The Nutcracker Comes to America

25793079Part of the fun of the book basket is re-reading beloved favorites year after year. And part of the fun is discovering new books. Yesterday we opened the first new-to-us book of this year. Chris Barton’s The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition is an unusual look at the history behind the Nutcracker in America. This is a different perspective than usually given in kids books about the ballet. It’s not about E.T. A. Hoffman’s original story or the adaptation by Alexander Dumas or even really the ballet by Tchaikovsky. Instead it tells the story of how and why the Nutcracker became the most performed ballet in America.

I’ve seen the Nutcracker countless times as a child and as an adult and I admit to never really wondering how it became a holiday tradition. I was somewhat shocked to learn that it was first performed in America in 1944; I had imagined it as being an older tradition than that. It was also interesting to learn that about the three Christensen brothers who loved ballet and how the Nutcracker became a shared love of theirs, especially in the shadow of WWII.

I enjoyed this new addition to our Christmas book list. Ruth takes ballet and we are going to see her first “real” Nutcracker this year and I think she also enjoyed the idea of learning more about the ballet. The boys were ok with it but I’m not sure it will become a yearly read for us. It’s an interesting story but might not hold the attention of kids who aren’t especially ballet obsessed. However, if you have a ballet lover or are just looking for a Christmas book that is somewhat different, this is a good choice.

Project Feederwatch

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Are you watching?

Project Feederwatch is one of the best recurring projects we do in our homeschool every year. It’s simple. You just count birds at a site in your yard up to days a week from Nov-May. You can count every week or you can do it once or twice. Once you count, you enter your data on the website. There is a small fee. The first year you get a great poster of common birds in your area and some other materials. The website stores your  data from previous years and it’s fun to go back and look at trends of birds. My kids love doing it and it hones their skills of observation and awareness of nature. It also is a great way to be involved in citizen science.

The season started last week but it’s not too late to sign up and count this year.

And because everything finds its way back to books, a bird themed book list for your young bird and book lovers:

Fiction Picture Books:
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming
The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend
Leaving the Nest by Moredecai Gerstein
Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin
Louise: the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss
Telephone by Mac Barnett
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert
Falcon by Tim Jessell
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies (biography of Audubon)
United Tweets of America by Hudson Talbott (state birds)
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Chapter Books: 
The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash
Swordbird (and sequels) by Nancy Yi Fan

Our favorite Field Guide: 
Birds of Virginia by Stan Tekiela- We have others but we use this one the most because it is organized by color which is such a easy way for a beginner to try to find the bird that you are looking at.

The Rules of the House

26245753You may have noticed I rarely review picture books anymore. This is for two reasons.

1) We read a lot less picture books. I find that kind of sad but also just part of having kids get older. I don’t think my kids are too old for picture books and they all still like them. We  still get a stack out of the library each time we go. But now all three kids read on their own and typically go through that stack before I even get to crack a cover. Our family read-aloud time is usually chapter books or books that are somehow related to school.

2) I blog a lot less than I used to (shocking news, I know). Most of the time I know that a hundred other more prolific and faithful kid- lit bloggers have already reviewed anything that I have read. Even when I do read a picture book that I think “Oh, I really need to share this,” it’s rare that I then find the time to write about it.

All that to say that The Rules of the House was one of the few picture books I’ve read lately that I felt compelled to write about. I haven’t looked to see how many other reviews there are because I just don’t care. I loved this book and want to tell you about it.

I’m not always a fan of Mac Barnett books. I have absolutely adored some (Extra Yarn, Battle Bunny) and been left cold by others (Chloe and the Lion). But one thing I do really appreciate about all his books is that they are unexpected. I kept thinking I knew what predictable thing would happen next in this book, and then something else happened. And the something else was always way funnier than the thing I expected.

A brief synopsis of the plot is that a brother and sister go to the woods on vacation with their Dad. The brother always follows rules. The sister always breaks them. The story is about what happens when the sister breaks the rules of the house they are staying in. As you can tell from the cover, there is some mild scariness. It’s a great book for this time of year, although it doesn’t actually mention Halloween.

We read this one along with a bunch of others from the library basket one morning before starting school. I can’t remember why exactly, but Ruth was grumpy. It was the week after we returned from vacation and she was jet-lagged and sick and just not wanting to do school. So to ease her into the day, I offered to have reading time. She, David and I snuggled into bed and read through a bunch of books. None of the others stood out as much as The Rules of the House but the sweetness of the time together reminded me that we should find a way to do that more often.

 

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.

 

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.