Archive for September, 2010

September 30, 2010

Daddy has eggs on his head

Bedtime reading is one of the highlights of everyone’s day in our house.  Dad and I used to take turns—one does bath, one does reading, etc., and we still do sometimes, but more and more we seem to be drawn to reading time.  There is some magical magnetic pull that makes the parent who was ostensibly given the “night off” wander in and lie down on the floor, or curl up next to the reading parent and toddler on the bed, and just listen.  Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves and we get an extra book to read at the end of bedtime.

During one of those moments we were reading a book about animals (my apologies, but I forget which one), and the book talked about the baby animals hugging and snuggling with their mothers.  Every time this was mentioned, our two-year-old, already snuggled next to me, would give me a hug.  Dad was reading the book and he paused, looked at me, and then read the next page differently, substituting a daddy animal getting a hug.

I smiled, Dad (eventually) got a hug, and bedtime continued happily.  But it did make me think.  Even with all the books out there for children, even with all the emphasis on political correctness, there certainly is a lot more mommy-hugging going on in picture books than daddy-hugging.

Which is why I wanted to talk about this book today.  Dad doesn’t get a hug in this one, but he does get a lot of credit for his role in child-rearing.  My son mostly likes it because he likes anything and everything that has to do with seahorses.  But I know he’s also getting a good message about fathers.  And it’s Eric Carle (who won a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to creating meaningful picture books), so really, what’s not to like?

Title: Mister Seahorse
Author: Eric Carle
Genre
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

Male seahorses take care of the eggs after the female lays them in his pouch, and that’s exactly what Mr. Seahorse does.  As Mr. Seahorse is floating through the ocean with eggs in his pouch, he meets a lot of other fish.  Some of them he just floats past.  Others he stops to talk to, meeting the daddy Stickleback who is watching over his nest of eggs, Mr. Tilapia who can’t talk because his mouth is full of the eggs he is taking care of, and Mr. Kurtus, who has my favorite line in the book: “Mrs. Kurtus laid her eggs and I have stuck them on my head.”  If that isn’t good parenting, then really, what is?

Accentuating this great book are Eric Carle’s gorgeous paintings.  In this book, every other fish the seahorse meets (those who aren’t starring in the daddy roles) is hidden behind a painted transparency.  For example, the painting of a stonefish is hidden behind a transparency with a painting of a rock.  The painting of several trumpetfish is hidden behind a transparency with a painting of a patch of reeds, and so in.  In this way, the book teaches another lesson about camouflage (and beautiful art).  Plus, my toddler really likes to turn the transparency pages, comparing the pictures on both sides of the page before and after they are covered up.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Well, just beware you are asking a biology major and longtime science teacher, who often gets ridiculed by my mother-in-law for telling my 2-year-old that “no, the sun doesn’t go down, the earth is just turning” and teaching him the difference between a mommy and daddy cardinal.  So here we go…in my opinion, there are a million things to talk to a toddler about as you read this book!  Here are some of them:

- Fish lay eggs—just like chickens, which might be a more familiar egg-laying animal to a preschooler.  Although fish eggs look a lot different, and they lay a lot at one time.  Then ask your child–how do the fish in the book take care of their eggs?  The different daddies carry the eggs around with them in different ways.  Let them discover this and tell you how.

- Daddies can take care of eggs just like mommies can.  Talk about the animals your child may be familiar with where the mothers take care of eggs (like chickens).  Or bring up penguins where both fathers and mothers take care of eggs.

- Camouflage: On the pages with the transparencies, ask your child to find the hidden fish before you turn the transparency page.  What makes the fish hard to see behind the transparencies?  They are often the same color, texture, and shape as something in the ocean around them.  This is called camouflage and helps keep them hidden and safe.  Ask an older preschooler to draw their own picture of a camouflaged animal.  If they are really into art, give them water colors like Eric Carle used.

- Differences: Point out that each fish looks different.  They are different colors, sizes, and shapes.  They also do things differently–in this case, they take care of their eggs differently.  It’s never too early to start teaching tolerance of differences, and simply noticing that they exist is a strong first step.

- God and Evolution: If you are more into the former, talk about all the beautiful sea creatures God made.  If you are more into the latter, talk about all of the beautiful sea creatures that evolved to fill different roles in the ocean ecosystem.  If you are into both, talk about the beautiful world of God’s and how these fascinating creatures evolved into it.  Or just talk about what seems right to you at the time.

September 28, 2010

Is it still a GAME if your life is at stake?

I absolutely could not put this book down.  If I haven’t picked up the sequel yet (and I guess now is the time to admit that I haven’t), it’s only because I don’t want the memory of this book to fade.  This book has everything–fast-paced action, mystery and intrique, great characters and character development, and strong writing. And it has that wonderful characteristic of great science fiction–parodying our own society without shouting at us or lecturing us.  Just telling us how it could be, if we look at our problems in different ways.

It’s one of the many books I’ve read recently that makes me wonder how I didn’t get hooked on science fiction earlier in life.  And makes me lament that a little bit: I mean, I had all the characteristics–I was a nerdy, bookish girl who liked to think a lot and read a lot.  I ended up being a Science major for goodness sake.  How did I get by all of those school librarians and caring teachers without any of them handing me a book like this?  I forgive them, but only because I have now found them.  You might have read this one.  If you haven’t, please do. And even if you have, take these moments to remember it and get a few ideas on how to talk about it with your kids.  While I’m a girl, I think that this will mostly appeal to boys, a sexist comment which is in no way meant to say that girls won’t like it.  (Please, I say “mostly” for a reason.)  But it’s typical boy stuff—boy main character, war games, politics.  Not a lot of love interest in this one.

There are a lot of sequels to Ender’s Game, and as I haven’t read them, I can’t say too much, but I do know this, which I think is cool: some of them happen at the same time as each other, but from different points of view, told by different characters.  The characters are all so good, even the supporting ones, that I’m excited to hear some of their stories.

Although as a disclaimer—I’m not sure if this will be read as a plus or minus to most people—the founder of Facebook claims this as his favorite book.  So that take as you will.

Title: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
Genre
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and a lot of Adults, Ages 10 and up

Summary and Review:

Andrew Wiggins, or “Ender” as his beloved sister has always called him, is a genius.  A rare “third” in a society where a two-child maximum has been imposed, the government has been watching his development closely, hoping he’ll have a mix of his siblings’ genius without the over-aggression of his older brother or the too-peaceful nature of his younger sister.

At only six years old, Ender is taken to a special school to train military geniuses, he engages with his friends in war games, training together and learning combat strategies as humans prepare for what they think will be the third attack by an alien species who has almost wiped out the human race twice before.  This is part action adventure, part school fiction, and part coming-of-age story.  Ender’s heroics as a leader on the battlefields endear him to the strategists but make him some fierce enemies within the school itself.  Bullying, cliques, and friendships are all themes this book is not afraid to explore.

When it came time for the final games, I actually cried when the scene opened up, with Ender at the controls and the friends he had made under his command.  I felt like I had known these kids for years, and I was still only in the first book.  The ending is beautiful, poignant, surprising, and provocative.  And then when Ender himself thinks about everything that happened, it is all those things all over again.  An amazingly crafted tale with an amazing voice and great characters.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Let’s be honest.  The most likely reader for this story is a boy in middle school and high school, so the conversations you are going to have with him aren’t long.  But there are a lot of great things to talk about.  I think some of the great themes in the book are:

a) school classroom teasing, bullying, and hierarchy
b) friendships
c) politics and political power (specifically the political power that Ender’s siblings are gaining, anonymously, through their online writings)
d) inter-species relations (which can obviously translate to inter-racial relations, international relations, intercultural relations, and even, speaking in environmental terms rather than extraterrestrial ones, inter-species relations again
e) what it means to grow up

When you talk to your kids about the book, ask them mostly about the characters.  I think a lot of a, b, and e can get lost in the action and science fiction of it all.  But the book is really about these people and how they interact, and just asking open-ended questions to learn more about the book should open an interesting conversation about school dynamics.  Also, it can be hard to get a middle school kid to talk about school cliques, but if they are talking about them in the context of an other-worldly school, it becomes less real and easier to talk about.  And no matter who they are talking about, you’ll still get a very good picture of how they think things are going in their own school, with their own friends.  Even if they won’t say so directly.

Other questions you could ask:

1) Why is the government using children for these missions and training?

2) What are the qualities in Ender that make him so special?  Both of his siblings are just as smart, if not smarter, than him.  What makes him different?

3) What does your child think about the ending of the book, and more importantly, about what Ender thinks about what happened?

4) A science kid might be interested in the idea of two different species trying to understand each other.  In this case, the buggers and the humans, with their different system of communications, fail to understand each other at a catastrophically fatal level.  Could it be possible that humans in this world are doing this with different species in this world?

Alternatively to a conversation, you could do a newspaper or online search for modern stories that parallel different story lines in the book.  This would be a great activity for an older child, especially one who is interested in politics or warfare.  There are a million stories out there that would work–some political, some environmental, some social.  The book comments on so much.

Really, you could do a year’s worth of curriculum on this book.  But I will stop here.  This is supposed to be a blog, after all, not a unit of curriculum.

September 27, 2010

My dog did it!

It’s the oldest excuse in the book, but the story of a young girl and her imaginary dog getting into trouble make you believe it all over again…but before we get to that…

I’m a few weeks into this blog, and I’m really loving it.   My stats page tells me that people are reading it, which is even cooler!  If you are one of them (and I suppose, by definition, that you are) please feel free to comment on posts and tell me what you like and what you don’t.  Definitely want to hear if you picked up any of the books and/or tried any of the conversation starters!

Title: Really Truly Bingo
Author: Laura McGee Kvasnosky
Genre
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

Bea’s mom is busy (one of the reasons I like the book already on page 1), and when Bea protests that there is nothing to play outside by herself, she tells Bea to “Use your imagination.”  Which she does.  She sits down on a bench in her yard and soon a dog shows up and says “hi”, to which Bea nonchalantly responds.  “I was hoping for a talking dog.”  Ah, to be a child again.  Bingo suggests lots of activities to Bea, beginning with the obvious “let’s do something we’re not supposed to do.”

When Bea’s mom comes out to find the hose running, the yard muddy and a loud radio and the crumbs of a snack outside, she listens to Bea’s story that “it was all Bingo’s idea.”  Despite not being able to see Bingo, Mom wisely suggest that Bea and Bingo clean up the mess together.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I suppose you could read this book and then talk to your kid about Bea being naughty, making messes, and lying to her mom about a dog that doesn’t exist, but I would argue that you would have really missed the point.  She wasn’t lying–she was using her imagination just like her mother suggested, and while she might have made a mess, it was merely the consequence of a child taking care of herself–playing outside, eating a snack, even playing herself some music.  So here’s some questions I might ask my toddler instead:

1) Is your mommy ever busy working like Bea’s mommy?  (Yes, a leading question, but we’re parents here, not lawyers…we should take advantage of that while we can.)

2) What do you like to do when mommy’s working?

3) Do you ever see an imaginary animal?  Would you like to?  Should we play with an imaginary animal right now, together?  (This I think could lead to a lot of fun.  If your child is a little young to be able to pretend an entire animal exists, maybe use a puppet or stuffed animal instead and help give life to him.  Pretend play is an important part of their developing creative minds!)

If you really like this one, Laura McGee Kvasnosky also wrote the Zelda and Ivy series, which I have yet to read, but have heard good things about.  And the fourth book won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Beginning Reader Award.  So that’s impressive.

September 25, 2010

Dee-dee-dee, Dee-dee-dee, Dee-dee-dee

I love the chickadee.  It’s so small, so wonderfully cute, and it sings such a beautiful song.  When my toddler asks, “is that a chickadee?” when one comes into our yard, I am as excited and proud as when he took his first steps or said his first word.  “Yes!” I want to shout, knowing that somehow inside him that simple identification has touched his heart to the outside world, has connected him to his planet.

My son requested this book tonight.  He wanted to read the “book about the chickadee and the moon.”  And who wouldn’t?  The lyrics in this book (and I use the word lyrics purposefully—it reads like a beautiful song) are so perfect they seem to fly off the page, turning the sleepy-eyed parent bedtime reading into a dramatic performance.  Go ahead—try not to read this book without emphasis, whisperings, and emotion.  It’s not possible.

Title: The Longest Night
Author
: Marion Dane Bauer
lllustrator: Ted Lewin
Genre
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

The night is long, the sun has been away.  The animals in the forest want the sun to return, and each one thinks they have the power.  The moose is so strong–certainly he can bring back the sun.  But the animals are wrong, and the wind tells them so in a beautiful whisper.  Only the chickadee can bring back the sun, and so she does, with a song and the colors on the page.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

The illustrations in this book are absolutely gorgeous–a deep but bright blue brings the winter time to life, makes us believe we are there, in the snowy forest with the animals, cold, waiting for the sun.  When the sun does finally come at the end of the book, the color almost takes your breath away.  Just reading this book with an infant or toddler will teach them about the forest.  Ask them what they see, what the animals are, if they can see the snow, the trees.

With an older toddler or preschooler, talk about the colors–why does the illustrator use blue?  Does it make it feel like the middle of a cold, dark winter?  What if the illustrator had used red or pink or yellow instead?  What would that have looked like?

But really, the beauty here lies in the words.  Really get into this book when you read it.  The voice of the crow—make it sound like a crow.  The voice of the wind—whisper it and draw it out like the wind.  Let your child hear the beauty of words on the page and how they can come alive when they are so well written (and so well read).

When your child is old enough to read some of the book with you, let them practice.  What does the crow’s voice sound like?  What about the moose?  The fox?  Read them in different pitches, tones, voices.  Channel your inner forest animal.  And then the chickadee?  Sing the song together.  What does it sound like?  Practice.

And our toddlers and preschoolers, they are small children—let them feel the power of that little chickadee, singing its sweet song and bringing out the sun.  The larger animals couldn’t do that.  Help them celebrate that fact.  Help them understand their own power.

September 24, 2010

Imagine if you had the power to GIVE color to some who could only see in black and white

I would argue that you do have this power.  We all do.  I’ve never met someone who sees the world the same way I do.  This could mean that I’m some kind of mutant.  But more likely I think it means that we all see things differently.    And by having real conversations with each other, we can spread the color around until all of our worlds become so colorful, so multi-dimensional that we would have no choice but to see the other person’s point of view.

That would be power.  The kind of power that changes the world.  And in Jonas’s world in the beautifully conceived Giver, that’s exactly what does happen.

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre
: Fantasy
Age: Middle School, 9 – 13

Summary and Review:

Jonas is 12 and he is about to learn his profession, chosen for him by the elders in his society and handed out in a ceremony with his peers.  But Jonas isn’t chosen for one of the standard jobs of child-rearing or cleaning.  Instead, he is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memories” and as his training begins, he starts to realize things about his world he never saw before.

The first thing Jonas does is stop taking the drugs prescribed to all citizens when they reach adolescence.  He notices feelings for girls he never had before.  He starts to see in color when before he only saw in black and white (and significantly, the first thing he sees is the red of an apple).  And he starts to learn the stories from his predecessor, the stories and memories of all that has been taken from his community, all that came before.  He learns about weather that isn’t always perfect.  He learns about war and pain, love and loss.  He learns what it really means when a child who doesn’t developed properly is “released”.  And gradually but finally, he decides he cannot bear the burden of knowledge alone, in a world where these things will never exist.

(SPOILER ALERT) I’ve heard some people complain that the ending is too vague–that they want to know exactly what happens to Jonas.  But Jonas is escaping a world where everything is predictable and controlled.  The fact that he has even made it into the unknown means he has succeeded.  And that, to me, is the whole point.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I could talk about this book for months.  In fact, I’ve used it in the classroom, to talk with seventh graders about utopia and dystopia and what those themes means.  Nowadays, I suppose every seventh grader has read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (which I also love) and so they have been certainly introduced to those themes.  This book is less violent, perhaps more subtle, more introspective, but no less powerful.  And this book isn’t about a community-wide struggle for freedom, but simply one boy’s quest for the truth in the world, even if that quest comes from understanding just how painful that truth can be.

One great family activity after reading this book would be to watch the movie Pleasantville.   It has a lot of similar themes–a seemingly perfect society where everything is in black and white, everyone is “happy”, if only in conversation, and the weather is perfect.  There is also no outside world.  But then two modern kids are zapped through their television (Pleasantville is an old TV show) and they start to change the society.  Through their actions the citizens of Pleasantville are introduced to color, love, sex, and knowledge along with hatred, bigotry, and censorship.  The image of the red apple also appears symbolically in the film.

(SPOILER ALERT) The movie also ends on slightly vague terms, although not as vague as the book, giving rise to the idea (and great discussion topic) that uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for our freedom.

Simply comparing the movie and the book will give you a lot to talk about and illuminate a lot of important themes.  Some other questions you might want to discuss are:

- Why did the people of Jonas’s society decide to create it the way they did?  What do you think were the benefits?  Do you see any benefit to living in a black and white, seemingly “perfect” society?

- Why did they create a “Receiver of Memories” if they wanted to erase those things from their own memories?

- If you were in Jonas’s position, would you have done the same thing?  Why?

- Is there anything in our own society that attempts to make things “more pleasant” for us at the expense of knowledge or experience?  What is that?  Do you think it’s a good idea?  Are there things we shouldn’t be allowed to learn by making our own mistakes or having our own experiences?  (Examples might include laws that protect us from ourselves, like a drinking age, school dress codes, internet filters at school or a library, etc.)

- If you were to design the “perfect” society, what would it look like?  What kind of laws would you have?

September 22, 2010

Read this book naked. Or clothed. The rats are open-minded about that.

Sometimes a book just captures us with its brilliance, its subtlety, its language, its characters, or its plot.  Rarely, a book has all of that.  Even more rarely, that book is a picture book.  About rats.  Naked mole rats, actually.  But this one wins over my heart every time I read it.  It is rich with meaning and good life lessons without being preachy or losing its magically simple story.

Even though this is not an author who needs any plugs from me, this is a very special Mo Willems book that everyone should own.

Title: Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed
Author: Mo Willems
Genre
: Picture Book
Age: Any.  Really.

Summary and Review:

This is a story about a naked mole rat named Wilbur who is a lot like the other naked mole rats in his colony except for one thing: he likes to get dressed.  This, as you can imagine, causes much embarrassment, outrage, and isolation.  The other naked mole rats simply cannot understand.  In a fit of anger, after every other attempt to explain to Wilbur that naked mole rats are, in fact, naked, they scream in unison (and in all caps) “NAKED MOLE RATS DON’T WEAR CLOTHES!”

At which point comes my absolute favorite part of the book, when Wilbur asks, simply, “Why not?”

And the hysteria begins.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

There is so much to talk about in this book you could read it every night and still have a meaningful conversation!  In my view, the intended moral is that it’s okay to be different.  That it’s okay to challenge authority and accepted views and just be yourself.  And even though the idea that getting dressed could cause such social outrage seems a far-fetched fantasy, I would argue that it’s not.  Look at what kids wear to school and what they feel pressured to wear.  This book says that it’s okay to wear something different if that’s who you want to be.  It’s okay to be you.  This can be extended to anything outside of the fashion arena, and would make for a great conversation with any kid, whether they are visibly pushing social boundaries or not.

For a younger child, I think it’s okay to make the point that Wilbur isn’t hurting anyone other than himself in his quest to be different.  He isn’t trying to be different in a way that harms others.  For an older child, though, I would resist the temptation to preach, and instead ask them.  Is Wilbur hurting others?  The others certainly act like he is–they are angry enough.  How do we know when our actions hurt others beyond what is reasonable to freely express our own opinions?  What if Wilbur expressed himself by wearing clothes with “bad words” on it?  Would that be hurting others or would that be expressing himself?  There are a lot of simple examples you can give to your child to get them thinking about the all-important questions of respect, authority, and individualism.

Also, I really think it’s important to focus on that one page where Wilbur asks “Why not?”  This is a critical question.  The tradition of nakedness certainly stands in his colony of naked mole rats.  The other naked mole rats certainly believe in it with unwavering strength.  But do they understand why?  Teaching kids to respectfully question what they are taught opens their minds to new ideas and new analyses of old ideas.

As a middle school teacher, I saw a lot of adolescents come through my classroom doors from elementary school.  A lot of them were used to getting good grades, if not straight A’s.  They had breezed through the last few years by following directions and memorizing facts.  But now that the curriculum was getting more complex, they were struggling.  It wasn’t all about memorization anymore.  We wanted them to think. Sometimes, the kids who had lower grades but more experience thinking critically would do better in the higher-level thinking classes of middle and upper school.  It was often easier to help lay foundational knowledge and study skills than it was to teach someone to ask good questions and think about what they were learning.  So I would vehemently argue that it’s never too early (or too late) to teach your kids to think.  Books like this are perfect.  Wilbur is a good role model: he thinks outside the box, he believes in himself, he respects others, and he asks a crucial, meaningful question.

Why not?

Why not, indeed.  Couldn’t we all use a little more “why not” in our lives?

September 21, 2010

The devil’s here…and he’s the least of the problems

I saw this book on the ALA’s 2010 list of best books for young adults.  The title alone is enough to pick it up, but the reviews were also tempting.  There was a lot of stuff I loved about it, and it’s definitely a good book, although I’m not sure it’s my kind of read.  But after thinking about it, I decided it still falls into the category of books you want to stay up late and read (and I did that with this one), so it definitely deserves a spot on the blog.

Title: Soul Enchilada
Author: David Macinnis Gill
Genre
: Fiction/Fantasy
Age: Middle School and High School

Summary and Review:

“Bug” is a high school dropout, an orphan three times over, whose problems seem big–keeping a regular job and paying rent in a nasty apartment.  Then the devil’s sidekick comes to collect on a debt her grandfather owes.  Apparently, he sold his soul to buy a Cadillac and has now disappeared.  The plot twists again (although they let you know this on the back cover, so it’s not really a spoiler, although I wish they didn’t) when she fights to save the car and realizes that her soul was put up as collateral.

The story takes a lot of turns, which many reviewers seemed to have trouble believing, but didn’t actually bother me that much.  Basketball games and pizza delivery races with the devil?  Hey, I’m there.  I like a book like that.  But for me, I wanted a bit more in the characters.  Bug is feisty and strong, an independent woman to a fault.  But shouldn’t she have some other side?  You see it a little when she remembers her mom–I would have just liked to see a little more.  Of course, maybe I’m being sexist here–if this were a male action hero, would I be asking the same thing?  I certainly hope so.  Same with the other characters–they are interesting and likeable, but I wished I got to know them better.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

The book doesn’t necessarily lend itself to deepness: that isn’t a fault, it’s just not the point of the book.  But if your kid is reading it, there are things you could talk about.

First, there’s the whole making-a-deal-with-the-devil thing.  Who would do it?  For what would you make a similarly large sacrifice?  Is there a modern true-life equivalent of selling one’s soul?  What would that be?

Before she realizes her soul is up as collateral, Bug fights to keep that Cadillac–despite the presence of a stinky, powerful demon now in the passenger seat.  Why would anyone put up such a dangerous fight for an object?  For Bug, the car is not only a prized possession, but the last remaining memory of her grandfather.  Are there things in your life that mean that much to you?  Why?

September 20, 2010

Save the next generation of politicians, ball players, and world citizens by reading real books like this one

I swear, so many picture/board/early readers about baseball end with the short guy hitting a game-winning home run, that my son is going to grow up thinking that that’s just how baseball games end.  But this one goes a lot deeper–a LOT deeper–than most of them, so not only do I love reading it, but my son, who loves any book with pictures of bats and balls in it, loves hearing it.  The great thing about this book is that it has a strong message and an important historical lesson without sounding too preachy.  The illustrations are beautiful, although I do have a slight issue with books that differentiate between the past and the present with the number of colors used.  I mean, seriously, history was NOT actually in black and white.  Or sepia.

Title: Baseball Saved Us
Author: Ken Mochizuki
Genre
: Picture Book, Historical Fiction
Age: 0 – 9

Summary and Review:

The book follows the story of a young Japanese-American boy who struggles to play on a baseball team in America with kids who are often taller than him.  Then he starts to hear a lot of things about “some place far away” called Pearl Harbor and all of the sudden, his school friends hate him and call him awful names.  Before he knows it, his family is shipped off to a “camp” with other Japanese-Americans, forced to leave their homes and most of their belongings behind.

