Thursday, June 28, 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 is an issue for all libraries of whatever size both personal and public  -- too many books, too little space.  Tough decisions to be made.
Please enjoy the view from a school library

It’s the end of the year at my school library, and along with chasing down overdue books, trying to get resources back from teachers and cleaning the library, I am also doing some long overdue weeding in the picture book area. This has been necessitated by the fact that the shelves are jammed so tight that shelving books has become almost impossible.  As new books come in, I have to free up space and get rid of some old books.

But how to decide what to get rid of? In some cases, it is easy – any book where there is more than one copy? Gone.  Any book that is held together with scotch tape and love – and not much more – is gone. In this case, however, I take a good look at the use that the book has had and decide if I want to replace it.

The biggest struggle I have had is with books that kids love, but that from my perspective offer little in the way of …….merit (not sure if that is the right word). In this case, these are books like  - well, to start,  anything by Walt Disney. Give the man and his empire its due, the films and the spin-off books have made a huge chunk of change. The books offer kids something familiar – but for the library’s money, there are better stories told with similar themes. For example, the Disney version of Cinderella (which I think every little girl has taken out at least once this year), can be replaced by the version of the tale by Charles Perrault. And the theme exists in versions from other countries and cultures. Even Canada has a hockey version (Splinters by Kevin Sylvester) – of course, take away the dress and the glass slipper and sometimes the appeal is gone as well…..however, the Disney books represent something commercial to me and in my opinion, don’t belong in the school’s library.

A second example of books that are going in the big bin of discards are the Berenstain Bears, Mercer Mayer and Franklin the Turtle books.  Personal bias here – I find these books to be somewhat dated and “juvenile”.  I know, I know, I am talking about books for children, but many of the themes in these books can be found in more current, less formulaic and better quality picture books. For example, one of the books that I am tossing is “The new baby” by Mercer Mayer – because I think a book like “Julius, baby of the world” by Kevin Henkes is a better depiction of the contrasting emotions when a new baby arrives on the scene. Similarly, “The Berenstain bears visit the dentist” can be replaced by William Steig’s ”Doctor deSoto”  or “Tabitha’s terrifically tough tooth” by Charlotte Middleton (OK, not about the dentist, but it does deal with loose teeth, which is a HUGE concern in lower school classes).  

Others being tossed are the cheaply produced ABC or number books (you know - the ones with 99 cent stickers on them).  The school seems to have been the beneficiary of a great number of these books – but when you can have a book like “LMNO peas” by Keith Baker or “M is for moose” by Charles Pachter or “One boy” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger or “365 penguins” by Jean-Luc Fromental, these books pale by comparison.

One of the principles upon which I purchase books for the library (besides the obvious ones of good stories, good illustrations/pictures, curriculum tie-ins etc.) is the idea that if a book can be easily obtained at home, I am not likely to buy it (or accept it as a donation) for the library. The books that I mentioned above are examples of ones that can be picked up anywhere and also fill the need of being an easy diversion during a shopping spree (I know that’s how many of these style of books landed in our house in our kids’ early years). I want students to find new experiences on the school book shelves and to take away from each library visit a book that gives them HUGE pleasure, and that they want to read, or have read to them, again and again. And I love picture books. There is something about them that feels like a good experience is about to happen when I open the covers. And really, that’s what I want the students to feel with each and every book on the shelf.  I think good picture books are the start of a love affair with literacy and reading and that the younger a child starts that affair, the more likely it will be that books will follow them all of their life.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Power of Pictures


A couple of weeks ago I listed a few professional teaching resources about visual literacy, highlighting the connections between the content areas. Understanding what goes into making a great or powerful image is important to visual literacy, both in creating our own pictures and deconstructing the work of others.
Today’s book, Migrant Mother: how a photograph defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo (973.917 NaM 2011) is a great example of deconstructing what turns a picture, in this case a photograph, into a strong visual statement about something else. 

The picture on the book’s cover is one most of us have seen: Dorothea Lange’s iconic black and white photo of a pensive mother, looking off to one side, away from the camera and three of her children, unkempt and wearing tattered clothes.

It’s easy to see why this is often shown in conjunction with the American 1930s era of economic downturn -- desperate farmers driven from drought stricken farms, smothering dust storms, indigent migrant workers, long bread lines and many, many photos of people looking wrung-out or exhausted, often with little resiliency left –  all of these can be alluded to in this photo.

The book sets it up beautifully. It starts with Dorothea Lange’s motivation for taking on the cause of poor, displaced migrant workers. As a successful studio photographer, she had no need to take on the job other than a desire to make a difference in the lives of these desperate people.  By publicizing their plight, the causes, and the lack of social welfare, Dorothea Lange saw a way to raise awareness across the country and mobilize the government into providing assistance.

The book provides enough information about the Great Depression without too much detail. As expected, more emphasis is on how Dorothea Lange met this woman and the series of photos (a total of six, which surprised me) she arranged to get us to enter into this world of deprivation.  Who the woman is, what her life was like before and after the photograph was taken, her family and her thoughts about the photo are fascinating to read about, too. 

 For such a short book, there is a lot here to show us the significance of this photo and how such a photo became an icon for its time.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from this series.


Check out today's round up of recommended nonfiction children's literature at Capstone Connect.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Traditional Indian Art


Two recent additions to the Doucette Library caught my attention.  But then again, most books from Tara Publishing out of India often hold my attention for the traditional art forms it incorporates into picture book making.

 The Great Race by Nathan Kumar Scott and Jagdish Chitara (398.209598 ScG 2011 PIC BK) is a retelling of an Indonesian folktale about pride coming before a fall.  In an Aesop- like tale, a boastful deer, Kanchil, challenges all the animals of the jungle to a race to prove who is the fastest.  Only a tiny snail comes forward to accept the challenge.  To the amazement of all of the animals, the snail beats the deer twice.  How did he do it?

It’s the art work that really shines in this book.  It fits very well with traditional storytelling with a strong folk style and limited colour palette.  There is a write-up at the back that explains that the Waghari were formerly nomads who created block printed textiles as a form of worship.  We learn about the method used to create these pieces of art and how they are growing in popularity with the upper classes of India.  We also learn that the low caste Waghari, though making some money from their skills, are still considered socially inferior.


 Mangoes & Bananas by Nathan Kumar Scott and T. Balaji is another folktale from Indonesia that introduces us to different traditional Indian textile art form.  Kalamkari is a centuries old tradition that depicted “Indian epics on large pieces of textile, which were hung in temples and carried from town to town by minstrels.”  The process of production is epic in itself with lots of preparation of the cloth, renderings of the pictures, and labour intensive hand colouring. 

This tale, again, features Kanchil, the boastful deer from The Great Race and his friend, Monyet, a monkey.  Kanchil comes up with the idea to plant a garden as a way to have easy access to their favourite foods, mangoes and bananas.   But as with many plans there is often an unforeseen flaw.  Kanchil cannot climb trees to pick his own mangoes and must rely on Monyet.  With the best of intentions to share, Monyet gets caught up with the wonderful bounty and eats all the bananas.  This entitles Kanchil to all the mangoes without sharing.  Of course, Monyet is still the one having to pick the fruit and thinks that just one mango won’t be missed.  One, leads to two and you know where this going.  Realizing that he is about to miss out on the mangoes, Kanchil starts insulting Monyet (“face like a papaya”, “head like a cabbage”, etc.).  Monyet reacts by throwing the remaining mangoes at Kanchil.  Who’s the winner in this one?

The stories are entertaining, but I have no way of knowing how authentic the retellings are.  However, I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations from both books.  I love that this enterprise between Tara and traditional artists introduces us to art styles from across India we would  never see otherwise.  Educating the reader about the peoples and art processes is fascinating. 

See for yourselves.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Just two out of a million?

Okay, I know there’s likely not a million books about number size.  But here are a couple.

How Big is a Million? By Anna Milbourne and Serena Riglietti (513.211 MiH 2008 PIC BK) is a very sweet picture book about a baby penguin’s quest to ‘see’ how much a million is.   He learns that 10 fish is a lot but a million is much, much more.  Then he learns that even though a 100 or a 1000 are also big numbers, a million is much, much more.  But Mama Penguin has the answer to his question and when the reader opens up the larger poster at the back of the book, we too can see a million stars in the night sky.  I can’t imagine trying to count every single little speck on this poster, yet I’m sure there will be a few kids out there who will try.  Though the illustrations are very cute and the premise is clear, there really isn’t much of a narrative for this picture book.  Suggested for kindergarten to grade 2.


Big Numbers and Pictures that Show Just How Big They Are! by Edward Packard (513.5 PaB 2000) though also about big numbers, extends the premise way beyond a mere million to a quadrillion.  I love how the size of the number is illustrated with peas – 1 pea on a dinner plate, 10 peas on a dinner plates, 1000 peas fills a dinner plate, 1 million peas covers the kitchen table, 1 billion peas fills a house, one trillion fills a neighbourhood, etc.  Lots of humour as you might expect with this one, plus little asides that compare aspects of a particular big number like 10 billion bacteria could fit in a drop of water or that a 100 million years ago there were dinosaurs.  I would use this one with kids in grades 3 to 6.

Two other quick recommendations are How Much is a Million? by David Schwartz (513.2 ScH 1985 PIC BK) and A Million Dots by Andrew Clements (513.2 ReeM 2006 PIC BK) both for a similar age group kindergarten to grade 3 or 4.



Today is Nonfiction Monday.  Go to Simply Science Blog to see this week's roundup.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Poetry Update


I’ve three books of poetry to recommend, starting with—


Dear Hot Dog by Mordicai Gerstein (811 GeD 2011 PIC BK).  The subtitle pretty much tells you what this collection is about, Poems About Everyday Stuff.  And it really is.  Starting with morning stuff: toothbrush, pants, toes, socks, etc., then moving on to 'stuff with which you do other stuff' on a summer day like kites, air, water, sun, rain, scissors, hot dogs, or an ice-cream cone, and finishing off with stuff needed to end a day, like spaghetti, bear (as in teddy), light and pillow.  These are light, playful odes to common objects which young children, or those of us with youthful spirits, can relate to. (See Toes, “we’ve become strangers this winter. I almost never see you... Or Ice-Cream Cone, “…I turn you and lick you, and with every lick there’s less of you. Come back!...).  The illustrations are a perfect fit with the breezy tone.


Next up is Cousins of Clouds: elephant poems by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer (811 ZiC 2011 PIC BK).  This is a most intriguing collection of poems and bites of information that epitomize the qualities of elephants. Learn about the differences between African and Asian elephants (head, ears, trunk, size), parenting, communication, folklore, and life in captivity as a working elephant or a rescued one. It’s an enjoyable way to read about elephants.  The illustrations, mixed-media collages, contribute to the eclectic feel of the book which is also pleasing.  Recommended for grades 1-6.


And, lastly, I’m recommending The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: a birder’s journal by Sallie Wolf (811 WoR 2011).  I think this is a collection that will work with various ages but feel that older readers will appreciate it more.  Organized by season, Sallie Wolf has taken entries from her journals, recording observations about birds as they court and build nests in spring, feed fledglings, bathe and preen in summer, and prepare for and live through cold winters. In addition to the poems, she includes lists of birds she sees each season, some of her notes, and small, roughly sketched drawings that capture the shape, colour or movement of the birds.  We see her as a birdwatcher, observer of nature, poet, journal writer and artist.  A great deal of the charm of the book is in its design. It mixes lots of white space with the seemingly simple drawings or watercolours, short, boxed poems and longer ones that look as if they’ve been taped into the journal.  A beautiful little book.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Like Gobies and Groupers


Coral Reefs by Jason Chin (577.789 ChC 2011 PIC BK) is a fantastic introduction to the varied and extraordinary creatures that form coral reefs and the animals that depend on them.

The text is all about the facts – how reefs form, what is coral, the importance of coral reef systems, and the relationship between plants and animals that live within this habitat.  Like I said, the facts.

The illustrations, though, take us on an adventure story. A girl pulls this book off a library shelf, delving into the world of reefs. Slowly, as she reads, the ocean and its creatures surround and submerge her into the watery environment (don’t worry about breathing problems).  The colour, shapes and textures of the different corals are very well displayed. We see parrot fish eating coral and then see sharks that eat the parrot fish.  The diversity of fish that live within reef systems is often shown, while the text only picks out a couple of specific species to illustrate the relationship between the fish and the reef.

As the book comes to an end, the above-world slowly begins to rematerialize, until eventually a soggy but contented reader shares her book with her friends.

A concise “afterwards” explains how coral reefs are under threat and how we can help protect them.  The author also provides very brief additional information about the relationship between coral and the algae living inside them, as well as a short bibliography.

Since this book is all about partnerships, relationships and interdependence within an ecosystem, I would extend my recommendation to another book, as well.

Reef by ScubaZoo (577.789 Re 2007) is a beautiful coffee-table book that really draws readers into the world of the coral reef.  Tons of gorgeous close-ups of corals, fish and plants will engage readers of all ages.  This book is not to be missed if you’re doing a unit about reefs, oceans, ecology, habitats, or environmental issues.

So, like the symbiotic relationship of gobies and groupers, these two books will enchant, inform and entertain students.  Chin’s will work best with students in elementary grades and the coffee-table book will work with anyone.




Today is Nonfiction Monday hosted at Shelf-Employed.  Check out this week's round-up of nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Professional resources – visual literacy.


In Monday’s post I wrote about infographics as illustrated in How to Land a Jumbo Jet. However entertaining or inspirational this book is, understanding and creating graphics falls within the broader concept of visual literacy.  Many of the ‘skills’ needed to analyze, interpret and create pictorial representations of information are embedded within the curriculum.  Critical thinking, classification, sequencing, deductive and inductive reasoning, hypothesizing and critiquing are skills found in the all the content areas.

Following are a few recommendations for books that will help you develop your understanding of visual literacy and the potential that it has in the classroom to engage students.

Teaching Visual Literacy: using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills edited by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (372.6 FrT 2008).
            Well, the subtitle pretty well covers it.  This book is a collection of essays that will give some basic background information, with chapters focussed on specific aspects of visual literacy.  Besides the formats listed in the subtitle. there are chapters about using picture books, films, and political cartoons and about how students with disabilities can be supported in their learning through visual literacy.

Visual Impact, Visual Teaching: using images to strengthen learning by Timothy Gangwer (2nd ed.) (371.3028 GaV 2009).
            This one provides a solid overview of the different types of learning and how visual learning fits into almost any teaching environment.  Gangwer is very big on using photos and having kids do the picture taking. He provides many examples of classroom situations to illustrate his points. Half the book is activities that will engage students in different ways.in all content areas (language arts, math, science and social studies) and also in arts and humanities, environmental education, life skills, enhancing self-esteem and global holidays.

Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge by David Hyerle (2nd ed.) (371.3028 HyV 2009)
            This one gets a lot more specific, focussing on specific tools. As listed in the book, these include: brainstorming webs for fostering creativity and open mindness; graphic organizers for fostering analytical content and process specific learning; conceptual mapping for fostering cognitive development and critical thinking; and Thinking Maps, a unique synthesis language of visual tools.

Developing Visual Literacy in Science K-8 by Jo Anne Vasquez et al. (507.1 VaD 2010).
            Though this one does focus on science it also provides an overview or ‘primer’ about visual literacy. The authors touch on the best known tools such as graphic organizers, conceptual maps and brainstorm webs but also delve into ‘3-D graphic organizers (foldables).

However deserving teachers are of their summer breaks, many also will get caught up on professional reading.  It may be that one of these titles will help you further your understanding and add to your instructional practices for visual literacy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Infographic-ophile – that’s me.


I’m a very visual kind of learner and this translates into using lots of visual aids (posters, maps, diagrams, books, kits, etc.) when I’m presenting a classroom workshop. When I’m thinking through an idea, I’ll usually start with a mind map of some sort. For instance, when I was developing ‘bibliographies’ for curriculum topics like geographical thinking, I knew I didn’t want to only make a list on piece of paper, which was going to be stuffed into a binder and forgotten. I wanted something that would offer content or ideas connected to the books.  I came up with mind maps that explored ideas and questions related to the Alberta curriculum and linked to a website with the recommended books. If you’re interested in what these look like, click on Books for Big Ideas.  My whole point being that combining facts with graphics can be an interesting and useful way to explore ideas.


How to Land a Jumbo Jet: a visual exploration of travel facts, figures and ephemera edited by Nigel Holmes (910.202 Ho 2011) is my kind of book.

So, what do learn about the world from this book?  Places to go nude, countries with the most airports, active volcanoes in the Ring of Fire, recommended vaccinations for different regions of the world, who is proud of their nationality and by how much, which country consumes the most coffee per capita, world’s most visited destination, what to take when backpacking, wettest and driest places on earth, which cities are recommended for the food, etc., etc., etc. – it’s all here. Lots of information, from the obscure to the arcane to the obvious.

But they are far from being dry, boring, clinical.  Each topic is displayed using some form of illustration with colour, pictorial elements, and varying fonts. Some are brilliant yet simple such as Fast Food, Fast Facts (shown here) or Top Trails , giving you easy to follow, interesting, pertinent and comparable facts.  Top Trails looks at five of the world’s most popular hiking trails (Colorado, Kungsleden, Haute Route, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail) and compares the distance, maximum altitude and starting altitude for each.  The graphic used for comparing the distances also conveys how much walking up and down a hiker would do, as well as the steepness.  Comparing the altitude for each of the hikes is very easy to understand as they are all plotted on the same mountain with Mount Kilimanjaro at the very top(19,336ft.) and Sweden’s Kungsleden hike at the bottom, a mere 3,773 feet.  Look how many words it took me to explain just these two components of this infographic.

Some of the charts are not very readable or appear too cluttered, which turns me off.  This won’t be the case for everyone. A colleague pointed out that if the book had been printed in a larger format, these illustrations may have been much more legible.

What I’m taking away from this book is the method of displaying information in a pictorial way with lots of zing for interest’s sake. If you’re into travel – great – you’re going to enjoy perusing the information contained within each graphic.  If you’re not, that’s ok, too.  This book can be source of inspiration for you and students when coming up with new ways of presenting information.  Some of these infographics are pretty sophisticated but with so many graphic organizer packages available (commercial and free) students may surprise you with how far they can go.  The possibilities are endless, as How to Land a Jumbo Jet demonstrates.



Today is Nonfiction Monday.  Hop on over to True Tales & a Cherry on Top to see a roundup of reviews of nonficiton children's literature.

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