17 February 2018

Princess Cora and the Crocodile

Princess Cora and the Crocodile
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Brian Floca
Candlewick Press

Princess Cora is overwhelmed.  Her parents love her so much and want her to be successful, so they fill her day with the things that are most important to being an excellent princess and queen - taking baths (a queen must be tidy), studying (a queen must be intelligent) and physical activity (a queen must be strong).  Cora often tries to suggest to them that they're over doing it, but they don't listen.  One day, Cora has had enough and she writes her fairy godmother a letter, asking for help in the form of a pet.  Cora wants a dog, but her fairy godmother has other plans.  She sends Cora a crocodile, and a naughty crocodile at that.  Hilarity ensues, and eventually (after a little gnawing from a crocodile dressed like a princess) the king, the queen and the nanny all realized that Cora does need a bit of a break.
This is a great book with a kind of sad twist to it.  At first, none of the adults even notice that it's not Cora but a crocodile - they are all to wrapped up in "worrying what might be wrong with her". And every minute of every day is planned around training for Cora by the time she is seven years old.  I enjoyed the story when I first read it for it's absurdity and silliness, but as I think about it more, I can't help but see some parallels in the way we currently raise and educate our children.
Are Schlitz and Floca trying to subtly tell us something?  I recently read an article about the life lessons found in Chinese children's literature vs. children's literature in the United States, and it got me thinking about how what we read shapes our beliefs and thoughts.  I can't help but wonder who will benefit more from reading this book - children who might learn that it's OK to play and to ask adults for what we need, or adults who might need to be reminded that kids need to be kids.
In any case, the book is absolutely worth the time for readers of any age.

27 January 2018

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Journey of Little Charlie
Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Press
Release Date: Jan. 30, 2018
order it from the Tattered Cover here

My favorite book of all time is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because it was the first book I'd ever read that gave the German perspective of the Nazis during WWII .  It opened my eyes and I connected very quickly with the idea that not everyone who lived in Germany (in fact a very small number of Germans) actually sympathized with the ideals of the Third Reich.
I know, it's a weird way to start a book review by talking about how much I loved another book...but stick with me.  Christopher Paul Curtis has done the same thing with The Journey of Little Charlie.  Told from the point of view of the not-so-little Little Charlie Bobo, this is the story of slave catchers in the 1850s who would travel north to try and recover escaped slaves.  The story opens with the sudden death of Little Charlie's father and the discovery that his father apparently owed money to a man named Cap'n Buck.  Cap'n Buck says that the only way Charlie can pay off his father's debt is by helping him recover "stolen property".  Little Charlie has never left his home of Possom Moan, South Carolina and though he's tall and looks like a full grown man, he's only 13. Along the way Little Charlie discovers the true character of Cap'n Buck and though he doubts he should be helping the Cap'n at all, he sees no other way proceed.
This would be a great book to use when teaching character evolution - the changes in Little Charlie are both obvious and inferred, which is perfect for upper elementary literary analysis.
I also learned to love the way the book was written.  Curtis writes it the way that Little Charlie would say it (much like the Aibileen Clark chapters from The Help). I struggled at first because I was reading it from a teacher's point of view and I wasn't sure how well students would be able to read it and understand what he was saying.  However, by the middle of the book, I was used to it and loved Little Charlie's voice, and I think students will too.  It would make a great read aloud if the reader was willing to get completely into it.
I would highly recommend this book to teachers and students and plan to give it to a student who loved Elijah of Buxton on Monday and see what she thinks of it.

Once again, thank you to Kristen Gilligan of the Tattered Cover for providing me with awesome ARCs to read and review.

26 December 2017

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie
Lindsey Stoddard
HarperCollins Children's Books
Release Date: Jan 2, 2018

It's been awhile....
Like four years. Whoops. It's not like I stopped reading or anything - in fact, I'd say the opposite.  And just recently I was given the opportunity to read and review some ARC (advanced reader copies) from a local book store.  The one condition to getting the free ARCs is that I must review the ones I particularly like.  So I figured why not review them here as well.  You know, dust off the ol' blog and get back at it!

Cover art courtesy of HarperCollins
Just Like Jackie is an amazing story. If you enjoyed Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, or Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, you will love this book.
Robbie Hart was named after baseball great Jackie Robinson, even though she's nothing like him.  Robbie wishes she could stay calm under pressure, but usually it just boils up and right out of her - like the time Alex Carter called her a motherless bird and she punched him in the face.  He may have deserved it, but when the principal calls Robbie's grandpa into school, she knows there will be trouble.  Robbie's grandpa is having trouble remembering things lately and she's afraid people at the school will find out and blame her.  She knows that if she would just be a better student, then grandpa's memory could rest and his word's wouldn't get confused.
This is an amazing story that, like Counting by 7s and Fish in a Tree is told from Robbie's point of view.  I really love these books because it gives kids a chance to hear their own voice in a novel.  In fact, while I was reading it, I couldn't help but think of a couple of kids at our school who would benefit from reading this book.
I can't help but wonder though, how much of the inferred meaning do kids get out of books like this?  When I read it as an adult, I know that grandpa's memory issues have nothing to do with Robbie's behavior at school...but will a 10-year-old know that when they're reading? And then I wonder - does it really matter? And the answer is no, not really.  I believe deep in my core that if a reader gets lost in a story, then the story has served its purpose, and it is not our place to decide whether or not the reader inferred enough depth of meaning from the story.  I've read the same book (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak) countless times, and each time I read it, I find something new to love and cherish about the story.  That's what makes a book great - one that you'll read multiple times and continue to lose yourself in it, love it, and learn from it. Just Like Jackie has the potential to be that kind of book for kids and adults alike.

