Friday, November 27, 2009

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French

I know wombats are good with a Nativity play, but what do they do during the rest of the year? Sleep. Eat. Scratch. Repeat.

At least that’s the daily routine for this wombat until new neighbors – Humans! – move in. Then much of his time is spent training them.

He demonstrates proper cleanliness in the perfect dust bath next to the barbecue. He protects his new neighbors by attacking a creature invading their territory - a flat, hairy creature with mysterious W-E-L-C-O-M-E markings on its back. After winning the battle, he demands and receives a reward. A delicious carrot.

Later he demands more carrots. Upon receiving none, he promptly chews through the door. The additional reward is given. “Ate carrots. Scratched. Went to sleep.”

Along with the new neighbors there are numerous other new activities. Furniture to scratch against, garbage cans to bang, soft flower beds perfect for digging, a variety of items to chew, and wet clothing hanging from a clothesline to pull down. There’s also more and more carrots. Then there are oats. Then there are oats AND carrots. This wombat enjoys his new friends so much, he creates a new hole, a new home, to be as near to them as possible.

Kids will like Bruce Whatley's simple yet funny pictures. Why is a wombat scratching against lawn furniture funny? Who cares? It just is. So are the clouds billowing around him in his dust bath and his innocent eyes peering through a new hole in the door.

There are also plenty of pictures of him scratching. As his Tuesday entry reads, “Scratched. Hard to reach the itchy bits.” Seeing him try induces serious giggles. Kids and grown-ups alike will titter through Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wombat Divine by Mem Fox

I don’t know much about Australian wildlife, but I do know those animals put on one spectacular Nativity play. Wombat knows it too. He loves everything about Christmas, but it’s the Nativity play that has long held his fascination. Now that Wombat is old enough, he wants desperately to play a part. “So, with his heart full of hope and his head full of dreams, he hurried along to the auditions.”

Wombat volunteers to play the Archangel Gabriel, but he’s too heavy. Bilby gets the role instead and the privilege of announcing the Savior’s birth. “Never mind, Wombat! Don’t lose heart. Why not try for a different part?” encourages Bilby.

So he does. Wombat volunteers to play Mary, but he’s too big. The koalas playing the donkey can’t hold him up. Numbat gets the role instead and offers Wombat the same words of encouragement as Bilby. “Never mind, Wombat! Don’t lose heart. Why not try for a different part?”

Wombat volunteers to be a king, Joseph, the innkeeper, and a shepherd, but he’s always too something. Too short, too clumsy, too sleepy. Suddenly there are no parts left.

Except one. “You could be the Baby Jesus!” shouts Bilby.

When the Nativity play finally arrives, Wombat performs his role perfectly. He does everything the Baby Jesus would have done that night. “You were divine, Wombat!” said Emu.

Mem Fox has given readers plenty of classics, but Wombat Divine is one of my favorites. Children will enjoy seeing unfamiliar animals in a familiar story. They’ll read along with the repeated text. And what better story than the Nativity – a story of “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” – to show kids that everyone, even Wombat, can be divine?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson

Yeah, yeah. Let’s get the jokes out of the way up front. I’ll give you a moment...


Yes, I’m bald. But it’s bald by choice, just so we’re clear, and does NOT disqualify me from reviewing a book featuring HAIR as a main character, and honestly …

[Get on with it, Cue Ball!]

Eh-hem. Yes, well, Zoe’s hair.

It’s pretty amazing, it is! “Zoe Fleefenbacher had one blue eye and one green eye, and bright red hair that went on … forever” readers learn on the first page. The illustrations show even more. As Zoe stands at the sink, her hair has packed her lunch and written her name on her brown bag, chosen her school outfit, gathered her school books, brushed her teeth, and held the alarm clock.

When she was young Zoe’s parents purchased two strollers, cribs, and high chairs, one for Zoe and one for her hair. As she became older her hair became more and more useful. Opening cookie jars, pouring juice, petting the cat – activities of great importance to a toddler. Zoe’s hair even learned to fly, and her parents knew “the hair of their Zoe was wild and beautiful. It was her sail, her kite, her flag.”

Zoe was blessed with Mrs. Brodhag in kindergarten. Mrs. Brodhag knew brilliance when she saw it and allowed Zoe’s hair to be its amazing self, picking up trash, erasing the board, and comforting kindergartners at nap time.

Then came first grade. Ms. Trisk. “School has rules,” she said. Wild hair doesn’t fit within Ms. Trisk’s narrow understanding of acceptable behavior, so Zoe’s hair does what any brilliant student would do when faced with a restrictive teacher.


It tickles classmates, releases the hamsters, draws the Wicked Trisk of the West on the wall. No amount of bobby pins, scrunchies, braids, barrettes, rubber bands, or duct tape can hold back amazing hair for long.

The conflict comes to a head (heh, heh, heh) in science class. Will Ms. Trisk comprehend the wonders of Zoe’s lovely locks? Will Zoe’s hair turn away from its rebellious ways? Even a bald guy can recognize a fun book, a cool kid, a teacher who still learns lessons, and a great head of hair.

[You jealous, Kojak?]

Okay, really. Was that necessary?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Too Deep (The 39 Clues) by Jude Watson

There’s a difference between “left for dead” and “dead.” Amy and Dan have been trapped caves and tunnels, attacked by ninjas, and locked in a tomb – all with absolutely no escape – until, of course, they escape. But it’s a-whole-nother story when an enemy questions Amy while calmly ladling chum into shark infested waters, fully intending to deposit the older Cahill sibling into the bloody bay.

In Too Deep is the perfect title for the sixth book in the 39 Clues series. Amy realizes, and Dan soon after, that the Cahill hunt for the 39 Clues is no game. Amy can’t go to a market in a major city without using the reflections in storefront windows to look for enemies or doubling back to check for tails or analyzing roof lines for the flash of binoculars.

Amy is told, “You don’t remember what you should never forget.” The truth is Amy doesn’t want to remember the night her parents died, but flashes, images of that night begin creeping back to Amy’s mind. People visited their house shortly before the deadly fire, familiar people, people currently hunting the 39 Clues. Questions were asked, threats were made, and ultimately her parents ended up dead.

The person mainly responsible for the events that night is now following Amy and Dan. Questions are asked. Threats are made. And someone else ends up dead.

Readers, along with Amy and Dan, realize the stakes are much higher than previously thought. Readers have been told of the seriousness of the 39 Clues and the viciousness of the Cahill clan, but the characters’ actions have never really matched the description. They do now. Yes, there are still narrow escapes that push the realm of believability, but since when has that stopped kids from loving a book?

In Amy and Dan’s sixth adventure, author Jude Watson takes them to Australia and Indonesia, and it’s appropriate that the Cahills travel Down Under. Their motivation for seeking the 39 Clues has been turned upside down as well. No longer is it a game or a race or a not-so-friendly competition. Now that they know more information about their parents’ deaths, they have a bigger reason to compete.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Parental Getaway

No matter how they may try, parents just can't seem to get away from their children, even when they are 250 miles away.

New column today in the local newspaper. Click here to read more or here for the printable version.

And thanks for stopping by Help Readers Love Reading!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Black Circle (The 39 Clues) by Patrick Carman

The 39 Clues series reaches its midway point with Patrick Carman's The Black Circle. Dan and Amy Cahill's fast-paced adventure shows no sign of slowing. Their continued quest for the 39 Clues - acquiring all 39 will enable Dan and Amy to become the most powerful members of the Cahill family, the most powerful family in the world - is taking them around the world and back again.

Here, as best as I can, is a review in pictures:

The fifth book documenting Amy and Dan Cahill's hunt for the 39 Clues takes them all around

After leaving their 5-star hotel near the

Amy and Dan receive a message and airline tickets at the airport. The flight takes them to Volgograd. The message takes them to

There they meet the usual Cahill suspects and form and unlikely partnership with the Holts. Dan and Amy head to St. Petersburg to visit

and meet this guy.

The next message is about Russian author Dostoevsky and sends the Holts to Omsk to see

where they get the next message. Relaying what they discover back the Amy and Dan, the Cahills head outside St. Petersburg to


Another message, relayed back to Hamilton Holt, sends his family 52 miles outside of Magadan, Siberia on the

Next, the Holts' discovery directs Amy and Dan to

in Moscow. There they visit

Another flight takes them to Yekaterinburg where they visit

Hidden beneath the church is

Here they find the next of the 39 Clues, information about their parents, and a hint to their next destination.

Okay, so that probably doesn't help too much. The point I want to make is that background knowledge will play a big part in understanding the historical significance of The Black Circle. Middle and upper elementary readers will certainly enjoy the twists and turns, fights, and near escapes that 39 Clues readers have grown accustomed to.

But how many of the above locations do you recognize? One or two of them, maybe. But all of them? Young readers will enjoy the book even more knowing - and seeing - that all the places characters visit are real. The Black Circle would work great as a read aloud, with images displayed in front of the class. Encourage independent readers to sit close to their computers with Google Images ready to roll. Pictures of all the locations, as evidenced above, are readily available.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman

It's time to herd cows. That's what cowgirls and cowhorses do. But on the way to the pasture, Cocoa decides he’s thirsty. After getting a drink at the creek, Cowgirl Kate asks if he's ready to herd cows. Not when he’s hungry! Two apples later, he claims he's too full to herd cows.

“You are a pig,” said Cowgirl Kate.
“No,” said Cocoa, “I am a horse.”

To pass the time, Cowgirl Kate tells Cocoa a story, the story of cowgirl who went to a ranch looking for a cowhorse. She’s a cowgirl from the boots up. He’s a cowhorse from the mane down. He promises to work hard every day, saying, “A cowhorse always does his job.” That’s when Cowgirl Kate knew she had found her horse.

Readers are introduced to this cow herding duo in Chapter One. The following chapters show how they work together and watch out for one another. Not only does Cowgirl Kate always have an apple or a carrot or a surprise for Cocoa when he needs it, but Cocoa also keeps on eye on Cowgirl Kate. When she climbs too high in a tree for his liking, he’s quickly there urging her down and back into the saddle. When Cowgirl Kate can’t get to sleep on a shivery night in the barn, Cocoa sings her a lullaby and snuggles close.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa, a Geisel Honor book, is perfect for readers transitioning to chapter books. Erica Silverman’s chapters are short and engaging, Betsy Lewin’s pictures compliment the text perfectly with humor and simplicity, and subsequent titles in the series will keep readers reading.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

North / South Wisconsin Teachers' Convention 2009

Thank you to everyone who attended my sectionals at the Kalahari on Tuesday. (And sorry for the lateness of this post.) It was a pleasure to see so many friends from around the state and from my former staffs at Immanuel and Hales Corners.

If anyone didn't get a handout or a book list for Help Readers Love Reading!, please email me. The address is in the banner at the top of the page and in the margin to the right. I'll get one sent off A.S.A.P.

There was no handout for Books for Religion Lessons, but below you'll see the basic outline and the books I mentioned. I hope it's helpful.

Thanks again to everyone who attended and for all the positive comments. I'd love to hear from more of you - what you liked, didn't like, or any other thoughts. Leave a comment at the bottom of this post or send me an email.

The Obvious
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The Ballad of Matthew's Begats by Andrew Peterson
This Is Just to Say by Joyce Sidman
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (The Wingfeather Saga) by Andrew Peterson
Wombat Divine by Mem Fox
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Discussion Starters
The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Wolves by Emily Gravett
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Look At Characters - The Big Picture
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Katie Kazoo Switcheroo (Series) by
Rosie and Michael by Judith Viorst

Look At Characters - The Little Details
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild by Mem Fox
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer

Introduce a Topic
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff Kinney
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
The Sea of Trolls (Trolls Trilogy) by Nancy Farmer
A Season of Gifts (A Long Way from Chicago, A Year Down Yonder) by Richard Peck
Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed
The OK Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
The Library by Sarah Stewart

Does It Have To Be Books?
Sports Illustrated from July 27, 2009
Sports Illustrated from June 29, 2009

And this movie: