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Friday, February 26, 2016

Some Good Old-Fashioned Magic

I've been a fan of fantasy for as long as I could read.  While there are a ton of modern teen fantasies that I love, good books written specifically for adults have been few and far between.  Which is why I was so excited to find A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab.  This story of three different Londons--one without magic, one with magic, and one that lost control of magic--and the few people who can travel between them, was excellent.  It wasn't the sort of book that would haunt your dreams and change your life, it was the sort of book that was exciting to read and made me happy.  You can imagine my excitement, then, when I opened a box of new books today and found the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows.  I'm looking forward to digging into it!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Storytime Anytime-Penguins

I think that I have a penguin themed storytime every winter. Why? Well, first of all, penguins instantly bring to mind ice, snow, and cold weather. Most importantly, though, there is a rookery (that is a what you call a large group of penguins) of picture books and crafts featuring these tuxedo-clad birds that kids will adore!

What's black and white and red all over? A sun-burned penguin, of course!

Okay, that joke was lame, but the punch line reminds me of my favorite penguin picture book: The Penguin that Hated the Cold. This 1973 book by Barbara Brenner was part of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Reading and the story was based on The Cold-Blooded Penguin segment from Disney's 1944 animated film, The Three Caballeros.

 Normally I would not pitch any books based on a movie or tv show. Let's face it. Most of them are pretty horrendous. Just  thinking about the Dora the Explorer books that my daughter made me read over and over makes me cringe. However, The Penguin that Hated the Cold is an engaging and humorous story about a penguin named Pablo who desperately wants to escape the ice and snow of Antarctica. I have read this book more times than I count and it still makes me giggle. Especially, when Pablo straps hot water bottles to his feet and melts through the ice.  

As a kid I had a huge collection of books from Disney's Wonderful World of Reading (and, yes, I still have them all). Do not confuse these books, that mostly came out in the 70s, with the more current picture books published by Disney. The Penguin that Hated the Cold, Lambert the Sheepish Lion, Donald Duck: Mountain Climber, etc. are far superior in writing, storytelling, and fun than the more recent picture books based on Cars, Frozen, or Sophia the First.

If you have never heard of Antoinette Portis before you are missing out. Her books feature a droll humor complemented by bold and cheerful illustrations.

A Penguin Story happens to be my favorite book by Portis. Edna, the penguin, is convinced that there are colors in the world besides black, white, and blue. In a quest to discover new hues, Edna leads her fellow penguins on an expedition across the monochromatic landscape of Antarctica. Eventually, the penguins arrive at a science station awash in brilliant orange. I particularly adore the ending of A Penguin Story where you see Edna wearing a bright orange glove as a hat and a green boat sailing in the distance.

365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental is similar to A Penguin Story in that the illustrations are graphic and the artist uses only a few bold colors. A family is pleasantly surprised when a penguin mysteriously appears on their doorstep. They are not quite so happy, though, when more penguins arrive everyday until the total reaches 365. This hilarious picture book incorporates some great math lessons for older readers, but wee ones will love the ludicrous story and detailed illustrations.

I cannot talk about penguin books without mentioning the Tacky series written by Helen Lester (the author of the Hooway for Wodney Wat ). These books are lighthearted and silly and there is something about Tacky's Hawaiian shirt that I find irresistibly cute.

A more toddler friendly series of books about a penguin is written by Korean children's book author and illustrator, Salina Yoon.Whereas the Tacky books are a little bit longer stories , Yoon's books are spare in text and much simpler in theme and color. It is hard to describe Yoon's penguin stories without using words like precious and cute, but I promise that they are not cloyingly sweet. The board book editions of Penguin's adventures would be charming additions to any toddler's library.

So, why am I highlighting a chapter book on a storytime post? Personally, I think that it is just as important to read aloud chapter books to kids as picture books. Not only is it a great bonding experience, but there are numerous other benefits. Reading chapter books with younger children  builds their vocabularies, strengthens their imagination, and can even lengthen their attention spans (and what parent would say no to that?).

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater may have been published in 1938, but it is just as entertaining today. Readers young and old will be laughing out loud as Mr. Popper and his family struggle to take care of first one, then two, then twelve penguins!

My kids have actually listened to Mr. Popper's Penguins twice. The first time they were around the ages of four, seven, and nine and I read it to them. They loved the story so much we listened to  s to the audiobook version of it in the car on our way to Mackinac.

There are a ton of easy penguin crafts for kids that do not require a lot of prep because the shapes and colors are so simple. I have made penguins using construction paper, tissue paper, craft foam, and paper plates.

Igloos also fit in perfectly with a penguin theme.You can make them out of cotton balls, tissue paper, Styrofoam peanuts, construction paper, or white paint. If you want to incorporate the penguin, print off clip art or have kids draw their own (depending on their age) to live inside.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Best of 2015-Juvenile Nonfiction

So, I recently wrote a post about some of my favorite fictional chapter books of 2015. In this post I am focusing on outstanding nonfiction books for kids that were published this past year.

