Saturday, May 30, 2015

Touch the Brightest Star

Touch the Brightest Star
written and illustrated by Christie Matheson
2015 (Greenwillow Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Close your eyes and breathe in deeply.
Nod your head if you feel sleepy.

Nonfiction as a toddler bedtime story? Got one right here. Each rhyming two page spread progressively takes the reader from sunset to sunrise. Readers are encouraged to participate physically with the book. In the beginning, you are asked to "wave good-bye" to the sun. Fireflies show up to be pressed and light up the sky. Create a breeze by blowing and pat a deer that is wandering by. Touch the sky and a star appears. Find the brightest star and make a wish. Trace the Big and Little Dippers with your finger and rub an owl's head before sending them off to bed. Now close your eyes because you are getting sleepy too.

Touch the Brightest Star is a great way to cap the day with a toddler. The interactivity of the book will be a big hit. Just be prepared to do everything in order and don't you dare skip a step. Your toddler will call you on the carpet. The illustrations are beautiful and will lead to discussions about animals and the stars. Information in the back matter will further illuminate those discussions.

This book is an excellent companion to Matheson's Tap the Magic Tree. I will warn you that you may need to buy two copies because one of them will be loved to pieces.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Crown Affair: From the Files of a Hard-Boiled Detective

The Crown Affair
written by Jeanie Franz Ransom; illustrated by Stephen Axelsen
2015 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

I'm the go-to guy for detective work in Mother Gooseland.

Jack has lost his crown and it's up to Detective Joe Dumpty to find the culprit. If the crown is not found by two o'clock, the Gooseland Games will be kaput. When Joe gets to the scene of the alleged crime, Jack doesn't seem to be in shape to be of much help, so Joe interviews Jill instead. It seems there was a ground shaking boom as the tale twosome were heading up the hill. After the great fall, Jill notices that the crown is missing. To find the culprit, Joe scours Gooseland and interviews characters like Jack Sprat, Jack B. Nimble (recovering from a boom-induced foot injury), a surfer-like Goldilocks, and not so little Jack Horner who hangs out at the Muffin Man's Bake Shoppe. Joe collects clues and puns along the way which lead him to the main suspect, Jack of beanstalk fame. Is the punk-like Jack Beanstalk the new keeper of the crown? Will the Gooseland Games go sunny-side up or lay an egg? If Joe doesn't crack, he'll find the answers.

The Crown Affair is the latest Joe Dumpty book that will egg your readers on. If you want to teach a unit on parody or puns, this would be a great mentor text. The text is a clever take on famous fairy tales and detective behavior. In the front and back of the book are maps of Mother Gooseland which could serve as models for a geography unit activity where students create their own maps of a fictional place. I was surprised how informed my students were of the nursery rhymes referenced in the book. Fractured tales are always fun to teach and write, so crack open a copy of The Crown Affair as an inspired introduction to that unit as well.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Stick and Stone

Stick and Stone
written by Beth Ferry; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
2015 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Stick, Stone. A friendship has grown. 

Stick and Stone each needed a friend. One felt like a zero and the other only one. Then they found each other. Their friendship was cemented by Stick standing up to Pinecone who was making fun of Stone. The two new friends enjoyed each other's company through several adventures. When a hurricane struck, the two were separated. Stone looked tirelessly for his friend. Finally, he found his friend in over his head, but he was able to rescue Stick and renew their friendship.

The. biggest. hit. in my kindergarten friends' classroom. If they gave an Oscar for best book, those 5 and 6-year-old students would give it to this one. What's not to love? A sparse yet very sweet text that combines a good story with clever wordplay can't help but be loved. Tom Lichtenheld's illustrations are always appealing with great facial features on his characters. The man made a stick and a stone lovable!

I can't imagine your preschool - 2nd grade students will not like this book. Feel free to let me know if this occurs, but I don't think I'll be hearing from you.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tales from Shakespeare: Henry V

Tales from Shakespeare: Henry V
written by Timothy Knapman; illustrated by Yaniv Shimony
2015 (QEB Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Therefore take heed... How you awake our sleeping sword of war.

Prince Hal certainly didn't act the part. He was in line for the English throne and spent his days being a party boy. Funny thing happened on the way to the crown. When he took his late father's place, he reverted to being king-like with wisdom and bravery and left his previous ways almost immediately. It was time to reign and France was a jewel for England to take. Henry V consulted his circle of advisers about his claim to the French throne and they felt the time was right. Henry was not so sure. When the Dauphin, the son of the King of France, mocked him with a gift of a chest of tennis balls, it was game on. Henry and his army landed near the port of Harfleur and won a tough battle that significantly weakened their troops. Now the French were extremely confident that they would easily handle the English at Agincourt. Nonetheless, Henry inspired his troops with a speech that sent them into battle with a fierce mindset. The French were overcome and England triumphed despite being underdogs. Not only did Henry conquer northern France, he won the hand of the French king's daughter Katherine in the peace settlement. Unfortunately, he didn't live much longer afterwards as he was trying to conquer the rest of France.

At some point high school students are going to encounter Shakespeare's works. This retelling of Henry V in modern English is a great way to introduce the play and entice reluctant readers who might need a gateway into Shakespeare. There are several quotations from the original play and illustrations that will help readers understand the characters and the mood. I enjoyed reading this adaptation and now will seek out the play and the 1989 Kenneth Branagh film.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
written by Franck Prevot; illustrated by Aurelia Fronty
2015 (Charlesbridge Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

It may be because wa-ngari means "she who belongs to the leopard" that Wangari feels as though she is part of the entire forest.

Young Wangari felt like she was part of the forest that surrounded her childhood Kenyan home. She would collect water at the foot of a fig tree each day. Her mother taught her that a tree "was worth more than its wood." At an early age she was troubled by the cutting of trees, but what could she do about it? Thanks to her brother and mother, Wangari was able to start by getting an education which was unusual for a woman at that time. After spending five years studying in America, she returned to Kenya to find an independent country but also a place where the land was still being plundered of its natural wealth. Wangari started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 so she could go about reversing the trend of forest destruction. She encouraged other women to plant trees and confront government officials who wanted to continue as usual. Even bolder was standing up to Kenya's president by thwarting efforts to build a skyscraper and a project that threatened several species. For this she suffered physical and mental humiliation through imprisonment. Wangari was fighting for more than the trees. She was pushing for democracy to take root in Kenya.

The illustrations for this book are so striking. There is a spread on pages 36-37 that should be framed and hung in a museum. Wangari Maathai is set against a red background with Mount Kenya in the back. Two doves fly overhead as she is surrounded by different plants. It's one of the best illustrations I have ever seen in a picture book.

Wangari Maathai's life included a Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. She is definitely a person to be studied during biography projects, plant units and/or Earth Day celebrations. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

With a Friend by Your Side

With a Friend by Your Side
written by Barbara Kerley
2015 (National Geographic Children's Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

So, step right up. Don't be shy.
Imagine what can happen with a friend by your side.

"How do you become friends with someone?" That's the first question addressed by the photo essay With a Friend by Your Side. You do so by knowing that there is someone out there for you. All it takes is a willingness to be a friend. The second question is "Why have a friend?" As humans, it's nice to have someone to share a laugh with. Literally as I type this, I can hear my two daughters belly laughing in the back bedroom. They are friends for life. You also want someone to share with. It's good to talk to someone you trust who won't tell your thoughts. Friends also are great for support. Whether it's a hug, a "You can do it!", or a holding of the hand, friends can provide the support we need to keep going in this big ol' world.

With a Friend by Your Side would be an excellent way to start a lesson on friendship and/or kindness. It will set the tone for the values you want your students to consider. If you want to promote global awareness (Seriously, who doesn't?), then find a copy of this book. Sarsy, Russia doesn't look so far away when you see three kids reading a book together. "Hey, I do that too!" you say to yourself. When you see two kids from the Congo putting their arms around each other's shoulders, that seems quite familiar too. Finding out what we have in common makes this sphere a little less big. In the back matter, you will find a thumbnail print of each photograph and a map showing their location. There's also a brief essay by the author and quotes about friendship.

Combining simple but profound text by the terrific (look it up if you don't believe me) Barbara Kerley with the usual spectacular photos by National Geographic will give you a winner every time and you cannot have enough good books about friendship in your classroom.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Inventions That Could Have Changed the World ...But Didn't!

Inventions That Could Have Changed the World...But Didn't!
written by Joe Rhatigan; illustrated by Anthony Owsley
2015 (Imagine Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless - Thomas Edison

"Failure is not an option." I have heard this phrase many times in staff development sessions. I want to speak up and say "Trite and tired phrases are not an option either!" In this really cool new book, failure is celebrated. These are inventions that just didn't click for one reason or another, but as author Joe Rhatigan states on the inside flap, there is still plenty to learn from these efforts. I so want an amphicar. It was a car and a boat. There were about 4000 produced in the early 1960s but it wasn't much of a car or a boat. Apparently Lyndon Johnson enjoyed his as he tricked friends by feigning that the brakes had slipped as he headed for a lake. Another of my favorites is the alarm bed. The bed wound up like a clock and dumped you out when the alarm went off. I would get to school faster if I had one of these! As the owner of two cats, I'm not as enthusiastic about the cat potty training device. Some things are just not meant to be. In addition to the highly entertaining inventions, there is an informative introduction to the origin of patents and why we need them.

Failure can teach you a lot. You don't want to fail all the time, but an occasional humbling can be good for the soul. I lost a lot of games in my youth, but I learned how to handle disappointment. In addition, the losers usually have better stories to tell. This book may prove my point. There's also a lot of interesting science in these attempts as well as the occasional "What were they thinking?". As I was reading Inventions, I kept turning to my wife and daughter and telling them about different inventions and they wanted to hear more. That ladies and gentlemen is the sign of a winning book about failing.