place just in time.  Sadly, no one comes to find it and the leprechauns rebury the pot and head home.  The plot is weak - in fact, the strongest part of the text is the About Leprechauns page at the end of the book.  The illustrations of the leprechauns, however, are darling and I can imagine a child staring at them for quite a while, imagining what it would be like to encounter one.  Click here to watch an interview with Eve Bunting (born in Ireland, BTW).

Too Many Leprechauns or How that Pot o' Gold Got to the End of the Rainbow - written by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Dan Andreason
Irish scallawag Finn O'Finnegan returns home from a walkabout to find that his village is a mess.  Nothing is getting done and everyone is exhausted because the leprechauns have invaded the village to cobble fairy shoes and the tap-tap-tapping of their tiny hammers keeps everyone awake.  Finn came home specifically to be spoiled by his mother, so he is highly motivated to fix this situation.  He cleverly tricks the leprechauns into bringing all their gold to the village square and then hides it.  The leprechauns agree to leave Dingle forever if he will return their gold.  They strike a bargain and when Finn restores the gold to the rightful owners, he introduces the leprechauns to the idea of keeping their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Clever story, rich illustrations, worth your time to find it at the library or online.

More St. Paddy's books coming soon!

If you're looking for a fun, easy prep St. Paddy's math activity, head on over to my TPT store! I've got Lucky Charms math packs for bother upper and lower elementary classes.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z

Alphabet books are a slippery slope.  Anyone who's every played The Alphabet Game in the car knows how difficult it is to find certain letters and alphabet books often fall into the trap of either making up some cutesy nonsense word to cover a letter or reaching too far to find a word that fits with the theme.

This alphabet book about Ben Franklin's life doesn't do that.  Each letter (including x) is represented by something real from Franklin's life...that is spelled correctly - hooray!

I learned quite a bit about good old Ben as I read this book.  For instance, did you know that he:
  • started Philadelphia's first library, hospital, and public college?
  • invented a musical instrument called the armonica?
  • was dipped in cold water three times a day when he was a baby?  This is called "hardening off" and apparently it was a common practice in colonial American because people believed it kept infants healthy - yikes.
  • took an "air bath" every day?  Yep, he believed spending part of each day naked was essential to good health.

Schroeder has crafted a clever biography in a format that young readers will enjoy.  Each page also contains bits of wisdom from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, opening up opportunities for discussion about a variety of topics - money sense, relationships, health, history, science and much more.

Great way to introduce the biography genre or just to learn about an American icon.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Author Kate DiCamillo

I love author events!  Tonight I got to hear Kate diCamillo speak thanks to Eagle Harbor Book Co. and Kitsap Regional Library.  

She started out by reading the first few pages of Because of Winn-Dixie, then opened the floor to questions.

Here are some of the stories she shared:

She came upon the idea for Flora & Ulysses because she had two situations nagging at her - one was her mother's vacuum.  Before her mother passed away, she was obsessed with making sure her vacuum would be taken care of and Kate promised to make sure that happened.  She ended up putting it in the garage because it made her too sad to see it all the time.  The other niggling incident was seeing a squirrel dying on her porch.  She panicked and called her best friend and asked her what to do.  "Do you have a shovel?"  Her friend said she'd be right over with a tee shirt and they would take care of the poor dying thing.  Kate says she moved away from the squirrel during the conversation, hoping it wouldn't hear the plan, but she is sure that it did because when she returned to the porch it was gone :)

One of the pieces of the Mercy Watson character fell into place when she got a brand new car, a Mini, and she was so excited.  A friend asked for a ride to the airport and got into her car with a piece of liberally-buttered toast, and as she ate and talked, greasy toast crumbs flew all over Kate's new car.  She asked her to wait till she got out of the car to finish her toast, but instead got a lecture about the wonders of toast.  After she "got rid of her," she realized that the missing piece of the pig's personality was a love of liberally-buttered toast.

A young lady asked her why she chose the color red for the sacrificial thread in The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread.  Kate said that she didn't realize the significance of red when she wrote that.  She told us about her first school visit:  the teacher told her class that they would be discussing the themes of her book with Ms. diCamillo.  She was thinking, "My book has themes? I wonder what they are?""  Luckily the teacher knew what they were and when she returned to her car, she wrote them down and on her next school visit, she walked in and said, "Ok kids, today we're going to talk about the themes of my book."  She said that often writers pull things into their writing without even realizing that they are significant.

