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“The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary” by Laura Shovan


This summer I had the opportunity to sneak a peak at an advanced copy of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan. This is a delightful book about a classroom of fifth graders fighting to keep the school board from tearing down their alma mater to build a grocery store. What makes the novel unique, is that it is told entirely in poems.

Through poetry we meet Norah Hassan, the only student who wears a hijab. We meet New Mathews who has Asperger’s and an aide to help him out. Spunky Katie McCain steps forward, with a big secret. Gaby Vargas learns to write poems in English as well as Spanish.

When I was a third grade teacher in a Title 1 school I struggled to find books that were content appropriate but easy enough from my English Language Learners to read. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary perfectly fits the bill. Poems are short. Poems are manageable. Poems are fun! The way poems rest on the page also make them easier for kids who deal with visual processing issues, which makes this book inclusive in that respect too.

I think teachers will definitely appreciate all of the poetry writing prompts Shovan includes at the back of the book too. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary would work great in the classroom. My own fifth-grader enjoyed reading it as well.

“B is for Bear, A Natural Alphabet” by Hannah Viano


B is for Bear: A Natural Alphabet by Hannah Viano is a book that fuses science, nature, and art into one neat package. I thought it was brilliant. Unfortunately, my six-year-old daughter did not like it one bit. Sasquatch Books sent me a free copy in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

Viano takes the traditional format of an alphabet book and includes a word and a sentence for each letter. There’s just enough content that the former K-1 teacher in me thinks it could would be a great supplement for the Common Core State Standards.  Vocabulary words such as “predators,” “scat,” and “investigate,” are sprinkled through the book, and the pictures provide great prompts for discussion.

I can definitely see B is for Bear being very welcome in a classroom environment. At home however, it would depend on the kid. My daughter thought it was boring, which really surprised me because she had previously enjoyed Viano’s book Arrow to Alaska. My daughter also thought it was too babyish, which I argued with her about, because this book isn’t babyish at all. There’s a lot of science!

Can’t please everyone, I guess. Pfffffft!

“Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars” by Constance Lombardo

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This summer my six-year-old daughter and I got to take a sneak peek at a digital advanced review copy of Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars by Constance Lombardo that I received from Above the Treeline. Reading Mr. Puffball together made for many purrrrrrfect afternoons. Yeah, baby!

Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars tells the story of a young feline who dreams of becoming a famous movie star. He travels across the country to Hollywood, takes a side-trip through Hobowood, and finally makes it to Los Angeles. Then … nothing. Becoming a movie star isn’t as easy as Mr. Puffball hoped it would be. Luckily some friendly felines come to his rescue and give Mr. Puffball a total cat makeover. Before he knows it Mr. Puffball is onstage meeting his cinematic hero, El Gato, and that’s when things get really hairy.

I’ve seen chapter books and I’ve seen graphic novels, but I’ve never seen anything like Mr. Puffball. Word-count wise, it seems a lot longer than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Picture wise, there are way more illustrations than a standard middle grade novel.

I used to teach Kindergarten through fourth grade and to me, Mr. Puffball is at a solid third grade reading level with enough picture clues to make it accessible for younger readers as well as English Language Learners. Older readers will also be engaged, especially by all of the puns. This is one special book!

If you’d like to find out more about Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars check out my fun interview with Constance Lombardo for The Sweet Sixteens.


Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars

“The Rise and Fall of Oscar the Magician” by Matthew Porter


The evil ways of Milton the Magnificent captured my six-year-old’s attention from the very first pages of The Rise and Fall of Oscar the Magician: A Monkey World Adventure by Seattle author, Matthew Porter. “Why is that monkey so mean?” my daughter kept asking. It was a one word answer: jealously.

Our hero, Oscar the Magician, is thrilled to discover that he’s been nominated for Magician of the Year. But his nemesis, Milton, has other plans.

