Armchair Cybils


I’m a day late with my Armchair Cybils link-up. A short-lived but nasty stomach bug hit our house this weekend, and although only two of us so far succumbed, we’ve all been a bit sleep-deprived. Added to that were several holiday parties, basketball games, prep for the last week of school before Christmas break and all the other fun craziness of the season.

I have been reading. However, I haven’t been reviewing and posting as much as I had hoped to do. Instead of trying to “catch up” I’m going to link below to the books I have reviewed here and then give a short synopsis for the ones I haven’t reviewed already.

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade Books Read:

Anna and Solomon by Elaine Snyder
Story of how the author’s grandparents immigrated to the US from Russia. Probably not a topic that naturally appeals to kids, but would be a great addition to a story about immigration. Illustrations by Harry Bliss are a great accompaniment. 

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox
Told by champion open water long distance swimmer Lynne Cox, this is the story on one particular elephant seal who chose to make its home in the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christened Elizabeth by the people of Christchurch, the seal returned to the river despite being relocated multiple times and finally was allowed to stay in the city. Watercolor illustrations by Brian Floca add warmth and kid appeal.

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Gravity by Jason Chin
Simple explanation of what gravity is. I did love the illustrations that show what happens without gravity and think they added appeal even for very young readers who might miss the bigger concept. I might have to reread this one. I had it out briefly from the library and remember being a bit disappointed, but that might be because I really loved Chin’s book about the Galapagos.

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio by Jonah Winter
Well-done, beautifully illustrated biography of Joe DiMaggio.

The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert

When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses by Rebecca Johnson

Fiction Picture Books Read:

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Kate Beebe
I loved this charming story of a monk who cannot return his library book (the letters of St. Augustine) because a bear has eaten it. As penance, he is forced to journey to a nearby monastery to borrow their copy and then to copy the book out by hand, all the while keeping an eye out for the bear who now has developed a taste for delicious words. There is enough detail on the making of the book to go along with a medieval history study but the quirkiness of the story and charm of the illustrations make it fun to read. I also loved that Beebe got the idea from the fragment of a real medieval letter explaining that a book had been eaten by a bear. 

Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century by Jane O’Connor
Another great addition to the Fancy Nancy canon. In case you’re wondering if we like Fancy Nancy here, I’ll just say that I am frequently instructed by a certain 5 year old (who is pretty fancy herself) to bring home every single Fancy Nancy book I can find at the library. 

Lost for Words by Natalie Russell
Tapir’s friends all can write: poems, songs, stories. But he can’t figure out how to express himself until he realizes he doesn’t have to use words but can draw instead. 

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch by Anne Isaacs
Tall-tale about a British widow who inherits $30 million and a ranch in Texas. She moves there and settles into a happy peaceful life of gardening and raising giant tortoises until word gets out that a marriageable woman with a boatload of money has arrived. The ending is easy to see coming but getting there is silly fun. Ruth and I had a lot of giggles reading this one. 

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett
Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen team up together to create a silly retelling of one of the most ludicrious presidential anecdotes: President Taft getting stuck in his bathtub. It reminded me a lot of the wonderful King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. If you’re sensitive to your kids giggling over naked butts, don’t get this one. 

Quest by Aaron Becker
As I was writing this, Ruth said, “I LOVE Quest. Can you put the third one on hold?” She’ll have to wait for the third addition to this luminous, creative trilogy but you can tell she is a big fan of these wordless picture books. If you’ve read the Caldecott Honor Book Journey, you know what to expect with this continuation. If you haven’t, get them both out. They might change your mind about wordless picture books. 

Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer
Rupert has a secret: he loves to dance. When his owner Mandy finds out, she is thrilled and starts to give him dancing lessons. Rupert, however, doesn’t want to have lessons, he just wants to dance for fun. Mandy comes up with a great solution to convince/trick him into dancing again. The underlying message here was a good read for me as the parent of a child who really rebels against the idea of being told what to do, even when it’s something he enjoys. 

The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald

Two Speckled Eggs by Jennifer Mann
Sweet book about two girls who are slightly different from all the rest but find friendship together. 

Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston
Lovely, slow, thoughtful story about a girl who observes the seasons changing around her from a favorite quiet place. The illustrations by Jim LaMarche are absolutely gorgeous. 

Other books read:

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

Firefly July
Fantastic anthology of poems compiled by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by the incomporable Melissa Sweet. My link is to Amy’s full review, I say ditto to everything she says. 

Cybils books previously reviewed here at Supratentorial.

After serving as a Cybils judge last year, I realize it’s virtually impossible to realistically talk about predictions or a shortlist having read so few books. But it’s still fun. So here is my list of my top 5 books in the two categories that I have read the most:

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade:

Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox
A Boy and A Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Fiction Picture Books:

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Kate Beebe
Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston
Fraidyzoo by Thrya Heyder
The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald
President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett

Stop by Hope is the Word to see what Cybils nominees Amy and others are reading (Amy for one, has been reading a lot of middle grade fiction). And if you’ve been reading Cybils nominees, consider participating!

