Friday, April 1, 2016

Olive & Beatrix: The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders

Just because you happen to be a good reader doesn't mean you always want to read challenging books.  At our house, there is a variety of reading materials on hand for all of us.  I am just as likely to catch Frances and Gloria poring over a Lego catalog as I am to find them reading Secrets of Walt Disney World.  In fact, both of these events happened in the past week at our house.  Frances and Gloria read the catalog, picking out the sets they each would like.  And each night after they went to bed, I would hear Gloria reading Secrets to Frances at her request.  That's the thing about readers.  Once they get the bug, they read.

What I've also noticed about Frances and Gloria is that they like to read both a large variety of materials, but that what they read is also on a variety of reading levels.  Just because they can read harder books doesn't mean that is the best thing for them every day.  That's why we love the Branches series by Scholastic - there is something satisfying about completing a book in one sitting.  I find that Frances and Gloria still are building their reading stamina, and can get discouraged when they tackle longer books.  They can build fluency in reading, no matter what they read.

I was so lucky to get this new title in the Branches series during the Cybils review process.  I instantly fell in love with Olive and Beatrix, and so did the girls.  I bet you will too!!

Olive and Beatrix are twins.  The story is told from Olive's point of view.  She sounds fairly matter of fact as she notes "Beatrix make look like an ordinary girl, but she's not.  She is a witch." (p. 2).  Olive breezes right on to point out that "I may also look like an ordinary girl.  That's because I am.  I'm not a witch at all." (p. 3)  These twins are not identical, but Olive is okay with that.  Each page of this particular spread has a picture of one of the girls with some important things pointed out.  While Beatrix has a talking pet pig and a "head full of tricks", Olive has pet bugs and a "head full of smarts".  Even from the introduction, you can tell that Olive doesn't feel that Beatrix's talents outpace her own.

By the way, the whole becoming a witch thing?  Olive explains that Beatrix is a witch because she was born precisely at midnight on a full moon.  Needless to say, Olive was not.  But instead of magic spells and tricks, Olive loves science.  She and her best friend Eddie are always working on a project.  While they are experimenting, though, Beatrix is always playing tricks on them and causing their ideas to go haywire.

Olive and Eddie get tired of Beatrix's mischief and decide to play a trick of their own.  They know that Beatrix is afraid of spiders, so they plan to dump a whole pile of them on Beatrix.  And their plan works perfectly!  The problem comes when that gaggle of spiders runs through a growth potion Beatrix had conjured up.  It takes all of them to help contain the not-so-itty-bitty spiders!

As I mentioned before, these twins are very different.  Olive is confident in her science and her brain.  Olive has Eddie, and their friendship seems collaborative and supportive.  Olive operates very differently than Beatrix.  I wouldn't exactly say that Beatrix is the bad guy here, but it's pretty clear that she doesn't have close friends like Eddie.  She has her talking pig, Houston, who comments on the action wryly - when Beatrix is screaming, covered in spiders, Houston calmly steps over to Beatrix's dropped phone and announces to the caller "Miss Beatrix will have to call you back." (p. 14) - but that's all she has.  Beatrix seems bossier, not as friendly.  It takes some effort for her to work with Eddie and Olive to deal with her overgrown spiders.  Even then she peppers her dialogue with insults ("Step aside, dull skulls!" (p. 37))  I will be interested to see how these girls' relationship progresses through the series - will they learn to meet in the middle?  Become friends, even?  We'll have to wait and see.

One of the things I love most about the Branches group of titles is the diversity of text and illustration within each book.  In The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders , there is such a great mix of text and illustration, keeping readers on their toes.  Even though there is only a line or two of actual text on each page, Stadelmann incorporates text throughout the illustrations too.  There is a map to examine, with captions to help the reader get situated.  There is dialogue in many of the pictures too, giving this a graphic novel feel.  Readers are absorbing the plot and characterization without spending a lot of time on the text.  It makes the book feel breezy, not onerous.

