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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Storytime Anytime-Snow Much Fun!

Forget hot summer days lounging by a pool. Give me snow drifts, ski slopes, and mugs of hot chocolate by a crackling fire. Yes, I am one of those kooky people that adores winter, the snowier the better. Of course, you can only play outside for so long before your toes are numb and you begin to bear more than a passing resemblance to Rudolph. What better way to warm up than to snuggle together with some fun stories?

So, there can be barely an inch of snow covering the ground and my kids will still attempt to build a snowman. Here are a few of my favorite books about snowmen.
*Sadie and the Snowman by Allen Morgan
Sadie and the Snowman is an older picture book that my daughter adored when she was younger. In fact, I finally had to recycle her tattered copy and I purchased a new one off of amazon to read at storytime.

All winter long Sadie builds and rebuilds the snowman until, finally, there is only enough snow to build a snowman so small it fits in a bowl that she hides from the sun under the deck. When she comes outside to find just water left in the bowl she pours it into a plastic bag and sticks it the freezer. The following winter she uses the ices to start a snowball for a new snowman.

Zoe loved this story so much that we actually had to make a little snowman in a bowl at the end of the season so we could save him until the following winter. For three years in a row we would make a snowman around a ball of ice from the previous winter's last snowman. It may seem silly, but when your child is that inspired and excited about something she read in a book you just have to go with it.


*Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner
With sweet, rhyming text and stunning pictures Caralyn and Mark Buehner reveal how snowmen entertain themselves after all the people have gone to sleep. From snowmen drinking cold chocolate to running snowman races this book is just fun. Kids will especially enjoy searching for images of a t-rex, rabbit, cat, and Santa face that Mark Buehner has hidden in each of his vivid illustrations.

*The Greatest Snowman in the World! by Peter Hannan
This book just amuses me! I think it may be something about the main character being a chinchilla who wears mittens on his ears and one of his best friends is a worm named Elvis. I challenge anyone not to burst into giggles as Charles, Elvis, and Babs build a snowman and decorate it with rakes, shovels, hoses, bottle caps, pots, and everything else they manage to find. When their snowman melts in the sun the three friends go inside and build what is really the greatest snowman in the world, an edible one out of ice cream.

 Of course, there is more to playing in the snow than just building a snowman.
*In the Snow by Peggy Collins

One of the great things about In the Snow is that it features a dad and there are simply more picture books about moms than there are about dads. The story goes from getting dressed to go outside to coming back in for hot chocolate and a nap. The illustrations are bright and cheerful and the simple text is perfect for younger children.

*The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This blog post would not be complete if I did not include The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I do not think that any other book more perfectly captures the awe a child feels after the first snowfall of the year. The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Award way back in 1963, but it is no less magical today.  There are games, videos, and activities to go along with The Snowy Day, as well as information about the author and his other books, on the Ezra Jack Keats website here.

*Ten on the Sled by Kim Norman;  
Jingle-Jingle by Nicola Smee; 
One-Dog Sleigh by Mary Casanova

I am grouping these books together because all three feature a group of animals overfilling a sled or sleigh and ending up in a snow bank. Super cute and fun to read aloud with your kids.

*No Two Alike by Keith Baker
All right, this is the last book that I am going to plug and, even though it is not specifically about snow, I love it. Two brilliant red birds flit through a snowy wood comparing how two things can be the same but different. There are few words on each page, but that just allows for more time to discuss with your child how the leaves, nests, tracks, etc. are different from one another. Little ones will not even realize that they are learning to compare and contrast, an essential comprehension skill.

Ok, on to songs and fingerplays!
One of my favorite children's songs about winter is a very old nursery rhyme called The North Wind. If you do not want to sing it yourself I particularly love the version by Elizabeth Mitchell which is on the CD, You Are My Little Bird.

When I play the song during storytime I have the kids do little motions that go with the lyrics. Blow and wave their arms for the wind, wiggle their fingers down for snow, shrug shoulders, hug themselves and shiver, etc.

To go along with the snowman books there is a great fingerplay called Five Little Snowmen. There are quite a few different versions of this fingerplay, but this is the one that I use:

Five Little Snowmen

Five little snowmen on a winter’s day

(Hold up 5 fingers)

The first one said: “Wake up so we can play”.    

