Monday, February 28, 2011

Heroic proportions

A  Black man in the ‘wild’ west of Canada; a freed-slave who makes good as a rancher in southern Alberta; a man with endless integrity and huge physical strength, John Ware has become one of those larger-than-life people who make for good storytelling.

The graphic novel, The Duchess Ranch of Old John Ware by James Davidge (971.23 DaD 2010) portrays the life and times of this man from his release as a slave after the American Civil War, to his early cow-hand days in Texas and Montana up until he establishes his own ranch near Drumheller in Alberta.  We get snapshots of Calgary in its early days (lots of racism, especially for African-Americans) and some of his encounters with First Nations peoples, too.  I doubt many of us would think about the difficulty of establishing a family when there were few Black families with daughters of marrying age in the area, but Ware eventually did marry (happily it seems) to Millie, raising four out of five children.  Life was tough.  Always.

Overall, I liked this book but I didn’t love it.  Occasionally, I found the black and white illustrations a little inconsistent.  The book includes a couple of sections with the author’s poetry which didn’t really appeal to me though once I read the author’s notes about them, I at least could see what he had wanted to achieve with them. For example, the one right at the start of the book speaks to the birth of the universe and the earth, the development of the physical landscapes on earth and evolution of life, up to the 1800s.  I thought this was a little long winded and just wanted to get on with John Ware’s story.  I’m not always the most patient of readers.

I did think the section which included the ‘tall-tales’ about Ware was portrayed in a very interesting way -- as panels of ‘comic-strips’ reminiscent of Buck Rogers from the 25th Century.  Once past the first poem, the narrative keeps moving and does give us a very good sense about the ruggedness of life at this time and Ware’s high standing with those who knew him.  I really liked the way the author handled the death of Ware. It’s fairly stylized but did capture the ‘shock’ of it for me.  In spite of the racism prevalent in Calgary, John Ware had a very large funeral gathering as his casket made its way through the city to what is now Union Cemetery.

The author includes a few pages of notes about each page, or range of pages, giving us lots of insight into the writing process.  The research, deciding what stories to include and how each was to be illustrated, is fascinating to read about. Even though he includes additional information about John Ware’s life, I was left wondering about what happened to the children after his death as Millie predeceased her husband by only a few months.

I recommend this for grades 6 and up.

As my partner says, “this guy deserves a movie.”  John Ware’s life is pretty darn interesting and I, too, think it has potential for either the big or little screen.  Anyone?

Today is Nonfiction Monday at Rasco from RIF.  This is a weekly roundup of children's literature that is focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Well worth a look. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Changing worldview

Recently, I was prepping for an instructional workshop and, as per usual, collected way too many books.  Cut from this vast assortment were three resources all about Charles Darwin.

Now before you think my workshop was about science resources, let me clarify that it was to be for social studies, grades 7-12, with a focus on worldview.  (Worldview is one of the over arching concepts set out by Alberta Education in the social studies curriculum.)

The three resources were just such a tidy little package that I decided I had to share.

The first is a book I recently read and had particularly enjoyed, Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ leap of faith by Deborah Heiligman (576.82 HeC 2009).  This is nonfiction at its best.  It focuses on Charles’ work, especially as it impacted his personal life.  It starts off with his considerations about whether to marry or not. Once he decides to marry and Emma Wedgewood is wooed and accepts Darwin’s proposal, we learn how he meshes the two spheres (work and family) together.  Even his children are drawn into his work, literally, as Darwin occasionally uses them as test subjects.

Though the book does work through the process of how Darwin develops his theory about natural selection, it’s important to recognize (as the book does) the significance of Emma.  It is knowing how much Darwin loved and respected her that allows us to develop a broader understanding about this historical period and why Darwin worried so much about publishing his work for the general populace.  Emma was very devout and represents the ‘religious’ contingent whom Darwin knew would not be receptive to his theory.  He did not look forward to having to defend his work to those he knew would challenge him and he loathed the idea that, when he published his theory, Emma would be upset by it as well. 

The second book is The Darwin Experience by John Van Wyhe (576.82 VaD 2008).  This fantastic book is produced by the National Geographic Society and is another splendid way to explore Darwin’s world. The book slips out of a lovely boxed cover (it looks like it’s supposed to be a photo/memory album).  Within are lots of photographs and illustrations, boxed information and many reproduced primary documents.  The first one I came across is the ‘not marry/marry’ list that I mentioned from the first book, Charles and Emma.  Lots to peruse, read, and delve into with this one.

