Thursday, April 27, 2017

Brainstorm 109: Unusual Mammals of Central & South America in Books

This week we’re looking at books that feature lesser known and/or unusual Central & South American mammals. Why? Because they are tantalizing literature stars.

Picture Book Fiction Resources

Sparky by Jenny Offill, ill. by Chris Appelhans
A little girl desperately wants a pet. Her mom says she can only have a pet that does not need to be walked or bathed or fed. Ever resourceful, the little girl consults her school librarian and discovers that a sloth would be the perfect pet that meets her mother’s requirements. So she sends off an order and soon enough her very own sloth arrives. She dubs it Sparky. Sparky does not quite impress like other pets, but the little girl still adores him.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sloths: Yep, this features one of those South American slow pokes.
  • Sloth Fans: There seems to be this growing group of people who just can’t get enough sloths in their lives. They’ll be happy to meet Sparky.
  • Thinking Outside the Box: This little girl sure knows how to think outside the box. And she uses great resources in her research too.
  • Unconditional Love: It’s sweet that the girl in this loves Sparky even though he doesn’t quite inspire the excitement another pet might. 
  • Animal/Pet Lovers: This is a sweet pet story for any animal lover.

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon
Three children find a strange creature in the backyard. After asking a few unhelpful adults, the children do their own research and eventually figure out what the creature is and where it comes from. Observant readers, though, will realize the children have not been observant and make one big mistake.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sloths: I’m sure you figured out from the title that this book also featured sloths. What you can’t tell from the title is that this book weaves some great information on sloths into the story.
  • Sloth Fans: I think this is pretty self-explanatory.
  • Compare/Contrast: Read this book and Sparky and compare the research processes, how helpful the adults are, and how astute the children are.
  • Humor Fans: This has a couple points that will tickle readers’ funny bones, especially as sloth manages to sleep through some very important things going on around him.
  • Yeah Research!: The story features some subtle plugs for being able to do your own research. I’m all for encouraging research skills.
  • Natural Habitat, Home or Not?: This sloth ends up back in sloths’ natural habitat but that may not be such a good thing. And this brings up a chance to talk about why this sloth might not do well in the Amazon and/or what steps would need to be taken to make the transition a success. Plus other hows, whys, and ifs of whether animals can be sent back to the wild after periods of captivity or being born outside of their natural environment. Of course, to have this discussion go well, you’ll need to do some more research. To add some spice to the debate/research/thinking you can also ask if there is ever a good reason to take a creature out of its natural habitat. (Just one research hint to help pros/cons: tree lobsters.) 

Picture Book Nonfiction Resources

Olinguito, de la A a la Z! = Olinguito, from A to Z! : descubriendo el bosque nublado = unveiling the cloud forest by Lulu Delacre
This bilingual picture book introduces readers to the flora and fauna A to Z commonly found in a cloud forest in Ecuador. Further information on olinguitos, cloud forests, and scientists who study them is included in the back of the book. The entire text including the further notes is provided in both Spanish and English.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Olinguitos (and more): Olinguitos are one of the most recently discovered mammals on the planet, so there aren't a ton of books out there on them. This book provides several great bits of information about them, and some of the other animals and plants you can find in cloud forests.
  • Spanish/English Bilingual Books: The primary text for this is the Spanish, so some of the pages don't feature many creatures/plants in the English letters but if you look at the Spanish names for the same animals, those will match the alphabet letter for that page. Great for those working on either English or Spanish, as well as providing a fascinating tour of the cloud forest. 
  • Alphabet Book Fans: This is a Spanish alphabet book to provide a little new twist for alphabet book fans.
  • Hide-n-Seek: The author/illustrator hid a couple things in each page spread for readers to find, making this a book that will provide hours of entertainment on top of being informative.
  • Nature Fans: A great pick for little readers fascinated by the world outside.

Tree of Wonder: The Many Marvelous Lives of a Rainforest Tree by Kate Messner, ill. by Simona Mulazzani
1 almendro tree in the rainforest hosts a great number of other creatures in its branches. Each page spread features a different creature living in, on or under an almendro tree, and the numbers double with each spread, culminating with 1024 leaf cutter ants. Each number is written numerically as well as shown visually with that number of critters. Further information and math word problems of varying levels are included in the back.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fruit Bats, Howler Monkeys & More Rainforest Critters: There are several different creatures featured in this book but the mammals are fruit bats and howler monkeys. Make sure to pick it up if you’re curious about or studying the rainforest.
  • Math/Science Combo: If this book looks familiar, I featured it in Brainstorm 61 posted March of 2016 as a great math/science combo book that makes both topics fun. 
  • Math: There are several math concepts tackled here, especially visualizing multiplication and big numbers. And as mentioned, there are math word problems in the back of the book.
  • Ecosystems/Symbiotic Relationships: Usually books focus on one organism and just barely mention the broader ecosystem. This looks at the big picture, and therefore you get to see how all these organisms interact together, making it a fantastic resource if you’re covering/studying ecosystems or symbiotic relationships. 
  • Curious Readers/Nature Fans: This isn’t just a book for classes, it is a great fun read too. Hand this to curious readers or those who love the natural world.

Middle Grade Fiction/Drama Resource

The Capybara Conspiracy: a novel in three acts by Erica S. Perl
While new student Dev is waiting for his paperwork to get sorted out in the principal's office of Farley Middle School he meets three other students who tell him a tale of the past week and the drama that unfolded when a theater actress fed up with the school's emphasis on sports decides to take action with another non-sporty friend. Perhaps the school's beloved live mascot Cappy the Capybara is the key to getting attention. Soon they attract the "help" of a boy who got cut from the baseball team and an animal rights activist girl. And oh boy do things not go according to plan. At least that's the story they tell Dev, but at the very end Dev is left wondering if anything he just heard was true.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Capybaras: The South American cuddly rodent features prominently in this tale.
  • Theater Fans or Theater Newbies: This is written in play form, and is a play perfect for a middle school production (information about getting rights to do the play is in the back of the book). It can be done well very simply, or could be an elaborate production. It's very adaptable. The setting is contemporary America, but could be set anywhere (the author even encourages adaptation in setting in the back). Perl includes info on play jargon and performances in the back of the book that are great helps. I recommend reading those first for people new to reading plays. 
  • Satire: Need an example of satire, or just enjoy them? Pick this us. Modern audiences will get the tongue-in-cheek pointed look at school's that over-emphasize just one part of extracurriculars and how easy it is for middle schoolers to make foolish mistakes as they are swept along by their peers. 
  • Stories with a Plot Twist Fans: There's the fun twist at the end that will spark debates about what just happened. Was the story just a story, or did it really happen?
  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: Those who like stories that could be happening just down the street should enjoy this.

Middle Grade/YA Nonfiction Resource

The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal by Sy Montgomery, photos by Nic Bishop
Sy and Nic take readers to the area called the Pantanal in South America, where Brazillian scientist Pati Medici is researching tapirs. Readers get to experience the joys and frustrations of trying to track and collar tapirs in the wild, and learn a lot about these elusive creatures along the way.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Tapirs: I never knew that much about tapirs before reading this, so I found it very informative on the animal. It's also a nice look at the Pantanal area, and it is an honest look at how hard it can be to trap animals for study. There's a wealth of further online resources in the back of the book too.
  • Real Scientist Life: This is a great pick for kids and teens who are interested in going into field science, as it will give them a nice reality check about what it can really be like. 
  • Ecosystems: Also, this is a good companion book when studying ecosystems, as it talks a bit about how the tapirs are an integral part of theirs. 
  • Kids Can Have an Impact: There's a great example of how one school boy made a huge impact in Pati's studies, so kids who want to get involved now in science could find this inspirational. 
  • Animal Lovers: And of course, it's an excellent pick for animal lovers. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Brainstorm 108: Understanding Poverty

It’s time to work on our heart muscles. No, we’re not going for a run, we’re going to work on empathy and building understanding for those going through tough stuff. Here are eight fiction books which help readers better understand those who are impoverished, possibly homeless, or just going through a season of financial hard times.

Picture Book Resources

Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, ill by Lauren Castillo
Callie's family is moving. She's not entirely sure why but she thinks it has something to do with money. They're selling off most of their things in a yard sale because they won't fit in the new apartment. Callie doesn't like watching her things go. But one little comment makes her realize she still has the most important thing, her family, and that's all she really needs.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Understanding Downsizing/Tight Finances: This could be a helpful book for families going through tough times, and it’d be great for friends of those families too.
  • Heart Check & Materialism: Regardless of your finances, this is a good book for kids with touches of materialism (or adults for that matter) to remind them what is really, truly important. 
  • Contemporary Fiction: If you’re looking for a well-illustrated, tender contemporary read, this fits that bill too.

On Market Street by Matt de la Pena, ill. by Christian Robinson
Every Sunday after church CJ and his nanna board the bus to go help out at the soup kitchen. Along the way CJ complains about taking the bus and going to the kitchen, but encounters with some people - and the wisdom of his grandmother - help him change his mind and be grateful for the small blessings.

If you haven’t heard of this book, welcome back from your year of doing research in Antarctica or living off the grid. I know it has been in news a lot since it swept up tons of awards in 2016, including a surprising Newbery win for a picture book. Consider this just a reminder that it is a good book in this category.
Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers: 

  • Gratitude: There's a lot in this story, but one of the points is being thankful for the senses you have and other things you take for granted. 
  • Get Your Super Vision: You don’t need to be a super hero to have super vision, you just need to pause and be alert enough to see beauty where others don't. It’s a skill the protagonist in this learns.
  • Joys of Helping: CJ also learns about the joys of helping others and doing so with dignity.
  • Feel Good Story Fans: Overall, this is a heartfelt story with relatively simple illustrations that say just enough.

Middle Grade Fiction

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart
Ever since his dad died last October, Ben and his mom have been doing their best to fulfill Dad's Grand Plan. His mom is really close to taking her final test to be certified as an accountant, but in the meantime it has been tough making ends meet. It's the little things that start to get to Ben, like only being able to afford the super cheap toilet paper. He's doing his best to help. He enters all the sweepstakes he can, hoping to help fulfill his promise to his dad to help his mom make ends meet. And as if life weren't crazy enough, his Grandpa Jake shows up to stay with them since his memory's starting to go and he can't be on his own any more. When the landlord just can't give them any more breaks, it looks like they may lose their apartment if Ben can't come up with a way to make the extra money until his mom can pass her certification test.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Serious/Might-Make-You-Cry Contemporary Story Fans: Every once in a while I get a student asking for a book that will make them cry. This would be on my list of recommendations for them. I actually have to warn kids who think the cover looks funny that this is a whole lot more serious than the cover suggests. Gephart does try to lighten grief and money problems with toilet paper cravings and toilet paper facts strewn throughout the book. It still deals with some very real life issues, though and many readers may need some tissue (or nice toilet paper) on hand for tears every once in a while. Eventually, there's a heartwarming ending in store, though it might not be brought about quite the way some readers expect. 
  • Understanding Tight Finances: A good read for kids to understand what someone going through tight money times might be feeling.
  • Understanding Grief: Ben provides one example of how grief can be expressed. His mom provides another. And both of them are starting to grieve over Grandpa Jake’s memory loss too. There are many faces to grief, and this may help readers better understand those grieving.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
Jackson is a science-minded boy who likes facts, good solid facts. So he is a little upset when his imaginary friend from when he was seven shows up uninvited. Crenshaw is a cat. A rather large cat, who wears a baseball cap, likes to take bubble baths, does hand stands, and talks. And only Jackson can see him (with the possible exception of Jackson's real life dog Aretha). Jackson tells Crenshaw to go away, but Crenshaw says he's here for a reason. Jackson is afraid of what that reason might be. Last time Crenshaw hung around was after his Dad got sick and both his parents lost their jobs. They had to live in their car for a while, which was not fun. Though they've been back in an apartment for a long time now, Jackson has noticed the signs that money is really tight again. Just how bad has it gotten? And is he going crazy seeing a great big talking cat all the time?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sweet and Fun Story Fans: This is an absolutely adorable story! Applegate brings tight money times and the plight of homeless families to life in a way that is authentic, honoring, and sweet but not the wrench your heart out and leave it a sobbing mess on the floor kind. Crenshaw brings just the right touches of lightness and humor and hope to a story that could be really, really sad and hard to read, but it isn't. Applegate was able to maneuver a fine line and come up with just the right mix, like a perfectly flavored sweet and sour sauce. 
  • Goofy/Likable Character Fans: I adored Crenshaw, his goofiness mixed with definite cat attitudes, but also moments of insight. Jackson is a likable character too. He is a kid who really wants to help his family but often feels like his hands are tied and that frustrates him. He craves honesty, but at the same time is a tiny bit scared of it too. He reads like a very real kid. 
  • Tight Finances/Homelessness: Jackson helps kids understand those who live in poverty and know what homelessness is like. He also provides a relatable character for homeless kids. (Applegate had some homeless kids help her with the book before it was published. See her note in the book about this.)
  • Psychology: Pysch classes may want to pick apart why they believe Jackson sees Crenshaw at this traumatic time in his life. Others will want to ignore the psychologists and just enjoy the story.
  • Literary Allusion: There’s an allusion to the play Harvey at the beginning. I can see touches of it in the story and those familiar with Harvey can see if they can find those. Not to say that this is a rewrite of Harvey in book form. This is all its own story and Crenshaw isn't identified as a Pooka.

Almost Home by Joan Bauer
Sugar Mae is a strong, plucky 6th grader with a knack for words. That's a good thing. Because she needs her strength when her no good, gambling father comes around and swindles her mom out of more money with his sweet talking and empty promises. Her mom is trying to do the best she can, but eventually they lose their house and end up on the street. Life on the street isn't fun. They go from a cousin's house to a shelter to another shelter in Chicago, but still there's no breakthrough coming. Sugar knows she has to be strong for Reba. A little bundle of fur named Shush entrusted to Sugar in a grocery store parking lot proves some extra encouragement. But even the cutest puppy in the world and the pluckiest 12 year old have limits to what they can do, especially when Reba has a breakdown and ends up in a psych hospital. Will they ever be home again, like when her grandpa King Cole was alive?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Heartfelt Contemporary Fiction Fans: Joan Bauer has this special talent of knowing just how to get to your heartstrings with her writing. Those prone to cry at Hallmark movies or commercials should have a box of tissues on hand. It is a hard story at times, but eventually hopeful.
  • Understanding Homelessness/Low Income/Foster Kids: Bauer tackles a huge, hard topic in homelessness and instability among low income families. And she does it with tact and respect. It is clear anyone could end up in such a situation given the wrong circumstances. And she manages to touch on a host of possible ways this can look, from sleeping in a car to shelter life to a bad foster home situation and eventually a healthy foster home. There are also others Sugar meets who have gone through similar traumas, like neighbors across the street, other people at the shelters, and even the foster mother who finally helps bring some stability to Sugar's life. 
  • Strong, Wise, Loving Adult Characters: Middle grade fiction is notorious for a lack of strong adult characters. That’s not the case here. Yes, Sugar’s mother needs help. But Sugar has others to fill in for her in the meantime. I love Sugar’s final foster home parents. They rock! So does her 6th grade teacher who stays in touch with her via email. Those three offer a balance to the not-so-responsible other adults in the story. And they illustrate a proven fact - that successful kids need multiple adults pouring into them. 
  • Voice: Bauer has given Sugar a distinct and memorable voice. She’s got some pluck, early maturity thanks to her circumstances, and phrases from her beloved grandfather to quote. It’s a great example for teachers talking about voice in writing.
  • Puppy Lovers: Honestly, I think most readers pick up this book for the cover. It’s pretty hard to resist that puppy. And Shush is around to add adorable puppy antics in the story too, which may be all some readers need to keep turning pages.

Ghost (Track, #1) by Jason Reynolds
Castle (Ghost) Crenshaw is the next best basketball player (even though he's never gotten on the courts), is from the wrong side of town, is somewhat obsessed with world records, has some trouble knowing what to do with the screams inside, and tries to hide the fact that his dad's in prison for trying to shoot him and his mom. On the night his dad shot at them, Ghost discovered he can run really fast when he needs to. But he never really thought about running as a real sport, until the day he accidentally lands himself on a club track team and his mom actually agrees with the coach to let him join. He has to make sure there are no incidents at school and that his homework gets done, and coach holds him to both. Ghost thought he'd just be learning to run, but maybe joining track will help him learn how to stop running from issues he's ignored for years.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sports Story Fans: Track fans get reading. Especially since there will be more stories coming about Ghost’s teammates. And don’t worry, it isn’t quite as predictable as some other sports stories. It doesn’t end with the star winning or dying, instead it leaves you hanging a little. 
  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: Some readers just prefer for their characters and settings to be something they could find in real life. Ghost could live down the street.
  • Understanding Inner City/Low Income/Children of Inmates: This story read incredibly authentically. Ghost feels like a kid who could have come out of the inner city. And the situation is a quite plausible hopeful story about how one such kid would meet a coach who could get behind the walls he's built and help him start to turning his life around.

Young Adult Fiction

Saving Red by Sonya Sones
Molly is finishing up her freshman service hours by helping with the homeless count in Santa Monica, Califonia when she first sees Red, a teenager sleeping on a bluff above the beach. Molly can't get Red out of her head, and during an amazing moment on the ferris wheel the next day when she meets Cristo (quite possibly the most amazing guy ever - and he seems to like her!) they see Red dancing in another car. Molly gets the idea that she should try to help Red get reconnected with her family for Christmas, and shares her plan with Cristo. He's 100% behind the plan, but off to New York City with his family that night for the holidays. So it's just Molly, and her faithful dog Pixel, to carry out Operation Red. The truth is that Molly has other reasons she wants to - needs to - help Red, reasons she's not willing to admit to herself.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Novel in Verse Fans: Those who like quick reads that say an awful lot in just a few powerful words should pick this up.
  • Understanding Homelessness/Mental Illness/PTSD: This book did a great job of portraying homelessness and mental illness (a combination that happens a LOT, ~75% of the time among the chronically homeless). I say that as someone who used to work with an organization that helped the homeless in the LA area. This reads authentically. It also touches on PTSD and suicide prevention in a respectful and helpful way. I loved that the author included so many resources in the back for those who need further information or help in several areas. Read this if you want to better understand the homeless and how to help them with dignity.
  • Cute, Light Romance Fans: There's a cute, super light romance in this as Molly and Cristo get to know each other. 
  • Heartfelt Contemporary Fiction Fans: This could have been really heavy, but it doesn’t feel that way. Partly that’s due to the free verse format. Partly that’s because of Molly and Cristo’s budding romance, and Molly is trying really hard to be a good friend to Red. Eventually, everything isn't 100% fixed, but everyone seems to be on a better road, and it's a very heart-warming ending. 

Now Is the Time for Running by Michael Williams
Deo's village in Zimbabwe had people who voted "wrongly" in the last election, so the President's soldiers come to punish the town. Deo and his older brother Innocent (who has special needs) are the only ones to escape alive. They make it to another village where a friend lives who gets them smuggled down to the South African border. From there, the brothers are escorted across the border through a wildlife park and given jobs at a tomato farm. But the nearby town resents the refugees who steal their jobs and Deo decides they should head to Johannesburg to try and find a better place, but they arrive in the middle of the 2008 xenophobic riots and the city isn't safe for them either. Without a home or friends, Deo succumbs to despair until a man recruits him to play street soccer.

Note: This not for everyone. There is some swearing, and Deo witnesses some brutal killing in his village. Glue sniffing becomes a crutch one character must overcome.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Contemporary African Setting: There aren’t a ton of books out there in English set in contemporary Africa. If you’re looking for them, this is one of the few.
  • Refugee Experience/Homelessness/Special Needs Characters: So many of us have no idea what many refugees experience in their trials to find a place to belong. Deo's story is definitely hard to read, but also important in that it illustrates very real issues other people in the world are currently facing. Of course, his problems were compounded because he was trying to also take care of his special needs brother at the same time. Though this is a harsh read at times, I recommend it for those who want to better understand the plight of refugees, not as numbers, but as people.
  • Soccer Fans: Soccer is a huge part of Deo’s life throughout the book, making this a good one for soccer fans.
  • Street Soccer World Cup: I had never heard of the Street Soccer World Cup, but I'm so glad to know it is a real thing and has a high success rate of getting young homeless people off the streets. What a great thing!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Brainstorm 107: Books ICS Loves 2

This post is going up a day earlier than normal and will look a little different from normal. As we enter into our spring break, I decided to do another Books ICS Loves so that our whole school community could get involved in the book recommendations for break reading. I asked teachers and staff at our school to volunteer to answer three questions (included below). These are their responses. Click on the book's title to read reviews and find out more about it. Enjoy!

What's one book you read recently and want to tell other readers to go snatch up?

Picture Books

Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro, ill. by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Middle Grade Fiction Books

The Lost Property Office (Section 13, #1) by James R. Hannibal

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Graphic Novels

The Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi

Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now (The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 3) by Ryan North, ill. by Erica Henderson

Young Adult Fiction Books

Insert Coin to Continue by John David Anderson

Stitching Snow by R.C. Lewis 

Adult Fiction Books

AD 30 (AD, #1) by Ted Dekker

AD 33 (AD, #2) by Ted Dekker

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

A Fool and His Monet (Serena Jones Mystery, #1) by Sandra Orchard

YA/Adult Nonfiction Books

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden, fwd. by Rob Reiner

What's one book your child(ren) and/or students have read recently and loved OR that sparked a great conversation?

Picture Books

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

My God is So Big by Catherine MacKenzie

Middle Grade Fiction Books

Among the Hidden (Shadow Children, #1) by Margaret Peterson Haddix

An Eagle in the Snow by Michael Morpurgo

The FunJungle series by Stuart Gibbs

Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess, #1) by Ursula Vernon

The Journey to Atlantis (Thea Stilton Special Edition, #1) by Thea Stilton

Young Adult Fiction Books

By Your Side by Kasie West

The Giver (Giver Quartet, #1) by Lois Lowry

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7) by J.K. Rowling

The Matched series by Ally Condie

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Adult Fiction Book

Adult Nonfiction Book

What's one book you have had your eye on and would really like to read soon?

Picture Books

Egg by Kevin Henkes

If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith

Middle Grade Fiction Books

The Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix

How to Outsmart a Billion Robot Bees (Genius Factor, #2) by Paul Tobin, ill. by Thierry 

Graphic Novel

Bird & Squirrel on Fire (Bird & Squirrel, #4) by James Burks

Young Adult Fiction Books

Forever Geek (Geek Girl, #6) by Holly Smale

The Wish Granter by C.J. Redwine

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet, #1) by Madeleine L’Engle

Adult Fiction Books

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Adult Nonfiction Books

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson