Nonfiction Monday: The Noisy Paint Box


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

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

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

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

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




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




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





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

Previous art/artist study posts here at Supratentorial:


Georgia O’Keefe


Alexander Calder 


Cybils (a little late)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction Monday: Two about Matisse


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Non-Fiction Monday: Flight of the HoneyBee


Raymond Huber focuses on the flight of a single scout bee in this lovely new book about honeybees. Flight of the Honey Bee follows Scout as she flies out looking for a food source for her hive. Along the way, the reader briefly is introduced to the other types of bees in the hive but the focus is on the scout’s flight. We see the danger the Scout encounters along the way, learn how the Scout carries the nectar and pollen back to the hive and see a bit of the waggle dance the bees use for communication. Keeping the focus on one bee makes this a very accessible book for young preschoolers and early elementary students.

Brian Lovelock’s brightly colored illustrations are equally appealing for young kids and show the story from varying perspectives (high above the world or a bee’s eye view). It’s difficult to describe how truly lovely these luminous paintings are but they really elevate this book to something beyond the average non-fiction book .

Huber also includes extra facts on each page in a smaller print which add interest for older kids as well. The most memorable new fact for us was that bees have hair on their eyeballs. End pages include some additional facts on bees and an index but no bibliography.

Stop by Non-Fiction Monday for more in what’s new in children’s literature.

Nonfiction Monday: How the Meteorite Got to the Museum


Jessie Hartland follows the formula that was successful in her previous books, How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum and How the Sphinx Got to the Museum with this new book. Here she follows the journey of the Peekskill Meteorite to the American Museum of Natural History.

I like these books for the exploration of all the different people involved behind the scenes in the artifacts we see at a museum. In this book, the background information includes the football fans and dogs that saw the meteorite as it streaked across the sky over five states before crashing into the trunk of an 18 yr old girl’s Chevy Malibu. The text is told in the familiar “the house that Jack built” formula. The repetition and the vaguely cartoonish like drawings appeal to preschoolers and younger elementary age students. Overall, there isn’t a lot of information about meteorites but there is just enough to intrigue an older student and perhaps prompt them to learn more if they are interested.

Stop by Nonfiction Monday for more great nonfiction for kids.

…and just a few more


As I may have mentioned once or twice, the Cybils shortlists are out. I’m proud of the list that our panel came up with for Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction but inevitably there were some books that didn’t make the list but that are still great books. I thought I’d list some of my favorites that didn’t make the list but that are fantastic reads.

If you’re looking for even more great non-fiction books for kids you can’t go wrong with any of these:

*The Skull in the Rock by Lee R. Berger and Marc Aronson

*Thomas Jefferson’s Library by Barb Rosenstock

*That’s a Possibility by Bruce Goldstone

*Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel

Non-Fiction Monday: The Boy Who Loved Math


It’s likely that you’ve seen this book reviewed elsewhere. There has been a lot of buzz about it in the kid-lit world. And for good reason. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable LIfe of Paul Erdos is a wonderful biography of a fascinating man. In case you’re ignorant like me, Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician known for his work in number theory and for his eccentric personality.

Deborah Heligman strikes a perfect balance  in this book between the story of Erdos’ life and an explanation of the mathematical problems that so intrigued and consumed him.The main focus of the text is on the life of Erdos: from a childhood where he was kicked out of school for not following the rules; to his ability at the age of four to quickly tell a person how old they were in seconds once he knew their birthdate and time; to his love of prime numbers and to his mostly itinerant life as an adult as he traveled the world collaborating with other mathematicians.

When it fits with the story Heligman goes into more detail on the math itself (for example a terrific explanation of prime numbers). However, numbers and math are primarily incorporated into the book through the illustrations by LeUyen Pham. The endpages include an extensive explanation of the math she worked into the drawings. One example is that of equations and diagrams from problems Erdos puzzled over drawn into the architecture of buildings in Budapest on one page. And that’s just one example of many.

Mathematicians have coined a term “Erdos number” that describes how close someone was to Erdos. If a person met him or worked with him directly, their number is 1. If they worked with someone who worked with Erdos, their number is a 2. One of my favorite illustrations is a detailed double page graphic that shows this web of influence that Erdos had in the world of mathematics.

Erdos was also known for being eccentric. Heligman doesn’t ignore this. She describes how he never learned to butter his own toast, even as an adult. Or that his friends around the world essentially took care of him: doing his laundry, paying his bills, cooking his food. I think many adults who read this book will not be able to help but wonder if Erdos was autistic or had Asperger’s (and in fact a quick Google search found that many Asperger sites claim him as a famous person with the syndrome). Kids probably won’t pick up on this, unless they themselves have a diagnosis of Asperger’s or HFA. In that case, they will likely find Erdos’ success despite his quirks inspiring.

Heligman refers in the author’s note to a biography by Paul Hoffman on Erdos: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I was intrigued enough by this story that I looked up Hoffman’s biography and did some quick reading on the Internet about Erdos. As with most picture book biographies, his life is more complicated than it appears here. I think Heligman’s biggest achievement with this book is that she has taken a figure that might seem weird or geeky or unapproachable and humanized him in a way that should make kids who don’t like math think it’s a little more cool than they thought before. And at the same time kids that are a little bit weird or geeky or who just love math will read this book and be inspired.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist.  I received a review copy from the publisher specifically for the Cybils. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.


Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library


All that is necessary for a student is access to a library. (Thomas Jefferson, 1790)

You may or may not have noticed that new quote over there in my sidebar. That’s just one of the many delicious bookish quotes from Barb Rosenstock’s new book-centered biography of Thomas Jefferson. With such a well-known figure, a new biography has to highlight a particular aspect of that figure in order to be worth reading. Rosenstock brilliantly does that here by focusing on Jefferson’s love of books.

I grew up in Virginia, where Jefferson is just one step (maybe) below God. I’ve heard many of the stories of the Jefferson legend (including all the controversial ones). I’ve visited Monticello many times, including as recently as last year. I wouldn’t say I’m a Jefferson scholar but I wouldn’t expect most picture book biographies of the man to cover a lot of new ground.

Well. I knew he was an avid reader. I’ve seen his library at Monticello. But I didn’t know that he bought two thousand books in five years while in was in Paris. I didn’t know that he donated a large part of his personal library to the Library of Congress when the original collection was lost in a fire. I didn’t know that after his wife Martha died he kept the paper with the lines they had copied from their favorite book for the rest of his life.

Rosenstock manages to celebrate bibliomania and books and humanize Jefferson all at the same time. She also includes original bookish quotes from Jefferson sprinkled through the pages as well as short side notes that illuminate parts of his life and Presidency. The end pages offer more information on Jefferson and briefly address the slavery issue. The muted pen and ink and watercolor illustrations by John O’Brien are clever and fit well with the text. I would recommend this for history buffs or kids who like biographies or adults who like cool historical trivia or for people who like books about books or for kids who just like reading books. So, pretty much anyone.

I cannot live without books. (Thomas Jefferson, 1815)

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

Three Picture Book Biographies


I feel somewhat embarrassed that I had never heard of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker before now. I’m glad that gap in my knowledge has been filled by this new book by Cheryl Harness. Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of The Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero tells the tale of this pioneer, the first female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was also a feminist, advocate for women’s rights, prisoner of war and dress reformer. One small issue I had was that the story begins after the Civil War and then jumps back to tell how Mary Walker became a physician. The timeline however is a a little unclear as the only real clue to this “flashback” is in the illustrations. I think most kids will figure it out and it’s certainly worth overlooking to read about this remarkable woman.

For those kids interested in finding out more about women physicians, the National Library of Medicine has a very nice interactive site where you can search by speciality, name, ethnicity, or location.

If I know very little about hip-hop, I know even less about Mambo or Latin jazz, other than that one song and dance from West Side Story. I know a little bit more now thanks to Tito Puente: Mambo King by Monica Brown. It’s difficult to write a book about music that gives the reader an idea of what the music is like. Brown employs the frequent use of onomatopoeia in an attempt to help the reader to hear the sounds of the drums. I really liked that this is a bilingual book with all the text on each page completely in English and Spanish. And I loved the bold, bright, whimsical illustrations by Rafael Lopez. The book is all about how Puente’s music made people happy and the colors and graphics give off a happy cheerful vibe that seems to fit with the subject perfectly.

For those ignorant of Latin jazz, like me, you can see Tito Puente’s last live performance here. Warning, it will make your feet want to dance.

I had heard of the subject of this third biography. However, I hadn’t heard of his dog, Rufus. War Dogs by Kathryn Selbert tells the story of Winston Churchill’s time as prime minister during World War II from the perspective of his beloved poodle Rufus. Seeing a well-known leader from this kind of perspective often makes him seem more human. Selbert includes quotes from Churchill on each page. Exceptionally complete end-pages provide a WWII timeline, more information on Churchill and on his dogs and a very extensive bibliography.

These books are nominees for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained copies of the books from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.