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2015 March



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan

On 26, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Who Built the StableWho Built the Stable? A Nativity Poem written & illustrated by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: Who built the manger where Mary and Joseph found shelter? The answer is conveyed in this beautifully crafted picture book that envisions a young boy, a shepherd and carpenter both who, out of love and kindness, cleared the way for another shepherd and carpenter to be born on Christmas day.

This was actually a book I got from the library back in December to read to my daughter. I didn’t think much of it growing up, but as I got older I began to wonder why the Holy Family was so white most of the time. Sure, they were Jewish, but it’s unlikely they would have been so European-looking. We’re not a religious family, but I strongly believe you need to know biblical stories to be culturally literate so I do read nativity stories to my daughter (and Easter stories, etc.). I can’t totally get away from the traditional portrait, but I want to be sure I include different depictions in a variety of books

I also think stories that link other children to the birth of Jesus are really good for helping children, especially younger ones, make the connection to the characters in the story. The boy who tells this story, of helping build a stable and then offering it to Mary and Joseph, is exactly that kind of entree into a story that is often told in an impersonal and didactic way. Who Built the Stable also treats Jesus as a baby, not a Savior with a capital S. Again, I think kids find this sort of treatment of the story relatable as they were recently babies or because they have younger siblings.

Bryan’s illustrations in the book are also incredible. They are so reminiscent of stained glass. The lush colors pop off the page and really bring the whole story to life. And the little boy is so charming! I think, too, the style of the pictures is something a child could recreate or copy. I love to use books to inspire art and creativity in kids and I think Bryan’s art is rife with that kind of opportunity.

I highly recommend the book to parents looking for a different picture of the Holy Family. I also recommend it to families like ours who are looking to share the Christmas story without lots of overt religious themes. As far as religious families liking the book, I’m not sure. Certainly more traditional religious families may not like the lack of Savior storyline and different picture of Jesus, but it treats the story with reverence and the pictures are so beautiful it may be a moot point.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Ashley Bryan’s African Tales, Uh-Huh

On 25, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

African TalesAshley Bryan’s African Tales, Uh-Huh by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: Retold with rich, musical narration, and illustrated with Mr. Bryan’s distinctive paintings, these tales are full of fun and magic and a few lessons to be learned. They are tales of tricksters, chieftains, and both wise and foolish creatures. You will learn why Frog and Snake never play together, or why Bush Cow and Elephant are bad friends, or of the problems that a husband has because he likes to count spoonfuls. Although the stories come from many parts of Africa, they are full of the universal human spirit, to be shared and treasured for every generation, uh-huh.

African Tales is actually a compilation of three of Bryan’s collections of African tales. It’s one of those books that would be perfect for kids who are into reading folk tales. You know the ones, they check out all the different books of Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths and Aesop’s fables. Full disclosure, I was totally one of those kids. The reading level in this makes it maybe a bit more difficult (5th+) but younger audiences will also enjoy the tales.

Bryan’s writing style also make this an excellent read aloud. He’s really focused on retelling the stories in a way that tries to replicate the oral tradition of story telling. There has been a lot of research that says how important it is to read aloud to children until way past when they can read to themselves. (Jim Trelease argues that you should read aloud all the way through high school.) The combination of individual tales, the humor, and orality of the stories make this a perfect African Tales would be a great book to continue the tradition of reading aloud to your children.

Many of the stories are funny and a few have obvious morals or lessons in them, but, by and large, this is just a good collection of folk tales perfect for reading aloud.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Sing to the Sun by Ashley Bryan

On 24, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Sing to the SunSing to the Sun poems and pictures by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: “Sing to the sun
It will listen
And warm your words.”
In this beautiful collection of art and poetry, Ashley bryan celebrates all aspects of life–from a rainshower at the seashore to a beloved grandmother gathering fruit. Perfect for reading aloud, these joyful, heartfelt poems will touch all who read them.

In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley Bryan said his elementary school stressed poetry recitation. They had to memorize a poem a week and share it with their class. This practice helped focus Bryan on the sound of the spoken word. I think it also drew him to poetry as many of his books are about poets or written in poem form.

