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

Snow!

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.

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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

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

I never really liked Math in school. I got good grades in the math classes I took, but I’ve realized since that I was never really good at mathematics but was reasonably good at memorizing formulas and studying and following directions. Once I reached higher math classes in college I realized there was a whole world of mathematics that I just didn’t get. I fully admit to being one of those students who grumbled about how there was no way they were ever going use something like trigonometry in the real world.

I wish a book like Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong had been around then. (Well, to be fair, maybe there was a book like that around then. But maybe I had to wait until I in my forties and more open to having my mind changed to appreciate it.) Ellenberg covers probability and regression theory  and non-Euclid geometry and basic calculus all while discussing real-life examples of how math is useful in the real world. He skips around from the MIT students who figured out how to beat the Massachusetts lottery to how a mathematician figured out how to design better planes in WWII to a discussion of the 2000 election results in Florida (remember Bush v. Gore). It’s not an easy book to read, Ellenberg doesn’t shy away from discussions of complex formulas and puzzles. But he has a very easy to read style of writing. It’s like having a really excited math professor in the room with you. Even if you don’t grasp everything he’s saying you get the idea. Math is really cool! And useful!

A few quotes:

One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of the genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! I’ve never heard a student say, “I like Hamlet, but I don’t really belong in AP English- that kid who sits in the front row knows all the plays, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine!”….  p 412-413

and

Every time you observe that more of a good thing is not always better; or you remember that improbable things happen a lot, given enough chances….; or you make a decision based not just on the most likely futures, but on the cloud of all possible futures, with attention to which ones are likely and which ones are not; or you let go of the idea that the beliefs of groups should be subject to the same rules as beliefs of individuals; or simply, you find that cognitive sweet spot where you can let your intuition run wild on the network of tracks formal reasoning makes for it; without writing down an equation or drawing a graph, you are doing mathematics, the extension of common sense by other means. When are you going to use it? You’ve been using mathematics since you were born and you’ll probably never stop. Use it well. p 437

 

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

Audiobooks:

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.

 

2014 in Books

So, last year I made some bookish resolutions. And, as with most New Year’s Resolutions, I failed. I was going to read more, read more classics from the Well-Educated Mind list, read off my shelves/TBR list and blog more about what I read. As far as numbers I read about the same number of books (71). I forgot the classics resolution somewhere around Jan 7th and I still have shelves piled high with “someday” books and a TBR list that just keeps getting longer. And I blogged way less than I had in past years. So in some concrete ways, it was year of failure.

Ah well, it was fun trying. A year of reading is never really a failure, which is maybe why it’s my favorite pursuit. I always find it near impossible to name my favorite book of the year or the best book I read. Instead here are a few reflections on my year in books. If you’re interested the full list is here.

The Year of the Short Story

I have frequently stated that I’m not a fan of short stories. I appreciate the skill and craft, but I just like longer format fiction. This apparently was the year I decided to challenge that self-stated belief.

In all I read five collections of short stories this year:

Dear Life by Alice Munro
Bark by Lorrie Moore
Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

I still think I prefer the longer form of a novel but I did learn to enjoy the short story more. I have several collections on my shelf  or TBR list to read in the coming year: Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol.

The Best 34 hours I Spent

Alternate title: That’s one way to get to the classics.
Other Alternate title: Best serendipity reading

Early in the year I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Somewhere in reading about it, I saw several references to David Copperfield. I love Dickens but had never read David Copperfield. I thought about reading it but it was the summer and I had a stack of books I needed to read in preparation for John’s 6th grade year. So I decided to listen to the audiobook. Twenty-seven CD’s and 34-some hours later and I was still loving Dicken’s creation.

I also read (and enjoyed) three other classics for the first time:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.

Truth is Better than Fiction (This Year, at least)

This year, the books that stood out for me the most were both non-fiction books. First, Lawrence Wright’s mind-blowing Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. If you were around me when I was reading this book, I apologize. I probably bored you with long experts or stories. It was that good. Crazy and spooky. But really, really good.

I also probably bored a lot of people with spy stories from my other great non-fiction read of the year: Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. Spies and Scientologists both make for fascinating reading.

You Can Never Go Wrong Writing about Books

Nick Hornby’s Ten years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books is a collection of columns he wrote for The Believer magazine. The columns are a celebration of reading and books and especially of a particular kind of reading: reading for whimsy, reading for joy, reading what you want because you want it and because you like it. It would made a wonderful gift for anyone who loves books and reading.

 

 

And the one that negates that whole “no best book of the year thing”: 

Ok, I know I said I have a hard time picking my favorite book or best book of the year. But Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son was just so good that I’d have to say it would win. If there was a winner. I said it all in my earlier review so I’ll just point you back there.  And say that at the end of the year it still stands out as the top of the top for this year.

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!

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.

October and November Reading

Fiction Read in October and November:

Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist (short stories)
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
For someone who supposedly doesn’t like short stories very much, I’ve been reading a lot of them this year. My book club decided we wanted to read a classic and Faulkner came up as someone who most of us had always wanted to read but just hadn’t (or hadn’t read much). Serendipitously, Ellen Gilchrist’s new collection, Acts of God, arrived for me at the library. There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are Southern writers (both from Mississippi) who write primarily about a particular place and time. Both write about ordinary people, sometimes dealing with ordinary circumstances and sometimes with extraordinary ones out their control. Of the two, I related more to Gilchrist’s world but both are beautiful wordsmiths who write finely crafted, dense, complex stories. 

Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym for this series of mystery/detective stories starring Cormoron Strike, a retired military intelligence officer and amputee now working as a  London private investigator. I liked this addition to the series even more than the first one. The plot involves a weird and gory murder (if you have a squeamish stomach this one isn’t for you) but like all good detective stories the real joy comes in getting to know Strike and his world, especially his assistant Robin. A very fun read. 

A Question of Honor by Charles Todd
An Unwilling Accomplice by Charles Todd
Two more additions to another mystery series I’ve enjoyed. This one, about Bess Crawford, a WWI era British nurse, is much more quiet and cerebral than Silkworm but also quite enjoyable. 

Nonfiction Read in October and November:

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites by Kate Christensen
I’ve also read a lot of memoirs this year. Writer Kate Christensen’s memoir promises to be a story of her life told through food that has been important to her. The food angle felt somewhat contrived to me, with mentions of favorite dishes sprinkled in here and there and some random recipes included at the end of each chapter. Christensen has lived a full life, full of hardships (and abusive father, parent’s divorce, poverty, drug abuse) and some amazing opportunities (a stint as an au pair in France, working as a short order cook at a school in New England, graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). However, I came away not all that interested or impressed. I think it was the overly self-conscious tone that turned me off. In the end, I didn’t have much desire to learn more about the writer or to read other things she has written. 

Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker

If you have a little girl (or boy) who loves ballet, you should know about the Ella Bella books by James Mayhew.  Ella Bell Ballerina and the Nutcracker follows the same basic plot as the other books in the series. Ella Bella, a little girl who is lucky enough to have her ballet class meet in a beautiful old theater, is told part of the story of a classic ballet by her teacher, Madame Rosa. Ella Bella then stays behind after class and is transported into the ballet by Madame Rosa’s magical music box. Once in the ballet, she meets the characters and dances with them acting out the rest of the ballet’s story.

For hard core dance enthusiasts, there isn’t a lot of actual ballet in these books. No discussion of steps or ballet terminology. But the books do a lovely job of telling the story of each ballet through the eyes of a girl who is likely about the age of the reader. It’s a sweet way of introducing some of the classic ballets to young readers and would make for a great way to prepare for seeing some of these ballets performed live.