Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Wishing everyone all the best for 2015.

I'll be back January 12th.


Monday, December 22, 2014

The foodie edition

Okay, with Christmas just around the corner a good part of my time is wrapped up with food – reading recipes, planning meals,  grocery shopping, going out with friends for meals, baking, eating, eating and more eating – you get the picture.

So, I got to thinking, what would a Christmas day meal look like based on children’s books titles?

Here’s what I've come up with:


       Dancing Pancakes (Spinelli) 

          OR Unlucky Charms (Rex)


       Nuts to You (Perkins)  


  Toads on Toast (Bailey)

Christmas dinner:

       Octopus Soup (Mayer)

    Tumbleweed Stew (Crummel)

   Creepy Carrots (Reynolds)

       Little Green Peas (Baker)

        Mice and Beans (Ryan)


        Ugly Pie (Wheeler) 


   Sweet Dream Pie (Wood)


   Fortune Cookies of Weevil (Reynolds) .

 (I just couldn't make up my mind.)


 I’d serve  Everything on a Waffle (Horvath) – of course.

Not necessarily traditional Christmas fare but it would give guests lots to talk about.

How about you?  Any ideas for your perfect holiday meal?

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Welcome to my world

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Really, I don't think this needs much explanation.  Enjoy.

Don't you love the eyebrow action?

Monday, December 8, 2014

A quick pick

Sam & Dave dig a hole  by Mac Barnett , illustrated by Jon Klassen has been getting lots of good press and being a fan of Jon Klassen (see I want my hat back and This is not my hat) I was eager to read it.

And, now it has finally arrived in the Doucette Library.

 I can remember wanting to dig to China when I was very young and thought it was on the other side of the world, having no clue as what that entailed geographically speaking.  I could be there in no time – a mere morning of digging and I’d be there.   An early desire to see more of the world foreshadowed here, perhaps.

And this ties into the premise of this picture book.  Two boys and a dog, decide to dig a hole.  Which they do.  But when do they stop?  They are on a mission and won’t stop until they find something ‘spectacular’.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it?  I wonder how far they’ll have to dig?  I wonder what they’ll discover?

The reader’s anticipation is tapped into as we’re allowed to ‘see’ what the boys are almost about to uncover – but then don’t!  ARGH!  Don’t you just hate when that happens?  The wryness of the text with the deadpan expressions of the characters all play into the understated humour of the story.

However, the dog who must have extra super-dooper, spidey senses, does seem to know where the treasures are -- showing us the potential for success.  The boys who blithely go about their digging business are oblivious to the dog’s extrasensory perception.

So, down and down and down they go, missing several increasingly large-sized diamonds along the way, strategizing as they go (change directions, splitting up) and hoping that soon they’ll strike the mother lode.

Where will it all ends?

This isn't so clear cut as it may seem. The ambiguous ending leaves us guessing as to whether the boys have dug themselves back home or if they've fallen into an almost exact replica of home, some kind of alternative universe, maybe.

It’s easy to enjoy this gem, which is all the better for not having to dig even one spade’s worth of dirt.

Recommended for grades K to 3.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Art with a story

Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo and Javier Martinez Pedro is an intriguing bilingual (English/Spanish) accordion-style folding book that looks to generate awareness about children who take huge risks in trying to enter the United States illegally, either alone or with their families.

In this story, short narratives from a child’s perspective accompany specific sections of the unfolding mural-like codex.  In the beginning life is good, with people in the village leading hard but fruitful, peaceful lives growing crops for a landowner.  But things change when some of the men leave to find work.  Eventually, the father of the boy telling the story also leaves the village, sending money back home occasionally.  But when the money stops coming and the mother finds it too difficult to survive in the village without work, she makes the decision to leave as well.

The main part of the story is the journey to reunite with the father. The family travels long distances and takes great risks jumping on trains, scaling walls, and evading police, capture and ‘disappearing’, all along way until they arrive outside Los Angeles.  Here they will find jobs cleaning houses and search for the father.

