Sunday, July 29, 2012


written by Caroline Leavitt
2007 (Capstone Press)
Source: Orange County Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Check It Out

For those like myself who have little knowledge of samurai history, what comes to your mind first when you hear "samurai"? War? Battle? Sword fighting? All of these are definitely associated with the samurai. How about poetry? What? Yes, poetry. Samurai would write poems about the possibility of being killed. They would also tend gardens to clear their minds of the violence that permeated their occupation. These are some of the interesting facts that you will find in Samurai. Landowners called daimyo controlled the small states that made up the Japan of one thousand years ago. To protect their property, they hired warriors called samurai. Either you were born into a samurai family or you defeated a samurai to gain this title. It was in 1591 that the shogun limited access to those who were of the same class. Rewards for being a samurai included homes, land, and money. Not all samurai were fighters. Some helped run the government. Those who did fight either rode a horse or fought on foot. Samurai lived by a code called "bushido". This created absolute loyalty to their master and a disciplined life. These warriors were known for keeping their word. Unfortunately, Emperor Mutsuhito went back on his word to the samurai in mid-19th century Japan and created a national army that effectively ended the need for samurais.

Samurai would be a great book for reluctant readers in the upper grades. Caroline Leavitt includes so many interesting facts and anecdotes about the history of these warriors. The photographs and illustrations are terrific as well. You could ask students to contrast these ancient soldiers to the soldiers of today. Artistic readers could create a labeled diagram of the armor that samurais wore.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summer Break

 I'm on a break for this week. I am in western North Carolina visiting family and enjoying the sights. We drove up to the summit of Mount Mitchell yesterday. For someone who loves clouds, it was cool to drive through some on our way to the top. I'll be back next week with more book reviews.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pigmares: Porcine Poems of the Silver Screen

written and illustrated by Doug Cushman
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Poetry Friday at A Teaching Life

An ice-covered monster crawls out of a cave.
A creature made whole out of parts from a grave.
A mummified swine puts a curse on my head.
I should never watch monsters on film before bed!

Being a citizen of North Carolina, when you say Pigmare, you might be thinking of under cooked barbecue, but in this case it is a young porker who has spent too much time watching horror movies on television. Now he has visions in rhyme of creatures like Frankenswine who is created "like an old crazy quilt" and is chased to the Arctic by pitchfork bearing townspeople. Just as terrifying is the Mummy Pig who wants to put a curse on those who put sand in his underpants. My favorite character is Pig Kong who turns out to be "not a gross barbarian, but Kong the vegetarian."

Doug Cushman's humorous poetic parodies of horror movies will have students giggling and repeating their favorite lines. His illustrations add to the fun and there is a section in the back matter where readers can learn about the classic horror movies that were the inspiration for these poems. Add this collection to your poetry unit and challenge students to create their own "horrorific" poem. Could "Cowzilla" be far behind? Visit Cushman's site,, for more porcine poetry.

Other reviews:
Laura Salas 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Monet Paints a Day

Monet Paints a Day
written by Julie Danneberg; illustrated by Caitlin Heimerl
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Practically Paradise

As Julie Danneberg states in the Author's Note, the group of French painters known as the Impressionists broke with the tradition of painting to inspire or teach. This group wanted to paint ordinary scenes and capture the feeling of what they saw instead of the exact details. One of those Impressionists, Claude Monet, is featured in Monet Paints a Day as he tries to capture the feeling of standing underneath a French coastal stone arch known as the Manneporte. Using the Hotel Blanquet as his base, Monet strikes out each day at a particular time to capture the light of that time of day. As he departs the hotel, a line of children, rewarded with candy and coins, follows with his canvases while Monet carries his paint box and palette. This group walks carefully down a zigzag cliff path and across a rocky beach. Monet finds his spot and the children scatter so as to not draw his wrath which can quickly come. Poor lighting, bad weather, and most of all frustration with his painting would cause these tantrums. Monet has several canvases with him so he could capture the light from different times of the day. When a period of time had passed, he would switch to a different canvas to match the time, weather, and light. He would work between 7 and 15 minutes on a particular canvas before changing. Monet would use bright colors and quick brushstrokes as he worked on a scene. As he is working on this day, rumbling waves send a warning to him. In his pursuit to capture the light, he ignores the noise which will unleash a surprise on him. An inaccurate information sheet in the hotel has caused Monet to have the wrong time for the high tide and his art supplies, excepting his palette, are washed away. Instead of being frustrated, Monet admires nature's strength and vows to be back the next day.

