Monday, March 31, 2008

The Brook Book - Nonfiction Monday

The Brook Book: exploring the smallest streams
Jim Aronsky
Dutton Children’s Books 2008

Before I left for vacation, I stopped by my favorite children’s bookstore, Cover to Cover. Sally, the owner, helped me locate several new fiction and nonfiction books for my classroom. I was specifically looking for nonfiction that was well written, since we will soon be writing nonfiction in class, and I wanted good models of nonfiction text. The Brook Book was one of those great new finds.

From the moment I saw the front cover of The Brook Book, I was intrigued. I have always lived near a stream or a creek. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve wading in streams, trying to catch insects or frogs there, or collecting rocks and assorted wildflowers growing on the banks of the stream. Therefore, I loved that Aronsky tapped into this topic that is so accessible to many children, but that maybe goes unnoticed.

The book speaks directly to the reader – very kid-friendly. The pronoun “you” is used frequently. This technique really helps the readers feel connected to the text. Throughout the book, there are many ways listed to interact with a brook: directions for safety when exploring a brook, suggestions for how to collect things at a brook, a how-to on sketching wildflowers, bird watching at the brook, looking at animal tracks, and directions on the best way to catch fish. It made me yearn for warmer weather so I could go explore the brook near our house! Who knew so much could happen at a brook?!

On a first read, my fifth graders might feel that this book is too young for them, but I loved that a topic like a brook seems so simple, but is really quite multi-layered. I think with multiple reads, each student would be able to find an entry point that interests them.

In addition, this book is well organized, and would be an excellent mentor text that would help students write good, solid literary nonfiction. It contains many nonfiction characteristics – diagrams and labels, life cycles, and section headings, just to name a few. Those nonfiction characteristics are not overwhelming, as they can be in some texts. They are only used as it might advance the understanding of the text. As a mentor text, we will also have a huge conversation about the “voice” of the book, and how it draws the reader into the text.

There is an author’s note to teachers at the end. Aronsky includes some great suggestions for how to use the brook nearest your school for further educational purposes. Just as with students, there are many different entry points for educators. On the final page, he also includes the titles of “more books for brook explorers and naturalists”.

The Brook Book is an excellent addition to my nonfiction collection. When I read it, I was amazed at how rich with life a stream can be! Now, I am hoping that my students can disconnect from their electronic gadgets and extracurricular activities long enough to experience the wonder I did as a child, exploring the creeks and streams around me!

The Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Break! WOO-HOO!!

I'm in the "happiest place on Earth." See you next week!


Spring Break!

While Bill and his family will be with Mickey and friends, my family and I will be relaxing at sunny (hopefully!) Siesta Key. I plan to plop down on a beach chair, dig my toes into the powdery white sand, slather on some sunscreen, and read, read, read, read! This vacation could not be coming at a more perfect time.
See you all when we get back!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Waiting for Normal is a Wow!

I just finished Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor tonight. Wow!! I loved it!! My partner in crime, Bill, already reviewed this book back in February (he's always ahead of the curve!). As we approach a hiatus in our blogging for the next week, and you're waiting for us to post something new, I would encourage you to check out Bill's review of this amazing book.
Did I mention I really loved it??!!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lessons From a Wallflower

The latest from author Lisa Graff, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, is as good as her first book The Thing About Georgie, which I also liked a lot. It's a difficult thing to follow one highly acclaimed book with what looks like to be another, but she has definitely done it.

I am not the first to blog about this book, Mother Reader, A Year of Reading, and the author Lisa Graff have all done it.

The book hooked me from the get-go. The exploits of Bernetta's "best" friend Ashley brought to mind the movie Mean Girls. Hey, when you have a teenage daughter in the house, you see all of the quality films! Anyway, the next chapter jumps to Bernetta riding her bike to her father's magic dinner club. I loved the fast forward to the end of school when we find out that she has been grounded for the summer for some misdeed that she didn't commit. A victim of mean girl Ashley. Immediately, you are cheering for Bernetta to get even and you don't care how.

