Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Life cycle of the plastic bag.

A while back I came across a YouTube mockumentary, The Majestic Plastic Bag, which highlights a serious problem about ‘disposable’ plastic shopping bags.  Although a serious problem, the mockumentary takes a satirical tone that does a stellar job showing us exactly where those ubiquitous plastic bags end up. Narrated by Jeremy Irons as if it’s a wildlife documentary, the video begins with the plastic bag’s start in life (the great escape) at a shopping mall and the 'challenges' it faces as it tries to get back ‘home’, the Great Plastic Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean. Nothing like a little comedy to make the message go down a bit more easily.
Then Bag in the Wind by Ted Kooser, (823 K8377B PIC BK) arrived at the Doucette Library.  This is a beautifully illustrated (by Barry Root) picture book that also looks at the ‘life’ of a plastic bag – not so much the life cycle – but a circular story, nevertheless.  It’s not a satire like the YouTube video but a somewhat poetic elucidation of how plastic bags can be reused, recycled, and perhaps, replaced, altogether. 

This particular yellow plastic bag’s journey also begins with an escape, from a landfill this time. It is blown across the open rural landscape and found and reused by various people.  The narrative emphasizes reusing and recycling not the environmental issues.

The author, Ted Kooser, an American Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, takes a somewhat poetic tone with this story.  Lots of lovely, gentle language describing the journey of the plastic bag is paired well with the illustrations, which also contribute to the gentle tone of the book.  It’s not until reading the afterward that we learn about the impact of plastic grocery bags on the environment or the threat to wildlife.  In case the message may have been missed in the story, the importance in reducing our dependency on plastic bags and reusing/recycling the bags we no longer want is reiterated here.  

This book is a great tie-in with curriculum topics that deal with recycling (grade 4 science in Alberta), environment, plastics, other petroleum products and related social issues.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lives torn apart

With so much going on in the Middle East right now, reading Out of Iraq: refugees’ stories in words, paintings and music by Sybella Wilkes (956.7 WiO 2010) made the situation much more real and immediate. These are regular folks who fear for their lives and those of their families and are under constant threat of violence. Their misery and fears are palpable.  Most are living as refugees in Syria and this makes me wonder how they are surviving the revolution that now grips Syria.

This is primarily a collection of personal stories, told by the Iraqi refugees in their own words, through photographs, paintings, drawings and music.  The author also includes an overview of what life was like under the rule of Saddam Hussein, why the Americans and their allies felt justified invading Iraq in 2003 and the impact the invasion has had on Iraqi civilians.  Many of the people who tell their stories are artists and share their fears, confusion, and homesickness through their art.  Some of the instability and violence is generated by Iraqis themselves, the result of differing religions.  Many still express hope for the future in spite of family members killed, families divided, homes lost, job opportunities restricted or nonexistent and living with constant, grinding fear.

At the back, there are suggestions for using this book as a classroom resource, which would help kids connect with the situation and experiences that many of the people in the book have lived, and are living, through.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


 Times are tough.  People are out of work.  Families are losing their homes.  Sometimes, you might not know where your next meal will be coming from or when.  But if you’re eating then you are one of the fortunate ones, even if it is beans for dinner, yet again.  Yup, it’s the Great Depression of the 1930s though some parts of this scenario might seem more contemporary.

And, in Lucky Beans by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (823 B539L PIC BK), times are tough for the Loman family, too.  Dad is out of work, Marshall now shares a bedroom with his younger siblings because Aunt Minnie and Uncle Matt have moved in, and he’s sick-to-death of eating beans for dinner.  In spite of all the difficulties, there is a lot of love in this household with everyone pitching in as best they can, making do, and fixing what can’t be replaced.

On the way to school one day, Marshall spots a large jar of beans in the window at a local store which could help alleviate the money crunch at home.  The person who can come closest to guessing the correct number of beans will win a brand new sewing machine.  This is just what Marshall’s mother has wanted and would enable her to take in sewing.  Marshall also figures that his mother would be the best person to make a good guess as she is an expert on beans cooking them every day.

With so much riding on guessing the right number of beans, it’s paramount that it be as close as possible.  The story then, quite naturally, shifts its focus to how Marshall’s family will work out their guess, looking to make an estimate based on measuring and counting the number of beans held in varying-sized containers.

This is a great picture book that combines a good family story, a slice of history, and math, making this a good selection for classroom use to introduce measurement and estimating. But the story is strong enough on its own that it doesn’t have to tie into a math lesson to make it work.

Recommended for elementary grades.

Monday, March 21, 2011

World Water Day – March 22, 2011

The United Nations observes March 22 of every year as World Water Day, a day to focus on issues related to water such as access and conservation.

The objective of World Water Day 2011 is to focus international attention on the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization and uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts and natural disasters on urban water systems.

This year theme, Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge, aims to spotlight and encourage governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to actively engage in addressing the challenges of urban water management.

One of the quintessential books to know about for World Water Day is One Well: the story of water on Earth by Rochelle Strauss (553.7 StO 2007).

This highly accessible book lays out the importance of water for plants, animals and us, for various habitats, and as essential to many of the natural processes/systems/cycles of the Earth.

As the Earth’s population grows, so does the demand for fresh water. It’s crucial that we become ‘Well Aware’, that water is not an unlimited resource and that fresh water is an extremely limited resource (about 97% is saltwater).  The analogy of ‘one well’ is figurative as well as literal, as all the water on Earth is connected over time and space.  The water we have today has been in the Earth’s system for billions of years.  So, this is it.  What we use (consume and pollute) today impacts the future of all living things on Earth.

I love the comparison chart showing who uses how much water in terms of buckets per day per person (Ethiopians use one 10 liter bucket per day, Nepalese use about 3 buckets compared to North Americans who use about 55 buckets per person per day).  When looking at populations then, “North America has only one-third the population of Africa…[but] uses three times as much water… nearly 300 million people in Africa do not have access to enough freshwater.” (p. 21). This is a staggering statistic.  “By 2025, many experts predict that one out of every four people will live in a country that is short of water.  By 2050, 4 billion people may be living without enough clean water.” (p.22)

One Well has much potential for cross-curricular connections.  Take a look:
            math: ratios, percentages, statistics, measurement
            science: natural resources, environmental issues such as pollution, ecology, biology (habitats, water cycle), energy.
            social studies: current events, social justice issues, environmental issues such as  conservation
            language arts: analogies

 Today is Nonfiction Monday, a round up of blogs focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Today's event is at  The Children's War.  Lots of great books to check out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sounding out

Nope, I’m not talking about phonics but rather three picture books that capture the connections between language and sound.

First is Snow Sounds: an onomatopoeic story by David A. Johnson (823 J6312S PIC BK) which is the perfect book for many of us experiencing never-ending winter and heaps and heaps of snow – welcome to my world!  This captures so aptly all the sounds soft, loud, muffled, that can be associated with waking up after a snow storm.  There are the snores, purrs and yawns of waking up, the swooshing, slushing, crashing, clunking sounds of the snow plow, the whoosh of a snow blower and the scraping of the shovel helping to clear a path before the school bus arrives.  Such industry so early morning but one that a lot of us are familiar with if you live in a snowy part of the world.  I really could feel the mutedness and soft, muffled sounds that come with deep snow and cold temperatures.  The illustrations contribute to the whole cotton-batten atmosphere.

Rattle and Rap by Susan Steggal (385 StR 2008 PIC BK) portrays the hustle and bustle of train travel, from departing the station, to traveling through towns and countryside, to arriving at the end of the line.  The vibrant illustrations add to the energy that is conveyed with travel by train.  There are lots of rattles and raps, clickety-clack sounds, much whooshing, swishing and swaying, hurtling, rocking, rolling, and whistling to help the reader envision, feel and hear what sitting on a train is like.