The book describes some of the basic details about camp life and then describes how they decided to start baseball games.  Our young hero gets better with practice and finds his strength by wanting to defy the armed guard in the tower above him, watching his every move on the field.  Later, he returns home and joins another baseball team.  He’s still one of the shortest players, but he’s gotten much better.  Over all, it’s a story of human strength and perseverance in the face of terrible obstacles.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Most people would say you can’t read a story like this to a younger kid–they won’t get it, they won’t sit for all the text, or the issues are too deep.  I say “bullocks”.  Or “bollocks”.  I’m not sure because I’m not British.  At any rate, I don’t believe that.  When I started reading this to my son, he wasn’t even one, but he liked the baseball picture.  I would summarize the text on each page to about one sentence and read the book that way.  (I read a lot of books this way and eventually lengthened the summaries until I was reading the entire text.)  As far as introducing deep issues goes, I believe that kids will understand what they are ready to understand.  By being honest with them from the beginning, we give them a framework in which to analyze the complicated world they eventually must navigate for themselves.

For older kids in grades 3 and up

Even though it’s a picture book, much older kids will relate to this book.  Do you have an elementary student–or even a middle school student–struggling to understand something in history class?  Too often classroom history takes issues like geography, war, and politics and disassociates them from the reality of people living in that time frame.  Ask your kids to read this book and then talk about why the United States created policies and camps like this.  Talk to your kids about what they think about that.  Talk to them about what these camps did to the people living in them.  Then ask them a crucial question–what would they think if something like this happened today?  Helping kids relate characters from history to characters today can help them realize that history isn’t just a list of dates–it’s real people living real lives, with all the love, hatred, heartbreak, and adventure that comes with that.  Then go back to the issue in history with which they were struggling to understand.  Can they picture the people who were going through that?  Can they imagine what kinds of things they were doing and how they would have felt?  If so, chances are they understand their issue a lot better.

September 17, 2010

The impossibly international pickle of mystery, adventure, and zany fun

Have you seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”  If you have and didn’t like it, don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the book I want to talk about.  But if you haven’t, it’s a great movie and you definitely should.  But I digress.  I bring it up because even though I’m not male and my husband isn’t Greek, I think about it every time I think about our families.  I’m the one with a couple of cousins in Wisconsin (give or take).  He’s the one with 30 first cousins and hundreds of other people he calls cousins that, in my family’s definition, aren’t really even related.  I used to get in arguments with him when he would describe someone as a “cousin” who is really a 2nd cousin once removed, or even a great-aunt, my argument being that the word “cousin” has an actual meaning and doesn’t translate to “person somehow related to me”.  But I’ve since learned to love his family’s all-inclusiveness and the sense of belonging that really gives you.

But all this is by way of writing a disclaimer, saying that by my husband’s definition, I am related to the author of the following book.  I’m not completely sure how (it involves tracing up a couple of generations, and then paralleling over through some siblings and then back down, and maybe over again, or something like that).  But I am super proud to say that Eli Stutz is my “cousin” and he wrote a great middle grade book.  About which I will now write.

Title: Pickle Impossible
Author: Eli Stutz
Genre
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Upper Elementary and Young Middle School, Ages 9 – 12

Summary and Review:

Pierre has twenty-four hours to take a prized jar of pickles to the international Picklelympics in Switzerland, where the financial prize is the only hope of saving his family’s farm.  On the way he meets (a euphemism for “is kidnapped by”) a young girl who later saves him and is coincidentally the narrator of the story.  Together, Pierre and Aurore fight evil bad guys, play pool, ride motorcycles, fly planes, and meet a woman who has refused to grow old.

The adventures are completely wacky, totally unbelievable, and wonderfully fun to read.  I picked up the book one night when my husband was out late and a few hours later found myself eagerly turning the final pages, having never left my seat in the meantime.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I like the character of Pierre–the perfectly average kid who realizes that he’s actually a perfectly balanced kid and that this comes in handy.  In a world in which we seem to expect our kids to be the best at everything they do, the moral of how great it is to just be in the middle is refreshing and honest.  Ask your kids what they are perfectly average at–and celebrate it!

