Monday, September 29, 2014

September 2014 Storytime Briefly

I am one of those moms who longs for longer summer vacations--library visits, summer projects, and no homework.  However, there are a few good things about school being back in session, and one of them is a return to weekly storytimes.  This year, I am reading to third graders and enjoying slightly longer books.  In September I paired fiction books with true stories.

We talked about books and read
  • The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers; and
  • With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzzane Slade, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell.
At the end of With Books and Bricks, we read Booker T. Washington's words: "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed."  We discussed the obstacles he had to overcome to get an education and build a school.

We talked about math and read
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; and
  • One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi.
In spite of the third graders' confidence that the Rani had made a good choice when she chose her reward of a single grain of ice on the first day and then an amount double that of the preceding day on each subsequent day for thirty days, I still heard "ahs" and "wows" as I unfolded the page showing her final payment in One Grain of Rice. Numbers become more real when you can visualize them.

We talked about freedom and read
  • Two Parrots by Rashin; and
  • Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
I asked the students to think about the merchant's conclusion in Two Parrots:  "Freedom is more important than food and water and all the wealth in the world."  That can be hard to understand when you have always known freedom.  The students were troubled by Henry's plight, particularly when his wife and children were sold, and despite an unexpected fire drill midway through the story, Henry's Freedom Box was one of my favorite books of the month.

We talked about the joy in finding just the right word and read
  • Nelly May Has Her Say by Cynthia DeFelice, illustrated by Henry Cole; and
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
I wished I had had the thesaurus my dad bought for me when I was seven to show the students as I told them how I loved reading through the lists of words.  A thesaurus reminds me of Mark Twain's words: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and lightning."

And finally, we talked about inventions and read
  • Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat; and
  • Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy, illustrated by Joe Morse.
We talked about two inventions that had accidental beginnings--chocolate chip cookies and Post-It Notes.  I have been waiting for a good chance to share Hoop Genius, one of my favorite books from last year, and finally found one.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

danyelle recommends A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

Some books capture a reader's attention with suspense-filled action, and you can hardly turn the pages quickly enough to find out what will happen next, while others present sympathetic characters that you come to care about.  Still others, render the setting so vividly that you can imagine being there yourself.  Certainly, these strengths are not mutually exclusive, and the books we love to read usually have multiple strengths.  And while Volcano Beneath the Snow does many things well, the thing that makes it stand out in my mind is the remarkable way it engages readers in ideas.

The narrative opens with a speech given by a tall, thin, sunken-cheeked man at a political meeting: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand,' . . . I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . .'" (2)  These words spoken by Abraham Lincoln addressed a mid-nineteenth century crisis for our country, but the ideas they convey are still relevant today, as are the other questions introduced in the six-page prologue and explored throughout the text.

Can a man engage in villainous acts and be a hero? Should man act in strict obedience to the laws, thus supporting and upholding the government, or in obedience to his conscience?  Can violence in the pursuit of moral justice be righteous?   Marrin offers conflicting answers posited by Abraham Lincoln,  Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and of course, John Brown.

Brown grew up at the beginning of the nineteenth century when our country was young, restless, and divided by the issue of slavery.  Marrin addresses the rise of slavery, the terrible cost of the slave trade, and gives equal time to the problems facing the country and Brown's role in them.  (In fact, there are entire chapters when you can forget you are reading about Brown.)

Clashing viewpoints of abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and pro-slavery advocates underscore the complexity of the problem, thereby resisting simplification of this historical chapter into good guys versus bad guys.  And Marrin doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of racism and flawed individuals.  The honest portrayal of Lincoln's views in particular may surprise some readers.

In John Brown, readers meet neither a villain nor a hero, but a man whose life was filled with contradiction.  He had little formal education, was a troublemaker as a teen (bossy, aggressive, and prone to lying), and was fascinated by history.  He was deeply religious, highly opinionated, and "admired for his 'invincible honesty'".  (15)  And most importantly (to this story, at least) he firmly believed he was called by God to liberate slaves, and he embraced the use of terrorist tactics to do it.

Brown's execution does not come at the end of the book, just as his death did not end his influence.  The final sixty pages of the book lay out the chain of events that were triggered by Brown's failed plot at Harpers Ferry and end with the eventual abolition of slavery.

Marrin's conclusion looks at Brown's legacy, citing examples of men who acted on similar beliefs in recent times.  He says, "[Brown] raised thorny questions about the use of violence at a time when democracy seemed ineffective and the road to justice blocked by self-interest, brutality, and racism."--questions readers will ponder long after the last page.  (207)

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
by Albert Marrin
published by Alfred A. Knopf
April 2014
recommended for ages 12 and up

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Another Excuse to Read

The Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (Cybils Awards) recognize books with both literary merit and popular appeal.  If you would like to learn more about the Cybils, you can read about the awards here.

This year I'll be serving as a first-round panelist for Young Adult Nonfiction, and it looks like I am in good company.  I'm looking forward to spending heaps of time with the nominated books during the next couple of months, so put together a list of books you would like to see recognized and nominate your favorites starting on October 1.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

tara recommends Lockwood & Co. The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

Some books are meant to be read late into the night; a dark, shadowy room with only small flickering light illuminating the words on the page creates an ambiance that ignites your imagination . . . if you dare.  In the case of The Whispering Skull, you may want to read in mid-day to avoid any sudden appearances of uninvited Visitors.

This second book in the Lockwood & Co. series continues the ghost-fighting adventures of Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins, children with psychic abilities who risk their lives confronting Britain's wandering spirits.  Lockwood is the charismatic leader of the struggling agency, George is the researcher, and Lucy. as the newest member of the team, is still identifying all of her psychic abilities.

As the smallest agency, they are always looking for ways to prove themselves.  When a job goes wrong, and members of the Fittes Agency, a much larger a prestigious company, are there to swoop in and finish the job, Lockwood throws out a challenge.  Whoever loses the next job will have to post a letter in the newspaper admitting defeat, thereby solidifying the winning agency's reputation as superior.  Unfortunately, the next job proves to be especially challenging with dangerous ghosts, murderous grave robbers, missing supernatural artifacts, haunted houses, and dangerous criminal contacts.  To top it all off, Lucy starts hearing a menacing voice that seems to be coming from a ghost jar . . .

Clever dialogue, elegant characters and a well-paced plot line show off Jonathan Stroud's palpable talent as a story-teller.  Even those of us not drawn to horror will appreciate this well-crafted adventure and be totally entrenched in this eerily plausible story.  Because the subject matter is supernaturally charged, there are some gruesome aspects that may turn the squeamish away and the obvious horror theme does make this more appropriate for an older audience.  All that being said, this somewhat heavy ghost-filled tale is masterfully broken up with witty banter, in typical Stroud style, that will make you laugh out loud.  

The ending is satisfying and does what any book in a series should do -- wrap up the loose ends that have arisen in the latest adventure, but leave a door open with an intriguing twist to lure you to the next book.  Without the frustration of stopping mid-story, there is just enough of a twist at the end to want to keep reading.  The only problem?  Now we have to wait for Book Three.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Lockwood & Co., Book 2  The Whispering Skull
by Jonathan Stroud
published by Disney-Hyperion
September 2014
recommended for ages 12 and up

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Long List and and Moving Beyond First Impressions

The National Book Award long lists are being announced this week.  Check out the long list for Young People's Literature.   I'm glad to see Revolution, The Port Chicago 50, and Brown Girl Dreaming--they are all on my long list this year.  I just started Greenglass House last night and still have Skink--No Surrender in my to-read stack.  I guess I'm a little behind in my reading.

We are well into September and that means Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott are both up and running for the season.  You can get in on the speculation and discussion or just enjoy lurking.  Either way, you'll read about some of the best books of the year.

And if you are interested in some early Newbery and Caldecott predictions, Betsy Bird has her picks at A Fuse 8 Production.  Don't skip the comments.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

tara recommends Colors of the Wind by J.L. Powers, paintings by George Mendoza

Lately, I have been drawn to non-fiction picture books.  They are such a great way to expose all ages to  amazing, true stories in a very short amount of time.  It is especially fun to be introduced to people you've never heard of before.  Such is the case with Colors of the Wind:  The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza.

George Mendoza was a boy who "never stayed still" and "never got sick."  He dreamed of being a basketball player.  Until one day, he started getting terrible headaches and the world looked like it was painted red.  He was losing his sight, but started seeing brilliant colors and flashing lights.  Because he couldn't play basketball anymore, he started to run.  He ran to forget that he was blind, but he soon discovered he was fast.  So fast, in fact, he became an Olympic runner.

George continued to see the world in a kaleidoscope of colors and decided to follow the advice a priest had given him to "paint what you see."  After winning a contest for blind artists, he started painting every day.  Now, his paintings hang in museums and inspire people to explore and develop hidden talents.

Mendoza's life is an inspiration to anybody who has faced seemingly unbearable obstacles and broken dreams.  His story gives hope with a message of second chances and the power of reinventing your life and reevaluating your goals.

You will want to check out this book to enjoy the inspirational story of George Mendoza and marvel at his beautiful paintings.  Each page showcases his unique style in an explosion of texture, bold colors and interesting lines that will stay with you long after you close the book.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Colors of the Wind:  The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza
by J.L. Powers, paintings by George Mendoza
published by Purple House Press
September 2014