Thursday, November 29, 2012

Winter interlude.

I know it’s going to be a long winter when I start immersing myself in travel books and it’s not even officially, winter yet.

A Walk in London by Salvatore Rubbino is a travel book that gives us a child’s eye-view while exploring London’s city centre, visiting many well-known landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, Big Ben bell and clock tower, Trafalgar Square, Convent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, plus many more sights.

Each slightly oversized 2-page spread is filled with details of each location with additional quirky, sometimes random, bits of information scattered across them.  For instance did you know that St. Paul’s Cathedral’s dome weighs about 64,000 tons? Or, that every year in Britain, 300 million fish and chips dinners are eaten? Or, that Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms? Or, that double-decker buses have been in use since the 1930s?  These factoids help us learn more about London. But for our young narrator it’s all about talking with the pelicans at St. James Park, sitting on the lions in Trafalgar Square, and enjoying the street entertainers in Convent Garden. A ferry ride down the Thames gets a 4-page pull out that gives us a panoramic view of the shore line the further orientates us with the sights to be found between the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster, such as the Globe Theatre and the London Eye.  If you check the front and end pages you will be able to name the bridges you seen in the fold out.  Good for mapping skills and geographic thinking.

The illustrations are done in mixed-media with a fairly muted palette that conveys a very retro-style.  It reminds me of old travel posters from the 1950s and 60s.

This is a fun exploration of a wonderful city. This is exactly how the book comes across: when in London, there is a lot to see, do and enjoy.  Our narrator and her mother have a very busy, full day as they travel around the heart of London and I'm glad I was able to join them.  Any respite from winter is welcomed.

Recommended for grades 1-4.

Monday, November 26, 2012

“Fabric of urban life torn apart…”

Recently, we received a really interesting book.  (Yes, another one.)  It had been recommended a couple of years ago by a student-teacher and I've had my eye on it ever since.  It’s one of those books that get my brain synapses popping but, nevertheless, will not be an easy ‘sell’.  It has no direct ties to the Alberta curriculum but I still feel has tremendous potential in the classroom.

The book -- The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.  It’s an oversized, coffee table-type book that's filled with fascinating photographs of inner city Detroit.   The introduction provides enough context to help us understand what we are seeing as we browse through the volume.  Page after page shows derelict office buildings, factories, houses, schools, theatres that have literally gutted the once thriving city.  These abandoned buildings once showcased the promise of early 20th century America when the boom in car manufacturing resulted in people's mass migration into the city to get their bit of the pie.  Good wages from union jobs meant disposable income to buy houses and cars.  But as the social and political circumstances changed and the way the city was developed changed, life moved out to the suburbs, slowly but inexorably resulting in fewer people in the inner core.

Looking through the pages of the book there are questions and emotions to be reckoned with.

How could these buildings have just been left?  Books still line the shelves of libraries and police files litter the floor of a police station.  Schools are still filled with desks, lab equipment and student projects.  Why were things not packed up? 

Besides the big question "why, why, why?" punctuating my brain while looking at these images, I’m thinking just how sad it is.  Some of the architecture of the buildings was beautiful and  it is a shame to see their grandeur utterly forsaken.  I guess it’s a little reassuring to think that nature will reclaim urban areas as the prairie slowly takes over and deer, foxes and flocks of pheasant return. 

The photographs themselves are gripping, falling into that category of ‘terrible beauty’.  The composition, clarity and overall layout of the book effortlessly show us just how temporary, disposal and wasteful our societies are today.  (Do an image search in Google to see some of the photographs from the book.)

So, who would I recommend this book to?  Certainly, students in high school could use this in a social studies classroom.  Looking at issues of economics (boom/bust cycles with which Calgary is all too familiar), urban planning, sustainability, architecture, and historical/contemporary views of civilization can be supported by this book.  I, also think that younger students in junior high will be fascinated by these photos.  I do wonder what kids would make of these images.

Pair this with the DVD Life After People and the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman to look at the consequences of human impulses and what happens to our material culture when we are not around.

Today's Nonfiction Monday Event is over at The Miss Rumphius Effect.  Check out other children lit blogs and what they're recommending.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reflecting on nature

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder  is a quiet meditation about observing the small wonders to be found in nature.  By quietly watching an array of insects such as crickets, moths, praying mantis, bees and others on a blade of grass or flower, the reader is drawn into a beautiful world of creatures captured in a single moment that gives us the opportunity to observe them. 

This book does not embrace the drama of Bug Shots: the Good, the Bad and the Bugly by Alexander Siy.  Gotta love this opening paragraph:

"Bugs bite.  Some drink blood.  Bugs rob.  They steal food from gardens and fields.  Bugs kill -- mostly each other, but also plants, animals, even people sometimes.  Bugs destroy.
They eat houses, clothes, and furniture.  Bugs bug."

Glorious, photographic close-ups of the insects display their beauty, complimenting the accompanying, elegant poem.  There is an easing of the  day into night then into early morning.  The photo of a dew laden spider web lit with the rising sun is stunning.

All the insects are identified with a bit of information about their characteristics and habits at the back of the book.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book except that you won’t be disappointed when you spend some quiet moments with it.  Then go outside to see what you can see and savor.

For us snowbound people, you’ll have to wait until next spring to watch for insects, but you might want to consider what happens to insects during the winter with Bugs & Bugsicles: Insects In the Winter by Amy Hansen. Connecting to nature in winter is different but not impossible. 


Monday, November 19, 2012

Who thinks of these things?

A Zeal of Zebras: an alphabet of collective nouns by Woop Studios  is one of those books that makes me wonder.

Who decided that the collective noun for gnus is ‘implausibility’?

(Please, sir, may I have that in a sentence? Each year, from Tanzania to Kenya an implausibility of gnus (wildebeests) traverse wide rivers to reduce the risk of being caught by predators such as lions.) 

This is an alphabet book that presents a double page spread for each letter of the alphabet represented by a collective noun for a group of animals with additional information about the group behaviour of the animals.  (See above paragraph about migrating gnus.)

Some of the words provoke beautiful imagery– an aurora of polar bears, a galaxy of starfish, or a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

Some of the nouns are playful – an embarrassment of pandas, a pandemonium of parrots or an ostentation of peacocks, which, by the way, are recommended as a terrific guard pets.  Move over Fido!

Some of the language conveys a sense of danger – a quiver of cobras, a shiver of sharks or venom of spiders.

Obviously, I haven’t covered all 26 letters but you get the idea.  There is lots of creative, descriptive language to work into language arts and art classes.

Speaking of art – the illustrations are fantastic, too.  Woop Studios is composed of “four friends united by a love of graphic design, words and images.”  And, it shows. The oversized book presents bold, poster-like pages with stylized illustrations of the each animal group. Fonts, colours and uneven inking also contribute to a feeling of posters from yesteryear.

Beautiful, playful and provocative, this will work well with students in upper elementary grades (5/6) to high school. 

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at Perogies and Gyoza.  Check out the list of recommended nonfiction children's titles from around the blogosphere.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Picture Book Month

November is the month to officially celebrate the awesomeness of picture books.  When you go to the website for Picture BookMonth you will find postings from authors and illustrators from the world of children’s literature, writing about why they think picture books are important.  This continues until the end of the month.

To illustrate how important picture books can be, I’d like to tell you about a couple of students (student-teachers) I've had at the reference desk this past week.

Both students are involved with Calgary Reads, a program that matches university students with struggling readers in elementary schools.  Each student-teacher asked me for recommendations for picture books for kids in grades 2 and 5.  They had been asked to bring in a picture book to read aloud to their assigned student as a way to get to know them.  At this point, this is all they know – nothing else. Not why the kids struggle with reading, not their gender or interests.  Nada.  So, its wide open as to what they bring in.

And this is where the challenge is – this first book may be what sets the tone for this experience for both the elementary student and the student-teacher.  Finding a good read aloud isn't the problem.  Finding one that will appeal to either a boy or girl with unknown interests and diverse life experiences is a bit more challenging.

My bias is to suggest something humorous.  I figure if you can make a kid laugh, the door has at least been cracked opened.  Once rapport has been established between the student-teacher and the reader, there’s an opportunity for future sessions to be more directed to the kids’ interests.

So what were some of my recommendations?

No, That’s Wrong by Zhaohua Ji 
When has being wrong been so funny?  Meet a befuddled rabbit who doesn't know a pair of underpants from a hat.  But then neither do a variety of other animals until donkey tries to set the record straight.  Illustrations are great at conveying the humour and confusion.  Hilarious.

ChewyLouis by Howie Schneider
A lovable but highly destructive pup is the centre of one family’s consternation and extreme displeasure as he chews up the whole house – yes! Everything!  Again the illustrations heighten the hilarity.

BabyBrains by Simon James 
This one is totally over-the-top for its’ take on overly ambitious parents and their overachieving children.  Right from birth Baby Brains is able to read newspapers, fix cars, go to school and becomes a world renowned surgeon.  But, deep down, he’s really just a baby who wants the love and comfort of his parents. 

While cruising the shelves looking for funny books, I usually pull a few other books that I think might have strong enough stories that transcend the many unknowns about the young reader.

Here were a few titles that were checked out:

Blackout by John Rocco 
A city wide blackout reduces one family’s various activities that typically keep them apart, to just being with each other.  Finding emergency candles and a flashlight, enjoying the star-studded night sky and joining a low-key street party create a strong sense family and community.

This book uses similes and using mixed-media illustrations to tell us what the narrator’s friends and teachers are like.  His best friend Jack is smart.  He knows lots about geography, is as sharp as a pencil, curious as a magnifying glass and precise as a microscope.  The objects shown in his ‘portrait’ (a globe, a pencil, a magnifying glass and microscope) become the pieces that construct Jack’s face in a simple collage.  This book is playful and clever.

I have to confess I didn't actually recommend this one but only because it wasn't ready to be checked out.  Otherwise, I’d have been all over it.

This story is based on a true and harrowing experience of a dog trapped on an ice flow in the Baltic Sea during a brutally cold winter.  He survived adrift for two days until he was rescued by a research vessel and eventually adopted as a crew member.  Great story with a strong sense of drama made all that much better because it’s based on a true incident.

So, these are just some of my recommendations that I think would make a good first impression.   Opening up the world to young children is important and one, easy accessible way is through picture books.  I’m hoping to get some feedback about how these choices went over with the elementary students.

First impressions are important.  Recommendations for putting your best foot forward?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Can you ever have too much squid?

I recently mentioned that I had been very busy doing lots of workshops for student-teachers about using resources in classrooms.  This year, a few instructors and I came up with a new spin on how to introduce the diverse range of resources available to them from the Doucette Library, but within a meaningful context.  I've found that book-talking or waving wonderful kits at students, though fun, isn't very effective.  They don’t remember what they've seen or they make lists of stuff that they’ll never look at again.

But, pulling bunches of stuff (aka “packages” of juvenile fiction and nonfiction, kits, posters, teaching resources) together centred around an idea like sound, nutrition or the question, ‘What is art?’ and then letting students play and explore the resources seems to produce a more thoughtful experience.  Questions about the resources and follow-up discussion get them thinking about how these resources can be used in their teaching, what the resources add to the unit,  and if are they worthwhile.  Plus, the hands-on approach for the students is way more engaging.

