Seven More New Nonfiction Picture Books

Earlier this month I reviewed seven nonfiction picture books, all focused on women who persisted in the face of various obstacles. Here are seven more reviews from my May and June reading that I hope readers will find useful.  (In my opinion, the best of this batch is the first one here, Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon.)

Grand CanyonGrand Canyon by Jason Chin
Grand Canyon, Jason Chin’s latest picture book, captures the historical, ecological, and geological complexity of the Grand Canyon, as well as its grandeur and beauty. Chin provides depth and detail as he explains the forces that shaped various levels and regions of the canyon, and the animals and plants that inhabit each area. The editorial layout of Grand Canyon holds some surprises for first-time readers, and the interesting images will lure those readers back for rewarding repeat visits.

Penguin DayPenguin Day by Nic Bishop
Nic Bishop’s Penguin Day tells the simple story of a penguin family’s typical day. Mama penguin goes for food. Papa penguin watches over baby penguin. Baby penguin goes exploring and gets in a little trouble. With simple text and a variety of interesting photos, young animal lovers will be able to navigate this book largely on their own. I like how the photos show close-ups, group shots, and action sequences. Taken all together, the daily life of a penguin family becomes clear, and it has a lot of parallels to the daily lives of humans.

If Sharks DisappearedIf Sharks Disappeared Lily Williams
Something about sharks makes them endlessly fascinating. If Sharks Disappeared acknowledges the scariness of sharks but then makes a sharp turn to focus on the ecological importance of sharks. Author Lily Williams illustrates what would happen if sharks vanished from the food chain. Williams explains that sharks are apex predators, those at the top of the food chain. If sharks go away, species lower on the food chain will proliferate, causing a variety of ripples in the delicate balance affecting creatures in the ocean and on land, including humans.

The cause/effect focus in If Sharks Disappeared will stimulate scientific thinking in readers. In this time when some politicians discredit hard science by calling it a hoax, we need to help young people understand that relationships exist in nature, and we can accurately predict what will happen if a variable is changed. Teachers could easily use this book as an example, and then encourage students to consider other similar situations in nature.

The pictures in this book are colorful and charming, providing a nice counterpoint to the serious concepts under consideration in its pages. The glossary at the end is useful and provides accessible definitions of complex ideas.

TheodoreTheodore by Frank Keating
Although Mike Wimmer’s paintings are amazingly lifelike, this picture book biography of Theodore Roosevelt is one of the weaker installments in Frank Keating’s series focused on notable presidents. Maybe Roosevelt’s life covered such vast areas of interest that it’s difficult to capture him on such a small scale. The language here is also probably too stilted to engage most young readers. Keating’s text is flat, and the quotes from Roosevelt have flourishes of vocabulary likely to over-challenge most elementary-age readers. I hope Governor Keating continues this series because other entries have been more satisfying. (Frank Keating is the former Governor of Oklahoma and was recently interviewed by President Trump to become Director of the F.B.I.) Theodore is a fine book for when a student is required to read something about a president, but it’s unlikely to become a favorite.

On Duck PondOn Duck Pond by Jane Yolen
Although On Duck Pond has a barely noticeable fictional frame around the narrative, it is essentially a work of nonfiction told in verse. As ducks arrive at the pond on a summer morning, their quacking makes quite a disturbance, which sets in motion a variety of responses among the other animals that call the pond home. Eventually things calm down, and the animals return to normal. The animal behaviors in Jane Yolen’s newest book will catch the interest of animal and nature lovers, and Bob Marshall’s pictures will have them lingering over the pages, perhaps providing some appropriate silent space between Yolen’s verses.

John Deere, That’s Who!John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracy Nelson Maurer

As a Midwesterner, I’m very aware of the John Deere brand of farm machinery. In fact, my father-in-law worked in a John Deere factory for many years painting the company’s cotton pickers. I’ve wondered why the company uses its distinctive green color on everything, and why they have a “deer” emblem on the logo with words “John Deere.”

Tracy Nelson Maurer’s John Deere, That’s Who! provides young readers with an excellent understanding of the man behind the brand. John Deere was a blacksmith in the 1830s who used his forging skills and ingenuity to build a new kind of plow that led to faster, easier, plowing, which revolutionized American farming. Maurer’s stylized language—contraption, tuckered out, for example–evoke the frontier with echoes of a tall tale. Tim Zeltner’s pictures are reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood as they convey the lyrical aspects of flat land and plain, hard-working folks.

This is a worthwhile picture book for any collection, although—alas—it does not explain the green paint or deer logo.

Give Bees a ChanceGive Bees a Chance by Bethany Barton

Because our most memorable interactions with bees usually end in pain, author Bethany Barton has set herself quite a challenge in making bees interesting and appealing, but Give Bees a Chance is an engaging picture book that will help young readers understand and appreciate bees. The facts here are tantalizingly revealed as a friend tries to convince his pal that bees are more than just conveyors of stings. The large drawings and informal font make Give Bees a Chance seem lighter than it would as a straightforward nonfiction text about bees. Teachers might consider asking readers ahead of time what they hope to learn about bees, then watch as this book anticipates and answers virtually every possible question.