The art work is what predominates here.  Nine panels ‘unfold’ this story in black and white illustrations with exacting detail that fills up every panel.  For example, the village scene is packed with people, vegetation, animals, houses, mountains, a starry sky and a beaming sun.  We can see the watermelons, maize, and papayas being grown and harvested from the fields, while the bordering sea provides fish and fun.  It’s a bustling place.

In the artist’s note he tells us that he is following in the artistic tradition of the Mexican state of Guerrero and the work does have a folk art feel. However, I was also reminded of Peter Sis’s illustrations, as well, with tiny details conveying a multitude of life’s minutiae.  Our main character is discernible by the distinctive cap that he wears so the reader is able to keep track of him in each section (though I did have to hunt a couple of times).

The book is gorgeous, striking and provocative.  It conveys a child’s sense of home, fear, excitement, hopefulness and home-sickness.  The illustrations express the movement of people and the tension that such a situation naturally produces.  One review I read suggested looking at this book panel-by-panel and I would agree with this for the first reading.  But do open up the whole book, otherwise you’ll miss seeing the patterns of ‘lines’ that convey the sense of movement.  You have to spend time with this book.  It’s not a ‘quick read’.

Reviews are suggesting that young children are the target audience for Migrant but I would disagree.  The amount of detail, the black and white illustrations and the content of the story would be too much for the primary grades, in my opinion.  You could have young children track the protagonist throughout the story but then the point of the story would be misdirected.  If a child has been through a similar journey, then they would have some context for the story and this might work. The actual written story would be easily understood but I think the illustrations wouldn't hold young readers attention.

I’m recommending this book for older students, grades 9 and up, who would derive more from the whole book and would likely have the staying power required to work through and revisit the story. However, a co-worker thought that grades 5/6 could use it to model their own work on.

For extra interest, try pairing this with Tsunami  by Joydeb Chitrakar another accordion-style narrative about the 2004 tsunami that devastated vast areas of coastline in Southeast Asia.  I blogged about this one back in 2010.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Visual literacy: Power of a photo

Right off the bat, I have to fess up to loving the series Captured History and Captured World History.

I've blogged about one of the books, Migrant Mother by Don Nardo a while back, in fact.
And I'm immensely grateful that the publisher (Compass Point Books) has branched out into world history with their latest offerings.

These books focus on iconic photographs that have had an impact on the viewing public, changing and forming public opinion about social issues such as migrant workers during the American Depression era, about child workers in the early 1900s,  the cost of war, specifically the American civil war, the environment, and international politics to name but a few.

They are organized following  a basic format:  rudimentary background about the ‘moment’ to set up the image,  in-depth historical information about  the period, information about the photographer, his/her work and what was happening when he/she took the photograph and then, what lasting impact the image has had. Also included are timelines, glossary, reading lists, internet resources, bibliography, index, and a few critical thinking questions.

These real-life stories really get you into the picture you’re looking at, establishing context so that we can understand why the photo was and often still is important and what were the implications for social change.

So, have I convinced you that these series are worth checking out?

Another recent arrival in the Doucette Library is PhotosFramed: a fresh look at the world’s most memorable photographs by Ruth Thomson.

It does a similar job focusing on notable images (27 of them to be precise).  These are organized into groupings according to the intent of the photo.  Categorized as portraits, nature, art, and documentary,   each section displays several photographs that range over time.  For example, Portraiture includes an 1844 image of Louis Daguerre who produced the first permanent photograph, a 1949 of Pablo Picasso, Che Guevara in 1960, Afghan girl in 1985, and the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

Each photo is accompanied by a preceding page that contains information about the photograph, the photographer, two boxed commentaries that zoom in on very specific aspects of the image, and three questions to make the viewer think a little more deeply about this image.

For example, when viewing the famous National Geographic 1985 photo of a refugee Afghan girl we are asked to think about:
*How does the girl’s direct stare make you feel?*How might the effect of this photograph have differed if the photographer had taken a wider shot?*If you had to put this photograph into a category, with would you choose: portrait or documentary or both? Why?

I found this book fascinating because it did include so many images, many that I was unfamiliar with, so I could browse.  The point of memorable images is that they draw you in, make you wonder what the story is, and then revisits you time and again.

Take the 1986 photograph of the Serra Pelada gold mine taken by Sebastiao Salgado (pp.52&53) that document
 the enormity of the man-made mine, with carved-out hollows and terraces and long, rickety ladders leaning against its steep sides.  The packed crowd of miners, shifting their loads of earth, appears to move as one, in a continuous flow, like ants.It is an evocative image.

There is some overlap between the Capturing History series and Photos Framed which I found interesting and great for comparing the two.

Check out Tank Man: how a photograph defined China’s protest movement by Michael Burgan and p. 54 and 55 in Photos FramedTank Man  (the book) is full on – everything you need to know.  Photos Framed is much more cursory with just the basics for context.   The questions posed by each are interesting and, I think, complementary.  Photos Framed gives us three questions that make us analyze and deconstruct this specific image whereas Tank Man provides questions that take us beyond the image having us think about the implications, like the attitude of the protesters, understanding aspects of democracy, and the power of such an image.

I’m recommending both books for the middle grades (grades 5-9’ish) but I think students in high school would find these fascinating and very approachable.  Students working below reading level might feel less daunted but still come away with an increased understanding about significant moments in history and today’s world.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poetry: Girl issues

Poisoned Apples: poems for you, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann.

Wow!  Loved it!

The title tells you right from the get go that this book has some tie to fairy tales and that we can expect some kind of edge. It’s while reading the poems that you realize that the fairy tales are often the ones we tell ourselves or those that society wants us to buy into that the author wants to wrap your head around.

The title lets you know that there will be bitter truths to bite into and maybe to be swallowed – or not.

It also suggests that this will not be a smooth trip into the woods to grandmother’s house but then when was it ever a smooth trip?  This slight volume also shows us that it’s not only in the woods that girls can lose their way (see the first poem, The Woods).

The issues here are all about being a young woman and the many conundrums, tribulations, and horrors that can be part of coming of age.  Whether girls are dealing with body image, eating disorders, roles, sexuality, school, relationships with friends and boyfriends, the poems tells us of the pain, humour, irony, and bravery that are also be part of these tales.

It’s about power; having it, not having it, losing it, getting it back, and embracing it.

It explores different perspectives of fairy tale characters.  Yes, fair maidens are here, Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood.  And Beauty, she’s here too, though with such self- loathing that she recognizes only herself as the Beast. We also get see the unloved Ugly Sister after Cinderella is whisked away by the Prince. We get to know of the terrible pressure that ‘the’ Witch (aka, The Fairest) lives under as she frantically tries to keep pace doing away with all young, beautiful, upcoming challengers (beware Gretel, Bo Peep, Goldilocks in The Assassin).

Black and white photos are interspersed throughout and certainly add to the provocative tone of the poems.  Some are outright disturbing while others just make us think a little bit more deeply.  Check out Nature Lesson (p.76) with a striking image of water eroded canyon walls, all curves, edges and striated walls that reflects a natural process. The associated poem speaks to girls’ natural beauty that must be covered up so that boys will not be distracted and stray from the path to their peril. Here's a snippet:

                We say
                that if a hiker strays
                off the path, trips, and
                winds up crippled,
                is it really
                the canyon’s fault?        

 Poisoned Apples is deliciously clever and bitter and well worth biting into.

Highly recommended for high school.

Loved it! (Just saying.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Remembrance

There’s nothing like a story about an underdog to grab the hearts and imaginations of a reading public. 

Two of today’s recommendations are about dogs in World War I and how their companionship made the war a little more bearable, a little more human for the regiments and friends they accompanied.

Stubby the War Dog: the true story of World War I’s bravest dog by Ann Bausum is almost the ultimate “boy-and-his-dog” story.  It’s about a stray mutt  adopted by recruits training at the Yale University stadium.  Stubby eventually singles out one of these enlisted men for himself and the two become fast friends for life.  After basic training, Stubby (a Boston terrier cross) is smuggled across the Atlantic to Europe where he accompanies James Robert Conroy for the duration of World War I.  Becoming the mascot for Conroy’s regiment, he provides companionship for all and invaluable service running messages and warning soldiers of incoming shells.  Recommended for middles grades 5-8.

