Sunday, May 30, 2010


Goal! written by Mina Javaherbin and illustrated by A.G. Ford
(Candlewick Press) 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

I remember as a child playing soccer in a backyard. Our goal posts were poles used to hang laundry to dry. When you were outside playing, everything else in the world disappeared.  You became immersed in the game and were able to forget any troubles that you might have. This is one of the joys of sport.

Mina Javaherbin captures this spirit with Goal!, which is her first picture book. In a South African township, Ajani is ready to play football (term for soccer outside the U.S.). He has finished his homework and has time to play with his friends before he has to collect water in two buckets. Ajani has won a regulation leather football by being the best reader in his classroom.  The friends play in the dirt street, but it is not safe so one friend has to watch from a rooftop for bullies. Left is clear. Right is clear.  The friends are involved in playing when bullies come to take away the ball. Quick thinking by Ajani and his friends outwit the bullies and the play continues.

Javaherbin's text and A.G. Ford's illustrations perfectly capture the pace of a soccer game. They also portray life in a South African township with the danger of the streets and the dilapidated buildings in the background.  These kids live in poverty, but they don't let it define them. Goal! shows how friendship in sport can be uplifting. You could teach a great lesson on inference using Ford's illustrations. With the FIFA World Cup starting in two weeks, Goal! would be a timely read aloud right now.

For more info, check out this interview with Mina Javaherbin over at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Poetrees written and illustrated by Douglas Florian
(Simon and Schuster) 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

Douglas Florian's Poetrees is a terrific compilation of poetry and illustrations that celebrate trees and not just ordinary trees either.  Know what a Monkey Puzzle Tree is? Me neither. Scribbly Gum? Nada knowledge. Banyan tree? Bubkes background for me. This is one of the reasons we need to read Poetrees to our students. It's also a fun poetry read filled with humor and enriched vocabulary. Florian plays with the format of the text in these 18 poems, which makes for a great exercise in teaching inference. Why did he shape "The Seed" like a sideways eight?

Check out the "Glossatree" and Author's Note in the back of the book for more information about the trees.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Garden

My Garden written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
(Greenwillow Books) 2010
Source: Orange County Library

I have a garden in my backyard.  I bought a bag of wildflower seeds and tossed them out in a 7' x 7' tilled space last May. I had blooming flowers until November. The best thing about it was I had no idea what was going to come up since I threw the bag away after dispersing the seeds. I have found gardening to be great therapy after a day at school.

Gardening is also a terrific subject for a new Kevin Henkes book. In My Garden, a young girl enjoys helping her mother, but can't help dreaming of what she would have in her own garden. For example, you could plant jelly beans and grow a jelly bean bush. Glowing strawberries and beach ball sized tomatoes are also part of her garden. If Willy Wonka had a garden, this might be it.

As with previous Henkes books, the illustrations are wonderful and the insights into a child's mind are spot on. It would be a fun writing assignment to imagine what would be in our gardens. I'm hoping some of the jellybeans on the bush are popcorn flavored! You could also compare My Garden with an early scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the children first step into the work area and see the chocolate river and edible grass.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Superman: The Story of the Man of Steel

Superman: The Story of the Man of Steel written and illustrated by
Ralph Cosentino
(Viking Kids') 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

I work with a first grader who loves superheroes.  I need to read Ralph Cosentino's Superman: The Story of the Man of Steel to him. Cosentino has served a need that I didn't think about until I read his book. We have tons of primary school children who love superheroes and play with action figures, but really don't know the background of their beloved characters. This picture book starts from the beginning where Superman's real parents realize that the planet Krypton is about to explode. There is just enough time for Superman's dad to build a small rocket ship for his infant son to travel to Earth. Upon his arrival, Kal-El (Superman's real name. Didn't know that!) is found by Smallville residents Jonathan and Martha Kent, who teach him right from wrong and to use his superpowers for good. The book goes on to tell about Superman's adult life and the villains he faces.

