Monday, December 26, 2011

The House Baba Built

The House Baba Built
Told to Libby Koponen; illustrated by Ed Young
2011 (Little, Brown, and Co.)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Ed Young's father is concerned about his family's safety in 1935 Shanghai. He decides that they should move to the outskirts of the city to avoid the effects of the war with Japan. The land is too expensive for Baba to own, so he makes a unique deal with the landowner. He offers to build a spacious brick house with courtyards, gardens, and a swimming pool. After twenty years, Baba will turn over the house to the landowner. The deal is agreed upon and the resourceful Baba, who is an engineer, starts to design. What follows is a description of a family that thrives despite the threat of war and the hardships that have to be endured. Baba does everything with his family in mind and strives to help many others affected by the war. Later, after the children have grown up and the house turned over, Baba sends a letter with the following message which encapsulates his actions throughout the book:

You may put down as rule No. 1 that life is not rich not real unless you partake life with your fellow man. A successful life and a happy life is one as measured by how much you have accomplished for others and not one as measured by how much you've done for yourself.

The House Baba Built is an extraordinary book that combines a poignant autobiographical story with multimedia artwork by one of the best children's book illustrators of all time. Ed Young combines family photographs with illustrations and collage cutouts to tell the story of his childhood and deliver a message given to him by his beloved Baba. In addition to the storytelling and incredible artwork, there is a timeline, a four page blueprint of the house that folds out, and several city maps. This book begs to be a part of a unit on autobiographical picture books. You could include Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey, Peter Sis's The Wall, and James Stevenson's When I Was Nine. I would also consider using this book to compare children today to those of Young's childhood. You could create a Venn diagram to compare the two eras.

Other reviews:
Waking Brain Cells
Chicken Spaghetti
Rasco from RIF

Thursday, December 22, 2011

STEM Friday: Storm Chasers

Extreme Jobs: Storm Chasers
written by Sarah Tieck
2011 (Abdo Publishing)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out STEM Friday at Booktalking

Storm chasing is a risky (some would say insane) business, but the data collected is extremely valuable in trying to understand how hurricanes and tornadoes are formed and how they function. Storm Chasers gives readers an up close look at the life of these meteorologists who chase tornadoes and fly into hurricanes. One of the interesting aspects of this book is the time that is spent researching and planning. Chasing tornadoes or hurricanes involves a lot of time reviewing data and trying to predict what is going to happen with a particular storm. This is an excellent lesson for young science students. I work with 5th graders on being able to read weather data and develop a forecast based on that day's numbers. Storm Chasers shows students that you have to be able to make observations using the latest technology and your background knowledge. After the two sections on tornadoes and hurricanes,  a feature on two historical figures, Benjamin Franklin and John Muir, and their experience with weather observation closes out the book.

Chasing storms certainly has its thrills, but before you can track down a tornado or penetrate the eye of a hurricane in a plane, you have to use reading and math skills to prepare you for the chase. If you have a unit on careers or weather, you can use pieces of this book as a read aloud. A comparison of different time eras and their technology for predicting weather could be an activity you could use in conjunction with Storm Chasers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Favorite Nonfiction Children's Books for 2011

Here is a list of the nonfiction books that I have reviewed in the past calendar year that were my favorites.

A Nation's Hope - This book is my overall favorite for 2011. I have loved sports since the crib, and this is a spectacular book about an important sporting event. I would be delighted if it won the Caldecott Medal.

Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas - I knew back in February that this would be one of my favorites and I haven't changed my mind. The quilted artwork is terrific and the text could be used for a variety of lessons in the classroom.

What's For Dinner?: Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World - Delightfully creepy. This was a good year for the marriage of science and poetry.

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont/My Hands Sing the Blues - I love history lessons that change your thinking. I was totally in the dark about Alberto Santos-Dumont and Romare Bearden before I read these books.

Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem -  Not a feel-good story, but well worth the time invested to learn about this somber period in American history. This is excellent storytelling.

From Pie Town to Yum Yum / Cool Animal Names - Two fun books about quirky names. The first is about names of towns in the United States while the second is full of unique animal names. I need to find a pig frog in Bat Cave. 

Bloody Times - This connection of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train and the multi-state flight of Jefferson Davis was difficult to put down.

Animal Naps - Another fun combination of science and poetry, this book contains my favorite photographs of 2011.

After the Kill - Not for the squeamish, this book gives you an up close look at life on the Serengeti Plain.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Did Castles Have Bathrooms?

Did Castles Have Bathrooms?
written by Ann Kerns
2011 (Lerner Publishing)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Practically Paradise

To answer the title question, castles did have bathrooms but not the kind we have today. A small room called a garderobe served as the place where you went to the bathroom. It was built against an outside wall and the "plumbing" was inside the wall and led to a pit or the moat. Fragrant herbs like lavender were placed in the garderobe to keep down the odor. Did Castles Have Bathrooms? thinks of just about every question a young reader would have about the Middle Ages and answers it directly with just enough content as to not drown you in facts. Each question is answered with a two page spread. A large illustration with a question is on the left with two columns of information on the right. Other subjects addressed include whether or not Robin Hood and King Arthur truly existed (They did not.). Another topic that will be of interest is jousting. I always assumed jousting tournaments were held strictly for  entertainment. It seems tournaments were a source of income for knights who had to pay for armor, weapons, horses, and a support crew. I didn't realize being a knight was such an expensive proposition. Speaking of armor, there is a section on how knights were able to go into battle and still wear that heavy suit. Perhaps the most interesting and terrifying part of this book is the feature on the Black Death. From 1348 to 1352, the bubonic plague killed twenty-five million people which was one-third of Europe's population. That's unbelievable! Contrary to previously held beliefs, it wasn't the rats of Europe that were to blame necessarily, but the fleas that lived on the rats. In the midst of all this history, you get a little science to help you understand how flea bites were so deadly. Did Castles Have Bathrooms? is a fascinating study of a  time period that may be overlooked by today's students.

Books like this are a valuable resource since you can use it to bolster dry accounts contained in textbooks. One activity would be to have a student reading this book create a poster divided into sections that contained different pieces of information about the Middle Ages. Did Castles Have Bathrooms? would be an excellent accompaniment to Newbery winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poetry Friday: Dear Hot Dog

Dear Hot Dog
written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein
2011 (Abrams Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Poetry Friday at Book Aunt

You gurgle happily
as I pour in milk
and introduce my spoon.

Dear Hot Dog is a series of poems that express the joy children find in everyday things. Rain brings a child time to be lost in books. The sun is like a brother that chases you around a pool and can play too rough with sunburn. Pillows think that they are clouds while we are away and then take us to dreams when we are together.  A stuffed bear can be a best friend. The narrator in each poem talks to the subject as if it is alive which makes these poems perfect for lessons on personification. Mordicai Gerstein shows us that in a child's eyes, every day is special and anything is possible. The poems do not rhyme which I think is great since many young children have the misconception that poems have to rhyme. As a young writer, it makes writing poetry much easier if you are not struggling to find a rhyming word. I also like the connections I make to my childhood when reading these poems. I remember sunburns and dripping ice cream cones.

In writer's workshop, we've been working on making observations of the world around us and writing what those observations make us think. Dear Hot Dog would be a terrific accompaniment to these lessons. Individual poems could be copied onto chart paper and used for shared reading time. Older students could create a class booklet with each student writing a poem based on an everyday object.

Other reviews:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: About Hummingbirds

About Hummingbirds
written by Cathryn Sill; illustrated by John Sill
2011 (Peachtree Publishers)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Geo Librarian

As you probably know, hummingbirds fly around at incredible speeds. Having been buzzed by these tiny territorial beasts, I know this first-hand. The problem with hummingbirds is you can't get a good look at them. This is one of the reasons why I really like About Hummingbirds. John Sill's artwork is amazing. You get to see the action that is normally too quick for human eyes and the colors are incredible. The man can flat out draw feathers! I especially liked the feet on the Booted Racquet-tail. They look like the shovels that kids use on the beach to dig sand. Cathryn Sill's text is sparse and informative which makes a perfect partner for the illustrations. An advanced first grader or a second grader can read the text, then focus on the picture to pull out several more details. The cherry on the sundae is the afterword. In the afterword, each of the 18 plates (pictures) in the main text is accompanied by a rich paragraph of information. I could see taking one of these plates and creating a circle map to review the facts about that particular hummingbird. You could also create a chart for older students and have them gather facts under headings such as anatomy, predators, and habitat. Full of interesting information and gorgeous artwork, About Hummingbirds would be a terrific addition to a unit on birds.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

STEM Friday: Ugly Animals

Ugly Animals
written by Gilda and Melvin Berger
2011 (Scholastic)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out STEM Friday at Wrapped In Foil

Gilda and Melvin Berger are not engaging in name calling. Instead, they are bringing attention to some unusual animals whose decidedly unattractive features are actually quite useful. In past times, the mop-like fur of the sheep herding komondor dog kept it safe from attacking wolves and bears. The lack of fur on a naked mole rat allows it to move more easily through tunnels. Male proboscis monkeys have exceedingly large noses, but apparently these are a big hit with the female of the species and the deepness of the "honk" produced by this super snout warns other monkeys of impending danger. Several other unique animals are featured in this easy reader. The red-lipped batfish is almost too strange to be believed and the ruby red lips may not be the weirdest thing. This is a fish that walks, with its fins, on the bottom of the sea since it is not a very good swimmer. A fish that can barely swim? These are the kind of unusual facts that make Ugly Animals a fun read.

Since many of the animal features are useful in fending off predators, this text would be a good resource in teaching cause and effect lessons. Kindergarten and 1st grade students would also enjoy creating a circle map involving one of these critters. Another possible lesson would be to talk about how these animals are quite effective regardless of how we might view their looks. That's a good life lesson for kids beginning to worry about how they look. Older struggling readers can read this book and not worry about carrying around a book that "looks younger". With the wide-eyed aye aye on the cover, nobody is going to think about the reading level when they see Ugly Animals.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


written by Mary Lyn Ray; illustrated by Marla Frazee
2011 (Beach Lane Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

What if you could have a star? They shine like little silver eggs you could gather in a basket.

My youngest daughter and her best friend take great joy in discovering small wonders in the area between the woods and the playground at school. We planted a pine tree sprig (named Fred) in our yard that had been packed in sand from the school sandbox. It's easy to be cynical in this world, but when you spend time with kids like these, your level of optimism tends to rise. This youthful exuberance is overflowing in Stars. As expressed by author Mary Lyn Ray, the symbolism of a star for a young child comes in many forms. It is a comforting light in the dark night. A star is the possibility of a wish coming true. Stars are also manifested in many forms in the natural world. There are the white stars that become strawberries and the yellow stars on the vine that become pumpkins. Stars are magical whether in the sky or placed on our chest for achieving a goal.

The text and illustrations of Stars capture the many moods of childhood. There is the happiness of spending time with friends and the sadness of being alone on the swings. Marla Frazee's artwork is pitch perfect in reflecting the beauty of the stars and what they can mean to a child. A great writing activity to accompany this book would be to create a star booklet that contained student reflections on stars. There are also several examples of similes that could be used to teach figurative language. If you are looking for a special book to give to a primary teacher this season, Stars would be a nice choice.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Bug Shots

Bug Shots: The Good, the Bad, and the Bugly
written by Alexandra Siy and photomicrographs by Dennis Kunkel
2011 (Holiday House)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Gathering Books

Are bugs criminals? Bug Shots seeks to answer this question by  sorting out the good bugs and the bad bugs. Readers are encouraged to join the FBI and become a Fellow Bug Investigator. Mug shots of these "criminals" are photomicrographs which give you a close-up look of these potential villains. This is such a smart approach to attracting students to the study of entomology. After the introductory chapter, readers meet the worst offenders. These are the bugs like bedbugs and mosquitoes that cause a great deal of physical harm to humans. In the next chapter, you meet the "common criminals". These are beetles that chew through crops, forests, and other valuable items. Other insects featured later on include identity changers like butterflies and moths, and those that carry concealed weapons like bees and wasps. The final chapter decides which "bad guys" are really good and those who deserve a hefty punishment.

Alexandra Siy's combination of cool facts, clever writing, and humor make this book a winner. The photomicrographs are amazing. You see so many details. One activity in the classroom that instantly jumped to mind when reading Bug Shots was to create wanted posters. Students could be divided up according to the categories in the book. This would be a fun writing activity. You could also create a ten most wanted list. Bug Shots is a unique look at an amazing part of the animal kingdom.

Friday, December 2, 2011

STEM Friday: How Does Medicine Know Where You Hurt?

Wonderopolis: How Does Medicine Know Where You Hurt?
November 30, 2011

Check out STEM Friday at Archimedes Notebook

Thanks to Mary Lee and Franki at A Year of Reading, I found out about Wonderopolis, which is a daily nonfiction article accompanied by a video and links for further research. Each article begins with a bulleted summary of the article. The text is written on about a 4th or 5th grade level, but you could easily use it as a read aloud in lower grades as well.

Wednesday's article was about pain relievers and  how your body knows where to send the medicine that you take to heal it. Prostaglandin is a chemical sent out by cells to tell the brain where pain is happening in the body. The pain reliever that has gone through your stomach and into the blood stream goes throughout your body with the purpose of stopping cells from transmitting this chemical. Fascinating stuff!

There are several ways you can use Wonderopolis articles in your classroom. I have two computers in my classroom and each daily article is available during Reader's Workshop when my students are independently reading. It is especially helpful for those students who do not read a lot of nonfiction. I will also use an article during read aloud when I am teaching a strategy or skill or just for enjoyment. Wonderopolis is a terrific resource for classroom teachers.