One of the ‘packages’ I pulled together that kind of surprised me but totally sucked me in, was centred on marine life, specifically the giant squid.  Since Alberta is a prairie province, studying the ocean is not part of the curriculum.  But this fascinating, creepy, slightly repulsive, creature is too good to pass up, if the opportunity should arise.  You never know where the interests of your students will go, right?

During the last few months I've come across pieces in the news and other odd bits of information about these captivating creatures.  I've always been taken with the image of the giant squid’s eye from Steve Jenkins, ActualSize which shows the ‘actual size’ of the eye.  It. Is. Big. : about 25 cm. (10 in.) in diameter. Showing this illustration in a workshop always gets a response from students.

Another book by Lola Schaeferth, Just One Bite: 11 Animals and Their Bites at Life Size, includes a four page spread that shows the jaws of a sperm whale clamping down on a giant squid, its favourite food. Awesome!

Then a recommendation from another blog prompted me to order Giant Squid: Searching for a Sea Monsterby Mary Cerullo and Clyde Roper (594.58 CeG 2012).  I gobbled this book up.  It briefly covers historical references to this fairly unknown creature that tantalize us into wanting to know more.  Scientific knowledge about the giant squid is still relatively new since they live in the deepest regions of the oceans and most information has been derived from dead specimens.  Scientists have been pulling together slivers of evidence for decades as if trying to solve an intriguing cold case.  There are lots of photographs interspersed between blocks of information.

But wait! There’s more! HereThere Be Monsters: the Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid by H.P. Newquist (594.58 NeH 2010) was already in the Doucette Library’s collection.  This book is a lot denser in text formatting and information primarily about the colossal squid (14m or 45 ft long) and the giant squid (estimated to grow up to 13m or 43 ft long).  Many of the illustrations are the same as in Giant Squid.  I found this one a more thorough but slower read.  

I recommend both books but think the first book will appeal to younger kids and struggling readers more.

To fill out the package for the workshop, I included,
 Down Down Down by Steve Jenkins,
The Deep by Claire Nouvian,
a specimen of an octopus encased in a plastic block for comparison, and
a replica of a toothfrom a sperm whale.

There were many more books that I could have supplemented this topic with.

And, I did order a replica of a giant squid beak for next time, so there’ll be one more resource to “oooo” and “ahhh” over. 

I love doing these kinds of workshops.  They present options for our student teachers and resources that they are often unaware of.  The accessibility of the internet has made unit/lesson planning an interesting endeavor that can be too easily padded out with multiple websites of varying quality.  Don’t get me wrong.  I, too, am out there looking for information on the net (see Ocean Portal from the Smithsonian about the giant squid, if you’re really keen) but I'm still in the camp that kids need real ‘stuff’ and books to touch and handle.  I'm here to remind our upcoming-teachers-to-be about that very thing.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Guest blogger - View from the 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 highlights three fictional pieces that take us back to Europe during World War II.  All three are new to me though Janet had already sold me on Code Name Verity which I've since ordered for the Doucette Library.  What are your thoughts?  Any recommendations that you'd recommend for Remembrance Day?

Lest we forget….a different take

So maybe it is just me – but do you know how occasionally you read a book – and then the next book you pick up is somewhat related? And then you find a third book that ties into the second? And so on? Well, that happened to me this fall. It started with a book I read for my book club, - a mystery, set in Sweden and moving back and forth between present day Sweden and Sweden during the Second World War. Then I picked up the next book on my pile – and it linked to the first.  So this fall, I have read four different books about events in the Second World War that I was less knowledgeable about. Three of the books are intended for children or young adults, making them perfect fodder for both my jobs.

The first book is Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. This is historical fiction, written about Nazi-occupied Norway during the early years of the war. I did not know that Norway had been occupied and so this book piqued my interest. The story’s main character is a teenage boy, Kjell, drafted into the Resistance movement in Norway – initially, by delivering letters, but eventually moving on to spy on the Nazis.  The story details his increasing involvement, but also offers the stories of three other characters – his sister, a local bully and his former best friend. Ultimately, Kjell commits an error, which uncovers his role as a spy and he is forced to flee Norway for Sweden on skis. The book has been well-researched and includes maps, quotes, a pronunciation guide and a brief history and timeline of the occupation. Based on a true story, the authenticity rings through and it will be an excellent read for Grade 6 and up.

