By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When do you introduce children to a difficult topic like the Japanese Internment? That’s a tough question and part of it will depend on the child, but when I was working in the second grade we definitely broached the topic. I think it’s surprising how ready children are to learn about really difficult topics and I would recommend against assuming that they can’t handle them. Children’s fiction often does a wonderful job of presenting complex and fraught history to kids in a way that helps them understand and process it. The following are three excellent books that teach children about the Japanese Internment without overburdening or overwhelming them.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki: This was one we read every year in second grade and the kids loved it. It does a really wonderful job showing how important it was to have something to do in the camps. The child’s perspective also gives the story an immediacy for children hearing the story. Even though this one is older, it is well worth reading. Sports fan will enjoy this story even though it’s really more a historical fiction.
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss: Another baseball story. This one follows the story of Zeni, an incredible professional baseball player who, because of his Japanese heritage, was put into a camp. The book is based on the true story of how he saw that the people in the camp needed something to do and worked very hard to build a baseball stadium complete with bleachers for the fans and uniforms for the players. He involves nearly everyone in the camp in some way with the project and gives them a new purpose. I especially like the lack of animosity in the story. I think with stories of injustice it’s easy to slip into pointing fingers and assigning blame, but I don’t think that kind of writing helps children understand what happened or appreciate the heroism of the people who rose above their situation. The art is also really incredible in this book. It has the feel of old sports ads and baseball cards (especially the cover). Back matter has a more complete story of Zeni with pictures of him standing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The story is a little long so it may be better suited to second or third grade and up, but it is certainly appropriate. As with Baseball Saved Us, this story may encourage sports fans to read more history.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai: I loved this book. Not only does Mari use art to help her understand the situation she finds herself in, but she also uses gardening to help her and others heal. Mari struggles to understand why she and her family are now living in such an abysmal place as Topaz and she retreats within herself. Eventually her art class and art teacher give her the ability to beautify the family’s barren cabin with her drawings of their old home. When the sunflower seeds she planted with her mother finally begin to grow, so does Mari’s hope that there will be beauty in her life again.There is also a story of friendship here. Mari knows none of the children in the camp with her, but through her art class she meets another little girl who eventually becomes her friend. Through their friendship she finds someone she can lean on and talk to. The story is based on the author’s grandmother’s experience in the Topaz camp.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.
“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”
It might last quite some time.
Emily’s Blue Period is a picture book about divorce, but I think it handles it in a very interesting way, a way that makes is accessible to all kids.
Despite the fact that this is a “divorce book”, it doesn’t take the tack of many divorce books I’ve seen. In fact the word is never even mentioned. It never tells kids it will all be okay. It doesn’t have Emily trying to get her parents back together and it doesn’t have her blaming herself for their divorce.
What it does do is show Emily and her brother struggling to make sense of their new reality. I think you can look at the book through the lens of Emily or through the lens of Picasso. Which is to say you can look at it as a divorce book or an art book (or both, obviously). Through Emily you see how divorce can be confusing for a child. But you also see her use the transformative power of art to make sense of what is happening to her family. Emily is clearly sad, but the book is hopeful as she works her way through understanding that home is not necessarily your house, but a feeling you create through love and although many things have changed, her parents love for her and her brother has not.
Taking the art angle, the reader learns about Picasso and about his art. But the great thing about this book is how his art is related to Emily’s life. It gives real examples, of the variety that are relatable and don’t shy away from the difficult times in children’s lives, of how Picasso used art. I think many or even most kids know someone with divorced parents, so understanding that it’s a hard and confusing and sad time for their friends still make the topic familiar. I think children who are not faced with divorce will still like Emily and her interest in art and may even find inspiration to use art to work through problems they are faced with.
A lovely book for slightly older kids who are either interested in art or have parents divorcing. The format uses chapters to break the story up even though the chapters are short. I’m not sure how well issue books work for reading aloud to a group, but if any book like that is going to work it would be this one. I think really it makes art, abstract art at that, come alive and feel relevant and understandable.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The buzz of bees in summertime. The tracks of a bird in the winter snow. This beautiful book captures all the sights and sounds of a child’s interactions with nature, from planting acorns or biting into crisp apples to studying tide pools or lying back and watching the birds overhead. No matter what’s outside their windows — city streets or country meadows — kids will be inspired to explore the world around them.
I decided to include this title in my throwback series for a couple of reasons. First, I really love to use poetry to encourage kids to become readers. Second, I’ve been reading this with my daughter for more than a year now and we just love it.
As you probably already figured out, this is a collection of poems about nature. But what I have loved about is that the poems are organized around the seasons. There is a section each for spring, summer, fall and winter. This is the kind of book you can leave out in a classroom, on a nature table, or in a bedroom. You can pick it up whenever you have a few spare minutes and select a poem or two for your current season.
The poems themselves are really lovely and evocative. Not every child is going to have experienced all the nature in the book, but there is something for everyone from a window box on an apartment balcony to a farm. The illustrations are a mixture of collage, watercolor and probably a few other media thrown in. They really do a wonderful job complementing each poem. They are bright, cheerful with seasonally appropriate color palettes. The animals are all very charming and a nice enticement for many children. It’s a large book which I think encourages kids to open it out on the floor and pore over it. The paper is heavy and thick which adds to the sensorial experience of reading it.
The nice thing about a collection of poems like this is that you can dip in and out of if, like with a lot of nonfiction. Kids whose attention spans are short or who are having a hard time reading can choose a poem or two, look at the illustration and move on to something else. Reading doesn’t have to be torturously long. Very young children, who may not want to sit still for an entire picture book or story, are often willing to listen to a poem or two and the use of language and vocabulary in poetry is especially good at getting little ones to listen to spoken words. An all around great book for all ages (parents included!).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins: This is an incredible book. Jenkins has taken an ostensibly boring subject (the evolution of the eye), and using the layout, the illustrations, and the selection of information, made a book that will capture your interest. It would be more useful as a title to browse and pique interest or as a resource for a report on the evolution of the eye than as a resource for any specific animal. But kids are naturally curious about the world around them, so it’s the type of book that will keep their engagement in tact instead of boring it out of them. I even read this one (in very small sections) to my three-year-old. With some interpretation and extra explaining, mostly to define words she didn’t know, even she was able to enjoy the book. The animals a certainly familiar, but the context is very fresh.
Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals by Michael Hearst: The slightly off colors of this book give Unusual Creatures a throwback quality. The format and small tidbits of information are reminiscent of the Guinness Book of World Records books that I loved as a kid and know are still popular. More importantly, I think, this book was funny. From the ridiculous title, to the introduction, to the Did You Know facts. It’s a good way to get kids reading nonfiction. The format would even allow more reluctant readers with high interest to dip in and out of the book.
Bone Collection: Animals by Rob Colson: This is another one kids can dip in and out of. Although this is more like visiting a natural history museum. The skeleton illustrations are amazing. What really struck me about the book, though, was the presentation of the information. Each skeleton is on a two-page spread that primarily has information about the specific animal. The next two-page spread moves out to a broader set of animals. So for example from the cod to fish. What I think is important about this is it shows kids how to make observations about things in their world, a specific animal in this case, and make generalizations and connections to broader ideas. Albeit this is subtle, it is still a good example of how science often works and makes their own natural thinking processes a little more explicit.
All three of these books have higher reading levels (upper elementary), but I think that’s due in large part to a complicated vocabulary. However, they are also pretty high interest subjects so this could motivate lower readers to tackle them and the context of the vocabulary really aids the reader in understanding it. They are also broken into small chunks of information which any reader can move through at their own pace.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Nov 2012 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When it comes to finding out about new books and materials, I’m a pretty traditional girl. I subscribe to review journals; I follow blogs; I poke around online; I even occasionally hear about stuff by word of mouth. But the latest book I came across was not found through any of these channels. No joke, I found it at the grocery store. It was a nice grocery store, but a grocery store nonetheless. I think it was the illustrations that drew me to it on the book table by the cheeses. They resemble Maira Kalman’s artwork.
I really hate those ploys at the grocery store that try to snare you into buying something really expensive simply because it’s a non-food item that you are buying from the food store. I also hate the way they lay things out to entice you to buy more than you need, mostly because it’s so darn clever. But I am so glad I gave in this once.
The Perfect Thanksgiving is, at heart, a simple story that I think everyone can relate to. The narrator, a young girl, compares her family’s zany Thanksgiving feast and festivities with that of another young girl, Abigail Archer. Abigail’s family has the Martha Stewart equivalent of a Thanksgiving. The pies are perfect, there are chocolates on the pillows for all the guest, for whom there is ample room. The turkey is all white meat and is expertly carved.
The narrator, who’s name you never learn, has a family and Thanksgiving more like what ours looks like. Things are spilled, the pies come from the store, her mother dresses casually and makes Jell-o molds. There is too much family to fit in the house and the relatives create lots of havoc and noise. It is a boisterous holiday to say the least.
However, at the end, the little girl points out that her Thanksgiving and Abigail’s are the same in one very, and ultimately the only, important way. They both enjoy loving families. This message is a good one for all children, but I think it is even more resonant in this day and age where families look more like those on Modern Family than on Leave It To Beaver. No child should feel bad because their family doesn’t fit some “traditional” model and I think this book does a sweet job of presenting that message in a way that doesn’t feel forced or apologetic.