Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, April 29, 2011

Beyond The Mind's Eye

The literature of J. R. R. Tolkien has firmly stood the test of time.  One of his most loved pieces, The Hobbit, as most people know, will be brought to movie viewers in two separate films in 2012 and 2013.  Director Peter Jackson has began filming in New Zealand.  The Hobbit Blog has been up and running since late February of this year.  On March 20, 2011 Peter Jackson created a new Facebook profile as an additional venue for fans to get the latest. 
Although I continually remind my students that the  books are always better than the movies (some of them are starting to openly agree with me), if anyone can do justice to The Hobbit, it is Peter Jackson.  His cinematic interpretation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is phenomenal.

There is a ten minute video on his Facebook page that is a behind-the-scenes peek at the initial stages of production.  How many readers will be reading this book yet again before the movie hits theaters?  I know I will.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Michigan Monsoon Meanderings--Book Art

With it raining more on than off for the past seventy-two plus hours here in northern Michigan (more for the down-staters), its been a great time to read favorite blogs and wander from link to link online.  Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes in his post yesterday linked to the Colossal Art & Design site for these one of a kind Custom Stacked Book Side Tables.  They are the creation of Jane Dandy.  What book lover wouldn't be happy with this?!

In viewing this unique art another link popped up to the Book Origami work of Isaac Salazar.  As stated in his profile on Flickr:  I use simple math and an exacto knife, along with lots of time. It takes me anywhere from 3 days for the simpler styles to 2 weeks for the more complex styles....I like to take a book that would otherwise end up in a landfill and turn it into art. 
He graciously gave me permission to share this graphic with my readers.  His full gallery filled with amazing visuals can be viewed by clicking on the link above.

Before Baker Street

A scream split the silence--a scream from the open window--and Matthew turned and pelted back down the street as quickly as his malnourished legs would carry him.  People didn't scream like that when they'd had a surprise.  They didn't even scream like that if they'd had a shock.   No, in  Matthew's experience people only screamed like that if they were in mortal fear of their lives, and whatever had provoked that scream was not something he wanted to see.

Now I ask you, what reader can resist a paragraph such as this which brings the first chapter to a close?  When I book talk this to a class I had best have multiple copies on hand or be ready to conduct a contest of rock-paper-scissors.  Andrew Lane, resident of Dorset, England and employee of the British Civil Service is the mind behind this first teen series, Sherlock Holmes The Legend Begins, to be endorsed by The Conan Doyle Estate.  Death Cloud, book one, marvelously maintains this intriguing, perilous pace throughout the entire story.

The year is 1868.  Farnham, a community northwest of London provides the setting.   Sherlock, a fourteen-year-old teen, has just received the disconcerting news that he will be spending the summer holiday with an uncle and aunt whom he has never met.

His older brother, Mycroft, will deliver him there from school.  It seems that his father, in the military, has been sent to India and his mother of delicate health is not quite herself.  Mycroft, newly employed by the Foreign Office is in no position to provide him guidance and care.

Needless to say Sherlock does not feel welcome at the estate of these relatives with an uncle prone toward piety and an aunt constantly carrying on conversations with herself.  Then, too, there is the housekeeper, Mrs. Eglantine--Child, be aware that you are not welcome here.  Her sinister character is further enhanced with words of warning in a later letter from Mycroft.

With unease on the home front Sherlock, wandering in the wooded area surrounding the estate, meets Matty Arnatt, a street smart orphan.  From Matty he learns of the strange dark cloud that he saw slither from a recent death scene in town.  From that moment the game is afoot!

Sherlock, per his brother's request, is assigned a tutor in the person of Amyus Crowe, an American with his own brand of reasoning. Information is the foundation of all rational thought.  Seek it out.  Collect it assiduously...Don't attempt to distinguish between important facts and trivial facts:  they're all potentially important.

A mastermind villain, Baron Maupertuis, makes his first appearance, Through the carriage window, Sherlock was momentarily shocked to see a pale, almost skeletal face framed with wispy white hair staring at him with unblinking eyes that were small and pink, like the eyes of a white rat. He felt an instant flash of instinctive revulsion, as if he had reached out for a lettuce leaf on his dinner plate and touched a slug instead. 