Rags, hero dog of WWI: a true story by Margot Theis Raven is recommended for younger kids, grades 1-4, and that tells a similar tale of the bond between an American soldier and a stray pup he finds in Paris.  Rags also perform acts of bravery and service to his regiment, just like Stubby.  But it’s his loyalty to Private James Donovan that remains steadfast until Donovan’s death and beyond that he best remembered for.  It’s a sad story but it’s the nature of war that is captured here so poignantly.

A Canadian story to know about is, Bunny, the Brave War Horse: based on a true story by Elizabeth MacLean.  Obviously not about a dog, this stalwart horse (named Bunny for his long ears) survived the war living through numerous attacks, appalling conditions of wet, cold, mud and starvation while still providing an element of companionship for the men he had to work with particularly Constable Thomas H. Dundas.  This is a story of hardship and endurance,  recommended for grades 2-5.

Lest we forget.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Birds of a feather or facsimiles thereof

Aviary Wonders Inc.

 Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual
Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031
By Kate Samworth

Imagine a near future that did not include our feathered friends.

What To Do?

For all us Do-It-Yourselfers, you’d turn to the Aviary Wonders Inc. Catalog and Instruction Manual and let your fingers to do the walking (oh, hang on that’s Yellow Pages and for those who don’t know what yellow pages are and wonder why your fingers would have to walk - just Google it, sigh…).

This catalogue offers only the highest quality bird assemblages from basic body types, feet, wings, tails and collars all made with the highest quality materials and precision.  Feather colours are vibrantly captured using 100% Indian silk. Functional , hand-crafted beaks come in many patterns that range far from reality.  Collars, crests and wattle and combs are resplendent and varied. Browsing through this catalogue is thrilling as one ponders the possible combinations and permutations.

But when it comes to selecting and putting your bird together it gets more involved – way more involved.  There's nothing slap-dash about it.

*1st, body type: Do you want a swimmer, wader, percher or bird of prey?
*2nd, beaks: What will your bird eat?  Insects? Meat? Plants? Fish? This is crucial!
*3rd, tails:  Used for braking, balancing, steering and display.
*4th, legs and feet:  Selected based on body type, habitat and lifestyle.
*5th, wings:  Depends on flight patterns and specific needs for maneuverability and quick get-a-ways.

There is so much to consider. All selections have vital consequences for the end result for your feathered friend.  Improbable portions could end in disaster. Therefore, do not put paddling feet on a bird of prey with finch wings and a rooster tail.

Then you have to actually put the dang thing together - challenging even the most apt IKEA furniture assembler, if you ask me.  By the time you begin putting parts together, you wonder if it’s really worth all the effort. Maybe we should just get down to saving the birds we still have on this earth and enjoy these perfectly constructed, adapted creatures that we often take for granted.

A very clever book that would work well with elementary and middle grades.  Great tie-ins with science, environmental education, activism and art.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Anticipation and hard-earned dreams

Saving up for something special can be very difficult especially when you’re a child with limited options for making money.  But, in The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett our heroine has the moxie and perseverance to do just that.

 While out walking with her little brother one day, she sees the best green bicycle in the whole-wide-world sitting in a store window.  She races home to see what she has in her piggy bank and quickly starts looking for ways to generate the cash she needs to purchase her dream.  She searches high and low, from under couch cushions and in pant pockets, running a lemonade stand, to raking leaves for a neighbour. Our enterprising protagonist  won’t be daunted.

The one neighbor who initially employs her raking leaves turns into a seemingly regular gig over several months and helping with a multitude of chores allows the young girl to save up enough money for her bike. 

Eventually, when girl has the money she dashes back to the bike shop only to discover the bike has been sold.   Overcoming her disappointment, she decides to buy her little brother a tricycle instead.  On the way home, the kindly neighbor who the girl has been working for gives her a wonderful surprise: the green bicycle is waiting for her in her yard.

