Monthly Archives: January 2012

Amazing Africa Picture Books (and a few other resources)

We ended up having our Africa unit based mostly around picture books.  However, in the end, I feel like I found a nice variety of resources.  I still lament that there are other resources that don’t seem to exist.  I can think of a lot of African figures whose lives could make great picture book biographies, for example!  But alas.  I’m not unhappy with what I found.

In addition to the resources I’m listing below, which don’t represent every book I read, just the best ones, I found the book Amazing Africa Projects You Can Build Yourself by Carla Mooney to be a perfect resource.  The projects suggested are just okay.  However, the text of the chapters that go with it is actually what turned out to be the best part.  It gives a nice overview of everything you can imagine – geography, ancient and recent history, animals, houses, music, dance, art and a number of other topics.  It’s all very readable and accessible.  Honestly, it turned out to be the best survey of Africa for children that I found.

We also found some other things very useful.  We’ve had on the Pandora Afro-pop station and have enjoyed grooving to some Miriam Makeba and Zap Mama, among others.  We’ve found several good nature documentaries about African animals, which is probably no surprise.  However, the best video resource I found was the show Africa’s Child, which is available if you have Discovery Streaming.  Each episode is fifteen minutes long and follows a different child (usually a young teen) in a different African country.  A boy in rural Cameroon talks about his love of the rainforest, a girl in Ethiopia talks about her church festival, a girl in Ghana vies to get on a TV youth talent show with her traditional drum and dance troupe.  It’s really a neat little show and very current as it’s only a couple of years old.

Nature and Animals

 African Critters (Hardcover) ~ Robert B. Haas (Author) Cover Art

The Seven Natural Wonders of Africa by Mary and Michael Woods
(entire continent)
This is a nice long picture book with lots of good photos that gives a nice opening survey of the highlights of Africa’s geography.  Each of the seven chapters covers the natural wonder it discusses from different angles, so there’s a lot of history as well as geology and biology in there as well.

African Critters by Michael Haas
(entire continent)
This National Geographic book has an almost conversational narrative style.  I liked the way it delved into different kinds of animals from all over Africa, instead of only focusing on the “big ones.”  The book design is also inviting for kids to browse.  There were a few books about African animals that we found, but this one was both comprehensive and engaging.

Folk Tales

A Story, a Story (Paperback) ~ Gail E. Haley (Author) Cover Art Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (Paperback) ~ Nelson... Cover Art

A Story A Story by Gail E. Haley
(West Africa)
Sometimes I’m a sucker for an old Caldecott winner and a bunch of woodcuts.  I do love woodcut style illustrations.  No unit on Africa would be complete without reading at least on Anansi tale.  We read this version of the classic tale where Anansi gives people the gift of stories.

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
(entire continent)
This book has stories from all over Africa.  The illustrations are done by various people in different styles.  I like the variety of stories in this book.  It’s a nice storybook to own in general.

Ancient History and Culture

African Beginnings (Hardcover) ~ James Haskins (Author) Cover Art Village That Vanished (Hardcover) ~ Ann Grifalconi (Author) and ... Cover Art Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Picture Puffin Books) (Pape... Cover Art

African Beginnings by James Haskins
(entire continent)
This is a great short introduction to African history before colonization which I’m very glad to have found.  I think I found it right as some kind reader suggested it!  It covers several civilizations from ancient times, such as Axum and Meroe to early modern, such as Kongo.  Each civilization has lush illustrations and one or two pages of text.  The final pages describe the slave trade and colonization in short.

The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi
I loved the detailed illustrations in this book.  It’s a story from the Yao people, who live primarily in Malawi.  The story shows how a village manages to escape slavers based on their ingenuity and faith in the spirits their tribe believes in.  It’s not specifically a history book, but we used it as a gentle jumping off point to look at how slavery affected the entire African continent.  One needs only to find Malawi, far from the Atlantic coast, to understand how much slavers took from Africa.  The author has several other titles about Africa which I’ve seen suggested more often.  We took them out of the library too, but I thought this one was especially beautiful.

Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove
(entire continent)
I know I picked on this book a little while back.  It’s not that I don’t like it.  It’s actually a beautiful book, with amazing illustrations.  Each page shows a different African ethnic group and describes a tiny sliver of their traditions.  The groups are in alphabetical order, with one for each letter of the alphabet.  Mushroom and BalletBoy don’t tend to retain much from these sorts of books, but I think this one gives an idea of the vast diversity on the African continent.

