Monday, December 28, 2015

The Nutcracker: a holiday tradition (ages 4-10)

Going to see The Nutcracker ballet is a special holiday tradition for many families. These two picture books celebrate the classic story in different ways: a beautiful retelling and a look at how this ballet came to be a holiday tradition.
The Nutcracker
by Susan Jeffers
HarperCollins, 2007
Your local library
ages 4-8
Set in Victorian times, this large picture book version of the Nutcracker is a beautiful, lush introduction to the story and the ballet. Jeffer's illustrations bring alive a sense of wonder and enchantment, with their romantic, detail-rich scenes.
"'Come,' said the Prince. They walked through falling snowflakes to a waiting boat that flew them through the night."
Jeffers captures the story with just a few lines of text per page, allowing children to savor the illustrations as the ballet comes to life in their imaginations.

In The Nutcracker Comes to America, we learn that this holiday tradition actually started with the San Francisco Ballet after World War II.
The Nutcracker Comes to America
How Three Ballet Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition
by Chris Barton
illustrated by Cathy Gendron
Millbrook, 2015
Your local library
ages 6-10
When the three Christensen brothers learned ballet, they not only fell in love with dance, they also loved the show-stopping way it entranced audiences. Fast forward to 1940s when the brothers were in charge of the San Francisco Ballet, searching for a big production that would draw in crowds and they staged the first American full-length production of what was soon to become an American tradition.
"After the closing number 'Waltz of the Flowers,' two hundred or so dance students and young musicians got a standing ovation from the crowd. Willam would remember that response."
This well-researched history helps children see that what we love as classics today were actually the result of hard work and inspiration by real people.

The review copies came from our home 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.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Around the world--sharing with children a sense of global community (ages 4-9)

As our news is filled with global and local conflict, I wonder about how to share a sense of our global community with our young children. Their experiences are rooted in their immediate surroundings. So how do we share a sense that things are similar for children in other parts of the world?

Two beautiful picture books help young children think about how our experiences are similar but different, without being didactic. Instead, they draw children into observing and reflecting other family's moments in the same day.
How the Sun Got to Coco's House
by Bob Graham
Candlewick, 2015
Your local library
ages 4-8
The moon peeks in through Coco's window as her parents tuck her into bed, but on the other side of the world the sun is rising over a polar bear family. The sun is busy already, lighting the way for a fishing boat, catching the eye of a great whale, "making shadows on the snow and in Jung Su's footsteps." 
"It balanced out on the wing--just for young Lovejoy, off to visit his grandma."

Readers follow the sun from one brief moment to another, watching the rising sun crest over a yurt and bounce off the tip of an airplane. As readers wonder what has happened to Coco, they turn the page and "the winter sun barged straight through Coco's window!" 
"It followed her down the hall,
made itself quite at home on her mom and dad's bed,
and joined them for breakfast."
Throughout, Bob Graham varies the perspective--taking readers close up to some children's lives and looking down from up high at others. The story ends by gradually pulling back on the view of Coco playing outside on a winter's day with her friends, helping readers see her small, immediate world in a larger context of her factory town.

French artist and author Clotilde Perrin follows one point in time across different time zones across the globe, in the striking picture book At the Same Moment, Around the World.
At the Same Moment, Around the World
by Clotilde Perrin
Chronicle, 2014
Your local library
ages 5-9
This story begins in Dakar, Senegal at six o'clock in the morning, as Keita helps his father count the fish caught during night. Following eastward, Perrin moves around the globe. “At the same moment,” it is 7 a.m. in Paris and Benedict is drinking his hot chocolate before school--while it is 8 a.m. in Bulgaria and Mitko is chasing the school bus. Each spread shows two time zones, emphasizing the point that these are happening at the same moment.
"At the same moment, in Hanoi, Vietnam, it is one o'clock in the afternoon, and Khahn takes a nap despite the noise outside.
At the same moment, in Shanghai, China, it is two o'clock in the afternoon, and Chen practices for the Lunar New Year parade."
Perrin's artwork is full of small details and drama, including some darker moments--lending complexity to the simple prose. A foldout world map in the end helps readers locate each place and names all these children.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Candlewick and Chronicle. 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.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

So You Want to Be a Jedi? : an original retelling of Star Wars--the Empire Strikes Back, by Adam Gidwitz (ages 9-12)

Tonight we're having a family movie night, all going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I've had a great few days anticipating this, reading So You Want to Be a Jedi?an original retelling of Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back, by one of my favorite storytellers Adam Gidwitz (see here for our fantastic author visit). If your kids are excited by the new Star Wars movie and like books full of action, they'll have fun diving head first into this book.
So You Want to Be a Jedi?
an original retelling of Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back
by Adam Gidwitz
Disney / LucasFilm Press, 2015
preview on Google Books
your local library
ages 9-12
Kids will love this story's action and adventure, even if they already know how it's going to turn out in the end. Gidwitz brings readers right into the story by making the reader step into Luke's shoes--telling it through second-person narration. Here's a glimpse of the great battle on the planet Hoth:
"The rebel fire is doing nothing to slow the snow walkers, which are lumbering inexorably onward, laser blasts bouncing uselessly off their armor.
Your craft approaches the lead snow walker. Another speeder skims the snow just behind you.
Then it explodes. 'They got Rogue Seven!' Dak yells.
You grit your teeth. 'Stay with me, Dak. We're coming in.'" (chapter 9)
At school, we often talk with kids about the movie that runs in their mind as they're reading. We want them to visualize the setting, the action. We want them to connect with the character and feel what the character is feeling. Gidwitz's dramatic writing demonstrates this perfectly.

Gidwitz explains in his author's note that Star Wars can be seen as the reinvention of the classic hero's tale, as a fairy tale for modern times--much as Gidwitz tried to do with his Grimm trilogy. Much like Cinderella, Luke is a character who can be seen as a little bland, without distinguishing characteristics. But this is intentional, Gidwitz points out.
"They are avatars for the reader. They are empty so we can inhabit them, so we can do their deeds, live their lives, and learn their lessons." 
Will my 4th and 5th graders understand this? Perhaps not, but they will certainly think about Luke's heroic journey and what it takes to be a Jedi. And in the meantime, they will love the action and adventure along the way.

So You Want to Be a Jedi? is part of a trilogy of original retellings of the first three Star Wars movies. If your kids like this, you'll also want to seek out The Princess, the Scoundrel and the Farm Boy (a retelling of Star Wars: The New Hope, by Alexandra Bracken), and Beware the Power of the Dark Side! (a retelling of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, by Tom Angleberger).

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Disney / LucasFilm Press, and we have also purchased additional copies for our school 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.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Peeking into students' Mock Newbery conversations (ages 9-12)

Our Mock Newbery Book Club discussions have been so thoughtful and interesting that I just have to share them. This year, we've been focusing on the qualities that the Newbery Committee manual instructs members to consider: character, plot, setting, theme and language. We keep a reminder of these qualities up to help guide our conversations. It helps us be more analytical as we talk about what we love about stories. It also helps us compare very different books, thinking about different strengths that each might have.

Last week, Talia and Alessandra (both 5th graders) were talking about Chasing Secrets, by Gennifer Choldenko, and Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan.  My full reviews are here if you'd like to learn more about these terrific novels: Chasing Secrets & Echo.

Talia gushed that Chasing Secrets is The.Best.Book.Ever. I just wish I could have captured the sparkle in her eye when she talked. But then she went on to share why she thought it was so good: the plot kept her interested, full of twists and turns, with lots of unexpected pieces. It was complicated, but it also stayed woven together tightly.

Talia compared this to Echo, which she found too long. She liked Echo, but found it didn't hold her interest as much. I'm not sure if she found it went off on too many tangents, or if she didn't lost the feeling of one set of characters as she got involved in another character's story.

At this point, Alessandra spoke up saying how much she liked Echo. As I asked her why she thought it was so good, she said that it was the same thing that Talia said about Chasing Secrets -- in Alessandra's view, the different pieces of Echo wove together in a very interesting way. She loved how each character reacted in his or her own way to the harmonica, how music gave each of the character's courage and strength, and how much family meant to each of the characters.

Echo isn't part of our formal Mock Newbery selection, in part because it is very long. But my guess is that the Newbery Committee will be talking about it in January -- much in the same manner that our students have been talking about it.

There is a special bond that comes when you've read the same books as your friends and can have these thoughtful discussions. We don't read the same books at the same time. Partly this is because we only have 2 to 4 copies of each book.

I want students' reading to be more organic. I want them to choose what they want to read. Most of all, I want them to share the books they love with their friends, persuading others to read them too. This is what Lucy Caulkins calls spreading "book buzz" and it makes the process much more exciting for kids.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Scholastic and Random House, but we have also purchased additional copies for our school 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.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Plan, by Alison Paul & Barbara Lehman -- story taking flight with just a few words (ages 3-8)

New readers and pre-readers are so often frustrated that their imaginations take flight far ahead of their reading skills. They want complex, interesting stories -- and they'll be delighted with The Plan. With just one or two words on each page, Alison Paul & Barbara Lehman tell a story full of imagination through the interplay between pictures, characters and words.
The Plan
by Alison Paul
illustrated by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Google Books preview
Your local library
ages 3-8
*best new book*
A young child dreams of flying to Saturn, and so it all begins with a plan. A plane, a map of the solar system, her trusty dog. Soaring up to the planets. By the third page in (maybe I'm slower than your typical kid?), I realized that each word just changes by one letter: plan becomes plane, then plane becomes planet. Here are the first two spreads:
It all begins with a "plan"
Look outside to see the "plane"
You can't read the story without spending time investigating the pictures. What is happening? What is the girl thinking about? Whose plane is outside? Why is a plane sitting outside at a farm? But the words help move the story along, too. The word game adds intrigue and humor, as readers try to figure out the rules of the game.

What's magical is how the story has depth and feeling far beyond the words. As the young girl discovers a key to a photo album, we realize that her mother used to fly the plane but that she is no longer here. As the story unfolds, the father and daughter together plan to launch the plane--honoring the girl's mother.

I've been wondering about the age range for this book. While I think it sings particularly well for new readers in kindergarten or 1st grade, I think the story will resonate with older and younger children. Pre-readers will love being able to read the story developing through the pictures. And the story will resonate with older children who will understand the emotional depth, as well as have fun with the very clever word play. In my ideal world, I'd love to have 2nd and 3rd graders create new stories that change word by word, one letter at a time--and see where it takes them!

Illustrations ©2015 Barbara Lehman, used with permission of the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books