08 October 2014

Haiku Book Reviews

As a teacher, I know that what I do for my students each week has purpose and meaning.  I intend for every lesson to stretch their minds, grow their learning and help them become the amazing people they will become. I plan, prep, think, re-plan, re-prep and re-think lessons before I teach them.  After I teach them I think about how it went, did they learn what I intended them to learn?  Did they grow?  How can I make the lesson better?  What can I tweak to get just a little more out of my students?

It's exhausting.

And sometimes, I plan lessons that absolutely flop.  I'm human.  It happens.  All teachers learn to deal with lesson flops. But other times, I hit student-centered-learning pay dirt.  And when that happens, it's awesome.

Recently, I saw a post on Jennifer Reed's blog about people who made a difference in 17 syllables and thought it was genius.  I also happened to be working with our 6th grade team on how to best implement our new writing curriculum.  Our 6th graders struggle with using "vivid" words, so we decided to apply the 17-syllable idea to book reviews.

First, I made sure students understood what a haiku was and how the format of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables worked.  Then they brainstormed words to describe their books.  That was all we had time for in our first 30 minute session.  I looked at the descriptive words they'd come up with and circled the words I felt could be more "vivid" - replacing "boy" with "young man" etc.  I really wanted the kids to think about synonyms and the meaning behind some of the words they chose.

The next week we worked on boiling our books down to two or three themes or lessons from the books they chose.  Then, the worked on the writing of their actual haikus.  The teachers and I were blown away with the amazing ideas they came up with!

Here's where the lesson absolutely took off. The kids floored us with their ability to come up with great haikus!  The teachers even got so into writing haikus that they created an instagram account to share their haikus with one another.  Originally, I wanted the students to use animoto to create short, quick animotos for their reviews - much like what Mrs. Reed did with her students.  However, using a free app called Color Cap, we were able to have the students create visual representations of their haikus in about 20 minutes.  The classroom teachers then published the haikus to their instagram account, and I was able to download the images and add them to our Kyffin LMC Book Blog.

Here are some of the amazing Haikus our 6th grade students created:

30 September 2013

Dragonborn by Toby Forward


In my time as an elementary librarian, I've learned that dragons are awesome*.  Kids LOVE dragons.  Heck, adults love dragons.  At my local library, there are over 277 books about dragons.  And that's just at one branch of the library.  When I search all branches of the library for the entire county, we're talking thousands of books (okay, so just a thousand, but still).  So when I'm shopping for books, any books that are about dragons get put in the cart and read as soon as they come in.

I was pretty excited when Dragonborn finally came in.  It looked perfect for elementary - cool cover, not too thick, but not too thin, etc.  Turns out, looks can be decieving.  I think.  I'm not certain yet.  Lemme 'splain.

First, a summary:  Sam is a wizard apprentice to the great wizard Flaxfield.  At the beginning of the book, Flaxfield dies and Sam must oversee his "finishing".  All the wizards who completed their apprenticeship under Flaxfield begin to return, and they doubt Sam's abilities and they even begin to doubt whether or not he really was an apprentice.  Sam, who has really only ever known life with Flaxfield, fears that these adult wizards plan to send him off to the coal mines to work and decides to run away with his pet dragon Starback. His adventures lead him to a wizard college and to the mines that he is so afraid of.  All the while, an evil...person? being? someone of indeterminate species... named Ash is after Sam...I think.  It seems that Flaxfield trapped her, and her creepy unexplained companion named Bakkmann in a tower somewhere and if they can get Sam, they can get out.  There are also roffles (they seem like dwarfs, but I'm not certain) and memmonts (no idea really - maybe they're cats?) and all kinds of other magical things that inhabit Sam's world that are explained only through excerpts from Sam's apprentice notebook.  Oh yeah, and dragons.  I almost forgot the dragons.

Was that summary odd?  Well, it makes sense because the book is rather odd.  The excerpts from Sam's apprentice notebook are meant to connect things together and to give background information, but often end up confusing the reader.  I went back and re-read the excerpts often, trying to make sense of the story line through the excerpts.  But usually, that didn't help.  The chapters and sections that relate to Ash and Bakkmann are just as confusing, but end up making sense at the end of the novel, even if they don't answer all the questions they raise at the beginning.  The book is clearly written to be part of a series, I'm just not certain its written well enough to encourage readers to read the rest of the series.

However, I'm an adult, and I read books very differently than my students.  There have been books in the past that are similar to Dragonborn that I didn't enjoy and my students LOVE.  Since the book is written for young readers, I think I should reserve my judgement about the book until I can get an expert opinion or two about it.  So I'm going to book talk it this week, hope someone checks it out and then ask their opinion.  I promise I'll report back if I can.

In the meantime, I would recommend this book to any young reader interested in fantasy, mystery and dragons.  The reading level places it at a 4th grade level (at least), and I think students up to 7th grade would enjoy it.

*I couldn't help myself.  That video is so unbelievably random and weird, it's awesome.  Also, I bet that guy is single.