Thursday, December 31, 2009


Even though I didn't get started until August, I ended up reviewing quite a few books. The process starts with staking out two of our local public libraries (we have great librarians in our small towns) and checking out any enticing books that show up in the new sections (picture and chapter books).  After reviewing the picture books (the bulk of what I do), I pass them on to a kindergarten class and then to a first grade class. I mention this to say that my favorite picture book of this year (it's difficult to pick just one!) is the same choice as the kindergarten class. Millie's Marvellous Hat is a wonder and gets better every time I read it.  I could spend hours thinking about all the people in the park and their hats.

One other book that I will think about for a long time is When You Reach Me.  As Mr. Slinger would say, "Wow."

Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me during this endeavor.  I hope it is helpful to anyone who happens to stop by.  Best wishes for 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


National Geographic does it again with Trucks! by Will Mara. A narrator named Slick (complete with trucker hat) introduces the reader to 10 different kinds of trucks.  Each truck is shown in National Geographic photo glory and accompanied by easy to read text.  My favorite truck was the Liebherr T282. It's a dump truck that can carry more than 50 school buses!

This Level 1 reader will be very attractive to nonfiction fans in K-2 classes and, like other National Geographic Readers, a great way to work on fluency and comprehension for older readers who need easy readers. Trucks! is loaded with nonfiction text features (table of contents, labels, vocabulary) and some pretty decent jokes as well. For a 4 dollar hardcover book, you get a lot of great text and photos.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Magic Box

The National Toy Hall of Fame is housed at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Among the inductees in this hall of fame are the ball and the stick(Click on the link to know that I am not making this up.) I think the next generic product that should be part of this group is the box.  How many times have you bought an expensive toy and the child enjoys the packaging more? As a kid, a giant box had limitless opportunities for imagination and fun.

Katie Cleminson understood this when she wrote and illustrated Magic Box. Eva receives a large box for her birthday and climbs in to become a master magician. She is able to conjure up several tricks to create an amazing birthday party involving animals, food, and dancing.

Magic Box is a combination of a fun simple text and lively color splashed illustrations that will appeal to preschool and primary school audiences.  You can read this book and work on prediction (what do you think will appear from Eva's tricks?) and sequence with your students. After reading, extend the text by asking students what they would create if they had a magic box.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Chasing Lincoln's Killer

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13.  I knew how the movie would end since it was a retelling of a famous event, but I was still tense as the crew came hurtling back down to earth.  Good nonfiction will hook you like that, even if you know the basic story.

James L. Swanson's Chasing Lincoln's Killer is similar in that you are unable to put down the book even though you know what is going to happen to John Wilkes Booth. Swanson's book, a YA version of his adult award winning Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, is a gripping retelling of what happened directly before and after Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865.  I learned a lot about how the failed kidnapping plot of President Lincoln affected the events of April 1865.  Swanson does an excellent job of presenting interesting details and illuminating the heroic efforts of background figures like Fanny Seward, daughter of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was attacked on the very same evening.

This book will appeal to history lovers and/or students who like to read mysteries/thrillers since the pacing of the book is similar to that genre.  I swallowed the 194 page book in one setting.  The archival photographs pique your interest and could lead to more research of this era through vehicles like The American Memory Project.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Forever Dress

One of the fun things about watching my daughters grow up is to pass along their clothes to younger children and remember the good times of the past.  Many of my daughters' dresses have been created by their grandmother who is a wonderful seamstress. Reading My Forever Dress, written by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Liz Murphy, reminded me of the clothes my mother-in-law has sewn.

In the story, a little girl's grandmother sews a dress for her every year.  When she turns seven, the little girl and her grandmother have a conversation about recycling (There is an environmental message in this book, but it's not overwhelming.). The grandmother uses old material to make a new dress which becomes the forever dress since it is used and reused again and again over the coming years.