Who is the mysterious rider sitting astride a horse at the end of the drive to the Holmes estate?  It is the independent, free-thinking, feisty teen daughter of Amyus, Virginia Crowe. She is the final, vital link in this partnership.

This newly formed trio with the assistance of Mr. Crowe race through the pages urged on by the discovery of another sore-covered corpse with a cloud of death rising from the body, the unusual yellow powder at both scenes, a raging fire, two kidnappings and murderous thugs in the Baron's hire   Time is of the essence as the fate of the British Empire hangs in a precarious balance.

To be sure this is a rollicking, rousing romp of a mystery adventure.  Victorian life in England, vividly brought to life with picturesque particulars, offers further deomonstration of Lane's accomplishments as an author; not as a distraction but as an enhancement to the action.  Andrew Lane exhibits his life-long fervor of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books by delivering a well-researched bridge to the later years of Sherlock Holmes' life.  Old fans of all ages will welcome his captivating perspective.  New readers will relish this introduction to a character so well received over time that it's as if he walked among us.

As to Death Cloud I say, Excellent!  Andrew Lane replies, Elementary.

Book two, Red Leech, does not appear to be available yet except in audio form. 

It is interesting to note that Anthony Horowitz, well known for his Alex Rider young adult series, has been given permission by The Conan Doyle Estate, 81 years after Doyle's death, to continue the original Sherlock Holmes adventures with a new title, The House of Silk, having a release date of November 1, 2011. 

What a ride awaits Holmes fans because of Lane and Horowitz.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Interacting With Graphics and Maps

Google recently announced that they are opening their Map Maker up to the United States.  In their own words: Google Map Maker allows you to add and update geographic information for millions of users to see in Google Maps and Google Earth. With Google Map Maker, you can:
  • Add places of interest such as your local restaurants, cafes, schools and more.
  • Edit and update details for existing places.
  • Help avid hikers by mapping trails, be it for a casual walk or an adventurous trip!
  • Get driving directions and also help in making them more accurate.
  • See what your peers are mapping in specific areas.
A very detailed Getting Started Guide explains toolbar features, how to navigate in Map Maker, different views on Map Maker, specific instructions for street view on Map Maker, labs features, your Map Maker profile, Map Maker settings, markers and information windows, getting the links to places, how to add points of interest, mapping in your language, and system requirements.  There is also a comprehensive list of countries in Google maps. 

Users can sign in using their Google or Gmail account; one and the same I believe. Once a user has entered in the new information it will be confirmed before it appears on the maps. I attempted to show the driveway used to get to the County Recycling bins.  Time will tell if this becomes a permanent fixture on the map.

Believe it or not there are Mapping Party Kits available.  After checking the terms of service there does not appear to be an age limitation. 

Thanks to Richard Byrne for this info on his blog post of April 19, 2011 at Free Technology for Teachers.

A blog called NewsLab has posted two videos which instruct users in the creation of interactive graphics.  Although the NewsLab blog is designed to be read and used by journalists these two web sites offer ways to manipulate data that can be used in the classroom and for personal use as well.

One of the sites, Many Eyes is an experiment brought to users by IBM Research and the IBM Cognos Software Group.  Registration is required for this by entering in an email address and password.  Users are invited to explore visualizations, data sets, leave comments and visit topic centers.  Participation is in the form of creating a visualization in just three easy steps:  choose a data set, choose a visualization style, customize and publish.  A quick start guide is available as are visualization types and data format and styles.  The seven visualization styles are:  analyze a text, compare a set of values, see relationships among data points, see parts of a whole, see the world and track rises and falls over time.

This is a very simple visual that I created using one of the styles under compare a set of values.

The second instructional video at NewLab extends the use of Google Maps.  It is by far simpler to use and for that reason might be more advantageous for students at the lower levels or those with fewer online computer skills.  Using Google Docs create a two column spreadsheet.  In the first column put the address.  Name the place of interest in the second column.  Click on the Insert tab at the top to change the data into a widget that can be embedded into a place of the users' choice.  Below is a simple map that I designed showing my favorite places to get books.

This is the link to the video that very easily describes how to do this.
How To Make A Google Map

Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for a post earlier this month at his blog, Larry Ferlazzo's Web Sites of the Day about these two videos.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Must Read About The Value of Access To Books

Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts teacher in Texas, has written a book titled The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.  Her blog, The Book Whisperer, has a post today that is a must read.  The post titled Access Denied can be accessed by clicking on its title.

"Watt" Are You Waiting For?

Melanie Watt....just reading that name makes a giggle start to well up inside that eventually bursts forth in a loud guffaw.  Copies of her Scaredy Squirrel and Chester books are hardly lonely on the shelves of our library media center but are being held in the hands of students who have eagerly waited to check them out as soon as they are returned. 

When I spotted You're Finally Here! in a local bookstore, I knew that my readers would love it.

Book jacket flaps proclaim YOU'RE HERE!  YOU'RE HERE! amidst the carrot crammed endpapers.  The first two page spread oozes happiness as the wide-eyed rabbit cartwheels, sings, plays maracas and an ukulele with joyful abandon only to come to a screeching halt.  Turning to the next two page spread readers are greeted with BUT WHERE WERE YOU? covering the entire left side as a large accusing bunny head with hands on hips partners it on the right.
Yes, you the reader after a hearty welcome are on the spot.  As the tale continues readers are questioned:  Do you know how long I've been waiting in here?...Do you know how BORED  I get when I'm waiting?...Do you know how UNFAIR it is to keep me waiting?...Do you know how ANNOYING it is to have to wait?  Each question is followed by a picture foursome with probable answers, silly as they may be, that clearly call for readers to connect and recall their own frustrations at having to wait. 
Several times bunny backs up to a lesser mode of rudeness trying to gather in the previous glee at having you present, finally coming to a compromise in the form of a contract that concludes with,  And oh yes, YOU, the reader, will provide ME, the bunny, with carrot treats every day.
Is that the end?  Of course not, Melanie Watt (or the bunny) has a twist in her paw.

Watt has stated in interviews that she enjoys and is inspired by the work of Mo Willems, but her style is clearly her own, adding layers to original thoughts that call forth humor prompted by exaggeration. As in her other books the use of bold, bright acrylic color add to the brashness of her bunny character and his mood swings. WAIT! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?  WAS IT SOMETHING I SAID?  No, but this post is finished and I'm getting ready to start laughing again as the pages turn in You're Finally Here!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Racing The Last Great Race

As February crosses the halfway point each year the walls of Charlevoix Elementry School Library Media Center expand across the miles to the state of Alaska, the site of The Last Great Race on Earth, The Iditarod.  Mrs. Culver and her students immerse themselves in books, reading and research about this one of a kind dog sled race which has started on the first Saturday in March since 1973.  (Middle school students who have been a part of this educational adventure still inquire about the race each year.)  It is an unparalleled event where mushers and their dogs become heroic partners pitted against the majestic wilderness of this state and the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature. 

The most compelling nonfiction reads like fiction where reality is revealed with such insightful knowledge that the reader revels in the events spread before them scarcely believing that this could be true.  This is also true  with the finest fiction that reads like nonfiction; in that painstaking research discloses the writer's astute knowledge of the setting and events to such a point that readers willingly  follow the characters' dialogue, decisions, and actions believing that without a doubt this is true and they are living in the moment as the pages turn.  That is the stuff of Andre Jute's Iditarod. 

On a collision course from the beginning Rhodes Delaney and James Alderston Whitbury III come from backgrounds as different as night and day.  Nothing either says can deter the other from seeing them in a light prejudiced by their initial meeting.  A challenge has been made and the two are rookies in the Iditarod racing not only against the other mushers but against each another in a separate race altogether, one with experience that money can't buy and the other with the money to buy whatever is needed.  Lines are drawn and the stakes are high--ten thousand dollars.  Unbeknownst to Rhodes and James the ante has been upped in the formation of a wolf pack numbering over fifty strong.

As the race commences the meticulous groundwork laid out by Jute in the earlier chapters begins to accelerate in alternating episodes following first the one than the other of these two mushers with their courageous dogs crossing the vast expanse of Alaska.  Not yet near but lurking in the background are the wolves whose voice is given separate chapters adding to the growing tension; for readers know that Jute would not have placed them so unless the three groups are destined to meet.

Anxiously we survive with Rhodes and James the attack of a bull moose, a mother bear long denied food, and an explosion on a river.  We are their shadows on those sleds as they engage in the timeless conflict of man and woman against the every changing elements of bone-chilling temperatures, frost-biting winds and white-out blizzards while traveling over treacherous terrain cloaked in darkness and snow.

While expected the final conflict is utterly frightening and fascinating at the same time; frightening in its gruesome reality but fascinating in the instinctive nature to survive at all costs.
The wolves picked up pace to close faster on the two dog teams and their mushers.  They were now less than twenty-five paces away.  On one side Siberia, on the other wolves..."Haw, haw, haw!" Rhodes shouted to turn her team, left away from the wolves, towards Siberia.  "Haw, Haw!" she heard James shout over the hullabaloo of terrified dogs.  But dog teams need space to turn, while a wolf pack wheels in the length of each individual free-running wolf.  Oh, my God, I've cut it too fine for James to turn as well.
Even then, in that hazardous split second, James had to admire the wolves' superb nerve and supreme timing. 
And Rhodes, another superior athlete, felt an overwhelming sadness that now she would never finish the contest, would never reach Nome.  But I will!
It struck her that this had been a race not against James but against Alaska, represented by its wolves.

Not too far along in my reading I found myself turning the corners of pages down in this book. (Which as my students will tell you is a huge no-no but I couldn't help myself.) The vivid scenes spread before me by Jute's choice of language were intoxicating; some in their vastness, others in their intimate detail. 
He had joked to the vet at Puntilla Lake about nightmares but this was the true black velvet from which they were cut....He had planned to camp at the top of the mountain and commence the descent at dawn, well rested, alert, able to see the dangers of the trail.  Too late.  He was into the ice chute in the dark, his dogs out of control.  Pitch black. Straight. Left. From above, green and yellow lights reached out for him but to no avail.  He had gone to the dogs, was lost to men, to reason, even to fear, not a man but a speeding demon hurrying on an unknown errand behind the hounds of hell.

The ptarmigan decided he and his dogs were not a threat and settled like down from a tearing pillow fight.

Another noteworthy skill of Jute's is to blend his extensive knowledge into the narrative without it being a distraction or burden.
And, she thought, if Toots ever answers me, I shall stop mushing.
"You know," she told Toots, tempting fate, "the old timers had the right idea.  Before your time, before my time, the musher didn't run behind his sled or ride the runners.  He rode on skis in front of the sled, behind the wheel dogs.  He was tied into the gangline and steered the sled with a pole tied to the righthand side of the sled.  Called the gee pole.  Obviously. But the lighter racing sleds could be steered from the back and went a whack faster without the gee pole, so they did away with it.  Except they didn't foresee situations like this, did they?"

Andre Jute
Andre Jute's Iditarod is the finest piece of fiction that I have read to date about The Last Great Race on Earth.  Packed with adventure at every turn, nail-biting suspense, touches of endearing humor and the fine, subtle thread of romance this tale speaks to what readers crave.  Although written for an adult audience I recommend this for grades 7 and up.

Originally published in 1990 Jute has a new anniversary eBook version on Kindle.  The cover still portrays artwork by Gino d'Achille.  A map of the race is included in this edition.  In May a new hardcover edition as well as a full range of electronic editions will be available via CoolMain Press which can be linked to above by clicking on Andre Jute's name.  The map will also appear in all of the new editions.

In Pursuit of Reading

In her most recent post, Kelly Tenkely, of iLearn Technology blogs about being invited to join in a virtual book discussion group via Facebook.  It is titled Kelly Gallagher's Interactive Book Club.  It is created by the Michigan Reading Association and will begin on May 2, 2011.  Participants are invited to begin discussions, ask questions or just read posts.  Author Kelly Gallagher will be dropping in to add her views.  During the month of May what this thought-provoking book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, offers and suggests will be openly deliberated. I have wanted to read this book and now is my chance to commit with the added bonus of sharing this experience with others committed to making sure that all students are life-long readers. Will you join in too?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Snow Day+National Poetry Month=Time For Good Reads

After ten years of writing for advertising Bob Raczka's first son was born.  This reintroduced him to the world of children's books.  Loving the creativity that this venue offered him, he was able to publish his first book five years later.  Most of his books deal with art perhaps because of his love of drawing which began as a boy. But I truly believe that there is a poet sharing a part of his heart with his love of art. Then again, is not one the other?

In an earlier post, December 27, 2010, I reviewed his outstanding book, Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys (HMH Books for Young Readers, October 28, 2010.  This spring he further extends his gift of writing poetry with Lemonade and other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word (Roaring Brook Press, March 15, 2011).  Twenty-two puzzling poems with a punch can be found within the pages of this slim volume.

What Raczka has done, using only the letters in the title of each poem, is to string combinations of those letters down the page which refer back to or describe a scene relative to that word.  So his readers can measure their creativity to his, on the following page he puts the letters in order revealing those words he combined to complete his thought.  What we have is pure poetic pleasure!

No matter how much fun Rob Raczka had piecing these together, readers will have just as much or more.  And without a doubt pen and paper in hand they will begin to compose their own.  The simple, light, red, black and gray graphics of  Nancy Doniger distinctly compliment each poem hinting at the final solution while never detracting from the readers' quest.

Not wanting to seem partial to the canine corner of the world  (despite the fact that Dogku written by Andrew Clements and illustrated by Tim Bowers occupies Xena's Pick of the Month spot on the circulation desk in our elementary media center) it seems appropriate that Won Ton; A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (Henry Holt & Co., February 15, 2011) should be highlighted.

Lee Wardlaw using one of the most ancient forms of poetry tells the story of a shelter cat that finds himself a boy and a home.  These thirty-three haiku poems cleverly convey the reluctant but hopeful yearning of being chosen, the give and take adjustment in a different environment and the mutual love between the new friends.  Wardlaw is no stranger to the finickiness of felines as her precise selection of text captures the essence of all things cat; aloofness, casual interest, and reluctant insecurity.  Readers are brought full circle with the closing poem which will have them softly as cat's fur whispering, "Oh."

Coupled with this verse are illustrations by Eugene Yelchin that truly heighten the attitude of this cat.  Using graphite and gouache on watercolor paper Yelchin had me laughing out loud at the antics, emotions and facial expressions displayed by this creature.  As a pair Lee Wardlaw and Eugene Yelchin are purr-fectly matched.

Two of my favorite poems are:

What do you mean "Ewww"?
How is my tuna breath worse
than peanut butter?

Your tummy, soft as
warm dough.  I knead and knead, then
bake it with a nap. 

One of the Newbery Honor Medalists for 2011 was Joyce Sidman's Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night (HMH Books for Young Readers, September 6, 2010)  Sidman is no stranger to awards.  Two previous books, Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Red Sings from Treetops were Caldecott Honor winners, illustrated by Beckie Prange and Pamela Zagarensky respectively.

Twelve beautifully executed poems grace the pages of this mystical volume.  Readers feel as though they are quietly walking through the hours of inky, velvet shadow seeing it with new eyes.  To start a rhyming, lyrical verse invites all those inhabitants of the dark to come forth and be who they are.

...Come feel the cool and shadowed breeze,
come smell your way among the trees,
come touch rough bark and leathered leaves:
Welcome to the night....

 Each subsequent poem features those creatures of the nighttime as well as the flora that surrounds them bringing strangers, that we are, into their world.  Through a variety of poetic forms and techniques, song, rhyme, free verse, or concrete, Sidman illuminates those particular qualities that make each subject unique.

Whether the pacing and placing of text is that of the poet or the illustrator it contributes to the overall richness of this work.  As if the poems are not enough readers are treated to concise sidebars on the far right of each two page spread giving further details about each dweller of the dark. 

As stated on the back of the title page,

The prints in this book were made by the process of relief printing.  A drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood or, in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools.  The areas left uncut are covered with ink and printed on paper by hand or on a press; a number of blocks can be cut and then successively printed in different colors, with the different blocks being "registered" or aligned to create a multicolored print.  The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some instances as many as six) and then hand-colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called gouache.

Rick Allen is an extraordinary artisan in his particular medium.  Extending the illustrations beyond the intended borders tempts readers to venture further noticing the subtle nuances of particular scenes.  Smaller graphics within the poems either highlight the intended subject or lend a bit of humor.  Careful viewers can follow one creature as it meanders through each poem among all the midnight magic acting as our guide.

