Saturday, February 27, 2010

Literary Feast Discussion: Al Capone Does My Shirts (pp. 60-122)

Hey all! We're back with the next section of Al Capone Does My Shirts -- pages 60 to 122, to be precise. Ready for it? Onward!

SHEL: It's really frustrating to read about all the advice Moose's family has received about helping Natalie. Part of it's frustrating because Autism is still such a mystery and so you know there's no perfect way to help Natalie within the time period.

Monica: It’s completely heartbreaking. And Moose knows that his mom is just grasping at straws, but there’s nothing any of them can do! (I did want to smack that guy – what, they’ve got a system set up for *boys* but not for *girls*? Way to be useless, school director. Way to be useless.

SHEL: Have I mentioned that I hate that Piper girl? HATES!

Monica: Are you sure she’s not a tragic figure? I mean, I loathe her too, but it’s also tempered with the fact that her father seems like a creep, and she’s grown up with the whole Warden’s Daughter idea hanging over her head, and… I’m supposed to hate her, aren’t I? I’m just reading too much into it, trying to understand her? Right. Forget everything I just said, we’ll go with HATES.

SHEL: I'm glad you're back on my side. WE MUST HATE PIPER AS A UNITED FRONT! But, I like your empathetic effort. And oh my goodness, this section was overall frustrating! Poor Moose! It's okay, I know you’re innocent! I think you will play ball again!

Monica: Seriously. Because otherwise, this is one heck of a depressing book, and I will feel fairly upset with the author that she didn’t give me enough advanced warning. I like tissues with my tragedies, thank you very much!

SHEL: Is anyone else fighting the urge to watch The Rock right now? Or am I alone in this?

Monica: Giiiiirl, we’re definitely having a movie night. I am 100% picturing Nicholas Cage racing around through the underbelly of the island. Of course, Piper would tattle on him if she found out.

SHEL: Yeah, but Sean Connery would take care of her in a minute flat. Crudsies, I gotz to watch that movie.

Monica: You get the DVD, I’ll get the supreme butter-flavored popcorn!

SHEL: It shall be done!

Well that's it for now, friends! Next up is Part Two -- we'll have our update for the next sixty pages or so on Wednesday. Hope to see you there!

REVIEW: Do-Wrong Ron

Do-Wrong RonHerrick, S.  (2003).  Do-Wrong Ron.  Crows Nest, NSW:  Allen & Unwin.


127 pages.

Appetizer:  Ron feels like he can't do anything right.  He scores goals for the competing soccer team and he's the only one without a "date" to the Best Friends Ball.  His parents don't seem to have time for him.  And when he finds a guinea pig, Charlie, to make his pet and best friend, everyone in his small town thinks Charlie is a rat.  When a new girl, Isabelle, arrives in town with her grandma, there's a chance Ron can turn around his luck and do right.

This book in poems can be a subtle way to capture middle grade students' interest in poetry.  The book doesn't rhyme, but there is some attention to assonance.  But what I a particularly liked is that most of the poems follow a pseudo-wreath format, in which many of the last lines of one poem are the title for the next poem.  As I read, it kept me going, thinking "oh, just one more...I want to read what happens next..."

There are still some natural breaks throughout the book, every now and then the point of view switches from Ron's perspective to his new friend Isabelle or to the perspective of Charlie the guinea pig.

I did feel like having Charlie's point of view, which is always presented as "wee wee wee wee...wee," did feel a little young for the age of the characters.  But a teacher can still use this to the best of their ability and even though Herrick includes translations to all the "wees," it'd still be a natural activity to have students write their own poems from Charlie's perspective.

Dinner Conversation:

"My name is Ron.
Ron Holman.
Or Do-wrong Ron,
because I have this habit:
I do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Or the right things at the wrong time?
Or the wrong thing at the right time?" (p. 1).

"Dad's in his study, working.
I knock quietly.
He stares at his computer
as I tell him my latest do-wrongism.
He says, 'It's okay, Ron, it'll wear off.'
'It's not foot odour,' I reply" (p. 4).

"I've tried.  I really have.
In my mind I kick the ball in the right direction.
I give correct answers in class.
I mix the cordial in the jug,
between my mind and my feet, hands and mouth,
something gets lost somewhere" (p. 7).

"There's something just right about Isabelle.
I don't normally talk to girls.
Girls don't normally talk to me,
but Isabelle is different" (p. 24).

To Go with the Meal:

To teach this book, I'd initially have students focus on their emotional reactions to Ron's experiences.  When have they felt like they made a mistake or have done things wrong?  Have they ever felt lonely?  Students could discuss their feelings, complete free writes or create their own poems.

Another tension is about where Ron lives--a small town in Australia.  He wonders what it would be like to live in a big city like Isabelle comes from.  Students can think about their own towns and cities.  A teacher could also use this book to enhance a lesson on Australia, discussing the geography, culture and language.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Friday, February 26, 2010

REVIEW: The Last Olympian

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5)Riordan, R.  (2009).  Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian.  New York:  Hyperion Books.


381 pages

This will be the last Percy Jackson post.  I swear.  Because this is also the last Percy Jackson book.  *Tear*

So, who's seen the movie?  I'll admit I haven't gotten around to it yet.  So far, I've heard one very positive review and several predominantly negative ones.  What are your thoughts?