Sing to the Sun is a lovely little collection of poems perfect for reading aloud and for sharing with elementary age kids. The poems have a bit of depth, symbolism, and imagery, but are not so complex they would baffle that age group. In fact, because of this, they would probably make for a good poetry study where you can take them apart and look at them. The more I read children’s poetry the more I realize I don’t hate poetry, just contrived adult poetry that is required in high school. The poems in Sing are about a variety of topics and while not all of them are strictly for children they will appeal and be relatable to children. It’s important for children to read all types of literature (plays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction), but we need to make it good quality so they aren’t turned off by it. Choosing poetry, like Sing to the Sun, that is relatable and understandable, but also plays with language in an interesting and beautiful way is exactly what children need exposure to.

The illustrations in the book are absolutely gorgeous. They have movement to them that really brings them to life. And paired with their poems the words also come to life through the pictures. I’ve said this before with Bryan’s art, but it has a quality that makes if feel as if a child could recreate his style, despite his clear expertise with art. As with poetry, seeing art they could recreate children will want to enjoy and try their hand at it instead of being turned off by it.

If I have one complaint it was the layout and the library copy I had. The layout feels a bit dated. I think the simple poem and art that accompanies it is a good idea, simplicity will draw your eye to the picture and focus the reader on the poem, but I wonder if a child would pick the book up of their own accord. The library copy I have out is also yellowed. If the white pages and the cover were nice and bright it would seem more inviting. I also wonder if reprinting the pictures with a touch more saturation would help brighten and modernize the book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song

On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Words to My Life's SongAshley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song by Ashley Bryan, photographs by Bill McGuinness

From GoodReads: Ashley’s autobiography is full of art, photographs, and the poignant never-say-never tale of his rich life, a life that has always included drawing and painting. Even as a boy growing up during the Depression, he painted — finding cast off objects to turn into books and kites and toy and art. Even as a solder in the segregated Army on the beaches of Normandy, he sketched — keeping charcoal crayons and paper in his gasmask to draw with during lulls. Even as a talented, visionary art student who was accepted and then turned away from college upon arrival, the school telling Ashley that to give a scholarship to an African American student would be a waste, he painted — continuing to create art when he could have been discouraged, continuing to polish his talents when his spirit should have been beaten. Ashley went on to become a Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee, a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer, and a multiple Coretta Scott King award winner.

Another winner of a book from Ashley Bryan. I liked this so much I ordered my own copy. Bryan grew up during the Depression Era, but his family was happy and seemed to make the most of their circumstances. His parents, born in Antigua on the island of St. John, immigrated to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment with their six kids and three orphaned nieces and nephews. The way Bryan describes his home and his parents is almost magical. His mother sang from morning until night. His parents encouraged Ashley’s artistry and all their kids. They were able to take free WPA music and art classes. His mother also grew plants where ever there was light in their apartment and made paper flowers to brighten darker spaces. Who wouldn’t want to grow up there and who wouldn’t find inspiration in that? When Bryan was older his parents bought the house across the street from their apartment building and made a home there.

When Bryan was 19 he was drafted into the army during WWII. Because he was black he was stuck doing service work, but was present at the D-Day invasion on a supply boat. After traveling to Scotland, England, and then France, Bryan returned to the US, but was haunted by questions of war. He decided, after a summer art scholarship, to study philosophy and got an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (I have to note biographies of this time period make it seem that it was considerably easier to get an education back then, especially a college education). After that he decided to use the GI bill to continue his education and went to France where he painted and studied French. He was even able to see Pablo Casals in concert! Bryan also got a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany.

Bryan did not set out to be a children’s book author/illustrator. He was a practicing artist and taught at the college level. He was approached by Pantheon books, who ultimately did not use his work, and then later by Atheneum. He has published a ton of books since then!

The interesting thing about the layout/format of Words is that it could have gone very wrong. It’s chock full of pictures of his drawings and paintings over the year, photographs of Bryan as a child and young man, pictures of his letters and photos of the places he grew up, as well as pictures of the Cranberry Isles where he lives now and his studio there. There is also the story of his life, his autobiography, and a parallel story of him inviting the reader along to see his island home and how he draws inspiration from it. The three pieces, pictures and two stories, could have felt jumbled, disjointed, and incongruous, but nothing interrupts anything else. It all flows so beautifully together and is so inspiring and lovely. At the end you feel as though you have spent a relaxing day chatting with an amazing artist who has led a full and interesting life.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Ashley Bryan

On 22, Mar 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I was first introduced to Ashley Bryan a few months ago through the amazing Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. I saw the book on a blog and thought it looked intriguing so I got it out of the library. I was taken with it, but my daughter was really taken with it, so I thought I would look into Bryan a bit more. You can read my review of Puppets here on this blog and here on my mommy blog (I take a slightly different, more personal angle with the later).

Schedule for the week:

  • Monday: Words to My Life’s Song
  • Tuesday: Sing to the Sun
  • Wednesday: African Tales, Uh-Huh
  • Thursday: Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem

Links of interest:

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: Harriet’s Hare by Dick King-Smith

On 19, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Harriet's Hare

Harriet’s Hare written by Dick King-Smith, pictures by Roger Roth

Lexile: 690L

From GoodReads: Hares don’t talk. Everyone knows that. But the hare Harriet meets one morning in a corn circle in her father’s wheatfield is a very unusual hare: a visitor from the far-off planet Pars, come to spend his holidays on Earth in the form of a talking hare. Wiz, as Harriet names her magical new friend, can speak any language, transform himself into any shape – and, as the summer draws to its close, he has one last, lovely surprise in store for Harriet…

I know this one isn’t as old as some of the other books I’ve read, but I think it counts as a throwback. I was interested in this one for a couple reasons. The first is, the author is the author of Babe: A Gallant Pig another great book. The second is that it had a hare in it and I’m a sucker for animal books. Third, I was curious how something more recent, something I could have read new as a kid, held up.

This is a quiet story. No loud action here. Harriet lives on a small farm with her dad in England. Her summer break has just begun when she hears a strange noise outside. An investigation of the wheat field reveals a crop circle and large hare who hops out and begins talking to her. The hare is actually an alien in the form of a hare and he sets Harriet up for a delightful surprise.

I really enjoyed the story and its languid pace and simple story are perfect for young readers. While it does center around Harriet and the hare, they don’t do a whole lot of interacting and what the story really reveals are the people involved in the story- Harriet, her father, the new lady in town, and the housekeeper. Adults will easily figure out the surprise the hare hints at, but the ending will give you warm fuzzy feelings anyway. I would give it to kids who like animals stories, fantasy (although it’s really more science fiction), and kids who like stories about family. It would make a great read aloud, too.

For me personally the story would have worked with just a magical hare that could talk. I am just not a science fiction fan, at least not the type with outer space and aliens in it. But if I had read this as a kid it might have made an excellent entree into world of science fiction. Especially since I so loved (and love) animal stories. In other words, this would make a good introduction to the science fiction genre.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Dog Days by Karen English

On 18, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dog Days

Dog Days written by Karen English, pictures by Laura Freeman

Lexile: 710L

From GoodReads: It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate Richard comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog as punishment.
   To make matters worse, Gavin seems to have attracted the attention of the school bully. Will he be able to avoid getting pounded at the skate park? And how is he ever going to prove he’s cool with a yappy little Pomeranian wearing a pink bow at his side?

Dog Days nails the kid perspective. Gavin is an all around nice kid, but a kid nonetheless. While sneaking into his sister’s room to eat her candy with his friend they manage to break Danielle’s prized snow globe. Gavin is worried, but more for himself than for his sister who he sees as a pain. His punishment, walking his aunt’s dog, seems so unfair and he gripes about in exactly the way a kid would.

His new friend Richard is not the best friend around, but again Gavin uses his kid logic and doesn’t seem to mind too much. He gets irritated, but most of the issues roll off his back and even when he is mad he is quick to forgive.

The book would be perfect for kids who love realistic fiction and while it has a message in it that comes through Gavin’s realization that he might care for his aunt’s silly dog, it never feels heavy handed. This is the first in a series too, which makes it a good fit for the third/fourth grade crowd. The reading level is a bit high, but manageable and Freeman’s cute illustrations break up the story perfectly.

As an adult reading the story you can see where it’s going and you can tell that Gavin isn’t seeing the whole picture. This is particularly funny when his Aunt comes to stay and his mother is suddenly not home nearly as much. From her sighs and body language, which Gavin notices, but doesn’t understand, it’s clear that his mother is not happy about Aunt Myrtle’s visit. Gavin just sees her absence as abandonment and doesn’t think much past himself (not in an annoying way), which is totally something a kid would do. This second layer would make it a good bedtime read aloud for parents and kids to share together.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Nona and Me by Clare Atikins

On 17, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Nona and MeFrom GoodReads: Rosie and Nona are sisters. Yapas.

They are also best friends. It doesn’t matter that Rosie is white and Nona is Aboriginal: their family connections tie them together for life.

Born just five days apart in a remote corner of the Northern Territory, the girls are inseperable, until Nona moves away at the age of nine. By the time she returns, they’re in Year 10 and things have changed. Rosie has lost interest in the community, preferring to hang out in the nearby mining town, where she goes to school with the glamorous Selena, and Selena’s gorgeous older brother Nick.

When a political announcement highlights divisions between the Aboriginal community and the mining town, Rosie is put in a difficult position: will she be forced to choose between her first love and her oldest friend?

Nona & Me was absolutely perfect in terms of story, characters, and in capturing the struggle of trying to fit in and be yourself as a teen. I picked the book up with the lure of diversity and there certainly is diversity- Nona is Yolnu and Rosie has grown up on what is essentially a Yolnu reservation. I guess what made this the kind of book I wasn’t looking for was that it was told entirely from the perspective of the middle class white girl. I don’t think that detracts from the book per se, but know that you never hear Nona’s voice. Actually hearing Nona’s story would be both a book in it’s own right and incredibly interesting.

That aside, this book was brilliant. Rosie is in Year 10 and has established a friendship with Selena, a girl who brings a certain amount of social capital. Rosie also has a huge crush on Selena’s brother Nick. When Nick returns her affections the two begin dating and everything seems just about perfect. Until Nona shows back up in Rosie’s life. Nona is Rosie’s Yolnu sister and until they were 9 or so the two were inseparable. The narrative is primarily focused on the present, but short chapters that go back to Rosie and Nona’s childhood are interspersed and give a picture of how Rosie used to be and how Nona came to leave for several years.

At school, Rosie denies ever having been close with Nona to her new friends. When her mother gets wind of this she is incredibly upset with Rosie because the Yolnu community is a huge part of their lives and her parents have intentionally raised her in the community. Atkins so perfectly captures Rosie’s conflicting feelings over wanting to have friends in school and a cute boyfriend and accepting her Yolnu family which makes her decidedly uncool. It turns out Nick is incredibly racist, probably a learned behavior from his father, and Rosie slowly realizes that Selena is pretty shallow.

Rosie really struggles with squaring her the two pieces of her life and ultimately needs to make a choice. I think teens will really click with that struggle. Reflecting back on my own teen years I can’t say I would have made better choices than Rosie. Popularity and acceptance in those years is so powerful and it can be incredibly difficult to make the right choice when the right choice isn’t the popular one. It’s the kind of story where you just want to hug her, tell her her friends are terrible people, and that once high school is over they will seem so petty and insignificant.

When Rosie eventually accepts the Yolnu community back into her life, sadly after a tragedy, the transition back into both the community and it’s impact on her school life was pitch perfect. She spends several weeks at funeral ceremonies and she really uses the time to reflect on who she wants to be. When she returns to school this momentous event puts a lot into perspective for her. She also feels tension between the pull of her old life and the new meaning she has found in her community.

I especially liked the addition that Rosie is artistic. She aspires to be an artist when she is older. Her art class, although it only is mentioned a few times, is a touch point for her. The end of year project she begins working on helps her work through her conflicting emotions and I think that will resonate with a lot of teens too, artistic or not.

This book was very interesting to read after having read about Native Americans and their struggles with reservation life and the history of how they came to be on reservations. It sounds as though the Yolnu have gone through many of the same struggles (both historically and in the present), but the system is different too and may allow for . Certainly the stereotypes and blatant racism towards them are not unique to Native Americans.

Reading some of these amazing Australian authors (I’m thinking back to The Midnight Dress) I desperately want to visit Australia! It sounds like such an incredible place.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Women of Steel and Stone by Anna Lewis

On 12, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Women of Steel

Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers by Anna M. Lewis

Women of Steel and Stone is a really good introduction to women in fields that are traditionally dominated by men. The mix of engineers, architects and landscape architects was really interesting and there was a lot of additional information beyond the 22 main women about other women and about the fields themselves.

There is still such a stigma of women in math and science fields so it’s really important that we give young girls examples of women who have gone into these fields. And these women are an impressive set of examples! Here, though, is where my professional opinion of the book (kids will like this!) and my personal opinion (it wasn’t the best fit) diverge.