Me, for example, I’m perfectly average at most sports–I always seemed to pick them up faster than other beginners, and then I never got much better than that.  I’m not someone who can’t throw or catch, but I’m not someone who ever was or ever will be a sports star.  And yet I love to play sports!  I remember days sitting on the sidelines at high school junior junior varsity soccer games wondering if I would ever play.  I wish at the time I had just known that it was okay to simple have fun playing the game (of course, you have to have a coach that lets you play first, but you get the idea).  I remember one horrifying game when a coach illegally substituted me (in the middle of play) for an older girl who wasn’t even on our team–or in our age group.  I felt like a cheater, a total loser, and definitely got the wrong message–that winning the game was much more important than letting some slow midfielder run up and down the grassy field on a nice day.

Too many kids today drop out of activities they aren’t good at, but they enjoy, because there is so much pressure for success everywhere.  Most of our kids aren’t going to be professional athletes.  And yet sometimes their middle and high school training looks like that’s what we want them to be.  I mean, someone has to come in last.

Or, in the case of Pierre, in the dead middle of the pack every single time.

September 16, 2010

It’s both sweet and savory and if it were PIE, I’d order more

I went through a mystery phase in middle school.  Nancy Drew (yes, all of them), Hardy Boys (almost all of them), Agatha Christie (a lot of them), and Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series (definitely all of them).  And that was it for me.  No more mysteries; I just wasn’t as interested anymore.  Until I saw this book on the shelf of my local (independent!) bookstore recently.  It called to me.  It said “you think you don’t like mysteries anymore, but you know you are going to like this one!”  Look at the gorgeous, intriguing cover.  A dead bird and a postage stamp.  And the title?  Love it!  And the reviews?  It was like love at first sight without that awkward first date.

This is a book for absolutely anyone older than twelve.  Adult mystery readers will love this book.  And middle school and high school girls will like it, too.  So please, let me begin.

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Genre
: Mystery
Age: 12 and older, Middle School, High School, Adult

Summary and Review:

In the opening scene, young Flavia is locked in a dark closet, breathing stale air through her nose as she tries to free her tied hands and gagged mouth.  But just when you think the book is starting off more intense than you imagined for a story of a young girl, she frees herself, runs down stairs, waves to her father, and begins to plan her revenge on her two older sisters.  The scene, after much more sibling turmoil, ends with these words:

I leapt up from the table and fled the room in tears.  I didn’t actually think of the poison until next morning at breakfast.

As with all great schemes, it was a simple one.

And we are thus introduced to Flavia, a very different, very isolated 11-year-old girl whose mother has died leaving behind a Father who has nothing to say to his children and two older sisters who taunt her cruelly (although she’s no less mean in her retaliations).  In the grand old manor in which they live, Flavia spends most of her time in the attic’s old chemistry lab, a relic of a passionate ancestor.  Her older sisters might have the edge of age and memories of their mother (which she is tormented not to have), but she has a chemistry lab and she knows how to use it.  It is this chemistry that helps her solve a mystery that begins with a dead bird on the doorstep with a rare stamp on its beak and intensifies when Flavia watches a man take his last dying breath, whispering a secret only she can hear.

Solving the mystery takes Flavia, her bicycle, and her sharp mind on a journey to understand her father’s past and, as she struggles to prove her father innocent, gets her in more trouble than she could ever predict.

I once read somewhere that the best way to learn about a place is to read mysteries set in that place.  Apparently, the kind of research and writing that tends to go on in a good mystery novel just seems to bring out the geography of an area.  Sweetness certainly does that–transports you to the English countryside in a wonderfully vivid way.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I love one of the quotes by the author in the back of the book.  “[Flavia]‘s eleven but she has the wisdom of an adult.  She knows everything about chemistry but nothing about family relationships.”  And that, right there, is what makes the book so good.  That’s what I would talk about.

This is one of those books that actually has book group questions in the back.  I love book groups; I hate book group questions in the back of my book.  Of the twelve questions, there is one that I like and I think would make an interesting conversation with a middle or high school student.  “Like any scientist, Flavia expects her world to obey certain rules, and seems to be thrown off kilter when surprises occur.  How much does she rely on the predictability of those around her, like her father and her sisters, in order to pursue her own interests (like solving the murder)?”

The second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, is already out in hardcover and the third, A Red Herring Without Mustard, will be available in February 2011.

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