Monday, May 30, 2011

Weirdly wonderful or is it wonderfully weird?

I’m going to have to add a new tag to my list – weirdly wonderful.

I seemed to have found a few of these kinds of books, lately. These are the types of books that are unusual or quirky enough that will spark imaginations and engender conversations.

So, this week’s novelty is The Exquisite Book: 100 artists play a collaborative game compiled by Julia Rothman, Jenny Volvovski, and Matt Lamothe (709.05 RoE 2010).

This book is based on a game known as the Exquisite Corpse. In this game, one artist will draw the head of a person. The next artist will draw the torso but without looking at the head and the third person will draw the bottom part/legs of the body without knowing what the top 2/3 looks like. You can imagine the interesting results.

The Exquisite Book is divided into 10 chapters. Each chapter is composed of ten illustrations drawn by 10 different artists. The first picture is based on an open-ended theme, such as In the clouds, In the mountains, In the trees, or In the jungle, and can be whatever the artist envisions related to the theme. The second picture is based on the first illustration, the third illustration is based on the second (without knowledge of the first), and on it goes. When all 10 pictures are completed they are strung together to tell a ‘story’. The pictures are folded accordion style, so the reader/viewer can see each individually, then all in a row. Or, at least, five at a time. (The first five pull out together and then you turn the page and see the last five.) Each artist’s style is unique, playing against the others. Again, you can imagine the interesting results.

I love the idea behind this book. I love the idea behind a game like this. I love the idea of trying to create narrative in such an interesting and unique way.

Unfortunately, for me the execution didn’t always work. But I think this was my failing and not necessarily the book’s. I think I was hoping for a stronger ‘story’ to come through or wanted more explanation for some of the illustrations. Some of the pictures are pretty bizarre and I wanted to know what the artist was thinking and how their picture connected to the theme. If you just go with the wonder of seeing hugely divergent artistic styles being brought together around a theme, then you’re going to be fascinated with this book. On that level, I, too, was drawn in…but, I did want to understand more.

If you look for this book, definitely read the forward and definitely read the ‘20 Questions’ section, too. These are questions posed to several of the artists and sometimes it does give some insight into what went into making the illustrations.
But, in terms of teaching art and storytelling, I think this book will inspire some very interesting class projects at many different grade levels.

The Exquisite Book from ALSO on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Just a quick note to let you know that a second edition of If the World Were a Village: a book about the world’s people by David J. Smith (304.6 SmI 2011) has recently been released.

If you're already a fan, rejoice.

If you are unfamiliar with this title, stop right now and run (don’t walk – run) to the nearest library or bookstore and check it out.

This book will teach kids about the people who inhabit this planet, in a very manageable way. To help conceptualize how many people live here and the quality of their lives, the world’s population (6,900,000,000), is transformed into only 100 people. Each person represents 69 million people in the real world. It's so much easier to grasp that 61 people would come from Asia, 14 are from Africa and only 5 come from Canada and the US. It’s easier to think about 47 people out of this 100 who don’t have enough food. It’s easier to comprehend that out of the 36 people who are of school-age (5-24 yrs.) 6 are children who work, instead.

The last pages include some classroom activities and questions for discussion that will promote and foster awareness and understanding of global issues such as access to food, clean water, health care and education. Also, there is a list of resources used for the book's data.

I would recommend this book for almost all ages but the reading level is appropriate for grades 3 to 6. Students in higher grades will find it useful and approachable if they struggle with reading or conceptualizing global issues.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bathroom humour – but, seriously, folks...

Kids love jokes about raucous and odoriferous bodily functions.  Astronauts are often assailed with the question about how they manage to do their ‘business’ in space.  But joking and curiosity aside, waste management is a serious matter.  It’s often the overlooked but crucial element in global access to clean water. Contamination from improper disposal of human waste is a serious problem in many places, the result of no sanitary measures, or inept ones, especially in rural areas.

The book, Toilets of the World by Morna E. Gregory and Sian James (696.182 GrT 2006) might just be the ticket to draw kids into exploring the world of sanitation using wit, humor and awe.  Historical and cultural considerations intersperse this survey that provides an interesting perspective of just how humans have and have not dealt with their ‘crap’.

