Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Curious Critters

Curious Critters
written and photographed by David FitzSimmons
2011 (Wild Iris Publishing)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Gathering Books

Photographer and writer David FitzSimmons was fortunate enough to have 21 North American animals not only agree to sit for a portrait, but they also shared their thoughts with him on their life in the wild. As Rod Stewart once sang, some guys have all the luck. Some animals, like the American Toad, give a straight interview and provide interesting tidbits about their lives. Mr. Toad reveals that he is completely lacking in princesses waiting to kiss him and that he is a humble hopper as opposed to the showier frogs and their leaps. Others like the Virginia Opossum, prefer a more poetic approach:

Opossum! Opossum! How I love you!
You carry your kids like marsupials do.
Whenever you're bothered, you run on ahead.
If further provoked, you pretend you are dead.


The red flat bark beetle engages in puns in explaining his particular dilemma. The spotted salamander gives an interview in song. These talented critters give the reader an insight into their fascinating lives.

There are two things that stand out about this book. First, the photographs are as good as you are going to see.  With a white background, FitzSimmons gets you to focus on the animal and you are up close and personal. Seeing the mites on the back of the red beetle is an example of how young readers will appreciate these pictures. Second, FitzSimmons has fun with the text. He injects poetry, information, and humor to create an enjoyable read. If I was teaching a unit on animals, I would read one of these interviews each day in my class. Students could then write their own interview with an animal complete with questions and answers.

Other reviews:


Thursday, April 26, 2012

STEM Friday: Poison Dart Frogs

Poison Dart Frogs
written by Lisa Owings
2012 (Bellwether Media)
Source: Orange County Public Library

It's STEM Friday! Check out the science and math links.

I thought my job was hard. It's nothing compared to what Manuelito Maia does in the Colombian rain forest. A member of the Embera tribe, he uses leaves to grab golden poison dart frogs. Manuelito rolls three darts across the frog's back and then lets it go. The "fun fact" explains that it only takes an amount of poison equal to two grains of salt to kill a person. With these darts, the members of the Embera tribe hunt for food.  There are many other cool facts contained in this book. These frogs secrete poison through their skin. Needless to say, there isn't much fear of predators in poison dart frogs. Their bright colors, known as aposematism, keeps predators from being unfortunate enough to try to eat one. The book mentions that snakes would be dead before they could even spit the frog back out. Batrachotoxins are the most powerful toxins on Earth, but the frogs do not produce these themselves. Scientists believe their diet of insects that eat poisonous plants is the reason for the toxins produced. Poison dart frogs are not only dangerous, but helpful as well. Their poison is being used to create muscle relaxers and other medicines.

Not for the squeamish or tender hearted, Poison Dart Frogs is fascinating for those readers (like me) who enjoy reading about exotic animals and their unique features. You could take a paragraph from the informational part of this book and teach students about finding key words (getting the GIST) to help with summarizing. You could also compare the frogs with other animals that use poison for protection or for hunting and create a chart or table.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Senorita Gordita

Senorita Gordita
written by Helen Ketteman; illustrated by Will Terry
2012 (Albert Whitman & Company)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

The Gingerbread Man has moved to the Southwest and taken the form of a female gordita. Created by Arana the spider, Senorita Gordita and her spicy personality escapes and takes off down the road. What follows are encounters with native animals who are all hungry for a bread treat. Lagarto the lizard offers his shade but Senorita Gordita gives him the brush off and declares that she is "putting the pedal to the metal" and the chase begins. Crotolo (rattlesnake) would like to visit but he too ends up in the chase. Escorpion, Javalina, and Coyote all meet the same fate as the previous creatures who tried to sidle up to Ms. Gordita. Finally, as she is chased by the growing crowd, Senorita stops at a saguaro cactus where Buho the bolo tie wearing owl sits on top. Like others, he offers safety from harm. At first, Senorita is skeptical, but when Buho explains that he does not hunt during the day, she takes him up on his pitch of a place to rest. Is it the end of the line for the trash talking fried bread?

