Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, by Amy Lee-Tai and Felicia Hoshino (ages 5-10)

It is crucial we find age-appropriate ways to share about the terrible persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II in the United States. And yet, how do you introduce this topic to children, especially kids in elementary school? A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is a wonderful picture book by Amy Lee Tai, whose grandmother was sent to the Topaz internment camp during the war.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
by Amy Lee-Tai
illustrated by Felicia Hoshino
Japanese translation by Marc Akio Lee
Children’s Book Press, 2006
Your local library
Amazon
ages 5-10
Drawing upon her grandmother's story of internment at Topaz during World War II, Amy Lei-Tai finds a small piece of sunshine in young Mari’s story. Like thousands of other innocent American citizens, Mari and her family have been forced to leave their home simply because of their Japanese heritage. Mari loves art, but it's so difficult to find anything to draw in a place so hot and desolate.

“Flowers don’t grow easily in the desert,” laments young Mari during her first week at Topaz.
“It will take time, patience, and care,” her mother replies.
Eventually, with the encouragement of her family and her teacher Mrs. Hanamoto, Mari finds comfort in her weekly art class as she paints pictures that remind her of home.

I was really struck by how Lee-Tai’s delicate story brings this difficult time to a young audience. The story is written in both English and Japanese, and the lovely audiobook is also produced with both languages narrated a page at a time.

Pair this picture book with novels for middle grade students, giving them a way into the story. Picture books can introduce the setting and historical time, providing a visual grounding for students. Here are a few other books on the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II that I recommend for elementary students:
The review came from our local public library. 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, August 18, 2014

Back to school: easing your kindergarten worries (ages 4-7)

Are you getting nervous about the beginning of the school year? Will your child be able to make the transition to a new school, new teacher, new friends? There's nothing like the nervous excitement of the first day of school. Some kids are raring to go, while others are tentatively clinging to their parents. Whatever the case, try out these two new favorites to add some humor as you read about the first day of school.
Planet Kindergarten
by Sue Ganz-Schmitt
illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Chronicle, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 4-7
“The countdown started. Dad and I checked the plans for my next big mission… I am ready to explore: Planet Kindergarten!”
Planet Kindergarten, click to enlarge
Starting school is certainly exciting, but it can also be nerve-wracking. One imaginative little kid knows it might be just like blasting off into outer space. There are strange routines, new crewmembers, and you might even get a bit homesick.

Bold colors and a retro-style amp up the humor in this fun twist on getting used to a new school. You can definitely tell that Shane Prigmore has an animator's background -- check out his blog to see some of the fun inspiration he used in developing the artwork for this.
Planet Kindergarten, click to enlarge
I just love the way Ganz-Schmitt captures the joyful chaos of kindergarten. Share this with any kindergarten teacher, and she/he will love the line, "Gravity works differently here. We have to try hard to stay in our seats. And our hands go up a lot."
Mom, It's My First Day of Kindergarten!
by Hyewon Yum
Farrar Straus Giroux / Macmillan, 2012
Your local library
Amazon
ages 4-7
In a delightful turning of the tables, a five-year old boy can’t wait to start kindergarten and his mom is anxious about his going to a new school.
“Will you be okay in the big kids’ school? You’re still so little,” she frets.
“Mom, don’t worry. I’ll be fine, I am already five!” he declares as he dashes off to school. 
The boy is full of confidence -- I just love the way that Hyewon Yum shows this visually, with the kindergartner big and bold, and his mom small and blue. Until he peeks inside the classroom door ... and the roles reverse again.

Enjoy this video to get a sense of this delightful story and artwork:


I hope your little ones come home declaring, "Kindergarten is awesome!!!" The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Chronicle Books and Macmillan. 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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Back to School Fun: Silly and Sweet (ages 3-6)