And this brings me back to my original thoughts about reading.  Frances and I are reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets out loud.  As we all know about the Harry Potter books, each chapter can take a long time to read.  We read for twenty minutes, and maybe get through five pages.  So it's fun to be able to read something like this, too.  The Branches series also can successfully tempt the reluctant reader with a book that is a chapter book, yet there is a manageable amount of text for them.  The reading level assigned by Scholastic is Grade 2, but I can see the plot appealing to a much wider range of readers.  

I love the illustrations in this book too.  The palette is a little dark and moody - greens, grays, and purples - which keeps it from feeling too girly.  It is attractive to girls, with the twin sister angle, but would also appeal to boys with the magic and science emphasis (and I haven't yet mentioned the cool inventions Olive and Eddie come up with!).  The illustrations have a good deal of humor in them as the three join forces.  Magic and science don't always work well together, and that is evident in their adventures!  Both Beatrix and Olive wear comfortable clothes for what they need to do - tunics, leggings, and no-muss hair styles.  These are can-do girls and they'll take charge!

This is a series that we will definitely be watching.  I can't wait to see what else happens to these twins.  I am so glad it was nominated for a Cybil award so we could read it.

Olive & Beatrix: The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders.  Amy Marie Stadelmann.  Scholastic: Branches, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review as part of the Cybils process.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

How Big Were Dinosaurs?

There's been a little bit of a dry spell here at From Tots to Teens.  This fall I served on the Cybils panels for Early Readers and Easy Chapter Books (the eventual winners are listed here ).  While I loved the experience, it took every bit of my reading and writing energy up until the end of December.  Once we made our choices, I was ready to start writing about some of those exciting books, but..we went on vacation, and then got sick, just like everyone else does in January.  The best part of this is that I have a pile of great books to talk about, but that pile only gets higher and higher. At least in February I was able to participate in a couple of terrific blog tours for Catherine's Pascha and Deborah Hopkinson's Beatrix Potter picture book nonfiction.  

So while I read for the Cybils and spent time with the girls, this book has been patiently waiting to be reviewed.  I have loved Lita Judge's books for a few years now.  Red Sled is a book the girls keep going back to, especially on snowy days.  Then I read Bird Talk on a different Cybils panel, and fell in love with Judge's method of combining illustration with fact.  And this winter I was lucky enough to review Judge's newest picture book, Hoot and Peep, for School Library Journal, where it was given a starred review!  So when we found How Big Were Dinosaurs? at our local library, I wanted to call your attention to it.  

How Big Were Dinosaurs? starts out by directly challenging our perceptions of dinosaurs: "When we think of dinosaurs, we think of huge MONSTERS.  But how big were dinosaurs really?"  Instantly, readers picture all of the dinosaurs they've seen in the media.  One of my favorite people to follow on Instagram is @dinosaurwhisperer, where Dustin Growick is always adding dinosaurs into familiar sights.  It's a fun thing to think about - all of us going about our business while dinosaurs tower over us, going about theirs.  As children, we all believe that every dinosaur is fierce, enormous, angry.  Now Judge is about to turn that picture in children's heads upside down.  

Each two page spread introduces a different dinosaur to readers.  There are a couple of well-known dinosaurs, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but there are many other dinosaurs represented here.  Judge shows readers the Torosaurus, the Struthiomimus and the Leaellynasaura, among others. The name of the dinosaur is set in a larger, colored font so it is a focus of attention.  What makes Judge's method especially interesting is how well she relates the dinosaurs of millions of years ago to our world today, allowing readers to compare those dinosaurs to something concrete in their own experience.

With the Leaellynasaura (I'm not sure I can say that once, much less three times fast!), there is first an acknowledgement of the dinosaur's odd name - "You'd think these dinosaurs were tree-eating giants."  Their name may be confusing and complicated for readers, but the facts are a little more straight-forward.  They lived in the South Pole and were only two feet tall, directly in contrast to their gigantic sounding name.  The illustrations on this spread show the dinosaurs nestled into a group of emperor penguins.  Judge incorporates humor so well into the illustrations.  All four Leaellynasaurus peer worriedly around the penguins.  Meanwhile the colony of penguins all rest contentedly with their eyes closed, totally unconcerned about the dinosaurs.

The Stegosaurus is one of the dinosaurs that will be very familiar to readers.  On this two page spread, the Stegosaurus takes up one entire page, dwarfing three bewildered cows on the other side.  The text notes that while "Stegosaurus weighed as much as three cows... he looked much bigger."  And this important fact: "Bigger isn't always smarter - this giant plant-eater only had a brain the size of a walnut."

How Big Were Dinosaurs? is one of those books that I am amazed by.  Everything on the page is meaningful and it is all designed to be relatable to the reader.  When you turn each page, you are given instant information about the featured dinosaur.  So even if you were just browsing the book, you'd see the dinosaur's name in that larger, bolder font, and then get some idea of their relative size through her illustrations.  And Judge's style serves to draw the reader back to the text.  On the spread for the Tsintaosaurus, for example, when just glancing at the illustration, the reader might think that the woman is trying to save her life by swatting at the dinosaur with an ineffectual broom. The Tsintaosaurus looms over the woman as she waves the broom threateningly.  Only through reading the text do you learn that the woman is actually trying to protect her garden from the plant-eating dinosaur.  Still, it seems to be that the broom might not be much help!

The Tyrannosaurus Rex  is another great example of this integration of text and illustration.  The illustration is of the dinosaur, laying back in a dental chair, getting his teeth cleaned.  His tiny arms flail helplessly by his sides while the hygienist brushes away.  Honestly, he looks as grumpy as we all feel at the dentist!  But while he looks harmless and humorous in the picture, the text tells us that his jaw muscles "could crunch down with ten times the force of a alligator bite."  Yikes!

Of course, the back matter in this book just add to the interplay between text and illustration.  On one spread there is informational text explaining how scientists know (or hypothesize) how big dinosaurs were by using the fossilized skeletons to estimate.  While this information isn't anything new, Judge puts her own spin on it, consistent with what's been shown in the rest of the book.  Then there is a terrific fold-out spread which compares the sizes of each of the dinosaurs mentioned in the book.  Argentinosaurus, of course, is the longest and largest and takes up most of the real estate of the four pages.  But Judge also sprinkles some of the modern references in the spread too for size comparison.  There are the cows and emperor penguins I previously mentioned along with people and cars.  This spread really made me fall in love with this book the first time I read it.  It is clever and creative and again gives young readers something to pore over and internalize.  It's really great!

I obviously can't say enough about this smart book.  I really feel that it does an amazing job bringing dinosaurs to life without sensationalizing them.  Check this book out - it just might make a dinosaur lover out of you!

How Big Were Dinosaurs? Lita Judge.  Roaring Brook Press, 2013.

 borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter really needs no introduction to readers.  Many, many children have read The Tale of Peter Rabbit or any of her other stories.  At this point in Potter's popularity, you can decorate a nursery with bedding and toys based on Potter's illustrations.  You can mention Mr. McGregor in casual conversation, and your listener will know about what that farmer did to Peter Rabbit.  Beatrix Potter crafted these whimsical little books with care and love, and that still shows through today.

Frances and Gloria both went through periods where they wanted to read tons of Beatrix Potter stories.  Surprisingly, we do not own any of the stories, but our library has a special boxed set.  We would check out one or two each visit.  Their tiny size, the charming illustrations and the stories contained within really captivated the girls.  So those memories of time spent with Potter's tales made the girls want to read Deborah Hopkinson's story about Beatrix Potter's childhood.

The story begins with a note written directly to the reader.  It helps set the stage for the story, but telling readers that Beatrix is a young girl at this point, and that her story might keep children from wanting to lend out their pets.  It's definitely an intriguing tactic.  Then Hopkinson goes on to explain that Beatrix (and her younger brother, Bertram) have a wonderful space for themselves in their house, which includes room for their art, their science experiments, and lots of pets.  Beatrix loved animals, and had a collection of them.  At various times there was a frog, a canary, a snake, a turtle, and many, many others.  It seems like a lot of pets, but it wasn't quite enough.  Because Beatrix liked to draw and paint these animals, and "she liked to paint them doing ordinary, everyday things, like reading the newspaper, working in the garden, or taking tea. (And why not?)"  And the problem then is that she wants to paint a picture of a guinea pig.  Of course, guinea pig was not one of the pets I listed above.  So Beatrix has to borrow one.

