Friday, April 30, 2010

Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff

It's not often you have a story where a snake is the protagonist, but in Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff, we have such a snake. Nothing much ever happens in Dustpan, Texas so when a smart and kind rattlesnake winds his way into town, it creates a "hullabaloo". I'm all for any book that uses "hullabaloo", "brouhaha", "hubbub", or "ruckus". The rattler impresses the menfolk at the feed store by tying itself in different knots. The Dustpan Ladies' Sewing Circle appreciates the rattlesnake displaying his diamond shapes so they can stitch this pattern into their quilts and bloomers. He is also a hit with the children in the schoolyard. Unfortunately, it will take more than this to get the sheriff to trust Diamond Jim Dandy. It's not until a near disaster is averted that the sheriff recognizes the worth of this friendly critter. 

Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff, written by Sarah Burell and illustrated by Bryan Langdo, is a fun read with a quite subtle (my favorite) message about acceptance and not judging too quickly. How the snake gains acceptance is clever writing on Burrell's part and Langdo's illustrations add more humor to the text. This would be a good text for teaching problem/solution or questioning (Why does the sheriff not like the snake?).

NIEHS Kids' Pages

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has a terrific brainteaser, puzzle, and riddle page for kids and adults. There is plenty to choose from to work your mind in a fun way. One important way to build vocabulary knowledge in children is to teach them how to have fun with words (word consciousness) and this page is a step in the right direction.

Here is one of my favorite riddles from this site: The more of them you take, the more you leave behind. What are they?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Red Sings From Treetops

In Red Sings From Treetops, Joyce Sidman's poems show how colors interact with the different seasons. For example, "In spring, White sounds like storms: snapped twigs and bouncing hail, blink of lightning and rattling BOOM!". Yet in winter, "White whispers." These poems appeal to all of your senses. You will take a little more time when you are outside to notice the color in nature. Pamela Zagarenski's illustrations are unique collages with shapes, lines, and words combining to make a perfect visual companion to Sidman's poems.

Red Sings From Treetops would be a terrific anchor text for a unit on poetry. Let's teach our students that poetry is not necessarily about rhyming, but about creating feelings and visuals in the reader's mind and making us think about our world in a different way. Kudos to the Caldecott committee for selecting this book for an honor. Great lessons about figurative language (similes, metaphors, personification) can be taught using this text.

Monday, April 26, 2010


If you teach a career unit in kindergarten or preschool, LMNO Peas is the perfect book for you. Keith Baker combines occupations and avocations with learning the letters of the alphabet.  His conduit for this information is a humorous group of green peas who guide the reader through the alphabet. For example, K is represented by kickers, kayakers, and kings. Baker's funny illustrations show an Elvis-like pea singing in a castle. If only he had added Priscilla Prespea in this illustration, but I digress.

LMNO Peas would be a great source for creating an alphabet book with your class. You could brainstorm different jobs and place them in an Alphabox. Then students could illustrate a picture showing that job or hobby.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

How the States Got Their Shapes

How the States Got Their Shapes is an incredibly interesting show that is airing this month on the History Channel.  Mark Stein's book of the same name is the basis for this show. It tells the story of how our 50 states came to gain their shapes. There is a ton of offbeat information that will inform and entertain.  I enjoyed learning about the Toledo War and how it created the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio.  There is also Derby Line,Vermont that is divided by the border between the United States and Canada. History lovers should check this out.  I'll be buying Stein's book.

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci

The Fibonacci sequence starts with 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233,377. You get these numbers by adding the two previous numbers in the sequence. This sequence was discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician who lived during the Middle Ages.  It was through the construction of his famous rabbit problem that he discovers this sequence.  Using historical information and his own creativity, Joseph D'Agnese (from western North Carolina!) has crafted the entertaining Blockhead, which is a first person account of Fibonacci's life. Leonardo explains how he is often criticized (hence the title) for being a dreamer of numbers. His father is unhappy with Fibonacci and wants him to forget about his dreaming of numbers and follow him in the merchant business. Young Leonardo does his father's bidding, but in his spare time studies mathematics in the countries where he travels while being a merchant. He falls in love with Hindu-Arabic numerals (our current numerals) which leads to the rabbit problem and writing a book about these numerals.  This doesn't endear him to his Italian compatriots who prefer their own Roman numerals.

