Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers

Henry's my kind of kid. He loves books. Except, see,

Well, let's start at the beginning. "It all began by mistake one afternoon when he wasn't paying attention..." (Matter of fact, I must not have been paying attention since I didn't notice this until the third time I read the book.) Henry is holding a book in one hand and a popsicle in the other when he notices the cat doing something rather nasty on the carpet. While distracted, he accidentally licks the book instead of his fruity frozen snack.

Hmmm... He tries a single word. Then a sentence. Then a whole page. By Wednesday he'd eaten a whole book. Soon it's just, GULP! One book!

Henry discovers that the more he eats, the smarter he gets. He helps his father with crosswords. ("Monumental," he whispers over Dad's shoulder.) He's even smarter than his teacher. Really! He figures he could become the smartest person on Earth!

But Henry's habit gets out of hand. He's eating too many too quickly. One day a book doesn't sit right in his stomach, and readers get to learn a new vocabulary word. Boke.

Henry's digested knowledge gets all mixed up. He starts saying things like, "6+2=3" and "2+6=elephant." Finally, again almost by accident, Henry opens a book. He reads it. He loves it!

And now Henry figures he could still be the smartest person on Earth, but it will just take a bit longer.

Pay close attention to the pictures. There's tons of great stuff in there, like the cat I failed to notice the first two times I read it. Keep an eye on the backgrounds too, like the dictionary page with "intemperance" as a guide word behind Henry swallowing another book. The pictures remind me of No, David by David Shannon and the illustrations of Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and many others).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

Not a Box is dedicated "To children everywhere sitting in cardboard boxes." At one time or another - and upon first glance this may seem hard to believe - it's been you. The kid sitting in the box. And me. And the kid down the street. And, well, pretty much everyone.

Parenting brings all sorts of frustrations. Don't get me wrong, there are innumerable joys, triumphs, accomplishments, milestones and the like. But there are frustrations, and one of the biggest goes something like this:

Kid gets gift. Kid opens gift. Kid pulls gift out of box. Kid sets gift aside. Kid plays in box.

And one of the biggest frustrations of being a kid is having to explain why. "Ah, sheesh," the kid mumbles quietly. "It's not a box.!" The child thinks, why can't others see what is so plainly obvious?

So finally we arrive at Not a Box. (Was I right? It has been you, hasn't it?) The book opens with a simple question: "Why are you sitting in a box?" In my mind it's a grown-up asking the question. A very stiff grown-up. A very stiff grown-up who has forgotten the experience and wonder of being a child. But the straight-faced bunny simply replies, "It's not a box." Never does the bunny explain what it is, but the pictures show exactly what the bunny sees. And it definitely is not a box.

The questioner finds the bunny on top of the box, squirting the box, and wearing the box. But of course, it's not a box. (The bunny gets rather forceful in later pages. You would too when dealing with someone seemingly blind - and possibly dim-witted - who can't see the obvious.)

Like There is a Bird on Your Head and all the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems, Not a Box works great with beginning readers to partner read back and forth. I can imagine kids making their own versions of the book. After all, what kid can't imagine something cool to do with a box? They could copy the words and style but create their own not-a-box pictures.

Hey! Maybe they could even draw their pictures on the side of their very own box!

(Okay, I need to confess. I tried to be really creative right there with that whole side-of-the-box thing. But I stole the idea. From a five-year-old. Nevertheless, trust me. This is one cool book.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

LEA Convocation

Hello to everyone attending the LEA Convocation in Minneapolis!

If you are reading this before attending the Help Readers Love Reading! sectional on Friday morning, let me know you're coming! Is there anything specific you hope to hear? Any topics you'd like me to address? Leave a comment or send me an email.

If you are reading this after the sectional, I'd love to answer any questions or continue any discussions or simply hear your thoughts and comments. Feel free to post those questions and comments below or send me an email. (Address in the website's banner and to the right.)

Before Readers - I look forward to seeing you Friday!
After Readers - Thanks for coming, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books by Gary Paulsen

Anyone who has read Hatchet or the other Brian books needs to read Guts. Then they need to reread all the Brian books. (Okay, I don't actually expect most readers to go back and reread them all, but if they should, or if rereading books and re-enjoying a successful reading experience is up their alley, then they'll be rewarded.) It's worth it.

Reading the Brian books knowing that his experiences are based on the author's real experiences makes the book all the more enjoyable. And amazing.

Nearly everything in Hatchet happened to Paulsen in some way. He writes of witnessing a man's heart attack while volunteering to answer ambulance calls and of witnessing a plane crash not six days later. He writes of being in a plane flying over Alaska when the engine quit. Hey! There's Hatchet, Chapter One!

Remember when Brian gets flattened by a moose? Gary Paulsen tells numerous similar stories, pausing frequently to remind readers that moose are, in fact, insane. Once, as a young teenager, a moose charged him only to attack a six foot pine tree directly behind him. (Insane, remember?) A year later a moose attacked a truck he and a farmer were sitting in, damaging the grill and radiator, rendering the truck undrivable. Once a moose knocked over his canoe - while he was in it - and then proceeded to attack, you guessed it, the canoe. But the kicker is the real attack, the one where Paulsen curled up into a ball, quit counting the kicks (but guessed them to be dozens) and held his breath. When he had to finally take another breath, the moose heard it and renewed her attack.

Readers are full of questions when reading the Brian books. Guts offers the answers. Were the mosquitoes that swarmed Brian really that bad? (Worse.) Can you really kill large animals with homemade weapons? (Sure, and nearly die trying.) Could Brian really have cooked food like he did? (Yep, but it's easier, as Brian learns, with something as simple as one pot.)

And another question: Can a person really survive on food like that?

Oh, how great Chapter Five is! Eating Eyeballs and Guts or Starving: The Fine Art of Wilderness Nutrition. I'll spare you the details, but yes, it's that gross. (And readers - boys especially - will love it.) When my students read Hatchet in class and comment how nasty it would be to eat raw turtle eggs, I make sure to read aloud Gary Paulsen's experience with raw turtle eggs. Again, no details, but know this: It's the only food Brian eats that Paulsen was unable to eat himself. And the details of Paulsen's failed attempt are better (worse?) than you could imagine.

Hatchet and its sequels are immensely satisfying books, but they are even better knowing their inspiration - the author's real experiences.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hatchet - Classroom Activities

Read Chapter One aloud. By that I mean: bait your hook, cast your line, wait as your students eye the bait and wonder if it looks tasty, wait...gently...eeeaaasy, and when students realize that, yes, this does look awfully tasty and take a big bite, set the hook, reel them in, and assign Chapter Two. And be sure they have time to read immediately.

Do two character sketches of Brian focusing on physical and character traits. Make them life size. Trace the outline of a student, and draw Brian when he arrives in the woods. Include his supplies, clothing, and appearance. Around the outside of the picture write short descriptions of his "city boy" ways and beliefs. Be sure to mention all he doesn't know. The second sketch should show Brian's changes, both in physical appearance and knowledge. Brian truly is two different characters, one at the beginning and one at the end.

Research lists of "Top 10 Items Needed to Survive in the Wilderness" or have students develop their own list. Be sure to explain the reasons behind each item. Compare this list to Brian's supplies, and as you read, search for items Brian has that could be used to accomplish the same tasks.

Go online to a camping website like REI or Gander Mountain. Fill a shopping cart with necessary camping items. Students could be divided into groups. One group shops with no consideration to cost. A second group shops for high quality items, but under a given budget. A third group is totally budget shopping. Which group will do best? Sure, the first group has the best stuff, but can it all be carried into the woods? Is everything necessary? Maybe the third group found one item with multiple uses that can replace three other items and cut costs. Which group more closely will match Brian's experience?

Research Gary Paulsen's actual experiences. Read Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books. Compare and contrast Paulsen's experiences to Brian's. (A great example is when Paulsen tried eating turtle eggs. Nauseating. Boys will love it. The groans will make the class next door wonder what you're teaching.)

Hatchet: 20th Anniversary Edition contains a new introduction and commentary throughout the book offering additional insight into Brian's story.

Split the class in two - boys and girls works well - and have half the class read Island of the Blue Dolphins. As students read, have them share what Brian and Karana face. The setting is completely different, as are their foods, clothing, and knowledge. But similar lessons are learned. Possibly, when one group shares insight into their character, the other group can use that knowledge to predict what will happen in their book. Despite the many differences in their circumstances, the lessons Brian and Karana learn are universal.

Feeling adventurous? Take kids out to the woods. Within reason, try to recreate situations faced by Brian. (Like the fishing or the fire making...not taunting a skunk or going between a mama bear and her cubs.)

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

At its simplest, Hatchet is a story about a boy who finds a way to survive in the wilderness, alone, and with no supplies other than a hatchet and the clothes on his back. And because of the plane crash, he starts with a raging headache, plenty of aches and pains, and, after succumbing to exhaustion as the sun rises, a blazing sunburn.

The challenges Brian faces, the successes and failures, and his ability to take two steps forward only to be thrown three yards back, ought to be enough to hold the attention of most readers. For the most part, it is.

Brian finds food, but nearly gorges himself to death on "gut cherries." He runs terrified from a bear and nearly gets himself between a mama and her cubs. Brian gets eight porcupine quills embedded in his calf and learns that skunks will take your dinner, thank you very much, and no, they will not share. Brian understands the actual size of a moose and the power behind that size. He learns to gather, store, hunt, fish, cook... He learns how to survive. All on his own, with no supplies.

Yeah, that ought to be enough for most readers, but Hatchet is so much more than a survival story. It's a book full of foreshadow and flashback. It has a character who not only learns lessons, but changes. Really changes. Brian changes like a lump of clay becomes a piece of art. At the beginning he is a lump. A wilderness lump. At the end he's a survivor. A woodsman. And Hatchet is full of lessons readers take away from the book - being prepared, dealing with adversity, the value of self-pity, and the power of determination and hope.

Paulsen takes readers down a path they are sure they've traveled before, then takes a previously unseen side trail. "Hey, where're you going?" he asks. "This story's going down this path." Turns out Paulsen's path is exceedingly better than any you anticipated.

Brian's experience continues in The River, Brian's Winter, Brian's Return, and Brian's Hunt. Read Gary Paulsen's real experiences that led to the Brian stories in Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chasing Vermeer - Classroom Activities

Students know my read aloud rules:
1. Don't interrupt Mr. Wilhorn.
2. If you need something, see rule #1.

(Okay, I'm not quite that bad...but close.)

Chasing Vermeer could have been (see: the following paragraph) one of the most peaceful read alouds I ever did. Give the class their own pentominoes like Calder's. Scholastic's site offers a free printable version. Copy them on cardstock and cut them out. (Neat cuts are necessary. Get help...I recruited my wife and in-laws.) Give each student a set and challenge them to make various sized rectangles while you read, but don't give them any solutions!

If your read aloud rules are like mine, then this part is great. Allow interruptions from any student who successfully creates "a twelve-piecer," that is, a rectangle from all 12 pieces. "I did it!!!" they'll yell, thrust their arms in the air, and smile from ear to ear. It's not easy, so the interruptions are limited. But watch that it doesn't get out of hand. Pretty soon certain kids will have it figured out and want to interrupt every 2 minutes. Then the sharing will start.

Scholastic also has an online version of pentominoes. Players click on various pieces, rotate or flip them, and drag them to spots on the rectangle. (Be careful allowing students on the site. Solutions are one click away as are the secrets to the reader's challenge included with the novel's illustrations.)

A strategic and surprisingly simple (not to mention fun and addicting) board game called Blokus uses pentominoes. Players attempt to place all their pieces on the board within certain rules. An online version is available, but there's just something about twisting and tapping that plastic piece in your fingers while you think. (Right? Calder?) Did I mentioned it's addicting? Remember when Tetris was popular and when you went to bed you'd still see falling shapes? Yeah, sort of like that.

Since I've mentioned Tetris, there's a number of free online games available. Not quite pentominoes, but in the same ballpark.

After Chasing Vermeer is The Wright 3. Calder gets himself some new pieces - three dimensional ones. A game similar to Blokus is Rumis, but just like Calder's new pentominoes, Rumis uses three dimensional pieces.

There's also a third book in the series recently published called The Calder Game. I wish I had more to tell about it, but my Amazon order just arrived yesterday! (Why am I writing? There's reading to be done!) I'll keep you informed.

Each of the three books focuses on an artist: Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and sculptor Alexander Calder. Teachers more knowledgeable than me will have many artistic ideas. Teachers just like me see a great opportunity to get the Art teacher involved in your literature class. (Especially if you are blessed, like I am, with an Art teacher who reads voraciously.)

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Most kids wouldn't be too interested in art theft. Whoopee. A painting. What is it, some old picture of some old woman? Well, let me get my jacket...I'm ready for an adventure!

Chasing Vermeer is about an art theft, but all typical responses don't apply. Yes, a priceless (as in: worth so much you can't really put a price on it, like, maybe...bazillions) painting is stolen. The thief questions its authenticity. Was this painting really done by Johannes Vermeer? The thief wants the public to become more aware of art, and a high profile crime, one that makes every 24/7 news channel, and one that hits Petra and Calder's neighborhood, is how the thief gets the public's attention focused on art.

Petra and Calder are in the same class, but have never really been friends. The events of the theft draw them together until they are actively trying to solve the crime. And what kid-reader doesn't cheer for the kid-characters who are trying to solve a mystery and prove themselves smarter than all the adult experts?

The involvement of people close to them - a grandmotherly neighbor (wife of a deceased Vermeer scholar), a bookstore owner, their teacher, and Calder's friend, Tommy, who may be in danger - draws Petra and Calder and the mystery even closer. Through a series of coincidences (sometimes, possibly, a bit too conveniently) they soon discover the painting is not only hidden in Chicago, it's hidden right in their own neighborhood!

One interesting part of the story is Calder's love of pentominoes. He uses them to help him think, playing with them - he's a fiddler, I guess - and the letter names of the pentomonoes give him ideas. Another cool part is the old book Petra discovers: Lo! by Charles Fort. It's a collection of odd news stories about disappearing people and other unexplained mysteries. Both are connected to the mystery of the stolen painting, and both will interest readers in real life.

Other books featuring Petra and Calder: The Wright 3 and The Calder Game.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Surviving the Applewhites - Classroom Activities

Watch The Sound of Music before reading Surviving the Applewhites. Chances are some students won't be excited about a musical, especially the 1965 three-hour variety, but most won't complain about time off from class. If there are complaints, they usually peak at the "The Lonely Goatherd" (High on a hill was a lonely goatherd - Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo), but when the Nazis show up, everyone is paying attention. Use the opportunity to discuss WWII or connect the movie with a Social Studies lesson, but make sure they have that background knowledge before reading the book.

Create a poster for each character. Students can work in pairs, and each pair is responsible for one character. As characters are introduced, their posters are added, and as more is learned about the characters, students add details to the picture and descriptive phrases around the picture. Display these in the room as you read. Include Jake, E.D., Destiny, Randolph, Sybil, Aunt Lucile, Uncle Archie, Cordelia, Zedediah, Hal, Jeremy Bernstein, and Govindaswammi.

Use RAFTS writing to teach Voice in student work. (RAFTS stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic, and Strong Verb.) Focus on characters emotions and traits - Jake's attitude, E.D.'s frustration, Jeremy's belief that the Applewhite family would make a great TV documentary. Possibilities include Jake's thoughts about staying with the Applewhites in a journal entry, an email from Jeremy to the TV people, and E.D.'s lists as being stage manager.

In Chapter 13 we learn that Randolph has been blasting the soundtrack of The Sound of Music throughout Wit's End. (I chuckle just thinking about this...) The day you are to read Chapter 13, have the soundtrack playing when students arrive. Quietly, but playing nevertheless. Keep it on all day. Through attendance, math, science ... constantly. If reading isn't early in the day, you may want to reschedule so kids understand what's happening. They are being, as Randolph states, "totally immersed in the musical ambiance of the show."

This is where my friend and I still giggle. I got numerous emails and phone message from parents - all positive, thankfully: "We heard about it the minute he sat down in the car, and yes, now we are all singing. He's looking for earplugs for tomorrow." "Mr. Wilhorn, I probably will be singing tonight in my sleep AND aloud to annoy my dad!" "Just wanted you to know my son came out of the bathroom singing I am sixteen..." "Yes, [my daughter] came home singing, which totally annoyed her brother, but I think she got the point of the story." "At the moment she is serenading the dog."

Do you think students will understand E.D. when she says it's torture? Randolph has played it for five days straight! E.D. mentions hearing about the FBI blasting rock and roll music at militant cults to end a siege. She's convinced if they used The Sound of Music, the cult would "come out on their hands and knees...singing compulsively about female deer and kitten whiskers."

Wrap up the unit by creating newspapers featuring a review of the play, a news article about the events of opening night, a feature article about the Amazing Applewhites or other story related news articles.

Do you have other ideas? Have you done something creative with Surviving the Applewhites? Post your ideas or comments below.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Classroom Activities

Recently a friend suggested that I share ideas for classroom activities for some of the books I review. My intention for the site is to focus mainly on recommending great books. Teachers are born creative, or creative people become teachers, or something like that. Either way, I'm confident that with the right books (hopefully some of which I'll suggest) those teachers will come up with way better stuff than I will.

However, sometimes there are activities that I've done (or considered) that I just may post. Yesterday I posted a review of Surviving the Applewhites, and it was only a week or so ago that my friend gave me the classroom activities suggestion. It just so happens she had a son in my class a few years ago when we read Surviving the Applewhites. She and I still giggle about the effect of one my lessons on her son. It certainly was memorable! And effective.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for a post about using Surviving the Applewhites in the classroom. Then in the coming weeks and months and (dare I say?) years, watch for others every now and again. Mostly, however, watch for more recommendations of great books.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan

After being kicked out of the public schools in the whole state of Rhode Island, Jake Semple (That good looking gentleman to the left. You see him? With the red, pointy hair? And piercings?) moved to North Carolina with his grandfather to attend Traybridge Middle School. Rumor is he burned down his old school back in Rhode Island. Then he only lasted three weeks at Traybridge. Fastest expulsion in the locals' memory. What school would take him?

The Creative Academy would. That's the Applewhite family home school. It's the socially responsible thing to do, according to Grandpa Zedediah. No, thinks E.D., it's suicidal. She's thirteen and best described as structured, scheduled, and sensible. The whole Applewhite school (or unschool as E.D. sees it) has no curriculum, except for her. She created and follows her own.

The Applewhite family is enormously talented. Grandpa Zedediah creates wooden furniture. Randolph, the father, directs plays. Older brother Hal is an introverted artist locked in an upstairs room. Cordelia is the older sister, a dancer and singer (and good thing anyway, in Jake's opinion). They're all like this. Even Destiny, the four-year-old brother, has an enormous sense of curiosity.

E.D. and Jake have two things in common. They don't fit in. And now they follow the same curriculum.

In the midst of all this learning - E.D. trying to learn, Jake refusing to learn, and everyone else learning whatever they feel at the moment - Randolph's production of The Sound of Music at the local theater is facing some problems. Child stars, demanding parents, fires, cast members rehearsing and babysitting at the same time, and upset locals all do their part to gum up the works.

When the play is moved to Wit's End, the Applewhite farm, the barn is transformed into a theater, and E.D. is named stage manager. This isn't your normal production. Thirteen-year-old stage manager. Barn theater. The Von Trapp family is multicultural. And Jake (yes that Jake. With the red, pointy hair. And piercings.) is cast as Rolf, the young Nazi soldier who sings, "You are sixteen, going on seventeen..." There's no way this can work.

But it does work, and the reviews are raving. Not only for Jake (yes, that Jake) and the artistic Applewhite family, but for E.D. too, the glue who holds everything together.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Guys Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka

Guys Write for Guys Read is a collection of 92 stories, memories, illustrations, comics, excerpts, one report card, and a forward by Jon Scieszka, all about being guys. It's a collection of who's who in children's literature. It's guys writing to guys about guys. Boys will be boys, right? Here's the proof.

Some (most?) of the greatest men in children's literature are included. Some have included excerpts, like the introduction from Gary Paulsen's How Angel Peterson Got His Name about whizzing on an electric fence. Some wrote specifically for the book, like Anthony Horowitz's story "My French Teacher Tried to Kill Me" or Gordon Korman's commentary, "Guy Things," about how great old Looney Toons cartoons are (especially the ones with oversized wooden mallets) and how NOT great a hockey uniform is if you're known as the Pretty Polly Paint and Wallpaper Falcons.

Each 1-4 page entry is followed by a short author biography and selected bibliography. If a reader finds something he enjoys, there's a handy list of where to go next.

Many guy illustrators are included too. There's the original version of No David by David Shannon, drawn when he was five. Mo Willems writes a comic strip called Aw, Nuts! about his childhood (and adult) desire to take over Peanuts for Charles Shultz. Also included are Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), Chris Van Allsburg (author of Jumanji), Brett Helquist (illustrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events and Chasing Vermeer), and others.

And yes there is one report card, a sixth grade report card for Rick Telander, who received an E- in conduct from Miss Johnson. (An E is just an F with an extra leg. Either way it ain't good.) His teacher wrote "I hope I am not too much of an 'old crab' to appreciate Rick's brand of humor. Maybe I too should stoop so low. That will be the day."

There are plenty of Miss Johnsons out there who won't appreciate this book's brand of humor. Hopefully they are smart enough to realize they have a class full of kids who will.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

If someone had asked, "Okay, multiple choice. Who wrote this book: Lemony Snicket, Polly Horvath, or Lois Lowry?" I would have been wrong twice, accused the questioner of forgetting a choice, then stated, "Nyuh uhhh!!" Lois Lowry is the answer to many questions, including the previous, and now the following: "Who is the author talented enough to put every painstaking detail of traditional orphan stories into one novel and never once make you want to poke needles in your eye?"

Let's see if I can summarize the book using only the references she makes to such novels.

One day, just like in The Bobbsey Twins, a baby appears on the Willoughby's doorstep, however, not wanting a baby, the Willoughby children - Tim, Barnaby A, Barnaby B, and Jane - deposit her on the doorstep of a Scrooge-like gentleman, depressed at the loss of his wife and son (but not really). The children request any rewards be sent to them. After their father's odious retelling of Hansel and Gretel, the children decide they need to be like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. Orphans. (Oh yes, and James. The Giant Peach fellow.)

When the Willoughby parents leave on vacation (or perilous adventure in which their demise is imminent, whichever you prefer), a nanny is hired, but not like Mary Poppins, Nanny insists. "It almost gives me diabetes just to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar!" Nanny was forced into domestic work when her father died in debt and left her penniless, a la Jane Eyre. One day when Nanny and the four children are out for a walk, something horrible happens, just like Little Red Riding Hood when she went walking, which, of course, requires them to make a plan.

The first plan involves Jane developing a lingering disease and pulling a Beth in Little Women. Nanny must enter a cloistered convent or go on mission work to darkest Africa to convert heathens. A and B are to run away to the circus like Toby Tyler or do a Huck Finn down the Mississippi, their choice. Tim will pull himself up by his bootstraps and gain the attention of a wealthy benefactor just like Ragged Dick.

Instead, the Willoughbys and Nanny finally discover their own mysterious benefactor, made more mysterious when Peter the goat-herd from Heidi arrives on the doorstep.

And happy endings abound.

Thank you, Lois Lowry, for poking fun at that which needed poking.

UPDATE: Changed "Recommended Books" tag to "Highly Recommended Books." I wasn't sure how the book would work with students, but now that I've read it aloud to my class, I know. It works. They laughed at the funny parts, gasped at surprising parts, rolled their eyes at the ridiculous parts. They get it. Totally. My only remaining hesitation would be that independent readers may miss some of the humor in the advanced vocabulary. (After all, according to the cover, The Willoughbys is "Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author.")

UPDATE 2: How could I have forgotten about The Willoughbys when considering possible 2009 Newbery books? I added the 2009 Newbery tag on 1/6/09.

Monday, April 7, 2008

There Is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems

So if you think there might be a bird on your head, what do you do? Ask your friend, Piggie, of course. And if you suspect that another bird has arrived? Check with Piggie.

But what if they are love birds, as Piggie informs Elephant, and they are building a nest, and suddenly there are eggs, followed by chicks? All on your head? Things are moving too quickly for Elephant. After all, he did not want even one bird on his head in the first place.

"Aaaaaaaaaggghhh!!!" Elephant responds.

As all good friends will, Piggie comes to the aid of his friend, helping solve his avian quandary.

As with Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and other Pigeon books or Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too, the illustrations add exactly what is needed, clearly showing in pictures what would be too burdensome with text. Check out the look on Piggie's face when the the birds fall in love or when chicks hatch. Priceless.

Repeated and familiar text and the use of common sight words makes There Is a Bird on Your Head! perfect for new readers. Of course giggling diminishes fluency - thank you, Mr. Willems - but there's plenty of other reasons to read it other than enhancing fluency. Giggling, actually, is one of the bigger reasons.

Other books featuring Elephant and Piggie: I Am Invited to a Party, Today I Will Fly, and My Friend is Sad. (I Love My New Toy and I Will Surprise My Friend coming in June, 2008)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hate Mail From Cheerleaders by Rick Reilly

While not technically a children's book, and speaking as a former high school boy whose reading interests included only Sports Illustrated and the USA Today sports page, Hate Mail From Cheerleaders will attract young adult readers.

I'm biased. I admit it. As a Sports Illustrated subscriber I always turned to the last page first where "The Life of Reilly" ran for 10 years. Starting June 1, 2008, I'll do the same with ESPN the Magazine, when Reilly's back-page column reappears.

In a matter of 500 words, Reilly can make you interrupt neighboring conversations with your laughter. He can make tears quietly sneak out your eyes for the first time since Brian's Song. He can make your brow furl, scowling with indignation at some ignorant oaf whose decision changed the life of a person, team, or organization. He can make you stand and cheer (in your living room) for someone finishing last.

I'd read the entire book already - one column a week, of course - but reread it happily, enjoying the additional comments and updates. These 100 columns move quickly. Readers don't need a significant time commitment to enjoy the book. The short columns and varied topics are exactly what many young adult readers need.

Reilly went through a lot for his readers. Not everyone gets hate mail on pastel paper that reads, "I hope you die" with a little heart over the i.

Read about NCAA rule-breaker coach Rick Majerus who bought a player a bagel after his father died. Infraction! Read about schools that ban dodgeball, celebrities that mangle the Star Spangled Banner at Chicago Cubs games, and Aron Ralston, a guy who cut off his own arm with a pocket knife to save his life. (Really!)

But remember, just like the cheerleaders, there'll probably be something that makes you mad. Emotions. Isn't that what makes writing (and reading) so powerful?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

When Lina and Doon get their assignments on graduation day and quickly trade jobs, they begin discovering secrets the city of Ember has been hiding for over 200 years. As a messenger, Lina takes information throughout the city to everyone from common citizens up to the mayor's office. Doon heads to the Pipeworks where learns about the labyrinth of underground tunnels and the slow deterioration of the city's generator.

Ember is a city - a small village, really - that is running low on everything. The supply rooms are running short of certain foods, clothing, light bulbs, and various other essentials. Worse, Ember has gone dark on numerous occasions. The city's lights go on at 6:00 am and off at 9:00 pm every day. Without those lights, there's no lights, and those lights have gone off during the day, sometimes for minutes at a time. People are going about their daily lives and suddenly... complete and utter darkness. Beyond the city limits is the Unknown Regions, a fancy name for "nothing."

Lina and Doon discover a mysterious box and an equally cryptic message. (It's not a mystery to readers, however. It's the directions out of Ember, as recorded by the Builders.) As they try to decipher the message, their jobs lead them to corruption in the city's government. Without the help of those responsible for the city, Lina and Doon go it alone, slowly understanding what the Builders' intentions were for the people of Ember.

As Lina and Doon learn more about the mysterious message, readers learn more about the mysterious city of Ember. While the city's leaders try to stop them, Lina and Doon seek to save themselves and all the people living in the city of Ember.

The story continues with The People of Sparks, and a prequel titled The Prophet of Yonwood. The fourth book, The Diamond of Darkhold, will be published in August, 2008.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry

It's October. The school year is no longer new and exciting. It's spelling class. Spelling. Not the most thrilling part of the school day. What second grade needs is a breath of fresh air, a little zap of excitement.

The door opens. There stands a new classmate. She's wearing pajamas and cowboy boots. She's holding a dictionary and a lunch box. "My name is Gooney Bird Green," she says, "and I just moved here from China. I want a desk right smack in the middle of the room, because I like to be right smack in the middle of everything."

Feel the fresh air? Feel that zap of excitement?

As the class gets to know Gooney Bird and her unusual ways (on Thursday, her second day, she wears a pink ballet tutu over green stretch pants and eats three small red grapes, an avocado, and an oatmeal cookie for lunch), Gooney Bird tells them stories about herself.

Gooney Bird only tells absolutely true stories such as How Gooney Bird Came from China on a Flying Carpet and Why Gooney Bird Was Late for School Because She Was Directing a Symphony Orchestra and Beloved Catman is Consumed By a Cow. Yes, all absolutely true. As she does she also helps Mrs. Pidgeon teach the main parts of stories.

Teachers will find great joy in reading about students they'll swear they've taught. There's Malcolm who quite often is under his desk, possibly doing something with scissors. There's Felicia Ann who never speaks. There's Barry who likes to give very important speeches, so important they require him to stand. And there's Gooney Bird, a student teachers will wish they've taught.

Other Gooney Bird books: Gooney Bird and the Room Mother and Gooney the Fabulous.