Beatrix borrows her neighbor's guinea pig, with extravagant promises to bring that guinea pig (whose name is Queen Elizabeth) back in the morning, after the posing is complete.  As Hopkinson comments "The sitting began quite auspiciously.".  Beatrix begins to do her drawing, but is called away to attend a dinner party.  She doesn't put Queen Elizabeth safely away, because she doesn't think she'll be gone long.  But in the time Beatrix is gone, Queen Elizabeth helps herself to paper, string, and paste - all of which are not good for a guinea pig.  When Beatrix returns and sees the mess Queen Elizabeth has made, she doesn't think twice about it.  Instead, she puts Queen Elizabeth back in her cage for the night.  When Beatrix wakes up in the morning, Hopkinson addresses the reader directly again, and points out that the paper, string, and paste are not good for Queen Elizabeth.  That guinea pig is no longer alive.

Beatrix feels terrible that Queen Elizabeth has died, and when she goes to apologize to her neighbor, she brings a painting of the guinea pig that she completed.  Even though the neighbor is so angry, she ends up keeping the painting.  All those years later, that illustration ended up being worth quite a lot of money after Beatrix Potter became famous.  Did it make up for the loss of the guinea pig after all?

First of all, I found the combination of author and illustrator in this book absolutely charming.  Charlotte Voake's illustrations are delicate and sweet, so they echo Potter's very nicely.  But they also have an added touch of modern sensibility and personality.  It is the same with Hopkinson's text.  It mimics Potter's tone, but it has that wink at the reader.  Hopkinson's voice pokes a little bit of fun at the situation.  Even when there is tragedy, such as the guinea pig dying, there is still a moment of brevity.  The format of the book also resembles the small white books that Beatrix Potter and her publisher created.  There are some clever design choices made here.

There are some other good choices made here - the choice to focus on Potter's childhood helps keep someone who is famous relatable to children.  Beatrix seems just like most other children, with their love of pets and wild animals.  There is a lesson told here, about taking care of the animals that you are responsible for, but it doesn't hit readers over the head.  Instead they will be taken by the combination of humor and creativity that are described in these pages.  Hopkinson also has included pages from Potter's own journal to illuminate the predicaments she allowed her pets to get into.  It helps attract a wide range of readers to the story as well.  

Finally, as always, there is some fantastic back matter.  There is a P.S. which gives more information about Beatrix Potter and the story.  Hopkinson also lists some websites where readers can find more pictures of the guinea pig drawing and other Potter artifacts.  Finally, Hopkinson gives notes on this particular story, mentioning what has been taken from other sources and what has been invented.  I think this is an important distinction, particularly in a picture book format.  It helps students who might be using this as a source be able to figure out what is true and what isn't.

I was so lucky to be offered a chance to review this picture book as part of Deborah Hopkinson's blog tour.  I have enjoyed this book very much, and I hope you'll pick it up and learn something new about Beatrix Potter.  We certainly did.

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig.  Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake.  Schwartz & wade Books. 2016.

Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for appearing.  For other stops on the Beatrix Blog Tour please check

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Catherine's Pascha

This fall, I was very busy reading for the Cybils panel on Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books (if you are interested in the outcomes, our recommended finalists are here and the 2015 winners will be announced tomorrow, February 14th!).  It was a stimulating, exciting experience.  I was lucky enough to be on the panel with Mia Wenjen, one of the founders of Multicultural Children's Book Day.  She connected me to the effort, and I was soon matched with a book.  I couldn't believe my luck to be matched with Catherine's Pascha!

You see, first of all, the name Catherine (spelled in just this way), has a great deal of personal significance for my family.  It was thrilling to see the name front and center in the title, and this coincidence definitely made Frances and Gloria eager to pick it up.  And my favorite holiday has always been Easter.  This is a holiday that again has great personal significance, and my middle name happens to be Easterling!  There are many special Easter traditions in my family, and I've created new traditions around this day for Frances and Gloria.  It was fascinating to see how Pascha is celebrated in the Orthodox churches.

Catherine knows that she will be up late on Holy Saturday, since they will be attending church very late at night.  Her younger brother, Peter, is way too sleepy to participate in the church service, so they bring along blankets and pillows to keep him comfortable.  They also bring the Pascha baskets to share with their church community after the service.  The baskets contain sandwiches and sweet rolls shaped like rabbits.

As the liturgy begins, Catherine notes the difference between the service she attended last year at her Grandma's church and this one.  But as she's thinking about what she likes best, Father Nicholas begins this year's Pascha service.  It begins with one of Catherine's favorite traditions - the lighting of the candles.  As she looks around, she notices that "the church is full of light".  Catherine's best friend, Elizabeth, is next to Catherine, and as their candles waver, they use the other's candle as support - they are sharing each other's light in the darkness of the church courtyard.

The group gathered together in the courtyard next processes in behind the priest.  The mass begins, with its celebration of the King of Glory.  Elizabeth and Catherine sit together during Mass.  At first the girls entertain themselves by playing with their candles, but Catherine's mom gets wise to their antics and quickly snuffs their light.  While Catherine pouts for a moment, she is soon distracted by the pageantry of the service.  Bells chime as the priest walks around the church, censing (distributing the smoke from burning incense around the church while saying blessings).

The Mass continues, but the girls (who are up way past their bedtimes) start to doze off.  They do rouse for Communion, and look forward to the feast that will conclude the night.  It truly is a celebration - Catherine's father even tells her that she doesn't have to choose any vegetables at the feast table!  So Elizabeth and Catherine load up their plates with all the sweets and snacks they can.  But all too soon the night is over and their families are ready to head home.  Catherine's brother, Peter, has slept soundly through both the service and the feast (missing the hot dog he had been looking forward to).  As the story ends, Catherine and her family drive home.  They are filled with joy, community, and good food.  Catherine dozes off again on the ride home, content.  As the sun comes up, though, Peter wakes, surprised and disappointed to have missed the whole celebration.

This is the plot of the story, but there are multiple layers to this book.  Most two page spreads have two sets of illustrations.  The larger background illustration showcases one of many Orthodox churches around the world.  Each of these larger illustrations includes a caption labeling the church in multiple languages.  It also gives the geographic location and the date the church was founded.  What I love about these larger illustrations is that they set this particular story in the larger Orthodox community.  People around the world are all celebrating Pascha together as one church.  I really enjoyed this idea of setting Catherine's story into context.

There is another, smaller illustration in the center of each two page spread.  This illustration goes along with the plot of the book.  Again, because this plot illustration is layered on top of the Orthodox churches of the world, the story of Catherine celebrating Pascha also feels centered in the global community.  This smaller illustration is set off by a frame which has additional text parading around the picture.  In the textual frame Riggle adds quotes from the liturgy, the story, or from the Bible.

What is interesting about the layout of this book is that there is a lot of information being given to the reader on each page, but the amount doesn't feel overwhelming.  The layout is thoughtfully done so that the book stands up to sustained reading.  Children can read straight through just paying attention to the main text.  But the additional text (the captions and frames) supplements the story so well and gives added insight into Catherine's participation in the Orthodox church.

Finally, there is terrific, helpful back matter.  There is a glossary with the Paschal greetings in all the languages of the Orthodox church.  There are also definitions for other unfamiliar terms.    On the last page there is a list of Frequently Asked Questions to help readers continue to learn.  These questions are carefully chosen to help illuminate some of the dialogue in the story.  This is another way Riggle has chosen to convey meaning to readers without making the reading experience too overwhelming.  It works very well.

I found this book so informative and really fascinating.  It is a great addition to any collection, and will be added to our Easter collection at home.  We love both Catherine's name and the holiday!

Catherine's Pascha: A Celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church.  Written by Charlotte Riggle; illustrated by R.J. Hughes.  Phoenix Flair Press, 2015.

sent by the author in celebration of MultiCultural Book Day