Would Oscar be hurt? Would he lose out on his chance to win? Would he be thrown in jail forever for a crime he didn’t commit? This is a picture book with a lot of tension, and just the right amount of emotional “stress” for kids to handle. Spoiler alert: Oscar never gets hurt, no matter how dastardly Milton becomes. 😉

My daughter and I both enjoyed the beautiful illustrations which were full of detail and color. This book made for a wonderful bedtime read. Thank you to Sasquatch Books for sending us a free copy in exchange for our review.

Talking with children about diversity in books

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Longtime Teaching My Baby to Read followers will remember that I have been building my collection of diverse children books for years. If you want to read some previous posts on the subject, check out:

Today I pulled some books from my shelves to create a Sunday School lesson for our Untied Methodist Church. This was my question for the kids: Have you ever thought about diversity in children’s literature? It was a simple question, but the 3rd-6th graders had deep thoughts on the subject and I learned a lot from them.

For example, they brought up the diversity differences between DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and BIG NATE. One series has many more diverse characters than the other, which I had never before considered.

One thing that saddened me about the conversation was that nobody had read–or even heard of–Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Taylor by Mildred D. Taylor. She was one of my favorite authors growing up.

Unfortunately, my time ran out this morning before I was able to complete the lesson. I had passages marked in several books that would have furthered the conversation. If this had taken place in a school classroom, instead of church, I would have then challenged the kids to search through their classroom library for books that were worthy of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.

But in a way, I’m glad we ran out of time this morning before the lesson was complete. This is a conversation that shouldn’t end.

Lovely books from the Pacific Northwest

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High quality non-fiction can be hard to find for children, especially at the lower grades. That’s why I was so excited to review these three new offerings from Seattle-based Sasquatch Books. They are fictional picture books, but include so many facts that a K-3 teacher could use them to support several of informational content threads from the Common Core State Standards Initiative.


Elliott the Otter: The Totally Untrue Story of Elliott, Boss of the Bay by John Skewes and Eric Ode gives kids a close look at life in Elliott Bay. From tugboats to orcas, Elliot the Otter explains all. He also describes what fish ladders are and why they are so important to salmon.

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My daughter is five and a half years old and I feel like she learned a lot of science and social studies from Elliott the Otter. Technically this is a fictional book, because I’m pretty sure we don’t have talking otters in Seattle, but there were so many facts conveyed that it could definitely be used to meet Common Core standards for informational texts.

My daughter and I were both charmed by the colorful illustrations. Elliot himself is very loveable and altogether this was an enjoyable book to share.


Another collaboration from Eric Ode and John Skewes is Larry Gets Lost Under the Sea. When Larry the dog and his human friend Pete go to the beach, Larry sneaks away for a maritime adventure. Or perhaps I should say a “marine biology” adventure because this book is packed with science.

My family recently went to the Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, and this was an excellent text to reinforce everything we learned about sea life. From the oceans of the world to how tides work, Larry Gets Lost Under the Sea explains crucial concepts with beautiful illustrations and a very cute dog.

I could definitely see this book being part of a K-3 classroom library supporting Common Core standards for informational text, but it’s also a fun book to have at home for bedtime read aloud.


Arrow to Alaska: A Pacific Northwest Adventure, written and illustrated by the talented Hannah Viano, tells the story of a six-year-old boy named Arrow who travels from Seattle to Alaska to visit his grandfather. Along the way Arrow rides on a salmon tender boat with his Aunt Kelly and sees a wide variety of ocean life.

Reading about Arrow’s journey immediately made my daughter and I think about our own trip to Alaska aboard a cruise ship. I wish we had been able to read Arrow to Alaska two years ago when we were on the Celebrity Solstice. Hopefully cruise ships take note and stock this book in their gift shops!

The illustrations in Arrow to Alaska are absolutely stunning and convey the beautiful of the Pacific Northwest in a stylized way. The only criticism I have regards the picture of the coffee mug that has “I Heart Mom” stenciled on the side. The way the “O” is drawn in stencil letters is very confusing for emergent readers and/or individuals with dyslexia. To them the stenciled O looks like a backwards C and they might read it as “M-C-M.” This can be really frustrating for children, especially when “Mom” is one of the first words they are consistently able to decipher.

Mom mugs aside, my daughter and I both loved Arrow to Alaska and would highly recommend it to anyone.

P.S. I received free copies of all three books from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

“How Many Days Until Tomorrow?” by Caroline Janover


How Many Days Until Tomorrow? by Caroline Janover tells the story of two brothers who spend a rough summer living with their grandparents on an isolated island near Maine. Their grandmother is nice, but their grandfather is a real grump.

Simon is able to find escape in books, but Josh has dyslexia, and finds solace in nature instead. Luckily, Seal Island offers a myriad of creatures to examine. There’s everything from bald eagles, to a dead Minke whale that must be destroyed.

I really enjoyed reading How Many Days Until Tomorrow? a lot. The pace, plot, and character development were excellent. I also appreciated that it featured a main character with dyslexia. I would definitely read more from Janover in the future.

“Sammy the Centipede Gets Fit” by Maria Luchsinger

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My five-year-old daughter and I have been reading Sammy the Centipede Gets Fit all day. She absolutely adores the pictures, and I have to admit, there’s something funny about all of those feet.

We haven’t read any of the previous Sammy the Centipede titles, but this book focuses on ways families can have fun together, experience nature, and exercise at the same time. It also includes some important safety tips, like never go swimming without an adult nearby.

Author Maria Luchsinger sent me Sammy the Centipede Gets Fit in exchange for my honest opinions and review. I am highly impressed by the illustrations, and believe the message of the book is convened in an engaging way.

But I do wonder about the wisdom of a centipede playing soccer. That’s an awful lot of shoes to tie!


Sammy the Centipede Gets Fit

Q and A with Darlene Beck Jacobson, author of “Wheels of Change”

Darlene Beck-Jacobson

Darlene Beck Jacobson

Do you love a great historical fiction book for kids as much as I do? Then check out my previous review of Wheels of Change by Darlene Beck Jacobson. Today I’m excited to share a bit more about this fabulous new book. Darlene graciously accepted my offer to interview her!


Wheels of Change

Jenny: Was your protagonist Emily Soper based on a historical person in real life or is she purely a work of fiction?

Darlene: Emily is the name of my grandmother whose father was a carriage maker in DC at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Grandma also attended a reception at the White House and met Theodore Roosevelt. Those are the facts; the rest is fiction.

 

Jenny: You manage to work a surprising amount of vocabulary into your book, making me think you must be a killer Scrabble opponent. Where did you develop a love of big words?

Darlene: My Dad – Emily’s son – was a wordsmith who loved crossword puzzles. He often used big words and never talked down to my sister or me. My sister and I still enjoy competing against each other in word games. Our favorite is PERQUACKY. As far as SCRABBLE goes, my son’s got me beat. He plays online and really kills me with two letter words.

 

Jenny: Ouch! Two letter words are tough.

One of the funniest scenes is when Emily bakes a peach pie under duress. That’s exactly how I feel whenever I encounter pie crust. Do you like to bake? What’s your favorite pie: peach, blackberry or apple?

Darlene: I really enjoy baking. Cookies and muffins are my specialties, but there is something satisfying about a fresh baked pie. Strawberry Rhubarb and Key Lime are my favorites.

 

Jenny: Thinking about the book is making me hungry! Another food related scene revolved around gingerbread. Kids today are likely familiar with gingerbread cookies, but not many have probably tried real gingerbread. Do you have a favorite recipe to share?

Darlene: Have you tried the recipe for Mrs. Jackson’s Gingerbread found in the back of the book? It’s actually a very simple recipe and produces a tasty gingerbread. It’s been adapted from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook of the era. Here it is:

 

Mrs. Jackson’s Gingerbread

¼ lb. butter or shortening                                             

 2 ½C flour

1 C sugar                                               2 tsp baking soda

2 eggs                                                    ½ tsp salt

¾ C boiling water                                2 tsp ginger

¾ C molasses                                       1 TBSP white vinegar

  • Grease and flour a square cake pan. Preheat oven to 350.
  • Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs. Add water, molasses and vinegar. Stir until blended.
  • Add dry ingredients to wet mixture. Pour into prepared pan.
  • Bake 35-45 minutes. If a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out dry, it’s done

 

Jenny: Yum! That sounds good.  Unfortunately, I can’t eat gluten but I bet my family would like that recipe.

A big theme of the book is Emily struggling with her mother and society’s expectations of what it means to be a “proper young lady”. She has to iron, keep clean, bake and stay tidy. When you were a 6th grade girl did you have expectations placed on you that felt like a burden?

Darlene: My parents never told us what we should or should not do. I’ve always been a goal setter. I get a great satisfaction from achieving goals that I’ve set for myself. There was always peer pressure and pop culture telling us girls to look and act a certain way; that still happens today. But then – and now – I choose to march to my own drum and do what feels right for me. I tried to convey that message to my own daughter as well.

All the expectations of my life have been self-imposed. I grew up reading Nancy Drew books. She seemed so cool and confident. It was fun to pretend to be Nancy. I think early seeds of feminism sprouted within me from reading books like that.

 

Jenny: That, and a life-long desire to buy a yellow convertible. Oh, wait. That’s my own reaction to Nancy Drew. 🙂

A very moving scene is when Emily’s family goes to visit their African American friend Henry in the Shaw neighborhood. For those of us who are unfamiliar with D.C., what is Shaw like today? Is it still a predominantly African American part of town?

Darlene: Washington DC is a much more urbanized place than it was 100 years ago. There is a large African American population as well as people of Hispanic, Asian and other cultures and ethnic backgrounds…much like any American city. Shaw suffered during the riots of the late 1960’s, and population declined throughout the district. It has been on the rebound over the last two decades. The Shaw section of the district is a mix of multi-generational professionals who are committed to revitalization of the area. It has become a very fashionable neighborhood.

 

Jenny: Civil rights, both for women and people, of color is a central element in Wheels of Change. When you were a child, did you ever witness a civil rights struggle that made an impression?

Darlene: While I never personally witnessed the struggles that took place, they were a part of the daily landscape of growing up in the 1960’s.

 

Jenny: Any new books in the works?

Darlene: I am working on a PB titled TOGETHER ON OUR KNEES about the childhood of a little known suffragist named Matilda Joslyn Gage. There is also another historical MG in the editing stage called A SPARROW IN THE HAND. This story takes place in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania during Prohibition.

 

Thank you Darlene! You can find her book, Wheels of Change, on Amazon. The next stop of the Wheels of Change Blog Tour is Live Your Poem.

 

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“Wheels of Change” by Darlene Beck Jacobson

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I am so excited to introduce you to Darlene Beck Jacobson’s new middle grade book Wheels of Change. Some of you might recognize Darlene as the author of the popular blog Gold From the Dust: Bringing Stories to Life.

Wheels of Change tells the story of sixth grade Emily Soper who lives in Washington D.C. at the turn of the century. For a twelve-year-old, Emily faces some pretty heavy stuff. Her favorite teacher is a suffragist, her frenemy’s mom is racist and Emily herself is embroiled in a daily battle with her mother over “acting like a proper young lady”.

I especially loved how relatable Emily is. She’s passionate about fighting for justice, but not in a stuffy way. You better be careful around this girl and a teapot!

The historical tidbits peppered into the story were fun too. In one instance, Emily’s mother is delighted to discover Corn Flakes because it means she doesn’t have to fire up the stove for breakfast.

Boys and girls alike will relate to this coming of age story set against the last days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. They might actually learn something along the way–without even knowing it. That’s the best type of historical fiction as far as I’m concerned.