Appetizer:  Summer has returned and Percy and his friends are going on missions in preparation for the war between the Olympians and the reigning Greek gods that could begin any day.  Percy is enjoying the last days before his birthday with his friend Rachel before he goes on a journey to find the strength to be able to battle Luke.

With a number of lengthy battle scenes, romantic who-likes-who-now dramas and betrayals the final installment of the series can keep a reader reading (even though they have to get up in just five hours to teach).  Readers should feel satisfied by the end, having the questions and conflicts Riordan has been developing for four novels finally addressed and resolved.

Much of the content of this book describes the extensive battles that take place between the forces of good and evil in New York City.  EXTENSIVE!  Like Lord of the Rings lengthy with waiting for unlikely help to arrive at just the right moment.

So, throughout the series, Riordan has very intentionally separated the presence of the Greek gods throughout the series from the idea of religion.  However, that separation briefly broke down in this book.  At one point, while the characters are worried about the future of Western civilization, Poseidon advises Percy to pray that their plan works and Percy replies, "I am praying.  I'm talking to you, right?" (p. 311).  It just seemed strange to break down the separation between the realm of the Greek gods and religion at that point.

Dinner Conversation:

"The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
Up until then, I was having a great afternoon.  Technically I wasn't supposed to be driving because I wouldn't turn sixteen for another week, but my mom and my stepdad, Paul, took my friend Rachel and me to this private stretch of beach on the South Shore, and Paul let us borrow his Prius for a short spin" (p. 5).

"Time?" I asked.
He nodded grimly.
A clump formed in my throat.  I'd known this was coming.  We'd been planning for it for weeks, but I'd half hoped it would never happen" (p. 9).

"The gods were in the Midwest fighting a huge monster that had almost defeated them once more.  Poseidon was under siege and losing a war against the sea Titan Oceanus.  Kronos was still out there somewhere.  Olympus was virtually undefended.  The demigods of Camp Half-Blood were on our own with a spy in our midst.
Oh, and according to the ancient prophecy, I was going to die when I turned sixteen--which happened to be in five days, the exact same time Typhon was supposed to hit New York.  Almost forgot that" (pp. 61-62).

"Two archers ran by, chased by an angry Ares kid who was yelling in poetry:  "Curse me, eh?  I'll make you pay! / I don't want to rhyme all day!"
Annabeth sighed.  "Not that again.  Last time apollo cursed a cabin, it took a week for the rhyming couplets to wear off."
I shuddered.  Apollo was god of poetry as well as archery, and I'd heard him recite in person.  I'd almost rather get shot by an arrow" (p. 69).

"Annabeth came up to me.  She was dressed in black camouflage with her Celestial bronze knife strapped to her arm and her laptop bag slung over her shoulder--ready for stabbing or surfing the Internet, whichever came first" (p. 143).

"If you're heading downtown from Central Park, my advice is to take the subway.  Flying pigs are faster, but way more dangerous" (p. 250).

To Go with the Meal:

Since a portion of this novel draws attention to some of the lesser known Greek gods, a teacher can develop a lesson around them.

While there aren't any cliff-hangers, per se, students can plot out how they think future prophecies will play out in the Percy Jackson world.

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

REVIEW: Boys of Steel

Boys of Steel: The Creators of SupermanNobleman, M.  (2008).  Boys of Steel:  The creators of Superman.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.


Appetizer:  This picturebook explores the biographies of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  The story begins while Siegel was still in high school, so he'll be a relatable child-like character (although a bit older than the intended readers).  The book shares about their friendship and later partnership as they came up with the idea for Superman, illustrated it and sought out a publisher.

As an adult, I couldn't stop thinking of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which took me an entire semester to finish reading while I was in undergrad.  A teacher could take advantage of this by having students consider the number of different ways Superman has been re-imagined (from Smallville, Lois and Clark, Superman Returns, to the speech Bill gives about Superman toward the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2).

Another way to focus on this story is as the artist's journey, showing the inspirations and work it takes to develop an idea.

I liked that the illustrations were done in a classic style with broad shouldered characters that one would expect to see in old comic books (or even in some Dick and Jane series).

This is one of those historical biographies where you know many readers aren't going to engage with the person being described very well.  But then, there are those few awkward turtles, who like Jerry, don't have many friends, don't like to participate in sports, are too afraid to even talk to members of the opposite sex....  Okay, so there are a lot of awkward turtles out there who can relate to Jerry.  But chances are good they are a few years older than the intended audience.  Despite the fact that this book is at a third or fourth grade reading level, it's probably sixth, seventh or eighth graders that will relate to the character the most.  At that age, it can be difficult to get a tween or teen to pick up a picturebook.  Chances are good graphic novel and comics fans will be willing to take a chance on it, but it'll probably be up to the teacher to put the book in their hands.

Dinner Conversation:

"Most days, Jerry Siegel slipped into the halls of his high school staring at the floor.  He always wished he was going in the other direction--back home.  That's where he could be with his friends.  They were an extraordinary bunch."

"Jerry read amazing stories every evening, every weekend, every chance he got.  If he wasn't reading, he was watching--the cinemas had no shortage of rousing motion pictures about daredevils who laughed at danger."

"Jerry also wrote his own adventure and science fiction stories.  He'd pound away at his typewriter by the front window in his attic."

"While Jerry was typing in his attic, Joe was drawing in his kitchen, using a breadboard as a surface."

"In life, people got pushed around.  Children lost parents.  Criminals got away.  In stories, heroes could prevent all of that."

