Sunday, February 23, 2014

Secrets of the Apple Tree

Secrets of the Apple Tree
written by Carron Brown; illustrated by Alyssa Nassner
2013 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more nonfiction book reviews.

If you want to know the secrets of the apple tree, you'll need a flashlight or a lamp. In this inventive book about the apple tree, hidden pictures are included behind the illustrations. Placing a light source behind the page, you can see the hidden picture. The first picture is a full apple tree with the question "Can you see what it looks like in winter?" Flash a light behind and you see a bare branched tree with birds. The following page talks about animals living around the tree. A bird's head is perched barely above the ground. The question for this page is "Can you see who the bird is about to grab?". The light will reveal wriggling worms working to loosen soil. On the back side of each illustration is an explanation of the answer to the previous question. All aspects of life in and around the tree are explored. What's under the leaves? Be careful because you might disturb a frog. See a tail poking out of a rock? You'll find a lizard looking for insects and other food sources. A great exercise to do with children before reading this book would be to list all of the animals you think might live in or around the tree. A circle map would be a good format for doing this. Another skill that you could work on with Secrets of the Apple Tree is teaching main idea. Read the whole book and ask students to think about the big idea of how this tree is valuable to so many living creatures.

This is the book that you want your child to take to bed so they can read with a flashlight. There is plenty of information for preschool and K-1 readers to digest. The back matter has more facts about the animals you find around an apple tree and how they use the tree for food, a habitat, or safety. Young readers will be intrigued and delighted by the secrets that will be revealed by the light.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


written by Christelle Vallat; illustrated by Stephanie Augusseau
2014 (Peter Pauper Press)
First published in Belgium in 2012
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

In a small town, a long line forms every Sunday at the foot of an elderly lady named Celia. People come to her with their troubles. They whisper to her and she patiently listens. As a result of talking to Celia, people feel much better and reward her with a seed. A little boy named Julian is standing in this line one day when he realizes that he has dropped his seed. Julian slinks away with his sadness in tow. At the end of the day, Celia takes the donated seeds so she can put them to good use the next day. On Monday, she uses a few seeds to make giant balloons that bring smiles to people in the town square. Passing by the baker's shop, Celia tosses more seeds which frost all of the cupcakes and cookies. Other seeds place apples on a tree. During her travels, Celia finds a seed that she surmises belongs to a young child. Sure enough, on her way home that night, she finds Julian sitting sadly by himself. Celia shows him the seed she found and together they plant the seed in a pot. What follows is the blooming of a beautiful friendship.

As I teach children about thinking during their reading, one of the things I want them to focus on is any lessons that might be learned from reading the story. In Celia, we see an example of how being a good listener is a valuable asset. When we have someone that will listen to our troubles, that is a treasured friend. Another aspect of this book that would be interesting to explore with children is the friendship that develops between Celia and Julian. How is it like other friendships, such as Frog and Toad, that we find in literature? How is it like our own friendships? Celia is a sweet picture book that will lift your spirits and remind you of the value of having a friend that will listen.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I Wonder Who?: Cute book for young readers

I Wonder Who?
Text and design by Anton Poitier; illustrated by Sophia Touliatou
2014 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review provided by the publisher

If you buy books for a toddler or a preschooler, you should check out I Wonder Who? for a fun bedtime read. There are 5 two page spreads that are cut into thirds in this pop-up delight. On the first page, the first question on the left is "I wonder who has eaten the page?". On the right, you lift the flap and it is a caterpillar who has taken a bite out of the page. The second third of the page asks "I wonder who has snappy teeth?". Lift up the flap and you get a great pop-up of a crocodile. See if your child can also find the small birds in each scene. Young readers will have a good time trying to predict which animal is underneath each flap. This interactive experience makes reading memorable and helps build the habit of reading each night. When my daughters were young, this type of book was one of their favorites. Enjoy the giggles and enthusiasm as you read I Wonder Who? with a developing reader.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Girl from the Tar Paper School

The Girl from the Tar Paper School
written by Teri Kanefield
2014 (Abrams Books for Young Readers)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday to learn about other nonfiction books.

"When it rained, the roofs leaked. Buckets collected the dripping water. Some students sat under umbrellas so the ink on their papers wouldn't run. The makeshift classrooms, like the regular classrooms, were heated by potbellied wood stoves instead of furnaces."

In 1950, fifteen-year-old Barbara Johns lived on a farm located about 15 miles from Farmville, Virginia. She attended Robert R. Moton High School, a school for black students that had many temporary classrooms built to house an overflow of students. These classrooms were made of wood and covered with tar paper. Teachers would have to tend to the fire in the stoves and hope that the smoke wouldn't interrupt their unevenly heated classrooms. Meanwhile, the school for white students had a modern heating system along with other amenities that Moton students could only dream about.

Black students and their parents were told to be patient by the white school board. A new school was going to be built to replace Moton High. Patience will only last so long, and Barbara's had worn out. With a plan that she felt was divinely inspired, Barbara led her classmates to stage a peaceful strike to protest the unequal conditions. On April 23, 1951, an assembly of students met in the auditorium. After creating a distraction for the principal to go to town, Barbara led a students-only assembly. She gave a stirring speech that explained that they deserved to have a school that was equal in quality to the whites-only high school in Farmville. A two week long strike led to a lawsuit against the Prince Edward County school board that eventually went to the Supreme Court and joined four other cases that were consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education.

