Friday, July 22, 2011

Just One Bite

As a rule, I wouldn’t have said that I am a nonfiction reader.  In fact, if I had to describe my “grown-up” reading habits, I would say that I primarily and heavily read fiction.  But in reality, I do read a lot of nonfiction, including biographies and nonfiction about reading.  I wouldn’t say it is my favorite thing to read – give me a good story anyday – and I’d suspect others would say the same.  But that rule goes out the window when it comes to children’s books.  I gravitate towards nonfiction for young readers, and if you look at my blog, you’ll see many nonfiction books come off the “new nonfiction” shelf at our local library.  I find authors who specialize in nonfiction have such an enthusiasm for their subjects and a passion for making it easily accessible to any reader.  That’s one of the things I loved about working in the youth department of a public library.  I loved introducing a subject to adults by using books aimed at young children.  You can find out the basics about anything in books for young readers, and then adults can decide whether they want to learn more.
Another reason I like these books is that they often make their subjects so cool!  Just One Bite brings animals’ eating habits to life.  Each double-page spread illuminates one animal (life-size, of course) and what they will eat in just one bite.  It ranges from a tiny speck of dirt for a worm to an enormous sperm whale devouring a giant squid.  The information is impactful, and Schaefer’s way of delivering it makes it even more exciting.  Her text, in combination with Geoff Waring’s illustrations, make this a perfect introduction to animals for preschoolers.  There are only one or two lines of text per page, and Schaefer has to distill the facts about that animal and their prey down to just a few words.  Those words have to pique kids’ interest and keep them reading.  The subject (animals) and the life-size concept are very reminiscent of the successful Steve Jenkins books, and I think they are a terrific conduit to those books for young readers.  But this book is designed to appeal to younger readers and thinkers than the Steve Jenkins books.
 To balance the spare text, Waring’s illustrations are simple, eye-catching, and truly life-sized.  He has simplified each animal down to its strongest lines without sacrificing the textures and features that keep them recognizable to young children.  The backgrounds are bright and basic, which makes the animal and its one bite stand out even more.  The animal and its food or prey are realistically drawn, but Waring isn’t tied to the same rules when creating the background.  I think this is a good thing – the backgrounds are primarily solid-colored, and many of these animals would become camouflaged against their natural background.
The last spread, with the sperm whale devouring the giant squid, is appropriately a large fold-out spread.  This gives children such a sense of the enormity of the sperm whale, which is really only indicated by its teeth and a little bit of gray mouth because it is so large.  This last spread made me realize how artfully Schaefer had organized the book.  It begins with that worm’s eraser-sized dirt clump, and moves up to a mouthful that cannot fit on even a double-paged spread – wow!   Readers may want to read the book more than once – the first time through for the information included, the second time to really examine the size of the animals and their particular mouthfuls.
While this is one of those books that boys will connect with because of the weird and gross things that are sometimes eaten (the komodo dragon eats a vicious-looking snake), I think this book would be equally successful in an elementary school classroom.  The illustrations can easily be seen from far away because of Waring’s design choices, and Schaefer has included additional information about all of the animals and their eating habits at the end of the book.  She does an excellent job defining some of the creatures’ unusual habits in context.  For instance, the common octopus drills a hole into its prey’s “shell with its radula – a toothed tongue.”.  This gives eager readers more information to wield.
I would strongly recommend this book to preschoolers and young elementary school students.  Not only is Schaefer’s enthusiasm visible throughout the book, but they will be able to go back and refer to the information over and over again.  I first checked this book out two months ago, but returned it when we went on vacation.  When we came back to Montana, I had already started this blog, and knew I wanted to finish it, so I checked the book out again.  My girls are still just as fascinated by it as I am.  In fact, Frances wants me to read it again right now!
Just One Bite: 11 Animals and their Bites at Life-Size! Lola Schaefer; illustrated by Geoff Waring.  Chronicle Books, 2010.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller

When I was “just” a children’s librarian, I will freely admit that Fancy Nancy was a little too…fancy for me.  I’d show families where they were on the shelf, buy the latest copies for the library, but I’d leave the reading to them.  Now Frances is four years old, and we’ve read our share of Fancy Nancy titles – she loves the glitz and glamor of Nancy’s outfits, and I do admire her sophisticated vocabulary.  So when I got a box of books from HarperCollins to review, there was excited shrieking when Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller emerged.  Both Frances and Gloria looked at it several  times then, and afterwards I hid it away to review it later. 
When the girls and I went on vacation a few weeks ago, I stashed Splendid Speller in Frances’ carry-on backpack so we could read it on the plane.  Due to missed connections, we ended up spending 8 hours in the Seattle airport, and boy, was I grateful to have Fancy Nancy in tow!! She stood up to repeated readings that day and has been in rotation ever since.
In this title in the series, Nancy is faced with her first spelling test.  She’s sure it will be a breeze because she is such a splendid speller.  Nancy studies all week, but during the test her confidence wavers on a word.  She looks at her friend Bree’s test paper for confirmation, and then realizes that she might have done something wrong.  This moral dilemma (to confess to the teacher or not) colors the rest of the story, but don’t worry, Nancy solves her dilemma in typical fancy style.
First things first – this book is a level one reader, which HarperCollins defines as beginning reading.  The back cover adds that level one books include “simple sentences for eager new readers”.  Because of Nancy’s impressive vocabulary, I would suspect that the first time through, a beginning reader would need some help reading words like splendid, memorize, bravo and impressed.  However, one of the things I like best about Fancy Nancy is that O’Connor does a terrific job of allowing Nancy to define new words in the context of the story.  Sometimes she’ll explain the word’s meaning in parentheses “(Splendid is even better than great.)”.  When she spells the word chien, not only does she give a meaning, but also gives the pronunciation to help out.  Again, I think the pronunciation would need an adult reader’s guidance the first time through before the reader has confidence to tackle it themselves.
This book is firmly rooted in first grade, and I imagine it would be very comforting for a first grader to read.  While Nancy has confidence in her spelling ability, when the spelling list is announced, there are children in the class who look anxious and worried.  Not everyone in the class thinks spelling is easy, but for children for whom spelling is a problem, the book shows Nancy using study skills to memorize the words.  She draws pictures that are labeled with the spelling word and practices the words aloud.  Nancy doesn’t just rest on her belief that she is a great speller, but takes the test seriously.  Their teacher is kind, concerned and sparkly – someone who readers will gravitate towards.  They will feel Nancy’s anxiety when she realizes she may have cheated by looking at Bree’s work.  They’ll also be relieved by Ms. Glass’ discreet, comforting handling of the situation.  Nancy isn’t “in trouble” and has the confidence to make it right.  She has to decide if it is better to have her splendid reputation intact or to be honest about her shortcomings.
The illustrations are as girl-centered as ever, and I mean that in a good way.  The pictures are packed full of curlicues and flourishes and all the things little girls hold dear.  Nancy and Bree’s hair are packed full of baubles and barrettes, and their clothes are just as fabulous as ever.  And the rest of Nancy’s family is reassuringly plain and restful to my adult eyes.  I appreciate that Nancy isn’t depicted as wearing all pink or all dresses – that other colors and styles can be equally fancy.  And Ms. Glass is in turns accessible and stylish – just the sort of teacher we’d envision for that Fancy Nancy.
All in all, I think this book is well-created for the young elementary school reader.  The ethics of cheating are handled naturally without being too didactic but still staying true to the character.  There is a glossary of Fancy Nancy’s Fancy Words to help the unfamiliar words stay fresh in children’s minds.  Fun and thoughtful, too.

Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller.  Jane O’Connor; cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser; interior illustrations by Ted Enik.  Harper: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy, hoping I would review the book.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Know Here

Frances and Gloria and I have been traveling for the past three weeks across the United States to visit family.  Since we moved to Montana, Frances has spent a lot of time observing what is going on around her, and equating it with what she has known previously.  “In Phoenix, there was a Chuck E. Cheese, but in Montana we don’t have one.”  “Remember in Phoenix we went to swim school?  Why don’t we go to swim school here?”  As we then began to travel across the United States, she has done the same thing – “Is there an airport in Helena?”  “Can we get this kind of fruit snacks at home?”  Life changes as children move from community to community, and while they adapt to new things (“We didn’t have snow in Phoenix”), they spend a lot of time comparing their new lives with the security of their old lives.
That is exactly what happens in I Know Here.  The young girl is on her way to school when her brother gives her the news that they will be moving to Toronto. Their father has been building a dam in a remote area, across the North Saskatchewan River.  There are only ten trailers along the building site, and the girl’s teacher only teaches nine children.  This area is all the little girl has ever known, and it will be a complete change to move to metropolitan Toronto.  She is visibly worried about the change until her teacher gives her a way to take her memories with her.
I Know Here came to my attention through the Horn Book’s 2010 Fanfare list.  We didn’t get it at our local public library, most likely because it is from a small press (Groundwood).  While this book is based in a remote area of Canada, the little girl’s worries about moving and bringing her experiences to a new place are very universal.
Laurel Croza is a debut author with an amazing poetic, lyrical style.  The little girl watches a truck jouncing toward her on the rutted dirt road, “bits of gravel jumping up and dancing under the tires.”  She can recognize a fox’s “damp fur smell” behind another trailer. The young girl has learned this place well – she has experienced everything it has to offer, just as most young children do.  The sensory memories the little girl holds dearest are what her teacher assures her will move with her.  What she knows, what she loves, is the comfort she will take to a new home, and her appreciation of the nature around her will shape who she will be forever.
Her teacher tells the little girl to draw all the things she loves and wants to remember.  Matt James is the illustrator who brings all the young girl’s memories to life.  His illustrations are varied, creative, but most importantly, child-like in perspective.  The teacher, Miss Hendrickson, stands tall over the students.  The girl’s younger sister, Kathie, waits to catch an enormous, page-filling frog, whose tongue curves over its own back, lazily aiming for a fly.  James’ acrylic paintings are luminous, and echo the dam’s wooded setting with star-filled nights and gray cloudy skies.  But the paintings have a twist – an airplane flies overhead on improbably skewed wings, a forest all leans to one side, that impossibly large frog.  The endpapers are decorated with a whimsical map of Canada, including a red star marking Toronto.
The combination of Croza’s descriptive language and James’ creative illustrations bring rural Canada to life for readers here.  They might look at the things that are unfamiliar to them – the moose the girl spots, the lone television for the community broadcasting outside under the stars.  But they’ll also hold on to the things they find familiar about their own communitiies.  Just like Frances did when we moved, this young girl will bring the best of her old life with her.

I Know Here.  Laurel Croza; illustrated by Matt James.  Groundwood Books, 2010.
Borrowed from the Williamsburg Regional Library.