Monday, August 31, 2009

Honk, Honk, Goose! by April Pulley Sayre, as reviewed by Freaky

A fun addition to any elementary age classroom or library, Honk, Honk, Goose! follows a pair of Canadian geese as they meet, mate, and raise a family. Facts such as nest construction and incubation period are given subtly, while the onomotopoeia offered by daddy goose as he chases everyone and everything away make it a fun read-aloud.

The male here reminds me of a goose I once knew - even when he wasn't protecting a nest, he was constantly hissing and honking and trying to drive everyone off. Come on, I'm three inches long, how much of a threat can I pose?! By contrast, the mother goose quietly goes about the business of building her nest, laying her eggs, and tending her chicks. This contrast might make for interesting discussions with your children or students, about the different personalities and the different roles played by the adults in their lives.

The illustrations are fantastic. I am a big fan of cut paper collage, and Huy Voun Lee makes it look so vibrant but simple. It sure doesn't look that nice when I try it myself, but would be a fun extension activity for kids (and if you are doing it as part of a story time, you might want to provide extra materials for the parents!) The language is easy and reads like a story more than a nonfiction, but with enough facts at he end to make Yoda happy. A good addition to the home or classroom library. Order it here:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My School in the Rain Forest, by Margriet Ruurs, as reviewed by Yoda and Freaky

Freaky: Hi guys! Yoda and I decided to write this review together, since he usually does nonfiction, and I usually do kids' books, and this is both.

Yoda: To give both perspectives.

Freaky: Right. Whatever that means.

Yoda: We should mention that this book may be of interest to adults as well as children. Not for an in-depth study of any sort, but for some interesting general information.

Freaky: Definitely interesting! I had no idea there were so many different types of schools. I mean, I knew rules were different in other places, and subjects and so on, but a school on a giant raft? Way cool!

Yoda: Ah, yes, the floating schools in Cambodia. Was that your favorite one?

Freaky: No, but my favorite one does float. There's a ship that travels around the world giving people medical care, and a bunch of kids live on it with their parents, so they have a school right there on the ship.

Yoda: Do you think you would get tired of seeing your classmates all day, every day?

Freaky: Maybe. But, I'll bet I could find a place to be by myself if I needed to. Besides, they get to travel to different countries, AND they get to visit with sick kids who are staying in the hospital ward on the ship, and help them get better.

Yoda: I suppose that does beat sitting in front of the television after school.

Freaky: So, which school would you like to go to?

Yoda: I found the virtual school in Egypt intriguing; children allowed to study what they choose, and able to plan their own schedules.

Freaky: Can I be honest here?

Yoda: Certainly.

Freaky: I don't think I'd end up doing much some days.

Yoda: (chuckling) Yes, it would definitely take quite a bit of self-motivation to be successful. The young lady profiled in that section seems to have it, though.

Freaky: Maybe because she had such a hard life before, and so she appreciates it?

Yoda: Very possible. I looked for a web site to see if that was typical of all the school's students, but the only links I came up with were no longer working.

Freaky: Hey, I looked up web sites too! I had better luck, though. I'll put them at the end of our review. The ship I read about was part of something called Marcy Ships. That ship is retired now, but they have an even bigger one with more people on it called the Africa Mercy.

Yoda: It would have been a nice addition to the book to have contact information for some of these schools.

Freaky: Right, like the very first one!

Yoda: In Afghanistan.

Freaky: Yeah! As soon as I read that, I was like, woah, that's not fair! I want to help!

Yoda: You mean because the school they worked so hard to build was destroyed.

Freaky: Right! But I did find a web site, and we'll add that link, too. It was kind of weird to have the book start off with such a heavy one, though.

Yoda: I think it was meant to be encouraging, not sad. They haven't given up, and in fact they have expanded their efforts. Overall, the book is very upbeat, and made us both want to visit or even be a part of some of these schools. Was there anything else you didn't like?

