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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Storytime Anytime-Slime!

CAUTION: This storytime may get a teensy bit messy! Okay, probably more than a teensy bit, but I promise you that it will be totally worth it!

 Before we get into the books I am going to talk about the activity. If you look online there are a gazillion recipes for goo, slime, ooze, playdough, puffy paint, etc. but I am going to give you my favorite one to do (which also happens to be the easiest).  There are only 2 ingredients: cornstarch and water. You do not need exact measurements; just pour some cornstarch in a bowl and add water until it looks liquid but feels solid when you give it a quick tap on the surface. As you can see from the picture it looks like a bowl of milk (unless you add food coloring).

Now for the fun stuff. Scoop up some of the goo into your hand and try rolling it into a ball. If you move your hands quickly you can do this. Stop moving your hands and hold them out, palms up. The goo should look like ice cream melting. It is fun to play with even when you are an adult, right?

This video gives the scientific explanation for why the cornstarch and water mixture feels like a solid, but can also flow like a liquid.  If I had the money to go out and buy  a couple hundred boxes of cornstarch I would totally fill up a giant vat so I could run across it!
Quicksand is also a non-Newtonian fluid. Try putting a Lego figure in the goo and watch him sink. Now have your child try to pull him out and see how hard it is to do.

The most obvious book to read before or after playing with slime is Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss. You will just need to color your cornstarch and water with green food coloring first so it looks like oobleck.

If you have a little boy (or girl) who is obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles you can pretend that the slime is radioactive ooze. They actually sell official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ooze, but I guarantee that cornstarch, water, and a few drops of green food coloring is cheaper.

Still going with green goo, you can pretend that it is snot and read a book about the human body. I Love You Nose, I Love You Toes by Linda Davick is an excellent book about the parts of the body for toddlers and preschoolers.


Slime also goes perfectly with any of the Black Lagoon books by Mike Thaler. Of course, my personal favorite is The Librarian from the Black Lagoon.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Series-ously Excited

As long as there have been series of stories published for children, there have been multiple authors writing about the same characters.  Traditionally, all the authors would write under a pseudonym, instead of getting credit for their work.  Think of the Nancy Drew books, or The Sweet Valley High series, if you're a little younger than I.  In recent years, some series have featured established authors whose names were emblazoned across the covers--the 39 Clues books come to mind.  But no matter how much I liked the series as a whole, there were always some books that I liked more than others, and some that seemed weaker to me.  I didn't always like each author's individual style, and that made some entries drag on for me.

Then, last summer I was given the first book in a new series called "Spirit Animals," the first of which was being written by Brandon Mull.  If you aren't familiar with Brandon Mull . . . well . . . you should pick up one of his Fablehaven books and give it a try.  He writes fantasy--good fantasy--with believable young characters and lots of action.  I gave Wild Born, his entry in this series, a try and really enjoyed it.  Basically, it takes place in a land where all children are tested at a certain age, and some are found to have a special bond with an animal.  Of course, there's an evil force intent on taking over the world, a lot of fight scenes, chases, and the like.  I really enjoyed it, but I didn't think too much about the series.

Recently, though, I thought I'd see if the second book was out, and I was thrilled to discover that it was written by Maggie Stiefvater, another author whose work I love.  She wrote the Shiver trilogy, which is about werewolves and teen romance and loneliness and yearning and healing.  They are beautiful books--supernatural and YA without being all hysterical and melodramatic like some other books that shall remain nameless.  She also wrote a book called Scorpio Races, which has the distinction of making me care about a horse story!  I just started reading Hunted, which is her continuation of the tale, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

Now, one would think that it couldn't get any better than this for me, and I would have agreed with you.  Until I found out that Blood Ties, the third book in the series, is written by Garth Nix!  I've been a fan of Garth Nix for more than a decade, and not only because he wrote the Old Kingdom trilogy, one of which featured a librarian as the protagonist.  Woot!  I'm almost afraid who is on deck for the next book, as I'll be disappointed if it's not one of my particular favorites.  Maybe I should start recruiting people.  Julianna Baggott?  Jenni Holm?  Suzanne Collins?  Patrick Carman?  Who wants to wow me next? 

