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.

Read Aloud Thursday: From the New Shelf

We read a lot of picture books, although less than we used to and less than I wish we did. Today I have to share a small, somewhat random sample of some recent finds from our library’s new shelf that we have enjoyed. The first, Penguins in Peril, finds a penguin the unwilling captive of three dastardly cats. The cats have spent all their money on movies instead of food and craft. They come up with a plan to perpetrate the most daring robbery of all time and get all the fishes they want. But first they need a secret weapon: the penguin. The penguin outwits them in the end and the cat’s plan is thwarted. A first book by Helen Hancocks, this one definitely takes a dry sense of humor to appreciate. The somewhat flat text and graphically simple illustrations have a certain plain-Jane charm. My kids liked it when reading it the first time but I haven’t seen them reading it again on their own or seeking it out for second or third readings.

On the other end of the spectrum from the conniving cats in Penguins in Peril, is Sarah Weeks’ Glamourpuss, the title character in what can best be described as the Fancy Nancy of the feline world. Glamourpuss is, well, glamorous. The most glamorous pet ever. But then Bluebell, a tiny toy dog, comes to visit. Bluebell wears fancy clothes: hoopskirts and tiaras and fruit-covered turbans. Bluebell dances and does tricks. Glamourpuss starts to doubt herself. Then however, Bluebell tears up all her fancy clothes and Glamourpuss realizes that maybe there is room for two fabulous pets in the same house. David Small’s (one of my favorite illustrators) humorous illustrations are a perfect paring for this quirky and sweet story.

And for my last offering, we go back to simple, at least in concept. Mac Barnett’s Telephone takes the game of telephone and imagines how it would go as played by birds on a wire. The concept is simple but the execution is picture perfect. The message gets more and more garbled. Illustrator Jen Corace’s birds tell a story of their own as each bird changes the message according to his own job or hobby.

One reason we don’t read as many picture books as I might like is that with older kids, we spend more time reading chapter books. Chapter books are great fun as well to read, and I love our nightly “special book” time. But I think too often parents think that once their kids are old enough to move on to reading “big books” that the time for picture books is over. I recently discovered that my sixth grader still reads every picture book I bring home from the library on his own. It makes me happy that he doesn’t feel too old to enjoy what some kids might feel are books just for little kids.

Stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday and share what you family is reading together.

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
Gem

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.

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.

A Boy and a Jaguar

In this new autobiographical picture book, Alan Rabinowitz tells his own story of living with a disability and following a lifelong passion. As a young boy, Alan struggles with stuttering. He is put into a class for disturbed children because he “disrupts the class” with his stuttering. He feels broken.

What makes him feel whole is his ability to talk to animals. He has a special connection with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, although seeing her in her cage makes him feel sad. When he grows up his love for animals leads him to study black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains and Jaguars in Belize. He goes on to work in wildlife conservation and be instrumental in establishing the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize.

Kids who struggle with a disability or with bullying or just with being different will find something to love in A Boy and a Jaguar. However, I think kids who don’t struggle with the same things will still find this a compelling and inspiring story. Rabinowitz’s message isn’t so much overcoming disability as it is one of hope and passion. The stuttering is a key part of the story but it becomes secondary to Rabinowitz’s gift with animals. The biographical information on the jacket says that Rabinowitz believes that he would “not be on the path of his passion- saving big cats” if he had not been a stutterer. He has come to believe that the stuttering is a gift.

I can’t end this review without a mention of the lovely paintings by illustrator Catia Chien. They are the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful book.

A Boy and a Jaguar has been nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category. 

Nonfiction Monday: Mysterious Patterns

When you think “math picture book” the words captivating, beautiful, and great kid appeal don’t typically come to mind. At least not to my mind. I might think educational but dull. Or interesting but not visually appealing.  Sarah C. Campbell breaks all those stereotypes with Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature.

The book begins with simple shapes familiar to most kids: spheres, cylinders and cones. She shows how these shapes are found in man-made items and also in nature. Campbell then introduces the concept of fractals (regular repeating patterns of shapes of diminishing size) by showing shapes from nature that traditionally were thought to be too messy to describe. (Think broccoli or a fern.) In 1975, a mathematician named Benoit Madelbrot introduced the concept of fractals and showed that those messy complex shapes are really made up of patterns of smaller parts. Campbell uses photography to highlight many examples of fractals: trees, lightening, mountains, human lungs.  Although fractal geometry is mathematically complex, even young kids should come away with some understanding of the concept.

Campbell includes instructions for making your own fractal at the end of the book. An afterword by Michael Frame, a Yale math professor and colleague of Mandelbrot, gives a little more background information on Mandelbrot himself and further expounds on why the concept of fractal geometry is so useful. (The wiring on the Internet is a fractal, DNA is a fractal, seismography uses fractals.) The coolest example he gives that should leave older kids wanting to learn more is an example of a radar invisibility cloak that uses the concept of fractals. (Just one step away from Harry Potter.)

More math books reviewed here at Supratentorial: 

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heligman (biography of Paul Erdos)
Edgar Allen Poe’s Pie by J. Patrick Lewis (math puzzle poems)
Mathematickles by Betsy Franco (simple math poems)
The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang (simple counting puzzles)
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (goofy story with math puzzles)
Mystery Math by David Adler (algebra introduction)
That’s A Possibility by Bruce Goldstone (probability and statistics for elementary students)
Zero is the Leaves on the Tree by Betsy Franco (introduces concept of zero)
You Can Count on Monsters by Richard Evan Schwartz (incredibly creative book on factoring)

Ok, so maybe I should go back and amend that statement about math books not being captivating or appealing to kids. Or maybe I should go back and read my own archives more often. I’m thinking of putting several of these on my library list; I’d forgotten about them and how good they are.

 Mysterious Patterns was nominated for a Cybils award this year in the Elementary/Middle Grade Non-Fiction Category.

Dog vs. Cat

Dog vs. Cat is one of those picture books that the adults in the house enjoyed just as much (and maybe more) than the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Button both happen to purchase a new pet on the same day on different sides of town. Having only one room for a pet, the dog and cat have to share a room. What happens next isn’t unexpected but is quite fun. Chris Gall’s clever text and even more clever cartoon like illustrations tell this familiar story in a fresh way.

First, the Odd Couple-like pair tries to get along. Dog shows Cat how to chase a tail (Cat’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding me…”) Cat shows Dog how to curl up with a good book (Dog: “Boring.”) But their differences become too much and the situation escalates to all out war: Cat fills Dog’s water dish with hairballs; Dog pours the water over Cat’s head at naptime. However, when they are finally separated they begin to miss each other and in the end they find themselves united against a common enemy: the Button family’s newest “pet”. (Hint: it’s loud and sleeps in a crib.)

The genius of this book is in the details, most of which are in the illustrations. The dogs at the animal shelter are holding up signs when Mr. Button comes to visit that read: “I like you”, Take Me!”, “I want to Lick You!” and “I”ll be your Best Friend!”. By contrast the cats at the cat store have signs that read: “I’m kind of a big deal…”, “I’m not looking at you.”, “Warning- High Maintenance” and “Whatever”. Perhaps it’s just that we’re former cat people who have adopted a dog this summer but we all found this one hilarious. Recommended for dog people or cat people or anyone who has a sense of humor.