My last recommendation is Cool Daddy Rat by Kristyn Crow, (823 C8856C PIC BK) which a little different from the first two books as there is a bit more narrative, whereas the others present more of an impression about an experience.  In Cool Daddy Rat, Ace admires his father tremendously for being a bass jazz player, playing gigs all over town.  He hides out in his father’s bass case one night, to tag along, and sees (or hears, really) firsthand the fine “sweet beats” produced by the coolest daddy in town. With lots of jazzy, scat rhyming throughout the story it’s very easy to fall into the flow of the language. Whether it's, “shooby dooby doo dat, jazzy spazzy zee zat, or shmoozy doozy chit chat, YOW! POW! WOW! it’s all about feeling the vibe, man. I really love this one.

All highly recommended for elementary grades.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rock ‘n Roll

With last week’s earthquake near Japan and the resulting tsunami, still fresh in our minds, I thought I’d list a few books for classroom resources or just for interest.

First, I’d recommend Fragile Earth: views of a changing world (550 Fr 2006).   This is one of my all time favs and I have blogged about it before.  It shows photographs and satellite pictures of earth, typically of the same spot at two different time periods.  It includes pictures that show dramatic change resulting from disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis. The visuals are stunning and dramatic, leaving no doubt about the power of the earth.  Because of the visuals, I’d recommend this for all levels but the reading level is definitely secondary and up.

Another book that includes many different earth shifting and shaping disasters is The Day of the Twelve-Story Wave: grinding glaciers, howling hurricanes, spewing volcanoes, and other awesome forces of nature by Diane Swanson (551.2 SwD 1995).  The sections covering earthquakes and tsunamis present scientific information about what happens when they occur and how tsunamis often follow an earthquake, as well as what people have done in terms of warning systems.

Tsunami Warning by Taylor Morrison (551.4637 MoT 2007) provides a brief history of how warning systems were developed in the United States

Earthquake! By Anne Rooney (363.349 RoE 2006) provides a basic overview of how and where earthquakes occur and the impact on humans.

I recommend the above three books for grades 5 and up.


I’m also including a more informational adult book, At Risk: earthquakes and tsunamis on the West Coast by John Clague et al. (363.349 At 2006) because it does look at the impact of earthquakes and tsunamis at a more local level, British Columbia.  So, if you’re teaching a unit about earthquakes or just really keen about the topic, this would be the book for you.  It looks to be fairly comprehensive, covering plate tectonics, seismology, and predicting, preparing and impact of earthquakes and tsunamis.  Provides a bibliography listing additional information, too.

Two websites to checkout are the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre and the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program.  Both provide up-to-date information about earthquakes and tsunamis including maps.  Fascinating sites.  I found the energy map of the tsunami warning site, captivating.

Update: I was just sent an additional website from the New York Times showing interactive,  before-and after satellite photographs of several coastal areas in Japan affected by the tsunami.  Wow! is all I can say.  This part of the New York Times efforts to provide resources for teachers teaching about the disasters currently affecting Japan.

Any other resources that you'd recommend?  Drop me a line and let me know.

 Today is Nonfiction Monday, a round up of blogs focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Today's event is at Chapter Book of the Day.  Lots of great books to check out.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Artists in the making

I’ve just previewed two new and very different picture books that both touch on the creative process.

Ready to dream by Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow (823 N162R PIC BK) is about a young artist traveling to Australia for the first time.  Ally tries to capture in her paintings what she sees and experiences.  But it’s not until she meets Pauline, a local Aboriginal artist, that she begins to see beyond her initial impulses, realizes that art can be created with more than just pencils, paper and paint, that mistakes can lead to interesting tangents, and understands the importance of imagination and being open to what is around you. 

The story does have a bit of a ‘mystical’ vibe about Ally’s journey; there is something spiritual at play here.  This mostly comes from nature of Pauline’s character, She encourages Ally and prompts her to create her art more thoughtfully, to reflect the deeper nature of the animals she draws. This is really driven home when she tells Ally that she’s now ‘ready to dream’.  No real mention in the book about the importance of dreamtime in Australian Aboriginal culture; it’s just alluded to this one time.  I loved the folk-arty illustrations by Bronwyn Bancroft (an Aboriginal artist) that use the art style often employed in traditional Aboriginal art.
The second book is quite different and a lot more playful.  I love most of David Wiesner’s work for exactly this reason.  In Art & Max (823 W6373A PIC BK) a teacher and a somewhat over-enthusiastic student both learn more about the creative process. In this ‘colourful’ adventure, Art is the teacher and Max, the student. Max is ever-so-keen to paint but comes up dry for ideas of what to paint.  Art suggest that Max paint him and an inspired (if very literal minded) Max does just that.  Art becomes a brightly, multi-coloured (and outraged) lizard.  Max makes several attempts to rectify the problem, resulting in variations of the same problem.  The best bit for me is when the colour washes out of Art and all that is left is a black outlined image of him that becomes unraveled. It’s up to Max to reconfigure his teacher with comical results.  All ends happily enough, with Art also learning a lesson about creativity. Overall, great fun.

I recommend both books for elementary grades.

Monday, March 7, 2011


A wonderful picture book has come the way of the Doucette Library, thanks to  Tulika Publishers.  Home by Nina Sabnani takes a unique approach to storytelling as she looks at the concept of what is, or makes, a home.

I said this was a picture book but it's not your typical 32-page picture book that opens one page at a time, front to back.  This book is a compilation of images and words on four boards that fold out, accordion style from a central panel that represents a window. The book works best upright (it will stand up on its own) rather than lying down. This format comes from traditional storytelling from Rajasthan, India.  The back cover describes this as,

The Kaavad is a portable wooden shrine used by traditional storytellers…Its many-hinged panels display vibrantly painted scenes from local myths and folktales.  The Kaavadiya Bhat narrates the stories, opening up each painted panel as he goes along, pointing at each figure with a peacock feather.  Through the stories he reinforces inter-connections within his community and establishes his own space in it.

So, pull out the two front boards, the ‘cover’, to open the book and look at where birds, animals, insects and humans live.  The reader will learn that some live in groups whereas others live alone.  The central panel, with a die-cut window, tells us that we all live in the same world and looks ‘out’ onto images from the folded panels at the back of the book.  Turn the book 90 degrees either way and there are additional images on each of the folded boards that depict different types of families (large, small, one with two dads, single mom), different types of homes (apartments, tents, huts, even street people living in a tunnel) and showing that every family and home has its share of stories.

 The illustrations are rendered fairly simplistically, similar to drawings done by children or in a 'folk art' style.

Check out the YouTube video where the author provides background information about the Kaavad and how it works.  She also explains how she sees her book as a way to push the imagination of a child reader, as it enables them to make up their own narratives for each image.

This book could tie into the Alberta Education social studies curriculum for grades 1 to 3, related to identity, family, community (specifically India, in grade 3).  Otherwise, the book could be used for prompting storytelling at the primary grades. Students who are struggling with learning English as a second language may find this book useful, as well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Something to devour

Who Wants Pizza?: the kids’ guide to the history, science & culture of food by Jan Thornhill (641.3 ThW 2010) presents a tremendous amount of information about the whole topic of food, not just pizza.  In effect, this books considers human history, anatomy, and current events (issues around food production, access to food and population growth, health issues such as obesity, sugar intake) – everything but the kitchen sink I think.

What a great little book!  Pizza - the ubiquitous food ‘group’ with great kid appeal – is the starting point of the book.  But do kids know what goes into making it?  Thornhill delves into everything from crust to toppings; from why we need to eat in the first place and what nutrients are needed for a healthy diet to a historical look at what people have eaten and how (raw, cooked, preserved, processed, etc.); from the impact of the domestication of plants and animals to the food industry and current production trends.  She includes information about the impact of our choices and why it’s important to think about what we eat and where it comes from.

It’s a lot to take in, but you can take it in ‘bite sizes’ (yeah, okay, bad pun) that makes it manageable.  For classroom use, it could provide an interesting platform for cross-curricular connections (math, science, history, current events, health).  It’s a veritable feast (a buffet, if you will) of information, trivia, photographs and illustrations that will provide lots of food for thought. (Okay, enough with the puns.)

I think Who Wants Pizza? will appeal to kids in grades 5 to 9.

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