Freaky: Just a little thing. In the part about the United States they talk about home schoolers, which is GREAT, because we have lots of home schooled friends! There was just one sentence where they said all home schoolers have to pass yearly tests, and that's not true for all states.

Yoda: Including ours.

Freaky: Yep! New Mexico doesn't have as many regulations as other states. I think that has something to do with the independent streak passed down from the old pioneers and cowboys. What about you, Yoda, was there anything you didn't like?

Yoda: Well, as I mentioned, this book may be interesting as an overview, but doesn't provide much detail. The side bars for each section give the location and population of each country, but that space might be better served with basic education information - ages of required schooling, types of schools, for example. I can't imagine ALL schools in Egypt are like the virtual school.

Freaky: Is that it?

Yoda: Yes, Freaky, that is "it". Overall I found the book quite enjoyable, and was inspired to do some more research about some of the schools mentioned. As I said, it would have been nice to have a list of web sites or books to reference, but I suppose I can find those on my own.

Freaky: So, two flippers up?

Yoda: Yes, Freaky, two flippers up.

Freaky: You heard it, folks! Here are those web sites we promised: (for the school in Nepal) (Afghanistan)

and, here is a link to buy the book:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, as reviewed by Atlas

I almost hesitate to review this book, because EVERYONE is going to review it (if they haven't already), and EVERYONE is going to love it, and I will just be one more set of applauding flippers in the crowd. But, just in case we have one loyal reader who doesn't look anywhere else, I'll give it a go.

Synopsis in brief, Jason Blake is a 12-year-old boy with autism. Most people see exactly just that when they meet him. Communicating in person is difficult for Jason. He has difficulty expressing what he means in ways "neurotypical" people will understand, and he often does not "get" the expressions and nuances they use in their speech. Then, of course, there are the stereotypical traits involving eye focus, posture, and hand flapping that cause that glazed look to come over people's face just before they make an excuse to end the conversation.

Please don't think Jason is a stereotyped character, though. From the first page he is very real and unique, and Baskin does a fantastic job of pulling us into Jason's world so that we feel every high and low along with him. While communicating in person is a challenge, Jason has no such problem online. He writes wonderful stories which he posts to an online forum. There he makes contact with a teenage girl who has no idea there is anything 'different' about him. Could she become a real friend? Even something more?

The other characters are equally well-drawn. While we don't get the same insight into their thoughts and emotions as we do Jason's, it is easy to picture and perhaps identify with the mother who is struggling to 'fix' her child, the more laid-back father who struggles in his own way to understand his son, the little brother who probably sees and accepts Jason more clearly than anyone else, and yes, even those who aren't as kind to or as tolerant of someone who does not fit into their little mold.

I was exhausted but satisfied after reading this book, and immediately recommended it to a dozen or so people. Anyone who works with children should read it. Anyone who knows anyone in the autism spectrum should read it. Anyone who might ever meet someone in the spectrum should read it. Anyone who is in the spectrum themselves should read it. Did I somehow leave you out? Read it anyway. I learned so much and enjoyed the whole painful, happy ride. If nothing else, I will never force a child to look at me while I am talking to him again! This is a must-have for every library, and would make great required reading for education, psychology, and social services students in colleges. Follow the link below and order a copy for yourself:

For more information about autism spectrum disorders, check out these web sites:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Marshmallow Incident by Judi and Ron Barrett, as reviewed by Freaky

Just in time for the September 18 release of the movie version of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", we have a new book by Judi Barrett featuring, of course, food in a strange land.

The Marshmallow Incident tells the story of two neighboring towns, Left and Right, so named because the people who live in the former are left-handed, and the people in the latter are right-handed (or are they? Look at the pictures). And if you're starting to wonder, "What happens if two right-handed people have a left-handed child?", don't even go there. It's a picture book, not a lesson in genetics, and it's called suspension of disbelief.

