Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He's the Favorite

Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He's the Favorite
written by Stacy McAnulty; illustrated by Edward Hemingway
2017 (Two Lions)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Mr. Fuzzbuster knew he was Lily's favorite. They'd been together since he fit in a teacup and she fit in diapers. 

There are two dogs and two cats in our house. We often place them in rank order depending on their behavior. If the beagle chews a rug, she gets ranked #4 or even lower if a fly has entered the house. If a cat manages to make it through the day without depositing a hairball, he might be the "pet with the most potential." These rankings affect absolutely nothing, but it's a fun conversation to have. At Lily's house, Mr. Fuzzbuster knows who's the pet with the most potential. It's him. With all of the activities (napping, dress up, eating meals together) they do together and his seniority, Mr. Fuzzbuster has to be the one. Who's the competition? A bird, a dog, a fish, and a lizard are also vying for Lily's attention. Holding a Lily-drawn old portrait of him like it's the Magna Carta, Mr. Fuzzbuster feels very confident of his place in the pecking order. To apply the coup de grace, he writes a note asking Lily to name her favorite pet. She reads the note and declares Fishy Face her favorite goldfish, but not her favorite pet. That designation probably saves him from becoming an hors d'oeuvre for Monsieur Fuzzy Face. Feathers the bird is declared her favorite bird and King the lizard is her favorite lizard. Surely, Mr. Fuzzbuster is going to be anointed the favorite pet. Nope. He is simply her favorite cat. With only the dog left, the forlorn feline packs his bags and starts heading out the door before he has to hear Bruiser the dog anointed with his crown. What he hears next stops him in his tracks.

Mr. Fuzzbuster is going to be a favorite in primary classrooms. Why? It's funny. His self-centered world is highly amusing. The artwork, especially Mr. Fuzzbuster's facial expressions, will entertain. But there are two sneaky things going on here. First, it's a picture book treatise on love and devotion. Why do we care for others? This book could easily jump start a discussion on that subject which is needed since it is an important facet of a classroom. Second, there's a final twist on the last page which may draw the biggest laughs. With all of these ingredients, it's become a favorite of mine as well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

100 Days of Real Food

100 Days of Real Food
written by Lisa Leake
2016 (William Morrow Books)
Source: My wife bought it.

I literally lost sleep over what to feed my kids if goldfish and fruit snacks were no longer options. But I felt compelled to figure it out and dove in headfirst.

Why write about an adult cookbook for a children's literature blog? Because the eating habits of children have never been more front and center in our consciousness. How do we improve a health crisis that seems to be getting worse? I can only tell how we're trying to do this in one tiny corner of the world. At the behest of my wife, we are 16 days into trying to cut processed food out of our lives. We're certainly not all the way there yet, but our use of this book has made a big difference. 100 Days of Real Food starts with the nuts and bolts of why and how to make these changes in your cooking and diet. Tips on what to buy at the grocery store and ideas for prep and storage are part of the beginning section titled Supermarket Staples and Secrets. One of the rules that has stuck out in my mind is Nothing out of a package that contains more than five ingredients. That's eliminated a lot of old favorites for me. The rest of the book contains easy to follow recipes that help you work toward the goal of eliminating processed foods from your diet. Here are two pictures of food that Traci has made from recipes in the book:
On the left is a steak and black bean chili. On the right, that's a chocolate topping for ice cream.

You will spend more time prepping food (the cheese grater is getting a workout), but it's well worth it. I hope we can continue this trend. We feel better and it has encouraged us to make other changes in our lives.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Our Country's Presidents

Our Country's Presidents
written by Ann Bausum
2017 (National Geographic)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Readers are curious about how Presidents coped with the challenges of their eras and how they lived their personal lives.