Please check back here next month for another round-up of new nonfiction picture books.  Meanwhile, thanks for reading!

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A Few Thoughts about Professional Development Books

twitter pollI’m about seventy pages into a new writing project. Although I’m reluctant to say much about it at this point, I hope what I’m working on will eventually be of use and interest to teachers and maybe others who care about education and literacy. Right now, this project is a glorious mess with ideas everywhere. The shape and focus haven’t emerged yet, and I’m 100% comfortable with that. I believe that if writers just keep going, the writing will eventually reveal its own purpose.

A few days ago, however, I had a moment where I lost faith in that belief. I was becoming impatient. I wanted to see the end of the journey while backing out of the driveway. I was thinking about whether this project is a professional development book, a memoir, or a hybrid of those plus a few other things.

That led me to wonder about my professional reading. When I read those books, I know what makes me turn down page corners and add highlights and margin notes. I also know what makes me roll my eyes and skip a few pages. Thinking about my project and its potential audience, and possibly avoiding the actual hard work of writing, I popped up a little Twitter poll to see how others view their professional reading: “A question for educators: What do you hope to find in the books you read for professional development?” The poll offered these choices: Practical strategies, Inspiration, and New insights on theory.

I appreciate the 138 people who responded to the poll. 61% said they hope to find practical strategies. 22% want new insights on theory, and 17% are looking for inspiration. As we all know, Twitter polls are hard science, so I accept these results, although they were a little surprising to me.

This got me thinking about how different readers might approach professional reading, my own perceptions of that genre, and how it can help my current project.

One of my firmest beliefs about educational practice is that it is highly contextual. What works for me might not work for you, and it might not even work for me tomorrow or with a different class. So, when I read books that offer “practical strategies,” I immediately think of them not as recipes or how-to guides but something that worked for one author in a specific context that will need adaptation to work for me. In other words, a strategy isn’t completely practical unless it has some elasticity. I’m turned off by writers who claim to have discovered The One True Way and condemn those who don’t follow it as unenlightened and doomed. On the other hand, I’ve harvested many great ideas from my professional reading, and I’m indebted to the authors who provided them, but in virtually every case I changed something about the idea to make it fit the specific needs of my students and contours of my school.

What about theory? Reading about educational theory used to make me snort in contempt. I thought, “Theory is just theory! It’s an abstraction with no real-world relevance.” Now I realize that I didn’t have enough experience to see the connection between the abstractions and the “real world.” Useful theories are derived from practice. Further practice results in new insights on those theories, which in turn creates more innovative practice, and on and on. Thoughtful readers understand that new insights on theory can lead to creative classrooms using new ways to engage learners. Writing about theory needs to be framed in such a way that it helps readers see how the implications affect real students in real classrooms.

As I said earlier, the results of my Twitter poll surprised me. I would have chosen “Inspiration” as the answer to my own question. Being a teacher is gratifying, frustrating, and misunderstood by the public. Sometimes we can feel isolated in our classrooms, our schools, and even in our profession. I am inspired by those who have overcome obstacles, silenced critiques, and discovered ways to thrive in challenging environments. Their stories reinforce my faith that I too can achieve important accomplishments and that I am not alone in my work.

I hope my writing will eventually provide readers with some of the valuable ideas I’ve mentioned here. Those are worthy goals. For now, it’s time to get back to the writing. It can’t take shape until it has mass. Onward. Thanks for reading.

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Seven New Nonfiction Picture Books about Extraordinarily Persistent Women

So far this year, I’ve been posting a monthly round-up of nonfiction picture books. May was kind of complicated, and I didn’t make it, so I have two months of titles to share with you. As it turns out, half of the books prominently feature women who endured obstacles of various kinds and, through persistence, ended up with accomplishments that benefit all of us. I will share those seven books in this post, and seven more titles in an upcoming post.

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the WorldShe Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intended to rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, McConnell uttered the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.” As it turns out, McConnell created a new rallying cry for women: “She Persisted.”

She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s new picture book, isn’t overtly political, but it capitalizes on McConnell’s phrase to present thirteen American women who pushed through barriers to accomplish feats that benefit all of us.

Some of these women were quite young at the time of their difficulties. These will resonate especially clearly with school-age readers. Each of the thirteen women is explained with a one-paragraph “she persisted” story supported by a quote from the woman herself and two Alexandra Boiger illustrations, one showing the subject at the time of her perseverance and another demonstrating the larger effect of her persistence.

I hope grown-ups will help young readers find their way to She Persisted. It’s an appealing, useful book.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless ScientistShark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

Last year Jess Keating’s Pink Is for Blobfish was one of the most celebrated nonfiction picture books of 2016. Her new book Shark Lady shows that Keating has a knack for bringing nature to young readers.