The collage illustrations are terrific and fit perfectly with the sewing setting. Vocabulary lessons could be taught using this book as there are several terms (bodice, skein) that may be unfamiliar.  There are many examples of sequence as well as a character that changes over time. My Forever Dress is a sweet story that presents many opportunities to teach reading skills.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Mummies, written by Elizabeth Carney, is not for the faint of heart, but it is a terrific vehicle for teaching nonfiction text features and for those older readers who need to read easier texts to work on fluency.  It's National Geographic, so the photographs are top notch and vivid (squeamish readers beware!) in their depiction of mummies.  We get to see mummies from different eras and learn how mummies can teach us about the past.  Carney has a sense of humor which shows up in the procedural text "How to Make a Mummy" and in the jokes which top several pages.

There are different features in this book (table of contents, index, highlighted vocabulary) that can be used for a mini-lesson on text features. Middle grade readers that need fluency work won't be embarrassed to carry this title around. Check out this link for more info about this series.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Skateboarding Field Manual

Back in the '70s (I'm showing my age) I had a yellow banana board skateboard and I would skate down the big hill in my neighborhood (I lived in a dangerous age. No helmet or kneepads. Just a big bottle of mecurochrome). I never really delved deep into the sport, but I had fun hurtling down our hill. Ryan Stutt has brought back memories with The Skateboarding Field Manual. Stutt has created a great nonfiction read with eye-catching photographs and plenty of procedural text for learning new skateboarding tricks.  This would be an ideal book for a reluctant reader.  I enjoyed reading about the history of skateboarding (the photograph of an 18 year old Tony Hawk was a trip) and the section on skate park etiquette. If you have any skater dudes or dudettes in your class, check out this book and put it in their hand.

You could use this text to teach how to read a procedural text or for a lesson on context clues (see the section on how to do an ollie). I could also see contrasting the skate park etiquette section with another etiquette piece like a set of school rules.  It would certainly grab the attention of your students.  If you could actually learn a trick and demonstrate it, all the better.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Albert Einstein - Giants of Science

In sports, awards are given to the athlete who has had the best year. For example, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts stands to garner many accolades for the great football season he is having at the moment. Manning's accomplishments, however inspiring they may be in the sports world, pale in comparison to the year that Albert Einstein had in 1905. Kathleen Krull, author of the Giants in Science series, sums up Einstein's season as such: "Einstein's so-called miracle year, 1905, remains almost impossible to fathom. In one creative burst, he came up with a quantum theory of light, gave decisive proof for the existence of atoms, explained Brownian motion, and altered our notions of space and time, matter, and energy." Throwing a gazillion touchdown passes is terrific, but altering human thinking is a little more mind blowing to say the least.

Krull does a fabulous job of taking a complex life and subject and making it accessible to middle grade readers and above. She presents Einstein's life, warts and all, and doesn't shy away from explaining some difficult to understand theories.  Some of Krull's best work comes when she helps the reader visualize Einstein's theory of special relativity. 

This would be a good book to use for teaching how to use fix-up strategies.  Unless you are a physicist, you will find yourself rereading a few times, but it is definitely worth the effort.  I learned a lot of new information about Einstein and had some myths exploded.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Clever Stick

There once was a stick who was extremely clever. Unfortunately, he was unable to communicate with the living creatures that surrounded him.  This frustrated the stick who wanted to share his ideas and ask questions of those he watched.  He especially longed to talk to the beautiful wild rose in the field.  One day, after being discouraged by his invisibility, he dragged himself home.  What he discovered on this trek changed his life and outlook forever.

John Lechner's The Clever Stick, like other Fablevision creations, existed as a telefable before going to print.  This book would be great for a study of problem/solution.  The stick would also be ideal for a character study.  You could ask students an essential question like "What is the best way to communicate?" and follow with specific details from The Clever Stick.   An interesting companion piece to this book would be William Steig's The Amazing Bone.

Check out John's website for cool telefables (He Was Me, Sticky Burr) and games.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


A lonely frog finds an old book of spells that is in several pieces. In order to fulfill his dream of being a prince, Frog attempts to piece together a spell that creates a prince.  The reader, through mix-and-match pages, follows the frog through several failed attempts as he haphazardly puts mismatched magical words in sequence.  You might end up with a "fabbit" (frog and rabbit) for example.  Finally, Frog gets it right and creates a spell that allows him to become a handsome prince. Unfortunately, Frog finds out that printed words can be quite tricky.

Spells, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett, is less about plot and more about wordplay, which apparently rubs some folks the wrong way, but I find perfectly fine. Like The Odd Egg, Gravett plays with the pages by splitting them horizontally to create fun text and illustrations. There is a great potential for fun wordplay and writing exercises connected with this book. I would ask students "Which two animals would you combine and why?"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Where Teddy Bears Come From

A little gray wolf is having a hard time going to sleep.  What he needs is a teddy bear, but where would he find one? The next morning, he sets off for an adventure to find a teddy bear that will help him go to sleep.  The wise owl, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood are of no help when he encounters them.  Finally, he bumps into a rosy-faced old man who is "bending down beside a big red truck." Will the old man help the little wolf find a teddy bear?

Where Teddy Bears Come From is a humorous and sweet book with a subtle holiday setting. The familiar characters will help kindergarten and first grade students make a load of connections. Mark Burgess has added plenty of humor to keep older readers engaged.  Russell Ayto's illustrations are amazing with the contrast of straight lines and curves and zippy colors.

This would be a great book to use for working on prediction.  As the little wolf approaches each set of characters, you can ask students to predict how these characters will react to him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Christmas Carol - Brett Helquist

Brett Helquist creates wonderful details in his illustrations for Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The opening scene of Ebenezer Scrooge standing next to Jacob Marley's grave against an aqua sky sets the tone for the story.  We read in capital letters "MARLEY IS DEAD." and see Scrooge perhaps pondering his own mortality.  An interesting exercise for students would be to picture walk through the book and focus only on Scrooge's face as you flip through the pages. Helquist's illustrations help you understand the large themes that Dickens addresses in A Christmas Carol. We see Ebenezer's forlorn face as he witnesses a past Christmas party with the love (other than money) of his life.

There are so many lessons that you can teach with this book.  Character analysis with Ebenezer Scrooge and sequence with the visits of the three ghosts are just some of the possibilities. It's a great way to present A Christmas Carol to students in grades 4 and up.  I think the big themes might be lost on younger audiences.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Ugly Duckling - Rachel Isadora

A ten year stay in Africa inspired Rachel Isadora to recreate several European fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, The Fisherman and His Wife, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Princess and the Pea) and place them in an African setting.  Her latest effort in this series is Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling.

Most versions of The Ugly Duckling that I have used in the classroom have tepid illustrations to go with the somber mood of the story.  Isadora's vibrant collage illustrations are much more interesting, which will go a long way toward hooking the reader. The Ugly Duckling is not the easiest story to slog through, but this version will make that task a lot simpler.

This is a good book (I would check out the other books listed above as well) to add to your unit on fairy tales. You can compare Isadora's books to previous versions of the fairy tale and also have a discussion about how illustrations can help you visualize the mood of a story.

Rachel Isadora has recently recreated another beloved text, The Night Before Christmas, with an African setting.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Zero Is The Leaves On A Tree

When you read most counting books, the one number that is missing is zero.  One of the reasons for this is that it is difficult to visually represent zero.  Thankfully, we have Zero Is The Leaves On The Tree, written by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Shino Arihara.  Franco's metaphors ("Zero is ... the sound of snowflakes landing on your mitten") cleverly represent what zero symbolizes.  Arihara's gouache (I had to look this up. Opaque watercolors prepared with gum.) illustrations nicely complement the text and remind me of The Snowy Day with its soft colorful pictures.

One possible activity that springs to mind is to create a booklet with student representations of zero. You could also create a counting book that follows Franco's rhythm (One is the ..., Two is the ...).

Interesting tidbits:
  • Betsy Franco is the mother of actor James Franco.
  • Does anyone remember the Schoolhouse Rock song, Zero My Hero? Great song.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's in that Egg?: A book about life cycles

What do you think of when you think of an egg?  Oval with a thin white shell is the visual that comes to mind.   What's in that Egg?, written by Becky Baines and published by National Geographic, shows that eggs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Primary students will enjoy the great photographs, and teachers will love the text features in this book.  You can read What's in that Egg? and teach features like labels, cycles, and charts. The last two pages are filled with questions that could lead to an introduction to research.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Extreme Scientists

One of my favorite subjects to teach in reading is nonfiction text features. I enjoy all the different forms of information and exploring every nook and cranny of nonfiction books.  Donna M. Jackson's Extreme Scientists is a bonanza of nonfiction text features.  Three scientists are the focus of this book.  Paul Flaherty is a hurricane hunter who explains how he was inspired by a hurricane to become a meteorologist. Microbiologist Hazel Barton explores caves to learn more about microbes. Biologist Steve Sillett shows that climbing trees is not just for kids as he searches for discoveries among California redwood trees.  Each of these scientists has a passion and a curiosity that has its dangerous side.

The photographs in this book are simply stunning.  Students will pass this book back and forth with "oohs" and "aahs". Each section talks about how the scientist began studying in their chosen field and there is a Q and A piece at the end of the section as well.  There are a ton of nonfiction features including labels, maps, a glossary, and a resource page with links.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fu Finds The Way

Fu is a young man who wants to have fun and not plant rice.  When his father inspects Fu's work, he is disappointed and explains to Fu that he needs plant his rice in neat rows like the other rice paddies. After his father leaves, Fu angrily throws a handful of mud to the terrace below.  The mud strikes Chang, a fearsome warrior, who immediately demands to meet Fu in a duel the next morning.  Fu is frantic and decides that his only chance is to learn how to fight from the Master.  What Fu learns, through a series of tea ceremonies, is purpose, flow, and patience which all come into play when he meets Chang in the morning.

Fu Finds The Way, written and illustrated by John Rocco, is a beautiful book in word and picture.  Rocco explains in his author's note that watching a tea ceremony in Hong Kong gave him the idea for this book.  Fu learns that how you do something could be more important than what you actually do. This would be a great book to teach character analysis as we see how Fu changes during the progression of the story.  You could also record predictions as you read through the book as there are surprises throughout Fu Finds The Way. If you have a SmartBoard, click on this cool trailer to show before you read the book. Wabi Sabi would be a good companion book.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Exquisite Corpse

Episode Six of The Exquisite Corpse, written by Patricia C. and Fredrick McKissack with an illustration by James Ransome, has been posted.  Genius Kelly is a great character.  He is some pig.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Eyebrow Story - iTouch app

Sean is very proud of his big fluffy eyebrows, but on a very windy day, his precious eyebrows blow off his head.  After searching, Sean finds that a mother bird is using his eyebrows to feather her nest.  He recovers the eyebrows, but finds that he has to put them in the laundry.  This causes his eyebrows to shrink which leads to a series of events that reveal Sean's ingenuity and uniqueness.

Peter H. Reynolds' telefable, The Eyebrow Story ($.99 for iTouch or click link for free computer use), is a nontraditional story of making lemonade out of lemons.  Sean is a quirky protagonist who is not easily deterred.  There are several lessons that could be taught using this story.  You could ask students to create a sequence of the events in Sean's story or ask them to develop a lesson for this fable.

 The Eyebrow Story works great on the iTouch and would also work well on the SmartBoard.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Just how long can a long string be?

Keith Baker's Just How Long Can a Long String Be? is a great vehicle to teach prediction with kindergarten or 1st grade students.  The story begins with an ant asking a bird the title question.  The bird replies "... it all depends on what it will do from end to end." What follows is a string (pun intended) of uses for string. Ant discovers that string can be used to hold a balloon, hang a picture, and much more. Baker's soft pastel illustrations make you long for spring.  You can make a game of finding the ant in each picture.

As a front-loading activity, it would be fun to give students a piece of string and ask them how they could use the string.  You could also easily teach problem/solution with this book.  An interesting companion book would be Steve Jenkins' What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Little Red Hen - iTouch app

The Little Red Hen is a storybook app from Kidztory that sells for $.99.  It is the classic tale of the little red hen who does all the work in creating a loaf of bread and receives no offers of help from her friends. The app offers a read to you option (read by a small child) and a read it yourself option.  The pictures are pleasant and the movement of the illustrations will catch the interest of beginning readers. For a moment I was disappointed that there wasn't more that you could do with this app, but when you think about it, are you going to be able to buy a comparable book for ninety-nine cents? I wonder when major publishers will begin creating storybook apps from their catalogs.  Imagine The Polar Express as a storybook app.