By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I love picture book biographies. Sure they can be light on facts and dates and the Whole Story, but they’re a great way to entice kids to actually want to read more. They also are really important for encouraging kids to try new activities and new hobbies and keep on with those they love.
From GoodReads: Joe and Bob Switzer were very different brothers. Bob was a studious planner who wanted to grow up to be a doctor. Joe dreamed of making his fortune in show business and loved magic tricks and problem-solving.
When an accident left Bob recovering in a darkened basement, the brothers began experimenting with ultraviolet light and fluorescent paints. Together they invented a whole new kind of color, one that glows with an extra-special intensity—Day-Glo.
I love any kind of book that encourages kids to play around and experiment. The Switzer brothers were not scientists or inventors, they simply played around with materials when Joe needed something for his magic act. Science and invention and making can have this aura around them of being difficult and needing tons of education to do it successfully, which isn’t really the case. I think it would be easy for a kid to find inspiration in what they did and how they did it. It took years of tinkering around and a few serendipitous moments that led to the Day-Glo colors. The story itself is interesting, but is a little spare on details beyond how they created their colors simply because of the age it is written for. The author’s note at the end, that tells how Barton pieced their story together, is really interesting and I think speaks to the importance of primary sources (written and verbal).
I also liked that the illustrations begin in monochromatic whites, blacks and grays and slowly their vibrant Day-Glo colors begin to creep in. It gives an interesting visual cue to accompany the progress of the brothers work.
From GoodReads: As a child in the late 1800s, Horace Pippin loved to draw: He loved the feel of the charcoal as it slid across the floor. He loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him. He drew pictures for his sisters, his classmates, his co-workers. Even during W.W.I, Horace filled his notebooks with drawings from the trenches . . . until he was shot. Upon his return home, Horace couldn’t lift his right arm, and couldn’t make any art. Slowly, with lots of practice, he regained use of his arm, until once again, he was able to paint–and paint, and paint! Soon, people—including the famous painter N. C. Wyeth—started noticing Horace’s art, and before long, his paintings were displayed in galleries and museums across the country.
With the loss of arts classes in schools I think a good way to easily slip in some history and art/music appreciation is with picture book biographies of artists and musicians. While a traditional chapter book biography would certainly work for introducing Horace Pippin to students, I think the picture book has a distinct advantage because it uses art to show the life of the artist.
Melissa Sweet’s illustrations have a child-like quality to it that is reminiscent of Vera B. Williams. I love this style because it inspires kids, showing them that their art is good enough and has value. That isn’t to imply that these are just some picture she dashed off in class with poor technique, but it feels as if a kid could draw it. I think it is especially relevant and well-suited to this picture book about Horace Pippen because it will encourage children to keep going with their art just as Pippin did.
There is a lot here in the story of his life, but the text doesn’t get bogged down with dates and facts. It’s very readable in a way that a lot of biographies are not. I also think the inclusion of just the right amount of detail will encourage kids to look into a few of the historical events that touched Pippin’s life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
These books have been on heavy rotation in our house. Stanley is a hamster (or maybe a guinea pig?) and also seems to be a jack-of-all-trades. Not only does he own a garage and build houses, he also is a farmer and chef.
This is a really wonderful series for young children. The stories are fairly basic, but charming as Stanley goes about his day. From book to book there is a rhythm or format and each book ends with Stanley heading home, eating dinner, taking a bath and finally turning in for the night. There is also continuity with some of the characters who appear in more than one book.
Children and parents alike will enjoy the stylized illustrations. With the clean white backgrounds and thick black outlines Stanley is both childish and modern. The colors are bright and inviting and everything is clean and aesthetic. The pictures provide great support for the text and paired with short blocks of text, simple language, and high interest subjects (construction, farm, and cars) these would make great early readers. The repeated pattern of the ending is also a good support for beginning readers. The physical cover is padded which gives it an interesting sensory experience. Pay special attention to the end papers. They feature a large variety of tools that go with Stanley’s profession of the day and are a great opportunity to build vocabulary. They would make neat wall art too as they are laid out so carefully in a puzzle-like matrix.
I just realized that the reason we haven’t been able to get Stanley the Farmer from the library is that it doesn’t release until next spring. Oops. And I checked the back of one of the other books and found there is supposed to be a Stanley’s Diner, but it doesn’t appear that it will be released until next September.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s time to fly home for dinner! In this witty picture book from award-winning and bestselling author Mac Barnett, a mother bird gives the bird next to her a message for little Peter. But passing messages on a telephone line isn’t as simple as it sounds. Each subsequent bird understands Mama’s message according to its own very particular hobbies. Will Peter ever get home for dinner?
A hilarious take on the classic game of telephone, Telephone is one of those stories that is sure to appeal to parents as well as kids. As the message is passed down the line and it gets further and further from the original, kids will pick up on the sheer absurdity of the changes. Each picture, featuring the wacky looking bird and some sort of visual of their message, gets crazier and crazier. Kids will eat up the silliness of the story.
By the time the message makes it to the owl, clearly put out by having to stop reading, the message for Peter has reached epic proportions. The owl, as many a parent and teacher has, sighs, takes it in and susses out the real message. Older kids more cued in to their parents may catch what makes adults laugh.
The muted hues of the illustrations only seem to make the antics of the birds funnier by downplaying how ridiculous it all is. The close up and backed-out shots of all the birds on the wire let the reader in on the secret of what might be going on right over their heads as they slip home for dinner too.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: All around the world — in the sea, in the soil, in the air, and in your body — there are living things so tiny that millions could fit on an ant’s antenna. They’re busy doing all sorts of things, from giving you a cold and making yogurt to eroding mountains and helping to make the air we breathe. If you could see them with your eye, you’d find that they all look different, and that they’re really good at changing things into something else and at making many more microbes like themselves! From Nicola Davies comes a first exploration for young readers of the world’s tiniest living organisms.
Tiny Creatures has so much going for it. Gross factor, interest factor, and charming illustrations. Charming isn’t exactly what I would have expected, actually but while the text is wonderful, it’s the combination of the illustrations and the text that make this book.
The illustrations have this vintage quality to them that actually makes them feel very modern. It might be the colors and technique that feel vintage, but the sparse background and detailed foregrounds are distinctly modern. Each picture really gets to the heart of what the text is saying and gives kids a visual cue to help with understanding what is being said. Sutton very cleverly illustrates the microbes, showing them in little circles as if you were looking at them through a microscope. My only wish would be that one of the children shown in the book was a different color.
In terms of subject matter, I think microbes certainly hold a lot of interest for kids. They love learning about the world around them and this part is a bit mysterious because it’s difficult to see without special equipment. Despite (most likely) not having seen microbes up close, they are familiar with them. All kids have been sick a few times and many have seen a compost heap or eaten yogurt. All these processes occur because of microbes. And don’t be surprised if your kids want to start washing their hands more regularly, the visual of a microbe dividing is pretty powerful.
Tiny Creatures is a wonderful book for curious kids. The text is fairly simple to understand so the book may appeal to young audiences as well as older ones. A lovely glimpse into an otherwise hidden world and another addition to the burgeoning collection of appealing new nonfiction.
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.