One of my colleagues asked her to say something about the editing process.  She said, "The editing process is EVERYTHING!"  Kate edits her own work 6-7 times before sending it to her editor, who then sends her 6-7 pages of single-spaced "suggestions" for changes.  After she sulks and mutters for a while, she digs in and makes the changes and is never sorry she did.  The book always ends up being richer, better than she could have imagined.

Two comments I particularly enjoyed:  First, Kate reminded us that reading is a privilege. Then, she said she is the luckiest person in the world because she gets letters all the time from children who tell her they didn't like to read until they read her books.

Kate was wonderfully gracious, she stayed until every book was signed and every picture was taken.  We were second-to-last in line and she was just as friendly to us as she was to the first people in line.  My compliments to the event staff - they kept the line moving at a fast pace without anyone feeling short-changed.

If you haven't read one of her books yet, start with Because of Winn-Dixie.  Today.

Bingo Brown

Continuing on my nostalgia tour, let me introduce you to Bingo Brown.  Award-winning author Betsy Byars, who has penned more than 60 children's books since 1962, including The Summer of the Swans, brought Bingo into my life in the early 90's.

She tells his story in a 4-part series: The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown, Bingo Brown and the Language of Love, Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover, and Bingo Brown's Guide to Romance.  All are available in Kindle editions as well as through third party sellers through Amazon.  Each book can stand alone, but I recommend reading them all in order.  They're quick and entertaining, perfect for read aloud time with your own children or a classroom of 3rd-6th graders.

Let's talk about first things first - how does a kid get a name like Bingo? Well, his real name is Harrison, but only his grandmother is allowed to call him that. :)  His parents began calling him Bingo because that is what the doctor said when he entered the world.  Bingo is sure that the doctor says that every time he delivers a baby and feels like his moniker, and perhaps his very self, is unremarkable.

Byars deftly addresses his nickname in the third book, as the family gathers at the hospital for the birth of his new sibling. Bingo has a brief conversation with a nurse who says she was also in the room when he was born.  He asks her if the doctor says, "Bingo!" each time he delivers a child.  She says she can't remember him saying it any other time and  I could almost hear Bingo's sigh of relief as he lets go of the feeling that he is just another face in the crowd, or delivery room, as the case may be.  The whole exchange is so brief, such a seemingly insignificant incident in the series, but speaks volumes of the angst that tweens carry around with them as they try to find their place in the world.

While the titles correctly suggest that sixth grader Bingo is struggling to understand the opposite sex, each book also contains subplots dedicated to other challenges pre-teens often face:  a new sibling, bullies, teachers who betray their students' trust, friends moving away, and believing yourself to be in love with more than one person at the same time.

Byars is an expert at creating sympathetic characters and believable dialogue.  While some adults may not appreciate her lighter touch regarding more serious issues, such as the motorcycle accident, I found her treatment to be perfect for her target audience.

Today's readers may have a tough time understanding Bingo's world with it's land-lines, long-distance charges, and snail mail, but they will easily identify with his panic over participating in "mixed-sex conversations" on the phone, coping with wild crushes, idolizing a cool, young teacher, and figuring out familial relationships.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Seeing Cinderella

Remember what it was like to be in middle school?  All ankles, knees, elbows and nose, hoping no one will notice whatever it is that you think is wrong with you that day,  figuring out what your "thing" is, trying to balance multiple classes and teacher expectations, avoiding the bullies, and wanting to be safe at home, while simultaneously not wanting to be under your parents' thumbs?  Good times.

This little gem captures all of those feelings perfectly.  Seeing Cinderella chronicles the first half of Callie's sixth grade year.  The day before school starts. her mom takes her to the optometrist for a check up because she is having headaches.  Callie is determined not to wear glasses and has memorized the vision screening chart in a vain attempt to trick the doctor.

He's not fooled and the reader should pick up on the fact that he is no ordinary optometrist when he gives her an eye exam that includes a bizarre version of the Rorschach test and asks questions about making friends, sounding more like a psychologist than an optometrist.  As she prepares to leave, he tells her that the frames she has selected are backordered and gives her an incredibly ugly pair of glasses to use in the meantime, advising her to use them wisely.

Callie soon discovers that when she is wearing the glasses, she can see what people are thinking (in text form) as well as their wishes and past experiences (in video form).  This gift proves helpful as she figures out who her real friends are, which boy likes her and is worth liking back, and what is going on with her separated parents.  

I expected that the glasses would be used in mischievous ways far more often than they would be used as a tool for introspection, but author Jenny Lundquist doesn't want the message to be lost. Callie's voice is clear and true throughout the story as she learns some tough lessons and finds a way to be herself, happily.