Non-Fiction Monday: For the Science Lover


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.

October and November Reading


Fiction Read in October and November:

Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist (short stories)
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
For someone who supposedly doesn’t like short stories very much, I’ve been reading a lot of them this year. My book club decided we wanted to read a classic and Faulkner came up as someone who most of us had always wanted to read but just hadn’t (or hadn’t read much). Serendipitously, Ellen Gilchrist’s new collection, Acts of God, arrived for me at the library. There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are Southern writers (both from Mississippi) who write primarily about a particular place and time. Both write about ordinary people, sometimes dealing with ordinary circumstances and sometimes with extraordinary ones out their control. Of the two, I related more to Gilchrist’s world but both are beautiful wordsmiths who write finely crafted, dense, complex stories. 

Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym for this series of mystery/detective stories starring Cormoron Strike, a retired military intelligence officer and amputee now working as a  London private investigator. I liked this addition to the series even more than the first one. The plot involves a weird and gory murder (if you have a squeamish stomach this one isn’t for you) but like all good detective stories the real joy comes in getting to know Strike and his world, especially his assistant Robin. A very fun read. 

A Question of Honor by Charles Todd
An Unwilling Accomplice by Charles Todd
Two more additions to another mystery series I’ve enjoyed. This one, about Bess Crawford, a WWI era British nurse, is much more quiet and cerebral than Silkworm but also quite enjoyable. 

Nonfiction Read in October and November:

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites by Kate Christensen
I’ve also read a lot of memoirs this year. Writer Kate Christensen’s memoir promises to be a story of her life told through food that has been important to her. The food angle felt somewhat contrived to me, with mentions of favorite dishes sprinkled in here and there and some random recipes included at the end of each chapter. Christensen has lived a full life, full of hardships (and abusive father, parent’s divorce, poverty, drug abuse) and some amazing opportunities (a stint as an au pair in France, working as a short order cook at a school in New England, graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). However, I came away not all that interested or impressed. I think it was the overly self-conscious tone that turned me off. In the end, I didn’t have much desire to learn more about the writer or to read other things she has written. 

Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker


If you have a little girl (or boy) who loves ballet, you should know about the Ella Bella books by James Mayhew.  Ella Bell Ballerina and the Nutcracker follows the same basic plot as the other books in the series. Ella Bella, a little girl who is lucky enough to have her ballet class meet in a beautiful old theater, is told part of the story of a classic ballet by her teacher, Madame Rosa. Ella Bella then stays behind after class and is transported into the ballet by Madame Rosa’s magical music box. Once in the ballet, she meets the characters and dances with them acting out the rest of the ballet’s story.

For hard core dance enthusiasts, there isn’t a lot of actual ballet in these books. No discussion of steps or ballet terminology. But the books do a lovely job of telling the story of each ballet through the eyes of a girl who is likely about the age of the reader. It’s a sweet way of introducing some of the classic ballets to young readers and would make for a great way to prepare for seeing some of these ballets performed live.

Caught Reading


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Everyone was happy to get home from the library this week. I especially love that David is at the reading sweet spot where he chooses a stack of Dr. Seuss books to check out and at the same time is excitedly working his way through Harry Potter #4.


Two by Steve Jenkins


Readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Steven Jenkins. His two newest books, both published this year, continue to educate and amaze. Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do is a collaboration with his wife, Robin Page (their fourteenth book together). Using a question and answer format, the husband and wife duo explain some of the odder and more unusual physical features found on animals (the leaf-nosed bat’s nose, a giraffe’s purple tongue, the bald face of an Egyptian vulture). Jenkins’ illustrations are beautifully realistic as usual, drawing the reader into the page.

Creature Features looks at animal faces, but Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World goes even closer to focus on the diversity of animal eyes. Written from an evolutionary perspective, Jenkins first talks briefly about the evolution of the eye and the four main kinds of eyes we can still find today. He then looks at animals as different as a colossal squid and butterflies. The most amazing to me was how much more developed some animals eyes are from humans. The mantis shrimp has the distinction of having the most highly developed eyes that are more sensitive to color than humans and that can detect light invisible to most other creatures. Buzzards can see eight times more accurately than us, allowing them to spot a rabbit two miles away.

Visit Steve Jenkins’ website to see a detailed description of the making of Creature Features.

Other Steve Jenkins books reviewed here at Supratentorial:
The Beetle Book and Just a Second

What do you Do When Something Wants to Eat You?, I See a Kookaburra and Move (the last two written with Robin Page)

Mama Built a Little Nest (written by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Jenkins)

My First Day (with Robin Page)

Time to Eat (with Robin Page)

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World is nominated for a Cybils award. 

Nonfiction Monday: Mysterious Patterns


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


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!


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


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.