To Go with the Meal:

A teacher could help adding meaning to this picturebook by exploring the context of the time period and its culture.  While doing lectures on the Great Depression, a teacher could also bring in some classic comics of Tarzan or Flash Gordon.

Since Jerry had lost his father in a bank robbery, a teacher could focus on his grief and how he used that energy to help him create his art.

With middle grade students in particular, a teacher could discuss how some people feel excluded or included depending on their interests.  Going off of this, a teacher could also encourage students to use books and art as a way to escape their problems.

Students could also research Jerry and Joe in more depth, learning more about their childhood and Jewish background and influences (on a side note, I was a little disappointed that aspect of their biographies was excluded.  Sure, there is a brief mention that Samson was one of the inspirations for Superman, but I could have heard more).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

REVIEW: Joey Fly Private Eye

Creepy Crawly Crime (Joey Fly, Private Eye)Reynolds, A.  (2009).  Joey Fly Private Eye in Creepy Crawly Crime.  New York:  Henry Hold and Company.


96 pages.

Appetizer:  Joey Fly is a private eye, intent on returning Bug City to the innocent bugs who are just trying to get by.

....Wow, describing this graphic novel really does lend itself to rhyming.  I blame the title.

When Sammy Stingtail enters Joey's office he knows the young scorpion looks like trouble.  And he is.  Sammy wants to be Joey's new assistant.  Joey takes in the scorpion and soon the two receive their first case from a butterfly named Delilah who is missing her diamond pencil box.  But the detectives won't be able to solve the case if they can't find a way to get along (I mean, could a scorpion and fly every truly coexist comfortably?).

Joey Fly's narration truly captures that film noir detective voice that's been popular for decades.  Except, he's much more humorous, with jokes that will appeal to many middle grade readers (but may seem a little silly to early young adult readers).

You can get a sample of the voice by watching the book trailer:

As I began reading, I was a little worried about the way gender roles would be presented.  Following the usual content and archetypes of detective fiction, then the men would be macho and the women would be sex objects or victims.  Delilah pretty much confirmed my worry.  She's described as a beautiful butterfly and as being "one ant short of a picnic" (p 16).  Another female character who provides a helpful lead is stereotyped, with Joey narrating, "It's scary, all the junk females keep under their wings" (p. 49).

The lack of empowered female characters was really a downer for me.  As a girl, I felt excluded by the story and a little insulted.  The cure?  Watching episodes of Veronica Mars.  But still, even though I liked what this book was doing, the fact that the story didn't challenge the way female characters are presented in detective stories killed my enjoyment.  Just killed it.  Literally, this would have been a four or five explanation point story, but it's been relegated back down to average levels of excitement:  !!!

Now, some might argue, that the entire story is about playing into the stereotypes of detective noir stories.  And that might be true.  But still, there was an opportunity to improve the genre, and it was ignored.

*Steps off the soapbox*

Dinner Conversation:

"Life in the bug city.  It ain't easy.  Crime sticks to this city like a one-winged fly on a fifty-cent swatter" (p. 7).

"My name's Fly.  Joey Fly, Private Eye" (p. 9).

Sammy:  "Fighting crime is my gig.  I'm looking for work."
Joey (narrating):  "They say crime doesn't pay, but fighting it paid me pretty well.  I had more cases than a flea has dogs.  Maybe I could use an assistant.  This bug seemed like just the guy" (p. 10).

"But I didn't have time for that now, for at that moment, a customer walked in.
A butterfly.  Swallowtail, if I didn't miss my guess.  She was a tall drip of water.  And I was suddenly feeling parched" (p. 13).

"I work for crumbs.  Literally.  And these were the good stuff.  Angel food cake crumbs.  Fifty big ones" (p. 18).

"My assistant may have his faults, but when it comes to pointing out the obvious, he's sharper than a bumblebee's butt" (p. 36).

To Go with the Meal:

Aside from encouraging visual literacy, this text encourages its readers to identify the types of insects and arachnids that are characters.  For example, when Sammy Stingtail first enters Joey's office, he's described as a "crusty arachnid type.  His stinger gave away his species.  Scorpion.  But young, barely hatched" (p. 10).  Plus, since Sammy is a young scorpion, he's meant to be a relatable figure for young readers to relate to.  (Just in case an old jaded detective fly doesn't appeal).

Also, Sammy is new to the crime-fighting biz.  So, as Joey Fly shares the rules of how to gather evidence and treat suspects the reader can learn too (that is of course, assuming they haven't grown-up with a crime procedural on a TV in the background of their entire short little lives).

I think this series would be a wonderful read to try to engage reluctant readers, especially boys who are entertained by bugs or mysteries.

Students could act out parts of the story easily, interviewing one another as they search for the pencil box thief.  They could also develop their own stories following the model of Joey Fly or they could illustrate their own character ideas, choosing from other species and paying attention to drawing the insect anatomy correctly.

The book can also be used to discuss jealousies and conflict resolutions as well as how to determine who you can trust when multiple kids are giving different accounts of an event.

This would be a fun read to support a science lesson on insects (their eating habits, anatomical structures, etc.)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Literary Feast Discussion: Al Capone Does My Shirts (pp. 1-59)

Al Capone Does My ShirtsHello All!  I hope you're having a fabulous Tuesday.  Al Capone Does My Shirts has certainly picked up the start of my week.  I'm having trouble putting it down in fact.  Monica and I have shared our opinions on the first 59 pages of the book below.  Feel free to chime in!  We'd love to hear from you.

