Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Because You Are My Teacher by Sherry North

Because You Are My Teacher by Sherry North, illustrated by Marcellus Hall

Rating: 4 stars

It's Teacher Appreciation Week at Ben's preschool, so we parents have been baking and flowering and hugging our kids' teachers a little more often to make sure they know they are appreciated.  Maybe I should also give Ben's teachers a copy of this book…

Because You Are My Teacher is a terrific gift book.  In fact, if not for a teacher gift, I'm not sure why else you'd buy it.  The book is a list of all the places that the fictional, in-the-book teacher "takes" her class--out to sea, over a volcano, across the Amazon, down in a submarine, to name a few destinations.
If we had a schooner, we would shave our class at sea
And study the Atlantic, where the great blue whales roam free.
If we had some camels, we would trek through desert lands
To see the ancient pyramids rising from the sands.
If we had a chopper, we would soar above the cone
Of a rumbling volcano as it churns out liquid stone.
The illustrations by Marcellus Hall are terrific; they show the teacher at the helm of one vehicle or the next while also (I imagine) spewing thought-provoking lessons to the smiling children that obediently and enthusiastically follow her.

While I know that each minute of every day my children go to school won't be this picture-perfect or this adventurous, I do know that the vast majority of their teachers will give them her or his very best.  And for that--and for them--I am oh so grateful!
Our classroom is our vessel, always headed someplace new.
Because you are our teacher, we'll explore the world with you.
Thank you, teachers!

Pete the Cat: Old MacDonald Had a Farm by James Dean

Pete the Cat: Old MacDonald Had a Farm by James Dean

Rating: 3.5 stars

This book takes nearly five minutes to read.  I know that because I timed myself last night reading it.  With no kids around.  (After this review, feel free to join in a brief discussion about the state of my mental health…  Let me know if there are any useful conclusions.)  I cannot imagine how long it would take if Kiefer wanted to sing the whole thing with me.  I realize that, as a good mama, I would want to encourage this sort of engagement and musical interest.  But as a tired mama at the end of a long day, that sort of engagement and interest might push me over the edge!

And, despite the fact that there are 14 animals in it, James Dean doesn't even help me out by explaining what on earth a good mama like me is supposed to say when your kid yells out "giraffe!" or "turtle!" from the peanut gallery in the backseat while singing this song.  The nerve!

Ok, seriously.  Enough kidding around here.  This book is, straight-up, a version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm.  There are no silly twists or unexpected turns.  It's just the song, and a whole lotta verses to the song.  If you love Pete the Cat, you might not be able to resist buying it.  If Old MacDonald Had a Farm is your kid's favorite book, you might not be able to resist buying it.  Of course it's great to have a book that kids can sing to; little ones like Kiefer can "read" every single page because he knows the song by heart and therefore he can "read" along with it.

And the illustrations are, as always, wonderful.  (I'm a big Pete the Cat fan!)

But know this! Pete the Cat Old MacDonald Had a Farm is a loooong, repetitive song book.  If your child is one of those "read it again, please!" types--which we all know, and we all sort of want--you will want to pretend like the dog ate this book at bedtime.  Because you'll be saying E-I-E-I-O 42 times!  You'll be maa-ing and baa-ing and cock-a-doodle-do-ing ALL NIGHT!

Don't say I didn't warn you!

P.S.  Click HERE for a fun twist-of-a-book on Old MacDonald had a farm for preschoolers.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Toilet: How it Works by David Macaulay

Toilet: How it Works by David Macaulay

Rating: 5 stars

Yes, that's right.  A book about toilets.  Random, right?  But more than so many other books, I think this one does what children's books ought to do: take the ordinary and make it extraordinarily fascinating!

The book and toilets really are fascinating--and fantastic.

We all have toilets.  We know how they are used.  But how do they work? Macaulay invites us to be curious about something we (hopefully) see and use a few times a day.  And then, he dives in to answer that question with the illustrative details that he's know for.

After humorously pointing out what a toilet is for--a dog watering bowl, a goldfish burial site, a spring garden (when the toilet is being recycled for a new use)--he gets down to the nitty gritty: they're for removing the waste our bodies make.  He spends a useful two-page spread (again, with humor) showing how waste is formed inside our bodies, and then--turn the page--he gets into the toilet mechanism that we all use to flush.