Shark Lady is the story of marine biologist Eugenie Clark who turned a childhood fascination with sharks into a lifelong passion. One of the strengths of this book is how Keating presents in clear language Eugenie Clark’s specific scientific discoveries and contributions. Shark Lady also conveys the importance of focus, study, and determination in face of obstacles, such as those facing women of Clark’s generation who were discouraged from pursuing careers in science.

Jess Keating’s book follows by a few months another picture book about Eugenie Clark, Heather Lang’s Swimming with Sharks. Although both books are worthwhile, Keating’s is more colorful and whimsical, and generally lighter in tone than the dramatic, realistic approach of Lang’s Swimming with Sharks.

Margaret and the Moon: The Computer Scientist Who Saved the First Lunar LandingMargaret and the Moon: The Computer Scientist Who Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins

Margaret and the Moon is a nonfiction picture book about Margaret Hamilton, a young girl who loves mathematics and applies her fascination to learning how to write code for computers. Eventually, she goes to work for NASA where her coding skills are important to the Apollo program. When the Apollo 11 lunar module develops a last-minute programming glitch, everyone turns to Margaret. Fortunately, Margaret had anticipated the possibility of this exact problem and easily solves it with her coding skills.

Dean Robbins tells Margaret story with a light touch. The mathematics is shown as fun, and the drama of the Apollo program is basically presented as more math fun. Lucy Knisley’s comic-style pictures contribute to the light touch, but they also provide more in-depth representations of some of the math for those who look a little deeper.

In a time when coding is becoming an integral part of the standard curriculum, an appealing story featuring code can be a worthwhile addition to a home, library, or classroom collection.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and LinesMaya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines begins quietly as Maya plays with her brother in the woods near their home. On other days, “she searched for birds in the forest.” From its first pages, this picture book biography explores the habits of mind that lead Maya to become one of the world’s foremost architects. Her parents were artists who encouraged freedom of thought after fleeing oppression in China and Maya learns to think “with her hands as well as her mind.” The creative process that led to Maya’s design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C. is highlighted as a natural extension of her on-going artistic development.

Dow Phumiruk’s quiet, subdued illustrations support Jeanne Walker Harvey’s story of a contemplative young girl who embraces challenges as she innovatively seeks to build structures and shape spaces where people can live, work, think, and explore.

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat's Foster MomMoto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom is a completely satisfying story for young animal lovers. Suzi Eszterhas is a photographer at a Kenyan wildlife reserve. She lives in a tent where wild animals roam freely nearby. When a baby serval, a breed of wildcat, is left alone, rangers ask her to be a foster mom and prepare him for an eventual return to the wild. Moto is cute and cuddly, especially at the beginning, but Eszterhas never loses sight of the goal of returning Moto to the wild.

The primary text of Moto and Me involves how Moto became stranded, and the creative ways that Eszterhas balanced being playful and instructive. For a nonfiction semi-scientific book, there is a fair amount of emotion that will touch readers. Moto and Me includes seventeen chapters, each two or three pages in length, so this has a larger scope than many picture books. Third grade is probably the sweet spot for Moto and Me.

The masterful photographs are the heart of this book. Baby Moto is irresistible, and as the months go by, we can easily see how he becomes a predator while still maintaining a connection to Eszterhas. Beyond the story of a baby animal and its foster mom, Moto and Me is also instructive about nature conservancy, Kenya, photography, and the developmental process of a wildcat.

Rhino in the House: The Story of Saving SamiaRhino in the House: The Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk

Well, this picture book is nothing short of adorable. Naturalist Anna Merz sought to protect endangered African animal species. As she works at an animal sanctuary, she discovers a baby rhino abandoned by her mother. So, she takes her home, nurses her to health, pampers her, and names her Samia. Samia behaves like a fine dog, following Anna and showing her affection and attention. But rhinos grow beyond the practical limits of most houses. That doesn’t stop Samia though. She visits Anna’s house even after she is fully grown!

This charming story will captivate animal lovers. The pictures are warm and convey the emotions of each scene, as well as the Kenyan landscape. The back matter is excellent. Those who want more details about Anna and her work will find three pages of a fuller version of the story, as well as a bibliography of print and online sources related to Anna Merz and rhino rescues, including several videos.

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of SportsMartina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner

I admire how Phil Bildner’s text assumes that most young readers today do not know about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, a fair assumption, even though those of us who are just a bit older clearly remember Chrissie and Martina. (I saw them play in the 1983 Virginia Slims of Dallas tournament. Although I saw them face other opponents in preliminary rounds, they would go on to meet in the finals.) As Bildner and artist Brett Helquist make the case for their rivalry being the greatest “in the history of sports,” Martina and Chrissie touches on issues of character and friendship, as well as the Cold War. The tone of the book is enthusiastically conversational, but overly repetitive use of two devices–boldface and repeating phrases with individual words as sentences (“Won. The. Match.”)–seems condescending to readers. Well-chosen words, inherently dramatic situations, and compelling artwork can convey emphasis at least as well as those self-conscious devices.

These reviews originally appeared on Goodreads, in some cases in slightly different form.  As always, thank you for reading.

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9781501949180No one these days is delivering better sports books than Kwame Alexander.  He writes other things too, but his sports books, including The Crossover and Booked, consistently reach readers who don’t usually read and provided satisfying stories for more experienced readers.  Alexander’s inventive novel-in-verse format is engaging and accessible, and the drama in these books moves beyond scores and competition to address deeper real-life issues with authenticity and empathy.

Kwame Alexander’s newest book is The Playbook:  52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in this Game Called Life.  The cover nicely echoes The Crossover and Booked, while the contents are delivered in a unique multi-format presentation.  Although readers can dip into The Playbook anywhere and flip or click through randomly, the material is organized into sections by topic:  Grit, Motivation, Passion, Focus, Teamwork and Resilience.  Within each section, the 52 rules are presented through original aphorisms supported by quotes from notable athletes, mini-memoir installments from Kwame Alexander, and (in the print version) photos and graphics.  These varied texts find the sweet spot of saying important things in ways that are inspirational without being preachy.

The audiobook is excellent.  One hour in length on one CD, it captures the same tight-loose approach of the print version.  Going through it in order provides a cohesive listening experience, but certain tracks will be favorites for different listeners, and the production makes it easy to duplicate the skipping around that is so appealing in the print version.  Section titles and corresponding tracks are printed on the CD.  Narrator Ruffin Prentiss III sounds young, and his narration is friendly, sincere, and dramatic in the appropriate places.  (Click here for a brief audio excerpt from The Playbook, courtesy of Recorded Books.)

Readers who discover The Playbook will likely be absorbed as they read and listen (and re-read and re-listen), but I can’t say enough about the value of this book and audiobook as mentor texts.  The Playbook can be an exciting introduction to the concept of multi-genre writing projects.  Using Kwame Alexander’s work as a model, students can focus on a specific idea and then write their own narratives, find or create graphics, research relevant quotes, and distill their learning into an aphoristic rule.  Using the audiobook’s narration as a model for tone, students can record and edit their work into a finished production.

Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook is different from other books on the shelves.  It’s a sports book that uses gamesmanship as a starting point for talking about the character traits and interpersonal skills young people are trying to develop.  Providing access to the audio and print versions of The Playbook is an excellent way for grown-ups to help with that process.

I have a free copy of the audio book version of The Playbook for the first reader to request it in a comment below!  (U. S. addresses only, please.)

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More Recent Nonfiction Picture Books: President-Plants-Protest-Princess Edition

As John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday approaches later this month, some new picture books portray various aspects of his legacy. Last month I reviewed Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President, and this month’s reviews include two more Kennedy books, along with an assortment of other interesting titles.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy's Big SpeechA Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey
Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech is denser than most picture books, perhaps because it tries to do so much. It is a serviceable biography of Kennedy wrapped around a narrative about how his convictions regarding civil rights were sometimes compromised by political considerations. In addition, the beginning and ending of this book invite readers to consider how they are part of history. A lot is going on in these pages.

The R. Gregory Christie illustrations render well-known figures in recognizable ways while also conveying a folk-art feel.

A Time to Act is a worthwhile book for helping young readers understand President Kennedy, segregation, and the civil rights movement, but they may also need help with understanding some of the content. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt is mentioned but isn’t identified. Jackie Robinson is described only as “the famous baseball player.” Passages from Kennedy’s speeches contain language that might also require simplification and explanation for the youngest readers.

A Time to Act provides clear messages about the importance of acting on our convictions and becoming actively involved in the important issues of our time.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American IconWhen Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon by Natasha Wing
I did not know about this episode from Jackie Kennedy’s very full life. In her post-White House years, she led a successful campaign to save New York City’s Grand Central Station from destruction. I admire picture books that promote activism. This one will help young readers understand how the preservation of historical sites is frequently threatened, and how Jackie Kennedy used her celebrity and influence to make a positive difference. As author Natasha Wing writes, “The fight to save Grand Central changed how people viewed old buildings. Rather than tearing them down, preservationists now had a model for how to save historic buildings all over the country, protecting our precious heritage.” Some of the Alexandra Boiger illustrations are vivid while others are drabber; in each case, the color choices help create the mood for what is happening on the page.

Plant the Tiny SeedPlant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson
This interactive picture book about how nature turns seeds into flowers is perfect for reading aloud to groups or individuals. The simple text and appealing pictures leave plenty of space for reader involvement as they reinforce a child’s understanding of nature while also providing room for wonder.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest SongStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio
This is a tough one. “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynching of Black Americans, was Billie Holiday’s powerful signature. In concert and on record, her rendition was chilling and emotional.

So, Gary Golio’s attempt to develop a picture book based on Billie Holiday’s association with “Strange Fruit” is ambitious but fraught with the potential to be inappropriately graphic for some young readers. Golio seems aware of the tricky territory. The first part of the book deals with Billie Holiday’s origins and the obstacles she faced due to racism. The unfairness and danger of a black woman making her way in the white-dominated entertainment world is made clear but not in a way likely to be frightening to most young readers. When the song “Strange Fruit” is mentioned for the first time in the primary narrative, it is noted to be about lynching but Golio does not dwell on the song’s imagery. However, the back matter begins with a full page of the lyrics in large print, including “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

Charlotte Riley-Webb’s illustrations are a revelation. Bold strokes, bright colors, and swirling shapes convey the story and create tension. I especially liked the rough textures on the surface of some of the paintings.

It’s not my place to say whether a book is or isn’t right for all audiences. All I know is that few books are right for everybody. Strange Fruit is one where the adults involved will need to think about whether it suits the needs of young people who will experience it under their guidance.

Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval PrincessWho Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos
Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess is an excellent picture book for those drawn to the allure of fairy tale/Disney-style princesses. Bridget Heos uses the well-known traits of those princesses as background knowledge for comparing more historically accurate depictions of medieval royal life. Although some aspects of that medieval life were grim and gross, Heos explains it all with humor, accompanied by Migy’s Disney-esque illustrations. This book will enrich students’ understanding of medieval royalty without ruining what they love about the classic movie princesses.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of InventionsWhoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker water toy, is the same guy who figured out how to supply power to the Galileo orbiter’s computer system on its exploratory journey to Jupiter. Who knew?

The power of applying an inventive mind to problems that need solutions is the theme of Whoosh!. Sometimes the inventions hit the mark, sometimes they miss, and sometimes they end up being useful in some other way. No spoilers here, but inventing the Super Soaker was not Lonnie Johnson’s original goal as he worked on a completely different idea. In addition to exploring what it means to be an inventor, author Chris Barton acknowledges the cultural obstacles faced by Johnson as a bright African-American in the middle of the 20th Century.

Whoosh! will appeal to a wide range of young readers even as it delivers important lessons about persistence, curiosity, and how learning and schooling are not always the same.

You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?!You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! by Jonah Winter
In April I reviewed the newest Jonah Winter baseball book, Mickey Mantle:  The Commerce Comet.  If you know a reader who liked that one, You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! is another picture book in Jonah Winter’s series that revisits earlier baseball eras and makes the players (and managers) accessible to today’s young readers. Casey Stengel was, at first, a player with limited skills. As Stengel himself said, “I was not successful as a ballplayer, as it was a game of skill.” Stengel then built a knowledge base from participating in thousands of baseball games and used it to transform himself into one of the most successful managers of all time. Winter presents insights on managing a baseball team and Stengel’s life in a conversational, humorous tone with echoes of something like a tall tale. Barry Blitt’s illustrations convey a similar tone as he finds a sweet spot between comic depictions and fine water-colors.

I hope some of these titles are just right for you and the young readers in your life.  As always, thank you for reading.  I welcome your questions and comments.

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Nine More Nonfiction Picture Books for Your Consideration

Several books about animals are featured in this month’s round-up of recent nonfiction picture books.  I hope these brief descriptions are useful as you select books for your school or family collections.  You will be able to tell which ones were my favorites, but each is worthwhile in its own way.

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea TurtlesFollow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles by Philippe Cousteau
Baby sea turtles have always struck me as sort of mystical. They emerge from being buried in sand and follow moonlight reflecting on water into the sea where they spend most of their lives, returning to land only to bury their own eggs on a sandy beach. Somewhere in there is a myth waiting to be unraveled.

In Follow the Moon Home, Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) and Deborah Hopkinson use the inherently interestingly baby loggerhead turtles as the basis of a larger story about problem-solving. Vivienne’s class at school is searching for a community action project. Then Viv and a classmate stumble on the dilemma of baby loggerheads confusing brightly lit rental properties with moonlight and heading away from the water instead of toward it. The class decides to research and solve this problem, resulting in a story full of positive outcomes for turtles, class members, and the community.

Illustrator Meilo’s So’s sun-washed and moonlit beach scenes beautifully accompany this appealing picture book about nature and activism.

Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie ClarkSwimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang
The murky illustrations in Swimming with Sharks effectively convey the underwater world of sharks, a domain that Eugenie Clark made her life’s work. Beginning with Clark’s childhood shark fascination, this picture book biography emphasizes important lessons about turning a passion into a profession, and underscores how academic and occupational expectations for girls and women have changed since the 1930s.

The Polar BearThe Polar Bear by Jenni Desmond
A whimsical frame story about a little girl who likes to read about polar bears is wrapped around somewhat dense text that lacks a distinctive voice. This picture book’s strongest features are its interesting illustrations and the wealth of facts about polar bears.

Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an EcosystemSea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Sea Otter Heroes has an interesting story to tell. The ecosystem of California’s Elkhorn Slough showed some abnormalities. The seagrass was unusually healthy, considering the pollution that drained into the slough. As marine biologist Brent Hughes investigated, he found complex relationships among various plant and animal species in the region, including sea otters. Sea Otter Heroes emphasizes the scientific methodology involved in Hughes’s work, and thoroughly explains the connections between the biota under study. The sea otters are important players in the story, but they are not the primary focus suggested by the title.

Despite the appeal of the animal story, Sea Otter Heroes has some problems, including dense text, extraneous charts, and photographs that are too small for a picture book format. Some pages are simply wall-to-wall text, including all or parts of up to eight paragraphs. At least one chart shows no relationship between the elements it is demonstrating. While some of the photographs are intriguing or appealing, most are less than one-fourth of a page and dwarfed by the text. Too many of the photos show humans using tools rather than animals in the wild. These editorial missteps weaken a book that could have been more engaging.

Only the most earnest young scientists are likely to stick with Sea Otter Heroes. More casual readers will likely glance at some of the photos and move on to other books.

John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. TolkienJohn Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister
John Ronald’s Dragons is an engaging, enthusiastic picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, focused on his childhood, although it reaches his creation of The Hobbit. Dragons were central in the imagination of young John Ronald, and although his fascination ebbed and flowed as he matured, they never quite went away. Informed by his life experiences—serving in World War I, starting a family—the stories we know as Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga eventually take form complete with the dragon that lurked so long in Tolkien’s imagination.

John Ronald’s Dragons will appeal to young readers who know the movie versions of Tolkien’s work or those interested in fantasy or the writing life. The illustrations serviceably support the story, but I wonder about the choice to cast so many of them in pale greens and yellows.

Mickey Mantle: The Commerce CometMickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet by Jonah Winter
The rough stuff in Mickey Mantle’s life is addressed in the front matter’s fine print, which is a good editorial choice for this picture book celebrating the career of one of the all-time great baseball players. The primary text focuses on the inspirational aspects of Mantle’s life and career: battling through disappointments, coming back from injuries, and working hard on his skills, especially switch-hitting. I hope Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet inspires young readers to find out more about other great players from yesteryear mentioned in Mantle’s story, including Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Bob Feller. Author Jonah Winter adds several flourishes to the text that would make it an appealing read-aloud. My only issue is how the narration goes back and forth between past tense and present tense. That unnecessary distraction took me out of the narrative’s flow. The artwork is one of the book’s strengths. Just look at all the ways that C. F. Payne uses light. Payne’s faces are interesting caricatures, except for one dramatic, realistic portrait of Mantle on the final two-page spread.

Patrick and the PresidentPatrick and the President by Ryan Tubridy
An excellent choice for St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President is a historical fiction picture book that “reimagines” President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Wexford, the small Irish village that is the Kennedy ancestral home. The excitement surrounding President Kennedy’s visit is conveyed through Patrick, a Wexford school boy who is not only a member of the children’s choir in the welcoming ceremony but also a server at the tea hosted by President Kennedy’s Irish relatives. (Patrick’s involvement in two different events of the presidential visit struck me as a bit of a stretch.) P. J. Lynch’s wonderfully warm and nostalgic illustrations do much of the book’s work in showing the enthusiasm of the townspeople, especially the children, and the cool charm of President Kennedy.

RoundRound by Joyce Sidman
Our narrator begins by saying, “I love round things,” and then points out all the things in nature that are round. But I’m not sure all these things are “round.” Is a mushroom round? How about a ladybug? Stars? As a child experiencing this book, I would have said, “Wait a minute. Why is that round?” Each illustration is distinctive and detailed, but even some of these do not carry the text’s claims concerning roundness. Maybe Round can be used to spark discussions about how to define a concept, but I found it a little frustrating. Then again, I might be thinking too hard about this. The back matter has interesting explanations about why roundness is common in nature.

Same Kind of Different As Me for KidsSame Kind of Different As Me for Kids by Ron Hall
Well, there is a nice little message at the end of this book. It’s actually on the back cover too: “Nobody can help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.” As a picture book though, the story is kind of flat and actually hard to believe. The drawings are interesting, but Denver—the subject of the book and its co-author—looks completely different in some illustrations from how he appears in others. The narrative takes Denver from his life as a sharecropper’s son to homelessness to a career in art. The good things that happen to him are attributed to religious interventions from God, angels, and benevolent people who find him. The book might be a nice allegory or keepsake—the front endsheet has a “Presented To” template–but honestly, I don’t think this is a book that kids will return to over and over.

(Some of these reviews appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form.)

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My Top Ten Favorite Cover Versions of Chuck Berry Songs

chuckberry-7f44b444-41fd-472d-a907-200cb187bdc6Wow. Chuck Berry is gone. Rosanne Cash nailed it in her Instagram post: “Lights out on the Twentieth Century.” Chuck Berry changed how electric guitar is played. His song-writing was poetry for common people. He synthesized musical styles and created a new genre. Chuck Berry changed the music that changed everything else.

I’ve been thinking about all the great covers out there of Chuck Berry songs, and here are my ten favorite versions of Chuck Berry songs performed by other artists, presented here in no particular order.  Although some of these videos are inferior version of the tracks, I hope they’ll send you in search of the better audio.  Enjoy.

1. Elvis Presley: “Promised Land”
Elvis covered three Chuck Berry songs in his studio recording career. The Elvis version of “Memphis” is anemic, but he pretty well caught the jumped-up humor of “Too Much Monkey Business.” But this one, Elvis’s 1973 version of “Promised Land,” is a ferocious reminder of why Elvis was the best rock voice of all time.

2. Johnny Rivers: “Memphis”
This was a huge hit for Johnny Rivers in 1964. The single was pulled from the excellent album Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey A Go Go.

3. The Beatles: “Roll Over Beethoven”
The Beatles learned rock music from America, specifically Chuck Berry. The first song played at the first Beatles concert was Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” (This song was also a 1970s hit for Electric Light Orchestra.)

4. The Beach Boys: “Rock and Roll Music”
Chuck Berry shares the song-writing credit on “Surfing U.S.A.,” but he had to sue The Beach Boys to get it after they used his “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the inspiration for their hit. When Brian Wilson re-joined The Beach Boys for their 1976 album 15 Big Ones, their version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music” became a Top Ten hit.

5. Bob Seger: “Let It Rock”
Bob Seger name-checked Chuck Berry in “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”: “Well sweet sixteen turned thirty-one/Feel a little tired feeling under the gun/Well all Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” I’ve always thought Seger’s Live Bullet is one of the all-time best live albums, and Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” is one of the reasons.

6. Emmylou Harris: “C’est La Vie”
Chuck Berry approached singing and songwriting much like a country singer, with humor and common vernacular. It was hard to hear the country under all that Chuck Berry guitar, but it was there. Emmylou mined the country vein in her toe-tapper version of “C’est La Vie.”

7. Jerry Lee Lewis: “Little Queenie”
I went back and forth between The Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis for “Little Queenie,” but Jerry Lee had the bigger hit with it, and the Stones never recorded it in the studio, although they play it live sometimes. Here is a split-the-difference video of Jerry Lee with Keith Richards (and Mick Fleetwood).

8. Waylon Jennings: “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”
Waylon also found the country in this Chuck Berry song. Waylon always seemed to be singing about himself in this one.

9. Linda Ronstadt: “Back in the U.S.A.”
This shouter was one of Linda Ronstadt’s last rock hits.

10. The Rolling Stones: “Around and Around”
Chuck Berry’s sound migrated to a new generation through The Rolling Stones, and this chaotic 1964 version of “Around and Around” shows how American rock helped fuel the British Invasion.

Please add your thoughts about Chuck Berry, his songs, and his influence. I never get tired of talking about this stuff.

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Talking about Quotation Marks with President Trump

I don’t usually use my blog for political purposes, but President Trump has taken to giving punctuation lessons, and that’s my turf, so here goes.

As we know, President Trump tweeted this:

trump tweet

Then he tweeted this:

trump tweet 2

When it turned out that Trump’s accusation was somewhere between an outright lie and a flaky conspiracy theory, he started backpedaling.  With a straight face, he told Fox News, “When I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes. That really covers — because wiretapping is pretty old-fashioned stuff — but that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.”

Ok, sir.  Let’s talk about “quotes,” or as most people call them, quotation marks.  Quotation marks are used for several specific purposes, including the indication of someone else’s words.  Is that what you were doing when you put quotation marks around “wire tapping” in a couple of your tweets?  If so, who were you quoting?

Another use of quotation marks is to indicate ironic usage of a term.  (Sometimes this is called a scare quote.)  If that’s what you were doing by placing quotation marks around “wire tapping,” you were essentially saying that it wasn’t a wiretap at all but the opposite of a wiretap, which makes no sense.

Your “it was in quotes” defense has no credibility.  It either means you were lying, ignorant, full of crap, or all three.

If you would like to talk more about punctuation, sir, I stand ready to serve.  Otherwise, maybe we can discuss spelling and proofreading.

trump tweet tapp


trmp tweet honored


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Review: THE ENEMY: DETROIT 1954 by Sara Holbrook

From her “Chicks Up Front” days to a recent piece on how one of her poems was botched by a Texas standardized test, Sara Holbrook has always been in the right place, saying what needs to be said. It’s no surprise that her first novel for young readers, The Enemy: Detroit 1954, is perfectly in sync with our troubled times.

Holbrook’s main character Marjorie Campbell is twelve years old as the atrocities of World War II are still etched in the minds of Americans, although children of her age have no direct memories of them. Many are also preoccupied with the Cold War fears of creeping Communism. For Marjorie and other children, these perceptions are playing out for real in their Detroit neighborhood when books deemed subversive (1984, The Grapes of Wrath) are removed from library shelves, and newcomers are treated with suspicion. When Marjorie is assigned to share a desk with the just-arrived Inga, she is torn between her instinct to be friendly and her classmates’ intentions to be unwelcoming.

Holbrook respects her readers by presenting the complexity of Marjorie’s situation. Members of her family and community have been directly affected by the war, and they harbor negative attitudes toward Germans and DPs (displaced persons). Others are concerned with over-reaching attempts to limit freedoms in the name of safeguarding against Communism. Marjorie takes it all in, and then relies on her heart to make decisions about how she will navigate her neighborhood and her world.

Marjorie’s voice in The Enemy is charmingly innocent, smart, and vulnerable. Here is her description of one of the local librarians: “Mrs. Pearson has her arms crossed tightly, the way she always does. Crossed arms are as natural to her as breathing. It makes me wonder how she opens a car door or flushes a toilet. I imagine she was born with her arms crossed, telling the doctor to keep it down as soon as she opened her eyes.” Sara Holbrook definitely knows how kids think and speak.

Today’s middle school and high school students are well aware of what is going on around them. They see the protests and hear the inflammatory rhetoric. Reading The Enemy: Detroit 1954 in a time when our government is focused on creating a classes of “others” through harsh characterizations and targeted immigration policies will give adolescents a context for processing their own roles in today’s swirling events, and considering whether “the enemy” is outsiders or dark impulses closer to home.

For more about this book, see my interview with Sara Holbrook, “Talking about The Enemy with Sara Holbrook.”

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What’s Not Wrong with All These Writing Conferences

idea-605766_1280For the past couple of years, I’ve worked in a college writing center.  I really like this job.  Students come to me with their papers, and we confer about their writing.  They think we’re working on the assignments, but my true goal is helping them develop as writers.  Since my retirement from full-time teaching, I’ve plied my trade in a variety of education-related contexts, but these writing center conferences just might be the most gratifying.  Why?

The least important reason is the most selfish.  There is no advance preparation, and there is no work to take home.  I arrive fresh, and I depart unburdened.  This leaves time and energy for my other pursuits.

The other reasons why I like all these writing conferences may be of interest to other writing teachers.

There is no wasted energy in a writing conference.  Sometimes in a class I feel like my instruction is shooting off sparks that don’t really ignite anything.  Maybe some students have other pressing issues on their minds.  Maybe I’m teaching some mandated content that I don’t really believe in, and the students can tell.  Maybe my approach is reaching some students but falling short with others.  With one-to-one conferences, none of that is a factor.  If my approach isn’t working, I know immediately and switch to another path.  The student and I are focused, 100% productive, and locked on to a mission.  The student sets the conference agenda, and my role is help him discover how to get un-stuck, apply a rhetorical or mechanical concept, or think about writing in new ways.  Everything we say and do together in our writing conference is directly related to developing a specific piece of writing and to helping him grow in confidence and competence as a writer.

One-to-one instruction provides opportunity for personal connection.  Because conferring is individualized, it’s more conversational than whole-class instruction.  As I talk with students, they can usually tell I’m interested in their writing and thinking, and I truly care about helping them.  When that realization kicks in, we move to a higher plane of transaction in our communication.  Their writer brains become more energized, and their writer muscles flex more deliberately.  Each conferring session ends with better writing, a stronger writer, and exchanges of gratitude.  They thank me for my help, and I thank them for the opportunity to work with them, and I encourage them to return.

Some writing problems are best solved individually.  Understanding writing as a process is a revelation for some students.  My favorite tutoring sessions are those where a student doesn’t how to begin.  She may have some ideas or understanding of content but not quite see how to develop that material into an organized multi-paragraph format.  I usually ask a student like this to just talk about what she wants to say while I take some notes.  Then I present her own words to her in a rough outline form.  Aha!  Suddenly those scattered thoughts look a lot better when they have some structure imposed on them.  Then we talk about how the human mind can think up cool stuff, but it doesn’t arrive in an orderly manner.  The writer’s job is to arrange those cool ideas so that they can be easily digested by a reader.  That progression from scattered thoughts to somewhat organized ideas to a well-reasoned, reader-friendly argument is a process that students will eventually learn to trust.

When students are under time pressure, they may want to generate an entire paper all at the same time without understanding that it must be built and developed rather than just flung down in one splash.  These writers try to start with the introduction’s first sentence, jam right through to the conclusion, print it out, and hand that sucker in.  Writing just doesn’t work that way!  No wonder they are stuck!   I explain that having a general direction is a good idea, but it might actually be most useful to write the body paragraphs first and then craft an introduction and conclusion for that material.  Starting with what they understand best is usually more productive than trying to start with some vague notion of an attention-grabber in an introduction for material that doesn’t exist.

Some students have an assignment sheet but are paralyzed by the all of the requirements and expectations:  underline topic sentences, mark details in the margin, APA style, etc.  Again, these students may try to “efficiently” write an essay while simultaneously inserting all of these non-rhetorical elements.  I tell these writers they are trying to paint the house before it’s built.  They need to go through the discovery and development phases of the process.  There are no shortcuts.


Discussions about these issues rarely happen in whole-class settings for a variety of reason.  Even when these topics are discussed in class, individual students may not see them as personally relevant, even if they are.  But when these conversations about writing happen in a one-to-one conference, the learning is focused, individualized, and more personally gratifying.

These benefits are real, but I wonder if they transfer to settings beyond college writing centers.  Do they have relevance for classroom teachers who hold writing conferences with their students?  Thanks for your feedback.

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