This collection of pictures of toilets found in all regions of the world is fascinating.  We see lots of functional toilets and urinals, though many would be considered pretty ‘rustic’ by North American standards.  Some toilets are way more elaborate, artsy or interesting. Some are in the category of ‘plain bizarre’ or ‘totally over-the-top’.

Following is a sampling of the most interesting, artsy, elegant, deluxe, rudimentary, functional, and entertaining:

~In Montreal, Canada a urinal for women, instructions included…who knew and why would you want to, is what I want to know. (p.25)

~In Rio Janeiro, Brazil there is irony to be found when a particularly hygienic  toilet (plastic and paper seat covers, hand sanitizer, touchless flush sensor) is next to a garbage bin filled with used toilet paper.  The paper clogs the toilets. (p.75)

~In Panama we see very basic ‘facilities’ -- a ramshackle hovel, built over open water, and accessed by a precarious-looking, rickety boardwalk. (p.85)

~In London, England very bizarre ‘egg’ rooms, colour-coded pink and blue. Very other worldly. (p.91)
~Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia has an outhouse with an outstanding location surrounded by the world’s highest sand dunes. (p.135)

~In Limpopo, South Africa a field of hundreds of government built outhouses.

"With the intention of providing low-cost housing, the government first built the toilet to stake each lot.  Many years later, both the people and the toilets are still waiting for their houses." (p.154)

~On the Isle of Bute, Scotland there are some very elegant Victorian urinals. (p.120)

~Hong Kong has the most world’s most expensive bathroom worth $3,500,000 (two 24-carat solid gold toilets, gold fixtures and sink, jewel-encrusted ceiling). (p.200)  

~Many examples in India, show the gains being made to improve sanitation but also how much work is still to be done in educating the populace about the connection between open sewage, unclean water, and poor health. (p.201, 206, 211,231)

  ~And finally, Japan. I’ve decided that I must visit Japan, if for no other reason than to check out the bathrooms.  Page 240 shows us the most ‘deluxe’ toilet ever.  Heated seat, optional bidet feature with water temperature- and spray strength-controls, blow-dryer, and accompanying canned noise to disguise whatever ‘business’ is taking place in the cubicle.

In Tokyo, the bathroom at the Ten & Chi Lemina Building is a must see (p.248-251).  These are toilets that give as good as they take.  Truly interactive.  For example, one cubicle has a giant sumo head with puckered lips that slowly rolls toward the woman seated on the toilet, kissing her knees.   Or, for men, there’s the urinal shaped as an open mouth (plump, red lips) with a torso of a chubby man on top that swings from side-to-side (yup, as it’s being used) laughing, playing music, and flashing a camera.  There are a couple more that are just as freaky and hilarious.  Very entertaining if a wee bit creepy.

Overall, this is a book filled with lots of curiosities and information about toilets that is entertaining to boot.  Good for all ages.  Check out the website Toilets of the World  for additional  pictures and information.

If you want to learn more about the world of sanitation, I recommend the book The Big Necessity: the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters by Rose George.  A fascinating read that’s very approachable and will increase your awareness about the many issues that need to be addressed about waste management, in poor and rich countries alike.  Did you know that in the U.S. 1.95 million people do not have access to indoor toilets?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Help for getting over yourself

Beautiful oops! by Barney Saltzberg (823 Sa39B PIC BK) is a great little book celebrating the opportunities that arise when we make mistakes.

This small, interactive board book is not only for small children (recommended for ages 3 and up) but for everyone, because who hasn’t made a mistake?

The focus here is on art - and what to do when you drip paint, tear a page, leave a coffee stain, or make a hole in whatever project you happen to be working on.  The torn paper becomes the mouth of a crocodile.  Drips of paint become cartoon pigs driving away in a car. A coffee stain, depending on the shape, may become a hungry frog.  And the hole becomes an accordion-folded viewing ‘scope’ that pops up.  See what’s on the bottom layer.

The message, however, can certainly extend beyond the obvious.  We can all look for opportunities to make our mistakes into something else, into a beautiful something else.

The book is creative, fun and a reminder that everything in life doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect.  So, for all the perfectionists out there, this book is for you.  Relax.  Have fun with your (inevitable) mistakes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Did you know that…?

…stotting refers to the high-bouncing run of a gazelle.

Chronicle Books publishes some very interesting books for children and adults.  Out of Sight by Francisco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais (590 PiO 2010 PIC BK) is a recent publication that will engage young readers (grades 1 to 4) who have an interest in animals.

The African okapi looks more like a zebra but is closely related to the giraffe.

This oversized, ‘flip-the-flap’ book presents seven, two-page spreads focusing on various animals from around the world with a specific distinguishing feature or characteristic found under the flap.

A group of lions is a pride but a group of tigers is an ambush.

The ‘out-of-sight’ part of the book (besides all the really cool, random facts) are the top flaps that show outlines of animal silhouettes, tracks, brightly coloured patterns of fur/hides, or body parts  like eyes and tails or ears peeking out from behind partially cut-away flaps.  Wanting to know more, the reader lifts the flap to find out, for example, that giraffes have horns but deer have antlers, or that squirrels are among the smartest animals in the world.

Male platypuses have venomous spurs on their feet.

This book has great appeal, from the oversized format, to the random selection of facts, to the diverse assortment of animals.  Something game-like about it.
Take a peek for yourself.

Cows can climb up stairs but not down.

Today in Nonfiction Monday, a round up of  blogs focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Check out  Simply Science Blog  to see this week's offerings.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Postage stamps may eventually become irrelevant is today’s world of digital communication but, until recently, they were crucial for communication between people across countries and around the world.

There’s quite a lot encompassed in a stamp: national identity and symbols of nationhood, historical and geographical thinking, art, exchange of money for service, etc.  Great tie-ins for social studies. The two books I’m recommending here though, take us beyond what’s obvious in the world of stamps into the realm of storytelling: stories captured in miniature.

The World of Donald Evans, text by Willy Eisenhart (759.13 EvW 1980) was recommended by another blog (Charlotte’s Library). The idea immediately intrigued me and I knew I could promote it to student teachers as one of the ‘those’ books that spark fresh ideas and stimulating discussions.

Donald Evans, took a very particular interest in stamps from an early age, often drawing his own stamps for countries that only existed in his imagination.  As an adult he continued this exercise and produced several thousand stamps in his very short lifetime.  His collection depicts flora, fauna, food, landscapes, aircraft, windmills, and people from many of his imaginary countries.  He invented intricate backstories for his imaginary kingdoms, such as Caluda that,

claimed a vast territory on the northern coast of South America, part of the Guianas, which was incorporated into the empire as the Etats d’Outremer (the Overseas States). (p.82)

This vast territory he named Katibo. In his images for the Katibo stamps Evans’ elaborated on its geography (jungles, rivers, palm-lined coasts, mountains and waterfalls), crops (bananas, cotton, rubber, lumber and copra), and the evolution of its society and people (poverty to more economically prosperous times).  Portraits of ‘natives’ were based on real photographs from postcards and books of African and Surinamese people.  He even developed the scenario where the currency changes from Caludan cents and francs to Katiboise luciens and riekjes.  Such detail!

Then Postmark Paris: a Story in Stamps by Leslie Jonath (823 J697P FIC) arrived in the Doucette Library.  This is a fabulous little book that recounts a year spent in Paris by an American family, told from the perspective of nine-year-old, Leslie.

What a little gem.  Each two page spread includes the picture of a stamp and then a short narrative of a remembered incident that connects to the picture on the stamp.  Sometimes the connection is not so obvious and this intrigues the reader to wonder and search for connections.  One example, entitled Stranger is about Leslie’s father, who was a scientist, though she thought he sold shoes.  One day she is approached by a man she doesn’t know, who asks her questions about what her father does.  She runs away and tells her parent about her encounter.  We never learn anything more about what her father is involved in, other than he was a physicist.  The accompanying stamp is from Czechoslovakia and shows a magician juggling a deck of cards.  But who does the magician represent, Leslie’s father or the stranger?

Each of the narratives are very much like stamps themselves as they encapsulate small fragments of a larger story showing colourful bits of everyday life, such as going to school , meeting new friends, difficulties with learning French, all significant for a young girl living in a different country. Often the stamps are representations of paintings by French artists such Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Ingres and Miro.

So, what’s with stamps?  I’m intrigued by the ideas that go into the designing of a stamp and what a government wants to convey through them.  A tool for disseminating information, propaganda, celebrating achievements, perhaps?  Both of these books are more bent toward the whimsical, not intending to promote any party line. However, they can be used to start an investigation into social studies and art, as well as tell stories.

Postmark Paris is recommended for reading levels ages 9 to 12 but will interest adults, too. The World of Donald Evans is written for adults but will interest children, ages 11 and up. 

Monday, May 9, 2011


I’ve just crossed paths with a weirdly wonderful book by Tara Books.  Fingerprint by Andrea Anastasio (709.2 AnF 2009) is a wordless picture book that isn’t for little kids at all.

It starts with a single black fingerprint at the bottom of the first page which, on the next page, is joined by a pink print at the top. From there additional pink prints are added incrementally until the black print is seemingly pushed out off the page, only to reappear on the adjoining one.  Eventually, pages are filled with prints of various colours,arranged and rearranged into different, orderly patterns, until ultimately, they are messily merged together.

So, what’s going on?  What’s it all about?  What does it mean?

This book takes more than one reading.  I suspect interpretations will vary depending on the individual reader and whatever experiences said reader brings to this book.  Yes, it’s that kind of book.

Initially, I was ‘reading’ this wordless book as allegory, about an individual’s place in society.  But I didn’t really come up with a conclusion. Or at least, an one tidy conclusion -- we all end up together, we're different but the same? I thoroughly enjoyed the essay at the book’s end, written by the editor of Tara Books, V. Geetha (a historian and political activist), which explains some of bigger concepts surrounding the issue of fingerprints, the process of fingerprinting and what this means to the individual both historically and, especially, currently.  This essay provides the book with a lot of depth.

The impetus of the book was based on the author’s experience of coming through an American airport where immigration requires non-nationals to be fingerprinted.  This incident stayed with the author and eventually emerged into his work.

I could see this book being used at the secondary level (grades 7 to 12) as a spark that could lead into discussions about personal identity, privacy concerns, political issues relating to controlling individuals at the state level, immigration processing, international relations, and artistic and creative processes.  There is a lot to work with here, and I would encourage teachers and students of art and social studies to spend some time with this little book.

Today is Nonfiction Monday, a roundup of blogs about nonfiction children's literature.  Check out Shelf-Employed to see today's recommendations.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Niggling curiosity

Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang takes us to the court of Kublai Khan in 1270s where we are introduced to his (fictional) granddaughter, Emmajin.  It is through her eyes that we learn more about this place, time and the leadership of Kublai. 

Emmajin’s story is about her struggle to take on the nontraditional role of soldier within her Grandfather’s army.  In serving the great Khan, she is asked to spy on newly arrived foreigners from the West: Marco Polo, his father and uncle, to learn of a weakness that would allow the Mongols to conquer Christendom.  Initially, she’s not happy spending time with Marco but gradually she overcomes cultural misunderstandings and differences, to learn about the world beyond her grandfather’s kingdom. Eventually, she does fight in a brutal battle and learns that, at heart, she is not a soldier, after all. So what is her role to be?  One of her own devising and worth reading to find out about.
I did enjoy Emmajin’s story but I was even more caught up with wanting to know more about Kublai Khan.  I know a little about Genghis Khan, grandfather to Kublai, mostly as a ruthless but brilliant ruler of the Mongols responsible for uniting them and expanding the empire.  Kublai also follows this expansionist vision but also desires to learn more about intellectual, artistic, and religious beliefs of outsiders.  He was tolerant of different religions.  He did not rule with the same level of intense brutality more characteristic of Genghis.  He sounds almost benign.  I’m curious to learn more.

Though I will look for a more thorough book about Kublai, I revisited Kathleen Krull’s recent illustrated book Kubla Khan, the Emperor of Everything (950.2 KrK 2010 PIC BK).  It is very informative and provides some additional information about Kubla’s innovations in governing such a vast empire.

Unfortunately, the two books are written for different grades levels – Daughter of Xanadu will appeal to readers in grades 8-10 and the nonfiction title, Kubla Khan, the Emperor of Everything works best for those in grades 3-6. 

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