(Lay head on folded hands like sleeping and pretend to wake up)

The second one said:  “Let’s stomp on the ground”.  (Stomp in place)

The third one said:   “Let’s roll around”.

(Roll hands)

The fourth one said:  “Let’s run and run and run”.     (Run in place)

The fifth one said: “I’m afraid I feel the sun”.     

 (Cover face with hands)

“Oh no!” cried the snowmen

as they looked up toward the sky.

(Look up in sky)

Then the five melting snowmen waved a sad goodbye.

(Wave while sinking to the ground)

When you need to take a break from the cold there are plenty of activities that will bring the winter theme inside.

One of the easiest snowman crafts is to make a simple outline on blue paper (you can draw it or your child) and then fill in the snowman with cotton balls or white tissue paper. Then decorate your snowman with whatever else you have on hand: twigs for arms, buttons, sequins, construction paper, scraps of felt, etc.

 Now, if you do not mind getting messy you can make a puffy paint snowman. All you need is shaving cream (foam not gel), flour, and white glue. You can get the recipe and instructions for the puffy paint that I use here.   I have used this same recipe to make moons, clouds, and Halloween ghosts. Or if you are not worried about stains, you can add food coloring to make flowers, trees, planets, or whatever else you can come up with.

Speaking of getting messy, you can build some snowmen inside with play dough. You can use store bought play dough or make your own "snow dough" with just corn starch, vegetable oil, and glitter (optional).
Another fun activity for winter is to make bird feeders. We have all made or seen the craft where you take a cardboard toilet paper tube, coat it in peanut butter, and then roll it in bird seed.

If you want to make an simpler, less-sticky bird feeder you can string cheerios on pipe cleaners or wire. Not only is this a cleaner, more toddler-friendly craft; stringing the cheerios is actually an excellent fine motor activity. Obviously, you do not have to shape your pipe cleaners into hearts. I just made loops and used an empty pipe cleaner as my hanger.

I hope that I have given you some ideas to make winter a little more enjoyable. Stay toasty!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best of 2015-Juvenile Chapter Books

As 2015 is nearly at a close I thought that I would share some of the best chapter books that I have read over the year. Well, the best ones according to me. If you look at some other lists of top books you will probably see some books that I didn't think were worth a whoop and a holler, but to each their own. So, to keep the list from getting too long, I only included fiction and books that were either stand-alone novels or the first book in a series.

1. The Fog Diver by Joel Ross
Why not start out with the cream of the crop. Adult author, Joel Ross, makes his middle grade debut with a dystopian, steampunk adventure that is easily my favorite children's book of the year.

In the distant future a deadly fog of nanites has left the surface of the planet uninhabitable. In order to survive humanity has fled to the highest mountain tops where they have built luxurious cities for the wealthy and floating slums for the teeming lower classes.

Swedish, Bea, Chess, and Hazel are a group of slum kids that manage to eke out a meager existence operating a rickety salvage dirigible. As the "tether boy" thirteen year old Chess is lowered into the fog to quickly scavenge whatever can be sold, reused, or eaten from the surface of the planet.

The premise of The Fog Diver is so incredibly unique and Ross tells a story that is exciting and hilarious. My boys (eleven and nine) especially loved all of the garbled references to our current pop culture: Skywalker Trek; Googol, the fortune teller who could answer any question; the famous hero named Superbowl who threw pigskins; etc.

One of the things that I loved about The Fog Diver is that it is a complete story. That is not to say that I cannot wait for the second adventure featuring Chess, Swedish, Bea, and Hazel which, lucky for us, will be out May 24, 2016.

 2. Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey
When Lewis and his parents move into his Grandfather's dilapidated seaside mansion he discovers that his new bedroom is already occupied by the ghosts of seven pirates. It turns out that Captain Crawley and his not-so-fearsome crew just need Lewis's help getting back their ship that is now housed in the town museum. Once the crew is reunited with their ship they can sail to Libertalia, a legendary haven for pirates.

Seven Dead Pirates is hysterical (the pirates are petrified of cars and love getting decked out in thrift store disguises), but there are also poignant moments. Young readers will be able to identify with Lewis as he struggles to overcome feelings of inadequacy and a paralyzing shyness.

3. Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
First, I should tell you that Fuzzy Mud is not as good as Sachar's Newbery Award winning Holes. Come on, though, Holes would be pretty hard to top! Despite that, Fuzzy Mud is still an exceptional book that deals with the timeless theme of bullying with a very modern plot of a man-made ecological disaster.

When Marshall is ambushed by Chad, the class bully, in the woods between the school and his house Tamaya comes to his rescue by throwing mud in Chad's face. This wasn't just ordinary mud, though, it was a strange "fuzzy mud" that soon has Tamaya's whole hand broken out in a rash. Now parents, teachers, police, and even the government want to know exactly what happened in the woods, where is Chad, and what exactly is "fuzzy mud"?

The chapters of Fuzzy Mud are short and action-packed; perfect for reluctant or struggling readers. Sachar brilliantly explains the global significance of the events by interspersing transcripts from secret senate hearings that take place several months in the future.

4. The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
The Blackthorn Key is a captivating mystery filled with codes, puzzles, explosions, and nonstop action. It is London, 1665 and Christopher Rowe is the young apprentice of an apothecary. When several apothecaries including his own beloved master are murdered Christopher is determined to follow the clues and find the culprit responsible.

Even though The Blackthorn Key has a medieval setting, Sands wisely keeps the language modern so as not to discourage young readers. The language may not coincide with the 1600s, but the story is well researched and authentic. The details, especially those about apothecaries, are fascinating. A warning to parents (especially if you have curious young boys like mine) you may want to issue a strong warning not to attempt mixing chemicals such as vinegar and salt to make a smoke bomb.

5. Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson
Nooks & Crannies reminds me of what would happen if Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie collaborated on a children's book. The Victorian time period, the palatial Hollingsworth Hall and its reclusive mistress, the Countess of Windermere, are straight out of a Hercule Poirot novel. However, the cast of quirky characters, including Tabitha Crum, the spunky, eleven year old heroine, are  reminiscent of Matilda, The BFG, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Six children receive cryptic invitations to spend the weekend at Hollingsworth Hall. They soon learn that, not only were they all adopted at birth, one of them is the long, lost grandchild of their wealthy and eccentric hostess. A suspicious death and inexplicable disappearances motivate Tabitha to take a page from her favorite Inspector Pensive novels and get to the bottom of the mysterious happenings at Hollingsworth Hall.

Being a life long fan of Christie and Dahl, I thought Nooks & Crannies was absolutely charming. I will say that Lawson wrapped up everything almost too perfectly at the end, but I still loved the story and characters.

6. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Roller Girl will make you want to strap on a helmet and a pair of roller skates and start ramming through crowds of pedestrians. Ok, maybe that is a bad thing, but this amazing new graphic novel will have you embracing your inner derby girl. I even found a buzzfeed quiz that will give you your ideal roller derby name. Turns out my bone crushing alter ego is Hermione SlayHer.

On the serious side, Roller Girl, is all about making that transition from elementary school to middle school and figuring out who you are and how you want to express that to the rest of the world. It just so happens that the main character, Astrid, wants to be a blue-haired, kick-butt derby chic.

7. Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff
I am a little surprised that I enjoyed this one as much as I did, because I usually do not care for realistic drama. Especially when it comes to middle school drama which can just get whiny and irritating.The earnestness of the characters and the quiet poignancy of Lost in the Sun drew me in and kept me reading, though.

A freak accident results in the death of a classmate with an unknown heart condition. Over a year later Trent is still haunted by the event and his role in it. Trent's rage and guilt as well as his desperate hope for a new beginning are so sincere and heartfelt. I found myself crying for Trent, cheering him on, and often wanting to slap the adults and kids that treat him unfairly and callously.  Lost in the Sun is a beautiful story about a normal kid who is an unfortunate victim in a horrible tragedy. Graff deftly manages to evoke compassion without every being too sappy or unrealistic.

8. Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head by Lauren Oliver
I have been a huge fan of Lauren Oliver's paranormal fiction (for teens, adults, and children) for a while so I could not wait to read The Shrunken Head, the first book in her new Curiosity House series. Set in 1930s New York at the magnificent Dumphrey's Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders; the story revolves around four orphaned children all with extraordinary abilities. A series of mysterious deaths and the theft of Mr. Dumphrey's latest acquisition, an Amazonian shrunken head, result in the museum being closed.  Phillipa, Sam, Thomas, and Max are determined to solve the mystery and save their home.

First of all, the setting and premise of The Shrunken Head had me captivated from page one. Probably because I love anything that veers off into the realm of the weird. Overall, I believe that young readers will be equally attracted to the interesting and likable characters and the unique setting and story. I for one cannot wait for future installments of Curiosity House.

9. Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo

Technically Listen to the Moon was first published in the U.K. in 2014. However, it was not published in the U.S. till 2015 so I am including it on my list. You may recognize the name Michael Morpurgo as the author of the celebrated War Horse that was made into a movie and Broadway play. Let me just say that Morpurgo is a genius at writing beautiful and compelling historical fiction that kids actually want to read. (It probably does not hurt that he significantly features animals in most of his books.)

Like War Horse, Listen to the Moon also takes place during World War I, but the story focuses more on the war at sea. Alfie Wheatcroft and his father, Jim, are fishing off the Isles of Scilly when they hear crying coming from uninhabited  St. Helen's. There they find a young girl on the brink of death from exposure and dehydration who only utters one word, Lucy. The Wheatcroft family quickly becomes devoted to "Lucy Lost" and trying to heal her both physically and mentally. Suspicions that Lucy may not only be a German, but possibly even a spy result in the Wheatcrafts being ostracized by their entire community. Flashback chapters narrated by "Lucy Lost" reveal the true story of how she came to be abandoned on St. Helen's.

Although this is a story about World War I, the hatred, fear, and prejudice caused by war seems particularly relevant today. Morpurgo seamlessly switches back and forth between the events taking place on the Isles of Scilly with the Wheatcroft family to the previous months when "Lucy Lost" managed to survive horrific and extraordinary circumstances.  Listen to the Moon is a beautiful and fascinating story that I ended up reading in a matter of hours because I could not put it down. Even if historical fiction is not your "thing" I highly recommend giving it a try.

10. Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
I absolutely adored The One and Only Ivan, so I was thrilled  to see Katherine Applegate follow up her Newbery Medal win with a book that I found equally engaging.  Do not let the giant, fuzzy cat on the cover fool you. Crenshaw is actually an eloquent and heart-wrenching novel about a young boy whose family is facing possible homelessness. I know that it sounds horribly depressing (and I have to confess that I did cry) but Crenshaw really is a breathtaking story about a topic that affects countless children in our country.

What I love about Crenshaw (and The One and Only Ivan)  is how sparse yet beautiful the language is. Applegate is like a children's version of Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea doesn't smack you in the face with flowery prose. It is clean and seems to drive straight into your heart, and Applegate's writing does the same thing.

11. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones
This book was a bit of a sleeper hit for me. Does it deal with thought-provoking issues or is it packed with riveting action? No. However, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer was a light, quirky book that put a smile on my face.

Jones tells the story completely in a letter/journal format. Usually I am not a fan of this format, because it never reads as believable to me. First off, the letters or journal always seem too mature to have been written by a child. Secondly, the author usually has to include so much information to relay the meat of the story that the letters or journal seem way too wordy to be authentic. I mean, who when writing a letter quotes entire conversations verbatim? In my opinion, Jones does an exceptional job of telling the story while staying true to the age and personality of her narrator.

Speaking of the narrator, Sophie was a creative and spunky young heroine. Not every kid would be able to handle moving from a bustling city to a rundown, rural farm with equal aplomb.

The whimsical illustrations are the perfect complement to this feelgood story.  As you know I am a huge fan of Roald Dahl, and Katie Kath's artwork was reminiscent of Quentin Blake. It had that same cheerful, yet quirky feel.

I hate to give away a lot of the plot when I am reviewing a book. Let's just say that young readers are sure to love reading about Sophie and learning what makes her chickens "unusual".