Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: “Raybot”

Raybot by Adam F. Watkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Animal sounds galore will make this a good book to read aloud.

I am always on the lookout for animal-sound books for my ELL students; comparing the sound of an animal across languages can be a good conversational subject when making friends in a new country, and it is also comforting for a student to know the English terms ahead of time so they are simply able to feel like an expert, knowing the English AND another sound that an animal makes. I also appreciate that the character who doesn’t know something (what animal says “bark”?) is a robot rather than a human, distancing his ignorance from a reader’s, and the bone gives ELL students the context to guess the animal even if they, too, don’t yet know what animal says “bark.”

Also love that the robot seems to end the book still confused about what says bark, yet perfectly able to communicate – an important lesson that imperfect English doesn’t preclude friendship.

View all my reviews

How to Choose a Dictionary

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Many people ask us what dictionary we recommend. I will tell you our recommendations in a minute, but first let me ask you four questions we considered in making the choice for our classrooms.

photo(1)

Students’ favorite dictionary: colorful and frequently used.

1. Do you like it?

This seems silly, but it’s really important. If you (or your child) likes the dictionary, you will use it more often. Your child will linger over it, flipping pages and discovering new words. If it is too heavy or the letters are hard to read or you wish you had gotten the other one with the prettier pictures? Then that dictionary will sit on your shelf. And “on the shelf” is the wrong place for a dictionary.

2. Is it American or British English?

Dictionaries that say “Webster” have American English (A.E.) and dictionaries that say “Oxford” have British English (B.E.). (Just to confuse you, Oxford does have some American dictionaries, clearly labeled).

If it doesn’t say Webster or Oxford, look up words that mean different things in the two countries. An A.E. dictionary will tell you that a cot is a roll-away or camp bed. B.E. says it is a bed for a baby. A.E. says that a torch is a burning stick used for light. B.E. says that a torch is a battery powered, handheld light source.

The spelling of some words will be different, too: color, center, and realize in A.E.; colour, centre, and realise in B.E.

Different spellings and definitions are why we recommend an A.E. dictionary.

3. Is it the right level?

It is tempting to get the advanced dictionary which will have every word you might ever need to look up. However, a dictionary written for children will define a word differently than one written for adults. There are plenty of resources online for looking up definitions for adults, and technical or professional words you encounter are often most quickly understood through a Wikipedia search, believe it or not. But there are two important reasons for choosing a children’s or student’s dictionary no matter what your age:

First, they quickly give you the definitions you need. Sure, some people need to know that a flower is a reproductive part of a plant containing a pistil and stamens. But if you don’t know that English word yet, you probably just need to know its the pretty, colored thing on plants.

Second, many of the words in a children’s dictionary are the ones skipped over when studying English in a classroom. American children learn the word “moccasin” early on in school, often when they discuss Thanksgiving in kindergarten or first grade. We don’t usually put it on the tests for adults like the TOEFL because adults rarely need to know the name for Native American shoes. Yet moccasin may be harder than college-level words like omnipotent because it can’t be broken down into familiar root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

For one week, keep track of the words you want defined – keep a piece of paper in your pocket, perhaps. When you go to the bookstore, compare the definitions in first, children’s, student, and collegiate dictionaries. Which gives you the information you need?

4. Is it well written?

Yes, someone wrote all those little bits and pieces, and some people/companies are better at it than others. I personally like Merriam-Webster’s definitions best, most of the time. They strike a good balance between giving the most readable definition and capturing the emotion and other details of a word that live beyond the exact meaning.

This may be hard to judge if you don’t feel confident in your own English skills, but try a word that you are familiar with and that has an emotional or artistic meaning, like “beauty” or “regret.” Try some basic nouns like “cat” to see if they capture the important details of the thing. Finally, look at the difference between synonyms: “house” is the physical building, but “home” feels more personal and also can be a living place that is not a building (for example, animals have homes but not houses).

What do I do now?

photo (2)

“Utensil” is quickly understood with pictures.

Go to a bookstore, pull a couple of dictionaries off the shelves, and ask yourself these four questions. We have more than a dozen dictionaries in our classrooms but the one we turn to most often, the one we usually recommend, is DK Merriam-Webster’s Children’s Dictionary. The definitions are high quality and the colorful, picture-filled pages make it a pleasure to use. For both children and adults, it’s nice to be able to open the pages and see a photo that quickly communicates a familiar idea like utensil. You may decide a different dictionary is better for you.

Book Review: Cradle Me

Cradle Me
Cradle Me by Debby Slier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This board book has several features which earn it high ratings and a place in my ESL classroom: It features photos of children in their cradleboards from almost a dozen Native American nations. The first page encourages readers to say each word (smiling, thinking, sleepy) in their own language. The words themselves are state-of-being words that help beginning students with self-expression and communicating needs and wants.

Perhaps most importantly: although this book is clearly a celebration of an education about Native cultures, it does not separate them from every other culture’s life. Many of my ESL students (and perhaps too many US-born students) think that Native American cultures are a thing of the past, not a part of the world today. Books that focus on the historic contributions of Native Americans, while having an important place on an educator’s bookshelf, may also accidentally help perpetuate that belief. The approach of Cradle Me is an important balance, showing readers from all cultures that Native American children are important simply as children, with both modern lives and long-standing traditions, children who can be happy or sad or thoughtful, without always being a monolithic group who spend their time showing Europeans how to grow food or find the Pacific Ocean. Instead, choosing one thing many cultures have in common also allows readers to see the differences between them.

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Book Review: Count the Monkeys

Count the MonkeysCount the Monkeys by Mac Barnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hooray for Mac Barnett, whose varied styles mean there is surely something among his books to appeal to each child. As a sneaky teacher, I can then get my students to read more broadly by saying, “You loved that book by Barnett? You might like this other [completely unrelated] story he wrote…” This one is more hyper than my beloved Chloe and the Lion, yet marginally more sane. Marginally: we’re still talking a book that incorporates king cobras, beekeepers, and surprisingly few monkeys.

Each page directly advises the reader on interacting with the subjects – move slowly around snakes, zig zig away from alligators, etc. Some of the wildlife advice seems more folklore than science, but having had a spate of students afraid of nature this past year, I appreciate a book which supplies them with a way to exercise control over their environment without explicitly mentioning danger. For the majority of students, however, these pages will just be outright silly – can you turn the page while your eyes are covered?

Kevin Cornell’s bright illustrations (Dear Disney-Hyperion, please include illustration information in your colophons; they are quite interesting to your young readers) have a movement and a weight which go well with Barnett’s text. I found myself strangely fascinated by the variety of lumberjack noses, and it is just that kind of random interest which can make a book loved by a child.

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Book Review: 13 Words

13 Words13 Words by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s be clear right now, because I don’t want you confused by the charming blue bird on the cover into thinking that this is a beginning vocabulary book. No, this is a Lemony Snicket book. That means that after “teaching” us the word bird, we are confronted with the second word: Despondent. The bird is despondent. Too much, too soon? Okay, Snicket backs off and gives us cake and dog. However, the reader would be wise to listen to the little voice telling them that words like haberdashery and panache are lurking around the corner.

Maria Kalman’s brightly surreal art is a perfect match for Snicket’s prose. There is something in-jokey about the illustrations and I found myself searching in vain for figures from American Gothic or the Boy in Blue. The bizarre characters leaving you feeling like anything is possible in this world, and isn’t that great?

Would the art be quite so appealing to a young reader? That is my fear with primitive styles where perspective and proportion are shifted in a way that appears to be an imitations of a child’s painting. It is the right choice for this world where a bird must paint eleven ladders ten colors, but it leaves me wondering if this is one of those books that adults will appreciate more than children do. Snicket’s writing always has humor designed to particularly appeal to adult readers, but I simply don’t know if this one has the kid-appeal to match.

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Book Review: 31 Uses for a Mom

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day; here’s a funny little book about those special women.

31 Uses For A Mom31 Uses For A Mom by Harriet Ziefert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An excellent book for adult ESL students, this is simply a list of things a mother might do for her children. With just 42 words, students can look up every single unfamiliar word if need be – and those words are not just basic vocabulary. The book’s brevity will also allow readers to take some time to figure out the moments of humor that a native speaker may spot instantly. Finally, it is a nice detail to match the number of days in May, the month of Mothers’ Day.

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Book Review: Balloons Over Broadway

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving and the Macy’s Parade will be broadcast across the country. ┬áThis picture book tells the fascinating story of the parade’s beginnings.

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's ParadeBalloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Growing up with Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, the balloons were special because they were soooo big and because they were familiar old friends returning once a year. Melissa Sweet, however, brings a new sense of wonder to the story: how did someone even come up with the idea? It was not as simple as enlarging balloons, as I had assumed; instead, in a way, they are marionettes flipped upside-down. Now that’s the kind of creative solution I want my students exposed to.

When thinking about the experience of a child reader, furthermore, Sweet includes the usual childhood vignette well. The main of the book is about play, so why not discuss the work that balloon-creator Tony Sarg had to do as a child? There is also an realistic immediacy to a child’s successful effort to get out of doing his chores that more common and more didactic “he studied hard and one day grew up to be…” lacks.

The illustrations’ pastiche reminded me simultaneously of two recently-reviewed picture books: Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet and How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum? Sweet, like Thurlby, uses vintage paper to set a literally background mood. She uses other bits of vintage and contemporary flotsam to capture, as did Jessie Hartland, the chaos of creativity so convincingly that I half expected to have to rip apart a couple of pages, as if Sarg’s glues and paints had stepped right out of the pages.

Finally, it contains the best pronunciation guide ever: “Sarg rhymes with aargh!”

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Book Review: How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum

How the Dinosaur Got to the MuseumHow the Dinosaur Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Text and illustrations have an extra partnership in this book. There is an echo of “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” in Hartland’s prose, as each profession builds on the work of others to put a fossil on exhibit, and each job title is inserted into the text with a sign designed in a way that’s appropriate for that job … It’s hard to explain, but as soon as you see it, you’ll understand. These design clues help beginning readers track difficult-yet-interesting words like “paleontologist,” and they also allow advanced readers to see the interconnected workings of all these specialists, particularly when some of those specialists reappear a second time.

I feel like I know what Hartland’s own art studio looks like, too: the illustrations include all the detritus of each profession, twine and nails and mud scattered about the appropriate scenes. As the reader, I felt an appreciation for this attention to detail because it showed me the procedural details of each stage of mounting a museum display in a way that simple, descriptive writing could not (not while staying interesting, at least).

When confronted with a high-quality nonfiction book, I forget to evaluate the most important aspect: does it communicate the subject matter? Absolutely. Without overloading the pages with text (careful focus plus excellent end materials are key here), Hartland answers a very important question to those kids who adore dinosaurs: “How can I be a part of this awesomeness?” Despite having thirty more years of cocktail party “what do you do?” small talk experience than the target audience, I still learned about the professionals involved in getting a dinosaur into a museum.

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