Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Brainstorm 68: Books on the Cold War era for kids & teens

9 books on the Cold War era for kids and teens.

Picture Book Resource

Wall by Tom Clohosy Cole
A story of a family separated by the Berlin Wall, and the boy's work to bring them back together.

This is a very quick and safe East/West Germany story for kids. There's only one picture with a person in shadow carrying another person to imply the fatalities that could result from unsuccessful escape attempts. I actually found it a bit hard to swallow that the family's escape was so easy, but the author does say it was based on real stories so this is an example of one of those miraculous times when the guards turned a blind eye and let families escape.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Cold War History: If you’re covering the Cold War in history, this is a book that could be used with multiple age levels to explore some of the basics of what people in Germany went through during that era.
  • Human Rights: This book provides a good opportunity to have a class discussion about what human rights are, and/or have them brainstorm what they think some basic human rights should be.
  • Current Events: This is a story from history, but there are several places in the world today where people are suffering under similar circumstances. Have students research where these places are and even what they can do to help these people.

Middle Grade Fiction Resources

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
The night East Germany put up the Berlin Wall, Gerta's father and middle brother, Dominic, were in the West scouting out options for the family there. Her mother had decided to stay behind with Gerta and her oldest brother, Fritz. But then the Wall went up, and suddenly Gerta's family was cut in half. Gerta's father had long been hounded by the East German police, the Stasi, for probable involvement in the resistance movement. It had made things challenging for the family. You would think that since he is stuck in the West, the rest of the family would be left alone, but that isn't the case. When a friend of Fritz's tries to escape to the West, he is brought in for questioning and he discovers that the Stasi have files on the entire family, even him and Gerta, and that there are microphones hidden in their apartment. Suddenly, Fritz loses his job, and soon he will have to join the East German military. On the way to school one day, Gerta glances towards the West and sees a familiar face on the platform that looks from the West into the East. It's her brother, and then her father. Her father does a strange dance, which Gerta first interprets as him being silly for her, but later she realizes it was a message. Papa wants her to tunnel. Later he manages to sneak a picture to her of an abandoned building. Eventually, Gerta finds it and starts her project. It is extremely dangerous, though. She knows if she is caught even the very signs of digging will be a death sentence. She tries to cover it by gardening, but she suspects nosy neighbors are about to turn her in. Can she get her family to freedom before it is too late?

There really aren't that many books out there for middle grade about life in East Germany during the Iron Curtain era. I am old enough to remember current events stories about people making dramatic escapes from East Germany, seeing current maps with East Germany on them, and watching movies about such escapes that were popular when I was in upper elementary school. But the Wall came down long enough ago now that even some teachers at our school were never alive when this was a reality! So it is important for such stories to start making their way back into fiction and help everyone remember and learn from the past.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Current Events: As mentioned for Wall by Cole, readers of this could investigate places in the world currently where there could be modern day Gertas. Have students investigate how to help these modern-day Gertas.
  • East Germany/Cold War: If you have a reader who wants to better understand what life was like in East Germany or during the Cold War era, this is an option. 
  • Drama: Someone out there could easily adapt this into a play production. (Of course, remember to do this the right way so you don’t break any copyright laws and so Ms. Nielsen gets credit where credit is due!)
  • Historical Fiction/Mild Thriller: For readers who can’t take things too tense or bloody, this is a nice option in that it isn’t nearly as tense as it could be (a lot of time is spent watching Gerta dig which isn't all that tense) and there is only one fatality on page towards the end of the book. It is still clear that things are dangerous for Greta and her family, though kids who can’t handle nail biters should be fine.

Dead End in Norvelt (Norvelt, #1) by Jack Gantos
Based on the author's childhood, behold the crazy adventures of Jack in a little town in Pennsylvania founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to give people a boost during the Depression. Now, some 30ish years later, the town is starting to die out. Literally. Jack knows because his one reprieve from a lifetime grounding sentence this summer is that his mom has rented him out to the town's medical examiner/obituary writer/original town nurse, Miss Volker, as an on call helper. Miss Volker's hands are all knotted by arthritis, so he becomes her writing hands, typing hands, and all around assistant. Things are usually pretty slow in little ol' Norvelt, but this summer starts to get a bit more exciting when Jack's dad comes home with a plane, a Hell's Angel gets flattened dancing in the road, and the town starts to become a little suspicious as the original residents drop off more and more regularly. One thing's for sure, grounding or not, Jack's life will NOT be dull in Norvelt.

See Activity Tie-ins below, linked with 2nd book in series.

From Norvelt to Nowhere (Norvelt, #2) by Jack Gantos
After town founder Eleanor Roosevelt dies, Jack is asked to accompany Miss Volker to the gravesite so she can mourn properly. His mother tells him to take good care of her and do whatever Miss Volker tells him to. But neither Jack or his mother have any notion of all of Miss Volker's plans. While mourning over Mrs Roosevelt, Miss Volker gets word that her twin sister has passed away in Miami, FL, so she and Jack are now off to Miami. But they aren't alone and it seems Miss Volker has a side mission of ridding the world once and for all of Mr Spizz, the white whale to her Captain Ahab side. Before they left Norvelt, Jack also heard that Mr Spizz wasn't the only suspect in the deaths of the old ladies of Norvelt. Soon there's this wild and crazy trail of weasley detectives, Mr Spizz, Mr Huffer the undertaker (who's coming down to handle Miss Volker's sister's burial), and Jack and Miss Volker in a beat up old VW Beetle armed with a harpoon all headed to Florida for their own diverse reasons.