PAGES 1-59:

SHEL:  I love the concept for this book.  I think I've spent too much time rereading Sanderson's Alcatraz Smedry series.  So, when I keep reading "Alcatraz" I can't help but think of it as a character instead of a place.

Monica:  I would absolutely hate to live there, though.  I’m scared of islands anyway; toss in some bars and guards with guns, and I wouldn’t leave my house.  Ever.  You do have to be impressed at his mother, though, for just rolling along with her husband’s new job.  “Sure, honey!  We can… move to Alcatraz…?” 

SHEL: I think I could live on the island...I would be freaked out by the idea that one of the criminals could be watching me from his cell.  That would be creepy and not fun.  Go team island, though.

Monica:  I just hope all goes well with Nathalie.  Her very existence seems fraught with portent.  Can you imagine her having a meltdown surrounded by criminals and thugs and whatnot?

SHEL:  I hates that Piper girl.  Hates her.

Monica:  She is a definitely a world-class jerk.  I love the fact that there Moose is, on an island with the murdering scum of the earth, and his biggest problem… is this bratty little girl.  Oh, the priorities one has at age twelve….

SHEL:  Everybody in this book nods.  The mom is nodding and nodding and nodding.  And Moose nods too.  I wonder who will nod next.

Monica:  Nathalie nods a little too, don’t forget!  Occasionally authors get hung up on one motion.  I can’t remember which book I *just read*, but every ten seconds it seemed like another person was being pensive.  Nodding pensively.  Thinking pensively.  Walking pensively amongst the ramparts of the castle.  I suppose that’s what an editor is for.  Shall we offer our services?

SHEL: I would be more than willing to help out.  I love the thought of going through a manuscript and crossing out a word over and over again and making snarky "find a thesaurus" comments.

SHEL:  I like the way Choldenko  writes the baseball game Moose plays with Scout and the others in chapter 8.  She managed to make it really suspenseful, even for a reader who doesn't like sports.

Monica:  Like, dare I say it, the scene from Twilight?  ;) 

Monica:  On a vaguely unrelated note, I *really* like the cover of this book.  I think it’s the actual photo of Alcatraz – it’s easy to sort of idealize the place, because you’re seeing it through Moose’s eyes, but that photo really shows how stark and forbidding the island was.

SHEL: That's a really good point.  I like that the photo is there as well.  It helps ground the story in the history.  

Monica:  You know what else helps?  The author notes.  Although we’re not there yet….

Shel:  Cheater!

So, that concludes our first discussion.  We'll continue with the next sixty-ish pages to finish Part One on Friday.  Hope to talk to you then!

REVIEW: Babymouse, Queen of the World!

Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!Holm, J.L., &, Holm, M.  (2005).  Babymouse:  Queen of the world.  New York:  Random House.


93 pages.

Appetizer:  Babymouse can't seem to make friends with the popular animals at school and can never get her whiskers straight.  She imagines being the queen of the world or even assistant queen to Felicia Furrypaws.  If only Babymouse can find a way to be invited to Felicia's sleepover, even if it means missing out on plans with her best friend, Wilson the Weasel.

With a black and white and pink cover and a mouse wearing a dress on the cover, my natural inclination was to read this book for the way gender is treated.  Isn't that what you think about too, when you pick up a graphic novel for early and middle elementary students?  Yes, yes, anyone?  Hello?

Well, any-hoo, based on all the pink and Babymouse's love for the dresses, the story does play into certain gender stereotypes, but at the same time, Babymouse isn't just a a representation of girly, curly-whiskered girls everywhere.  Her best friend is a boy, she has fantasies of being a detective, starship captain and a legendary cowgirl and when she is actually faced with spending an evening down her hair and putting on makeup with the other girls, she finds she misses watching squid movies with Wilson.  So, overall, the way gender is presented is much more complicated and interesting than the stereotype of the pink and dress-wearing girl.

I also like the attention that the Holm siblings gave to representing Babymouse's world visually.  I liked this splashes of pink here and there with the otherwise black and white illustrations.

Dinner Conversation:

"Babymouse didn't have a lot of expectations.  Well, maybe just a few.  QUEEN OF THE WORLD!"  (pp. 14-15).

"It seemed like everyone was invited to the slumber party.  Almost everyone" (pp. 39-40).

"Babymouse knew the slumber party was her big chance to show Felicia Furrypaws how cool she was!" (p. 41).

"And then it happened.
TEACHER:  Please pass up you book reports.
FELICIA:  I forgot my book report.  Can I have yours?
FELICIA:  You can come to the slumber party..." (p. 51).

To Go with the Meal:

This books encourages visual literacy (especially within the first few pages where the reader can learn a lot about Babymouse by the objects in her room).  It also tries to capture the attention of young female readers who too often are left to think that comics and graphic novels "are for the boys."

Teachers can discuss the tensions in the story--What Babymouse does to try to befriend Felicia.  Would you ever do something like that?  What makes a friend a good one?  Many young girls will be able to relate to Babymouse's feelings of wanting to feel included.

A teacher could also focus on the types of stories Babymouse fantasizes about throughout the story.  As recommendations (for after the young readers finish the rest of the Babymouse series) a teacher could recommend some detective stories, fairy tales, Western-style picturebooks, etc.

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Monday, February 22, 2010

REVIEW: The 39 Clues (Book Four)

The 39 Clues Book 4: Beyond the GraveWatson, J.  (2009).  The 39 Clues:  Beyond the Grave.  New York:  Scholastic, Inc.


190 pages.

Appetizer:  The fourth book in the 39 Clues series opens with the Cahill siblings in Cairo, Egypt, being pursued by their cousin, Irina, who is ex-KGB.  This time, Dan and Amy aren't quite certain what they're looking for in a clue.  Best solution?  Wander around a museum.

The siblings are lucky enough to meet an old friend of their grandmother's, which leads to a deeper understanding of who Grace Cahill was, but betrayals and encounters from other relatives still keep Amy and Dan on their toes.  Plus, Amy and Dan are beginning to fight, causing the fear that they'll end up behaving just like all the other Cahills.

Grace has become quite the Dumbledore figure, endowed with knowledge beyond what any one person should have and capable of still directing major operations from her grave.  Someday, when I'm old and wrinkly, I hope I can manipulate young people into dangerous situations that will pit them against dark lords or their relatives like that.  Seriously.

I really enjoyed Jude Watson's addition to the series.  Watson's writing included a lot of subtle humor that had me chuckling even during many of the tense scenes.

Dinner Conversation:

"If Amy Cahill had to list what was wrong with eleven-year-old brothers, their habit of disappearing would be numero uno.
Or maybe the fact that they existed in the first place.
And then there was the whole burping the alphabet thing...."

"He gave her the statue.
It felt strange to touch something so old.  Something Napoleon had touched.  Every so often she got a deep thrill from a sense of her own DNA linking like a chain down a line leading to a bunch of extraordinary people.  Napoleon!" (pp. 10-11).

"The Lucians are all little Napoleons," Dan grumbled.  "Look at Ian and Natalie.  Just a couple of smarty-pants with cash.  Comrade Irina?  A smarty-pants with a tic.  Napoleon?  He was a smarty-pants with an army" (p. 19).

"Where to?" the taxi driver asked, waking with a start.
"Just go, go go!" Nellie shouted.
"Go, go, go!" the taxi driver shouted gleefully as he stomped on the gas, practically sending them through the roof.  "I love Americans!"  (p. 23).

"Every branch had bad people in it," he said.  "And there are plenty of good Ekats, too.  I mean, where would we be without Edison?  In the dark, that's where.  Anyway, we don't know what branch we're in.  We only know we're Cahills.  If I had to choose a branch based on the bad guys, I wouldn't want to be part of any of them" (pp. 36-37).

To Go with the Meal:

Since this book focuses on different cities in Egypt, a teacher can focus lessons on ancient Egypt, Napoleon (and his role in Egypt), the Rosetta Stone, the work of various Egyptologists (and there are MANY mentioned in this book).

If a student is working through the entire series, a teacher could urge them to organize the famous members of the family into their branches graphically.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

REVIEW: Owly (Book One)

The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer (Owly (Graphic Novels)) (v. 1)Runton, A.  (2004).  Owly:  The Way Home and the Bittersweet Summer.  Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.


Appetizer:  In The Way Home, Owly is alone.  None of the littler birds or bugs want to be friends with him.  But when Owly finds a worm and nurses him back to health, he sets out on a quest to return his new friend to his family.

In the second story of this book, The Bittersweet Summer, Owly and Wormy meet a couple of hummingbirds.  It falls to the friends to save one of the hummingbirds, but after that they face a bigger challenge of having to say goodbye for the winter.

(By the way, I keep calling Owly a he, but the text doesn't reveal gender, allowing both young boys and girls to identify with the owl)

This graphic novel series is almost completely wordless.  Every now and then a book title of one of Owly's books is shown or there's a sound effect.  But even when the characters dialogue, it is shown through illustration (although, admittedly, this has the potential to be the most difficult part for young readers to navigate.  A teacher may want to be ready to help walk the child through it).

Owly is a very relatable character.  His huge wide eyes invite sympathy.  And the fact that he feels lonely can draw the reader right into the story.

To Go with the Meal:

This is an excellent graphic novel series to recommend to younger readers (I probably wouldn't go younger than the second or third grade though).  Since this graphic novel series is almost completely wordless, it encourages visual literacy and a teacher could encourage students to narrate about what they are seeing.

Young kids will also be able to relate to Owly on an emotional level. They could write journal entries from Owly or Wormy's point of views or they could describe a time when they have ever felt lonely or worried or are trying to make new friends.

Since Owly and Wormy compare the different types of homes that they come from, a teacher could discuss what and where home is with students, having them draw a picture of their own home.  Students could also work on map reading or creating (they could draw maps of their neighborhood or the school  while paying attention to the landmarks).

Students could also work on a gardening project, paying attention to grow local flora or plants that provide nutrients for specific animals.  Another option would be to research hummingbirds and other birds.

This would be a good book to also assign at the start of fall term, then a teacher could have students explore the changing seasons and, following Owly's example, create scrapbooks of what they did over the summer.

A teacher could discuss how to make a purchase, or how to help friends based on what each individual needs.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

REVIEW: The Black Book of Colors

The Black Book of ColorsCottin, M.  (2006).  The Black Book of Colors.  Toronto:  Groundwood Books.


With a name like "The Black Book of Colors" how could you not want to read this picturebook.  I ran out and hunted it down at my library.  And by "ran out" I mean reserved it online and wandered on down to pick it up from my local branch several days later.  But I was still excited to see it waiting for me on the shelf.

Appetizer:  The pages of this picturebook are almost completely black.  The story actually shares its text and illustrations in braille (although the text is also written in white for those who can't read braille yet) as Thomas describes his opinions of the colors.  The text shares his descriptions of colors, connecting them to the taste or smell of foods or the feel and sound of certain objects.  The illustrations include raised, texturized images on each right page.

I love this book.  For readers who can see, this book provides awareness for the experience of being blind.  And for young readers who can't see, this story allows readers to envision colors and to still enjoy the experience of having illustrations.

My one issue about this book arises from a personal experience.  Several years ago, I took several classes with a professor who was blind.  Now, I know this could depend on the cause, but my teacher always hated books that presented blindness as living in darkness.  She would say that she saw milky lightness all the time.  Now for the concept of this book, it's probably easier to construct the book in black as opposed to white.

I also wished the story had included more information about who Thomas was as a character.  Is he based on a specific person?  I would have liked to learn more in an afterword.

I particularly liked the page that describes the experience of a rainbow coming out after the rain.  Instead of having texturized lines across the illustration page, the page features arches of the different fruits and objects used in the previous pages to describe the colors (there's a line of strawberries to represent red, chick feathers to represent yellow).

My other favorite pages was the one that described rain pouring down.  The rain drops felt really cool.

Dinner Conversation:

"Thomas says that yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick's feathers."

"Brown crunches under his feet like fall leaves.  Sometimes it smells like chocolate, and other times it stinks."

"Thomas thinks that without the sun, water doesn't amount to much.  It has no color, no taste, no smell."

"He says that green tastes like lemon ice cream and smells like grass that's just been cut."

"But black is the king of all the colors."

To Go with the Meal:

This story provides perspective taking and allows students to understand colors in a new way.  In response to reading the book, students could imagine the experience of blindness or try to describe common objects in unique ways to try to understand them in a new way.

This book would be great to use when introducing students to the Braille alphabet.  Students could practice reading Braille with this picturebook.

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Friday, February 19, 2010

REVIEW: Larabee

LarabeeLuthardt, K.  (2004).  Larabee.  Atlanta:  Peachtree Publishers.


Appetizer:  Larabee the dog accompanies Mr. Bowman as he delivers the mail each day.  But more than anything else, Larabee would like to receive a piece of mail for him just once.

The illustrations are cute, colorful and child friendly.  They also include a subtle jokes to encourage young readers (or adults who are reading the book aloud for the twentieth time this week) to spend time looking at the illustrations.

There is also quite a bit of multicultural representation in the illustrations and in the text (a number of characters say hello to Larabee in different languages or dialects).

The text does include a few three syllable words.  A teacher could read aloud the book, but have a young reader supply some of the simpler or repeated words.

Dinner Conversation:

"This is Mr. Bowman.  His is a mail carrier.  This is his dog.  His name is Larabee."

"Larabee likes to ride in the mail truck.  He likes to help carry the mailbag too.  But most of all he likes the mail.  He wishes someone would send him a letter."

"Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza get a letter from their son in the army."

"But Lacey McNabb loves Larabee the most."

To Go with the Meal:

Young students will find Larabee to be very relatable.  After all, what kid doesn't want to receive some mail just for them.  (As a child, my mom would always let me open all the holiday mail addressed to the entire family.  But it ended up being more of a pain, because I never knew the people the cards were from.  But never fear, as an adult I regularly order books online.  I getz me lotz of packages.  I'm sure my postman secretly hates me.  Or thinks I'm a crazy person who doesn't leave the house ever to go shopping like a normal person.)

This is a great picturebook for new readers to learn about how the mail is delivered and how to write letters.  As an activity, students could write letters to Larabee, the mailman, their own pet or a family member.

Kids can also try to guess what each of the characters are getting in the mail.  (One of the pages directly encourages this when Bruno the Butcher receives a package.  But to be honest, in that particular case, I didn't want to think about what was in the box.  Team Veggie for life!)

Since there are dialogue bubbles, a teacher could describe to young reader how to read those.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Literary Feast Invitation!

Hello dear, dear readers!

It has been a while since our last Literary Feast -- you know, the one with the zombies and the bloody rampages and the steampunking -- so Shel and I have decided we'd best start another one.

This month (and probably into March) we'll be reading the best-selling, Newbery-Honor-Booking, utterly fantastic Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko.

Here's a taste of the book, from the back cover:

Murderers, mob bosses, and convicts... these guys are not your average neighbors. Not unless you live on Alcatraz. It's 1935 and twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family have just moved to the infamous island that's home to criminals like notorious escapee Roy Gardner, Machine Gun Kelly, and, of course, Al Capone.
But that's just the beginning of Moose's troubles because on Alcatraz the kids are all cowed by the clever, danger-loving daughter of the warden, Piper Williams. Now moose has to try to fit in at his new school, avoid getting caught up in one of Piper's countless schemes, and keep an eye on his sister, Nathalie, who's not like other kids.
All Moose wants to do is protect Nathalie, live up to his parents' expectations, and stay out of trouble. But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away.


So head on over to your local library or bookstore, and grab yourself a copy! We'll start reading this week, and will post a review of the first sixty pages (through chapter nine) on Tuesday!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

REVIEW: Prehistoric Actual Size

Prehistoric Actual SizeJenkins, S.  (2005).  Prehistoric Actual Size.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.


Oh, Steve Jenkins.

