Thursday, September 3, 2015

Teacher's Choice - some favorite chapter and middle grade books about school

"Don't you just love fall...?  It makes me want to shop for back to school supplies.  I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address."
                                                                                                          Joe Fox in You've Got Mail

September is here and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) has captured that back to school feeling perfectly.  It is a time I replenish my stash of compostiton notebooks (which I use for everything), my Sharpies and my erasable pencils (PaperMates gift to this dyslexic).  But it is also a time for reading school stories.  Below are some of the favorites I have shared with kids over the years.  Have you or your young readers read any of these, too?

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus written and illustrated by Barbara Park
Random House, 1992, 80 pages (Age 6+)

When Junie B. goes with her mother to meet her new kindergarten teacher before school begins, it's all fine until they begin talking about the school bus.  Even after it is explained to her that the bus takes her to and from school, Junie B. is determined not to ride it.  But of course her determination is overridden by her mother and Junie finds herself on a bus full of unfamiliar kids.  The first seat she tries to sit in is being save for another girl, then a boy named Jim gets on and it's clear they won't be friends.  To make matters worse, there is a stampede out of the bus when it arrives at school, and Junie is knocked down.  So, after an OK day of school, she decides she is NOT getting back on that bus and hides from the teacher. And once everyone is gone, Junie begins to explore the school and, yes, it's kind of fun until she needs to use the girls' room and finds it locked.  What to do? Call 911.  (Not to worry, there are people looking for her the whole time, but she hid while they searched the school).  Even though Junie can be a real brat, and uses the word "hate:|" way too much, I always think this is a good book for addressing a child's fear of school, the bus, the teacher, the other kids and a close reading shows the Junie's fear is manifested as anger, probably because she doesn't have the words yet to talk about how this all makes her feel.  Maybe that's why every kindergartner I've ever read this with has loved this book, even if they didn't go on to read the rest of the Junie B. Jones series.

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
HarperCollins, 1968; 1992, 208 pages (Age 7+)

Ramona can't wait to finally begin kindergarten, if only she didn't have to walk there with Howie.  But she really likes her new teacher, Miss Binney, and when Ramona is told where to sit for the present, she figures her teacher must like her the best to want to give her a present.  But trouble seems to follow Ramona even to school.  When Miss Binney is absent, Ramona hides behind the trash containers, afraid of the substitute and ends in the Principal's office.  And when she puts her Halloween mask on to be the baddest witch in the whole world, she gets scared no one will know who she is underneath.  It is when Ramona is sent home by Miss Binney for pulling a classmate's ringlets and told not to come back until she can behave, that Ramona learns her most important lesson.  Ramona is stubborn, and according to sister Beezus, a pest, and, let's face it, a bit of a busy-body, paying more attention to what others are doing than to what she should be doing, but she is also a lovable character that has stood the test of time (after all, Ramona the Pest was first published in 1968, and yes, kids Ramona's age could walk to school without an adult back then, I know I did).

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
Philomel Books, 1998, 40 pages (Age 6+)

Even though not a chapter book, I put this here because it is text heavy and the subject is an important on, but  a little sophisticated for picture book readers.  Young Tricia can't wait to go to school and learn how to read.  She already knew how to draw wonderful pictures, but when she tries to read in first grade, the letters are all just wiggling lines that she didn't understand, and numbers are just as confusing.  When Tricia and her family move, nothing changes - she still feels dumb and the kids call her dumby. especially a boy named Eric, who seems to delight in torturing Tricia with name calling.  In 5th grade, there is a new teacher named Mr. Falker, who loved Tricia's drawing.  But when he catches Eric calling her name, Mr. Falker takes Tricia under his wing and slowly and patiently, he and Miss Plessy, the reading teacher, help Tricia master the art of reading.   This is a somewhat autobiographical story about a young dyslexic girl at a time when no one knew about it, so you can imagine Tricia's struggles and what she went through.  This is an inspiring story for any student dealing with learning difficulties.

A Year with Butch and Spike by Gail Gauthier
Puffin Books, 2000, 216 pages (Age 8+)

As the new school year begins, sixth grader and star student Jasper Gordon is pretty confident he have yet another successful year avoiding the Cootches - class troublemaker cousins Butch and Spike.  But Jasper gets quite a surprise when his teacher Mrs. McNulty assigns seats and he find himself sitting in the front row between the two Cootches - as a "role model" for them, according to the teacher.  But over the course of the school year, as Jasper gets to know the Cootches better, and though they are still troublemakers, he learns a valuable lesson about how looks and actions can be deceiving and maybe his real problems aren't Butch and Spike, but the insulting, intimidating somewhat sadistic Mrs. McNulty.  A very funny novel with lots of heart, it would pair up nicely with Barbara Robinson's The Best School Year Ever.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konisburg
Atheneum, 1996; 1998, 176 pages (Age 8+)

Young readers meet four sixth grade students and their teacher Mrs Olinkski in this 1997 Newbery winner.  The four students are connected to each other in various ways which readers discover in their personal stories.  They  form a group, meeting every Saturday at 4 P.M. for tea, and call themselves the Souls.  When it is time for teachers to pick teams of four to enter the annual Academic Bowl, Mrs. Olinski picks the Souls, but can never explain why she chose those four particular students.  The Souls compliment each other so well, behaving with courtesy and kindness towards one another, a start contrast to some of the mean kids in their class.  Mrs. Olinski is a widow and a paraplegic, the result of a car accident and a not very happy woman, until she is drawn into the circle of kindness that her 
Academic Bowl team has formed.  A little slow to begin with, but such a satisfying read in the end.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Delacort, 2010, 288 pages (Age 8+)

Seven students in Mr. Terupt's fifth grade class narrative their stories on a monthly basis, beginning with the first day of school.  Each student has their own particular story as well as their shared experience of being in Mr. Terupt's, class.  Mr. Terupt is new to teaching but seems to have a knack for creative lessons and engaging even the most reticent of students.  The students may feel stereotypical, but having been a classroom teacher, I like to think of them as diverse individuals with specific demons to overcome (naturally with the help of Mr. Terupt, but not in the way you might think).  There is Peter - class cutout; Jessica - the new girl from California; Luke - smart and obsessive; Alexia - the class bully, excellent at starting girl wars; Jeffery - unhappy because of serious problems at home; Danielle - overweight and picked on for it, living with a judgemental mother and grandmother, who are ultra religious; and Anna - a loner who is paying the price for her parents actions.  A terrible accident helps all these students come to terms with who they are and the ways in which Mr. Terupt has helped them do that.  Keep tissues nearby for happy and sad tears, but do read this compelling novel.

There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar
Yearling, 1988, 224 pages (Age 8+)

Nobody, not fellow students, not even the teachers or the librarian, like repeat  fifth grader Bradley Chalkers.  In school, he is disruptive, disrespectful, and refuses to do his work, but at home, he is a master liar, skillfully pulling the wool over his mother's eyes about how he is doing in school.  When new student Jeff Fishkin must sit next to Bradley, he attempts to be friends with him.    Both Bradley and Jeff must visit the new, young school counselor Carla Davis once a week and over time, she helps Bradley change.  Jeff, who starts out as Bradley friend, later leaves him flat for some cooler friends who think he gave Bradely a black eye.  When a student, Colleen, goes to speak with Carla without her parents permission about her crush on Jeff, they rally other parents to have the school board dismiss Carla as an unnecessary expense.  This is quite a blow to Bradley, who is able try to come to terms with it because of the ways she helped him.  This is a interesting book with themes about about bullying, 
friendship, and second chances.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
HMH Books, 1944; 2004, 96 pages (Age 6+)

Every day Wanda Petronski, the daughter of a poor Polish immigrant, wears the same ill-fitting faded, but clean blue dress.  One morning, a classmate shows up wearing a beautiful outfit that everyone admires, when suddenly Wanda announces that she has 100 dresses in her closet at home, all lined up neatly.  After that, Peggy and Maddie begin to wait for Wanda to play the teasing game, asking her about her 100 dresses.  They think it is harmless teasing, but when they learn that Wanda and her family have moved to NYC to get away from the name calling and mocking, they also learn the truth about Wanda's 100 dresses.  Maddie, whose family is also not a well off as her classmates, vows to never to stand by and let that kind of cruel treatment happens to another person again.  The beautiful, but moody and undefined illustrations reminds of the any one of us could be Wanda for whatever reason at any given time.  This book pairs nicely with Jacqueline Woodson's Each Kindness.

The Secret School by Avi
HMH Books, 2003, 178 pages (Age 7+)

When the teacher of the one-room Elk Valley, Colorado school must leave, the School Board decides to close the school even though its close to summer vacation rather than find a new teacher.  But Ida Bidson, 14, and her friend Tom Kohl were supposed to take their 8th grade exam.  More than anything, Ida wants to go to high school and become a teacher.  Tom suggests that they secretly keep the school going, with Ida teaching the younger kids.  Sworn to secrecy, the kids continue going to school, but after a while Ida finds it difficult to teach, study and do her chores.  But Ida is determined to take her exam and become a real teacher.  She even manages to convince Miss Sedgewick, the school inspector from the County Education Office to keep her secret.  But secrets are hard to keep and it looks like this one is about to discovered when a disgruntled parent threatens to report Ida.

