Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Review: Gorilla Doctors

Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes by Pamela S. Turner. (Grades 4-8)

Okay, you knew that humans and apes were genetically close. But did you know that we share 97.7% of our genes with gorillas? Did you know that a chimpanzee could give you a blood transfusion (or you could give blood to a chimp)? And maybe you've heard that some diseases like AIDS and ebola may have spread to humans from apes... but did you know that human diseases can infect apes, too?

In Gorilla Doctors, Pamela S. Turner examines several factors in the endangered population of mountain gorillas. Poachers are a major threat, as is habitat desctruction. But another threat is human disease. The mountain gorillas live in protected areas, but these areas are right alongside human dwellings and although scientists try hard to protect gorillas from our diseases, sometimes the gorillas catch them.

Why is that so dangerous? Well, gorillas have no resistance to these diseases. Much like European diseases decimated Native American populations when the colonists came to America, human diseases could easily destroy the dwindling mountain gorilla population.

Cue the gorilla doctors. This special team of scientists test gorillas constantly, looking for threats of disease. When human diseases are found, the gorilla doctors treat them. They also make sure that tourists who come to see the gorillas don't pass on any germs. Tourists can come into the parks for a limited amount of time, they must be healthy, and they must not leave anything behind.

I found this book to be a fascinating addition to the Scientists in the Field series. Turner includes some background information about gorillas and the study and preservation of gorillas. There are great color photos on every page showing gorillas and the African jungles in which they live. Turner includes resources about conservation and what we can do to help gorillas. The book includes a short list of books and websites for further reading and an index.

This would be a great book to promote for Earth Day, which is just around the corner!

Happy Nonfiction Monday! Be sure and head over to Picture Book of the Day to peruse the many interesting posts!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Connections: Matthew Henson

It all started when I picked up the picture book I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer by Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez. I didn't know anything about Matthew Henson. I just knew the book had gotten some buzz around the kidlitosphere (see here and here). Once I picked it up, I could see what the fuss was about... Strong and concise words read like poetry telling a brief story of Matthew Henson's life. The artwork is gorgeous, perfectly complimenting the words. It would make a great readaloud for upper elementary or even middle school students doing a unit on explorers, African-American history, or biographies. I read the inspiring story of Henson's life and...

I had to know more.

So I picked up Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson by Dolores Johnson. With tons of awesome photographs, some spanning two pages, this book delves into the life of Matthew Henson in a bit more detail. He was born in 1866 and his
adventurous spirit led him to work as a cabin boy on voyages to China, Japan, North Africa, Russia, and Spain (among other places). Eventually he met Robert Peary, the man with whom he would 'discover' the North Pole. After several failed attempts and brushes with death, Peary and Henson were the first men to reach the North Pole. Henson's warm relationship with the Inuit people (he learned their language and taught other men on his treks about their culture) and his skill with dog sledging were integral to their success... and yet for many years after they reached the North Pole, Henson's contributions were downplayed because he was African-American. This book goes into enough detail to be useful for school reports and it has cool photos and an exciting story that will appeal for recreational reading, too. Matthew Henson's story is interesting and gives much to think about and discuss. Remember him when kids come begging for biographies!

But that wasn't all I found in my Matthew Henson quest...

A search for "Matthew Henson" in my library's catalog led me to North by Donna Jo Napoli. North is the story of Alvin, a boy with dreams of being an explorer. He pictures himself going to Africa, Asia, the Amazon... Unfortunately, his mother is so overprotective that she won't even let him buy a bicycle with his own money. When Mamma finds out that a drug dealer approached Alvin on his way home from school, she insists on having an elderly neighbor walk him to school every morning. For Alvin, it's the last straw. He's been studying the polar explorer Matthew Henson in school and he decides to follow the footsteps of his hero. He'll travel to the North Pole and see with his own eyes what Henson described as "fierce beauty". So he sets off. He's got a backpack full of clothes, a sleeping bag, and $439.00. First stop, New York City. From there all he's got to do is keep traveling north, right?

What I really liked about North is that I found it remarkably believable. Alvin's journey isn't easy and he makes plenty of mistakes. Certainly he makes friends and gets lots of help along the way, but never to a ridiculous point. This was a fast-paced adventure story that I couldn't put down. (And don't take my word for it... check out another review at a wrung sponge.)

My one complaint is, of course, the lack of an author's note... I would have loved to see what inspired Napoli to write this book, where she turned for research, and if she traveled to the Arctic... but then, I am a big author's note geek. We know this.

I suppose the point of this post is to show how books can lead you in different directions and how one book can connect you to all kinds of other books you might never have found otherwise. I never would have picked up North if I hadn't had an interest in Matthew Henson, which was inspired by I, Matthew Henson. I've read several books lately that have inspired me to seek out more information and led me to other books. I hope to explore more connections in children's literature in the coming months, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Review: Graphic Dicoveries Series

Happy Nonfiction Monday!

I've recently discovered (hehe) a new nonfiction series published by Rosen Books: Graphic Discoveries. These books are certain to appeal to reluctant readers with their high-interest subject matter and graphic novel format. I definitely recommend them for recreational reading and I think the topics could definitely spark enough interest that kids might search out more books about the subjects.

Each book starts with several pages of basic facts about the general topic. This is followed by three separate graphic novel stories about specific incidents. The book is then wrapped up with another couple pages of information (often including a map), an index, and a short list of further reading suggestions.

Ancient Treasures by Rob Shone and illustrated by Nick Spender is about fantastic archaeological findings. The first several pages explain how scientists and amateurs find archaeological sites and how they excavate artifacts from these sites. Then the graphic novel portion shows the supposed discovery of Troy, the excavation of Tutankhamen's tomb, and the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in China. This is followed by a map of the world showing other fascinating archaeological findings. I could definitely see a kid's interest being sparked by one of these stories and them wanting to find out more about King Tut or Troy. I was a tiny bit disappointed, then, that the suggestions for further reading only included more general archaeology titles instead of anything more specific. In lieu of listing websites, a short note at the end of the book directs readers to one central website that is supposedly a frequently-updated list of links. Upon visiting the website, there were only two links listed, which was also disappointing to me.

Spectacular Shipwrecks by Gary Jeffrey and illustrated by Claudia Saraceni starts off by giving information about how a ship might come to sink. It also provides a bit of background information on the three shipwrecks that will be examined in the graphic novel portion. This information is accompanied by photographs. In the graphic novel section, three shipwrecks are examined: the Tudor ship the Mary Rose, which sank in the 1500s; the Titanic; and the German WWII warship the Bismarck. The book ends with another informational spread (with photographs) that explains some of the process of recovering sunken ships and preserving the artifacts found within. This is another entertaining entry in the series and the topic is sure to appeal (I can't tell you how many kids come in looking for books about the Titanic).

Other books in this series include Fantastic Fossils, The History of Flight, Medical Breakthroughs, and Incredible Space Missions.

Friday, March 21, 2008

'Tis the Season: Spring

In some parts of the country, spring has sprung. Not so much here in northern Illinois (where it is currently 27 degrees and snowing), but we have the dream of spring... the possibility that one day all those ugly gray piles of snow will melt... So while we're wishing and hoping for spring, what do we read at storytime? Here are some of my favorites for a spring-themed preschool storytime:

Muncha Muncha Muncha by Candace Fleming. Mr. McGreeley has planted his garden and is looking forward to enjoying the spoils... Unfortunately (for him), three bunnies are already enjoying the veggies with a "Muncha muncha muncha!" Filled with fun sounds, this is a great readaloud for a spring or garden-themed storytime.

First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. One popular topic as we head into spring is growing things. In First the Egg, we see an egg... then a chicken. A caterpillar... then a butterfly. Beautiful artwork compliments simple text that preschoolers will enjoy chiming in on.

Cold Little Duck, Duck, Duck by Lisa Westberg Peters. This one is perfect for a climate such as mine. We're yearning for spring, but it's still quite cold. Little duck is cold, too, arriving too early at her pond. Her feet stick to the ice and only thoughts about the lovely spring to come can help her stay positive until spring comes for real.

Carrot Soup by John Segal. Rabbit's been gardening, tending his carrots, and anticipating the day when he will reap his harvest and make his favorite... carrot soup. But to rabbit's surprise, when he heads out to pick the carrots, they've disappeared! All that's left are a bunch of holes in the ground. Rabbit asks his friends if they've seen them and in the background we can see characters sneakily carrying loads of carrots off. When no one can tell rabbit where his carrots are, he dejectedly heads back home, only to find that his friends have surprised him by making carrot soup for him. Kids will love picking out the sneaky animals in the background and it's a sweet story about sharing and doing something kind for a friend.

Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson. I really love everything Karma Wilson does. With clear, colorful pictures and sweet, often funny rhyming stories, you really can't go wrong with adding Wilson to your storytime. In Bear Snores On, Bear laid down for his long winter's nap. In Bear Wants More, he's waking up from hibernation and eating everything in sight! The repeated phrase "Bear wants more!" invites kids to join in and the rhyming story will help increase their phonological awareness.

So, there you have some of my favorite spring stories. What are your favorites? (And when will spring be here?!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hello, Hello!

Just wanted to send a shout-out to anyone coming here from Prairie's blog! You'll notice that I post about a lot of different library- and book-related things including storytimes, programs we do at the library, the Rebecca Caudill book award, and books for kids of all ages. So, WELCOME to kids, teachers, and librarians! Take a look around and feel free to leave a comment about books that you've liked (or hated) or anything else you have to say!

Book Review: Good Enough

Good Enough by Paula Yoo. (Grades 7+)

Patti Yoon. Straight-A student. Gifted violinist. Perpetual parent pleaser. All she's ever wanted was to get into HarvardYalePrinceton. Nothing less than a 2300 on her SATs is acceptable (2400 is a perfect score... a fact I can't get used to, incidentally). Patti goes to school, practices her violin, does homework, and hangs out with her Korean church youth group.

But from the moment Patti sets eyes on the dreamy, musical Ben at the All-State Orchestra audition, things begin to change. And Patti begins to realize that "her" dream of attending an ivy league school was actually her parents' dream. She starts figuring out that "successful" is not necessarily the same as "happy" and that she'd better think about what she wants for her future.
Funny! I was bummed out on Sunday night for various reasons and I knew that I needed something light and humorous to read. I was right on the money when I picked up Good Enough. Patti's a great character. I liked her right away. She's a total geek, but she's witty and passionate and kind. Unfortunately, other kids at her school have trouble seeing the good in her when she's, say, in gym losing a field hockey game because she has no coordination.

I had read a post about this title over at The YA YA YAs and when I saw it on our new books cart, I picked it up to thumb through it. Here's the passage that made me laugh out loud at work and check it out right away:

"My Mom's Korean Spam Recipe #1 - Spam Bi Bim Bap

1 can of Spam
1 jar of kimchee
Daikon radish-style kimchi


6. Pour on all the kochu jang sauce you want, mix it up, and eat with a side of kimchi. (Note: I'm assuming you have a local Korean grocery store somewhere in your town where you can buy kimchi, daikon radish, and kochu jang sauce. If you don't, well, the only way to make kimchi is to ferment a bunch of cabbage underground for a few years. Good luck with that.)..." (pp 70-71)

I was hooked. Narrator Patti Yoon sprinkles Spam recipes and top ten lists throughout the book, to the great enjoyment of the reader. I was rooting for her the whole way and being really annoying to my coworker at lunch because I kept looking up and saying things like "Something important is about to happen!!!" and "The boy did not do what he was supposed to do! Ah, well, he still has xx pages to redeem himself..." Obviously everyone needs to read this book so that when I say things like that, they understand what I'm talking about.

The book's about a high school senior. And there's some stuff that older high school kids will probably identify more with (taking SATs, AP classes, college aps, etc.), but there's nothing in here that would be inappropriate for a middle schooler to read. It reminded me of some of Meg Cabot's novels (maybe along the line of Teen Idol or All-American Girl).

Don't miss Paula Yoo's guest post on The YA YA YAs, an interview over at Teen Book Review, and Little Willow's review.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Review: Heat

Heat by Mike Lupica. (Grades 4-8)

Twelve-year-old Michael Arroyo has had one dream since before he came over to America on the boat from Cuba: to play in the Little League World Series. He's good. He's very good. And his Papi has always believed in him.

But the road to the World Series isn't smooth. And Michael's got a secret that he's desperate to hide. His Papi has been dead for two months. His older brother Carlos is trying to keep them afloat by working two jobs, but the bills are piling up and the brothers aren't sure how much longer Michael's coach is going to believe that their dad is in Florida taking care of a sick uncle. They live in fear of "Official Persons". Then a challenge is made. A coach from another Little League team accuses Michael of being too old to play in the league. Michael must present his birth certificate, but he doesn't have it. It's somewhere in Cuba. And Michael has nowhere to turn.

This action-packed baseball novel will be a sure hit with young sports fans. Michael is a likable character that I found myself rooting for (even as I, stodgy grownup that I am, was wishing they would get found out so that some adult would step in and take care of them). Michael's got an obvious passion for baseball and when he plays the rest of the world is stripped away. The novel takes place squarely in the summer months with no complications from school or teachers.

I have to admit that I skimmed some of the baseball bits. I like baseball as much as the next guy, but some of the scenes were too steeped in jargon and baseball plays for me to really understand what was going on. It will definitely appeal to young sports players, though, who will see all the sports action as it unfolds. Some of the schemes that Michael and his best friend Manny come up with to protect the Arroyo brothers are far-fetched and the end comes together much too smoothly to be realistic. That said, this is a great book for summer reading. It moves quickly and you get the happy ending that you're looking for in a light, fun read.

There's some mild criminal activity (the book starts with a mugging that is foiled by Michael and Carlos is involved in a not-quite-legal operation to make more money), but no drugs or violence. Sports fans will gobble it up.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review: Project Mulberry

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park. (Grades 4-7)

Julia and Patrick have been best friends ever since Julia moved to Plainfield several years ago. They do homework together every night, help each other study for tests, and they both belong to the Wiggle Club. Wiggle is actually Work-Grow-Give-Live (WGGL = Wiggle), a 4-H type club whose members are now starting to prepare projects for possible entry in the state fair. When Patrick comes up with the idea of raising silkworms, Julia immediately balks. The project seems too Korean to her. She'd much rather do something "American". Knowing she can never talk Patrick out of his idea, she reluctantly goes along with it, though she's counting on something to go wrong and nip Project Mulberry in the bud. Can Julia secretly sabotage the project? And can she do it without Patrick hating her?

This was my second reading of Project Mulberry and I like it quite a bit. The thing that strikes me most about this book is its discussion on race. First of all, Julia feels self-conscious about doing the "weird Korean project". At the same time, her mother is teaching her Korean embroidery (different than Chinese or Japanese embroidery because when you're done it looks the same on the front and the back). Julia's caught between wanting to take pride in her heritage and wanting to blend in with her white-bread neighborhood.

Another interesting issue that arises is between Julia's mother and the African-American man that offers his mulberry leaves to help their project. Julia knows right off the bat that there's going to be a problem because her mother doesn't like black people. It's not something that Julia and her mom have ever really talked about, but Julia pieced it together after she had a black teacher in the fifth grade. Julia's afraid to confront her mother about it because she's afraid that the confrontation will reveal that her mother is racist and Julia doesn't know how to deal with that. Later in the book, Mr. Dixon says something racist, too, and Julia learns that people of all races can have prejudices.

When an unexpected issue comes up with the silkworm project and Julia can't decide what to do, she realizes that there are no perfect solutions to anything.

"Maybe everything in life had its messy bits. Things other people didn't see. Or didn't know they didn't know. Or didn't want to think about.

"Maybe that was exactly the reason I had to think about them." (pg 197)

One other thing I want to point out about this book. In between the chapters, Ms. Park inserts little "conversations" between herself and the main character. The purpose of these inserted bits is to show a little of the "inside story". Ms. Park talks about how she came up with characters, some parts that were based on her own life, etc. I don't know what to make of these, really. Personally, I found that they disrupted the story. The first time I read the book, I read them. This time, I skipped them, but I found that the story still felt disjointed in parts. Maybe kids really love those inserted bits. I could certainly see how it might appeal. And if it was left to the end in an author's note, kids might be less likely to read it. I dunno... What do you think??

