Shooting at the Stars

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On Christmas Day 1914 during World War I, pockets of soldiers at the front on both sides of the conflict spontaneously laid down their weapons, stopped fighting and celebrated Christmas together. John Hendrix captures the unbelievable true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 in Shooting at the Stars, a fictionalized account of this almost too good to be true story. Told through a British soldier’s letter home to his mother, the story tells how the soldiers meet in the strip of land known as No Man’s Land in between their trenches.

I thought this was a fascinating and terrible story. Terrible because the enormous amount of loss and death that was WWI seems somehow even more enormous when you consider that the men actually doing the fighting were able to literally meet in the middle to shake hands and sing carols together. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to see a man one day and exchange holiday greetings with him and the next day know that the gun you were firing might kill him.

I’m not sure the kids completely grasped the story or the horror behind the story of brief peace. Hendrix tells the story beautifully and it’s a book I would read to them again when studying WWI, but I’m not sure I would do it as one of our Christmas book basket selections, which is how we read it this year.

Non-Fiction Monday: For the Science Lover

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Rebecca L. Johnson’s When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses contains everything that makes a great kid’s nonfiction book: fascinating (and slightly weird) facts, great photographic illustrations and solid science to back up the gross and weird. Reminding me of Steve Jenkins’ wonderful What Do You Do When Soemthing Wants to Eat You?, Johnson explores the diverse, amazing and often disgusting ways in which animals defend themselves against predators who are often bigger and stronger. From the hagfish that releases giant clouds of slime that can choke a shark to the mantis shrimp that can deliver a punch (yes! a punch!) at about 50  miles an hours, this book will take you to places you’ve never even dreamed about. I especially liked that Johnson goes beyond the sensationalist gross factor (birds that shoot stinky poop, lizards that shoot blood out of their eyes, baby birds that vomit toxic vomit) to explain the science behind each animal defense. Certain kids will definitely be attracted by the gross and weird but stay for the cool and interesting. Comprehensive endpages include an extensive bibliography as well as other suggested books to read and a listing of websites with videos to see some of the animals in action.

The team of Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz have created another beautiful book with Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey. After a visit to a local museum’s live butterfly display, Burns wondered where the butterflies came from and was surprised to hear that it was Central America. She and Harasimowicz traveled to Costa Rica and documented the work on a butterfly farm to show exactly how these butterflies are cultivated, raised and eventually find their way to science museums worldwide. The vivid photographs could almost tell the story alone. I love that Burns takes what feels at first to be a familiar story (How many kid’s books on the butterfly life cycle are there?) and with a simple change of viewpoint creates something different and fresh.

Both of theses books have been nominated for a Cybils award this year in the Middle and Elementary Non-Fiction Category.

Armchair Cybils

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It’s time for the best book challenge around, the Armchair Cybils hosted by Amy at Hope is the Word. The great thing about this challenge is it really simple: just read as many Cybils nominated titles as you can/want to. Simple, fun, with a goal to read a lot. Sold!

As I have in the past few years, I will concentrate on picture books. It gives me an extra reason to look for and read books with my youngest kids (and the 11 year old still enjoys a good picture book too). I haven’t read as much as I had hoped to by this point so I’m just going to link to reviews of what I have read and talk about a few books I’m looking forward to reading. I’ll save discussions of favorites and predictions for when I’ve read more in any one category.

First what I have already read and reviewed:
Fiction Picture Book Reviews:
Brimsby’s Hats by Andrew Prahin
Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder (nominated by me)

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade Book Reviews:
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
Colors of the Wind by J. L. Powers
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Mysterious Patterns by Sarah C. Campbell
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock (nominated by me)

I have a lot more in my book basket and even more on hold at the library. I’m looking forward to the new Bear and Mouse book: A Library Book for Bear by Bonny Becker. There are three (count ‘em) books by Mac Barnett that look like they could be great (Telephone, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and President Taft is Stuck in the Bath). There is a new book by Marla Frazee, who I love, that looks odd but intriguing: The Farmer and the Clown. In the non-fiction category, there are quite a few in our book basket that I want to read: The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert and Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins. I also want to get my hands on Jason Chin’s Gravity.

Outside of the picture book categories I really can’t wait to read the poetry book Firefly July, reviewed here by Amy. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeir is hard to pass up as a memoir of seventh grade in the 1980’s. I listened to one Meg Wolitzer book and found it kind of meh, but I’ve been wanting to give her another chance since I see so many positive reviews of her work. Belzhar, her new young adult novel, might be the time for that second chance. I think both John and I will enjoy Minion, the companion book to John David Anderson’s Sidekicked. And I can’t pass up Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird as a lifelong lover of Harper Lee’s masterpiece.

Ok, that should keep me busy. Wet your appetite for more? Check out the nominations at the Cybils site or see what everyone else is enjoying at the Armchair Cybils round-up.

A Boy and a Jaguar

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In this new autobiographical picture book, Alan Rabinowitz tells his own story of living with a disability and following a lifelong passion. As a young boy, Alan struggles with stuttering. He is put into a class for disturbed children because he “disrupts the class” with his stuttering. He feels broken.

What makes him feel whole is his ability to talk to animals. He has a special connection with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, although seeing her in her cage makes him feel sad. When he grows up his love for animals leads him to study black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains and Jaguars in Belize. He goes on to work in wildlife conservation and be instrumental in establishing the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize.

Kids who struggle with a disability or with bullying or just with being different will find something to love in A Boy and a Jaguar. However, I think kids who don’t struggle with the same things will still find this a compelling and inspiring story. Rabinowitz’s message isn’t so much overcoming disability as it is one of hope and passion. The stuttering is a key part of the story but it becomes secondary to Rabinowitz’s gift with animals. The biographical information on the jacket says that Rabinowitz believes that he would “not be on the path of his passion- saving big cats” if he had not been a stutterer. He has come to believe that the stuttering is a gift.

I can’t end this review without a mention of the lovely paintings by illustrator Catia Chien. They are the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful book.

A Boy and a Jaguar has been nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category. 

Nonfiction Monday: Mysterious Patterns

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When you think “math picture book” the words captivating, beautiful, and great kid appeal don’t typically come to mind. At least not to my mind. I might think educational but dull. Or interesting but not visually appealing.  Sarah C. Campbell breaks all those stereotypes with Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature.

The book begins with simple shapes familiar to most kids: spheres, cylinders and cones. She shows how these shapes are found in man-made items and also in nature. Campbell then introduces the concept of fractals (regular repeating patterns of shapes of diminishing size) by showing shapes from nature that traditionally were thought to be too messy to describe. (Think broccoli or a fern.) In 1975, a mathematician named Benoit Madelbrot introduced the concept of fractals and showed that those messy complex shapes are really made up of patterns of smaller parts. Campbell uses photography to highlight many examples of fractals: trees, lightening, mountains, human lungs.  Although fractal geometry is mathematically complex, even young kids should come away with some understanding of the concept.

Campbell includes instructions for making your own fractal at the end of the book. An afterword by Michael Frame, a Yale math professor and colleague of Mandelbrot, gives a little more background information on Mandelbrot himself and further expounds on why the concept of fractal geometry is so useful. (The wiring on the Internet is a fractal, DNA is a fractal, seismography uses fractals.) The coolest example he gives that should leave older kids wanting to learn more is an example of a radar invisibility cloak that uses the concept of fractals. (Just one step away from Harry Potter.)

More math books reviewed here at Supratentorial: 

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heligman (biography of Paul Erdos)
Edgar Allen Poe’s Pie by J. Patrick Lewis (math puzzle poems)
Mathematickles by Betsy Franco (simple math poems)
The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang (simple counting puzzles)
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (goofy story with math puzzles)
Mystery Math by David Adler (algebra introduction)
That’s A Possibility by Bruce Goldstone (probability and statistics for elementary students)
Zero is the Leaves on the Tree by Betsy Franco (introduces concept of zero)
You Can Count on Monsters by Richard Evan Schwartz (incredibly creative book on factoring)

Ok, so maybe I should go back and amend that statement about math books not being captivating or appealing to kids. Or maybe I should go back and read my own archives more often. I’m thinking of putting several of these on my library list; I’d forgotten about them and how good they are.

 Mysterious Patterns was nominated for a Cybils award this year in the Elementary/Middle Grade Non-Fiction Category.

Dog vs. Cat

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Dog vs. Cat is one of those picture books that the adults in the house enjoyed just as much (and maybe more) than the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Button both happen to purchase a new pet on the same day on different sides of town. Having only one room for a pet, the dog and cat have to share a room. What happens next isn’t unexpected but is quite fun. Chris Gall’s clever text and even more clever cartoon like illustrations tell this familiar story in a fresh way.

First, the Odd Couple-like pair tries to get along. Dog shows Cat how to chase a tail (Cat’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding me…”) Cat shows Dog how to curl up with a good book (Dog: “Boring.”) But their differences become too much and the situation escalates to all out war: Cat fills Dog’s water dish with hairballs; Dog pours the water over Cat’s head at naptime. However, when they are finally separated they begin to miss each other and in the end they find themselves united against a common enemy: the Button family’s newest “pet”. (Hint: it’s loud and sleeps in a crib.)

The genius of this book is in the details, most of which are in the illustrations. The dogs at the animal shelter are holding up signs when Mr. Button comes to visit that read: “I like you”, Take Me!”, “I want to Lick You!” and “I”ll be your Best Friend!”. By contrast the cats at the cat store have signs that read: “I’m kind of a big deal…”, “I’m not looking at you.”, “Warning- High Maintenance” and “Whatever”. Perhaps it’s just that we’re former cat people who have adopted a dog this summer but we all found this one hilarious. Recommended for dog people or cat people or anyone who has a sense of humor.

 

Frank! by Connah Brecon

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Frank is a bear who was always late.

It wasn’t that Frank was rude or unreliable. Nor was he a dawdler or a meanderer. 

He just liked to help out.

Frank’s lateness really becomes a problem when he starts school. Each day he is late and each day he tells his teacher a seemingly crazy story as an excuse. He rescues a cat from a tree and the tree runs away with him in it. He gets challenged to a dance-off. He rescues bunnies from ogres. The teacher and the reader have to wonder if Frank’s stories are just stories until the ending when Frank is called on to step up and save the entire school.

Overall, this is a a fun, quirky book. Readers of this blog know that I’m a little tired of the quirky trend in children’s literature. Frank felt different to me though. Connah Brecon has managed to achieve kid quirky with just the right amount of weird flights of imagination that real kids have, as opposed to adult slightly snarky quirky which is the trend I don’t like.

The colors and cartoon-like illustrations are bright and cheerful. On going back for a second read, I discovered lots of clever details I missed the first time. For example, all the stores in Frank’s town sell clocks or watches. Or the dance-off is raising money for people with two left feet.

I did wish that the plot was a little more cohesive and that the ending had a better explanation. A lot of zany things happen to Frank but they didn’t necessarily all fit together until the ending, which felt a little forced to me. And the last page seemed to me to need a bit more explanation. I think those issues are a little bit nit-picky on my part. The kids thought it was  a fun book and I think most kids would agree with them.

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. 

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.

 

What We’re Reading

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Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is often the case for me with blogging about books. I feel like I need to think about a theme or look for new books to blog about in order to make it worth the reader’s time. Sometimes that works well with what we are reading for school or sometimes I happen to have pulled off a bunch of cool new books off the new shelf at the library. But sometimes, the books we are actually reading neither fit together or are new and feel “blogworthy”. Such has been the case lately. So I decided to try a new thing: books we liked this week/what we’re reading.

The first book to share has been Ruth’s clear favorite for the past couple of weeks. Ballet Kitty by Bernette Ford and Sam Williams is about a kitty who loves ballet and pink and who is having a playdate with another purple loving princess kitty. I think that’s really all I have to say to explain why Ruth, age 4 LOVED this book. Loved, loved, loved it.

I think my favorite picture book this week was The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy. I don’t typically like books that teach a lesson and this one has a lesson (the dangers of gossip and breaking a friend’s trust) but overall this one is so charming that the lesson isn’t too heavy-handed. Rhyming text tells what happens as a girl accidentally tells a friend’s secret. The real charm though lies in the illustrations by Nancy Devard. Done entirely in black and white silhouettes they are striking in their simplicity. A red balloon in the background gets bigger and bigger clearly representing the growing secret itself and providing a clever visual representation of the theme.

A Funny Little Bird by Jennifer Yerkes actually was off the new shelf at our library. Often we like the same books as a family. But sometimes we don’t. This was a case where several kids really liked a book that I just didn’t. The funny little bird of the title is white so that on a white page anything he stands in front of disappears. At first this makes him sad because he is ignored by everyone. But after venturing into the world he discovers that his ability can also help him hide new friends and himself from danger. I think it’s supposed to be about learning to like yourself and your quirks or unique abilities but something about the story just fell flat. The graphics are cool but not cool enough for me to make up for the story. I think I couldn’t get past figuring out if the bird was white or invisible or both or what the deal was. Like I said, earlier, my kids are more accepting and thought this one was really funny. Ruth asked me to read it several times to her and I saw her ask David to read it also. David read it to himself at least a couple of times. So, I’m including it here in the list of the books that caught our attention this week because from their perspective it was a clear hit.

Armchair Cybils: Fiction Picture Books

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I was able to read all the books shortlisted in the Cybils fiction picture book category except one. (The exception is Journey by Aaron Becker which has something like 27 holds on it at my library so it might be awhile on that one.) First up is Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett. Apparently we had read this one earlier in the year but I had forgotten it. All three kids clearly remembered it and were very excited to see it in the book basket again so I’d say it meets the kid appeal criteria. It’s a counting book with a twist. We’re supposed to be counting monkeys but a different animal or creature has intruded on every page. Kids love the interactive text and sheer silliness. Ruth at 4 years old was the perfect age for this one as she excitedly followed the directions one each page (move your hand in a zig-zag, yell “Scram”) to get rid of the intruders. The boys (ages 7 and 10) liked it also which makes this the unusual counting book with wider age appeal.

We read If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano sometime last year also. At the time I didn’t like it very much, which was disappointing given that I am a fan of Fogliano and illustrator Erin Stead. This one improved for me on second reading. There isn’t much plot per se: the text relates all the things that you should and shouldn’t do if you want to see a whale while the illustrations show a young boy and his dog engaging in those actions. The first time through passages like this perplexed me:

if you want to see a whale
you’ll just have to ignore the roses
and all their pink
and all their sweet
and all their wild and waving
because roses don’t want you watching whales

It seemed like the point was that if you wanted to “see a whale” (achieve a goal) you had to ignore all the other distractions around you. This time through it read more nuanced to me, like the the author was saying that you might have to ignore those things, but maybe you shouldn’t and maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about seeing a whale. The illustrations don’t always match the text, which makes the intention more unclear. I think that’s a good thing here and could lead to interesting discussion. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I think in fact this is just a much more complex book than typically seen in a picture book format.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown was on my own personal shortlist back in December so I was excited to see it on the official shortlist also. Mr. Tiger lives in a proper urban environment but is getting tired of it. One day he finds himself going a little wild. He gets wilder and wilder until he ends up living on his own in the wilderness. He finds it lonely there and makes his way back to the city to his friends. The theme of celebrating differences and being yourself is obvious but not too heavy-handed. And I enjoy the clean, strong, illustrations. The difference between city and wilderness can be seen as much in the colors and patterns of the drawings as it is told in the text.

Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier is another deceptively simple book. A series of characters (ladybug, frog, rabbit, bear and giant) read books. As each character reads a book they are reading about one of the other characters. The format of the book is unusual and very appealing to little ones: each book that the character is reading is a successively smaller book that can be opened by the reader. The pattern repeats as the books get successively larger. There is a lot of preschool learning that can happen here: sizes, patterns, colors. But mostly it’s just a fun and unique celebration of the love of reading and books.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller is probably the most traditional of the nominees in that it just tells a story. The story it tells feels fresh and new and refreshingly familiar at the same time. Based on the author’s daughter, the book tells of a little girl named Sophie who falls in love with a squash one day at the farmer’s market. She names the squash Bernice and takes it everywhere with her. Her Mom tries to warn her about the fate of vegetables but Sophie ignores her, even when Bernice becomes troublesomely spotty. One day, on the advice of a farmer, Sophie puts Bernice to sleep in the nice soft dirt (to help her get better). Sophie misses Bernice but is thrilled in the spring to meet Bernice’s children who appear on a big beautiful squash plant.

I can’t think of any other book that celebrates a girl’s love for a vegetable but I could completely see this actually happening. In fact, Ruth asked me after we finished if  “we could do that”. Meaning that she wants a pet squash to plant and grow into baby squash. The illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf add to the charm and humor of this sweet story.

 The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud follows a Papa Bear as he chases his Baby Bear through the forest and then through the city. It is time to hibernate but Baby Bear has run away, chasing after a bee. The mad chase ends in an opera house where Papa Bear decides to sing the Bear’s Lullaby for the patrons, a beautiful song that all bears love. What is a lullaby for bears is apparently just a bit frightening for humans, and the  opera house is left empty except for a finally reunited Baby and Papa.

The illustrations are what make this large format book really special. Each page is incredibly detailed and deserves to be looked at again and again. On first reading, we enjoyed trying to find Baby Bear and bee on each page. On the next reading we noticed more of the other, often humorous things happening in the background. And on the next reading we started to notice details like more bees and honey and bears or intricately hidden animal sketches in the opera house walls.

If I had to pick a winner among these books, it would be hard. I think I’d pick Sophie’s Squash, mostly because I’m kind of old-fashioned and would like to reward a book that is mostly about story and has more of a classic feel but that is still excellent. And it had a lot of kid appeal in our house. I think the two enjoyed the most by everyone here were Count the Monkeys and The Bear’s Song. But really, I could see any of these winning, it’s a great group of books.

The only other shortlisted books that I’ve read that I hadn’t already read was A Big Guy Took My Ball! (Elephant and Piggie) by Mo Willems in the Easy Reader category. Not much to say about that one except that it’s just as good as all other Elephant and Piggie books. Which is to say it’s great. I did get a bunch of the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlisted books out of the library for John to read (and possibly me to read) but he’s been working his way through the Eragon series (again) and I don’t think he’s read any of them yet. I haven’t been reading anything quite as all-consuming as Eragon but I haven’t quite gotten to them yet either.

And don’t forget to stop by Hope is the Word for more Armchair Cybils.