Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Farmer and The Clown

The Farmer and the Clown
illustrated by Marla Frazee
2014 (Beach Lane Books)
Source: Orange County Library

Home. You know where it is when you're there. But sometimes you get a bit separated from home, and you may need a little help finding your way back. 

A baby clown falls off the back of the circus train and into a farmer's field.
He's pitching hay when he sees the clown fall. Rushing to help him, the farmer finds the clown with a smile on his face. He takes the baby clown to his house and begins to take care of him. They share meals and the farmer shows the clown how to do different chores. One day, the two new friends share a picnic lunch under a large tree on the farmer's vast and stark land. In the distance, they catch sight of a train coming toward them. Even from far away, they can see that it is the circus train coming back for the baby clown. What follows is a sweet reunion, a poignant goodbye, and a surprise ending.

I think The Farmer and the Clown may be the most popular book of the year with my kindergarten friends. Their teacher reported that they were very quiet as she showed them the illustrations. Rachel made the comment that perhaps they have to work harder with a wordless book to follow the story. They were very engaged and loved the surprise ending. Marla Frazee is a wonderful illustrator. School Library Journal compares this book to Raymond Briggs's The Snowman. That's high praise but not a stretch. It may be the favorite for the Caldecott Medal. Marla Frazee is certainly deserving.

A really good wordless book lends itself to lessons on inferring or mood. I would want students to think and discuss/write about the farmer with these possible questions: How did the clown baby change his life? What might he do after saying goodbye to the circus performers? What do you think about the ending? There are many rich lesson possibilities with The Farmer and the Clown.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Flora and the Runaway Rooster

Flora and the Runaway Rooster
written by John Claude Bemis; illustrated by Robert Crawford
2014 (Heifer International)
Source: Orange County Public Library


Flora lived in a little village in the mountains of Rwanda. She desperately wanted to join her older brother and sister who go to school in the city. Flora loved soccer and could play at the school. Her siblings said she wasn't quite old enough to go with them, so she needed to stay home and help her parents with the chores. Perhaps her toughest job was keeping an eye on the rooster Kubika. Flora's brother warned "He's always looking for an adventure." Sure enough, when Flora was practicing soccer instead of doing her chores when Kubika went on the lam. I love how Bemis wrote "Kubika was strutting down the street." Flora tried to catch him, but he was too quick. Fortunately she literally ran into her friend Gideon who was delivering milk on his bicycle. Not afraid of adventure, Flora took the wheel and motored down a hair-raising path to the fields of Mother Yasenta . Despondent that she can't find Kubika and fearful that a nearby eagle has taken him, Flora caught the ear of Mother Yasenta. Remembering a previous gift of a calf from Flora's father, Mother Yasenta gave Flora a young rooster to replace the missing Kubika. She explained that she was simply "passing on the gift." As Flora and Gideon are leaving with the gift, Gideon's keen eye spotted the wayward Kubika but also the hungry eagle. What transpired afterward was a further "passing on the gift."

The gift of an animal is at the heart of Heifer International's mission to end hunger and poverty. John Claude Bemis and illustrator Robert Crawford  have created a sumptuous story of kindness and beauty. It's always a good thing to introduce a setting like Rwanda that is very unfamiliar to students. The landscapes are gorgeous and the characters are uplifting. With a great lesson expertly told (no saccharine or heavy handedness here), this is a terrific book to add to your resources. I would ask students to write about a gift that they can pass on to others or write a story about a time that someone did something nice for them. It would also be cool to check out Heifer International and perhaps find a way to raise enough money (lollipops work well) to donate an animal.

