Monday, October 27, 2014

Anticipation and hard-earned dreams

Saving up for something special can be very difficult especially when you’re a child with limited options for making money.  But, in The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett our heroine has the moxie and perseverance to do just that.

 While out walking with her little brother one day, she sees the best green bicycle in the whole-wide-world sitting in a store window.  She races home to see what she has in her piggy bank and quickly starts looking for ways to generate the cash she needs to purchase her dream.  She searches high and low, from under couch cushions and in pant pockets, running a lemonade stand, to raking leaves for a neighbour. Our enterprising protagonist  won’t be daunted.

The one neighbor who initially employs her raking leaves turns into a seemingly regular gig over several months and helping with a multitude of chores allows the young girl to save up enough money for her bike. 

Eventually, when girl has the money she dashes back to the bike shop only to discover the bike has been sold.   Overcoming her disappointment, she decides to buy her little brother a tricycle instead.  On the way home, the kindly neighbor who the girl has been working for gives her a wonderful surprise: the green bicycle is waiting for her in her yard.

A happily-ever-after story if there ever was one.

The book has a very old-fashion feel to it with sepia colouring throughout, and retro-looking clothes and hairstyles for the children, plus the fact the girl is doing chores to earn money.

Being a wordless book, the illustrations do all the work and they are a treat to read through.  The illustration style is fairly simplistic with few details to distract from the characters and their actions.  A couple of pages do include a few bits of information about the neighbour .  Here we see objects that allude to her dreams of flying.  Watch for a red airplane, the only other coloured object (besides the bike) in the book.

An enjoyable read for the primary grades.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Presto Change-o!

What a great title!  Presto Change-o: a book of animal magic by Edouard Manceau is a fun, interactive book for the primary grades.

This is an oversized board book that presents an initial image that can be manipulated with a few turns of various flaps to become an animal.  For example, a black pot (think caldron) over a fire bubbles as it cooks a stew. By swinging the flap over, the pot becomes the top part of the head of a raccoon with a bandit face peering out at us.  Two pieces of wood (part of the fire) turn up and the raccoon has arms and paws.  The accompanying text on the preceding page states’ POT’ with several rhyming lines  that almost sound like a spell, playing into the idea of a magical transformation that ends with our RACCOON friend appearing. (See the cover above.)

The text itself may be a little challenging for the youngest children but the rotating flaps will keep them engaged.  The bright colours and fairly simple, stylized illustrations have an unassuming charm that is appealing.  The first and last words are bold and easily read by earlier readers with the other text read by an older reader.  Great for playing a game of prediction, “Presto change-o! What will this become?”

This may be a book to get kids to model their own art work, coming up with two different things and figuring out how to get one object to transform into the other with just a few flaps.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Things we’re thankful for

Toy stories : photos of children from around the world and their favorite things by Gabriele Galimberti offers an unusual way to enter into the lives of children from around the world (58 countries) giving us insights into their lives, interests and those of their parents too, as it turns out.

The compositions are fairly straight forward.  Typically the child is centred in the photo with their toys (or toy, as the case may be) splayed out around them.  The preceding page offers their first name, age and the country they live in.  Sometimes there are lots of objects, sometimes only one.  It’s fascinating to see what is deemed a ‘toy’.  The ones you’d expect are there:  animal stuffies, all manner of vehicles, dolls and Barbies, a myriad of plastic figures and animals, a few bikes, a few games (both board and video).

 But the picture with Maudy (3, from Zambia) standing in front of a few dozen pairs of sunglasses is definitely unusual.  Apparently, a box of sunglasses fell from a passing truck and became toys, the only toys in this village.  They like to play pretend market. Or there’s Callum, 4 from Alaska, standing with a couple of shovels and sleds in a wintery landscape that also speaks to a very specific kind of interest in a particular kind of environment. 
A few children seemed keen on guns (a little scary), and I found only three photos where books were included (a little distressing).

You do see what you would expect to in terms of differences between affluent and poor families (more and less, literally).  But the introduction offers a couple of interesting perspectives about this observation:

“The fewer toys a child had the less possessive he or she was about them.  Galimberti describes having to spend several hours winning the trust of Western children before they would consent to let him touch their planes, cars, or dolls.  ‘In poorer countries, they don’t care as much.  They play in a different way, running around, sharing one ball between them all.’ … Likewise, children who enjoy a free-roaming existence in the countryside seemed to place less value on their toys than children living in busy cities, confined and isolated.  ‘City children mostly stay inside, and mostly play alone, ’he says.  ‘They tend to have a lot more toys and to be a lot more possessive.’”
The short introduction is well worth reading.

Using this book with Material World by Peter Menzel and/or Much Loved by Mark Nixon would make an interesting threesome.  Though all three don’t have to be used together, pairing at least two of them offers a classroom teacher a visual way to explore material culture on a level that kids could easily relate to.  Looking at their toys and finding out what they mean to them and then looking at how other children live might make the conversation about quality of life more comprehensible.  

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Guests galore

Hello Everyone.

I'm off for the next couple of weeks. 

Unfortunately, it's not the lounging kind of vacation where I crack a new book everyday popping bon bons and sipping cool beverages.  I'll be hosting a number of fine folks over the next while which means less reading time.  

However, it doesn't mean I'm not bringing a bag of books to try (probably not) get through.  Kind of like a security blanket of sorts, I guess.  

I'll be back mid-August.


Monday, July 21, 2014

The Wonder continues…sort of

A couple of summers ago, I raved about Wonder by R.J. Palacio. 

Here’s an excerpt from that blog posting:

Wonder is about a boy with significant facial abnormalities.  He’s going to school for the first time, starting grade 5 and he’s nervous, to say the least.  Once school starts, there are a few difficulties that must be sorted through and challenges to be met.  Auggie does make friends on his own, learning much about himself and others along the way.  Some of the issues Auggie deals with are the same as many middle school kids – making and keeping friends, becoming more independent, issues about popularity, bullying. There are times he wants to quit but doesn't.  There are times he’s incredibly happy to be where he is. 
 In a word it’s – wonderful, and fits well with the idea ‘perspective’.  Though the book is told by several different people or points of view (Auggie, his sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of his friends), we can start analysing the characters to see what defines or shades their perspectives.  I see potential for looking at some of the minor characters who don’t talk to us directly but are important to the storyline, such as the principal, Mr. Tushman, or the mother of one of the boys who gives Auggie a hard time.  Who are they? What motivates them? And what is their perspective?

Just recently, I came across The Julian Chapter.   “How interesting,” I thought.  “Maybe I’ll get a few answers to my questions.”

Seeing as how I could immediately download it to my iPad, I did so and promptly set to reading.

And it was interesting how the author gave Julian, the bully-type character in Wonder a second chance to have his side of the story aired.  As you might expect, he’s a boy who feels pretty entitled to whatever he deems ‘his’ and is often backed up by his officious mother.  Julian doesn't like Auggie, pure and simple.  Auggie’s deformities disturb him greatly and to such an extent that it taps into anxieties and fears that he has experienced since he was a young child.  Feeling repulsed and not understanding why others aren't also repulsed and some even seem to willing tolerate Auggie, confuses Julian to no end.  In fact, one of his best buddies appears to genuinely like Auggie which only antagonizes Julian further.

As Julian tells us his side of the story, it’s unlikely you’re going to feel much sympathy for him. And you’re not supposed to.  His mother is a piece-of-work and will have you sighing or grinding your teeth.   Julian is definitely lacking in empathy which is what comes out in discussions between Julian, his parents, teachers and principal.  He just doesn't know better, which is a bit simplistic.

It takes a summer visit with his French Grandmother to put things into perspective for Julian.  I was relieved to see that he finally comes around to understanding what had gone on during the prior school year.  He realizes that fear was driving him and he does eventually write Auggie an apology.

This is a short story told in very short chapters.  It continues the story of Wonder which was kind of nice to tap into again.  But it was a little too pointed in purpose to really capture the same tone the novel did.

I can see it being used in a classroom, no problem.  It provides another perspective and really brings home the idea that we are all ‘stars’ in our own lives.  It will provide opportunities to discuss bullying and empathy.  It will allow those kids who really bought into the story to continue a bit further and hear Julian’s voice, too.  It won’t give them more of Auggie , his wonderful family or friends.  It will be reassuring to think that a bully can change his ways and that as Julian’s grandmother tells him, he’s not  to define himself by a mistake, or by a single action, and that he can do the right thing to make things right (paraphrased, in case you’re wondering).

This seems to be available only electronically as either audio or e-text.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remember I am Forest. Remember I am here.

Forest Has a Song by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is a collection of poems that celebrate the wonders and natural pleasures to be found in a wood forest.

A girl and her dog take us along as they venture year round through a nearby forest, using all their senses.  They feel and smell a winter breeze and make note of the animal prints left in the snow.  Spring brings the raucous sounds of a frog looking for a mate.  Summer evenings create a sense of wonder as nocturnal birds and animals start to stir.  And autumn brings the bright colour changes in trees and the busy activities of animals getting ready for winter.  Whatever the season, she is intrigued by many of nature’s wonders - like a spore-spouting puff ball mushroom or the code-like conversation she listens in on when a woodpecker “types poems with his beak upon a tree” or the web-spinning abilities of a hungry spider or gazing into the eyes of a fawn.

This is a book that creates a sense of what a forest is like.  The ease of the poems and the softness of the watercolour illustrations contribute to the feeling of peace, curiosity and pleasure to be found in nature.

A gentle book that will work well in the elementary grades.

Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Years a slave

Stolen Into Slavery: the true story of Solomon Northup, free Blackman by Judith and Dennis Fradin is a retelling of the harrowing years Solomon spent as a slave in the southern US and is appropriate for middle grade students.

The movie version of Northup’s autobiography garnered much attention and won an Oscar last year making the story more widely known.  This book is based on Solomon’s book, Twelve Years a Slave.

This volume recounts how Solomon was kidnapped, bought and sold to different owners, his life as a slave, people he would have known, his thoughts and efforts to escape and eventually how he was able return to his northern life and family.

It was brutal.  It’s almost beyond imagining how a man could sustain any hope of resuming his freedom while living as a slave.  But, though covered in the book, I found the descriptions of the punishing treatment not overly graphic.  It tells of unrelenting work, destitute living conditions and spirit-grinding inhumaneness.  There are photographs and illustrations throughout the book though not in great number.

The book is highly readable and quite gripping in some parts.  Tension builds when Solomon contemplates escape or when white men plot against him. It was particularly interesting to read about the criminal case brought against the two men who had initially kidnapped Solomon and how they were not charged by instilling doubt about their role in Solomon’s enslavement.  According to them, Solomon wanted to be sold as a slave.

It’s a fascinating story made accessible to younger people, grades 5 and up.

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