Sunday, August 28, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 The Class


At this time of year there is always a demand for "back to school" stories. Teachers everywhere all have a favorite that they like to read to their students on that first day of class. Most of them feature what goes on in school and all the mishaps of being unable to find your locker (or cubby), being worried about what the teacher will be like, missing the bus, etc. But Ashburn has put together a different kind of story. All the kids who will come together and form a class as they get out of bed and prepare for their first morning of school. Some are sleepy, or worried, or have bed head. Others are excited, dressed to the hilt, or busy with putting on new shoes. But however their morning begins, they all arrive at school to form a class.

It's refreshing that the time before school is shown - the search for socks, gobbling down breakfast, loading up backpacks - these are all things that kids know about firsthand. And such a variety of skin tones, hair colors, and visible levels of prosperity are shown that there should be someone for each student in a class to identify with in some way. The diversity isn't trumpeted from the rooftops, but the mention of kids who have the "Old-Shoe Blues" and of one who has to make do (because they have no backpack), shows a range of economic groups. The illustrations show children from all types of ethnic and racial backgrounds. But the main point is in the title, The Class. All these unique little humans create something amazing together, a community that will last all year and have many learning adventures. That's what school is all about.

Highly recommended for elementary age.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Gracie Meets a Ghost


With simple illustrations and easy vocabulary, Gracie Meets a Ghost is the perfect book for a child who has just begun wearing classes. The story mentions that Gracie couldn't read because the letters were blurry, and that she bought a pair of glasses. Her friends tease her, but Gracie doesn't let it upset her. The images show Gracie realizing at bedtime that she does not have her glasses and going back out to look for them. And that is when the fun really starts. With her blurry vision Gracie has encounters with some wildlife because she mistakenly thinks that parts of their bodies are actually her glasses. The owl's eyes reflect light just as her lenses would, and the mouse's tail curls just like the earpiece. But what will really amuse children is the disappointed ghost who can't scare Gracie because she can't see well enough to realize to whom she is speaking.

For kids going through the adjustment of getting used to glasses, the humor in this book will help to ease the transition. Even young readers who don't wear glasses will have fun with the mistaken identity and the frustrated ghost. It might also be a good book to use in a lesson about teasing. Her friends tease about her glasses; the owl calls her rude; and the mouse calls her foolish. Students could discuss how they would feel to be called names over something they can't control - like their eyesight and whether they wear glasses or not.

The illustrations have just enough detail to convey personality and emotion without being too cluttered. And the style is one that readers may imitate as Gracie becomes a new favorite character. It might also be fun to try and create their own nighttime scenes using a painting app or torn & cut paper collage.

Recommended for preschool - elementary ages.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport


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


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


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


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


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.

Summer Reading 2016: Happy Mamas


Rhythmic text, warm and colorful illustrations, and the appeal of cute baby animals will draw young readers to this book. At each time of day various mamas, both animal and human, are shown in activities with their offspring. Whether it is finding bamboo for a panda cub, a baby elephant spraying water from its trunk, or a child tiptoeing close to see a butterfly, each scene is vibrant and inviting. The mothers in the wild are busy making sure their young are fed, safe, and happy, just as the human mothers are. Penguins slip and slide on the ice, kangaroos and joeys jump about, babies play peekaboo or float rubber ducks in the tub, but they all have happy faces and contented mamas looking on.

For young readers who are fascinated with baby animals, parents looking for a good bedtime story, or teachers searching for a text to do a compare/contrast lesson, this title fits the bill. Those looking for diversity in children's books will be pleased to see a variety of ethnic backgrounds pictured in the human families.

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

Summer Reading 2016: Teen Titans: Earth One, Vol. 2


The Teen Titans story in volume 1 starts with the teenagers involved seeming to be just ordinary kids, but then things begin to change and strange powers and abilities begin to reveal themselves. There is a mix of genders and racial backgrounds, a variety of abilities - mental and superhuman, and a range of personality types. This first book gives you just enough background to set up the story line for the ongoing series. You might even say that the plot centered around growing pains, with the manifestation of their powers forcing them to leave the nest and face the world. 

Now in Volume 2 the kids (Tara, Vic, Tempest, and Gar), are hiding out in a housing development that is under construction, while Raven and Starfire are on a Native American Reservation with Raven's grandfather. Dr. Caulder sends his Titans after the kids and Colonel Wilson (with his son's psyche inside his head) to New Mexico to retrieve the young women. When everyone arrives back at StarLabs, there are some revelations and shifting of alliances. A new meta-human, Blackfire is also introduced to readers.

This section of the story shows us a few things. That the group works better together than on their own. That Caulder has schemes inside schemes and has been brainwashing his little Titans into being kids who will do whatever Daddy wants. That Wilson's son Joseph is totally nuts (which we already knew). That eating to many marshmallows will make you sick. But I think it's the mind games Caulder has played on the Titans that really catch the attention. Making them believe that the other kids are somehow corrupt agents of the US military, or that they were developed in a different way than the Titans keeps them on his side until they learn the truth. Then you have all sorts of teenage angst busting loose with feelings of betrayal.

There are a lot of possibilities for where the story will go from here. It could concentrate on Joseph, Blackfire, and Caulder trying to regroup and find a way to regain control of all the Titans. It might focus on the Titans forming a solid team and learning to work together. Perhaps it will draw on Starfire's past and have aliens coming to Earth to find her. Most likely it will be some combination of all those, with a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. We'll just have to wait and see.

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

Summer Reading 2016: Irena's Children (Young Readers Edition)

I mentioned earlier this summer that I seem to be reading a lot of World War II and Holocaust books lately. This one caught my attention because I had already reviewed Jars of Hope, a picture book account of Irena Sendler's efforts to save Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Irena's Children (Young Readers Edition) is a chapter book account of the widespread network Irena and her friends developed to smuggle children from the Ghetto and into safe locations. The book traces events in chronological order, and focuses on Irena, but also shares events that her friends within the network were involved in. 

As a social worker, Irena was able to come and go from the Ghetto and make contact with families there. Together with other brave people in Warsaw, she helped to smuggle hundreds of infants and children to safety with foster families, orphanages, and convents. Although she was caught and held for questioning for 3 months by the Gestapo, Irena never betrayed her friends or the locations of the children. Despite torture like broken bones and cigarette burns, Irena continued to claim she knew nothing about the smuggling and the Nazis never realized she was one of the most central figures in the relocation of all those children. I appreciate the way in which the author includes details about all the others who helped with this lifesaving mission, and that Irena always claimed she could not have done it without her friends and colleagues. 

Children sometimes think that heroes can only be male, or very physically strong, or good fighters. They don't understand that heroes come in all shapes and sizes and genders, or that violence isn't the only way to "fight" against evil. Stories of real-life heroes and heroines such as Irena Sendler need to be included in library collections and classroom lessons so that students can experience them and find inspiration. It is also important to share these stories because they were so nearly lost to us. After the war, the Soviet Union gained control of Poland and stories about anyone seen as a "freedom fighter" or whose deeds might inspire others to fight for an independent Poland were ruthlessly suppressed. It was not until the dissolution of the USSR that these stories could be told openly.

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

Summer Reading 2016 Good Morning, Superman!

Have you ever seen the video updates that Michael Dahl makes for Capstone Books? If you have, then you won't be surprised at how well he captures the spirit of children and their imaginative abilities. In this story a figure is seen sleeping in a suburban bedroom as the sun rises. Elsewhere, a square-shouldered man in a handsome suit looks at the city skyline from atop a tall building. The scenes play out switching from one character to the other and back again, as they both start their day. Normal morning routines take on new excitement as our young hero suits up, gathers his energy, and faces his greatest fears. Mirroring his actions, the man in his superhero suit battles villains, defeats terrible weapons, and gets some help from his friends. The last scenes of the boy heading off to school in the car and Superman flying in the sky above tie it all neatly together.

Although Michael came up with the story line, illustrator Omar Lozano. He creates so many points of similarity between the two characters that even the youngest readers will pick up on them. For example, while Superman battles a Kryptonite weapon, the boy has to deal with toothpaste the same color as Kryptonite. Little things will appeal to adult readers, like the description of the morning: "A bird chirps. A plane soars overhead." and on the next page we see a drawing of Superman hanging on the bedroom wall, and the hero himself looking out over Metropolis. Obviously, the text is referring to the line from the early Superman appearances - "It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!" Parents reading along with children may laugh out loud when the boy runs to the open door of the bathroom and the text reads, "Duty calls!"

Whether you are a fan of Superman, superheroes, or Michael Dahl's books, this heroic story is sure to please. Capstone's partnership with DC Comics sets the stage for many more little gems of this sort. I especially appreciate that the family shown in the boy's home are not Caucasian. Little white boys and girls are not the only kids to enjoy superheroes, so I am glad that the illustrator showed a family such as this. With all the push lately to include more diversity in media of all sorts, this book helps to meet that need, but not in a preachy way. 

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. The book will be published for the spring of 2017.