Saturday, November 26, 2011


Did a little reading between sporting events this weekend…The three books I read range from easy to medium to pretty difficult.

LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE is a book I have been reading about for the past six months. Finally saw it during a trip to the library on Friday. It's an easy chapter book, told in verse, perfect for those kidlets who are just making their way into novels. Eleanor Kane, has had the same babysitter for eight years, actually since she was born. Now Bibi's father is very ill, however, and she must move to Florida to care for him. Eleanor misses Bibi horribly, but comes to love her new sitter, the mancala playing Natalie. A great little book about saying goodbye, about grieving, and about starting over again…

TROUBLEMAKER is Andrew Clements' newest, or maybe just one of his newest. Clayton is a sixth grade troublemaker, with a two inch thick behavior file to prove it. When the book opens, he is in art class, drawing a caricature of his principal, Mr. Kelling, disguised as a donkey (WARNING: the word in used the book is jack***, which some people may find offensive). He can't wait to show the picture to Mitch, his older brother and role model, newly released froma 30-day prison stay. Mitch, however, is not as excited about the picture as Clay thought he would be. It seems that Mitchell has learned some invaluable lessons in prison, and wants his brother to change. That weekend, he takes Clayton to the mall to reshape his image, then it's up to Clay to prove he really has changed. Clayton soon discovers, however, that change is hard and getting people believe you have changed is harder still…

BREADCRUMBS, by Anne Ursu, is the third book I read this weekend. I feel like I need to preface this review with a warning. I am not an allegory reader. I'm one of the few teachers I know who doesn't especially like MANIAC MAGEE. I think it's really well-written, I think it's got great life lessons, I know most people love it, but I just didn't much care for it. I have never read it aloud in a classroom, nor have I handed it to a kid to read. I'm also not a big fantasy lover. I only read 1.5 of the HARRY POTTER books and have only seen a couple of the movies.

Even so, I loved BREADCRUMBS. BREADCRUMBS is the story of Hazel and Jack, ten-year-olds who have been best friends for a long time. This year, however, things have changed . Hazel's mom and dad have split up. Hazel has been forced to leave a private school, where she was viewed as artsy and creative and wonderful, and attend a more traditional public school, where her dreaminess and creativity is viewed much less positively. The only good thing about the public school is that Jack also attends there, but then he stops talking to her…

It turns out that Jack has been hit in the eye by the shard of a mirror, broken by a goblin in a faraway world. Jack's heart is frozen and he becomes a very different person, eventually leaving all that he loves, including Hazel and his family, to follow the Snow Queen into the frozen woods. Hazel, being his best friend, decides she must go after him. On the way, she encounters any number of different friends and enemies, including some who appear to belong in one category, but then end up belonging in the other.

This novel, a takeoff on Han's Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen" is way, way, way too complicated to try to explain. In fact, I'm not even sure that I'm ready to talk about it, but I'm hoping that some other people will read it and be ready to talk about it. A story of grieving and friendship and oh so much more…

Friday, November 25, 2011


Don Graves, my all-time favorite most important teacher ever, always said that poets and scientists have a lot in common, because both force us look at the world so closely, and through whole different eyes. I think of Don's comments often, and I was definitely thinking about them this week as I was reading Jane Yolen's book, BIRDS OF A FEATHER.

The book opens with a foreword by Dr. Donald Kroodsma, who says, "As an ornithologist obsessed with the details in the daily lives of birds, I know these eagles and chickadees and kingfishers…But after absorbing the poems and photographs here, I'll never see these birds again in the same way…"

BIRDS OF A FEATHER is a collection of 14 different two-page spreads, each about a different kind of bird, written by Jane and illustrated with Jason Stemple's gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, nature photography. Some of the poems, like "Haiku for a Cool Kingfisher" are playful. Listen:
Hey, girl, fish lover,
Sitting on the dead gray tree,
Love the blue mohawk.

Or how about Yolen's play on words in "Terns Galore"

"At the seaside, terns galore,
One tern, one tern, one tern more.
I tern. You tern…"

In each poem, Yolen captures the spirit of that particular bird. I love this description of from"Rufous-Sided Towhee."
"As if the painter had run out
Of ordinary brown,
Mixing what little was left
With a bit of orange…"

Each two-page spread also contains an inset box with interesting facts about that bird. Did you know, for instance, that "a black-capped chickadee is a hoarder that hides sides and other foods, each in a different place, and that days and weeks later the chickadee can remember all of these hiding places? Or that a "kingfisher kills or stuns a larger fish by thwacking it against a tree branch or perch?"