A happily-ever-after story if there ever was one.

The book has a very old-fashion feel to it with sepia colouring throughout, and retro-looking clothes and hairstyles for the children, plus the fact the girl is doing chores to earn money.

Being a wordless book, the illustrations do all the work and they are a treat to read through.  The illustration style is fairly simplistic with few details to distract from the characters and their actions.  A couple of pages do include a few bits of information about the neighbour .  Here we see objects that allude to her dreams of flying.  Watch for a red airplane, the only other coloured object (besides the bike) in the book.

An enjoyable read for the primary grades.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Presto Change-o!

What a great title!  Presto Change-o: a book of animal magic by Edouard Manceau is a fun, interactive book for the primary grades.

This is an oversized board book that presents an initial image that can be manipulated with a few turns of various flaps to become an animal.  For example, a black pot (think caldron) over a fire bubbles as it cooks a stew. By swinging the flap over, the pot becomes the top part of the head of a raccoon with a bandit face peering out at us.  Two pieces of wood (part of the fire) turn up and the raccoon has arms and paws.  The accompanying text on the preceding page states’ POT’ with several rhyming lines  that almost sound like a spell, playing into the idea of a magical transformation that ends with our RACCOON friend appearing. (See the cover above.)

The text itself may be a little challenging for the youngest children but the rotating flaps will keep them engaged.  The bright colours and fairly simple, stylized illustrations have an unassuming charm that is appealing.  The first and last words are bold and easily read by earlier readers with the other text read by an older reader.  Great for playing a game of prediction, “Presto change-o! What will this become?”

This may be a book to get kids to model their own art work, coming up with two different things and figuring out how to get one object to transform into the other with just a few flaps.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Things we’re thankful for

Toy stories : photos of children from around the world and their favorite things by Gabriele Galimberti offers an unusual way to enter into the lives of children from around the world (58 countries) giving us insights into their lives, interests and those of their parents too, as it turns out.

The compositions are fairly straight forward.  Typically the child is centred in the photo with their toys (or toy, as the case may be) splayed out around them.  The preceding page offers their first name, age and the country they live in.  Sometimes there are lots of objects, sometimes only one.  It’s fascinating to see what is deemed a ‘toy’.  The ones you’d expect are there:  animal stuffies, all manner of vehicles, dolls and Barbies, a myriad of plastic figures and animals, a few bikes, a few games (both board and video).

 But the picture with Maudy (3, from Zambia) standing in front of a few dozen pairs of sunglasses is definitely unusual.  Apparently, a box of sunglasses fell from a passing truck and became toys, the only toys in this village.  They like to play pretend market. Or there’s Callum, 4 from Alaska, standing with a couple of shovels and sleds in a wintery landscape that also speaks to a very specific kind of interest in a particular kind of environment. 
A few children seemed keen on guns (a little scary), and I found only three photos where books were included (a little distressing).

You do see what you would expect to in terms of differences between affluent and poor families (more and less, literally).  But the introduction offers a couple of interesting perspectives about this observation:

“The fewer toys a child had the less possessive he or she was about them.  Galimberti describes having to spend several hours winning the trust of Western children before they would consent to let him touch their planes, cars, or dolls.  ‘In poorer countries, they don’t care as much.  They play in a different way, running around, sharing one ball between them all.’ … Likewise, children who enjoy a free-roaming existence in the countryside seemed to place less value on their toys than children living in busy cities, confined and isolated.  ‘City children mostly stay inside, and mostly play alone, ’he says.  ‘They tend to have a lot more toys and to be a lot more possessive.’”
The short introduction is well worth reading.

Using this book with Material World by Peter Menzel and/or Much Loved by Mark Nixon would make an interesting threesome.  Though all three don’t have to be used together, pairing at least two of them offers a classroom teacher a visual way to explore material culture on a level that kids could easily relate to.  Looking at their toys and finding out what they mean to them and then looking at how other children live might make the conversation about quality of life more comprehensible.  

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Guests galore

Hello Everyone.

I'm off for the next couple of weeks. 