Once again, Graff has introduced an interesting bunch of characters. Bernetta's father is a magician that runs a dinner theater that specializes in magic, Bernetta is her father's assistant. Gabe, a teenage con artist wannabe, who knows all of the great crime movies and quotes them constantly. Colin, Bernetta's six-year old brother, who is constantly in his own world of make believe. Elsa, Bernetta's older sister, who just graduated as valedictorian of her class, and many minor characters that just come in and out of the story like cameo actors in an old movie.

The dilemma that Bernetta is facing is that her scholarship to private school has been revoked because of Ashley framing her for a cheating scandal. The only way she can get back in is to raise the $9000 tuition. There aren't many ways for a 12-year old to raise that kind of money in the summer, so Bernetta turns, reluctantly to a life of crime. Her tutor, Gabe, schools her in the fine art of conning people out of money. Because of her background in magic, Bernetta is quite good at it.

The climax of the book is very much like The Sting, one of Gabe's favorite movies. A double con is pulled and the mean girl Ashley gets her just reward. Bernetta also realizes that choices she makes can affect her for the rest of her life, and comes clean in the end. I could not put this book down.

I will recommend it to my fourth and fifth graders. The book has a great deal to teach about friendship, choices, consequences and family. Lisa Graff has created another great book for kids.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Non Fiction Monday: Down on the Farm

Having grown up in an agricultural community where I worked on my brother-in-law's dairy farm through high school, I was drawn to the cover of this book. In fact, my experiences on the farm probably have something to do with my choice of careers, I knew that I didn't want to work that hard for the rest of my life! Farmers spend long hours, working extremely hard to keep the rest of us in food and other necessities. They do not get the credit they deserve for feeding the world.

Clarabelle: Making Milk and So Much More by Cris Peterson is a book kids can read an look at many times over and always learn something new. The photos by David R. Lundquist complement the text to the point that they almost stand alone.

It has been my experience with kids that don't have that rural background, don't understand that milk doesn't just come in a plastic jug at the supermarket. They are not aware all of the steps that come before they pour over their cereal in the morning. This book explains the whole process from the birth of the calf to the tanker picking the milk up, with picture of all the steps along the way. In addition to the production of milk, it covers how large dairy farms use the cow by-products, okay, I'll say it, manure to produce bedding for stalls, (I didn't know that) electricity (I didn't know that) and electricity(I knew that). The book shows how cows' digestive systems work, shows a diagram of the four, that's right FOUR parts to the cow stomach. It even describes, in detail, how the the stomach holds 25 gallons of stuff when it's half full and that one section works like a "huge churning, bubbling vat where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the tough chew feed into nutrients." Can't you just hear your students' reactions to that description!? The text in the book is very kid friendly and most third to fifth graders will be able to read and understand it.

David R. Lundquist's pictures are detailed and close enough to their subjects that the kids will get a clear vision of what life on a dairy farm is like. My favorite shows Clarabelle up close enough to see the saliva bubble hanging from her mouth, AWESOME! Another page shows Clarabelle's calf so soon after birth that it is still wet, EXCELLENT! Younger readers will get plenty of information from the pictures alone.

This is the kind of non fiction I enjoyed as a kid, and I still do!

The Non Fiction Monday round up is Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Poetry Friday With Another Spinelli Selection

I know I'm supposed to pick my favorite Dylan lyric for Poetry Friday hosted by Jama Rattigan, but I'm not really a Dylan fan, so I'm going with another book of free verse by Eileen Spinelli. It's from the book where i live, a collection of free verse poems written from the perspective of a young girl. She starts by describing her house and then goes through her life events which lead to a move to Grandpa's in Pittsburgh due to her dad losing his job. This takes her six hours away from her best friend Rose and the poetry writing camp she earned by writing the best poem at her school. In the end, she still gets to go to the poetry writing camp, and makes a new best friend, Sam. A boy that shares her interest in astronomy. She writes on her first night in the new house:

When you move
and go to sleep
for the first time
in a new room,
you feel strange.
Even if your new room
is midnight blue
like your old one.
Even if you are in
your own bed.
Even if your family
is in the same house.
Even if the same moon
that hung over
your old neighborhood
is hanging in
your new-neighborhood sky.
No matter what,
that first night
you feel strange,
spooky, and a little

I like this book just as much as Summerhouse Time by Eileen Spinelli. I think this one will be better for the younger readers. For another review, check out Read, Read, Read.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

You "Otter" Read This!