I’m including these books in this blog, because behind the wild and crazy adventures of Jack and Miss Volker, the Cold War is going on in the larger world and it does affect them. Part of Jack’s adventures include digging out what will eventually be a bomb shelter for his family, and the second book mentions the Cuban missile crisis and provides a good picture of how everyday Americans reacted to these events. That said, you have to have the right kind of humor to appreciate this series. Gantos’ humor is somewhat random and a bit dark. After all, in the first book Jack is following around a lady doing obituaries and investigating deaths and the second book is a crazy train/car trip with Miss Volker channeling Captain Ahab and threatening to hunt down a certain someone like he’s a white whale. This is one crazy collection of 1960s adventures of a boy with a little too much knack for trouble sprinkled throughout by regular doses of wacky history antidotes thanks to Miss Volker's mission to keep the town, and Jack especially, up on history in her obits.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Off the Wall Humor: Give this to those kids who speak sarcasm fluently or have this innate ability to find trouble. They should identify with Jack.
  • Goofy Historical Fiction: Those readers who think history is boring haven’t met Jack or Miss Volker, obviously. Challenge them to get caught yawning while reading these books.
  • Middle Grade Serial Killer Mystery: There aren’t a whole lot of serial killer mysteries out there for the middle grades, but this is one. For those who like dark humor with their puzzling mysteries that stretch out for multiple books (the real killer is not identified till the end of book two), point them in the direction of this series.
  • Cold War & the Average American: If readers want a picture of what life was like for the average American kid during the Cold War, these definitely provide that.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt Fans: These two books are full of little bits of trivia about Eleanor Roosevelt, mainly because she supposedly founded Norvelt and Miss Volker practically worships her.
  • Newbery Medal: This may be one of the craziest books to have ever won the Newbery in recent history. If you think all Newbery winners are sappy and written to make you buy tissues in bulk, this will change your mind.

Omega City by Diana Peterfreund
Gillian and Eric Seagret are stuck in a tiny town in nowhere after their Dad's life project, a biography on NASA scientist and Cold War inventor, Aloysius Underberg, is publicly derided. Conveniently for their father's opponents, his research all got wiped out in a plumbing accident at their cottage last summer, so he has no way of backing up the stories in his book. And let's face it, a guy who teaches university level classes on conspiracy theories isn't exactly someone looked up to a whole lot to begin with. Gillian knows her father's research was solid. Eric just wishes it hadn't lost them their Mom and their boat. When a beautiful research assistant shows up claiming to be their Dad's newest fan, Gillian smells a rat. She quickly discovers that her suspicions are well-founded. This lady, Fiona, has been snooping around in Dad's files. And it seems she was looking for one specific page. A page that has a very cryptic message on it. With the help of Gillian's best friend Savannah, and astronomy whiz classmate, Howard, the kids figure out the page is actually a treasure map to something Dr. Underberg claims was his last gift to mankind. Gillian knows from her Dad's research that Dr. Underberg had supposedly developed a battery that would solve the current energy crisis, but it had gotten hushed up. Of course, no one believes that research. But if she can find the battery it will prove her Dad isn't loony and he can get the recognition he deserves. With the help of Howard's older brother Nate, the kids pile in a pickup and follow the clues they untangle from the cryptic message. Instead of a battery, though, they stumble on an entire underground city...and Fiona plus goons with guns are close on their tail. Soon, the kids find themselves struggling to find a way out of Omega City with bad guys behind them and flooded, broken down sections of the city between them and exits. Forget finding the battery, they just want to get out of there alive!

This book happens in present day, but most of the book is spent exploring an old Cold War bunker (a very, very big bunker) and helps modern readers get a picture of just how freaked out some people got by the Cold War.
Normally I roll my eyes at conspiracy theory based stuff, but as soon as the kids find Omega City, this is one high octane, fun adventure! I would have loved, loved, loved this story as a kid. Kid smarts and know-how versus a secret underground city, and they occasionally find little tools to help them out. Yep, it's all sorts of exciting, but never feels too dangerous. There's usually enough distance between the kids and the bad guys that it doesn't feel like they might jump around the corner at any second. Mostly, there's a bunch of problems and the kids have to put their heads together to figure out how to overcome the next obstacle. They learn a lot about teamwork and benefiting from the unique skills everyone comes to the table with, even Howard, who seems to have a mild form of autism, possibly Aspergers (though he is not labeled in any way, it just says he completely shuts down under certain kinds of stress, has a hard time understanding joking, and is really smart in some subjects). There's even a good message worked into the story for girls on how ridiculous crushes can be. (Not preachy at all. It is actually funny.) Survival/adventure stories have a bad tendency to swing either to the extreme of everything going wrong or things working out a little too easily, but this stayed pretty well balanced. The kids face some serious dangers and don't always come out unscathed, but they also find some helpful things every once in a while too. It doesn't feel like their doomed or getting through on magical fairy dust. A superb, fun survival/adventure story.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fun Adventure/Survival Fans: Looking for a super fun read in which kids team up to help survive some crazy circumstances? Look no further.
  • Appreciating Everyone’s Gifts: This story provides some great reminders that we all have something of worth to contribute, even those we might normally ostracize. It provides lots of good discussion points on what determines popularity, why some people get avoided at lunch, how to combat these surface-level errors in judgment, and how we should treat people.
  • Cold War Craziness: There was a lot of speculation about doomsday during the Cold War, and this book displays an extreme level of fear that the era brought about. 
  • Conspiracy Theories & Evaluating Information: If students are reading this book, you might want to discuss conspiracy theories and good ways to evaluate information you receive about anything. Especially in the age of the internet when anyone can publish anything, kids need to know how to evaluate the information they are bombarded with.

