Sunday, July 24, 2005

Vegan Virgin Valentine

Mackler, Carolyn. 2004. VEGAN VIRGIN VALENTINE. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0763621552 [Suggested Grade Levels 8-12]

Mara’s last name is Valentine and she does not think that word describes her personality at all. Mara is smart, competitive, and has already been admitted to Yale. Her name is a bit of a sore subject because her previous romantic has not been top notch. She did have one boyfriend last year, but due to unfortunate circumstances, he broke up with her over instant messenger. The two are now in heated competition for valedictorian. Besides for that, Mara is a happy high school senior. She has a great relationship (maybe too great), a job at a coffee house that she loves and a good reputation at school. Mara’s happiness is tested though when she finds out her niece, V (short for Vivienne and who is just a year younger than she) is moving in with the family. Mara and V are complete opposites and have never gotten along, so Mara is not looking forward to the new living arrangements. Within a day at Mara’s school, V already has a reputation for fitting the party-seeking name Valentine better. She gains notoriety around school when she immediately starts dating Mara’s ex, and smokes between classes. Life at home is not much better. V is annoyingly sweet to Mara when the parents are near, but will then make snide criticisms to her when no one else is around– this especially annoys Mara since V’s comments might actually be more accurate than Mara would like to admit.

Readers will enjoy this page turning book. Mackler uses humor and sarcasm well to convey her character’s personalities, especially Mara who tells the story in first person voice. Mackler’s descriptions of small town high school life are smart and the story progresses nicely until the end where things end rather abruptly. The audience will be happy to learn though that Mara has resolved conflicts with people in her life and most importantly herself.

Mara has set many goals for her life, such as attending college and being named the class valedictorian. Ask students to prioritize and list their goals. Then discuss why goals are helpful and how goals and priorities sometimes change.

Other books by Mackler that could be compared to this one:

By Lisa Erickson

Friday, July 22, 2005

Look at My Book: How Kids Can Write & Illustrate Terrific Books

Leedy, Loreen. 2004. Look at my Book: How Kids Can Write & illustrate terrific books. New York: Holiday House. ISBN 0823415902 [Suggested Grade Levels 1-4]

Not only is this a great how-to book for children, Look at my book is also a great introduction to information literacy and writing for everyone. Leedy systematically presents all the steps needed to do research, write stories, or draw comic books. By presenting the information in such an appealing and accessible way, Leedy has simplified what many teachers try unsuccessfully to teach.

Leedy starts out with how to get ideas and moves on to brainstorming. The various tasks are defined and lists of tips are included for each task. Three different characters are introduced and followed throughout the text: a boy who wants to write an exciting story, a girl who wants to write about birds, and a dog who is basically comic relief, but who does contribute to the discussion of how to go about writing and executing the tasks involved. We are shown thought bubbles as the characters consider how to apply the information they receive and as result the writing process is very clearly defined.

Leedy covers every step in the writing process, from brainstorming to research, from genres to plot, setting, and characters. She also presents the importance of planning, rough drafts, and rough sketches. The final section of the book is on format and layout, with discussions about art, lettering, and binding. Whether read individually or by class, LOOK AT MY BOOK will provide just the confidence needed by students to undertake just about any writing task.

Invite children to make a book. Limit the scope to either informational or creative writing.
Working individually or as a group, let children go through the processes described in the book. Present their books to other students or other classes. Trade topics and do again. Compare and contrast the different tasks involved. Have fun.

Marshall, Pam. From idea to book. ISBN 0822522004
Stevens, Janet. From Pictures to Words: A Book About Making a Book. ISBN 0823411540

By Cay Geisler

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hiroshima: The Story of the First Atom Bomb

Lawton, Clive A. 2004. HIROSHIMA: THE STORY OF THE FIRST ATOM BOMB. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 076362271 [Suggested Grade Levels 5-12]

While the large, 48-page format makes HIROSHIMA look like a picture book for younger readers, the concise but detailed text, many photographs, and captions which extend the topic on each two-page spread are more appropriate for older readers. Lawton, a Briton, presents multiple points of view about the development and deployment of the first atom bombs, but refrains from editorializing. Perhaps the most interesting puzzle piece presented by the author is this: “At Potsdam, the Allies also discussed the continuing war against Japan. The United States, which was heavily engaged in fighting Japan, secured an agreement that the USSR would not enter the conflict in the Pacific until after August 15. The United States was worried that if the USSR joined the war against the Japanese, it would seek to gain control over the region once Japan had been defeated.” Lawton then leaves the ultimate timing of the atom bomb drops for the reader to synthesize.