The chapter subtitles are clever, the characters are true-to-life, and Lundquist demonstrates an understanding of a middle schooler's innermost struggles and a delightful ability to articulate them.  Once you've read Seeing Cinderella, be sure to explore her other novels.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sleeping Ugly

This book makes me laugh!  Jane Yolen is a gifted storyteller and is perhaps best-known for the touching Owl Moon, so it surprised me to read such a witty, even sarcastic, fracture of Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Ugly begins by introducing us to Princess Miserella - a spoiled, snotty, completely beautiful princess.  She gets lost while out on a walk and, finding an old woman napping under a tree, rudely wakens her and demands to be guided home.  It doesn't quite work out as she planned and they end up at Plain Jane's ramshackle cottage deep in the woods.

Miserella refuses to rein in her boorish behavior and the old woman, who is a fairy in disguise, tires of listening to her and, in a fit of frustration, casts a sleeping spell on her, which affects all three women since her ferocity breaks the wand.

They slumber through hundreds of year until Prince JoJo "who was the youngest son of a youngest son and so had no gold or jewels or property to speak of..." enters the cottage and decides to practice his kiss on the old woman first, then Jane, and in a moment of clarity, decides against kissing the gorgeous Miserella because "JoJo knew that kind of princess.  He had three cousins just like her;  Pretty on the outside.  Ugly within."

He and Jane marry, have children and add a granny flat to the cottage for their friend the old woman/fairy.  They never wake up Miserella who often serves as a coat rack for their guests.

Humorous, clever, completely fractured fairy tale.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Heist Society

The Heist Society is another series for tweens and teens by Ally Carter.  I found this series to be more engaging for an adult than the Gallagher Girls series, or maybe I just prefer theft to spying ;)

The story lines are fast-paced, with plenty of twist, turns and tight squeezes.  Kat's continual struggle between wanting to "go straight" and wanting to be loyal to her family is interesting, a con-within-the-con is the rule rather than the exception, and isn't it always fun to watch a smart, strong young female who can do anything she sets her mind to, flounder through boy-girl interactions?  As long as that female isn't your very ownself, right?

Here's a brief synopsis of each book:

In the first book, The Heist Society, we meet Katarina Bishop, our strong, smart protagonist.  Kat comes from a long line of art thieves.  To get out of the family business, she enrolls in an exclusive boarding school, but when she gets kicked out, she goes back to her old ways in order to recover (read: steal from the world's most secure museum) some paintings stolen during World War II, return them to the families of the original owners, and save her father.

The second book, Uncommon Criminals, focuses on Kat being asked to steal Cleopatra's Emerald and return it to it's rightful owner.  Unfortunately, the emerald is cursed and none of the crew's usual strategies are working.  Lots of globetrotting, suspenseful fun.

Perfect Scoundrels, the third installment in the series, turns our attention to Hale and the company he inherits from his grandmother.  When it looks like the will was altered as part of an elaborate plan to steal the company fortune, Kat and crew have their hands full fighting not only for the company, but for Hale.  This book gives us glimpses into Hale's family and life that have only been hinted at in the previous two books. If you've read the first two books, you definitely want to get to know Hale, as evidenced by the collective squeal let out by the crowd at the author event I attended when Carter merely mentioned his name.

Carter creates teen art thieves worth rooting for, while injecting some lessons in art, geography and history.  If you enjoy Carter's work, there is a crossover novella: Double Crossed;  A Spies and Thieves Story that is unofficially called HS 2.5 and GG 5.5.  I told you, Carter loves her fans!  Click the link to get it free for your Kindle now!

Ally Carter has a knack for writing characters and stories that tweens and teens can't get enough of - keep your eye on her.  Her newest book, All Fall Down, was released today along with a short prequel  to that book - click on the link to get the Kindle version FREE.

Gallagher Girls

A few years ago, my daughter Kim invited me to attend an author visit at the Provo Library.  Wanting to spend time with her, I agreed, though I had never heard of the author or her books.

If you get a chance to attend an Ally Carter event, do it - she is engaging, fun, and clearly appreciates her readers.  The signing I attended was well-organized and relaxed, but every author has to be tired after speaking for an hour or so and then sitting for at least as long to sign books and meet fans.  She was incredibly gracious, happy to answer questions, and her young fans felt her love for the GG world she created.

When we entered the ballroom, there were rows of young women wearing sunglasses.  It was evening and we were indoors, so I was curious.  My daughter then explained the premise of the Gallagher Girls.

The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women seems like any other all-girls boarding school to the unsuspecting public, but the young women attending the academy are receiving a curriculum guaranteed to produce some of the world's best spies.

Cammie Morgan and her friends, like Harry Potter and his cohort, constantly find that real-life mysteries are interfering with their educational goals. Each girl already has a code name, many of them have a spy pedigree as well. And then there's Zach - a handsome young man from the Blackthorne Institute for Troubled Young Men.

The six books in the series follow Cammie, Bex, Liz, and Macey as they destroy the villainous Circle of Cavan, piece by piece.

Ally Carter has created a world that young adventure seekers will enjoy entering for a while.  As an adult, the story became predictable after a while and I began skimming rather than absorbing.  But young readers will undoubtedly enjoy every moment of the action.  The girls are gutsy, smart, and just rebellious enough to keep them in constant danger.  The romances take a firm backseat to the spying, which should be refreshing to parents.

Carter's website is worth visiting.  It's reader-friendly and includes deleted "scenes" that GG devotees will devour.  She has a long list of answers to FAQs, previews to her new series, and many other features that clearly demonstrate her gratitude to her fans as well as her understanding of how easy it is to become obsessed with characters, a story, and an author.

If you know a tween or early teen whose love of reading is lagging - try these books.  Have her read them all - in order!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Four Puppies

Doesn't that golden spine take you back?

Since my move, I haven't been able to unpack my classroom library, so there are 30 or so boxes of books stacked in my bedroom and the guest room.  I root around in them when I need one for a lesson at school or want to write a post for this blog.  What should be a five minute job usually ends up being a 30, 45, or 60 minute job as I get lost in remembering not only the characters and plots of the stories, but when I first read each one and how I felt about it.

When I came across this gem, it took me WAY back to my own childhood.  I loved this story almost as much as I loved sitting with my dad while he read to me.

Four adorable puppies learn about the seasons from the "friendly red squirrel in the hickory tree." As each season arrives, the puppies cry and lament all of the seasonal elements they had been enjoying - racing across the grass and chasing butterflies in the summer, scuffing in the fallen leaves in the autumn, sliding down snow banks in the winter - until the squirrel points out all of the wonderful qualities of the incoming season.  I think that reading this book gave me my first understanding of the cyclical nature of the seasons - "It's like a wheel turning round and round."

One of my favorite things about the squirrel's soliloquy at the beginning of each season is his use of the phrase silly-billies.  "'You silly-billies - there's nothing to cry about,' said the friendly red squirrel in the hickory tree."  My parents and grandparents used the term silly-billy often when I was a child and it makes me smile whenever I hear it.

Author Anne Heathers uses repetition to create a feeling of familiarity with the reader, allowing a young reader to gain confidence in his/her ability to predict, but she puts just enough of a twist on it each season so as not to become tedious.  She hits the highlights of each season through the eyes of puppies growing into dogs, emphasizing their own growth in comparison to the porch steps and what is being served for dinner.

The illustrations, by Liliam Obligado, an author in her own right, are absolutely charming.  Everything is friendly and bright and life-like.  She also illustrates one of my son Michael's childhood favorites, The Golden Egg Book.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is a funny story about a boy who decides he absolutely must have his friend's goldfish.  Not finding anything in his bedroom that they can agree to swap, they settle on his dad, who is so absorbed in his newspaper that he doesn't notice anything that happens during the entire story.

Once Mom gets home, the boy and his sister are sent to get his dad back.  At his friend's house, he returns the goldfish and learns that his dad was swapped for an electric guitar, he takes the guitar back to it's original owner and finds that his dad was swapped again.  Author Neil Gaiman takes us on a journey all over town as the children search for their dad.

The zany story is not the highlight of this book, however. What sets it apart from the rest of the pack are the layered illustrations by Dave McKean.  Photographs, newspaper, drawing and painting are layered to create a unique accompaniment to the text. They are rather dark, but manage to convey the charm of childhood.  The last page is slightly more menacing and leaves us hanging with a will-he-or-won't-he situation.  Look for interesting touches throughout the book, such as eyes drawn as goldfish, a queen wearing a ship as a hat, stamps, letters and photographs.

The version I have also includes an afterword by Neil Gaiman, in which he explains how this book came to be.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Bad Case of Stripes

David Shannon is a children's lit rock star!  I got to hear him speak a few years ago at the BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers.  He was entertaining and shared his how-I-became-an-author story, told us to look for his little Scotty hidden in his books, and revealed some illustrations from his soon-to-be-published (at the time) book, It's Christmas, David!