Young Adult Fiction Resource

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Lina, her mother, and her younger brother Jonas are marched out of their home in Lithuania, and forced on a harrowing journey which eventually ends in Siberia. They spend countless days in horrible conditions on trains and in work camps. They are fighting to survive just because the Russians decided their family was anti-Soviet.

This is a beautifully harrowing narrative, and memorial of sorts to the unheard stories of thousands of people from the Baltic states the Soviets decided to relocate in the 1940s. There are many books about people caught in the battles of WWII and caught in POW or concentration camps, but few that relate this tale of the Soviet work camps. As Sepetys explains in her notes about the book, that is because this was a story mainly unknown until the Baltic states were free in the 1990s, because even those released from Siberian work camps were threatened with death or return to the camps if they told about their experiences.

Though this starts in 1941, it does not end until well into the Cold War era, and thus the reason it is being included here. Lina is an interesting character, because she doesn't seem the "normal" literary prisoner. Prisoners in concentration camp-type settings or dystopian books are usually inordinately brave (almost superhuman and super lucky) or inordinately submissive and hopeless. Lina is a curious limbo between anger and desire for action and restraint and fear because of the consequences of actions. In other words, she feels real. She relates how things are and mixes in memories of the past certain things bring up. Sepetys does a good job of portraying the horrors Lina's family faces, without glorying in the horrible or making the book awfully depressing. It is a delicate balance done wonderfully, such that I found myself tearing through the book as fast as possible. And I’m not the only one, there’s a whole group of teens at my school who love this book.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Thriller Histories: Pretty much the only kind of historical fiction I can convince teens to read are those that have a good adrenaline rush. This is one of those that has been proclaimed a teen-approved read and is now recommended by teens to their peers.
  • Tragic Read: There’s this group of teens out there that love tragic stories. This one does have some elements of a happy ending, but much of the book is hard and sad. Maybe it’s the “at least my life isn’t THAT bad” factor that makes teens love these kinds of stories? Not entirely sure, but I just love that they are reading and learning some history at the same time.
  • Hidden History of the Cold War: For much of the last century, only the silent survivors knew what happened to those deemed anti-Soviet in the Baltic states. It wasn’t until the Iron Curtain came down in the 1990s that these stories started to come out. Lina’s story helps stand as a memorial for thousands of people who suffered and died in these work camps. It is a hard read, but a good read. If we do not learn from history, we’re apt to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Biography/Autobiography Resources

The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís
Peter Sís has created a unique autobiography of his life growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. As he says in the afterward, "I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life -- before America..." The blend of drawings and words to tell his story makes it all the more powerful and poignant.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Art & Symbolism: The illustrations are highly symbolic and could be used in art or history class to be analyzed for their subtle messages. (As he explains, artists under Communism had to be masters of subtle messages.)
  • Life under Communism: Sís presents a firsthand perspective of life under Communism that should be eye-opening for readers.
  • Country Lines Change: Sís grew up in a country that no longer exists on our maps. Have students examine how Eastern Europe has changed on maps over the past one hundred years. What caused the changes?
  • Caldecott Honor: Peter Sís has won three Caldecott Honors to date for his books. This book won one, Starry Messenger won another, and Tibet: through the Red Box also won one.
  • Sibert Medal: This book also won the Sibert Medal, an award for best nonfiction for kids.
  • Artist Biography: If you’re looking for a biography of an artist, this is a unique one for several reasons. First, the artist is still alive. Second, the person may be someone kids are familiar with since he illustrates children’s books. Third, he was an immigrant/refugee escaping from a Communist regime.

There are two other Cold War era autobiographies that came out recently, and in fact, they both won awards this year. I mentioned both in a previous Brainstorm The Brainstorm 57: 2016 YMA Winners Cont., but wanted to remind people of them again. See the previous Brainstorm for Activity-Tie ins for each. When I mentioned Symphony for the City of the Dead before I hadn’t finished reading it. I have now, so clicking on the title will link to a full review now.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: a Memoir by Margarita Engle

A Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Sostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Brainstorm 67: Behind the scenes at zoos, both real and imaginary (but mostly imaginary)

I recently read and loved the FunJungle series by Stuart Gibbs about a mystery solving tween who lives at a zoo. It reminded me a bit of the My Life is a Zoo series by Keating, about a girl who lives with her family at a zoo. And then I thought of the Menagerie series about a family who lives at a zoo of fantasy animals, and Amos McGee…and so here are books about people who live in or work at zoos.
(Oops, I forgot to put in the Resource divisions when this was first published. That's been fixed now. 4/24/16)

Picture Book Resources

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, ill. by Erin E. Stead
Amos McGee works at the zoo and takes good care of his animal friends meeting their unique needs each day. So when Amos is sick, his animal friends come to his house and take care of him.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Fair vs Equal: A common complaint of children (and adults) are that things aren’t fair. What they really mean is that things aren’t equal. But is equal treatment always best? This book does a great job of defining the difference between which is best without even meaning to. Ask readers to evaluate how Amos McGee treats his animal friends. Is his treatment the same for everyone? Why does Amos do it that way? How does this concept apply to real life?
  • Kindness: Amos shows kindness to each of his friends, and when he is sick they return the favor. His kindness was contagious. Have students devise ways to make kindness contagious. Or have them plan to thank someone for an everyday kindness that is often overlooked/taken for granted.
  • Caldecott Medal: This book won the Caldecott Medal. You can use this book when talking about the Caldecott or illustration awards.

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman
The zoo keeper thinks he's locked the animals up tight for the night. But he doesn't notice them being let out of their cages and following him home, until he says good night to his wife …and others respond.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Drama: This would be an easy book to have students turn into a little humorous play or puppet performance.
  • Beginning Readers: With it’s low word count, this is a super pick for a child just beginning to get the hang of this reading thing.
  • Comic Timing: If you’re studying humor in literature or art, this book is nice and short, and easily analyzed for the hows and whys of its laughter-inducing-qualities.
  • Animals: Lots of little readers love this book just for the parade of zoo animals in it. See if they can identify the various critters who are sneaking out of the zoo.

Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Belly Up (FunJungle, #1) by Stuart Gibbs
The world is all excited about the brand new FunJungle zoo and theme park that recently opened. And everyone has fallen in love with the park's main attraction and mascot, Henry the Hippo. Teddy Fitzroy has a front row seat for all of the action. His mother is a keeper at FunJungle, using her expertise on gorillas to help them develop and maintain the Monkey Mountain attraction. His father is a wildlife photographer that FunJungle hired to do official photo shoots of the animals, but they also still let him do freelance work. So Teddy has an inside scoop on things when Henry the Hippo turns up dead. Teddy knows that pretty much no one who worked at FunJungle actually liked Henry. Most hippos are dangerous and mean, but Henry took it to another level. Teddy decides to sneak in and watch Doc do the autopsy on Henry, and so he overhears that Doc thinks someone purposefully murdered Henry but he's told to cover up that story by the head of operations and the man in charge of public relations. Teddy can't just let a murderer go free, even if Henry was a nasty piece of work. He starts to investigate but the only one who will take him seriously is the owner of the park's daughter, Summer. As the two of them start collecting facts, though, it is clear someone really, really doesn't want the truth to come out. Who's willing to try and kill a keeper's son to cover up the death of a hippo?

Few writers can pull off the traditional murder mystery genre for middle grade successfully, but by making the main murder victim an animal, Stuart Gibbs found a way. It isn't too dark or brutal for the target age range and it still includes all the best parts of a traditional murder mystery. Teddy is just as fun to follow around as your most spunky and charming adult private detective. The mystery is just as compelling and complex, with red herrings abounding. And of course, the setting is fantastic. How many people get to run around a state of the art zoo to solve their crimes? Quite fun. It kept me guessing and entertained to the end. And I love that it is written in such a way it will appeal to both boys and girls. An all around winner.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Mystery Read: If you’re looking for a puzzling mystery for a middle grade reader, this is a fantastic pick (and so are the rest of the FunJungle books).
  • Third Culture Kids: Having spent a majority of his life growing up in the jungles of Africa, Teddy is bit of an abnormal kid. And other TCKs will likely appreciate his challenges fitting in as a normal kid in Texas.
  • Healthy Parent/Child Relationship: One of the things I love most about the FunJungle series is that Teddy and his parents have a great relationship. He talks to them about his problems, they listen, and they form a plan as a family. It’s a rarity in kids’ literature to find a family like theirs, but so important to have a model of a family team.
  • Contemporary Fiction: For kids hunting down a realistic or contemporary (whatever you want to call it) genre read, this is a great option.
  • Zoos: Gibbs worked at a zoo at one time, and he did excellent research that comes through in details of what it takes to set up a zoo like FunJungle, as well as everyday maintenance and runnings of a big zoo in ethical ways. For those interested in what it is like behind the scenes at a zoo, this gives a realistic sneak peek.
  • Animal Lovers: There’s tons of interactions with animals all through this book and the rest of the series, and they do a good job of building conservation awareness too. Teddy and others talk frequently about best practices of zoos to create a place that is happy and healthy for the animals, and ways they help save endangered species.

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied (My Life Is a Zoo, #1) by Jess Keating
Ana's life is over. That's all there is to it. First, her best friend Liv has moved to the other side of the planet, and is actually enjoying it in New Zealand instead of planning how to hitchhike back to Denver. Second, there's the Sneerers, determined to make Ana's 7th grade year a torment to the very end (and succeeding nicely now that Liv isn't there with snarky comebacks). Third, she has to give a speech in English before the end of the year and that usually never ends well. Fourth, math. It hates her. And as if that wasn't enough, her famous zoo man TV star grandpa comes to visit and decides that the whole family is going to be on TV. Oh, and her mom thinks she should do a presentation at the zoo. Ana just wishes she could disappear into anonymity and maybe all her problems would go away.

Ana Wright is the perfect character for middle school girls who just don't feel like they fit in. While her parents are zookeepers, and Ana spends more time with animals than most people, the majority of her problems and emotions are things any tween will understand. There are several middle school girls at our school who adore her, the wit and humor with which she faces circumstances, and the realistic way that though not everything goes right, she realizes her life is not over. While I sometimes found myself wondering if Ana's voice was a little too mature for her age, and seriously wanted some of her problems resolved earlier (where were the adults when she needed them???), I know Ana will be a fun boost of hope for those in the midst of the horrors of middle school. And of course, animal lovers will be jealous of the life Ana takes for granted.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Contemporary Read: Hand this to a middle school girl who needs to identify with someone else just trying to make it through these rough years.
  • Compare/Contrast: Readers who devour both this book and Belly Up can compare and contrast the lives of Ana and Teddy. Both have parents who work at zoos, and both are middle schoolers who live at zoos. However, they have lots of differences too.
  • Animal Lovers: This series is packed with lots of fun facts about animals for readers to gobble up.

The Menagerie (Menagerie, #1) by Tui T. Sutherland & Kari Sutherland
Logan is a new kid in town. He and his dad have moved out to middle of nowhere Wyoming after his mom sent them a postcard saying she wasn't coming back. Logan thinks his dad is likely trying to find her, but he's pretty much given up hope of ever seeing her again. At school he meets Zoe, a worry wort, and Blue, a super chill guy. They say they are looking for Zoe's dog, so Logan volunteers to help. It turns out her "dog" isn't actually a dog, but six griffin cubs who escaped from a very secret Menagerie for magical creatures run by Zoe's parents (and where Blue also lives). The cubs have escaped at the worst possible time because the Menagerie is being threatened with getting shut down if they don't measure up to inspection in just a few days time. Logan is clueless to any of this until he goes home to find one of the griffin cubs under his bed. Logan is able to talk to the cub, and he helps return it. Zoe's family quickly recruits him to help find the rest of the missing cubs, figure out who let them escape, oh and try to get the Menagerie ready in time for inspection. Logan is thrilled to help, especially since he seems very gifted in communicating with the animals and finding them, but passing inspection (and living through his experiences at the Menagerie) may prove harder than he thought. There are some strange things going on. And then you get the cliffhanger...

Only one minor plot line is resolved in this first book. So you need to make sure you grab all three books of this series at once. Trust me. You don’t want to have to wait between them like I did. (There are hazards of reading a series as it comes out, book by book over several years.) The plot line really gets you hooked. It has the right touch of humor scattered throughout too, and it is fun to discover fantasy creatures along with Logan (which is usually where the humor comes in).

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fantasy Creature Lovers: I love the way Sutherland depicts various fantasy creatures in this series. The griffins need channels for lots of energy, the unicorns are vain as all get out, the dragons are wily, the golden goose has serious mental issues, etc. There’s lots of mythological creatures packed in, and they are quite the wild and zany crew. I have several readers who ask me for books about fantasy creatures, and this is usually one of my first recommendations.
  • Mystery Fiction: There’s an ongoing mystery throughout the series about who is sabotaging the Menagerie and why. Give this book to a reader who wants to get hooked on a series.

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo
A little old lady in a nursing home tells everyone about the elephant who used to live in her garden. Everyone brushes her off as an old woman losing her marbles, everyone except one boy. Karl is the son of one of the nurses and comes to visit on a snow day. He quickly makes friends with Lizzie, the old lady, and wants to hear all about her elephant. His skeptical mother listens in and soon both mother and son are thoroughly wrapped up in Lizzie's amazing true story.

When Lizzie was a teenager she was growing up in Dresden, Germany during WWII. Her father was off fighting, and to make ends meet, her mother or Mutti as she called her, took a job at the Dresden zoo. Mutti had really taken to one of the young elephants whose mother had died, so when the zoo started making plans to shoot the more dangerous animals if Dresden were bombed Mutti begged and pleaded with the zoo manager to let her keep the young elephant Marlene. And so it was that Marlene came to live in Lizzie's back garden. Lizzie's younger brother Karli instantly fell in love with Marlene. One night as they were out taking a family walk with Marlene, the bombers came. The family hurried out of town as their home burned behind them. They made it to their Aunt and Uncle's farm where they ran into a Canadian soldier whose plane had been hit. At first they are very wary of Peter, but when he saves Karli after falling through the ice in the pond, all differences are forgotten and he is adopted as a member of the family for the trek West. Though they'd like to stay at the farm (especially Marlene who loves all the hay), the Russians are headed closer and it would be safer for everyone if they went West and ran into the Americans instead. So with Marlene, their constant conversation starter (and welcome distraction from any who would notice Peter) they set out West to try and make it to safety.

This is one of those stories that if it weren't based somewhat on a true story, it probably would never have made it to print. But it is (Morpurgo tells about the real story in the back of the book). It is touching and sweet. Morpurgo gives a good flavor for WWII without going into gritty details, making this much more kid safe. Animal fans will absolutely eat this story up.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • WWII: If you’re looking for a book set during WWII but isn’t too gritty or gory, this could be just what you’re looking for. The seriousness of the situation comes through, but it isn’t anywhere near as heavy as many other WWII books.
  • Research Extension: There’s some more information out there on the real story that inspired Morpurgo’s book. Have students research it, or tales of other zoo animal rescues during wars.
  • Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is one of the least read genres by middle graders and teens in my library, and it seems to be a worldwide trend. History is “boring” and many kids would rather read about someone just like them or in an entirely different world. However, thrilling WWII stories and animal stories do circulate. So this is one of those few historical fiction books that I can actually convince readers to check out.
  • Animal Lovers: Animal lovers are sure to fall in love with Marlene  the elephant, and will anxiously watch her journey to safety with her human friends.

Nonfiction Resources

The Medici Giraffe: and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power by Marina Belozerskaya
This book is as much a collection of obscure history as stories about animals. Ms Belozerskaya highlights seven different powerful people of history, tells their histories and how exotic animals played an important role in further establishing their authority or demonstrating it. As such, each chapter is a broader history on the life of each person to give the full setting of how exotic animals played this role. Those covered are Ptolemy Philadelphos of Alexandria, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey) of Rome, Lorenzo de Medici, Hernán Cortés, Rudolf II the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Hungary and Bohemia, Josephine Bonaparte, and William Randolph Hearst.

I generally have to force myself to read non-fiction, but I found this a highly readable and very interesting non-fiction book. It flowed well, and many of the histories focused on people or aspects of people/time periods that are often not the focus of study in typical history classes or books. I feel like I learned a lot. There was only one time when I caught an error (the author mentioned that one of the famous people was given a certain number of "pineapple trees" as a gift...but pineapples grow on ground plants, not trees), and I felt like on the whole it was well researched with inclusion of primary sources.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Zoos in History: There are some CRAZY menageries mentioned in this book. Rudolf II’s may take the cake with his lions that roamed free and attacked several people. If you want stories of some interesting private animal collections, look no further.
  • Animals in History: This book points out the way exotic animals have played into demonstrations of wealth and status in history, and even played roles in negotiations between nations. It’s a part of history that doesn’t often make it into the history books.
  • Biographies: Each chapter stands on its own enough, you could also read this just for the one chapter on a certain person or time period that interests you.
  • Microhistory Fans: There are some people who really love microhistories (a historical book that focuses on one thing and its influence on history through time), and this is an option for them.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Brainstorm 66: The gardening & plant world in books

The minute the bell rings this afternoon signals the start of Spring Break for our school. Yes, I know, it is quite late compared to some other schools. Since we’re in Thailand our school coordinates Spring Break with the national Songkran Festival (which includes a huge, big, several-days-long water fight). Those in more temperate regions start thinking of gardens in spring, so it seems like a good time to pull out a group of books about flowers, gardening, and backyard creatures. Many of these books work well together.

Picture Book/Juvenile Nonfiction Resources

And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano, ill. by Erin E. Stead
A little boy and his dog plant a garden as winter ends and wait, and wait, and wait for signs of spring.

The poem-form of this book is sweet, but what really makes the book are Stead's illustrations. They sum up the feelings of the words and of waiting for winter to end so very well. They also have a certain charm that just begs you to look at them longer and smile a little.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Poetry: April is poetry month. This book is a kind of free verse poem with unique punctuation (started on the cover with the title not capitalized). You could read this and then read some e.e. cummings and have students compare the two poets’ styles.
  • Patience: Waiting is never fun, but it is a frequent part of life. Talk about ways to pass time while you wait. This book is also a good reminder of the rewards for having patience and persevering through that waiting.
  • Plants/Gardening: If you’re talking about plants or gardening, this book provides a good reminder that it takes time for plants to grow. What are the essential ingredients for plant growth? Does the little boy provide them for his plants? 
  • Spring: This is a sweet and simple spring read.

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner, ill. by Christopher Silas Neal
Follow a little girl and her Nana as they work in the garden from early spring through to late autumn. The book explores what's going on above and below ground by helpers to the garden and those who are a threat to the plants.

Messner does a great job in pointing out the ways some typically repulsive bugs and critters are actually very important to plant growth and survival. The illustrations are eye-catching with lots of vibrant colors, and I love the way it gives readers peeks into what's happening below ground too.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Plants: A fantastic book to read when studying plants. It looks at numerous factors that affect plant growth.
  • Symbiosis: Messner highlights the ways various organisms both help and hurt each other. Have students identify different types of symbiosis shown in the book.
  • Ecosystems: By giving readers a look down under the soil, Messner & Neal remind us of some frequently forgotten parts of the ecosystem. You can use this book to practice identifying organic and inorganic parts of the ecosystem. You can also use it to create a food web. Or you can even do an extension activity, plot out a little patch of dirt, dig a small hole, and record all the different organisms spotted and then create a web for that area.

Wolfsnail: a Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell, photos by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell
A simple introduction to a predator in many backyards that often goes unseen. Easy but informative text is accompanied by brilliant photographs, and there's further info in the back of the book on these unusual snails. Kids will likely be sucked in by the pictures. The text is simple enough for lower grades to read on their own.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Predators/High Interest Nonfiction: Let's face it. Kids are fascinated by predators. Sharks. Wolves. Bears. So this unsung beasty should be one of those critters that gathers fascination while at the same time being called gross. Use this one when studying predator/prey relationships or if you’re looking for a nonfiction read that students won’t be able to put down.
  • Mollusks/Gastropods: If you’re studying Phylum Mollusca or more specifically Class Gastropoda, this can help liven up the study by highlighting a fascinating example.
  • Good vs Bad Garden Beasties: Have students research some animals which are helpful in the garden and some which are harmful. You can extend this and have them research how to attract the helpers and how to get rid of the bad in an ecologically sound way.
  • Geisel Honor: This book won a Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor in 2009. Explore with students what qualities of this book allowed it to win a Geisel Honor.

Water Is Water: a Book about the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul, ill. by Jason Chin
Follow some children as they observe water changing forms throughout the seasons, and even being used by plants and their own bodies. The author's notes in the back of the book provide more scientific terms and explanations for the stages of water in the water cycle.

With colorful and captivating illustrations and brief rhyming text, Paul & Chin effectively introduce the water cycle in ways even young children can understand. The author's notes provide further sciency information making this a useful book for elementary classes studying the water cycle. The book is also unique in that it includes plants and humans in the water cycle, something most books don't do when covering this topic. A fantastic resource.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Water Cycle: This is a fantastic way to teach the water cycle without students even realizing they are learning.
  • States of Matter: The book highlights water in solid, liquid and gas forms, making this book also useful when talking about states of matter in science classes.
  • Poetry: If studying poetry, read this one for the poetic, rhyming text it employs to convey a nonfiction topic. Poetry doesn’t just have to talk about pretend things.
  • Plants: Water is obviously pretty important to plants, and this book shows the basics of plants using water. A great companion book to the plant topic since water is one of the essential ingredients for plant growth and health.

A Seed Is Sleepy by Diane Hutts Aston, ill. by Sylvia Long
Aston takes readers on a quick tour of the basics of seeds. Their purpose and how they disperse themselves.

The eloquent text is accompanied by amazing illustrations of a wide variety of seeds. What I really appreciated about the book was the way the illustrator showed the seeds along with the leaves and/or flowers of the plant they come from. It definitely helps to see the big picture of where the seeds come from.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Plants: Seeds come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. This book provides the basics for talking about seed dispersal methods and the way their structure helps that function.
  • Poetry: Diane Hutts Aston’s main text throughout this book is quite lyrical and poetic.
  • Art: Sylvia Long’s illustrations are stunning. Kids should be enthralled. Yes, enthralled by illustrations of seeds.

National Wildlife Federation’s World of Birds: a Beginner’s Guide by Kim Kurki
A survey of some of the most common birds of the world, presented in a highly engaging illustrated format with little snippits of interesting info on each bird. The birds are arranged by habitat.

I really liked the way this book was put together. If you get right down to it, it's really an encyclopedia of birds, which has the potential to be boring. But Kim Kurki knows kids. This book was born out of years of experience doing little parts of a kids' magazine (Your Big Backyard) and the editor worked with another kids' magazine (Ranger Rick), and all that experience knowing how to engage kids with nature facts shows. This book is a feast for the eyes. The illustrations are incredible, and readers can choose how much or how little they want to learn about each bird. I can see kids growing with this book, at first just looking at the birds and as they get older absorbing more of the facts. I personally loved that the book highlighted birds from around the world that are common so the book doesn't feel nailed down to readers from one certain continent. A fantastic nonfiction book for lower and middle grades.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Birds & Plants: Many birds rely on plants and vice versa. Have students research what each organism gets out of the relationship.
  • Birds: For those studying birds, here’s a resource that is engaging and includes a wide variety of birds most kids are likely to see in their own community. Have students identify which birds they’ve seen in their community. How do the birds contribute to the ecosystem of the community?
  • High Interest Nonfiction: An engaging nonfiction read for lower and middle grades.

Flowers Are Calling by Rita Gray, ill. by Kenard Pak
An introduction for kids to flowers, animals, and the ways flowers attract pollinators. Each spread introduces an animal the flowers are not calling to, and then an insect, bird or other critter the flowers are attracting. After every three spreads, there's a spread introducing the last three flowers that have appeared. The end of the book has further information on pollinators and how flowers attract them.

That's really a moot point, the strengths of the book are in the content conveyed. The repetitive phrases of the book will be good for beginning readers to be able to "read" along.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Plants: If you’re talking about pollination and pollinators, you need to include this book. It is so beautifully illustrated, and covers the basics of pollinator attraction methods quite well. I’d use this in conjunction with the a book I’m about to mention, Seeing Flowers, that provides photographs of the attraction methods discussed in this book like lines on flowers that direct pollinators to pollen.
  • Symbiosis/Pollination: Another fantastic book to use when talking about various symbiotic relationships. This one makes it even easier for students to identify which relationships are mutually beneficial and which are not. It also helps identify numerous pollinators, not just the insects we usually think about.
  • Poetry Debate: The rhymes in this book follow an interesting pattern, to the extent it actually took me several pages to figure out there was even rhyming going on. I am still not sure whether to be impressed with the subtlety of the rhyming or unimpressed because it was so hard to notice. Have your students debate what they think. Is it great poetry, or would they like to improve it?