Senorita Gordita is an amusing retelling that introduces students to a desert setting and an infusion of Spanish vocabulary. Senorita Gordita is an interesting character who can be the subject of a discussion about the consequences of behavior. Does her taunting create a deserved fate or is she an unfortunate victim of a wise owl? The last sentence of the book is the perfect starting point for this question. Senorita Gordita would also be a good text to help teach the skill of retelling a story. I love the use of colors and the perspectives of the characters in Will Terry's illustrations. You see the gordita staring high at the owl with the posse in pursuit. Senorita Gordita is a fun twist on the Gingerbread Man tale.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: These Bees Count!

These Bees Count!
written by Alison Formento; illustrated by Sarah Snow
2012 (Albert Whitman & Company)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Books 4 Learning

Mr. Tate's class is taking a field trip to the Busy Bee Farm. Though lacking in cows and horses, the farm has plenty of wildflowers. Farmer Ellen explains "We farm bees and honey." Before exploring the bee farm, the students put on their beekeeper gear. The first stop is a field full of tall boxes called apiaries or bee houses. This book is full of cool vocabulary words like apiaries. Farmer Ellen tells the group about pollination and how bees carry the pollen to plants. Using a smoker, she sends the bees out of the house so the students can see them and hear the buzz. The excellent author's note in the back explains that bees' wings flap over ten thousand times a minute which creates the buzz. Being told to listen to what the bees are saying, the class hears a counting song involving different plants calling to the bees. Fruit trees and bushes, poppies and peapods are some of the plants anxiously waiting for a visit from their bee benefactors. Finally, Farmer Ellen explains the process of how bees convert liquid nectar into honey. It's not pretty, but who cares when you're craving a peanut butter and honey sandwich. The wooden frames containing honeycombs are placed into an extractor which spins the honey. As they are getting back on the bus, lucky field trip participants carry home a jar of honey.

These Bees Count! is a terrific resource for teaching about bees, plants, and food products. You can teach skills such as sequencing and using a graphic organizer with the text. With a kindergarten class, I would create a circle map in the shape of a bee and have students share their background knowledge before reading the book and then collect responses as you read and after reading. Older students could create a flow chart showing the steps of honey creation. You should definitely print this excellent teacher's guide for the book. Sarah Snow's cut paper illustrations and Alison Formento's gentle and informative story make this book the "bee's knees". Feel free to groan audibly.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

STEM Friday: The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math

The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math
written by Sean Connolly
2012 (Workman Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out STEM Friday for other science and math links

Some people are not fans of math and might say "I wouldn't do math problems if my life depended on it." If this is you, then you might want to pass on this book. On the other hand, if you are fearless with a love of math, you need to find a copy of The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math. There are 24 challenges for the not faint-of-heart to tackle. Each challenge starts with a narrative that explains the danger that lurks. The first challenge, The Pit and the Pendulum, involves the reader tied to a table with a pendulum swinging a blade 15 inches above their head. There are variables working against you and for you. In this case, a rope chewing rat is your best friend. To help you solve each challenge, a cartoon Euclid provides advice and a piece of graph paper is available for problem solving. The solution is provided in the form of a flow chart and a cool hands-on lab activity ends each section. At the end of the first challenge, readers will learn how to create a pendulum using string and a key. I appreciate the scaffolding provided in each challenge. This helps the reader work through the challenge without losing too much independence.

This perilous book would be a treat for the student who easily masters their grade level math assignments. You could also present one challenge per week for the whole class. It could be a Friday activity that excites students or part of a math menu that students can choose from. The Brain Benders presented throughout the book can also be used in this manner. These are stand alone activities that add to the fun of the book. Sean Connolly has created a package of math, science, and humor that will be appreciated by math lovers everywhere.

Sean Connolly will be in my neck of the woods next week. He's visiting FlyLeaf Books in Chapel Hill on Monday and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Tuesday if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Get your math on and go see him if you get the chance.


*** Note to STEM Friday followers: I'm having trouble using WordPress to post on the STEM Friday blog. I'll try later today to do this.Update: Problem is solved. Go to STEM Friday blog to see other science and math links.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How to Be Friends with a Dragon

How to Be Friends with a Dragon
written and illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev
2012 (Albert Whitman & Company)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Simon is enthralled with dragons. He confides in his sister Emma that he is going to make friends with a dragon. Being a protective older sibling, Emma lets him know that there are rules for being friendly with a dragon. A friendly approach without fear is a good way to introduce yourself. Simon decides flowers would be a nice gesture. Another rule is that you cannot swing on the dragon's tail. This is going to be a tough one for Simon. But the benefits outweigh the concerns. A dragon will cook a lunch of fried eggs without the use of a stove and if you wear a seat belt, free flights are included in the friendship. One very important rule to remember is to not poke the dragon's nostril with a stick. Simon thinks this might be fun, but Emma reminds him that dragons sneeze fire. When Simon thinks about introducing the dragon to his school friends, Emma lets him know that this is not a good idea, so he decides to keep the dragon in his room.


How to Be Friends with a Dragon is a whimsical celebration of a child's imagination. The watercolor illustrations are incredibly engaging. My wife saw the book in my hand and said "That's really cute."  Young readers will love the subject and connect with the use of imagination. A great writing assignment could be to have students create a booklet about what they would like to have in an imaginary friend and what kind of rules you would need to have. I also appreciate the positive depiction of a brother and sister relationship. How to Be Friends with a Dragon will be a popular read aloud in your classroom or as a bedtime read aloud.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Touch the Sky

Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper
written by Ann Malaspina; illustrated by Eric Velasquez
2012 (Albert Whitman & Company)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday at The Nonfiction Detectives

As a child in 1930s Albany, Georgia, Alice Coachman loved to run and jump. She played basketball with the boys. Her teacher took Alice to a track meet where she watched the high jump. This inspired Alice to tie rags to sticks planted in the clay and practice her jumping over the makeshift bar. Alice's high school was going to the Tuskegee Relays and needed a jumper. Teachers pitched in and bought her the necessary equipment so she could compete. Alice won first place which caught the eye of Tuskegee coach Cleve Abbott. She was given a one meet tryout at a national meet which resulted in another first place and an invitation to join the Tuskegee Institute High School Tigerettes. Her papa wasn't sure, but he knew he couldn't stand in the way of Alice's dream. To pay her way, Alice took on many chores including sewing, mopping, and rolling tennis courts. Becoming a national champion, Alice then looked to the Olympics. World War II interrupted her dream in 1944, but she received another chance in 1948. Competing against the world's best in London, Alice did indeed touch the sky and became the first African American female and only U.S. female in London to win a gold medal. In the author's note, we learn that Alice later became a teacher and was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Touch the Sky is a biography in free verse that shines light on an athlete who was probably unknown to many sports fans like myself. We teach character traits, such as determination, to students and stories of historical figures like Alice Coachman help in this regard. Alice had many obstacles (poverty, racism) in her path, but she worked hard to overcome these and realize her dream of winning a gold medal. Touch the Sky would be an excellent addition to your picture book biography collection. Click on this link to find a teacher's guide provided by the publisher.

Other reviews of Touch the Sky:
 A Year of Reading
Picture Book of the Day


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale

How Many Donkeys?: An Arabic Counting Tale
retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah
illustrated by Carol Liddiment
2009 (Albert Whitman) 2012: paperback released
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Jouha is an endearing figure in Middle Eastern folklore. As explained in the prologue of this book, he is a mix of wisdom and foolishness. In How Many Donkeys?, he is preparing to go to the market to sell dates. As he walks through the sandy valleys, Jouha feels like he is a lucky man with ten donkeys to his name. Along the bottom of the page are the names of the numbers 1-10, which are written from right to left as is customary with Arabic text. As Jouha sits on a donkey, he looks back and counts again. This time he only counts nine and pronounces himself to be an unlucky man. After dismounting, Jouha counts again and sees that he indeed has ten donkeys. This scenario will be repeated throughout the book as Jouha constantly forgets to count the donkey on which he is sitting. It will be interesting to see at what point younger readers will be able to infer where Jouha is going wrong with his counting. At the end of the book, Jouha realizes when he is making the counting mistake, but his logic as to why may be up for debate. He states "It's better to walk than to lose a donkey."