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief by Percy Jackson. (Grades 4-8)

In this twist on Greek mythology, Percy Jackson discovers that he is a demigod, son of Poseidon and a human mother. This fact has been hidden from him for the past twelve years, but once Percy finds out, it explains a lot. He's dyslexic because his brain is hardwired for ancient Greek, not modern English. The monster he slayed on his school's last field trip wasn't a figment of his imagination. And his best friend Grover walks funny because he's actually a satyr with goat legs stuffed into human shoes. Whew. Once the secret's out, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, a training ground for heroes like himself. Unfortunately, his mom disappeared in the struggle that led him to the camp. When Percy is offered a quest, to retrieve Zeus's lightning bolt and prevent a massive war between the gods, he finds his chance to rescue his mom. Along with pals Grover and Annabeth (daughter of Athena and a mortal man), Percy sets off to find the Underworld (located in L.A., where else?) and complete his quest. Along the way he runs into Medusa, Echidna, and a host of other mythological characters, all updated for the modern age.

This is a laugh-out-loud adventure fantasy and will appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Peter and the Starcatchers. I read it several years ago, but decided to reread it because I couldn't remember it enough to booktalk it. I liked it the first time I read it, but I loved it even more this time around. Percy Jackson is this kind of punk kid hero who won't take anybody's crap. He cares about his friends and about doing what's right, but he's also got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. As the book goes on, he starts to deal with his issues and figure out who he is.

This one will be an easy sell for the Caudills, I think. Who doesn't love Greek myths? And if anyone didn't love Greek myths before they read this book, they'll certainly want to check some out after reading it.

The Lightning Thief is the first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. It's followed by The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, and The Battle of the Labyrinth (coming in May).

Friday, March 14, 2008

And the winners are...

One of my colleagues is at the Children's Literature Conference at NIU as I speak and he just texted us the results of the 2008 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award and the 2008 Monarch Award. (Of course, I had to blog it right away...)


Drumroll, please...

For the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award:

In third place, we have MVP* by Douglas Evans.

In second place, we have The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn.

And our first place WINNER is... Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick!!

For the Monarch Award, which is for K-3rd grade:

In third place, we have Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor.

In second place, we have Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel.

And our first place WINNER is... If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen!!

The children of Illinois have spoken!!!

I'm a bit surprised by the Caudill results, but I'm overjoyed that Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie won. That book kept me amused and riveted at the DMV, of all places. It definitely deserves an award. What do you think, Illinois teachers and librarians? Were you surprised by the results? What would you have voted for?

Book Review: Penny from Heaven

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm. (Grades 4-8)

The year is 1953 and Penny Falucci is spending the summer listening to Dodgers' games on the radio and hanging out with her large, eccentric Italian family at every opportunity. Her mother doesn't seem to approve of her spending quite so much time with her late father's side of the family. When her mom starts dating the milkman, a wedge is driven even further between them. And Penny's starting to get frustrated that no one will tell her exactly how her father died. Summer's not all it's cracked up to be, but there's enough good to balance out the bad. Penny loves playing baseball and delivering groceries with her cousin and best friend Frankie. Her uncles shower her with presents. And there's always butter pecan ice cream.

I hate to give too much of a summary because some of the events in the book were so surprising to me. I don't want to give anything away.

Based on the author's own Italian relatives, the members of the Falucci family are the real stars of this book. Penny's got a horde of uncles looking out for her, a super chef Italian grandma, and a firecracker of a cousin whose biggest ambition is to be a criminal mastermind. Her favorite of the uncles is her Uncle Dominic, an eccentric man who lives in his car, wears slippers instead of shoes, and is the biggest Dodgers fan she knows (besides herself). If you're looking for a warm-hearted story about a wacky, but loveable family, look no further.

The other thing I really liked about Penny from Heaven is the historical detail that make the period come to life. Many of the events in the book are based on anecdotes told by Holm's family members. And it explores a forgotten bit of WWII history that I've never read about before.

Holm includes an author's note (with pictures!) about the time period and introducing the people on whom the story is based.

If you'd like to read a more in-depth summary including spoilers (I don't generally believe in spoilers, but I was SO surprised that I don't want to ruin that for anyone else), I'm going to send you over to Amazon to read the SLJ review.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Review: Alabama Moon

Alabama Moon by Watt Key. (Grades 7-10)

"The law can do whatever they want."

This is a statement that Moon Blake lives by. He's been raised in the woods of Alabama by a father who hated the government and taught Moon to avoid "the law". When Moon's pap dies, Moon is determined to make it on his own. He doesn't need anyone or anything. He'll go to Alaska where his pap told him there are other people just like them. People who hate the government and don't owe anything to anyone.

Moon's plan doesn't go quite as he expected, though. He's caught by a corrupt constable and sent first to jail and then to Pilson, a boys' home. But Moon doesn't fret. He knows he can fight anything three times his size and that he can figure out a way to escape and survive on his own. Moon does escape and two friends come with him. But as Moon gets used to having people around to talk to (people who are not his pap), he starts to realize that he never questioned anything his pap told him about the government. And he realizes that he'll need to figure things out on his own before he can make a decision about how he's going to live.

A friend described this book to me as "The Dukes of Hazzard meets Hatchet" and I think she's pretty much spot-on. The survival-adventure aspect will appeal to fans of Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain and others of that ilk. This book also gives you plenty to think about. I have to admit that for most of the book I wanted to shake Moon and tell him to go back to the home where he could get some decent food and go to school to learn about the government and then decide if he hated it or not. I also wanted to shake his father because how dare he raise his child with no knowledge of the real world and then die because he's too stubborn and afraid to go to a doctor? The reasons behind Pap's hatred of the government are eventually revealed. And I think it brought home the coming-of-age issue of learning to think for yourself and not taking everything your parents say for granted. Moon's at that turning point where he finally starts questioning the truths he's been raised by. (Hmm... remind you of another Caudill nominee? Which, incidentally, also deals with the Vietnam War...)

I agree with criticism that the end comes together too neatly, but I didn't dislike the ending. Read it and tell me what you think.

I would have loved to have seen an author's note (of course I would) explaining how Key came up with the idea for this novel. I'm curious if he's ever tried to live off the land like Moon does. His detailed depictions would indicate that he knows a lot about it. I'm also curious as to why Key chose to set this story in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Was it just a convenient time period to set the story? Was he inspired by a specific event from the news? LUCKILY, there's a handy Q&A linked on Key's website that answers all my questions.

There is some violence, including violence against the constable (who totally deserved it, but that's neither here nor there). Moon's definitely got his own view of right and wrong and he's not always concerned with who he hurts, as long as he can be free. There are also some incidents that might be disturbing for younger readers, like Moon burying his own father and his friend's father getting drunk and driving them around. Even though Moon's only 10, he's going through some pretty heavy stuff. Kids who know something about the Vietnam War will quickly understand why Moon's father might act the way he does, although it's eventually explained somewhat.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Review: shug

shug by Jenny Han. (Grades 6-8)

Oh my. Every time I look at this book's cover, it makes me crave a big cherry popsicle. Mmm. The book is just as delicious.

Annemarie Wilcox is starting junior high and she's just realized that she's in love with her best friend Mark. Annemarie (called "Shug" by her mother and we'll get into that in a second) has known Mark since they were little kids. They know everything about each other. He's her Mark. And she just knows that they're destined to fall in love and be each others' first kiss. But junior high is starting. And suddenly everything seems to be changing. Mark's more interested in hanging out with the guys than hanging out with Annemarie. Annemarie's parents aren't getting along and their fights are getting bigger than normal. And all of Annemarie's girl friends are preoccupied with boys. Everyone seems to be growing up and changing, and Annemarie seems to be the only one who'd rather stay a kid.

Her mother calls her Shug after Shug Avery from The Color Purple because that character is a very strong and beautiful woman. Annemarie's mother has always told her that she is special. For the most part, Annemarie doesn't believe her. Instead, she feels like her beautiful older sister Celia outshines her at every opportunity. As the book progresses, Annemarie learns that others do see her as a beautiful and special person. I thought I had this book all figured out. I thought from the very start that I knew how it would end. I was kind of right, but mostly wrong. This is a coming-of-age story that's both bitter and sweet. Annemarie is a great character. She's not perfect, but she's stronger than she thinks she is.

It's a very girly book. Chick lit, but with a strong storyline and characters. It reminded me of the Alice books. There is some alcohol consumption (including one scene where the popular girls pressure Annemarie into drinking beer at a slumber party) and Annemarie talks about getting her first period. For these reasons, it may not be suitable for younger readers.

I felt like it started a little slowly for me. It's one of those books that plops you down right in the middle of the story and just keeps building. I'd say about 100 pages in, I was totally hooked. I loved Annemarie and wanted to see her succeed, wanted to see what was going to happen with her and her friends. Could she stand up to the queen bees she secretly despised? Would Mark realize his folly and turn out to love her back? I thought the ending was very realistic. It wraps everything up, but not everything gets wrapped up with a neat little happy bow.

You can check out more reviews of shug over at Jen Robinson's Book Page, Little Willow (who's also got a couple of author interviews you won't want to miss), and Fuse #8 for starters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book Review: Pssst!

Pssst! by Adam Rex. (Grades K-3)

I don't generally review a lot of picture books, but I had to make an exception for Pssst! because it's one of my new storytime favorites. I have to admit that at first I was skeptical about its appeal as a readaloud. The pictures are very detailed and about half the book is illustrated in comic book form with small panels and speech bubbles.

Yes, I was skeptical. But I've used it twice now with two different groups (one of which is typically a very hard sell) and I got rave reviews both times.

Pssst! is about a girl who goes to the zoo. As she walks about, visiting the animals, she hears "Pssst!" (a repeated sound that the kids were eager to chime in on). Each animal that gets her attention wants her to get something for it. The gorilla wants a new tire. The penguins want colorful paint. The javelina wants trash cans. The girl reluctantly agrees to procure all this random stuff for the animals at the zoo... and there is one surprising spread that shows how the animals used all the items.

When reading it aloud, I narrated the wordless bits that show the girl walking through the zoo. I also used different voices for the girl and the various animals she talked to so as to make the paneled pages clear. Like I said, the illustrations are pretty detailed and I wanted to make sure that the kids sitting in the back could keep up with the story. They didn't seem to have any problem keeping up and they were all suitably impressed when we got to the surprising spread.

Although I'm recommending it for a lower elementary readaloud, I think there's much to glean from independent or one-on-one reading as well. Kids will love picking out the funny little details in the pictures (for example, the picture of the giant store where the girl gets all the items has a sign that says "50% off all things starting with T" and kids will love finding everything on the page that starts with a T). It'd be a great book for parent-child sharing because many of the little detailed jokes are obviously aimed at adults (for example, the sign for the walrus at the zoo reads: I AM THE WALRUS (koo koo kachoo)).

Have fun reading this one over and over. And if the kids in your life love it, make sure you pick up some of Adam Rex's other goodies. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich is great at Halloween or any time and The True Meaning of Smekday walked away with this year's Cybil for Elementary/Middle Grade Fantasy/Sci-Fi.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Book Review: The Forbidden Schoolhouse

The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students by Suzanne Jurmain. (Grades 5-8)

In 1831 Prudence Crandall opened a boarding house for girls. She was a very intelligent lady and well-to-do students from her hometown of Canterbury, CT clamored to attend her school. Then one day, a young African-American girl asked Miss Crandall's permission to attend the school. Prudence was an abolitionist and strongly believed that African Americans deserved the same opportunities as white people. After some thought on the matter, Prudence allowed Sarah Harris to join the school. Immediately there was outrage in the small Connecticut town. White parents did not want their daughters to go to school with black girls.

So Prudence decided to open a school just for black girls.

The town was against her. People protested the school, even going so far as to pass a law saying that it was illegal for African-Americans from other states to go to school in Connecticut. They threw rotten eggs and rocks at the windows of the school. They blacklisted Prudence Crandall and local shopkeepers refused to sell her groceries or supplies.

Through it all, Prudence Crandall fought for what she believed in. She went to jail for her school, but she would not shut it down.

This is an inspiring story about a spunky woman who would not give up her principles. It would make an interesting addition to any unit on slavery/abolitionists or women's history. This book won a 2006 Orbis Pictus Honor (an award given by the National Council for Teachers of English for outstanding nonfiction books for children).

In addition to extensive source notes, the author also includes an appendix that explains what happened to the pupils at the school and the other people mentioned in the story. A lengthy bibliography and an index round out this excellent reference title.

Happy Nonfiction Monday! As always, be sure and check out the great posts collected over at Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Fish hats!

Wednesday marked the beginning of another session of our After School Adventures program. ASA runs for six weeks on Wednesday afternoons and we do a session in the spring and a session in the fall. It's for kids in Kindergarten through 4th grade (although the past two sessions have been almost exclusively Kingergarteners and 1st graders), and it's one of my favorite programs.

We kicked things off this session by making our nametags, saying hello to the kids returning from last session (yay!) and getting to know the new kids. Then we proceeded with the memory box (which I just now realized that we forgot to return to at the end of the program... oh well...).

The memory box is a colorfully decoupaged shoebox that we use with all our registered storytimes for 3's and up. Each week we find an object that occurs somewhere in one of the books. We shake the box around, letting them hear what the object sounds like and then let them guess what it might be. Once they've guessed (usually with a hint from one of us), we show them the object and tell them to look for it in the stories. Each week we keep the previously objects in the box and add one new object. And each week before we read the stories, we bring out the memory box and see who can remember what was in it and which story it was from.

This week's object was a plastic octopus because our theme for ASA was ocean creatures. We read Ugly Fish and I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean (which has an octopus in it). And then we made... fish hats!
The hats are made by cutting the fish shape from plain brown paper and stapling two together. You staple the entire thing except for a gap at the bottom (where you can open it up and put it on your head). The "scales" are just semi-circles cut from different colored paper. (Um... I accidentally put my scales on backwards.... If you want to do it really properly, the curved part should point towards the tail and you should start at the back of the fish and work your way up to the head. But I'm not particular like that.)

We had some wonderful volunteers who cut out all the pieces for us, so everything was already prepared and all the kids had to do was glue on the scales and decorate it however they wanted. Besides the scales, we also put out markers. You could use whatever other decorating things you wanted to (crayons, magazine pictures, wrapping paper, sequins, beads, glitter [if you're brave]). And if you've got everything prepared so that all they have to do is glue and decorate, I see no reason why preschoolers wouldn't be able to do this craft, too.

What we didn't realize was that we had picked two short books for storytime and that some of the kids would finish this craft in ten minutes. Luckily, when we pulled browsing books, we had pulled a copy of Swimmy and my coworker B collected the kids who were done with the craft and did an impromptu reading.

The kids were absolutely adorable with their little fish hats and we got some great pictures of them. It was a great kickoff to our session and I'm already looking forward to next week!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mini-Review: The Green Glass Sea

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. (Grades 6-8)

I loved this book. Love love loved it!! I was so happy to see it on the list of 2009 Caudill nominees.

Here's what I said about it when I read it in February:

"This book intertwines the stories of Dewey (called "Screwy Dewey" by her meaner classmates) and Suze (called "Truck" by her meaner classmates) who are thrust together while their parents are working on a top-secret "gadget" at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Dewey has come to live with her father. She's a brilliant inventor, more interesting in tinkering with metal parts than being in Girl Scouts and trying to get the other girls to like her. Suze hangs on the edge of the cool crowd, trying to impress them by making fun of Dewey, but she's never really accepted either.

When Dewey's father is sent to Washington, D.C., Dewey is sent to stay with Suze's family. Will the two ever get along? Will they ever find out what sort of top secret stuff their parents are working on? Will the war ever be over?

This book gives a look at a life seldom seen in other books. The characters are really strong, though imperfect, and there is plenty to learn. Great historical fiction."

Read more complete reviews at Big A Little a, The Reading Zone, and Read Roger. As Roger posts, The Green Glass Sea won the 2007 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (as well it should have!!).

