Posts tagged ‘elementary’

September 15, 2014

dancing, dazzling Josephine Baker

by Wendy Lawrence

I love a book that you can’t easily categorize, and this is one of them. At first glance, you think it’s a picture book, bright and boldly covered. But it’s also thick, almost like a middle grade book, and is 104 pages. When you look at the words, you realize it’s a kind of poem, the whole book written in beautiful language that mimics the dancing of its protagonist, Josephine Baker.

josephineTitle: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
: Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrator: Christian Robinson (who has worked for Pixar and Sesame Workshop)
Genre: Nonfiction, Poetry, Art, Dance, African-American
Ages: 7 – 10, but younger children could be read a few pages and older children could use as a research text

This book tells of the life of an amazing woman who ran away from the slums of St. Louis with a dance troupe and made her way to Carnegie Hall and theatres in Paris. She fought tremendous racism, performing at clubs where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door, places she wouldn’t have been allowed to eat. Josephine Baker ended up leaving for Europe where she felt better received and found tremendous success. The book doesn’t dance around any issues: it talks about the Ku Klux Klan, World War II. It talks about how she bleached her skin with lemon juice and how, even after beings so well received in France, she was called a “savage” and a “devil” in Austria. Always wanting to please, she dressed the next night in all white and sang a gorgeous lullaby, a Negro Spiritual called “Pretty Little Baby”. It worked. They called her an “angel”.

Josephine Baker adopted twelve children throughout her life, her famous “Rainbow Tribe”. They came from eleven countries and Josephine brought each of them up celebrating their own religion–Buddhist, Shinto, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and animist. She had a gorgeous and interesting life. She was still performing in her seventies when she died in her sleep after a long night of dancing.

The press release that comes with the book dutifully mentions how it is perfect for February (African-American history month) and April (Poetry month), but seriously, let’s hope it’s read all year long. I love that you can use this book to introduce some very heavy topics to your child, but in a very colorful, happy, positive way, not only because of the colors in the book, but because of the colorful, energetic character who titles it.

August 23, 2013

Be someone else. Then understand them.

We know books can take us places. We know they can introduce us to new people. But we often overlook the fact that they allow us to be  someone else. Not just to meet them, gaze into their life for a day. But actually to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes. Meet new people through the lens of the new person we suddenly find ourselves being. And the trend of first person narrators makes this even more possible.

I have a secret hatred for first person narrators because I often think you lose a lot without seeing the whole picture. However, when done right, they do lend a sense of immediacy and intimacy that you cannot get any other way.

piggyTitle: Piggy (originally “Big” in Dutch)
Author: Mireille Geus
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age: Late elementary, Middle

Piggy is a new best friend (of sorts) to the “different” and “special” Dizzy. Or Lizzy, as the autistic girl is not really ever called. The book unfolds as Dizzy, used to being left out of pretty much everything, suddenly finds herself in a tight, and sometimes intense, friendship with the new girl in school. The friendship spirals out of control as the story is told both in the present (in which Dizzie finds herself in a LOT of trouble) and the past (in which Dizzie tells the story as the trouble unfolds).

Is it unfair to say that the book reminds me of a few others (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Out of my Mind) because of the special-needs status of the narrator? Perhaps. But like those two books, this story brings us one step closer to understanding someone that those more neurotypical readers might have a hard time understanding.

Let me be clear: this book didn’t do well (at least in the states–it was translated from Dutch). I bought it for $1 on one of those outdoor racks at the bookstore. But I liked this book. It was a fast and fun read with a good story and good characters. It’s short and nothing completely unexpected, but good nevertheless. It would be a great read for any kid just because it’s a good story, but I like that it will give those readers a closer understanding of someone different from them. If your child is struggling to understand a classmate or get along with a new potential friend, this would be all the more appropriate for them. Definitely read the book along with them and help them to notice how Dizzy reacts to the world around her and how that makes her different. How does it help her or hurt her at different points in the story? This book will help readers carry these images back to school where they can use them to forge a better understanding of their peers.

