Nonfiction Monday: The Noisy Paint Box


Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box introduces kids to Vasya Kandinsky, a proper Russian boy, who studies math and history and has to practice scales on the piano. Then one day, his aunt gives him a box of paints and he hears the colors sofly hiss to him. In Rosenstock’s telling, Kandinsky is torn from then on between a desire to paint and create art and the more conventional life that his parents desire for him. He went on to become a lawyer but at the age of 30 two experiences so influenced him that he quit the law to study art full-time. The first experience is not told about in this book but Kandinsky described in his writings as seeing Monet’s Haystacks for the first time and realizing that painting didn’t have to be realistic. The second, which Rosenstock focuses on,  was hearing an opera (by Wagner) and experiencing the sounds as color and shape. After studying art, Kandinsky eventually goes on to become the first truly abstract artist.

A good picture book biography by nature has to choose which incidents of a life to focus on. Rosenstock wisely chooses to focus on Kandinsky’s unique “seeing sound and hearing colors”. He is thought to have had synesthesia which is an incredibly cool condition where people experience one sense when a different sense is activated. For example, they might taste numbers or see letters and words as having a particular color or even emotion. Or they might hear colors.

The illustrations by Mary Grandpre use color beautifully to show Kandinsky’s metamorphosis from lawyer to more conventional art student to abstract painter. One of my favorite pages showed the little boy Kandinsky bored at dinner with all the grownups “talking and talking”. The adults are illustrated as collages of mixed up words, which is how I imagine we seem to kids sometimes.

The endpages include photographs of several of Kandinsky’s works and an author’s note that explains what parts of the book are historical and what are imagined (the dialogue). She also includes several references, including works by Kandinsky himself who was knows as a leading art theorist as well as an artist.

I have found picture book biographies of artists to be a perfect way for us to include some art study in our homeschool. Usually we do some kind of accompanying art project. To go with the discussion of Kandinsky and synesthesia we used a project suggestion from MaryAnne Kohl’s Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On Art for Kids in the Style of the Great Masters. First, I had David and Ruth listen to a piece of music while lying down with their eyes closed. Then we listened again and painted as we listened.




While listening to Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. (From top to bottom: me, David, Ruth)




While listening to U2′s Sunday Bloody Sunday (Again: me, David, Ruth)





While listening to Abba’s Dancing Queen. (Top to bottom: Me, David’s 1st painting, David’s 2nd painting when he decided he liked my spirals, and Ruth). Either disco takes Ruth to a really dark place or she was in her usual “mixing all the colors together” phase.

Previous art/artist study posts here at Supratentorial:


Georgia O’Keefe


Alexander Calder 


Poetry Friday: Once Upon a Memory


Does a feather remember it once was a bird?

Does a book remember it once was a word?

Nina Laden’s Once Upon a Memory uses beautifully poetic text to explore the concept of memory. The soft watercolor illustrations invite the reader into the imaginary world of a a little boy populated with animals and a sense of wonder.

Much more poem than prose, there is no real story here but the question and answer format leads the reader to think about the world in a slightly different way. It reminded me very much of one of my favorite book poems for kids, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes.

Poetry Friday is hosted this week by A Year of Reading.  And don’t forget that April is National Poetry Month!   Do you have plans to celebrate?

Cybils (a little late)


The Cybils winners were announced last Friday. I was too busy to post a comment that day. Unfortunately I wasn’t busy being wined and dined for Valentine’s day but instead I was taking care of a vomiting child. As a side note, we don’t really celebrate Valentine’s day so I wasn’t really expecting to be wined and dined. But all things considered, I can think of better ways to spend the day than with a 4 year old with a stomach bug.

I read a LOT of Cybils nominees this year, but not that many of the final winners. The only two I had read were the winners in the two picture book categories: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown for fiction and Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate for non-fiction. I was happy with both of those winners. As for the others, several look intriguing to me but the  one I’m really hoping to read is the poetry winner, Forest Has a Song: Poems by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Sadly, our library system has a dismal selection for children’s poetry and doesn’t yet have this one. But one can hope, right?

