Thursday, March 28, 2013

Books and apps, apps and books – Part 1

Guest blogger - Janet Hutchinson

Janet has recently taken on learning about instructional technologies for the classroom.  Part of her time has been learning about iPads, their usefulness as a classroom tool and related apps.  We've gotten into a few discussions about some of the questions that arise when looking at some of these 'educational tools.'  Do these apps add anything to the reading experience?  Are they educational, entertaining, distracting or altogether off-putting? Do they replace the physical book?  What is lost without the physical book if anything? and so on.   

Below is Janet's first feature about one of these book apps.  If you've had experiences with some book apps please feel free to drop us a line in the comments box and let us know your thoughts.

One of the projects that I have been working on for the last little while is the development of a set of iPad books and apps that might be of value in a school classroom. This has been an interesting project (not the least because I get to play a little bit) because it brings up all sorts of questions around the use of iPads in the classroom. Today’s question is “When is a book better off as an app or digital book?”

This question seems to come to everyone interested in books and where books are going. There is a school of thought that digitally created and enhanced books will eventually be the choice of people who read – those people who choose to continue reading paper books will be seen to be people who are firmly stuck in old ways of thinking.

In consultation with Tammy, I have taken the opportunity to purchase several book apps that we also have as hard-cover books here in the Doucette. We initially wanted to explore them first of all as support for the physical books – but secondly, as stand-alone opportunities to read. For me, I wanted to discover what the app might offer that enhances the reading experience for the reader, be they a small child or a young adult.

The first app that I purchased is the picture book Memoirs of a goldfish by Devin Scillian. This is the story of a goldfish and life in his fish-bowl  The book starts with the fish swimming in his bowl, all alone. It proceeds through to the point where there is the fish, a toy, plants, a snail, a crab (I assume a plastic one) a sunken pirate ship and on and on. He has a little meltdown and is moved to a small bowl all alone. But he discovers that, as crowded and busy as it was, he misses everyone – and when he is moved back to a larger tank with all his new friends, he realizes they are all part of a family. And then he meets a girl goldfish. And they lived happily ever after. (Sarcasm unintended – it really is a cute story.)

In my opinion, the book app does not add much to the story. Except for some animation of the narrator fish (who remains nameless) and a few bubbles, the story tells itself, with few distractions – but also with few things that make it a “stand-out” book app, one that is head and tails above the standard issue hard copy book. In fact, because the screen size is limited, the picture book (hardcopy) does a much better job of displaying the full bowl across two pages, especially when the storyline is on one screen, and the picture is on the next, so that the overall visual is split up. And getting back to the start of the book means a page menu has to be swiped up and the reader has to scroll backwards or forwards to find the page he/she wants.

There is one advantage – the book app has the option of allowing the child to be read to without the presence of an adult. And as the voice narrates, the text turns red, so that a child can follow along and know what words are being read on which page. As a parent, part of me thinks this might be a good thing, particularly for those days when chaos reigns – but, on the other hand, nothing can replace reading to a child in your lap (whether it is on an iPad or a book).

Part 2 – A YA book and a YA app? Or does having the accompanying soundtrack make the book better?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Everyone has to go – except Matt Damon, that is.

Tomorrow, March 22 is World Water Day.

This arrived in my inbox last week. 

This is using the power of celebrity (and totally-over-the-top silliness) to increase awareness about a serious issue.  Strike on, I say.

Every 21 seconds, a child dies from diarrhea. (from

I hadn't realized that Matt Damon was co-founder of Water.Org, an organization that raises awareness and money to improve access to clean water for millions of people in Central America, Africa and Asia. looks to do this through financial support, local involvement, and sustainable technology.

It is estimated that nearly 10% of the global disease burden could be reduced through improved water supply, sanitation, hygiene, and water resource management. (from

In addition to developing clean water supplies, is increasing education about sanitation issues.  Improper, or total lack of waste disposal, especially human waste, is a major factor contributing to contaminated water, which in turn causes disease such as cholera, typhoid and typhus.

90% of the deaths due to diarrheal diseases are children under 5 years old, mostly in developing countries. (from

Check out’s website for loads of resources to support informing and teaching about global water issues.  One page includes lesson plans  for elementary, junior and senior high levels.  These include correlation to American curriculum standards, information about water issues and activities.

People living in informal settlements (i.e. slums) often pay 5-10 times more per liter of water than wealthy people living in the same city. (from

These issues are of such importance that the United Nations has designated March 22nd as World Water Day, a  day to raise awareness about global issues related to clean water and accessibility (or to lack of access, as the case may be).  This year’s focus is on cooperative management of water resources.

If you’re looking for a good resource for the classroom check out Poop Happened!: a History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee.  This is a well-written historical account of the impact of sanitation issues on humans and development on civilization.  Her focus is primarily on Europe and North America.  The tone is somewhat jocular but conveys a great deal of information best suited for upper elementary and junior high students (grades 5/6 to 9).

Also, look for Toilets of the World by Morna Gregory and Sian James. This is a pictorial waltz through bathrooms from around the world giving us the good, the bad and the ugly not to mention very strange.  I blogged about this one sometime ago.  

Strike On!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Inclusive education and exceptional students

Recently, I was asked to do a workshop that focused on resources for inclusive education.  This was a first for me and proved to be an interesting challenge.  How many books could I promote that covered a range of ideas about diverse students in today’s classrooms?  What should a good book that portrays a child with exceptional needs look like?

This meant doing some reading of my own about this topic and I found a couple of interesting articles that provided different criteria for evaluating books for stereotypes about disabilities specifically.  (See list at the end of posting.)

So, back to which books to look at…


Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin
I promote this one all the time for many reasons.  This is told in text and Braille about how a young blind boy ‘sees’ or perceives colours.  Beautifully designed and very poetic.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close
A well known artist, who had learning issues as a child, also has physical challenges that he’s had to overcome to pursue this career as an artist.  Again, the format of the book is intriguing and the story inspirational.

Before Helen Keller there was Laura Bridgman.  I hadn't come across Laura’s story before and thought this was a fascinating look at how Laura paved the way for blind/deaf people in the 1800s, including Helen.

I had a whole slew of fantastic books but could only focus on a few, due to time constraints.

Crazy Man by Pamela Porter
This novel takes place in 1965 in rural Saskatchewan and gives us insight as to how disabilities were regarded in a small community.  Emaline is severely injured by her father in a farming accident.  After he deserts the family because of guilt, Emaline’s mother decides that her only recourse is to hire Angus, a patient from a nearby mental institution.  This is told in narrative verse, another format that can sometimes appeal to students struggling to read.

How Smudge Came by Nan Gregory

Technically, it is Down Syndrome
A lovely, gentle picture book about a girl, Cindy, who wants to adopt a stray puppy she’s found in a back alley on a cold, rainy day.  Though it’s never directly mentioned, we see that Cindy has Down Syndrome.  She lives in a group home that does not allow her to keep the puppy.  But circumstances, at the hospice she works at are such that they adopt the puppy.  This story is ‘just’ about a girl who really wants a dog of her own.  This is not about a girl with Down Syndrome.

Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
One in a trilogy by Patricia Polacco about her experiences growing up with learning disabilities.  I really enjoyed all three longish picture books.  See also, Thank you Mr. Falker and The Art of Miss Chew.

Keep Your Ear On the Ball by Genevieve Petrillo
I really liked this picture book when I read it last summer.  It’s about a very independent blind boy.  When he starts at a new school the other kids in his class are eager to help him, but he always says “no thanks”.  But when it comes to playing kick ball, it’s only when the kids work together that they come up with a solution that gets Davey into the game.  After having read some of the various criteria to use when reviewing books like this, I did question that it’s not Davey who comes up with the solution but one of this classmates.  Having the non-disabled figure out the problem/solution? is less then desirable.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Both of these novels blew my socks off.  I loved the two main characters Melody and Auggie (respectively) and introduced them as if they were two students that student-teachers could have in their class.
I described who Melody and Auggie are, some good qualities and the nature of their disabilities.  I did eventually introduce the books and again, a few criteria that they should consider when selecting books like these for classroom use.

Ten Birds by Cybele Young
This Canadian Governor General’s award winner is a good classroom tool that cautions about the use of ‘labelling’.  Ten birds find ways to cross a river. The first nine (who are all somehow brilliant) devise ingenious contraptions that allow them to pass over, under, through the river.  Whereas the tenth bird named Needs Improvement just walks across the bridge that has been there the whole time.  Fantastic illustrations.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
This ‘novelized-graphic novel’ (or is it, ‘illustrated novel’) includes a deaf girl as a main character in one of the storylines.  I brought this one in to highlight the interesting format of the book (sections of text are interspersed with long sections of illustrations with no accompanying text.)


Knots On a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault.
I did not recommend this book.  Though it tells the story of a blind, Native American boy, the book is not recommended in The Broken Flute (edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, 2006) as it portrays the Native Americans in an inauthentic way.  This is a ‘classic’ children’s picture book that is often used in classrooms.  I wanted to raise awareness about the many issues that need to be considered when selecting classroom resources.

This link from Smart in the Inside takes you to a pretty comprehensive list of juvenile resources (fiction and nonfiction) about specific learning conditions and disabilities compiled by Kathy Young.

 Angharad Beckett (et al.) (2010). ‘Away with the fairies?’ Disability within primary-age children’s literature.  Disability & Society, 25:3, 373-386.

Emily Wopper (2011). Inclusive literature in the library and the classroom: the importance of young adult and children’s books that portray characters with disabilities.  Knowledge Quest, 39:3, 26-34.

Emiliano C. Ayala (1999). “Poor little things” and “brave little souls”: the portrayal of individuals with disabilities in children’s literatureReading Research and Instruction, 39:1, 103-117.

Stephanie Kurtts and Karen Gavigan (2008). Understanding (dis)abilities through children’s literature.  Education Libraries, 31:3, 23-31.

Web Resources

     -good checklist

Saskatchewan Social Services, Child Day Care Branch (2003). Using children’s books to create ananti-bias inclusive environment

Today is Nonfiction Blog hosted by Perogies & Gyoza.  Stop by for a review of other blogs reviewing nonfiction children's literature.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Morbid fascination

Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America by James M. Deem is a remarkable history book blending science and storytelling. 

By looking at current forensics practices, archaeologists, historians, and artists delve into the stories of people who lived and died long ago.  There is an aura of mystery as skeletons are found in seemingly unlikely places when long forgotten cemeteries are rediscovered as sewer lines are dug up or new buildings are constructed.

What happens to the bones of people who lived in times so different from our own when they are disinterred?

Mostly, the bones get studied.  Scientists look to see how these individuals died, how old they were, how hard they worked, or how well or poorly they ate.  Further research about the place the bones were buried typically provides additional information about their living conditions and the context of their death, if they were part of a larger historical event such as a battle, an epidemic or shipwreck or died of more everyday causes like old age and poor health.

For me, the best part of this book is when the faces of our ancestors stare back at us.  Artists’ recreating the faces is a fascinating process that has its roots going back to the 1800s.

The life stories of American sailors, soldiers, slaves, servants, orphans, and the mentally ill are told here.  This nonfiction book has a great sense of narrative like that of a mystery novel.

Suggested for grades 5-9.

Forensic Identification: Putting aName and Face On Death by Elizabeth A. Murray also tells us how science helps to identify human remains of a much more recent nature.

Again, investigators try to find out who the people are and how they died.  This book presents the processes used to solve cases of unidentified remains and missing persons in a more factual, typical nonfiction format.  Interesting ‘cases’ are interspersed throughout that pose a situation where human bodies have been found and then how the cases were resolved.  This book gives us a very good sense about the wonders and sometimes the limitations of technology.

Suggested for grades 4-8.

Every Bone Tells a Story: HomininDiscoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw have just arrived at the Doucette Library.  It’s now been added to my TBR (to-be-read) pile.  Without having read the book and glancing through its table of contents this book will focus on remains of humans from thousands of years of ago, such as the Kennewick Man (9,000 years ago), Otzi the Iceman (5300 ya), Turkana Boy (1,600,000 ya) and the Lapedo Child (24,500 ya).  Here too there is lots of information about the science that goes into becoming reacquainted with our ancestors.  Each chapter has section entitled 'Deductions' and 'Debates' suggesting the dynamic nature of investigative research.

Suggested for grades 8 to 12.

Today is Nonfiction Monday being hosted at Sally's Bookshelf.  Check out the interesting list of recommended nonfiction children's lit.

Monday, March 4, 2013

In triplicate

After having read several reviews recommending the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, I had high expectations about revisiting this story.  Hope Larson's other graphic novels Mercury and Chiggers  had been most enjoyable so there was lots to look forward to.

The book arrives, I take it home and merrily begin zipping through it.  About a third of the way in, I start to feel a little dissatisfied.  Not really disappointed but I kept feeling like something was missing. 

I had read the novel sometime in the 80s (a long time ago -- I know!) and remember loving the book.  I loved the characters and found the plot fascinating.  I remember being gripped.  But because my initial consumption of the book was a long time ago and my memory isn't what it use to be I was a little vague on some of the details of story.  I had envisioned tucking it the graphic novel to revisit old friends in far-out worlds and I wondered  why I was not enthralled with the graphic novel.  Was it my faulty memory?

I  realized a little further on that the graphic novel gives us primarily dialogue and without  L'Engle's beautifully written descriptive passages I felt like I was reading a Coles Notes version of the book.  The plot was pretty much the way I remember it.  All the characters were accounted for. The visual aspect of the book was working for me but my imagination wasn't able to recreate the world that L'Engle had created with her words.  

Going back into the office I mentioned this to work-mates Janet H. (occasional guest blogger) and Lynn K.  I discovered that Janet had read it like me sometime ago and that Lynn had never picked up the book.  I thought it would be interesting, if the they were keen to read the graphic novel, if we all wrote up our responses as a blog posting.  I was hopeful that Janet or Lynn would find it really good like many other reviewers and show me why it was supposedly such a good adaptation of the novel.

Being the good eggs that they are, they both agreed to this and their responses followed.

I would recommend this book.  It is highly accessible in terms of characters and plot and struggling readers will keep up.  I just keep thinking that they'll be missing something if they never read the original story.

By Janet.
Notes on “A wrinkle in time” – the graphic, the original, the audio. Because when Tammy gives me an assignment, I want to do it PROPERLY!!

First of all – I read “A wrinkle in time” many years ago – so far back that although I remembered the story, I didn't remember the details (I'm old – forgive me). In fact, the edition in the Doucette is from 1964, so we know I am talking MANY years ago. So I approached the graphic novel with some enthusiasm. I could knock it off quickly and refresh my memory. All good, right?

Well, no, not really. I found myself getting restless by about page 94. I couldn't remember why I had thought this book was special – and the graphic novel wasn't capturing it. But sometimes that happens – a much loved story read when you are young can often be less successful the second time around.

I went back to the original novel, hoping to capture some of what I loved about the original story. And I did. L’Engle’s use of language, her ability to really TELL a story – the descriptions of Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin wrinkling through time brought back my original enthusiasm for the book. And although I caught some things the second time around that I didn't remember from my first reading (the Christian themes threw me, as did the rather quick ending), I would still whole-heartedly recommend this book.

Oh – and I listened to it as well. I thought it would save me time as I could move back and forth between the written (read before bed) and the listening (in my car on the way to work, meetings etc.) The reader did an admirable job of capturing what I thought the voices should be and the story held firm in my memory.

My problem with the graphic novel? For me, it was mainly the graphics.  The production value of the book at first glance seems high. The book is a hard cover and the cover shows a dark, rich blue-black sky, with a few twinkling stars and the three main characters in colour. But the graphics inside are in blue and black only – and I found it a challenge sometimes to determine just what is happening, in the rush through time and darkness/light. The art could have captured, in part, what is not there in words. Full colour would have allowed the reader to see the vastness of the dark from atop Mrs.Whatsit’s back or see the exact moment when Charles Wallace goes “under” the influence of IT. Instead, the vacancy of his eyes is only partially captured (only so much can be done with black, blue and white, I guess). The magic of the original story was in the strength of the language and the descriptions. When that was removed, the story was, for me, much less colourful and left me not really satisfied that I had the full story.

By Lynn.
A Wrinkle in Time: the graphic novel
I had never read A Wrinkle in Time, so agreed to read both the graphic novel and original versions and write about my reactions. First, I read the graphic adaptation.  It was interesting to read, though a bit slow to start. I found the initial character and story set-up to be long, and somewhat tedious and confusing done in pictures. The black and blue illustrations were really annoying at first, but once I got into the story, they were not as noticeable and the narrative sped along. The story itself was straightforward, though it seemed to end in a bit of a rush.
Then I read the original prose version. It was much quicker to set the scene and establish characters, which was done in only a page or two compared to several in the graphic version.  There was also more scope for description of surroundings and emotions. The graphic adaptation was very faithful to the original, so there were no surprises in the story. The only time I remembered the pictures were for the unusual creatures such as Aunt Beast. Otherwise I was content to let my imagination work and not be bound by someone else’s vision.  I preferred the original prose version for this reason, but would certainly recommend the graphic novel for those who like the format and reluctant readers who would find the combination of pictures and words easier to handle.  

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