School Days Around the World

We’ve been spending this school year studying about world geography and cultures. This new book by Margaret Ruurs was a fun addition to our studies. It’s a fairly simple picture book but manages to highlight both the similarities of children around the world while also showing the differences that make them unique.

We visit Tamatoa in the Cook Islands who is called to school by a wooden drum and spends recess at the whale-watching fort by the sea. We meet Annika in Denmark who goes to forest school where they spend most of their time outdoors learning. And the one we were excited about: Amy and Gwen who are homeschoolers in Alaska and say, “The world is our classroom!”.

Ruurs includes different types of schools as well as showing the diversity due to different cultures. There are public schools, boarding schools and that one homeschool. There are kids who are blind and who live in an orphanage. There are kids that go to small village schools that have to share the building with other villages. And there are kids at very large busy city schools.

You could argue that this kind of very general survey misses a lot and over-simplifies. Obviously, this is true. The one US school is the homeschool in Alaska and that is a very different experience than most US school children have. However, by focusing on specific individual kids rather than a generic “Brazilian” kid or “German” kid, Ruurs manages to drive home the idea that kids around the world have a myriad of different experiences while still all learning, playing and growing up. Of note, the endpages  mention that all the kids and families in this book are real. My kids liked knowing that. It made the different school environments that much more real to them as well. I would highly recommend this book to go along with any elementary school aged study of world cultures.


Africa Picture Books

21965198We recently finished a unit study on Africa (part of a larger year long world geography/cultures study). I previously shared some of the broader survey type of books we read and some of the young adult and middle grade fiction that we’ve read. We also read quite a few non-fiction and fiction picture books. Interestingly, many of the non-fiction picture books fall in the general category of “inspirational stories”.

Laurie Ann Thompson’s Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmauel Ofosu Yeboah is certainly inspirational. It tells the story of a young boy born with a severely malformed right leg who grows up to bicycle across Ghana with one leg. More than just succeeding at a challenge for himself, he aims to change the view in his country of people with disabilities as people who are worthless or cursed. It’s a beautiful story (and has also been made into a documentary) that was nominated for the Cybils this year in the non-fiction elementary/middle grade category.


Another inspiring story and Cybils nominee is Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag: Isatou
Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia.
 This one tells the story of how one woman began a campaign to clean her country of the thousands of plastic bags that were littering the countryside. She learns how to cut the plastic bags into strips, crochet them and make them into purses. You can see how they do this on this YouTube video (and there are links to purchase the bags themselves if you are so inclined). Another inspiring story of enivromental activism was Franck Prevot’s Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. Maathai was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in reforestation in Kenya. 23688743

The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella is not about one person’s inspiring story but instead looks at the good one donated bicycle can do. A red bicycle is loved by Leo, a boy in a small North American town. But eventually he outgrows the bike and he decides to donate it to an organization that takes bikes overseas. The bicycle is followed as it belongs first to a  young girl in Burkina Faso who uses the bike to help her grandmother bring items to the market and then as it finds a third life as a hospital ambulance.

Other Africa themed books we read and enjoyed: 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa by Gerald McDermott
Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric Kimmel (just one of many Anansi stories)
Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora



Africa with Kids

550120This year we are doing a world cultures/geography study as part of our homeschool. For each area of the world we study the geography, talk a little about the history and a bit about the different cultures. This isn’t by any measure a comprehensive study of any one area but instead it’s a survey course where I want the kids to get a taste and feeling for different areas in the world and appreciate just a bit the diversity of the world we live in.

One thing I’ve emphasized with each area is that we are looking at that part of the world with broad brushstrokes. We can’t learn everything about Australia or Canada in three weeks. I also want the kids to realize that when we talk about “South American art” or “Australian food” we are usually talking about something that is a stereotype and not something that is representative of every single person or even most people in that country or continent. I have felt like no where is this more true than our current area of the world, Africa. Too often in the west our view of Africa is one of the savannah with a few nomadic tribesmen roaming the wilderness. When I was planning this unit I realized that if my kids come away with an appreciation for how diverse Africa is then our study will be a success. Maybe the best way to think of it is that I want them to know what they don’t know.

Africa is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight is an excellent book for beginning a study of Africa with kids. Knight begins by explaining that Africa is not one country but instead 53 (now 54 with the addition of South Sudan). She uses the illustration of a pie cut into slices to explain how much of the land is different ecosystems (savannah, desert, rainforest). She then goes on to describe a “typical African day” by highlighting a child from a different country on each page. Some of the kids are in villages, some in cities. There is snow and desert. There are kids playing soccer and kids gathering water and kids going to school. There are dark skinned kids and light skinned kids. It’s a long book to read-aloud but kept the interest of my first grader.

Children Like Me by Barnabas Kindersley looks at kids around the world. Photographic 835178spreads with a little text highlight what kids in different countries eat, how they go to school, what activites they like to do, what their homes are like, what their clothes are like and what their families look like. We read the pages on kids in African countries to again highlight the diversity of the continent. Both Children Like Me (published in 1995) and Africa is Not a Country (published in 2002) are slightly out of date. However, I felt like they were good introductions to the people of Africa, especially for a younger elementary student.

We also enjoyed Africa by Mel Friedman, part of the True Book series and Introducing Africa by Chris Oxlade. Both were good basic surveys that covered physical geography, animals and well-known landmarks.


ABC and 123

There are a lot of counting and alphabet books out there. We don’t read many of them these days as my kids have mostly outgrown the genre. But these two newish picture books caught my eye at the library on our last visit. I was glad they did as both are beautifully done and go beyond just a simple ABC or 123 book.

What in the World? Numbers in Nature by Nancy Raines Day is somewhat deceptively simple. Going beyond counting, the text guides the reader in seeing sets of numbers in nature (one moon, two pairs of wings on a bird, ten toes on a boy). Some of the examples are much more complex than I expected (three body parts for a bee, seven colors in a rainbow) which was a nice surprise. The clear colorful illustrations by Kurt Cyrus are a perfect accompaniment to Day’s crisp prose.

Elisha Cooper’s 8: An Animal Alphabet is simply a listing of animals that begin with each letter. Some are expected (D for dog). Some are slightly more exotic (D for dung beetle). The charm comes in Cooper’s illustrations and in the quirky decision to put 8 of one kind of animal on each page. Why 8? Just because. Ruth had fun finding which animal on each page was the lucky “8”. It wasn’t challenging for her but I could imagine that for a 3 or 4 year old it would be quite a fun search. As a bonus, at the end of the book Cooper includes a brief interesting fact about each animal in the book (and there are a lot of them). We all had fun reading the facts and found some that none of us knew. That’s fairly unusual for animal books given that David spends most of his reading time perusing weird fact books or animal encyclopedias.

Both of these books would be most appropriate for preschoolers, although I have to say that all three of my kids enjoyed looking at them, and that includes the 12 year old.

Delicious Reads

Ruth and I just finished a unit on food for kindergarten. One of the favorite books we read was a new one by Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert. Jenkins follows four families over four hundred years making the same dessert: blackberry fool. Each family prepares the dessert following the same basic steps. The repetition in the text of the recipe and the similarities between the centuries (each child gets to lick the bowl) create continuity. However, the charm is in the differences. The first mother and daughter pair living in Lyme, England in 1710 use a whisk made out of twigs and cool their dessert in an ice pit in the hillside. The 2010 family (the only father and son pair in the book) live in San Diego and serve the dessert to a multicultural group of friends after preparing it with all the modern conveniences. Sophie Blackall’s delicately detailed illustrations draw the reader into each time period and further serve to tie the centuries together while also showing how clothing and housing and people have changed.

Pat Brisson’s Before We Eat: From Farm to Table is another new book about food. This
one take a less personal approach and looks instead at all the people who are involved in getting the food we eat on our table. There are farmers and ranchers, yes. But also, truck drivers and  grocery clerks and home cooks. The woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian (illustrator of the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley) are beautiful and complement the simple text.


We also enjoyed looking through What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This one is chock full of information but it was a bit too much for five year old Ruth. However, the photos were fascinating. The main interest for us was a photospread for each country showing a typical family and all the food they eat in a month. It was really eye-opening for my kids to see how much less processed food most of the world eats and to see how little some people have to eat in a week.

Other food themed books we recommend: 

Minette’s Feast by Susanna Reich
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
Time to Eat by Steve Jenkins




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.

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. 

The Scraps Book

Lois Ehlert is one of those picture-book authors where you can blindly choose a book off her shelf in the library and know you are going to end up with a winner. Favorites of ours include Feathers for Lunch, Planting a Rainbow and Waiting for Wings. Her bright colorful collages are beautiful and have great kid appeal. She writes about topics kids are curious about: butterflies, birds, food, flowers. And she manages to strike that perfect balance of writing simple prose that a 3 year old will listen to but that will still appeal to a much older kid. I’ve always loved the extra notes she includes in each illustration that give just a bit more information about whatever she is writing about.

Her new picture book biography, The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life, is not to be missed if you are also an Ehlert fan. If you aren’t, then read it anyway and see what you’ve been missing. Ehlert uses her trademark collage illustrations to tell about her own life and work. The focus here is on her work, with very basic biographical details. Her parents encouraged her early interest in making things by giving her a private art space where she could create. Artistic kids will be inspired to read about how Ehlert gets ideas for her work and the process she uses to make her books.

Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give this book is that after reading it together David said, ” I feel like doing art now.” And so we did. I think Ehlert would consider that equivalent to a 5 star rating.

The Scraps Book has been nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction category. 


Armchair Cybils

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.