The many photos, maps, and reproduced newspaper pages, correspondence, and propaganda pieces are thoughtfully placed and captioned. Access features include a table of contents, a timeline, glossary, “Who’s Who,” details about the science involved in nuclear warfare, an index, and photo credits. The BOOKLIST review of July 1, 2004, concludes: “‘Was it the right decision?’ is always the question, and Lawton is fair to all sides, considering both Japanese wartime atrocities and the slaughter of civilians killed by the bomb.”

Research a topic of interest and present it in this scrapbook style, with a minimum of text and a maximum of graphics. Be sure to cite sources.

Ask older readers to further research and write about both sides for dropping or not dropping the atomic bombs on August 6 and 9, 1945. Then, as advisors to President Truman, create and present their opinions.

Other books about Hiroshima and the first atom bomb:
Tanes, Richard. HIROSHIMA. ISBN 0613361024

By Julie Brinker

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Best Pet of All

LaRochelle, David. 2004. THE BEST PET OF ALL. Ill. Hanako Wakiyama. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0525471294 [Suggested Grade Levels K-3]

A story about a young boy who wants a dog, and a mom who stands opposed, is a common theme that will resonate with all children. To this common tale, LaRochelle adds a twist, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the boy asks for a dog and his mother says, “no.” On Thursday, he asks for a dragon, and she replies with a qualified yes. Underestimating her son’s persistence, determination, and fantastical possibilities, she is surprised when he finds a willing dragon at the drugstore and more than a little dismayed when the creature turns out to be a difficult pet, roasting hot dogs in the living room and eating spaghetti in the bathtub. Luckily, the dragon is afraid of dogs, so at the boy’s suggestion they advertise their doggy need and are immediately answered by a willing pooch. The dragon leaves, the dog stays, and both the mother and son are overjoyed to finally have the “best pet of all.”

LaRochelle keeps his text simple, straight forward and often understated. This approach allows the illustrations to do their part in telling the story, and Wakiyama’s pictures do just that. Her retro style lends the characters an immediate sense of humor and her juxtaposition of fantastical elements with a realistically drawn setting makes the story at once whimsical and familiar. Also, her ability to imbue the characters emotion through a few cleverly drawn lines breathes life into the boy and his mother. THE BEST PET OF ALL works because LaRochelle’s text and Wakiyama’s illustrations complement each other at all times and derive much from a deceptively simple style.

Reread the pages that tell about the dragon being a pain in the house. Brainstorm all of the problems that could accrue from having a dragon as a pet, and have each child draw a picture of a dragon being a pest and then let them share their pictures with each other.

Other books about pets:
Day, Alexandra. GOOD DOG CARL. ISBN 0671752049
Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody. MY PENGUIN OSBERT. ISBN 0763616990
Schneider, Howie. CHEWY LOUIE. ISBN 0873587650

By Erin Miklauz

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Living Rain Forest: An Animal Alphabet

Kratter, Paul. 2004. THE LIVING RAIN FOREST. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. ISBN 1570916039 [Suggested Grade Levels 2-6]

From A to Z, the creatures of the rain forest are spotlighted in this coffee table worthy alphabet collection. E is for eagle, a harpy eagle to be precise, which swoops through the treetops hunting a variety of animals including monkeys, opossums, sloths, and snakes. O is for Okapi, which strips leaves from the branches with its long prehensile tongue. Y is for Yapok, an aquatic marsupial with webbed feet to help it swim. The animals come from a wide range of rainforest habitats, including Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Madagascar, Australia, and the Hawaiian Islands.