Summer is ending and soon kids will head back to school. Some are excited for new adventures, but many will be sad to see summer over. Help your kids talk about the changes that are coming with two new books that take a silly and sweet look at the new school year. These are both perfect for little kids starting preschool or kindergarten.
Greenwillow / HarperCollins, 2014
ages 4-6
Lola is one cute little kitty, ready to pounce, play and explore. When she finds pink glasses, a stylish outfit and a backpack, she decides to join the rest of the kids on the school bus. "Hooray! Lola is going to school!" Lola has fun doing all sorts of activities at school -- writing, reading, painting, singing, and more. "Lola loved it all!" The story might be slight (dare I say fluffy like a kitty?), but it will help bring smiles to any little kid who's anxious about what happens at school. Lola's positive attitude is sure to rub off on them.
Monsters Love School
by Mike Austin
HarperCollins, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 3-6
Mike Austin's monsters bring even more silliness to the scene, while still helping kids who are feeling nervous about starting a new school year. Summer fun is ending and all the little monster head to school. Most are excited to see their friends-- “Oh Yeah! Monster School!!” But one little blue monster is worried: “School?! Gulp.”
Blue is sure that he already knows his “ABGs and 413s and XYDs,” so why does he need to go to school? Sure enough, once Blue gets to school he starts having fun. Just look at how great art class can be:
Austin’s playful monsters are sure to bring laughs, with their bright colors and googly eyes. Check out what Kirkus Reviews had to say about Monsters Love School:
"Austin has masterfully folded some valuable information about the first day of school into his funny tale, but the monsters are the big draw. Not the least bit scary, their simple shapes and accessories and scrawled style will likely have kids reaching for their own 'monster pencils, monster crayons, monster ink and brushes.'"
Looking for more Back to School book ideas? Check out this article in School Library Journal: Backpacks, Lunch Boxes, and Giggles Galore: Back-to-School Adventures, by Joy Fleishhacker.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, HarperCollins. 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, August 12, 2014

Emily's Blue Period, by Cathleen Daly (ages 4-9)

Are there ever times that you feel the world around you is getting just too mixed up? Whether it's countries at war or friends not speaking with one another, there are times that the world seems turned upside down. Emily's Blue Period, a favorite new picture book, captures one child's reaction to such a moment and how art helped her find her way through.
Emily's Blue Period
by Cathleen Daly
illustrations by Lisa Brown
Roaring Brook / Macmillan, 2014
Your local library
Amazon
ages 4-9
*best new book*
Emily loves art and particularly the artwork of Pablo Picasso. She's fascinated by the way he used shapes to compose his paintings in unusual ways: "He liked to mix things up." Emily wants to create art using all sorts of things as well, but lately she's been feeling as if her life is just too jumbled.
Emily's Blue Period, Cathleen Daly & Lisa Brown, 2014
Emily's parents have recently separated and her "dad is no longer where he belongs. Suddenly, he lives in his own little cube." Emily uses her art to express her feelings, connecting to Picasso and his blue period.
Emily's Blue Period, Cathleen Daly & Lisa Brown, 2014
I love the way Emily wrestles with her emotions, recognizing she is sad and frustrated. When her teacher asks her to make a collage of her her home, she is flummoxed--she has two homes now. Which should she show? Cathleen Daly reveals Emily's journey, letting us quietly watch her rather than telling us everything she's thinking. Lisa Brown's soothing illustrations help readers connect to Emily and visualize a sense of Picasso's blue period. Brown uses grey-blues throughout, creating a subdued tone that is never dark.

I won't give away the ending, but Daly's conclusion and Brown's final illustration are sure to bring smiles. I feel like I've found a kindred spirit in Daly. Here are just a few of the things she wrote on a recent Nerdy Book Club post:
  • As a child, "I enjoyed the company of a book as much as the company of most people, and reading as much as I did I developed a rich inner world that allowed me to be, for the most part, with or without a book, happy in my own company. This active, dense inner world also fueled a font creative endeavors."
  • "I read somewhere that Ray Bradbury said that writers should read, read, read as much as possible – this feeds the imagination to the point of bursting, that it’s likely to come spilling out on the page this way. This was certainly was true for me a child. I spent hours hanging out in the local library reading and writing."
  • "My main hope for the book is that it give solace and inspiration to young readers who may or may not be going through difficulties of their own."
Yep, a kindred spirit indeed. Share this book with children you know who are contemplative, or who are wrestling with their own blue period.

By the way, San Francisco Bay Area teachers and librarians -- both Daly and Brown live in our area. I especially love some of the material Brown shared in a recent interview over at Seven Impossible Things about her school visits. Definitely check it out!

Images used by permission of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. 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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (ages 12+)

Like many of my students, I love getting lost in a story--so absorbed that I am transported to that time and place, that I live with the characters in my mind. I just finished reading to a new biography of the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family, the last of the mighty Romanov monarchy, and I couldn't put it down. I highly recommend the audiobook and think many teens and their families will find it fascinating.
The Family Romanov:
Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
by Candace Fleming
narrated by Kimberly Farr, et al.
Penguin Random House, 2014
Listening Library, 2014
Preview on Google Books
Your local library
Amazon / Audible
ages 12 and up
* best new book *
Candace Fleming pulls the reader into the story of the fall of Imperial Russia by providing both an intimate look at the royal family and a careful understanding of the political and social context of their time. It's interesting to read a story when you know the ending, but I found myself on the edge of my seat at several points, wondering just how it would turn out.