Barbara Rose Johns was an unsung heroine who had the courage to stare injustice in the face and not blink. She stood her ground and her actions, along with her fellow classmates, helped lead to the eventual desegregation of public schools. The Girl from the Tar Paper School, as stated in previous reviews, is an important work that should be read by students studying the Civil Rights movement. Readers will learn about the sacrifices made by these students and their families.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

To Dare Mighty Things

To Dare Mighty Things
written by Doreen Rappaport; illustrated by C.F. Payne
2013 (Hyperion)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more links.

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."

It seems a little underwhelming to call Theodore Roosevelt larger than life. His life was certainly larger than most of ours. Many authors have sought to capture his life in long and short form. So what recommends this picture book treatment of his life? Two reasons. One, it takes a pretty smart and talented author to combine text elements like Doreen Rappaport does in this book. She intertwines quotes from Roosevelt with details of his life. It's fun as a reader to read the quote and follow up with the details. I wanted to pull out poster paper and make signs with some of these quotes.

You could take a two page spread and use it for a lesson on main idea and details. We get a nice summary of Roosevelt's life with all of the highlights included. The sickly childhood, the charge up San Juan Hill, T.R.'s trust busting, his environmental accomplishments and his presidential work are all included. The second reason to find this book is easy to see above. C.F. Payne's art work is terrific. There is something on each spread that immediately grabs your attention. It's as if there is a main idea in the illustration and supporting details surrounding it.

February is a traditional time for teachers to focus on biographies. Find a copy of To Dare Mighty Things and share it with your class this month.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

You Code, Girl!

Oceanhouse Media has a great article about opportunities for girls to learn about computer coding. There are several links included in this article, so check it out!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Interview with Susan VanHecke

Under the Freedom Tree
written by Susan VanHecke; illustrated by London Ladd
2013 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more nonfiction reviews.

Today I have posted an interview with Susan VanHecke who is the author of the terrific picture book, Under The Freedom Tree. You can find more information at

1.  How did you first learn about the Freedom Tree? 

Quite accidentally, actually. I was thumbing through a local lifestyle magazine here in southeastern Virginia when I flipped to a photo of a truly majestic tree. The caption said that this was where area slaves heard the Emancipation Proclamation guaranteeing their freedom in 1863, the first Southern reading of the document, according to some historians.

The tree, Emancipation Oak, is just twelve miles from my house; I couldn't believe I'd driven by it for years without even knowing it! Curious, I started researching and learned the whole amazing story of the contrabands and how they launched the beginning of slavery's end by taking freedom into their own hands, assisting the Union, and helping the North win the war.

2. Your use of free verse narrative is very compelling. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way? 

After researching, I tried to sit down and write the story in prose, but it just wasn't working. Sure, I could recount the facts, but prose just wasn't capturing the drama, the emotion, of all those bold, daring events that happened near and under Emancipation Oak. It felt too distant. I struggled with the manuscript for a couple of years, in fact, every time setting it aside in frustration.

Then one day while I was reading a collection of the late author Virginia Hamilton's speeches and essays, I ran across her concept of "rememory." She defines this as an "exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined." That really struck me, both an "imagined recollection" and one that's exquisitely textured.

I decided to make a personal visit to the tree, and there, under those spreading branches, in the leafy light, I understood just what Hamilton meant. I could imagine that, standing there, I was recollecting all that had happened at the Freedom Tree, even though, of course, I wasn't alive during the Civil War.

That opened the floodgates for me. I wrote with feeling, hopefully with texture, and it just so happened to be in the form of free verse poetry.

3.  What is the origin of the phrase "better forward than back"? Did you create it or did you find it in your research?

I came up with that phrase. I tried to imagine what might have been running through Frank, James, and Shepard's minds as they stepped into that rowboat under cover of night. What's worse: an uncertain future rowing to the Union line or a certain future of bondage and oppression if we remain with the Confederates? Hope on the horizon or despair if we return to the Confederate camp? Better forward than back seemed to sum that up well.

4. In your research, did you find out what happened to Frank, James, and Shepard after the end of the war?

All three remained in the Hampton, Virginia, area after the war. Frank Baker and James Townsend worked as day laborers and raised families. Shepard Mallory eventually owned his own home, worked as a janitor, and was married several times. Interestingly, one of his weddings was attended by Confederate Colonel Charles Mallory, his former master!

5. Were you able to visit the Freedom Tree site? What impressions did you come away with?

Emancipation Oak still stands today at the entrance to Hampton University. It's a grand old tree, with branches that sprawl over a hundred feet in diameter. The National Geographic Society has honored it as one of the Ten Great Trees of the World. If you ever have an opportunity to visit it, I highly recommend it. Or you can visit it virtually at

Interesting note about Emancipation Oak. I learned that it was in the same waters where Frank, James, and Shepard reached the Union line—just two miles from the tree—that the first Africans were brought to the English colonies in 1619. We can imagine that the Freedom Tree was probably a newly sprouted acorn when those first Africans arrived for the purpose of slavery. But like the slaves' determination and quest for liberty over the centuries, the Freedom Tree grew strong and mighty, and is still an inspiration for us all.