From the Anteater to the Zorro, Paul Kratter covers the more unusual animals of the tropical rainforest. Each animal is allotted a double page spread, with habitat, diet and behavior information on the left, and a colorful, detailed illustration on the right. Also included are the animal’s Latin names and size in inches. Unusual words like resplendent, prehensile, and proboscis are defined after the passage in which they are used. Lots of white space on each page, and short digestible paragraphs that are easy to read offer a perfect starting place to spark further projects or rainforest research. Kratter includes a page detailing the various layers of the rainforest canopy, as well as end pages with a world map showing the location of the world’s tropical rain forests and a legend of each animal’s country of origin.


Have children pick one of the animals in the book to learn more about and draw a picture. The animal drawings could be placed around the library or classroom to create a tropical rainforest habitat. Each child could “present” their animal, giving a few interesting facts.

Choose a different habitat and have children pick an animal to profile for an alphabet book. As a classroom/group project, or an ongoing library activity, each illustrated page would go into a compilation book of animals from A to Z.


Other books about the rainforest:
Brett, Jan. THE UMBRELLA. ISBN 0399242155
Cherry, Lynne. THE GREAT KAPOK TREE. ISBN 015200520X

By Tammy Korns

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Margaux with an X

Koertge, Ron. 2004. MARGAUX WITH AN X. Cambridge. MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0763624012 [Suggested Grade Levels 7 and up]


Margaux has a problem. She is drop-dead gorgeous and academically brilliant, but she is immensely unhappy. Her dad is a compulsive gambler and her mom is addicted to the shopping network on TV. These superficial adults have no inkling of what is going on with their daughter.

Margaux is tired of her life and Koertge hints in a series of foreshadowing events that she has endured something horrible. Neither of her parents is willing to listen to her. She accidentally meets Danny Riley who is an animal activist and a nerd. Each of them suffers a painful secret that is eventually confided. Their unlikely friendship propels the plot.

What makes MARGAUX WITH AN X such a standout is Koertge’s language. He has created a character that finds solace in words. Because of her love of language and her brilliance, words fall from her mouth as gracefully as poetry. In fact, the language here is more poetic than most verse novels. Danny, too, is good with words and provides Margaux a much needed break from boys who are overawed by her good looks: “She loves that he knows that word [incarnadine], has seen it in context, looked it up or divined its meaning, remembered it, found a place for it talking to her” (Koertge, 2004, 57).

The topic of characters at the opposite end of the social strata finding friendship is not a new one, but Koertge manages the juxtaposition of the two main characters with exquisite sensitivity. He never talks down to his audience, instead treating his characters with the intelligence and understanding that they deserve – a rare gem.

Compile a vocabulary list of unfamiliar words used by Margaux and Danny. Try using them in sentences.

Compose blank verse using lines and phrases from the text.

Other books on abuse and family violence:
Mazer, Norma Fox. Silver. ISBN 0688068650
Oates, Joyce Carol. Freaky Green eyes. ISBN 0066237599

By Cay Geisler

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion

Kimmel, Eric A. 2004. WONDERS AND MIRACLES: A PASSOVER COMPANION. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439071755 [Suggested Grade Levels 5-10]


This work is indeed a companion suitable for older children as well as young adults who want to understand why Passover is celebrated and why certain rituals take place. This book is a wonderful compilation of stories, illustrations, poems and commentary about a holiday that many non Jews may reduce to being the equivalent or comparable to Christmas but which is entirely different. The book’s text is presented in the order that a traditional seder takes place. Past the table of contents, the page facing it is a verse from Exodus: “It shall be that when you come to the land that God has promised, you shall serve this service….” Each section typically has a full color reproduced illustration taken from various times in history which depicts some aspect of Passover.

On a basic level there is a one page listing of the fourteen parts of the Seder meal that is a part of the Passover celebration followed by a description of the items of food which traditionally are on the “menu.” This counterpoises a few pages which take up Jewish mysticism or Soviet Jewry in the 1960s. These varied levels are recognitions from the author that there can be no sane way one book can cover so much material so the author attempts to present the most visually interesting and the most thoughtful stories rather than to present watered down material. In short this one book revels in the Passover as liberation which makes the resulting book both spiritually enriching but also socially thoughtful. The bibliography lists the most useful sources in the book’s creation. The index appears to include most major terms or concepts which are covered in the text itself. Matzel Tov indeed for such an outstanding creation.

