Posts tagged ‘middle school’

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
Author
: 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.

November 14, 2012

from sugar and spice to the glucose cycle

My high school science education consisted of the following memories: breaking a flask (not a big deal, the teacher said), breaking a thermometer (kind of a big deal), breaking many other kids of lab equipment (increasingly a big deal), never (not once) getting the correct results on any physics or chemistry lab despite being studious, careful, and the last to finish pretty much every single time. I had a mild interest in biology but I always assumed I was “bad” at science. Despite good grades, which obviously didn’t reflected the trail of broken equipment I left in my wake, it never (NEVER!) occurred to me that I could be good at science.

Then enter college: I took an introductory biology course and fell in love. Bird migration! Ants who farm aphids! These were stories whose magic nobody could ignore. And to the surprise of everyone (especially myself and my professors who were wary of me from the first moment I refused to dissect a cat (I mean, really, a cat?), I became a bio major.

WHICH IS WHY I LOVED THIS BOOK!

Title: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Author: Jacqueline Kelly
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: Middle School and Upper Elementary

So many reasons to buy this book for your daughter (and read it yourself!):

1. It’s historical fiction, set in Texas in 1899, but it doesn’t whop you over the head with that fact. There are some interesting details: the first telephone and the woman operator with her long arms, Granddaddy sitting in a car for the first time, etc. But the historical fiction gives you, the parent, an edge: You can talk about societal expectations for girls and your child will likely be very comfortable talking about them in the book, as it was over 100 years ago. Then, once the conversation gets going, you can talk about how things have changed, but how we still have a long way to go.

2. It’s a science-nature story, but you don’t have to be a scientist to like this book. Any girl reader who enjoys character-driven books will like this one. And they will be getting a great female scientist role model on the side! It’s mostly a girl-growing-up story, and this girl, the only one amongst a myriad of brothers, is struggling against the expectations of her family (she’s supposed to learn to sew and cook or how will she ever get a family?), wondering if she might ever be allowed to have dreams beyond that.  And if your girl does get hooked on science after reading this book, don’t let it die out! Give her a field guide and start looking up plants or insects or birds or stars. Or grab some jars and start collecting bugs.

3. The book is beautiful; the sentences read like honey dripping down…well, dripping down something honey would drip down. Trust me, the prose is gorgeous. And that’s good for anyone. (And it is a Newbery Honor book. So there.)

P.S. I did sit through only one dissection. There was this guy in high school who would spend free time working on his frog for AP Bio, and I would hang out and watch him. It was probably disgusting. Maybe unethical. But in his defense, he’s a surgeon now. And in my defense, I’m married to him.

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!

February 20, 2012

Girls in the math and sciences

Why are girls in America still falling behind in the sciences and choosing scientific careers so much less often than men? I look at some of these issues in an article published recently in Northstate Parent.

To read more articles I’ve published, check out this list here.

February 6, 2012

Procrastinate much?

I remember the first time procrastination caught up with me in a big way. 7th grade. Native American Indian paper. A late night. Two not very happy and tired parents.

I remember this night, and give you some advice in case you see this tendency in your own children, in an article published in Northstate Parent.

If you want to read other articles I’ve published, check out this page.

January 23, 2012

mambo your way into the soul of a good poem

I love my sister. AND (As a teacher writing comments about kids a lot I was taught never to say BUT in situations like this) :), my memories of her learning to play the violin are not pleasant ones. Which is why I vowed that I would never let my children learn to play a stringed instrument until I had a soundproof room in my house. Which is probably why my 3yo (because can’t all 3yo’s read straight into your soul’s deepest fears?) decided that the violin was exactly what he wanted to play.

We are a few months into our lessons and a few stanzas into Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And let me say this: every time his bow screeches across the strings, twinkle-starring its way through notes both sharp and flat, maybe some at the same time, I smile with pure happiness. Yes, I am that much of a sucker.

Music gets us where it counts. We use it to get us through the work day. We use it when running, to make us go faster. We use it to calm down. We use it to express our love when dancing. It touches every part of our lives and that’s why this book is so good. Just listen to how it begins:

On summer nights
Papi lets me help out
at the music store.

Papi says you can
read people’s souls
by the music
they listen to;
that hearts
fly home
when the music’s
Just Right.

Title: Under the Mambo Moon
Author: Julia Durango
Illustrator: Fabricio VandenBroeck
Genre: Poetry, Fiction
Age: Middle School, High School, Any, really

Summary and ideas: In this book, characters come and go from a record store as music from all over Latin America is played and remembered. Read this book with a record player nearby. (Okay, the internet will do.) Read the book through once and then the second time you read it, play a song every time one kind of music is played. Dance to it. If you really want to embrace the book, learn to dance the different dances. You don’t have to take a formal class; I’m sure YouTube will come through for you. Or if you are reading this with a class or an older child who likes to be challenged, have them write a copycat poem but with their favorite kind of music instead. Mimicking great writers can be a great learning opportunity.

And then tell me: what strong musical memories do you have?

August 16, 2011

Life, death, and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS

One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching a perfect, innocent baby grow up in a world that is neither perfect nor innocent. My heart wrenches as he asks the tough questions “does the fish break when the dinosaur eats it?” or “when will the bug be undead?” But learning about the cycle of life is something that everyone must do, and I’m lucky that so far my son has only had to learn it when it comes to the food he eats and the bug his friend stepped on.

(It’s especially hard because my son seems to have inherited my tendency to over-empathize with anything and everything. As I read this book on the airplane, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. And, as my husband will attest to, that’s not a spoiler, because I often cry when I’m reading or watching a movie, whether it’s happy, sad, or just is.) 🙂

But when you do have to tell the tough truth and talk about the tough issues, there is absolutely nothing better than a good story. Something that gives meaning to the world, something that tells you that you are not alone. Something that says you will be okay.

I am so glad that I found this book. Or did it find me? It seemed to jump off of the table at a small independent bookstore when I was on vacation. The message in the story–that we should celebrate life to its fullest is one that everybody should hear. It’s a story that anyone would love, whether they are seeking solace from a recent loss, or just picking up a book to enjoy.

Title: each little bird that sings
Author: Deborah Wiles
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age: Middle Grade, 9 and up

Summary and Review:

I love, love, love this book. I love the wacky character names (Dismay the dog, Declaration the friend, Comfort the narrator and main character). I love the extended family of interesting characters all crammed into one house. I love the small town and the closeness that brings to the community. I love the unique setting–the funeral home where the main character lives with her family. And I love the younger sister, Merry, the toddler who asks of almost anyone she sees who stops to rest for a minute (or longer): “Dead?” The one word question is funny when she’s wrong and poignant when she’s right.

The main character is a girl, and I think this will appeal to mostly girl readers, although she is very tomboyish. One of the main plot hurdles the character encounters is also girl-related, when her best friend betrays her confidence and their friendship in a hurtful way at a time when she was needed the most.

The narrator goes through a lot in this book, and she learns a lot along the way. It’s the best of middle grade fiction–tackling a topic that an adult book would handle poorly. It’s a reminder of why I like this genre: any adult fiction in which this many characters die (I’m not giving away much here–they do run a funeral home) would be depressing, dark, and take itself WAY too seriously. But this book doesn’t need any pretense. It’s about life, from friends and family, picnics and tuner sandwiches, dogs and cousins. And so, so much more.

It’s a well-deserved National Book Award Finalist.

Follow-up with the kids (SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT)

If you are reading this just to read it because it’s such a great story, there’s a lot you can talk about. Why does Declaration turn on Comfort? If you told the story from Declaration’s perspective, what might she say? Why does Comfort hate her cousin so much and what helps her to change her mind?

You could also talk about Comfort’s relationship with Great Great Aunt Florentine and compare it to any of the relationships your own children have with older relatives.

