Monday, October 31, 2011

Historical thinking at its best

I seem to be on a kick of reading books about World War II and the Holocaust at the moment. I love reading about history but I don’t typically read a lot about the Holocaust specifically. Too disturbing and I’m a wuss.

The Year of goodbyes by Debbie Levy (811 LeY 2010) turned out to be an interesting read. It’s based on the author’s mother’s (Jutta) experiences as a child growing up in Hamburg, Germany as Hitler comes to power and begins persecuting Jews. It’s a combination of fiction and nonfiction as the author captures what her mother was thinking and feeling in 1938, the last year she and her family lived in Germany.

This book is written in narrative verse. Each chapter is centered on a page taken from her mother’s posiealbum (similar to an autograph book with poems) with the thoughtful inscriptions from her friends the basis for describing what life was like for Jutta before immigrating to the United States. There are the usual concerns of a twelve-year-old girl (family, friends, school). We are given glimpses into the confusing world that the Nazis had created where neighbours and friends disappeared, plus the many restrictions about going to school, where to shop or work, in addition to having many political rights taken away. The narrative captures the perplexity, fear and resentment that Jutta experiences. There is tenseness and terseness that is palpable as the family copes with everyday trials and as they attempt to leave Hamburg.

An extensive afterward outlines the events chronologically and what happened to Jutta and her family once they arrive in the United States. Additional research by the author tracked down what happened to many of Jutta’s friends, many of them not surviving the war.

I found this book very engaging and that I cared very much about young Jutta. The author may have used a fictional voice to tell her mother’s story but it rang true as if this was Jutta herself. I felt the ‘facts’ had been fairly represented. Compare this to a book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago (Brave deeds: how one family saved many from the Nazis by Ann Alma) where the author also uses a fictional voice to narrate at true story.

I recommend A Year of goodbyes for middle grades (5-8) and think it’s appropriate for students who might not be ready for more graphic Holocaust literature.

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being hosted at the Jean Little Library site.  Stop by and see what other blogs are recommending for nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mish-mash in brief…

I’ve been playing catch-up with the ‘new’ book cart, filled with newly catalogued books, waiting to move into processing and then onto shelves in the Doucette Library. Lots of picture books to read through. I know, I know --it’s a tough life but someone has to do it.

Here are few picture book highlights:

CookieBot!: a Harry and Horsie adventure by Katie Van Camp and Lincoln Agnew (823 V276C PIC BK)
What does a young boy do when he can’t reach the cookie jar? Build a robot that can do the reaching for him, of course. But what happens when the CookieBot runs amok down 5th Avenue in New York City? Why, Horsie comes to the rescue and everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes. Love the retro-inspired illustrations with a muted, limited colour palette. Grades K-2.

Except if by Jim Averbeck (823 Av35E PIC BK)
A circular story that plays with our expectations (and those of the illustrated characters). When is a baby bird not a baby bird? When it turns out the ‘hatchling’ emerging from the egg is actually a snake who will slither along the ground unless, of course, it turns out to be a baby lizard who will use legs to walk. And on it goes. Very playful. Grades K-2.

Octopus soup by Mercer Mayer (823 M452O2 PIC BK)
Wordless slap-stick fun as a young octopus leaves home coping with one misadventure after another and trying to stay out of the cooking pot. Colourful panels fill each page with silly action. Grades K-2.

The outback by Annaliese Porter and Browyn Bancroft (811 PorO PIC BK)
The author was eleven years-old when she wrote this poem about the Austrialian desert and how this  vast landscape, seemingly devoid of life, is in reality filled with life and colour. The illustrations are stylized and reminscient of Austrialian Aborginal art, creating a strong feel for the landscape. Grades 3-7.

Ten birds by Cybele Young (513.211 YoT 2011 PIC BK)
More than just a counting book, it also speaks to ingenuity and what it means to be ‘labeled’. All the birds labeled as ‘Remarkable’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘Quite Advance’, etc. devise some kind of mechanism that allows them to cross a river. But it’s the bird called ‘Needs Improvement’ who simply walks across the bridge that was there the whole time. Clever. Terrific illustrations.

Tigress by Helen Cowcher (823 C8387T PIC BK)
Not a recent publication but new to the Doucette Library, this book addresses the compromises that must be made between human needs and those of a mother tiger and her cubs, in India. Beautiful, bold illustrations with warm colours. Grades 1-4.

Won Ton: a cat tale told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (811 WarW 2011 PIC BK)
Using a Japanese poetic form, based on haiku, senryu focuses on “the foibles of human nature—or in this case, cat nature” Won Ton is a shelter cat lucky enough to be adopted by a boy and his family. Settling in has its trials and tribulations but all works out in the end. Grades 2-6.

And, here are a few novels I’ve enjoyed this month:

Foiled by Jane Yolen (823 Y78F7 FIC)
The first in a series of graphic novels that introduces us to Aliera, a 10th grader who is somewhat marginalized at school but a star fencer outside of school. When a good looking new guy shows up at school all the girls including Aliera,develop a major crush on him. It’s while waiting for him to show up for a date that Aliera discovers that she has special powers connected to her ‘weapon’ (a fencing foil), that she can see all sorts of mythical creatures including fairies and trolls. She is the ‘Defender’ of the world. Can’t wait for part two. Grades 6-10.

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
This is the final installment in this steampunk trilogy that continues to follow Alek and Dylan in an alternate reality on Earth during World War I. Lots of action and plot lines to keep you guessing. Grades 7 and up.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Similar in style to his Newbery winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, we are drawn into two storylines, alternating between a written narrative for Ben’s story (in the 1970s) and wordless, full page illustrations for Rose’s (in 1923). Both are interesting stories that keep you wondering how they’ll resolve and eventually connect. Beautifully produced (but really hefty) book. Grades 4-8.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nonfiction Monday is here today!

Welcome to Nonfiction Monday! I’m your host for today’s event. Please add your blog using the attached Mr. Linky's Magical Widget at the bottom of today’s post or add a comment with your blog info and I’ll add it to today’s page.

Unlikely Friendships: 47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland is (I can’t help myself) a lovely little book about the unusual bonding that sometimes happens between different animal species. The stories are sweet and charming with appealing pictures of animal pairs interacting. (Though my one quibble is that some of the pictures are not very sharp.) Maybe it’s just me getting all emotional reading about how cats and birds, dogs and cheetahs, deer and dogs, cows and leopards, bears and cats (and so on) have seemingly provided some emotional comfort for each other.

Some of the stories have recently been told in picture books, Tarra and Bella by Carol Buckley, Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson, Owen and Mzee by Isabella Hatkoff and With Love from Koko by Faith McNulty. There could be others, as well.

There are lots of ‘aaaahhhh’ moments here but I don’t think the author intended to solely charm us with heartwarming stories. She often recognizes that scientists would not always agree that animals do indeed bond or that animals have emotional lives, and that scientists might say that humans are projecting their own emotions onto these animals. She is able, on occasion, to offer alternative reasons why some animals are able to overcome instinct to form interspecies attachments. This is especially remarkable between prey and predator species.

One example I found particularly interesting was the ‘bond’ between a rat-snake and a hamster. It goes like this… said snake had fasted for a couple of weeks, not eating any of the food being offered. To stimulate the snake’s appetite, a live hamster was placed in its container. But after ‘tasting’ the meal (flicking the air with its tongue) the snake did not partake of the ‘meal’. Instead it seemed content to let the hamster get comfortable between its coils, snuggling down for a nap together. It’s possible that the snake was approaching hibernation reducing its desire for food. She does not indicate how long the relationship lasted.

But how much do scientists know about the internal lives of animals (other than us)? This question lead me back to a book I ran across a couple of years ago called 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet) by Michael Hanlon (500 HaT 2007). I revisited the chapter, Is Fido a Zombie? to see what Hanlon, (a science writer for British newspapers) had to say. This chapter focused more on animal intelligence and how sentient they may be. He looks at experiments conducted to test this and some of the conclusions that are being drawn. He extends his analysis into the realm of ‘morality’ as it’s becoming clearer that many animals do exhibit many thought processes and feelings that we humans can recognize as being similar to our own, leaving us with an ethical dilemma. Interesting reading.

Unlikely friendships will appeal to children of various ages. If you’re into using analogies or metaphors, this could work for examples for tolerance and acceptance between ‘odd’ or seemingly ‘incompatible’ pairs.

Nonfiction Monday:
Besides the sites listed with Mr. Linky's Widgets here are other blogs to check out.  Thanks Everyone for participating in today's event.

At Boys Rule Boys, Iron Guy Carl is reviewing The War to End All Wars by Russell Fredman.

Janet at All About the Books with Janet Squires is reviewing All Star!: Honus Wagner and the most famous baseball card ever by Jane Yolen.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Code Blue

So, who hasn’t stayed up too late watching TV, maybe having got sucked into a horror (or just horrible) movie? Me too.

This starts the premise of Blue Aliens: an adventure in color by Tony Porto and 3CD (823 P838B PIC BK). In this really scary movie, aliens arrive on Earth and begin eating everything that is green – green plants, green bugs, green eyeballs, tennis balls, Green Bay, you name it.

But in comes Mom to rudely interrupt and send the narrator off to bed. In the morning, with aliens still lingering in the imagination of our narrator, life takes a turn from green to blue. Aliens aren’t eating green things but blue -- for real; thus there is an explanation for missing blue jeans, blueberries from the waffles, chunks of blue sky and water, though even aliens draw the line at ‘Meatloaf Surprise’, the cafeteria lunch special which is a putrid blue colour. Ewww…

And on it goes.

Lots of puns along the way incorporating the colour blue like ‘out of the blue’ and ‘blue moon’.

Also, included are tidbits of trivia related to the things that the aliens seem to be eating. For instance, did you know that the praying mantis is the only insect that can turn its head from side to side? Or, that blueberries were originally known as star berries? Or, that 17 trees are saved for every one ton of blue-lined paper that is recycled?

Overall, a very fun book. The illustrations contribute to the farcical humour with bold, photographic illustrations, bright colours and wonky fonts.

Good potential here to tie in with a science unit on colour. It might also be used as a model for both the illustration style and as a way to focus attention on a specific colour(or its lack) and find sources of it in nature and in our own lives.

I think most elementary kids will enjoy this book, the younger ones for the goofiness of the story and the older kids for the graphics and trivia.

Monday, October 17, 2011

True courage

Brave Deeds: how one family saved many from the Nazis by Ann Alma (940.5318 AlB 2008) is an account of the efforts of a Dutch family to protect people who would have been persecuted by the Nazis during the Second World War.

We are told that Frans and Mies Braal put themselves at great risk protecting a Canadian airman shot down and injured, sheltering many children whose parents were in hiding or in work camps, and providing food and clothing to people involved with the Dutch Resistance.

I really wanted to like this book but, although I didn’t dislike it, in the end I just didn’t feel connected to the Braals. In part the disconnect was from the way the author decided to tell their story, using an unnamed fictional narrator representative of all children who endure the trauma of war.

The narrator tells us about the people living with the Braals and some family events that transpired during the last year of the war. The narrator tells us that she/he is afraid because of the planes that fly overhead, worried about his/her parents because they are in hiding, and anxious about Nazis discovering the people hidden with the Braals. All of this is told, but rarely shown, resulting in a lack of emotional connection to all those involved.

The only situation that really sticks in my mind is when Mies stares down a German officer when he unexpectedly arrives at the house. He is looking to take it over to house wounded soldiers but is uncertain whether he’s at the right place. Mies boldly lies that she does not know about the house he seeks. The officer knows that she is lying and likely hiding people the Nazis would imprison. Fortunately, he only assures her that he will never bother her again. A close call.

I wonder how children will relate to the story, especially if they are unaware of how the Nazis victimized so many and the danger that was involved for the resisters. I wonder if the story of the Braals would have been more engaging if the author hadn’t worried so much about incorporating a child’s point of view and just told us what happened.

One highlight of the book was the many family photographs of the Braals and some of the people who stayed with them. This does provide the sense that these are real people.

There are historical notes at the back of the book outlining the German occupation of Holland and a glossary explaining so Dutch words and terms related to the time period.

These were kind caring people with strong convictions and who were indeed brave. The book is worth reading but I would supplement it additional information.

Suggested for grades 4-7.

Visit Ann Alma's website for more information.

Today is Nonfiction Monday at Simply Science Blog.  Stop by to read several blogs focusing on nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Situation: Bratty Sister

I’ve just finished reading Rukhsana Khan’s Big Red Lollipop (823 K527B PIC BK) and really enjoyed it. It’s a totally relatable story about an older sister (me) coping with the demands of a younger sister (my sister). Welcome to my childhood world.

Rubina receives an invitation to a birthday party from a girl at school. Her very first one! She’s so excited, rushing home to ask permission to go. Her mother doesn’t really understand what a birthday party is all about (the family is from Pakistan and it’s not a custom they follow) and sets the condition that she must take her younger sister. (The younger sister, Sana, kicks up quite the fuss about wanting to go, screaming “I wanna go now!”).

Rubina knows this isn’t going to go well and, sure enough, Sana proves to be a challenge at the party, having to win the party games and crying when she falls during musical chairs. Sana gobbles all her candy from her goodie bag and goes so far as eating Rubina’s red lollipop, too. (Rubina had saved hers and was eagerly anticipating eating it the next day.) Not good. Ami (the mom) brings home the lesson of ‘sharing’ which only aggravates Rubina more.

But a life lesson is just around the corner for Sana, too. She receives a birthday invitation from a school mate and then must deal with the youngest sister, Maryam demanding to go along, too. Ami’s condition stands – Sana gets to go only if she brings Maryam.

This where Rubina shines. She stands up for Sana and without a fuss convinces Ami to let Sana go alone. In appreciation, Sana gives Rubina the lollipop she gets at the party.

Sounds like the story might be a bit didactic but it isn’t. The illustrations are beautifully composed, with emotions conveyed with facial expressions and body language. The sense of frustration and lack of fairness is palpable from Rubina’s point of view. I love the illustration showing the ‘chase’ scene when Rubina seeks retribution after Sana eats her lollipop.

Visit Rukhsana Khan’s website for a teacher’s guide for this book and many of her others.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In appreciation of creative teachers

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada.

But it was just over a week ago that a teacher-student came to me ask what books could I recommend for her to use in a grade 5 class about Thanksgiving.

She knew she was a wee bit late in coming into the Doucette Library to get books but before I could even tell her this, she piped up to say that she thought she could use Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting (823 B886F PIC BK). This story is about a boy and his father living in an airport because the father is unable to make enough money for a home at his current job. Her idea was to raise her student’s awareness about homelessness in Calgary and by extension making them more aware of what they have in their own lives. Brilliant!

Once there, I recommended looking at Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams (823 W6733F PIC BK). This is a picture book is about two Afghan girls living in a refugee camp who become friends when they share a single pair of flip-flops. Again, the classroom connection focused on being thankful for what we do have.

She reported back to me this past Friday that the books went over very well with her students. One student had been unaware that homelessness was prevalent in Calgary.

Mostly I really appreciated that the student was able to come up with a different way to frame Thanksgiving Day with resources that didn’t directly address the holiday. She was the one to extrapolate the bigger idea of gratitude and come up with a book that would support her idea.

For this I’m thankful – she’s on her way to becoming a creative teacher.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Odd Bean Out

Bean Thirteen by Matthew McElligott (513.21 McB 2007 PIC BK) is a cute story about two bugs, Ralph and Flora, a pile of beans and a for dinner party for six.

Ralph and Flora have a problem. The thirteen beans they gathered won’t split evenly between the two of them, leaving an unlucky thirteenth bean. Flora starts inviting friends over to help them with their problem but still they have one bean left over. An accident scatters the beans, messing up the six neat piles of two beans plus one. Hastily gathered together, the beans are placed in a single dish where the six critters ending up helping themselves to however many beans they want to eat. And, somehow all the beans disappear leaving Ralph and Flora wondering who ate the unlucky one.

The illustrations are fairly simple but boldly drawn and brightly coloured to attract children’s attention. The various groupings of beans are easily displayed and easy to understand.

Great way to introduce the concept of division to the primary grades.

Check out the author’s website for some math, art and language arts activities for this book.

Monday, October 3, 2011

School days

Going to School in India by Lisa Heydlauff (370.954 HeG 2005 PIC BK) is an interesting book to peruse. The illustrations are crazily bright and energetic, filled with photographs of children from across India going to school and sitting in their ‘classrooms’.

First off, getting to school is varied. A multi-page pull-out shows us that kids travel by every transportation mode possible. From rickshaws, carts that may be drawn by oxen, horses or camels, bicycles, buses, military trucks, boats or on foot, great effort is made to attend school since often schools are not located near where children live.

As varied as the way students get to the schools are the schools themselves. Some are located high in the mountains or inside of a bus or outside; others are in government-run one-room schools or in a tent in the middle of a desert. The book also shows us some of the things the students do, such as go on field trips, conduct interviews, write a small newspaper, and hold parliaments to discuss politics or how the school should be run. Another set of fold-out pages shows us the variety of food that Indian children eat at lunch.

We learn about the lives of the children too. Some are street children living in large cities, some are ‘tribal’ are don’t attend government schools but congregate on their own to learn, and some live the migratory lives of salt-pan workers in the desert. Girls and boys have different opportunities for going to school. One example is a night school for girls who must work during the day.

There is certainly lots of ‘flavour’ of India here. The book feels a little hodge-podgy -- a collection of bits of information, individual stories of children or schools, activities, food, and transportation. I do like it but I think this will be more of a browsing book for North American kids studying India, perhaps a good resource to initiate questions. India is studied in grade three social studies in Alberta but I don’t think this would be the first book I’d introduce to a class.. Having it as a back-up resource would be fine. Its bright colours and dynamic layout will draw interest.

Suggested reading level is grades 4-6.

Today is Nonfiction Monday at 100 Scope Notes.  Check out the list of blogs reviewing nonfiction children's literature.

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