Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Fox and the Forest Fire -- sharing about a disaster with young readers (ages 5-9)

As California's skies fill with smoke and our forests burn, I wonder how you talk with children about wildfires and other natural disasters. The Fox and the Forest Fire, a new picture book, shares this experience with young children better than any other book I've read, creating empathy and understanding in a gentle but powerful way.

The Fox and the Forest Fire
by Danny Popovici
Chronicle, 2021
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 5-9

After moving to a new home in the woods with his mother, a young boy works to adjust to his new home. At first it's too different, but he gradually discovers how much fun he can have: studying bugs, building dams, playing in the river. He even makes a new friend -- the fox we see on the book's cover. 

One day, a forest fire suddenly changes everything. The boy sees "a plume of smoke off in the distance." Hurrying to warn his mother, he "wonders if we will ever see our home again." He and his mother pack up to evacuate, and the animals flee for safety. Popovici's artwork conveys the worry and fear, but the resolution shows that the family and the forest will rebuild. 

I appreciate how this picture book honors the resilience and courage of families (and animals) caught in the path of a wildfire. By focusing on the relationship between the young boy and the fox, he creates empathy as readers grow to know the boy's forest home and feel distraught seeing it burn. Ending on a hopeful note helps readers think about how we can change and grow from these disasters.

Popovici writes in his author's note that he was a forest fighter for three seasons. He knows first hand about the destructive power of fires, and the way a forest can grow back after a fire. In an interview with author Jena Benton, Popovici explains,

"I was a wildland firefighter in the early 2000’s for three seasons. It was an unforgettable experience as I got to be a part of the wilderness very few people get to see. When you’re out there you feel like you’re doing good for the animals and plants that call it home. Wildfires are all too common these days, and it’s a huge strain on the local ecology. 

As I wrote in my book, a naturally occurring fire can benefit a forest, but what we’re collectively experiencing these days are not naturally occurring fires. In 2017 a fire raged through the Columbia Gorge here in Oregon and Washington and the smoke was the heaviest I’d experienced within the city. I knew in my heart that the way we’re treating the planet, these fires are only going to get worse and effect more and more people each year."

The review copies came from my 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.

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Inspiring Young Environmental Advocates: 6 middle grade novels (ages 9-14)

Environmental issues impact and threaten our lives in so many ways--from raging fires to supersize storms. Here are six novels that tackle some of these issues, whether it’s through showing characters fighting to protect endangered species or setting survival stories in the wilderness impacted by changing climates. 

by Katherine Applegate 
Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan, 2021
Amazon / your local library (scheduled to be published on Sept. 7, 2021)
ages 9-12 

Eleven-year-old Willodeen feels a connection to all kinds of animals, and has an adorable hummingbear (a cross between a hummingbird and a polar bear) as a pet. But Willodeen believes that all animals play an important role keeping nature in balance -- even the detested screechers. As her community struggles with environmental disasters (from the fire that killed Willodeen's parents to the disappearance of hummingbears), Willodeen has to overcome her intense shyness and figure out how to speak up for the animals she loves. I especially appreciate how Applegate mixes gentle fantasy with an important environmental message and creates a character I connect with so strongly (my 9-year-old self wants to be Willodeenn!)

Paradise on Fire
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2021
Amazon / your local library (scheduled to be published Sept. 14, 2021)
ages 10-14

Addy joins five other Black city kids to spend a summer on a mountain ranch to take part in a summer wilderness program. As a young toddler, Addy barely escaped a tragic apartment fire that killed her parents, and now she's obsessed with maps and escape routes. Her Nigerian grandmother thinks that getting away and spending time in nature would be good for her. Addy, who's full name means "daughter of an eagle," quickly takes to life in the woods and learns how to read and draw topographical maps. But on one of their last days, the group of kids leave the only skilled woodsman behind and head out for an overnight camping trip. In the middle of the night, a forest fire erupts and they flee down the ridge, heading toward the creek they know is below. Addy's narrative focuses on survival and her escape is heart-poundiogly realistic, although I was left in the end not feeling like I got to know the other characters.