And third, is the novel, Ringside 1925: views from the Scopes trial by Jen Bryant.  This is a novel, based on a true story and told in narrative verse, about the trial of J.T. Scopes, a science teacher tried in a Tennessee court of law for teaching evolution in the early 20th century.  It is related by several fictional children and adults who represent the range of views held about Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  So, we meet some townspeople who are very open-minded and very keen to learn more about meshing faith and science (including a minister) but also Bible-thumping do-gooders, who see no redeeming value in anything not found in the Good Book. This is a fairly quick read, for grades 7 and up, that shows the long-term impact of Charles Darwin’s theories and the passionate debates that have happened in the past and continue even today.

There is no doubt that Charles Darwin was a man who rocked his and our world.  Looking at these resources is just one possible avenue for exploring the influences and impact of worldview on everyday life and see how far-ranging they can be.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Celebrating trees

“Describe characteristics of trees and the interaction of trees with other living things in the local environment.”
--from: Alberta Education, Program of Studies, Science: Grade 6, p.B-33.

The above statement is one of the general learner expectations as set out by the Alberta government for grade 6 students. 

Can’t you feel your heart start to pound with excitement?  Like this – not so much.  But then again, maybe you’re someone who doesn’t see trees as being very exciting anyways.  It’s so easy to take trees for granted and it can be difficult to see how important and vital trees are to the good health of the planet.  Cosmic thought, man…

But in prepping for a workshop where the above learner expectation was used as a starting point to introduce education students to diverse resources, I discovered masses of interesting, really interesting stuff about trees. Admittedly, I had to go looking for some of it outside the Doucette Library’s collection and bring it in, but still…

 And what I found is my latest favorite ‘coffee table’-type book called The Life and Love of Trees by Lewis Blackwell (582.16 BlL 2009).  It is filled with spectacular photographs of trees and forests from around the world, photographed from varying angles and showing seasonal variations. It contains,thoughtful quotes from deep thinking people, and tons of information about the science of trees, the aesthetics of trees and the state of the world’s forests.

Find out what a dendronaut is (p.30), or how big and old a single, living colony of genetically alike trees is (this is very cool, p.36), or just how nasty and ‘evil’ trees can be as they protract the torturous demise of competing plants (think strangler fig, p.144).  The author has created a certain amount of drama (besides the all the beautiful aspects) as he’s designed the book.  Like a meandering, diverting and speculative walk through a forest.

This book takes time.  Not as long as it takes a sequoia takes to reach maturity maybe, but certainly time enough to really enjoy the gentle tempo set by Lewis Blackwell.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

Ken Dyer continues telling us what its like to teach English to Chinese university students.  I recently asked him about                

Do I ever feel limited in what I can teach?

Absolutely, and on many levels.  I am limited in terms of level, pace and content. 

In terms of level when I choose topics and vocabulary in the booklets, I need to choose words that are not at a too high of level or the students won’t be able to follow along. That is one of the reasons why I have a “Vocabulary Search” at the beginning of each chapter to encourage students to become familiar with the vocabulary prior to class so they can to use them in class.  I do this for all of the listening activities as well.  This way they can learn the new terms prior to the listening activities and not get hung up on unfamiliar or complicated terms or phrases.  I also try to get my students to master a basic level of communication before adding new or more complicated language.  I find in our day-to-day conversations that we rarely use sophisticated language, so why force this on the students?

Related to level is pace. I can’t speak too quickly as most of my students range from low-intermediate to intermediate and many are still at the stage of translating some of the words while I talk. I can easily relate to my students as I’m always struggling with my Chinese (nowhere near an intermediate level). If I know the word, and the speaker says it too quickly, I won’t catch it.  In class I try to speak at a moderate pace and focus on saying the words clearly.  If something is misunderstood most of my students are not too shy and will ask me to repeat a statement or clarify it.  Plus, I come back to that helpful word – organic.  I can tell when the students are following along and when things have gone wrong.  You just need to feel the pulse of your students and stay at their level and speed.

And though I’m teaching young adults and not children, I am teaching in China.  And with that comes a certain level of restriction.  For example, you can’t talk about certain aspects of religion, especially the ones that are not seen in the best light by the Chinese government.  You can’t discuss Tibet and its bid for independence and discussing Falun Gong (a banned religious group in China) in class is a quick way to get deported.  As with children, anything that is too sexual is also a bad idea. But deciding what is, and what is not, too sexual is a grey area that can expand and contract at the whim of a school administrator, so it is best to clear things that may cross boundaries.  It is surprising to a lot of people that sex education is almost non-existent and most of the college students learn the ‘birds and bees’ from their classmates and movies!  That is a scary thought and makes me fear for the physical and mental health of my students.

Discussing sensitive political issues in class can also lead to trouble.  I often find I have to be very cautious if asked in class about something political. I have to give a very balanced answer as some students want me to say X is right and Y is wrong to start an argument or to support their own personal/political beliefs.  The students have limited access to Western media outlets so most of their knowledge on political issues comes from a Chinese point of view. 

So content has to be carefully chosen. At times, I do find it restrictive as I would like to start discussions about certain topics but realize, due to a lack of knowledge on the part of my students, a built-in bias from the Chinese media, and my desire to remain employed that I have to stick to safer topics.  That doesn’t mean it has to be boring, just well chosen and presented.  I have a great class on romance that teaches them how to flirt and kiss, which is quite well-received as it’s very humorous.  To be honest, most students don’t want the classes to be too heavy or serious either. They want to improve their English in a positive and enjoyable manner.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Interesting patterns

Before & after: a book of nature timescapes by Jan Thornhill (577.5 ThB 2005 PIC BK) is an interesting resource if you’re looking for an unusual science book that combines measures of time, observation skills, and nature.

The author has selected seven types of environments from different parts of the world (coral reef, savannah, Australian forest, tropical rainforest, wetland, meadow, and school yard) and shows how each changes with varying shifts in time. 

For example, the first set of pages shows a brightly coloured and highly detailed ‘snapshot’ of a coral reef.  There are many species of tropical fish, various types of coral, starfish, octopus, sea urchin, etc.  This is the ‘before’ shot.  Turn the page and we see what the same location would look like ‘after’ a few seconds.  Pretty much everything has moved except the coral, as you would expect. 

A little further on in the book, we look at a wetland at dusk.  Again, many animals, birds, insects, reptiles, fish, plants, etc. are depicted going about their lives as night is about to fall.  Turn the page and the scene is an hour later.  We see a pair of moose and group of raccoons that had not been visible in the preceding illustration and the heron that had been predominant in the ‘before’ illustration is now gone.

The last set of illustrations show a schoolyard that is about to undergo a transformation from barren yard to a vegetable-producing, bird-attracting, insect-laden garden as cultivated over the span of a year.

Each duo of pages is framed with the creatures that are, or will be, in attendance in the next set of pages, providing kids the opportunity to identity the wildlife and see what changes occur over a specific period of time.

Though young children ages 5 and 6 will enjoy looking at illustrations, I think kids even up to grade 5 will take pleasure in identifying changes between ‘before’ and ‘after’ in these timescapes.

Today is Nonfiction Monday hosted at Wrapped In Foil.  This is a weekly roundup of children's literature that is focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Well worth a look.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Playing with light, dark and book design

Shadow by Suzy Lee (823 L5148S PIC BK) is so much fun.  As with her previous book Wave (823 L5248W PIC BK) it’s a tribute to the power of play and imagination.

A little girl is exploring a clutter filled attic where objects (ladder, bike, vacuum, broom, tools, boxes, shoes, etc.) cast shadows that each in turn transform into shadow creatures.

But first let me tell you about the book’s layout.  Start by turning the book on its side to turn the pages up.  This allows the author/illustrator to use the spine-page break to delineate between the attic and the shadow worlds. (Makes you wonder how this would look on an e-reader, doesn’t it?)  This delineation is crucial for the narrative to work, especially since the book is wordless.

Now back to our story.

Little Girl has just pulled the string to turn on the light.  Click! She starts walking as if along a tightrope (the spine break).  She bends down and makes a shadow puppet with her hands, of a bird.  The bird becomes haloed in yellow as do the broom (now a tall exotic looking flower).  The bird flies up (or down depending on which world we focus on) and we notice the wheels of the bicycle have turned into a full moon and a crescent moon, haloed in yellow. 

All the objects proceed to turn into creatures that take on a life of their own.  An old work boot with a flapping sole becomes the head of an evil wolf that sees the bird and chases it into the attic world. Little Girl is frightened and dives down (or up) into the shadow world to escape the wolf.  The next spread is best image, I think.  In the shadow world, all the characters and Little Girl morph into a single dragon image.  I must admit when I saw it the first time, upside down, I didn’t see the dragon.  It was just a black blob.  But when you turn the book around, the fire-breathing dragon is most apparent.  Brilliant!  I love it when I get caught out, missing something but then getting a fabulous surprise.

The story continues until someone from the kitchen yells that dinner is ready and click! the lights go out.  But that doesn’t mean the action stops.

The more I play with this book (turn it over and over) the more I like.  I just flipped to the back cover and saw the dragon image in the book now drawn to show how each shadow character is placed within the larger dragon shadow.

This book requires more than one viewing to take it all in.

Also, think science as a way to introduce concepts of light and shadows.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Showing my age

Okay. Where to start with this one?  Right, all the stuff I like…

Cleopatra rules!: the amazing life of the original teen queen by Vicky Alvear Shecter (932 ShC 2009) is a very interesting read.  Mostly, it’s interesting because of the topic.  What’s not to find fascinating about Cleopatra?  I love history in general and stuff about ancient Egypt, specifically.  I’ve read other books about Cleopatra and had really looked forward to this one, especially after reading a couple of blogs that raved about it.

And it is good.  It is right on the money, making sure we know that Cleopatra’s history was written by men (Romans) who were not looking to give her a fair shake.  These historians and politicians looked at her as the enemy and it was not in their interests to have future generations look at her favorably.  Right on!   This is an important point that often gets lost in history books -- that the writers of history have their own perspectives, agendas, and contexts that don’t necessarily endorse objectivity.

I also enjoyed the variety of illustrations starting with the cover (wow!) which includes photographs of Egyptian art, sculpture and modern representations of Cleopatra as well.  The modern art pieces depict and reaffirm how generations have viewed Cleopatra as a ‘seductress,’ as first promoted by the Romans.

The text includes lots of boxed asides providing relevant details for contextual understanding of the people, the places, crucial historical points and cultural information.

Now, for the aspect I have a bit more trouble with.  Overall, the writing is sound and fun to read.  I often like books with a chatty tone but I just found this one a bit too over-the-top with too many slangy-phrases.  Here are just a few examples:

 “…chilled at the Great Library of Alexandria…” (p.15 )

about brothers and sisters marrying  “…ewww! factor…it’s easy to imagine the sounds of her gagging echoing throughout the marble-columned halls…” (p.16)

 “We moderns gag at the very idea.  But for ancient Egyptian royal families, it was as natural as the annual Nile flood – though its origins were just as murky…Egyptian religion may have made brother-sister marriages seem ‘natural,’ but we know better.  They served a political purpose: to keep the ruling family in control of the throne.  It was a power play – one that, to us moderns anyway seems powerfully gross!” (p.21) 

 “Cleopatra’s little sister, Arsinoe, and little brother Ptolemy XIII wanted a piece of the power pie for themselves.  That meant getting rid of Cleopatra.  So the pair trashed-talked her worse than feuding starlets at a Hollywood club.” (p.31)

I wondered who this would best appeal to.  Two review journals, Booklist suggest grades 4 to 7 and School Library Journal for grade 6 and up.  So, we’re looking at the tween crowd. 

I sent the book home with a colleague for her teen daughter, so I didn’t get the book to the target age but I thought it would be worth soliciting her opinion anyway.  In the end, she just wanted to take in the information without the distraction of the language.

Next, I presented the book at a monthly book club meeting we hold in the Doucette Library (not a ‘real’ book club, we just highlight good books to education students).  My question to them was “Who would find this appealing?”  Without reading the book, they too thought the language distracting but conceded that younger girls might be drawn into the book.  Mostly they thought that if someone was interested enough to pick the book up in the first place they wouldn’t need the ‘inducement’ of contemporary language and metaphors to keep reading it.

So, I’m feeling my age.  I hope that girls ages 9 to 12 will enjoy this book and be drawn into the life of a fascinating woman.   If it achieves this, then who am I to complain.

So, I’m feeling my age.  I hope that girls ages 9 to 12 will enjoy this book and be drawn into the life of a fascinating woman.   If it achieves this, then who am I to complain.

Today is Nonfiction Monday at Wild About Nature.  This is a round-up of nonfiction children's literature from around the blog-o-sphere.  Well worth checking out.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fictional update

I realize I’ve been writing a lot about nonfiction these days.  In part, because I am reading a little less fiction, in part, because I'm preparing for workshops highlighting curriculum materials and information books that education students want to see related to their content areas (math, science, etc.), and in part, I feel a little guilty reading too much fiction during the academic school year because I like it and that’s all I really want to do.

But if doesn’t mean I‘ve stopped altogether.

Here’s a short list of some recent highlights:

Picture books:

Dogs by Emily Gravett (823 G788D PIC BK)
I’m a fan of Emily Gravett.  So, no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this affectionate look at various dog breeds.  Loved finding out that the narrator was a cat.  (Suggested for preschool to grade 2.)

Interrupting chicken by David Ezra Stein (823 St338I PIC BK)
A very funny take on the whole bedtime ritual between father/daughter chickens.  As Father reads a nightly fairy tale, Little Red Chicken cannot help herself, interrupting every story to warn the characters about imminent peril, ending every story rather abruptly. The End. (Suggested for grades K-3).  A 2011 Caldecott Honour Book.

 My father is taller than a tree by Joseph Bruchac (823 B83M PIC BK)
Story-in-rhyme about diverse fathers playing, working, and loving their sons in various activities.  Lovely illustrations.  (Suggested for preschool to grade 3.)

 A pirate’s guide to first grade by James Preller (823 P915P PIC BK)
It’s the first day of grade one and everything becomes a high-seas, pirate-adventure as a six-year-old buccaneer boards the bus, heads to school and finds an understanding “old salt” of a teacher who goes by the name of Silver. (Suggested for grades K-3.)

White noise by David A. Carter. (535.6 CaW 2009 PIC BK)
Okay. Not really fiction but too good to not mention here.  Another fabulous pop-up creation by David Carter that combines incredibly elaborate paper pop-ups with intriguing ways to incorporate sound, too.  (Suggested for everyone.)


Graphic novels:
Binky the space cat by Ashley Spires (823 Sp48B FIC)
What to do with an indoor cat that might have cabin-fever?  Meet Binky.  An adventurous, brave cat who aspires to go where no cat has gone before – space, the final frontier.  But what about his human family, left behind?  Who will fend for them?  Quirky and fun.  (Suggested for grades 2-4.)

Calamity Jack by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (823 H135C FIC)
I had really enjoyed the first in this series, Rapunzel’s Revenge, and had looked forward to reading this one.  Though good, I didn’t get into it quite as quickly as the first and found it took awhile to connect with Jack.  Has an original plot and think it will work for both boys and girls. (Suggested for grades 4-9.)

Fahrenheit 451: the authorized adaptation by Ray Bradbury
This is the graphic novel version of the classic novel.  I really enjoyed it. Not having read the novel I can’t compare the two but reviews from Amazon suggest that fans will like this one, too.  (Suggested for grades 10 and up.)

Flight explorer, vol. 1 (823.008 FlE 2008 FIC)
A collection of short, fantasy stories for younger readers from various authors/illustrators.  (Suggested for grades 4-8.)

Kin: Good neighborsby Holly Black (823 B564K FIC)
Had read about this one from other blogs and was intrigued.  The first in the series, it sets up the characters and setting for this fantasy.  A family of three includes a mother (unbeknownst to her daughter, who is a fairy) who disappears, leaving her father to deal with the suspicion that he is responsible.  Very atmospheric and creepy.  Looking forward to the next one. (Suggested for grades 8 and up.)

Pinocchio, Vampire slayer by Van Jensen (823 J453P FIC)
A very twisted rending involving characters from the original story but extending out into the realm of the very strange when Pinocchio is cast as a vampire killer. And, let me tell you,  he's the puppet I'd hire to get the job done (watch out for the nose, is all I'm saying). First in series.  Not sure I’ll follow up with others.  (Suggested for grades 8 and up.)


 Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (823 W538B2 FIC)
Sequel to Leviathan which I found very original (1914, Darwinists and Clankers in a parallel universe).  This one was a little slower but continues the story logically and maintains elements of suspense and tension.  I will look for the third installment.  (Suggested for grades 6 and up.)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (823 An243F FIC)
This one was recommended by a friend who has also enjoyed other books by Anderson.  I did enjoy this historical novel and can see tie-ins with another nonfiction book, The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain. (Suggested for grades 5-10.)

Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Lots of good blog buzz for this one and it’s won a few good awards, too.  Futuristic (bleak, of course. Any other kind?) story that has engaging characters, great plot that moves along with enough tension to keep you until the end.  First in series which I will continue to read.  (Suggested for grades 7 and up.)

Now back to more non-fiction.

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