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2015 March



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-Fiction Review: Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac

On 10, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten


From GoodReads: Young Sacajawea has been asked to join Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the American West. As a translator, peacemaker, caretaker, and guide, Sacajawea alone will make the historic journey of Lewis and Clark possible. This captivating novel, which is told in alternating points of view — by Sacajawea herself and by William Clark — provides an intimate glimpse into what it would have been like to witness firsthand this fascinating time in our history.

Lexile: 840L

I’m fudging a little here as this is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea and her part in the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, Bruchac did extensive research and drew very heavily on journals of the expedition as well as consulting Native sources, including modern relatives of Sacajawea. So I’m going to count it.

I feel very foolish reading this book. I knew next to nothing about the Lewis and Clark expedition and even less about Sacajawea. She was captured around 12 years old and taken captive with a tribe who lived further east of her Shoshone tribe. After a few years Charbonneau purchased her and another woman she was captured with. (I was always kind of curious how she met and married Charbonneau.) While she was pregnant with her son, Jean Baptiste, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived and Charbonneau was signed on as was Sacajawea who would help as a guide and interpreter. After Jean Baptiste was born and the spring arrived the party set off for the West Coast.

While I wouldn’t call the book action packed, which is due in part to the way the story is told, it’s an incredibly interesting look at the expedition. It’s packed with facts and information and because of Bruchac’s skill with storytelling the history really comes to life. It was a hard journey, and while they were often incredibly lucky (only one person died on whole expedition), there were a lot of challenges and lean times. It’s absolutely amazing to think Sacajawea was 16 or 17 years old and a brand new mother when she took this trip. Her strength and her age make her a very interesting character, one I think kids will enjoy hearing her voice brought to life.

I found the parts about the language barriers and translation particularly fascinating. Because the group encounters so many tribes they needed people who spoke different languages. They would pick people up along the way who could help and sometimes they encountered French trappers who spoke local languages. However, they were often translating from English into French into Shoshone (or Numi, which is what Sacajawea spoke) or Mandan into another language. Talk about complicated! Otherwise they would use some kind of universal sign language.

As the expedition goes through the land they encounter a lot of different native groups. A lot. There are a ton of names and Clark uses different names from Sacajawea. This gets a little confusing and I would keep it in mind if you are reading this with or to younger audiences that might be pushing the reading level. I found this awesome map of the tribal nations that a Cherokee map maker created. It has the tribe name in the area where they lived (pre-European contact) and lists both names given to them by Europeans and what they called themselves (this is incredibly helpful in keeping the tribes straight between Sacajawea’s and Clark’s narrations). Here is the link to the NPR article that tells the story of how and why the map was created.

Heads up, Merriwether Lewis meets an unfortunate end at his own hand and it’s mentioned how he commits suicide. If you’re reading this aloud you might skip over that bit. If you’re having your class read this or are handing it to students, just be aware that it’s in there. It isn’t graphic, but it’s sad and in there.

I had a couple complaints about the book that are very minor. As the story switches between Sacajawea and Clark they address the person they are telling the story to- Jean Baptiste, Sacajawea’s son. I found it pulled me out of the story a bit to have them asking and answering imagined questions from the boy, but it wasn’t a big deal. I also don’t like the cover on this. It screams required reading to me although it gets major points for having a person of color on it. It also feels young when the text is really geared higher. Also each chapter has either a folktale or excerpt from an expedition diary. These were awesome inclusions and did a lot to elucidate the story as well as show how Bruchac wove the fact into the fiction. But! The font for the diaries was so hard to read and if I struggled with it I can only imagine that kids are going to skip them entirely.

Definitely worth a read for kids who are interested in the expedition, this time period, or native voices. It is certainly well worth looking at including in curriculum because of Sacajawea’s perspective. Plus it really brings this important and fascinating exploration to life.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Everyone Prays by Alexis York Lumbard

On 05, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Everyone PraysEveryone Prays: A Celebration of Faith Around the World by Alexis York Lumbard

From GoodReads: Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Many others pray too. So begins Everyone Prays, a bright and colorful concept book celebrating the diverse ways that people pray. In a vibrant yet accessible manner, young readers are transported on a visual tour across the globe. They will discover the Native American sun dance ceremony, visit the sacred sites in Jerusalem, behold the Shinto shrines in Japan, watch Maasai dances in Kenya, see pilgrimages to the river Ganges in India, and much, much more.

I have to add a personal spin to this review, especially since I read some of the reviews on GoodReads and was surprised by the criticism. We’re a pretty a-religious family. The holidays we celebrate are tied to cultural tradition and significance rather than religion for us. That being said I don’t want my daughter to think religion isn’t okay if she’s interested and I want her to know about other faiths beyond our vaguely Christian one. I also think you need some conception of religion to really be culturally literate. So, I often seek out books that share religious stories, figures, and other religions (especially Islam since one of my closest friends is Muslim) to share with my daughter so she is exposed to the idea of religion. That is why I picked up this book.

I know this type of book, one that presents religion, can be really hit or miss. Some people on GoodReads complained that it was too didactic. I agree the book is didactic, but it’s essentially seeking to do what I am seeking to do with my daughter: expose her to religion and how it’s similar and different across faiths and cultures. Nonfiction is, at its heart, didactic. I did not get the impression here that there was a Message with a capital ‘m’, nor did it feel like there was some agenda underlying the text.

The other complaint I saw was that the text within the book was sparse and there wasn’t much information except in the back matter. This is true, but I didn’t see it as a downside. In fact, it made it the perfect book to share with my three-year-old. I love nonfiction books, but the more text heavy they become the less interested my daughter is and I think this is true for younger audiences in general.

We both liked the bright simple illustrations and I thought they complimented the text nicely. I was relieved to see that the pictures have a white field and modern feel rather than the bland, watery or cutesy illustrations that seem to plague religious picture books. It’s also refreshing to see a mix of people in a book, a mix of people that are primarily brown, not white.

So, the long and the short of it is, I think this is a great book for exposing kids to different religions to see how they are the same and how they differ. It’s probably best for the younger set 3-7ish (preschool up into first grade). Certainly older kids might be drawn in by the extra information at the back and it would make a good read aloud because it doesn’t get too bogged down with tons of information. There is a lot here to spark discussion about different religious ceremonies, traditions, and rituals and because it’s not all included in the picture book part of the book the audience can pick and choose what they are curious about. Return visits to the book would spark more questions and discussion.

Half way through the book my daughter asked if we could buy our own copy of the book once we returned the library copy and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

On 04, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Inside OutFrom GoodReads: For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

The more I read novels in verse the more I like them. I just haven’t had the experience of getting them into kids hands to know if they are liked by their target audiences.

Inside Out & Back Again is a lovely, but sad, story of Ha’s immigration to the US. I was particularly pleased to see the Vietnam War, a time period I don’t recall seeing tons of books on, tackled from the Vietnamese/immigrant perspective. We hear a lot about the draft and how awful the war was for American soldiers, but seem to forget it was awful and disruptive (to say the least) for the people living in Vietnam.

Lai has done an amazing job of telling Ha’s story and has apparently woven in experiences she had after escaping Vietnam. I was particularly taken with the idea that we see everything through Ha’s eyes so the reader often has to infer or guess about some of the things she describes, but doesn’t understand or comprehend. For example, the neighbors bring over wiggly food which I presume is Jell-o. The story it bookended by their Tet celebrations and both are hopeful. While the final celebration is bittersweet things are looking up and the family is holding together and beginning to make the best of their situation.

Despite the events nothing is grisly or explicit. I think it would be fine for kids in fifth grade, even possibly interested fourth graders and up into seventh and eighth grade. It’s an easy and quick book to read, but there is a lot to think about and explore in it as well. While I think kids interested in the Vietnam War era or realistic fiction will enjoy the book by itself, it would make an excellent classroom book as well for the themes and ideas it touches on through Ha’s experiences.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Research with Fifth Grade: Research Resource Stations

On 03, Mar 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I have noticed two things about how research has been conducted at my school, particularly in Lower School. One is that it’s book heavy. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but the kids will be expected to use a variety of sources in middle and high school and there’s some expectation that they will know how to work with databases and websites by the time they reach middle and high school (not a high expectation, but an expectation nonetheless).

The second thing I noticed is that the books are found by the librarian, pulled from the shelf and either put on a book truck or delivered to the classroom and into the kids hands. There is a lot of effort put into making sure there are nonfiction series that align with the project/topic to make it even easier. This happens across the school. I completely understand the thinking behind this and know it’s necessary to some extent, however I think it also robs the students of the opportunity of seeing that research can be a long and complicated process and that all the information you need will not be found in one book that is handed to you. I don’t advocate getting rid of this system, but I think the kids need to be involved in the process at various points and a balance needs to be struck where they can help find resources and sift through them, but also be handed resources that will have information they need in the interest of time and sanity.

Before simply setting the kids loose on websites, databases, and books for this particular project I wanted to give them some hands-on experience with them that didn’t have such high stakes as finding information that they would have to use. To this end I created four stations that had them work with a resource in a way that was tangential to their project.

Here is the basic break down of the period.

  • Video and run down
  • Stations (8-10 minutes each)
    • Book station
    • Wikipedia keyword station
    • Database station
    • Website evaluation station

Here is the link to a much more detailed version of what we did and what the stations were: Research Stations Lesson Plan

I tried to run the stations simultaneously, having the kids rotate every 8-10 minutes, but their knowledge and ability to work independently made this difficult. Next year I will have a short 3 minute intro to each station and will take them through that, then turn them loose in groups to do the activity while I circulate. This way there can be A LOT more hand holding. (This need will be particular to the school. If your kids have more experience with either independent work or with the resources they may be more capable of running through the stations the way we originally did.)

The whole day was intended to give them some exposure to the resources they would be using in the project, but also to give the teachers a sense of where the students were in their ability to use the resources. A few of them actually remembered using a database before, but no one actually knew much about them. Even using the index and table of contents in a book was hit or miss. Again this can be particular to a groups of kids, but it was eye opening to see how they functioned in a less controlled, less directed environment. I wish they had stronger skills, but I can see now where I need to build in support and practice to get them where I ultimately want them.

Finally, I walked the kids through the databases and talked to them about what is in them and we looked at features together, but ultimately I would like this to run a little more independently. I want some of the exploration to come from them and not me telling them “look here, click this”. I just don’t know how to do that yet.

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