Book Review: Blood on the River

Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone. (Grades 5-8)

Young Samuel Collier is an orphan with an attitude and no place to go. When he's arrested for stealing a locket that had once belonged to his mother, Samuel is put to work as a page for Captain John Smith who is bound for the New World. At first, Samuel is determined to live life as an island, to keep everyone out and stand alone. But soon Captain Smith helps him to realize that one cannot survive alone in the New World. It will take the entire James Town colony working together in order to survive. The problem is that the gentlemen in the colony, sent by the Virginia Company to look for gold or any other profit they can find, don't see things that way. They are determined to let the commoners do the work and hog all the rations, living much as they were accustomed to back in England.

Captain Smith speaks out against this and is immediately disliked by the rich members of the colony. But Smith is the only one able to sustain a tenuous peace with the local native tribes, so he continues to lead. Smith teaches Samuel skills like sword fighting and the native language. And as life continues in James Town, Samuel sees the "savages" save the colonists time and time again. But not all the colonists are convinced that peace with the natives is necessary to their survival...

A meticulously researched historical novel, Blood on the River really takes you back to 1607, to the sights, sounds, and smells of Jamestown. Although it was a bit slow at first, once the colonists got to America and began interacting with the local Indian tribes, I found it fascinating. I especially liked the details Carbone included about the natives' appearance and traditions and the reasons behind them. The looked like "savages" to the English gentlemen, but that's because they were totally different and the Englishmen didn't understand the reasons for what the Indians wore or how they cut their hair. The details were very rich and the story is rife with adventure. There's a sea voyage, fighting with the natives, hunting, and sword fighting. There's a fair share of violence (people getting hit with arrows, dying of illnesses, burning down houses), but it was a violent time.

Reading Carbone's copious author's note, I learned that all the main characters in the story were real people. The events in the story are based on actual events. This won't be a book for everyone, but it would make an excellent companion novel to any kind of study about Jamestown or Virginian Native Americans. I think young history buffs could also get into it, too. It's not a novel to be breezed through, but one to savor so you can soak up all those rich details that the author paid so much attention to. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, but this is a book I never would have picked up on my own. And I've got to send a big shout-out to the wonderful Illinoisans on the Caudill committee...!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Book Review: Keesha's House

Keesha's House by Helen Frost. (Grades 9+)

I'm gonna warn you. You might have to read this one twice. I mean that in a good way, of course. Read it the first time for the story. Meet these great characters. Characters that might be written off by the people in their lives, but who find a place to come together. Then read the section at the end that talks about the poetic forms used in the book. Then start over and read each poem again now that you know something about the traditional forms of sestina and sonnet.

Maybe you already know about sestinas, but I definitely didn't. At first I didn't even realize that the poems were written in a strict traditional form. It looked like free verse to me. Once I knew a bit more about the structure of the poetry, I had a whole new appreciation for the book.

Keesha's house is a safe place. In actuality. it's not even her house. The house belongs to a guy named Joe. Joe knows what it's like to need a safe place to sleep, so he opens his house to kids in need. They can stay as long as they want. No one bothers them. So, the house is really Joe's, but Keesha's the one spreading the word whenever she senses one of her high school classmates might need a place to crash. So the house becomes known as Keesha's house.

Through poems, Helen Frost gives us the perspective of six different kids, each finding themselves connected to Keesha's house for different reasons. Stephie is pregnant and not sure what to do about it. Jason is Stephie's boyfriend, a basketball star who's not sure he's willing to give up his dreams to be a dad. Dontay is a foster kid whose foster parents don't seem to give a damn about him. Harris's father disowned him when he found out he was gay. Carmen's been arrested for a DUI. Katie's running from her mom's abusive boyfriend. Although there's some depressing material in here, the book really has a hopeful slant. If a place like Keesha's house can exist where these teens can find support and rest their heads, maybe it's possible for them to turn things around, for them to overcome the huge odds stacked against them.

Two parts of the book are written from the perspective of adults. These poems are written as sonnets, an effective way of showing how very differently the adults see the world. It would be a great book anyway, but I really love that Frost used traditional poetry forms. I don't always get novels in verse, but this is one I could really get on board with.

I read this for the Printz Award Challenge.

New Storytime Favorites

Yesterday, I went to a local Montessori school to do booktalks for women's history month and I also did a storytime for the lower elementary students. As is too often the case, I was grabbing books on the fly a few hours before I was supposed to go. This can end in disaster. Or, it can result in a handful of new storytime favorites. Luckily, the latter proved true (on this occasion, anyway), and I'd like to share with you my newest storytime favorites for the younger elementary school crowd. These books certainly made quite a splash in my storytime and I hope they will do the same for you!

Trout, Trout, Trout! (A Fish Chant) by April Pulley Sayre.

A fun, fun readaloud that consists almost solely of the names of fish. The illustrations are hilarious and the fish names are arranged in a chanting rhythm, each stanza ending with a line like "Trout Trout Trout!" or "Cod Cod Cod!" More often than not, the kids said that last repeated line along with me. They really enjoyed it and seemed interested when I explained that all the fish named in the book were real fish and that information about those fish were included in the back of the book. If we'd had more time, I might have gone back and read it again, stopping to read the information about some of the fish as we went along. Sayre has others along the same vein: Ant Ant Ant (An Insect Chant) and Bird Bird Bird (A Chirping Chant).

Once There Was a Bull... (Frog) by Rick Walton.