P.S. I know John and he's one of the good guys. I am biased, but I also don't post cruddy books here regardless of connections. I posted about this book because it's flat out good and you should read it and share it. Enough said.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

Emmanuel's Dream
written by Laurie Ann Thompson; illustrated by Sean Qualls
2015 (Schwartz and Wade Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Emmanuel was born with only one strong leg. His father left, but his mother stayed strong. Mama Comfort pushed Emmanuel to be independent.  When he became too heavy for his mother to carry him, Emmanuel hopped to school on one leg two miles each way every day. Is it possible to be uplifted and have your heart break at the same time? I wondered that as I read that page. Emmanuel continued pushing forward. Unfortunately, perhaps his biggest obstacle came when Mama Comfort was so sick that she could not work any longer. Emmanuel, at age 13, left his mother and siblings to find work in the city of Accra which was 150 miles away. He eventually found work and was sending money home when word came that Mama Comfort was dying. As he was by her bedside, she told Emmanuel, "Be respectful, take care of your family, don't ever beg. And don't ever give up." The next morning, Christmas Day, she passed away. Emmanuel used this tragedy to spur his dream. He procured a bike and other equipment from an American foundation. He rode his bicycle nearly 400 miles around his home country of Ghana. During this journey, he spread his message of respect for people with disabilities.

Unbelievable! This guy could have given up several times during his life but he just kept pushing and pushing. Emmanuel is inspiring. He spurs you to want to take action. Emmanuel's Dream will be perfect for our wax museum biography project. I can already see a student with a bike and a tri-fold board talking to visitors. This book is also great for teaching character and about character traits. Who would be better for talking about determination? I would definitely recommend Emmanuel's Dream to school counselors and classroom teachers.

Here is the link to the curriculum guide for Emmanuel's Dream:

Emmanuel now works with the U.S. Amputee National Soccer Team.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jessica's Box

Jessica's Box
written and illustrated by Peter Carnavas
2015 (Kane Miller); Released in Australia in 2008
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
** Available in March, 2015.

Jessica's mind was too busy for sleep. Her thoughts were already with tomorrow. 

Jessica is facing her first day of school and she is nervous. What if she doesn't make friends? Despite the assurances of her family, Jessica takes no chances and places a secret something in her box. At lunchtime, her classmates gather around her box. When she shows what is in the box, they are not impressed. Despondent, Jessica tries something different the next day. It works as the class loves what is in the box. Unfortunately, they don't really notice Jessica and she is left with an empty box. It isn't until she accidentally discovers an important piece of life advice that Jessica finds friendship.

I have praised Peter Carnavas here and here before. Why? He may be the best author/illustrator that you don't know about. His stories are simple yet profound. Jessica's Box is a story about making friends and being yourself. Familiar subject? Yet in the hands of Carnavas, you have a sweet but not overly sweet tale and illustrations that make your heart melt. I can also count on a clever ending from him and this book doesn't disappoint.

In a primary classroom, there are always issues about friendship and getting people to like you. Jessica's Box is an indispensable resource that you can read to get students thinking about kindness and being themselves. A possible activity in the classroom would be to have students bring in a box with items about themselves that they can share with others. Older students could read this book and think about problem and solution.

Do yourself a favor and ask your librarian for books by Peter Carnavas. It will be worth the effort.

*Jules at Seven Impossible Things has a great post about this book right about here!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Uni the Unicorn

Uni the Unicorn
written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illustrated by Brigette Barrager
2014 (Random House)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Uni the Unicorn goes above and beyond all of the check marks of your unicorn list. Magnificent mane. Golden hooves. Sparkling purple eyes. She's definitely spectacular. Of course, other unicorns are all of these things as well. What makes her really unique (wordplay for $500, Alex!) is that she believes little girls are real. Gasp! Uni gets the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer treatment from her friends and her parents knowingly smile so they can move quickly away from this uncomfortable topic. This doesn't dissuade Uni. She draws pictures of little girls and imagines that one day she will be able to frolic with one and do things like help woodland creatures in need and slide down rainbows. (I think it would be cool to go through the drive-thru at Dairy Queen and order large Blizzards. But that's just me.) Uni goes blissfully off to sleep not knowing that a real actual little girl is thinking of a unicorn and facing similar doubting Thomases in her life.