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers
by Celia C. Pérez 
Kokila / Penguin, 2019
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-12

Four awkwardly mismatched middle school girls find themselves creating a secret club, joining forces to disrupt the status quo in their small Florida town and convince the local social club (the Floras) stop using an unethically made feathered hat in its annual pageant. All throughout middle school, I felt socially awkward and on the outside, so the idea of joining a secret group of kids who are challenging the system appeals to me so much. Each of these girls brings her own unique perspective and story, wrestling with her own challenges, and adding to the adventure in important ways. When the girls take up the protest, supporting Cat and her dedication to protecting birds, they must face issues of race and class that emerge.

by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins, 2017
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13 

A boy. A fox. Inseparable, until they are suddenly torn 300 miles apart. Told in the alternating voices of Peter and Pax the fox, this is a story of the friendship between a child and an animal, a story full of love, loyalty and determination, a story about how grief, war and anxiety can take deep root but how friendship can help you find peace within. Here are the notes I wrote to myself when I first read it: "I've just finished this and, oh my, how the themes are vibrating in my mind and soul. Loyalty, friendship, family, anxiety, fear, determination, grief, war, peace within. Cannot wait to talk with my students about this. Incredibly powerful story." Pennypacker wraps many complex emotional issues into this story, but at its heart it's about our connection to animals, the environment around us, and our found family. I'm excited that the sequel, Pax: Journey Home, is being published in September.

Same Sun Here
by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Candlewick, 2012
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13 

Pen-pals River and Meena reveal their "own true selves" to each other through the letters they write, their friendship slowly develops as they share their hopes and frustrations, discovering how much they are alike despite their differences. Meena has just moved to New York City from India, while River has lived all his life in a small coal-mining town in Kentucky. They both have been raised by their grandmothers for much of their lives, and they both love the mountains-- River loves the Appalachian Mountains, and Meena misses the mountains in Mussoorie, India. I especially appreciate the way that they encourage each other, as River becomes an environmental activist protesting coal mining in his community, and Meena joins her school's theater program.

by Carl Hiaasen
Random House, 2002
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13

In this 2003 Newbery Honor book, Roy and his two new friends set out to solve the mysterious vandalism at a nearby construction site. When they discover that this is also a nesting ground for small burrowing owls, they try to protect the endangered owls and block construction. Hiaasen's story is full of his classic offbeat humor, blockheaded adults, and kids who are determined to disrupt the corruption and compromises of the adult world.

The digital review copies came from the publishers; other review copies came from my school libraries. 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. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Reclaiming mythology & California history: The Legend of Auntie Po, by Shing Yin Khor (ages 9-14)

Attention comic book lovers: come explore a 19th century California logging camp and listen to a young Chinese girl spin stories and tall tales envisioning a better future. The Legend of Auntie Po, by Shing Yin Khor, explores the struggles of the Chinese in California in the years following the Chinese Exclusion Act, balancing important historical details with a compelling, heartfelt, magical story.

The Legend of Auntie Po
by Shing Yin Khor
Kokila / Penguin, 2021
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-14

Mei helps her father cook and feed dozens of hungry men in a Sierra Nevada logging camp, in 19th century California. She dreams of a better life and chafes at her limited opportunities, knowing that her white friend can go to university and get married. Mei loves reading and telling stories--at night, she enchants anyone who will listen with her stories of Auntie Po, a Chinese woman who "stood taller than the tallest white pine" and ran a logging camp with her "loyal blue buffalo Pei Pei." Adult readers may recognize much of Paul Bunyan, I'm not really sure that young readers will know those stories.

Even though the logging boss declares his loyalty to Mei's father, he cannot protect him against anti-Chinese discrimination. When the logging company caves to pressure, the White camp boss dismisses all of the Chinese workers, including Mei's father. The story weaves together the real-world struggles Mei and her father face with the tall tales of Auntie Po's heroic adventures.

I especially appreciate the way Khor draws readers into the story with this graphic novel, creating a visual sense of the logging camp, yet really focusing on the character's feelings and struggles. Young readers often find it hard to feel a part of history, and this story will bring them into an important perspective that is often left out of the history books. Take a look at this preview from Google Books and see for yourself:

The review copies came from my 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. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Thursday, August 12, 2021

In My Feed: interesting articles & blogs to share (August 2021)

My feed this month has been full of speculation about Covid-19, but I'd like to take a break from all that to focus on some reading-related posts. Let's start with something fun: a Buzzfeed quiz on bookwork habits. Then we'll move onto Time's new list of 100 Best YA

illustration by Colin Verdi for TIME 

Just for fun: Buzzfeed Quiz

How Many Of These Bookworm Things Did You Do As A Kid? -- I admit it, I have tried walking and reading, stumbling and running into things way too many times. How about you? What bookworm things can you fess up to doing?

100 Best YA Books

Time Magazine's 100 Best YA Books of All Time is a fabulous list of classics and brand new titles. You'll definitely see classics on there (Little Women, Lord of the Flies) and some popular best-sellers (Hunger Games, The Hate U Give). I especially appreciate the range of stories and voices included here.

Age-Appropriate Discussions about Race

In KQED's Mind/Shift, veteran educator Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul talks about how to have age-appropriate discussions about race. Scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote "Stamped from the Beginning" as a definitive history of racism in America, and Jason Reynolds remixed this for teens as “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” Now, we have “Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You,” an adaptation aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds. I found it particularly interesting how Dr. Cherry-Paul suggested taking into account younger children's development when you're talking about these tough topics. 

Broad strokes of nuanced ideas will do the trick for young learners. Instead of focusing on small details, concentrate on big picture ideas and how to stoke sustainable interest. “I just had to remind myself that ‘Stamped (For Kids)’ is a start and not an end to the kind of reading that students should have access to across their lives about race and racism. And if I've done my job well, they'll want to read more,” says Cherry-Paul.

Ten Ways to Make Storytimes Interactive

Are you looking for ways to keep young listeners engaged as you read stories with them? Check out author Abi Cushman's post in Nerdy Book Club. Whether it's choosing stories with built in guessing games (like Cushman's new book Animals Go Vroom!), or books that get kids moving -- Cushman shares her favorite ways to engage young kids during storytime. 

What's in your feed these days? Drop me a note, and let me know if you find any of these articles interesting.

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Reading tips & strategies: Playing with the sound of words (ages 2-8)

As your children are getting ready to read or developing their reading skills, it's great to play with the sound of words. Each word is made of small blocks of sounds. In order to learn to read, we need to be able to break words into the smaller parts. Focus on these sounds (not letter names) and play with these sound parts. As Reading Rockets explains:

As the foundation for all written words, letters are important because they are the symbols for the small actions your mouth makes as you say words. What's equally important, however, is that your child learns the sound associated with each letter. These individual sounds are called phonemes, and children who know about the connection between a letter and its phoneme have an easier time learning to read.

Parents can help children get ready to read by playing with the sound of words. Play some of these silly games as you're at the store or cooking dinner. 

image from PBS Kids for Parents

Play with rhymes:
Rhyming games help children recognize how parts of words can be similar. You can sing songs or read stories with rhymes. But you can also play guessing games with everyday objects. Maybe it's a version of "I spy" using rhyming: "I spy something that rhymes with bear.

Be silly with nonsense words: Kids love-love-love being silly. Encourage this, and use nonsense words that play with small sounds of words. These types of words help kids learn to blend together words, using these sound chunks. Maybe if you sneeze, try saying "achoo-a-boo-boo-boo!" Do you see how that helps emphasize that small part of the word?

Listen for sounds: Help your child listen for beginning sounds in words and then play with them. Can they make this even sillier: Silly Sally sings songs all Saturday -- by extending all the sss's? What about Mommy makes mud pies? This sort of goofy playing actually helps children realize that the beginning sounds are important parts of words.

Swap sounds around: For a more advanced game, try removing or swapping sounds. What is ‘beat’ when you take away the T sound? Bee! Maybe they can use this to make up silly nicknames for their pets or stuffed animals.

Read more ideas on PBS Parents at How to Start Playing On-the-Go Literacy Games.

