December 29, 2014
Finding Fractals in Nature
by Sarah C. Campbell
photos by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell
Boyds Mills Press
When we think about patterns, we think about AB, AABB, and ABC, simple repeating patterns. Whether the pattern is linear or radial, the order is always the same and proportions don’t change. It isn’t surprising that these are the patterns that we identified first. Look at the shapes that people have identified and recreate — cylinders, cubes, orbs and cones. Everything is symmetrical and very regular.
For a long time, these were the same shapes and patterns that we identified in nature. The near-cone shape of the ice cycle. The orb-like shape of an orange.
But not everything in nature is so regular. Queen Anne’s Lace, a tree, and a river delta have web like shapes that, at first glance, seem to defy categorization. At least that was the case until the scientist Benoit Mandelbrot started studying everything from mistakes made by computers to rainfall. As he examined a vast variety of things, he noticed another type of pattern called the fractal.
In a fractal, small units of a shape combine to create a larger version of the same shape and this larger pieces combine to create a still larger version. Not sure what I mean? Think about a river system. Water meanders through the landscape to empty into streams. These streams meander emptying into small rivers which join together into still larger rivers. Twigs to sticks to branches to trees. Flowerettes to brocolli stems to stalks. These are all examples of fractal patterns.
Sarah Campbell’s text is straightforward and easy to understand. The photos that she and her husband have taken clearly illustrate this complex but amazing topic.
Although this book is illustrated with amazing images, it isn’t your typical picture book. Share it with a slightly older elementary audience — 2nd to 5th grade — and then challenege them to find fractal patterns, staring with those discussed in the book.
December 26, 2014
On the Wing
by David Elliot
illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
From the common Cardinal to the Bower Bird, Elliot’s poetry collection covers a wide range of feathered fliers including both the familiar and the less common.
None of these poems is long but all display an appreciation for each bird as well as wit and humor. Rhythm, rhyme and humor make these poems excllent for reading aloud to share with a group and will easily spark discussion — what does this tell us about this bird? Why did he choose the details he included?
My personal favorite is the humming bird, a functional poem that draws as much meaning from the format as it does from the words themselves.
The gouache paintings, while not spare, contain just enough detail to fully illustrate the bird, depicting their grace, vibrancy or quiet strength as appropriate. Somehow they are reminiscent of watercolor paintings without the translucent quality of that medium.
This book would make an excellent addition to the classroom, encouraging students to observe and then create their own poetry. Marketed for K through 2, this book is short enough to make a good read aloud for younger children but the poems are clever enough and the art sophisticated enough to engage older readers outside of this target age range. I can also see this book as an excellent cuddle time choice on a snowy winter afternoon.
December 22, 2014
Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age
by David Zeltser
Except for the fact that everyone lives in caves and bashes each other with rocks, this felt a lot like middle school. Seriously.
Lug is an artist but in caveman society being an artist will get you banished. As much as Lug hates hiding who he is, he doesn’t want to be banished because then he would never see his parents or his sister again.
Oddly, it isn’t his art work that leads to his banishment. Nope. The problem comes when his clan is getting ready for the next big game of Headstone (bashing the other team in the head with a rock). Any man who fails to capture a cave llama to ride in the game will be banished. Let’s just say that with the help of the clan bullies, Lug and another boy end up being banished. How will they ever get the clan to let them return?
But banishment isn’t there only problem. Lug has noticed that its getting colder — artists are very observant, don’t you know. The trees are losing their leaves and the orchids are dying. Cave llama have been disappearing. How is at all connected?
In the course of their adventures, Lug and Stony become friends and make friends with members of the enemy clan. They discover cooler weather doesn’t just mean that plants are dying. It also means that new animals are moving into the area. Some of them are herbivores. Some of them are not.
The book is listed as appropriate for grades 3 to 7. With the occassional black-and-white spot illustration, this book has the feel of a chapter book, skewing it for the younger members of this audience. But it is about 180 pages long, longer than your typical chapter book. This longer length and older themes (growing into yourself, bullying) make the book good for slightly older readers who want something funny but not terribly difficult. This would be a great book, because of its length, to bolster the confidence of a reluctant reader.
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.