Stories of Everyday Life

Bintou's Braids (Paperback) ~ Sylviane A. Diouf (Author) Cover Art The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela: A Tale from Africa (Hardcover) ~... Cover Art My Rows and Piles of Coins (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor... Cover Art My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (Paperback) ~ Maya... Cover Art

Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf
This simple story about a girl who wants braids like all her grown-up cousins is very sweet with lively illustrations.  It’s quite short, but it gives a small peak into village life, food, and customs in a way that most kids can relate to.  Don’t they all want to be like the grown-ups sometimes?

The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler
This story is about a girl who is determined to become a beekeeper, despite being mocked by the men of the village for her ambitions.  She has to be inventive and persistent.  I’ll admit that I’m not in love with the illustrations, but the story is wonderful.

My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel
This was easily Mushroom and BalletBoy’s favorite of the stories we’ve read.  It’s about a boy who saves up his money to buy a bicycle to help his family.  He doesn’t save quite enough, but there’s a happy ending.

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me by Maya Angelou
(South Africa)
This book by the famous American poet is poetically written in first person and illustrated by bright photographs and bold typography that echoes the art that the narrator’s mother paints on her house.  This book inspired the best activity in our house, as we painted an enormous mural in the Ndebele style shown in the book.

Recent History

The Day Gogo Went to Vote (Paperback) ~ Elinor Sisulu (Author) Cover Art Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World (Hardcover) ~ Jen C... Cover Art Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Hardcover) ~ Chris Van Wyk... Cover Art

The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
(South Africa)
This is a lovely picture book about an older woman who is able, not only to vote for the first time after the end of Apartheid, but also to go out of her own home in freedom.  It’s told from the point of view of her granddaughter and captures a sense of hope.

Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
There are a lot of picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  They all look good, but I ended up getting this one, with bright, batik-like illustrations.  That’s right, I chose by the illustrations!  However, the text is well done too, and has the inspirational feel that you would expect about a woman who overcame that much adversity and planted that many trees.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
(South Africa)
I’ve recently run into several picture book formats of longer adult memoirs and nonfiction and I think it’s a really neat trend.  There are many picture book biographies of Mandela out there, but I liked this condensed “in his own words” version.  The illustrations are simple but add a lot to the book.

Please Tell Me This Is Just Earwax

The scene: Me, Mushroom and BalletBoy riding in the car to our Destination Imagination team practice one afternoon.

Mushroom: So, BalletBoy, first be really totally still.  And then I want to ask you a question.  Can you ever be really still?  Like completely still all the way?

No answer.

Me: Well, no, because we’re in the car.  But even if we weren’t in the car, we’re on the earth and the plates are all drifting really slowly around.  Plus, the earth is spinning and going around the sun, so we’re moving through space.

Mushroom: Oh, see, I was thinking you can’t be still because even if you were totally still all your molecules would still be moving!

Me: Wow.  Yeah.  I can think of other reasons too, like your blood moving.

Mushroom: BalletBoy?

It has recently become a joke in our house that BalletBoy can’t listen to anyone ever.

Me: Oh, he didn’t even hear any of that.

BalletBoy: Yes I did!

Me: You heard the question?

BalletBoy: YES!

Mushroom: So, okay, then what do you think?  Can you ever be totally still?

Loooong Pause.

BalletBoy: Do I have to give a scientifical answer?

Me: No.

BalletBoy: Okay, then…  Robots.

Mushroom and I are still laughing at him.  We began playing a game in the car where we asked questions then gave answers that had nothing to do with it.  “Would you rather have chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”  “Bookshelves!”  I don’t know that it will shame him into making any sense though.  Or into listening.  Should I get his hearing tested or is this just normal seven year-old stuff?  Probably the latter, but it sure is wacky.

Newsbulletin: Mary and the Frog Show Canceled

This just in from Mushroom and BalletBoy, the CEO’s of the BFG (Big Friendly Good) Corporation:  The BF Network’s flagship show, Mary and the Frog has been canceled after several years on the air.  The show began when Mary, a stray from a Little People set that was otherwise lost, nearly drowned in a large bathtub and was rescued by the Frog, thus starting a lifelong friendship.  They are pictured below with the Duck, one of many ducks to try and interfere with their relationship over the years.  The ratings for the show had been down, however, so under pressure from their rival corporation, the BF BAD, the BF Network has canceled the show.  Mary and the Frog may continue to appear at the BF Festival.

Seriously, you guys, every time I despair that my kids are only doing okay with reading, writing and math and that all their friends have better handwriting and can add bigger numbers or express themselves better, I have to remind myself that it’s because they’re busy running a multinational corporation, making big decisions like this one.  Oh, and that their imaginations kick nearly everyone else’s rear end.

Magic Bullet Books

I have something of a dislike for children’s books that become mega popular hits.  It’s not out of some misplaced sense that I won’t like something that’s too popular because then it’s no longer “cool.”  I’ll admit to having felt that about various things before, but that’s not it.  And it’s not because they’re not good.  Some children’s books that become super popular are excellent and most of them have some redeeming value, a reason that the book or series became such a hit.

It’s more that once a book reaches a critical level of popularity, adults get stupid about recommending it, buying it and checking it out of the library for kids.

Not every 9 year-old boy is going to love the Wimpy Kid just by virtue of being a 9 year-old boy.  Not every 14 year-old girl is going to love the Hunger Games series by virtue of her demographic.

I think what’s really annoying to me is that if an adult asked for a recommendation for a book, a librarian or a bookstore clerk or any other book guru would ask what they liked to do and read.  You would never recommend a book for an adult by looking at them and saying, “Hm, you look like you’re in your 20’s and you’re a woman… how about The Devil Wears Prada?”  But that’s exactly what many adults do to children when trying to assess what book will hook them.  These super popular books become easy answers.  Here, teen girl, read Twilight.  Here, preschool girl, enjoy your Pinkalicious.  Here preteen boy, have some Percy Jackson.

Or, worse, sometimes a book becomes so popular that people give it to really young kids who it may not have been meant for.  I don’t censor books from my kids and I’m not going to freak out if they’re reading Wimpy Kid at age 5 or the final Harry Potter book in 2nd grade, but I don’t think it’s exactly optimal.

Sometimes a megahit is the right book to hook a child into reading, of course.  I just don’t like the way they become a simple “magic bullet” for adults to ignore children’s individual reading needs and tastes, not to mention the vast array of books out there both new and old.  I think generally children should be encouraged to think about their book choices and pick things that they will individually enjoy.

Chapter Books for Africa

Well, we got moving with some Africa related books.  I thought I’d do two posts and write about the resources I’m finding most useful.  First up, chapter books and middle grades books about Africa.

Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke
I found these many months ago but decided to hold on to them for a little while.  For a long time, they weren’t widely available in the US, but they’ve finally seemed to get a wider distribution and more people seem to know about them.  This is an easy chapter book series about a girl, Anna Hibiscus, living in “amazing Africa.”  The language, while simple and accessible for early readers, is lovely.  Simple drawings of Anna and her family are on most pages.  Each book in the series has a series of chapters that are essentially short stories.  Anna’s adventures are easy for kids to connect with as she wants to see snow, is afraid to go off to school for the first time, gets performance anxiety and finds her little brothers annoying.  However, they’re also uniquely African as Anna gives kids a peek into a world of extended families under one roof, African hairstyles, and African foods and customs.  Anna’s family is clearly middle class and planted in the modern world, with texting, cars and tall buildings, not to mention international family members.  These four little books give kids a window into African life.  By the way, Atinuke has another series about rural Africa called The No. 1 Car Spotter, which is just as excellent.

Akimbo and the Lions (Akimbo)Akimbo series by Alexander McCall Smith
This series recently went out of print, which is a shame, since there are so few books like them.  These are also a series of short chapter books, but with fewer illustrations and a slightly harder reading level.  While BalletBoy could read these, he would have read them slowly, so we just read them aloud.  The series follows Akimbo, a young boy in southern Africa.  His father works on a reserve, which gives Akimbo ample time to interact with animals and protect them from poachers.  Reading these (as well as the author’s other series for children), it struck me that while they’re all good, the storytelling and the language doesn’t quite reach the lovely level that his adult books manage.  It’s always interesting to see how writers adapt their work for different ages.  Parents should know that the books have a good dose of danger for books intended for young readers.  The poachers and some of the animal threats felt very real and scary for Mushroom as we read aloud.

BuluBulu: The African Wonder Dog by Dick Houston
This is a middle grades nonfiction book about a dog in Zambia.  It’s a variety of book which I wish there were more of and which I’m excited to connect with more – popular nonfiction books for middle grades readers.  I know of a few, but not many.  This is our current read aloud.  I skimmed ahead a ways in, but I haven’t quite finished it yet, I’ll admit.  The story follows Bulu and his owners, Anna and Steve, who move from the UK to the Zambian bush to connect with the wildlife and build a nature center for children.  Bulu helps them rescue animals and warn them of poachers and dangers.  Pet dogs apparently aren’t common in the bush because of the dangers to a small animal, but Bulu defies the odds in his adventurous life.  The story is told much like a fiction book and I’m enjoying the real life feel to everything that happens.

Journey to Jo’berg by Beverly Naidoo
After reading this short middle grades novel, I decided it was probably too much for my boys, but I think it could be perfect in a couple years.  Naidoo wrote this book near the end of the era of Apartheid, about a brother and sister who have lived a relatively sheltered, if impoverished life, in a rural village.  When their baby sister becomes sick, Naledi and Tiro decide to walk, take buses, cars and trains and find help from strangers as they make their way to Jo’berg to find their mother, who works as a maid to a white family there.  The story is firmly a children’s story told from a child’s perspective, but Naledi and Tiro spend the book learning about complicated injustices on their journey.  They see the police beat people and witness a baby die.  They learn to pay attention to the signs that separate whites and blacks as well as to question the rules.  Another character, Grace, tells them a story about riots in Soweto, which contains even more violence than the children themselves witness.  The book is beautifully written with an ending that is tinged with hope, but I felt like the content needed to wait for a couple of years.  I would say it’s for ages nine and up.

The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
This was another book that I thought was too much and too complicated for Mushroom and BalletBoy, but it’s a book I really love that I think gives an unusual insight into Africa.  The story takes place in the future in Zimbabwe.  Three siblings are kidnapped, escape, then must have a set of harrowing adventures, including a trip to a sort of otherworldly African village, before they can make their way home.  Farmer sets up an imaginative world and raises questions about technology, traditions, gender and poverty in this coming of age science fiction story.  It’s an interesting book that really defies categorization.

Professional Development for Homeschool Parents

One of the things my homeschool group has done, albeit extremely sporadically, which I’ve really enjoyed, is a homeschool book club for the parents.  We pick a homeschool-related book then get together to discuss for a couple of hours.  In the past, we’ve read books suggested by various members, including The Well-Trained Mind and The Skylark Sings for Me (so, so different, those two books!).

It can be enriching to read a book solo.  It can also be enriching to have a conversation, but when put together, for me, it feels like it reaches some critical level to qualify as “professional development.”  Sure, there are homeschool conferences, but they always seem to happen when I can’t attend or aren’t really with the sort of homeschoolers that are my cup of tea.  However, I really need some level of stimulating thinking about education and teaching, specifically home education in my life.  I know I stagnate without it.  There’s something so homeschool to me about calling a book club professional development.  A bit like calling that time when you read to your kids in bed “language arts class.”  So that feels appropriate.

Our last book was Free Range Learning by Laura Grace Wheldon.  I didn’t love it, but I definitely got something out of it.  It seemed to be written in part for prospective homeschoolers and in part for homeschoolers trying to figure out how to move away from an “academic rigor” approach.  I didn’t agree with everything she said, but it made for a nice conversation starter.  I’m constantly straining for some magical balance between structure and freedom, in homeschooling, parenting and life in general, so reading things from either side (this one from the freedom side, but not in a radical way) helps keep me in check sometimes.

Of course, for the book club, we enjoyed talking about the book, but we also enjoyed homemade cookies and wine (no, really, someone brought homemade wine – is that not awesome?), anecdotes about children and catching up with people not seen in a little while.  That’s way more fun than proper professional development anyway.  Kind of like how homeschool is more fun than school.

Africa Unit Planning Frustrations

I’m in the midst of doing the planning for our Africa unit, which will last us for January and February.  In case you don’t know, we’re headed for a trip to southern Africa for most of March, so this is in educational preparation.  We’ll ditch our U.S. history studies for that time and pick them back up again once we’ve recovered in April.

I’ve found some wonderful books, especially some wonderful picture books.  The lists here and here were both very helpful to me.  Hooray for other homeschool bloggers sharing good information!  I’ll post up all the lovely children’s books we’re planning to use sometime in the next few weeks.  I even managed to find a nice projects book.

Mostly though, I’m still in the frustrations period.  Too many of the books I’m finding are like the one you see there, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions A to Z.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a lovely book and one we’ll definitely read.  It’s a Caldecott winner, in fact.  And the information in it, not to mention the illustrations, are wonderful.

But…  But…  But…

When we start American history, we can use something similar.  Something like Lynne Cheney’s America: A Primer.  But then we can move to that and read lots other books – biographies, history books, folk tales, fiction stories in picture book and chapter book form.  Or when we start studying animals, we could begin by reading Bert Kitchen’s crisp and lovely Animal Alphabet.  But from there, we would move to big animal encyclopedias and animal stories and beautiful photo books about animals.

But with Africa, there’s nowhere to go in many cases.  When all the library has about Africa is books like Ashanti to Zulu, Count Your Way Through Kenya and a few Enchantment of the World books, then it’s crushingly limited.  And it makes the efforts in a fine book like Ashanti to Zulu feel less like the beginning of a path and more like a dead end filled with random, untethered facts.

Here’s what I have found.  There are African folktales enough.  There are African animals and biomes books enough.  There are some African picture books, though there should be more.  There are a scant few chapter books about Africa but not enough for a decent selection.  There are almost no decent books about African history and culture and almost no biographies of use either.  And there are no big, fat, overall geography books that are worth the time.  The few I found were outdated or dull or outdated and dull.

I’m so used to working off a spine for a unit, but this unit can have no spine.  There isn’t one worth using.


I Love Math Books

I heard about the I Love Math series through the Living Math website awhile back, but I didn’t immediately bite and buy them.  Despite their praise-filled reviews, I couldn’t quite get a handle on what these looked like and what they might contain.  Because they were sold as Time Life book sets about twenty years ago, I suspect you’re unlikely to find them in many libraries (they weren’t in ours).  However, I finally bought a couple of them – Look Both Ways and Do Octopi Eat Pizza Pie? and was glad I did.

Each book has a lot of different things all around a central theme.  The theme in Look Both Ways is cities.  There are mathy poems and stories that take place in cities, math puzzles and problems, and math games.  Different parts of the book are done by different illustrators and writers in somewhat different styles.  One page is photos of buildings encouraging readers to find different shapes and look at symmetry.  Another page is cartoon animals in a story about directions through the city.  The table of contents as well as small notes at the bottom of some of the pages explain what math is being covered by various activities, such as odd and even numbers, addition and subtraction, geometrical shapes, money and so forth.  In some ways, we’re already past these, which is too bad.  I think they’re mostly K-3rd grade math and some of the things in them will be too simple for Mushroom and BalletBoy.  However, they’re appealing to kids and have a sit down and browse feel.  They introduce some solid concepts so I may get more, especially for Mushroom.  You know, as if we didn’t have enough living math books already!

Best of the Year

I know one is supposed to post these in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, but I didn’t get around to it.  So, here it is, our best children’s books of the year.  For me, I only included books I read for the first time this year, which ruled out a number of wonderful rereads.

Farrar’s Top Five
(fiction only, in no particular order)


Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
middle grades classic
I can’t believe it’s only in the last year that we read half a dozen of the Moomin books (only Moominpappa at Sea was a bust for us).  We love their weird, fantastic, nonsense world.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Cathrynne Valente
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, this book, with its complex language and plot blew me away.  There should be more challenging fantasy like this in middle grades.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
middle grades historical fiction
This award winner brought together so many elements without it feeling forced and managed to wrap everything up neatly while still letting the characters be messily human.  Oh yeah, I reviewed it.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
young adult contemporary fantasy
This satire was probably the best young adult book I read this year.  It was hilarious and insightful, as I said in my review.  Count me as a firm Libba Bray Devotee.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, never have I read a book for children so dark yet so appropriate.  This one continues to push my thinking even months after I read it.  I think it may be my very favorite of the year.

Mushroom’s Top Five


Dodsworth (the whole series) by Tim Egan
easy readers
These are funny.

Your Very Own Robot (Choose Your Own Adventure) by R.A. Montgomery
easy reader
In this book, there’s a kid who makes a robot and does all this crazy stuff with him.  You can make a way through the book and choose which way you want to go to, like if I say, would you like to have ice cream or soda, you can pick which one and go through the book differently, so you can read it as many times as you want.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
This book is about a few kids who go to Arundel for vacation.  And they meet a kid named Jeffery, but his mother is evil and the person she marries is evil too.

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
middle grades classic
This book is little like The Penderwicks but it has not as many parts with sadness or badness inside it.

You Can Cook by Anabel Karmel
A lot of the things inside here, kids can’t cook by themselves.  I love it because it has chicken tikka masala, Swedish meatballs, and burgers.  It also has lots of treats at the end.

BalletBoy’s Top Five
(BalletBoy didn’t have anything to say about his choices.  He was more concerned that I get the appropriate cover images.)


The Fog Mound: The Travels of Thelonius by Susan Schade and Jon Bueller
middle grades fantasy

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
middle grades classic

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
BalletBoy might not have anything to say about it, but I did review it.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi
middle grades graphic novel

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
middle grades fantasy