October 22, 2012

Did you notice it’s an election year?

Are you going to be yelling at your TV tonight and want your kids to understand why? Here are my picks for some great election and political books to start talking to your kids about what it means to live in a democracy. (And no, you don’t have to start with negative campaigning, although it appears that’s a big part of it now…)

Check out my book list and activity ideas over at ParentMap.

September 24, 2012

A free book for your scientific (or unscientific) girl


Getting girls into science is a big deal. I wrote an article about this in ParentMap after a great study was published by the AAUW (American Association of University Women). One of the biggest factors they talked about was having role models for girls in science–that girls didn’t see themselves in the typical movie scientist (think old guy with white hair). So maybe reading Ivy and Bean is all they need! If you think so, and want a chance for your own daughter or student, just comment below!

Here are last week’s winners:

Ivy and Bean book: HeyLookAWriterFellow

Ivy and Bean mini notes: Jasmine, Carol, Tania

Title: Ivy and Bean What’s the Big Idea?
Author: Annie Barrows
Illustrator: Sophie Blackall
Genre: Fiction
Age: Early Elementary

And if you want to win this next book, What’s the Big Idea, Just comment below! Runners-up get a set of cool mini-notes.

June 7, 2012

You don’t have to wear your glove on the correct hand to read these books

Is there anything better than standing in the outfield? The sun on your back and a glove in your hand? If you are a baseball fan, you might not think so. But I think I recently found something slightly better. And that is standing in the outfield, the sun on your back, telling the five-year-old next to you that their glove is on the wrong hand and they should probably switch it over before the batter swings, even though the likelihood of the batter connecting with the ball–much less hitting it to the outfield, even though the outfield in this case is about 18 inches behind second base–are, frankly, low.

I just completed my first (of what I hope will be many) season of assistant tee-ball coaching. It was really the most fun thing a person can do with a few free weekend hours. And so in honor of that, I’d like to suggest a few of my favorite baseball books for all ages, starting with the newborns and going all the way up to the adults. Yep, I’m including you all this time because it wouldn’t be practice without the people in the stands.

Title: Home Run!
Author: David Diehl
Genre: Board Book, Sports
Ages: 0 – 3

The David Diehl sports books were some of my son’s favorite early books. They were the first he learned to “read” by memorizing the words on each page and he was excited to turn the pages and shout out what he remembered. (This one already made the blog, so you can read more about it here if you like.)


TitleBaseball Saved Us
Author: Ken Mochizuki
Illustrator: Dom Lee
Genre: Picture Book, Sports
Ages: 2 – 10

I’ve blogged about this book already, but this is a great one for young kids and preschool kids and even elementary students. They will each get something a little different out of it. It’s a very versatile book: the youngest readers will hear a great baseball story and be introduced to some harder topics they will only really understand later. Older readers could use this to talk about more serious historical and ethical issues, especially in a teacher-led discussion. In fact, you could use this book in a middle school class and have the kids do their own picture book on an historical event. That would be interdisciplinary awesomeness! 🙂


TitleFantasy Baseball
Author: Alan Gratz
Genre: Fantasy, Sports
Ages: Upper Elementary and Middle School

I’ve never read this one! But I bought it recently and am excited to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think. He’s a local author and he’s got other baseball books out there, including Samurai Shortstop, if you are interested in more.


Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Genre: The Great American Novel (I read recently that this is now a “genre” which I thought was both hysterical and accurate. This books certainly fits within that genre, Moby Dick references and all)
Ages: Adult

I loved this book. It’s a great read for anyone who likes literature and baseball. And if you had to pick only one of the two, I’d probably buy it for a literature-lover before a baseball-lover, although the whole book really does revolve around the sport.

Enjoy your summer, your baseball, and your books!

January 18, 2012

making the world better with “magic trash”

Occasionally, there’s a picture book that’s much more than a picture book. Something for kids and adults who really want to learn about the world. Something colorful, but also political, social, and ecological. Something with a strong message about the world today. This is one of those.

This book combines some powerful images and stories. A boy wants to be an artist, but first joins the army and works in a factory. A neighborhood struggles with poverty, thieves, politics, and the law. And in the end, art finally wins the day, and the Heidelberg project is created.

Regular prose combined with rhymic and poetic verse:

the young boy paints: “brush greens and blues / on wheels and shoes / slosh, slap, and splash magic trash”

the young adult watches his neighborhood fall apart: “Whoo! Spirits whirl. / New Troubles swirl. / Kick, burn, and hurl magic trash.”

the city tries to tear down his urban art projects: “Old houses talk. / Some neighbors squawk. / Crash, bash, and smash magic trash.”

the adult artist succeeds and completes a beautiful project: “Let rockets fly! / Boards tower high. / Bounce, jump, and dance, magic trash!”

Title: Magic Trash
Author: J.H. Shapiro
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Genre: Picture Book, Art, Politics, Poverty
Ages: 4 and up

This book would be great in classrooms and for families who aren’t afraid of a conversation around a story. Talking about what you can do to reduce or reuse your trash, and starting a recycled art project would be fun for anyone on a rainy day.

Do you have a picture book that you think shares a powerful message? Please share it!!

October 28, 2011

the furious dragon that blows fire and is not nice

I read a great book this week. It was penned on my living room carpet (the one wearing three years worth of stains from juice boxes and wine boxes, unsupervised sharpie markers, vomiting and potty-training children, and who knows what else).

The book is called “The furious dragon that blows fire and is not nice”. The title, as you can see, tells you a lot about the temperament of the main character. It also tells you a little bit about the temperament of the author, who is currently and lunatic-ly a three-and-a-half year-old. He narrated it as I wrote. I will relate it in its entirety, with commentary:

“First, the dragon gets in his cave. He walks around it and tries to get lions and tigers and bears.* Then the dragon gets very mad and very fast.** Then the knight comes and looks for that dragon. Then he gets on his horse. The dragon looks for that knight. The dragon keeps blowing fire and trying to look for the knight. Then the dragon finally finds the knight. The knight kicks the dragon. Then the knight dashes the dragon down.*** They still fight mean.**** Then they hit each other. Then they stop being mean. Then they hear a noise…”*****

*Scribe’s note 1: Oh my! Yes, we are VERY into the Wizard of Oz. The author is planning to be the Tin Man for Halloween.

**Scribe’s note 2: The author also gets very fast when he is very mad. I think like most first novels, this book is partly autobiographical.

***Scribe’s note 3: I’m not sure the exact meaning of “to dash down” but it is clearly violent and said with a lot of volume and emotion. (Volume and emotion go together in the same way as the previously mentioned qualities, speed and anger.)

****Scribe’s note 4: This page was written after I reminded the author that he only had a few pages left. (We had created and bound the book before writing it.) I think it was his way of saying “So what? you can’t force a peaceful resolution on me!”

*****Scribe’s note 5: Showing that he’s learning something about stories, if not his own temper, he decides when faced with the last page to end the fighting. But not the suspense. You should hear “DUH, DUH, DUH” playing as the story ends.

Follow up with the kids

No, you can’t find this book on Amazon. Not yet, at least. But you could find one a lot like it in your own living room. Sometimes the best stories for finding a connection with your kids aren’t already published and on a shelf somewhere. Sometimes you need to take a stack of paper, punch some holes, tie it together with ribbons (Halloween ribbon in our case) and let imagination fly. Chances are, you will find out something your child won’t otherwise tell you (like the fact that when he’s frustrated and doesn’t always know what to do with his anger he wishes there were a dragon he could dash down).