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (Scientists in the Field) by Loree Griffin Burns, photos by Ellen Harasimowicz
When thousands of honeybees just suddenly start disappearing, a team of scientists is called in to figure out what is going on. The book follows scientists examining potential parasite, viral, or environmental factors that could be causing this phenomenon that is threatening bees and thereby produce all over the United States. What the team finds may not satisfy all readers, but gives a good picture of how not all real mysteries can be solved 100%.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Scientific Investigation Methods: Definitely a book I’d recommend if you’re studying methods used to solve scientific mysteries. 
  • Limits of Science: The conclusion of this book may not satisfy all readers, but it is very realistic and helps emphasize some of the limits of science. What are other real life mysteries that science just can’t entirely answer?
  • Bees/Insects: An eye-opening look at the importance of these insects we take for granted. Use this when kids ask, “Why are we studying insects?”
  • Plants: This book definitively highlights the importance of pollinators to the survival of plants and those who consume plant products.
  • Careers: You never know what reader may be inspired to become a full-time bee keeper, which turns out to be a very important but often overlooked job. 

Adult Nonfiction Resources

Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers by Teri Dunn Chace, photos by Robert Llewellyn
Teri Dunn Chace and Robert Llewellyn take readers on a tour of the various flowering plants and the characteristics of the most common families with lively informative text and incredible photographs.

Growing up, my mom used to let us kids help plan the gardens around our house and yard each year. So I have fond memories of pouring over flower catalogs in early spring, trying to figure out what flowers would look best and what would actually grow in our corner of the world. Of course, the best things about those catalogs and the coming growing season were the beautiful flowers. This book took me back to my childhood days of garden planning because many were flowers that ended up in our back yard. I'm not much of a gardener any more, but I still love looking at flowers. And the biology teacher in me loves the detailed look at the sciency parts of the plants (if I were still teach Bio, I'd so be using this for the botany unit). I can totally see my former Bio students rolling their eyes at me if I told them I devoured a 300 p. book on flowers Sunday afternoon. They'd probably chalk it up to my being a science nerd. And yes, maybe my science nerd is showing a little, BUT I would then show them some of the pictures and see if they too didn't get sucked into the book. Llewellyn's photographs let you look at flowers like few other books out there. He uses this complex process of photography that digitally combines multiple images into one. The photographs are stunning and gorgeous, and reveal little details hard to see in real life or the average photograph. The accompanying text was surprisingly interesting and informative as well. I bought this book for the school's library, but I think I'm going to have to go get myself a copy too because I could sit and look at the photos for quite a while, and it brings out the urge to dust off the sketch book too. If you're a gardener looking for flower ideas, a biologist or botanist who likes a close up, an artist, or just an appreciator of beauty who needs a new coffee table book, this is a great option.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Plants/Botany: Thanks to Llewellyn’s unique photography methods, this provides a close-up look at flowers few others can provide. You can use this to help students really see the parts of actual flowers instead of just in a science diagram, from pollen to sepals, to pollinator director lines. The flowers are divided by families, so upper level science classes can also point out distinctions between monocots, dicots or even finer differences that make each family distinct.
  • Gardening: If you’re planning a garden with your class or family and you’re looking for inspiration, get lost in the pages of this book for a while.
  • Photography: Photography students take a gander at Llewellyn’s incredible method’s results and be sure to read about how he does it in the book.
  • Art: Art students could definitely use this for inspiration in creating their own sketches or paintings.

Seeing Seeds by Teri Dunn Chace, photos by Robert Llewellyn
Robert Llewellyn's fantastic photography introduces you to all sorts of seeds. Teri Chace provides some text along the way to explain the hows and wherefores and the whats to go with the photos. The book starts off with an introduction to all things seed (seriously, most in-depth book on seeds you'll probably ever find), and then goes into a survey of garden flower seeds, weeds and wildflowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables, shrubs and trees. The survey section features full-page photographs with 1-3 paragraphs on how the seed works, where the plant is commonly found, and various random other little tidbits.

I know I'm a nerd, and reading this entire book just proves that. Feel free to use it more as a resource. Honestly, though, I find the little science facts fascinating (although sometimes I roll my eyes at Ms Chace when she anthropomorphizes plants and gives them the ability to make conscious choices in the way she words things) and the photographs are incredible. That's the real reason I plowed through this entire book. Llewellyn's photographs help you see aspects of plants you'd be hard pressed to notice in the wild or with the naked eye. So think of this as a picture book aimed at adult plant nerds, or those studying plants. If I were still teaching science I'd totally be using this book as a resource for plant sections of Biology or AP Biology. I liked that this sampled a broader range of plants found anywhere on Earth than the previous flower or tree books done by these two. Which makes since, it is easier to get seed samples from far away than fresh flowers or entire trees. Recommended for photography lovers, backyard gardeners (there are many hints at successfully getting various specimens to sprout from seed included), or science teachers.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Plants: Like I mentioned above, this is one of the most comprehensive books on seeds out there. Use this to augment lessons on seeds with the photographs that show the various parts or types of seeds.
  • Photography: Like in Seeing Flowers, the photography of Llewellyn is stunning. Photography students take note.
  • Art: If you’re looking for less-flowery inspiration for art classes, seeds can be some very interesting studies.