And did I mention that each two-page spread has an absolutely magnificent closeup photograph of that bird. The light and shadows and details and lines had me looking and looking and looking again. I'd love to hang the photos on this book in my living room!

Can't wait to share this one with my fourth graders- First, they will flove Yolen's poetry. Secondly, BIRDS will teach kids not only about the different species, but also about how to observe like scientists. Also, they will learn much about the writing of poetry. And then there is the whole realm of art and photography…

POETRY FRIDAY today is at Heidi Mordhort's my juicy little universe

The foreword

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Not sure if I'm just incredibly ignorant, but for as many times as I have been to California, I had never heard of the Watts Towers. Am I the only one? In case you are as clueless as I am, this National Landmark is a series of 17 sculptures, including 3 towers ranging from 55 to 95 feet tall. The sculptures were built by Italian immigrant, Simon Roddia, who spent thirty-four years bending and molding construction rebar, slathering it with mortar, and then embedding broken bits of glass, pottery, and other "junk" he found laying around his neighborhood. Roddia's story is told through the voice of Marguerite, a neighborhood child who was paid a penny per bag for helping Roddia gather the materials for his towers, then later grew up to introduce her children to her neighbor and his artwork.

Two pages of author notes give factual information and photographs about the towers; then another two page spread invites children to create their own "Watts Tower" sculptures out of pipe cleaners, beads, buttons, foam shapes, and magazine clippings. Sounds like big fun to me!

I found DREAM SOMETHING BIG at Tattered Cover. I have to admit, this book caught my eye because of the art. Susan L. Roth has illustrated more than 40 children's books, but is probably best known for LISTEN TO THE WIND. Roth works in collage (one of my favorite mediums) and her illustrations are absolutely gorgeous- intricate, colorful, eye catching, perfect for capturing the story of Roddia's sculptures. A few pages at the end of the book, as well the end pages, contain actual photographs of the Watts Towers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


We are finishing a science unit on "Our Changing Earth." In case anyone doubts my ability to teach science (or spelling!), here is something one of my students wrote on Friday…
The earth is changing all the time. Some changes are slow, but some, like earthquakes are fast. An earthquake is a subject of the earth that happens under the earth's crust and under the ocean. Earthquakes mostly happened in California because thier was a big crack in thier. The thing that causes the earthquakes is the plates under the earth's surface. that can make a earthquake or a tsunami. People say the famous crack is on the Liberty Bell, but that wasen't an earthquake, the real famous crack was in Californa.
How's that for scientific thinking??????

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a sucker for a dog book. I have a couple I think kids are going to love in my CYBILS stack.

In THE HOUND DOG'S HAIKU, Michael J. Rosen, captures the "essence" of twenty different breeds. Listen to this one about one of my favorites…

"Golden Retriever"

stick like a wide grin

panting, chest-deep, in the lake

eye of each ripple

And while I much prefer big dogs to little ones, the poem about Parson Russell Terriers (I'm thinking those might be about the same as Jack Russells) is probably my favorite in the entire book.

"Parson Russell Terrier"

elbow-deep in dirt

nothing to bury but hours

holes are the treasures

The haiku are followed by two pages of doggy facts, some specific to the breeds, but more just general information. Did you know, for instance, that humans have 6 million olfactory receptors in their noses, but blood hounds have 230 million? Or that schnauzers are named for the German word for muzzle? Rosen's haiku are illustrated by Mary Azarian’s gorgeously detailed woodcuts.

We are two weeks into a study of poetry right now, I'm thinking that my fourth graders are going to love comparing HOUND DOG HAIKU to Andrew Clement’s very different DOGKU.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I read poetry to my fourth graders on an almost daily basis. So far this year, they have heard/read poets like Douglas Florian, J. Patrick Lewis, Anna Grossnickle Hines, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. While they enjoy lots of different kinds of poetry, if I'm really honest, their favorite poems are the funny ones. I've just found a book, then, that I think my kids are going to love.

SPINSTER GOOSE is a series of 27 poems about badly behaved children. The first poem, "An Introduction from Mother Goose," lays the groundwork for the book:

" There are many naughty children
far beyond my expertise.
I tried my best to help them
but the problems would not cease…"

Mother Goose decides to send these naughty children to her sister, Spinster Goose. Old Spinster Goose has the perfect consequences:

The pinchers get pinched
And the pokers get poked.
The biters get bit,
And the smokers get smoked.
The takers get taken.
The sordid get sore.
The shakers get shaken
right down to their core.

Each poem is adapted from or based on a well-known (ok, maybe some are not so well known, at least not to some kids) nursery rhyme. "The Gum Chewer," for example, comes from "See Saw Marjory Daw." "The Swearer," which I know my kids will love, is a take off on "Baa Baa Black Sheep:"
Baa Baa Black Sheep
loves to curse and swear
Here a BLEAT. There a BLEAT.
BLEAT BLEAT everywhere…"

There are poems about bullies, dirty kids, substandard subs, cheaters, nose pickers, interrupters, fibbers, and even one for the custodian. I know my kids are going to love every one!

I checked this book out of the library, but it's definitely one I have to own!
POETRY FRIDAY is hosted by April Halprin Wayland at Teaching Authors.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

NEVER FORGOTTEN- Patricia McKissack, Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon

I have been a CYBILS judge for the past four years. In 2008, I judged YA nonfiction, then moved to Elementary Nonfiction for 2009 and 2010. This year, I'm judging poetry, and to be really honest, I'm more than a little overwhelmed/intimidated. How in the world can I ever begin to capture the magnificence of books like Patricia McKissack's NEVER FORGOTTEN?

In an author's note, McKissack says that NEVER FORGOTTEN began when she wondered how African parents grieved and remembered the children who had been captured by slave traders. She turned to African history and folktales. From those roots came NEVER FORGOTTEN, the story of Dinga, a blacksmith from the Mende tribe. Dinga's wife dies in childbirth, and Dinga goes against tribal customs and decides he will raise his son, Mustafa. He calls on the four elements-- Earth, Fire, Water and Wind-- to help him raise his son. When Mustafa is twelve, he is kidnapped by slave traders. Dinga searches for his son, grieves for him, and then calls on the Elements to discover his son's fate…

I guess I will just start by saying that NEVER FORGOTTEN is magnificent in every way imaginable. McKissack tells Dinga and Mustafa's story through a series of approximately 20 poems. The poems are a cross between history and folklore, with African drum sound effects. Listen for a minute…
Water Maiden sang to the boy child
An old, old lullaby:
A baby has come.
He has come,
And happiness has come.
A boy has come.
He has come.
And laughter has come.
A son has come.
He has come,
And beauty has come.

When the child gurgled in reply,
She tickled his toes and said,
"Even now I can hear music in his voice.
Shum Da Da We Da Shum Da Da We Da."

Then, as if all of this glorious language was not enough, the book is illustrated by Caldecott winners Leo and Diane Dillon. Their woodcut illustrations are absolutely gorgeous- incredible detail, rich color, varied page design- possibly even worthy of another Caldecott consideration?

I will definitely be reading this to my fourth graders. I could also see using it in a high school or college history class. It's just about perfect…

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Mattie Breen is about to start fifth grade. In a new school. Mattie's mom lives by a motto, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." And so Mattie and her mom have moved from place to place to place. This time, they have ended up living with Mattie's Uncle Potluck, who is the custodian at the elementary school.

Mattie is painfully, painfully shy. And terrified of starting at a new school. She has decided that she will deal with lunch and recess, problematic times during the day, by becoming a custodial apprentice to her uncle. In the weeks before school starts, she follows him around the elementary school, jotting down all of his "custodial wisdom" in a notebook. Mattie believes that becoming an indispensable custodial assistant will save her from having to interact with kids in her new school.

Mattie takes notes because Mattie is a writer, not only of custodial notes, but also of stories. Or at least she was a writer of stories until a bully in a previous elementary school, destroyed her notebook. Her plan seems perfect, until Uncle Potluck gets hurt on the job…

I loved this book. Linda Urban did an amazing job of capturing the inner workings of a really, really shy child. How the meanness of one bully destroyed her. How afraid she was to even try to make friends. I loved the wisdom of Uncle Potluck. Loved how Mattie finally gathered up the bravery to make a friend.

A terrific read. One upper intermediate teachers have to have for all of the Mattie's in their classes.