Monday, May 31, 2010

Here today, gone tomorrow (well, maybe not tomorrow but soon, geological speaking)

With recent explosions from the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, I was reminded of how often and to what extent the Earth reshapes itself.

Two books, Fragile Earth: views of a changing world (550 Fr 2006) and Earth, then and now: amazing images of our changing world (551 PeaE 2007) are a couple of my all-time favorites because of the visual impact they have demonstrating the ever changing face of the Earth, from both natural and human forces. The books provide an absorbing look at how growing cities, war, pollution, climate change, resource exploitation, earthquakes, and tsunamis affect and change landscapes.

The books display on opposing pages, two pictures of the same place but from different times to demonstrate how the landscape has changed.  Take Mount Kilimanjaro for example.  Both books show the same 1974 photo of a snow-capped mountain peak.  On the opposite page, each shows (with different photos) a more current photograph that demonstrates how little snow now remains.

Both books dramatically illustrate, with the same satellite photos, the extent of deforestation in the Bolivian rainforest.  The picture from 1975 has a lot more green (intact rainforest) than the picture from 2003, showing how agricultural activity has affected the rainforest.

Earth, then and now also includes photos of how landscapes have been improved over time.  Take a clay quarry in Cornwall, England, for example, as it has been revitalized with the Eden Project. This once open pit is now built up with space-age looking geodesic domes and terraced gardens.  Looks beautiful.

The Lens of Time : a repeat photography of landscape change in the Canadian Rockies (971.1 WhL 2007) is similar but with a local focus around Calgary, Alberta, the nearby foothills, the Bow Valley corridor, Banff National Park, the Columbia Icefields, Field and Golden, B.C. and into Jasper National Park. I love the photo of Main Street, Banff in1886 that shows a man and cow walking down the middle of the ‘street’ with Cascade Mountain in the background. Some of the changes are more subtle where forests have been removed or grown, river-ways  altered slightly, or glaciers have receded.   A fascinating trip through time.

Though the reading level for all three books is appropriate for high school (maybe junior high, too) the pictures speak volumes and I think all kids would enjoy them and get a lot from pursuing these resources.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Carnival of Children’s Literature

On the last Friday of every month, a round-up of blogs (Blog Carnival), focused on children’s literature written by teachers, parents, writers, illustrators, librarians, and others who have something to say about books/resources for kids, is featured on a host blog site.  This is a great way to discover new blogs that pertain to kids lit in a fairly digestable way.

Homespun Light is hosting this month’s carnival.  Take a moment  (or two or three - it can be kind of addictive) to check it out.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Less is more – Part 3

Finally, to wrap up the Less is More theme, there is Elephant Elephant by Francisco Pittau (153.23 PiE 2001 PIC BK).

This is categorized as a ‘concept book’ as it looks at the concept of opposites.  It starts off as you would pretty much expect - a big elephant opposite a small elephant.

But, then, it quickly steps away from the standard depictions
-          a wide elephant opposite a narrow elephant,
-          start (the front of the elephant) opposite finish (the back end),
-          top (the top half of elephant) and opposite bottom (just the stomach and legs),
-          furry (shaggy elephant) opposite feather (well, feathery elephant),
-          plains (flatten back of elephant) opposite mountains (elephants back is two mountain peaks).

There are three sets of opposites (I’ll only speak about two) that always generate comments from the MT students.  Boy opposite girl.  Any guesses as to how this is depicted?  Well, let’s just say ‘bathroom humour’ and leave it at that.  (Grade 3 students will howl with laughter.)

The one other picture I find really interesting and think would provide a great opportunity for discussion is the one with two elephants facing each other. They look identical and are labeled smart and stupid.  OHHHH! Talk about loaded.  Fantastic for discussion about the contentious word stupid; what is smart and what is stupid; why do we label people; who is this book appropriate for; would this book be good in the classroom?

Overall, this is not the book a teacher would use to introduce the topic of opposites to young children for the first time.  I think it’s for older kids who will appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) humour, some of the more sophisticated elements of opposites and finally, it could be used to inspire kids to find their own atypical opposites.

Any other ideas?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Less is more – Part 2

Another picture book I love for its ‘simplicity’ is Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett (823 G788O PIC BK).