Gather a variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on cultural celebrations. Afterwards, the group will discuss what some of the common traits of all celebrations are and what makes certain ones especially unique.

Books about celebrations or holidays observed all over the world:
Livingston, Myra Cohn. CELEBRATIONS. ISBN 0823405508
Robson, Pam. HOW I CELEBRATE. ISBN 0761319522

By Andrea L. Williams

Wednesday, July 6, 2005


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. KIRA-KIRA. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0689856393 [Suggested Grade Levels 5-8]

Told with humor and honesty, KIRA-KIRA is narrated by Katie Takeshima and tells the story of one Japanese-American family’s experiences in the fifties and sixties. The novel shares the family’s experiences with poverty, prejudice, illness, and death as Katie’s older sister is diagnosed with a terminal illness and slowly deteriorates before her family’s eyes. It is both painfully poignant and honest and at times laugh out loud funny.

The strength of Kira-Kira is the growth of the narrator Katie who ages from four to twelve during the course of the novel. As Katie experiences life’s harshness from prejudice to poverty to being the victim of school bullies and teasing, her narrative changes. Her relationship with her sister also changes over time. As a child, she absolutely idolized her sister. She literally believed every word her sister told her. As the sisters grow up, however, Katie learns that things can’t stay the same. Suddenly, her sister becomes more interested in spending time with friends her own age and even more shocking to Katie boys. Her sister no longer has time to play games with her; her interests have changed. It is about this time in her life, that Lynn becomes sick and slowly weakens and dies. Her sister’s death leaves a hole in her life and Katie is unsure of how to cope with all the changes and losses in her life. The novel is one of strength and hope despite its sadness.

“Kira-Kira” is the Japanese word for “glittering.” Discuss its symbolism in KIRA-KIRA. What does the word or concept represent to Katie? How did her concept of the word change over time?

KIRA-KIRA shares one family’s experiences with prejudice. Read “Waiting at the Railroad CafĂ©” from GOOD LUCK GOLD and have readers compare that experience to occurrences in the novel. (For examples, see pp. 27, 34, etc.)

Other books about Asian-American families:
Na, An. A STEP FROM HEAVEN. ISBN 0142500275
Wong, Janet S. GOOD LUCK GOLD. ISBN 0689506171

By Becky Laney

Friday, July 1, 2005

Actual Size

Jenkins, Steve. 2004. ACTUAL SIZE. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618375945 [Suggested Grade Levels K-4]


The Goliath birdeater tarantula is 12 inches across and big enough to eat birds and small mammals! The giant anteater has a two-foot-long tongue! The giant squid’s body and tentacles can reach up to 59 feet long! Steve Jenkins highlights these and many other unique animals with his signature cut paper collage style. Several of the animals are too large for their entire body to be shown actual size, which merely reinforces their larger than life quality. The Siberian tiger is vivid orange, with fangs bared, and leaps out from the double-page spread. This “biggest of the big cats” is 14 feet nose to tail, and can weigh up to 700 pounds. The double-page spread of just teeth reads, “This is too close to a great white shark! A spectacular triple-page foldout reveals the world’s largest reptile, a man-eating, saltwater crocodile.

Jenkins illustrations are bold and colorful and invite the reader not only to read the book, but also to touch and experience the book as well. The pygmy mouse lemur and the gorilla both have hands like humans, and the life size gorilla hand invites readers to place their hand on the page for comparison. The end material gives more detailed information about each animal, including their habitat, eating habits, and different behaviors. Readers will learn that gorillas are vegetarians, Siberian tigers will eat porcupines if larger prey can’t be found, the ostrich egg is the largest egg of any animal, and the goliath frog can weigh up to seven pounds and doesn’t croak. Readers will enjoy the almost tactile sense of the pages, and the vast array of information about each animal.

Children can trace their hands or feet, or lie down and have someone trace their whole body, to get a sense of their “actual size.” Have them write a caption with some unique feature about themselves.

Other books by Jenkins that could be compared to this one:

By Tammy Korns