Superman: The Story of the Man of Steel would be a great text to use for exploring character with primary students. Discussion questions could include "Why does Superman have special super powers?" or "Why is Superman a good superhero?" It would also be interesting to check the background knowledge of students about Superman before reading the book and see what they learned after reading the book.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shark vs. Train

Shark vs. Train written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
(Hachette Book Group) 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

About six years ago, the Discovery Channel ran a series of shows called Animal Face-Off. Two animals that could possibly meet in the wild were pitted against each other using computer animation.  Scientists would spend the first half of the show debating the merits of each animal in battle and then we would see the animated battle in the second half with one animal emerging victorious. I was completely fascinated. My favorite episode title was Sperm Whale vs. Colossal Squid. It was a feast of absurdity. 

I was reminded of this show while reading Shark vs. Train, written by Chris Barton (Day Glo Brothers) and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Duck!Rabbit!). Two boys are playing with their toys when the series of battles between shark and train come to life. The shark is victorious in battles with a marine setting while the train fares better on land. For example, the train wins the battle of running a lemonade stand since the shark's stand is underwater and customers complain about his watery lemonade. Each battle is completely absurd and hilarious. Look for the Happy Days references near the end.

A kindergarten class previewed Shark vs. Train and gave it several thumbs up. Even though it is an excellent text to use for teaching inferences, I would only stop on a few pages to ask students why they think the shark or train won that particular battle. You don't want to interrupt the most important lesson with this book which is to have fun.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Silly Bandz

Drop your Pokemon cards in the trash. Your worded bracelets should now be stored in the drawer of dated items (I know you have a drawer like this). It's time to break your ankles trying to jump on the Silly Bandz bandwagon. They are thin flexible wrist bands that come in different shapes. Students buy these in packs of 24 that run about $4.00 a pack. The shapes can be dinosaurs, guitars, mermaids, etc. My oldest daughter's class is caught up in the craze at the moment. Parents are standing in line to buy. This falls into the category of "Why didn't I think of this?". Apparently, they have already been banned from several schools.

Other links:
Dig Triad
The Ledger
WBZ-TV  (Another banning!)
TC Palm 

Friday, May 21, 2010

What The Ladybug Heard

What the Ladybug Heard written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Lydia Monks
(Henry Holt Books for Kids) 2010
Source: Orange County Library

Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len are two bad men that want to steal the farmer's prize cow in the dead of night. They account for several farm animals as they devise their nefarious scheme (..round the duck pond, past the hog, be careful not to wake the dog). What they don't account for is the smallest member of the farm, the ladybug. She is on to their plan and alerts her fellow farm animals. The ladybug also crafts a plan to bewilder the bad men and save the prize cow.

What The Ladybug Heard is an inventive rhyming story, written by Julia Donaldson, that will make for a terrific read-aloud with preschool and kindergarten students. There are many possible discussion points that could be pursued including how no one is too small to contribute to a group. Students could also learn from how the animals work together to help a friend. The collage illustrations by Lydia Monks are colorful and humorous. I especially liked the illustration of the bad men's plan.  If you are looking for a fun read aloud, What The Ladybug Heard will be a class pleaser.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Calamity Jack

Calamity Jack written and illustrated by Shannon and Dean Hale
illustrated by Nathan Hale
(Bloomsbury Kids) 2010
Source: Graham Public Library

What would happen if a DC Comic and a tall tale collided and became one? You would get Calamity Jack and become instantly cool with your upper elementary and middle school students.

It is a graphic novel retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is a self proclaimed criminal mastermind who seems to run into bad luck at every turn. His scheming has troubled his mother who runs a local bakery.  Jack decides to become honest, but only after one last scheme. The plan is to rob Blunderboar, a crooked giant in size and local business. Blunderboar keeps his valuables in a floating penthouse so Jack must find a way to access the loot.  He trades his deceased father's jacket for some magic beans. Jack's plan doesn't quite work and causes enough destruction that he must escape out west to avoid a fatal fate at the hands of Blunderboar. Armed with nothing more than a golden goose that isn't laying eggs, Jack meets up with Rapunzel who is a combination of Jessie the Cowgirl and Wonder Woman. Now they must head back to Jack's hometown to rescue his imprisoned mother and save the city.