(I might or might not have referred to this page to figure out what was wrong with our toilet a month ago…)

Macaulay illustrates how, when the stopper goes up, the water goes out and forces the water (and waste) that you see in the bowl to leave the bowl and go up the pile.  Once it spills down to the other side of the steep pipe, gravity takes over and the weight of the air (kids thought that was cool) pushes that stuff down the pipe.
Bye, bye bone...

From there it could go to one of two places.  For us non-city folks, it goes to a septic tank.  Lorelei and Ben have known that we have a septic tank, and I've done a C+ job of explaining it to them, I think.  Thankfully, Macaulay picks up where I left off; he illustrates the answer to show that every time the wastewater flows down into the septic tank, it pushes up the water level.  As that water leaves the tank, nutrients in the water help the grass to be a little happier, a little richer.

For city folks, the wastewater gets pushed through pipes buried deep under the city streets, pipes that go to wastewater treatment plants.  He illustrates the process of filtering the waste through many different tanks, each one aimed to get the water that much cleaner.  Around and around it gets cycled, so it gets cleaner and cleaner.

Lorelei and Ben wanted to know why--why spend all this time getting the wastewater clean?  Macaulay answers, again with a heavy dose of humor:
Finally, the water is clean enough to join the river.
Some of the clean water will evaporate and form clouds.
Some of these clouds will produce rain.
Some of the rain will end up in reservoirs as drinking water. 
Now you know why we go to all the trouble!
Yes, please--clean water falling down on me as rain (rather than poopy water)!

This book, and the others that Macaulay has written for kids of this age group and reading level (including Jet Plane, Castle, and maybe more) are gifts of books that show the mechanics of ordinary things.  Okay, well maybe castles are ordinary to you.  Not quite to us.  Much to Lorelei's dismay…

This book is fun and great and informative.  What's not to love?  Oops, gotta go use one...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Walter the Lazy Mouse by Marjorie Flack

Walter the Lazy Mouse by Marjorie Flack, illustrated by Cyndy Szekeres

Rating: 4.5 stars

Walter sleeps through his family moving. That's lazy for ya. He sets off to find them and transforms himself into a hard-working young lad, a giver not a taker, alert not get the picture. A coming of age story, of a mouse.

Of course, there's a little more to the story (there always is).  Walter wakes, surprisingly calm for a kid who woke up alone, without the family that surrounded him when he fell asleep. He sets off to find that family.  He makes some friends and realizes he can't let other people take care of him for the rest of his life.  He meets three funny unnamed frogs that can't for the life of them remember Walter throughout their friendship with him.  Within hours of "see you later" the frogs are back to "who are you?"  It's a funny twist for Lorelei, but troublesome to me (my brain can't stop searching for the metaphoric or symbolic reason they can't remember his name).  Through his friendship with these three amphibians, Walter becomes a responsible guy.  He erects his own house, builds his own furniture, learns how to swim, teaches the frogs (incorrectly), and becomes a stand-up mouse.

Lorelei holds Jessica's mom's childhood copy of Walter.
He's ready to join his family, who are overjoyed to see him (but with a dozen siblings, I get the feeling his mom barely noticed his month-long absence).  They are impressed with and proud of his growth, but it's Walter's pride and new-found confidence in himself that really matters.

The book is ten short chapters, with plenty of sweet illustrations by Cydney Szekeres.  Written in 1937, this is a pretty old book, but still a great, charming read.  It is a great early chapter book for kids to read alone or with their favorite parent (hopefully that's you).

This was Lorelei's friend Jessica's choice for book club this month, and it was a really good one.  Yesterday we met at a coffee shop to chat about the book; Jessica and her mom prepared some good questions for us to discuss.  The girls tossed around these and other questions: 

  • How does Walter feel when his family moves away?
  • What would you do if you came home and couldn't find anyone?
  • Do you think the frogs are good friends?  Why or why not?
  • Would you want to be Walter?
  • Are you ever lazy?  When?  Give some examples of how you are not lazy.

The discussion, as always, was pretty funny--after dutifully answering the question about how they're lazy in little ways, they threw their classmates under the bus for being lazy in big ways.  Lorelei brought up how Walter says he's hungry but he never eats throughout the whole book.  And then, when discussing how many siblings Walter has, the conversation turned to the siblings in Lorelei and Jessica's lives.  They both have two, but Lorelei has two little brothers and Jessica has two older sisters. The girls whipped out pens and paper and drew up a Venn diagram to compare their situations.  When a conversation with two first graders end with a Venn diagram, you know they aren't lazy Walter-types!

As always, it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon.  Next month (Lorelei's choice): Mr. Popper's Penguins!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes

Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes

Rating: 5 stars

On Wednesday, Lorelei told us that Kevin Henkes was her class's author of the month.  We've been fans of his for years--he is an author to remember on the days when you have exactly 3.4 minutes in the library.  He's written enough books to fill your library bag.  You'll be in and out of the library before your toddler throws his tantrum.  Promise.  (I know, I know, parents aren't supposed to throw out empty promises like that one, but…)

Penny and Her Marble is one of his newest books.  It is one of three sweet little beginner reader chapter books (the other two: Penny and Her Song and Penny and Her Doll) about a young mouse learning important moral lessons.  They are wonderful gems of books!

In Penny and Her Marble, Penny strolls along with her doll Rose and finds a beautiful, shiny, new, blue marble near Mrs. Goodwin's house.  She picks it up and appreciates its beauty in her little hand, telling her doll all about it.  She walks home with it, feeling like she's found buried treasure.

But then her conscience--that wonderful thing that is still forming in our kids' little brains--kicks in.  She starts to wonder if she did the right thing.  She wonders if she stole something valuable from Mrs. Goodwin, rather than innocently found a lost item.  Did Mrs. Goodwin miss it?  She feels guilty and concerned and worried, though Henkes never uses grown-up words such as guilty or concerned or worried (or stealing or thief or innocent).  Instead, he shows us her face and how her sleep and eating is interrupted because of her thoughts on what was right and what was wrong.

"Isn't it pretty, Rose?"
Penny decides to go and return the marble the next morning.  She strolls back over with Rose and plops it back in the grass where she found it.  But Mrs. Goodwin walks out and calls after her.  Penny's heart pounds.  Her cheeks are hot. She cannot speak.  Mrs. Goodwin says, "I found the marble yesterday.  It was in the back of m kitchen drawer.  I thought someone would love it.  That is why I put it in on the grass by the sidewalk.  I hoped someone would walk by and see it."

"I did see it, but I put it back," says Penny.  (She did the right thing!)  But Mrs. Goodwin puts it in her hand--she gives Penny permission to take the marble.  Penny is overjoyed!  Penny is relieved, and I tell you, Lorelei, Ben and Kiefer and I were all relieved, too.  (When you feel for a character, that's a mark of a good book for sure).  And she thinks it is smoother and shinier and bluer and more beautiful than ever (because her conscience is burden-free).

I love the discussion we had over dinner after this book.  Did she do the right thing?  What would we have done?  How did she feel in the beginning, and then at the end?  Kids realize sooner or later the hard reality: there are no totally right answers.  Just mostly right, and mostly wrong.  They've got to have the skills to think clearly and weigh options and choose wisely.  Books like this one give us parents the opportunity to have good discussions in a safe environment about what is right and what is wrong.  And how we love them even when they make a not-so-awesome choice...and how we cross our fingers and hope they don't make the same mistake over and over again.  "On to new mistakes!" we say in our house.

P.S.  The kids and I watched a short video about Kevin Henkes on his website (click HERE).  It was informative and fun to see him show us all the books we've read by him, but the kids were most impressed with how well he drew with just a few quick strokes of his paint brush.  They were really impressed.  Also on the website is his mailing address.  Guess who is getting three pieces of fan mail sometime soon?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Cook Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor, III

Rating: 4 stars

Ben is sure he can breakdance, so I figured this book was perfect for him.  I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone to grab it; I don't know anything about DJ Kool Herc and my favorite station is country, not hip-hop.  But that's one of the best things about books: you can easily read about and learn something totally and completely new.

Even a picture book!

DJ Kool Herc was born as plain old "Clive," and was living in Kingstown, Jamaica, when he realized he had a big, deep love for music.  "He loved the way the music made his feet go hip hip hop, hippity hop."  Right in his neighborhood there was someone else who loved music like Clive: a DJ nicknamed "King George."  Clive was too young to watch King George perform at parties, but Clive watched him set up and listened to the music from afar.

