Newbery Challenge- 1940’s

1014090I’m participating again this year in Amy’s Newbery Challenge. This month was the 1940’s. I re-read one of my favorite books from childhood: Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses. It’s sort of a sad book and I remember liking it somewhat because it was sad instead of despite the sad. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a young Polish girl in a small town in Connecticut. Two other girls, Peggy and Maddie, daily make fun of Wanda. This is partially because of her claim that she has one hundred dresses at home even though she only wears the same old dress to school daily. But it is more because she is poor and foreign and because she is different from them.Wanda ends up moving away and the girls later discover that her story of a hundred dresses was true in a way. She leaves behind a hundred sketches of beautiful dresses. The girls try to find a way to contact her and apologize but it’s too late. In the end, they do hear from Wanda and there is some sense of forgiveness on her part but it’s not a completely satisfying ending.

I think the most compelling character in the book is Maddie. The main instigator of tormenting Wanda is clearly Peggy who is sort of a Mean Girl precursor. Maddie is Peggy’s best friend and is clearly less confident. She’s a little conflicted about mocking Wanda but never speaks up. This may be in part because she is also from a family who is poor. But I think most kids will recognize the conflict of knowing what the right thing to do is but not doing it because you don’t want to lose a friend or stand out or become the victim yourself. I think perhaps that is what attracted me to this book as a kid.

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I also read a new to me book: Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. This one was enjoyable; a girl who finds herself mysteriously drawn to thick fog in her Nova Scotia town learns that she can travel back in time through the fog. Her adventures are fairly tame, she mostly just goes back and visits a local family and becomes friends with a young girl in the past. But the story is sweet and appealing to anyone who has ever dreamed of going back in time.

Up next: the 1950’s. I plan to read The Secret of the Andes which beat Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal in 1953 (Charlotte was an Honor Book). I’ve always been curious about the book that bested Charlotte.

School Days Around the World

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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.

 

A Week of Newbery Winners

I’ve spent the past week reading the 2016 Newbery Award Winners. I didn’t exactly plan to read them all at once, but they all arrived for me at the library at the same time so it seemed serendipitous.

Matt de La Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street is clearly the big topic of conversation this year, as the first true picture book to win the Newbery Medal. It also was named as a Caldecott Honor Book. The book tells the story of a young boy, CJ, and his Nana as they travel on the bus after church to the last stop on Market Street. CJ is a typical young kid who asks his Nana a lot of questions and expressed dissatisfaction with life as it is (Why don’t they have a car? Why do they always have to go where they are going on Sundays? Why can’t he have an MP3 player like the other boys on the bus?) His Nana lovingly and wisely answers his questions and helps to show him the beauty in the everyday world around him. The language is realistic and has the cadence and sound of real people talking but is also sprinkled with lovely and unexpected imagery.

My first impression after reading it was probably similar to a lot of people’s. It is a great book but I was a little confused about why it was deemed the Newbery Medal Winner, an honor I associate with much more complex books. And much longer books. However, the more I think about it the more I like the choice. So often I see parents want to move their kids along from picture books because they are “just for little kids”. As soon as kids start reading on their own we push them towards chapter books and out of the picture book section of the library. But there are so many wonderful picture books out there and I think by giving one of them the Newbery the committee has legitimized the idea that a good picture book is worth reading for all ages of kids, even those who have “graduated” on to much longer books. I love that my seventh grader still reads through the stack of picture books we bring home from the library each week. He likes good books, and I love that he doesn’t see himself as too old to enjoy a good picture book.

After serving on the Cybils selection commitee two years ago, I realize that the very concept of picking the ONE BEST BOOK is just ridiculous. There are so many wonderful books for kids and so many different reasons that a book might appeal to a committee at a particular time. I do think that this book was probably picked partially because the issue of diversity in children’s literature is a very hot topic right now. However, that doesn’t mean Last Stop on Market Street is not also without literary merit. It just happened to be a beautiful book that also fits in with the current thoughts about what is important and desired in kid lit. I’ve been reading along with Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades Challenge for the past year and one thing I’ve learned is how much books reflect their time and place.

I also read the three Newbery Honor Books this week and thought all three of them were very deserving of the honor. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan were both WWII era stories. Echo has some fairy-tale and fantasy elements that weave together three different tales about three children in difficult circumstances during WWII. Music is the theme that binds together all three stories. I enjoyed it but I really loved The War that Saved My Life, which tells the story of Ada, a young girl in London with a clubfoot who has been locked inside a room her entire life by her mother. When WWII begins Ada finds a way to escape with the other child evacuees to the country where she slowly begins to find a new life. I loved that the happy ending is not something that is easy. Ada struggles with being afraid of being happy and loved as it might all be taken away from her again. It’s a book that felt very real.

Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl also felt very real. Almost too real, like experiencing all the angst of middle school all over again. Perhaps this is the year of the graphic novel for me as I was totally charmed by this story of Astrid, a girl who is trying to figure out where she belongs. Her best friend is becoming interested in fashion and boys and ballet and Astrid feels left out and unsure of who she is until she finds her tribe at a roller derby camp. One thing I really liked is that Astrid is complex, not always likable, but always realistic and sympathetic. Similarly, we see that the friend isn’t all bad. It isn’t that girls who like ballet and fashion are bad and girls who like roller derby are good. It’s more how do you figure out how to become your own person while still hanging on to the friends you had when you were little and things were simpler. I would highly recommend this one for anyone in the middle school or almost middle school age.

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.

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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.

 

Scribble Art

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Art is one of those things I want to do more of but we often don’t get to. I think part of it is that I feel the need to over plan instead of just doing art together. I feel like art must somehow coordinate with what we are studying in history or a book we are reading. It’s great when that happens but it’s also great to just do it without worrying about making it part of some big cross-curriculum plan.

This week we did some scribble art paintings. I got the idea from The Artful Parent which is my new favorite website for art ideas for kids. It’s was super easy and simple to do. The materials required were as basic as it gets: paper, pencil and watercolors.

First, scribble a line drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil. I forgot to take a phtoto at that stage but you can kind of see Ruth’s drawing in the photo above. Next, you simply fill in each space with watercolor paint. Easy peasy.

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Perhaps because it was easy, this activity proved to be the center of a relaxing afternoon. We painted and listened to music and watched birds out our big kitchen window. We chatted some and were just quiet some.

This is a great activity if you have kids who are more perfectionists about their art. There really isn’t any “right” way to do it. It’s much more about the process than the product  so they don’t stress about making it “look right”.

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To give you some idea of the finished product, I’m including photos. I’m not sure why the background looks so brown in these, we used regular white paper. Still, you get the overall idea.

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The boys decided to paint their backgrounds black. I’m not sure why but it gave a different finished look. Part of the fun of this activity was that because it was so easy it was a good opportunity for the kids to experiment with watercolors and to learn some basic ideas (less water=bolder color, watercolors bleed into each other). Best of all, all three kids had fun with it, which is ultimately my main objective with art in our homeschool.

A Long Walk to Water

7981456This year the kids and I are studying world cultures/geography. With the return to school in January we began a unit on Africa. With each area of the world we’ve studied we’ve read a lot of picture books. I’ve tried to have John read at least one longer work as well. He is a very good reader but needs to work on thinking more deeply about what he reads and on being able to discuss and write about books. For some of the books I’ve had him write essays or fill out a reader’s guide that I made for him. His view was that doing those “spoiled reading”. I understand his viewpoint, but it is still a skill we need to work on. So for Africa I decided to pick a book and then to meet weekly with him to orally talk about the book. Sort of a mini book club. I’m hoping that this helps him to think about the book more deeply than he normally would but that it isn’t as onerous of a task for him. And that it’s a stepping stone to being able to more easily write about what he reads.

I picked A Long Walk to Water primarily because the author, Linda Sue Park, is the author of many other books we have read and enjoyed. In it, she tells the story of two Sudanese children: Salva Dut, a Sudanese boy who is forced to flee into the bush when his village is attacked by rebels and Nya, a young girl who must spend all day every day walking to and from a water source in order to provide her family with drinking water. Salva is a real person and the account of his journey to Ethiopia, Kenya and ultimately the United States is based on his true story. Nya is a fictional character who is representative of the life of many Sudanese girls. Each chapter in the book is divided into two sections; one tells a part of Nya’s story and one tells a part of Salva’s story. In the end, the two stories come together in a satisfying way.

A Long Walk to Water is not a difficult read but the events are disturbing and so it is probably best for middle-school aged kids. Park does a good job of relaying Salva’s story in a truthful way without sugar-coating the horrible events but also in a way that is manageable for kids. It introduces the topic of the Lost Boys of Sudan and child soldiers and refugees and the effects of war on children. However, by including Nya’s story and the ultimate happy ending for both characters, kids will be left with hope instead of just horror. The book will also challenge kids to think about how they should react to what they read and how they might even help to bring about change in the world.

To read more: 
Salva Dut’s organization: Water for South Sudan
You Tube Video with Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut 

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.

Matilda

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For Christmas and birthdays for the past few years we’ve been giving experiences as the main gifts for the kids. They have a lot of stuff and they get a lot more stuff from generous family members. Past gifts have included trapeze lessons, a special reptile house tour at the National Zoo, a day at a ropes course that they love, theater tickets, a weekend away snow tubing as a family and even a night at Medieval Times. I hope that the experiences end up being things that remember as they grow up.

This year for Christmas we gave them tickets to see Matilda at the Kennedy Center. I had heard amazing things about this musical and they were all true. It’s fantastic. We read the book together in December as a nighttime read aloud and all three had found it very funny. Knowing the story made it that much more enjoyable of an experience. If you have a chance to see it near you, I would highly recommend it, with or without kids of your own.

2015 Read-Alouds

We now have three kids who can read on their own but our family read-aloud time remains a treasured part of our day. Our typical nightly routine is to all sit on our (me and H’s) bed and read for about 30-60 minutes. I usually read two books: one is for the boys and one is for Ruth. In reality, almost always all three listen to both books. John will sometimes read his own book while I’m reading the “Ruth” book but often he ends up listening, or at least listening to the parts that he remembers that he liked when he was that age. We aren’t able to do this every night between my work schedule and swim meets and basketball games and Scouts and other activities. I only imagine that it will get harder as they get older but for now I am enjoying this quiet (relatively) time together at the end of the day.

I still also read a book at lunchtime, although that has gotten harder also. I often find myself reading other books at lunch. Sometimes poetry or picture books or something to go with what we are currently studying. And sometimes we are eating in a hurry or we do a popcorn lunch (which really means we watch a movie).

We also pretty much always have an audiobook that we are listening to in the car. We drive a fair amount, although not as much as some families I know, so we have plenty of time to get immersed in a story together.

So that’s the how we do it.

Here’s the what:

Bedtime Read-Alouds

Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
Taran the Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
The Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein
Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bergman
Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary


Ramona and her Mother
by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary
Ramona’s World by Beverly Cleary
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Matilda by Roald Dahl

Lunch-Time Read-Alouds:
Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Return to Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright

 

Audiobooks: 
The Sisters Grimm (all 9 books)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsell
Nurk by Ursula Vernon
The Sixty Eight Rooms series (all 4 books)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

 

 

 

There weren’t any books listed above that we didn’t enjoy. This seemed to be the year of the series. The boys and I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. Zoe loved both Ramona and Laura, two girls that she would love to know in real life. We spent many happy months with The Sisters Grimm in Fairyport Landing. I feel like I should also point out that our list reminds me that good stories don’t need to stay in categories of age or gender. When asked what their favorites of the year were both boys mentioned On the Banks of Plum Creek. Now admittedly, the 12 year old likes it solely for the leech scene, but he still likes it.

We are still finishing two of our books from the year: The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage by Chris Kurtz and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The latter is only for the boys as Ruth found it too scary. Next up we have waiting Mossflower by Brian Jacques (at the request of David) and The Doll People by Ann Martin. And for the car we have Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliott.