Armchair Cybils: Fiction Picture Books

Well, I’m almost a week late with this Armchair Cybils post. I did write a post last week, only to somehow lose it entirely. One of my New Year Resolutions is to be better about getting to bed on time and getting enough sleep so I elected to leave it and then never got back to it over the weekend.

I’ve been able to read all the Fiction Picture Books on the Cybils shortlist except one. (This is a Moose is not available yet at our library but is on order so I’m hoping to read it soon.) Of the books I was able to read, Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle is my favorite. It’s a sweet story of a girl who falls in love with a green bicycle in a store window. She tries to save the money to buy it, only to find that it’s harder to make money than she realizes. Finally, a kind neighbor hires her to do odd jobs and she gets the money she needs. Along the way she also finds a friend in the neighbor. The ending is no less satisfying for being somewhat predictable (at least to adults). The illustrations are simple pencil and watercolor on brown paper bag colored paper. The book definitely has an old-fashioned feel, although the feeling is more timeless than belonging to any particular era.

Over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate wordless picture books more and more. I find that often the lack of written words allows for more interaction between me and the child I’m reading to. Instead of reading the words the author gives us, we talk about what we think the characters are thinking or what they are doing. It becomes a conversation instead of just a one-way read-aloud. I’m not at all disparaging books with words. I still prefer most of my books to have words. I’m just becoming more of a convert to the idea that well-done wordless books can be excellent also.

I hope to review the other nominated titles some day soon. But for now, stop by Hope is the Word and see what Amy has to say about the other books in this category. (Spoiler: She agrees with me. )

More wordless picture books reviewed at Supratentorial: 
Two from last year’s Cybils: Flora and the Flamingo  and Mr. Wuffles
A bunch including two favorites: A Ball for Daisy and 10 Minutes Till Bedtime
Once Upon a Banana

Two Winter Adventures in DC


Two recent winter weekends have seen us on adventures downtown. Adventure #1 started after church at a new to us lunch place: 100 Montaditos. A Spanish chain, this restaurant serves up delicious tiny sandwiches (about three bites each). We sampled smoked salmon, meatballs, a fantastic BBQ pork, Brie, serrano ham and a Nutella sandwich on chocolate bread. If you’re in the DC area, check out one of their three locations (Bethesda, Arlington or Navy Yards). We then headed to The National Museum of Women in the Arts for their Picturing Mary exhibit, about images of Mary throughout history. Highly recommended and if you take advantage of their Community Day on the first Sunday of the month it’s also free.

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Adventure #2 took us to the Library of Congress to see the Magna Carta. One of only four copies from 1215, this copy from is on loan (through Jan 19th) from the Lincoln Cathedral. It was pretty amazing to view an 800 year old document, especially one as historically significant as this one. We skipped most of the rest of the exhibit. It looked interesting but was very crowded and we preferred to revel in the beauty of the architecture itself.

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The kids were a little underwhelmed by the Magna Carta. I can understand that. Even though John had studied it this year in co-op, it still is just kind of a piece of paper to them (and one that Ruth pointed out “looked kind of scribbly”). I think more interesting to them was this exhibit on Thomas Jefferson’s Library. Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress in 1815 after the Congressional Library was largely destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Most of the Jefferson books were also lost in a fire about 40 years later. The exhibit attempts to recreate Jefferson’s personal library, including the way that the books were organized by Jefferson. If you believe that your bookshelves and what you read says a lot about who you are, you can imagine how fascinating it is to see this snapshot of Jefferson’s reading life. DSCN7616And it’s always good to end an adventure on a sweet note. This time literally, with beignets from Bayou Bakery. Yes, that is all powdered sugar on the table. And yes, we had to stop them from licking it clean.


Ruth and I are talking about snow this week in kindergarten. Serendipitously, this morning we woke up to the first real snowfall of the season. Perfect!  We weren’t sure what Roxy, the dog, would think of the snow since this is our first winter with her. She loved it, perhaps even more than her three human companions.



Snow themed books we recommend: 

Snow! by Uri Shulevitz
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
Snowflakes Fall by Patricia Maclachlan

Read Aloud Thursday: 2014 in Review

Chapter Books Read in 2014:

Read Aloud to John and David:

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A Prince Among Frogs by E. D. Baker
Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager
Obi: Gerbil on the Loose! by M. C. Delaney
The Time Garden by Edward Eager
A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle



Read Aloud to Ruth: 

Betsy, Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace
Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins
Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins
Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary

Read Aloud at Lunch: 

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman


The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Dragon’s Breath by E.D. Baker

Once Upon a Curse by E. D. Baker
No Place For Magic by E. D. Baker
The Salamander Spell by E. D. Baker
The Dragon Princess by E. D. Baker
Dragon Kiss by E. D. Baker
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Curse of Bane by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

This was sort of a transition year for us in our chapter book read-alouds. For awhile we’ve had a routine where I read one “special” book to each child at bedtime and also had one book going at lunchtime for all three to listen to. Over the past year it’s been clear that the books I’m reading to David and John are really being read to both of them. And somewhere mid-year we changed our routine so that we all read together on our bed instead of in the kids’ bedrooms. First we read Ruth’s book and then the boys’ book or books. Juggling three nighttime books has become a bit too much so we’ve gone to having just two, one for the boys and one for Ruth. David probably benefits the most from this as being the middle child he is is the most interested in both books.

It’s also been a year where it’s tougher to get the nighttime reading in, especially since they all want to listen to every book. I work one night a week. John is out late one night a week for Scouts. During basketball season there are night practices. During swim season there are swim meets. On the weekends we might choose to watch a movie instead of doing the nighttime reading. So it often is the case that we are reading maybe 4 nights out of 7. That’s ok but I might have to think about how we can change our routine to get more reading in. I’m thinking of having our nighttime reading be the same book as our lunchtime reading (something else that doesn’t happen daily).

Our two best reading experiences of the year were both through audiobooks. We spent months in the world of E.D. Baker, totally loving the princesses and dragons and princes we met there. We then spent the fall in Suzanne Collins’ Underland with Gregor the Overlander. Both were the best of a bookish family life: shared immersion in another world.

What’s next in 2015? The boys and I are currently reading Redwall (John and I for the second time, David for the first). Ruth and I are continuing to enjoy Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. And I have the first in the Sisters Grimm series on audiobook for listening the next time we go somewhere.

Stop by Hope is the Word for the first Read Aloud Thursday of 2015. Lots of reading lists today! Sure to be something that you can enjoy in the coming year.


Scenes from Difficult Run

DSCN7197 DSCN7208 DSCN7235 DSCN7240 DSCN7206A beautiful Saturday. Great day for a winter hike. We tried a new-to-us trail: the Difficult Run loop at Great Falls National Park. It was perfect for us. Just the right amount of rock scrambling to keep the older kids happy but easy enough for a five year old and an out-of-shape forty-something year old. Roxy, our one year old puppy, also had a fantastic time. This hike offers spectacular views of the Potomac River as for a bit you are hiking right along the top of the cliff beside the river. Definitely recommended for a family outing if you are in the area.


Deck the Halls


We typically make an ornament every year. Usually we give one to each relative as a present from the kids. Some of our ornaments turn out better than others, but it’s really more about teaching the kids to give. I thought this year’s project turned out particularly well.  I’m not especially crafty so I’m always excited to find fairly easy projects that end up looking halfway decent. I got this idea from this multiple sites on the Internet, but I ended up mostly using the instructions given at this Instructable.

It’s fairly easy. You remove the paper from old crayons and break them up into small pieces. You place some pieces into a glass (NOT clear plastic) ornament and then use a hair dryer to melt the crayon pieces. As they melt you swirl the ornament creating patterns on the inside of the glass.

We ended up breaking our crayons into much smaller pieces than what is shown at the linked site. The bigger pieces just took way too long to melt. Interestingly, the more high quality crayons like Crayola melted much better. We had a few cheap ones in the mix that just would not melt. The only downside to this project was that it’s tricky to hold the glass ornament while heating it as it gets very hot. The kids really weren’t able to do that part and I wished I had come up with some kind of better handle so that they could have helped with the holding. They had fun though creating various color combinations of crayon pieces.

Of course, they each got to make an ornament for themselves.


Ruth’s pink and purple creation


David created the color combination for this one, naming it “Disco Party” ball.

IMG_0676John’s “Camouflaged” ornament.


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!

More from our Christmas Book Basket

I like to try and include some new to us titles in our Christmas book basket every year. It’s fun to re-read the old ones, but also fun to find some new treasures. As an aside, my kids are cracking me up this year. Their main goal with the book basket is to have the book that always makes me cry (Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant) be the last book so that I am forced to read it and bawl like a baby on Christmas Eve. So far, they are in luck. It’s still unopened.

David Lucas’s A Letter for Bear is a sweet, beautifully illustrated Christmas story.  Bear is a shy, lonely postman who delivers letters every day to all the other woodland animals but who never gets one himself. Every night he goes home to make soup and sit alone his cave. In the end he discovers that the best way to make friends is to reach out and be a friend. The story is gentle and simple (perhaps a little too simple for any but the very youngest kids). However, the woodcut illustrations are really lovely. I also liked that all the animals are identified on end pages and are Arctic animals instead of being just generic animals.

Peter Reynold’s The Smallest Gift of Christmas also has a simple message at it’s heart but the story is much sillier. Roland comes downstairs on Christmas morning and is disappointed to find that his present is much, much smaller than he hoped for. He wishes for it to be bigger, and magically it is. He wishes again and it is. And again. And again. My kids found this very funny, especially when he wasn’t satisfied with skyscraper sized packages. In the end of course, Roland realizes that the thing he really wants is right back where he started: home and family. I’m not a huge lover of books with a MESSAGE, but the silliness and bright cartoon like illustrations are the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Serendipitously, David has been reading fables about greed in his writing curriculum this week so this was a good book for us to open.

I’m not sure if there is a version of Santa Is Coming to Virginia by Steve Smallman for every state but there is one for a lot of them. The thrill for these books is recognizing the state landmarks on the cover and sprinkled through the illustrations and on hearing familiar places mentioned in the text. I didn’t realize that the story was exactly the same in each book other than the geographical places mentioned when I got this one and the Washington DC one out of the library. The story is a bit thin and the book reads more like a travel brochure than a story. Our kids don’t believe in Santa Claus and never have. Santa books might not be as appreciated here as they would be in a house where a kid is thrilled to read about Santa coming to their very own state.

Maryann MacDonald’s The Christmas Cat is my favorite new title so far this year. Inspired by a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing of La Madonna del Gatto, which showed Mary with an infant Jesus and a cat, MacDonald emphasizes the humanity of Jesus in this book. Like all babies, Jesus cried, MacDonald tells us. The only thing that calms him as a newborn is a kitten that becomes his pet and friend. The book goes on to show the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt (with cat). In emphasizing Jesus’ humanity MacDonald gives a slightly different perspective to the Christmas story than the one we usually hear.


Shooting at the Stars

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

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

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

Non-Fiction Monday: For the Science Lover

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.