Playing with language and words will help children develop their confidence and phonics skills. How do you help grow your readers? Send me a note, and let me know what works for you! 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Fast-paced, exciting science fiction: 5 favorites for tweens & young adults (ages 12+)

Science fiction stories continue to captivate tweens and young adults--providing an avenue to escape our world, feel a rush of adrenaline, and wonder about what the future might hold. Here are five fast-paced sci-fi stories I highly recommend for tweens and young adults.

Nyxia, by Scott Reintgen: Emmett is one of 10 teens who sign onto Babel Communication's space exploration project, heading out into space to mine a rare substance, Nyxia. As the teens are put through a brutal competition to see who is best suited for the task, they discover secrets about the corporation and one another. Readers in my high school have loved this fast-paced story and can definitely think it should get made into a movie.

Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy: This exciting story takes King Arthur's timeless hero's journey wielding Excalibur, sets it in outer space, and casts a teenage girl as Ari, the reincarnation of King Arthur. As Ari wrestles with her power and duty as "the one true king," she embarks on a dangerous quest to save her family and battle a power-hungry corporation from dominating the universe. I especially appreciate the way this stories re-envisions a classic with a racial diverse queer and trans ensemble of characters.

Want, by Cindy Pon: Set in a futuristic Taiwan where the ultra-rich wear suits and helmets to keep the pollution at bay, Jason Zhou and his friends decide to take down a corrupt, murderous CEO as they agitate for cleaner air. Jason poses as a young gambler and playboy, kidnaps the CEO's daughter and breaks into the corporate headquarters. Teens have liked the fast-pacing, immersive descriptions and social commentary -- and they quickly ask for the sequel, Ruse.

War Girls, by Tochi Onyebuchi: In a post-apocalyptic Nigeria ravaged by nuclear war, child soldiers fight to reclaim the future. The novel alternates between Onyii, an air pilot captain who agrees to fight for the Republic of Biafra, and her younger sister Ify, who has been kidnaped by the Nigerians. Intense action scenes pull readers into this complicated political drama that highlights the arbitrary nature of war.

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera: I have yet to read this new sci-fi novel, but I'm so excited (it publishes in October). When Petra wakes hundreds of years after escaping the destruction of Earth, she discovers that she's the only person who remembers Earth and humanity's past. The Collective has taken over and purged everyone's memories. Petra's plan: share cuentos with other children, stir their memories, and come up with a plan to escape. Kirkus starred review sums it up: "With poetic use of startling imagery and unabashed nostalgia, Higuera spins a tale that crosses the depths of space, interweaving Mexican folklore with a mystical strand of science fiction."

The review copies came from both my public library and from 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. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, August 9, 2021

New beginnings: 5 books about feeling nervous about the start of school

As summer ends and the new school year begins, it's important to recognize just how big this transition is for kids (and families, too!). So many feelings come with these transitions, no matter how old we are. Share these 5 books, name some of the feelings the characters are going through, and talk about how they're coping. 

Becoming Vanessa, by Vanessa Brantley-Newton: Vanessa is nervous about her first day of school, and plans the perfect outfit -- feather boa, tutu, shiny shoes, her special hat. But frustration takes over when other kids don't appreciate her special outfit and writing her name is hard work. I especially appreciate the way Vanessa discovers the special meaning of her name and realizes that how she feels inside will make her shine.

El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!, by Donna Barba Higher: Ramón can’t sleep -- everything is different in his new house. He is nervous for his first day at a new school. It turns out that El Cucuy, the monster who lives in Ramón’s cactus pot, is scared, too! Kids will laugh at the way Ramón and El Cucuy remind each other about how strong and brave they are, defusing their fears. El Cucuy is a scary Mexican legend, but portrayed here in a cute way to encourage laughs alongside the shivers.

The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson: "What did you do last summer?" can be a loaded question. As children share about summer travels, Angelina remembers the days spent at home caring for her little sister, and feels very alone at school. In this gentle, beautiful story, Woodson speaks directly to readers, encouraging all of us to find friends who will listen to our stories, a new friend who "has something a little like you--and something else so fabulously not quite like you at all." 