A Bad Case of Stripes (this link goes to an online reading of the book by Sean Astin) is a fun, colorful lesson in being yourself and resisting peer pressure.

Camilla loves lima beans, but refuses to eat them because she wants to fit in and all of her friends hate lima beans.  She wakes up on the first day of school and her entire body is covered in stripes.  The doctor can't figure it out, so off to school she goes.  Naturally, the other kids ridicule her and call her names.  Throughout the whole miserable day, her body art changes whenever someone makes a demand - polka dots, checkerboard, stars and stripes.

The situation grows worse and none of the medical experts hovering over her can diagnose the problem.  Reporters wait outside her home, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl who is now covered with roots, berries, crystals, feathers, and a long, furry tail, all leftovers of other people's suggestions.

Finally, a friendly old lady knocks on the front door and solves the problem. Camilla decides that no matter what other people think, she's going to eat as many lima beans as she wants, whenever she wants.

The lesson might be lost on younger readers, but older readers should be able to infer quite easily that not being true to yourself results in misery.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Miss Malarkey Doesn't Live in Room 10

I laugh every time I read this story - probably for a couple of reasons: 1) having taught Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade, I know that there are children who really do think their teachers live at school. I love the look of surprise on their little faces when they see me at the store or library or walking down Main Street.  2) the pictures of the teachers after hours are hilarious - it would have been fun to have that experience with my friends at Sierra.

The young narrator walks us through Miss Malarkey's life after school.  The best part for me is the illustrations of all the teachers eating in the cafeteria, playing in the gym, lined up to get drinks at the drinking fountain in their jammies and having pillow fights in their very messy bunkhouse.

And then...Miss Malarkey moves into his apartment building.  He cannot believe that she has to take out her own garbage, I mean, doesn't the janitor do that for her?!?  He is shocked to see her having a party when it isn't even someone in the class's birthday.  Worst of all, none of his classmates believe him when he tries to convince them that Miss Malarkey doesn't live in Room 10.  

Oh well, there's always next year in second grade - Mrs. Boba definitely lives in Room 12.

Delightful story, vivid illustrations by Kevin O'Malley that convey what it's like to have a young, beautiful teacher, be in awe of school and teachers, and what it's like when the realization hits that the world is larger than your own little life.

Miss Malarkey Doesn't Live in Room 10 by Judy Finchler has several sequels: Miss Malarkey Won't be in Today, Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind, Testing Miss Malarkey, Miss Malarkey's Field Trip and Congratulations, Miss Malarkey!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Seattle Aquarium - Guess What I Bought in the Gift Shop?

I got to visit the Seattle Aquarium today with some friends from the ville.  If you are ever in Seattle, be sure to make this one of your destinations.  Very kid-friendly and, if you are interested in marine life, fascinating for adults as well.  Don't forget to eat lunch in the cafe and have some Ivar's clam chowder.

Our last stop during our visit was the gift shop.  My go-to purchase in overpriced touristy gift shops is a magnet to add to my growing collection.  But today as I was looking through the children's book section, I found several 50% off books and you know I had to get a couple!

The first title that attracted my attention was Santa is Coming to Washington.  It must be a thing now, because there are quite a few "Santa is Coming to" books on Amazon, so you might be able to find your home state or even city on the list.

This is definitely a niche book, banking on the excitement people feel over seeing places they call their own in print.  I admit, I felt a little thrill at seeing Bainbridge Island mentioned on one of the pages and my friends found their new hometown as well.  

Not a solid story, though, and with that being the case, I would have liked to have seen Santa enjoy more of Washington's famous places.  If you're going to target a specific audience, at least immerse them in all of the glory of their particular world. The Space Needle is shown and St. James Cathedral is mentioned along with the Pacific Science Center, Mount Rainier, and David Rogers Park.  A dozen cities are mentioned in passing as well.

The illustrations are quite good and I would have loved to have seen more of the sites the author mentioned come to life on the pages of this book and Pike Place Market is a notable omission.

The next book that grabbed my attention was the Fish with the Deep Sea Smile by Margaret Wise Brown.

This is a charming story of a father and his two children who go on a fishing trip to find the fish with the deep sea smile.  The illustrations by Henry Fisher are bright, fun and lively.  He perfectly captures the tone of Wise's rhythm and rhyme.

The story is exactly what we expect from Brown - delightful.  She is known for repetition, rhyme, rhythm, writing for children rather than to children, and throwing in a challenging word now and then to keep children wondering.  

This story is perfect for little readers who love the predictability of a familiar refrain with a new twist added on each page.