It's so nice when you can go to one place for the information that you need. As a person who has trouble finding his car keys or reading glasses, this is very comforting. Our Country's Presidents is your one stop shop for commander-in-chief research. It's organized chronologically in six historical periods. These are like the aisle signs in the grocery store. They guide you to what you need so you don't walk around the store endlessly looking. Not that I've ever done that. Each period is accompanied by a timeline to give context to the era. The staple items in this store of knowledge are the presidential profiles. A full page official portrait introduces each profile. Need to know the ingredients of this leader of the free world knowledge stew? There is a text box that lists several pieces of information (family, number of terms, party, etc.) about the featured president. The bulk of the profile is a several paragraph narrative highlighting the president's accomplishments. I appreciate that Ann Bausum doesn't pull punches in these narratives. She tells you the good, the bad, and the ugly in language conducive to young readers. Sprinkled in between the presidential profiles are twenty topical essays that help give this book an even heartier flavor. Topics like the president's role in the branches of government, the first ladies, and kids in the White House, are included in the essays. This is a National Geographic book, so you are going to get the creme de la creme of nonfiction illustrations and photographs. Like a five star restaurant, they don't make an unattractive product. In the back matter of the book, there is a chart of each election result and a page of books, videos, and websites that will prompt further research.

I am the patriarch of a family of history nerds. This is the kind of book that we can get cozy in a comfortable chair and be lost in American history for hours. The profiles will be great for biography presentations such as wax museums. Our Country's Presidents is also full of terrific fun facts. Chester A. Arthur was nicknamed "Elegant Arthur" for his penchant to change clothes to match each occasion of the day. Not a "khaki pants everyday wearer" like this blogger.

This book is an excellent resource for information about the history of our nation's highest executive office.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles
written by Michelle Cuevas; illustrated by Erin E. Stead
2016 (Dial Books for Young Readers)
Source: Orange County Public Library

He had a job of the utmost importance. It was his task to open any bottles found at sea and make sure they were delivered.

He doesn't have a name, but he has an important job. Watching the waves, he looks for bottles with messages. Kind of like Sting, only quieter and not quite as handsome. Regardless of weather or distance, the man delivers the notes. The messages can be old, like crunchy leaves in the fall. They can also be written by a quill dipped in sadness. Mostly though, the dispatches hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl. As you have noticed, the language of this story is gorgeous (even more than Sting). But loneliness, as sharp as fish scales, envelopes the man. He would like to receive a message, but it never happens. He figures his chances are about as good as finding a mermaid's toenail on the beach. The waves decide to tell a different tale. A bottle arrives with a mysterious message. Not addressed to anyone, it is an invitation to a party on the seashore. Being diligent in his work and very curious, the Uncorker goes to town to find out who the message is for. He asks the cake maker, the candy shop owner, a woman, and a young girl. None of them know. Each of them, like the man, wishes they had received the invitation. Neither a seagull, a sailor, or the one-man band knows either. Not able to deliver the note, the Uncorker decides to meet the sender of the message and explain his dilemma. Coming to the seashore the next day, he meets a surprising lot. All of the people who he had asked about the bottle before, with a party set up for him.

The words and illustrations in The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles are beautiful. You see the text examples above. These illustrations match them with a sparseness that pulls you into the Uncorker's loneliness.  As for the classroom, this is a text that I would use for teaching word usage in a Writing Workshop mini-lesson. It would also be a terrific starting point for a discussion about being a friend in the classroom. This book inspires me to do better at connecting with others.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Jazz Day
written by Roxane Orgill; illustrated by Francis Vallejo
2016 (Candlewick Press)
Source: Orange County Public Library

Lucky I was home from the road
Lucky I was free until two
It's jam now or never, brethren
This moment won't happen again

It was an idea that most people would have pooh-poohed right off the bat. Fortunately, Esquire magazine didn't. Art Kane, who worked for an advertising agency in 1958, wanted to put together as many jazz musicians as he could for a photograph. He found the perfect spot in Harlem and set a date and time. Notices were sent out to the musician's union, nightclubs, and anyone else who would have a connection to jazz. Kane wondered who would show on August 12th. After all, jazz musicians weren't morning people. But fifty-seven artists, famous (Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie)  and relatively unknown, came for the once-in-a lifetime event. Jazz Day focuses on the event and its participants with twenty-one mostly free verse poems and illustrations that are as cool as the other side of the pillow. History can be presented in a manner as dry as toast, but these poems bring to life a uniquely American art form. How to use it in a classroom? Glad you asked. First, you can use several of these poems to show how you can beef up nonfiction with poetry. Instead of a three or four paragraph report written on index cards, try writing a free verse poem about an historical figure. Stand out from the crowd like these musicians did. Second, read a poem from the book like Names, which is about Count Basie, and play a YouTube video that shows his orchestra playing. Ask students, "How is this music the same and how is it different from music that you listen to?" Finally, create your own Jazz Day book. Take a photograph in front of your school and have students write a poem about a classmate to make a book. Highlight the extensive research that Roxane Orgill underwent for this book as you encourage students to interview their classmates in preparation for writing their poem. That's a book they will keep for the rest of their lives. Below is the famous photograph:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Founding Fathers!

The Founding Fathers!
written by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Barry Blitt
2015 (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Source: Orange County Public Library

In truth, the men we now call the Founding Fathers were a bunch of guys
with stomach issues and wooden legs and problematic personalities-who sometimes couldn't stand to be in the same room with each other.

I turn the front cover and see the opening two page spread. On the left, labeled the Varsity Squad, are seven historical figures with George Washington at the top. On the right, the Junior Varsity squad, also seven figures with Samuel Adams the captain of the team. Right away, I know the players and that humor is going to play a big part of this book. Next, there is a Preamble where author Jonah Winter explains that these men may not be who you thought they were. Yes, they were very smart, but also problematic personalities. Writing "all men are created equal" and being slave holders is one large example of this. They argued constantly about the direction of this new country. Should we have a central government or should the states govern themselves? Following the Preamble, there are two page spreads devoted to each of these fourteen figures. On the left, there is a portrait of the figure showing an aspect of their personality. Patrick Henry strikes an actor's pose in his portrait. On the opposite side of the spread, there is a collection of information arranged like a baseball card with a short biography at the top and facts listed below. The biography is written in a conversational style that is informative and humorous. I thought the facts were fascinating. Following the Founding Father features is a First Amendment to the Preamble which gives more information about important topics of the time (religion, slavery, states rights).

I think this book can be a valuable addition for any class that studies U.S. history. I appreciate information about some of the lesser known "fathers" that you won't find in most other books on this subject. In the elementary classroom, this would be good for a biography study (think wax museums) or talking about the origins of the U.S. government. I also think this book could be valuable for working on opinion writing. For example, Jonah Winter refers to Thomas Jefferson as America's Coolest Dreamer. I wouldn't use cool to describe Thomas Jefferson. Brilliant, yes. But he was also deeply flawed and difficult.

Combining information in an engaging format with humorous illustrations (Ben Franklin as Paul McCartney is worth the price of admission alone), The Founding Fathers! is a resource that makes history appealing to both young and old readers.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Poetry Friday: Snowtastrophe!

With a predicted snowstorm in North Carolina and apologies to Dean Martin, I humored myself (and probably no one else) and wrote the poem below. To find much better examples of poetry, check out Poetry Friday at TeacherDance

Snowtastrophe! written by Jeff Barger

When there’s no bread on a shelf,
And no milk for yourself,
It’s Snowtastrophe!

On the roads they’ll lay brine,
You buy gas, sit in line
It’s Snowtastrophe!

Flakes will fall from the sky,
If they don’t, we will cry,
It’s Snowtastrophe!

Stuck inside, parents cringe,
So to Netflix, they will binge,
It’s Snowtastrophe!

Kids will cheer, school is out,
Even louder, teachers will shout,
It’s Snowtastrophe!

This is snow in the South,
It’ll be 40 inches, word of mouth,
It’s Snowtastrophe!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tales of Sasha

Tales of Sasha:The Big Secret
written by Alexa Pearl; illustrated by Paco Sordo
2017 (Little Bee Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
Books #1 and #2 are available now.

I stink at staying still, thought Sasha, but she tried to be like her sisters.

Sasha isn't like her sisters Zara and Poppy. They want to eat grass and talk. She wants to race and find out what is beyond the forbidden trees. Running makes her happy. Walking in a straight line under the gaze of an older teacher horse doesn't. Unlike her peers, she can't stay in line because the world around her is so interesting. Why walk in line when you can leap onto big rocks? Of course, that will get you into trouble sometimes. Sasha also looks different from her sisters. They are sleek and smooth while she is a plain gray with a white patch on the back. And that patch itches at the strangest times. Why is she so different from the other horses? The patch is part of two big secrets that are going to rock Sasha's world in the near future.

Look at the cover of this early reader chapter book. How fast will this fly out of your hands in a second grade classroom? Lights don't go out that fast. There's even glitter in the title! Guess what? It's good on the inside too. Why? First, you have a main character who feels like she doesn't fit in with her family but can't quite figure out why. That's a theme that connects with young readers. Remember that kid with the squiggly line on his forehead from a few years back? Second, it's a book with horses. Primary age readers and horses go together like teachers and snow days. Third, how great is it to have a main character who can't stay still and has a lot of energy? Kids are really going to connect with Sasha. Finally, mysteries abound. What's up with the patch on Sasha's back? Why can't you go beyond the trees? Why is Sasha so different? These questions will keep readers' eyes glued to the page. Plus, there's a cliffhanger at the end of each book!

Sasha is no ordinary horse and her new series is not a vanilla serving of an early reader chapter book. But like ice cream, young readers will eat this up.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How Literacy Coaching is Like Driver's Ed

How Literacy Coaching is Like Driver's Ed
written by Jeff Barger
photograph by Ian Poellet

“You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen, it said 'Parking Fine.” 
― Tommy Cooper from Quotes About Driving (Goodreads)

When you are riding with a teenager who is logging hours toward getting her driver's license, you look forward (not at your phone) with one hand near the parking brake. My daughter is a good driver who has taken well to my coaching. It occurred to me as we were riding today how this can translate to my work as a literacy coach. Here's a few similarities that I think I noticed:

1. As much as you can, try to take emotion out of the coaching. It's not about the person, it's about the practice. Being cool and still offering coaching points to my daughter allows her to feel more at ease behind the wheel of a 3,400 pound piece of metal. Gasping does not help. Not that I would know. When coaching a colleague, stick to focusing on their practice and not all of the personalities in the classroom.

2. Feedback needs to be specific. I tell my daughter what she is doing well instead of just saying "good job." I will mention that she kept a safe speed as we went around a curve or that she cut the wheel just the right amount as we leave a parking space. This allows her to process what she is doing well and where we need to do more work. Feedback in literacy coaching needs to be specific as well. Tell what made a mini-lesson strong in addition to saying "great job!"

3. Coaching needs to be frequent. I haven't been the best at logging consistent hours with my daughter's driving. She has remarked that she does better when we have more frequent practice. I think this translates to the classroom as well. This is one reason why I don't like the "once a quarter" drop-in method. You need to work side-by-side with your colleague on a frequent basis to see improvement. It's one of the frustrations of my teaching career that I didn't experience this kind of coaching early on.

4. Keep your eyes open. I point out things like potholes and slight jogs to the right to my daughter as we travel along. As you are coaching a colleague, are you picking up on small data in the classroom? It's hard as a teacher to see everything, so it's nice to have another set of eyes that can spot things like student engagement in stations.

Monday, January 2, 2017

88 Instruments

88 Instruments
written by Chris Barton; illustrated by Louis Thomas
2016 (Alfred A. Knopf)
Source: Orange County Public Library

How am I supposed to pick just one?

Gazing into a music shop, a young boy counts 88 instruments. Mom and Dad tell him to pick one for now. Similar to getting a taste spoon at an ice cream shop, the boy tries out several instruments while unleashing a string of adjectives to describe each one. The accordion seems to be the squeeziest.  Blow into bagpipes and you'll get the wheeziest. After finishing with the rowdiest, an electric guitar, he walks over to a piano. Like Goldilocks with Baby Bear's porridge, this instrument is just right.  Initially overwhelmed by 88 keys, he rolls up his sleeves and takes on the keys one at a time. This is music to his parents' ears.

There are several applications that I can see making with 88 Instruments. Do you incorporate choice boards in your classroom? This would be a good book to read while you discuss how to make choices. Think about choosing books in your classroom library. I appreciate that the parents allow him plenty of room to find his muse. Incorporating literacy in a music classroom? I have just the book for you. And the adjectives! 88 Instruments has them like sprinkles on a doughnut. This will spruce up a writing mini-lesson. Finally, I love how the boy sees the piano as a challenge instead of something insurmountable. 88 Instruments will be a harmonious read-aloud in your classroom.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Leave Me Alone!

Leave Me Alone
written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
2016 (Roaring Brook Press)
Source: Orange County Public Library

The old woman was at the end of her rope. 

After the holiday season, you may be echoing the sentiments of this grandmother. Living in a small house full of grandchildren can do that to you. Winter is coming (Are there Starks here? House or Tony?) and sweaters need to be knitted. With mighty mites messing with her gear, staying is not an option. Leaving behind a cacophony of kids, she heads for the forest. After building a fire, the grandmother sets about her knitting task. Unfortunately, two baby bears bounce around her yarn ball while the adult bear thinks about eating her. With one shout of her signature phrase, the old woman puts hungry bear in his place and heads up a snow covered mountain. Finding a cave, you would think she would be able to purl in peace. Think again. Meddlesome mountain goats treat her yarn balls like lemon drops while she furrows her brow. Once again on the move, the old woman goes from the mountain to the moon. Surely, this is a setting where work can be accomplished. No. Aggravating aliens needle her endlessly. So where do you go from there? How about a wormhole? Oh yeah, she just went there. Now being able to mend in muteness, she finishes in a flourish. But then a curious thing happens to alter her course once again.

Haven't we all had times where we needed a little space? Readers will be able to relate to the old woman who just wants to knit. In the classroom, this would be a funny way to address the issue of personal space. I could also see an engaging lesson on sequence happening here as well. Another path you could take would be to talk about how characters change in a book. I love when the text and illustrations harmonize in their humor. This is a truly funny book that your class will enjoy.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


written by Chris Barton; illustrated by Don Tate
2016 (Charlesbridge)
Source: Orange County Public Library

But Lonnie had dealt with challenges all his life. He knew a lot about solving problems. 

I looked up the definition of the word impressive. It says "creating admiration, awe, respect, etc." I have all of that and more for Lonnie Johnson after reading Whoosh!. As a child, he was impressive. He constantly invented using materials from his dad's shed and stuff he had hauled from the junkyard. Lonnie built his own rockets from scratch! I couldn't even get my store-bought rocket to work when I was a kid. Overcoming obstacles became a theme of his life. Despite the results of an unfavorable exam, Lonnie did not stop pursuing his dream of becoming an engineer. Instead, he created a robot named Linex. This robot was made out of scrap metal and used compressed-air cylinders and valves to allow movement. With Linex, his high school science team won a 1968 science fair at the University of Alabama. Think about that. Alabama. 1968. George Wallace. If you know your history, you realize what an amazing feat this was for a team of African American students. And shame on you if you don't know your history. As an adult, Lonnie was impressive. After graduating from Tuskegee Institute, Lonnie went on to work for NASA where he solved the problem of how to create a backup power package for the Galileo spacecraft. One day, Lonnie was working on building a more environmentally friendly cooling system for refrigerators and air conditioners. It was this process that led to his invention of the Super Soaker. But success didn't come immediately as challenge after challenge had to be defeated before Lonnie found a company that would help him create his product. Today, Lonnie keeps inventing and inspiring children to overcome obstacles as he has in his life. Check out this August 2016 interview with the BBC for more impressive details about Lonnie.

Speaking of impressive, I also have admiration and awe for the work of Chris Barton and Don Tate. Whoosh! is what picture book biographies should aspire to be. Bringing to our attention, both children and adults, the lives of inspiring people like Lonnie Johnson is important work. How many students will read this book and start on their own impressive journeys? How great to shatter myths about what scientists should look like? I can't wait to share this book with students who will be working on their biography units. They will love this story.