Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm: curiosity & discovery, believing in the possible (ages 8-12)

Kids and teachers are loving a new book, The Fourteenth Goldfish, and it makes me so happy to hear them raving about it. I had a chance this weekend to sit down with Milana, a ten year old I lent my copy to, and we really had fun talking about this book. Talking about books together really helps us deepen our appreciation, deepen our thinking about the layers in a story.
The Fourteenth Goldfish
by Jennifer L. Holm
Random House, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
*best new book*
Sixth grade is tricky for Ellie, but the day her mom brings home a new kid turns everything upside down. At first, he seems like a typical surly teenager, but something "tickles at (her) memory." Ellie is shocked when she realizes this is her grandfather Melvin, somehow turned into a thirteen year old boy. "I discovered a cure for aging... the fountain of youth!" he shouts. But he's stuck in this new body and can't get into his lab to recover the T. melvinus specimen, the species of jellyfish that helped him change back into a teen.

My young friend, Milana, loved reading this so much that she bought one of her good friends a copy. "I got it for my friend because she's really into science and she really likes sea life. Now she's started it and won't stop reading it."

Holm seamlessly weaves into the story a love of science and Milana picked up on this. Right away, she talked about wanting to learn more about Salk's discovery of the cure for polio and Oppenheimer's race to build the atomic bomb. As I've been rereading this, I love how much science Holm incorporates, especially as Ellie gets to know her grandfather.
Melvin tells Ellie, "Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don’t give up, because we want to solve the puzzle... Scientists never give up. They keep trying because they believe in the possible."
The relationship between Ellie and her grandfather is what makes this book special for me. Holms creates believable, nuanced characters and I think that's one reason so many readers are responding to this story.
When Melvin, Ellie's grandfather, tells her mother, "'Your daughter’s interested in science. She shows great aptitude. You should encourage her.' I feel a flush of pride. Maybe this part of me—the science part—was there all along, like the seeds of an apple. I just needed someone to water it, help it grow. Someone like my grandfather."
As Milana and I were talking more about the characters, I asked her if Melvin reminded her of any of her grandparents. I wish Jenni Holm could hear this young girl talking about her grandfather, a doctor who's always busy thinking and talking on the phone -- and how this story helps her see a different side of him. Milana told me, "It makes me wonder what my grandfather looked like, how he acted and what he was interested in when he was my age."

The Fourteenth Goldfish left me thinking most about the themes essential to science: curiosity, discovery, possibility. A recent TED Radio Hour explores these same things, albeit more for adults. It starts with James Cameron talking about his childhood, when he loved collecting and studying all sorts of things, curious about everything. "It's almost like the more we know about the world, the limits of what's possible start to crowd in on us." But this curiosity stayed with him--and imbues both his movies and his love of oceanography.

The real power of The Fourteenth Goldfish? It's like so many well-crafted stories: creating conversation, creating a moment to think a little more deeply about those around us, creating an ah-ha moment that curiosity and a passion for discovery lay at the heart of science--believing in the possible.

More reviews:
The review copy came from my home collection and our library collection and Milana's collection (I've already purchased many many copies!). If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Visiting grandparents: three picture books to share (ages 3-8)

As the holidays approach, many children are excited about visiting grandparents. I wanted to share three different picture books that show different small moments as children spend time with their grandparents.
Hot Hot Roti for Dada-Ji
by F. Zia
illustrated by Ken Min
Lee and Low, 2011
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-8
Young Aneel’s grandfather Dada-ji has great fun telling how he got “the power of a tiger” when he was a boy by eating the best roti in town. Aneel is so excited that he races to the kitchen to make this Indian flatbread.

Kids love the way that Dad-ji exaggerates the story from his childhood. Zia's writes with verve and gusto. She is "a writer and an elementary school teacher who grew up in Hyderabad, India." As Aneel starts gathering ingredients to make his roti, the fun really begins. Kids can relate to how food brings people together and will love the way Aneel takes charge.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon
by Floyd Cooper
Philomel / Penguin, 2013
Your local library
Amazon
ages 4-7
Saying goodbye can be particularly hard for young kids. When young Max must say goodbye to his grandpa, the young boy points to the full moon shining above. Grandpa promises him that “that ol’ moon will always shine for you...on and on!”

As Max drives home, he keeps watch of that same moon and is reassured by its presence. This quiet warm book glows softly with the love between African American grandfather and grandson. It's a wonderful read-aloud that helps talk about how the people we love stay with us in our hearts long after we have to say goodbye.
Nana in the City
by Lauren Castillo
Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 3-6
What do we do when our children are afraid? You'd never know it by looking at the cover, but this young boy is scared by all the noises and commotion in the bustling city. He's excited to see his Nana and her new apartment, but oh how the city noises are just too much.

I love how this wonderful Nana listens, understands and helps the young boy overcome his fears. She never dismisses his fears, but she shows him how he can be brave and she'll be right there with him. I also love how Castillo shows a grandmother who lives in the city and loves exploring. Below you can see how the little boy slowly changes his mind, with his Nana right by his side:
"But Nana was right. The city was not filled with scary things..."
Do you have a favorite book that reminds your children of times they spend with their grandparents? Or maybe after the holidays, you and your child could write a story together about a day they spent with their grandparents.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Lee & Low, Penguin and Clarion. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson (ages 14 and up) -- oh wow...

Oh my… I just finished reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, an incredible new YA novel, and I just have to talk with someone about it. I’m sitting on an airplane, all by myself, and my mind, my heart is bursting. This post is NOT what I normally write here, but life must be about taking chances. That I know.
I’ll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson
Dial / Penguin, 2014
your local library
Amazon
Google Books preview
ages 14 and up
*best new book*
My family and friends know that I come alive when I can talk about books with friends who live and breathe stories the same way as I do—I sparkle in a way that I rarely do in my real world. I’m heading home from a terrific book conference (YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium) where I spent time with a new friend, Rob Bittner.

As soon as I mentioned I’ll Give You the Sun, he lit up with joy (honestly, it was a little more like a yelp and jump of excitement that someone is reading a book you love). So today I just need to write Rob about all the thoughts swimming around inside of me. [Sprinkled throughout are quotes from the book. Because, you know, I’m that sort of ex-English teacher nerd.]
“Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what it is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life?”—Jude, age 16 (chapter 8)
Nelson tells the story of Noah-and-Jude, twins who are incredibly close yet pull apart—each hiding, wrapped in their own secrets that they’re sure no one will understand. Brother and sister, Noah and Jude grapple with their relationships with their mother and father as well as with each other—so there are many times I reflected on how each responded as a boy and as a girl. And yet both are fully nuanced characters, never reduced to gendered reactions.

Chapters alternate from each twin’s perspective, and Nelson carefully draws the reader inside each person. Both teens are artists, and it was fascinating hearing, feeling, seeing, thinking the world through their eyes.

Nelson not only crafts the story from two points of view, she tells it from two points in time. Noah’s chapters take place when the twins are thirteen and fourteen. Jude, his twin sister, is an integral part of his story, but it is all from Noah’s perspective. Jude’s chapters take place when they are sixteen, by which point the twins have become completely estranged, an invisible wall dividing them. But they have started building the wall long before.
“She’s trying to get in my mind, so I close the shutters… This secret is like having hot burning coals under my bare feet all the time. I rise up from the couch to get away from any potential telepathy—when the yelling reaches us.”—Noah, ages 13 (chapter 1)
As a teen, I totally understood that idea of building walls, of closing the shutters so that my family stayed out of my thoughts. Yep, my mom may read this (Hi, Mom!), and I’m guessing she remembers oh too well how there were about two years where we basically didn’t talk. I’m guessing that as a teen, there were times when I just had to pull inside myself to try to figure things out, to feel the intense feelings, to wrestle with my own uncertainties. I was stunned by the way Nelson made me think about this.

But then—oh wow, how Nelson brings so much more into this story. I did not grapple with physical feelings as a teen the way that Noah does—I just wasn’t as aware of them, and couldn’t process them until I was much older. But I could relate to his confusion, his passion, his intensity. But then, perhaps it’s that I don’t hold onto those physical memories the same way…

Jandy Nelson writes about both Noah and Jude’s physical, sexual feelings with incredible sensitivity, passion and honesty. I raved to Rob how much I loved the way she described Brian through Noah’s eyes—both how Brian looked, but also how it made Noah feel.
“Our eyes lock and electricity rides up my spine.”—Noah, age 13 ½ (chapter 3)
But I’m fascinated, now that I’m rereading it (plane ride, remember?), how slowly their connection developed. I mean, right from the beginning Noah had this electric reaction, but as I reread it, I see that they’re just stumbling through those early conversations as their friendship develops. It isn’t until Noah sees two guys passionately kissing at a party that everything started clicking in place for me as a reader.

Jude’s struggles especially resonated with me. She meets a guy (English, yep) who makes her feel, intensely feel—even though she’s doing everything she can to close herself down from her feelings.
“This guy makes me feel like I’m actually here, unhidden, seen. And this is not just because of his camera. I do not know what this is because of.”—Jude, age 16 (chapter 4)
And I think that’s an essential part of what I remember about intense friendships from my teen years and from falling in love. That sense that someone sees you for you, someone gets you. But I also had such a visceral reaction to Jude’s description of Oscar.
“There’s something in his (Oscar’s) voice, in his gaze, in his whole being, something hungry and insistent and it’s untethering me.”—Jude, age 16 (chapter 2)
Okay, Rob, so full confession time here. I’ve just spent the last hour (plane ride, right?) rereading Jude’s chapter when she starts working in Guillermo’s studio and falling head over heals for Oscar. Highlighting every description of Oscar. In pink. And I’m pretty sure that I’ve been transported back to my 20 year old self when I first met Ed. English? Check. Banter? Check. Tall, muscular? Check. Irresistable? Check. So I can’t include all the parts that I’ve highlighted (definitely TMI), but I can tell you that Jandy Nelson captured Oscar exactly right.

And then the ending… which I won’t say too much about. Except that it’s filled with hope and family and so many layered ideas that I’ll be thinking about it for weeks to come. I’ll be thinking about how people I love still live inside of me, even though they have passed away (Molly, Nana, GrandTom). And how important it is to take a chance.

So I’ll quickly put on my librarian shoes to say hand this book to a teen who loves realistic fiction, likes complicated stories because life is complicated. And when I say teen, I really mean teen – I would not put this in an 8th grader’s classroom. Some 8th graders might connect, but most will get much more out of it in a few years.

Are you looking for more professional, library-type reviews? Check out these:


I know this post has gone on forever. But maybe, kind readers, your interest has been piqued. So here's a preview of I'll Give You the Sun from Google Books.

I purchased the review copy through iBooks (plane ride, remember?). I can assure you that I'll be purchasing several more copies to give to friends. If you're dying for a copy, leave a comment. Persuade me, and I might just purchase an extra one for you. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Honoring Our Veterans: Tuesday Tucks Me In, by Luis Carlos Montalván (ages 5-10)

As students and families celebrate Veterans Day, I always think about how to honor our veterans in a way that young students today can understand. My older students love reading historical fiction, but what about younger students? This week I am sharing a new book that introduces young students to the difficulties soldiers can face returning from war, and the loving help that service dogs can provide.
Tuesday Tucks Me In
The Loyal Bond between a Soldier and his Service Dog

by Luis Carlos Montalván
Roaring Brook Press / Macmillan, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-10
Former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalván was wounded during his two tours in Iraq. Montalván suffered from a traumatic brain injury and also post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recovery was difficult when he returned home, and he ended up withdrawing from friends and family.

In this picture book, golden retriever service dog Tuesday shows readers what his life is like helping Montalván through daily life. He provides companionship and encouragement. Tuesday can even sense when Montalván is about to have a panic attack and can help him get through it. "Every morning my friend Louis wakes up to this... "
"Rise and shine," I tell him with a lick. "The sun is up."
Children will really like the full color photographs that help them get a sense of Tuesday's life as he navigates the subway, sidewalks and life in the city. The narrative helps readers understand the support Tuesday provides and, even more importantly, helps them empathize with Luis.
"Luis has trouble with balance, and he used to struggle on the stairs. But now he grabs my handle and knows that I am there."
I especially liked the author's note at the end, where Montalván explains service dogs to young readers. "Tuesday is a service dog. Service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities live more independent and happy lives."

I absolutely agree with the Horn Book's assessment:
"Children, even if initially just drawn in by the adorable dog pictures, will come away with a much greater understanding of the lives of both a returning vet and a service dog.”
If students found this interesting and wanted to learn more, I would direct them to these books:
Helping Dogs
by Mary Ann Hoffman

Dogs On Duty: Soldiers' Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond

by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle
by Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson, Mary Nethery
The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Macmillan Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Levels: Using them to help kids get hooked on reading

Our Berkeley Unified teachers have just completed five days of conferences with parents, and I wanted to follow up with a librarian's perspective on recommending books for kids.

Our teachers do a remarkable job individually assessing students' reading levels to gauge their progress, development and challenges. At each conference, they let parents know how their children are developing and what level they have reached. But what do parents do with this level?
Reading to stuffies happens every day in our library
Reading levels are only useful if they can help guide children toward books that are enjoyable, interesting and appropriate for a child at that point in their reading life. I do not label my books with reading levels, and I have compared different systems enough to know that they conflict much of the time. And yet, published reading levels are helpful as a starting place if you don't know a book.
Our teachers use Fountas & Pinnell levels, which take into account a book's vocabulary, sentence length and text structure. While classrooms have leveled libraries, how do parents help direct kids at home, the library or the bookstore? My best advice is to figure out what has worked well for your child, both in terms of interest and complexity, and build on that.

Ultimately, we need to ask our children to take charge in figuring out if a book is working for them. I always ask kids to open a book, read a little and see how it feels. But I know that kids need a starting place, a way to narrow the field so they can choose from a set of books that might work. That's where reading levels and recommended lists can help.