Do you work with a middle school student who doesn't like to read? I wouldn't be surprised to see Calamity Jack change that. Shannon and Dean Hale along with illustrator Nathan Hale (no relation) have taken a clever idea (tall tale superheroes) and created a page turning thrill ride. My oldest daughter read it three times after I checked it out of the library. Put this book in the hands of a reluctant reader. This is the part of the review where I usually talk about how I would use it in the classroom. Instead, click on this link to see Peter Gutierrez's excellent teacher guide.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand

The New York Times has an article titled "The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand" that illustrates how there is serious reform taking place in K-12 education. The Race to the Top program may be the tipping point towards a momentous change in our profession. Every teacher should read this article.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down
written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney
(Hachette Book Group) 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

On February 1, 1960, four friends take a seat at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. "Their order was simple. A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side." There were other things not on the menu that these North Carolina A&T students wanted as well.  Justice. Integration. Civil rights.  David, Joseph, Franklin, and Ezell took a courageous step by simply sitting.  This led to others staging similar peaceful sit-ins across the South to protest the injustice of segregation. Other protests soon followed at "libraries, buses, parks, and pools." Students withstood attempts at intimidation and help lead to the changing of popular opinion and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Andrea Davis Pinkney's text is a terrific account of an important event in American history. Sit-In flows beautifully with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King woven in.  This is one of the best books you could use for teaching sentence structure. Davis Pinkney varies the length of the sentences like a smart veteran pitcher varies fastballs, curves, and changeups on the mound . The section of the book with a recipe for integration is especially brilliant. Brian Pinkney's poignant watercolor and India ink artwork effectively reflects the peaceful determination of these students. Add this book to your nonfiction collection and mentor texts for teaching writing.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Chalk by Bill Thomson
(Marshall Cavendish Children) 2010
Source: Mebane Public Library

On a rainy day, three kids are walking innocently along near a playground when they see a dinosaur spring rider.  Hanging on the dinosaur's lower jaw is a gift bag decorated with stars and crescent moons. Inside the bag are pieces of chalk. One of the friends pulls out a yellow piece of chalk and draws the sun. Amazingly, the sun rises from the pavement and clears out the rainy day. Another friend pulls out an orange piece of chalk and draws several butterflies. Sure enough, butterflies fill the playground air. The last friend, a slightly mischievious boy, gently takes out a green piece of chalk and draws the dinosaur. A peaceful playground becomes the stomping grounds for an enormous T-Rex. Scrambling to find shelter in the playground equipment, the friends must find a way to escape from the dinosaur.

Bill Thomson's wordless Chalk is a visual delight.  Thomson used acrylic paint and colored pencils to create the very real looking playground scenes. He also knows kids. We have several who live in our neighborhood and use sidewalk chalk to draw pictures. They draw figures similar to what the fictional kids draw. My favorite part of the book is the dinosaur and the solution one of the quick thinking friends devises to save the group. You can teach lessons on problem/solution, prediction, or story arcs using Chalk. Thomson does a terrific job of illustrating a child's imagination. The look on one of the friend's face at the end would make for a rich open ended discussion on what they are thinking at that moment.

Speaking of rich, click on this link for a lengthy explanation from Bill Thomson on the process of creating the illustrations for Chalk. This discussion is an excellent example of procedural text.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Review copy provided by publisher

Michael K.'s first day in fifth grade is off to a strange start. He is a new student at P.S. 858 in Brooklyn and he is sitting next to two other new students. What's strange about that? Well, one of the students has eaten half of Michael's pencil and the other claims they are spaceheadz from another planet. When not eating pencils, Jennifer spouts wrestling terms like "Total Smackdown!" and "Ready to Rumble!!".  Her companion Bob talks in phrases from commercial jingles. Apparently everything they know about Earth has come from broadcast waves.

Their mission is to get 3.14 million and one earthlings to become spaceheadz before Earth is turned off. Oh, and the alien leader is the class pet, a hamster named Fluffy.

