Thursday, May 31, 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.  Today's posting makes me wish that I was one of her lucky kindergarten students. I love being read to.
Please enjoy the view from a school library.

 One of my responsibilities at the school is to read aloud to the junior kindergarten students. (Yes, I know – really tough job!).  There are two classes of boys and girls. One class is a half day and the other is full day. I could read the same story – except some of the half day students occasionally stay the full day – and they are always quick to point out that “Hey – we read that story this morning”. So I usually pick two or three books that I think might work, and if there is time, I often read more than one.

I have found that although there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to selecting books, there are some general principles that have helped me in book selection for this age group. Of course, I had to get used to the idea that what I THINK is going to work sometimes falls flatter than a pancake. The good news is, I generally figure that out pretty early on and can change gears (and books) quite quickly if I need to.

Some of the principles that I follow when choosing a book are:
Good illustrations. And if there is something tactile in the book, so much the better.
Rhymes – kids seem to naturally love word play and if there is a rhythm developed, they find the story easier to follow.
Repetition and predictability.  If they can figure out what is going to happen on the next page, they feel quite clever. Especially if I ask “And what do you think happens next?” and they are proven right.
In complete contrast to the above – surprise. If the next page completely surprises them, t hat can prove a winner as well.
I also started out selecting really short stories. But I have experimented with stories that require them to sit and really listen, especially as the year progresses. 

So which books have worked really well?

The loud book by Deborah Underwood. The gentle illustrations provide an excellent foil for things that can be REALLY LOUD. And of course, every child loves to think of something really loud (and demonstrate it to you as well!) I forgot how loud 4 year olds can be – even the deceptively quiet ones.... If you have a headache, then her companion book “The quiet book” might be a better choice, although some of her concepts about quiet are a little more difficult to understand – and act out.

 Chalk by Bill Thomson. This wordless book has an element of magic in it. And the whole idea of “What if you found a bag of chalk and everything you drew became really real?” naturally leads kids to think about what they would draw. Boys will totally and always draw dinosaurs. Or scary monsters. Girls will draw princesses or flowers or “something pretty”. (Gender stereotypes are pretty ingrained at this age, I am afraid!)

Do not open this book by Michaela Muntean. The author is quite grumpy as he tries to summon the creative muse – amidst the chaos of the reader turning the pages. Kids like the thought of the creating process – and it is kind of funny, if you think about it.
All the world by Liz Garton Scanlon. I love this book. Scanlon’s gentle rhymes and Marla Frazee’s pictures are just the perfect thing for quieting down JK students and giving them something to really listen to. And the pictures depict simple quiet moments about the world out there.

Black? White. Day? Night : a book of opposites by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Not only is this a fold out book that is visually interesting, it starts off with simple opposites – and then moves to more complicated pairings as the book progresses. (The opposite of Ordinary is......extraordinary, in case you didn’t know. Try explaining THAT to a 4 year old.)
We’re going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen. This book was always a favourite with my own kids and it clearly continues to be a favourite today, as most of the students have heard some version of it. And it is something that kids can repeat along with you. (We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we can’t go around it – we’ve got to go through it.....)

Kevin Henkes . Rather than selecting just one of his books, I find that anything of his that I have read to the students’ works on all sorts of levels. Last week it was “Chrysanthemum” – although it is a longer story and there was a little bit of fidgeting to start, by the time I got to Chrysanthemum’s first day at school, the students were completely engaged. Something about his writing so completely “gets” the young child – whether it’s thinking your name is funny (my youngest never liked his name) or the taunting of other children, they all seemed to be able to put themselves in Chrysanthemum’s place. 

Finally, I am not sure just what we would do without the Elephant and Piggy series by Mo Willems.  Somehow, the students are always ready to listen to another of their adventures. Particularly popular was “There is a bird on your head”. And there is one little boy who has taken a Piggy and Elephant book out every week – the teacher told me that Dad is a little concerned that his son seems only interested in this book. But if you think about it, the series provides familiarity in that it is the same central characters, but a new adventure every time – kind of like the Nancy Drew or Harry Potter series that appeal to older students.  

I love this aspect of my job. Reading to kids brings back that part of parenting that really appealed to me. The rapture apparent in their faces as a new book appears and all they have to do is listen as a new adventure unfolds is kind of like having little ones again (although they go away at the end of the period – which is nice as well!!)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cold cases heating up history

There’s nothing like a mystery or puzzle from times past to ‘engage those little grey cells’.  Whether you’re looking for something to engage students or to exercise their critical thinking skills, unravelling or delving into the stories behind mysteries might be one way to achieve this.

I’ve been revisiting Case Closed? : nine mysteries unlocked by modern science by Susan Hughes (902 HuC 2010) because it ties into a website that also enables students to investigate true historical, unsolved crimes.

But first, a recap of Case Closed?.  These nine mysteries are arranged more or less chronologically from oldest (around 1457 BC) to most recent  (1968): from the death and disappearance of Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut to the inexplicable disappearance of a submarine enroute to Israel from England in the Mediterranean Sea.  Each case opens with a briefing about what is known about the circumstances surrounding the mystery plus possible reasons for the disappearance.  Maps, illustrations and photographs help present each case. Detailed information is provided about the research, including revisions to the hypotheses along the way, and finally, the most plausible explanation at the end.

I like this book because it shows the work that goes into uncovering a mystery, who’s involved (often teams of people from various backgrounds) and some of the science used.  The mysteries vary from the very well known to ones I was completely unaware of, including: a Chinese explorer, Hsu Fu around 215 BCE, the ancient Arabian city of Ubar, the Anasazi, the lost expedition of John Franklin, the murder, burial and possible survivors of the Romanov family in 1918, the mountain climber, George L. Mallory lost on Mount Everest in 1924, and the disappearance of an airplane in the Andes Mountains in 1974.

The website I came across is Great Unsolved Mysteries inCanadian History from the Department of Canadian Heritage and the University of Victoria.  These are fairly detailed accounts of cold cases from various time periods from Canada’s past.  There’s plenty of information about the people involved, the time period, newspaper articles, relevant documents such as court transcripts, interviews, photographs, and teacher support resources that include interpretations of the evidence.  Fascinating reading.  The cases include both the known and the obscure but are intriguing nevertheless once you start reading.  I love that primary documents are used to support the cases.  Most of the information is accessible without a login and password but to look at interpretations and teacher’s guides, you will need to have these which are free.

Both of these resources exercise historical thinking skills, which is part of the emphasis of the Alberta social studies curriculum.  Both could be used to model other cold cases from the historical record providing teachers and students a way to research information, interpret evidence and then present plausible explanations.

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Perogies & Gyoza for this week's roundup of nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Defining moments and allergies

I love what spring stands for: summer is coming.  But I find that the actual season is a little harder to take.  Sure, all that new growth is beautiful and filled with promise, but it seems to take months of dreary brown, brown, brown before the green finally arrives and Calgary starts to freshen up.  And once spring arrives, my allergies kick in and I'm sneezing , snivelling and dabbing my watering eyes constantly.

Which leads me to The Art of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco.  Talk about allergies kicking in big time.  I was certainly suffering a very bad case of snivelling and watery eyes as I finished this gorgeous book about a young Patricia being encouraged to discover her artistic talents with the help of fine, fine teachers.  A struggling student, young Patricia needed extra time to successfully complete written exams due to reading difficulties.  Yet when it came to art, she excelled at ‘seeing’ or reading her subjects.  She credits Violet Chew, her art teacher, for setting her on her life’s path.

The illustrations are done in the author/illustrator’s typical style of black and white, coloured pencils and markers.  I said gorgeous once already, right?  I think this is my favourite book of Patricia Polocco’s, which is saying a lot as most of her books induce ‘allergy’ attacks.

This also ties into an interesting DVD I recently watched, titled Listen To This (371.7 Lis 2010 DVD). It’s about a musician, Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo, establishing a music program in inner city Toronto as a way to encourage elementary students to tap into their creative abilities, develop self-esteem, deal with life’s issues and, perhaps, discover their own life’s path.

Called  Evolving Through the Arts, his program gives these students the opportunity to write songs, express thoughts and feelings about everyday life (including some pretty traumatic events like shootings and rape), sing and perform for peers and family.  It was inspiring to watch as Greg Stokes, a DJ, music producer and mentor in the program, get a grade 4 girl named Jasmine, who excels at writing lyrics and shyly sings her songs (a true poet), to finally recognize herself as an artist.  Talk about defining moments.

Whether it’s the visual arts, music or any other artistic form, art provides avenues for self-expression and creativity that potentially have the power to change lives.  In spring time, new growth embodies the promise of things to come.  So too do young people finding their way with the help of caring adults and creative opportunities.

Now, I’m off to buy more tissues and antihistamines.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Colour me happy – Nonfiction Monday is here!

First I’m happy to welcome everyone to this week’s Nonfiction Monday event.  If you wish to link your blog please leave a comment and I’ll add you in during the day.

Second, I’m happy to introduce you to Red-Yellow-Blue: colors in art by Silke Vry (701.85 VrR 2011). I found this to be a very engaging look at the history of colour.  Organized by colour (black and white, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, violet, brown and gold) we find out how colors were used by artists from the earliest times, a little bit of science about light and colour, symbolism, mixing colours, and the colour wheel.  Silke Vry uses many works of art from various periods to illustrate her points, drawing us in and making us look closely.  She also presents questions, activities and experiments to make us think and experience various aspects of colour.

One of my favourite parts is the section about pink. Here we learn that pink’s association with girls is fairly recent (last 80 years) and that until then babies wrapped in pink blankets were boys.   I thought the blind-taste test of different red foods (tomato, red pepper, strawberries, etc.) was an interesting challenge.  And, during the Middle Ages the colour black was banned from pictures.

I would recommend this for grades 4-8.  This might be an art book but there are opportunities to bring in science and history.  Most enjoyable.

And, Happy Victoria Day! 

Here are today's Nonfiction Monday offerings:

At Books for Learning it's a springtime trip to a local pond that inspires a list of books including Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond, Pond Walk, and Looking Closely Around the Pond.

At Laurasalas, writing the world for kids reading All the Water In the World by George Ella Lyon, awes this blogger.

At Shelf-Employed, there's an intriguing offering, Seeing Red: the true story of blood by Tanya Lloyd Kyi.

At NC Teacher Stuff, Jeff looks at The Krakatau Eruption by Peter Benoit and its global impact. 

At SimplyScience Blog, Cool Engineering Activities for Girls by Heather E. Schwartz will teach and entertain.

At Jean Little Library, The Salmon Bears by Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read offers us an opportunity to enter the world of coastal bears living in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia.

At Gathering Books, Myra offers an engrossing memoir The House That Baba Built by Ed Young.

At Biblio File, read about a fascinating life cut short, Dan Eldon: Safari as a Way of Life by Jennifer New.

At Supratentorial, another biography offered by today's reviewers, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter.

At The Swimmer Writer, Police Dog Heroes by Linda Bozzo is recommended.

At The HappyNappyBookseller, read a review for Best Shot in the West by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack Jr.

At Playing by the Book, a whole list of books about changing urban and rural landscapes over time is especially interesting as it includes a few international titles.  A couple of US titles are Street Through Time and Popville.

At All About the Books by Janet Squire we have a review for The Cornflake King by Edwin Brit Wyckoff.

At Patchwork of Books, a look at baby animals will put you in the mood for spring.  Cheetah and Gorilla by Suzi Eszterhas are reviewed.

At Booktalking Children's Books, we're going global with a look at What We Wear: Dressing Up Around the World by Maya Ajmer and company.

At Chapter Book of the Day, Hockey by Blain Wiseman will tie in nicely with Stanley Cup fever. (This review is appended to Booktalking Children's Books.)

At Nonfiction Book Blast, Lives of the Musicians by Kathleen Krull is featured.

At Perogies & Gyoza, Plant a Little Seed by Bonnie Christensen will definitely make you want to get out and start working in your garden.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

“The pine was lonely. But it did not know it.”

The Lonely Pine by Aaron Frisch (577.586 FrL 2011 PIC BK) is a lyrical look at a pine tree growing in the far north, past the tree line.  Conditions are very harsh. Trees typically do not grow past a certain latitude or elevation due to extreme cold, lack of moisture, exposure to wind or poor soil conditions. This poem becomes a tribute then to this exception that manages to survive.

So, The Lonely Pine pays homage to a lone tree that,

...had grown where it should not.
The air was too bitter.
The ground too solid.  Earth’s crown too close.
And yet, there it stood.

Month by month we are given a snapshot as to what this little tree endures, like January’s winds that throw “daggers of ice”, March’s cold “that made its limbs creak and needles jangle” or July’s sun that “finally showed its full face”. 

We read that “the pine could only live.  Live and watch and listen and feel.”  So we too watch the polar bears, foxes, and migratory birds that inhabit the north, listen to the buzz of insects, and feel the earth tremble as herds of muskox pass.

Much of the information is conveyed through the illustrations (by Etienne Delessert) which depict the animals or conditions that may or may not be mentioned in the text.  Some of the illustrations are a little too stylized for my taste and I had difficulty discerning what animal was shown in the month of July (maybe a wolf?).

Overall, I liked the book and would recommend it for the grade 6 science unit (in Alberta) about trees that asks students to learn about the importance and interactions of organisms and trees within specific habitats. Could provide a starting point for research about this topic.

I could also see this book used in higher grades in language arts as a good example of poetic use of language.  I love the last line, which is also the title of today’s blog.  It’s a testament to unacknowledged endurance and resilience.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A world away

I See the Sun in Afghanistan by Dedie King (958.1 KiI 2011 PIC BK)is one in a series of books that looks to present a glimpse into the lives of children living in different parts of the world.

For a young girl living in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, daily activities include waking up very early to fetch water from a well located a short distance from her house, going to school in the morning, and doing chores in the afternoon.  Habiba appreciates the beauty of her home, the smells from her mother’s kitchen and presence of her family.  The importance of family and helping one another is demonstrated when Habiba’s family opens their home to an uncle, a soldier, who was has lost his legs and a set of homeless cousins, aunt and uncle, as a result of the war.  Habiba does wonder how it will turn out, “how can so many people live together in our small house?”  But it is accepted and life goes on as a meal is shared and everyone settles in for the night.

There is a gentleness in this story which is a little unexpected.  With the many horrible stories we hear about Afghanistan in the news, this one is about the everyday flow of life.  There is an author’s note at the end of the book that explains that Bamiyan is one the more peaceful and safe areas in this fraught country.   The illustrations by Judith Inglese also contribute to the calm quality of life for Habiba’s family. She uses a mix of media, photographs and pencil drawings which creates softness to the illustrations.

The book is written in both English and Dari and a glossary will help children with some of the unfamiliar Dari words incorporated in to the story.

I liked the story and the illustrations.  I liked that this wasn’t about the war and the political turmoil that mires down this country.

But – I wonder about the authenticity of the voice in this story.  This is not written by an Afghan but by an American author who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the 1960s. She may be familiar with this area and certainly feel she has an understanding of the culture but I wonder what an Afghan would think.  Are the values accurately portrayed?  Culture is finely nuanced and I wonder what has been missed.  I don’t know enough to know what isn’t right or if anything is misrepresented.

I will recommend this book, however and suggest it for students in grades 1 to 5 because learning about life in other parts of the world can be a way to look more closely at the way North Americans live.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

List of good books in the making – please help

So, I was updating my Goodreads list when I noticed a side box promoting different topical lists created by Goodreaders readers.  Microhistories – Sweeping Social Histories of Just One Thing jumped out at me.

I love this kind of book.  Lots of detailed information about a specific item, person or event with additional insights about its impact or broader implications over time.  My most recent adult favourite example is Home: a short history of private life by Bill Bryson (which made the list).

But what about books for kids with the same kind of parameters?  I couldn’t find any such list on Goodreads so, I’ve started my own.

Please check out Microhistories for Juveniles – Social History of Things, Events and People.  I’m listing my favourite kids’ books that encompass this idea of exploring how one thing can be of major significance in a really big way for many people over a long period of time.  The book I led off with is Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson.  I blogged about this one a while back and listed my reasons why I love this book.  Great narrative with lots of history and connections with social issues even today.

I’d be thrilled to have others added to this list.  I’m hoping to discover more such books through this list for both the Doucette Library and myself. Just click on the above link and add away.

If you don’t belong to Goodreads, and don’t want to join, but have a recommendation, please leave it in the comments box and I’ll add it for you.

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