Monday, February 20, 2017

Our Dog Benji

Our Dog Benji
written by Pete Carter; illustrated by James Henderson
2017 (EK Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

In the park, he eats grass and daffodils, and pretends he's hungry if anyone is eating ice cream... I understand that.

Benji will eat almost anything. His owner not so much. The narrator wishes he were a less picky eater like Benji. Tomatoes, olives, even avocado are treats for Benji. When it's morning, Benji stares at the refrigerator with the hope that something will pop out. He searches for crumbs along the floor. We had a beagle that would lay down at my wife's feet every morning as she made lunches for our daughters. You never know when a snack cracker or a piece of cheese will hit the ground. For Benji, dinner time is spent under the table where unknown treasures appear. But it isn't just inside the house that food can be found. Walking through his open gate, Benji is found sharing a lunch with a construction worker. If a party is being held next door, he will grace it with his presence. Nothing better than good food and good company. Summertime brings an abundance of crunchy snacks in the form of bugs. There's really only one thing that he won't eat. In agreement with the narrator, celery is a food that can be left alone for this dog.

Our Dog Benji is a unique way to approach the subject of picky eating. I think you can also read this book and talk about gratitude. Benji is appreciative of what he is given. It's a sweet story that could lead to a larger discussion about what we can learn from our pets. You can also teach a lesson on comparing with Benji and the narrator or Benji and the reader using a Venn Diagram. Having lost a beloved beagle a few weeks ago, Our Dog Benji is a particularly heartwarming story for dog lovers.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire

Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire
written by Cindy Neuschwander; illustrated by Wayne Geehan
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

"They're Fracton numbers, my lady," the woman answered. "They are used to measure equal pieces of something, such as this beautiful cloth."

Lady Di of Ameter and Sir Cumference are visiting a fair with their friend the Earl of Fracton. In Fracton, you can buy a whole item or pieces of it. Lady Di spies a bolt of red fabric, but while she is getting a lesson on numerators and denominators from the seller, the fabric disappears. Meanwhile, Sir Cumference and the Earl are craving a snack so they chat up the cheese monger. He provides a lesson on equivalent fractions, which disappoints Sir Cumference because he, like an overeager second grader, thought choosing a large number for the denominator would guarantee more cheese. When the cheese monger turns to cut from the cheddar wheel, it's missing too! In fact, all of the vendors are missing items. Momentarily flummoxed, the Earl decides to think like a thief which allows him to devise a fracton-like plan to catch the stealing stinkers. Through the medium of a puppet show, a reward of one valuable gold coin is offered to the customer that can find the largest fraction written on pieces of paper distributed throughout the fair. The Earl surmises that only a visitor to Fracton would be delighted with a low numerator and a high denominator. Sure enough, a motley crew leader boasts of having found 1/32 and is outwardly annoyed when his fraction is not declared the winner. Case closed.

Fractions are one of the hardest topics for math students in grades 2-5. So when an engaging resource can be found to propel their learning, there is mathematical mirth to be had. The concepts are explained in an enlightening way both textually and visually. You also get the added bonus of fun wordplay, which is a hallmark of the Sir Cumference book series. All hail this new addition to a venerable math series!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Let's Go to Playgroup!

Let's Go to Playgroup!
written by Caryl Hart; illustrated by Lauren Tobia
2017 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Billy is munchy-crumbly-crunchy,
Grabs his spotty cup. 
Buttery fingers slip and slide,
Milky cup tips up!

Bee and Billy arrive with their moms for playgroup time. Taking off to pretend to deliver the mail, Bee consoles a nervous Billy. She invites him to a farm disguised as two big buckets with wheels. They wave stuffed farm animals  and make noises as they sink into the buckets. But not all is always well in the playgroup. Sometimes a conflict arises over a toy. In this case, it's a red tractor. Baby and Bee both want it and it takes a wise Billy to deliver a solution in the form of a train given to Baby. Adults may think of these problems as minor, but to the participants they are big deal. I like that all is not sweetness and light. That will allow preschool readers to better connect to this book. There is spilled milk, tumbling blocks, and a raucous dance party at the end. Again, when it's time to leave, there's some conflict. Bee stamps her feet because she doesn't want to stop playing and Billy can't find his socks. This is a more realistic ending then if they went quietly away. As a parent, I remember not being able to find articles of clothing and having to pull my daughters away from playtime.

I think a playgroup is an underused topic for picture books. There are so many beginning readers who experience this so it's nice that they have a book where they can use background knowledge at such an early age. Preschoolers will make many connections. You can ask them, "Does this happen in your playgroup or preschool?" I'm also a big fan of Lauren Tobia's artwork having seen it with the Anna Hibiscus series. I love the diversity of characters in this book. The opening spread shows a world of different people gathering their children for the universal activity of play. Let's Go to Playgroup! also will make for a great bedtime read because it will set you up for the next day's events. It's a welcome addition to preK book collections.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Shackles From the Deep

Shackles From the Deep
written by Michael H. Cottman
2017 (National Geographic)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

In some small way, I have always believed my spirit-and the spirits of all African Americans-is an everlasting part of the continent. Our ancestors endured the worst possible fates imaginable-and we survived.


In July 1972, renowned underwater treasure hunter Moe Molinar was diving in the Gulf of Mexico. He was looking for a sunken Spanish galleon that contained treasure. What he found instead were shackles that came from a slave ship which had wrecked almost 300 years earlier. The shackles were stored in a laboratory where they would sit for another ten years. Marine archaeologist David Moore, not wanting these historical relics to be forgotten, headed a team of divers in 1983 to find out more about the ship. The team found a bronze bell that gave a name to what had been only known as the English Wreck. Moore and company had found the bell from the Henrietta Marie. Forward to 1992 where award-winning journalist Michael H. Cottman was attending a conference for the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. He met a prominent marine biologist and underwater explorer, Dr. Jose "Doc" Jones. Dr. Jones tells him of his desire to lay an underwater memorial at the site of the Henrietta Marie. What follows is a riveting retelling of Cottman's thoroughly personal journey of over ten years to find out as much as he can about the Henrietta Marie and about those who contributed to the enslaving of his ancestors. He traveled to England, the Caribbean, western Africa and other sites to piece together what happened with this slave ship. This book is so intriguing to me because I kept turning pages quickly as if I was walking right beside Cottman to find the clues. That's great writing. I also appreciate how he shared his feelings about what he learned. It was a very emotional task that had him wondering about the mind-set of people who profited from the buying and selling of human beings. One other engaging facet of Shackles From the Deep was the people that you meet. Joseph Ndiaye, curator of the House of Slaves on Senegal's Goree Island, gave a touching tour of the building to Cottman and to his readers. There are many other compelling people, like Mr. Ndiaye, for us to encounter.

This is one of the most fascinating history lessons you will ever learn. It takes you well beyond the retelling of facts like the best nonfiction books do. This is a story that all students need to hear.




Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mr. Fuzzbuster Give-Away!



Who wouldn't want to have a copy of Mr. Fuzzbuster??? All you have to do to be eligible is to retweet me on Twitter (@ncteacherstuff) or if you don't tweet, reply in the comments section below. I will pick one winner from my social media accounts (Blogger, Facebook, Twitter) combined. I will contact our one winner tomorrow. In case you missed it, here is my review from before.

Mr. Fuzzbuster knew he was Lily's favorite. They'd been together since he fit in a teacup and she fit in diapers. 

There are two dogs and two cats in our house. We often place them in rank order depending on their behavior. If the beagle chews a rug, she gets ranked #4 or even lower if a fly has entered the house. If a cat manages to make it through the day without depositing a hairball, he might be the "pet with the most potential." These rankings affect absolutely nothing, but it's a fun conversation to have. At Lily's house, Mr. Fuzzbuster knows who's the pet with the most potential. It's him. With all of the activities (napping, dress up, eating meals together) they do together and his seniority, Mr. Fuzzbuster has to be the one. Who's the competition? A bird, a dog, a fish, and a lizard are also vying for Lily's attention. Holding a Lily-drawn old portrait of him like it's the Magna Carta, Mr. Fuzzbuster feels very confident of his place in the pecking order. To apply the coup de grace, he writes a note asking Lily to name her favorite pet. She reads the note and declares Fishy Face her favorite goldfish, but not her favorite pet. That designation probably saves him from becoming an hors d'oeuvre for Monsieur Fuzzy Face. Feathers the bird is declared her favorite bird and King the lizard is her favorite lizard. Surely, Mr. Fuzzbuster is going to be anointed the favorite pet. Nope. He is simply her favorite cat. With only the dog left, the forlorn feline packs his bags and starts heading out the door before he has to hear Bruiser the dog anointed with his crown. What he hears next stops him in his tracks.

Mr. Fuzzbuster is going to be a favorite in primary classrooms. Why? It's funny. His self-centered world is highly amusing. The artwork, especially Mr. Fuzzbuster's facial expressions, will entertain. But there are two sneaky things going on here. First, it's a picture book treatise on love and devotion. Why do we care for others? This book could easily jump start a discussion on that subject which is needed since it is an important facet of a classroom. Second, there's a final twist on the last page which may draw the biggest laughs. With all of these ingredients, it's become a favorite of mine as well.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Babies Come From Airports

Babies Come From Airports
written by Erin Dealey; illustrated by Luciana Navarro Powell
2017 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Some babies have a Gotcha. Today's my sister's day. And when she's big like me, I know exactly what I'll say. 

A tissue warning has been issued for this book. If you read Babies Come From Airports, you will want a box nearby. And that's a good thing. Told from a little brother's point of view, this is the story of his little sister's Gotcha Day. That's the day a new member joins a family through adoption. Dad, big brother, and little brother are getting ready to go to the airport to meet Mom who is bringing home a little sister. Big brother explains to his little brother that "a big guy named Security let Mommy bring you through." Little brother has drawn a picture so he can give it to his airport friend Security. Once inside the airport, little brother whispers that he needs to find Security. As you probably guessed, mayhem ensues as an airport worker hears him and blows a whistle for Security. When he comes and meets the little brother and receives his gift picture, it is the kind of poignant moment that will make your students say "Aww." A moment later, Mom comes through holding their new baby sister. The next spread shows the little brother sitting with his little sister and leafing through her Gotcha Day photo book with a final spread showing the whole family together in an embrace.

Over the last four years, I have taught several children who have had a Gotcha Day. I am delighted that they now have a book that celebrates this special event. Babies Come From Airports will be a good resource for an engaging point of view lesson. The text and the illustrations are shaped by the point of view of the little brother which is unusual since it's normally only the text that provides the point of view. Polaroid type pictures with kid drawn labels are an example of how this point of view is carried through. Written in rhyme, you can also use this book as a shared reading or in a small group/individual fluency lesson.

I don't mind telling you. This is one of the most touching picture books I have read in quite a while. It's a sweet tale about an important family moment.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Can I Join Your Club?

Can I Join Your Club?
written by John Kelly; illustrated by Steph Laberis
2017 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

"Application DENIED!" said Snake. You're not really what we're looking for in Snake Club."

All Duck wanted to do was make a few friends. First, he approaches Lion about joining his club. Wearing a wig as a mane, Duck has the look, but can he roar like a Lion? Well, not exactly. It is a ferocious quack, but not a roar. Lion dismisses him with an "Application Denied!" If you use picture books to teach spotting patterns, hold onto that phrase. Next, Duck tries to join the Snake Club. Wearing cool shades like the leader of the club, Duck is trying to fit in. Having legs and wings is a negative, but if he can hiss like Snake, he's probably going to gain membership. Instead of a hiss, Duck spits (literally) out a quack which prompts Snake to give the same phrase as Lion before. Maybe the third try will be the charm. Once again, Duck wears something (glasses and a bow tie) to appease the club leader which is Elephant. Like before, it's not quite enough. Duck will have to possess an exceptional memory to join this club. Lacking that, a good trumpeting will suffice. Unfortunately for Duck, what comes out is the sound you would get if you handed a trumpet to a middle school student for the first time. Application Denied! Here's where you might expect Duck to shuffle off by himself and be offered membership by a kind animal like a rabbit and we have one big trite happy ending. A big thank you to the author, John Kelly, for not going down that road. Instead, Duck doesn't feel sorry for himself but instead starts his own club and puts his own positive spin on the "Application Denied!" phrase. Soon, everyone, including members of other clubs (hint, hint), wants to join this club. The last spread in the book is classic with a reference to a beloved 70's rock band.

Fitting in is a huge deal in any level of school. Nobody wants to see a kid that sits by themselves at lunch or has nobody to play with at recess. As a teacher, you need to build a strong classroom community where everyone feels included. Books like Can I Join Your Club? will help you create such an environment. Additional teaching points could include spotting patterns. Poor Duck goes through a Groundhog Day like gauntlet in trying to join a club. I also really like how he tries to solve his problem instead of giving up. There's a lesson on independence lurking there. PreK-2nd grade readers will gladly sign up for this club.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Fresh-Picked Poetry

Fresh-Picked Poetry
written by Michelle Schaub; illustrated by Amy Huntington
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Join the party;
don't delay!
Come celebrate;
it's a market day!

Who doesn't like a farmer's market? Good food plus good people equals a good time. That good time is celebrated in this lively collection of poems. Like a farmer's market, you will find a great deal of variety here. First, there are several different forms of poems. Some have rhyme schemes like the second and fourth lines rhyming. Then you have Delightful Bites, where the words waft into the air like delicious smells. Necessary Mess, a poem celebrating dirt, has verses in groups of three with the first two lines rhyming. The battle between a green zebra tomato and dinosaur kale is a poem in two voices titled Wild Dreams in Two Voices. Why am I so happy about this? It shows young writers that all poetry doesn't look the same. There's a lot of wiggle room to use your creativity in crafting a poem. Plus, think about the different ways you can use these poems for fluency work. You could have an animated Reader's Theater with Wild Dreams in Two Voices or whole class shared readings. Lots of fun opportunities present themselves for enticing readers to practice. Another source of variety in Fresh-Picked Poetry are the topics of the poems. It's not just about the food. Market Melody is about a two person band which opens the door to onomatopoeia. Walking through that door is Antonio's Old-Time Sharpening  which features a knife sharpener who creates a "dizzy, whizzy whirr." I also appreciate the variety of people shown in the artwork. A farmer's market is a place where everyone can gather over good food so it's nice to see many different groups of people represented and shown conversing with one another.

Fresh-Picked Poetry is a choice crop of poems for your classroom.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Snowflake in My Pocket

Snowflake in My Pocket
written by Rachel Bright; illustrated by Yu Rong
2017 (Kane Miller)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

But a bear can never be exactly sure when the weather will change. He just knows that it will. 

A wise bear and a young squirrel share an old oak tree. Bear provides the wisdom while Squirrel brings the enthusiasm. Squirrel's first winter is coming up, so he's full of questions. He's excited about the snow that Bear knows is coming. Like Christmas morning excited. When Squirrel wakes up, he looks out the window and the woods are wrapped in a blanket of frozen goodness. A circle cut-out juxtaposes Squirrel's joy against the beautiful background. Unfortunately, his best friend Bear has a cold, so Squirrel will have to go outside without him. With making snow angels, snow bears, and embracing winter with a newcomer's unbridled zeal, it's almost the perfect day. How to make it perfect? Catch a snowflake and bring it home to Bear. An enchanting illustration shows Squirrel looking up in the sky against a snow scene in the shape of a bear. It only took this old man three tries to see this in the book. Squirrel finds a satisfying snowflake and starts homeward. But when he reaches into his pocket, it's gone. Again, the author and illustrator make the reader work for it, which is great from a teacher's perspective. The text is silent in regards to Squirrel's emotion, but when you look at the illustration, you see it all. I love when this synchronicity takes place. Being a wise Bear, he tells Squirrel that "snow comes and snow goes, but one thing lasts forever." This is where, after you reach for a Kleenex, you close the book and ask your students what the one thing is. There is great thinking to be had in Snowflake in My Pocket.

Rachel Bright and Yu Rong are very intentional with their text and illustrations. Yes, it's a sweet story with a winning partnership, but there are deeper things going on here and if you're willing to dig, you and your class of readers will be rewarded.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Malala: Activist for Girls' Education

Malala: Activist for Girls' Education
written by Raphaele Frier; illustrated by Aureliea Fronty
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world. 

From birth, Malala Yousafzai was contending for equal treatment. Her father encouraged family and friends to shower her cradle with dried fruits, candy, and coins even though she was not a boy. The founder of a school for girls in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, Ziauddin was determined that Malala would have an education despite the threatening presence of the Taliban. She loved her land, but not all of its ways. Malala's mother could not read or write, but her daughter was going to have a different life. An earthquake in 2005 strengthened the hand of a local Taliban leader. He said the quake was a result of sin, and used religion to curtail the freedoms of the people. That included shutting down the Khushal School. Malala made a speech challenging the Taliban and asking "How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?" With her school having been taken away, she landed an opportunity to write a blog about her struggle. She took on a leadership role as speaker of a child assembly. The Taliban had been driven from her valley, but they returned. Schools were destroyed. Malala pressed on with her fight for the right to have an education. With success as a writer and a speaker, she started a foundation that helped her and others seeking knowledge. Angry with her success and her father's schools, two Taliban fighters stopped her bus and she was shot. Flown to England, Malala survived the assassination attempt and found greater fame and a bigger voice for her cause.

Malala is an excellent introduction to the life of one of the biggest heroes of this young century. Why is she important? Malala's strength teaches us to be brave in the face of fear. To be hopeful in dark times. She is a window to a place and circumstances of which most of our students are not familiar and her life shows that young people can make a difference. We need books that will inspire us to stand up for what is right.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hatching Chicks in Room 6

Hatching Chicks in Room 6
written and photographed by Caroline Arnold
2017 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Mrs. Best is a teacher. The children in her class are learning about chicks and how they grow from eggs. 

What came first, the chicken or the egg? If you are a student in Mrs. Best's kindergarten class, the answer is easy. The eggs came first because Mrs. Best brought them from her backyard where she keeps chickens. In this appealing coupling of photos and text, we get a tour through the process of what happens during incubation and after hatching for the chicks. I certainly like all of the teaching opportunities presented by this book. In the spread about the incubator, it's accompanied with labels that explain the purpose of each part. For example, there's a motor that moves the rack and allows the eggs to turn. This keeps the chicks from being on only one side of the shell. So now you can talk about captions and text features. A couple of pages over, a cracked open egg provides a lesson on what's inside. Did you know that egg whites are called albumen and that they have a purpose other than being talked about constantly on Food Network? The albumen cushions the embryo. This book doesn't shy away from using big words for its kindergarten audience which is great because they will play with words like albumen and embryo and stun their parents. So that covers vocabulary. Do you or someone you know hatch chicks in their classroom? Think about how well those students will be prepared, after reading Hatching Chicks, when they witness this life cycle process for themselves. You're building invaluable background knowledge. Plus, you can compare your classroom experience with that of Mrs. Best's class. See, you're cracking open knowledge at every turn. In the back matter, there are questions, a listing of books, vocabulary, and websites to further your learning. Like a rooster, your class will be crowing for this book.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Fizz and the Police Dog Tryouts

Fizz and the Police Dog Tryouts
written by Lesley Gibbes; illustrated by Stephen Michael King
2017 (Kane Miller Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

"I'm all grown up and ready to find a job." Fizz knew exactly what job he wanted. 

What dog breed do you think of when you hear the words "police dog?" German Shepard? Doberman? Bolognese? That screeching you hear is your brain putting on the brakes. First, you look up Bolognese because you don't know what it is unless you are a dog aficionado. Then, you chuckle because you see a picture of a small dog with curly hair. I love Vet Street's description which is it looks "like a fairy tale dog fallen ever so slightly on hard times." But Fizz is a little dog with a big heart. He doesn't want to be a champion show dog like his dad. Or a purse passenger for the famous like his sister Crystal. He wants to be a police dog. Fizz dreams of saving the day. Thanks to a kindly groundskeeper, Fizz learns about a tryout at the Sunnyvale Police Station for the position of police dog. He arrives the next day to find himself amidst a bevy of burly barking beasts. Undaunted, Fizz is ready to take on the three challenges of the tryout. Being rudely dismissed by a harassing hound named Amadeus, Fizz still manages a high screeching bark which passes him on to the next round. With less than half of the field remaining, the dogs face the second challenge which is to look scary. Fizz manages to resemble a rabid pufferfish which throws fear into every dog and passes him on to the last challenge. Ten dogs must try their best to capture a fleet footed burglar. The first eight dogs fail, so the winner comes down to Fizz and the brutish Amadeus. Will our plucky hero pull one of the greatest upsets in the history of dogkind? The ending is not what you expect.

Young readers will love this spunky underdog as he chases his dream. As a child in a world of challenges, you imagine yourself triumphing over them. That's why this storyline works so well with children. The text fits nicely in the early chapter book genre. It moves quickly with very little fluff so you're constantly turning pages in anticipation. I think Fizz will work well in a lesson on story structure. You have engaging characters (heroes and villains) with an interesting plot that comes with a surprising twist at the end.  Fizz and the Police Dog Tryouts is the first of four books in the series which means you will quadruple your reading volume as students will want to follow his adventures. This ball of fur is a ball of fun.