If Spaceheadz were a baseball player, it would be a utility infielder because it is able to play several positions well. On one level, it's a humorous story of an encounter between a fifth grader and three aliens. Authors Jon Scieszka and Francesco Sedita bring loads of goofy humor (pickle phones, commander hamsters, discussions about why toilet paper makes bears happy) that will cause readers to laugh out loud and draw stern looks from teachers during independent reading time. On another level, Scieszka and Sedita have created a great vehicle for teaching media literacy. The URLs in the story are fictional websites that students can visit and compare to real websites. Being able to analyze and critique different media forms is an important skill to have, but with Spaceheadz it can be taught in a fun way. Check out the website for the AAA (Anti Alien Agency).

One of my favorite childhood cartoons was Fat Albert. Near the end of the theme song, Bill Cosby would say "And if you're not careful, you might learn something before it's done." The same could be said about reading Spaceheadz.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mama Miti

Source: Mebane Public Library

"Thayu nyumba - Peace my people".  These are the words that Wangari Maathai said as she gave seeds to the Kenyan women who came to her for advice. No matter the problem that was presented, Wangari knew the tree that would bring a solution.  One woman's goats are starving, so she is given seeds to grow a muheregendi tree.  Its leaves would provide food for the goats.  Growing up in the shadow of Mount Kenya, Wangari learned that trees were more than just plants.
They were a symbol of life and the healing powers of nature. As author Donna Jo Napoli writes, "Wangari changed a country, tree by tree.  She taught her people the ancient wisdom of peace with nature." Later known as Mama Miti - the mother of trees, Wangari went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and continues today to symbolize the connection between nature and peace.

Mama Miti is a wonderfully written biographical text. The author's note, afterword, and glossary of Kikuyu words are great additions to the story. Kadir Nelson's artwork is stunning.  In his note at the end of the book (I think it is a great idea to have the illustrator explain their work. I would like to see this more often.), Nelson explained that he chose to use a combination of oil paints and printed fabrics "because African culture is rich with textiles and color" and he wanted to "reflect an aesthetic of both East Africa and his work."

My wife used this book to teach story elements to her 7th grade Language Arts class.  One of the foci in their Social Studies class is Africa, so Mama Miti was a nice way to cross curriculum.  There aren't many juvenile literature biographies with the African continent as a setting, so it's nice to have this book as a resource. I won't be surprised to see this book on many best of 2010 lists in December and January.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Horace and Morris Say Cheese: Which Makes Dolores Sneeze

Source: Orange County Library

Horace and Morris are two mice that love their cheese.  The only mouse that likes it more is their good friend Dolores.  The three mice like cheese so much that they keep a scrapbook on cheese.  Things are going great for the cheese loving trio until one day Dolores is covered with spots that itch. 

A visit to Doctor Ricotta reveals that Dolores is allergic to cheese.  A mouse allergic to cheese?  And with the first annual Everything Cheese Festival quickly approaching, Dolores's confidence has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese.  After some initial setbacks, Dolores comes up with an idea that solves her dairy dilemma.

Horace and Morris Say Cheese: Which Makes Dolores Sneeze, written by James Howe and illustrated by Amy Walrod, revels in clever wordplay (alliteration, rhyme, parody) and shines a light on a common issue (food allergies) that doesn't get a lot of mention in children's books. Walrod's illustrations are a great companion to Howe's text (check out the movie poster parodies).  This is a book that could be used to teach figurative language, problem/solution, or just read for fun.

The Cat in the Hat - iPod Touch app

The Cat in the Hat is now available as an app for the iTouch and the iPad. I watched a first grader read it this morning on an iTouch and she liked it. As you can see on the left, there are options for reading it to yourself or having the book read to you. 

There is also a hat icon that needs an Internet connection (I really need to work on the wireless hub at home.). I think that opens a world of possibilities (games, classroom activities tied to the book, etc.) that give this format a leg up on the traditional book. You can work on fluency with an e-book as well.  A student can hear an adult fluently reading the book and then read the book for themselves.  There is a cost factor as well.  For $2.99 you get an audiobook with extra bells and whistles. That's a pretty good deal.

Betsy Bird (Fuse #8 blog) addressed the topic of children's books on iPads in her Tuesday blog entry. You should click and read. For what it's worth, here's what I think. We're going to see more and more books published electronically as well as the bound book.  Interest is high from consumers for e-books and with the arrival of the iPad, iTouch, and Kindle, we have the platform to use these books. I think there are good arguments for both e-books and bound books, but I also sense we're heading to a world where a teacher hands over an iTouch or iPad and the student has a whole library at their fingertips for independent reading.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I Am Going! - Elephant and Piggie

Gerald the Elephant is worried.  He worries about a lot of things, but this time his fear is loneliness. He's afraid his friend Piggie is going away and not coming back in I Am Going!.  The humor is high quality as usual in this adventure, but what I noticed as my five year old was reading was everything that Mo Willems does with the font. I know it's kind of a literacy coach geekiness for me to talk about this, but the man is fontabulous (yes, that's a made up word and not even a good one like lebacle, but it's late on a school night.).  You get all caps with a huge font with screaming endmarks to show Gerald's desperation, and later a very small font is used to show he has given up hope.  Author's purpose abounds in this simple text.

With the expressive drawings, it would be interesting to tape over some of the thought bubbles and see if children could predict what was being said. It would also be interesting to ask children if they were more like Gerald or Piggie after reading one of their adventures.

I also noticed that my five year old smiles a lot when she reads a book by Mo Willems.  Kindergarten teachers need to add him to their author study baskets immediately.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Roly Poly Pangolin

Roly Poly is a small pangolin who has some fears about the outside world.  He would rather stick with his mother and with the things that he already knows. "Roly Poly, very small, doesn't like new things at all." It's not until he stubs his toe and goes rolling away that he discovers that new things, when shared with others, are not so bad after all.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Muddy as a Duck Puddle and Other American Similes

A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often using "like" or "as". Laurie Lawlor has collected 26 (one for each letter of the alphabet) hilarious similes from American folklore for her book, Muddy as a Duck Puddle and Other American Similes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chester's Masterpiece

Chester the cat has taken author Melanie Watt's writing and illustrating tools and written a book of his own. Using a red marker, Chester has placed himself as the hero of this book while fending off Watt's yellow sticky note complaints.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Looking for science experiments that you can try out in class or at home? Bill Nye's website has a page called home demos where there are experiments that you can use. Great resource for science and/or writing a procedural piece.

Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes

One of the joys of my childhood was watching Warner Brothers cartoons. Wile E. Coyote was often the antagonist, trying one elaborate scheme after another to capture the Roadrunner. In his "talking" cartoons, Wile E. often referred to himself as a "supergenius" even as his plans went for naught. In Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes, we have a fox that is quite a bit like Wile E. Coyote. The fox wants to acquire the grapes, but only if his grand plans are used. When the other animals (bear, porcupine, beaver, opossum) try to make a suggestion, the fox rudely interrupts and dismisses them. After the last of his designs fails, the fox walks off in a huff and declares his disdain for the grapes leaving the other animals to enjoy the fruit of their labors.

Margie Palatini's text and Barry Moser's illustrations for Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes put a fun, modern twist on Aesop's The Fox and the Grapes. We gain great insight into the elaborate schemes and mighty ego of the Fox and the patience of his animal friends. If you teach a unit on fables, this would make a great addition.

Click on Margie's website above to find several resources for teachers and students.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cat the Cat, Who is That?

My five year old daughter just finished reading Cat the Cat, Who is That? by Mo Willems. Yes, she should have been in bed earlier, but let's stick to talking about this fabulous book. Willems has created Cat the Cat books for the youngest readers and I can tell you that it is a hit like his other books. My daughter liked the humor (She spotted the Pigeon and giggled. Five year olds can make text to text connections!) and the surprise at the end. As a parent, I liked the theme of friendship. 

You could look at Cat the Cat and think on the surface that it is an easy to read book that is funny and you would be right. But dig deeper and you see a book that helps a beginning reader by using repetition and different end marks (exclamation points, question marks, ellipses) that can be used to teach prosody. Willems also explains in an interview (click on first link above to watch this) that there is a reason for the simple drawings that illustrate Cat the Cat. He wants readers to be able to draw his characters and create books of their own. Sheer genius! This is an entertaining book for those students who are just beginning to read.