Colors of the Wind

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At the age of 15 George Mendoza suddenly began to go blind. In only a few months he had lost most of his sight, retaining only his peripheral vision. Despite what must have been a devastating loss, Mendoza found ways to overcome his disability. He first found an outlet in running: setting the world record for a mile run by a blind runner and twice going to the Olympics for the Disabled. Later, at the prompting of a priest friend who told him to paint what he saw, he began to turn his visions of colors and shapes into works of art.

Those works of art are the clear stars of this book. Each page layout has a full page full-color image of one of Mendoza’s bright joyful paintings. Many kids will enjoy looking at the book solely for the paintings alone. The story itself is told in spare prose on the other page of each layout accompanied by a simple pen and ink illustration. The illustrations often have a bit of color from the painting on the paired page which works well to tie everything together. The text by author J. L. Powers gives a summary version of Mendoza’s story, focusing on his determination to share his unique “vision” of the world.

The only thing I wished with this book was for slightly more information. There is an author’s note at the end which fleshes out some of the details of the story that are skimmed over in the text. However, I think even young kids will feel that there are places in the story that they are left wanting more. The most striking for me was when Powers quickly glosses over Mendoza’s trips to the Olympics and left me wondering how exactly he was able to accomplish such a feat. And maybe it’s just my medical background, but I really wanted to know even a little more about Mendoza’s blindness and his visions.

The title of the book comes from a blind girl who asked the teenage Mendoza what colors the wind is. Later when he began to paint he remembered that question and tried to show what colors he saw in the wind and the world around him. As I’ve  mentioned here before, I like to do art projects associated with books about artists. This book seems like it would be a perfect jumping off point for some really cool art with the kids.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

Stop by Non-Fiction Monday for more great kid’s non-fiction.

Kindergarten: The Salamander Room

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Week Two of Kindergarten found Ruth and me moving from kittens to salamanders. The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer is one of our favorite Five in a Row books. All three of my kids have enjoyed it, which is saying a lot as they all have slightly different likes and interests. In the story, a boy finds a salamander and wants to bring him home to live. Instead of saying no, his wise mother asks him about all the things the salamander will need. Like most kids, he has an answer for every one of her questions. What will he eat? Bugs of course, brought there by the boy. But what about when there are too many bugs? The boy will bring in birds to eat the bugs, of course. And so on. 

One part of the appeal in this book is the realism of the facts about salamanders. What do salamanders need? What kind of habitat do they have? But the genius of the book is combining the realism and realistic illustrations with the boy’s flight of fancy as he turns his bedroom into a forest wonderland. The illustrations mirror the boy’s imaginary world getting bigger and bigger as the forest that he dreams begins to spill over the frame of the drawing of his room on the page. The gentle back-and-forth question-and-answer conversation of the boy and the mother are also appealing both for the predictability (you know she will ask, he will answer) and for the surprise of some of his answers. 

The Salamander Room paired up perfectly with a study of amphibians in general and a review of animal classification. We read a lot of other frog and amphibian books. A stand-out was Brenda Guiberson’s Frog Song, a Cybils nominee last year. One day I had David and Ruth get all their stuffed animals, divide them into piles by category (Mammal, Bird, Fish, etc), count each pile and then make a graph. Ruth and I made the graph together. I had David make his own and we counted that as math that day. It was also interesting to show them a graph using the actual numbers of animals in the world. Somewhat expectedly, our stuffed animal graph showed a preponderance of mammals while in the real world mammals are way outranked by insects and other invertebrates. 

In general it was much harder to find books about salamanders than frogs. That’s one of the reasons I appreciated Susan Hood’s book, Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster, starring an axolotl (a critically endangered Mexican salamander). Reason #2 was that it was a really cute story about a little axolotl who thinks he’s fierce but all the other animals think he’s just cute. He desperately wants to be big and fierce until one day he meets a real monster (a Gila monster). And reason #3? It’s illustrated by Melissa Sweet who could probably illustrate the instruction manual for a toaster and make it look fresh and appealing.  

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 For fun, we made salt-dough salamanders, using the recipe from this blog.  

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IMG_0559The salt-dough was pretty easy to make and work with and the kids had fun painting their creatures. The best thing we did for the week was probably our field trip to Huntley Meadows, a nearby wetlands. No salamanders spotted, but lots and lots of their frog cousins. 

Other Frog/Salamander Books We Recommend: 
Salamander, Frog and Polliwog: What is an Amphibian? by Brian Cleary
Finklehopper Frog by Irene Livingston
Too Many Frogs! by Ann and John Hassett
Jump by Scott M. Fischer
Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond by Belle Yang
Too Many Frogs! by Sandy Asher
The Magic School Bus Hops Home: A Book about Animal Habitats

 

Kitten’s First Full Moon

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We have a new kindergartener in our house. Ruth won the “Little Miss Enthusiasm” award this year from her swim team coaches and that pretty much sums up her approach so far to everything school related. (It’s only the second week so we’ll see if it will continue.) Last year she and I dabbled in preschool. I had big plans to do a “round the world” preschool for her but they fell apart quickly. We ended up reading loosely on themes but I could tell she wanted and was ready for more. I used Five in a Row with both boys for preschool and kindergarten but I had thought about using something else for Ruth, just to keep it fresh for me as a teacher. But I finally came back to more of a “why fix what isn’t broken?” point of view. She and I are going to do Five in a Row and I find myself newly excited at the thought of going through many of the much loved books with her.

Our first book of the year was Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes. Astute readers will notice that it is in fact, not a Five in a Row book. And such is the benefit of homeschooling the third time around. Kitten’s First Full Moon is a beautiful, perfect book for this age group. (It’s also a Caldecott Medalist.)  It’s a sweet story of a kitten who thinks the full moon is a bowl of milk and tries and fails over and over to drink it. The illustrations are entirely done in black and white which is an unusual choice for a kid’s book but so striking that you wonder why more books aren’t monochromatic.

My approach for doing Five in a Row is to use the main book as a jumping off point. We read a lot of other books about the same topic and we do some related activities. We usually read the main book more than once but not necessarily the prescribed five days in a row. Another benefit of homeschooling the third time around. We read a lot of books to go along with Kitten’s First Full Moon. Some about cats. Some about moons.

A new book that we both enjoyed was I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec. Chloe loves kitties. In fact she loves kitties so much that she sees them everywhere. In the sky. In the stars. In cotton candy. The reader can try and spot the kitty along with Chloe. This would be a fun book for very young toddlers and preschoolers as the words are simple, colors are bright and it’s fun to play the “find the kitty” game. But Ruth at almost 5 was also really charmed by the hiding kitties so there is appeal to slightly older kids also.

Another new book we enjoyed was David Kherdian’s Come Back, Moon with illustrations by his wife and Caldecott winning illustrator, Nonny Hogrogrian. I’m not sure if it is based on a traditional folktale but the story has that feel. Bear steals the moon because he can’t sleep. Fox and the other forest animals set out to find who has taken the moon and how to get it back. The story is gentle and slow with soft watercolor illustrations. There’s nothing flashy or overly clever here, as in so many of today’s picture books. I appreciated that simplicity.
Other Cat Books We Recommend: 
Ginger and the Mystery Visitor by Charlotte Voake
Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle
Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney
Posy by Charlotte Newbery and Catherine Rayner
Copycat by Ruth Brown
Cat by Mike Dumbleton
A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann

Other Moon Books We Recommend:
Meet Me at the Moon by Gianna Marino
The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop
Moon Dreams by Ruth Martin
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle

Today, stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday. 

Tomorrow, come back here and I’ll be sharing some of the activities we did to go with our moon studies.

What we are reading.

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I haven’t done this in awhile but I thought I’d take the time to share what books we are reading as a family. We’re still juggling a separate bedtime “special” book for each child. In reality, the boys both listen to both books so eventually, it might just make sense to have one book. But for now, this works for us.

Ruth and I are reading Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins. I discovered this sweet trilogy a few years ago with David. They tell the story of three friends, Lumphy (a buffalo), Stingray, and Plastic (a red rubber ball). The friends have adventures visiting Tuk-Tuk the towel in the bathroom and braving the scary washing machine in the basement. They are sweetly told and a good pacing for young listeners. I like that Jenkins also shows the characters’ flaws (Stingray is kind of bossy and sometimes not a good friend) in a way that kids can probably identify with and learn from.

Back in the spring, when we were going on vacation, I picked up The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker to listen to in the car. Typically, the boys love listening to audiobooks on trips but Ruth isn’t always so excited about them and this can cause some squabbling. My thought was that a book about a princess might get her a little more interested. The boys resisted it a bit, but they are pretty open to any book, even about princesses. As John has said, “I don’t care if it’s about a girl. As long as interesting stuff happens to her.” Ruth ended up being only mildly more interested in that audiobook than any other but the boys fell in love with this series of stories about the magical kingdom of Greater Greensward. We have spent the summer happily listening to the next 6 in the series. Until, horrors of horrors, our library didn’t have the last audiobook. David then asked for the last book in the series to be his special book and we are all enjoying one last adventure with these characters.