My First Day, by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huy'nh Kim Liên: A young Vietnamese boy sets out alone in a wooden boat across the Mekong Delta, heading to his first day of school. Captivating illustrations and beautiful, poetic language will make this a delight to read aloud. I especially appreciate the metaphors that encourage readers to see how similar our feelings can be, even though our experiences may be vastly different.

School's First Day of School, by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson: Have you ever stopped to think if the school might be nervous about the new year? Even though Janitor says, “Don’t worry--you’ll like the children,” school does worry. Young readers will appreciate the way this picture book brings a fresh angle to the familiar story, sharing warmth and empathy, and helping all of us consider a new perspective. 
The review copies came from both my public library and from Penguin Random House Publishers. 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. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Neon Words: Developing the writer's craft and creativity (ages 12 & up)

I am continually delighted by the number of high school students who tell me how much they enjoy writing, how they spend time writing in journals, writing poetry, writing stories. Do you have a burgeoning writer in your life? Hand them Neon Words, and inspire them to find new ways to develop their craft and creativity.

Neon Words: 10 Brilliant Ways to Light Up Your Writing
by Marge Pellegrino and Kay Sather
Magination Press, 2021
ages 12 and up

Each writer approaches their craft with a different perspective, but one thing that makes writing sparkle is a personal connection. Pellegrino and Sather take readers through different writing exercises and techniques, but they shine most as they speak directly to the reader in an approachable voice. Instead of coming across as English teachers setting a task before students, Pellegrino and Sather come across as "real writers" who are sharing their own experience with young writers.  

Chapters focus on different strategies and exercises young writers can try, and the authors spend as much time showing students examples from their own writing as giving directions. "Make It Personal" talks about the importance of having a personal journal, and shows writers how to combine simple drawing with similes to stretch associative connections and wordplay. "Look Who's Talking" shows writers how to play with dialogue and point of view, strengthening their skills and noticing the way dialogue can carry a scene. Here's one strategy shared in the chapter "Switch It Up":

(click to enlarge)

I especially appreciate how these short chapters encourage young writers to try out different strategies, to play with writing instead of focusing on a finished piece. My grandmother used to talk about "mental gymnastics" -- and I really see the same here. Writers need to flex their creative muscles to become more flexible and learn different moves. As they tell young readers and writers,

"Just remember: You're the boss. These pages hold only suggestions. So improvise! Use the ideas to get yourself started... Get ready to be surprised by where your words will take you."

Marge Pellegrino is the author of Journey of Dreams, a very memorable immigration story. She is a writing teacher and mentor whom I admire greatly. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases if you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site.

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Blue Floats Away: Growing up is full of surprises (ages 3-7)

Growing up is full of surprises, and how you see it depends on your perspective. Want to engage in a lively discussion? Ask a group of 4 year olds what makes them big kids, compared to the babies and toddlers in their lives. Not only are they bigger, they also can do many things all by themselves. This growth is exciting, but it also can come with frightening changes. Blue Floats Away captures these feelings, and shares a lesson on the water cycle too.

Blue Floats Away
by Travis Jonkers
illustrated by Grant Snider
Abrams, 2021
Amazon / your local library
ages 3-7 

Little Blue is an iceberg, happily attached to his parents -- and yet, one day, "Blue was suddenly on his own, floating away," unsure if he'll ever return. As Blue floats into his new life, he discovers new and beautiful things. Soon, though, Blue realizes that he's changing -- and the reader sees Blue melting and then turning into a cloud. Blue does make it home, but he's transformed into something new. The author's note explains about how the water cycle works, helping young readers see the science underpinning this story.

As we head back to school, many kids are going to be nervous about the separation and growth they're experiencing, especially if they're heading to a new school. Travis Jonkers captures the full range of emotions young kids go through as they wrestle with these changes. I especially appreciate how we can read this story in so many different ways -- on an emotional level, as a lesson about the water cycle, or as an introduction to global warming. The spare text and bold colors will make this captivating as a read aloud.

My oldest daughter struggled with separation anxiety in preschool (lots of tears) -- and yet she's now happily living across the country! Enjoy your little ones while you can. They do grow up so fast. The review copies came from my public library. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases if you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books