Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Elementary Non-fiction love

One of my goals for this school year is to up-date our nonfiction selections.  This will be a challenge for me as I prefer fiction.  I need to get over this though as I read great reviews and found lots of cool nonfiction on the shelves of the public library, where I go for all my hands-on research. Nonfiction has so much more pizazz than it used to; my general feeling of NF is droll pages of way too much information with not enough pictures. Not so with nonfiction of today; it is bright, lively, and perfect for a read aloud.

No monkeys, no chocolate by Melissa Stewart, Allen Young and Nicole Wong (2013);  Told in a backwards format I learned how the rainforest eco-system helps cocoa beans thrive and grow. Students will love knowing that maggots, lizards, and aphids all help the cocoa bean tree grow. Luckily we have a special store downtown that sells truly good rainforest fair trade chocolate because this book made me hungry for good quality chocolate not that waxy stuff that will fill Halloween buckets next week.  This wonderful nonfiction is a must order for my new library and if you have curious ones at home this would make a perfect purchase. Excellent Melissa Stewart website.

S is for Sea Glass; a beach alphabet by Richard Michelson and Doris Ettlinger (2014);  This is an alphabet book filled with wonderful poetry and lovely illustrations.  A wide variety of poetry styles are featured and this book will be loved by both students and teachers.  My favorite poem:

Q is for Quiet

The sun as it's rising 
The drift of a cloud
Spiders spinning webs
Crabs scuttling
Across the ocean floor
The swimming of fishes
The wishing of wishes
The opening of a door
The thoughts in my head

These are things I can hear
When it's quiet 
As I lie here in bed.

My second favorite is from a dog's point of view as he runs along the beach.  What joy!  This book pulls me back to our family beach vacations and makes me feel happy.  We definitely need this one for our poetry collection; it holds a mini vacation between the cover.

Animal Teachers by Janet Halfmann and Katy Hudson (2014); This book is exactly why I take my research seriously. This is an amazingly fresh look on animal behavior.  The illustrations are gorgeous!  Who knew I could find such joy over a nonfiction title.   Groovy Girl loved the cover and came near to read this one with me.  Each animal has something unique it learns from its parent and then Ms. Halfmann asks the reader to put it in their terms.  For example the chicken teaches the chick to peck for seeds specifically and then the question is posed "who taught you what's good to eat?" "Did you ever try to bite your toes?"  Other animals included are otters, dolphins, kangaroos, beavers, elephants, and cheetahs; just to name a few!  A huge list in the back of the book provides even more unusual facts for us to marvel over.  We were astounded that "beavers have a set of see-through eyelids that work like goggles underwater."  Yes, yes I will order this one as well and can't wait to hand it off to a teacher when animal books are requested.  After years of doing animal research with students this one motivated me!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Picture Book Frenzy

I went to the library and picked up a so many delightful picture books off the shelf my bag was packed.  I usually think I have to be with my friend Tina to overfill my bag but I guess I've proved that I can do it all by myself!

I was looking for ideas for school.  The collection at my school library is still new to  me so I go to the public library to look at the new shelf to see if it is worth buying and maybe it will work its way into a lesson plan.

That's what happened with Monsters Love School by Mike Austin. What  a delightful picture book.  I read this to all my kinder and first grade students.  It covers the exciting part of going back to school as well as the fears in a fun Muppet-kind of way.  We compared monster's school experience with their own here at Hansen.  The illustrations are filled with color and the writing is all over the page.  We all loved Ms. Scribble the art teacher with her very clever head of hair.  Please Mike Austin bring us more Monsters...they could love Halloween, or Winter, or the playground.  Anything.  Monsters and students say "more, more, more!"

I also loved Dog Days of School by Kelly DiPucchio and Brian Biggs.  Charlie does not like going to school (we all know someone just like this right Groovy Girl...) because he is tired of all the work.  One Sunday night Charlie wishes he were a dog so he could stay home and lay around instead of face another week of school work.  The next morning Charlie's done the "freaky friday" thing and is laying on Norman's dog bed instead of in his own.  Norman gets ready for school and Charlie stay home to sleep with adorable results.  This will have everyone wishing they could trade places just for one day. An interesting side fact-Brian Biggs is from Little Rock, AR.  He also has a a series out called Everything Goes.

Arlo Rolled by Susan Pearson and Jeff Ebbeler; Arlo is a pea and he doesn't want to be eaten; he wants to grow up.  He escapes from his pod and rolls through the yard finding bugs and slugs and dogs until he's exhausted.  While he takes a nap something marvelous happens to him.  This is a perfect spring book to talk about plants and how they grow. It also makes a fun anytime read aloud with a lot adventure for one cute little pea.

Creamed Tuna*Fish and peas on Toast by Philip Christian Stead; Amazing illustrations, funny story.  Kids will think it is funny.  I wanted him to try the creamed tuna fish and peas on toast first before discarding it; it's just the mother in me.  I was hoping he'd end up liking it like green eggs and ham.  Nope. Didn't happen that way but the layered illustrations and the bird antics make it worthwhile anyway. Philip's website has some beautiful and free music for your listening pleasure.

Little Lola by Julie Saab and David Gothard; Lola starts her day with a to-do list and the last thing on the list is to have an adventure (as every day should).  Heading off to school for the day her adventure is perfect until she spots a mouse in the classroom.  Hilarious.  I hope to see more of Little Lola as she has the right attitude that will have little ones thinking.  Brand new husband and wife illustrator/writer team.

If you buy for a school, for yourself, for your lovely grandchildren-any of these would be amazing additions for reading over and over again.

What did you read this weekend?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Belong to me by Marisa de los Santos; read it and rejoice

{cute cover}

This book was a huge hit at home.  Both my husband and daughter loved the cover. " It's the bright rain boots" Groovy Girl commented as she ran her finger up and down the different sizes of boots, thinking about the children in the story who would be slipping them on.  My husband also made comments regarding the cover and the title. Usually they don't pay this much attention.  We do love rain boots at our house but maybe it was because my nose was often stuck down into the book at different times of the day trying to read one more chapter, paragraph, or sentence.  Maybe it's because de los Santos is a poet as well that her words make such wonderful sentences.

I finished it and had that same old bluesy feeling that I didn't want it to end. The characters became a part of me.  Even the woman that I thought I wouldn't ever like turned out to be pretty darn likable. Cornelia, Piper, and Dev all share their stories with us in alternating chapters and in very distinctively different voices.  Surrounding those three characters are a crew of others that we also grow to love and even weep about it.  I know...don't you just want to know more...

Okay I'll tell you a little more.  But just a little.  You should really read it for yourself.

Cornelia and her husband, the handsome Teo, have moved to the suburbs leaving NYC after 9-11 made them feel a little less safe in the city.  Cornelia's not excited about the suburbs and her fears all come true when she meets Piper, her wound-too-tight neighbor.  Piper is snobby, complex, and unhappy; she likes to be the queen until one thing in her life falls apart and she sees how much it doesn't matter.  Cornelia doesn't like snobby and writes Piper off as a neighborhood quack.  But then Cornelia meets Lake in the grocery store and they hit it off right away yet there is a story behind Lake and her super intelligent son Deveroux that Lake isn't willing to share.  Family secrets and good friendships wind their way through this well-written plot.

Random quote:

He and Clare started walking toward the bus stop, their shadows stretching out ahead of them.  Dev watched the girl shadow take the boy shadow's hand, and he realized that the homesick feeling had disappeared.  In its place was a new feeling, too new to have a name.  

"How cool would that have been, though?" He shot Clare a sidelong, happy grin. "A dad with a bike shop?"

Clare laughed her jingle-bell laugh, and Dev realized that what he felt was young.  He'd been young all his life, of course he had.  But now he was  aware of it.  Every cell, every electron of his body felt young: unencumbered, uncluttered, as clean as the clear blue sky. (153)

The interesting part is that Clare is a repeat character from de los Santos' first book, Love Walked in, and she makes me want to go back and reread that first book again even though I have many other books laying about my house to read. Clare's and Cornelia's story is intriguing and makes an interesting twist to bring them together again and share this young love story with us.

Marisa de los Santos website

A Literary Mama interview with de los Santos about all three of her books.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg + a recipe

I found this at the library one day browsing around like I do; it was on my list to read for possible Iowa Children's Choice book awards.  It was the last one I read in my tall stack of choices and it was one of the best.

I loved that both boys and girls would enjoy the story even though it is told from a 13-year-old girl's point of view and that we learn so much about the country of Malawi.  Clare is a spunky character who is filled with grief over her recently deceased mother.  Ever wonder why so many realistic fiction books for kids involve death?  Her father is a doctor working for a world aid organization and probably to help his own grief he takes on this journey back to Malawi where he served before Clare was born.  I think both parent and child are in need of a change of scenery even though Clare isn't aware yet of how much this trip will mean to her.

Even though she is completely bitter on the first leg of their travels and her anger grows when she sees the small cabin where they will live she makes friends in the village and at school.  She helps to change lives while their as she teaches English to the youngest children at school and gets everybody involved in a play.

A quote:

Outside, Memory shows me a dress that's hanging from a clothesline behind the hut. In the dusk, I can't tell if it's blue or green or gray, but I can see the shape of it just fine.  I don't mean to be rude, but it looks like a pilgrim frock.  Still, I'm a firm believer in stretching the truth in the name of friendship.  At this rate, Memory might be the only person I'm speaking to on the entire African continent, so I tell her "It's so cool!" even though I'd never be caught dead wearing something like that myself.  (37)

She does indeed end up wearing a dress quite similar to her new friend Memory's "pilgrim" dress and that is not her only compromise she must make.

I loved this book for the experience it offered me; while lots of books are written about dead mothers, not many share such an interesting path through grief.  I love that her mother appears to her when she needs her most and that through their journey we get to see a part of life in Africa especially since this continent is in the news right now.  Burg has first hand experience in Malawi and that helps us get a realistic feel for the country.

At the end of the book is a recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits that I just had to try.  I made them, we loved them, and then the dog stole the rest of the biscuits right off the counter and ate every last crumb..

Mbatata (Sweet Potato) Biscuits

1/4 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes
1/4 cup milk
4 T melted butter
1 1/4 cups sifted flour
2 tsp baking powder
6 T sugar, plus 2 T to sprinkle on top
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon, plus additional 1/2 tsp to sprinkle on top

Preheat the oven to 375*. Mix the sweet potatoes, milk, and melted butter and beat well.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, 6 T of the sugar, the salt, and 1/4 tsp of cinnamon and add gradually to the sweet potato mixture.  Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet.  Mix the additional cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle on top.  Bake for 15 minutes.

They were delicious.  Even the dog thought so.  I didn't even sprinkle on the extra sugar topping.  I plan to make them again for Thanksgiving.

Read this book, share it with any elementary and early middle school students, share it with your class as a read-aloud.  Right now it could provide an empathy for the people of Africa as they struggle with the affects of the Ebola disease.

Shana Burg is also the author of A Thousand Never Evers an excellent historical fiction that takes place in Mississippi in 1963.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Soothing my soul

This past week I was treated to some amazing music and instead of sitting in a crowded bar with noisy people this concert took place in an apartment. It was a perfect intimate setting at a fellow banjo player that we know.  There were 24 people there on a Tuesday evening and John and his girlfriend had spicy jambalaya and cold beer to serve.  It was fairly casual as people mingled for about 30 minutes before the show getting to know new folks, chatting with old folks, and waiting for the music to begin.

The first band, The Lowest Pair, began around 7:30.  They are a double banjo duo from Olympia, WA and Minneapolis.  Why is that when I meet people from Minneapolis/St Paul I feel like I should know them?  I haven't lived there for years and years but yet I feel this thread of a connection as if they live perhaps in one of my old apartments or have Sunday brunch at the same place I frequented.  Could be but probably not.  Their music was amazing and I would love to hear them again sometime.  The next few days they play several clubs around the Minneapolis area including one venue that I've spent many a night at listening to great music.  

When you watch the video play close attention to Kendl's fingers as her they fairly fly over the strings. This particular video shows Palmer playing guitar and I like this song but the sound of both of their banjos together is pretty cool.

This was my first musical house party and it was a wonderful treat.  I loved that I didn't have to put up with that one annoyingly loud table that just doesn't care that good musicians are on the stage.

In October our church is hosting another cool duo, Jenny and Tyler, and I look forward to hearing them inside the great acoustics of the sanctuary.  I've heard many musical groups play in churches including the amazing Greg Brown a few years back.  Again it provides a more intimate setting but without the cold beer and hot jambalaya.

Jenny and Tyler:

Bring some music into your day...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Who doesn't love cake? A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff offers cake.

Groovy Girl recently had a very big birthday.  She turned 12 on the 12th of September.  She's growing up...I dislike it, I love it-it depends on the day.  She's taking 7th grade in stride, a few bumps along the way.  For example, she forgot her phone at school, in a classroom.  Couldn't get a hold of her for about 35 minutes after school.  So frustrating yet we joked about it on our way home. We walked home from school hand in hand and then shared a cupcake when we got home.  Much of life is grand.

Back to the major birthday party.  For two years she's been awaiting this golden birthday and she'd requested a hotel sleepover party for this illustrious event.  We went hotel shopping in early August to check out their lobbies, their pools, and how they made us feel.  The Hilton Garden Inn won hands down as the pool was warm and they had a lovely outdoor area with twinkling lights and fire pits.  The deal was sealed.  I made two reservations.  The price was pretty reasonable.

I asked her if she wanted cupcakes from our local cupcakery that is so popular.  She said "NO" flat out. "We always make my cake, mama!" she said.  I asked her to look for a recipe.  Weeks went by and then as I was reading an Iowa Children's Choice possible title A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff I found the cake!  It spoke to me because it combined some of her favorite things...chocolate and more chocolate and she loves s'mores! I rushed upstairs to share my discovery and she was like "mm-maybe-" followed by a "maybe" and a little shoulder shrug.  Hmmm.  I stuck with it though and we gave it a try.

Will's S'more Cake
-a cake that always disappears quickly-

For the cake:
small spoonful of flour, for preparing the cake pans
14-oz package of graham crackers (about 26 crackers)
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup butter (2 sticks) **always use unsalted as it is fresher** at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp good vanilla
1 cup milk, at room temperature

For the frosting:
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks) room temperature
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup sour cream, at room temperature
pinch of salt

For the filling:
1 large cup marshmallow fluff
(I did NOT say this cake was healthy in anyway)

For the topping:
extra graham crackers and/or mini-marshmallows **she opted for studding it with chocolate chips**

1. Preheat oven to 350*F. Lightly grease the bottoms of two 8-in. round cake pans with butter.  Using the cake pans as a template, trace two circles onto wax paper (I used parchment paper) and cut them out, placing once circle inside each pan.  Sprinkle the inside of the pans lightly with flour, and tap the pans to distribute it evenly.

2. Place graham crackers in a blender or food processor, and grind until crushed to a fine powder.  (Alternatively, place the graham crackers in a plastic ziplock bag and crush them with a rolling pin which is exactly what Groovy Girl did as it sounded more fun!)  Measure out 3 cups of the cracker powder into a medium bowl, and mix with the baking powder.  Set aside.  Reserve the remaining graham cracker powder to decorate the top of the cake, if desired.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and granulated sugar with an electric mixer, starting on low speed then increasing to medium-high, until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla.

4. Reducing the speed on the mixer to low, add about a third of the graham racker mixture to the batter, combining well.  Add about half of the milk and combine.  Then add another third of the graham cracker mixture, the last of the milk, and then the last of the cracker mix, combining well each time.

5. Pour the batter into the two pans, smoothing the surface.  Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let the cakes cool completely before frosting.

6. While the cakes are baking, make the frosting; In a double boiler or a heatproof boil fitted into a saucepan of simmering water, carefully melt the chocolate chips over low heat, stirring often.  Remove from heat and allow to cool, about 10-15 minutes.