From a writing perspective (and here’s where the spoiler comes), talk about why the dog has to die. What does that add to the story. Why is the dog’s death (and here I’m giving my own opinion) so much more powerful to Comfort–and even sadder perhaps–that the people who die? I might hypothesize that it’s because it’s unexpected–living in a funeral home, she’s used to dead people. It’s also untimely–the dog died in an accident, the people of old age. The author alludes to a comment by an editor in her acknowledgements that implies that there wasn’t a dog in the first draft. How do you think the first draft might have been different? Is your budding author working on a story that might benefit by adding a character, canine or not?

If you are reading this book specifically to help a youngster think about death, talk about where Comfort got to by the end of the story. She realizes that the only thing to do is to keep on living and enjoy life. Why is that so hard to do sometimes? And why does death help us realize that?

At the end, tears or no, this is a happy story. It just sometimes takes some sadness to get to the truth about happiness.

April 25, 2011

someone else’s shoes

I like the title of this book.  Walk two moons.  It is so fully of poetry, meaning, and beauty.  Just like the book itself.  I’m a late comer to this book. Chances are, if you are the type to read a blog about children’s books, you’ve already read this one.  So really, I wanted to post just to say that if you haven’t read it, you need to.  And if you have read it, you should take a moment to reflect on how lucky you are.

I realize my last post was also about a Sharon Creech book, and I’m currently reading another one by her, so this is also sort of a dedication to my recently discovered love affair with her books.  As a reader, I feel like I’ve been given an incredible gift.

Title: Walk Two Moons
Author: Sharon Creech
Genre: Fiction
Age: 9 and up, Upper Elementary and Middle School

Summary and Review:

Sal is understandably upset when her mothers leaves.  She doesn’t understand why she left and why she hasn’t come back yet. Then, when Sal’s father learns that her mother is never coming back, Sal and her father pack up their farmhouse and head to a city where her dad has befriended another woman and Sal meets a strange girl named Phoebe, whose mother also leaves.  The story of Walk Two Moons is aptly told as Sal is walking in her mother’s shoes–driving to Idaho with her grandparents along the same path her mother traveled, determined to bring her mother home.  As she and the wonderful characters of her grandparents take their road trip, Sal tells them the story of herself and Pheobe, their friendship, their antics, their school friends (some of whom are characters from another Sharon Creech novel) and the lunatic they think is following them.  One of the impressive things about this book is its attention to the adult characters, people usually left out of a middle grade novel.  You learn a lot about the mothers and fathers of both Sal and Phoebe, as seen through Sal’s eyes.  While they don’t play a major role in the book, they do play a major role in how Sal and Phoebe see the world, and the reader is challenged to think about the parent-child relationship in a powerful way.

The two stories of Sal’s road trip and Phoebe’s adventures are interwoven in a way that brings more meaning to both.  And the true meaning of both of their lives is really only discovered at the end, after Sal has truly walked two moons in her mother’s mocassins.

Follow-up with the kids:

There is a great discussion guide on Sharon Creech’s website at: http://www.sharoncreech.com/novels/walk_two_moons_guide.pdf

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
Genre:
Fiction
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.

February 17, 2011

LOL funny

I’m sitting at the side of the YMCA pool watching my 2-year-old, who has just learned what “natural consequence” means by goofing off instead of listening to his instructor and falling in the pool.  I watched him struggle under the water for a few seconds while smiling an “I’m-sorry-and-this-will-teach-him-and-did-you-know-I-used-to-be-a-teacher-and-I-feel-your-pain” kind of smile at the instructor, who is running down to the shallow end, dragging another one of his students with him, to rescue my son.

It’s not that I enjoyed watching him suffer, per se, but the teacher clearly had it under control, and frankly, it served my son right.  Maybe tonight he’d listen to me when it was time to put on the PJs.  (That was yesterday, actually, and last night, and I can tell you the lesson didn’t trascend activities, but he was, at least, more compliant for the remainder of the lesson.)