Instead of frog princesses, we’re spending time in the car with giant rats, bats and cockroaches. John read this series by Suzanne Collins (yes, of the Hunger Games) a few years ago and really enjoyed it. David discovered Gregor the Overlander in the audiobook section at the library and thought it looked interesting so it’s become our new story for the car. I’ve never read it myself and so far am enjoying it. It’s also a good way to make the boys practice narrating/summarizing. They listen to the story sometimes without me in the car (when H. is driving and I’m elsewhere). So then when I get back in I make them sum up the story for me so I can be up-to-date.

 
I’ll admit to not being a huge Madeline L’Engle fan as a kid. I liked A Wrinkle in Time okay, but I don’t even remember reading her other books. It may have been that I read them at the wrong time or they were just a little too dense or weird for me. John has been picking as his special books her Time Quartet and we are currently reading A Wind in the Door. I’m still not sure if it might be too dense and a little too weird for me. Or maybe I’m just not getting it all. John agrees that it’s weird but he says he likes it so we’ll keep going.

As a family we also read a different book together at lunch. Currently we’re reading Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I have seen such amazing love for this series, usually from homeschoolers. I’m finding it a bit slow and dull. It may be partially my fault as we’re taking forever to get through it due to not much lunchtime reading over the summer. It’s a little hard to feel invested in a book 
when the story feels more fractured. I’ve also finding all the sailing references kind of bewildering. Again, the kids seem to really enjoy it and say they want to keep going so we will. It feels like the kind of book that might sneak up on me later and surprise me with how much I like it so I’ll just have to see.

That’s what we’re reading together. John informed us at dinner that he’s reading 11 books on his own right now, but hasn’t quite settled on which one to focus on. He also just read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald as his first assigned reading of the school year. I’m trying a new reading-based unit study approach with him. So far it’s going well. I hope to write a longer post about the study at some point. David is reading the third Harry Potter book. He really dove into the world of Hogwarts this summer. It’s been extra fun to see him and John sharing this world, both in conversation and in play (they built an entire Diagon Alley one day out of Legos and spent the day making stop-action animated movies using it as a set).

So that’s a bit of what we’re reading. What are you reading as this school year begins?

 

The Real Boy

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Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile but somehow have never got around to. So when I saw her new book, The Real Boy, on the shelf at the library I picked it up for me and John, the resident fantasy novel lover in our house.

Oscar is an apprentice to Caleb, the last magician left on a magic-filled island. Oscar has always known he’s different: he doesn’t understand human interaction and he doesn’t remember any of his earliest years in an orphanage. He may not understand people but he does understand plants. He knows the forest and the language of herbs and medicines. On the island where Oscar lives, there are the magic people who live in the Barrow and there are the Shining City where the Shining People live. The Shining People don’t have any magic or the ability to use magic but they are beautiful and rich and they never get sick.

Oscar’s quiet life is turned upside down when Caleb goes off to the mainland on business and Caleb’s apprentice, Wolf, comes to a bad end. At the same time the Shining People’s children become ill, something seems to be happening to the magic in the forest and there seems to be a monster living in the Barrow. It is up to Oscar and his one friend, Callie, the healer’s apprentice, to figure out what is going on on their island and how to fix it.

I really liked this book. There is somewhat of a reference to Pinocchio, as you may have guessed from the title. However, it’s not really a re-telling of that fairytale. There were twists I didn’t see coming and ones I expected and was wrong about. It’s somewhat of a quieter fantasy, the story is as much about Oscar’s struggle to learn how to become a friend and how to interact with other people as it is about magic. I think for this reason I liked it better than John, who really digs dragons and elves and wizards and epic battles. I wondered at times if Oscar is supposed to be autistic but no diagnosis is spelled out in the book. Still, it may be a good book for a kid struggling with fitting in or one to help a kid understand a friend who might be on the autism spectrum or a bit quirky. I saw The Real Boy described on Goodreads and being “for the Neville Longbottoms” who loved Harry Potter and I thought that was a great description. Oscar is much more of a Neville than a Harry. All in all, I found this an endearing story with an intriguing plot that was beautifully written. I would highly recommend it.

And I’m definitely moving Breadcrumbs up the TBR list.

Cybils!!!

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Applications to be a Cybils judge are available now at the (new and super fancy) Cybils website. I was a Round 1 panelist last year and had so much fun doing it. If you are a blogger who loves children’s literature I would highly recommend it. It’s a lot of work (if you can call reading stacks of books “work” ) but a really great experience.

Borrowed Names

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In 1867 three women were born: Laura Ingalls, Sarah Breedlove and Marie Curie. The first went on to become a beloved children’s writer; the second became Madame C. J. Walker, an African-American business woman and founder of a haircare empire; and the last became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to ever win in multiple sciences.

