Monday, September 18, 2017

It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk

It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk
written by Josh Funk; illustrated by Edwardian Taylor
2017 (Two Lions)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Spoiler alert: A giant lives here. Can I go home now? 

Jack is not a happy camper. Issues with a giant? Not really. More like an overbearing narrator. First, he's told to give away his best friend in the world. This leads to a river of tears from Jack and the cow. But hey, these are magic beans! Well, if you're hungry, that doesn't do you any good. Jack is so cranky that he tosses the beans out the window. When he wakes up, there's a rather large beanstalk outside. And a pushy narrator telling him that he has to climb it without any equipment since readers have been told that Jack has no possessions. Jack puts on a brave face as he climbs the beanstalk. He meets Cinderella on his way up as she is standing on a balcony in her castle. Their ensuing conversation ticks off the narrator because it impedes the flow of the story. I love it because it reminds me of the great "This is SportsCenter" commercials on ESPN where worlds collide. Jack has some trepidation about entering the castle. He questions the narrator who forcefully exclaims that Jack must enter the house. Sure enough, the giant captures Jack. But when Jack explains, against the wishes of the narrator, that it doesn't end well for the giant, the story takes a much different road than the one through Traditionville. And that, as Robert Frost once wrote, makes all the difference.

Where do I start with all the reasons why I love this book? First and most of all, this is such a fun and funny read. Your day will instantly improve after reading it. If you use it as a read aloud, you can count on having to read it more than once. But there are also several teaching opportunities available here. The back and forth between Jack and the narrator is terrific. This story would help teachers be able to explicitly talk about the role of a narrator and teach a point of view mini-lesson. The design of the book helps immensely with speech bubbles for Jack's "outside the narrative" conversations. There's also the element of Jack questioning the authority of the narrator. That's great role modeling for our need to ask questions and occasionally challenge authority. Mentioned earlier, the meeting of Jack and Cinderella is a mash-up that opens up a lot of writing possibilities. What if this character met that character? How would the dialogue go? Speaking of dialogue, you could use this book to create an entertaining Reader's Theater script/classroom play. With delightful twists and turns, you'll be glad It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pirates Magnified

Pirates Magnified
written by David Long; illustrated by Harry Bloom
2017 (Wide Eyed Editions0
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher)

Not only were pirates some of history's toughest adventurers-they were also some of the most skillful. 

Tuesday (September 19th) is Talk Like a Pirate Day. It's not enough to say a few words. You need to have the background knowledge to really be convincing. Fortunately, Pirates Magnified, a mashup of informational text and search and find, will give you the info you need to go beyond a mere "Shiver me timbers." Although that's covered too with an excellent two page spread in the back with pirate rules, slang, terms, and ship vocabulary.

The first four two page spreads of the book feature background information about pirate life. That information takes several forms. There are two or three paragraphs of interesting text. In Merchants On the High Seas, the text explains that there were many items beyond gold and silver that were valuable. For example, a small bag of spices from Indonesia could bring great riches. The star of the spread is the search and find. Each is a mural of pirates in action. Accompanying the large illustration is a 10 Things to Spot infographic with small figures that appear in the mural and a sentence or two of information. You will be looking for jewels, but other important items like salt fish. A pirate's gotta eat! To make it easier to find the figures, you receive a magnifying glass to spot them. Other text boxes with even more facts also appear.

After pirate life, there are ten biographies of famous pirates. Some familiar, like Blackbeard and William Kidd, but others that may not be as familiar to you. Did you know there was a Spanish pirate like Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor? His name was Amaro Pargo and he also sometimes used tricks instead of violence to board ships. There were also pirates on American rivers!

Two more spreads highlight seafaring in a storm and treasure hunters. A hilarious and informative Rogues Gallery shines a spotlight on pirates who didn't make it into the spreads but were infamous nonetheless. Finally, more search and find fun comes with many extra items to spot as you review the previous spreads.

With a combination of fun and loads of pirate information, Pirates Magnified is the perfect book for land lubbers like me.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Reena's Rainbow

Reena's Rainbow
written by Dee White; illustrated by Tracie Grimwood
2017 (EK Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Reena couldn't hear the children count to ten, but she saw their smiles, and ran to join them. 

Reena is unable to hear but she uses her eyes to take everything in. At the park, she meets a dog who doesn't have a home. Reena and Dog enjoy each other's company. Soon, she sees a group of children playing hide and seek. Dog shows them good places to hide while Reena is the seeker. She's very good at finding the other children. Without relying on sound, Reena uses her keen eyesight to spot them. Now it's time for Reena to hide. Unfortunately, she's a little too good at hiding. The other children can't find her and wonder if she has gone home. When Reena reappears, she ends up being alone. She worries about being different, but her mother explains that we are all like the colors of the rainbow. Different, but better together as one. This didn't seem to help Reena or Dog as he felt apart as well. On another day, Reena is once again at the park and sees a group of kids playing on a low to the ground zip line. One of the group is standing underneath a tree branch that breaks. Reena lets out a warning scream and Dog pushes the boy out of harm's way. From that point on, Reena and Dog no longer felt apart at the park as they became a permanent team.

Children want to belong. Being alone stinks. When you are different, it can be harder to be part of a group. That's one of the reasons why building a welcoming community in their classroom may be the most important thing a teacher can do. One way to build a community is to share books like Reena's Rainbow that encourage students to work together. I really like the example of a rainbow and the colors combining to make something special. This is also a terrific book to share when studying the five senses. The story alludes to Reena having great eyesight by continually saying "Reena saw..." or "She saw..." It would be interesting to see if students pick up on this. All in all, this is a sweet story that illustrates the need for acceptance and working together.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Anchor Charts for Making Inferences

Anchor charts are some of the most popular posts on this blog, so to quote The O'Jays and Jalen Rose, "Give the People What They Want!" Here are some anchor charts that I found on making inferences.

This comes from Katelyn Gagnon's Reading Pinterest board.

4th grade Weebly from James R. Wood Elementary School.

Using inference in fiction. This comes from Sara Dumpman's Making Inferences Pinterest board.

 I like the non-example and example shown here. Amanda Hudacek's Making Inferences board.

Important distinction made here. Brittany Thornton All Things Reading board.

Another important distinction right here. The Classroom Nook.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Baby Loves Quantum Physics and Thermodynamics!

Baby Loves Quantum Physics!
Baby Loves Thermodynamics!
written by Ruth Spiro; illustrated by Irene Chan
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Cat is in the box! Maybe Cat is asleep. Shhh... Maybe Cat is awake.

Baby loves her cat. So when Cat decides to hide, Baby looks for him. A tail hanging out of a box gives a big clue to Baby as to the location of Cat. Now here's the big question: Is Cat asleep or is Cat awake? Or is Cat in both states? This is where quantum physics comes in. Physicist Erwin Schrodinger created a thought experiment involving a cat and a box. Professor Eric Martell explains that Schrodinger's point was that rules used to describe big objects "couldn't be used to explain how an electron or atom works." The thermodynamics book was easier to understand as Baby enjoys the warmth of the sun and also observes that the energy of the sun transfers to an apple tree to help it grow. Then, an apple falls from the tree and Baby eats it to gain enough energy to throw a ball.

So my mind is officially blown. But here's the really cool thing about these two board books: On one level, these board books are gentle stories with engagingly colorful illustrations that babies and toddlers will enjoy. The next level is what it does to adults like me. I spent hours scrambling to learn about quantum physics and the laws of thermodynamics. And it was fun! Plus, it's a great example that I can use with my students about what to do when you don't know something. I can recall to them how I used several resources to learn about quantum physics and thermodynamics. I consulted internet articles and videos to learn. There was a lot of comparing and talking inside my head. The process was an enjoyable journey. Now Jeff loves quantum physics and thermodynamics!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


written and illustrated by Lucy Volpin
2017 (Little Bee Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

I'm sorry. I have no time for autographs today. I am about to create a masterpiece...

First of all, the name is ingenious. With the mustache on the crocodile, it's very clever right off the bat. In his mind, Crocodali is extremely talented. So much so that he doesn't have time for you or me. A blank canvas awaits him along with a few cans of paint (psst! They're primary colors.) and some brushes. But since you're so persistent in turning the pages, he enlists your help. Unfortunately, Crocodali doesn't appreciate it. The results don't meet to his approval. When you turn the page against his wishes, the painting suddenly changes in his eyes. He kind of likes it. Shake the book, he says. Now paint is all over the place, but with your help in turning the book, Crocodali adds some finishing touches and is quite pleased. With the canvas being wet, the master painter asks you to blow on it. This finishing touch turns out to be Pollockesque.

This would be a great book for an art teacher to use in their classroom to discuss famous painters and/or styles of painting. It's fun and pulls the reader in with the instructions from the creative crocodile. If you teach primary color recognition, this would be a popular choice for a read aloud in your classroom. I also think it's a good lesson on how to make lemonade out of lemons. What at first seems dire can turn into a masterpiece.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Go Well, Anna Hibiscus!

Go Well, Anna Hibiscus!
written by Atinuke; illustrated by Lauren Tobia
2017 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

And today was the day that Grandfather was going! He was going with Grandmother and the big girl cousins, Joy and Clarity and Common Sense. 

Book 6 of this series finds Grandfather needing to get back to his home village. Away from the noise of the busy city and to a place "where there are more goats than people." Each chapter could be a standalone story with the thread being the contrast between Anna's city life and the village of her beloved grandfather. In each chapter, there is also a big life lesson. Chapter 1 is the first part of a bus trip to the village. Anna shows great compassion to a boy that is traveling with three goats. He is hungry and Anna asks her older cousin Joy to buy food for the boy. A lady who doesn't show compassion meets a hilarious fate on the bus. In Chapter 2, Anna learns to adapt. After a bus trip of many hours, Anna and Joy must walk through the bush to get to Grandfather's village. It is a tiring journey in the hot sun carrying her pet chicken in a basket. Even though her city aunts would frown upon it, Anna makes her load much lighter by putting it on her head. Now she is walking like the ladies of the bush. Chapter 3 shows Anna being very brave. Life for her in the village is not easy. Everything is different including the food. Village children call her names because of her lighter skin color. She longs for her mother who is back in the city. When Anna hears the cries of her frightened grandmother, she jumps into action and leads away a pack of stray dogs by thinking of a solution. Though encouraged by her bravery and by Grandfather, Anna is quite lonely in the final chapter. The older people all have others to spend time with but she has no one. Her grandparents encourage her to work on her spelling homework. With no paper in the village, Anna draws her letters in the dirt. Looking over a wall, the village children watch. Anna eyes them defiantly as she remembers the earlier slights. Finally, one of the children asks her to teach him. Soon all of the children are learning to write. Even so, they don't seem very inviting. It's when they are able to teach her a skill that a friendship blossoms.

One of the strengths of the Anna Hibiscus series is that it takes readers to a place most of them are unfamiliar with. City and village life in Africa is not a subject that comes up very often in our schools. These books will transport readers and help them discover the similarities between themselves and Anna. All of us have times where we feel lonely, where we need to be brave, where we learn to be compassionate. Anna is all of us.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Strong As Sandow

Strong As Sandow
written and illustrated by Don Tate
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

No doubt Eugen Sandow was the strongest of all strongmen. But he wasn't always strong. 

Later known as "The Strongest Man on Earth", Friedrich Muller (1867-1925) started off his life in a frail state of health. While other children ran and played outside, he regularly stayed inside due to being ill. An excellent student, his father rewarded him with a trip where he viewed the statues of Roman gladiators. Inspired by these ancient musclemen, Friedrich exercised more than ever. Disturbed by the focus on physical activity, his father sent him to a university to build his mind. Sneaking away from classes one day to visit a traveling circus, Friedrich left the books behind to become an acrobat. All of the tumbling, flipping, and flopping started making a difference in his physique. With the circus turning out to be a temporary career for the budding muscleman, Friedrich turned to modeling for artists to pay the bills. One of these artists introduced him to a strongman who gave Friedrich a place at his gym and a turning point in life. Lifting heavier and heavier weights, not only did he become stronger, but also wiser in the business of being strong. Having changed his name to Eugen Sandow, the young man in his early twenties was about to take his shot (yes, a Hamilton reference). Two professional strongmen boasted nightly from a London stage that no one could defeat them in a strength competition. Eugen defeated them both and was on his way to fame and fortune. He toured America to much applause, but the road was a tough place to stay healthy and he eventually went back home to England. Needing a change of pace, Eugen opened a gym and focused on promoting exercise and healthy eating. He also started the first organized bodybuilding contest. Wanting to be like Eugen, many people turned to living a healthier lifestyle.

In his Author's Note, Don Tate explains that his personal interest in bodybuilding led to the writing of Strong As Sandow. His desire to get stronger mirrored Sandow's. He also tells how this was a challenging book to write as there were many contradictions between sources and Sandow's family destroyed his personal belongings after the strongman's death. He decided to tell the story how Sandow would have wanted which makes this a great opportunity to talk about point of view in the classroom. Tate's telling of this fascinating life is terrific. His Afterword and Author's Note are superb as he explains why Sandow was an important figure in his time period. Tate even includes exercises that students can practice to become as strong as Sandow. As a teacher and a parent, I appreciate the author's emphasis on teaching children how to live a healthier lifestyle. It's a unique story that will be a welcome addition to a biography unit. If you do a wax museum in your class, someone will want to be as strong as Sandow.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Curious Cares of Bears

The Curious Cares of Bears
written by Douglas Florian; illustrated by Sonia Sanchez
2017 (Little Bee Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

In springtime there's carefully climbing up trees, 
and stealing the honey from beehives of bees. 

Think you know everything about bears? You might be surprised by what you find out in The Curious Cares of Bears. What is not surprising is they like to climb trees and seek out honey. Chasing each other and wrestling also fall into the predictable category. But jump roping? Do they double dutch? And how about partying and dancing all night? I hope they do the electric slide although it looks like a conga line. Would you believe mountain biking for over fifty-five miles? I expect bears to relax in a lake and eat berries. Building a campfire and sharing a song? I wonder what songs bears would sing around a campfire. Teddy Bear by Elvis? They sure do have a good time until the cold winds blow signifying it's time to head for a den and hibernate.

Before reading this with a class, I would ask students to think about what the bears might do in the book as a way to work on prediction and to find out what their background knowledge is with bears. This is also a fun book that could be a terrific title for exploring the differences between fiction and nonfiction. You could create a class graphic organizer where you list what is fact and what is fiction in the book. With the rhymes in the book, this is an opportunity to work on phonemic awareness by covering up the last word in a spread. Students can think about what would rhyme and they would be practicing using illustrations to help figure out new words. Speaking of rhymes, you'll definitely want to consider this for a shared reading as well. With delightful artwork, a clever concept, and plenty of humor, The Curious Cares of Bears would be a great addition to a K-2 class collection and/or a bedtime story at home.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


written by Brady Barr
2017 (National Geographic Kids)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

I asked the engineers at National Geographic to build me a Dynamometer. (That's a fancy word for bite-force meter.) On every expedition, I took along my trusty dynamometer and measured the bite force of animals I encountered. 

Brady Barr is a herpetologist and an animal expert with National Geographic. He seeks to know more about animals in order to help them. One of his passions is to measure the bite force of animals. Okay, probably not what most of us would choose to do, but it's valuable work. This has led him to create a book that focuses on how and why animals bite like they do. There are four groups in the text: Grippers, Slicers, Crushers, and Gulpers. The first group, Grippers, use their teeth to stop an animal in their tracks with a ferocious bite. There's a wide variety of animals in this group including land animals like lions, jaguars, and Tasmanian devils and also water animals like tiger sharks and gharial crocodiles. Each featured animal in the book receives a two page spread. On the spread, you'll get an introductory text box titled Meet the Beast. What's on the Menu tells you the favored foods of the animal. Bite Force gives a measure of the bite in pounds while By the Numbers tells how many teeth the animal has. Finally, Bite Business gives a detailed description of the animal's bite. As a teacher, I really like this because you open a world of compare and contrast opportunities. If you're familiar with Robert Marzano's research, that's an effective way to learn information and boost achievement. I also think this will be great for working on creating tables to present facts in a presentation and it's a good example of how you can design an informational text. I like the consistency of the features in each section. My favorite part of this book? The stories. Brady Barr tells some fantastic ones in Chomp! Each chapter starts out with one. We're talking "I have to share this with my friends and I'll never ever forget these" kind of stories. I guarantee that you won't think of otters in the same way after reading this book. In the classroom, you could use these as unforgettable examples of personal narratives.

Be aware. Chomp! is not for the fainthearted. Which means it's perfect for 3rd-8th grade readers. If you have the stomach, it is a fascinating study of an important part of animal life.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Blue Corn Soup

Blue Corn Soup
written by Caroline Stutson; illustrated by Teri Weidner
2017 (Sleeping Bear Press)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

"What is this?" Mouse peeks outside.
Whiskers wiggle. Eyes grow wide.
Chipmunk, Rabbit, and Old Bear
smell her sopa, want to share.

Have you ever walked through a neighborhood during the summer and smelled the food someone was grilling? And wished they would invite you over? If you have, you will understand how the animals feel in Blue Corn Soup. With snow blanketing the ground, Mouse starts grinding corn. She's going to make sopa (soup) to keep her warm. Chipmunk lifts his head as he is chopping wood. Smelling the smoke, he wonders if someone is cooking soup. Abuelita (grandmother) stirs and sips. This sopa is going to need a little extra so she starts chopping pepper. While drawing water from a well, Rabbit smells the pinon smoke. He too wonders if soup is on the way. Once again Mouse takes a small taste. The sopa still needs more flavor so she adds pine nuts to the pot. Old Bear awakens from his bed with his nose full of the wonderful smell. He joins his neighbors in walking to the source of the outstanding aroma. Holding the pot, Mouse looks outside her door. Three large noses are disappointed that their eyes tell them there isn't enough sopa for everyone. But Mouse has a plan to save the day.

Can you have enough books about sharing in K-2? I don't think so. When sweet animals in lovely pastel colors are doing the sharing, that's all the better. Sharing is one of those activities that you want to emphasize all year round and provide plenty of examples that allow students to see it for themselves without having to be told to share. There's also opportunities to work with Spanish and English vocabulary which make for a good lesson on how to use context and illustrations to figure out a word. Finally, the repeated text in the story will make this book a fun shared reading and/or partner reading experience. Pull up a chair and get your biggest spoon. With a recipe at the end of the book, you'll want a big helping of Blue Corn Soup.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Great Pasta Escape

The Great Pasta Escape
written by Miranda Paul; illustrated by Javier Joaquin
2017 (Little Bee Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

They stuck to their own kind. 
They stayed still in their packaging.
And they never spoke to humans. 

If you followed the rules, the pasta believed they would go to a most excellent location. So they stayed in their different packages and waited for the next step. But a funny thing happened on the way to that better place. Fettuccine overheard two factory workers talking about how they were looking forward to eating pasta. Gasp! Was this true? A meeting was called. Bow Tie tried to be the voice of reason. Ramen was very angry. A bandanna wearing Macaroni just wanted everyone to chill. A trio of Rotini presented the evidence that was too strong to ignore. The pasta were headed for a plate of trouble. After much venting among the pasta, a Rotini proposed a plan that left only Ravioli behind. This did not go over well with the square crowd and they led a revolt against the others. Amidst the pasta pugilism, an angel appeared. Actually, a batch of angel hair pasta. And she had a plan to find that better place.

With the wordplay and humor, I was laughing loud enough to be heard in other parts of my house. This is brilliant stuff. It's a great lesson in learning how to keep your cool in times of distress and thinking through a problem together. That's something you want to emphasize at the beginning of the school year in your classroom. And there's a guide to pasta shapes in the very back. If you do art projects involving pasta, teach a unit on food, or just want a good laugh, you'll want to join this plucky band of noodles.