Thursday, February 07, 2013

Curious George by H. A. Rey, A Classic Revisited

According to old family tales, I requested that my parents read Curious George  to me so many times that they resorted to accidentally on-purpose "misplacing" it for a while--just long enough to get a chance to read something else to me. (I think it backfired, because then I wore them out with Richard Scarry's Great Big Schoolhouse. That said, as a bookwyrm librarian, I have struggled with how best to share this story with my students. As a kid, I loved all the craziness George gets into and how the man in the yellow hat loves him regardless. Now, I find myself cringing at so many things-George being stuffed into a bag and taken from his home, George smoking a pipe, George being put "in prison" for "fooling" the firemen. That said, I'm finding that many of my students (so far, the K-2 ones) love this story. There are usually giggles when George thinks he can fly, gasps when George goes to prison, and big grins when George shares his balloons with the other animals at the zoo. So, this is how I am reconciling my adult-cringe-factor with my childhood love of this classic.

To begin, I introduce the concept of copyright date as a book's birthday and where to find it (on the back of the title page--aka the "verso"), and how to use that date to tell how old a book is. Then, to put it into perspective, I tell them the story of my parents hiding the book, (some of them have already asked if I knew Ben Franklin, so they already think I'm ancient), how their parents, their grandparents and probably their great-grandparents probably read this same book when they were kids. Then we talk about what it might have been like 70+ years ago--did people dress the same, did cars look the same, did they have cell phones--you get the idea. We spend some time looking at the illustrations as we discuss this and the kids seem to be fascinated with the idea of a dial-phone (need to find one and bring it in). As we read, we spend some time discussing some of the things in the pictures that might not be familiar to the kids now. Other things that we end up discussing? Why the words say they row out to the big ship when the rowboat looks bigger than the ship (they love pointing out that it only LOOKS small "cuz it's far away").  (I take this opportunity to introduce a new vocabulary word--perspective--with the added bonus of appealing to my visual learners. Then we talk about whether this story is "made up" or "informational" to lead in to reading a non-fiction story. I've been pairing Curious George with Chimpanzees  by Helen Frost or Jane Goodall by Jo S. Kittinger.

I gotta say, I'm having fun all over again with this story.  Maybe growing up (a little) isn't so bad after all.  ;D

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Unwilling Witch Goes to Ballet School by Hiawyn Oram

Rumblewick's Diary:  My Unwilling Witch Goes to Ballet School, written by Hiawyn Oram and illustrated by Sarah Warburton is a hilarious romp into the world of Rumblewick, witch's familiar to one very unwilling witch.  It reminded me a little of Roald Dahl (The BFG, Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Peggy Parrish (Amelia Bedelia), two of my favorites, largely because of the word play and humor; however, this could be a problem. The book LOOKS like an early chapter book, which may tempt many of our younger readers.  The problem with the younger (emerging) readers is that there are several made-up words and some unusual sentence structure (it is, after all, a diary written by a cat), which will make this book really frustrating to some of them. Some of the older readers who would really enjoy this book might pass it by simply because it looks too young. That said, I suspect that some good book talking will solve that issue for the older students, and selling it as a read aloud to the younger students would solve the difficulty issue with the younger ones. Overall, I recommend this book with the caveat -- "know your reader".

As a side note, I read this as a ebook edition on the iPad, and found the e-format to be frustrating. It was hard to tell if I was skipping pages, or if my iPad was glitching. I think this one would be better read as a real paper book.

Neil Armstrong by Dana Meachan Rau

I have recently been introducing my second graders to the biography section of our library and pulled three lower-reading level titles for them to choose from:  Benjamin Franklin, Wilma Rudolph, and Neil Armstrong.  (I love giving them a choice--and they seem to appreciate it too.)  After a brief intro to biography* in general and the mechanics of the biography section (ABC order by last name of person its about. . .), I introduced the concept of copyright date--how to find it in a book and why it is important.  This book was published in 2003.  When we found the date, I told them to remember it because it would be important.  (*Most of my students have already been introduced to biography in their classrooms as early as first grade, so this is largely a chance to ask them to tell me what a biography is and fill in some blanks if necessary.) 