7. In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer fitted with clean beaters on medium speed until fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.  Reducing the speed on the mixer to low, gradually add the powdered sugar and beat until smooth, another 2-3 minutes.  Add the cooled chocolate, sour cream, and pinch of salt, and beat to combine.

8.  When the cakes are completely cooled, place one cake layer on a plate and spread marshmallow fluff on top.  If fluff is difficult to spread, microwave it in a glass bowl first for 10-20 seconds and stir.)  Place the second cake layer on top and frost the whole cake with the chocolate frosting.  Decorate with graham cracker crumbs or mini marshmallows.   (44-46)

Almost everyone at the party loved the cake, the flavor was great and it was nice and dense.  I would make this one again with some minor adjustments.  We brought part of the cake home and we've all been sneaking bites here and there and we've also shared a few pieces Grandpa Roger style; in a bowl with some milk.  The best. Thanks Dad.  Miss you.

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff has some memorable moments but the plot was a bit scattered for me. The cakes and Cady's story were the very best part though and I wanted Cady to find a good permanent home with Miss Mallory.  Cady has a knack for baking and it was fun to read about how she created cakes for those around her.  Thank you Ms. Graff for giving us a wonderful birthday recipe!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan

Willow Chance is a young woman who literally is out of chances yet somehow she manages to positively affect change in all the people around her.  In the very first chapter her adoptive parents are killed in a car accident and she is left completely alone. No family friends, no long lost rich aunt, no scheming mad uncle to claim her.  Instead she finds herself with a sad excuse for a school counselor and a brother and sister she never met before but who happen to be visiting the same counselor when she finds out that her parents have died.

The misfit male counselor, Dell Duke, is lost as to how to even take action in this situation even though others are turning to him for help.  Mai and Quang-ha, sister and brother who live with their mother in a garage behind their mother's nail salon and it is Mai who comes to the aid of Willow when it is obvious that she has nowhere to go.  With this blanket of sadness over everyone it would seem this book would spill tears right out of it's pages but there is something magical about Willow Chance.  Her parents were high-spirited happy people who loved her deeply for all her unusual quirkiness and she has thrived in that love.  Now without that love from the two most important people she has to find a way to survive.

I loved I'll Be There Holly Goldberg Sloan's first novel and find that the two books have a similarity in that she takes oddball characters throws them into tough situations and makes us love them.


Jamison Children's Center is the county facility that provides emergency foster care.
Lenore Cole gives me a pamphlet.
I read it, but get the distinct feeling that the place is probably for kids who have parents who hit them or don't feed them real food because they are too busy taking drugs or stealing something.  
As we drive up to the building, I put my index and middle fingers on my carotid artery just behind my ear to take my pulse.
I know for a fact that my heart rate is in some kind of danger zone." (139)

Willow is a genius and knows things that most people don't and she's not afraid to share. Through her interactions with others she pushes them forward even though she herself cannot get past her grief.  This is an amazing realistic fiction book but with such unusual characters that one can only make sure to push it into the hands of many young 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students to see what they take from it.  I can't imagine anyone not cheering for Willow.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

Prairie picture book shares great knowledge.

Plant a Pocket of Prairie
Phyllis Root and Betsy Bowen
University of Minnesota Press

This is  a gorgeous book.  Every elementary school needs a copy of this bright and colorful work of art.  It begins...

"Once prairie stretched for thousands of miles an ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky, home for bison and elk, prairie chickens, burrowing owls, five-lined skinks, Plains garter snakes, and Ottoe skipper butterflies." 

The book challenges us to think about prairie and its disappearance in our world and challenges us the reader to plant a prairie be it big or small and if we were to cultivate a prairie, what would come and share in that bit of space?  A ruby-throated hummingbird, monarch butterfly, or Dakota skippers might show up...


The last four pages give full descriptions of prairie history, how to actually plant one, and animals that thrive in a prairie eco-system.  This book can be used as a read-aloud or a starting point for research or the beginning of a major project.  Use it, read it, love it.  Betsy Bowen and Phyllis Root: can you add to this title and make it an ecosystem series?