At any rate, there I am, nine months pregnant and completely uncomfortable.  I’m sitting in this chair and wish I could just be floating in a hot tub.  My baby is kicking like crazy and my belly is sticking out the bottom of my shirt because none of my pregnancy shirts fit me anymore but I’m not about to buy more when the kid could come out any day now.  And it’s not like a stretch-marked pregnant belly is anything pretty to look at.

So I’m trying to fade into the background, but this is hard because the book I am trying to read is hysterically funny.  I mean laugh-out-loud funny, and I don’t usually laugh out loud at even the funniest of books.  But I can’t help it–I’m trying to hold it in and I’m not.  And I wonder if I should save the book for home where I can roll on the floor in private, but that would mean putting it down which I’m not willing to do.  So I just sit there, a bloated, uncomfortable blob laughing hysterically–and way too loudly–at my own risk.

I found this book because it was recommended by a fellow Goodreads reader.  And I am so glad I did.  It’s a debut novel, which makes it all the better!

Title: A Crooked Kind of Perfect
Author: Linda Urban
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School and Upper Elementary; I think many YA readers would like it, too

Summary and Review:

Zoe is going to be a famous piano player when she grows up.  She’s going to play in Carnegie Hall.  The only thing standing between her and this goal–and she considers it a minor thing–is that she doesn’t have a piano and has never taken a lesson, practiced, or played one.  But Zoe is a spunky, wonderful character and these facts are not going to bring her down.  One day, however, her family decides to invest in a used piano for Zoe and sends her dad to the mall.

Now, Zoe’s dad is another wonderful character.  Usually, Middle Grade and Young Adult books that have a “different” or “special needs” character have those traits in one of the kids.  But in this book, it is Zoe’s dad who is a special needs adult.  He spends most of his time–no, all of his time–in his living room studying mail-order courses and accumulating what can only be described as useless degrees. He often has to drive Zoe around town when her mom is working and they inevitably get lost, having to call Marty at the auto shop, who enjoys the challenge of trying to figure out where they are and get them home.

Zoe’s dad doesn’t like being around people, noises, or the busy-ness of everyday life and when he gets to the mall to buy the piano, he is immediately overwhelmed.  He ends up in the grips of an organ salesman and comes home with an organ–the Perfectone D60, faux wood finish and all.  Zoe is NOT impressed, but true to her good spirit, she begins her free lessons which came with the organ.

The book, told from Zoe’s wonderful perspective and great sense of humor, follows Zoe at home and at school, through the trials of learning an instrument, hanging out with her family, being ditched by her best friend (a girl who lives in the “East Eastside” as opposed to just the “Eastside” where Zoe’s modest house resides), and many other adventures of school, home, and music.

You will absolutely fall in love with Zoe, with her dad, and with the school bully she starts to get to know.  This is a wonderful story, with wonderful heart.  And I dare you not to laugh out loud.

Follow Up With The Kids

If you are a mom reading this with your daughter, I think there is a lot of things you can talk about.  Enjoy the book and the conversations it can bring.  This is a honest look at middle school life and the chance to talk about some of these things through the lens of a character rather than the real life kids your daughter knows will make the conversation all the more safe, and usually because of this, all the more meaningful.  Here are some questions to consider:

Zoe’s dad’s issues prevent her from doing a lot of things other kids might be able to do…how does she learn to deal with that?  Many kids would not be so tolerant…what makes her so?

What was it like at her former best friend’s surprise party?  Has your daughter ever been in a situation like that and on which side?  What does she think about this?  Do your daughter and her friends have an equivalent of a “brat” t-shirt? (This takes it away from the comfort of the character-driven conversation and not every kid will be agreeable to that.  If you think yours won’t be, stick to the conversation about the party in the book.  Chances are, she will still be talking from her own experiences.  That is, after all, how we read a book.)

What motivates Wheeler to keep coming over to Zoe’s house and study and bake with her dad?  What do you think his life is like at home and how is it different from the persona he plays at school?