For an intro to biography, this title has been one of the better ones for my younger readers.  The facts were interesting, the pictures good (for large group read-aloud, some of the pictures would be too small for them to see without a document camera), and the title included a title page, a glossary and index. That said, I would not want to use it without an appropriate lesson about the importance of copyright date and using multiple sources when researching for reports.  I led the students in a discussion to think about how much can change in a person's life in one year, two years, or ten years and asked them if they thought that some things might have changed.  They seemed to think on that for a moment or so and then agreed that things could have indeed changed.  Then I turned to the page that mentioned that Mr. Armstrong lives in Ohio (present tense).  Putting the ball in their court, I asked the students if they thought it was a good idea to use only one source for a research project.  I just hope that they remember this example.  What I liked about this title is that it gave pertinent information that many biographies for younger readers tend to leave out--specifically, when and where the person was born.  (Come on publishers--when teachers ask a young student to do a biography report, those are two facts that they would usually like to have, and too many of the bios written for the younger reader leave that info out.)   

Interesting to note, one of my 2nd graders wanted to know why the book did not include the famous quote about "one small step for man."  I was tickled that he knew the quote in the first place, and it led into an interesting discussion about how authors choose what to include and what to leave out. 

Monday, June 04, 2012

Max Finder Mystery Collected Casebook, Volume 5

Max Finder and his friends are middle school (junior high) detectives who were first featured in Owl Magazine. Created by Liam O'Donnell, and written and illustrated by Craig Battle and Ramon Perez, this volume opens with a "Central Meadows Junior High Yearbook, complete with "photos" of the students, listing their clubs/sports, a "most likely to" statement and favorite movies/quotes. This clever introduction to the characters not only serves to introduce new readers to the cast, but also provides a fun refresher to long-time fans. Each case includes all of the clues needed to solve the mystery--some in words and some in pictures. Solutions are provided at the end of each case, including a listing of the various clues and the ultimate conclusion. The mysteries are fun, the illustrations vivid, and the characters real--most students will be able to relate to (and probably recognize) some of the same people in their own schools.

As a teacher, I am always excited to find new ways to introduce and expand on concepts. The Max Finder Mysteries are divided into bite-sized chunks perfect for before lunch, before dismissal, or those time periods that are just too short for a full-fledged lesson. Any one of these mysteries offers a great lead-in to a brainstorming session on "character counts" topics such as honesty, caring and respect; but the creators has also included some ready-made lessons. I really like is the "How to Be a Detective" section in the back of this volume. With an increased emphasis on research and writing skills in our school district, this section offers a fun approach to research, couched in terms of mystery solving--perfect considering how many of my students like to watch crime drama. Sections are titled "Conducting Research," "Making Observations," and "Completing Cases," with insets defining "Detective Lingo" such as alibi, red herring and inference. Each section is "co-authored" by Alison and Max, giving an equal-opportunity "feel" to the article and providing two distinctly different perspectives on each. I particularly like the definition given for "inference" and think this might just offer a new path to understanding of a difficult concept. As a further bonus, a "Sit Down With the Creators" is included in an interview format, where the creators/writers/artists answer questions such as "What inspires you to come up with a story?" This offers a great opportunity for the reader to hear some different answers to questions they themselves might ask the authors/illustrators. For educators, there is also a brief section on ways to use Max Finder in the classroom, including Readers' Theater, Genre Study and Character Study along with other classroom connections.

Overall, I suspect that once I use this volume in class, I will have several students asking for the other volumes and a waiting list to read them. For a first-hand look at Max Finder online, visit

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I have always been saddened to find old photos at thrift stores and antique shops--images taken and collected, probably carried around for years, ending up disconnected from anyone who knew the people, the events, or the places--photos lying in dusty bins, their stories long forgotten. This book managed to take a disparate series of "found" photos and weave them into a spooky tale of family, lost love, lost history, and identity found. As written, the story stands on its own--but it ended in such a way that leads me to hope for a sequel. This book has some excellent descriptive language, wonderful vocabularyreat photos and a really neat concept--with hints of Poe and Lovecraft. If old photographs haunt you, fascinate you, and maybe even creep you out a little, read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome

This absolutely beautiful book, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James Ransome, is just what I needed to share with my 5th graders to complement their unit on the Civil War. It also gave me a chance to discuss historical fiction, the use of dialect, and descriptive language. The story led to some great discussion about slavery and plantation hierarchy as 12-year-old Clara's story brings history to life. I like to follow this one up with the shorter story,
Under the Quilt of Night, which includes a great author's note about Hopkinson's research into the history and folklore of the Underground Railroad.

For more information, be sure to check out Deborah Hopkinson's website at She includes great links to sites with ideas for lesson plans and other activities that go with these books.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Book one of the Beyonders series starts out with a typical day in the life of Jason Walker, who plays on his school's baseball team and works part-time at the local zoo. On this day, mysterious music leads him to a fall into another world where he soon gets into trouble trying to save a band of musicians who seem intent on riding a raft to their deaths over a waterfall. Forced to go on the run, he discovers that he has entered Lyrian, a world dominated by a ruthless wizard who rules with an iron fist and cruel magics. Curiosity and a strong sense of justice lead Jason into a quest that could mean the salvation of Lyrian--or his own doom. Along the way, he is joined by Rachel and together they makes some powerful friends--but possibly even more powerful enemies. This story will appeal to readers who enjoy epic adventure tales full of intrigue, battles against overwhelming odds, and a healthy dose of fantasy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

An Island Grows by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Cathie Felstead

The overall look and feel of this book is one of simplicity--the illustrations are spare but lovely, the text is minimal, and the story takes the reader/listener from an underwater volcanic eruption to the gradual growth of a life-sustaining island. While the story itself does NOT give a real indication about the time involved in this whole process, the notes at the back do. The book makes for a great introduction to volcanoes and would be very nice paired with a non-fiction title showing actual photographs. Another plus? With my 1st and 2nd graders, I never fail to get a gasp when I turn the page and they see the picture of the underwater volcano. This book would also make a nice pairing for social studies lessons (trading, open air markets). Suggestions are provided for further reading. Note: This book was nominated for the 2008-09 Volunteer State Book Award.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Can Make That! Fantastic Crafts for Kids by Mary Wallace

I love crafts and craft books, so when my teachers assign their yearly how-to writing project, I am thrilled to have an extra chance to guide the kids to the "how to" section of the library (translation: science experiments, cooking, arts, crafts). Unfortunately, I have found that many so-called "children's" how-to books aren't very child friendly. Often these books are cluttered with non-helpful or poorly drawn illustrations, hard-to-follow instructions, and sometimes projects that just aren't that appealing or interesting. I am happy to say that I Can Make That! by Mary Wallace more than lives up to its title. This colorful book hits all the right notes, pairing clearly written, kid-friendly step-by-step instructions with well-staged, colorful photographs of each step.

Projects are divided into sections including costumes, puppets, nature crafts, toys, and games. Each section begins with a brief introduction and lists of items needed to create the various projects--many of which can be found around the house--often rescued from the trash, rag bag, or recycle bin. Wallace gently reminds her users to get permission to use things found around the home and to respect nature. Kids will find instructions for using cardboard and ribbon for making simple Roman sandals, using twist-ties and embroidery floss for making "Eensy Weensy People," using chairs to make a puppet stage or a rocket ship, and cardboard boxes to make everything from an animal-themed mini-golf course to a play castle.

