Thursday, August 31, 2017

Brainstorm 117: 5 Contemporary School Stories

It’s the final day of Spirit Week here at our school, so in honor of the day I thought I’d share some good contemporary fiction school reads. I debated whether to go with realistic or fantastic schools, so I’ve come up with a compromise. This week I’ll share realistic school reads and next week I’ll share some entertaining scifi and fantasy schools in the book world. To help narrow down my selections today I limited myself to books that haven’t made a previous appearance in the Brainstorm. So without further ado, six contemporary school stories in honor of Spirit Week.

Picture Book 

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
Vashti doesn’t think she can draw, but her art teacher encourages her to, “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.” So Vashti makes a dot on the page and her teacher makes her sign it. Returning to school the next day and seeing her dot artwork framed on the wall, Vashti thinks to herself that she could make a better dot…and her artistic expression explodes.

Target Readers:

  • Kids Who Need an Encouragement Boost: Kids (and adults) often get frozen in analysis paralysis and don’t end up doing anything because they’re afraid they can’t do grand things. This is a fantastic reminder that you don’t need to start off big, grand or showy, just start small. It may be art, it may be serving the community, or it may be figuring out where to go to college. If you’re looking for a book to start conversations and encourage kids who don’t think they can do much, this may be the one you need.
  • Art Teachers: Obviously, this book is most easily used in the art classroom since that is the setting and can help kids who think they aren’t talented have a little more freedom to enjoy art.
  • Indian Students/Those Who Like Multicultural Characters: I like that the little girl’s name is Vashti, our int’l students from India will love that. It isn’t often you get an Indian main character in English picture books.

Lower Grade Fiction

Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay, ill. by Priscilla Lamont
Lulu loves animals and thinks the guinea pig in Class Three needs a friend. Her teacher turns down all offers for companions for the class pet and even says that if any other animal shows up, Class Three will be swapping with Class Two and will end up with stick bugs instead of the guinea pig. Lulu has agreed to follow the rules, especially since her best friend/cousin Mellie doesn't want to see the stick bugs. But when the class stops in the park the next morning and witnesses some dogs destroying duck nests, Lulu rescues an egg on instinct and doesn't realize till later she may endanger the class guinea pig. She keeps the egg warm and hides it in her sweater. Things seem to be going ok, but then the egg starts to move all by itself.

Target Readers:

  • Animal Lovers: Soulmates with Lulu the animal lover will eat up this entire series.
  • Readers Who Like Real Characters: Sometimes kids in lower grade contemporary fiction can either be annoyingly spunky, too smart for their age, or just hard to picture in real life. Lulu and the rest of the cast come across as very real. I liked that the book doesn't make any of the characters super flat or stereotypical. The teacher is older and somewhat set in her ways, but she shows tenderness and genuine concern at times (and oh boy is she on to their tricks!). The class clown can be a jerk, but is later fun to play with. Mellie is somewhat in the clouds and frequently loses things, but she has moments of brilliance. And Lulu herself sometimes makes wise choices and at other times does silly things. 
  • Any Lower Grade Reader/Read Aloud Fans: Despite the cover I can see the story appealing to both boys and girls, and it would make a good read aloud for lower grades.

Middle Grade Fiction

Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens by Julie Mata
Kate Walden wants to become a famous movie director someday with fantastic actors and actresses under her artistic genius. Currently she's only in 6th grade and her artistic pool is limited to family, friends, and the evil chickens that have wrecked her social life and quite possible stolen her mother's affection. See Kate used to be cool. She used to be in the upper tiers of middle school, but then her mom decided to quit her job and start organic chicken farming. And when popular girl Lydia came over to be a zombie in one of the last scenes of Kate's movie, she got a front row view of the disgustingness that is chickens. And she has no qualms about telling people how Kate lives among these pooping feather brains. Kate might have recovered from that except that very same week her mom came and shared in class about raising organic chickens AND in the middle of the crowded hallway chicken poop falls right off of Kate's shoe and is seen by all. Now Kate is being called Crapkate, her best friend Alyssa has drifted over to the dark side with Lydia, and Kate is left sitting with Margaret and Doris at the losers' table. Alyssa was the one who invited Lydia over, she didn't stand up for Kate during the Crapkate incident, and in all she's been a rotten friend, so Kate hatches a plan to teach Alyssa a lesson that involves the theft of the Cute Red Wig for the upcoming production of Annie. The plan gets set in motion no problem, but then Kate starts to learn some things about herself, middle school social standings, and true friendship. With the help of Margaret and Doris (who turn out to be not so bad after all), Kate must try to make things right before she ruins multiple lives.

