Book Review: Balloons Over Broadway

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving and the Macy’s Parade will be broadcast across the country.  This 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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Book Review: Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet

Paul Thurlby's AlphabetPaul Thurlby’s Alphabet by Paul Thurlby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although this alphabet book contains the typical Dog and X-ray, it also surprises with Fierce and Trapeze. Each letter is integrated into the illustrated object or action, and yes, there is a lot of action. Many of the illustrations also have unexpected surprises, like the road sign beside the Island telling how far away the letter J is, or the single leg on the Q as the “missing” leg presumably gets sucked down into Quicksand.

ESL students can benefit from the simplicity and predictability of alphabet books, but many are too old for the frequently chosen items. Thurlby’s Alphabet mixes it up with some basics and some surprises. Besides, even elementary school students will find Awesome more useful than Apple when trying to make friends.

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Talk Like a Pirate Day

Now for a little silliness…

September 19 is “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”  No, you don’t get the day off from school or work.  It’s not that kind of holiday, I’m afraid.  It’s just a day of silliness and fun.

Here are some rules for talking like a pirate:

  1. Lots of R’s (this is great practice for native speakers of Korean and other languages)
  2. Ahoy! = hello!
  3. Me mateys = my friends, you guys
  4. Ye = you
  5. Be = am/are/is/were

Here are some websites for Talk Like a Pirate Day, both American (especially for kids) and British.  

In our classrooms, we have several pirate books:

So when you see your friends today, yell (if you’re outside – pirates spend a lot of time outside): “Ahoy, me mateys!  Be ye talking like pirates, too?  Arrrr!”

E-Resource: Crash Course

Back to school time means a lot of student sighing over history and science classes (my students are probably too polite to insult English to my face, and most are very proud of their math skills).  How happy was I when I discovered Crash Course this summer?

Crash Course is a video series by the Vlog Brothers, John and Hank Green.  John is the author of some of my favorite YA novels, including An Abundance of Katherines, which we reviewed recently.  Hank runs several other YouTube channel including another of my favorites, SciShow.  Crash Course videos generally run between 10 and 15 minutes.

Hank uploads biology videos on Mondays, John does world history on Thursdays.  They talk quickly, but the videos have well-designed images and captions … and the images and captions both have little jokes added in, so pay attention and watch more than once!

It takes a special talent to make “The Endocrine System” or “Nationalism” funny and fascinating, but the Greens have exactly that talent.  If you need to take a break from your textbook, try a Crash Course video for fun.

Peter Spier Author Video

Random House publisher’s YouTube channel recently posted a video of famed book author and illustrator, Peter Spier: Peter Spier Author Video – YouTube.

I loved Peter Spier’s books growing up.  Following on yesterday’s discussion of allowing children to read books at all levels, I will confess that even after I was reading 300 page novels, I still spent hours pouring over Spier’s picture books, many of which have few or no words at all.  They taught me about the complexity of our world and the skill of a master storyteller, which continue to bring joy to my life.  They taught me to observe the details around me, a habit which helped me in many school subjects.

An interesting question arises at the 1:22 mark in the video.  Spier’s books are being released for ereaders and he says he was asked to color in the half of the illustrations which he had originally chosen to do in black and white.  This made me ask three questions … I don’t have the answers yet!  Maybe your family can think of some answers:

  1. Why were some illustrations in color and some in black and white, originally?
  2. Why did the publisher ask him to color the black and white ones for ereaders?
  3. What might the book gain or lose by having all illustrations in color now?

We have three Peter Spier books for our students to read: Tin Lizzie, Noah’s Ark (Caldecott winner for 1978), and People.  People was my personal favorite book for many years.

Raising Readers

Hanging in the entrance,  right above the chair where parents wait for their children to finish class, we have a tongue-in-cheek poster from the Horn Book magazine called “Unlucky Arithmetic: Thirteen Ways to Raise a Nonreader.”

Read that carefully: a nonreader.

The thirteen tips include such obviously bad advice as “Never read where your children can see you,” and “Put a TV and computer in every room.”  Other tips may seem to follow common sense, such as “Give little rewards for reading,” and “Easy books are a waste of time.”  However, even though many of us were raised to agree with those last two as good ideas for our children, research shows that these are actually bad ideas.

Children who are taught to love reading will do more of it than children who are merely taught that they should read.  They will want to read more, which will expose them to more stories, more words, more new ideas.  They will also have better attitudes towards required reading they are assigned if they already have many positive associations with reading for fun.  Reading should also be its own reward – not money, toys, or snacks – because at some point they will be grown up and will need to motivate themselves to read.

The 13 tips from the Horn Book’s poster – or rather, the opposite of the tips – lay a great foundation for raising readers.

Model the behavior you want by reading on your own and with your children.  It doesn’t matter if you read in English or another language, just that you show your child that reading is valuable, fun, and something you make time for.

Make reading accessible by having books on hand, enough light to read by, and actual places where children can read.  Unless you get insomnia, absolutely read in bed – it is a comfortable, safe place which will translate into your child feeling that books provide comfort and safety as well.

Encourage re-reading, and encourage reading many levels.  Books are like friends, and can be comfortable like an old friend or exciting like a new one.  Modern picture books often have high-quality art, as well as literary merit, two characteristics which young readers may not yet appreciate.  A high-school student can learn something about the arts, design, communication, and writing from a good picture book, even if the words and plot no longer challenge her.

If you are looking for good books to share with your children, the Horn Book is an excellent place to start.  In addition to interviews with, and articles by, some of the biggest talents in the industry, the magazine publishes in-depth reviews of children’s literature.  Most local libraries carry it and you can usually take home any issues except the most recent one.

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

One of my favorite books of 2012, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, is freshly relevant, after the death of the real Ivan in August.  After reading Applegate’s verse novel, you may also enjoy following the adventures of a toy Ivan with Mr. Schu, author of the excellent book blog Mr. Schu Reads.  (Grade level 4+)

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In addition to being an overall wonderful book, there are several specific elements which will make it useful in the classroom. First, it is fiction inspired by a true story, and that combination of research and invention is a valuable skill that is rarely emphasized in traditional curricula. Second, the author has found a form that is halfway between prose and poetry which perfectly suits the narrating character’s personality, and she occasionally varies that form to great dramatic effect. Third, although the bad guy is clearly doing the wrong thing, the book also shows that there may be complicated reasons leading to such mistakes. Finally, like Charlotte’s Web, this is a story that deploys animals to teach humans how to care for others; in Ivan, however, the human characters participate in the animals’ big plan a little more actively (including facing a situation just as complex and difficult as the bad guy’s, but this time making a sacrifice and doing the right thing), suggesting that it is essential for people to take responsibility to translate the lesson of a book into real-life change. Definitely a Newbery 2013 contender.

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