Do Unto Otters (A Book About Manners) by Laurie Keller was published in September, 2007, but I just recently found it. When I read it, I started cracking up from the very first page. Picture this: a 50-something woman, holding a book in her hands, laughing hysterically with tears running down her face, and her high school daughter running into the family room to see what was wrong. Yep, that 50-something woman was me. And yep, I was reading Do Unto Otters.

I’m not exactly sure who Keller’s target audience is. I originally thought it was for younger readers since it is a book about manners. But, then I happened to glance at the dedication, copyright, and publisher page, and I knew this wasn’t just for kids. There are definitely parts in this book designed for the adults reading this book with/to children.

One of the dedications is a thank you, and it is to be sung to a tune by the Commodores (this is most definitely my age demographic!). Here’s how it goes (see if you can figure out the tune):

“She’s a WORD – HOUSE!
Re-write, re-write me, she takes all my bad words out.
She’s a WORD – HOUSE!
Her brain is stacked with lots of facts.
She’s nice and she has no plaque.”

Every time I read this (and of course, try to sing the tune), it cracks me up! There’s even more fun in the publisher/copyright section, but I don’t want to ruin all the funny surprises.

The actual story is about a Rabbit who gets new neighbors – the Otters. He is in a quandary – he knows nothing about Otters or how to treat them. That’s when the wise, old owl comes to visit, and shares an old saying he knows, “Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you.” This makes Rabbit reflect on how he would want “otters” to treat him. What a fun way to share with children how to behave with one another! And what a great way to share with kids how authors play with words!

While children are learning some valuable life lessons, they can also have some fun. On the page when the Rabbit and the Otter share their favorite books with each other, the Otter’s favorite book is no other than Harry Otter. Then, there's the page when they’re playing cards, and the Rabbit tells the Otter to “Go Fish”, and guess what the illustration shows the otter doing? You guessed it -- diving into the stream to fish! There are lots more chuckles throughout the book!

You really "otter" read this book!

For some more reviews on this book, check out 100 Scope Notes and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Best Week Ever!

The comic book appearance of this cover drew me to it, and the story inside kept me interested. A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee, could be young readers intro to the whole graphic novel craze. Now I'm not a big fan of the graphic novel and really haven't found too many I like, maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I like my novels to have more words than pictures, but if more were like this book, maybe I would begin to soften on that!

James and Eamon spend a week with Eamon's grandparents, Bill and Pam, at the beach. Bill and Pam have the notion that the boys will learn something while staying with them by attending Nature Camp each day. The boys have other ideas and do what two young boys will do, eat, play video games, watch too much TV, and, oh yeah, eat. Throughout the stay, Bill keeps trying to get the boys interested in Antarctica and offers to take them to a penguin exhibit. The boys avoid his interest by eating, playing video games, watching too much TV and, oh yeah, eating.

The pictures in the book are interesting to look at with their comic book qualities, but the quotes from the two boys are priceless. Upon their return from the last day of Nature Camp, James sums it up like this:

"I think it should be called Sit-Around Camp."

and Eamon like this:

"Yeah, or Sweat-a-lot Camp."

I think I have heard my own two kids describe "educational" experiences in the same way! In the end, the boys become as one and Bill refers to them as Jamon, and they demonstrate that the best week ever was not just a waste of time, and they did learn something, inspite of all of the adult interference.

All students will enjoy this colorful look at a week at the beach. It's my most recent PICK FROM THE PIT!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Linda Sue Park is Keeping Score

Non Fiction Monday has been temporarily interrupted by 15 inches of snow (see pictures at A Year of Reading) we now return you to your previously scheduled blog. If you wish to see Non Fiction Monday, please go here.