Writing a book like this with your child not only gives you insight into what they are feeling and thinking, it also helps them practice story-telling skills, using their imagination, feeling empathy for characters, and problem-solving (unless, of course they decide to ignore the problem in their story and just continue the fighting…)

You can be creative about how you make the book. Don’t stop with just stapling (or tying) paper together. If you have an older child who has worked hard on the book, consider scanning in the drawings and printing the book out. Or sending it to a printer as a photo album and getting a nice hardbound copy printed out. (Think holiday presents!)

If drawing isn’t your child’s thing, or they are searching for inspiration, consider cutting magazine photos for the pictures, or printing out family photos for a fun family-inspired story.

Have fun with this! And I hope your knight and dragon, or your princess and unicorn, or whatever the story is, becomes a wonderful family memory.

February 18, 2011

Can I borrow your Frindle?

I picked up this book one night when I went to bed and didn’t turn out the lights until the last page.  A really fun read.  It’s easy to see why the “frindle”, both in the sense of the word as used in the book and the book itself, was so popular.

Title: Frindle
Author: Andrew Clements
Age: Late elementary, Early Middle School

Summary and Review:

This is a really fun read with a great main character, a wonderful teacher, and an inspiring group of kids to round it out.  When 6th grader Nick Allen challenges the infamous English teacher on the importance of a dictionary, he begins a revolution like he never imagined.  Suddenly, his idea to call a pen a “frindle” has classroom-wide and then school-wide and then nation-wide(!) consequences.  It’s a great story about the power of an idea, the power of passionate kids, and the power of a great teacher.

Follow-up with the kids:

Nick Allen had a lot of ideas–what are your kids’?  Find out!!  Kids so often are thought of as dreamers, but when they reach a certain age (way too young in my opinion) they cease to believe that their ideas can make a difference.  See if you can unleash your child’s hidden dreams and find a way to propel them to action.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll get their name in the dictionary, too.

December 9, 2010

Donkeys and Asses and Children’s Delicate Ears

I remember reading a book aloud to a third grade class in my first year of teaching.  Technically, I was student teaching, but full-time student teaching in the middle of Dorchester, MA, counts as full-time teaching any day of the week.  I forget the book; I think it was Roald Dahl–maybe James and the Giant Peach?  Or maybe we just read that one that year and it wasn’t the same one I’m thinking of.  It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, I was reading along and noticed that a few sentences ahead (yes, when you are reading aloud to third graders–or any graders, really–it’s a good idea to have your lips pronouncing words your eyes have already read) there was the word “ass”.  I had to make a quick decision.  Did I skip it?  Change it to “donkey” (as was the meaning here–it was not intended to be a swear word or a part of the body)?  Change the sentence entirely?  Eventually I went with just reading it.  I read right through it as if it was no big deal, glared a a few kids who dared to laugh (with my best “are you seriously that immature?” glare I could produce at the time) and continued on.  Later, the teacher (the actual teacher in the classroom) came up to me saying she was impressed that I said that.  I’m not sure if she meant impressed that I was that brave, or that stupid, or both, but I just smiled and shrugged.  I had been embarrassed to do it, but I was also embarrasssed at my embarrassment, so I let it go as if it was no big deal.

But I smile to remember this incident because apparently it is a big deal all over again.  It now comes from a great picture book that I first saw in a wonderful independent bookstore in Asheville, NC.  My husband saw it first and handed it to me, knowing I would like it.  The book is all about two characters talking about what a book can do.  “Can you turn it on?” one character asks, and proceeds to question the other about things you can’t do with a book.  “Can you scroll down?”  “Can you blog with it?”   The lesson learned is that no, you can’t turn it on, scroll, or blog, but it’s an amazing tool anyway, and the skeptical character is carried away on the literature-powered ride of the imagination.  It’s a beautiful book with a beautiful lesson for today’s plugged in kids.

But apparently the author had to get in one last joke.  The character reading is a donkey, or as he is otherwise known, a jackass.  So the last line, “It’s a book, Jackass” has caused some heads to spin.  It is this line that is responsible for every 1-star review on Amazon.  And it has apparently put a halt on a project in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that was due to give a copy of this book to every child in the school district.  Click here to read the article in the Gloucester Times.

I’m not sure I have an opinion on this really one way or the other.  If I had my choice, as a mother, I would rather my son not call people “Jackass”.  And as a reader, I find the joke funny, but not so funny or original that it really justifies the obvious backlash it was going to get.  It feels a little bit as if the author wanted to be edgy just for the sake of it.  I mean, what if he had ended the book with, “It’s a book … Donkey.”  Some people might have seen the hidden joke in there anyway–the thing that couldn’t be said.  That would have been funnier.  But subtlety is lost in the modern world, I suspect.  Oh well, it did gain the book publicity—was that the point?

At any rate, it’s a great book—I loved reading it—and definitely worth checking out, but maybe slightly more appropriate for older children (6 and up or so), who can be taught the difference between using that word appropriately and inappropriately.  I’m not sure I’d read it to my 2-year-old.  Or actually, I would, but I’d just change the last line.  I mean, I try not to be a total prude, but seriously.  If they are old enough to read and be able to tell that you’re reading it wrong, then they are probably old enough to be taught the difference between jackass and jackass.

November 24, 2010

Celebrity princesses and other no-no’s of picture book writers

So, when they give out advice at the SCBWI conference, here are a few things they tell picture book writers.  Don’t write in rhyme, don’t write an ABC book, don’t write a princess book, and don’t read any of the tidal wave of picture books coming from celebrities these days for inspiration on how to do it well.  And it’s true, if you are a celebrity, it seems that you can get a picture book published no matter what you write.  Let me tell you, I know dozens of picture book writers who are not celebrities, and the same thing does NOT hold true for them.  They write and rewrite, workshop and critique, write and rewrite some more, and then send in queries and submissions for years on end sometimes.  And having read many celebrity picture books, it would seem that maybe they didn’t go through all of that…in fact, they might not even have gotten to the “rewrite” part.  But, like the Jeff Foxworthy book I’ve mentioned earlier, this one from everyone’s favorite Julie Andrews is a gem.  And it’s even about princesses.  But if you have a princess aversion, read on…I think you’ll still like it!

Title: The Very Fairy Princess
Author: Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton (her daughter)
Illustrator: Christine Davenier
Genre: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 8

Summary and Review: Geraldine, the sparky and wonderful main character in the book knows that she is a fairy princess because she can “FEEL it inside—a sparkly feeling of just KNOWING in my heart.”  If that doesn’t capture your love and imagination, I don’t know what will.  But maybe this.  Geraldine does everything that fairy princesses do, such as: putting on her crown to come downstairs (which she does by sliding down the rail, of course), eating pancakes with extra fairy dust, putting on royal attire which includes sneakers and scabby knees.  (In Geraldine’s words “I say sneakers help me practice my flying skills, ESPECIALLY when we’re late for the school bus, and scabs are the price you pay.”)  When others don’t believe her, she happily responds that you can be whatever you want to be—“you just have to let your SPARKLE out!”

If I was going to be a stickler, and why would I write a blog if I wasn’t, I’d say that I would PREFER if the fairy princess occasionally something other than sugar, and maybe if TV wasn’t used as the homework distraction, but something a little more active instead.  However, the character is certainly active overall and you can’t expect every kid role model to do things differently than most kids do anyway…they wouldn’t be kid role models if they did.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Well, talk about their sparkle of course!  When do they sparkle best?  When they are playing the trombone, like the Fairy Princess’s friend?  Or dancing in a recital?  Or climbing a tree?  Or reading a book?  Helping cook in the kitchen?  What do they believe about themselves?  You might want to share some of your own secret sparkles, too.  Children are often surprised by their parents talents, some of which are often tucked away as we spend more and more of our time on the job or reading Fairy Princess books.