D'Agnese's narrative will be interesting to students on different levels.  Kids can relate to someone who thinks differently and is mistreated. This is a theme that catches their attention.  The mathematics angle of Blockhead will also be interesting to them.  After reading, a great exercise would be to find Fibonacci numbers in our world.  The last page of the book is a great starting point for this activity since D'Agnese provides several suggestions and questions for students to ponder. There is also an art angle with rectangles and spirals created by the sequence of numbers. Blockhead would be a valuable book for your collection in grades 3-5.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What are the variables for learning to read?

An interesting study from Florida State University received significant media exposure yesterday. Researchers studied sets of twins to measure the effects of teacher quality on student reading ability.  The study found that teacher quality, along with genetics and other variables, play a part in how well and how quickly a student learns to read.  My own observations as a literacy coach speak to the roles of both teacher quality and genetics. A child's kindergarten teacher may be the most important placement of their elementary experience since this is where many students learn how to read. I also know from hundreds of parent conferences that when I am meeting with the parents of a struggling reader, inevitably the conversation steers toward one or both of the parents discussing their difficulty with learning how to read.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

So Many Days

Graduation season is nearly upon us and chances are you will need to buy a gift for a lucky grad. A book is a popular gift choice with Oh, The Places You'll Go! the clear favorite. While I love Dr. Seuss, you run the risk of being the fourth person to give this book to your graduate. If you are looking for something different that will still inspire and make someone feel loved without covering them in syrupy language, try So Many Days. Alison McGhee's rhythmic text is a mixture of questions about the future and inspirational reminders ("You are braver than you know."). Combine this with Taeeun Yoo's wonderful blue and green linocut illustrations and you get a terrific book that can be read as a closure to one era and the beginning to another.  This book would also make a nice gift for a beloved teacher who can turn around and read it to their class on the last day of school.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Back to Bed Ed

I can relate to the parents in Back to Bed, Ed. My wife and I devised several schemes to get our two daughters to go to sleep on their own when they were young. None of them worked and each of our daughters went to sleep on their own when they were good and ready.  Ed's parents also suffer through a paucity of sleep due to his lack of desire to stay in the bed. He likes all the activities of getting ready for bed, but when it's actually time to go to bed, he'd rather be with his mom and dad. When Mom and Dad draw a line in the sand (or in this case, a line in the hallway carpet), Ed comes up with his own solution to his nighttime loneliness.                                                         
Sebastien Braun's illustrations are right on the mark with his depictions of a scared Ed and his weary parents. I especially like the illustration of his parents at breakfast when they come up with "the plan." Back to Bed, Ed speaks to a familiar theme of a child having to deal with anxiety and working toward independence. Preschoolers will easily make connections with this book and enjoy reading it. Older students might enjoy discussing why Ed is not able to go to sleep on his own and whether his parents are being fair with him.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


One of my favorite childhood memories was going to the ice cream truck and buying a screwball ice cream. The ice cream came in a plastic cone shaped cup with a gumball in the bottom of the cup.  I looked forward to finding that gumball after eating the ice cream. Emily Gravett's books are like a screwball ice cream. You enjoy reading the book, but your favorite part is the ending because you know she is going to have something special at the end. The narrator of Dogs tells about all the different dogs they like.  There are stripy dogs and spotty dogs. Hairy dogs and bald dogs. The best dogs of all? That's the gumball at the end.

Emily Gravett's illustrations have expressive characters which are perfect for a book about dogs. As a dog owner, my dogs have several different expressions that I have to interpret every day. I appreciate the short text because you can transition this book from a read-aloud to having a student read it on their own. Students will want to read this book over and over again.  As with most Gravett books, you can use this to teach predictions and surprise endings in writing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Here Comes the Garbage Barge!

In 1987, Long Island sought to rid itself of almost 3,200 tons of garbage by placing it on a barge and sending it to a community willing to bury it. Here Comes the Garbage Barge! is Jonah Winter's hilarious fictionalized account of this true environmental morality play. Captain Duffy is the "crusty old sailor" who helms the tugboat (Break of Dawn) that has the unenviable task of towing the garbage.  The good captain is optimistic at first as he reaches his first port of Morehead City, North Carolina. He is unceremoniously turned back by the police. Exasperated, Captain Duffy calls his boss who says he has a connection in New Orleans and directs the tugboat southward. Not surprisingly, the Crescent City wants no part of this heap of garbage either. The hapless captain is then sent by his boss on a seemingly never ending journey where the barge is rejected several more times. Finally, the Break of Dawn is sent back to New York where a judge orders the garbage to be sent to an incinerator and the remains shipped back to Long Island.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! is a fascinating picture book on many levels. Winter's caricatures of people in different regions are humorous and cutting. He is able to illuminate the ridiculousness of the situation and still create sympathy for the poor captain. Kids will understand the greater theme of how we need to create less garbage. This would be an excellent book to read for your Earth Day celebration.

Red Nose Studio created the 3-D sets for this book using "wire, fabric, junk, and more." Each set is an amazing piece of work. Here is a link to a video showing how this was done.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Binky the Space Cat

Like a ton of other people, I am curious about what my two cats are doing while I am away at work. I may have an answer with Ashley Spires's graphic novel Binky the Space Cat. Binky is a cat who actually has never left the confines of his home, but dreams of space travel and battling alien creatures. Instead, he stays home in order to protect his humans from space aliens that look suspiciously like flies. Binky's reasoning is that bug and aliens are the same thing since "both can fly, have big eyes, steal your food, and lay eggs." He does a lot of research (i.e. experimenting, reading) to reach this conclusion. Binky is a member of F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) and begins constructing his own rocket ship. Just when he is ready to blast off into space, Binky realizes something very important has been left off his list. It is this thing that determines the fate of our feline superhero.

Binky the Space Cat is a very funny graphic novel that will appeal to early and/or reluctant readers. The text is easy to read, but there are several complex layers to what is happening in the story. You can discuss point of view and how the author makes you think about whether something is actually happening in the story or if Binky is just dreaming. Any students that have experience with cats will easily make connections.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse

Marilyn Singer has created a form of poetry called the reverso. Her explanation for a reverso is "When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization it is a different poem." Here is her example of what she is describing:

A cat                                    Incomplete:
without                                 A chair
a chair:                                 without
Incomplete                           a cat

Singer has now written an entire book of reversos, with a fairy tale theme, called Mirror Mirror. These poems are incredibly clever showing two points of view within a particular fairy tale. In the poem In the Hood, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf each present their point of view of a moment in time:

In my hood                                          After all, Grandma's waiting,
skipping through the wood,                  mustn't dawdle...
carrying a basket,                                But a girl!
picking berries to eat-                          What a treat-
juicy and sweet                                    juicy and sweet,
what a treat!                                        picking berries to eat,
But a girl                                             carrying a basket,
mustn't dawdle.                                   skipping through the wood
After all, Grandma's waiting                 in my 'hood

Josee Masse's beautiful illustrations create a classic fairy tale look with rich colors and expressive characters.  Mirror Mirror is an expressive piece of poetry that should be added to your poetry and/or fairy tale units. This would be a great text to use for teaching point of view, contrasting, or for trying to write a new form of poetry.  Using poetry to teach comprehension lessons is a natural because of the short amount of text to read. 

If you are an aspiring writer, check out Marilyn's website for several tips on writing and the book business.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Joey is ready to explore the world after spending all of his young life in his mama's pouch. His first adventure is all of two hops before he meets a bee.  This brief meeting is enough for Joey to decide he wants to jump back into Mama's pouch. This pattern repeats itself several times as Joey gets a little braver each time. Finally he meets a fellow kangaroo and decides that life outside the pouch is better than inside.

Reading Pouch!, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein, will create instant connections for preschoolers and kindergarten students.  They know what it is like to be thrust into a new world like Joey and will be able to discuss how we can become more confident in new surroundings.  Pouch! also is a good vehicle for teaching prediction and cause and effect to primary students.

You should visit David's website to see The Making of Pouch!  This is a great teaching tool for showing students how the writing process works for one particular author.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Mud Fairy

Emmalina is no ordinary fairy.  She is dissatisfied with a life of "sipping dew drops and nibbling pollen pie" without slurping, gulping, or burping. Doing dainty fairy things does not appeal to her. She would rather play in the mud with the frogs. Unfortunately for Emmalina, she has turned one hundred years old and has to earn her wings. Attempts at opening flowers, creating rainbows, or stringing dewdrops are unsuccessful and leave Emmalina discouraged and without wings. With the help of her frog friends, she finds a way to be herself and earn her wings at the same time.

As the father of two daughters, I have been exposed to many forms of dreadful fairy stories. Thankfully, Amy Young's The Mud Fairy does not fall into this category.  The story is engaging with a great message about being true to yourself. I like the different spin on the fairy story. It's clever to have a fairy who is not dainty.  This makes for a good lesson on contrast (compare with other fairy stories) and/or point of view. Young's pastel illustrations are humorous, especially the page with Emmalina teaching the frogs to catch a fly.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Woof: A Love Story

A smitten hound dog has trouble communicating with the object of his affection, a white cat.  He says "I love you", "You're pretty", and "I adore you", but all the frightened cat, perched in a tall tree, hears is "Woof" or "Grrr". The hound dog finally gives up and decides to dig to relieve his heartbreak. While digging he finds a trombone and thus a conduit for expressing his love for the cat. After a few errant notes, the dog finds the right tune and expresses his love for the cat through music.

Woof: A Love Story is a delightful rhyming story of miscommunication with a happy ending. Sarah Weeks's use of similes ("tiny and pink as a cake-frosting rose") are one example of her nimble and clever use of words. Holly Berry's collage illustrations are humorous and rich. Each page is like a feast of expressions and colors.

Woof could be read for several different purposes. There are several themes (love, determination, miscommunication, differences) that could be explored. This book would be a great vehicle for partner reading or for a reader's theater piece.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Big Bear Hug

A bear with a lot of love to give hugs every living creature in the forest, even those creatures that he is supposed to eat. It doesn't matter if they are too big (moose), too small (bird), too smelly (you can guess), or too scary (snake). Everything needs a hug.  The bear's favorite thing to hug is a tree.  All trees are treated equally with a hug. One day a man with an axe walks into the forest and creates a feeling of anger in the bear that he has not experienced before. Now the bear must make a decision: Eat the man or perhaps do something a little different.

Big Bear Hug, written and illustrated by Nicholas Oldland, is a humorous (a bear hugging a beaver is always funny!) story that also teaches us that simple acts can be quite powerful.  Preschoolers and primary students will be able to make connections with their feelings and those of the bear.  This would be a good book to read for talking about how we deal with anger and positive solutions for those feelings.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sticky Burr: The Prickly Peril

Grouchy Scurvy Burr, unlike in character from our kind hero Sticky Burr, is the narrator of the graphic novel The Prickly Peril. Scurvy is upset and jealous of Sticky.  He feels burrs should be prickly and not doing fun things like having fairs and variety shows. After being chastised by his tribe of burrs for being prickly, Scurvy decides to get rid of Sticky by enlisting the help of the evil Burweena. Scurvy's plan is a success at first, but goes awry when he underestimates the pluck of Sticky and the evil ambition of Burweena. It is up to Sticky and Mossy Burr to save the village from Scurvy's ineptitude and Burweena's schemes.

The Sticky Burr series, created by John Lechner, is entertaining, but also sneaky in how it dispenses real science information through the plot of the story. Lechner infuses this graphic novel with journal entries and a lot of humor. Early readers will enjoy the graphic novel format which, in my experience, is very popular with readers who are transitioning from leveled readers to chapter books.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nikki and Deja: The Newsy News Newsletter

After watching Evan crash on a skateboard and remembering Mr. Robinson locking himself out of his house when he went to get his paper, Nikki and Deja decide there is plenty of "newsy news" on Fulton Street and begin working on a newsletter. For Nikki, this is a dream come true as she wants to be a journalist when she becomes an adult. The first edition is a success with news from Carver Elementary and Fulton Street prompting Nikki and Deja's neighbors to snap up copies of the newsletter. Creating the second edition brings unexpected problems for our intrepid duo, who learn some valuable life lessons as a result.

Karen English, author of the Nikki and Deja series, is an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. Even if I had not read the author's bio on the inner sleeve, I probably would have been able to guess this since this book perfectly captures the experiences of elementary school children.  Nikki's excitement about her I Spy key chain is one example of how English's characters ring true.  The first chapter would easily work as the centerpiece for a lesson on making connections.

Nikki and Deja are appealing characters for second and third graders to read about. I know this first hand since I already have one young lady who is excited after reading the first chapter. I need to finish this review since she is eagerly waiting to get the book back!