When he was 13, Clive moved to New York City with his family.  He didn't fit in anywhere except the basketball court, where he quickly got the nickname Hercules because of his tall frame.  Clive cut that name in half and added "Kool" and he was quickly called Kool Herc more often than Clive.  Around that same time, his father bought a stereo system with enormous speakers.  Clive thought the sound coming from them should be bigger, deeper, richer.  So he spent time rearranging the wires until the sound matched what he thought should come out of them.
DJ Kool Herc noticed that dancers danced crazy hard during
the breaks in the song when the lyrics ended and the music
bumped and thumped.

And then, he and his sister did what any teenagers would do in that era, with their moxie and new huge sound system (I guess!): they threw a big party, and Clive performed, for the first time, as DJ Kool Herc.  Not only did he give his dancers a "hip hip hop, hippity hop beat" to dance to, he also sang/rhymed out their names and what they were doing on the dance floor.  The coolest dancers--he called them break-dancers or b-boys--showed up to do what my kids call them "rad moves." People soon lined up around the block to get in.

With that first party and the others that followed, Kool Herc became a sensation as DJ Kool Herc.

Okay, confession time: I really am unclear about what a DJ does. I don't really know what a turntable is.  I still read this book to Lorelei and Ben and fielded their good, honest questions as best as I could.  I don't really know what a turntable is.  Sometimes I worry that they'll look back and roll their eyes and ask, "Mom, do you know anything?!" (Ben is asking me lots of sports questions these days and MAN I'm lucky to get one out of ten right!)  But I'd rather not be limited by my knowledge and limit them by my limited knowledge.

I'm not afraid to say, "I don't know!  Let's find out the answer together."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cecil, the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey

Cecil, the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Giselle Potter

Rating: 3 stars

This is truly one of the most bizarre books I've ever picked up…

(Reviewed for Washington Family Magazine)

Ruby Small is a normal little girl.  If we zoom out from a close-up of Ruby, we quickly see a family and a world that is full of wacky eccentricities. 

Her parents are definitely not-so-normal.  Together, they own a little shop called “Topiary & Tiaras: Sprigs and Sparkles;” Mrs. Small designs fancy tiaras while Mr. Small is a topiary gardener.  In the evenings Mrs. Small dons the glittery headdresses she creates by day and they “tango cheek to cheek” amidst his leafy creations.

Wanting to be just a little closer to normal, Ruby wants a pet.  She voices this desire while seated on an airplane to Norway—her parents didn’t hear her grumpy “no way” when Mr. Small told his girls that he wanted to go to China to see a rhinoceros made out of rosemary.  Her father heard “Norway,” not “no way.”  Norway seemed fantastic and different to her parents, so…off they go. 

Back to the pet: Her mom suggests a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish, her dad suggests a flea circus.  These are pets with quirkiness that would clearly fit right in.  

Of course, Ruby just wants a dog.  While sight-seeing in Norway, the family visits a glacier that is too large, and as they watch, it undergoes a process called “calving”—small pieces break off and float down the river.  One of those little pieces floats itself right over to Ruby (and the three Jennifers).  The family’s new pet has found them.  

To read the rest of the review, please click HERE.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr

Don't Spill the Milk! by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr

Rating: 5 stars

Of course Returned Peace Corps Volunteer me would love this book! A suspenseful, unique, sweet book set in Burkina Faso, with wild and creative illustrations of scenes you and your children will probably never see first-hand.  (Unless they join the Peace Corps.  One can only hope!)

And maybe you're already looking at the cover, wondering: does she spill the milk?

First, let's figure out who she is and I'll tell you the story that Davies tells and Corr illustrates.  Penda's father is up in the grasslands, tending sheep.  Penda's mother wants to take a bowl of milk to him.  Penda begs him--please, please--"let me take it!"  And, wonderfully, her mother grants her this responsibility.  She settles the bowl atop Penda's head, and off goes the young girl towards the grasslands.

"Let me take Daddy his milk. Please, please, please!"
Penda travels across the "uppy, downy dunes" (oh don't you love that description?!), through the mask-wearing "beasties" in a festival, on a stinky fishing boat, past a herd of giraffes, and up one looming mountain of a hill.  All the while, she balances the bowl of milk on her head.  All the while, she repeats to herself: "Come on, girl, you've got work to do" and other similar encouraging remarks--to herself.

Finally, she makes it to her daddy, who is resting under a big mango tree when she approaches.  She carefully and successfully takes takes the bowl off her head, and just as she's passing it to him, a big mango plops into it, and spills all the milk.  She's (of course!) upset, and my kids were heartbroken along with her.  "I don't believe it!" she wails.  Sitting so very far away from Penda but still magically close to her, Lorelei, Ben and Kiefer didn't believe it either.

Daddy points out: "There was more than milk in that bowl."  His daughter looks at him quizzically.  "Your love for me was in that bowl as well. This bowl is full of love, girl, and it still is.  You didn't spill a drop."

"Don't shiver, don't quiver, don't fall in the river, girl.
Keep it on your head, girl, milk don't float."
Together they cut a big mango in three pieces (Daddy confesses he likes mangoes more than milk anyway--I love that reassurance to his Penda): one for Penda, one for Daddy, and… "One for Mummy?" asks Penda.  Her dad nods.  And off she goes, with the piece of mango, the piece of love, on her head as she travels back home from the grasslands.

My kids were spellbound while reading this book.  They traveled with Penda, hoping right alongside her that she didn't spill her milk. By the time she got to her daddy, they were holding their breaths.  And, I was choking back tears at the end.  I was surprised--in a great way--at the small, subtle inclusion about the love between Daddy and Mummy in this children's book.

After I finished, there was a flood of questions that made me realize this is a great, great book. I could see their minds stretching as the book sunk into their heads.  How old is Penda? How could such a young girl take a trip by herself?  Would she really see giraffes like that?  Why does she carry it on her head?  Why don't they have a jug with a lid?

This is a must-buy.  I want it to be read over and over by American kids so their perspective on other cultures can be broadened just a little, and they can see one of many things that link all of us humans together: love.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi

Rating: 4 stars

Throwback Thursday!

Newsflash: Everybody poops!  (But I think you already knew that.)

This funny book is full of pictures of lots of animals (including humans) pooping.  That's all there really is to it.  Taro Gomi illustrates all the differences and the similarities that go along with our scatological preferences: some animals poop in the water, others in the air, most on the ground.  What do all these bowel movements look like?  Well, Taro Gomi is glad you're curious about that: he's drawn pebbles and logs, heaps and piles…of poop.

There's such a fine line between funny and gross, and I think some would argue that an illustration of poop falling from a giraffe's rump might be totally gross…and not picture book worthy.  But what child isn't a bit shocked when they realize what is happening when they squish up their face and push out some freakishly dark object from their own little body?!  Taro Gomi's sorta-gross, sorta-funny book reassures us in a way that we adults still want to be reassured: everybody does it.  So relax, laugh a little at yourself, and keep on doing it.
C'mon…that's funny!

(Not that we have a choice about that last part when it comes to pooping.)

Enjoy the book!  Feel free to take it to the bathroom with you…

P.S.  Taro Gomi's My Friends is one of my favorite board books for babies…it is very cute and sweet, and not gross at all, promise.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Rating: 4 stars

I checked this book out easily before it won the Caldecott; after the gold seal shone brightly on its cover, there was a long waiting list both at the library and at the bookstore.  Here's a tiny secret: When I first checked out Locomotive, I didn't read it.  I don't know if any of my kids did.  So we returned it without having read it.  It happens…what can I say?

But then the Caldecott team deemed it worthy of a win, and it became wildly wanted.  We were number 60 on the waiting list!

Finally, it's our turn with the library's copy of the book and we all understand easily why it is Caldecott-worthy.  The book is a huge lap size picture book, with illustrations that resemble a wide screen TV.  Somehow, Brian Floca created a hundred masterpieces in this big, long book--masterpieces of illustration, not just beautiful pictures, but pictures that tell a story of a long-ago way of life.

Slowly, slowly the engineer drives--
the train is so heavy,
the bridge is so narrow,
and rickety rickety rickety!
After a brief show of how the rails were built, we see the iron horse chug up to the station.  In familiar prose, where Floca writes directly to you ("She pulls her tender and train behind her, she rules up close, to where you wait, all heat and smoke and noise.")  That noise of the train jumps out from the page at you with larger and fancier font than the rest of the words.  We, the readers, follow along as one family (a mother and two children) travels from east to west; we also observe and learn all the different people required to run the train smoothly.  Because, of course, it takes a team.

There's a whole lot that works in this book for me and my trio: The illustrations are spell-binding.  Floca's research shines through on every page: from the close-up details of the gaskets or that coal car to the historical map of the United States that shows the path of the train.  (I am curious how many pictures he took of real-life trains to take back to his studio with him.  Surely thousands…)  The family we see travel on the train are excited throughout; we experience what they experience, including going to the bathroom, (which was definitely a highlight for Ben in the book) but not when the train stops!  For there is "no plumbing here, there is only a hole in the floor."

The facts taught in the book easily earn my approval: and not just the team members' roles and responsibilities…  That's important, but so are the little, anecdotal things: For example, the switchman's job is dangerous; the train cars lurch and slam up against each other quickly.  They say "You can tell he's new to the job if he still has all his fingers." Or the mighty Sierra Nevada that "rise like a wall on the edge of a basin" requires an extra engine to pull the train up and over them.

Through the night the engine runs.
Those up late hear her whistle,
her wild and lonesome cry.
The ending works for me, too.  I love it: the mother and two children arrive to their father, who came out west before them.  There's nothing like a homecoming to warm your heart at the end of a story!

What doesn't work for me are all the words.  Oh my gosh even I am thrown off by all the dozens of words on each page.  Lorelei sat and read the book quietly in one sitting but Ben couldn't sit through the whole thing, despite his normally curious mind and the gorgeous pictures that go along with it.  Even I found myself skimming it.  My eyes were more interested in the illustrations than the words.  Because of the number of words, this book is better for an older age group--first grade or older.  It would be great to read right after finishing a chapter book from the same time period, such as Little House on the Prairie or Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Still, it is a masterpiece despite my silly gripes.  If there's a locomotive enthusiast in your family--of any age, your son or your mother or your grandfather!--this is a book for him.  Or her!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Rating: 5 stars

About a month ago Ben was playing with an airplane, complete with little pilot, that he had crafted from Legos.  As he zoomed the little thing through the air, he said, "I'm Amelia Earhart!  Here I go!"

I stopped what I was doing a few feet away in the kitchen (I'm there a whole lot), and asked him to repeat himself.  He did.  I asked him how he knew who Amelia Earhart was.

"Santa brought me a book about her for Christmas!" he stated.

Wow!  Go, Santa!  I patted myself on the back but was more surprised than proud at the fact that her name and a few facts about her sank into his bright, little brain.

I just wrote about Ben's interest in birds thanks to his pre-Kindergarten class's unit on birds (click here to read it), and the interest stayed alive throughout this quietly wonderful biography on John James Audubon. It's a beautifully illustrated, wordy book, best for age 5-ish and up, I think.  It tells this wonderful story:

To avoid fighting in Napoleon's war, his father ships his son, John James, to Pennsylvania.  The boy is talented at many things, but his natural instinct draws him to birds.  Soon after arriving to his new home and while spending most of his days outside wandering and observing, he finds a cave.  In it sits a small, empty nest.  Weeks later, he sees that the small pewee fly-catchers returned to the nest.

Right then, John James starts wondering the same thing that scientists and naturalists wondered around that time:  Are these the same pewees who built the nest last year? Where did they spend the winter? Will they return again next spring?  He quickly draws the birds and notes his observations in his notebook, which he kept in his musée, or museum, otherwise known as his bedroom.  Every inch of that room is covered with nests and eggs and tree brances and pebbles and lichen and feathers...

But where were last year's babies, now grown?
He began to search the woods and orchard nearby,
listening for their call.
At that time, some people thought small birds hibernated under water or in hollowed logs all winter.  Others thought the small birds transformed into another species, while one scientist claimed that birds fly to the moon during winter!  In case you're wondering, he thought that journey took 60 days (but I'm not sure if that's one-way or round-trip...).  John James is determined to figure out the mystery, so he begins to experiment with a tracking system.  After more errors than success in his trial-and-error process, he finally finds a light silver thread that fits snugly on one of the young pewee's legs.  At the end of fall, the bird flies off.

All winter John James waits, and also paints pictures of birds and collects little artifacts for his musée.  Finally, as the days grow longer, he sees a pewee bird fly into his cave.  But there is no string.  He begins to search the woods around the cave.  Sure enough, out in the meadow, he finds the now-mature baby with a silver thread around its leg.  In 1804, he is the first person in North America to band a bird.  And his simple experiment solved a complex theory.

I love that one boy's curiosity and respectful experiment with the birds he loved revealed so much.  What a wonderful lesson for girls and boys of today!

While Jacqueline Davies deserves applause for thinking up, researching, and writing the book (Bravo!), the book would not be complete without Caldecott-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet.  Her illustrations are spectacular, as always (my favorite book of hers is not the one for which she earned the Caldecott but for another nonfiction A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippen).  

Happy birding!

United Tweets of America: 50 State Birds by Hudson Talbott

United Tweets of America: 50 State Birds by Hudson Talbott

Rating: 4.5 stars

This (pretty random) book illustrates perfectly the truism: it pays to have a good relationship with one's librarian.  Once again, I have Ben to thank for this lesson.  Mr. Steven, his current favorite librarian, is oh-so-patient with Ben's imperfectly-spoken but always-earnest requests.  Of Ben's current current interests, sports is still at the top.  But, thanks to a long unit on birds in his pre-Kindergarten class, he's been looking for books on birds in between looking for birds out his window.  And, he's very interested in the United States.  In the past, Mr. Steven found him a DK Book on the United States and Texas, which Ben pored through quietly in one sitting.

Jonathan's home state is home to:
the Mardi Gras-partying Brown Pelican
One day about a month ago, Ben boldly walked up to the Circulation Desk with his "library list" in hand.  He asked Mr. Steven for a book on birds.  I think this was the beginning of the bird phase, the second time he asked Mr. Stephen about bird books.  So Mr. Steven strode off to the appropriate section, with Ben trotting happily behind him, dimples deep with joy.  (Who doesn't love joy in a library?  It's a good story already, methinks!) And Ben came back with this book, dimples impossibly deep with excitement.

"LOOK!" he said.  "It's a book about birds AND the United States!  Mr. Stephen found it for me!"

We've renewed it once already, and I think Ben might cry the day we actually have to return it.  We've read it cover to cover twice.  It's such a funny little book with funny little drawings--and that funniness is actually largely adult humor (for example, on the Tennessee page the bird is made to look like Elvis, and I had to explain why that was funny to Ben...although he knows what Elvis sounds like, he doesn't know what he looks like.  Well, until now!).  But Ben loves it.

Each page is dedicated to a state, and a big, usually silly illustration covers most of the page.  There are facts about the state--state anthem, state song, state capital, notable people from the state.  Also included are lots of little random things about the state that are fun to know.  For example:
  • Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska.
  • Maine supplies 99% of the blueberries consumed and 90% of the toothpicks used in the U.S.
  • Illinois is home to the world's largest cookie producer, Nabisco.  In 1995 they made 16 billion Oreos!
  • Inspired by the view from Pike's Peak, CO, Katharine Lee Bates wrote "America the Beautiful."

Ben and Kiefer look for birds on a snowy morning...
Ben loves this book, and I have to say I've been really impressed with the big push about birds from his school.  Somehow it encapsulates all that I want for Ben that he doesn't naturally gravitate towards.  While he normally rushes through his day, expending endless amounts of his endless energy doing and chasing and running and laughing exuberantly, I think there's so much to be learned from quiet observation in nature.

I've written before about the huge effect the book Last Child in the Woods had on me eight years ago, but this unit on birds reminds me how great it is to:
  1. Be in a natural environment as much as possible (breathing in that fresh air)
  2. Be quiet and still in that environment (and, therefore, practicing quietness and stillness)
  3. Observe things happening in that environment with all of your senses (with birds, definitely sight and sound, but how can kids not also listen to the wind and feel it on their skin?)
  4. Note the uniqueness of each bird's markings and calls (what a lesson: within a group, each is different and special in their own way!)
Really, this blog post turned out to be a shout out of appreciation for those great people in our great community who are, luckily for us, having a wonderful affect on Ben's growth: a special librarian, and a special team of teachers.  Thank you!