Thursday, March 29, 2012

Guest blogger -- View from a school library

 Janet Hutchinson is a colleague and kindred spirit when it comes to children's literature.  She also works a day and half in the library in the school which her children have or are attending here in Calgary.  Her experiences there provide her (and me by extension) the opportunity to see what teachers and kids do with the books we promote.  Gotta love real life.  So, please enjoy the view from a school library.

I sometimes think that I have the best two jobs in the world. I work here at the Doucette Library, where I get to buy books, read books and discuss books and book issues with Tammy. I also get to work in the Clear Water Academy school library for a day and a half a week. I love watching kids progress through being read to, to learning to read and then selecting and taking books home to read. I love it when they come and tell me what their favourite thing is about a book or why they didn’t like a book. I am sometimes surprised at what appeals to them – and pleased to learn that they develop discriminating tastes very early on (it’s not always about the vampires).

One of my favourite teachers at the school, Jane, recently started to read aloud to her Grade 6 girls. (The school separates the genders from Grade 4 to Grade 9). In her own words: “I realized that assigned book reports where each student picked a book didn’t do anything more than “force” students to read at home.  I wanted to have a book that as a class we could experience together and I could use as a teaching tool for sentence structure, plot line, character…etc. I also wanted an opportunity to model dynamic reading.  I am also aware that listening skills are underdeveloped in this visual culture and wanted to develop them. “

Jane started with Susan Cooper’s“The dark is rising. She chose this book because it has rich vocabulary, complex sentence structure and a complicated plot. She wanted the students to see as well as hear the language so they followed along in the book and were not allowed to read ahead. She also did not give any class assignments for this book. They finished the book earlier this week and Jane felt it to be an incredibly successful experience. 

Jane came to me and asked for some titles for her next book. She wanted a different genre, but was open about what that could be. Her specific words? “It can be a fairy tale, a tear-jerker, or a mystery – anything that you think they haven’t read, but would appeal to them.”

So I went off to the shelves to pick a few titles. I put them on her desk, with a sticky note on each identifying the genre and why I liked it or why I thought it would appeal. Here are the titles I picked, along with why they appealed to me:

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg
The appeal of this book for me lies squarely on the shoulders of its heroine Margaret Rose Kane. She is not like other girls – in fact, her time at summer camp is cut short because she “prefers not to” participate in any of the camp activities.  When she is rescued by her two rather eccentric uncles, she becomes involved in trying to save the towers that her uncles have installed in their backyard. The neighbours are gentrifying the area and these are deemed eyesores. How Margaret saves them is a great story. And what it says about NIMBYisms, the definition of art and the tolerance (or lack thereof) that society has for individuals (and ideas) that are different makes for great discussion fodder.

When you reach me by Rebecca Stead
Stead writes characters and friendships in an entirely believable way. But I loved this book, simply because it successfully weaves time and space into a mystery that, for me, invoked nostalgia for an era past when life seemed simpler for our children. I admit that one of the reasons I recommended this book was to see if the girls liked it as much as I did. (It hasn’t exactly been flying off the shelf in the library – except to the moms who volunteer in the library. They all love it too.)

Walk two moons by Sharon Creech
I was pretty sure that at least some of the girls would have read this – but I thought it worth a re-read. It has humour, emotion and moments of loss, wrapped up in a good story. These are all things that 12 year old girls revel in – and Creech is such a good writer that you cannot help but be drawn in to the story.

The Watsons go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
This book works exceptionally well as a read aloud – and that was part of the reason I selected it. (It kept my family amused during a long drive one summer several years ago.) But I admit I also want the girls to come in and ask for more books by Curtis. His writing is so strong – and “The Watsons” introduces a time in recent history that kids today sometimes don’t comprehend very well. He does it with humour and style and good characterization – all reasons to want to read more of his books. 

Prisoners in the palace by Michaela McColl
I thought this story particularly engaging when I read it, both for the history it introduces, but also because McColl weaves the social realities of class, gender and money so well into the story. And of course, there are several subplots, some romance, and some intrigue that would capture a girl’s attention. It is a little long for a read-aloud – something I did not consider until I looked just now at the page count (368 pages). That’s a lot of pages, both for someone to read and for someone else to listen to – especially if the story does not grab the listener right at the start.

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff 
This story of a girl set loose in the foster system is both emotional and captivating. Hollis belongs nowhere, the result of being shunted from foster home to foster home since she was abandoned as a baby. How she finally settles, and who she settles with, and what she learns about herself along the way connected strongly with me.

The goose girl by Shannon Hale
A reworking of the Grimm fairy tale by the same name (and Disney didn’t do it first), Hale develops her character Ani, from a somewhat odd (by her family’s standards) and weak princess to someone who finds the strength and courage to do what is right, despite the trouble it might bring her. This is one of those stories that I hope the girls would finish, wanting more – because there is more.

Jane (the teacher) was reading the books prior to making her decision (a very wise move on her part). When we spoke last week, she was thinking that she might choose Pictures of Hollis Woods – both because she was finding it to be a good story – but also because the simple language and shorter book made it a suitable choice for a read-aloud. 

This week, however, she told me that she has chosen an entirely different book. The class had read Where the red fern grows as part of the curriculum, and she thought that another book by the same author would be an interesting comparison. So she will be reading them A summer of monkeys by Wilson Rawls. 

This is what I love about the job – now I have a new book to track down and read.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Important secrets

 I love it when I can tie a local event to children’s literature. 

On Tuesday, March 27th at 7p.m., at the Military Museums in Calgary, Zonnie Gorman will share some of the experiences her father, Carl had during World War II as one of the original members of the Navajo (Dine) Code Talkers.  Twenty-nine Dine men developed a secret code based on their native language that proved undecipherable to the Japanese.  So, if you’re able, stop by.

If you’re not able to attend, check out Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac (823 B837C7 FIC). This novel is about a fictional character, Ned Begay, who enlists in the Marines when he is only sixteen and is selected to become a code talker.

The book takes us through his experiences as a child at a residential school for Navajo children where an attempt is made to eradicate his ‘Indian-ness’  --  his hair is cut, his clothes and personal items removed, and most importantly, speaking in his own language is suppressed.  For all of that, Ned does keep his language and learns to excel in school.  He is in high school when the Second World War starts.  When Marines start recruiting at his school, Ned sets his sights on joining the military.  Basic training in boot camp and the secret training for becoming a code talker are covered but most of the book is about fighting in battles with the Japanese.  These encounters sound grueling but are not described in overly bloody tones.  Yes, many soldiers die but this is not graphically depicted.

After the atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrenders; the war is over.  Ned comes back from the war changed but finds that American society has not. Discrimination against Indians by whites is still the norm.  He decides to continue with his education, becoming a teacher and getting involved with tribal government looking to change discriminating practices and laws.  It’s not until 1969 that he able to talk about his real role in the war and the significance of the code talkers to the war effort.

There is a lot of history included in this novel, which provides context for what Ned experiences. The irony of trying to suppress the Navajo language at the residential schools and the importance of the language in World War II are made very apparent.

Joseph Bruchac includes an extensive note about how he came to write this story and additional information about the Dine.  He bases most of the story on well documented incidents.  He includes the names of many real people including Carl Gorman (see first paragraph) in his story.  The novel is recommended for grades 6/7 and up.

For further analysis of the novel, visit the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature for an essay written by Beverly Slapin reviewing several books written about the code talkers.

For additional information about code talkers, check out the section in Ultra Hush-Hush: espionage and special missions by Stephen Shapiro and Tina Forrester (940.5485 ShU 2003).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Canadian calamities – Part 4 - The End

This is the last in the series of books about Canadian disasters.  Thank goodness.  Disasters can make for some interesting reading but I’ve learned that I need to spread it out a bit.  You too, maybe?

 This posting looks at two books about the same disaster – the Frank Slide.  In 1903, at 4:08 am, Turtle Mountain (located in Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass) sent 90 million tonnes of rocks crashing down on a sleeping mining town, covering almost 3 kilometres of the valley floor in less than two minutes.  Over seventy people died. 

To learn more about the slide visit the website of the excellent interpretative centre that is located on the debris field.  If you ever come to southern Alberta, a visit to Frank will not disappoint.  (Some of the boulders are massive and awe inspiring to think crashing down of a vulnerable town.)

Shadows of Disaster (823 B467S FIC), by Calgarian Cathy Beveridge, gives us the story of the town of Frank just prior to the slide happening.  Through the eyes of Jolene, a contemporary girl who is able to travel through a time crease with her grandfather, we get to know some of the people living in Frank, the layout of the town and an overall feel for life in this small mining town in the early 1900s.  The focus of the novel is on Jolene finding confidence in herself.  She feels that she is at a disadvantage in most things in life because she is a girl.  The disaster comes late in the book as Jolene and her grandfather attempt to return to the present.  Though Jolene knows about the slide from her own time period, she doesn’t live through it or the aftermath. She doesn’t return to Frank to see for herself what the landslide has done to the town or people but relies on her grandfathers brief account (“It’s pretty awful, Jo.”) to end this part of the story.  Her concern for the people she comes to know living in Frank in 1903 is clear.  I would recommend this book for middle grades 5 to 8.

Another book, written for the same grade level, which covers the landslide and aftermath, is Terror at Turtle Mountain by Penny Draper (823 D79T FIC).  This book is about a fictional girl, Nathalie Vaughan, who lives in Frank in 1903.  Life for her is living with her widowed mother, going to school, playing with her friends and doing chores.  She suffers from feelings of being ‘not good enough’ because her grandfather disapproved of her mother’s marriage and, consequently, of Nathalie.  Living through the aftermath of the slide proves to Nathalie and others in her community that she has much to offer, that she is brave and capable in times of overwhelming tragedy.  Nathalie’s experience is only one of the narrative strands.  We also learn about a group of miners trapped after the rock fall and of the heroic efforts of two engineers to stop a train that is about to crash into the debris that has buried the train track.  Lots of tension is built about who survives and who doesn’t.   The author has included a fairly thorough note about the people of Frank, who they were and why they settled there, the Blackfoot people that lived in the area, the importance of the railroad and additional information about landslides. One interesting tidbit from the story, that I didn’t know, was the heat generated from the rock slide making the rocks hot.  (Some fascinating science notes to follow up perhaps.)
If you’re still up for more about Canadian disasters, check out a website published by Library and Archives Canada that presents a number of tragic stories, including the ones I’ve focussed on. The section on the Frank Slilde includes a concise report about the event with archival photographs and news articles.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Canadian calamities – Part 3

 With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic fast approaching, this might be an opportune time to introduce students to Canada’s biggest maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914.  Into the Mist: the story of the Empress of Ireland by Anne Renaud (910.9163 ReI 2010) tells the story.

The beginning of the book may leave you wondering -- what does the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) have to do with an elegant ocean liner in the early 1900s?

As it happened, a young Canadian government commissioned the CPR to unite the country coast-to-coast to fulfill its promise to link the province of British Columbia with the rest of Canada.  Once accomplished, the ambitious company looked for ways to expand their business.  In addition to transporting European immigrants to farms in the West, they decided to develop a mail service across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, spanning just over 19,000 kilometers from Britain to the Orient (Japan and China) via Canada.

The Empress of Ireland was one ship in a series of ‘Empresses’ built to obtain this government contract.  These were big ships built for speed, with room for 1,550 passengers and luxurious fittings for those travelling first-class. The book includes lots of statistical data (size, weight, quantities of food, etc.) about the ship as well as stories of some of her passengers.  She ferried a number of celebrities such as Rudyard Kipling, John McCrae, Robert Baden-Powell plus actors, politicians and royalty.  There are a number of narratives about less famous people too, immigrants who were travelling to Canada to start new lives.

Unfortunately, this Empress was short-lived, crossing the Atlantic for only eight years (1906 to 1914) before sinking in the St. Lawrence River.  A collision with a coal freighter resulted in the huge ship sinking in just minutes, killing most of her passengers (840) and crew (172).

A recent newspaper article in the Calgary Herald (Sunday, March 4, 2012, p.A6) ran a half-page article about the Empress of Ireland and how few people know her story.  It was suggested that this maritime disaster is Canada’s equivalent to the sinking of the Titanic.  The relative obscurity of this story is the result of people’s preoccupation with the start of the First World War. I’m sure I’m not alone in never having heard this story prior to reading this book. 

One of the more intriguing stories is about a curse that followed Captain Kendall, captain of the Empress of Ireland at the time she sank. There’s nothing like the titillation of a curse to engage students.  Captain Henry Kendall, prior to taking charge of the Empress of Ireland, captained another ship that carried two infamous fugitives running away to Canada.  Disguised as father and son, the two were apprehended due to the eagle eyes of Captain Kendall.  Dr. Crippen cursed the Captain as he and his girlfriend were arrested for the murder of his wife.

The many newspaper clippings and black and white photographs show us the interior of the ship, first-class passengers enjoying the ship, and personal portraits of individuals and families, most often immigrants coming to Canada

Overall, it was an interesting read though I’m unsure whether students would gravitate to this book on their own.  The cover is dark and, in my opinion, not very enticing.  The organization of the book is occasionally problematic with details about passengers interspersed between sections of information. The side boxes which provide relevant information about the time period are occasionally disruptive to the flow of the book. However, if not a great cover-to-cover read, it will be excellent for research.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Canadian calamities – Part 2

Today’s offerings are fictional accounts of two Canadian disasters.

A Terrible Roar of Water by Penny Draper (823 D79T3 FIC) recounts the impact of an earthquake and a tsunami on the east coast of Newfoundland in 1929.  The Burin Peninsula is scattered with many small remote, outport communities that rely upon the sea for their livelihoods.   Draper does a good job setting up the characters, drawing a clear picture of the people, culture and landscape that comprise one specific community.  The focus of the story is the impact of the disaster on the community rather than on character development.  Which doesn't mean that you won't get a good sense about Murphy, a twelve-year-old boy who has only two wants: to become a fisherman like his uncle  and father (who died in a fishing accident) and to have his mother come back from St. Johns  to live with him.  He's fairly thoughtful (though he doesn't always remember his promises to sort-of friend Annie) and is keen to build a house and boat dock of his own as a way to entice his mother to return to the village . After the tsunami recedes, the worsening weather conditions make the villagers realized their vulnerability .  Their winter provisions, homes and most possessions have disappeared and help may be a long time coming.  (I was left wondering if all Canadian disasters are followed by a snow storm.  See Monday's posting about the Halifax explosion for more on snow storms.) This is an interesting historical read and may appeal to kids in grades 4 to 7.

Another novel focussed on a water disaster is Safe as Houses by Eric Walters (823 W176S2 FIC).  Hurricane Hazel caused massive devastation in Southern Ontario in 1954.  This story is really focussed on one night of severe flooding, as three children barely cope with the rising water.  As with A Terrible Roar of Water there’s not much in the way of character development or in the way of setting.  We know that Weston, Ontario is a smallish town with new houses being built along the river valley.  It’s been raining heavily for days and the water is running fast and furious.   Twelve-year-old Lizzie is babysitting David and Suzie, waiting for their parents to return from Toronto.  The weather is so bad that they can’t get back and Lizzie is left to manage for the night.  She’s horrified to find that water has flooded the main floor of the house and is rising very quickly.  The streets are impassable so the kids go to the top of the house.  The unfinished house proves a blessing as sitting in the rafters means they don’t have to deal with the elements – at least, not yet.  Eventually, the water rises high enough to cause Lizzie and David to look for a way through the roof. Once perched on the roof the house slowly begins to shift from its foundations, instigating a daring jump into the river to hopefully catch hold of a few trees still able to withstand the river.  The children are eventually rescued.  This is based on a true story which the author includes a portion of at the end of the book.  Good tension is built even as we anticipate what will happen; wonder how the kids will manage and if they survive.  This quick read will work with grades 5 to 9.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Canadian calamities – Part 1

By coincidence, I’ve been reading a few books lately that seem to focus on various Canadian disasters. Maybe not the happiest of topics but tragedy and heroics do make for riveting stories.  The next few blogs will highlight a few of the better reads I’ve come across, nonfiction and fiction.

Blizzard of Glass: the Halifax explosion of 1917 by Sally M. Walker (971.6225 WaB 2011) is a fabulous, detailed account of the massive explosion that devastated the waterfront areas of Halifax Harbour in the early 20th century.

December 6th, 1917: it’s an ordinary morning.  People are busy at home getting children off to school, cooking and starting the day’s chores, going to church while others are busy at work along the waterfront, in warehouses or shops and offices further back into town.  In the harbour , two ships (one loaded with explosive materials used to make bombs for Allied troops in World War I), collide. Shortly afterwards, an explosion produces a gigantic cloud of smoke, intense heat (9,032 degrees Fahrenheit), and powerful, fast-travelling shock waves (5,000 feet per second) killing hundreds of people instantly and obliterating a vast area close to the harbour.
After reading nearly two hundred accounts told by survivors, Sally Walker fills her book with anecdotes of several families living in the area.  We learn what mothers, fathers and children were doing that morning.  Walker builds tension, as we know that disaster looms and we wonder who, out of these few families, will survive and who will not.

The aftermath is horrific to read about.  A tsunami, then a snow blizzard cause even more devastation and deaths in addition to hampering the efforts of relief workers.  Stories about the heroic efforts by medical personnel in the immediate area and as far away as Boston are memorable.  Overwhelmed by the sheer number of the injured and dead, doctors, nurses, soldiers, firefighters and ordinary citizens barely cope.  Compassion, kindness and perseverance rule the days following.

I found this a gripping read.  However, I do wonder what kids will make of it.  The profiles of the families and photographs help us connect on a personal level, making it more real, but it may be that the amount of detail will deter some younger readers.  The book will be invaluable to students doing research about this event but I’m not sure if those in the middle grades will gravitate to it on their own.  Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend this book.  I also think there are some great science concepts about waves (explosions, tsunami) that could be incorporated as the author includes substantial information.

I would love to get some feedback about students’ response. Drop me a line if you get a chance.

 Today is Nonfiction Monday.  Stop by Rasco from RIF for this week's roundup.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beyond poignant

Requiem: poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko  (811.JaR 2011) is a beautiful collection of poems written “as solemn songs to the memory of the people who died within the walls of Theresienstadt.” (p.94) 
For some, this will read much like a novel written in narrative verse.  Janeczko writes poems from the perspective of  different people, most are Jewish prisoners, some are Nazi guards, and others are by local town’s people telling some aspect of what has happened to them because of the Terezin Ghetto.  Janeczko informs us that the poems are based on his research and include events that did transpire but the characters are derived from this imagination.  Except for one.  The poem by Valtr Eisinger/11956 (p.38) was found amongst letters Eisinger had written and Janeczko located published elsewhere. (See the author’s note and list of selected sources for more information.) 
Peppered throughout are sketches and drawings that were drawn by inmates from Theresienstadt and found after the war. The Terezin Ghetto was where many artists, musicians and intellectuals from Prague were sent.  Nazis were somewhat lenient about inmates producing art, as it served their interests to purport that Jewish culture was being encouraged to flourish.
The poems and drawings that comprise this slim volume are haunting and unforgettable.
I highly recommend this book for grades 8 and up.  
To learn more about the Terezin Ghetto and art produced during the Holocaust, look to some of the following titles for additional information:
 As seen through these eyes: a Hilary Helstein film (700.458 As 2009 DVD)
Brundibar by Tony Kusher, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (782.1 KuB 2003 PIC BK)
The Cat with the yellow star: coming of age in Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin (940.5318 RuC 2006)
Hana’s suitcase: a true story by Karen Levine (940.5318 LeH 2002)
Terezin: voices from the Holocaust by Ruth Thomson (940.5318 ThT 2011)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Highest, deepest and farthest reaches of the Earth

I find travelogues fascinating.  If done well, you get a taste of a foreign land, what the people are like, exotic landscapes with a few good stories about trials, tribulations and perhaps near misses, thrown in to enthrall us.  Nothing like armchair travel to whet the appetite for the real thing -- maybe.

Into the Unknown: how great explorers found their way by land, sea, and air by Stewart Ross, illustrated by Stephen Biesty (910.9 RoI 2011) is a captivating read (though I can’t say these stories made me want to join many of the expeditions – great to read about but I’m willing to let others forge the way).
We are given brief glimpses into fourteen journeys, spanning from the Greeks in 340 BC sailing to the Arctic until 1969 with two Americans landing on the moon.  Many of the explorers like Marco Polo, Captain James Cook, Christopher Columbus, and Edmund Hillary are well known.  But also included are lesser known Mary Kingsley, the father and son team Auguste and Jacques Piccard, Admiral Zheng and Pytheas.   Whether exploring Africa, the waters of the south Pacific, the highest reaches of the atmosphere or the deepest ocean trenches, we get a sense of Earth’s vastness and the appeal that the unknown holds for a few intrepid souls.
Each section includes a few pages detailing what we know about the explorers, a little about the historical, social or political context of the voyage, the technology used for travel (boats, balloons, submersibles, rockets) and for navigation, and maps. Mesmerizing foldouts depict highly detailed cross-sections of the vessels used.  Illustrator Stephen Biesty does an excellent job.  Pulling out each section feels somewhat like opening a treasure map.
This book would be an excellent addition to a unit on explorers, providing enough information to be useful for report writing, and promoting geographical and historical thinking. Overall, this is an engrossing book to get lost in, especially looking at the illustrations.
Great resource for middle school grades, 4-9.

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at 100 Scope Notes.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kind of the same

*Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw (823 K8475S PIC BK)
*Mirror Mirror by Jeannie Baker (823 B1743M PIC BK)
*A Country Far Away by Nigel Gray (823 G793C PIC BK)

            Three books that are similar, yet -- different.

Each of these picture books compares the lives of two children (coincidentally, all boys) from a western culture (North America, Europe or Australia) with that of a boy from either Africa or India.

All take a different approach in illustrating how each child lives day-to-day.

A Country Far Away uses a single sentence that applies to either child’s life, depicted in a series of panels running across the top or the bottom of the page depending on where the boy lives. For example, when a baby sister is born in each family, we see a midwife arriving by donkey in the African village and children crowding into the family’s hut to visit mom and the new baby.  The urban, western family awaits the arrival of the baby in a hospital, with dad, brother and grandparents visiting after the baby is born.

 In Same, Same but Different the story alternates between correspondence and drawings exchanged between the two boys, comparing and contrasting their lives. Elliot lives in an American city with his mom, dad and baby sister, whereas Kailash lives in an Indian town or city with his extended family (23 members) plus their animals (cattle, goats, chickens, dogs, rabbits and birds).  Elliot has a dog and a pet fish.

Mirror, Mirror is a single book but has two wordless narratives, independent stories that can work side-by-side or separately.  Two stories, beginning at each of the book’s covers, are read either left-to-right (Australian story) or right-to-left (Moroccan story), depicting the events that occur for an average family from each of these countries. The stories overlap by the end, emphasizing that in this world of mass globalization we are all connected.  The Moroccan family has traded a hand made carpet for a computer and the Australian family has purchased the same carpet for their living room.

All three books are enjoyable and suitable for grades 1-4.

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