In keeping with the accidental theme of baseball here at Literate Lives, Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park uses the lost art of scoring a baseball game as the catalyst for a story of growing up, baseball, and war tragedy set in 1950s Brooklyn.

It's great when award winning authors go a completely different direction when writing a book. A Single Shard by Park is one of my all time favorite Newbery winners. I was very excited to see this new title from her on my library shelf.

A Single Shard takes place in ancient Korea. Keeping Score is set in 1950s Brooklyn, a time when baseball really was America's past time and the people of New York had three teams to cheer for, the dreaded Yankees, the Giants and the favorite of Maggie-o and her brother, the Dodgers, affectionately known as Dem Bums.

Maggie's full name is Margaret Olivia which her father, a Yankees fan, shortens to Maggie-o a form of DiMaggio, one of his favorite players. Maggie's father is a firefighter who is now stationed at a desk job due to an injury. Maggie continues her friendship with the guys at her father's old station which is just down the block. When a new guy, Jim, reports for duty at the station Maggie strikes up a friendship with him even if he is a fan of the Giants. Both are baseball lovers and even though Maggie isn't allowed to play (she's a girl, it's the 1950s) she knows as much about the game as any of the boys on her block. Jim teaches her to keep the score sheet while listening to games on the radio. Maggie is instantly hooked by the "secret code" of the baseball score book even if it means she has to listen to the Giants.

When Jim gets drafted and sent to Korea, Maggie writes him faithfully and he responds faithfully until a battlefield incident leaves him with battle fatigue syndrome and he stops communicating with everybody. In all honesty, this is the part of the story where things bogged down for me a bit. Not that I need for everything to end happy and wonderful, the whole story just seemed to drag through this part. It comes out the other side in fine form, and the end of Keeping Score is realistic and satisfying.

I really liked the portrayal of 1950s America with its innocence and love of baseball. I loved the multicultural community that was Brooklyn. Maggie's dad is Italian and her mom is a first generation Irish immigrant. Park creates this setting so the reader can get lost in it, and wish for a time when kids could be free to walk to the corner store and buy some good candy for a dime, or spend time with friends in the park without adult supervision all of the time. Overall, I liked this book and will recommend it to my better fourth grade readers and all fifth grade readers.

I may even brush up on my baseball scoring this summer as I watch my Cleveland Indians, another "wait 'til next year" team just like Dem Bums!

Friday, March 7, 2008

We Are the Ship Meets Sports Illustrated

I probably should save this for Nonfiction Monday, but I just had to share this now...
My husband's weekly Sports Illustrated magazine arrived at our house this past Thursday. I've got to admit, I love seeing who or what is on the cover each week, and then I especially used to love turning to the last page to read what Rick Reilly had to comment on for that week (sadly, he no longer writes for SI, but old habits are hard to break).

Anyway, as I glanced at the front cover, I saw a small inset box with a picture that was very familiar. It was titled Pride of the Game, and below the oh-so familiar picture, I saw Kadir Nelson's name. What??!! It's true! Sports Illustrated this week has jumped on the kidlit bandwagon, and Phil Taylor has written a wonderful article highlighting Nelson's book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. He includes quotes from Kadir Nelson, and emphasizes the importance of Negro league baseball history in his article. Taylor's review of the book, and his description of Nelson's powerful pictures are well worth the read (especially if you're snowed in and have nothing else to do, as we are here).

In the article, SI also included many of the fabulous pictures found in Nelson's book.

Take a peek! It's worth it!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Late Chinese New Year

I know I'm a little late at reading these two, but since I've seen so many blogs about The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin, I thought I better get on the bus. I picked it up at my local library over the weekend to preview it for our school library. I won't lie, it took me a while to get into the story, but when I did, I realized how well it's written.

I have yet to read The Year of the Dog, which I know came first so I'm a little out of order, but what else is new, people tell me I'm out of order all the time! Anyway, The Year of the Rat works in so many ways, so I'm looking forward to reading the first book second...huh!?

On one level the book can be used to talk about friendships and how they change and grow. At first the book seemed a bit childish and immature to me, but then I got into the feel that it was from a child's perspective and the language drew me in. I loved how Grace Lin works the relationships in the story between the main character, Grace, and her best friend, Melody. The changes in friendships between Grace and the "cool" girls are portrayed so that the reader ends up cheering for both sides at various times in the book. In the end, when Grace comes to the realization that not only had her old friends changed, but so had she, it's not cheesey, but real and genuine.

On another level the book can be used to talk about family traditions, especially those of Chinese families. Throughout the book Grace Lin breaks in the story to give a memory or story from one of the parents. They deal with growing up, Chinese legends that teach lessons, or Chinese traditions surrounding the New Year, weddings, and other family celebrations. Reading the back flap confirmed my suspicions that a lot of the story, and especially these parts of the story came from the author's childhood. They are all fascinating and so well woven into the plot, but they could almost be pulled out and used separately as a lesson on the Chinese culture.

Finally, it's a book on immigration. When Grace's best friend Melody moves away and another Chinese family moves in. The new boy is made fun of for not fitting in, and Grace deals with her mixed feelings of how to treat him. It's an interesting look at how children of immigrant parents struggle in a dual world.

The Year of the Rat is a warm, well-told story that can be enjoyed by readers from third grade up. It would also make a great read aloud for younger readers.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Barnstormers Game 3 Surprise Find

Don't you just love the small independent bookstores? I recently visited my favorite one, Cover to Cover to Cover Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio and found several things I wasn't looking for, and one I didn't expect to see for several more days. I was very excited to find Game 3 of the Barnstormer series by Loren Long and Phil Bildner on the shelf. If you're not familiar with this series, it involves the Payne family, Griffith, Ruby, Graham, and their mother Elizabeth. They are traveling with a barnstorming baseball team around the turn of the century. The players all served in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders along with the Mr. Payne who died under some mysterious circumstances. Each book involves a different game in a different city that played an important role in the beginnings of baseball. Game 1 is in Cincinnati, Game 2, Louisville, and Game 3, Chicago. Each book includes history, not only of baseball, but also the cities in which they are played.

The team is being followed by the mysterious Chancellor for reasons that are not completely clear yet. Magical things happen during each game that also reflect the history of each city and have something to do with a mysterious baseball with a hole in it that the children possess. All in all, great stories, outstanding illustrations and enough suspense to keep you reading.

I found the series while looking for some good chapter books for second or third grade boys, but these books can be enjoyed by all elementary kids. I can't wait for Game 4 coming sometime in the spring of 2009. Hopefully I'll spot it earlier than expected too, on a future visit to my favorite bookstore.

Monday, March 3, 2008

We Are the Ship, The Story of Negro League Baseball is a Winner!

To coin a phrase I recently heard in a tape by Katie Wood Ray on writing workshop in the classroom, I “stand on the shoulders” of many others when I write about this fascinating book by Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship, The Story of Negro League Baseball. Several other blogs have already reviewed this book, notably: Fuse #8, Books for Kids, and I.N.K. .

While all those reviews are wonderful, I feel a need to throw in my own two cents on this Nonfiction Monday. This book is mesmerizing with both its powerful illustrations and its finely crafted text. Illustrations and text are both done by Kadir Nelson, already an award-winning illustrator, but in my opinion, with this book, he will also become an award-winning author/illustrator (can you say Caldecott?!!).

Each time I open this book, I am overwhelmed by the illustrations. I think it is because the characters dwarf each page and are the focal point; the settings in the illustrations seem to be secondary. Nelson focused a lot on the details of the characters' faces, arms, and hands. The reader’s eyes are immediately drawn to these body parts, and I am in awe of his ability to draw the veins in a person’s hand so realistically, it seems as if you could reach out and touch them. In addition, the skin tones are beautifully done with shadows and light. Another focal point in each illustration are the uniforms, with attention paid to the names of the different teams across the chest. Once again, light and shadows make for very realistic looking uniforms.

The layout and organization of this book is very cleverly done. It starts with a foreword by Hank Aaron. Then, Kadir’s text starts with “1st Inning, Beginnings”. This book is divided into “9 Innings”, and then a section called “Extra Innings” (see I.N.K.’s review for a synopsis of what each “Inning” covers). We start with the beginnings of Negro League Baseball and conclude with the end of Negro League Baseball.

This story has great voice, something I love about this nonfiction text. It is written in first person, with the voice of someone who played in Negro League Baseball. By having a former player relay the information in this book, it brings familiarity to the players that are mentioned, and makes them seem “human”, not just a bundle of facts and statistics.

However, that being said, the information that I learned while reading this text was phenomenal. This is a whole cross-section of life of which I was unaware. The Negro League's importance in the history of baseball is well documented here. In fact, in the very last paragraph of the book, Nelson writes:
“If there had been no such thing as Negro League, there would have been no Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. These guys stand on our shoulders.”
I think that says it all.

If you want to get a glimpse of this hunk of an author, check out this myspace on Kadir Nelson. There is even a little video for you to get up close and personal. Enjoy!

For the Nonfiction Monday roundup, head on over to Picture Book of the Day.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Meet Jeff Kinney

My class is absolutely wild about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney! My 5th graders, boys and girls alike, argue about who gets to read the latest book next. So, when Borders bookstore recently sent me my Borders Rewards member email containing a clip of Jeff Kinney talking to parents and children in Michigan, I had to share it with my class. They loved it!

After that success with my class, I thought I’d pass it along. So, my gift to you this Sunday is a Borders 01 link that takes a peek at this very popular author. Enjoy, and have a great weekend!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Oh, Brother!

“Mami remarried
and won me a brother.
‘Don’t need one,’ I said.
‘But thanks, anyway.’
Guess what? She ignored me!
Chris moved in today.”

This is the first poem in Nikki Grimes’ new picture book, Oh Brother!, which deals with the issue of blending families, and the emotions that are felt by all involved when that happens. Each poem in the book gives a little more insight into the narrator’s feelings about the new configuration of his family when his mother gets remarried. An example is the poem titled “Mouse”:

“Two new bodies
carving up my space.
Four new feet
stomping around this place.
Two new voices
ringing through the house.
There won’t be room
for me unless
I turn into a mouse!”

The illustrations, by Mike Benny, really complement each poem incredibly well. It is a wonderful example of pictures enhancing the emotions the writer is expressing with her words. The faces of the characters are slightly oversized, but it allows the reader to see all the expressions on their faces and in their eyes.

Nikki Grimes also deals with the blending of cultures, with half of the new family being Hispanic, and the other half being African-American. It is a realistic depiction of a blended family today. Grimes even includes a few Spanish words which adds to the lyrical quality of the poems. My favorite is the poem where Xavier teaches Chris to spell, “hermano”.

The best part about this book, though, is the subtle transformation that happens to our narrator, Xavier. Nikki Grimes builds the tension between the two new brothers beautifully. There is a poem about half-way through called “Showdown”, and it’s that epic moment when words and accusations fly, and then Xavier’s new brother says to him:

“ ‘ Unless I’m perfect,’ whispers Chris,
‘my dad might go away.
Normal wasn’t good enough
to make my mama stay.’ “

It is definitely one of several poems that really tugged at my heartstrings! Xavier must have felt the same way because this is the point that he starts looking at his stepbrother, Chris, with new eyes.

As the boys start to forge a new relationship as brothers, I’m delighted to share the ending is very “happily ever after” – my favorite kind.

I loved this book – it is a must have! I can’t wait to share it with my class. In some ways, Oh, Brother! is reminiscent of Ralph Fletcher’s, Moving Day, another book I love. Both books deal with a new situation the child didn’t want, the turmoil of emotions during the unwanted transition, and the gradual acceptance (and even embracing) of the situation.

You will definitely want to check out Book Buds’ review of Oh, Brother!, also.