Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport

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An excellent example of narrative nonfiction, this book tells of the 10,000 children who were evacuated from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during the 1930s. Several of the children from various locations are used as examples to give readers a sense of the diversity among those who were sent to Great Britain to escape the Nazis. Some were boys, others were girls; they were from a range of social classes; they might be an only child or have siblings; and the majority were Jewish, but some of them were not. The author describes the lengths some parents went to so that their children would be taken to safety, even though the adults were not allowed to accompany them. And it is heartbreaking to think that those goodbyes at the train station were the last time some of them ever saw each other.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Kindertransport will hear about the individuals who began the effort and how aid organizations and donors made it all possible. Other events such as Kristallnacht are mentioned to help place the evacuations in context, and descriptions of the various Antisemitism laws and their effects help to show why it was necessary to get the children to safety. Historic photos show the children whose stories are highlighted, as well as other scenes. Quotes from the children and a few of the adults involved help to make the narrative personal and relevant. The children's lives after the war are also related, including the fact that some of them rode in a commemorative Kindertransport in 2009 from Prague to London.

Often in books about World War II there is a focus on the battles, or the concentration camps, but stories about those who helped and who survived are also important. Books such as this one show that even in the darkest times there are good people who are willing to do the right thing and offer assistance to those in need. I especially like that the author points out those 10,000 survivors now have 60,000 kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids who would not be here today if the Kindertransport had not taken place. 

Features that are helpful for using the book in classes or for research include a timeline, glossary, index, bibliography, and discussion questions. There is also a list of book for further reading, and information about the Kindertransport Association (KTA).

Recommended for upper elementary and older. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Author Interview with Owen Davey (Smart about Sharks)


Owen Davey, author/illustrator of Smart about Sharks, was kind enough to answer some questions about the process of creating the book. 

1. How closely do you work with the art department at the publishing company? Since you do the text and the illustrations, you don't have to turn the book over to someone else to be illustrated. but how much control do you have over the size of the book, the cover, and other design features?

As Smart About Sharks is intended as a follow up to Mad About Monkeys, we felt it was important to keep a continuity in terms of size of the book and the way it's constructed and the cover image etc. so that it feels part of a series. In terms of the design features, one of the reasons I like working with Flying Eye Books is that they don't interfere where it isn't necessary. Edits are made when they need to be, to improve clarity or something. But most of the time, I have free reign on the work, which is wonderfully refreshing.

2. My female students love animal books as much as the males do, but they are not always happy with the aesthetic appearance of nonfiction books. I think Smart About Sharks will not have that problem. Why was pink chosen as the background color for the cover?

That was actually the choice of Flying Eye Books, so you'll have to ask them on that one. But I was super happy they asked for it. I've worked with several publishers before who are terrified of the colour pink, but I love it. And personally, I have absolutely no idea why pink should be considered a feminine colour. It was only in the early 20th century that we in the western world deemed pink as a colour for girls and blue for boys.

3. The way you broke the information down into chunks is wonderful. How did you decide in which order to present the various facts?

A lot of planning. I want these books to have an obvious flow to them, so that you're not just flitting all over the place, but have something that leads into the next page. So I tried to think of the questions that might come out of one page and see if I can answer them on the next. Or focus in on a specific shark that perfectly represent what the text has just been talking about. It takes a lot of work to pin everything down and choose the correct location for everything. And luckily I have an editor to help trim it all down and provide suggestions for better ways to link stuff. 

4. You also have catchy headings for each section. Do you think young readers will catch the references to famous phrases (such as "All Fins Considered" or "Eat, Prey, Hunt")? Or did you put those in there just for the adults who will be reading along with many of those youngsters?

These books are intended to appeal to a wide audience. There are facts in there that I'm sure most people wouldn't know, young or old. The illustrations are built to appeal to both the children and adults too (after all, I'm sure many adults will be reading the book to their kids). Some people might get the references. Some might not. Some kids might. Some adults might not. They're just a bit of fun really. I love words and playing with words and puns are a fun way to do that.

5. How did you research all these facts? Did you visit aquariums and talk to lots of marine biologists, or stick with books and online sources? Have you ever been in a shark cage to observe them in their natural habitat? 

My research for these books is always pretty intense. I start at the surface and quickly start delving deeper into more information about the stuff that interests me. This involves any information in any form that I can get my hands on. There were aquariums for sure. But mostly books, scientific papers, charts, sifting through the internet, watching documentaries etc. I haven't spoken to any Marine Biologists directly about it, but would watch interviews with Ichthyologists. And Flying Eye sent the text to a wonderful Consultant, Dr Helen Scales (how perfect is that name!) to double check the facts. The research requires a lot of checking of facts against lots of sources because so often research is outdated, information is over-simplified in a misleading way, or people just downright lie. And it's not just the internet. I've found many books and documentaries that are guilty of using misnomers or inaccuracies. I'm keen for my non-fiction books to be as correct as possible, and have received a number of emailed compliments from experts in the field you enjoy the level of science the books use, which makes me very proud.

6. You also created the book, Mad About Monkeys. Will you be doing more books in this style? If so, can you reveal what animal you will be focusing on next? Do you get to choose the topics, or does the publishing company have specific animals that they have asked you to include?

Yep. I'm working on one right now. I don't think I can reveal the next animal yet, but trust me, they're cool. The choice of animals is a discussion. This next one was my idea.

Since several of these were questions with follow-ups, I don't want to bog you down with too many more. Is there anything else you would like to share about being an author/illustrator, your creative process, or how you became interested in making books?

I've also loved picture books. I love reading and I love illustration. As a kid I always wanted to do what I'm doing now. A genuine dream come true. Which is ace!

-- Thank you to Owen for satisfying our curiosity about what it is like to create an awesome nonfiction book. --

Friday, August 19, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Emily the Astronaut: The Space Case


This story of a girl's quest to reach the moon is told in first person style, with the narrator directly addressing the reader. Emily explains that she wants to be the first girl on the moon and then shows us how she researches her goal. She talks to her father, her friends Noah and Hannah, and her family even travels to Cape Canaveral. They get to see a rocket launch, and Emily and Hannah visit Kennedy Space Center. A female astronaut tells the girls about the moon and Mars. By the end of the trip Emily has made her plan for reaching the moon and can't wait to get started.

The illustrations are done in a multimedia style that combines photographs (including NASA images), artwork created by the author, and even artwork from her own daughter - Emily. A lot of whimsy comes through in the teasing by Emily's father that the moon is made of cheese or that she can ride a skateboard on the Milky Way, and the artwork follows through on that lightheartedness. Along the way young readers will learn about the orbits of the Earth and moon, what the Milky Way really is, and what the moon is made of (not cheese). 

The author's experience as a teacher has guided her in keeping the text from simply being a written lecture. Instead, she uses the humor and Emily's curiosity to uncover answers along the way and keep the story moving. Familiar things like remembering a friend's school project or reconnecting with a classmate that has moved away keep the book grounded, in a good way, while letting us explore Emily's interest in reaching space. We can hope that other young students will also be inspired to reach for the moon and beyond.

I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Plants Can't Sit Still

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Author Rebecca Hirsch has found something that children and plants have in common - movement. As her text and Mia Posada's illustrations take us through the world of green things, we find that they move in many different ways. The movement of the plants themselves is described, but so is the way in which their seeds travel and find new places to grow. The cut paper and watercolor collages show everything from wispy dandelion seeds floating on the breeze to cockle burrs stuck to someone's hiking socks. The vibrant blue of morning glories shine in the sun on one page while the delicate white petals of moonflowers glow in the night on another. The words of the text are carefully chosen to emphasize the different types of motion - wiggle, squirm, reach, slither, climb, tumble, explode - these are some busy plants. 

One of the features that students and teachers will enjoy is the contrasting color in which many of these words are shown. Explode and fling are in green while the rest of the sentence is in blue; or bounce and sprinkle are in red while the rest are in brown. It makes the verbs themselves seem to move and jump off the page to catch your attention. I especially like the way the word "reach" is made with successively larger and larger letters so that the word itself seems to be stretching toward the sky just like the sunflowers in the illustration.

A section entitled "More About Plants"gives more factual information about how and why plants move and seeds are distributed. Then it describes each plant shown in the book, in order of their appearance. Both the common name and scientific classification are given, as well as a description of exactly how each particular plant moves. The back matter includes an author's note, glossary, and suggestions for websites and books to find out more. 

This would be an excellent addition to a unit on plants. I can also imagine language arts teachers using it to show their students why word choice matters and how it can bring a text to life, or to have them do a scavenger hunt for all the verbs throughout the book. Perhaps they could even create their own illustrations - combining some scientific observations of the plants around their school and homes with some artistic representations. 

Highly recommended for elementary age readers, or for their teachers and librarians. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Gertie's Leap to Greatness

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Fans of realistic fiction for middle grade readers have a new protagonist to admire. Gertie Reece Foy is a girl that one should never underestimate. When she decides to do something really impressive to prove that she does not need her mother (who is getting remarried and moving out of town), she doesn't let anything stand in the way of her mission. Not broken pencils, stolen homework, band-aids in her lunch, a child-star actress, or even the danger of losing one of her best friends can stop her. The opening scene of Gertie resuscitating a half-dead frog with a turkey baster is a perfect example of her imagination and persistence. As she bulldozes ahead from one attempt to achieve greatness to another, she maintains her determination to prove that she is the greatest fifth grader in the world.

An inevitable comparison for this type of female character is to Junie B. Jones. If Junie B. were a fifth grader and had grown up without a mother, she might have turned out like Gertie. The zany ideas and the seemingly endless energy are very similar. They also have the same sort of tomboyish approach to life. But Gertie is a bit more worldly and understands things like how environmental lobbyists might cause her father to lose his job if they manage to shut down the oil rigs. Of course, she also imagines that the family will be homeless and hungry, immediately jumping to a worst-case scenario. 

The writing sweeps you right into Gertie's life and makes it all seem very real. When she hides behind a bush to spy on some classmates, you feel as if you are right there and nervous that you are going to be caught. The moods and thoughts are so well described that Gertie seems to be someone you know in real life. Although there are many setbacks on the way to completing her mission, the book also has many moments of humor. (Remember the resuscitated frog?) Her audition for the school play is hilarious, and the scene with the Swiss chocolates will have you laughing (I can't say more without spoiling it). The author has done an excellent job of making the characters and setting believable.

Teachers looking for a new title to use as a class novel study might want to consider Gertie and her story. There is plenty of appeal for boys and girls, and ample topics to discuss. Readers who enjoy school stories, realistic fiction, and spunky heroines should give it a try.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Summer Reading 2016 Smart About Sharks

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Owen Davey has created a beautiful book about sharks. My female students love animal books as much as the males do, but they are not always happy with the aesthetic appearance of nonfiction books. I think Smart About Sharks will not have that problem, especially with pink as the background color for the cover. The table of contents is located within a sea of grayish-blue full of sea weed and sharks. There is a large 2-page spread showing the relative size of each species that is awesome in its ability to convey the wide range of possibilities. And another page showing a comparison of a Dwarf lanternshark to a standard #2 pencil is genius. Every school child knows what size a pencil is, so this is an easy way for them to see that not all sharks are the size of the great white in "Jaws." 

A wide selection of sharks of different sizes and abilities are included. Commonly known species like the whale shark and nurse shark are seen, along with those of lesser notoriety such as lemon sharks or wobbegongs. The illustrations are crisp and clean without being cold or mechanical. They have a retro vibe to them that makes the book feel like an instant classic. And the section on shark mythology shows how widespread the attention to these creatures is and how long humans have been fascinated by them.

The facts are presented in bite-size chunks. (Did you see what I did there?) Several different types of charts and diagrams are used to present facts such as the adaptations that make sharks such effective predators, or the comparative number of pups produced by two different species of sharks. There are catchy headings for each section. Young readers may not catch the allusions to famous phrases ("All Fins Considered" - "All Things Considered," or "Eat, Prey, Hunt" - "Eat, Pray, Love") but adults who will be reading along with many of those youngsters will appreciate the humor.

This is an excellent addition to any library collection, especially those serving an elementary or middle school audience. While the text is not overly technical, it also does not talk down to young readers. The author seems to understand that those who are fascinated with a subject will usually have the patience to work out what the text says so that they may satisfy their curiosity.

I received a copy from the publisher for review purposes.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Spring Reading 2016 Mighty Jack

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How would you go about updating the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? It's not as if kids go around taking cows to market these days. But for Ben Hatke the answer was obvious, send Jack to a flea market. Somewhere there in between the stand selling hot pretzels and lemonade and the booth with scarves woven from alpaca or llama hair, have a guy who has all sorts of weird items for sale. Among these items might be a box of slightly odd-looking seed packets. Voila! There you have your magic beans in a modern setting. Of course, you need to update the characters as well. This time around Jack's family includes a younger sister who never speaks and a mother who works multiple jobs to make ends meet. All we know about Jack's father is that he left when Jack was three. So, we have a source for magic seeds, a reason why mom is not home often to supervise Jack and Maddy (the sister), and a perfect opportunity for something unusual to happen.

Hatke has done an amazing job, as usual. The characters are believable (okay, maybe not the guy at the flea market, but then he is supposed to be odd). The modern suburban setting makes the results of the magic seeds all the more bizarre. There are laughs and gasps of fear. Everything comes together to pull us in as readers and have us disappointed when we reach the last page and realize that we have to wait for the next book.

A great read for anyone interested in fractured fairy tales or graphic novels, or simply fans of Ben Hatke's work. This is the start of what promises to be a series as popular as his Zita the Spacegirl saga.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.