At this year's conferences, we shared recommended reading lists which used reading levels to help direct kids and parents. Feel free to download these or share them with teachers and families in your schools.
  • Kindergarten (very beginning to read, levels C-E)
  • 1st grade (beginning to read & early chapter books, levels D-M)
  • 2nd grade (early readers & chapter books, levels H-P)
  • 3rd grade (short chapter books & novels, easy nonfiction, levels K-P)
  • 4th grade (novels & high interest nonfiction, levels O-T)
  • 5th grade (longer novels & nonfiction, levels S-W)
You'll notice that the grade levels are not included on the reading lists. Many teachers wanted to be able to use these for kids based on their reading levels, not based on the student's grade.

Finally, we shared several brochures from the wonderful Jim Trelease. My favorite is Ten Facts Parents Should Know About Reading. As he writes,
"We humans are pleasure-seekers, doing things over and over if we like it. We go to favorite restaurants and order the food and beverages we like, not the stuff we hate. So if you want to ensure children visit "reading" more often, make sure they like it more than they hate it. How do we get them to like it that much? Read on."
Friends have fun reading together!
Many thanks go to all the students at Emerson for helping me test out so many books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Investigating about explorers: a range of resources (ages 8-12)

Do you have fond memories of reading your history textbooks? Probably not. So how can we make history more interesting for our children?

We want our children to envision what it would have been like to live long ago, to make the messy decisions that people had to make, to struggle and wrestle with life, warts and all. And yet we also need to convey basic information about historical periods and figures. How do we balance the facts with the engaging material?

As a case in point, I've been helping 5th grade students gather information about famous explorers from different eras. They're investigating Marco Polo, James Cook, Hernando Cortes, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride and many others. Their teachers want them to practice note-taking skills. What resources will help them the most?

World Book Encyclopedia: building background knowledge
"How are we supposed to choose which explorer to do our report on if we don't know anything about them?"
Students need to begin their research process by learning some basic facts about their subject. This should be pretty easy for the children to read, since they need to focus on building a clear framework in their minds. I would suggest just reading at this point, not taking notes. We start with World Book Kids, the junior version of the World Book Encyclopedia.

Web Path Express: guided Internet research
"I call this Google for 5th graders."
We have recently added WebPath Express to our Follett Destiny library catalog. This service guides students in their Internet searches, helping them go directly to accurate, age-appropriate sites. Students are able to find reliable resources quickly, without having to filter out commercial or college-level sites.
Explorers
by Chris Oxlade
Kingfisher Readers, level 5
Kingfisher, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-10
Students will like the clear sentences and frequent illustrations in this brief introduction to nearly twenty explorers from ancient to modern times. Each explorer's major achievements and struggles are covered in a two-page spread, so the pace moves quickly. Sentences are relatively short, and drawings keep interest high.
"Marco Polo was born in Venice, in Italy. In 1271, when he was just 17 years old, he set off for China with his father and his uncle. They took gifts for Kublai Khan, the powerful ruler of China in the 1200s CE."
This type of book will help students develop a "research report" tone to their own writing. It is factual and straight forward. But it does not have much depth, it does not really prompt students to connect to what they're reading or to ask questions.
Lives of the Explorers:
Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought)
by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Google Books preview
Your local library
Amazon
ages 8-12
Krull engages readers with dynamic writing, as she introduces them to the lives of twenty ancient and modern explorers. While this is more difficult to read, it is also much more interesting. She begins the chapter on Mathew Henson, African American explorer of the North Pole in the early 1900s, this way:
"Matthew Henson and Robert Peary shared many an unappetizing meal in the frozen land around the North Pole. But in the United States they wouldn't have even been allowed to eat together, as restaurants were segregated into 'black' and 'white' sections."
In just three pages, Krull helps readers get a sense of the challenges Henson faced and his remarkable achievements. She incorporates quotes from Henson to give a sense of his perspective. Teachers and librarians should note, however, that she does not indicate the sources for her material, but just provides sources for further reading.
Into the Unknown
How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air
by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty
Candlewick, 2011
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-14
*my full review here*
Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty absolutely captivate me each time I read a section of Into the Unknown. Biesty's intricate illustrations draw me right into each scene, helping me imagine what it would be like to be part of an expedition. Students love the fold-out illustrations and the cut-aways that show you the inside of ships. Ross's descriptions include enough detail to engross me without overwhelming me. They have a strong narrative flow, conveying the dramatic pull of these stories but also helping young readers start forming their own questions and conclusions.

The review copy of Explorers came from our public library. The review copy of Lives of the Explorers was kindly sent by the publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The review copy of Into the Unknown was kindly sent by the publishers, Candlewick. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books