This year the Cybils were more interesting to me for having been a first round panelist. Now that the whole thing is over I thought I’d give a few reflections on what I learned.

1)There is way more that goes into judging a book than “good” or “bad”. There were so so many really good books that just weren’t going to make it to the shortlist. There were books I loved that didn’t make it to my own personal shortlist for various reasons. Sometimes it was too narrow of an appeal, sometimes it was something well-done but that has been well-done before and so lacked the originality of the other choices. Sometimes it was a lack of reference material (important in a nonfiction category). It made me look at book contests like the Caldecott with a new appreciation for how tough it is. I think in the past when a book I didn’t like won, I would think either the judges had poor taste or I’d question my own judgement. (Usually the first.) But now I appreciate more that the judges might be looking at different criteria than me. Or that a book I don’t personally like can still be award-worthy.

2)There is a LOT of really excellent children’s literature being published. Especially in the category of non-fiction. I knew that already, but this really drove it home.

3) There are a LOT of people who love children’s literature and books as much as me. I’ll even go so far as to say maybe even more. Probably the most fun part of the process (other than the actual reading) was “meeting” people who shared a passion for excellence in children’s literature.

And since this year’s Cybils are over I thought I’d also share my own personal shortlist in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category. Each panelist submitted a list of 10 titles and then after lots of good (and not too heated) discussion we narrowed it down to 7 titles for the final shortlist. As you can see, five of the seven books on the final shortlist were on my personal list. Which means five of my favorites were left off. Each of the other panelists had favorites that also didn’t make the final cut.

In the end, we all felt really good about the list we submitted as a panel. Everyone didn’t love every book but someone loved every book. We wanted a list of books that at least one of us felt passionate about and that’s what we got in the end.

Anubis Speaks by Vicky Alvear Shecter-“one of the quirkiest and most enjoyable books I read…”

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel- Melissa Sweet illustrations plus inspiring story made this one of my favorites of the many picture book biographies in the category.

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin- I never reviewed this biography of a retired professional basketball player turned urban farmer. Look here at Readers to Eaters for a full review.

Locomotive  by Brian Floca I’d just like the record to show that our panel beat the Caldecott committee to the punch with this one. And that I think they had excellent taste this year. 

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Back Yard by Annette LeBlanc Cate- The winner, of course. David, our resident bird-lover, was quite happy when I told him that this one won.

That’s a Possiblity by Bruce Goldstone An engaging book about statistics that all three of my kids (ages 10, 7, and 4) really enjoyed. I’m fairly sure that’s not a sentence that could be written about any other book.

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heligman With appeal for even the biggest math-hater.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library  by Barb Rosenstock Delicious, bookish quotes. Offers a slightly new perspective on an iconic figure and his passion for books.

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch Gorgeous illustrations. Packed with facts. Looks at the creative rather than destructive nature of volcanoes.

The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins by Lee R. Berger and Marc Aronson Both John and I found this real life science detective story fascinating. A wonderful look at how science is really done and one that goes one step further and invites the reader to be part of the process.

One last thought in this already too long post: if you are a blogger who loves children’s literature and you’ve thought about applying to be a Cybils panelist, do it! It is a lot of work. But it’s even more fun.

Where We’ve Been



Blogging has been quiet lately but life hasn’t been so quiet. We’ve had several adventures in the past week or so. First H. and I went with some friends to hear Pierce Pettis at a local coffehouse/live music venue. Pettis is a singer-songwriter whose music is most often described as “roots folk”. He’s not a “Christian singer” but his lyrics are heavily influenced by Christianity as well as Southern culture. I like music well enough but am fairly musically illiterate (and I think tone-deaf). I really enjoyed the show because his lyrics are so rich and tell stories and paint vivid pictures. It was a fun date for me and H. also. In fact so fun, that we plan on going to hear another favourite singer at the same venue in March.

*For those readers from Alabama (or the South) if you don’t know Pettis, check him out. Start with his ode to his home state, State of Grace.

IMG_0170We’ve also visited the Natural History Museum. The dinosaur/fossil wing is closing in April for a major renovation and will remain closed until 2019. I was a huge dinosaur lover as a kid, as was John. The best thing about visiting the well-known exhibit this time was to see John showing Ruth all the different dinosaurs and teaching her about them. It’s probably a good thing that the wing is closing, the exhibit is very outdated and I’m excited to see what they do with it. But if you are in the area, I’d recommend swinging through this monument to a different era (and I mean the exhibit itself) one last time.

Finally, the boys and I went to see Peter and the Starcatcher at the Kennedy Center. Seeing this prequel to Peter Pan was their Christmas present and we’ve been reading the book (and finally finishing in a reading binge Tuesday night) together in preparation. We’ve gone to a lot of children’s theater from a young age but this was their first Broadway quality performance. I was really proud of both of them for behaving beautifully, especially my usually very wiggly silly 7 year old.


What else? Basketball for both boys. Swimming. Odyssey of the Mind, in the last stretch before competition next month. Co-op. Ballet. Piano and piano practice. Scouts.

And school. We’re plodding along. Vocabulary and Latin and Math and Biology. We’re beginning a long unit on the Ancient Greeks. We’ve been reading poetry. We’ve been to the library a lot. Of course, there have been books. A lot of books.

IMG_6901Like the rest of the East Coast we’ve been experiencing snowier and colder weather than normal. I write this in front of a warm and cozy fire while the kids play outside in the 12 inches of snow we received overnight. I think I’ve never been so happy to be a homeschooler as this year. The public schools have had to miss a lot of days and are now at the point of adding days onto the end of the school year. We play outside in the snow but we can also read a little history and do piano and still have a pretty normal day even on a snow day.

IMG_0327I don’t have a real ending to this rambling post so I’ll end instead with a photo of Ruth in her recital costume. She was very excited to try it on for Daddy and dance for us before we took her dance teacher’s advice and hung it in our closet until that far away day in June.

Scenes from the National Building Museum






We spent Friday at the National Building Museum for a homeschool day. This was the first year that all three kids were able to take classes and Ruth was very excited to be “all by herself” in class. She learned about patterns and houses (and made a house that was very her: mostly purple). David took a class in architecture and John built a geodesic dome. John and David both took “engineering egg drop” where they attempted to design a container that an egg could survive a fall from the very high second floor of the museum.

We also had a lot of fun in the Play Work Build exhibit. If you are in the area I’d highly recommend it. All in all, a good day.

Read Aloud Thursday: Bear Books


When John and David were in preschool, I used Five in a Row with each of them. I loved the gentle curriculum but thought it might be nice to do something different with Ruth. I was afraid that if I did the same thing with her I might not approach it with a fresh excited look. I started the year planning to do an Around the World preschool approach and that lasted for roughly two countries. We’re pretty structured for school for the boys and I think I just burnt out on trying to plan and be structured with preschool also. So I’ve decided to just pick topics that sound good and read about them and see where that gets us.

The past three weeks we’ve been reading about bears, inspired by our planned trip to the zoo to see the new panda cub. But we’ve branched out from pandas and read about all kinds of bears. David likes to listen in while we do “Ruth school” so we’ve also reviewed mammals and a bit about classification and we’ve talked a bunch about hibernation and migration and the difference between the two. David has also been studying the woods (part of an ongoing study of different habitats) and memorizing Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost so it’s all come together well. Probably better than if I had planned it all out.

Here are some of the many bear books we’ve enjoyed.

Polar Bear Morning is the new companion to the award-winning Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson. It’s a simple story: a polar bear cub wakes up, goes out to play in his Arctic home and finds a friend. The clean crisp illustrations are visually appealing and the text is playful.

We also enjoyed Mark Newman’s non-fiction book about Polar Bears. The author is a photographer who has worked for National Geographic and the photo illustrations are stunning. Each page has a single sentence describing polar bears: they are big, patient,hungry, not really white. Smaller text elaborates on the idea in the first sentence for older kids who want to learn more.

Technically, there isn’t a bear in this book, although the unseen BIG HUNGRY BEAR is a character, sort of. Don and Audrey Wood’s The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear has been a favorite of ours for a long time. So much so that John made sure we didn’t read it until he was there. This despite having heard this very short and simple book many many times. A mouse picks a strawberry. The narrator notices but warns the mouse that the big hungry bear who loves strawberries might come and steal it. The mouse tries to find ways to hide it or disguise it but the narrator finds problems with each idea. Finally, the narrator suggests a solution that is the only way to make sure that the big hungry bear doesn’t get the strawberry. The solution has my kids giggling everytime as it suggests that perhaps the narrator isn’t so innocent.

Other Bear Books: 

Our Three Bears by Ron Hirschi- Beautiful photographs accompany this look at the three bears in North America (black, brown and polar).

Books on Pandas reviewed at Supratentorial

Bear Books previously reviewed (including our favorites by Karma Wilson and Bonny Becker)

and even More Bears 

Books On Hibernation:

Sleep, Black Bear, Sleep by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple- Sweet rhyming lullaby looking at many different hibernating animals.

A Den is Bed for a Bear by Becky Baines This one inspired quite a few blanket and chair and couch pillow “dens” being made.

Hibernation Station by Michelle Meadows Fun, kind of silly look at hibernation for preschoolers.

Turtle Spring by Deborah Zagwyn Obviously no about bears. I think David especially enjoyed this more complex and very sweet story about Clee, a girl who thinks her beloved turtle has died in the winter. She buries him under the compost heap, only to find in the spring that he returns to her. There is a lot more going on here, as Clee also learns to accept her new baby brother and anxiously awaits her father’s return home from a job that has him gone the whole winter. It’s a beautifully done story and book.

Stop by Read Aloud Thursday for more great read aloud recommendations. Consider participating this month! It would be great to see what you are all reading with your kids.


Non-Fiction Monday: Two about Matisse


These two relatively new books on Henri Matisse offer complementary accounts of his life and work and make for a great elementary artist study. Colorful Dreamer by Marjorie Blain Parker looks at Matisse’s entire life, with about half the book in the period before he really became an artist. The most striking thing about the book is the illustrations which mirror the description of Matisse’s development as an artist. In the beginning when he is a child living in a small industrial French town, everything is shown in black and white pencil sketches except his dreams which are in vivid color. The black and white color scheme continues through his law clerk days and hospitalization with appendicitis. However, while hosptialized his mother brought him a box of paints and when we turn the page it sings with color and movement. The next pages gradually become all color. Even more striking, the illustrations in the second half show visually show Matisse’s change in styles from realistic to fauvist to the final pages which show a town much like he may have grown up in but in the style of his famous paper cutouts.  This is one of the more effective ways I’ve seen to have kids really feel how an artist’s style changes over time.

Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter focuses briefly covers Matisse’s early years but instead focuses on the time after he is confined to bed as an old man and how he managed to find a way to continue creating art when he couldn’t paint by using his giant paper cutouts. Winter includes actual quotes from Matisse and gives much more detail on how the cutouts were made than in Colorful Dreamer. Winter’s illustrations more directly reflect the shapes and feel of the cutouts and indeed, she actually uses cut paper for some of them.


Art books are an accompaniment to what I call “Art with Daddy” on David’s weekly schedule. David is very much like H. in many ways and one of those is his creativity and love of art. This project took them three weekly art sessions to complete (one to make the painted paper, one to work on the cutouts and one to put it all together) and I think it turned out beautifully.

Visit Non-Fiction Monday for more great juvenile non-fiction!

Non-Fiction Monday: Let’s Go Nuts: Seeds We Eat


April Pulley Sayre celebrates seeds of all kinds in Let’s Go Nuts!: Seeds We Eat. The simple, rhyming text and bold photographs are a perfect introduction for preschoolers to the wide variety of foods that are seeds. From beans to rice to corn to quinoa, Sayre covers the familiar and the more exotic. Coconuts, cashews, and even spices like cardamom and vanilla have a place here.

End pages give fairly extensive extra information on seeds and their place in diets around the world. I can see this one easily as a read-aloud time on food or as part of a preschool unit, especially combined with Sayre’s other food books: Rah, Rah Radishes! and Go, Go, Grapes! 

And don’t forget to visit the Non-Fiction Monday blog for more kid’s non-fiction!