The second book I read is My Family For the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve. This book begins in Germany during the initial period of Nazi persecution of Jews, but before the war officially started. Franziska is a young girl with Jewish roots, but a practicing Protestant. Nevertheless, she is sent to England on a “kinder transport” - a system that smuggled close to 10,000 Jewish children out of Germany to safety. When Franziska leaves, it is with the idea that her family will join her in England. But travel of Jewish people is prohibited before her family can join her and Franziska is placed with a Jewish family in England for the duration of the war. I found myself quite entranced with this book. As a parent, I could (barely) imagine sending my children away to safety – but from a child’s perspective, this must have been a very confusing and upsetting time, with conflicting loyalties to family, religion and countries.  The author does an excellent job of portraying that confusion and sense of loss – and reading the story of Frances as she grows and matures during wartime England kept me interested right to the end.

 Finally, the third book I read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Weins. This was, quite simply, a fabulous read. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it might ruin the story. But take two young women – one with a talent for languages and the other with an interest in, and ability to, fly planes. Put them into the Second World War and what evolves is a story of friendship, of fears and fears faced, of intelligence, true courage, faith and hope. It is not an easy read, and for that reason, I would only recommend it for older students – Grade 10 and up, as the plot is complex and the narrative is third person diary (sort of). But I want this book (I borrowed it from the library) and have put it on my Christmas list. The book gave me goose bumps and made me ask myself “Would I have the courage to do what they did?”

War and war time is a subject of great interest for many of the students at my school, helped no doubt, by the fact that the school resides on one of the army bases “decommissioned” during the 1980s and 1990s. I also have a strong interest in these wars, helped along by a daughter who is studying military history in university and stories told by my father, a navigator in the Second World War. But these three books gave me different lenses on the Second World War, ones that I won’t forget when November 11 rolls around.

Monday, November 5, 2012


My instruction load the last couple of weeks has prevented me from keeping up with my regular blog postings. Sorry about that.  But, the student teachers are out in schools doing their practicum so, life in the library  is a little calmer  -- for the moment.

You know a book is going to be good when the cataloguer in the office hands it to you and says, “This is good.”  And, I would have to agree.

Tomorrow’s Alphabet by George Shannon (411 ShT 1996 PIC BK) may be an ‘oldie’ but it’s one that I’ll be promoting in my future workshops.  I think I picked up this title from one of the blogs participating in this year’s Top 10 on the 10th event so it's a favourite of another children literature aficionado, too. 

Here’ s why we like it.

This is an alphabet book with an interesting premise. 

“A is for seed-- tomorrow’s APPLE”  or  
“B is for eggs—tomorrow’s BIRDS” and
“C is for milk—tomorrow’s CHEESE.”

You can easily see the pattern.  The objects focussed on are pretty typical, nothing too out there.  I particularly liked “U is for stranger—tomorrow’s US.” And, problematic X and Z are “X is for bones—tomorrow’s X-RAY” and “Z is for countdown—tomorrow’s ZERO” with a rocket blasting off into space.

The illustrations are fine but pretty basic.

But it is the premise that really sold this book for me.  I love the potential for getting students to predict both ways, getting them to guess what ‘A’ word comes from seed or what do you need to have before you get your ‘B’ word, birds.  This can easily be extended into a class exercise coming up with your tomorrow alphabet.  Because this has been around for a while already some of you will know it and perhaps used it in your classrooms.  Please drop me a comment  telling us about your experiences

Mine would have to be: “B is for time—tomorrow’s BLOG.”

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at Booktalking#kidlit.

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