December 18, 2014
My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.)
by Peter Brown
Little Brown and Company
Bobby had a problem where school was concerned, and her name was Ms. Kirby. Ms. Kirby clomped along ordering everyone out of her way. Ms. Brown roared especially when Bobby threw paper airplanes in class. Ms. Brown was clearly a monster.
When he wasn’t in school, Bobby liked to go to the park. One day he was on his was to his favorite spot, when he came across Ms. Kirby sitting on a park bench.
This is where the story gets really good because of the clues in Brown’s ink, watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations. It is clear from the start that neither Bobby or Ms. Kirby are thrilled to have run into the other, but they tough it out and try to share this space that is obviously special to both of them.
Early in the story, Ms. Kirby is a t-rex look-alike with a big green head. As she and Bobby share the park and their interests with each other (complete with paper airplane flying), first Ms. Kirby’s snout looks a little pink. As her face pink’s up, her snout shrinks. By the time they part ways, she is obviously a woman and not a monster. Not that all conflict between the two is over, but from this point on each has a better understanding of the other. This is the kind of play between story and clues found in the illustrations that you can only get in a picture book.
This book would make an excellent jumping-off point for discussing getting along, misunderstandings and assumptions. Brown’s dedication pretty much says it all, “To misunderstood teachers and their misunderstood students.”
December 15, 2014
The Prairie that Nature Built
by Marybeth Lorbiecki
illustrated by Cathy Morrison
These are the critters
that worm and squirm
Alive in the dirt so dark and thick
Under the prairie that nature built.
So begins this fast moving, rhyming text that is patterned after The House that Jack Built. Lorbiecki covers everything from the worms and insects underground to the birds of tha air, grazing animals and even the part played by grass fires.
Unlike many books set on this rhyme scheme, The Prairie that Nature Built maintains its quick pace throughout and never drags. In part, this is because each spread includes the patterned rhyme that ends with the critters and dirt and “prairie that nature built,” but then goes on for a brief explanation of the new information introduced in the spread. This information is also delivered in the same rhyming pattern but breaks up the repetition to keep the story moving.
Several pages in the back of the book give the adult reader more information on the prairie and the various animals presented to readers.
Cathy Morrison’s paintings are detailed without being clinical and bring the setting and animals to live. The movement and colors show her enthusiasm for the topic.
This book clearly shows how the various animals living within this ecosystem are interconnected and would make an excellent introduction to the topic. The fun rhyme would also make it an excellent choice for reading aloud although it is probably better suited to classroom use or story time than it is to quiet reading and bed time.
December 12, 2014
The Princess in Black
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia hosts tea, wearing her pink gown, her glass slippers and her sparkly tiara. As she and Duchess Wigtower sit in the palace sipping tea, the Duchess confesses how happy she is to be at the palace. She absolutely loves having the opportunity to sneak around someone’s home and discover their secrets.
Princess Magnolia isn’t thrilled with this news because she has a secret and its a big one. As the alarm on her her glitter stone ring goes off, announcing the arrival of a monster in her kingdom, the Princess makes an excuse to flee and ditch her gown in a broom closet. As the moves through a tunnel, she changes clothes and emerges as The Princess in Black, boots, cape and mask in place.
I haven’t seen this type of chapter book since the Mercy Watson books. The story itself is light-hearted and fun but developed to the chapter book stage (vs either picture book or early reader) but each and every spread includes a color illustration. Not surprisingly, these are put out by Candlewick, the same publisher that did Mercy Watson. LeUyen Pham’s watercolor and ink illustrations are expressive and fun and definitely add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel of this escapade.
I’m looking forward to additional books in this series because I think that as the authors develop Duff the goat boy (he herds goats; he is not a boy and a goat) the books will have a greater appeal to boys. While I wouldn’t call this a “girl book” simply because I don’t appreciate the girl book vs boy book way of thinking, the appeal will definitely be greater for girls. Princess Magnolia is the perfect character for girls who combine their love of princesses and sparkle with their love of strong heroes.
If your girl carries a sword while wearing her tiara or fusses because the Nerf battle axe needs a bit more pizazz (truly, it does), this is the book for her.
December 8, 2014
The Griffin and the Dinosaur:
How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
by Marc Aronson with Adrienne Mayor
illustrated by Chris Muller
Long ago, the Greeks told stories about mighty gods and goddesses battling ogres and giants. They told stories about fierce warrior women and griffins. They spoke about dragons. When Adrienne Mayor read these tales American School of Classical Studies in Greece, they had the ring of truth. Not literal word-for-word truth but the truth of a story based on something that people had seen. Fortunately, Adrienne was just the person to make this connection.
She grew up listening to stories about her grandfather. A patent medicine man, he traveled the country selling his concoctions as well as collecting oddities and the stories that went with them. The oddities and stories were part of her childhood and the ancient Greek tales had much the same feel. What had they seen that sparked the story of the griffin?
Thus began Adrienne’s search. First she had to educate herself in the classics, collecting stories, noting similarities and differences, tracking them back to the oldest stories of all. What could these people have seen? Adrienne was convinced that some fossil had sparked the tales but this meant educating herself on fossils. What animals lived where and in places where the remains are consistently visible so that people would see them often enough that they would create a story to explain them?
This story reads like a mystery as Adrienne follows the clues back to the origin of the story of the griffin. It isn’t a picture book for preschoolers but one for older elementary students who love myth and dinosaurs and story.
I have to admit that when I read about Adrienne in the backmatter, I copied her book list onto my Christmas list. Then I looked closer — last year I gave my myth and marial son one of her books. Check this out and see if you aren’t inspired to add it to somebody’s library this holiday season.
December 4, 2014
Calvin Can’t Fly:
The Story of a Bookworm Birdie
by Jennifer Berne
illustrated by Keith Bendis
When the little starlings begin to explore the world, some of them find bugs, some of them find grass, and Calvin finds books.
While his brothers and sisters and cousins are learning to fly, Calvin is going to he library. While they practice flapping, he is reading adventures and legends and poetry. They fly and hover while his mind soars.
Because Calvin is different, some of the less kind startlings tease him. They call him names like “nerdy birdie and “bookworm.”
When the time comes to migrate and Calvin still doesn’t know how to fly, I half way expected them to leave him. I thought this would become a story about catching up. But they don’t and it doestn’t. Instead, they catch him up in bits of string and they fly with Calvin in tow, dangling beneath the flock.
Obviously, this can’t go on for ever and soon the flock comes upon something they’ve never seen before. The clouds are big and black. The wind blows hard and the air just isn’t quite right. Suddenly Calvin remembers his favorite book about weather. He warns the others that they are flying into a hurricane.
Thus Calvin’s weakness becomes the flock’s salvation.
In the end, Calvin does learn to fly but for me the high point was when the other birds recognize how important all that book learning really is. Of course, I’m a writer who loves books so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.
If you have a book loving child, pick this one up. Any child who is a “word nerd” or scholar of some kind will get a kick out of Calvin’s devotion to learning.
December 1, 2014
by Molly Idle
Thinking about hosting a tea party? Then you might consider consulting this delightful how-to.
Truly, author Molly Idle has written a how-to on how to host a tea party from greeting your guest at the door to making sure to take turns in the chit chat. She even reminds the hostess how well music works to put guests at ease.
Of course, it is all wonderfully tongue-in-cheek because while Idle’s text is a straight-up how to, her illustrations show the reality. Her young hostess had invited none other than Tea Rex to the party and thus it begins. After all, simply getting this particular guest through the door represents a challenge.
If your young reader loves the humor of Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s How Do Dinosaurs books, then be sure to check this one out. It has the same slapstick comedy that comes about when you try to put an oh-so-enormous dinosaur in a human sized setting. Of course, this is a human sized setting that just happens to include fine china, refined conversation and tea.
As is always the case with a picture book, a lot rides on the ending and Idle ties it all together when the t-rex invites his hostess and her brother to his place for a tea with his own brand of guests. Not surprisingly, it promises to be a rollicking good time.
Idle’s colored-pencil illustrations are coloreful and detailed enough to allow the characters to be wonderfully expressive but still delightfully cartoony. Because of this, the t-rex is more funny than frightening, creating a story preschoolers are sure to enjoy. This is definitely not a bed time book but would make fun reading for a group or classroom activity if you have the nerve to try serving tea.
That said, you have been warned. If you read this book, don’t expect your household tea parties to ever be quite the same.
November 28, 2014
Galileo’s Leaning Tower Experiment
by Wendy Macdonald
illustrated by Paolo Rui
Massimo stands waiting on the bridge high above the river. He is dropping stone into the water and gadging how long it takes them to fall. It is his job to drop a wheel of cheese and loaf of bread down to his uncle with the boat passes beneath the bridge and he’s determined that both items will land in the boat and not the river.
A stranger watches as Massimo lets go of the bread and the cheese. Both land with a thud in the boat, surprising the man. When Massimo explains that they always land together, the man asks a strange question. “Could Aristotle be wrong?”
The man is a professor and he explains Aristotle to Massimo. Throughout the week, Massimo experiments around the farm, dropping a variety of objects from a variety of heights. He finally discovers two items, a feather and a hammer, that seem to fall at different rates. He heads to the University, determined to tell the Professor that Aristotle was correct and that he, Massimo, was wrong.
This is a fictional account of Galileo’s leaning tower experiment. By adding Massimo, the author makes the story more accessible to young scientists. Paolo Rui’s acryllic paintings give color and life to Pisa in 1589.
Although this is a work of fiction, it is an excellent introduction to science and how scientists ask and answer questions. As such, it belongs in the elementary science class and would make an excellent read aloud for slightly older elementary students. Use it to stir up a lively discussion about how they could test gravity and the rate at which different items fall.
November 24, 2014
by Mark Greenwood
illustrated by Frane Lessac
Many books about the Pilgrims focus on their life here and the first Thanksgiving. Author Mark Greenland covers that in The Mayflower but he covers much, much more.
The story that Greenland tells starts in Englad with the lack of religious freedom there and discusses the hardships of the journey, including the fact that one of the ships leaked so badly that they had to leave it behind. He even tells the story of a beam cracking in the the storm stressed Mayflower and the fact that the ship was saved with tools that the Pilgrims had brought along to build their new homes.
I’m not sure how many words are in this picture book for readers 4-8 but it feels short — not in a bad way. The book is simply concise but packed with a lot of information that goes beyond the typical. There’s the ship’s beam cracking, a boy washed overboard and even the fact that not all Pilgrims were Puritans.
Lessac’s gouache paintings are bright and a bit cartoony but they lighten up what could easily become a grim, dark tale.
The backmatter includes a timeline which begins when the Mayflower departs England and ends in the 1940s when FDR signs a Thanksgiving Bill into law. There is also a list of resources including the book written by William Bradford, second governor of Plymouth. I have to admit that I was a bit miffed that this was the only mention he got in the book but I may be a bit biased. Don’t understand why? Look again at my name.
This is a good introduction to the topic of the Pilgrims and is very historic in nature, meaning that there is social history, no examination of the Puritan’s idea of freedom, the irony there of, or what they thought about other people. In a book this short, that isn’t a problem unless that is the kind of book you want.
November 20, 2014
A Life in the Wild:
George Schaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts
by Pamela S. Turner
Melanie Kroupa Books
For those not familiar with Schaller’s name, he is a pioneer in animal studies and conservation. Schaller was among the earliest scientists to study a variety of wild animals without shooting and skinning them. Instead, he observed them closely and studied their environment. He got to know the other animals that shared their world and noted how a balance kept them and the countryside healthier.
The first great beast that Schaller studied was the gorilla. Sitting near the animals, watching them interact and feed, Schaller discovered that they weren’t the dangerous, violent monsters people believed them to be.
Next he studied tigers in India, even coming face-to-face with a tigress and sitting up in a tree while several young tigers lounged around the base. He learned how much game tigers took and how they supplemented this with livestock. He studied how much land each animal needed and how these creatures, called loners, crossed paths and interacted.
From lions to snow leopards and pandas to wild antelope and asses, he learned that to ensure that these animals would exist for future observers to study, he had to devote time to conservation, encouraging people and governments to set land aside for the use of animals alone.
Turner’s book tells a lot about Schaller’s science but the tone is conversational and easy to digest. The book comes in at just under 100 pages. Less able readers could easily focus on one chapter while rabid readers will find themselves turning page after page and reading the entire book. This would make an excellent gift for your future scientist or your wild life lover.
November 17, 2014
Handle with Care:
An Unusual Butterfly Journey
by Loree Griffin Burns
photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
A package arrives at the museum. Inside a rectangle of foam cushions a wealth of chrysalis.
Your typical butterfly life cycle book takes the reader from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Loree Griffin Burns handles things differently. She shows how farmers in Costa Rica raise butterflies, keeping them and their young safe from predators, and ship some of the chrysalis to museums and butterfly houses world wide.
While many readers may know something about the monarch, this book focuses on the blue morpho butterfly but also explains that it isn’t the only butterfly raised for shipment. It should be noted that some of the butterflies are also released back into the wild.
I especially like the spread where Burns shows that the appearance of the blue morpho caterpillar changes as it grows, shedding its skin and growing some more. Workers use the appearance of the caterpillars to age them and tell when they will likely turn into a chyrsalis.
Adding to the book are Ellen Harasimowicz’s photos. She shows a variety of scenes at the farm in Costa Rica as well as the musuem where the butterflies eventually break out of their chrysalis. The photos on the end papers, just inside the front and back cover of the book, took my breath away. In the front are photos of various chrysalis. Some are plump, green and shiny. Others looks like folded leaves or sticks. My favorites are a glistening metallic gold. Inside the back cover are a variey of butterflies including the familiar monarch.
Make sure this book is on your classroom shelf. Share it with the young natural lover or read it before you study life cycles or conservation topics.