Target Readers:

  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: Despite the title and the cover, this is the perfect read for all those middle schoolers who devour contemporary fiction. It nails the realities of middle school drama oh so well. 
  • Those Who Like Good Messages in Their Reads: I really liked the lessons that Kate learned about revenge and doing what's right and family and friendships, the resolution she found with her friend and her mom is great (and not too easy), and the realization that both the people at the top and bottom of the middle school social ladder have something to offer is a great bonus. (Lydia does not come off as 100% evil in this, nor do Margaret and Doris come off as 100% normal, but all very real and with things to offer to the group.) I think this message from Kate's mom towards the end of the book best sums up the treasure waiting for kids who read this book, "You know, Kate, all of us get busy building our careers, building our families, our friendships. It's easy to forget that we're also building who we are. We do it every day. It's not what other people think of us that defines us. It's what we do and how we act."
  • Young Film Makers: There aren’t a whole lot of books out there for aspiring young film makers. This is a story they should identify with.
  • Chicken Lovers: Though Kate has very mixed feelings about the chickens her mom farms, they get plenty of page time to satisfy chicken fans.
  • Middle School Book Clubs: I highly recommend this for middle school book clubs. It has some great conversation topics.

Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen
An unlikely group of six kids are stuck in a bathroom during a severe weather warning. One is the new kid, who has a stuffed cat with him for some reason. One is an amazing guitarist...air guitarist and puts on a concert while the others talk. One is the class perfectionist, one is the class clown, one is the brainiac, and another is the class slacker/troublemaker. While waiting out the storm, the kids learn things about each other and themselves and find some unexpected friendships.

Target Readers:

  • Theater & Drama Fans/Teachers: This book actually includes the story in two versions. The first half of the book is written in normal novel format. The second half of the book is the same story in play form. The names of the kids and topics discussed are such that the play could be performed by 6 girls or 6 boys. If you're looking for an easy play production for a small group or drama for middle graders to read that is a bit more approachable than Shakespeare, this is a good pick.
  • Book Clubs/Discussion Starting Read Fans: Though the discussion in this isn't super amazing, it does touch on some topics that could lead to deeper discussions. There's the slacker kid who is smarter than the others ever realized. There's the mystery of the kid who plays air guitar all the time and what's going on in his head. There's the new kid who for some reason slept through the whole day backstage and brought a stuffed cat to school, touching on insecurities and the quirks we all really have. And through it all is the desire for someone who understands and accepts us.
  • Reluctant Readers: Due to the structure of the book, this is a very quick read, perfect for reluctant readers.

Young Adult Fiction

Interference by Kay Honeyman
It isn't easy to be the daughter of a Congressman, especially when he's running for office. The Hamilton family has returned to their roots of Red Dirt, Texas after it looks like Congressman Hamilton will lose his seat for North Carolina and Kate is caught up in a fiasco at her school after exposing some unfair traditions in recommendation letter writing and her ex put up photos of her that were really innocent but could be taken wrong...and the media got ahold of them. Kate thought they were going back to her Dad's hometown to lie low, but it is soon clear he's got his eye on the seat that just opened in Congress for repping the Red Dirt area. In the midst of that, Kate has her own agenda. She's determined to get a recommendation letter from her former principal, but she has to beat others to the most service hours to get it. She's also working on her photography portfolio to hopefully get into a coveted program, but her photos just seem to be lacking something. And when she walks into the local high school, Kate can't help but try to solve just a few teensy problems. There's the star quarterback just a little too full of himself. The lonely girl someone spread rumors about...and the mysterious and irritating Hunter who always seems to be judging her. Only, maybe Hunter is right because things start to backfire and she realizes maybe she's making more of a mess than helping.

Target Readers:

  • Austen Fans/Literary Rewrite Fans: This is a rewrite of Jane Austen's Emma, but it isn't obvious until Kate gets solidly enmeshed in her plans to try and solve Ana's social problems. That's when there's some glaring parallels. Overall, though, Honeyman has made this so much a unique story that it just feels like the Emma elements are an honoring nod to a master storyteller. Not every character in this perfectly matches up with ones in Austen's story (indeed some have no parallels - like Kate's living and present mother), and even the broader plot points are so different you aren't entirely sure how they will end up. It's like a musical remix that just incorporates some themes from a well-recognized song in the refrain but is overall its own different song. 
  • Social Issue Awareness Fans: Kate comes from a fairly well-off background, but Red Dirt introduces her to both middle class and struggling characters, and helps show that certain things are true for all and cross boundary lines of class. 
  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: This will satisfy the needs of those readers who subsist on a steady diet of contemporary fiction.
  • Spunky Heroine Fans: Kate is quite the spunky, go-getter heroine like Austen’s Emma. It's a fun, high energy contemporary read with a spunky heroine dumped into a small town who learns a lot but does so with grace.
  • American Football Fans: The pressures of the town on the football team in this are kind of insane, but felt very believable. I'm not a huge football fan, but neither was Kate so I felt I identified with her. Don't worry, there are plenty of other characters who are die hard fans, so die hard fan readers will also find someone to identify with. 
  • Clean Romance Fans: There's a little romance that builds slowly over the book and is cute. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Brainstorm 116: Nonfiction Isn't Boring!

Who says nonfiction has to be boring and dull? Just because a few nonfiction books seem to have sedatives mixed in with the printing ink doesn’t mean all of them are that way. I used to have to force myself to read nonfiction. I also have known others who gravitate to nonfiction primarily and have to force themselves to read fiction. Just based on my interactions with students over the years, I think the fiction gravitators are the majority. There’s definitely great things about having a balanced reading diet. And forcing myself to read nonfiction has gradually changed into craving a nonfiction read to go with the fantastic worlds I’m venturing into through fiction books. (And more than a few times, the nonfiction read has turned out to be more fantastic than the imaginary world.) So whether you or the reader you love feeds on a steady diet of nonfiction or if you eye it warily on the shelves, here’s some fantastic nonfiction reads for both of you. Some of these are newly published and some have been around for a while, but all are reads I’ve picked up recently and thoroughly enjoyed.

Juvenile Nonfiction

Double Take: a New Look at Opposites by Susan Hood, ill. by Jay Fleck
A survey of opposites and introduction to how relative position or a new perspective can make those change.

Target Readers:
  • Physics Students: I know, you did not look at that cover and think of physics. But back in the day when I taught Intro to Physics, this is one of the concepts that made smoke start coming out of students’ brains. Introducing relative position and relative motion and thereby vectors fries many students’ brains, but this presents the basics of those concepts in ways even preschoolers should be able to understand. What is near? The chair in the room or the planet next door or the next galaxy over? Keep the smoke to a minimum and use this to ease students into vectors. 
  • Kindergarteners & Preschoolers Learning to Compare/Contrast: In addition to the relative opposites this also deals with the good ol’ basic opposites, night and day, yes and no. And it will help these littles understand that though they are smaller than Dad, they are bigger than the family cat.
  • Language Arts Students: Get to know those antonyms in an entertaining way.
  • Cute Art Fans: The artwork in this is adorable.

Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World by Allan Drummond
The story of how one island in Denmark switched to using only renewable energy sources.

Target Readers:
  • Psychology Fans: Isn't it curious how we humans don't want to be put out of our routine, even for a better change, unless we're forced to? That's pretty much what happened on this island. The citizens have been informed of how they could change, many people agreed that moving to sustainable energy sources would be good, but few people did anything about it until a bad storm cut off their nonrenewable energy sources.
  • Sustainable Energy Fans: This is a fascinating true case study of how an entire island has successfully switched over to sustainable energy.
  • Science Nerds: This is a good science meets real life kinda story.
  • Amazing But True Story Fans: This sounds like something almost too good to be true. This story will suck you in.

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, ill. by Eric Rohmann
In poetic language Fleming introduces the few things we do know or at least can make educated guesses about the elusive giant squid.

Target Readers:
  • Future Scientists/Future Writers: I appreciate the way Fleming clearly identifies the guesses about giant squids which models excellent nonfiction writing. She also lists some of the remaining questions about giant squids to tantalize those young future scientists who may go on to find the answers. There's a little more information in the back of the book, including questions about why we know so little about these creatures and how sperm whale stomach contents seem to indicate there are many out there. 
  • Curious Kids: This is well written in an easy to read format that will appeal to a broad range of ages. 
  • Wannabe Marine Biologists & Animal Lovers: A great read for animal lovers.
  • Sibert Readers: If you like to read all the books that win the Sibert Medal or Honors, you'll need to pick this up. It won a Sibert Honor last this past January.
  • Art Fans: Rhomann's illustrations are a great compliment to Fleming’s text.

Mission to Pluto: the First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt by Mary Ann Carson, photos by Tom Uhlman
Follows the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, gives background on Pluto's discovery and what scientists knew about it in the 80s and 90s, follows the scientists from their earliest ideas to go to Pluto, to the process of developing the mission and the spacecraft for this mission, to the plotting of the trajectory and how it is unfolding now (as of late 2016 when this was written).

Target Readers:
  • Backyard Astronomers, Future Astronauts, Future Space Scientists, Curious Readers and Those Still Upset about Pluto’s Demotion: From astronomy history to a realistic look at the life of an astronomer or any scientist working with a space program, this has lots of great information. And it helped me better understand the dwarf planet vs “real” planet thing that went on with Pluto. There’s a whole bunch of different kinds of scientists working on this project, and many have been working on it for about 40 years now. It has taken a lot of persistence, hard work, and creative problem solving to get this mission off the ground and kept in space.
  • Current Events: New Horizons is still sending back data from its flyby of Pluto (it sends it very slow…read the book to find out why) so this book provides some rather recent discoveries about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons is set to pass a major object in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69 in 2019 which will be big astronomy news so stay tuned!

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat's Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas
While living on Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya, wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas was asked by the rangers if she’d like to serve as a foster mom for a serval kitten hopelessly separated from its mother during a wildfire. The baby serval wouldn’t be a pet, the goal would be for her to raise the little wildcat to be able to live on its own in the wild. Suzi took on the task and tells readers how she raised Moto to be a wild serval, explaining about serval life along the way, and providing lots adorable photographs of Moto as he grew up with her.

Target Readers:

  • Animal Fans (Especially Cat Lovers): Warning: Cuteness overload! Moto is so fluffy and photogenic…you just want to fuzzle his big ears. If you want to learn more about servals and serval rescues I suggest you visit Big Cat Rescue on YouTube.
  • Future Vets and Animal Refuge Workers: Despite the abundant cuteness and love for Moto, Suzi makes it clear that Moto is also a wild animal. There’s a healthy balance of adoration and respect in this. Suzi shares enough you get the picture that this wasn’t a job she took lightly, it was definitely demanding, though it had perks, and also that it involved a fair amount of research and knowledge to do well. It’s a realistic look into wildlife care as well as providing some great scientific info on servals. I can see several future animal workers/photographers being launched on the path to their future careers by Moto’s story.
  • Photography Fans: Whether you just want to enjoy Eszterhas’ photos, or if the story of this photographer’s adventures in Africa will inspire you, pick it up.
  • Africa Researchers: Find out about one of Africa’s lesser-known wild animals.
  • Nonfiction Lovers of Many Ages: The text is written in easy to understand language and engaging language, perfect for even lower elementary readers. But the topic is plenty intriguing, and the text is engaging enough that older readers should enjoy this too.

Juvenile Biography

John Ronald’s Dragons: the Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, ill. by Eliza Wheeler
A picture book biography of J.R.R. Tolkien that focuses on his creative inspirations and passions.

Target Readers:

  • Tolkien Fans: This is FANTASTIC! It's lyrical and a great ode to the beloved author while also relating main points of his life. This doesn’t provides tons of details about Tolkien’s life, just the main points, but the author's note is also good for further info and it’s a good intro to his life.
  • Dragon Lovers: This does focus on how Tolkien fell in love with dragons and the rest of the fantasy world. Make sure you check out the information on all of Tolkien's dragon creations in the back of the book.
  • Art Lovers & Art Analyzers: I loved all the symbolism and allusions to Tolkien's works that the illustrator wove into this. (Definitely read her note in the back of the book on that.) She does a remarkable job of capturing his whimsy.

Adult Nonfiction

The Photo Ark: One Man's Quest to Document the World's Animals by Joel Sartore
 Joel Sartore has set out to photograph as many species of animals as he can in a 25 year period and develop an "ark" of photographic evidence of animals, many of which are on the brink of extinction. This book is just the first sharing of photos he has done so far. Included are a few essays on the need for better care of the planet, biodiversity, and its inhabitants, as well as highlights of people or groups who are working hard to save animals so that future generations can also enjoy them as living creatures.

Target Readers:

  • Animal Lovers/Activists/Ecologists: As mentioned, the books contains some articles on the need to take care of our planet and those who live here and highlights some people who are forerunners in animal rehab and rescue programs.
  • Photography Lovers: The photographs in this ARE INCREDIBLE. There are some really adorable creatures out there I had no idea even existed. Definitely pick this one up for the pictures. It's like taking a virtual trip to the best zoo ever. It may be marked as adult nonfiction but anyone of any age will get drawn in by these photographs.

Adult Biography

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – a World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport
A view of the revolutions in Russia of 1917-1918 from the perspective of the expat community in Petrograd at the time.

Target Readers:

  • Russian History Fans: An eye-opening look at the revolutions in Russia during this time period, and how drastically life in pre-WWI Russia differed from post WWI Russia. I've read about this time period from the Russian perspective thanks to Candace Fleming's The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (and I know Rappaport also has a book on the Romanovs but I haven't read it) so this provides a fuller view of the time period from the international perspective. They are a good compliment to each other.
  • Well-Researched History Fans: Rappaport has done an immense amount of research to write this book. She quotes or references British, American, French, and other European expat's journals or correspondences frequently to tell how the government went from the tsarist Russia to Soviet powers with Lenin at the helm. And the sources come from a variety of walks of life, from ambassadors to journalists to bankers to nurses to butlers. Their experiences are shocking (perhaps mostly because many of them experienced riots and fire fights and chose to stay for quite a while longer). Many of the historic personages had extremely interesting insights at pivotal moments, and it is shocking to see how easily things in Russia could have turned out differently. A fascinating read and commendably researched.

Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone by Lawrence Devlin
Larry Devlin was the CIA's man in Congo for some of the main years of unrest right after it gained independence from Belgium. At that time, the Soviet Union was looking for a country to be their foothold in Africa, so Larry spent most of his years trying to keep Congo out of the hands of the Soviets. No small task when the country is in turmoil and power keeps changing hands.

Target Readers:

  • Thrilling Nonfiction Fans: This was a fascinating read. It’s an eye-opening look at what a real CIA agent’s life was like in the 60s and 70s and what Embassy life then was like (not always what you might imagine). This was hard to put down. It's very well written, and shockingly pretty clean.
  • African History Fans/Curious Readers: This gave some great insights into the Cold War power struggles in Africa, and a behind the scenes look at politics in a 1960s African country.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Brainstorm 115: Art Crime Fighting Books

There was an unexpected theme that started to arise in my reading over the spring and summer. It happened completely by chance, but the confluence of these reads gave me a fascinating look at the world of art crime (theft and forgery of art) and those fighting it. I’ll present them mostly in the order I discovered them. (I’m throwing in the The Monument’s Men and Saving Italy because they fit the theme well, though I read them over a year ago.) All of these combined did an interesting job of backing each other up in facts, procedures, and giving me a more well-rounded understanding because I read all of them. And don’t think these are just for art buffs. Adrenaline junkies, chemistry nerds, history buffs, and criminal justice enthusiasts pay attention, these are for all of you.

Adult Fiction

A Fool and His Monet (Serena Jones Mystery, #1) by Sandra Orchard
Serena Jones works for the FBI Art Crime Team. She's called in by a friend who is in charge of security at a local St. Louis Museum who's just discovered she has two pieces of art missing from storage. There's a big time frame in which the art could have been stolen and no obvious suspects. In the art crime world, that doesn't look too hopeful, but Serena is determined to help Zoe out and prove herself as a new agent (especially since her mother keeps asking her to quit). When Serena starts poking around, her most likely suspect gets shot down by her boss and he won't tell her why, and she has no other good leads. But she must be getting close because it is soon obvious someone wants her to stop investigating (well, someone more sinister and less obvious than her mother).

This entire series is now out. Book two is Another Day, Another Dali and three is Over Maya Dead Body.

Target readers:

  • Mystery Fans: There are tons of detective and mystery novels out there, but very few which focus on characters working to solve art crimes. I appreciated the look into this field of crime fighting. And reading The Rescue Artist helped back up that Sandra Orchard did her research on what it is really like in this field.
  • Art Fans: There's a lot of art talk going on in here to satisfy those who like the art world.
  • Character Fans: Serena's a fun character with just the right amount of quirkiness. And her Aunt Martha who tries to help her out is an absolute hoot. I like a good crime show or novel with interesting characters to follow around, and this scratched that itch. 
  • Clean Contemporary Fiction/Romance Fans: Serena isn’t dating anyone until the very end of book three in these, but there are some datable guys around her (though she pretty much ignores them till book three), her mother is really pressuring her to find the right guy and settle down (though Serena does a good job in showing that a single woman can have a very fulfilling life), and the author and publisher actually had fans vote as to who Serena should end up with in book three.

Adult Nonfiction

The Rescue Artist: a True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick
Charley Hill was on Scotland Yard's art crime unit when thieves brazenly stole Munch's famous painting The Scream by climbing up a ladder propped outside of the Norway's National Gallery, smashing a window, grabbing the painting, and driving away on the eve of the 1994 winter Olympics hosted by Norway. Hill and his co-workers were looking for a way to boost their rep with the higher ups and the greater world, so they decided to see if they could help find the painting. With the hunt for The Scream as the guide, Dolnick takes readers on a realistic look into hunts for missing artwork, undercover operatives, Charley Hill's background and past cases, and why art crimes often go unsolved.
Warning Note: Hill has a little bit of a mouth on him as do some criminals, so only recommended for readers who can handle that.

Target Readers:

  • Exciting Nonfiction: Charley Hill is quite the character and he has some wild undercover stories. Dolnick does take you on rabbit trails, but he warns you about those from the start, and he's always able to tie them in with The Scream hunt and get things back on track. This is not nonfiction to go to sleep to.
  • True Crime Fans: This is a good dose of reality to counter the fiction and TV shows that feature those fighting art crimes…but reality doesn't mean it is boring. 
  • Random History Fans: This is the kind of history that doesn’t necessarily make it into the textbooks but will fascinate those collectors of random tidbits of history.
  • Edgar Winner/Nominee Fans: What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Edgars! It’s ok, not many have. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, these are the awards for all things mystery: mystery novels, mystery shows, mystery short stories… I picked this book up primarily because I saw the little thing on the cover saying it won an Edgar for True Crime. Usually Edgar winners/nominees are well-written and keep you on the edge of your seat. This didn’t disappoint.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
During WWII there was a very small group of men and women among the Allied troops given the task of keeping the art and monuments of Europe as safe as possible and with their rightful owners. The task was incredibly overwhelming, especially since at the time when the Allies were pushing the Germans out of France and Belgium back into Germany there were only about 9 men in all of Europe in charge of making sure that overzealous army leaders didn't bulldoze a historic building. They were also trying to find all the artwork the Nazis had "claimed" and stashed away in secret storage sites. Their work wasn't made any easier by the fact that many leaders had never heard of their division, and several doubted their authority. But these men, and others that joined as the years went on worked tirelessly to save buildings and monuments that could be saved, organize restoration of those that could be repaired, and hunt down and return all the stolen artwork they could. Without their efforts, many of the famous European art treasures would have arguably been lost forever.

Target Readers:

  • History Buffs: This is a part of WWII history not often explored, but that had a huge impact not only in the current art culture available for enjoyment, but it also had a huge impact in reinstating good will between people in the aftermath of the war. (It isn't a frequent practice that the conquering army returns the "spoils" to where they were before the war.) The scope of the topic is extremely broad, and Edsel even admits he had to cut out an entire area of Europe (Italy & N. Africa) to keep it from getting unwieldy. And though it is broad, Edsel does a good job of reorienting the reader to the place and people involved as he jumps around. (Some might argue he does so a little too much. It did start to feel like he was the party host who holds monthly parties and every month introduces you to the same people like you'd never met before. You may wonder at his confidence in your memory (or his own), but at least he was trying to be polite.) Still he does a great job of taking you through the war in Europe with the main group of Monuments Men and their biggest jobs, and wraps up what happened to each main character (both Allied and Axis) after the war. 
  • Art Fans/Art Crime Interest: This is the story of the people involved in arguably the biggest art heist ever, both on the thief and recovery sides. There are many unsolved mysteries highlighted which often come up in modern art crime books.

Saving Italy: the Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel
In The Monuments Men Edsel highlighted the action of the special Allied task force in charge of preserving and restoring the arts of Western Europe to their rightful owners during and after WWII, but he did not have space to cover the Monuments Men's work in Italy. This is their book, and in addition also looks at some of the Italians and even Germans instrumental in preserving the arts of Italy for Italians. The book focuses on a handful of the most instrumental men in that arena, the plights of arts and monuments in the region during the war, and how these men worked tirelessly to preserve, restore, and most importantly help the Italian people.

Target Readers:

  • History Buffs: If you’re like me, I know much more about military actions in France and Germany during the time period covered (1943-1945), so I learned a lot from this book about how the war played out in Italy during that time period. I found the actions of the German SS commander Wolff and his secret negotiations for surrender particularly interesting as I'd never heard anything about that. 
  • Art Fans/Art Crime Interest: Of course, the fate of famous pieces of art and architecture are forefront in the story, highlighting major losses suffered as well as major victories (like the rather high percentage of art that was never completely carted off by the Nazis like in other parts of Europe). 

Middle Grade Fiction

Framed! (T.O.A.S.T. mystery, #1) by James Ponti
Florian Bates is moving yet again. Which means he'll probably just freak out all potential friends again with his Theory of All Small Things (T.O.A.S.T.) at his new school. But when he meets the neighbor girl Margaret who will be in his class, T.O.A.S.T. doesn't freak her out with its uncanny observations about her. Margaret gets excited and wants to learn. For the first time in many years and several countries, Florian has a friend. While teaching Margaret T.O.A.S.T. at the museum where his mom works and his father is consulting, Florian notices that a man they observed a few days ago has reappeared with a new look. In fact, it appears he's in costume. But why? When several paintings get stolen just days later, Florian ends up helping solve the case and is recruited by the FBI. But is the case completely solved, and if it is, why are Romanian crime bosses following him?

Target Readers:

  • Armchair Sleuths: If you were to combine Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown, you'd get Florian Bates. He's a spectacular hero to follow around, and thankfully with a bit more personality than either of his detective resemblances. This is a fun, smart mystery that challenges readers to see if they can spot all the small clues Florian does before he reveals them. And it is possible because Ponti doesn't hide anything for Florian to magically reveal later. If you're super observant, you can solve things as fast as or faster than Florian.
  • Reluctant Readers: This is a book that's hard to put down and will keep you on your toes. The large font size, high action, and FBI secret status will make the pages fly by for even the most reluctant of readers.
  • TCKs: Third culture kids, here’s a young sleuth who is one of you! Florian is in his first US school and has several adjustments to make from international schools and life as an expat.
  • Edgar Winner/Nominee Fans: This book is another book I was clued into because it was nominated for an Edgar. It was fabulous, and now I can't wait for book two to come out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Brainstorm 114: Back to School with Books for Everyone

Welcome back! I hope you had a great summer of reading. School is back in session which means the Brainstorm will be back on a regular basis. To kick off the new school year I like to provide a little something for everyone, so here’s a book for every subject and most of these books can be used with multiple age groups.

ABCs (Writing, Problem Solving)

Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!: an Alphabet Caper by Mike Twohy
With just one or two words per page, and each word or phrase starting with the next letter in the alphabet, the story of the adventures of a mouse and a dog are told. A very fun alphabet book that also manages to tell a story (not always a given with alphabet books). Creative writing teachers exercise your students brains and challenge them to write a 26 word story in the same style.

Art (Problem Solving)

Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds
Marisol is super excited about her class painting a mural for the library. She's going to be in charge of painting the sky. But…there's no blue! How can she paint the sky without blue? It'll take some pondering and sky watching to figure out how to make things work. This is another fantastic book from Reynolds about thinking outside the box. A great one for art classes or any class that needs to challenge students to think outside the box.

Computer (Social Studies)

Tetris: the Games People Play by Box Brown
This history of the evolution of the Nintendo company, the development of video games in general, and the history of Tetris and all the people involved in it getting out to the world (and all the hiccups involved) is told in graphic novel form, which makes it a quick read. It's a fascinating story. I'm not a huge gamer, but I did enjoy Tetris in the early 90s on computer quite a bit. I had no idea there were so many issues in getting Tetris from its development in Russia in the 1980s out to the broader world. It was a mess! (And even though the author does his best, all the people involved got a teensy bit confusing after a while...but I think that just shows what a mess it was.) It was also interesting to learn how the developer didn't see a cent from his creation till he immigrated to the USA. So it also gives a peek into what life was like inside Russia before the Iron Curtain fell. I knew nothing about the origins of the Nintendo company and how it evolved, so that was also fascinating. In all, this provides a captivating history of video games and Tetris specifically.

Language Arts (Research Skills, History, Science, Literature)

The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science by Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor, illustrated by Chris Muller
Adrienne Mayor grew up in a family of storytellers. Often those stories were inspired by artifacts or things found in nature. When she eventually went to spend some time studying ancient art in Greece, Adrienne realized that the stories of griffins weren't like fantasy stories, they were more like something inspired by a real object, like the stories her family used to tell. So she started to do more extensive research into griffins in art and what things ancients might have seen that would inspire stories about such creatures. Her research led her to fossils, and tracing down the griffin lore to match with a fossil that matched the first griffin mythology quite well. This is a fascinating read. It looks longer than it is because it has so many photographs and illustrations included. Mayor's research took a long time but provides an excellent example of really digging to the roots of sources and checking those sources. The process of peer editing through journal articles is also highlighted (though it isn't called that). I think what's most inspiring about Adrienne Mayor's journey is that she didn't have any advanced degree while she pursued these studies, she was just really curious and dedicated to finding the truth. I found her theory to be quite interesting and plausible. We make up stories to explain things we see all the time, it makes sense that people 1,000s of years ago would do the same thing. A great book for those looking for a high-interest nonfiction read, classes starting a research project, or for literature classes studying folklore, legends or mythology.

Foreign Language (Logic, Reading Comprehension, Grammar)

Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Some curious insects gather around a green object sprouting from the ground and ask "Du Iz Tak?" Then proceeds a conversation over several days about various things in this foreign language. Clever readers will be able to use the context clues and figure out what the insects are talking about, and perhaps pick up even a few names and terms. This is a great book to introduce using context clues, punctuation, patterns, and logic to figure out a completely foreign language. It's basically a crash course in linguistics even without realizing it. Thanks to Ellis's illustrations, readers should have no problem figuring out what's happening in the story. Highly recommended for any foreign language class, reading comprehension class, or grammar class.


Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Masaichiro Anno & Mitsumasa Anno
Through one imaginary jar that contains a sea, in which is one island, occupied by two countries, each with three mountains, and each mountain with four kingdoms, etc. up to ten jars in each of the nine boxes in the eight cupboards in each house. After listing items found in each place up to 10 the Annos go on to explain how to use factorials to easily figure out how many total mountains, cupboards, jars, etc. there are on the island and how to apply this same math concept to areas of real life. This is a fantastic, succinct and memorable explanation of factorials. Forget the textbook explanation when you get to factorials, instead grab this book.

Music (History)

Haydn’s Farewell Symphony by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Joann Kitchel
The story of the events that led up to the composition and first performance of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. Haydn was a bit of a mastermind with his use of music to get what he and his co-workers wanted from a stubborn man. Further information is included in the back of the book. The entire Once upon a Masterpiece series is a fantastic resource for music history.

Physical Education (Social Studies)

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Eberle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins
A picture book biography of Gertrude Ederle that focuses on her successful swim across the English Channel in 1926. She was the first woman to swim across the Channel, and when she completed the feat she beat all the previous male swimmer's times. An amazing sports history moment, and women's history moment, that is gorgeously illustrated and told at an exciting pace. I never knew that prior to body suits these swimmers slathered themselves in grease so they wouldn't go into hypothermia. Craziness! Hand this to swimmers or those who like exciting stories. Between the distance, jelly fish, a weather change, and the encroaching dark it is an exciting read even though you know she makes it from the title.

Psychology (World Lit, Asian History, Art)

The Last King of Angkor Wat by Graeme Base
Gibbon, Tiger, Water Buffalo and Gecko have a contest to see who can get to the distant hill first and prove their worth as king. But along the way, each one demonstrates strengths and weaknesses observed by a wise overseer. This book features Base incredible illustrations that tell a folk tale-like story with important lessons about character and leadership in a Southeast Asian setting. (And don’t forget that Base always has hidden picture element in his illustrations.)

Religion (ABCs)

Church History ABCs by Stephen J. Nichols, illustrated by Ned Bustard
An introduction to 26 people, A to Z, important in Christian Church history. Each person in this gets one paragraph about their contributions to the faith and a little bit about their life. On each page is also a list of a few other random things that start with the letter of the alphabet featured. Illustrations of the person and some other things that start with that letter are included. I liked the ABC format to introduce these people. There's further info in the back of the book on every person and this provides a pretty good worldwide intro to Christian church history between those two.

Science (Social Studies, Psychology)

The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt & What We Can Do about It by Paul W. Brand with Philip Yancey
Dr. Paul Brand grew up in India and England, the son of British Christian missionaries to the mountainous region of India. He was sent to England for schooling, and then he went on to university eventually ending up in the medical field. He finished up his program with the military as WWII hit England, and eventually made his way back to India where he and his wife practiced medicine. Originally a hand surgeon, Brand found himself more and more working with lepers in India and went on to make some revolutionary discoveries about the disease and how to help people live without sensation in their extremities. For decades it was thought that the lost fingers, toes, and noses were just a part of the disease, but Brand discovered all these losses were due to lack of pain receptors. He became a world-renowned expert on working with people who lacked pain messages, and as a byproduct, had a unique perspective on pain and why pain is not always a bad thing. In working with patients in India and the US, he also had a unique perspective on the role of culture in pain and how we view it. I can’t recommend this book enough. Dr. Brand’s life story is fascinating to read (which is primarily the first half of the book). His perspective on pain helps you to step back and be grateful that your body does send you messages, even if it may not feel pleasant, it does have an important purpose. In our comfort and happiness oriented world, this was an important reminder that growth rarely happens without some struggle, that pain serves a purpose, and we would be in horrible shape without our pain receptors. It is a great read for the science info, medical history, psychological insights, and cultural insights.

History (Geography)

The Lost City of Z: a Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Most authorities on civilization agreed that the Amazon couldn't support a large civilization in ancient times, but one man disagreed. Percy Fawcett was a repeat Amazon adventurer, former British military man, who guarded secrets he believed would lead him to a huge ancient city he called Z. He set off for Z with his son and a friend of his son in 1925 and never returned. Over 100 people have gone into the Amazon jungles in search of Fawcett and many of them have also disappeared. David Grann got wind of this story, and decided he would try and find out if Fawcett's Z existed, if the new open records of the Explorer's Society would give him extra insight into where Fawcett was headed (since it was a closely guarded secret), and if the truth was out there. Part biography of the adventurer Fawcett, part history of the exploration/mapping of the world and the Amazon in particular, and part travel/research adventure of Grann's search for the truth. I know several are going to pick this up because of the movie coming out, and I think that’s a great thing. I picked it up before I realized the movie was coming. Normally a nonfiction book of this size will take at least a week for me to get through, but I couldn't put this down and finished it in just about 48 hours. It's full of fascinating true adventure stories and a look at the influence of the race to map the globe on people of the time; Grann's writing just pulls you in and won't let go. If you like history, geography, adventure stories or biographies of eccentric men, make sure you go find this. If you are a bit queasy when tropical diseases and pests are described, you may want to pass.
P.S. There’s a picture book telling of this story that just came out this summer called The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli. We’ll be getting a copy soon and I can't wait to read it.