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.

 

Armchair Cybils!

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It’s October and you know what that means, right? If your’e thinking cooler weather, kids in costumes and candy and pretty leaves…we’ll you’re technically right but that’s not the best part of October. The best part is that it’s the beginning of book award season, of course. And of my very favorite bookish challenge, the Armchair Cybils, hosted by Hope is the Word.

It’s super easy and super fun. Just read as many books nominated for the Cybils awards as you want to. Post about them on your blog. Link up. Read about the other great children’s books people are reading. Read more. Repeat. See? Easy and fun.

Head over to Hope is the Word for more details and to join in!


September Reading

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Fiction Read in September:

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
When people saw me reading this book and asked me what it was about I kind of mumbled something about not being smart enough to explain it. In a nutshell it was about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing and their ideas about mathematics, philosophy and logic. It was also about the eccentricities of each man and their tragic deaths. It wasn’t a fun read or really what I would call an enjoyable read but it was an interesting read and for that reason I’m glad I read it. 

Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney
Blech. Read for book club. I couldn’t get into this one. I didn’t like any of the characters and couldn’t get interested in what was primarily a character driven book. 

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Wonderful, sarcastic, clever epistolary novel about a middle-aged, bitter,slightly washed-up English professor at a small, not very prestigious Midwestern college. Told entirely through letters of recommendations that the professor is forced to write for his students, the story skewers academia and the literary world. What takes this novel to a higher level than just pure snark is the glimpses of true heart revealed in the professor and his colleagues. I would highly recommend this one for anyone who has ever had to write or read stacks of letters of recommendations and has had to parse the difference between “very highly recommended” and “most highly recommended”. This one’s for you.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I spent most of the summer listening to this classic on audiobook and loved every minute of the 27 (!!!) CDs. 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sadly, I am often the worst kind of reverse book snob. Or maybe I’m just a regular book snob. Whatever you call it what I mean is that I often hear of a very popular book and assume I won’t like it because it’s too popular. I’m not sure when I’ll figure out that sometimes popular books are popular because they are GOOD. Gone Girl was one of these. I admit to reading it because I saw the trailer for the movie and thought it looked intriguing but didn’t want to break my “can’t see the movie until you read the book” rule. I am so glad I read it. This was a burn dinner, ignore the kids, stay up way too late reading kind of book. If you’ve read it you know why. If you haven’t, stop being such a book snob and just read it already. 

Bark by Lorrie Moore
I am not a huge fan of short stories. I like the character development that occurs in longer form fiction better. However, I have started to read more short stories because I am growing to appreciate the art form. Moore’s new collection is beautifully written but shows a more bleak side of human relationships than I like to see. I know bleakness exists, but I prefer it tempered with a bit of redemption. There wasn’t much of the latter in these stories. 

Non-Fiction Read in September:

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
This was the last in a series of memoirs or sorts that I read by women (The Empathy Exams, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and My Life in Middlemarch being the others). Lively’s voice is unique in that it comes from a woman in her 80’s. She writes about memory and growing old and her life in books. 

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. 

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.

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.

 

June Reading

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Fiction Read in June:

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
Both of these were first time reads for me. I read them as research for the first unit I am planning for John for school in the fall. I think they are a little too complex for him right now. He could read them and if he picked them up to read on his own I’d be fine with it. But I think he’ll get so much more out of these complex books if he waits a few years. 

I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Flavia deLuce has definitely grown on me since I declared her too quirky and precocious on my first introduction to Bradley’s poison loving 11 year old girl chemist and sometimes detective. Count me a fan. 

The Pirate King by Laurie R. King (audiobook)
I continue to list to the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series on audiobook. This one was not my favorite, the setting of a 1920’s silent film and a cast of hundreds didn’t work as well for me. One fun thing: Pirates of Penzance is feature heavily in the plot and quoted throughout. Our homeschool co-op performed Pirates this spring so many of the references were very fresh in my mind. 

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen
The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen
John and I have both enjoyed the Ascendance Triology by Nielsen. The Shadow Throne, the final book in the series, is a very satisfying end to the story of Jaron, the incorrigible, charming young king determined to save his country from destruction and war. 

Non-Fiction Read in June: 

The Rocks Don’t Lie by David Montgomery

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
It’s somewhat hard to sum up this book but I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Unless you know of another book by a librarian who has Tourette’s syndrome. And is 6’7″. And enters strongman competitions. And who is LDS and writes openly and graciously about both the faith of his family and his own struggles with faith. I picked this one up on a whim off the shelf at my own library and was captivated by Hanagarne’s story. I have to love a guy who loves libraries as much as this:

I love to tell kids that everything in the library is theirs. “We just keep it here for you.” One million items that you can have for free! A collection that represents an answer to just about any question we could ask. A bottomless source of stories and entertainments and scholarly works and works of art. Escapist, fun trash and the pinnacles of the high literary style. Beavis and Butt-Head DVDs and Tchaikovsky’s entire oeuvre within ten feet of each other. Every Pulitzer-Prize winning book and National Book Award winner. Picture books for children. An enormous ESL collection…Art prints you can borrow and put on your wall for a month. A special-collections area of rare books. Full runs of ephemera from The New York Times to the original Black Panther newsletters.

If I could bring my bed, expand the fitness room, and kick everyone out, I wouldn’t need to pursue Heaven in the next world. I’d be there.