If you screw up your eyes a little, you can see in small type on the cover that this is a story about believing. Can you imagine where you can go with this two part question: "Do you believe in things that you can't see and why?" That would be a great writing assignment. I really like where this book could lead. We don't talk much about belief with children. Why do we believe in George Washington and not unicorns? An interesting discussion indeed. Amy Krouse Rosenthal has penned another smart book that will probably be under appreciated. Now to find Kevin Costner and that baseball field in Iowa.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ten Rules of Being a Superhero

Ten Rules of Being a Superhero
written and illustrated by Deb Pilutti
2014 (Christy Ottaviano Books)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Rule Number 6: A superhero needs a tasty snack to be in TOP FORM.

Captain Magma and Lava Boy know that being a superhero means following rules. You have to respond to calls for help even if you're outnumbered. Another rule is superheroes have at least one superpower. Captain Magma has three. He's super strong, has lava vision and he's friendly. What he really wants is the ability to fly. (I wonder in the superhero world if there is a tinge of jealousy towards the caped crusaders that can soar in the air. I know I would be jealous. Call it the Buzz Lightyear Syndrome or BLS.) Another important rule for superheroes is that they make a lot of noise. Do you know a silent superhero? Ever hear of  Stealthy Man? Me neither. Unfortunately, making a lot of noise is not always understood by moms and baby brothers trying to sleep. Sometimes the work of a superhero is under appreciated. Perhaps the primary rule for being a superhero is to have a sidekick. Captain Magma is a powerful superhero, but often he needs the helping hand of Lava Boy. Always have a buddy.

Ten Rules of Being a Superhero is a funny picture book that could be the mentor text for a great writing assignment. I had a reading group create their own list for being a superhero but I didn't extend the activity far enough. You can ask students to create a ten rule list for just about anything. If you're practicing improving sentence structure, this would be a fun way to do that.

I also try (probably too much) to praise picture books that show characters using their imagination. I worry (in an old guy get off my lawn way) about kids not using their imaginations with all of the computer toys available today. Ten Rules reminds young readers that you don't always need to be plugged in to have fun.

Now all I have to do is find that tasty snack. I think Stealthy Man took it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Louise Loves Art

Louise Loves Art
written and illustrated by Kelly Light
2014 (Balzer + Bray)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

So little time, so much to draw. One of these drawings will be my masterpiece- the greatest drawing I have ever done!

Louise is joyful in her pursuit of the perfect drawing. She finds it in observing the poses of her cat (The cat steals the show in this book.). Louise's love of art has inspired her little brother Art (great wordplay) to create his own masterpieces as well. Unfortunately, Louise was busy getting ready for her latest showing and could not pay attention to him. As she prepared, she lost sight of her brother who took hold of the masterpiece. Little Art made a few edits to Louise's drawing. What Louise did next explains the title and teaches all of us a lesson in humility and love.

I've shared this book with the kindergarten class that reports back to me about the books that I feature here. They loved it and I can see why. The facial expressions of the characters are so good that you could cover up the words and use this as a wordless book. I especially like the cat. His facial contortions are hilarious. I also love the use of the color red in this book. It really catches the reader's eye. Kelly Light's illustrative mix of over-dramatic Louise looks, cat poses, humor and sweetness reminds me of Tony Fucile's work on the Bink and Gollie series.

I will use Louise Loves Art when we teach about how illustrations add to the plot of a story. It's also a great book to use to teach the character trait of humility. If you are looking to freshen up your cache of small moment stories, you should add this book as well.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

When Otis Courted Mama

When Otis Courted Mama
written by Kathi Appelt; illustrated by Jill McElmurry
2015 (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Life was going pretty well for a coyote named Cardell. He had a father who was an expert jalapeno flapjack flipper, a Zig-the-Zag speedster through the desert, and could howl perfectly at the moon. His mother was no slacker either. She was terrific at hunting small game but also showed her sensitive side with beautiful paintings of sunrises and sunsets. Other than a few sticker burs and some sand fleas, Cardell's only other problem was that his parents did not live together. This didn't really bother him because Cardell liked Papa's new family and he had his mother all to himself . Sure she had a few suitors, but they fell by the wayside pretty easily. Then neighbor Otis arrived. He wasn't like the discarded suitors, but he wasn't nearly as good as Papa either. Cardell put a healthy "GRRR" in his voice to let Otis know he wasn't interested. Funny thing was Mama seemed to like Otis. He did make a tasty prickle pear pudding and was an amazing pouncer. One night, Otis entertained Cardell and Mama so much with funny stories that Cardell's animosity melted away. Maybe he was the one for Mama.

It takes a mighty deft touch to write an entertaining and sweet story about divorce, but it's not surprising that Kathi Appelt pulls this off. She's one of the best storytellers in children's literature. That's not my back medicine talking either. Search her name and you'll see she is well thought of by people who read children's books. With so few books specifically about a blended family, When Otis Courted Mama is a welcomed resource. It's not preachy, but instead funny and endearing. There's no drama befitting a reality show in this book. It's just a plain ol' good story that young readers will enjoy. As for the illustrations, my wife walked by a few minutes ago and said "Those are pretty." She doesn't comment often on the books that I write about so that's high praise indeed. Jill McElmurry's color choices bounce off the page like Otis pouncing on a chuckwalla. We're not even two weeks into the new year and we already have a picture book that will turn many heads.

Click on this link to find a curriculum guide for When Otis Courted Mama.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Nonfiction Monday: Wall

written and illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole
2014 (Templar)
Source: Orange County Public Library

I dreamed of Dad breaking through the wall and rescuing us. But I knew my dreams were unlikely to come true.

A family is separated while the Berlin Wall is being built. The father is in West Germany while his wife and children are in East Germany. The son worries that his dad is lonely, but his mother tells him that life is much better for his dad than for them. The boy imagines many ways to cross over to West Germany. His family witnesses several escapes but also several fatal attempts. Finally, the boy starts digging a tunnel. When he finishes, the biggest concern is crossing a field to the tunnel's entrance. As the family approaches the tunnel, they are stopped by a soldier. Will they be able to cross over into West Germany and be reunited with their beloved father?

This is an impressive picture book by Tom Clohosy Cole. Using several true-life stories as inspiration, Cole has written a story that helps young readers understand the brutality of the Berlin Wall without being graphic. The artwork is amazing. His choice of colors help dictate the mood in each spread. The story is simple but very poignant. I would pair this with Peter Sis's The Wall if you are teaching about the Berlin Wall. It would also be good for teaching character traits like determination.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

STEM Friday: Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
written by Nicola Davies; illustrated by Emily Sutton
2014 (Candlewick Press)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Right now there are more microbes living on your skin than there are people on Earth, and there are ten or even a hundred times as many as that in your stomach. 

Here's why I really admire this book. The subject of microbes is not something that is easily explained to elementary-age students, yet is incredibly important in their daily lives. Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton are able to teach young readers what microbes do and why they are important. In one spread, they show how things decompose because of microbes. There is an illustration of food and a compost pile with an arrow in between. Below is a group of milk bottles and a tub of yogurt. On the opposite page is a pile of rocks on top of soil with worms wriggling beneath. The point made is that microbes break down and transform things. Another section of the book shows how microbes (germs) make you sick. Davies writes just enough text to explain how the germs can get inside you and multiply, but she doesn't over explain. It's what I would call a Goldilocks text: Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. And this is a mighty fine porridge of nonfiction text and illustrations. One of the beauties of this book is that everyone can make a connection with it. We've all been sick and come equipped with fun stories of projectile vomit and blob like snot coming out of our noses. After reading Tiny Creatures, students will better understand perhaps the most important of all living things.