A counting book with a connected story is a great opportunity to introduce a piece of folklore from the Middle East. Students will be able to relate to Jouha since they, like their teacher, are often searching for missing things. I like the exposure to a different culture and yet being able to find similarities between our worlds.  There is a piece of Jouha in all of us and that is part of the reason why he is a well liked character. How Many Donkeys? will also make for a fun shared reading experience as students repeat the numbers in Arabic.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!
written by Jonah Winter; pictures by Kevin Hawkes
2012 (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Ana's Nonfiction Blog

Mercurial is a word that I thought about after reading this fantastic picture book biography of Pablo Picasso. He was changeable and quick witted. He wasn't afraid to stretch his talents and not play it safe. In the beginning of the book, Pablo is pictured as bursting through a tranquil landscape painting like a football player through a banner. The point of the spread is that Pablo was going to challenge conventional thinking about painting with his attitude and talent. It is a brilliant visual idea by Jonah Winter and Kevin Hawkes. Young Pablo moved through different styles while showing his way above average painting ability. It was a rose-colored painting that caught the eye of a gallery owner. He asked for two hundred more similar paintings and this made Pablo a star. Bored with rose-colored paintings, he saw a display of African masks in a Paris museum. This inspired Pablo to create a new painting that is unlike the conventional ones of the time. When he displayed it, the "experts" hated the painting. They wanted him to go back to his more traditional paintings. Pablo didn't listen and decided to go even further down the path he chose. After he is told by his wife that his painting didn't make sense, he responded that he was living in a world that didn't make sense. Ignoring the pleas of the Paris art world, Pablo created Girl with a Mandolin which set him apart as a courageous artist who had ushered in the modern era with his original work in the cubist genre.

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso is not a simple retelling of a period in Pablo Picasso's life. Jonah Winter infuses this biography with a distinct voice that is refreshing for nonfiction. It's like he is sitting right next to you and having a vibrant conversation instead of simply giving a dry recitation of Picasso information. Children will connect with this style of storytelling and hopefully understand that they too have their own unique voices that can come out in their writing. Kevin Hawkes's pictures are spectacular. He captures Picasso's personality while introducing readers to Picasso's different styles.
This book is a great book to use to teach children to be themselves in their work and to not be afraid to try something different. It has received three starred reviews, so it will be on several Best of 2012 lists at the end of the year.

Other reviews:
True Tales and a Cherry On Top
Waking Brain Cells
A Picture Book A Day


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gimme a Break

No, it's not a remake of the 80's sitcom. Instead, I'm on spring break and will be back for Nonfiction Monday. Rumor has it I may be working on a book.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Bird Talk

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why
written and illustrated by Lita Judge
2012 (Roaring Brook Press)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Rasco from RIF

We tell children to flip through the pages of a book to preview and decide if you want to read it. When you open Bird Talk, the spectacular sketches of birds draw you in and make it an easy decision to continue reading. It would be easy to go on and on about Lita Judge's beautiful bird blueprints, but I was equally enthralled by the text. There are several reasons why birds call to one another and Judge provides several examples to illustrate each reason. She starts with mating rituals. Of all the birds featured, the Sage Grouse might be the most extravagant in his mating call. He blows up air sacs on his chest and rubs his wings across them to make a sound to attract females. This reminded me of Tarzan beating his chest. It was kind of touching to read about the Indian Sarus Cranes who perform a ballet together to show that they are mates for life. Other sections focus on nesting duties, strategies for dealing with enemies, encouraging their young, and mimics. I would be remiss not to mention the Scandinavian Fieldfare who dumps scat on crows that try to eat their eggs. This is the very definition of leaving no stone unturned. In the back matter is extra information on each species featured in the book. Included are the habitats and ranges of each bird. It would be great fun to label a map of the world with small stickies that carry the name of a particular bird.

Other than The Polar Express, I can't think of a picture book that is read more often in elementary school classrooms than Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr. Bird Talk would be a perfect nonfiction companion to this book. I also would use Bird Talk with students who are beginning to learn about writing a research report. You can create a table (if you have access to a computer lab or have a set of laptops, have students do this in Word) with qualities about each bird. Categorizing is an important skill for students to learn in this Common Core era. If you are working with younger students, you can create a booklet of birds. Bird Talk is a book where the illustrations get you through the door and the text makes you want to stay awhile. Pick this up for your nonfiction collection.

Other reviews:
GregLSBlog