The whole story is told with only five words used in a highly ingenious and entertaining manner.  We have four objects as named in the title shown on the first four pages.  Pretty straight forward.  Page five shows us an apple and pear together but page six is where things take a turn toward the unexpected.  We now have a cutely-posed, orange-coloured bear! We proceed onto an orange-coloured pear and after that, a somewhat bemused apple-shaped/coloured bear.  And on it goes.

Great for young children learning these particular sight words but with lots of potential for more.  What about:

-For older kids it might be an interesting way to introduce nouns and adjectives.

-There is also story structure to be looked at and the interplay between the words and illustrations.  Though this isn’t the strongest element about the book, there is a fairly predictable interaction between the bear and the fruit that does provide a beginning, middle and end.

-Maybe set a challenge to write a book with just five words.  That should keep students out of mischief for a little while.

-But really, it’s the creative use of language and the way in which this story is being told with such originality that is just plain fun, fun, fun.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Less is more – Part 1

Its fantastic when I come across seemingly ‘simple’ picture books that are ‘nice’ but when you really think about them - WHAM! POW! GOTCHA!

Over the next three postings I’ll go over three of my favs and explain why I think there’s so much more going on than might be seen at first glance.

Here’s the first:

Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (823 W666D PIC BK).  Not a lot of text and the illustrations are incredibly simplistic (a five-year-old could draw them, right?).  But who can’t help but love the humour that comes with recognizing kids we know or even ourselves as we try to wheedle our way.  Such high drama as we beg, plead, bride, threaten, stomp, guilt, and irritate to get what we want.
What a great inclusion in a language arts unit (and not just for the wee tots) looking at
                -humour (Why is this book funny?  What makes us laugh?), 
                -feelings (Do we feel sympathetic/empathetic for Pigeon?
                -identifying the emotions. (Act them out.),
                -writing dialogue or a persuasive pitch
                -interplay between illustrations and text
                                (How do these work together?)
Just a few ideas.

I use Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus as a read aloud with MT students (university-level student teachers) who chuckle, smirk and guffaw their way through the book as they enjoy the story.  So, if adults are laughing, I ask you, who wouldn’t enjoy this one?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Non-fiction Monday - Artful, indeed

I just love Bob Raczka’s books and his take on art.

There is just so much fun, playfulness and creativity imbued in each one that I’m hooked every time.

Unlikely Pairs (750.11 RaU 2006) was the first one to catch my eye and what an eyeful it was, too.  Two paintings are displayed on each two-page spread. Typically, the pairs come from different time periods or different mediums and always from different artists, and the connection between the shown subjects always has an element of surprise or irony.

For instance, I really enjoyed the bug-eyed cow (The Cow with the Subtile Nose by Jean Dubeffet, 1954) that is staring (pensively?) at a giant, floor-model hamburger (Floor Burger by Claes Oldenburg, 1962) on the opposite page.

Or a painter (Self-Portrait by Jean-Frederic Bazille, 1986) holding a paint smeared pallet and brushes peering over his shoulder looking at us to see if we are admiring his paint-by-numbers landscape (Do-It-Yourself Landscape by Andy Warhol, 1962).  Very funny.

The great interaction between each of the two works really picks up on Raczka’s sense of play.  What kid wouldn’t want to find their own unlikely pair?  By discussing what makes each pairing work, children have a chance at better understanding the individual works, too.

A more recent book, The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations With Seven Works of Art (759.9492 RaV 2009), had me gripped from the start as he “interviews” characters from seven of Vermeer’s paintings.  Effortlessly, we are able to appreciate Vermeer’s artistry and technical ability, as well as learn more about the historical context behind each piece.

For instance, did you know that the woman depicted in Young Woman With a Water Pitcher is wearing a night rail (a white hood with a wide, shoulder length collar) that helps protects her dress as she washes her face during her morning toilette? I didn’t.

Or that by picking up on many subtle details within the painting a narrative starts to build.  Looking at The Music Lesson, we begin to see there is a whole lot more going on with furtive glances between student and piano master.

Or that the young (pregnant?) woman intently reading a letter, in the aptly titled painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, is possibly yearning for someone traveling (empty chair, map) maybe even her husband.  Raczka is clever in helping us decode the piece and yet allows for different interpretations, as well.

The last book I’ll mention is Artful Reading (758.9028 RaA 2008 PIC BK). This is a good one for teaching about the importance of reading (and art, of course). An instructor in the MT program recently read this book aloud to her group of student-teachers to illustrate just this point: that seeing reading depicted as an activity worthy of attention also connotes learning, education, knowledge, wealth, and social status.

Words to live by: “Read all your life and you’ll never be bored”.Artful Reading by Bob Raczka.

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Friday, May 7, 2010

The not-so-distant past

Once upon a time, I ran various parent-child book clubs out of a local children’s bookstore (Plug:Monkeyshines Children’s Books ).

One year, a group of ten, eleven and twelve year-old girls, their moms and me read the book Hana’s Suitcase  (940.5318 LEH 2002).  As we were getting ready to start the meeting one of the girls came over and speaking so, so softly told me that this was her favorite book ever! As she was quite the avid reader this was no faint praise.

A docu-drama, Inside Hana’s Suitcase, has just been released based on the book and I was reminded yet again, just what power Hana’s story holds.  We get to know Hana as a young girl living in Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s and 40’s, as smart, funny, athletic, and part of a very loving family.  Flash to current-day Japan and to Fumiko Ishioka, holding Hana’s battered suitcase, teaching children in Tokyo about the horrors Europe endured during World War II.

What are the circumstances that connect Hana and Fumiko? 
What happened to Hana and her family?

Told in alternating chapters, we learn about Fumiko’s quest at the same time we are introduced to Hana and learn of her experiences. The book strongly demonstrates the interconnectedness between past and present with this style of storytelling.  Tension builds slowly as we feel both the direness of Hana’s situation and the urgency and longing to know more about Hana by Fumiko.

This is not your typical World War II/Holocaust story.  Though historical, there is an immediacy and immense relevance for today which is brought about through Hana’s brother, George Brady, the only one in his family to have survived the Holocaust.  Fumiko, after tracing George to Toronto sends him a heart-felt letter telling him of her quest to learn more about Hana.  George, who has lived with a lifetime of grief and guilt over Hana’s death, begins to find closure as he travels to Japan and speaks with children at Holocaust Education Centre.

Hana’s life and death continue to have an impact on people who become witness to her story.  She had hoped to become a teacher one day and its with certainty that we can say that we do indeed have much to learn from her.

HBO Canada will be airing Inside Hana’s Suitcase during the week May 10-15, 2010.  Both George Brady and Fumiko Ishioka star in the movie.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


100 Suns by Michael Light (355.825119 LIO 2003) has just recently arrived in the Doucette Library and is leaving me feeling a little mystified, fascinated, and horrified, all at the same time.

This is an oversized, coffee-table type book showing mostly black and white photographs of nuclear test explosions between 1945 and 1962.  Detonations were either in the New Mexico or Nevada deserts or over the south Pacific.  I doubt that very many people will have this book lying about on their coffee tables.

Most of us know what a typical mushroom cloud looks like and you will find these included here, too but we are shown so much more.  There are a wide range of photographs of various cloud shapes and colours but also of people, typically soldiers, in close proximity to the blasts.  This is one of those books in which meaningful layers are created by the reader’s own prior knowledge about the atom bomb. There is a terrible beauty here that I think could be a starting point in classrooms.

But a starting point for what exactly?  Science, social studies and even art could be integrated using a book like this. 

In a previous blog (see Lost and found opportunities) I wrote about a novel, The Green Glass Sea that takes place during the 1940’s, in an American desert compound where the atomic bomb was being developed by scientists. The main storyline is the relationship between two girls living on the base as their parents work on a secret project.  I really enjoyed the book and think it has a place in the classroom but wondered what kid would want to read this.  And what would they make of the whole secret project aspect of the story.  (It isn’t really explicit until the end about what has been going on.)  The story of the two girls’ is strong so maybe it doesn’t matter.  But, as I was reading the novel I found the tension slowly building because I knew what the secret project was all about. Would kids?

There is a great connection between 100 Suns and The Green Glass Sea.

Will students be engaged by these photos?  I would love to know.

Take a look for yourselves and let me know what you think.

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