I didn't realize it, but you've been at work for quite some time.  Sitting in a corner, quietly shredding paper for your striking illustrations while the rest of us were wandering around.

Appetizer:  In this picturebook, Jenkins uses his paper collages to show the actual size of a number of prehistoric creatures including a velociraptor, sea scorpion, diplocaulus, dragonfly, cockroach, millipede, giganotosaurus, etc.

I liked that Jenkins organizes the various creatures according to the number of hundred million years ago that they thrived.

Let's be honest here.  These beasties have a lot of potential to be terrifying.  They are the beasties of nightmares.  When sharing this with early grade school kids, I think it'd be VERY important to remind students that these beasties no longer exist at the size pictured, that we should all be grateful that the millipede and cockroaches evolved to be much smaller.  I know I'm very thankful for this.  (Although, the cockroach could still go smaller and I wouldn't complain.  I find the occasional dead one in the halls where my office is.  I usually take pictures of them on my phone and send the images to my parents.  Cause I'm an awesome daughter like that.)

To keep the illustrations interesting, Jenkins usually only shows a portion of the ancient beasties.  In some cases, this includes only a head or a claw.  This also helps to impress upon the reader the size of these creatures.

The text describing each animal in minimal, often only reinforcing the image that is being shown.

Dinner Conversation:

"Animals have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years.  Dragonflies the size of seagulls, meat-eating dinosaurs bigger than a bus, giant flying reptiles, fierce predatory birds eight feet tall--they all appeared, thrived for millions of years, and then died out as the world changed around them."

"Diplocaulus was a meat-eating amphibian.  Its horns may have helped it glide through the water."

"This giant millipede had as many as thirty pairs of legs."

"Giganotosaurus may have been the largest predator that ever lived on land."

"The terror bird lived in South America.  It was the largest predator of its time--big enough to eat a horse."

To Go with the Meal:

Prehistoric Actual Size can be used to help students understand the concept of prehistoric time (paying special attention to reinforce the idea that these big (and in a few cases small) beasties aren't wandering around the cities and suburbs looking for tasty kiddies to eat).

Looking at the illustrations, a teacher can encourage the students to think about how the creatures would feel to the touch, or could have them research the animals more thoroughly beginning with the glossary of animals at the end and moving to other books or online.

To go a creative route, middle grade students could pretend to have one of the animals as a pet.  They could write a story describing how they would care for their prehistoric creature and in some cases keep the animal or other people safe.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

REVIEW: The 39 Clues (Book Three)

The 39 Clues Book 3: The Sword ThiefLerangis, P.  (2009).  The 39 Clues:  The sword thief.  New York:  Scholastic Inc.


156 pages

Appetizer:  Just when Dan and Amy think they're on their way to Japan in search of the third clue, several of their relatives team up to separate them from their au pair, Nellie, and  prevent them from leaving Italy.  The two must form an unhappy alliance with some of their other relatives to hunt for the next clue.  As tentative alliances are formed and betrayals become known, the children continue on the search that will take them to both Japan and Korea and will lead Dan to realize his dream of fighting some actual ninjas (which may not be the dream-come-true he'd been hoping for).  And Amy may fall in like...with a distant relative...awkward...and ick!

This book spends more time sharing the perspectives of some of some of Dan and Amy's extended relatives, giving them more depth.  While I liked that aspect, there were a few draw-backs to Peter Lerangis's addition to the series.  I didn't always like the way he gave voice to the characters.  For example, at a few points, Dan starts throwing around slang like "peeps" and "mad gansta," which didn't seem to be a part of his voice in the previous books.  I could see the stereotyped Jonah Wizard saying things like that, not Dan.  The same thing happened to Nellie.  She goes into a long monologue of what happened to her in the siblings' absence and she says things like:  "Anyway, they try to threaten me, yada yada, and of course I argue and I'm figuring in my head, 'Ha-ha, the next thing is they put poison in the drink'-but I'm, like, 'Nahh, of course they're not that skeezy.' Then I see her actually doing it, like two inches away from me--uh, hello?  So I get kinda mad, you know..."
Now, of course there are kids and teens whose voices sound just the way Lerangis has written these, but these voices don't match the way Dan and Nellie spoke in the previous novels.  So, it seemed a bit out of place and awkward.

I did feel like there was more humor in this installment (although, some of it was decidedly disgusting--booger flicking with a dog jumping to get it.  Let's not think about that any further.  LALALA!  Distraction!Distraction!DISTRACTION!).  The Sword Thief also went into more depth of various characters' motives and explores some of Japan's history.  The book serves as a big stepping stone, as some of the Cahill clan learn what the ultimate goal for their hunt is.

Dinner Conversation:

"They were toast.
Amy Cahill eyed the battered black duffel bag rumbling up the airport conveyor belt.  It bulged at the corners.  The sign above the belt said THANK YOU FOR VISITING VENICE:  RANDOM PIECES OF CHECKED LUGGAGE WILL BE SEARCHED in five languages.
"Oh, great," Amy said.  "How random is 'random'?" (p. 1).

"Amy fought the urge to just collapse and cry.  Right there in the middle of the terminal.  Everything was going wrong.  It had been a seven-year string of bad luck, ever since ther parents died in that house fire.  How were Amy and Dan supposed to do this alone?  The Kabras had money.  Their parents supported them.  Plus, they were working with Irina.  The Holts were a whole family.  Jonah Wizard had his dad planning every moment of his life.  It was Amy and Dan against...families.  Teams.  Generations.  They didn't stand a chance" (p. 14).

"Amy's brother was never comfortable in a new place until he committed an act of cluelessness.  In Tokyo, it happened the morning after their arrival at the Thank You Very Much Hotel" (p. 32).

"I have devoted myself to earning your confidence again.  Trust is a fragile thing--difficult to build, easy to break.  It cannot be bargained for.  Only if it is freely given can it be expected in return."  He looked from Amy to Dan.  "To break the chain of mistrust, someone has to go first.  I am happy to make the move.  You deserve no less" (p. Chapter Five, upside down triangle page of the code).

To Go with the Meal:

While a teacher can easily recommend this adventure series for enjoyment (particularly with some reluctant middle grade male readers), there are also a number of teaching moment topics they can latch onto, including:  Prime numbers, factors, how subways work, palindromes, the history of between the Koreas and Japan, haiku poetry, Eastern Asian geography, geology, as well as the biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (which to be perfectly honest, my western dominated history education never included).

A teacher could also describe and encourage students to watch the movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, since Dan repeatedly references it throughout the book (which seemed very random).

Students can also venture on over to to have some more fun.  I'm off to complete mission 6 myself.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

REVIEW: Redwoods

RedwoodsChin, J.  (2009).  Redwoods.  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.


Appetizer:  A young boy discovers a Copy of Redwoods (complete with him on the cover) while waiting in the subway stop.  As he begins to read the information the book contains about Redwood trees, during his trip, a bit of imagination and the information within the book begins to transform the world around the boy.

Heart it!

The text itself is straightforward information about Redwood trees.  While, some of the facts are interesting, they could easily be words written in a boring, big textbook or on a research notecard written by a fourth grade.  No, what makes this book awesome are the illustrations.  As the boy reads, the subject matter comes alive.  When he learns that a tree can live over 2,000 years and some sprouted during the Roman Empire, a roman soldier and senator sit on either side of the reading boy.  When the boy leaves the underground subway system he goes upstairs to discover he's in a Redwood forest.  As the boy reads more facts about redwoods, he continues to explore the forest.

The text did an awesome job of sharing about redwoods and showing their role in their habitat (teachers will love to force kids to construct food webs based off of the information).

The story as a whole reminded me of the Magic School Bus series, but with more beautifully executed illustrations (and only one kid instead of a bus full).

This story show the power of a reader's imagination and also does an excellent job of showing the scope and size of a Redwood forest.  I also liked that the boy featured throughout the story was of Asian descent (mmmmm, racial representation.  Tastes good.).

The book also shares the fact that the redwoods are endangered in the author's note.  No message left unshared!

Dinner Conversation:

"The coast redwoods are among the oldest trees in the world.  Their ancestors lived about 165 million years ago, during the Jurassic period."

"They are the tallest living things on the planet.  Redwoods regularly grow to be more than 200 feet tall."

"If you see a ring of redwoods in the forest, they probably sprouted from the same stump."

"It takes a long time for water to travel all the way from the roots to the top of a redwood, and the fog helps the trees by preventing them from losing moisture to evaporation."

To Go with the Meal:

The text of this story can be used to show students some of the essential information they should include when writing a science report.

In similar fashion to this book's structure, students' could bring their own research papers alive by including illustrations with their reports that not only bring alive the subject matter, but include themselves on the adventure.

This book shows literacy both as a way to learn new facts and skills, as an imaginative process, and shows information and books as things that should be shared.

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Monday, February 15, 2010

REVIEW: Red Sings from Treetops a year in colors

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in ColorsSidman, J.  (2009).  Red Sings from Treetops:  A year in colors.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.


Appetizer:  Within the 28 poems (approximately, I'm so bad at math I don't even trust my ability to count anymore), this picturebook shares the way the different colors behave during the four seasons (beginning with spring).  The colors are repeated, their presence in nature expressed in different ways varying from season to season.

I absolutely LOVE the way the colors are personified in the poems.  My favorite is a portion of the poem about green in the spring:

"Green is new
in the spring.  Shy.
Green peeks from buds,
trembles in the breeze."

How beautiful is that image?!  I heart it fiercely.

As one of the Caldecott honor books for this year, you can also expect that the illustrations are beautiful.  And that is the case.  There is fantastic use of colors and designs that help add to the tone and feelings of the poetry.  The illustrations help to provide a sense of magic for the illustrations.  For example, on the page that describes black in the fall, an inky whale is incorporated into the sky since the moon swims "through its cool sky-pool."  (I know that probably sounds weird.  But you can always check out the book for yourself and hopefully it will make a little more sense then)

Dinner Conversation:

Red sings
from treetops:
each note dropping
like a cherry into my ear."

"And here in secret places,
peeps Pink:
the color of

"Green is queen
in summer."

"Purple pours
into summer evenings
one shadow at a time,"

To Go with the Meal:

Aside from enjoying some beautiful poetry (and some Caldecott honor earning illustrations) a teacher could use this book in a lesson about the use of colors in poetry and how they help create different meanings, images and emotions.

Rather than share the poems of this picturebook in just one sitting, a teacher could regularly present the poems throughout the school year to reflect the changes in seasons (that is of course, assuming the class is being taught in a part of the world where it actually snows in the winter).

In response to hearing or reading these poems, children could write their own poems, paying attention to incorporate colors into their writing.

Another route would be to include the poems into a science lesson on the causes of the seasons.

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


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