Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ by Claudia Mills (2015)

In the fourth book of the Franklin School Friends series, Simon Ellis finds himself at odds with his best friend Jackson, who feels threatened by the fact that Simon is always successful at everything he attempts, from video games to classroom assignments. When a school spelling bee is announced, along with the rule that the students must work in teams, Simon is worried, both because he prefers to compete alone, and because he does not want his friendship with Jackson to be strained further by the differences in their spelling abilities.

After three books about girls (Kelsey, Annika, and Izzy), it is nice to see this series exploring a male point of view. Simon has appeared in the other books, just as the girls appear briefly in this story, but giving him his own voice and the opportunity to speak to his struggles fitting in as the "smart kid" in class is a welcome addition to an already successful series. Many kids can relate to either Simon's or Jackson's point of view, and they probably also know teachers, principals and parents like those portrayed in this story.

Unfortunately, the message of this book is a bit muddled by events near the end of the story. While it is clear early on that the author sympathizes with Simon's desire to get along with his friends without sacrificing his intelligence, Simon's behavior during the spelling bee itself doesn't quite match this worldview. The only way Simon is able to gain acceptance among his peers is to make a mistake. While the "nobody's perfect" lesson is an important one, it doesn't make sense for it to be the moral of this book. If the story had been told from Jackson's point of view, it would be perfectly logical for him to reach this conclusion after seeing Simon misspell a word. For Simon, though, there is still no answer to his fundamental question of how to react when a friend is jealous of his abilities. This is an issue that many gifted kids undoubtedly face, and it is a shame that the story doesn't deliver even a potential solution, other than the suggestion that Simon and Jackson might be drifting apart.

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ is not the best book of this series, but even with its flaws, it is still a compelling read that fans of the previous books are likely to enjoy. It would make an especially good addition to libraries in classrooms where spelling bees are regularly held, as well as to most public and elementary school libraries. The Franklin School Friends series will continue in summer 2016 with book five, Cody Harmon, King of Pets.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, October 2015

Welcome, Little Bo Peep! 

There have been some changes in Little Miss Muffet's life this month. She now has a little sister! Little Bo Peep was born on her due date, the last day of September, and we have spent the last few weeks getting used to being a family of four.

Little Bo Peep's Very First Books

Little Bo Peep's main activities at the moment are eating and sleeping, so read-alouds have not yet become a regular part of her routine. I often recite nursery rhymes to her while she takes her bottle - George Porgie, Bye Baby Bunting, Hey Diddle Diddle, etc. - and she is almost always in the room when I'm reading to Miss Muffet, but she's not quite ready to look at a picture book just yet. She is, however, becoming quite fond of patterns, so I dug out two books Miss Muffet loved as an infant: Black and White by Tana Hoban and Baby Sees by Dave Aikins. She usually gets overwhelmed if we look at more than a page or two, but it's fun to watch her eyes grow big as she focuses on a black and white butterfly or a polka-dot pattern. As I did with Miss Muffet, I also occasionally read aloud to her from whatever I happen to be reading. She has heard brief passages from both The Graveyard Book and Magic Tree House #53: Shadow of the Shark (the latter of which I was reading for Cybils.)

Little Miss Muffet's Current Favorites

While recovering from childbirth, I haven't been able to do much with Miss Muffet besides read, and Grandma (my mom) also spent a lot of time reading to her when she was in town, so we have quite a few new favorites to share.

