Monday, September 26, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Schools around the World

This week I am introducing my students to the theme I have chosen for the year, One World, Many Stories.  I am excited about this because I will be able to combine two of my passions, geography and reading.  A lot of the nonfiction books and fiction books that I will highlighting in the coming year will have a strong geography element.  That does not mean of course that I will stop reading other kinds of books, my interests vary too widely for me to do that.  It just means there will be a lot of books with settings other than the United States.  Today I am highlighting four books about students and schools in countries around the world.

Rain School
written and illustrated by James Rumford
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-547-24307-8 
Grades K-3
Reviewed from purchased copy.

It is the first day of school in Chad, Africa. Children are filling the road.
"Will they give us a notebook?" Thomas asks.
"Will they give us a pencil?”
"Will I learn to read?"

But when he and the other children arrive at the schoolyard, they find no classroom, no desks. Just a teacher. "We will build our school," she says. "This is our first lesson."
An inspiring look at the effort required for students to go to school in a village in the African country of Chad.  The students build the school that they will study in as well as the desks and stools they will use.  A nice read-a-loud for younger students that gives a glimpse of a world so very different from their own.  The illustrations are bright and colorful and create an energetic feel for the story, for the passion that drives these students and their teacher.

School Days Around the World
written by Catherine Chambers
DK Publishing, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7566-2548-1
Reviewed from purchased copy.

School Days takes a look at an average school day in the lives of children from seven countries around the world, showing how they are all different and yet all the same.
I liked the way this book was written from the perspective of the students and what to each individual was normal.  No two schools are exactly the same, not in developing countries or developed countries. I believe the author was trying to give the reader a glimpse of some of the, sometimes major, differences between schools, while showing that some things are the same no matter where you go, things such as students playing together at recess or projects done.  The countries covered include the United States, Peru, England (Great Britain), Ghana, India, Japan, and Australia.  The book is not and does not try to be comprehensive.  Nonetheless there is much here worthy of discussion.

A School Like Mine
written and edited by UNICEF, Penny Smith and Zahavit Shalev
DK Publishing, 2007
Grade 3-6
Reviewed from purchased copy. 

Introduces children from around the world and discusses where they live, how they play, and what their schools are like.
This is my favorite of the four books.  This title covers countries from six of the seven continents (Antarctica is not covered).  What I especially liked was how they tried to show multiple students from the bigger countries.  This shows that schools vary a great deal inside as well as outside the country. The book also tries to balance rural and urban environments, providing a more comprehensive look at schools worldwide.  The numerous photographs make the information more real to the reader.  The organization is attractive and follows the format that DK's Eyewitness books have made so popular.  A great way to help broaden students view of the world.

My School in the Rain Forest: How Children Attend school Around the World
written by Margriet Ruurs
Boyds Mill Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59078-601-7
Grades 2-5
Reviewed from purchased copy.

An engaging look at some of the world's most unusual schools. At a school that sits on the edge of the Sahara, students are learning to speak English from a teacher who stands in front of a Webcam in North America. These students are learning in a virtual classroom. In another part of the world, kids aren't waiting to ride the bus to school - they are waiting to hop in a boat that will take them to a school that floats on a river. And some kids don't mind heights, especially those who attend a school on the slope of a mountain in the Himalayas, in one of the most remote corners of the earth. Margriet Ruurs contacted teachers and volunteers, many of whom took cameras in hand to photograph their schools and students. In this lively photo-essay, readers get to know students - from the arid plains of southern Afghanistan to the rain forests of Guatemala - who are pursuing their dreams of a brighter future.
This book provides a nice introduction to the variety of different ways that students go to school.  It was fascinating to read about schools on boats, over the radio, in a monastery, etc.  The book focuses on the schools themselves rather than on the children.  I would have liked more information about the students, but overall it provides a glimpse into the variety of ways the world has found to educate her children.

For more great nonfiction reads, check out Nonfiction Monday, today it is being hosted at True Tales & A Cherry On Top.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

Nightshade City
by Hilary Wagner, illustrated by Omar Rayyan
Holiday House, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8234-2285-2
Grades 5-8
Reviewed from copy borrowed from library.

Deep beneath Trillium City, a modern metropolis, lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of rats of extraordinary intelligence and ability. The once peaceful and democratic colony has become a harsh dictatorship ruled by the High Minister Kildeer and his henchman, Billycan, who runs the Kill Army and collects weekly Stipend from the terrified subjects. The two of them rule with iron fists. With most of the adult rats wiped out in Killdeer's Bloody Coup and the subsequent great flood, orphaned young male rats are forced into the army and the females into servitude or worse. But change is coming. . . .
Two orphan brothers, Vincent and Victor Nightshade, sons of a hero killed in the Bloody Coup, manage to escape from the Kill Army and meet up with Juniper Belancourt, leader of a rebel group seeking to overthrow their oppressors and restore peace and democracy in a new city. The brothers are quickly caught up in Juniper's cause: "We survive by cover of night. We live in the shadows, waiting for our redemption! Our name must symbolize our burning spirit. . . . Tonight and forever, we are Nightshade City!"
Juniper's plans are complicated by many factors. His lovely young niece Clover has been picked by Killdeer to be his next Chosen One, so the rebels and their allies the Earthworms must work fast to save her. Can the rebels locate their enemies' War Room? Can Juniper's former love, now holding a position in Killdeer's Ministry, be trusted? Will the rebels be able to execute their plans without the aid of a young Topsider (human)? And how will Vincent and Victor fare in battle will they honor their father's legacy of courage?
This book reminds me a great deal of Brian Jacque's Redwall series or Erin Hunter's Warriors series and especially Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien.  The detail allows the reader to almost be in the story, which is not necessarily a comfortable thing (I don't particularly relish the idea of living underground).  The setting is beautifully realized, there is just enough detail, but not so much that it bogs the story down.  The plot keeps moving with holes being filled in smoothly enough not to pull the reader out of the story.

 This is a story with clear cut right and wrong, good versus evil. The book is plot-heavy with not so much character development.  The characters grow, but there is no real change in character, they stay on the path they started on at the beginning.  With so many characters there just isn't room for a lot of character development. The plot is the focus here and it is an entertaining one of a society of rats trying to regain their freedom, certainly an appropriate plot considering current world events.

The illustrations add a nice touch, although the eyes of the rat on the cover are kind of strange and creepy looking, but that might just be me. I appreciated the authors choice of animals for her characters, rats and  are not usually the first choice for 'good' characters, they are more often the villains in this type of book (this is the first time that I can recall reading about earthworms as real characters).

There are a couple of things I want to mention that take away from the story somewhat.  First, the book does have scenes of graphic violence, involving the loss of eyes, torture, and severe scarring, there is also an attempted rape.  Second, the ending is too pat.  As can be seen today, revolutions of this kind don't happen overnight and usually end with a lot more bloodshed and continued bad feelings and conflict, at least in the human world.  I'm not sure though that children and young adults will think much about this, most likely they will simply take the story for what it is, a rousing fantasy.

This book is for readers who like animal fantasy and straightforward stories of good versus evil.  See here for some other recommendations in this genre.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Bigger Than a Bread Box

Bigger Than a Bread Box
by Laurel Snyder
Random House, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-375-86916-7
Grades 3-6
Reviewed from ARC received from publisher.

A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It's too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents' separation, as well as a sudden move to her Gran's house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be.
Rebecca is a sympathetic character.  I felt for her from page one.  I haven't experienced the things that she does in the story (certainly not a magic bread box, sigh), but some of her emotions are certainly common for most people. Her confusion and hurt, the anger, the feeling of instability, and her lack of control over her circumstances come shining through. While readers will find little of great excitement and danger here, there is much to ponder and discuss about the ways the characters behave.

The writing flows smoothly and allows the reader to focus on the story rather than the words.  The love the author clearly has for her settings comes shining through and she does a great job helping the reader imagine the settings of the book (Baltimore, MD, and Atlanta, GA).

The only problem I had with the book is a very slight one.  The ending is a bit strange and doesn't seem to quite line up with the rest of the story.  The ending was also a bit rushed and not completely realistic.  But really these are minor quibbles.  I enjoyed the book and students who like quieter more thought-provoking books will enjoy it as well.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Announcement: Interview and Giveaway

Head on over to Sarvenaz Tash's blog for a great interview and giveaway.  Stephanie Burgis, author of Kat, Incorrigible, is interviewed.  The giveaway is for Stephanie's book, and a book she recommends, Vanished by Sheela Chari.  I've Read Kat Incorrigible and loved it, one of my favorite books of the year. See here for my review.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday: The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School
written by Laura Murray, illustrated by Mike Lowery
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0-399-25052-1
Grades K-3
Reviewed from purchased copy.

When a class leaves for recess, their just-baked Gingerbread Man is left behind. But he's a smart cookie and heads out to find them. He'll run, slide, skip, and (after a mishap with a soccer ball) limp as fast as he can because: "I can catch them! I'm their Gingerbread Man!"

With help from the gym teacher, the nurse, the art teacher and even the principal, the Gingerbread Man does find his class, and he's assured they'll never leave him behind again.
Each year the kindergarten teachers at my school start the year off with a gingerbread man unit, where the students decorate their own gingerbread man (paper). When I first saw this book, I thought it would be perfect to share when the students came to the library for the first time. The kindergarten teachers give me a gingerbread man that they have decorated with each class, and we pretend that it 'ran' away, (it's really fun to pretend not to know where it came from, I hide it in the book). Well, it turns out the book worked very well.  The teachers liked it and the students liked it. And I liked it because (SPOILER) the gingerbread man doesn't get eaten at the end.  In addition the book comes with a fun poster, with a maze, coloring page, and lesson ideas on the back.  The author's website also has a complete reading guide.   I kinda wish that I'd had time to prepare the gingerbread hunt for the students. I think it would have been fun.

Review wise the writing is clear and crisp and reads well out-loud (it does rhyme).  The refrain changes slightly as the gingerbread man moves through the school (runs, skips, limps, etc.).  The illustrations are really cute and compliment the story beautifully.  The format is simplified comic with panels and speech bubbles and a fun font.  The emphasized phrases help with reading out loud, the reader knows when to add emphasis.  A winner in every way, I highly recommend it.

Head on over to The Lemme Library for Booktalk Tuesday.

I'm also using this to meet my Read to Me Picture Book Challenge goal.

Goal: Watering (36)
Completed: 5

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: America is Under Attack by Don Brown

America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001, The Day the Towers Fell
written and illustrated by Don Brown
Roaring Brook Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59643-694-7
Grades 2-5
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Some things shouldn't be relived, it keeps the wound from healing.  On the other hand, sometimes remembering or opening the wound can aid the healing process, like draining an infection. I saw articles and photographs that focused on the events of the day, these made me cry. It was like it was happening all over again. I also saw articles focusing on what some people have done to memorialize their lost loved ones.  These reminded me of the beauty that can arise from ashes.

At the tenth anniversary of September 11, the question arises, how do we talk to children about what happened that day.  The children I work with weren't even born when it happened. How do we help students understand the event without giving more detail than is appropriate.  Don Brown has answered that question beautifully. He gives the basic string of events, but he also humanizes the story by quoting and telling the experiences of some of those who were there that day.  The illustrations provide context without being graphic.  The use of illustrations softens things a bit.  Brown doesn't shy away from the things that went wrong, the chaos, the poor communication, etc. But he doesn't focus on that, he focuses on the sacrifices made by those who chose to risk and sometimes lose their lives to aide others and that is something always worth remembering.

Other reviews:
The Nonfiction Detectives
The Washington Post
100 Scope Notes

Nonfiction Monday is a great way to find out about great nonfiction reads. Today it is hosted by Wrapped in Foil.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Trundle's Quest (The Six Crowns)

Trundle's Quest (The Six Crowns)
by Allan Jones, illustrated by Gary Chalk
ISBN: 9780062006233Greenwillow Books, 2011
Grades 1-4
151 pg.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Trundle doesn't think he's an adventurer. He's a lamplighter. He likes everything safe and cozy, and that's the way things are in his peaceful part of the Sundered Lands. Until Esmeralda barrels through his door.

Esmeralda, a princess with a knack for magic and for finding trouble, is convinced that Trundle is the only one who can help her find the six crowns. Lost and scattered long ago, the crowns could unite the Sundered Lands once again. But not if the pirates find them first.

Suddenly, Trundle is on the run. He becomes a stowaway, a drifter, a thief's accomplice, and a swordsman.Trundle may find that he is a true hero, after all . . . and that this is only the beginning of an epic journey.(
It's nice to find a fantasy that isn't over four hundred pages.  Many students love the big thick ones, but not all of them can read those kind of books. This is an appropriate book for reluctant readers who need constant action to keep them reading.  The action starts in chapter one with Trundle, a humble and content lamplighter, is abruptly drawn out of his peaceful life into a world of pirates, theft, and slavery.  The action doesn't stop, leaving the reader waiting for the sequels (luckily the second book comes out in October).

There was not a whole lot of description or world-building, which I found disappointing.  I love to read in great detail about worlds both real and imaginary. The character-building is also rather sparse, the focus is on the action.  I didn't feel like I knew much more about the characters than I did at the beginning.  Some additional background would have been appreciated by myself.  But like I mentioned above, the book works well for a reader who doesn't need those things and prefers lots of action.

The illustrations helped me visualize the world better than the text did on its own.  The book as a whole reminds me of Brian Jacques' Redwall series, except for younger readers. I'd recommend this series for animal fantasy fans who aren't quite ready to tackle thicker more description-heavy tomes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday: Joe and Sparky

Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels
by Jamie Michalak, illustrated  by Frank Remkiewicz
Candlewick Press, 2009.
Grades K-2
Reviewed from copy borrowed from local public library.

Sparky is a turtle who likes to stay inside his shell. Joe is a giraffe who likes to stretch his neck and see the world. When a car appears one day at the famous cage-less zoo where they live, the two set off on the ride of their lives, with Joe behind the wheel and Sparky hanging on for dear life. From the shopping mall to the car wash to the take-out burger joint, Joe and Sparky cause mayhem everywhere they go. Young readers will love sharing the road with this unlikely pair in a string of adventures that are by turns innocent, charming, and laugh-out-loud funny. (
I'm always on the look-out for early readers that are attractive and readable as well as appealing to the first grade crowd. Joe and Sparky fit the bill.

Joe (a giraffe) is the adventurous leader, Sparky (a turtle) would rather sit on his rock in the pond. But Sparky being a good friend, follows along, rather reluctantly, as Joe finds ways to spice up their humdrum existence. The writing is clear and easy to follow and the illustrations are bright and cheerful. The plot lines are appealing, involving a day outside the zoo in a car and the followup (Joe and Sparky, Superstars!) involves discovering one's talents. Character-wise, Joe's enthusiasm and Sparky's love of home make for a pair of endearing characters. Highly recommended as a read-a-loud or for early readers.

Book Talk Tuesday is hosted by The Lemme Library.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: The Worst-Case Scenario Survive-o-pedia

The Worst-Case Scenario Survive-o-pedia
by David Borgenicht, Molly Smith, Brendan Walsh, and Robin Epstein
illustrated by Chuck Gonzales
ISBN: 978-0-8118-7690-2
Grades 3 and up
Reviewed from purchased copy.

It s the best of the worst! This hardcover, full-color edition of the popular series loved by parents and kids alike serves up a wild ride through mudslides, volcanoes, shark-infested oceans, menacing mountains, and more. Seventy entries are packed with illuminating facts, eye-popping photos, hilarious illustrations, must-see maps, heaps of humor, and step-by-step instructions. Readers will be armed with the knowledge and skills needed to survive anything and live to tell about it! (
 The world around us is a fascinating place, but it can also be a dangerous place.  Knowledge can often be the difference between life and death, maybe that is why I enjoy reading survival related books, but not actually experiencing adventures of that kind.  I am not a very daring person. This last week I went floating a river for the first time (tube not raft) and I enjoyed it, but there were a couple of moments of panic. I am pretty sure that I would not do so well in true wilderness. Any way, this book intrigued me and I was curious to see the kind of advice it would give.

This book covers seventy different kinds of threats to human survival.  Everything from natural disasters to wildlife encounters to different environmental dangers and human-caused dangers (plane crashes, mobs, etc.) For the most part the information is straight-forward and accurate. The reader needs to keep in mind however, that the advice contained in this book is very generic. Overall the information is helpful and encourages the use of common sense.

I did have a problem with one entry. The entry on Komodo Dragons is not completely accurate. First, Komodo Dragons are not the world's largest reptile (alligators and crocodiles can get much bigger, I just read an article today about a 21-foot long crocodile being caught in the Philippines). They are the world's largest LIZARD, however. In addition the authors describe Komodo dragons as being venomous, something that some scientists are disputing. Regardless of how Komodo dragons kill their prey (venom or bacteria or shock from ambush) there is no doubt that one really wouldn't want to be bitten by one.

The illustrations are great, gorgeous photographs mixed with cartoon-like drawings compliment the text in age appropriate ways.  The book is not graphic in any way.  The book would be great for reluctant readers and for teaching students about the importance of accuracy in nonfiction works. Recommended.

Nonfiction Monday is a meme hosted each week highlighting nonfiction children's books.  Today it is being hosted by Playing by the Book.
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