I started this story by first explaining that we were going to read a story that had a lot to do with compound words, like "bullfrog". Words that could be split into two different words. I asked if they could come up with any compound words (and they came up with some great ones). Then I started the story. The story is about a bullfrog who loses his hop and then goes to look for it. The gimmick is that the compound words are all broken up on a page turn. So the first page of the book says "Once there was a bull..." with a picture of a bull. When you turn the page, you see that the word continues with "...frog" and you see the picture of the frog. The kids had fun guessing which compound word was being used. Some they knew (like straw...berries or grass...hoppers) and some they didn't (like Although the story itself is not all that exciting, the way it's presented makes it a lot of fun.

Ivan the Terrier by Peter Catalanotto.

This was hands-down the hit of my storytime. In this book, each attempt to share a fairy tale story is rudely interrupted by Ivan, a spirited canine determined to be the center of attention. We start out with the Three Billy Goats Gruff, then try Goldilocks and the Three Bears, etc. After one page (in which kids can spot tiny, far-away Ivan running to jump into the story), Ivan appears and his barking and jumping frighten all the storybook characters away. The kids and teachers were all laughing out loud and picking out every detail in the illustrations. Although the inclusion of fairy tale characters might indicate a younger audience, I think it worked perfectly with these K-3rd graders because they already knew the fairy tales and could recognize the stories from one spread.

These are a few of my new storytime favorites for the young school-age crowd... OH. And I almost forgot one of the best things about my visit... It was baking day:


Monday, March 3, 2008

Book Review: Emi and the Rhino Scientist

Emi and the Rhino Scientist by Mary Kay Carson. (Grades 4-8)

I love animals. Who doesn't? Cats, hamsters, penguins, dinosaurs, dogs, bats, rhinoceroses... Wait... Rhinoceroses?

Yup. Rhinos. They're the second-largest land animal on earth and very, very endangered. And I didn't know a thing about them until I read this book.

Emi is a Sumatran rhino, one of the most elusive of the five species of rhinoceros. She lives at the Cincinnati Zoo where zoologists were hoping to breed her. Dwindling natural habitats and poachers have knocked the number of Sumatran rhinos down to somewhere around 300 in the wild. One hope to preserve the species is to breed them in captivity and eventually release them into protected areas.

The only problem with that is that it is very hard to get a Sumatran rhino to breed in captivity. Before Emi, the last Sumatran rhino born in captivity was over 100 years ago. And Emi needed some help. When her first several pregnancies resulted in miscarriages, rhino scientist Terri Roth stepped in. The book explains different techniques Terri used to help Emi give birth to the first captive-born Sumatran rhino in over a century.

The book also gives lots of information about rhinos, why they're endangered, and how people can help to save them. It's brimming with full-color photographs (man, baby rhinos are cute!) and includes profiles on each of the five species of rhino. I found these to be especially illuminating because accompanying each profile was an illustration showing their previous habitat range and the teeny tiny areas where they can currently be found in the wild. It was... sobering.

Emi is perfect for your budding zoologists and conservationists (and hey, Earth Day is nearly around the corner!). I've enjoyed the few Scientists in the Field books that I've read and I'm looking forward to starting the stack I've got checked out from the library!

Happy Nonfiction Monday! Go check out Anastasia's round up. It's always the highlight of my Monday.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Book Review: Black Storm Comin'

Black Storm Comin' by Diane Lee Wilson. (Grades 5-8)

When 12-year-old Colton Wescott finds himself alone with a sick Ma and two younger sisters to take care of, he knows he's got to take matters into his own hands. The family was headed towards Sacramento with a wagon train, but then his father bolted and Colton can't count on any help from the other travelers. You see, Colton's Pa is white and his Ma is a free black woman. So they're relegated to the back of the wagon train, their water becomes mysteriously salty in the night, and none of the other travelers are willing to share food or advice with them. Colton manages to get his Ma to a doctor, but he knows he'll need money, so when he sees an ad looking for Pony Express riders, he hurries to apply.

It won't be easy. The route they have for him is extremely treacherous, going over the Sierra Nevada mountains. And Colton knows that he needs to "pass" for white or risk being hanged. When Colton's Ma gives him important freedom papers to deliver to her sister in Sacramento, Colton's fate is sealed. He must get those papers to California or die trying. And with a country on the brink of war, every second counts.

I loved this wild west adventure story. Set in 1860, just before the Civil War, there's a lot going on. The Pony Express riders are entrusted with bringing news of the presidential elections and the developing war to the prosperous state of California. Wilson explores issues of race in the character of Colton and in the characters he meets along the way. Colton's got "one foot in each world" - he's both white and black. Along the way, he meets people who treat him differently based on how they see him, and how he sees them.

Though the beginning seems a little depressing (what with all the abandonment and mistreatment of Colton's family and all), things level off shortly thereafter. There is some violence (Colton gets shot, he meets a slave chaser who cuts the ears off people who look at him wrong, he helps a man with a graphically-depicted broken leg), which might make it more appropriate for middle school readers. Also, some background knowledge of the Civil War and/or slavery in the 1860s would probably be beneficial to grasping the urgency of the plot. Wilson includes an author's note that tells how she got the idea for the story and how she researched it to make sure the details and characters were accurate (yay!).

I didn't know anything about the Pony Express, but this book made me feel like I was out west, seeing all the action for myself. At the end of the book, I didn't want to leave the characters. I wanted to know more about what happened to them. Not everything is wrapped up... and I think that's okay. The important stuff is. It's a book I never would have picked up on my own, which is one of the reasons state book awards are so great!