A bright yellow dotted line keeps the two towns and all their inhabitants apart. Signs proclaim, "Left is Left Behind", and "Righties, go right home", offering a great opportunity to explore expressions, maybe make a list of phrases with the words "right" or "left". Tedd Arnold's Parts and More Parts would be great tie-ins.

The line is guarded by an order of ambidextrous knights, who also guard a large store of marshmallows one of them won in a poetry contest (it could happen!). When it finally happens (you knew it would) that someone accidentally crosses the line, the knights retaliate with the nearest weapon at hand - the marshmallows.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? This is my kind of war! I feel like I'm channeling Brer Rabbit here - oh, please, sir, don't pelt me with yummy fluffy marshmallows! And whatever you do, don't follow it up with chocolate syrup and maraschino cherries! Wouldn't that make another fun activity for the kids? Ask them what other types of food could be used to make war, and what would the consequences be? A very daring teacher or parent could even...try some of them out!

Not feeling quite that brave (or principal won't let you)? Bring in piles of marshmallows and see what the kids can make out of them. Or old saltines. Or celery stalks. Or pretzel sticks. You get the idea. Use this as a segue into a unit on inventing.

And then of course there is the whole topic of arguments that get out of hand and prevent friendships. This book is full of extension and activity possibilities that could keep your classroom or your kids busy for a week or more. Youngsters will enjoy just looking through the pictures, finding new details they did not notice the first time. More brightly colored than Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, they have all the great facial expressions and miscelleneous animal participants we saw in both that and Pickles to Pittsburgh. I predict this one will soon be a staple in classrooms, libraries, and home bookshelves as well. Order yours now through the following link:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Series Review, Native Americans by ABDO, reviewed by Yoda

I do so hate to give a bad review, but I also hate to be disappointed.

The topic of Native Americans is one of those perennial favorites, both for writers and for teachers assigning reports. The history, culture, and present struggles of each nation are fascinating enough to capture anyone's attention, and colorful enough to keep it.

Or should be. This series, I'm afraid, gives meaning to the expression, "Never judge a book by its cover." The covers are absolutely gorgeous - colorful, expressive photographs bordered with bright designs that are repeated on the title page. And then you open the book.

In this series I reviews the titles Caddo, Blackfoot, Arapaho, and Gabrielino, all written by Barbara A. Gray-Kanatiiosh and illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. Gabrielino? Never heard of them - and that is precisely why I was so interested in this series. There are a million and one books about the Cherokee, the Navajo, and the Apaches, but I was looking forward to a series that explored some of the lesser-known nations. In that respect, these books did not disappoint. For very basic information, these fit the bill. As far as reading for pleasure or interest, however; not so much.

Let's get back to the appearance. The covers, as I said, are very nicely done - but are there no photographs in existence of Caddo clothing? Blackfoot tipis? All illustrations up until the final chapter are drawings, and - with apologies to Mr. Fadden - I think children will find these lifeless and flat.

The text itself is very basic, and reads stiltingly at times. Facts are presented rather formulaically - count how many times you see the "first, then, finally" pattern repeated. And, didn't someone's grammar teacher tell them not to start sentences with "and"?

While the books contain a glossary and an index, they miss the opportunity to enforce some new words particular to each nation. Xinesi? Conna? Gorget? These are used in the book about the Caddo and are explained in the text, but not in either the glossary or index.

All in all, a disappointing series that I had high hopes for. Still useful for the school library, especially those titles that are more obscure, but not expected to rate highly for pleasure reading.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hannah's Winter by Kierin Meehan, as reviewed by Atlas

Hannah's Winter is comprised of layers of contradictions that work together in the end to make up a surprising and delightful book.

I first picked this one up to read because I was intrigued by a contradiction in style right on the back cover. In the excerpt printed there you first read, "snow was tumbling soft from the sky, gentle as flower petals." Then in the next paragraph we have, "She wrapped me up in layers of socks and gloves and scarves and sweaters until I looked like a neurotic sumo wrestler." The first description was quite poetic, the second I wondered if these two styles would be repeated throughout the book, and if so, whether the author could pull it off without sounding slightly bipolar.

The answer to both is a resounding yes. The more serene descriptions tend to be used for the surroundings, while more colorful, modern terms are used for the characters. I soon found this combination of traditional and modern to be a theme throughout the book. The characters, all 3-dimensional and likeable, encompass both worlds, as do the settings. The story itself is a combination of modern day thinking and ancient Japanese folklore. The mystery is more a part of the story, unfolding quickly and satisfyingly, than it is a brain-teasing-whodunit.

The only contradiction I did not enjoy was the disparity in descriptions of life in Japan vs. the main character's background information. The first part of the book begins to feel like a travel guide, trying to cram in as many Japanese words and cultural tidbits as possible. As intriguing as I found things like the water shooting out of the ground to melt the snow, I really wasn't interested in a continual vocabulary lesson.

Fortunately, the story line and characters quickly took over, and I'm willing to say that first bit added to the newness of being in a strange country. But then that leads to the disparity. Why was she here? Why did her mother insist on her coming? She mentions the educational aspect, the lack of supervision at home, but then why didn't her brother come, too? Why is she fluent in Japanese, anyway? Yes, she lived there briefly as a small child, and then studied Japanese for two years in school - but, why? According to my Australian friend, a long-neck turtle living in a 4th year classroom, while Japanese is often a foreign ,anguage choice, it isn't usually offered until the 8th year. Why is it so important to her mother that she is fluent? And is a childhood memory plus a couple years in school really enough to understand a language when it is spoken in its native country, with seemingly no translation problems? A little too convenient to be entirely plausible, which is disappointing considering how well everything else in the story is fleshed out.

In spite of the above, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It may not have escaped your notice that I didn't actually tell you what the story is about - and I'm not going to. There is no way I could give any more of the plot than is on the jacket cover without making it sound ridiculously implausible, something Meehan has managed not to do. Suffice it to say that this one should appeal to a variety of ages, to girls and to more mature boys, and to both fantasy lovers and those who prefer realism. A must-have for school and public libraries.

And now I have a strange craving for donuts...

Want to learn more about Japanese language and culture? This site can give you a start:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Big One-Oh, by Dean Pitchford, as reviewed by Freaky

Not a brand new book, but one featured in the Scholastic Book Fair, which is going on at our library right now. I picked it up for a light read, and quickly became one of those annoying readers who keeps laughing out loud, but then tells people they have to read the whole book to understand!

Charley is a character many of us can identify with. Okay, maybe we aren't all afraid of birthday parties, and we don't generally answer the door crying and wearing a hairnet. We have all had times, though, when we felt a little out of place, a little lonely, and a lot like everything we try to do turns out completely wrong.

Charley is about to turn 10 - the "big one-oh" - and through a series of events ends up deciding to throw himself a birthday party. Some minor problems arise immediately - he has only been to one birthday party in his life, which turned out pretty badly. He has only vague ideas of what goes into a birthday party, but he does know you need friends to invite. That one would actually be a major problem, because he doesn't have any. No, this isn't one of those "gosh I had friends and didn't even realize it" stories, he really doesn't have any.

Mishaps abound as Charley sets out to make some friends, and ends up instead with a guest list out of a horror story - which just happens to be the theme he chooses for his party. The party...well, let's just say that part did not disappoint. I mean, it's not really a party until...but I can't tell you that part.

The other characters involved are sometimes stereotyped - the class bully, the drama queen teenage sister, the stressed-out single Mom - but they all have enough quirks to keep them real and interesting. Charley is real and endearing, as is the slightly odd neighbor Gary who he befriends. The book as a whole should appeal to both boys and girls, including those over the age of ten. There are plenty of disasters and groan-out-loud moments to appeal to the younger crowd, while some of the one-liners and familiar situations will appeal more to those who have 'been there, done that'. This would make an excellent read-together for fathers and sons.

Planning a birthday yourself? Check this site out for thousands of ideas: