Friday, November 29, 2013

Papa's Latkes

Papa's Latkes
by Jane BeskinZalben
32 pages; ages 3-6
Square Fish (Macmillan), paperback 2013

Themes: Holiday, diversity, family (and food!)

Opening: "Mama made the best potato pancakes in the whole town. 'This Chanukah,' she said, 'I don't feel like making latkes.' So papa said, 'Let's have a latke contest!' "

Why I like this book: How many ways can latke-making go wrong? When the kids try their hands -er, paws - at whipping up potato pancakes, we find out.  Too lumpy! Too oily! Too large! Too small!  But when papa steps into the kitchen the latkes come out just right. There is light (the menorah) and music (O Chanukah) and dreidel-spinning and shiny new frying pans.

Beyond the Book:
Sing! The words and music for "O Chanukah" are in the back of the book.
Make Latkes! Papa Bear's recipe for the best golden latkes is at the back, too. It's a good recipe, but be bold and experiment with blue potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Make apple-beet salsa. Take your latkes where not latkes have gone before ...
Dance! The Hora is a simple circle dance that anyone can do. Here's how.
Roll some candles for the menorah. All you need are some sheets of beeswax and wick. Here's how. 

Today's review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Noah Webster and His Words

Noah Webster and His Words
by Jeri Chase Ferris; illus. by Vincent X. Kirsch
32 pages; ages 4 – 8
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013

This is a fun picture book bi-og-ra-phy [noun: a written history of a person's life]. While authentic – it’s based on lots of research – the dialogue adds a touch of fictionalization.* But a great story about a guy who loved language and wanted to document American English as a separate language from the King’s English.
(* the dialog adds literary life to the nonfiction. Jeri isn't writing fiction - she's using the same tools fiction writers use to bring her nonfiction story to life. see her comment below. )

Noah does not want to be a farmer like his father and his father’s father. Instead, he wants to be a schol-ar [noun: one who goes to school; a person who knows a lot]. The most controversial thing Noah did was to push the idea of standardized spellings and word usage. Prior to his spellers and dictionary, people wrote words the way they sounded. That meant a single word might be spelled three or for/four/fower/fore ways. Webster also decided that since this was a new country, we needed new and simplified spellings. Instead of “plough” he wrote “plow”.

The story is interspersed with dictionary-like definitions, and the back pages are a treasure trove for word lovers and nonfiction aficionados. There’s a detailed timeline in which “facts are explained”. Highlights include: the Boston Massacre, Tea Party, fighting in the Militia against the Brits and, always, working on his ultimate word book. There is an Author’s note with even more facts, including Webster’s opposition to slavery and his advocacy for the first copyright law. We learn that Webster was a teacher, lawyer, County court judge and founder of Amherst College… not just the guy who wrote the book we have to memorize before the SAT’s. The author includes a list of primary sources and some websites for kids (and their parents) who want to learn more.

Although this book is aimed at the 4- to 8-year old crowd, I think kids in 4th & 5th grade will get a kick out of it – especially if you pair it with Frindle, by Andrew Clements. Frindle, you might recall, is a story about a boy who makes up a word and then tries to get it included in the dictionary. 

If you’re looking for some activities to get kids involved with words, try these:

Find some old dictionaries at a used book sale and let kids cut out (or tear out) a favorite word to incorporate into a drawing/painting/collage.

Collect words in a can – words that are neat, unusual, or just sound cool. Use the words to write poetry, as story-starters, or just to share and listen to the cool words.

Play Text Twist, Boggle, Scrabble Slam or other games.
Check out more Nonfiction reads today over at Jean LittleLibrary. Review copy provided by local library.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgiving Reading

Today's Theme: Holidays! Especially Thanksgiving.
Next week we gather together to share food and stories. If you're looking for some good tales, try these... I headed down to the local library for a couple old favorites. Nothing better than reading a story (or listening to one) while waiting for pie.

The Legend of the Cranberry: A Paleo-Indian Tale
by Ellin Greene

This is a retelling of a Delaware Indian legend in which the Great Spirit created Mastadon-like “Yah-qua-whee” to be the People’s helpers and friends.  “For many years they carried the people’s belongings on their long journey to the sea, helped them to clear the forests, provided meat to eat, hides for clothing, and bones for tent frames, beads and musical instruments.”

But when they come to the place where the land ends and the sea begins, the Yah-qua-whee go on a rampage, trampling and destroying everything. The People, the smaller animals and the Great Spirit join together to fight the huge giants. There is a huge battle and the ground is churned up into a muddy bog with much blood spilled.  In the spring, the bogs where the mastodons were buried bloomed pink with blossoms that ripened into bitter-tasting blood red berries. The people discovered that the berries could be crushed and mixed with dried meat and fat to make pemmican. Poultices from the berries helped heal wounds, and the juice of the berries made a rich dye for clothing. Thousands of years later, descendants of those People offered berries to hungry Pilgrims.

If you are looking for a different sort of holiday book, check out An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily McCully.  It's based on a true incident in the 1890's Wild West, when Butch Cassidy and his gang threw a Thanksgiving banquet for the ranching community that was their favorite "hideout". McCully imagines this feast through the eyes of a young girl traveling from New York state to California. A blizzard stops the train and Clara ends up sharing dinner with Butch and the gang. Puts a different twist on the whole idea of cooking up a turkey and "inviting the gang over".

Activities ~ Make some Cranberry Ink! When soldiers in the Civil War ran out of ink to send home letters to their loved ones, they smooshed up some berries and used the juice as ink. You can use cranberries - the recipe's over at Archimedes Notebook.

Today's review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. Review copies obtained from a library.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Kite, A Waterfall, A Bridge

The Kite that Bridged Two Nations
by Alexis O'Neill; illustrated by Terry Widener
40 pages; ages 8 - 11
Calkins Creek, 2013

In 1848 an ordinary boy flew a kite across Niagara Falls and helped build a bridge. His name was Homan Walsh and he was 16 years old. He built the kite for a contest - a contest sponsored by the US and Canadian bridge-building companies to generate publicity for their endeavor of building a bridge to span the falls and connect two nations.

There were news articles, and later the event was included in history books. But author Alexis O'Neill wanted to tell the tale from the Homan's point of view - a kid who was caught up in the (air) currents of history.

Homan loves to build kites. What seems like play to his father ("Apply yourself, Your studies must come first.") is filled with learning: "reading the wind, calculating lift, gauging line length...". We see Homan building his kite from the spars up, cutting the sail from calico in Mother's sewing basket, adding tails and finally twine - more than a thousand feet to reach across the gorge that separates Canada from the US.

There's adventure, too. After determining that the best wind comes from the Canadian side, Homan rides across on the ferry. Like any good adventure story, his first attempt fails, and he is trapped across the gorge by ice that halts ferry traffic for days. But does Homan give up? No - when he finally gets home his first order of business is to repair his kite and try again. There's a lot at stake in his venture: prize money and a chance to go down in history.

This is a true story. But, says O'Neill, the dialogue is created to "express emotions that are not obvious in the straight narrative accounts of this event." In her back matter she outlines what is known about the facts of the event, and what is not known. For example, in her story she mentions a handbill advertising the kite contest. While there was a contest, no one has found evidence of how the contest was promoted. Handbills - like the flyers of today tacked to telephone poles - were a common way to announce things.

O'Neill includes a timeline of the bridge construction, adds sources and websites for further exploration, and even provides a link on how to build your own barn door kite - the kind that was popular when Homan would have built his kite.

Which leads to this question: While a true story, is this nonfiction? Dianne White asked O'Neill about this very issue in a recent interview posted at ReaderKidZ.  O'Neill's resoponse: "... if a writer makes up even one teeny, tiny thing that can’t be verified (a piece of dialogue, a neighbor’s name, an emotional reaction), the piece becomes fiction. Nonfiction means that everything is verifiable." She calls her story "historical fiction". But since it is about a real person, and is factual, other people would consider it a "fictionalized biography" - meaning that the story is pretty much true except for some dialogue.

Check out more Nonfiction reads today over at NC Teacher Stuff. Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Becoming a Rocket Man

Rocket Man: The Mercury Adventure of John Glenn
by Ruth Ashby
105 pages; ages 9 and up
Peachtree Publishers, 2004

There were too many clouds in the sky for me to see the solar eclipse earlier this month, so I dug into my reading basket for something about space. Rocket Man is the story of the first of many of my space heroes - John Glenn.

Glenn wasn't the first man to go into space, but he was the first US astronaut to orbit the earth. And he's the one I remember... watching the tiny black and white TV set up in the school auditorium to see the blast-off and, later, wondering whether he would make it safely back to earth. A couple years later we'd be watching Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise... but in the real world, space exploration was just beginning.

Rocket Man follows John Glenn through his Navy pilot training and into the astronaut training program. He was one of the "Mercury Seven", pioneers of manned space flight. Ruth Ashby describes the tough training programs and some of the disappointments of the early years: rockets exploding, the Soviets sending a cosmonaut into orbit first... would the American space program get off the launchpad?

When Glenn finally did get into space - in a Mercury capsule so small that it was barely big enough for one person and the instrumentation. Things were tense for awhile when Mission Control wasn't sure the heat shield was OK, but Glenn managed to make it back through the atmosphere for a splashdown without burning up.

Ashby ends the book with information about the space program and provides resources for curious space cadets. Space exploration has changes over the past 50 years, with an international space station and astronauts who tweet and send videos back to students on earth. Check out my post about another astronaut over at Archimedes Notebook. And check out STEM Friday to see what other folks are reading. Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, November 11, 2013

How to Rescue a Whale

The Eye of the Whale: A Rescue Story
By Jennifer O’Connell
32 pages; ages 6 – 8
Tilbury House, 2013

On the morning of December 11, 2005, a fisherman came upon a Humpback whale tangled in crab-trap lines. He was about 18 miles off the coast of San Francisco. “Whale in distress!” he calls over his radio. On shore, Captain Mick picked up the call and contacted the Marine Mammal Center. A volunteer rescue crew rushed to Captain Mick’s boat and they set off to do what they could. 

When the rescue crew got to where the whale was supposed to be, all they could see was ocean and a single sea lion. Then a puff of mist shoots into the air. They realize that the whale is floating, not moving. Lines, wrapped around the whale, cut into her skin and trap her. She can’t even swim to the surface to breathe. 

Undeterred, the crew begin their rescue operation. It's tricky: how does one liberate a 50-foot whale so that she doesn’t take off swimming before the team is finished cutting all the lines? How do they make sure they stay safe? But they do it, and the whale disappears down, deep under the water. 

Where is she? The team can't see her. Then a loud humming vibrates through the water and the whale begins to whirl around the divers. Is she going to attack them? She heads straight towards one, then nudges him gently. After nudging her thanks to divers, she disappears into the ocean. This is a well-told tale of bravery, rescue, and inter-species connections. Here's the trailer for the book:

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wrapped in Foil. Bloggers who love children's nonfiction will share the cool books they are reading over at her site. Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Shark Babies in the Ocean!

Shark Baby
By Ann Downer; illustrated by Shennen Bersani
32 pages; ages 4-8
Sylvan Dell, 2013

Shark Baby lives in a works of “stripes and shadows, where seahorses played,” writes Ann Downer. He’s impatient to get out of his egg case and see the wide blue ocean. Then, even before he hatches, a storm snaps the egg case free of its attachment to kelp, The current bounces him off rough coral and drags him along the bottom of the sea. All that tumbling rips a hole in the egg case and Shark Baby can see spots. 

“What are you?” asks Shark Baby. The spotted shark answers that he’s a horn shark. “Maybe I’m a horn shark, too, says Shark Baby. 

But horn sharks have spiral egg cases, and Shark Baby’s is a flat “mermaid’s purse”.  When he sees a striped pajama shark he thinks he might belong to that sort of family. Then he’s advised by a wise octopus to seek the mermaid; she will have the answers. Shark Baby meets other sea creatures and eventually makes it home where he hatches and learns what kind of shark he is. 

Though the story is fanciful, it’s backed up with four pages of shark information, fun facts, and a comparison of different kinds of shark egg cases. 
 This is part of the STEM Friday round-up. Check out the other science books and resources reviewed this week. Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Saving Dolphins... Eight Dolphins of Katrina

Eight Dolphins of Katrina: A True Tale of Survival
By Janet Wyman Coleman; illustrated by Yan Nascimbene
40 pages, ages 6-0
Houghton Mifflin, 2013

In the early morning hours of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Gulfport, Mississippi. A huge wall of water washed over the Marine Life Oceanarium, crushing the dolphin house. A scant few hours earlier, trainers had moved some of the dolphins to temporary quarters in hotel swimming pools four miles inland. But eight dolphins were left in the Oceanarium. 

When the trainers returned after the hurricane, the dolphins were gone. They were swimming free in the ocean. But there was a problem: the dolphins had been raised in captivity and didn’t know how to feed themselves in the wild. Using helicopters and motorboats, the trainers searched for their dolphins. This is the story about how the rescue operation – how they trained the dolphins so they could lift them out of the ocean and transport them back home. It’s also a story about how dolphins have rescued people. There’s also a “scrapbook” with photos and diary entries of the rescue operation.
 This is part of the Nonfiction Monday round-up. You can find more reviews of kid's nonfiction over at Apples with Many Seeds. Review copy provided by the publisher.