Interested in finding out more? Check out the trailer:

 

Judy Blume Mocks Homeschoolers

First off, I looooove Judy Blume. She was one of my favorite authors growing up. But somehow (motherhood, perhaps?) I was unaware that there was a new Fudge book, until I picked up an audio copy of her 2007 book Double Fudge from the library.

Blume reads the book herself and does a fantastic job with character voices and expressions. Both the plot and her narration are very entertaining.

However… a huge part of the book revolves around mocking the Hatcher family’s homeschooled relatives. Blume doesn’t give the homeschooled characters guns or religion, but she gives them every other stereotype in the book, right down to matching lavender prairie dresses (in 7th grade!) Two of the girls break out into spontaneous song, the little brother bites and licks people, none of the family watches television, and the parents have never even heard of the Weather channel.

I’m not a homeschooling Mom, but if I was I would be livid.

As it was, I had a lot of guilty moments listening to this book in the car. By the time the homeschooling bash-fest began, my children were too invested in the book to turn off the CD.

If the story had been making fun of people from different religious, ethnic, or economic backgrounds, I of course would have turned off the book immediately. But since this was Judy Blume we are talking about, I kept thinking there would be a redeeming moment at the end where the main character felt guilty about judging homeschoolers so cruelly.

In retrospect, I’m not sure how a moment like that would have helped.

😦

Bookboard–It’s addictive!

A virtual Bookboard library

A virtual Bookboard library

For the past couple of weeks my daughter Jenna(4.5) has been experiencing Bookboard, an eBooks service that is like Netflix for books. (I received a free subscription, btw, in exchange for my honest opinion and review.)

The way Bookboard works is that your child gets an instant, small library of books to read.  After reading two or three books, new books get “unlocked” which adds to the collection and provides motivation to read more. Bookboard has over 400 books to choose from.

The unlocking idea is highly addictive. (If Netflix was like that I would never get off the couch.) Thankfully, this is books we’re dealing with. It’s okay to addict your kids to reading, which is good because my preschooler is really committed to unlocking new books.

Bookboard’s got a positive reinforcement system that works!

So far Jenna has spent 4 hours and 13 minutes reading 97 books, which is the same as 8 television shows. That’s equivalent to $644 worth of books from the store, or 9 family trips to the library.

91 books and counting
97 books and counting

Another thing I appreciate about Bookboard is that many of the books are on audio. I can click an icon, and have everything on Jenna’s shelf be audio-only books that will read to her. Then, I can go cook dinner.

It’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a Cylon Mom. 

“Snuggle up with my clone while she reads to you. I’ve got stir fry in the wok.”

(Okay, I’ve officially watched too much Battlestar Galactica.)

Unfortunately, the Berenstain Bears books are not on audio. Those are Jenna’s favorites, and she often calls me over from the stove to read them aloud.

Another drawback is that Bookboard is not available on Kindle…yet. Jenna and I have been reading on our desktop. But I could see how if you did have an iPad, Bookboard would be even more impressive. It would be a portable library on the go.

My final thoughts? I really like it! Bookboard is a nice compliment to Starfall.com.

For more information about Bookboard, check out their website.

How parents can use the “C.I.A. Approach to Reading” at home

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The jump from learning to read to reading to learn is one of the toughest educational challenges kids face. As teachers and parents, it’s our job to make that transition as painless as possible so that children become bibliophiles.

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That’s why I was excited to read Raising the Standards: Through Chapter Books: The C.I.A. Approach, by Sarah Collinge. I first heard of C.I.A. at of my son’s school. Several teachers are going to Read Side By Side’s upcoming training in October, and are writing grants to pay for new materials.

My son’s third grade class is using the C.I.A. methods already.  This is Bruce’s assessment of what it’s all about: “Basically it’s teaching you to read something and regurgitate information.  Then you regurgitate it again.” Considering that description is coming from an eight-year-old, it’s not too bad.

At its very heart, the C.I.A. approach teaches kids to understand, synthesize, and write about key information.

C.I.A. stands for “collect, interpret, and apply”. It dovetails on the Guided Reading approach and the classic book by Fountas and PinnelI, Guiding Readers and Writers (Grades 3-6): Teaching, Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy.

Okay, so why should moms and dads care about any of this? Because, dear friends, after reading  Raising the Standards I’m really excited about ways that parents can incorporate many of Collinge’s ideas at home.

Turn bedtime read aloud into instructional read aloud

Turn bedtime read aloud into instructional read aloud

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1) Divide your next chapter book read aloud into four quadrants using post-it notes.

This is going to make a big-old chapter book seem less scary and more approachable. The C.I.A. method is all about helping kids develop the stamina to get through challenging material.

2) Use a “turn to talk” framework to help kids identify places in a book that give readers important information.

  • “When the book said__________ I inferred/visualized/predicted/thought_______________.”

3) At the end of quadrant one, help your kids identify the four corners of a story that hold the whole thing together:

  • character
  • setting
  • problem
  • main events

Quadrant one is the most laborious. The first quarter of a chapter books is when kids need the most support to understand what’s going on.

4) In quadrant two, start looking for the hidden and ambiguous. Keep your eye out for the following:

  • vocabulary
  • repeated words
  • author’s style
  • themes

Don’t forget to summarize what you know. This is especially important in bedtime read aloud, when you might not have read for a few nights. “Okay. Where were we? What just happened? Help me remember because I’m old and forgetful.” 🙂

5) In quadrant three, help your child identify the turning point of the novel.

Were you able to predict the turning point? What evidence enabled your prediction? What is the author trying to say? The more you can point out specific passages in books to ground your answer, the better.

6) In quadrant four, read quickly and with enjoyment.

The last part of the book should be the easiest. Kids understand what’s going on, and are excited to reach the conclusion.

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I am very glad that Collinge sent me a copy of her book for review so that I could brag a little bit about this exciting pedagogy coming from Washington State.

For more information about the C.I.A. approach to reading, please check out Read Side By Side.

Worried about teens oversharing on the net?

If you’ve ever been freaked out about what your teenagers might be getting into on the Internet, then “Nerve” by Seattle author Jeanne Ryan is the book for you.

Written for a young adult (YA) audience, it tells the story of a teenager named Vee who gets chosen to play a game about dares called Nerve, watched by people all over the world.

But this story is really about how teenagers can unintentionally head down the wrong path in baby steps. 

First you do X, and X doesn’t seem that bad.  Then you do Y, which is a little bit worse.  Then before you know it, you’re involved in Z, and Z is extremely bad.  By then it’s too late!  You’ve done X, Y and Z and you’re in serious trouble.

Another core component of this book is about privacy in the Internet age.  Vee “likes” and “shares” things on her ThisIsMe page, and then that data gets collected by the people who run Nerve, and used against her.

A ThisIsMe page gone bad is a plot-line that can scare almost anybody.  It’s the perfect jumping off board for a serious conversation with teens about Facebook, Twitter and social media in general.

FYI parents, Nerve contains mature content comparable to your teen’s favorite soap on the CW.

 

Bob Books with Cookies

Bob Books with cookies.

Bob Books with cookies.

Here’s a not-so-perfect idea to make Bob Books, Set 1 more exciting.  Pick up a tub of Cinnamon Schoolbook Cookies from Trader Joe’s, and practice making words with cookies before your child even opens the book.

Why is this idea not-so-perfect? There’re several reasons:

  1. The cookies are uppercase.
  2. They’re not enough vowels.
  3. You have to be very careful with cookie management.

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I tried to solve #1 and #2 by using an M, and turning it on its side to become an e.  I’m not exactly sure why I thought that would help.  Sigh…

But cookies or no cookies, seven minutes a day of Bob Books is completely doable.  Jenna(4) and I are cranking at it, and she’s almost done with the first set!  Whoo hoo!