Unfortunately, it's not the lounging kind of vacation where I crack a new book everyday popping bon bons and sipping cool beverages.  I'll be hosting a number of fine folks over the next while which means less reading time.  

However, it doesn't mean I'm not bringing a bag of books to try (probably not) get through.  Kind of like a security blanket of sorts, I guess.  

I'll be back mid-August.


Monday, July 21, 2014

The Wonder continues…sort of

A couple of summers ago, I raved about Wonder by R.J. Palacio. 

Here’s an excerpt from that blog posting:

Wonder is about a boy with significant facial abnormalities.  He’s going to school for the first time, starting grade 5 and he’s nervous, to say the least.  Once school starts, there are a few difficulties that must be sorted through and challenges to be met.  Auggie does make friends on his own, learning much about himself and others along the way.  Some of the issues Auggie deals with are the same as many middle school kids – making and keeping friends, becoming more independent, issues about popularity, bullying. There are times he wants to quit but doesn't.  There are times he’s incredibly happy to be where he is. 
 In a word it’s – wonderful, and fits well with the idea ‘perspective’.  Though the book is told by several different people or points of view (Auggie, his sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of his friends), we can start analysing the characters to see what defines or shades their perspectives.  I see potential for looking at some of the minor characters who don’t talk to us directly but are important to the storyline, such as the principal, Mr. Tushman, or the mother of one of the boys who gives Auggie a hard time.  Who are they? What motivates them? And what is their perspective?

Just recently, I came across The Julian Chapter.   “How interesting,” I thought.  “Maybe I’ll get a few answers to my questions.”

Seeing as how I could immediately download it to my iPad, I did so and promptly set to reading.

And it was interesting how the author gave Julian, the bully-type character in Wonder a second chance to have his side of the story aired.  As you might expect, he’s a boy who feels pretty entitled to whatever he deems ‘his’ and is often backed up by his officious mother.  Julian doesn't like Auggie, pure and simple.  Auggie’s deformities disturb him greatly and to such an extent that it taps into anxieties and fears that he has experienced since he was a young child.  Feeling repulsed and not understanding why others aren't also repulsed and some even seem to willing tolerate Auggie, confuses Julian to no end.  In fact, one of his best buddies appears to genuinely like Auggie which only antagonizes Julian further.

As Julian tells us his side of the story, it’s unlikely you’re going to feel much sympathy for him. And you’re not supposed to.  His mother is a piece-of-work and will have you sighing or grinding your teeth.   Julian is definitely lacking in empathy which is what comes out in discussions between Julian, his parents, teachers and principal.  He just doesn't know better, which is a bit simplistic.

It takes a summer visit with his French Grandmother to put things into perspective for Julian.  I was relieved to see that he finally comes around to understanding what had gone on during the prior school year.  He realizes that fear was driving him and he does eventually write Auggie an apology.

This is a short story told in very short chapters.  It continues the story of Wonder which was kind of nice to tap into again.  But it was a little too pointed in purpose to really capture the same tone the novel did.

I can see it being used in a classroom, no problem.  It provides another perspective and really brings home the idea that we are all ‘stars’ in our own lives.  It will provide opportunities to discuss bullying and empathy.  It will allow those kids who really bought into the story to continue a bit further and hear Julian’s voice, too.  It won’t give them more of Auggie , his wonderful family or friends.  It will be reassuring to think that a bully can change his ways and that as Julian’s grandmother tells him, he’s not  to define himself by a mistake, or by a single action, and that he can do the right thing to make things right (paraphrased, in case you’re wondering).

This seems to be available only electronically as either audio or e-text.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remember I am Forest. Remember I am here.

Forest Has a Song by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is a collection of poems that celebrate the wonders and natural pleasures to be found in a wood forest.

A girl and her dog take us along as they venture year round through a nearby forest, using all their senses.  They feel and smell a winter breeze and make note of the animal prints left in the snow.  Spring brings the raucous sounds of a frog looking for a mate.  Summer evenings create a sense of wonder as nocturnal birds and animals start to stir.  And autumn brings the bright colour changes in trees and the busy activities of animals getting ready for winter.  Whatever the season, she is intrigued by many of nature’s wonders - like a spore-spouting puff ball mushroom or the code-like conversation she listens in on when a woodpecker “types poems with his beak upon a tree” or the web-spinning abilities of a hungry spider or gazing into the eyes of a fawn.

This is a book that creates a sense of what a forest is like.  The ease of the poems and the softness of the watercolour illustrations contribute to the feeling of peace, curiosity and pleasure to be found in nature.

A gentle book that will work well in the elementary grades.

Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Years a slave

Stolen Into Slavery: the true story of Solomon Northup, free Blackman by Judith and Dennis Fradin is a retelling of the harrowing years Solomon spent as a slave in the southern US and is appropriate for middle grade students.

The movie version of Northup’s autobiography garnered much attention and won an Oscar last year making the story more widely known.  This book is based on Solomon’s book, Twelve Years a Slave.

This volume recounts how Solomon was kidnapped, bought and sold to different owners, his life as a slave, people he would have known, his thoughts and efforts to escape and eventually how he was able return to his northern life and family.

It was brutal.  It’s almost beyond imagining how a man could sustain any hope of resuming his freedom while living as a slave.  But, though covered in the book, I found the descriptions of the punishing treatment not overly graphic.  It tells of unrelenting work, destitute living conditions and spirit-grinding inhumaneness.  There are photographs and illustrations throughout the book though not in great number.

The book is highly readable and quite gripping in some parts.  Tension builds when Solomon contemplates escape or when white men plot against him. It was particularly interesting to read about the criminal case brought against the two men who had initially kidnapped Solomon and how they were not charged by instilling doubt about their role in Solomon’s enslavement.  According to them, Solomon wanted to be sold as a slave.

It’s a fascinating story made accessible to younger people, grades 5 and up.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Art of Clean Up: life made neat and tidy by Ursus Wehrli is a very funny and very clever book.

I can’t say that I think the idea of tidiness or cleaning for a children’s book would be all that relevant or of interest.    But after going through this very quirky book, I’m willing to change my mind.  I think it will hold and engage almost anyone.

Ursus Wehrli , besides being uber-organized, is a typographer, a comedian, live performer and freelance artist.  His humour and penchant for ‘tidying’ things is played out with flare in this book.

Let me give you some examples.   On each set of facing pages we are given a photo of a fairly commonplace scene from everyday life.  Clothes hanging out to dry, a child playing in a sand box, an aerial view of a car park or a school ground with playing children, a bouquet of flowers, a decorated Christmas tree or a pile of pretzels to give you a range of the mundane and ordinary that we surround ourselves with.
But if you were to take the ‘chaos’ away from each of these and prettied them up, life would be less jumbled, way more orderly and colour coded to boot.

Clothes on a clothesline would be grouped according to colour and displayed rainbow-like.   The child playing in the sandbox with various plastic toys, would now be sitting (and no doubt marveling) at very neatly arranged rows of pails, rakes and shovels, sieves, watering cans, sand molds and dump trucks displayed on freshly raked sand.   The messy mound of bent pretzels is now shown as two rows of straightened, salted snack food.  Who knew that a Christmas tree ‘broken down’ into its component parts would equal a pile of needles, a bundle of kindling, one stand, a coil of tinsel, one pointy tree topper and several rows of red and silver round ornaments, hooks and lights?  Kind of takes the romance away, but that’s what makes it funny.  It plays with our expectations.  Now if only I could get my decorations to look even half as neat.

It becomes somewhat of a game trying to see all the components between the before and after pictures.  Take a look at the book cover above. What are those white dots lined up with all the various pieces of fruit found in a bowl of fruit salad?  Why it’s the polka dots that were on the bowl, of course.

Besides the visual humour factor, I do think there could be some classroom application when it comes to pattern making and observation skills.  This isn’t the book you’d use to introduce young children to the concept of patterns in the earliest primary grades. But older children will be able to work things out.  Might be a book that you can model your own attempts to tidy up and get organized once and for all.  Not a crucial resource but one that is lots of fun.

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