Jeannine Atkins brings together these three women in a collection of poems. The poems center on the relationships between each woman and her daughter. The poems bring in true stories mixed with “imagination to fill in the gaps”. Atkins imagines Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane walking the same line between fact and fiction in the poem Shears:

Let just an edge peek out.
Rose takes back the notebook.
Begin with extravagance, but be ready to trim…

They put in poverty, blizzards, prairie fires,
leave out the milliner who cried
as she tied ribbons around hatbands
chose feathers, folded paper flowers, mourned
the husband who’d left her….

Don’t mention the children
who froze to death on Plum Creek,
the murderers in Kansas.
One family has troubles enough.

They won’t write about the baby
who was buried.
Even good dogs must die,
but such a shame that Jack was bartered.
Let’s let dear old Jack spend his last night at home
curled in a peaceful sleep.
Truth is as much justice as fact.

Due to the nature of the poetry the biographies of the woman are sketches only but rendered in a way that fleshes out familiar figures or makes the reader intrigued to learn more. I think this could be an excellent companion book for a study of the time period, or for a discussion of women’s history. Or just for the pleasure of reading the poems themselves.

 

I know I’ve got my keys…

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I dropped John off at camp on Sunday. This is his fourth summer at this camp, plus he’s been away to Scout camp twice. Not to mention the week long trip to Puerto Rico he went on with his aunt earlier this year. So it’s nothing new having him away go away from home. He doesn’t get homesick at all and although we miss him we’re genuinely happy for him to have these fantastic experiences on his own.

As I walked to my car and drove away, I had that nagging feeling that I had forgotten something. Something I needed to do. Or say. Had I gone through all the parent drop-off stations? Had we packed everything he needed? Had I left my phone behind? My keys? My book? (Yes, I had a book with me. Always. You never know when you might have an emergency need for a book to read.) As I ran through the list in my head I couldn’t think of anything I had forgotten to do or anything I had left behind.

Oh. That was it.

I’d left John behind. My maternal spidey-sense just wouldn’t stop tingling. Something was not right, I was driving away alone and leaving a child behind me. Once I realized what the cause of the nagging feeling was, I laughed at myself.

But here’s the thing. It didn’t really go away. And as I thought about it realized I always have this feeling when one of the kids is away from home. Even if I know they are happy and having fun and doing what they are supposed to be doing it’s a slightly unsettled, all-is-not-quite-right with the world feeling.

A few hours later, I stopped for dinner and a reading break. (See, the book comes in handy.) I was at the end of Julia Glass’s And the Dark Sacred Night. A character has been searching for his biological father but comes to this realization:

What exactly, is a father if not a man who, once you’re grown and gone and out in the world making your own mistakes, all good advice be damned, waits patiently for you to return? And if you don’t, well then, you don’t. He understands that risk. He knows whose choice it is. 

I thought that was as concise summary of parenthood as I’ve seen.

Although, to continue to laugh at myself, we’re not really waiting patiently for John to return. Since he’s only 10, we have to go back to camp to get him. Still, there’s some kind of synchronicity there in the feeling and the reading. Which, if you can bear with one last observation, is one of the best reasons to read.

 

Non-Fiction Monday: Mama Built a Little Nest

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I loved Jennifer Ward’s fabulous new book, Mama Built a Little Nest. Each page looks at the incredible variety of types of nests that birds make.  A rhyming quartet telling about each nest is paired with a gorgeous illustration by the amazing Steve Jenkins. For the eagle aerie:

Mama built a sturdy nest
by stacking twigs up high-
a breezy house upon a tree,
where talons blend with sky. 

The simple quartets are perfect for a preschooler and by focusing on the Mama (or Daddy) bird-Baby bird relationship, Ward zeroed in on exactly what is accessible and understandable to that age group. Additional text in a smaller font gives more details about the nest construction and the bird relationships for elementary aged kids.

This one is going on my list of possible Cybils nominations for 2014. For more great non-fiction, stop by Non-Fiction Monday.

Brimsby’s Hats

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Brimsby is a hatmaker who makes wonderful hats that he sends all over the world. He has a best friend who visits every day and together they drink tea and have wonderful conversations. However, one day the friend decides to travel far away pursuing his dream to become a sea captain. At first Brimsby is lonely but he finds a way to use his hats to make some new friends. And in the end all the friends together visit the old friend in his new home by the sea and “drink tea and talk about hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another.”

Andrew Prahin’s Brimsby’s Hats is really a sweet book with a solid theme of grace and friendship at it’s core. It was interesting to me that the child of mine who was most drawn to this book is also our most sensitive and empathetic child. It’s a quiet book that I think has a lot of appeal for the right kid. The illustrations feel like they fit the story perfectly: slightly quirky in the characters and color palette but overall with a sweetness.