As far as the intended age, it’s definitely a book for older readers based on length and difficulty of text. However, it’s really wonderful because each profile is a fairly short, quick read. I could see kids in middle and high school picking this up and putting it down as they have the time to read about the women. Books like that are so important for all these busy kids.

The women and their lives were really interesting and I can see kids connecting with the subjects. I, personally, wanted way more information and would have preferred that the author chose fewer profiles so she could focus more. But  I really think that is coming from someone who is interested in how women have broken into male-dominated fields and someone who wanted to see more of how they balanced their personal (marriage and motherhood) lives with their professional lives that appeared to be very demanding. Will kids want to know all about that? Highly unlikely. I think for kids the book will pique their interest in the fields of architecture, engineering, and landscape design and in the women themselves. They might seek out more information beyond this book.

Lewis was really good about including a section at the end of each profile that gave the reader places to go to find more information. And it’s quite the mix of resources. Within the chapters there were boxes that added little bits about other women who had impacts, but didn’t get entire profiles. I found their placement (in the middle of paragraphs) very distracting and found myself skipping them. I think a side bar would have been better or even a chapter at the end of each section that had these brief asides aggregated. I know that’s a design, not author issue, but that kind of stuff drives me nuts and if I am skipping it then kids probably will too.

My only other complaint is that I wanted a lot more pictures. There weren’t very many (I’m guessing for space?) and the ones that are there have terrible captions that offer little to no information about how they link up with the women’s careers, with their profession, or why they are important. Often buildings were talked about in the text, but there were no pictures to accompany it. Nonfiction for kids has to be engaging and it has to have more pictures than adult nonfiction. Kids are likely not to go out of their way to find pictures of the buildings and structures these women have created. Pictures give an entry point for younger readers into the book and the topic.

The exclusion of women from these professions early on will really appeal to kids’ sense of justice and I think it will hit home how far women have come and how far they need to go. Lewis includes a range of women from the early years of the professions to much more recent and contemporary women (both in terms of design and age). Many of the women she profiles are still alive and some are still working. By including this range you can really see how the professions have developed both in broad terms and in terms of including women and taking them seriously.

The introductions to each section were very interesting. Lewis details the history of the profession (most of them were not formalized until the late 1800s) and what it takes to get a degree or certification in each profession. She also includes lists of colleges that have highly regarded undergraduate and graduate degree programs. All in all a great book to dip in and out of and to whet the appetite of budding architects and engineers.

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In Remix

By Elizabeth Wroten

Notes From the Makerspace: Making in the Library

On 12, Mar 2015 | In Remix | By Elizabeth Wroten

So part of my goal with the Makerspace has been to get out of our space and into the library and the classroom. I have also mentioned in other posts that I volunteer in the Lower School library. I have now combine the two and the librarian and I have planned a week of making in the library for all the grades of the Lower School (except Pre-K)!

The program won’t be complicated, a few tables and stations set up with various Makerspace activities, provocations as I like to call them. While I run the after school Makerspace as a pretty free-wheeling place with snacks, loud noises and free making this is going to be a little more tightly controlled because of the number of students (I have a limit of 10 students after school and these classes will have closer to 22) and because these kids haven’t had a year to learn what makerspace is all about. If it works well, maybe it can be a regular event and/or have a maker station out every week as an option for the library.

Each station will have materials set out with a question, an example, and an inspiring, related book. In this post I thought I would share what the stations will be. They will run in the second week in March and after that I will share thoughts on how to improve and how it went. I broke the activities down into groups for Kinder and 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and 4th and 5th. This limits the variety of supplies we would have to obtain and cuts down on set up.

Kinder & 1st:

  • water color & salt
  • paper tube marble runs (back of shelves)
  • foam bead necklaces
  • building with recycled materials
  • exploring lines (wire, markers, string, glue, paper strips)

2nd & 3rd:

  • gumdrop structures
  • marker explosions
  • building with recycled materials
  • plastic marble runs with blocks & recycled materials (Rube Goldberg-esque machines)
  • squishy circuits (
  • rock painting

4th & 5th:

  • Take-apart table (essentially a table with e-waste and screwdrivers for the kids to deconstruct)
  • Snap Circuits
  • Drawing with circuits (using copper tape and LEDs to embellish drawings)
  • Hand sewing bean bags, finger knitting & spool knitting
  • building with recycled materials

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