  • Snuggle the Baby by Sara Gillingham
    Grandma bought this book a few months ago in anticipation of the arrival of Little Bo Peep. It is an interactive board book, where toddlers can feed, diaper, swaddle, snuggle, and tuck in their own little cardboard baby. One page has already been destroyed. There is a part of the book where the baby's arms lift up to play "so big," but they lift at kind of an angle that is hard to negotiate if you are not quite two years old yet. So on that page the baby only has one arm at the moment, and we have set the book aside for repairs. But with a little packing tape to reinforce those cardboard arms, this is a book we definitely recommend to new big sisters and brothers.
  • It Is Night by Phyllis Rowand, illustrated by Laura Dronzek
    My husband brought this book home from the library for Miss Muffet, and she took to it immediately upon discovering there are both an elephant and a monkey in the story. The book discusses where animals sleep at night, which is a perfect science topic for toddlers, and it has a very sweet ending where a little girl curls up in bed surrounded by all of her toys.
  • Quack and Count by Keith Baker
    We have owned this book for a while, but it has not been in Miss Muffet's box until recently, so for her it is like a new discovery. Since she has started counting, she has become obsessed with counting the seven ducks in this book, and she can fill in almost any word if I stop reading and ask her what comes next. Everyone else in our house is completely sick of reading this aloud, and we pretty much beg Miss Muffet to choose anything else, even the dreaded More More More said the Baby which got really played out toward the end of the summer.
  • Owl Babies by Martin Waddell
    This is one of my favorite story time books, and I'm thrilled that Miss Muffet loves it so much. She is very fond of both Percy and Bill, and every time we reach the page where the owl mother returns home to her babies, the look of joy on her face is absolutely priceless. So contagious is Miss Muffet's love for this book that her grandma went and bought her own copy after visiting with us. We also discovered a lovely animated version on YouTube that we occasionally allow Miss Muffet to watch.
  • Duck on a Bike by David Shannon
    This is another story time favorite, though I notice it doesn't hold up quite as well as others when you read it 10 times a day.The most fascinating thing about it, for me, is that Miss Muffet understands the plot and can answer basic reading comprehension questions about it. On the wordless page where all the animals stare at the bikes and get ready to ride, I asked her, "What do the animals want to do?" and without hesitation she said, "Ride bikes!" (This is why it's important to read books with basic plots to toddlers! They do understand!)
  • May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers
    Thankfully, I will never tire of reading this book aloud. Its sense of humor and rhyme and rhythm are all so delightful, and Miss Muffet can recite all my favorite lines, including "What monkey business is this?" I can't wait until she gets a little older and we can do some of the activities I created to go with the story.

One Tip from Mom 

Not sure what to read to your baby? Pretty much anything works! For inspiration, check out this list of possibilities that I made for The Library Adventure.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reading Through History: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1985)

At the end of the 19th century, Anna lives with her father and younger brother, Caleb, on the American frontier. Though it has been years since her mother died, Anna still misses her, and she still resents her younger brother, whose birth caused their mother's death. When the opportunity arises for their father to take a new wife - a  woman from Maine named Sarah - both children are eager for the presence of a woman in their household once again, but they each worry that Sarah will miss her home too much to stay for good.

Over the past couple of years, I have been  reading many of Patricia MacLachlan's newer titles for kids, all of which have a very literary and adult sensibility. Books like Kindred Souls, Fly Away, The Truth of Me, and White Fur Flying seem almost over-written, as though they are trying to infuse themselves with more meaning than they actually have. I was a little bit curious, therefore, to see how Sarah, Plain and Tall would hold up for me, considering I haven't read it in a number of years.

Thankfully, while MacLachlan's newer titles use flowery language in a way that feels gimmicky, this classic 1985 book (winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal) is truly beautiful. Each word is carefully chosen and precisely placed, and the descriptions of everything from Sarah's home by the sea, to the growing admiration between her and Papa, to Anna's and Caleb's own fears about the loss of her, help paint a perfect portrait of a newly-formed family. The historical time period is more of a backdrop than a character in this book, but even so, the details about how the children travel to school, and what they must do to protect themselves during a storm, give good insight into how families lived in this time and place. The concept of a mail-order bride is also something kids are not likely to be familiar with, and that may prompt some questions and discussions about marriage then versus marriage now.

Because of its length, this book is a great choice for kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, in grades 2 to 4, and it would work wonderfully as a family read-aloud for a variety of ages, even including kids as young as 5 or 6. There are also four sequels: Skylark (1994), Caleb’s Story (2000), More Perfect than the Moon (2004), and Grandfather’s Dance (2006).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reading Through History: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)

It is 1864, and Caroline "Caddie" Woodlawn is twelve years old. Though her sisters Clara, Hetty, and Minnie, have always been treated like young ladies, Caddie's father has insisted that Caddie be allowed to run wild with her brothers, Tom and Warren, feeling confident that she will come of age when she is ready. In this story, which is based on true stories told by the author's grandmother, Caddie rides horses, associates with Indians, goes fishing with her Uncle Edmund, loses her dog, and plays pranks on a well-bred cousin from Boston, then contributes to an important family decision about the family's future lives as Americans.

Like The Cabin Faced West, Caddie Woodlawn explores daily life on the American frontier from the point of view of a young girl. Though historical events are mentioned - mainly the end of the Civil War, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln - these are footnotes for Caddie and her family, who receive news slowly and infrequently. The concerns on the frontier are more immediate dangers, such as a rumored Indian massacre (even though the local tribes are peaceful) and a prairie fire which threatens to destroy the schoolhouse. Even these events are not the central focus; this is really a book about Caddie beginning to understand her identity and role as a woman and looking toward adulthood with hope and courage. In this sense, it is less of a book about history, and more of a very personal story which just happens to be set in the past.

This book is a great read-alike for the Little House books, as it is also set in Wisconsin during the same time period, and it covers many of the same types of family experiences and conflicts. The fact that Caddie is twelve should not turn off younger readers, as she is still very much a child, and there is no discussion of puberty as there might be in a more contemporary story. The short chapters and illustrations (done by Kate Seredy of White Stag fame in the earlier editions, and Trina Schart Hyman in later ones) also lend the book nicely to being read aloud to a group of children. There is also a sequel, originally entitled Magical Melons, but more recently published as Caddie Woodlawn's Family, which tells stories from the points of view of some of Caddie's brothers and sisters.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: Traveling Butterflies by Susumu Shingu (2015)

In simple text, this book relates the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies from tiny eggs to beautiful orange creatures which migrate many miles to their ideal mating place.

The pictures in this book are just perfect for curious toddlers who like to see everything up close. The images early in the book of the egg, caterpillar, and cocoon are oversized and shown against plain backgrounds, leaving the facts of the creature's behavior to speak for themselves. Little Miss Muffet was fascinated (and somewhat terrified) of the page which shows the butterfly emerging slowly from the chrysalis. Though the scientific terms for what is happening in that scene are beyond her vocabulary at this point, she was able to get an age-appropriate sense of the butterfly's life cycle by looking at those pictures. Later images place a bright orange flock of butterflies against various backdrops, which shows in child-friendly terms how far the butterflies travel each year. These images are just lovely to look at, and any one of them on its own is practically suitable for framing.

There aren't many non-fiction picture book titles that I would recommend for toddlers, but this one really is simple enough that one and two-year-olds can mostly stick with it. Sentences are broken up over several pages, so there are few words per page, and the vocabulary is scientifically accurate but not overwhelmingly technical. (Little Miss Muffet added the words milkweed, cocoon, and nectar to her vocabulary after just two times through the book.) This book reminds me a lot of Jim Arnosky's simple picture books about animal behavior (such as Little Lions and Rabbits and Raindrops) and it would also pair nicely with I Love Bugs! by Philemon Sturges, Bugs! Bugs! Bugs! by Bob Barner, Beetle Bop by Denise Fleming, and Butterfly Butterfly by Petr Horacek.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reading Through History: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (2009)

After the death of their Dear Mother, Homer Figg and his brother, Harold were sent to live with Uncle Squint, who mistreats them and regards them as property. When Squint sells Harold into military service even though he is underage, Homer takes off after his brother, in the hopes of saving him before he faces combat, or worse.

Before I started reading historical fiction regularly, I had no idea how many "boy on a journey" books were out there! In some ways, it feels like I am reading the same story over and over again, just in different settings. This book reminded me so much of previously reviewed titles: A Single Shard, The Kite Rider, Adam of the Road, The Door in the Wall, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Call it Courage, Boy with a Pack, and Mr. Tucket all follow a similar pattern to this story, where a boy sets off on a journey and is forever changed by the experience. Like Adam in Adam of the Road, Homer is on the hunt for a lost family member, and like Bill in Boy with a Pack, he is both helped and hindered by people he meets along the way, including a thief, a Quaker family and some escaped slaves.

In terms of writing style, this book reminds me a lot of Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton, in that it combines a great sense of humor with the more gruesome details of living through a difficult time. Homer is a fun character, and kids will relate to the upbeat and carefree tone which belies his true fears about the fate of his brother. This book is not entirely uplifting, however. As Homer's journey begins to wind down in the last third of the story, the reader begins to hear about battle wounds, deaths, and amputations, and there isn't much to sugar-coat the information. Obviously, Civil War injuries were brutal, so it makes sense to include these descriptions, but kids who have enjoyed the humor of the first portions of the book might be caught off-guard by the dark turn the story takes.

The writing is quite good, though, in both the contemplative moments and the laugh-out-loud funny moments. There were two little moments I especially enjoyed. First is this description of riding on a train which appears at the end of Chapter 15:

It's amazing what goes by the windows on a train. Farms and fields and forests, and rows of wooden houses, and big brick mills. Like we're floating through a storybook and each turn in the track is a new page, and it's a story I never heard before so I don't know how it will end. Page after page, picture after picture, and always something new around the corner, and the chugging of the locomotive belching black smoke, making its own dark clouds against the sky, and the steam whistle sounding alive somehow, like the whole train is saying, Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! and rocking me to sleep. (p. 88)

Second is this joke from Chapter 18. Homer's temporary guardian, a young bumbling preacher, has allowed himself to be duped into becoming engaged to a woman whom Homer clearly recognizes as a thief. Homer's insight made me laugh out loud! 

That does it. It can't be true love. Mr. Willow has eyes like a sick kitten. You might love a sick kitten, but you don't marry it, you keep it as a pet. (p. 105)

Overall, this book is a quick and entertaining read, but much of it is not really about the Civil War in general, but about the experiences of these specific characters, which are grounded mostly in imagination rather than history. Kids who enjoy reading about this time period will be pleased by Homer's story, but it won't necessarily teach them about the Civil War in the same way as a book like Bull Run.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Black Banner Abroad by Gregory Trease (1954)

Since they are somewhat hard to find, I am having to read the Bannermere books out of order. Though my last review from this series was of the second book, today's review focuses on the fourth, Black Banner Abroad. Excitement abounds for Bill, Sue, Tim, and Penny when it is announced that their schools will travel to France to present Romeo and Juliet for a French school group. Before the trip departs, the four are given a seemingly impossible task by a simple local man called Willy the Waller. He wants them to seek out a woman who helped him during the war and repay for him an old debt, but his memories are spotty at best, and the kids are unsure whom they should find, or even exactly where they should look. Once they arrive in France, it is difficult to find time to complete their task, what with performance preparations, Bill's new interest in a girl named Gigi, and their obligations to the host families with whom they are staying, but with some help from some new friends, they get it done just before they must return home.

Unlike Under Black Banner, which seemed like a pretty generic sequel to follow the wonderful No Boats on Bannermere, this book is a worthy companion. The story involves a little bit of everything young readers enjoy - travel, theater, romance, mystery, history, and conflict. Even more than the previous books this one is a story about relationships, with lots of inter-personal drama and dialogue, which really brings the characters to life and encourages the reader to love them.  Penny is especially delightful in this story, as she shines on stage as the nurse despite her very obvious limp. The mystery is also a lot of fun to solve, as all the clues are present early on, but the characters must interpret them correctly to figure out the answer. Each time a new piece of the puzzle falls into place, there is an immense feeling of satisfaction for the reader.

This is the quintessential European travel novel. Though much of the story is heavily influenced by the events of World War II, which dates it to the early 1950s, the details of the visit to France overall are as relevant to  today's kids as they would have been to their grandparents. It continues to puzzle me that these books aren't more widely available. They are certainly better than many of the other titles that survive from the 50s, including Nancy Drew. If you can find a copy of this book, snatch it up! It's one of the best.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Review: Roar by Julie Bayless (2015)

In the middle of the night, a restless lion cub wanders off looking for a friend, but all the animals save one boisterous rabbit are frightened by his roar.

This book is mostly wordless, and the bulk of the story is told visually using comic panels and speech bubbles to indicate the sounds the individual animals make. The deep blues and purples of the night-time scenes create a calm, serene backdrop that highlights the lion cub's contrasting high energy as he romps through the savanna. The various animals he encounters - the other lions in his family, groups of hippos and giraffes, and his new rabbit friend - are all infused with great personalities, which come across in the subtleties of their facial expressions and body language. Also very easy to read in the illustrations is the instant bond that forms between the lion and the rabbit, as the cub says, "Roar!" and the rabbit says, "More!" over and over again.

I am generally a proponent of sharing wordless and nearly-wordless books as read-alouds, and I have read this one to Little Miss Muffet many times, at her insistence. (She loves lions.) It works fairly well as a lap book, because I can point to each panel as we explore it, so she knows where I am in the story, and I can respond to any detail that Miss Muffet happens to want to talk about based on where she points.

I like this book more with each re-reading. It reminds me somewhat of Goodnight, Gorilla, in that it chronicles an animal's night-time hi-jinks, and its playful tone also makes it ideal for readers who have liked Red Sled and Red Hat by Lita Judge.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reading Through History: Bull Run by Paul Fleischman (1993)

In sixteen different voices from both sides of the Civil War, Paul Fleischman's 1993 novel Bull Run relates the events of the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Included in the cast are men and women, black and white, who range from soldiers on the battlefield to artists and newspaper reporters, a young fife player, and a real-life general named Irvin McDowell.

There are a lot of characters in this short book, and even with wood carvings at the start of each chapter to differentiate one from the other, it was really hard to keep track of all the different storylines and personalities. As I read, I continually had to flip back to earlier chapters to make sure I was thinking about the correct character at the correct time. Though the battle is really the overarching plot that holds the story together, the constant shifts in perspective made it feel as though there was no real cohesive storyline. I really would have benefited from a prologue contextualizing the battle, as well as a dramatis personae introducing all the characters.

That said, this book is a powerful illustration of the impact of not just this battle, but of the Civil War as a whole on the people of the United States. By hearing stories from both sides, the reader really has the chance to understand each point of view and to empathize with both Southerners and Northerners, rather than simply taking a side. Because there are 8 characters from each side of the war, each viewpoint is represented equally and while the author does not sensationalize anything that happens, he also does not sugar-coat the pain and sadness of war, so readers really come to understand the horrors of the Civil War in an age appropriate way. Fleischman also avoids inserting his authorial voice into the text. There is no editorializing; the facts merely speak for themselves and allow readers to discuss the issues and draw their own conclusions.

The note at the end of the book states which characters are from the North and which are from the South, and it suggests reading the story as a reader's theater performance. Considering the trouble I had keeping the characters sorted out in my mind, I think a performance would be the ideal way to really appreciate this book. I also really wished I had kept a chart to refer to as I was reading and would recommend doing so to any potential reader of the book.

Overall, Bull Run makes a great starting point for delving into a deeper analysis of the rationale, impact, and experience of the Civil War. It would be especially useful in a classroom setting, where students could each take on a part and act out the story, but with proper preparation and prompting, the story can also be enjoyed independently. I will definitely keep this one on my list for future homeschooling lessons!