My Favorite Machines (series) written by Colleen Ruck

It's #nfpb2014 Wednesday. Check out the link to discover many more irresistible information books.

A number of years ago I discovered Nell Duke, and her research on the importance of information books for younger readers. Her work at that time was just starting to show that merely providing access to information books for learners from Kindergarten on up, could have significant impact on children's reading and writing. Her hope was that introducing readers to the language of information at an earlier age would play a large role in eliminating what is known in education circles as the "grade 3/4 slump."

Ever since then I have kept my eyes open for quality titles to add to our collection. When I found this series, I knew I had hit pay dirt. The proof is that there is a certain group of younger readers who love me for bringing these into the library: especially those little folk who love all things technical. Sometimes I have a hard time getting them back so others can read them.

Each page contains only a few sentences of text and has a glossy photograph. Some of these images have a caption and others are labeled. Even if those younger readers can't read the text yet, they love looking at these pictures!  
Each book in the series contains those basic necessities; a table of contents, an index, a glossary and websites. The website I checked out from the Diggers title was a bit overwhelming but the kenkenkiki one did have more detailed information and some videos of machines at work.

Check out this spread from the motorcycle book that shows pictures of different bikes across time.


It's Monday - Here's What I've been reading.

It's Monday and I've joined up with many other bloggers to celebrate our reading for the week at #IMWAYR Check out  Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers to come up with even more ideas for great books to read.

I've finished The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. You can read my review here, but suffice to say that, as I am listening to it for the second time, it proves to be even better than the first time round!

I also completed Catherine Austen's All Good Children and started Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith.

I've come to the conclusion that my Goodreads' comments about All Good Children are really not adequate. This book has haunted me ever since I wrote them.

"I liked this book, and I suspect if I hadn't been coming off a binge of dystopian novels, I would have liked it more. It was slow to start and the football scenes in the first section bored me. However, once I got into it, and started thinking about what Austen was saying about the existing educational system, my interest and excitement was piqued. I was hooked by the last 2/3rds, but that is too late for kids."

This book has stirred up memories of Burgess' Clockwork Orange, and Huxley's Brave New World. It's left me worried about what will happen as funding for education dries up even further like it has in this tale. Here's a fact I connected to: the numbers of kids diagnosed with ADHD increases annually in the USA (and most likely also in Canada.) Consequently, the numbers of kids on medication to control their behavior goes up.  

It's the story of 15 year old Maxwell Connors, his friends, and family. A new treatment is being administered to all students to help them become better learners. The worst side effect is death, but even without that, kids become incapable of independent thinking and are easier to control. (Remember soma from Brave New World?) While escaping to Canada is seen as a solution, I'm not so sure that would be a great long term plan since we here seem to follow American trends. Ultimately I think this is a great read, but I still stand by my first impression that it starts too slow for many readers.

So far I'm at page 96 in Grasshopper Jungle. This book grabbed me by the throat and won't let go. (I even read while walking picket lines this morning) I'll try to get it finished and reviewed by next week. So far, I'm absolutely sure this is not appropriate for my Elementary School aged students, but I'm loving it. 

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp written by Kathi Appelt and read by Lyle Lovett

Maybe my reading life could be better than this, but jeepers creepers, I doubt it. No sooner did I finish listening to Lyle Lovett reading The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, I immediately started in all over again!
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, I don't love about this book!

I love, love, love the characters: Bingo and J'miah, the faithful scouts; Chap, the grieving boy, trying to be a man, his departed Grandfather Audie, and his mother, renowned for her fried sugar pies; Sweetums, their cat who doesn't understand why his owners don't speak Catalian; Coyoteman Jim, the radio announcer and voice of intelligence; and the Sugar Man and his faithful rattlesnake, Gertrude, who guard the swamp. I even love those nasty characters: the feral hogs, Clydine, Buzzie and the rest of their baddest gang in history: the Farrow Gang; and Sonny Boy Beaucoup, the owner and scoundrel who, along with champion gator wrestler, Jaeger Stitch, plan to turn Sugar Man Swamp into a gator wrestling theme park.

I love the writing: part tall tale, part magical realism, part fantasy, part oral tradition. It begs to be read out loud, and I’m telling you, holy moly! Lyle Lovett is absolutely the perfect person for the job!

I love that there is serious business going on behind the folksy humour. It sneaks in a lesson or two on environmental stewardship, on greed, and even on belief and where it comes from. 

The only thing missing is sugar pies to go along with it. I wonder if Kathi Appelt has a recipe on her website?

Critical Literacy and Contract Negotiations

I never wanted this blog to be anything other than a place to review and talk about literature and show off the work done by students here at Dickens. But I’m fed up with the media response, and it's lack of critical literacy, in what is going on with regards to negotiations between the BCTF and BCPSEA. (aka the BC Liberals) When media report on the existing negotiations between public school teachers and their employer, the BC Liberals, I'd like journalists to please attempt to put it into a larger context. I'd be happy just for them to ask some critical questions. 

What we have here in British Columbia is a government that has made a political decision to deliberately underfund public education. They want citizens to see this as good fiscal management. They want teachers to be seen as greedy. However, governments have the power, and the responsibility, to collect taxes to pay for those programs and institutions that support the public good. It would be helpful it media would point out that if there is indeed no money for public education, this is the consequence of political decision making by the existing government to reduce corporate taxes. To enable them achieve this underfunding, they broke the law by illegally stripping the teacher’s contract in 2002.  I could go into a spiel about the neoliberal agenda to privatize everything, including education, but if you don’t know what it is, you can look it up for yourself here.

If wanting public education funded to at least the national average is a political act, then teachers, and a whole lot of other people concerned about public education, are thinking politically. 

I have been a teacher for 25 years. In this time I have seen conditions in public schools deteriorate unbearably. We have larger class sizes and more special needs children in them. This creates untenable working conditions for us, and more challenging learning conditions for children. More heartbreaking has been the constant erosion of support for special needs learners. Counselors, school psychologists, teacher librarians, and speech and language therapists are endangered species.  Essential supplies are scarce, and we have no technology to speak of. Teachers and parents are expected to fund the basics of public education to a greater and greater extent. As a teacher librarian, I personally spend at least $500 a year to support our school library. I don't get to claim it as a deduction either. The consequence of this expectation has been the inevitable evolution of have and have-not schools. Public education is a significant tool to achieve democratic equality and this government’s actions serve to decimate it. This is a highly political act on their part. 

I’m also getting tired of people calling me a greedy teacher. I haven’t had a raise in 3 years and quite frankly, I want one. I want one that is the equivalent of what other public sector workers got, and I don’t want it to come out of support for kids. 
I want a return of school libraries across the province. I want school counselors and psychologists returned. I want speech and language professionals who have time to work with kids in a meaningful way. I want all kids to have the chance to be successful. 

Let's get this straight. Funding public education adequately is a political act. It's not negotiations that put children at risk, it's a political decision to whittle away funding that does it. 

Defining Moments in Canadian History

It's #nfpb2014 Wednesday. Check out the link to discover many more wonderful information books sure to please you.

Here in Canada, Terry Fox is our most beloved hero. While attending Simon Fraser University the young athlete was diagnosed with cancer and had to have his leg amputated above his knee. After completing his chemotherapy Terry had a dream to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He hoped to raise 24 million dollars, one dollar for every Canadian. Even though Terry never finished his marathon of hope, his goal was achieved and each fall thousands of adults and school children run to raise money for cancer research in his name.

I admit that I came to tears while reading his story again in graphic form. At Dickens we have a healthy collection of books and videos telling his story, but this one is a blessed addition. It will make Terry's story accessible to a wider audience. 

What I like about these is that while some issues such as Japanese internment and the gold rush are more global, these books specifically deal with a Canadian perspective. I love that they are graphic, and although the text itself isn't simple, they will act as low vocab high interest books. On top of this, the topics are sure to provoke conversations. Each book in the series contains a table of contents, a glossary and index. There is a Brain Teaser section with questions and answers. There is a Further Information page that tells you how to find out more information through other books and websites.

The other titles in the series that we have are
The Conscription Crisis, The Klondike Gold Rush, The North-West Resistance, and The Japanese Internment. 

I will most certainly purchase more of these.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

In celebration of Mondays, I've joined the #IMWAYR community along with so many other readers. 

Glory Hallelujah my reading life this past week has been sublime. 

She's back, she's back, Moses (Mo) LoBeau is back! We're talking Anne Shirley reincarnated into a small town in Southern USA in the year 2010 or thereabouts. Mo was introduced to us in Three Times Lucky. If you have not read this book then stop reading right now, rush to your nearest library or bookstore, grab it, and be prepared to have your mind blown. 

The Desperado Detective Agency, aka Mo and her pal Dale, along with the rest of the denizens of Tupelo Landing, are embroiled in another mystery. 
This time, there is a lot more on the line.

Just as Tupelo is about to celebrate its 250th birthday, Miss Lana, Mo's adopted mother, and Miss Lacey, Mo's adoptive grandmother, purchase the dilapidated Tupelo Inn. It was that or be forced to live next to the worst neighbour in the world. Unfortunately their coffers are not as deep as they assumed and the evil woman threatens to repossess the inn unless it the debt is paid in full by November 1st. 

It doesn't leave Mo and Dale much time. If they can't figure out who is haunting the old Inn, interview her, and come up with definitive proof her existence, they might fail their history assignment. If they can't figure out a way to come up with a lot of cash they could lose everything dear to them. If they can't mend fences with the local stillhouse owner, their new friend, Harm, will have no place to call home. 

Sheila Turnage's writing is just plain luscious. Her characters are as memorable as they come. They live real lives filled with pain and anguish. Yet in spite of this, her writing is packed with hilarity and poignant moments. See for yourself in these few quotes. 

"Miss Lana says telling a secret changes the heart of the teller and the listener, both."

"Attila's presentation hit me like Novocaine between the eyes."

"Sometimes you have to leave home to find home. I did."

"Dale and Harm sang and played and danced like the music had moved in and set up housekeeping in their souls, their voices clear and strong, their rhythm wild and true."


You might think this would be enough pleasure in a week's reading, but oh no, it was even better than this. I finished The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck.  In this collection of short stories about families that live in a farming community, Steinbeck made me believe that magic is embedded in the day to day lives of everyday people. ★★★★★

But wait, wait, wait, there's more! 

I have been listening to Lyle Lovett read Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. I'll tell you more about that next week, once I finish listening and get over having Lyle himself whispering in my ear. 

It's been sublime I tell you, just sublime. 

Snug as a Bug: Where Bugs Live

It's time for picture book non-fiction Wednesday. 

I'm always on the lookout for superb information books. I buy them and ship them off to our board for cataloguing. Eventually, long after I have forgotten I purchased them, they return. Yesterday became celebration day as I opened up the box containing this series - just in time for spring and summer explorations in the garden. 

I concede that the ants I discovered in my kitchen this morning is what made me grab and read Inside the Ants' Nest by Karen Ang. I also admit that I wasn't thinking kind thoughts about ants as I perused the pages. In spite of this, I fell head over heals in love with the book and consequently, the entire series. 

These are fabulous information books for younger and or struggling readers. 

Of course these books have what I consider the bare necessities - table of contents, glossary, and index, but there is so much more to these. Each pair of pages has a clear title. The text is simple and straight forward. The books are loaded with brilliant photographs and illustrations. The close ups are spectacular, albeit slightly creepy, especially the one of the queen ant being fed by the worker. Each book includes an inset map showing where these animals live. There are labeled diagrams and fact boxes. The occasional question box leaves the reader wondering and wanting to read more. Each book contains a section near the end titled Science Lab, that provides guidelines and questions for readers interested in thinking like a scientist and creating a report. I like that there is also a section at the end that directs the reader to other books on the topic. There are also online links. The biokids link did have considerable more detail about ants. I especially appreciated the section "What roles do they have in the ecosystem?"
Unfortunately neither the book nor the links helped me come up with a plan for how to get rid of the ants that have decided to move in with me. I'll have to hope the borax and sugar I left out does the trick. 

We have four in this series: I'll try to track down the rest of them. 

 Inside the Bees' Hive also by Karen Ang, 

Inside the Cricket's Burrow by Dawn Bluemel Oldfield 

  and Inside the Spider's Web by Natalie Lunis. 

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

I have decided to join Carrie GelsonAlyson Beecher and the rest of the #IMWAYR community to share out what I've been reading over the week. 

My reading life of late has been mired in dark and dystopian terrains. 
I've struggled with June and Day to figure out what's really going on behind Metias's death in Legend by Marie Lu. I've pondered what it means to be brave along with Tris in Divergent by Veronica Roth. I've ridden in flea infested rail cars along with Lina and her family in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. 

I couldn't have faced so much darkness if I hadn't started listening to the audiobook of The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente. In contrast to the above harsh sagas, Valente's prose and world building is incandescently beautiful. I can't do her voice justice. Whereas the previous stories grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go, Valente's words seduce: caressing images into existence and draping them in sparkling jewels of philosophy and wisdom. 

I fell deeply in love with her work and her characters: September, Saturday and A-Through-L, in The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of her Own Making

Alas I have come to the sad conclusion that these are not fairytales for children. They are fantastical chronicles for grown up adults and very sophisticated young adults. While I've been able to convince some of my grade 6's and 7's to try the first one, they never manage to finish it. One of our classroom teachers who loves these books as much as I do couldn't even get them hooked on it as a read aloud. 

I suspect they are too witty, to reflective and preposterous for children. So we will older folk shall have to sacrifice and keep them for ourselves. 

Here are a few quotes to tease you...

“Just because it's imaginary doesn't mean it isn't real.”

“He missed you
like a fish in a bowl
misses the open sea.”

“All money is imaginary," answered the Calcatrix simply. "Money is magic everyone agrees to pretend is not magic.”

“What others call you, you become. It's a terrible magic that everyone can do — so do it. Call yourself what you wish to become.” 

“Music has more rules than math or magic and it's twice as dangerous as both or either.”

And this one, my favourite, I know from more than 35 years of wedded bliss, to be true. 

“Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things. The trick is that you're changing into a hundred other things, but you can't let go. You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he's a rabbit, or a mouse while he's still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he's a little blue crab scuttling for shelter. It's harder than it sounds.”

Here I Am written by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez

There are wordless books, and then there are wordless books, ones that radiate, ones that deserve a category all their own. Start with mind blowing. Continue with heartbreaking. Leave with possibility. 

Here I Am is at the top of its class. 

It's the story of a Korean boy who immigrates with his family to the United States. 

Having taught ESL learners over the years, I recognize the many layers of emotions portrayed: confusion, loss, fear, anger and hope to name a few. 

I love how street and other signs, while using English letters, are unreadable by everyone. I love that the teacher's voice is written as blah blah blah blah. It helped me connect to this transition. I've traveled to places where my understanding of the language is basic at best, and this is the experience - grabbing a fragment of understanding but never enough to connect the whole. 

The child carries a seed from home to help him remember all that he has left behind. He's afraid to leave the safety of his apartment building. Then he accidentally drops it out the window where it is picked up by a young girl. He is forced to leave his rooms and chase after her. This is a wonderful thing. As a result he discovers the joy in his new neighborhood and even makes a new friend.



Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

This book reminds us that true battles between good and evil are not so far removed from our reality as we might suppose. 

It is the story of a young girl whose family was arrested and wrenched apart shortly after Russia invaded Lithuania in 1940. After being separated from their father, Lina, her mother, and younger brother eventually ended up in Siberia. Conditions were brutal. Starvation, disease and freezing cold were their daily companions. Individuals were forced to do things we can not fathom in order to survive. 

History is rife with these stories: sagas more horrific than any tale of imaginary evil. Here is the truth at the heart of these dark patterns. Human beings are capable of, and impose unimaginable cruelty upon one another. 

In this iteration readers are exposed to the Soviet era of Stalinism; a dystopian hell wherein 20 to 40 million people are purported to have died. This story won't be news to adults who have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but it is a gripping read that introduces younger folks to the atrocities committed under this reign.

What makes this novel and others like it endurable is that the evil is countered by the kindness and love demonstrated by ordinary people. 

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop written by Laban Carrick Hill & illustrated by Theodore Taylor 111

Wow! Just wow! 

It feels like I've been waiting and waiting forever for this book to arrive. 

It's the story of Clive, a boy growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. He loved any kind of music. No matter what kind it was, it made his feet go, "HIP HIP HOP, HIPPITY HOP." His hero was the local DJ, King George, who threw "the biggest and baddest house parties in the neighborhood." 

When Clive was 13 he moved to New York City to be with his mama. It was hard at first, but he found a sense of belonging in sports. He was nicknamed Kool Herc.  Eventually he went to go to the local "house parties where he listened to the hottest tunes and danced like crazy." Soon after his father purchased a monster sound system, Kool Herc and his sister started having parties of their own. He became the DJ he had always wanted to be. Taking what he had learned from King George, Kool Herc's parties became renowned for for their music and dance. Local gang members came together peacefully to participate in break dance competitions. 

I love so much about this book. The illustrations are stunning; full of energy and emotion. The lyrical text has the beat running through it.