Monday, December 24, 2012

The day of the Night Before Christmas...

It's hard to know what to wish for people at this time of year.  It's a landmine field for political correctness.

However, I do wish everyone peace, peace and more peace for the upcoming new year.
Yup, we all definitely need more peace -- everywhere.

Happy New Year.   Tammy

Thursday, December 20, 2012

“Inspiration is for amateurs. Artists just show up and get to work.”

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction award in 2012.  Aimed at middle grades, the artist introduces himself and his art with a kid-generated questions and answers section and reproductions of his large-scale portraits (mostly of himself done in divided, flippable segments which are great fun to flip back and forth).

I spent quite a bit of time with this book last summer when I was reading books that could tie into the big idea of perspective.  Artistic perspectives would work, so I looked at many resources about different kinds of artists.  I had never heard of Chuck Close and was mightily intrigued with his work and his life.

The kids ask all sorts of questions, such as
  • How did you become such a great artist?
  • Have you ever painted anyone famous?
  • Why are your paintings so big?
  • When you were paralysed, were you afraid you wouldn't be able to paint again?
This gives Chuck Close the opportunity to explain his work, influences and some life defining moments.  The paralysis question relates to a collapsed blood vessel in his spine that left him unable to move from the chest down.  After eight months of intensive physio-therapy he was able to move his arms and hands enough to paint with some technical assistance.

The book focuses primarily on his art work.  He compares his work to that of a composer, “making music with paint colors”.  Many of his portraits are comprised of many ‘abstract’, miniature paintings or colours and shapes that relies “on the viewer’s eye to assemble the face.”  Truly fascinating.

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Guest blogger - View from the 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.

The book club idea sounds like a great idea.  Janet's list reminds me of a couple of titles that I've been meaning to read for long time like Queen's Own Fool and Sara Pennypacker latest title which has just arrived in the Doucette.  Good thing the Christmas break is just around the corner...

Once more with feeling….

So the teacher that I worked with last year to pull together a list of books for her grade 6 class arrived in the library earlier this month with another request. Still trying to encourage “spontaneous reading”, Jane is now starting a monthly book club. She is asking the students to read a book, any book, really, as long as it is age suitable and one that they have not read before. Then they will have a discussion (with cookies). She had brought down her list to me to see what on her list was in the library.

I was pleased that the library had many of the books on her list – but of course, I could not help but add my own two cents to her list.

So here are some of my choices:

Countdown by Deborah Wiles. Tammy has recommended this before on her blog, but I think it bears repeating. It’s a time that I remember vaguely (being very young, of course), but the story of family is timeless. And the inclusion of “artifacts” from that time period makes the book visually interesting as well. There is apparently going to be a second book of an intended three sometime in the future. And her other books are also excellent choices for grade 6 girls (Love, Ruby Lavender etc.)

Queen’s Own Fool and Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen . These are the first two books in the Stuart trilogy. They can be read separately (I read Girl in a cage first), but they both tell of events during the Stuart reign in Scotland. Yolen’s characters are strong young women, in a time when it was very tough to be one – and that is only one of the reasons why I like her books. I think they are historically accurate – not being a historian, I can’t say that with complete authority – but they feel true and are rich in the detail that matters.

Jerry Spinelli  - Stargirl , Loser and other such titles by him. I read Stargirl and even though my elementary and high school years are looong ago, I connected with his story of non-conformity and the challenges it brings, both to those who are “different” and to those who are their friends. This might more correctly be called a teen book – but its innocence makes me wish that more teen books took this style, instead of some of the current trends. Ditto for “Loser”, another of his books.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen – or Hoot or Flush. These are great mysteries, written by an adult mystery author and (successfully, in my view) incorporating an environmental message that is neither preachy nor boring. 

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay. I was first introduced to this book in a mother daughter book club that Tammy facilitated. Since I read it, there have been 4 more books written about this wondrously quirky family. In this book (the first one), we are introduced to the Casson children, all named for paint colours and all with their own endearing charms and quirks.  This is gentle fun writing and I have since read the following titles – and I still like the series.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. Many of the students are familiar with Pennypacker’s Clementine books and this book is a natural transition for readers who loved those books, but require a book with a little more meat in it. The premise of the story is not completely believable (at least by adult standards) but I enjoyed the interplay between Stella and Angel and I kept reading mostly to find out when they would be “found out”.

I could go on and on. One of the reasons that I love this process is that it keeps me reading books with a view to the question “Who would like this book?”.  Jane’s book club has led both of us into a whole other realm of reading and a new project for her students – but more on that later.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Deadly politics

With media attention on the Middle East over the last year and half, Zahra’sParadise by Amir and Khalil is a graphic novel that is very timely, giving us an opportunity to learn more.

The story takes place after the 2009 elections in Iran.  The results of the election are being contested by huge protests that fill the streets of major cities.  The people in these rallies risk incurring the ire of the Ahmadinejad regime.  Zahra’s Paradise tells of one fictional family’s trials and tribulations trying to trace Mehdi, a young student lost during the protest and caught up in a tyrannical nightmare world.

Mehdi’s mother and brother tirelessly search for any trace of him at hospitals, prisons and records offices, following leads and asking help of anyone with any government connections.  Their fears and frustrations are palpable.  They are angry and inconsolable.  This is not their Iran.  This is not the Iran they want to live in.  There is no happy reunion for this family or for many others.  There is determination to hold onto the memories of those tortured and killed.  They will not be forgotten.

The black and white illustrations perfectly compliment the text. Slightly cartoon-like, the characters are distinctly drawn, action is easily conveyed, as are the emotional highs and lows.  There is some sexual content (language, nudity) that may not be appropriate for younger teens.

I would highly recommend this title for upper high school.  There are great connections to social studies when looking at current events, the Middle East, issues about democracy and justice and historical thinking.  The last pages provide information about Farsi words, references to people, the historical context for the election and the Arab Spring, information about Neda Agha Soltan and what activists are doing to bring attention to the Iranian government’s human rights violations.  This last section of the book was fascinating.

Pair this one with Persepolis for additional information about life in Iran during the Islam revolution that overthrew of the Shah of Iran.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Scientific thinking

Far From Shore: Chronicles of anOpen Ocean Voyage by Sophie Webb is a detailed and quiet account of four months spent on a research ocean vessel collecting data about various marine animals (from plankton, various species of fish and tuna, dolphins and whales to sea birds).  The data collected will eventually be studied for many reasons but the primary purpose is to see whether populations of dolphins affected by purse-seine fishing have started to recover.

This four month journal certainly give us a good idea what it’s like to be a marine biologist/naturalist involved in such a research project.  Besides enjoying the beautiful water and wildlife, there are immense stretches of tedium, little privacy and down time from work (except when it storms or the ship stops for supplies at various ports).  Detailed descriptions of the ship’s layout and explanations of nautical and scientific terms are also included.

The author’s illustrations (completed while onboard) also give us visuals to show us what she sees as well as what she imagines. For example, the marine life that is below water is displayed to give us a sense of life at great depths, such as a sperm whale chasing squid or what  mixed school of tuna dolphins look like.

Geographic coordinates, scientific equipment, maps, charts and labelling of animal species all contribute to make this a good science book for middle grades.  Not a lot of excitement and drama to capture a student’s attention, but full of good information book about the nature of research on the open ocean.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Not so straight up

A Meal of the Stars: Poems Up and Down by Dana Jensen is a visual feast in a lean sort-of-way.  Short poems written in one word sentences are meant to be read from the bottom-up or top-down.  It’s not always clear where to start (at the top or at the bottom) but can be quickly figured out when the lines don’t make sense.

The up and down-ness of the poems figure into what is being described: stars that make wishes are above us and so start up and come down; a hand held balloon on a string goes from the hand upwards until the balloon pops.  Verticality is definitely part of the word-picture dynamic.

The poems themselves are slices of whimsy (could a long-necked giraffe make a meal of the stars?) and everyday life (a dad climbing a ladder to paint a missed spot on a house peak) that reflects a child’s perspective.

The illustrations are a treat, too. Rendered in watercolour and ink, their cartoony feel adds to the playfulness of the text. 

Recommended for elementary grades.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Personalizing history

Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs can be an entry point for engaging younger readers with history.  Personal stories may hold more appeal because it ‘really happened’ to someone. Academic retellings may be too dry.

I often like biographies/memoirs because they give me more insight into a historical event, with the extra drama of a real person having lived through it (Just Behave Pablo Picasso by Jonah Winter or His Name was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden).  Sometimes, I find it’s just the voice of the person that I find interesting, like in Pam Munoz Ryan’s The Dreamer about poet Pablo Neruda.

So, in looking at three picture books that I recently came across I wondered what kids would make of them.

First up is Keep Your Eye On the Kid: the Early Years of Buster Keaton by Catherine  Brighton.  I like old movies and I like what little I've seen of Buster Keaton.  Reading about his childhood and how he got into the movies was interesting.  The picture book format meant that it was fairly cursory and moved along quickly.  I think the strongest part of the book is the illustrations which are done in panels usually two or three per page, giving the narrative added interest. I particularly liked the pages showing Buster sitting through his first movie, how enthralled he became with them and how the on-screen speeding train freaked out most of the audience, but only intrigued Buster even more.  The restrained feel of the illustrations highlights Buster’s straight man persona as well.

But I do wonder what kids would make of this one.   Will kids in early elementary grades be drawn to this story?  I wouldn't think that Buster Keaton would be well known to kids today or that his movies would even be very accessible.  Though I really like this book I think it would have to be ‘hand sold’ or integrated into a unit to make much of an impression.  His movies were made during the depression era, so perhaps this book will find a place there.

 Second, is Surviving the Hindenburg by Larry Verstraete, another picture book that I enjoyed very much and felt that kids would connect to easily (or at least more readily than the above book).  This is a big, dramatic story that captures the imagination in the way that many tragedies do.  The mode of transportation is unusual and speaks to the early days of aviation.  Not all the employees were adults, so reading about how children worked at the time is interesting, too. That the Hindenburg crashed in flames when landing in New York City, but there were so few deaths is incredible and totally attention-worthy.   The cover illustration capturing the moment when the aircraft hit the ground, engulfed in flames, is eye-catching and I think will spark curiosity in kids.  This was told in third person so didn't have the immediacy that a first person narrative would have added to the drama.  This could be added to a science unit about flight, social studies for it’s historical connections and child labour content.

And, the third book that I came across was I Will Come Back For You: a Family in Hiding During World War II by Marisabina Russo.  This is based on a true story of a German-Jewish family that immigrates to Italy to escape persecution. After Italy declares its support to Nazi Germany, the persecution follows them, splitting up the family.  But support from Italian resistors enable the father and then the mother to go into hiding when they are about to be deported to concentration camps. The story is told from the perspective of a child, now a grandmother, who is telling her granddaughter this family history.  A charm bracelet that she never takes off is filled with charms that represent the different aspects of the story – donkeys, a bicycle, barn, boat, piano, spinning wheel and pig.

Again, this book might struggle with finding an audience.  The picture book format and cursory nature of the story might be lacking for older students who will likely know more or want to know more about the Holocaust and World War II.  And, younger children may miss or be confused by elements of the story without more background knowledge.  The story was fictionalized for simplicity, as mentioned in the author’s afterword which gives dates and additional information about this time period.  I liked this book, too and would have it on hand as an additional resource for students in grades 5 and up.

I enjoy reading about the lives of people who live in interesting times or books that add an interesting element to the writing.  But not all kids will necessarily make those connections without some prompting and introduction so the stories become more relatable.  And, there’s nothing wrong with having to introduce a book to get a kid to read it - just as long as there is that opportunity to do so.

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