I Can Make That! isn't just a how-to book for specific one-time-only craft projects. This book is not just a how-to book--it is creative inspiration, not just for our kids, but for the kid in all of us. I can not wait to try some of these projects myself, and see where they take me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rescue In the Wild, written by Mary Faith Enyart, illustrated by David Enyart

I just finished reading what I hope is the first in a long series of Stick-Boy adventures written by former teacher, Mary Faith Enyart and illustrated by David Enyart. Entitled Rescue In the Wild, the story introduces us to 11-year-old Evan and his best friend Mace as school lets out for the summer. Evan is thrilled at the thought of the long summer days ahead, filled with exploring the vast of woods around his home next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The only dark shadow over his summer plans? School bully, "the Moose" Meckel, who seems to delight in stirring up trouble and hurting anyone or anything that gets in his way. To top it all off, Mace's dad has volunteered Evan and Mace to hang out with their new neighbor, (a girl!), who wants to tag along on their adventures. Evan is beginning to wonder if this summer will be as great as he'd hoped when things take a turn for the strange and he is "adopted" by what seems to be a magic stick. A great cast of characters, a beautiful setting, and thrilling adventure in our own back yard make for a fun read--to share as a class reading or as a read-aloud.

This first adventure is a great story to share in the classroom and an opportunity to entertain AND inform as well as celebrate with our students the wonders that are so close to us here in East Tennessee. I can see using this to reenforce literacy elements (great examples of alliteration, idioms & descriptive language), genre (fantasy versus reality), science (information about local poisonous snakes, types of rocks & how that knowledge can be used in a real-world setting), and social studies (names having meanings, community/roles within the community), figuring out word meaning based on content, and much, much more. Wow!

Be sure to take a moment to look at the author's website at for kids activities, such as coloring sheets and puzzles; teacher information, including activity sheets; information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), and more.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Alpha Betti by Carlene Morton, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas

Betti is a girl with a problem. Her room is a disaster area and her mom wants it cleaned up. Sadly, stuffing everything into her closet doesn't really work out so well--making things even harder to find and mornings even more frantic. This story follows Betti through a lesson at her Media Center where she embarks on a scavenger hunt through fiction books, encyclopedias, and the unabridged dictionary. Armed with her newly found skills in alphabetizing, Betti is ready to tackle the mess in her room--and maybe more--with the help of her trusty dog, Gravy.

This story works well for me as a Library Lesson; however, I do not read the story straight through. When the story refers to the fiction section and the authors Beverly Cleary and Andrew Clements, I point out some of the titles by those authors in our own library. I also ask my students the answers to Betty's scavenger hunt questions before she finds them herself. There are several opportunities for reinforcing other lessons, including the use of contractions,compound words, possessives, and different uses for quotation marks. When Betti gets an idea from her "ABC Super Hero" button, it's a good chance to ask students to predict what her idea(s) might be. After the story, I use the lesson as a jump-off point for a game that allows us to practice ABC order and leading into the Dewey Decimal system.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Runaway Bunny, written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd

This is one case where, when I first read this book, it wasn't a favorite. I probably would have given it a 3 at most b/c it just bugged me that the bunny wanted to run away. That said, I've gained a whole new appreciation for this sweet story as a multi-purpose lesson platform--AND sweet story. I piggybacked this lesson onto a previous lesson where I shared Goodnight Moon (also by the Brown and Hurd team) and Goodnight Goon (by Michael Rex). The Runaway Bunny was originally copyrighted in 1942, a full 5 years before Goodnight Moon's date of 1947. Some of what made it fun to piggyback these books was pointing out that Hurd used some images/ideas from Runaway Bunny in Goodnight Moon--and by using a document camera, it's easy to lay the two books out side by side to show that the Mama Bunny Fisherman image was duplicated as a black and white painting in the Goodnight Moon bedroom and that both books included a cow jumping over the moon. Other similarities? Both books used the black and white to color then back to black and white color pattern and in both books the bunny was wearing blue striped pajamas.

Because I shared Goodnight Moon first, many of my students were wondering if Hurd hid something in Runaway Bunny--such as the mouse he hid in the color pictures of Goodnight Moon. While he didn't hide a mouse in Runaway Bunny, Hurd's images added extra depth to Brown's words. In this sense, the book also works well for pointing out how illustrations can enhance a story when an illustrator takes the words and adds all new depth to them--e.g., the painting of mama bunny fishing for baby bunny trout--using a carrot as bait. Pausing at this picture and giving kids a chance to discover the unusual bait usually gets a giggle out of them. With the older students, I also enjoy asking them if they've heard of or seen the Van Gogh painting, Starry Night then turning to the picture that shows a snippet of what looks suspiciously like Starry Night, hanging in the Bunny home.

Funny how reading a story and discussing it 50 different times can be so eye-opening--and how it can breathe new life into what seemed to be just a simple, sweet bedtime story. The Runaway Bunny is exactly that--but it is also so very much more.

Other discussion topics? Contractions, compound words, use of quotation marks, and, when paired with Michael Rex's The Runaway Mummy, parody.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd

I loved sharing this sweet bedtime story with my son when he was little and am now rediscovering it for library lessons. For the younger grades, it works well for discussing rhyming words--"'mush' is kind of like oatmeal or porridge, but does 'brush' and 'hush' rhyme with 'oatmeal'? No!" With all the grades, I'm surprised at how many students had never noticed the mouse that Clement Hurd tucked into each of the color pictures--and all of the grades--K-5--have seemed to really enjoy this mouse scavenger hunt. Do YOU see the mouse in this picture? Of course, when sharing with a group, it's a lot easier because you can project the images as you read and also zoom in.

Also take a moment to point out that Clement Hurd included a painting of a picture from Runaway Bunny. Many of our aspiring illustrators (and your friendly bookdragon!) get a huge kick out that.

With 3rd grade and up, I point out the title page and ask them to locate the copyright date--they are usually surprised that it was published in 1947--and to put it into perspective, I tell them that, not only did many of their parents but probably their grandparents grew up with this story. That's a great segue for introduction of parody and Michael Rex's "Goodnight Goon."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Star Wars--The Cookbooks

Got Star Wars fans? If you do, be sure to take a look at these cookbooks. Wookie Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes by Robin Davis, photography by Frankie Frankeny and The Star Wars Cookbook II: Darth Malt and more Galactic Recipes by Frankie Frankeny and Wesley Martin.

Both books feature recipes for breakfasts, beverages, snacks & sides, main courses and desserts. Wookie Cookies, which focuses on characters and scenes from Episodes IV-VI, features dishes such as Mos Eisley Morsels, Hoth Chocolate, Yoda Soda, Greedo's Burritos, Sandtrooper Sandies--you get the idea. Darth Malt, which focus on characters and scenes from Episodes I-III, includes dishes such as Pickle Jar Jar, Pit Droid Pizza, Hideous Sidious Sorbet, Watto-melon Cubes, Qui-Gon Jinn-ger Snaps. Each recipe is accompanied by a great photo of the dish accompanied by the action figure, strategically staged, for which the dish is named. It is a blast just to browse through the pictures and enjoy the puns (one of my favorites is the image for Han-Burgers, which shows Han Solo, perched on the Millennium Falcon, firing a ketchup gun onto a burger, with armed Storm Troopers on the other side of the burger, preparing to fire back.

So, they're fun to look at and funny to read, but are they real cookbooks? Yes! The recipes are written with ingredients and steps clearly listed. Each volume also includes a table of contents and an index. These books are rarely on the shelves at my K-5 library. They are usually checked out from the beginning of the school year till the last possible minute before summer and there is usually a waiting list. Each of the books includes a bonus--stickers in Wookie Cookies and a hard plastic template of Darth Maul's face in Darth Malt.