Dead End in Norvelt may be acquired taste

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos; published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York; 2011.

Summer vacation for Jack Gantos (the protagonist kid, not the author) is not going as planned.  Caught in the middle of his feuding parents, he has been grounded for life.  Chores and reading, that’s it.  Digging a bomb shelter for his dad by day and creating an igloo of books that he’s finished reading by night comprise his entertainment.  That is, until his mom asks him to help his feisty old neighbor write obituaries for the quickly dying founders of Eleanor Roosevelt’s post-war promised land, Norvelt.  Between humorous observations, history lessons, and stress-induced bloody noses, this summer isn’t going to turn out so bad after all.

I will profess right now that I am a Jack Gantos fan.  His Joey Pigza books not only appealed to the reluctant readers at the elementary school where I got my library start, those books also gave parents a glimpse at life for their ADHD children.  I get his humor; apparently, not everyone is in on the jokes.  I like that history is mainstreamed into a story line (I wish we all did that; you know, learn a little something about our neighbors, neighborhood, and world community every day).  I also like that the plot, as it were, is the progression not only of summer days but of character development.  Apparently, not every reader got this (one coworker wondered “what happened” in the story).  My discussions with readers since finishing has been a dichotomy: lovers and haters; but they’ve all been adults.  No child has read this, at least in my little circle of readers.

Will this book appeal to kids?  Hmm, maybe not.  I am glad that it will be required reading for students working their way through the Newbery winners.  I can think of a few former elementary students that would’ve eaten this book up and asked for a sequel.  Maybe there are more kids out there who like a little history with their humor.

I think this book would be well-paired with Deborah Wiles’ Countdown (read my review here).  I’d put it on a list of books for boys as well–the physical humor is sure to strike a chord.

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June 3, 2012 at 1:47 pm Leave a comment

Relax and enjoy The View from Saturday

The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg; published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York; 1998 (paperback edition).

In a book that feels like a collection of short stories woven together to create a single story, the Academic Team is introduced.  These four shy sixth graders call themselves The Souls.  They drink high tea every Saturday afternoon.  And they use their complementary skills to build their paraplegic teacher’s confidence.  Sound like an unlikely favorite read?  Give it a try and you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to make lemonade when life gives you lemons!

I was skeptical when I started reading this book.  I loved From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and I couldn’t believe that an author could write a second Newbery Medal winning book 30 years after her first.  Oh, but Ms. Konigsburg did it and did it well.  This coming of age tale weaves together seemingly disparate back stories into a climactic finale that includes high tea, of all things.  I will be recommending this book.  A colleague is using it in an upper elementary book discussion group; I’m anxious to hear what they have to say about it.  There are so many possibilities for a book club, including introducing high tea (when else might they have that opportunity?). 

March 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm Leave a comment

Chicago! Cleveland! DC! Never Say Genius

The Genius Files: Never Say Genius (Book 2, The Genius Files) by Dan Gutman; published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, New York; 2012.

On the second leg of their coast-to-coast trip to Washington, D.C. for a wedding, Coke and Pep McDonald run afoul of new villains.  They are also at the mercy of their parents who make frequent stops at historical sites and off-beat museums.  Will their trip be worry-free?  Get real!  Didn’t you read the first book in the series?!?

While light on plot, the action is nonstop in Gutman’s sequel.  Kids will like that.  I liked that.  However, I was much more impressed by the information presented in the book, thinly veiled as pertinent to Coke and Pep’s travels.  Readers are urged to visit online mapping websites (a la Mapquest or Google Maps) to map each leg of their route from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.  Real pictures (often provided by Gutman’s fans!) depict the museums, historic sites, and state signs that the twins encounter.  The incorporation of other map features, like highway route signs for page numbers, and the frequent posting of miles left to travel impart a lesson that this GPS-reliant generation may not otherwise get.  Add the coded messages that Pep deciphers, and this is one edutaining book!

Who wouldn’t want to read about Wrigley Field, Cedar Point, the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History?!?

February 22, 2012 at 3:41 pm 1 comment

Crafty Chloe kicks off new series

Crafty Chloe by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrations by Heather Ross; published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York; 2012.

Note: This review is based on an uncorrected color proof provided for free by the publisher.  The book is due on shelves February 21, 2012.

Chloe isn’t good at sports or video games but she is very good at making things.  Just give her a pile of scraps or found materials and her imagination goes wild.  With her best friend’s birthday just around the corner, Chloe goes shopping for the perfect gift only to discover a classmate has selected the same doll.  How will Chloe find another “perfect” gift?  With a pad of paper and a pencil, Chloe doodles a few ideas and creates the perfect gift to make.  Her gift is not only a hit with her best friend, but Chloe also saves the day for her classmate.

DiPucchio’s story captures the creative spirit perfectly.  Ross’ pictures match the spirit of the story and illustrate the creative process (sketches, hard work, and even headstands).  Bright colors, a font that looks handwritten, and end pages featuring orange-handled scissors and macaroni necklaces all add to the story of Crafty Chloe.

Chloe was teased for making a gift.  Sounds typical for kids, right?  Making fun of the kid that does things differently is, unfortunately, the status quo.  I was thrilled to read about a character who is not only true-to-life but also responds like a typical kid would.  After being teased, Chloe decides to skip her best friend’s birthday party; but then she comes up with a homemade gift that is unique and perfectly purple, all things that her friend will appreciate.  As parents, we often tell our children that homemade gifts are the best, and DiPucchio’s character proves that.  I look forward to more installments of this series that fosters creativity.  At the time of this review, the Crafty Chloe website, which promises to provide instructions for creating the crafts in the book, was not available.  I hope it’s up soon.**  One of my pet peeves about education today is that the opportunities to be hands-on creative have all but disappeared.  A kid like Chloe, and the resources to learn to craft like her, is much needed to offer informal creative learning opportunities.

I have taken over the monthly drop-in craft at work (in a children’s library).  Chloe is my inspiration for creating easy but interesting projects.  I’d like to start an art club for tweens this autumn.  Although the Crafty Chloe series is intended for a much younger crowd (preschool to early elementary), I would not hesitate to introduce her to tweens and provide them with the link to the website.  Who doesn’t believe that adding googly eyes to anything makes it more interesting?  At a conference I attended, Denise Fleming suggested giving kids sticks, rocks and googly eyes, then encouraging them to take pictures of their creatures in different settings and write a story around those images.  Chloe would agree.

I’ve already passed my copy of Chloe around to librarian friends.  We’re all excited to have a creative hero to share with children, teachers and parents.  She has also inspired some programming ideas.  Since March is National Craft Month, it seems fitting to introduce Chloe and her creative bent with a series of crafts.

** NOTE: I checked the website over the weekend (today is March 5) and the website is live.  Chloe gives instructions for making her glow in the dark pajamas in the first installment of crafts to make at home.  The site is easy to navigate and will be attractive for kids to use.  Visit Crafty Chloe here: http://craftychloe.squarespace.com/.

February 17, 2012 at 9:22 am 1 comment

Learn How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum

How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland; published by Blue Apple Books, Maplewood, NJ; 2011.

Follow a diplodocus from its discovery in a Utah quarry to its grand opening as a display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  Hartland researched the dinosaur’s tale then created a cumulative story around it.  The narrative builds from the dinosaur hunter who discovered it to the museum director who announces the exhibit’s grand opening.  I was impressed that she almost made this book a rebus by illustrating the job titles (and the diplodocus’ name) so that listeners and early readers will be able to determine what the jobs are as the story builds.  Resources abound in “A Little Bit of Dino Info” included at the end of the book.  Answers to frequently asked questions are included as are Web resources tied to Dinosaur National Monument (the National Park where this dino was discovered), the Smithsonian’s dino page, and “Dino Dig” websites.

Absolutely include this book in pathfinders about dinosaurs, especially for elementary aged students.  I would highly recommend this to parents before they make a trip to a natural history museum (especially the Smithsonian) so their family can discuss how artifacts make it to museums.  And for those who can’t visit the museums in person, I would recommend this book in conjunction with a virtual visit via a museum exhibit online.

February 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm Leave a comment

Heart and Soul tells the story of America from another perspective

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson; published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York; 2011.

I didn’t think Kadir Nelson could outdo his We Are the Ship, but he has done just that in this book.  Once again, he uses an “everyman” (well, “everywoman” in this case) narrator which made me feel like a child sitting at the feet of a grandparent sharing treasured family history.  The rhythm of language reflects the pride and anger in the story of African Americans in American history.  Nelson’s words are so well-crafted that images would only serve to put a face to the stories, right?  Well, no.  Like in We Are the Ship, Nelson’s paintings express so much emotion that they could tell the story on their own.  It’s no wonder that Nelson got the Coretta Scott King Award for the words and the CSK honor for his art.

I’ve already used this in a display for African American History Month.  It definitely is a book that needs to be displayed, to be studied.  But it also belongs on pathfinders about American history, African American history, and teacher resource lists.

February 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

Me…Jane awarded Caldecott honor

Me…Jane illustrated and written by Patrick McDonnell; published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York; 2011.

With her stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee, a young Jane Goodall explored the world around her.  From her backyard, she dreamed of living in Africa among its creatures.  One day, she awoke to find her dream was realized.

I read this book then set it aside for a few days.  My initial reaction was that the illustrations were remarkable but the story lacked appeal for children.  Then I reread it.  Hmmmm.  A child with a dream.  A child whose hobbies reflect her future endeavors.  And the words that convey her story fit.  This is a book for cuddling up on the couch, reading together, and examining the images.  At the very end of the book, in fairly small type, is this Art Note:

This page features a cartoon that Jane Goodall made of her life in the forest at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve.  Readers will also find two facing pages of drawings and puzzles that Jane herself created when, as a young girl, she led a club called the Alligator Society.  Throughout the book, ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are included, collectively evoking Jane’s lifelong passion for detailed, scientific observation of nature.

Aha!  McDonnell’s illustrations further portray the young Jane.  I think it would be lovely to tell children that the things that interest them now, the things they are passionate about, will help drive them toward their future selves.  Maybe that’s a great starting point to encourage journaling or even creating collection boxes.

Now  about the illustrations….  The cover appears to be the cover of a scrapbook or photo album, with pseudo-binding and corner protectors.  Each page is treated like a page in a scrapbook.  Almost all of the left-hand pages appear to be stamped with fading ink in shapes that would be in a collection of rubber stamps intended for children; the text is printed on this page, in a font and ink style that invokes a typewriter with a worn ribbon.  Then the corresponding right-hand page is an image rendered in India ink and watercolors.  McDonnell has captured the essence of the young zoologist for us.  By the final pages, photos of Dr. Goodall and biographical information, including a message from her, are included to remind us that this is her story.  That this child-dreamer with a penchant for exploring grew up and made her dreams reality.  In her message, Jane encourages us all to get involved to help make “the world a better place for people, animals and the environment” by joining a local Roots & Shoots group.  The end pages invoke African textiles which let us know as the book starts, and reminds us as the book ends, that this is the book about a zoologist working in Africa.

February 2, 2012 at 6:53 am 1 comment

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