Sunday, September 22, 2013

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!

I had my weekend all planned out.  Friday: write a blog post, read a book.  Saturday: finish another book.  Sunday: finish the weekend strong by reading TWO books.  Here it is, Sunday night, and I only read one book (Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong).  And I'm just now getting around to writing that blog post!  Winter is approaching fast in Montana.  The wind is picking up, and snow is in the forecast for Wednesday!  That's right, snow.  I ended up pulling out all of the girls' winter clothes this weekend to prepare.  Plus I had to do some cooking to use up all the produce we are harvesting to get ready for frost.  Yikes! I've got a freezer full of shredded zucchini, pizza sauce, and tomato coulis.   But I'm not here to lament my busy weekend.  I'm here to talk about one of Gloria's most recent favorite picture books, Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!.

Maybe I should start out by saying that Mem Fox is a literacy genius.  She has been writing books for years - such great ones as Time for Bed, Koala Lou, and Where is the Green Sheep?.  All of these books put the principles into play that she discusses in her book Reading Magic: Why Re.ading Aloud to our Children Will Change their Lives Forever.  I saw her speak about literacy at the Glendale Public Library a few years ago, and she was wise and amazing.  Fox has studied literacy and pre-literacy for many years, and she has come up with a natural, fun way to introduce concepts to children.

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug! is her latest, and is a collaboration with Laura Ljungkvist.  The book is a very simple look-and-find book.  On each page, the narrator calls "Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!  Where are you?"  Then the narrator announces "There you are..." and uses some rhyming text to help the viewer find the ladybug in the illustrations.  The first illustration is a wide-angle shot.  There is plenty to look at - although Ljungkvist includes many of the same toys on each page, they are in new places and positions each time.  The first illustration in the book is of a filled bathtub, with toys galore.  In the tub is a long-legged giraffe, a fish, a rapidly sinking VW bug, and the ubiquitous rubber duckie.  When you peer at the duck closely, you can see the ladybug's side just behind the duck.  The text continues "..afloat in the bath with Duck and Giraffe!"

This is definitely a first look-and-find book, and it suited almost 5-year-old Gloria perfectly.  A few weeks ago, we checked out Can You See What I see: Out of this World, and Frances loved it, but Gloria found it difficult and a little frustrating.  There were too many things to find on each page, and they weren't easy enough for Gloria to spot without prompting.  This book, though, is very different.  The first illustration in each set, as I mentioned, is wide-angle.  It lets readers pore over the illustration, looking for Ladybug.  But it's not overwhelming.  The lines are simple and clear, to help guide the reader's eye.  There are plenty of patterns and textures in each illustration, but they soothe the eye instead of distracting.  And if the reader doesn't spot Ladybug on their first try, they can always turn the page to see where she is.  She's the focus of a spot illustration on the next page, which allows the reader to train their eye on where she is.  They can flip back and locate her more effectively in the bigger illustration if they have trouble.

Several pre-literacy skills are used successfully here.  Fox rhymes the text so new readers can predict what animals Ladybug is hiding near.  For instance, in another illustration, the reader finds Ladybug "tucked in a box with Rabbit and Fox".  They can guess who she might be near in the bigger illustration.  The repetitive text throughout the book also helps new readers feel in control of what is happening.  They know that the first page will include the narrator calling for Ladybug and they can call for here as well.  There has been a lot of enthusiastic hollering for Ladybug in my house lately!

One of the things Ljungkvist contributes to this is a remarkably detailed, yet simple, set of toys.  Each illustration contains the same toys, just set up differently.  That way readers don't have to spend a lot of time identifying the individual objects once they've seen them.  If they spend a lot of time looking at the first illustration of Ladybug hiding in the bath, they'll be able to see the boats, ball, car, and giraffe in the other illustrations.  Even better, this technique rewards repeated viewings.  It's only after you stop searching so intently for Ladybug that you can appreciate the bee buzzing wildly, or the positioning of the robot (usually teetering almost out of control).

The toys also add to a retro feel for this book - there are no Polly Pockets or Squinkies here.  There are modern cars (a Volvo station wagon for one), but even those feel antique.  Ljungkvist's digital illustrations are mostly in a candy-colored palette, and some pieces look collaged, like the black and white chicken.  It adds up to a feast for our eyes.  The animals all express personality through their charming faces, too.  There are blocks in each illustration to help spell out Ladybug's name, again emphasizing the spelling of her name to readers.

This book is a lot of fun, but it also helps start young children on the road to more successful seek-and-find books.  Gloria can read this one all by herself now, and we'll be sorry to return it to the library.  But I'm sure another family will love Ladybug as much as we have.  Now I'm off to do more chores... goodbye, weekend!

Yoo-hoo, Ladybug!  Mem Fox; illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist.  Beach Lane: Simon & Schuster, 2013.  (borrowed from the library)
Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children will Change their Lives Forever.  Mem Fox.  Harcourt, 2001.  (personal collection)
Can You See What I See?: Out of this World.  Walter Wick.  Cartwheel Books, 2013.  (borrowed from the library)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be?

Summer sped by for me - how about for you?  Some things in our lives stay the same all summer.  Gloria is in a year-round preschool/daycare, and obviously our general schedule each week stays the same.  But in Montana, summer is so short, and we took advantage of it this summer by packing in swim lessons, tending our vegetable garden, and outdoor time.  One thing we have enjoyed doing each summer is taking part in our local library's summer reading program.  It's called "Four to Score", and we record the titles and what we liked best about four books to earn a prize.  The sheet asks for three fiction books and one nonfiction title.  The librarians tell us that young children don't actually have to read nonfiction.  But you know me - I am such a nonfiction lover, and I want to read nonfiction with the girls.

It isn't always easy to find nonfiction that appeals to Gloria, though.  At 4 1/2, she is doing some reading on her own (Dinosaur vs. the Library was one she read to her preschool class recently), and she has pretty limited interest in the subjects Frances wants to read about.  Also, much of the nonfiction that Frances checks out is too long and detailed for Gloria.  So when Eggs 1,2,3 came up in my blog pile last week, I was really excited to share it with both Frances and Gloria.

When I first got Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? as a nomination for the Cybils last year, I couldn't wait to read it.  I had reviewed Janet Halfmann's previous Cybils nomination, Star of the Sea  and all of us loved it.  So I had a feeling that we would all like this one too.  And the rest of the Nonfiction Picture Book panel agreed, making this a finalist for the Nonfiction Picture Book award.  Sadly, it didn't win, but I'd like to focus on why this is a perfect preschool-level book.

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? combines several ways of looking at information in a format that's very accessible for young children.  First of all, the book is a counting book.  Each double-page spread has an enormous number on the left-hand side of the page, corresponding to the number of eggs on that spread.  On the first page, Halfmann sets the tone.  There is a sentence describing the egg and its habitat.  Then she asks the reader to guess "Who will the baby be?"  Young readers can look at the illustration on the opposite page for clues.  Again, Thompson has carefully considered the readers and given fairly obvious indications of the answer.  Then they can open a sturdy flap to reveal the answer.  The number is repeated inside the flap: "5 wiggly glowworms, their tiny tails shining, growing up to be fireflies."  The eggs increase in number from 1 to 10.  And the number of eggs is appropriate for each animal, bird or reptile, which is no easy feat.  At the end of the book, there is one last chance to count all the eggs, and inside the flap, all the babies.

The book seems deceptively simple.  But Halfmann and Thompson are working some real magic here.  First of all, the sentence that gives clue to the egg's inhabitant including important information for the reader.  Those sentences might divulge details about the creature's habitat "a land of ice and snow", what the egg looks like "tiny and round", and whether the parents are involved.  The illustrations are crucial to helping readers identify the baby, and those might include details of the parents or habitat as well.  The eggs, too, are always prominent.  Once the flap is opened then readers see the babies once they hatch, as well as learning their identity and the specific name of the baby, if applicable: "6 babies called fry, eating, eating, eating, and soon they are fish".

There are many things I like about this book, and one of those things is its suitability for many audiences.  It's a natural learning tool whether used in small groups or read with a parent. But it comes alive when used in a storytime.  Listeners can participate by giving the numbers, counting the number of eggs and babies and guessing who might be inside the egg.  It is also a nonfiction book that reads more like a story.  The information has been incorporated into this format so seamlessly, which makes me appreciate the effort that must have gone in to writing this text.  

Finally, one of the best things about the book is the design.  The flaps are extremely sturdy and will hold up to repeated (and rough) readings.  The flaps also open in different directions to keep the experience interesting and fresh.  

One other thing I'd like to mention about this book is that there is no back matter in this title.  While I usually look very carefully at the back matter, this is one title where it is appropriate not to have back matter.  Halfmann has included enough detail for preschoolers in the actual text.  Young children don't need to use a bibliography as a jumping-off point for additional research.  They've been given everything they need already, and I admire the simplicity here.

The illustrations are collaged, with textured papers and layered cut-paper assemblies.  The art walks a fine line between realism and collage very successfully.  The collaged elements add depth to the pictures, but Thompson is careful to use natural colors and replicate the creatures exactly.  The eggs look very real as well, and you can almost feel their exteriors as you look at the pages.  The turtle eggs look tough and leathery; the tadpole eggs really seem encased in shimmering jelly.

This is such a terrific book.  The eggs are fascinating, and so are the animals that lay them.  Halfmann and Thompson have done a masterful job bringing the topic to life for the youngest readers.  I highly recommend it!

Eggs 1,2,3: Who Will the Babies Be? Janet Halfmann; art by Betsy Thompson.  Blue Apple Books, 2012.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

sent by the publisher in consideration for the Cybils

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Night Before First Grade

I was invited to take part in Natasha Wing's Back-to-School blog tour this year.  It was a perfect fit for us, since Frances just started first grade last Wednesday.  We were lucky enough to receive The Night Before First Grade from Natasha (and you can too! - details at the end of the post).  I was amazed at how many of the details of the book felt like they came right  from Frances' experiences, and I can't wait to tell you about her review of the story.  But first, a summary of the plot so you can see why it fits Frances so well.

The night before school starts, Penny is so excited she can hardly stand it.  She is packing school supplies and her lunch and planning her outfit.  Penny and her best friend Jenny have matching outfits already picked out, and neither of them can wait to start the new year.  But when the day dawns, and the girls scurry off to school, there's a problem.  "The principal told us that some changes were made. 'We have some new students.  So we split the first grade.'"  You might predict the outcome - the best friends have been split up.  This sudden, unexpected change might make the day terrible for some first graders.  But Penny realizes "I had to be brave because I'm a first-grader."  And it turns out her new class isn't all that bad - she knows most of the other students already, and her teacher, Mr. Barr, is great.  Penny plucks up her courage and goes to say hello to someone she doesn't already know.  It turns out that the new girl and Penny have things in common - favorite colors and pet turtles.  When Penny and her new friend, Nina, join the crowd going to the lunchroom, looking for Jenny, there is one more surprise in store for Penny.

There are seventeen books in The Night Before series.  We read The Night Before Kindergarten last year too.  So many of the books in this series have to deal with everyday worries and events that I could have requested any title, and they would have all resonated with Frances and Gloria.  Wing really knows what this age child is interested in.  There's The Night Before the 100th Day of School, The Night Before the Tooth Fairy, and we even could have read The Night Before Preschool since Gloria's preschool started last week too.  Since all the books are based on Clement Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas", the poetry is familiar.  Wing does a great job of adapting it to her themes without making it wholly unrecognizable.  There is the twinkling and wondering of eyes, just like in the poem.  Impressively, the rhymes also never seem forced into this artificial structure, which is very tricky to do.

Now for our personal experience reading this story with Frances (I feel obligated to say that Gloria was there too, even though her opinion doesn't matter as much this time).  Frances was very surprised at how much Penny's experience on the first day of school echoed her own.  Some of this is because many first grade experiences are alike - for instance, the classroom routines or the bus ride.  Then there were some things that were just luck - the fact that Frances, too, has a male teacher.  But there were a couple of things that really spoke to Frances.

This year, Frances' school, unlike many of the other district schools, didn't tell students who their teacher would be next year at the end of the previous school year.  Many of our friends spent time in the classrooms and knew what they were in for, and we spent the summer jealous of them.  Frances wondered all summer who her teacher would be.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the school's decision not to announce teachers, and it very much like what happens to Penny.  There is quite a bit of mobility in Frances' school, and the school could not be sure how many students there would be or in which first grade classroom children would end up.  When the teaching assignments were made, and the letter came in the mail, Frances had gotten the teacher she wanted.  On the downside, much like Penny, only a few of her friends were in her class.

Frances handled this change in much the same way Penny did.  She has become closer with other friends during the school day, and looks forward to spending recesses with a whole large group of  girl friends.  The Night Before First Grade definitely helped with this transition, as Frances realized that there were opportunities in her new class, and that she didn't have to be nervous about meeting new friends.  Just like the Girl Scout song, she can "Make new friends, and keep the old."

One of the other things that I liked about this book was the bus ride.  Frances took the bus last year, but didn't love it.  The district rule is that kindergarteners and first graders sit in seats with five-point harnesses for safety.  Frances felt that this was babyish, and she was frustrated with the amount of time it took her to get buckled and unbuckled.  Even in the last few days before school started, Frances didn't want to take the bus again this year.  But her bus experience has improved - maybe it's because a close friend is now riding the bus with her, maybe she's figured out how to buckle faster.  Regardless, she has adopted the attitude that Penny's dad celebrates in the book "What a big girl you are to be taking the bus."  Frances is enjoying the bus now.

I loved the book because it also recognizes the strange gap between kindergarten and first grade.  There is only one year's difference between them, but first graders seem so much older.  Penny sees kindergarteners in the hall and wonders "They all looked so young, were we ever that small?"  Frances is still my little girl, but this book celebrates how first graders have become older and wiser.  Our transition to school went so much more smoothly this year because Frances knew the ropes.  She knew where the bathroom was, the gym teacher's name, and where the library is.  Just like The Night Before First Grade, her night before school started was full of anticipation, not nerves.  Thank you, Natasha Wing, for sharing this with us.  I think the surest sign of the popularity of this book is that both Frances and Gloria continue to read it on a daily basis.

We are lucky enough to be hosting a giveaway for an autographed copy of The Night Before First Grade.   a Rafflecopter giveaway
But you should also go to Natasha's website for more titles in the series.  I also want to point out a reading of this book on YouTube here .  

Happy back to school to all of you whether you are a parent or a teacher, librarian or school employee.  Enjoy this book and the giveaway!  Good luck!  The giveaway closes next Friday night, September 13th.

The Night Before First Grade.  Natasha Wing; illustrated by Deborah Zemke.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2005.

The author sent this book to me as part of an organized blog tour for review.