Tag Archives: children’s books

Writing Projects: Poetry Collection

I wrote a little while ago about how after we finally finished up all the projects in Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing I decided to keep coming up with more for us. While sometimes it’s nice to have a writing project that dovetails with another subject, a co-op topic, a contest, or a real world need like writing a letter, it’s also nice to have writing projects that are focused on writing and language as their own interesting things. The projects in Partnership Writing were great like that. We played around with secret codes, wrote little reports using the five question words, made up our own island chains and wrote about them, made catalogs to sell weird products, and more.

I posted already about the thumbprint biographies we made. They were fun and short. Before that, we did a poetry collection project for our writing project and it was also fun, so I thought I’d post about that as well.

Step One: Poetry Teas and a pile of books

As one might expect, we started this project with a poetry tea and actually held a couple more than usual during the course of the month. We don’t do poetry tea every week, but this forced us almost to do so, which was nice. In case you don’t know what poetry tea is, it’s when you pull out your pretty china, clean off the mess from the table, make or buy something tasty and sweet, and sit around for an hour reading poetry with the kids. In our house, we take turns reading poems and sometimes discuss the poetry as well.

In preparation for this project, I checked out a slightly larger pile of poetry books, thinking especially about exploring different forms. These included:

The Creature Carnival by Marilyn Singer
This book, in addition to just being fun, has poems with great varied and interesting rhyme schemes. Many of Singer’s others books are similar in how they use different forms. Her Mirror, Mirror is a book of reverso poems that we would have checked out as well if we hadn’t already read it a million times.

Dogku by Andrew Clements
This picture book tells the story of a stray dog taken in by a family with a series of haiku.

The Oxford Book of Story Poems
A nice collection with appealing poems of a variety of lengths and from a variety of time periods.

A Kick in the Head by Paul Janeczko
I don’t love this collection that much, but it’s perfect for this project because it has examples of more than two dozen different poetry forms.

African Acrostics by Avis Harley
Exactly what it sounds like. Acrostic poems about African animals, but very well done.

Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto
A collection of odes to childhood all set in a Latino neighborhood.

There are plenty of other options out there, of course. I never try to overthink book selections too much. I generally rely on the library and try new things often. While I learn about new books from blogs and recommendations, I find even more by just running my fingers over the stacks.

Step Two: Write lots of poems

photo 3 (5)Armed with various poetry books filled with a wide variety of example poems, we began to write our own poems. We tried a couple of different poetry forms for our writing time a week. We didn’t do everything we could have done and if you poke around online you can find dozens more potential poetry writing exercises, these are just the ones we chose.

photo 4 (2)I’ll add that for whatever reason, despite the fact that I have read tons of totally free form modern poetry to my kids, they are very stuck in the poems should rhyme mindset and this didn’t really break them of it. BalletBoy even wanted his haikus to rhyme, despite me only reading unrhymed haikus as examples (because when have you ever read a rhyming haiku anyway?) and entreating him that it was really not intended to rhyme, he still wrote two that had internal rhymes. In the end, I think that’s okay. I once attended a how to teach poetry to kids conference where the speaker bemoaned the kids who wrote cutesy rhymed poems as having gotten bad instruction and several times slammed the famed children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. But kids like mine love Jack Prelutsky. If that’s the kind of poetry that really speaks to them, then of course that’s what they’re going to want to write. And they should.

  1. Haikus
    A haiku is 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. We read several traditional haiku, as well as the book Dogku. I emphasized how a haiku is really a quick thought, a simple reflection. Haikus are often about how something looks or feels. They’re often about nature or everyday life. We practiced chin wags to measure syllables, just a reminder. Then we each, me included, wrote about half a dozen or so and shared them as we finished. They’re so quick and easy to try, even if not every effort is a stunning success.
  2. Couplets
    A couplet is two lines with the same number of syllables and an end rhyme. We looked for pairs of rhymed lines in Marilyn Singer’s poetry books. We made up couplets aloud for awhile then turned to writing them. I had not intended for this to be the case, but both boys immediately wanted to write longer poems comprised of couplets so I let them do so.
  3. Found Poems
    A found poem can be made a couple of ways. One way is to photocopy a page from a book and mark out words in black marker, creating a poem out of the words that you leave unmarked out. We used the second way, which is to make a poem from words found and torn out of magazines. We all did this assignment. I had a lot of fun making a poem about hide and seek after I saw that phrase repeated in an old ad campaign in a magazine. BalletBoy found words about food and Mushroom clipped words about animals and put them together to make a poem. This was a relatively long activity, but once the poem was finished, there was no revision needed, and it certainly looked cool made of all those cut out words.
  4. Odes
    An ode is written to praise someone or something. To get kids writing odes, I think it’s fun to encourage them to write an ode to something they really love but is unexpected, like their favorite shoes or a chocolate bar or a computer game (imagine how many “Ode to Minecraft”s we could get). Mushroom immediately started in on an ode to the inventors of the computer. The only real rule I gave them was to write lines of praise, but Mushroom set his into couplets.
  5. Acrostic
    Acrostics are those poems where the first letter of each line spells another word, typically the theme of the poem. We started this one by reading acrostic poems. It’s typical for kids to write acrostics about themselves, but I let them choose anything they wanted. Both the boys wrote a few, all of them with short 4 and 5-letter words.
  6. Free Verse
    I introduced this by trying to get the boys to choose a color to write about. Other suggestions I’ve seen for starting a poem from scratch include writing about the seasons, or about a specific memory, or about a meal. They tried, however, in the end, this exercise was mostly a flop for us. They were so attached to rhymes and forms that this one didn’t fly.
  7. Limerick
    People associate limericks with bad rhymes, but since my kids were so excited by really specific forms, I thought they would enjoy this one since it was still short enough and light enough for them to try out, unlike something like a sonnet. In fact, they enjoyed writing them very much, even though the results were very silly.
  8. Other ideas…
    We also read some story poems and talked about epic poetry and tried our hands at writing a story poem. BalletBoy loved it and included his in his collection. However, partway into the exercise it felt like it was probably too big a thing for me to have asked and it was just a fluke that it took off so well with one kid. So maybe only a good one to try with real poetry lovers. That’s all we did, but there are plenty of other poetry exercises and forms out there. For younger kids, a diamante is a really good form to play with (we have previously written those a few times). Cinquains are similar to diamantes and also have a very set form where kids can fill in words, so they can also be a good choice. Concrete poems, the ones that form a shape, can also be excellent and there are lots of good books of concrete poetry to share with kids. And, of course, there are many other forms of poetry and starting points. For us, the whole idea was just to try different things and play around with poetry forms.

Step Three: Choose and Revise

photo 2 (14)After doing two or three days of poetry writing exercises a week for about three weeks, we were left with a nice pile of rough draft poems. I told the kids to choose three or four poems they wanted to revise and polish for their collections. Some of the poems, we decided were fine with very little change. BalletBoy chose a haiku that was lovely just the way it was. Mushroom chose his limerick and we agreed that changing it beyond fixing the spelling and capitalization would ruin the rhyme scheme and the form.

For other choices, we agreed that revision was important. BalletBoy’s acrostic about birds was good, but we agreed to look through the thesaurus for stronger word choices. Mushroom’s set of couplets about a carnival were cool, but we agreed they needed a couple more in order to feel like a full poem and make it clear that it was about the whole carnival. He added a couplet about another ride and one about the carnival food: “Have a hot dog and funnel cake / Or try a burger and cheap steak.” We spent a couple of days working on revising all of the poems, then fixing spelling as the kids and I typed them up.

Step Four: Publish and Share

photo 1 (14)

Once they were typed up, I let them put each poem on a separate page and choose its font and formatting and add images. BalletBoy made his whole collection this way, except for his found poem, which was already made up of clipped magazine words and phrases. Mushroom left room to draw illustrations on one of his pages. They each made a cover and we stapled the poems together. Of course, you could make a little book or put them in a nice folder. We’ve done things like that for many other writing projects, but this time, after all the work on the writing, we kept it pretty simple.

Finally, the boys both proudly read their poems to the Husband, who thought they were pretty cool. Overall, this project came out much better than I could have wished. I don’t think either of my boys are “natural” poets, whatever that means. However, this was a fun way to play with words and think about language and strong words and phrases, as well as creative rhymes.

Anatomy of a Project: Houses

In the fall, I committed to trying out doing projects more with the kids and we tried a few things had one real success. With all out outside commitments, we have had to dial back and simplify and drop all the “extras” projects (we’re still doing some math and writing projects), but I wanted to back up and blog about our resources and the way this tiny germ spread down rabbit trails.

We started with a board of project ideas and “houses and architecture” was one of them. After some discussion, we picked it as one of the things we wanted to try out so I started gathering resources to try with the kids.

The first thing I pulled out, which I had been hoping to try, was the book A Blueprint for Geometry about designing your own house and learning about geometry at the same time. I was excited by that, though the kids were less so. However, as I started trying to organize it, I also got less excited. The book, frankly, was terrible. We loved the ideas about math and playground design in Designing Playgrounds from the same series, but this one, by a different author, was just not enough information or structure. With the kids not at all keen to do it, we dumped it. I asked if they wanted to build model houses or design a house and they weren’t interested. It turned into a dead end.

Next up, I brought home a pile of library books and the first one we studied was Housebuilding for Children. This delightful book from the 70’s (and I mean, so from the 70’s) is like a free range parent’s dream with several plans for tiny play houses for kids to build themselves. We got the materials to make the balloon frame house and dove in. It was really hard. I think the type of wood we got splintered too easily. Some of the materials in the book weren’t available. But in the end, the kids, mostly on their own, build the frame of the house! For real. Then cold weather hit and we didn’t finish it. It’s so small that I’m not sure if they will finish it or not (we may try to donate it to a friend). But it was really a rewarding part of the project. It took a lot of perseverance to do all that hammering and building.

housebuilding

I took out a bunch of books about buildings and architecture. I started with David Macauley’s Unbuilding, in which he imagines the Empire State Building being taken apart. This turned out to be really disturbing as a concept so we didn’t finish the book. Not only that, but the kids both agreed that they weren’t as interested in big famous buildings like the Pyramids and the Empire State Building. Instead, they wanted to focus on houses. We talked about the House and Home exhibit at the National Building Museum, which we have visited several times, and began to think together about some elements of that, such as different styles of homes and different needs people have for their homes.

I returned the buildings books and got a second pile of books about houses. See Through History: Houses and Homes was the first resource along with some other books about the history of different houses and simple picture books with images of houses around the world. I read some aloud and the kids read others on their own and wrote narrations about the different kinds of houses through time. Next, I found what is probably one of the greatest books I’ve found for a topic, Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh. This was an incredibly detailed picture book published by the National Historic Trust. I mentioned it in our book round up a few months ago. It covered American architecture styles from colonial to the present and everything in between with great drawings and a really well-done frame of a story about a boy whose family is restoring an old Victorian. The kids were really riveted by the book.

That led us in a few directions. I looked for other books about homes and architecture. We got I Know That Building, which turned out to be a really cute book with some cool activities, but aimed toward slightly younger kids. I also bought the Dover Coloring Book called The American House on a whim. That was much more useful. The kids and I all enjoyed coloring several pages in it and talking about the colors and designs of the homes. Finally, one more book in our library pile, The House I Live In: At Home in America, had a cool set of narratives of kids talking about their homes all over the country. The kids read the book and wrote their own pieces about our house.

That led us to think about our neighborhood and home. We investigated our own century-old house and did some activities to think about the details. We drew the house and did some art activities. Then we played around with old online maps of the city. We found our block going back as far as we could until we couldn’t find our block anymore on the oldest set of maps. It didn’t exist! Then we went to the special local research library and found the “birth certificate” for our house and had it printed up, as well as the name of the original owner. Back home, the kids learned to use the online newspaper archives to look up our address and the original owner. We didn’t find too much, but we did learn that the original owner had been German and later became a middle school principal. It was really exciting for the kids to make their own discoveries as they searched and zoomed in on the old newspaper pages from nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, I took out a pile of books about various architects. Most of them ended up unread, but BalletBoy read one about Frank Gehry and loved it (and asked to go to Spain… hm…). We also watched a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright and I promised the kids a trip to Falling Water that still needs to be delivered. I took out a number of books with activities about Frank Lloyd Wright as well as other architects, such as a book about Greene and Greene. However, none of the activities really resonated with the kids, so we didn’t do much of them.

When winter arrived, the project sort of naturally petered out. However, it was really neat to have this focus on a “big” topic for a solid couple of months. The project brought in some math, a lot of research skills, some hands on skills, a lot of teamwork, some reading, some writing, a surprising amount of history, and some art. The kids had to bear with me as I took us on some detours and assigned things like writing and reading to go with this project and I had to follow them and shut down some of my visions for what the project could be and follow the things they were interested in.

Overall, it was a good experience. While we’re taking a hiatus from doing another big, all-encompassing project like this, I’m excited to try another one in the future.

Early Winter Books

Well, it took me a little while to get back to the book roundup. Sorry, folks. We were not reading a ton in the last couple of months, in large part because we’ve been so busy. It’s hard to read before bed when you’re not getting home until past bedtime! But there have been a few books fit in, though you’ll note there are more of my reviews than the kids’ this roundup. They did a lot of rereading old Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. Ah well. Probably about right for hectic times.

Read Aloud
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Straight off enjoying another Chrestomanci books, we dove into this one. It’s typical Diana Wynne Jones, with a twisty plot and lots of complexity. If you don’t know the Chrestomanci books, they take place is a series of connected worlds. In one world, Chrestomanci is the enchanter with nine lives whose job is to make sure everyone uses magic fairly and follows the rules. This book tells the story of how Christopher Chant became Chrestomanci, though not before he gets neglected by his parents and then caught up in a magic organized crime syndicate run by his uncle. Chrestomanci, that is, Christopher in this book, is such a great character. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always managing to come off like a jerk. In this book, you can see how he became the mysterious and witty character he is in the other novels. Mushroom and BalletBoy have been enjoying this one so much that I have a feeling we may read Conrad’s Fate, one of the later books where Christopher is also a child, very soon.

Another Read Aloud
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin

This is the second book in the Winston Breen series. We loved the first one over the summer and the kids enjoyed this one just as much. In this story, puzzle lover Winston gets put in a team to win a bunch of money for his school from a snack food company with a quirky owner. Teams must run from puzzle to puzzle, solving them all to win the prize, but one team is cheating, trying to knock the other teams out of the race. As with the previous book, there are usually two puzzles per chapter – one that’s integral to the story and one that’s just a diversion. They’re number, maze, word, and other sorts of puzzles and generally very innovative and fun. Also pleasing is that the story isn’t just a structure for the puzzles. It’s also pretty well-written in its own right. Kids who enjoy “everyday kid” type books should definitely give this series a try.

School Read
Murderous Maths: Secret Life of Codes by Kjartan Poskitt

I really do love the Murderous Maths books, even though they always take us forever to get through. They take us forever because they’re packed with serious, brain-bending information and because we always have to stop over and over in the middle of reading them to figure out the math and try out the various things they suggest. This book was no different. I have the Murderous Maths box set, but realized recently that there are a bunch more of these out there not in the set! Several of them, including this one, are easier than some of the ones in the set (which go up to calculus, for goodness sakes). This one was particularly packed full of good activities and lots of complex ideas about how to make codes. Overall, a fun read.

Audiobook
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It took a lot of strong arming to get the boys to listen to this one in the car. I’m not sure what was so forbidding about it, but for some reason it did not catch their fancy. And the tropes of high fantasy, which abound in this story, are less familiar to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who have cut their teeth mostly on the low fantasy worlds like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones sort of books. However, they slowly sank into it. The narration on the audiobook is really wonderful. And the story is just as great as I recall from my own youth. Taran is a lowly assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest to find his charge, who happens to be an oracular pig (she can tell the future). On his way he meets a heroic prince, a king who wishes he were a bard, a snappy girl who is training to be a sorceress, and a strange but loyal creature who latches on to him. It’s the start of a great series that is based loosely on Welsh mythology and had me obsessed with all things Welsh as a kid.

BalletBoy’s Read
Heads or Tails by Jack Gantos

After we saw Gantos speak earlier this year at the National Book Festival, it became clear that the boys were determined to read more of his works. I happened to have this one on the shelf and BalletBoy decided to read it. It proved to be a pretty quick read for him and he says he liked it very much, in part because it’s very funny. He keeps reading me little snippets that honestly, make no sense, but which send him into peals of giggles. Like many of the author’s other works, he, himself is the main character, though one hopes that many of the wacky events have been exaggerated for literary purposes.

Farrar’s YA Read
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I really enjoyed this YA book about twin artists. It’s told in two perspectives at two different times. Noah tells the story of the events leading up to the time when their mother dies just before and after they turn fourteen. Twin sister Jude steps in with a very different voice two years later. Noah is struggling with figuring out he’s gay, trying to establish a relationship with his father, trying to understand his mother, and falling in love for the first time. While he struggles, Jude seems happy and popular, but two years later, Jude is at an art high school completely distraught over her mother’s death, barely speaking to her twin, and superstitious to the point of mental illness while Noah is the one that seems happy and well-adjusted, though completely different from his younger self. The contrast between the two parts makes the story feel like a mystery, compelling you to understand what happened between the two characters. Great writing certainly doesn’t hurt either. Nelson’s style, especially how she described those teenage feelings of anger and depression, really resonated with me. One of the best YA books I’ve read this year.

Farrar’s Other YA Read
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl and her super wealthy family and their summers spent on their very own island retreat. Main character Cady loves her cousins and their friend Gat, with whom she has a budding romance, while her mother and aunts bicker all summer. Cady has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember some of the previous summers, which makes for both a mystery and a lot of really short, vaguely poetic sentences apparently. There’s a big twist ending, though having read that there was a “big twist ending” I admit that I saw the twist coming, at least somewhat. This book has made a bunch of best of lists for YA this year but I’m mystified as to why. The upper class characters are mostly spoiled jerks and I didn’t find reading about them particularly innovative or new. The mystery is sort of interesting, but the writing nearly killed me. It wasn’t beautiful, it was just sparse, disjointed, and sometimes confusing. This definitely wasn’t on my best of lists.

Farrar’s Graphic Novel Read
Neurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella

I was intrigued by this graphic novel about the inner workings of the brain, which I saw on a best science books of the year list. The book’s design is lovely – hardcover with shiny silver designs. Plus, the art is really approachable. My reaction to the book itself was a bit mixed. On the one hand, the narrative was sort of weak and I had hoped that the information would be a bit more in depth. As it is, I actually knew most of this information about how the brain and nerves work. On the other hand, for what it is, the narrative isn’t terrible. Writing a vehicle for information story is always tricky, after all. I liked the ending a lot, actually. And with a different eye, such as toward using this as a great introduction for teens or really anyone without any lay knowledge, it’s really good. So I thought I’d include it here in case anyone has any middle or high schoolers ready to learn a bit about neuroscience. Overall, I like that there are a growing body of science comics out there. I was unimpressed by the Max Axiom series, but this book can join the work of graphic novelist Jay Hossler as a useful way to think about its subject matter in comic.

October Books

Time for our monthly book roundup. What we’re reading and liking and occasionally not liking at all.

School Read
Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh

It’s been a few months since I felt a big, strong wow about a nonfiction book we read for school, but I give this book a huge wow. It’s out of print and a little older, but if, for some reason, you decide, as we did, to embark on a study of houses or architecture anything along those lines, then you absolutely must have this book. It tells the imaginary story of a boy whose parents have just purchased a ramshackle Second Empire Victorian in the midwest with the intention to restore it to its former glory. Curious about how houses have changed over time, the narrator reflects on the houses owned by his aunt (a Brooklyn brownstone) and uncle (a San Francisco late Victorian) and cousins (a colonial farmhouse). That leads to a conversation with his grandfather, who grew up in a Sears home and eventually purchased a post-war suburban ranch home. Then with his mother, whose ancestors were from the south and lived in Greek revival plantation style homes. Basically, the whole thing just spirals from there into every sort of house style you can imagine and every relative and ancestor the narrator has seems to live in a different sort of home. All this is explored while his new home is being renovated. The illustrations were incredibly detailed but also accessible to kids. The story is a bit cram everything in, but somehow the book makes it work. I had a slight quibble with the book’s adoration of Victorians and mild disdain for Greek revivals, but I suppose everyone has to have a favorite style. Really a great long form picture book and very worth seeking out.

Audiobook
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

So, so funny! I had skimmed over it when it first came out and I know what Gaiman’s sense of humor is like, so I knew we would enjoy this one, but the audio version, read by Gaiman himself, was just divine. The story set up is that a boy and his sister are home with their father while their mother is away. There’s no milk in the house, so their father runs to the corner store to get some for their cereal. Returning much later than expected, he begins to tell a whopper of a tale about what took him so long, a story that involves alien invaders, a time traveling dinosaur, and an exploding volcano god, among other things. At end twist and turn, the father makes sure that the kids know that even know he may have been fighting for his life or dangling by a rope, fortunately, the milk was safe in his pocket, though it occasionally emerges to save the day or fulfill a prophesy. The book is incredibly short. We listened to the whole audio version on one field trip to go apple picking (though, to be fair, those apples were really far away) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kids more disappointed to finish an audiobook (except for maybe Fake Mustache, which is tied for funniest audiobook ever).

Mushroom’s Read
From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

We adored Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which we listened to on audiobook earlier this year, and we had the great pleasure of seeing Gantos speak at the National Book Festival. However, I have to admit that Mushroom hasn’t just loved this sequel, which he says is slower and not as funny as the first book. Having not read it all myself but having tasted the beginning, I’m finding this hard to believe, but I said I’d be sure to include his take. The first book was a quirky murder mystery. This sequel picks up where the previous book left off on the trail of the murderer. The author’s alter-ego, the narrator of the story, heads out on a road trip with his elderly neighbor to get to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral and possibly catch the murderer. Even if Mushroom didn’t love it, I may pick up our library copy and finish it myself.

BalletBoy’s Read
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

BalletBoy really likes to pick out random library books which he judges by the cover. He liked the stylish western cover on this one, so he decided it was the book for him. I have read some of Lawrence’s better known Roman Mysteries, but I haven’t read this one. However, BalletBoy gives it a big thumbs up. He says it was funny and that he liked the mystery element. It’s part of a series that takes place in the old west, following a boy who becomes a detective. In this first book in the series, he is on the run for his life after his parents were killed and must escape from the titular deadly desperadoes, who are after his mother’s only valuable property.

Light Reading
Return to Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

While everyone waited for the new Wimpy Kid, both boys read this book on the side. Mushroom read the first book last month and BalletBoy joined him in reading it this month. It’s in that same snarky Wimpy Kid style with lots of pictures about a typical middle school boy and typical middle school embarrassments and misadventures. The main character, Tad, keeps a blog where he tells his thoughts and jokes. A quick, funny, light read aimed at boys. Yet another I didn’t read myself (this blog post seems full of those this go around) but I heard a lot of the jokes read aloud when someone thought they were really funny. Not high literature, but a good way to pass an evening read for this age.

Farrar’s YA Read
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in Yancey’s YA trilogy about an alien invasion on earth. Aliens in ships high above the earth slowly destroy humanity in waves, first knocking out technology, then flooding the coasts and sending a plague. With each successive wave, more people die. When the first book picks up, the aliens seem to have begun the fifth wave, possibly taking human bodies, but what exactly is going on is left somewhat unclear. While it’s an alien tale, the story has a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie feel. This second book didn’t compel me as much as the first book at the start. While the first book stayed for a long time with protagonist Cassie before moving on to just a couple of others, this book jumped around more from the beginning and I admit I didn’t love Ringer’s voice at first and she really dominates this book. However, by the second long chunk of her voice, she began to really grow on me and the ending had me interested again as a potential twist is brought out. What if the aliens aren’t alien at all? Yancey is a great writer who knows how to tell an edge of your seat tale. This is a dark series, even for the dystopian filled YA of these days, but it’s worth reading.

September (and some August) Books

Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!

Audio Book
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.

Another Audio Book
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.

Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile
Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka
Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure
 by Stephen Pastis

Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.

Graphic Novel
The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings

The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.

School Reading
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.

More School Reading
The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine

I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.

Our Best Loved History Resources

As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.

Story of the World
This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.

Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.

The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.

Liberty’s Kids
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.

USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.

David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.

David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.

History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Field Trips
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.

Historical Fiction
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.

Solace from Books

I almost never write about current events or politics here.  However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days.  From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems.  I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.

Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this.  Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be.  One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.

Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams.  I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class.  We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.

One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968.  It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know.  While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little.  They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.

The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane.  If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person.  “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know.  “Why would that mean other black people were bad?”  Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand.  Why would that be a problem?  Why wouldn’t she have a black doll?  Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others.  Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?”  These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.

Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids.  They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar.  Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids.  The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.

Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can.  It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads.  This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up.  I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.

 

Summer Books

I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads.  Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.

RevolutionRead Aloud
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer.  It’s the second book in her 60’s trilogy.  The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own.  Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history.  It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution.  Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother.  She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote.  Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story.  Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother.  Mostly I loved the book.  All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes.  However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large.  When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them.  As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced.  They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give.  Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.

Dead End in NorveltAudio Book
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed.  It continued our 60’s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period.  The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun.  Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig.  She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery.  What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly?  Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off?  This book of misadventures had us in stitches.  The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.

Savage Shapes (Murderous Maths)School Read
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it.  I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school.  However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math.  The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult.  It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school.  It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids.  There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked.  We did most of these and it really livened up the book.  This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.

The Lemonade WarBalletBoy’s Read
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures.  The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley.  He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground.  The next was about a classroom crime and punishment.  He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell.  Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.

11 Birthdays (Willow Falls, #1)Mushroom’s Read
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try.  It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best.  In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out.  Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up.  I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it.  The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (NERDS, #1)Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it.  I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him.  While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try.  If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear.  They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series.  It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan (Book 2)Devoured Read
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books.  However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities.  They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading.  However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series.  And now…  this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe.  This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book.  The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out.  Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.

Farrar’s Read
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie.  I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection.  However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids.  Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible.  The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining.  The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone.  I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year.  My goal is to read one per month.  One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list.  The book would also make a good read aloud for kids.  I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

CountdownAudiobook
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60’s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60’s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60’s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.

The Real Reason We Miss Reading Rainbow

reading

There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back.  Sadly, it’s not.  Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms.  Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.

For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers.  Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.

There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post).  In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important.  Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.

In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics.  Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so.  Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read.  PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.

However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.

Reading is stories.  Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time.  Reading is poetry.  Reading is escape.  Reading is finding yourself in a book.  Reading is learning.  Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are.  Reading is inspiration.  Reading is fun.  Reading is meaning.

Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning.  It’s just mechanics.  It’s the notes, not the song.  Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.

When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do.  Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics.  However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives.  In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important.  That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.

So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words.  Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light.  Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out.  Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go.  Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.