February 23, 2017
Pirates? Polite or not?
I have to admit that my first inclination was to answer NO and I’m betting that authors Demas and Roehrig are counting on that. I say this because although the pirates in this book do all kinds of pirate things, from fighting to feasting, they always use their manners saying please and thank you and waiting their turn. This surprising twist is sure to pull readers into the story.
Demas, Roehrig and Catrow have populated their book with honest to goodness pirates. They are scruffy and they sure do look smelly, but they definitely have manners. They chew with their mouths closed. They don’t interrupt. They share.
My favorite? They don’t make fun of someone who is a little bit different. In this case, the captain takes a bath which flies in the face of stinky pirate tradition. Although they notice how clean he is, no one says a word. The point isn’t belabored but it will make a great jumping off point on other ways someone might be different in behavior or appearance.
As I read this book through the first time, I kept thinking how familiar the illustrations looked. I definitely recognized the artist’s work. Then I realized why. He has 8 pages of hard cover picture books on Amazon including Little Pierre, I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and the Molly Lou Melon books. You’ll likely recognize his work as well. It’s cartoony and quirky and perfect for a silly pirate book.
This book will make a great read-aloud. Kids love texts that rhyme and this one is short and swift, moving along at a good clip. It will definitely hold the attention of restless and rambunctious listeners who may be itching to act out some pirate play. Be prepared to discuss how polite pirates would do a wide variety of pirate-y things. This is going to be something about which there are many opinions so you may have to encourage your pirate fans to use their indoor voices.
Just be sure to say please and thank you! It would be a pity if you were less polite than a pirate.
February 21, 2017
Freedom in Congo Square
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Little Bee Books
Before Louisiana became a part of the United States, it was a French colony and then a Spanish colony. The Catholic Church mandated that Sundays be a day of rest for everyone, free and slave alike.
Weatherford has created a spare text that tells of the realities of slave life — feeding livestock, chopping firewood, plow, planting and tending to household chores as well. But every day holds a bit of hope as they are able to visit Congo Square on Sunday afternoons.
In New Orlean’s Congo Square, enslaved and free blacks would gather on Sunday afternoons. In addition to sharing the news, often speaking their own languages, they also played music on bells, fiddles, flutes, and more. They danced and they chanted.
Congo Square also gave these people a chance to buy and sell. Some sold herbs they had grown or wild foods they had gathered. Others sold items they had made.
This text doesn’t downplay the agony of slavery, making it clear that Congo Square gave them only a small taste of the freedom they were missing. But it was a taste that they would not have when New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory became a part of the United States.
In other parts of the US, and in Congo Square once it was part of the US, slaves were not allowed to gather together without white supervision. African music was against the law.
Christie’s brightly colored artwork is as full of life as the text. The colors sing and the bold lines suggest movement.
Given the brevity of the text, this book would be good as a read aloud even with short attention spans. The Author’s Note and a foreword give a wealth of additional information.
At a glance this book appears simple but it tells a meaningful story that may take some time for readers to absorb. It is no wonder that in 2017 the American Library Association named it a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor and also gave it the Charlotte Zolotow Award.
February 16, 2017
“Does a fiddler crab fiddle?”
This is the first line of the book. Of course, we already know that the answer is NO, but then why is it called a fiddler crab? Young readers have to turn the page to find out.
Spread follows spread in the same form. One asks a silly question, complete with a silly painting, and the next provides the oh-so factual nonfiction answer, teaching young readers about fiddler crab claws and fiddler crab food. Read on to find out where they live, what they eat and how they survive when the tide comes in. The text is brief, the pace is fast and you take in a lot more information than you initially realize.
But for those of you who want your facts dense and no-nonsense, turn to the fact-filled author’s note. There you’ll learn about how many species of fiddler crabs there are, the differences between males and females and much, much more.
When I picked up this book, I came into it knowing that it was nonfiction with a silly side. I had interviewed the authors for an article so I knew something about their research and eye for detail. And the cover had prepared me for the silly. At least, it has prepared me to a point. Then I opened the book to see a top-hatted fiddler crab fiddling away across the sand.
Artist John Sandford pulled off a difficult task. His paintings and bright and lively, invigorating the nonfiction while still being realistic. But they are also fun and fanciful enough to make the fictional spreads believable.
This is an excellent book for reading aloud in the classroom, at story time, or simply with your own young reader. The text is super brief and moves fast, but there’s just enough silly to hold the attention of the squirmy set as they anticipate what will happen next. Read this to your young readers to spark their interest in fiddler crabs and sea life and be ready for a few silly, side-stepping dances.
February 13, 2017
“Once upon a time in a beautiful glass kingdom, there lived an unusual fairy named Bloom.” It seems that everywhere Bloom walked, she left a trail of muddy boot prints. Ladybugs clung to her wings. She could spin sand into glass, turn a trickle of water into a river, and weeds became blossoms. But she also had a heavy foot. In addition to leaving mud, she often left tiny cracks.