Tsar Nicholas II ruled over the immense Russian Empire, which stretched from the edge of Germany and the Baltic Sea all of the way across Europe and northern Asia to the Sea of Japan. He wed his beloved Princess Alix of Hesse in 1894, just weeks after he ascended to the throne.

But the world around them began crumbling under the weight of tremendous social inequalities and poverty, exacerbated by Nicholas's own ineffective political leadership. Fleming helps readers understand this context by using a myriad of primary sources: diaries, letters, first-hand accounts of life in Russia at the turn of the century. Fleming decided, according to an interview in Kirkus Reviews, to keep “any context as close to the story as possible.” These contemporary accounts help readers understand both the day to day lives of the Romanov family and also the discontent and anger that ran through Russia at the time.

Kimberly Farr imbues the audiobook with heart and soul, helping listeners connect with the family members and envision their world. She subtly changes her voice so listeners know when she's reading an actual letter or diary, bringing the myriad characters to life. I also really liked the way the producers used different narrators, often with Russian accents, to read diary excerpts from other individuals. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award for July 2014.

Show teens this video from History.com to get them interested in the mystery surrounding the Romanov's deaths. It's likely they know Anastasia from the animated film, but I'm guessing they don't realize its historical basis.

You might also have interested kids listen to Fleming talk on TeachingBooks.net about her inspiration for writing the book, which stems back to when she was a young teen and discovered a book on her mother's bookshelf. She then reads aloud a chapter from the book, to give readers a sense of her voice.

Other reviews:
The review copy comes from our home library, purchased from the terrific Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. 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, August 4, 2014

Reading Online: How will it affect developing readers?

I read with interest a recent New Yorker article, Being a Better Online Reader by Maria Konnikova, and I would love to explore my thoughts on this article. We all are reading much more online than we did ten years ago, but how is this affecting the way young children are developing as readers? How is this affecting the way teachers and librarians help students learn to read, discover a love of reading, and develop their critical thinking skills?

Over the past several years, I have observed these changes:
  • most adults read for work online -- mainly on desktop or laptop computers
  • many adults read for pleasure using digital devices, like the iPad, Kindle or Nook
  • most children (ages 7-12) read primarily print books when reading for pleasure or school
  • students are learning to research online, starting at about age 8-9
  • standardized tests are shifting to online assessments
I feel very strongly that if we are going to start assessing students online, then we need to provide specific experiences and instruction for reading online. Explicit instruction is crucial -- it is unfair to assume that our children are "digital natives" and learn through osmosis how to read online. If we make those assumptions, we will simply reinforce the digital divide that is created by unequal opportunities and access.

Konnikova points out that the way we read online is different than the way we read in print. She steers clear of passing judgment, but rather ponders how this affects the way we acquire knowledge. Konnikova writes,
On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.
I would argue that this skimming is an essential skill for coping with the huge amount of information we have to sift through online. We need to teach our students how we skim effectively. But we also need to talk with them about strategies for when we discover a nugget -- how we need to consciously slow down to digest the information.

Later, Konnikova looks at research that has explored this point -- that we need to teach our students explicit online reading skills:
Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book.
I have noticed this with my own daughter, whose high school is now one-to-one iPad. She likes reading her English texts online because she can annotate them well, but she prefers to read in print if she is just absorbing and enjoying a book.

Schools must specifically teach students in 4th grade and above how to apply their reading skills to digital reading. Starting in elementary school, they need to practice researching online and teachers need to talk about how this might be different from reading a print book. It is essential that our schools invest in technologies, so that teachers and students can learn these skills. But I would also argue that it's essential for schools to invest in librarians who understand this intersection between reading, information and digital experiences.

Adults often ask me if kids will continue reading print books. I believe the answer is absolutely yes. First of all, there's access and quantity issues. Children in first through third grade need to read 10-20 short books every week. They want to browse through physical copies. Schools, libraries and families need access to inexpensive paperbacks. Even highly digital affluent families are reluctant to continue purchasing ebooks at this rate.

I would also argue that there is something more tangible, more comforting, more reassuring for young kids holding print books. Konnikova quotes Maryann Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, as saying “Physical, tangible books give children a lot of time." Young children need that time. Families need that time.

It is interesting that I read this article online, following a link suggested by KQED's Mindshift blog. But I returned to it several times, reading it in different chunks, rereading it, skimming it again. This type of repeated reading might be what our students need to get comfortable doing, taking the time to dive into ideas and ponder them.

As you watch your children and your students, are you noticing that they are reading digitally more than they were a few years ago? Is the way they are reading changing? The digital world certainly brings more opportunities within easy reach for many students, but how are we preparing them to take advantage of those opportunities?

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books