Schooled by Gordon Korman
Disney-Hyperion, 2008. 224 pages (Age 10+)

Raised and home-schooled by his grandmother, Rain, on the remnants of the commune she founded in the 1960s,  Capricorn "Cap" Anderson, 13, may know a little something of modern life, but he has certainly not experienced it.  When his grandmother falls and breaks her hip, Cap finds himself in a foster home, with a woman who had once lived on the commune,and her daughter, who despises having Cap in her home.  Needless to say, in school for the first time, Cap is the subject of curiosity by some, and by others, a gift from the gods.  At last, mean boy Zach Powers has the perfect chump to be 8th grade class president, a position reserved for the most unpopular kid with the intention of making their life living hell for the pure enjoyment of it.  But Cap has a few tricks up his sleeve, even though he may not know it.  Soon, his caring and kindness begin to win kids over, including some of Zach Powers gang.  Can peace and love win over the cynicism of Cap's classmates?  With multiple narrators by different kids, as this story unfolds, we see the different ways Cap and his hippie beliefs impacts their lives.  This is a fun novel with an important message. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Mary GrandPré
Scholastic, 1999, 320 pages (Age 8+)

This is my very favorite Harry Potter book.  This is the book in which Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, gets to leave a horrible Dursley's, makes two best friends - Ron Weasly and Hermione Granger - and one enemy - Draco Malfoy.  It is also the book in which Harry discovers the truth about his parent's deaths, and encounters He Who Must Not Be Named for the second time in his life.  This first Harry Potter basically sets the stage for the six books that follow, but, for me,  it is a bittersweet coming of age novel  I love the innocent wonder 11 year old Harry experiences as he encounters life in his new magical world, yet knowing what lies ahead for HP does cast a shadow on things.  I also really love that this is the book that turned so many kids into avid readers, including my Kiddo.      

Here are other school stories I have read and reviewed:

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes 
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Wonder by R.J. Palacio  
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The 14 Fibs of Gregory K by Greg Pincus        
PS Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia
Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi  
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin  
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy  

Kizzy Ann Stamps by Jeri Watts
Twerp by Mark Goldblatt
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Drama by Raina Telgemeier 
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

The Saturday Boy by David Fleming
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes 
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt 
Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

These are just some of the great school stories available to young readers.  Do you have any favorites?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Teacher's Choice…some old and new favorite picture books about school

I've been going through my shelves of books, getting ready to donate some of them to a good cause here in NYC, and realized I have a bunch of old and new books about school, probably because, as a classroom teacher, I love a good school story.  I thought since this is back to school time, I would share some favorites with you.  Today, I am looking at picture books: 

The Way to School by Rosemary McCarney
Second Story Press, 2015, 32 Pages (Age 5+)

With minimal text, and stunning full page photographs, young readers discover the different ways that kids around the world go to school in this nonfiction book.  Each photograph is labeled with the name of the country, but the photos speak for themselves - whether the kids are riding on a donkey or their school bus is a crowded ox cart, whether they are being pulled in a dog sled, climbing a high cliff, or walking across a collapsed bridge, each photograph shows how determined these children are to go to school and get educated, even if the way there is difficult and dangerous.  And some kids not only have a long walk, but must also carry their own water and desks to school every day.       

Rain School written and illustrated by James Rumford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 32 pages (age 4+)

It's September and the first day of school in a village in Chad.  Thomas is going to school for the first time and he can't wait to begin learning like the older siblings.  But first, Thomas and the other children must all help to build their school   The kids, under the guidance of the teacher, make bricks from mud, a frame from wood and a roof by weaving reeds together.  When it's finished, the children begin regular lessons, learning something new each day.  Nine months later, school is over for the year.  Just in time, too, because the annual heavy rains come and wash away the school.  Next September, Thomas and the other students will begin school again by rebuilding their school.  Rumford's illustration reminded me of brightly colored crayoned drawing, nicely depicting daily and school life in Thomas's village.  A nice addition to any classroom and library.  Kids can explore themes of diversity.teamwork, education, community, and self-reliance in Rain School.

Nasreem's Secret School, a True Story from Afghanistan
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books, 2009, 40 pages (Age 6+)

Forced to remain at home all day, every day once the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, Nasreen is no longer able to go to school.  After the Taliban takes her father away, and her mother disappears while looking for him, since women are not allowed out of the house without a male escort, Nasreem's grandmother becomes very worried about her granddaughter, especially after she stops speaking.  When she hears whispers of a neighbor running a secret school for girls, the two make their way to the neighbor's house, despite the danger.  Day after day, Nasreem does her work well, but never says a word to anyone in school.  Returning to school after the winter break, a classmate named Mina tells Nasreen that she had missed her, and Nasreem whispers back that she had missed Mina.  As she begins speaking more in school, Nasreem learns how to read, and learns all about her country's art and culture, and its scholars.  The nice thing about knowledge is that Taliban could never take it away from Nasreen and her classmates.  The acrylic illustrations are done in a folk art style using bright colors reminiscent of Middle Eastern art.

Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Chronicle Books, 2002, 36 pages (Age 5+)

Living in her family's splendid home with more than 100 relatives, Ruby and her cousins enjoy the privilege of an tutored education.  Yet, becasue she is a girl, Ruby is expected to give up her education and learn how to be a wife, but she wants to go to the university like her boy cousins instead.  Ruby's poem about her feelings, Alas, bad luck to be born a girl/worst luck to be born into this house/where only boys are cared for, is shown to her grandfather who calls her to him to talk about it.  But grandfather is a fair man who loves his grandchildren and on New Year's Day, he presents her with an acceptance letter to university.  This is a charming story based on the author's grandmother and shows us that sometimes breaking with tradition is a very good thing and that hard work can pay off.  Sophie Blackall's beautiful watercolor illustrations help create the culture of a by-gone time in China while retaining the universal desire of girls to get an education.

Little Cliff's First Day of School by Clifton L. Taulbert, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Penguin, 2001, 32 pages (Age 4+)

Little Cliff really does not want to go to school and leave Mama Pearl and Poppa Joe.  He doesn't want to put on his new school clothes or his new brown shoes or his new hat with the ear flaps.  He's scared of school and just wants to stay home with his toys and his great-grandparents.  On the first day of school, Little Cliff finds every which way to procrastinate, but after saying goodbye to everything in the house and on the farm, it is time to go.  Little Cliff decides maybe not and hides under the house.  When Mama Pearl finally gets him out from under there and brushes him off, the two of them set off for school.  When they arrive, Little Cliff is greeted with a big, happy surprise waiting for him there.  E.B. White's realistically rendered watercolor illustrations really help set the tone and mood of this charming story of a boy growing up in the South in the 1950s in this second book of Taulbert's Little Cliff trilogy.

The Name Jar written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Random House, 2003, 40 pages (Age 5+)

When young Unhei leaves Korea, her grandmother gives her a wooden block with her named carved on it so she will always remember who she is.  When she begins her new school, everyone wants to know who she is, but when Unhei realizes the kids have trouble saying her name, she decides to pick another one.  The kids set up a name jar for suggestions.  Running into a boy in her class at the Korean market, Joey discovers that her name is Unhei and that it means grace.  The next school day, the name jar was missing from her desk.  She announces to the class that she had decided to choose her real name Unhei.  Later, Unhei learns that Joey took the name jar hoping she would chose Unhei and not an American name.  This is a nice book about difference and identity and the importance of being just who you are.

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Square Fish, 2014, 32 pages (Age 5+)

Like Unhei, Yoon has also come to the US from Korea.  She is about to begin school, and her father wants her to learn to write her name in English.  When Yoon is reluctant to do that, he reminds her that her name means Shining Wisdom regardless of how it's written.  One the first day of school, Yoon is supposed to write her name on a piece of paper, but she decides to call herself CAT.  The same thing happens the next day, with the word BIRD, and yet again on the third day with the word CUPCAKE.  Yoon's teacher lets this happen each day, accepting it and smiling at the young girl.  Finally, on the fourth day, Yoon heads her paper with her own name - YOON.  Gabi Swiatkowska's beautifully rendered illustrations elaborate Yoon's feelings of discomfort and isolation in her new country, and her yearning daydreams to go back home to Korea.  

Both The Name Jar and My Name is Yoon do an excellent job depicting the difficulty young people can experience after moving to a new country, feeling displaced yet being expected to assimilate all the while they are trying to hold on to the country and culture that had been so comfortable and familiar to them.

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania Al Abdullah
with Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Disney-Hyperion, 2010, 32 pages (Age 4+)

Salma and Lily are best friends, doing everything together - playing, drawing, jumping rope, eating lunch in school.  Everyday, Lily brings a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Salma brings a hummus and pita sandwich to school.  Each girl thinks that the other girl's sandwich looks awful, but neither says anything until the day Lily blurts out that Salma's sandwich looks yucky.  Surprised, Salma tells Lily her sandwich looks gross.  The two friends get angry at each other and stop speaking, playing, drawing, jumping rope, and eating lunch together.  News of the fight spreads, until one day, the other kids in the lunchroom begin taking sides and throwing insulting comments around and the result is a food fight.  Ashamed, Lily and Salma make up, try each other's sandwich and to their amazement, Lily likes hummus and pita and Salma likes peanut butter and jelly. The girls come up with an idea to educate and celebrate the diverse foods of all the student's cultures.  According to the Author's Note, the idea for this book came from an experience she had in nursery school.  Tricia Tusa whimsically colorful watercolor illustrations are expressive of the emotions the girls feel when they are friends and when they aren't.

Dad's First Day written and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Bloomsbury, 2015, 40 pages (Age 4+)

Oliver and his dad had lots of fun playing together all summer long but now, it's the first day of school and Oliver is all ready - his lunchbox is packed, his crayons and pencils are bought and put into his shiny new backpack.  Oliver is so excited, but wait a minute - dad has a tummy ache, and now, he wants to finish doing a puzzle and uh oh! Oliver may be ready to start school, but is his dad?  Oliver's dad is sure going to miss him, but when he sees his son with his new friends, and sees how much fun he's having, maybe Oliver's dad is ready for for his son to go to school after all.  A really nice father/son book, and an interesting take on kindergarten empty nest syndrome.  Kids will like knowing they are missed at home, no matter how much fun school is.

Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry G. Allard, Jr., illustrated by James Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977, 1985, 32 pages (Age 5+)

What does a sweet teacher do when her class misbehaves so badly that she can't get them to do anything?  She doesn't come to school and the kids in Room 207 have  a substitute - the stern looking Miss Viola Swamp in an ugly black dress.  And the kids know immediately that Miss Swamp means business.  Pretty soon, Miss Nelson's class is working harder, behaving better and missing their sweet teacher.  What to do? Some kids hire a detective, other kids go to her house, day after day the whole class speculates about what could have happened to Miss Nelson and just when they begin to think she will never come back, she's back.  And so plaeased and surprised by her now well behaved class, but whatever happened to Miss Viola Swamp?  That's Miss Nelson's little secret.

The Art Lesson written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Penguin, 1989, 32 pages (Age 3+)

In this semi-autobiographical picture book, little Tommy loves to draw picture and wants to grow up to be an artist.  He is especially excited to begin school after his brother Joe tells him there would be art lessons.  But there are no lessons in kindergarten and Tommy must wait until 1st grade.  When 1st grade finally begins, Tommy has a brand new box of 64 crayons, but his 1st grade teacher tells him he cannot use them in class, all the kids must use the same box of 8 crayons.  When the art lessons finally begin, Tommy is disappointed to learn he must copy what the art teacher does instead of being creative, and when Tommy is caught with his 64 crayons, he is told he still cannot used them.  But a compromise is reached between the teachers and Tommy that allows him to finally be creative and use his  64 crayons.  This is a good story about following rules, handling disappointment, waiting, and compromise.

Penny & Jelly: The School Show by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Thyra Heder
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 32 pages (Age 4+)

It's time for the school talent show, and everyone seems to have a talent except Penny.  No matter what she tries, she just isn't very good at it.  Penny makes list after list, trying to find some talent that will knock the socks off everyone at the school talent show.  She ever enlists the help of her faithful dog, Jelly.  But nothing seems to work out for her.  She can't dance or sing or juggle or do magic tricks.  Finally, Penny finds a solution - she and Jelly perform a duet - Penny on kazoo, Jelly on howling.  Talent shows can be a problem for lots of kids in elementary school who don't have the kinds of talent these shows require, and can result in some pretty hurt feelings.  Addressing this and showing that everyone is good at something is a step in the right direction.

And Two Boys Booed by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Farrar, Straud , Giroux, 2014, 32 pages (Age 4+)

A young boy decides to sing in his class's talent show.  He's pretty confident, having praticed his song a billion times, beside, he's worn his lucky boots to school,  and is even wearing his pants with all the cool pockets on them.  What could go wrong?  Unfortunately, the young boy is last to go, and as the other kids perform, he begins to feel less confident and more disconcerted and nervous.  When it is finally his turn, after standing up and sitting down over and over again because he keeps changing his mind about "songing his sing" (yup,  the young singer begins to mix up his words), he finally sings his song and, when he's finished, two boys boo.  But the rest of the class claps.  The young hero survived his stage fright, survives the displeasure of two of his peers and lives to take his bow.  Sophie Blackall's whimsical illustrations really capture the many emotions the young singer goes through the morning of the talent show.  And because every story has two sides, this is a lift-the-flap book to see the other side of the story.  A lot of people didn't like this book because the booing was considered a mean thing to do to a kid, but I liked it because kids to run into these kinds of situations in school and they need to know that it's OK to have fears, they can get through them and be OK, even if it feels like the end of the world in the moment.   

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 32 pages (Age 4+)

I read this book on the bus coming home one afternoon, and I couldn't help laughing out loud.  A young boy, who feels he is pretty experienced in life (he's been hungry, crazy bored, four years old and mummified in toilet paper), now feels that the embarrassing gaffe he made in his first grade class, is humiliating enough to quite school over.  What happened?  After proudly responding to his teacher's query correctly, he accidentally called her "Mommy" instead of her name and everyone laughed, marching band loud laughter, even his best friend Tyler.  But wait, he would never laugh at his fellow classmates if they, perhaps, slipped on a banana peel or if their drink came out their nose.  Well, there was theat time Tyler's turtle costume fell off, and maybe he laughed a little or maybe even a lot.  After thinking of different ways to handle his embarrassment, he notices Tyler make a blunder in the school yard and finds it difficult not to laugh. But Tyler laughs at himself, and our embarrassed hero learns a valuable lesson about being able to laugh at yourself and about friendship.  Matthew Cordell's whimsical illustrations perfectly compliment the text and are spot on in conveying the young boy's changing emotions.
As his teacher tells him, calling a teacher Mommy happens every year, and I can vouch for that.

I hope you have enjoyed a look at these picture books and wish you all the best in the coming school year!

Friday, August 28, 2015

10 Years After Hurricane Katrina: Four New Books

It's hard to believe that it is already 10 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005.  Katrina's impact on New Orleans and the people who lived there was catastrophic and later, during the rebuilding, it turned into a transformative expericnce for many.  But while the images of Katrina's devestation may still be seared into the minds of many of us, young readers probably have no memory of it at all.  There has already been a number of excellent books written about this storm to help them understand what happened and this year, there are a few new ones to add to the growing body of Hurricane Katrina literature:

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra
Chronicle Books, 2015, 44 pages (Age 5+)

Written in the spirit of good folklore and based on the life of an actual person, Cornelius Washington, Marvelous Cornelius is the story of a real New Orleans garbage collector.  Cornelius does his job with all the enthusiam and finesse of a dancer, greeting everyone as he goes along his route in tossing bags of garbage into the truck and keeping his part of the city clean as a whistle.  But when Hurricane Katrina buries his beloved city in all kinds of garbage, Cornelius makes it his mission to help clean it up.  And before he knows it, all this friends on his route, and even strangers from around the country are there to help bring New Orleans back to life with Cornelius.

Though based on Cornelius Washington, this is NOT a true story but rather a story about the kind of spirit New Orleans needed after Hurricane Katrina swept through leaving a wake of distraction and death.  The painted illustration carry the idea of folklore in style and the palette flat colors used.  Before the read the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr at the beginning of the book and Phil Bildner's Author's Note at the end.

Sadly, Cornelius Washington passed away in in 2008 at the age 48.

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick
Henry Holt, 2015, 224 pages (Age 8+)

Living in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, 12 year old Theresa Arielle Boone, or Ressie as her friends and family called her, can't wait for her 13th birthday on August 29, 2005.  She's made herself a beatiful skirt to wear, with matching shoes, thanks to an early birthday present from her older brother Junior.  Even after the mayor issues a mandatory evacuation noitice, and as her friends start to leave New Orleans with their families, Reesie stills holds on to hope of a celebration.  Her mother, a nurse, wants to leave, too, but ber father, a police officer, insists on remaining at home because of work,  Reesie is so excited, she ignores the warning words and weather reports of an oncoming hurricane that promises to be big.

On the evening before her birthday, Hurricane Katrina reaches New Orleans.  Reesie, home alone, goes over to pick up her birthday cake from an elderly neighbor, Miss Martine, known for her delicious coconut cakes.  As the storm picks up strenght, Reesie stays with Miss Martine who begins to tell her all about her illustrious past and gives Reesie a book of poetry she had written and published.  The next morning, stranded in rising waters and strong winds, a knock on the door brings the older brother of Reesie's best friend and his brand new wife.  Luckily, Dre is able to get the four of them up into the crawl space of Miss Martine's house and then, onto the roof, where a boat finally rescues them as the storm begins to let up.

As residents of New Orleans begin to realize that life as they had known it is gone, Reesie's mother whisks her away to New Jersey and away from her father.  Will she ever be able to return to New Orleans and everyone and everything she loves, including her father?

Finding Someplace is written in two partts, the first part covers the days before, during and right after Hurricane Katrina, the second part jumps to December 2005 and Reesie's life in New Jersey.  I didn't find the descriptions of the hurricane to be quite a harrowing as other novels I've read about about people stranded in New Orleans when it hit.  Even the roof rescue seemed to happen too quickly and easily, especially if you can remember those heartbreaking scenes of desperate people on their rooftops trying to get help.  What I did find poignant were the descriptions of the water destroying all the  memorabilia of people's lives, often the only things they owned of a beloved person.

But while I found the hurricane part lacking, I did like how Patrick dealth with the more long range aftermath of the storm and it's impact on Reesie's family.  That is something you don't see in too many of these stories.

I found Finding Someplace to be an interesting addition to the Hurrican Katrina body of literature that continues to grow.  For most of it's readers, Hurricane Katrina is history  and for that reason, it was nice that some of the chapters in Finding Someplace give the date and time to orient the reader, but I would have really liked a detailed Hurricane Katrina timeline to be able to refer to.  Going to the computer to check the chronology of the storm was really distracting.

Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith
Random House, 2015, 336 pages (Age 9+)

When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, 10 year old Zavion and his father just barely excape from a second floor window in their home, jumping onto a door as the flood waters rise, destroying everything that he has known and loved his entire life.  But to add to that trauma, Zavion slips off the door into the oily, snake infested flood waters and almost drowns, a terrifying experience until his papa pulls him out.
Eventually, Zavion and papa get to Baton Rouge.  There, Zavion is given a bag of clothing, including a pair of jeans with a large marble in the pocket.  The marble becomes a kind of talisman for Zavion, who draws a particular kind of comfort from having it, as though it contains something magical.

Far away from New Orleans, in northern Vermont, Henry, also 10, is grappling with the accidental death of his best friend Wayne in a fall from a cliff on Mount Mansfield.  At his friend's funeral, Henry secretly removed a large marble from Wayne's coffin.  Slowly, through flashbacks, the importance of the marble is learned.  When Henry's mother donates the jeans with the marble in the pocket to Hurricane Katrina victims, Henry is compelled to travel to New Orleans with Wayne's father Jake, a long distance trucker, to find it.

Both boys are haunted by their own traumatic memories and suffering from PTSD, but eventually their stories converge, offering the possibility of healing and hope despite overwhelming grief.

The novel centers on the marble, almost like it is a point of gravity pulling Henry and Zavion closer to each other.  At the same time, Tamara Ellis Smith moves her diverse cast of characters around like a well thought out chess game as the marble moves closer and closer to its destiny.  This is Smith's debut novel.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 96 pages (Age 12+)

This graphic non-fiction book is probably one of the most powerful Hurricane Katrina works I've read as it chronicles the storm from its very beginning as a swirl leaving Africa to the rebuilding of New Orleans.  In a sense, this is a biography of Katrina, and how it impacted every aspect of life that most vulnerable city - residents, building, homes, levees and more.  The illustrations are raw but honest, done in pen and ink and digital paint in monochromatic shades of brown, black, gray during the storm, with more color is added in the aftermath, as the rains subsided.  Brown has captured not just the living, such as people on their rooftops hoping for rescue, and others crowded into the Superdome, but also the dead who were left in the flood waters for days.  There is a lot to be said about Hurricane Katrina, including issues of racism, indifference, ineptitude and opportunistic crime, but there are also acts of courage and unadulterated kindness and Brown does ends on a note of hope and rebuilding.  But he never whitewashes any part of what happened in on August 29, 2005.  Drowned City is a work not to be missed but it is also a work of heartbreaking truth.

Other books to help young readers understand and explore the impact of Hurricane Katrina:
A Penguin Named Patience: A Hurricane Katrina Rescue Story by Suzanne Lewis, illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Sleeping Bear Press, 2015, 32 Pages, age 4+

Eight Dolphins of Katrina: A True Tale of Survival by Janet Wyman Coleman, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene, HMH, 2013, 40 pages, age 5+

Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson (Bloomsbury, 2008, 32 pages, age 4+

A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Renee Watson, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, Random House, 2014, 40 pages, age 5+

I Survived Hurricane Katrina, 2005 by Lauren Tarshis, illustrated by Scott Dawson, Scholastic, 2011, 112 pages, age 7+

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana, Chronicle Books, 2014, 320 pages, age 8+

Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Little, Brown, 2010, 217 pages, age 10+

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods, Penguin, 2011, 144 pages age 10+

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick, Scholastic, 2014, 192 pages, age 10+

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Perfect Percival Priggs written and illustrated by Julie-Anne Graham

My Kiddo had a teacher in 1st grade who seemed to demand perfection from her students.  She never really said anything about it, but one morning I could hear my Kiddo listing the names of the kids in her class and after each name, saying yes or no.  When I asked what she was doing, she told me that counting the kids the teacher thought were the best, and the kids she thought were not.

I had wondered where she has gotten her sudden perfection anxiety, and now I knew.  Somehow, in some subtle way, and without realizing it, the teacher had sent her students a message about her expectations.  It took a long time to get that early influence out of my Kiddo's head.  Just do your best was as far as I take striving for perfection.

Bur, wanting to be perfect is a real problem with kids these day (well, truth be told, it has always been a problem) and I wish I had a book like The Perfect Percival Priggs to give my Kiddo.  Luckily, today's parents to have it.

Young Percival struggles to be as perfect as his seemingly perfect, overachieving, competitive parents and grandparents.  They all have awards and degrees galore on their shelves.  So does Percival, but unlike his parents, he doesn't enjoy any of his pursuits, in fact, he finds them exhausting - because always having to be perfect is exhausting.  But if he isn't perfect at everything, Percival is afraid his parents won't love him.

So, Percival finds himself with a long list of competitive things to do, that requires multitasking.  But when something goes wrong with the rocket he's invented and it accidentally destroys his mother's perfectly decorated, multilayered cake, Percival is sure the worst is going to happen.  Instead, his parents just laugh and they have a real surprise for him - not only do they still love him very much, but they show him an attic full of their own failures.

In the end, Percival finds things to do that he loves doing, and some of those pursuits fail, but it's OK, because what is important to him now, is knowing his parents love him no matter what.

I think this is a good book about perfection and performance for kids.  Percival's parents just did what they loved doing, not bothered by their failures, but proud of their successes.  But somehow, like my Kiddo's teacher, they sent a message to their son to emulate them.  It never occurred to them that Percival also need to see their failures, so to him, being like his parents means being perfect.

This is a well-written story with digitally collaged illustrations done in soft colors, with the exception of the dark hair and dark oversize glasses the Priggs all wear.  The illustrations are also very detailed and humorous, with lots of elements for young readers to explore on each page.  I liked that many of the pages have a textile-like background, giving the book a homey feeling.   But, I also liked the irony of the book's cover - the text The Perfect Percival Priggs imposed over a very messy illustration.

The Perfect Percival Priggs is a light-hearted look at a serious topic and one that kids need to be reminded of often.  It's back to school time now, and this would make a welcome addition in any classroom book.  It would also work well in a homeschooling situation, where learning is often one-on-one or a small group.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Running Press Kids

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

It's August 1976 and 10 year old Sunny is looking forward to going to the shore for two weeks with her family mom, dad, older brother Dale and baby brother Teddy - and her best friend. Instead, she finds herself winging her way to Florida to stay with her grandfather for two weeks.

At first, Sunny thought it might be fun, maybe even a trip to Disney World was a possibility, but she soon realizes that life in a retirement community is, well, not what she had hoped for.  Instead, she finds herself going to the post office, the supermarket, the golf course with her grandfather.  Luckily, she meets a boy her age named Buzz, who's totally into comic books and superheroes.

The two become friends and are soon earning comic book money by retrieving golf balls from gold course water hazards and getting a nickel for each one from the guy in the pro shop.  Later, they begin earning a dollar for finding the lost cats of some of the elderly residents.  Suny's visit is more interesting with a friend, but she is also aware that her grandfather is smoking on the sly.  Instead of just owning up to the fact that he is addicted to cigarettes, Grandpa claims he has finally quit, but Sunny finds packs of cigarettes hidden all over the house, including in the cereal box.

Interspersed in Sunny's present are flashbacks that begin in September 1975.  As the new school year begins, she begins to realize that her older brother may have had some problems there - he was disliked by the teacher she now has.  Each flashback adds more information about her older brother Dale, as he changes from a fun older brother that Sunny looked up to to a scary, violent drug addicted stranger who is in with a bad crowd.

It's while reading a Hulk comic that Sunny suddenly makes the connection between the changes in her brother brought on by drugs and alcohol and Bruce Banner's exposure to gamma radiation that poisoned him and causes him to become the destructive Hulk when he's angry.

Realizing that she has been sent to Florida while her parents deal with Dale and his drug problem, and afraid she might become like him and/or the Hulk, Sunny makes a big decision that will change her life and really improve her visit to Florida.

I have to admit that when I received this book, I thought it was going to be a fun book about a young girl's summer vacation, with best friends and maybe a crush or two.  Boy, was I taken aback.  Though not without many humorous elements, this is a serious book and although it takes place in the 1970s, it easily resonates in today's world.

Despite the flashbacks, the majority of the story takes place in the present.  There is the reminder that 1976 was a bicentennial year, with lots of different celebrations, and the people were really into the space program then.  One particularly poignant chapter involved Sunny and Grandpa going to dinner at Buzz's house and meeting his father, a Cuban immigrant without papers, a chemist who must work as a gardener.

Grandpa's cigarette addiction and Dale's drug problems are nice paraelles to each other, reminding us the addiction is addiction, even if your drug of choice is legal.  But, it also reminds us that dealing with an addiction is difficult in real life.  Like Sunny, kids tend to love their siblings but so often don't understand what's happening and often no one really talks to them about it.  It took a comic book to make Sunny admit to what was going on around her.  Holm and Holm have managed to portray the changes in Dale, and Sunny's confusion about what she was seeing, and her sense of betrayal by some of Dale's actions so evocatively that a middle grade reader will certainly feel empathy for Sunny, and perhaps even be able relate to her predicament within their own family.

The graphics for Sunny Side Up, drawn by Matthew Holm, were colored in by Lark Pien.  She chose a palette of bright, sunny summertime hues, contrasted with the Dale-involved flashbacks which become darker and darker as he sinks into his troubling lifestyle.

The storytelling in Sunny Side Up is simple without moralizing, clear and to the point.  Sunny Side Up is one of those graphic novels that makes my appreciation for what they can do so succinctly grow with each one I read.  It tackles a difficult problem but never loses that all important note of hope.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

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