Picture Book Love #3: Celebrating picture books that are just too good not to gush over.

Such an intriguing premise for a picture book. A community of pigs live on an unbearably hot, treeless island. Life is focussed on sheltering themselves from the unforgiving sun. It is not really working. The island water supply will soon be in dangerously short supply. Meetings happen. Plans are made and a group of pigs sail off. Sail off, it must be noted, on a gorgeous flying airship: part hot air balloon, part sailboat. Completely beautiful.

The ship drifts around the globe and locates icebergs. The pigs attach their ship via an anchor in the ice and then begin to celebrate their luck. Dancing pigs by firelight. Simply delightful. And then by attaching a sail to the iceberg, the pigs manage to navigate the iceberg back to their hot, dry island and then the real work begins.

Scaffolds are built. Ice saws utilized. Pulleys, ladders, assembly lines. These pigs have it all worked out! Large chunks of ice are added to the almost dry island reservoir turning it into part water storage, part water/ice adventure land.

The hardworking pigs celebrate with satisfying swims, make shift waterslides and high dives from iceblocks into the cool deep water! Then ice chunks are hauled to home water sources and the pigs can finally indulge in cool relief from the island’s heat.

Arthur Geisert‘s wonderfully wordles book Ice appeals to me on so many levels. First of all it celebrates industriousness. Hardworking pigs one and all, old and young pitch in to make a poor situation (unbearable heat) better. I love that these pigs plan carefully and then, in completely unexpected ways (via a flying sailship), execute this plan. And finally these pigs again sit together and celebrate their mutual success. I also love these pigs. Pigs. It should seem absurd but these pigs are highly relatable in their simple dresses or overalls and communal committment to a task. In witnessing the pig’s inventiveness and high adventure, one comes away with a satisfied feeling. So much happens in just a few pages. Problem. Idea. Execution. Solution. Satisfaction. If only every problem could be approached with such creativity and success.

Few words on five wordless books

Because the creators of wordless books can say so much with no words at all, I decided to use sparse words to express my awe for each of these titles and let their gorgeous covers invite you in.

#1 Sea of Dreams by Dennis Nolan

Adventure over and under the sea . . .

#2 The Conductor by Laetitia Devarney

Swirl, whirl, leaves take flight . . .

#3 Where’s Walrus by Stephen Savage

Where is that wacky walrus?

#4 Tuesday by David Wiesner

And what if frogs floated by?

#5 Beaver is Lost by Elisha Cooper

Beaver travels to a bustling city and back.

Thanks to Adopt a School Funds which purchased #1 and #2 for our classroom wordless (or nearly) collection. Wordless books allow us to practice using picture clues and background knowledge to infer meaning. They are also lovely to share together or to ponder over alone.

Summer Reading inspired by Ms. Hong

Ms. Hong, now the Teacher-Librarian at Strathcona Elementary used to work at Seymour and ran the Book Club with me. She is beautifully passionate about books and a voracious reader. I have a constant list of books to read inspired by Ms. Hong’s blog. She often posts young adult titles that I might not have come across and I love that she recommends so many fantasy stories. This summer I made good progress reading through my “must reads” recommended by Ms. Hong.

These titles are definitely for mature readers only, not suitable for my primary students but older members of book club may be able to handle some of these soon.

On one summer trip I devoured Graceling the debut novel of writer Kristen Cashore. Katsa, a young Graceling has the power to inflict deadly force on the victims the King sends her to punish. She meets Po, a prince from a neighbouring kingdom who turns her world upside down. Well written, engaging, impossible to put down. I requested Fire (the sequel/prequel) from the public library and enjoyed it as well.

On my last trip I woke up early one morning to admire the gorgeous sunrise. Everyone else slept in and so I read. A few hours later I had finished The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This is an intriguing dystopian science fiction story – fast paced and dramatic, it was hard to stop reading. Thomas wakes up remembering nothing but his name surrounded by boys who arrived to the Glade just like him – memories seemingly wiped clean and in a strange world. Will solving the Maze enable them to escape?

The book that impacted me the most though was Life as We Knew it written by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This is a story told by sixteen year old Miranda through a number of diary entries. The moon is hit by a gigantic meteor and is pushed closer to Earth. The tides and the weather are dramatically affected and everything in the world changes. How will the world survive? We get an idea by following the details of what happens to Miranda and her family. Compelling. We are pulled into Miranda’s world and experience this post apocalyptic world through her story.


Thanks Ms. Hong!

Five Reasons I love Audio Books

In the summer,  our family often borrows unabridged books on CD –  recorded books that entertain us all.

Last summer we listened to Beyond the Deep Woods (the Edge Chronicles Book 1) created by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. The audio book read by Clive Mantle. We were transported to the Deep Woods,  a mysterious place full of odd creatures and many dangers as we followed the adventures of Twig on a quest to discover his true identity.

A thrilling fantasy!

Why are these recorded stories so wonderful? My top 5 reasons:

1. We have discovered many great authors through this process and have gone on to read other titles they have written (i.e. This is how we met the character Clementine and quickly went on to devour all of the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker)

2. An audio book is a great way to introduce the first in a series and have your child read  the rest of the series independently. My son read all of Cornelia Funke‘s Ghosthunters after we listened to Book 1 as an audio book.

3. A story becomes a shared family experience. We still read aloud to our children but it is usually one of us reading to them while the other parent finishes dinner clean up etc. While it is lovely to have a story just shared between a few of us it is equally lovely to all listen to a story together – lots of conversations happen throughout the day when we are listening to a story together. Predictions, debates, questions. We have enjoyed many stories together and we all get the references if we talk about the book in the future.

4. Think about long hours in a car or even short hours in a car with arguing children . . . Press play and all of the bickering instantly ends as the story takes over. What could be better?

5. I love reading aloud but sometimes it is really great to let someone else do it! And usually they are really awesome narrators, often with very cool accents and they have the dramatic pause down to an art.

Some of our favourites:

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM written by Robert C. O’Brien (winner of the Newbery Medal in 1972)

We just finished listening to this audio book narrated by Barbara Caruso (who has more than 100 recorded books to her credit). Enter the world of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed fieldmouse who needs to move her family to their summer house but her youngest son Timothy, has pneumonia and is too weak to travel. Mrs. Frisby must enlist help from the mysterious rats of NIHM. She gets much more than help from these brilliant rats.

A wonderful adventure story.

The Talented Clementine written by Sara Pennypacker

This story is narrated by Jessica Almasy who has the ideal voice to read this story – full of energy, young and perfectly animated. Read more about her here

Highly humorous, Clementine’s second adventure is well worth a listen. Clementine is convinced that she is the only untalented student in her third grade class and she is panicking as the evening of Talentpaloosa: Night of the Stars approaches. Laugh out loud funny. We highly enjoyed this story.

The Secret of Platform 13 written by Eva Ibbotson.

This story was narrated by Angela Thorne, possibly our absolute favourite narrator. We could have listened to Ibbotson’s magical tale forever. In this magical fantasy, the beloved baby prince of the Island is kidnapped and cannot be rescued for nine long years until the gump opens again between London and the Island, a magical place inhabited by delightful creatures. The rescue party faces many obstacles – the most difficult perhaps – tolerating the nine year old prince, raised and horribly spoiled by the awful Mrs. Trottle.

After listening to this story last summer, I went on to read the book to my class and it was a favourite.

Head off to your local library and check out some audio titles. Happy listening!

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead has quickly become one of those books that I know I will recommend (in my not so subtle you have to read this kind of way) again and again. I am also looking for any excuse to revisit this book – perhaps it should become a book club selection? I will definitely read it to my own children in the next few years (when they hit about 10 years old I think).

It is difficult to categorize this book – it blurs many genres – mystery, fantasy, science fiction (with elements of time travel and frequent references to Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time) but really, it reads mostly as realistic fiction (although set a few years back – 1979) This book explores the life of sixth grade Miranda and focuses on her relationships and her understanding of how others struggle with life and interactions all in their own ways. This book tells the story of mysterious notes relaying information to Miranda that no one could possibly know because they have yet to happen. The first note is both thrilling and scary:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favours. First, you must write me a letter. Second please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you.

Miranda struggles to make sense of who is sending these notes and why. How everything plays out in the end is absolutely fantastic and Stead is able to tie up many loose ends even if the reader has to work to follow the threads and not tangle them up. But don’t try too hard – just let them weave together – as the character Marcus points out:

Einstein says common sense is just the habit of thought. It’s how we’re used to thinking about things, but a lot of time it just gets in the way.

I love how there is a sub plot of Miranda and Richard (Mom’s boyfriend) helping Miranda’s Mom prepare for the show The $20,000 Pyramid. There is so much emphasis on giving the appropriate clues and thinking fast to figure things out. Miranda spends the book figuring things out in a much more organic, subtle way. It is very clever of Stead.

There are so many layers to this novel. The storyline is interwoven with mystery and clues – turns and full stops – but not hugely dramatic – just calm and lovely. The characters are interesting and likeable – even those that don’t feature hugely in the story. I love Miranda’s Mom – her intense love for Miranda, her challenges about committing to her boyfriend and how her level of job dissatisfaction is conveyed by how many office supplies make their way (permanently) into her home.  Anne Marie’s Dad has lovely quirky elements – elaborate food making when procrastinating but a deeply protective nature over his daughter. The children in this book have many more freedoms – it being 1979 and not 2011 but the parents are portrayed as very solid figures. Many more interesting characters inhabit this book- the laughing man, Wheelie, the school’s secretary, Alice Evans who is not brave enough to excuse herself to go to the bathroom and compulsive Jimmy who owns the sandwich shop. All play important roles as Miranda navigates her way through the complicated puzzle of friendships, forgiveness and truly heroic deeds.

Highly recommended! On my Middle Grade favourites list.

Frog Girl

When our librarian, Ms. Sheperd-Dynes, found out how much our reading group liked Storm Boy she brought us Frog Girl, also by Paul Owen Lewis. This is another title that represents the rich oral traditions of the Native people of the Northwest Coast of North America.

This story is an adventure that introduces us to Volcano Woman (also known as Frog Woman). She has the power to destroy villages if the people do not show proper respect for living creatures. (Lewis provides a detailed author’s note in the back of the book that provides very interesting information about how this story has Northwest Coast motifs of Separation, Initiation and Return. He explains that like other world mythologies, this tale has elements of what renowned scholar Joseph Campbell described as rites of passage (referring to separation, initiation and return) in the Adventure of the Hero)

In this story, the Chief’s daughter spies on two boys capturing frogs at the lakeshore. She finds one lone frog in the grass who leads her to a mysterious village under the lake. Here she meets Grandmother who is crying over her missing children. Her sadness seems to power rumblings and shaking in this underwater world. The chief’s daughter returns to the forest and her own village to find it empty but threatened by an erupting volcano. She finds a basket of frogs and races them to the lakeshore – home to Grandmother. Then the rains come and her people return. The girl tells her story as the frogs sing in the background.

Guided by Lewis’ notes in the back, I asked the students to be listening for some key elements in the story:

  • disrespectful/cruel behaviour
  • encountering animals who speak
  • performing a heroic deed
  • encountering mythological beings

Students listened incredibly attentively, pulled into the story’s powerful text and detailed visual images.

The chief’s daughter races through the burning forest to return the stolen frogs to the lake

In their written responses, some students retold favourite parts, some responded to the elements I asked them to listen for and some asked questions. Some excerpts:

Jenny: The two boys left and the girl heard a voice. She went to that voice and it was a frog that said follow me. The shore opened up and the girl went inside. Then the frog turned to like a person and the girl saw a beautiful village.

Jeremiah: My favourite part of the story was when the girl saved the frogs. The two boys were being disrespectful of the frogs.

Kevin: Frog Girl and Storm Boy are quite similar because they both have a secret village.

Catriona: I’m still wondering . . . Why did the frog transform into a frog on land but transform into a woman in the water? Why did the two boys capture all the frogs?

Eddy: How can the frogs talk and transform into a human but green? How could the girl run to the lake in time to save the frogs when the volcano almost destroyed the whole forest?

Truman: Two boys were capturing frogs. This is cruel behaviour. There was a frog that spoke. That is encountering animals who speak. There was a girl who saved the frogs. That is called performing a heroic deed. There are frog people. They are called encountering mythological beings. I liked it when the girl went to another world. I am still wondering how the frog turn into people and how the people turn into frogs.

Such inspired writing! Pretty amazing for Grades 1, 2 and 3!

Storm Boy

Ms. Hong (now at Strathcona Library) recommended this title when our reading group started reading Aboriginal Literature. Storm Boy by Paul Owen Lewis is a definite favourite that sparked lots of discussion, questions and great writing.

We loved how this book was so mysterious. We had as many questions at the end as we did throughout the pages, yet we seemed to know something more. Such a visually powerful book that has won many awards including Best Book of the Year from the Pacific Northwest Book Award. Storm Boy introduces us to the Killer Whale people who seem to inhabit an undersea world. This book follows the tradition of the people of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Haida, Tlingit and others). Stories from this area tell of individuals in parallel worlds where animals seem to live in human form.

I provided some sentence starts to assist students in organizing their written responses. We had such a dramatic story to respond to!

  • I was impressed when . . .
  • I was shocked by . . .
  • I am still wondering . . .
  • It was incredible when . . .

Some excerpts from out written responses that needs to be shared:

Ricky: I was shocked when I saw the boy get carried by a storm. Then he was in a nation’s island. There were four killer whales. The chief one was big. They ate fish that weren’t cooked or cut. The killer whales could talk. Then the boy missed his original home. I was surprised because the killer whales knew that he missed his home.

Gary: I was impressed when he went on the whale to get back home and when he got back, his Mom said: “You’ve been gone a year!” Then they celebrated because of his return.

Catriona: I am still wondering if time goes slower in the Killer Whale people’s village.

Truman: I am wondering if the chief’s son can turn into an orca whale because he went to the orca people’s place

Storm Boy by Jenny

Jenny was inspired to draw this gorgeous picture.

She writes: “There was a boy that went fishing and then a storm came and hitted the boy and he got pushed away from his village. He landed in another village and he saw big people. They invited the boy and they danced around the fire and did their welcome song. Then the boy missed his mom and dad and the big people made the boy appear back in his village.”