1.  Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

As with his 2013 book, The Great American Dust Bowl, Don Brown has captured disaster and tragedy in a way that is honest, haunting, and accessible to young readers. Brown's somber watercolors are incredibly powerful and perfectly complement the grimness of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

That being said Brown does not sugar coat Hurricane Katrina or the aftermath so I would not recommend Drowned City to extremely young or overly sensitive readers.

2. Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick

Finding Winnie is the remarkable true story of a young, Canadian vet who was headed to Europe to tend horses during World War I. Along the way he rescued a baby bear that he named Winnipeg or Winnie for short. Eventually, Winnie accompanied Harry Colebourn across the Atlantic and to war ravaged France. Deciding that the front lines were too dangerous, Colebourn made the difficult decision to take Winnie to the London Zoo where she could live out the remainder of her life in safety. It was there that author A.A. Milne and his young son, Christopher Robin, encountered the tame bear that would inspire the most legendary denizen of the Hundred-Acre Wood.

When reading aloud to younger children most parents are not going to reach for a nonfiction book. However, Finding Winnie is written as a bedtime story that Mattick, the great granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, is telling to her young son. Many of the fanciful illustrations are based on actual photos belonging to Mattick's family. Readers of all ages are sure to be enchanted by this sweet and uplifting true story.

3.  Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales:  The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales are a wonderfully, sneaky way to teach kids history. Even reluctant readers will devour these books and not even realize that they are learning American history.

Hale's latest edition to the Hazardous Tales, The Underground Abductor, is an exceptional biography of Harriet Tubman that both boys and girls will want to read.

I never would have imagined that my 11 year old son would choose to read a book about Harriet Tubman. Not only did he love The Underground Abductor, but he actually wanted to talk to me about all that he learned in the book.

4.  Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks
This should be a required text in middle school and high school biology classes. Kids may actually enjoy learning about how the human body functions and would probably retain more of the information.

The "story" is relayed as a theatrical review hosted by a skeleton with each act covering a different biological system.  That sounds weird and confusing but, trust me, Human Body Theater is creative, entertaining, and educational.

I particularly adored how oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules float through the cardiovascular system on little red blood cells. It reminded me of floating around the lazy river on an inner tube at a water park.

5.  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

I am a huge fan of Steve Sheinkin's nonfiction books, because he is a master at mixing well-researched history with excellent story-telling. In Most Dangerous Sheinkin explores the intriguing story of Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon consultant who was labeled a traitor and enemy of the state after leaking government information concerning the Vietnam War to the press in 1971. I will be honest, I had never even heard of Daniel Ellsberg (or if his name had been mentioned during history class I promptly forgot it). Sheinkin has this amazing ability to take history that would be dry and unmemorable in school and inject it with a suspense and drama that makes it fresh and relevant. Even non history buffs will be mesmerized by this book that will make you ponder the morality of war as well as the true meaning of patriotism.

I will warn parents that Most Dangerous is probably a little heavy for younger readers. Most reviewers list it as appropriate for 6th grade and higher and I would agree with that.

6. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers' Edition by William Kamkwamba
There is also a picture book version.
Since I have already written an entire post about this amazing book I will not bore you by rehashing all of my opinions. Suffice it to say, William Kamkwamba's story (whether you read the young reader's edition, the picture book, or the original adult bestseller) is fascinating and inspirational.

7. Voice of Freedom: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford
In my opinion, Fannie Lou Famer is an American heroine that every child should be familiar with. Using a series of simple, yet moving poems Weatherford relays the remarkable life story of Fannie Lou Hamer in a way that is accessible to elementary age readers. Each poem is accompanied by stunning, kaleidescopic collages that earned the book a Caldecott Honor.  

Voice of Freedom begins with Hamer's early years as the youngest of twenty children born to impoverished sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.  The story escalates during the turbulent sixties when Hamer was a courageous and ardent proponent of civil rights known for belting out This Little Light of Mine as a battle cry.

8. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
I must confess that I was ignorant of the history of Typhoid Mary. Oh, I had heard the name before, but usually as a derogatory term for someone (most often a woman) who was a public menace or nuisance. The true story of Mary Mallon (aka: Typhoid Mary) is both fascinating and tragic. Not only because a horrendous disease
was ravaging the nation, but also because an innocent woman was publicly vilified in addition to losing her freedom and livelihood.

Terrible Typhoid Mary is an engrossing book about a breakthrough in medicine during the early twentieth century and how a lower-class immigrant woman was a casualty of this advancement. Bartoletti includes photos, excerpts of letters written by Mary Mallon, quotes from doctors involved in the case, as well as a timeline of the events.