Monday, May 19, 2014

AR What?

This week I am writing about a controversial issue that affects me almost daily as both a children's librarian and as a parent. Loved or despised, Accelerated Reader (AR) has sparked vehement debates amongst educators, librarians, literacy experts, publishers, and parents. If you have never heard of AR this may be a case where ignorance is bliss, but I will try and explain it to the best of my ability. Accelerated Reader is a computer software program designed to monitor independent student reading, test comprehension, and provide extrinsic rewards for reading.

You are probably wondering how a computer software can accomplish all of that.

Well, let me give you the super condensed explanation. Be forewarned, however, that I became a librarian so I would not have to use numbers. If you  want to read a more detailed description of AR you can peruse this Parent's Guide from the Renaissance Learning website.

Each student takes a computer test (STAR Reading TEST) that gives them a ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) reading range. I really do not understand why smart people feel the need to over complicate everything. I think that they just like fancy acronyms.

Let's say a student is given a ZPD of 4.4-6.7. This would mean that the lowest level of books that they should be reading is 4th grade 4th month. Any lower than this and they are not really being challenged. The highest level book that they can read without struggling and requiring help is 6th grade 7th month.

Now of course the question is: How do we know what grade year and month a book is? Well, Renaissance Learning takes the number of words per text, the average number of letters per word and per sentence and then plugs them into something called the ATOS Readability Formula. That is as far as I am going into the that, because as I mentioned before math makes my head feel like it is stuffed with cotton balls. I have given you a link, though, to another fascinating pdf document describing everything about the ATOS Readability formula in excruciatingly minute detail with really big words. Personally, I started to see double after the first few pages so read at your own risk and not prior to operating heavy machinery.

 Accelerated Reader also assigns each book a point value by taking the ATOS level and plugging that into another mathematical formula (Make it stop! My brain hurts!). Teachers use the points to set reading goals and offer rewards like pizza parties, extra recess time, etc.  In order to earn the points for a book students must pass an online quiz that consists of 10 multiple choice questions about specific details in the book. These quizzes are to verify that the student actually read the book.

So there you have it. Accelerated Reader is the ideal program for teachers to monitor, test, and reward reading in their classroom.  At least it appears to be perfect. After all, over 60,000 schools in the US have purchased the program and the AR website is inundated with research, quotes, and statistics touting its effectiveness. However,  What Works Clearinghouse  states that most of the studies on AR do not pass their evidence standards and the two that did had nonexistent to minimal positive effects. Even these gains could be attributed to more time spent reading independently in class rather than actually using the AR software and program guidelines. According to What Works Clearinghouse the majority of reading intervention programs have very little evidence and minimal positive effect and sometimes even negative effects. The only program that shows significant success is Reading Recovery which involves short term, one-on-one tutoring. There is a shocker, one-on-one tutoring helps (duh).

Obviously, one-on-one tutoring is not always going to be possible. For one thing it is time consuming and, secondly, expensive since schools would need staff to provide tutoring or monitor classrooms while teachers were working with individual students. Accelerated Reader, although costly, is at least easy and quick. All of the testing is computerized and parents, teachers, and students can look up books at their level on AR Book Finder.

As a parent, librarian, and taxpayer, though, my question is: Is AR worth the cost? To begin using AR schools pay a one time fee of $1500-$3000 and then an annual fee that can be anywhere from $2000-$10,000, depending on the size of the school and whether the school purchased a partial or full version of the program. Now if you break this down per student it is probably not that much money (around $4-$10 per student). Keep in mind, though, that a school will also have to purchase computers that work with all of the AR software.

If  sustained silent reading in the classroom works just as effectively why spend this money at all.

Better yet, why not put the money spent on AR towards the purchase of new books as well as full time staff in school libraries. Have you been in a school library lately? Most of them are understaffed (if they have a librarian at all since many schools are going without librarians to save money). Also, the materials available are incredibly outdated or in horrendous condition. My daughter had to do a report on Hawaii when she was in the fourth grade and the book she brought home from school was published in 1972. I had to inform her that she could not use that book as a source for any statistics like population.

If your school uses AR look into how much of the annual budget is allotted for library materials. I guarantee that it is considerably less than AR's annual fee. Even in schools that have a healthy book budget, their purchasing is limited to books with AR quizzes or they may have to pay a fee for access to new AR quizzes for new books.

The decline in school libraries means that even more children and parents are coming to the public library for reading materials and AR can make these visits frustrating and discouraging for everyone involved. As a librarian and a book lover, I want kids to enjoy reading as much as I do and become life-long patrons. Unfortunately, I have seen AR have the completely opposite effect. Instead of looking for books that interest them, kids (and parents too) wander the stacks picking books at random and flipping to the back page where the book level and points are recorded. Finding a book "in their range" or with the proper amount of points so they can attend a pizza party becomes the primary criteria for choosing a book.

Accelerated Reader is especially difficult for children that are advanced readers. I agree that kids should sometimes be pushed into reading something new and more challenging. How many times can you can read  Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Eventually you have to move onto a book without doodles and speech bubbles on every page. However, using the ATOS readability formula the majority of books (even adult ones) are written at a 4th-6th grade level. I have kids that come to the library who tell me that they need about above a 7.5 and there just isn't a huge selection outside of classics. For example, The Stand by Stephen King is only a 5.7, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a 5.6, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling is a 5.5, and Charlotte's Web by E.B. White is a 4.4. For a child that needs above a 7.5 I could give them Little Women (7.9), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (10.0), or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (8.1). These are all wonderful books, but if I give one of these to a 4th grader who usually chooses Michigan Chillers or Goosebumps to read for fun, they may just get frustrated and give up.

I always explain to parents that AR book level is determined using a mathematical formula that does not take into account what the book is about. The book that illustrates this best is Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine. This a historical fiction book inspired by Levine's own father and is set in New York during the Jazz Age. According to AR this book is a 3.6, but in the opening chapter the 11 year old protagonist's father dies and one of his relatives will only take in his brother who is quiet and well behaved. Dave is then sent to an orphanage where the children are physically and emotionally abused. At night Dave sneaks out of the orphanage to explore Harlem where he encounters a variety of interesting characters. Dave at Night goes into detail about Jewish culture, the Harlem Renaissance, and deals with the heavier issues of racism, abuse, and neglect. It is an amazing book, but hardly what I would recommend to a third grader. In fact, Scholastic has it listed as a sixth grade book ,which considering the content, seems much more appropriate.

In addition to taking the book levels with a grain of salt, I think that parents and teachers need to understand that AR quizzes are a very imperfect way of testing reading comprehension. Just because a book is in their child's range does not mean that they have the maturity or skills to fully understand a book. Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin is an absolutely fantastic book that won the 2013 Mitten Award and was a Newbery Honor book. The book contains no adjectives so the sentences are fairly short and simple and therefore its book level is only 4.6. Yelchin purposely wrote the book using very sparse language to convey how stark and restricted life in Russia was under Stalin's regime. I have no doubt that a 3rd or 4th grader could read Breaking Stalin's Nose and easily pass a multiple choice quiz about the facts of the books. Would they really get it, though? Comprehension is more than just aptitude. It involves perception, ideas, and awareness. I would much rather know what someone thinks and feels about a book instead of memorizing the names of all of the characters . AR quizzes encourage kids to read for facts rather than requiring critical thinking. It is too easy to skim a book and just memorize the facts or visit websites like Sparknotes.

Please understand that I am not trying to disparage teachers or schools with this post. There are so many students each with individual needs and only so many teachers and hours in the day. The goal of everyone is to help children to become successful, life-long readers. We need to question whether AR is the best or most cost-effective way to accomplish this, though?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Storytime Anytime-Hooray for Moms!

If you do not get all of the geeky references above, I apologize. I am a total sci-fi nerd and I could not resist. Obviously, Mother's Day is only two days away so this week's Storytime Anytime is all about mommy love. Now there are oodles of picture books about motherhood so I am just going to share a few that I consider truly special.

I love all of Eastman's books (Go Dog Go, The Best Nest, etc.) but I have a soft spot for Are You My Mother, because it was my youngest son's favorite when he was a toddler. Little Bird's quest to find his mother after he falls out his nest is sweet and funny. The text is also simple and repetitive which means your child will be able to recite it after a few readings.

After reading you can look for bird nests outside or talk about how animals take care of their babies.  Maybe share some gummy worms while you are reading too.

You can also match baby animals with their moms with this printable matching game.

The Giving Tree seems to be a book that people either love or hate. I agree that the little boy is quite selfish and demanding, but I think The Giving Tree exemplifies the unconditional love mothers have for their children. Kids are going to have times when they are selfish, naughty, whiny, etc. and they need to know that they will be loved even when they are not on their best behavior.

If you ever visit the John Ball Park Zoo there is a massive bench that has the quote: "I don't need very much now said the boy...Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest...And the boy did and the tree was happy." The bench was originally an entry in Art Prize and it is stunning.

I know that I have mentioned Someday in a previous post, but I am going to mention it again because if you have a daughter you need to read it. I also dare you to read it without tearing up. When the library purchased it we passed it around the staff and I think that everyone was sobbing (at least all of the moms). This would be a wonderful gift for a new or expecting Mom. Peter Reynold's  watercolor illustrations are charming and  perfectly accompany this sweet story.

David Ezra Stein's new book Ol' Mama Squirrel shows just how fierce a mama can be when it comes to protecting her babies. This book is so fun and I love Stein's illustrations. In 2011 Stein won a Caldecott honor for Interrupting Chicken which is one of my favorite books to read aloud and his most recent book is sure to be just as popular. Stein even wrote a song to promote Ol' Mama Squirrel which will have you in stitches. I love the whole blue grass spin he puts on the book.

I am a sucker for homemade gifts, especially from my kids. Mother's Day is the perfect time for Dad to take the reins and make a cute craft with the kiddies to give to Mom.  Any craft that involves hand prints, fingerprints, or footprints are perfect because they are a great memento to keep. I have multiple Valentines, Christmas Ornaments, and Mother's Day crafts that feature my children's hand or footprints and I love to look at them and remember how little they were.
These are just a few that we have made at the library or I have made at home with my kids. If you don't want to use paints you can always just trace and color.
For older children that are not really into crafts here is a link to a mother's day letter template that you can print and have them fill out.

Whether you are spending the day with family or enjoying some much deserved ALONE time I wish all the mothers out there a wonderful and relaxing Mother's Day weekend!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

It May Be "Odd" But It's Also Enjoyable

Have you ever read the "Odd Thomas" books by Dean Koontz?  If you haven't, you might want to give them a try.  The main character, whose first name is literally "Odd," can see ghosts.  The deceased come to him for help in tying up loose ends, or, in the case of Elvis Presley, just because they want to hang out.  The books are well-written, popular, and come in numerous formats, including graphic novels.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the movie version of the first book was scheduled for an April release.  Granted, it did not get good reviews, but that doesn't always stop me from checking something out.  A few weeks ago, I watched Odd Thomas and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It stars Anton Yelchin, who starred in the Fright Night remake, another movie that I enjoyed quite a bit.  The filmmakers managed to cut enough out of the original story so that the movie didn't drag on forever, while still leaving enough in so that you can follow the story.  And it was creepy to watch, which is always a plus!  I watched this movie with someone who has never read the books, and he also enjoyed it. 

Odd Thomas is available--both the book and the movie--at the Portland District Library, so stop by some time and give it a try.  And if there's a book-to-movie that ranks among your favorites, tell us about it in the comments section.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Help! I Need Another Bookshelf!

If you are a book lover (or book hoarder) you have probably faced the book storage dilemma. Unless, of course, you are a giant, furry beast that used to be a handsome prince before you were cursed by a beautiful fairy for abominable rudeness.
Yep, I would have married the beast just to live in that library. Does that make me shallow or just a giant nerd?

Unfortunately, most of us will never have a library that looks like the one to the left (insert disappointed sigh).

So what is a bookworm married to a geek raising three book loving geeks to do?  My husband, the tech guy, is all for tablets and e-readers so you can have thousands of books that will fit in the drawer of your nightstand.  Now, I don't mind reading books on my tablet; it fits in my purse and it has its own light for reading before bed. Also if you are going on vacation a tablet is a whole lot lighter and thinner to pack than five or six books. When my 12 year old went camping for 2 weeks with her grandparents I was able to borrow the entire Ranger's Apprentice series from the Woodlands Downloadable Library and put it on her Nook. It was a good thing she had all of them too since it rained for 8 days straight and she read them all.

...BUT (and this is a big but) an eBook, despite its convenience, will never have the feel, smell, or look of a physical book. My husband has restricted me to only purchasing and displaying books that are truly important and special to me. The problem is that every book is special to me and I want them all to fit in our compact, barely 1500 square feet, home.

Some of these I inherited like my grandfather's collection of James Bond paperbacks and Donald Duck Sees South America, which belonged to my Great Uncle Tommy.  They both are in pretty rough shape, but they are family heirlooms. How can I not have them prominently displayed somewhere in my home?

 The two books on the left actually belonged to me as a child and are like looking at an old family photo album. I remember my mom reading them to me and eventually reading them on my own over and over. Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas was made into a special by Jim Henson and it is still my favorite Christmas movie. I own it on VHS and I force my children to watch it with me every December.

I think that I have a serious obsession with Jim Henson because I also own the Weekly Reader collection of Fraggle Rock story books and the story book and comic book versions of The Dark Crystal. What can I say, I was a child in the 80s. Also speaking to my 80s childhood I just bought this Secret of Nimh picture book at the Friends of the Library book sale for only a quarter.

I love looking in used bookstores, antique shops, and garage sales for old books. If you ever go to Ann Arbor I strongly recommend that you check out The Dawn Treader Book Shop (Yay Narnia!).  Bill Gillmore has owned and operated The Dawn Treader for over thirty years and it is everything a used book shop should be:  winding, maze-like aisles through towering bookshelves that teem with deliciously musty books. When I was in college I could disappear into The Dawn Treader for hours at a time. These days I make sure to visit it once or twice a year. The Dawn Treader is where I purchased a couple of my fat little classics. I am sure that you remember these and they are just so adorable and fun.

 I just want to point out that my husband is also guilty of trying to relive his childhood through books. He collects the Hitchcock Mystery Series The Three Investigators which were his favorites in elementary school.

Also competing for room on my bookshelf are all of the Roald Dahl (the master of children's literature) books, and more than one copy of several.

The Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, everything written by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, all of the Agatha Christie mysteries, the Calvin and Hobbes collection, Charles Dickens classics, the collected works of Poe, every book that I had to read in college which are highlighted with notes in the margin (you never know, my kids might have to read A Clockwork Orange someday), everything written by a Bronte or Jane Austen, and the list just keeps going.

Can you understand my problem? I pretty much want to keep everything I loved reading. Obviously, the only answer is to cover every wall in my home with bookshelves. Who needs artwork or pictures on the wall when you have walls covered with books? Luckily my husband is happy to enable my book addiction and is building floor to ceiling bookshelves to cover one wall of our living room.

Can't do wood working or don't have much money? You can use crates or ClosetMade cubes (which is what we did on the entire wall of my daughters room since I have passed down my love of books to her).

If you want to be more creative there is a blog that is completely devoted to bookshelves of every size and design imaginable. Some of these get quite bizarre and are completely impractical but Bookshelf is still fun to look at.

Believe it or not there is even a company that makes hidden door bookshelves! The mystery lover in me covets one of these desperately.

I confess! I am a book hoarder and proud of it!