As the kingdom grew larger and more shiny, the people no longer noticed Bloom’s abilities. All they saw was the mess she left behind. Gripe, gripe, gripe. A fairy can only stand so much and one day she left.
As you can imagine, a glass kingdom is a fragile thing and without the fairy that could spin glass, it fell into disrepair. The king remembered Bloom and rode out to find her. Then the queen rode out.
Let’s just say that it didn’t work. It wasn’t that they couldn’t find Bloom, but that she refused to help. They decided that the problem was that they were royalty and, as royalty, sure to intimidate a quiet, little fairy. So they chose Genevieve, the most ordinary girl in the kingdom, and sent her to find the fairy.
Before long, Bloom is teaching her all that she needs to know to build. Along the way Genevieve also learns to speak out, get her hands dirty and that there is no such thing as an ordinary girl.
I have to admit that at first I shrank back from this book. Oh, no. Another special snowflake story. But this isn’t about being special in spite of the fact that you do nothing. This is a story all about a girl who is quiet and shy and proper and altogether typical but still accomplishes what the king and queen could not. She, quite literally, saves the kingdom and she does it in an all new way.
You may recognize David Small’s illustrations and that isn’t surprising. He is the winner of the Caldecott Award–winning illustrator of So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George. He also illustrated Sarah Stewart’s The Gardener, one of my favorites, One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, and Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen.
Share this book with your class and get ready for a great group discussion on how to solve a wealth of problems.
February 2, 2017
“I begin with the young. We older ones are used up . . . But my magnificent youngsters! Look at these men and boys! What material! With them, I can create a new world.” –Adolf Hitler, Nuremberg 1933
By the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, 3.5 million children belonged to the Hitler youth. What did he offer them that drew so many young people into the fold?
For many, it gave them a sense of pride and belonging. They enjoyed camping and hikes and getting to perform feats of bravery. Hitler promised to make Germany great again, to create jobs and to give the young a source of pride.
Bartoletti tells the story of the Hitler Youth, focusing on the lives of 12 young people. Some were enthusiastic Hitler Youth members, reporting their parents and leading marches. Some started out enthusiastic but resented the loss of personal freedom, coming to see the organization in a more ominous light. Others were not welcome to join because they were Jewish or simply had no interest in joining a group that worked so hard to curtail freedom. I have to admit that my favorite stories were of the defiant, Hitler Youth who fiddled with their radios that would only pick up approved German radio so that they could listen to forbidden British broadcasts.
This book isn’t a rosie posie look at the Third Reich. Bartoletti tells about Hitler’s work to strengthen Germany by emphasizing physical fitness and forcibly sterilizing and even killing the institutionalized unfit who he saw as a drain on the country’s resources. It tells about the rise of the camps and how they were used to discipline non-Jews and scare people into line although later it was said that no one knew about these same camps.
But it isn’t an entirely dark story. Bartoletti also tales about brave young people who refused to be brainwashed. She tells about the struggles of those who were and how they worked to change their lives and their outlooks in years to come. Yes, there is a warning but there is also a note of hope. The young can be used but they can also overcome.
January 26, 2017
Annabelle is growing up in the shadow of two world wars. In spite of this, life in her small Pennsylvania town is pretty quiet. For a long time, the only signs of the war that she sees are the stars that represent the local men over sewn on the banner. Then Betty moves to town.
It’s an open secret that Betty is trouble. The adults all know it but they hope that a fresh start will do the girl some good. The grandparents that she lives with are friends of Annabelle’s grandparents so Annabelle is more than willing to give the girl a chance. But she’s a schoolyard bully who beats people who don’t pay up and soon focuses her attentions on Toby.
Toby doesn’t have a home. He shelters in an abandoned smoke house. He carries three rifles everywhere he goes and takes pictures of the outdoors using the camera Annabelle’s mother won in a drawing. With one scarred hand, people know he fought in the great war but they don’t know much more about him. Annabelle and her mother leave food for him and try to be what help they can.
But when Betty goes missing, suspicion quickly falls on Toby.
I’m not going to say anything more about the plot because I don’t want to give away all the marvelous twist and turns. Earlier in the week, this book was named as an honor book for the American Library Association’s Newbery Award. If this was an honor book, I definitely need to get my hands on the winner.
This is a book that needs to be in all school libraries. It tells a story about intolerance and prejudice and how people’s suspicions can spiral out of control. It is also a story about quiet strength and compassion and the fight to bring the truth to light.
We tend to think of the past and childhood as simple and innocent. This book shines a light into the shadows and shows us how nuanced and multi-layered people of every age, throughout time, truly are.
Read this with your class. Read it with your child. It will give you both something to contemplate.
January 23, 2017
Biggety Bat: Hot Diggety, It’s Biggety and Biggety Bat: Chow Down, Biggety
by Ann Ingalls
illustrated by Aaron Zenz
If you have a new reader in your home, look for this pair of fun early readers from Missouri author Ann Ingalls. In the first book, readers meet Biggety Bat who is coming out just as the sun goes down.
Biggety is on the lookout for a friend. As he explores the area around the bridge where he roosts, he finds egret, tortoises, beetles, mockingbirds and possum. It is only when Biggety find a family of raccoons that the kits invite him to play.
This is a Level 1 reader meaning that although most of the words are sight words there are also some that your young reader will have to sound out. These include words like tortoise and possum. Fortunately, the illustrations give your new reader the clues that he or she needs to decipher the text.
An author’s note tells about the colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that live under a bridge in Austin, Texas. It also lists the animals found in the book.
In the second book, Biggety is now making his home under a mangrove. Biggety is sniffing out supper but the foods that the other animals eat — shrimp, grass and fish — won’t work for the hungry bat. Finally a cloud of mosquitoes provide him with a meal. But not to worry. This book is also level one and Ingalls calls the mosquitoes bugs, an easy enough word for your new reader to decipher. Once again there is an author’s note that describes the ecosystem of a mangrove swamp.
It can take a while for new readers to build their skills but leveled readers like these can help develop the academic muscles needed to read independently. Ingalls’ Biggety books are light-hearted and fun but also teach new readers about the natural world. Aaron Zenz cartoony illustrations add to the feel. Biggety and his fellow animals are cute and silly so even the crocodile isn’t too scary to distract from new reading skills.
Share these books with your new reader and help them learn what they need to know to read with confidence on their own.
January 19, 2017
Alexandrina was 15 years-old when she realized that she would probably become Queen of England. Although she didn’t dread her fate, she did worry. What did she know about ruling? Would her Uncle George live until she turned 18? Because if he didn’t she would have to have a regent and Drina, as her mother called her, knew that it would be her mother’s advisor Lord Conroy.
Fortunately, King George didn’t die until after his niece had turned 18. In addition to ruling with only a handful of trusted advisors, she was able to choose the name that would be used at the coronation. Against the advice of Lord Conroy, she chose her middle name — Victoria.
Author Daisy Goodwin has crafted a novel of the first year or so of Queen Victoria’s reign. Yes, it is fiction but it is carefully researched and meshes with the nonfiction that I’ve read about the time period and the queen. Goodwin is also the author of the script for the Masterpiece presentation, Victoria.
Strictly speaking this is not a young adult novel but it has a lot to offer a young reader.
The queen was a teenager when she took the throne. She had never been able to choose her own friends, her own clothing or her own studies. This was a huge shift for her. It was interesting to see how she met the various challenges. I’d love to say that she met them all with grace and wisdom but . . . not really. Still, she was a well-meaning person and she often learned from her mistakes.
Because this is an adult novel, the emphasis is somewhat different from it would be if it was written for teens. But that isn’t what may seem the strangest. There was also a big push for Victoria to marry. The concern was that an unmarried girl would be too frivolous to rule. Her head and her thoughts would be too easily swayed. A husband would settle her right down. I know, I know. It seems asinine today but this story is written true to the time.
It is a quick easy read that would make a top-notch introduction to this amazing woman. A woman who gave her middle name to an era.
January 16, 2017
One day, George’s teacher passes out a new assignment. Her class will be combining their pen pal and poetry units. Each student has been assigned a pen pal to write in rhyme.
George writes a letter to Blaise all about how it is to write a letter when you don’t actually know the person yet. He talks about the fort that he and his dad built as well as playing catch and soccer.
Blaise writes back and talks about sky diving and how much he loves attacking castles.
Letter by letter, George and Blaise get to know each other. In the illustrations, when George imagines all that Blaise does, he images a boy much like himself. George imagines someone who resembles him in every way. But readers know something that the two boys do not. George is a boy human. Blaise is a boy dragon.
Toward the end of the assignment the two classes get together. Will the new friendships they’ve developed be enough to overcome their fear of someone who is different?
I cannot overstate just how much I loved this book. First of all, it is clever on a level that is there just for the adult reader. George’s full name is George Slair, reminiscent of St. George. He is natural enemy of Blaise Dragomir. That makes the ending all the sweeter.
This is a terrific book about prejudice and human differences without ever saying that it is about prejudice and human differences. Because of that, young readers are allowed to discover the message as they hear the story. That’s what keeps it from being preachy or over stated.
Montalvo’s watercolor, ink and graphite illustrations are cartoony enough to make the story fun without the imaginings of either boy getting too scary. Blaise is just to cute and fun looking to strike fear.
Share this book in your classroom or any place else that you want to launch a conversation about differences, prejudice and fear.