I really like how Monet Paints a Day shows the intensity and focus of an artist. Whether writers, painters, musicians, or other artists, I think there has to be a certain amount, or obsession, for these people to perfect their craft. This obsession can come with a price, and Julie Danneberg doesn't hesitate to show that Monet was indeed human. Caitlin Heimerl's watercolor art is an excellent introduction to Impressionism. Find your art teacher and recommend this book. It would also be a nice addition to your biography picture book collection. The two sections in the back matter, the Author's Note and Monet's Painting Techniques, are great sources for more information about Claude Monet. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

The House That George Built

written by Suzanne Slade; illustrated by Rebecca Bond
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

This is the design,
that would stand for all time, 
that was drawn for the lot,
that grand, scenic spot,
for the President's House that George built.

George Washington wanted to build a special house for the new country that he was now leading. He chose a wooded hill in Maryland that overlooked the Potomac River for the location. After thinking Pierre-Charles L'Enfant's design was too elaborate, Washington chose James Hoban's plan as the blueprint for the President's House. With a deadline of November 1, 1800, Washington rolled up his sleeves and added this work to his duties as president. Since he needed to be in the capital of Philadelphia, Washington designated Hoban to be the on-site manager for the new house. Being a surveyor himself, the President assisted Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker who were surveying the land for the future capital city. A large hole was filled with stone, wood, and sand for the foundation. On-site kilns were built to create the bricks needed for the walls. Quarries provided the stone for the outside. A sealer of water, lime, salt, glue, and rice was spread on the stone which made it white. In the Author's Note we learn that Theodore Roosevelt renamed the building the White House in 1901. George Washington died one year before President John Adams and his wife Abigail moved into the President's House, but his influence will be forever embedded in this building.

I always like to see nonfiction with a unique twist. There are plenty of books about George Washington and the White House available, but Suzanne Slade has managed to create a fresh path on this well worn soil. On the left side of the two page spread, you get narrative text. The right side is a historical spin on "The House That Jack Built". As you can see in the highlighted text above, this is a great opportunity for a shared reading experience with young readers. With the extra emphasis on nonfiction in this Common Core era, The House That George Built is a welcome addition. The back matter is terrific as well. There is a section titled The Changing President's House which details several additions that were made by presidents that succeeded George Washington. My favorite addition is an outdoor swimming pool added by President Gerald Ford in 1975. I remember thinking this was a big deal as a kid at that time. Now I wanted to live in the White House. The Author's Note provided other "new to me" information. I didn't know Thomas Jefferson had submitted a drawing, under a fake name, for the house. The House That George Built is a great resource for K-5 classrooms.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do

written by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook; illustrated by Andy Robert Davies
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday at A Curious Thing

These clothes are all clues 
to jobs people do.
Is one of these jobs
just right for you?

One of my favorite units in kindergarten was the week where we focused on occupations. I have seen dental technicians, firefighters, and other parent volunteers come in the classroom to share with children what they do for a living. The students are especially interested in the tools and clothing that are part of each job. Watching kindergarten children try on firefighter gear is always humorous and the stuff of year-end pictures. The authors of Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do understand this fascination on the part of preschoolers and primary school students. In this book, several occupations are featured with readers having to guess the occupation being presented. With each "job mystery", readers are given the visual clue of clothing hanging on a clothesline and tools of the trade directly beneath. For example, on one two page spread we see a uniform, a cap, and a big bag filled with letters. The text consists of a four line poem that describes the items on the page. Each poem of clues ends with "What job does he/she do?". The mixed media illustrations are kid friendly and provide further clues to a bigger mystery at the end of the book. 

Clothesline Clues would be a great text to add to your preschool or kindergarten unit on jobs. It can be used for shared reading and shared writing. Students can think of occupations not listed in the book. With each of these occupations, they can list the parts of uniforms and the tools needed to perform these jobs. It would be fun to create a class booklet or individual booklets with clothes on a clothesline. You could also place a clothesline outside your classroom and have children create job related items to place on the line with clothes pins. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

STEM Friday: Toads and Tessellations

Toads and Tessellations
written by Sharon Morrisette; illustrated by Philomena O'Neill
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out STEM Friday for more math and science links

Tessellation - A pattern of shapes that covers a surface with no overlaps or gaps.

Enzo wants to be a magician like his father, the Great Mago. Unfortunately, he is not very good at casting spells. Instead of creating a pot of soup for his village, Enzo's spell brings a pot overflowing with soap. His father keeps encouraging him to study and tells him to find his own kind of magic. Enzo also likes to study math and in particular admires Galileo and Johannes Kepler. It is this love of math that will serve him well when the shoemaker's little sister pays a visit to his home. She explains that her brother has received an unusual request. He needs to make 12 pairs of shoes out of one piece of leather. Who has made such a request? The castle housekeeper, who is desperately looking for Enzo's father to work his magic and help the shoemaker produce the shoes for 12 princesses. Since Enzo's father is out of town, it is up to him to discover a way to create the shoes from the leather. With his spell casting skills being spotty at best, it will be tessellations that save the day for the shoemaker and Enzo.

Toads and Tessellations could serve as a read-aloud introduction for a unit on tessellations. Sprinkled throughout the book are 27 tessellations for readers to find. Enzo can also serve as an example of determination as he never gives up and works hard to find solutions to the problems that face him.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Unusual Cloud Formation

This looks like a cartoon, but it is an actual cloud formation. These are called mammatus clouds. The photograph was taken after a storm in Regina, Saskatchewan. CBC News in Saskatchewan has a photo essay on their website.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Eight Days Gone

Eight Days Gone
written by Linda McReynolds; illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke
2012 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Booktalking

Launchpad countdown.
Smoke and flame.
Rumbling. Blasting.
Seizing fame.

Another book about the Apollo 11 moon landing? What makes this one special? I'm glad you asked. There were some terrific books published around the 40th anniversary of this 1969 event, but the text of those books appeal more to third or fourth grade students and above. Now we have a book that details the event that is more accessible to non-readers and beginning readers. I would have shown the illustrations of the other moon landing books to really young readers, but after reading two pages of text, their eyes would have glazed over and their attention would be have been lost among the density of the details. As you can see from the portions displayed above and below, Eight Days Gone has a great rhythm that grabs young readers.

It's one thing to have this rhythm in a book about cute furry animals, but to pull it off when describing an historical event is an admirable feat of writing dexterity. You might be tempted to think that there isn't much meat to this text since it is aimed at young readers, but you would be wrong. McReynolds shows the sequence of how the rocket goes from launchpad to moon landing which means you get mention of the lunar module disconnecting, Michael Collins staying with the ship, and Armstrong and Aldrin exploring the surface. She also inserts descriptive words like tranquil, barren, stark, and ashen that can be a boost to a lesson on how to make your writing more visual. Speaking of visual, Ryan O'Rourke's retro illustrations are first-class snapshots of the event. My favorite two page spread shows Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon while staring back at the Earth. It gives readers an excellent view of Aldrin's perspective at that moment.

Eight Days Gone will provide a platform for many rich discussions about space exploration with young readers. For moms and dads at home, the rhythm of the book makes it a great bedtime story. I'm jealous because I would have liked to have read this book with my daughters when they were younger. For teachers, you can use Eight Days Gone for lessons on descriptive writing, sequence, and character. If you want to develop a lesson on bravery, I think this book would be a good place to start.

More in-depth details are provided in the author's note along with a photograph of the lunar module ascending.