Do yourself a favor by following Allen's link to his web site.  When considering the process of completing each piece, the results are amazing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sew Lovely

What better use of a snow day is there than finding surprising displays of artwork that highlight books and reading?  This fall books known as Penguin Threads Deluxe Classics will be released.  Visit the web site of Jillian Tamaki artist extraordinaire to view all three completed book covers for classic titles, The Secret Garden, Emma and Black Beauty.  Having been a fanatic embroiderer in my younger days I can only imagine the hours to not only design but to actually complete the sewing on each piece of art.
When these books are available to the public the covers will be rendered using a sculptural-embossing technique that will make them collectibles of the best kind.

Sweeting Up National Library Week 2011

created by Rosebud Cakes
It's a given that I simply love books and reading.  It is my life long passion to share as many of them with as many students and staff as I can; well, sincerely, with just about anyone that I happen to meet.  (I have been known to offer unsolicited assistance in book stores to wondering parents.)  Most people that know me know that I love to cook but what has been done with these cakes takes it to a whole new level.
It never fails to amaze me at the creativity of people when they are pursing their passions.  Check out these cakes that honor the makers' books of choice at Cake Wrecks; When Professional Cakes Go Horribly Wrong.  Although National Library Week 2011 has come and gone (April 10-16, 2011)  wouldn't it be interesting to see what kind of virtual cake could be made to honor a student's favorite read using a variety of web 2.0 apps.  Yum! Yum!

Thanks to Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes for this link via Cheryl Rainfield

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Trashed Treasure

Readers will be grabbed by the very first sentence in this book, Trash (2010) written by Andy Mulligan.  My name is Raphael Fernandez and I am a dumpsite boy.  Beginning in his third year Raphael has been picking through mountains of trash in the rubbish-town of Behala near the sea working alongside his friend, Gardo.

As they are sifting through trash one day a bag called a special is dropped down from the crane.  That name is given to an unbroken bag from an area where the rich reside.  Among all the various valuables a small, coffee-ground covered pouch falls into Raphael's hand.

A peso-filled wallet with a few photographs and an ID card, a folded-up map of the city and a key inside the map are the only contents within.  Quickly putting these items down his shorts Raphael and Gardo continue sorting so as to not draw attention to themselves.  But

We were both excited and we were right to be, because that bag changed everything.  A long time later I would think to myself:  Everyone needs a key.  With the right key, you can bust the door wide open.  Because nobody's going to open it for you.

Desperate to uncover the truth the two friends seek the assistance of another boy living in the dump, Rat.  Troubling times are ahead for the trio of teens who search to unravel the mystery surrounding these items.  Using alternating voices of characters for each chapter this tale pits them against seemingly insurmountable odds in this third world country fraught with corruption at every turn. Death shadows them as the slightest misjudged decision could end all.

With the clock ticking toward The Day of the Dead this compelling thriller will have pages being enhaled by breathless readers as the action speeds toward the soul satisfying conclusion.  Beneath all the escapades of these young men the heart of the story beats steadily guiding everyone toward the larger social issues portrayed.

Andy Mulligan  is an author to be admired and appreciated for his superb storytelling skills. Now I need to get my hands on his other book, Ribblestrop, but quick.

Andy Mulligan talks about this book at The Guardian, Andy Mulligan Talks Trash.  Here is a link to the author's website for more information about this book specifically.  There is a wonderful series of pages on Andy Mulligan's blog with chapter summaries and loads of other information.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Van Allsburg Switch--Michigan Woman of Wonder

He's back.  And he...is...definitely...good.  Chris Van Allsburg began writing and illustrating children's books in 1979 with The Garden of Abdul Gasazi which won a Caldecott Honor Medal.  It was followed by Jumanji in 1981 which won the 1982 Caldecott Medal.  In 1986 he was again the recipient of the Caldecott Medal for The Polar Express.  In the other thirteen titles between and following these honors Van Allsburg's books have beckoned and challenged readers to expand their perception of reality by journeying into his own special realm of fantasy.  His view of the impossible is so well conceived that by each stories' end readers are willing believers.

Six years have passed since Probuditi's publication.  For the first time ever Chris Van Allsburg has given readers a nonfiction tale in Queen of the Falls.  Through careful research the spectacular plunge in 1901 near the end of Annie Edson Taylor's life is recorded.

Mrs. Taylor, a sixty-two-year-old widow, running a charm school in Bay City, Michigan knows that drastic measures are in order.  The doors to her school are closing and unless she wishes to spend her remaining days in the poor house, she needs money and needs it fast.  From the moment the idea to go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel enters her mind until its fruition readers are held captivated by her audacity, determination and perseverance; from reluctant craftsman, to shady promoters, to unbelieving reporters and the final gathering of curious spectators.

Mr. Van Allsburg's pacing is superb leading in with the day of the event, then backtracking to the beginning bringing readers full circle to the barrel careening down the river, pausing and then dropping over the falls.  Never one to leave unanswered questions we follow Annie as she seeks her due claim to celebrity status.  Though fame and fortune allude her, despite her being the first to do this, Chris Van Allsburg closes with remarks that she made to a reporter ten years following her daring feat.

Using a variety of graphic techniques, full page spreads bleeding into the borders, center insets and altered- size, framed illustrations, viewers are treated to classic Van Allsburg sepia tone drawings that closely mirror the text but extend into the true nature of the depicted characters.

For those of us who have stood on the banks of these mighty falls and marveled at this awesome display of nature, how much more dramatic is the visual of someone going over in a wooden barrel and living to tell about it.  The courage of this Annie Edson Taylor, as presented by Chris Van Allsburg, to try and succeed is equally as marvelous.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

National Geographic has a newly revamped web site in Beta called National Geographic Education.  There are various tabs available depending on the viewer; Teachers, Informal Educators, Families, Students and Kids.  Regardless of the tab selected resource tabs are Teaching Resources, Activities and Projects, Reference and News, Mapping, Multimedia, Education Programs and What is Geo-Literacy?  With Earth Day coming up this week their resources are timely and plentiful.  National Geographic has partnered with other institutions to become part of Verizon Thinkfinity which offers thousand of resources in multiple disciplines for educators. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Head In The Clouds...

Two new word cloud generators just came to my attention via Larry Ferlazzo's Web Sites of the Day.  Wordlings is the newer of the two.  There appears to be no sign up requirements.  You can log in using your Facebook or Twitter account.  Clouds can be created from a website or by copying and pasting text which I accomplished by erasing a web site word list and pasting in my own words. I was able to also type in additional words to my original text.  Once the words are arranged the user can rearrange them, pause the arrangement, take a screenshot or an HD screenshot, save it privately to social sites or a blog, publish it in the gallery or delete it.  There are seventeen fonts to choose from as well as making it small, medium or large in size.  The words can be aligned, horizontal or jumbled.  The text can be black, white or colored.  An image can be uploaded from your computer or thirteen other shapes can be selected.  It is clearly not as sophisticated as the cloud generator that follows.  I could not get the Take  Screenshot option to work and had to right mouse click to get this image.  When the Embed in Your Blog code was used the image appears as about half the size as the web page which looks gigantic on a blog post.  Clearly I need to spend some more time working with this app but then again it is brand new.  It only works with certain browsers.  I needed to use Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer.

Just a little over a year ago, Hardy Leung created a word cloud generator that rivals Wordle.  Tagxedo takes making word clouds to an art form.  At the first screen users can begin simply by selecting to enter in a web site URL, Twitter ID, Del.icio.us ID, a News event, Search term or lookup a RSS feed.  Five shapes are offered; classic, apple, dove, heart or star.  Orientation can be free style, horizontal, vertical or horizontal and vertical.  There is a choice of seventeen fonts and twenty color themes.  After submitting your choices the cloud will be made.  From the next screen alterations can be made with just a click changing color, theme, font, orientation, and layout.  There are more than 100 new shapes from which to choose. 
A history of all changes the user makes is available in case an earlier design is preferable.  There are layout options worthy of a graphic designer. Images can be saved in a variety of sizes and forms. It can also be printed.

 If the user so desires at this screen words can be loaded from a file, web page or by typing in text.

Final creation saved as a tagxedo.jpg made by entering in National Poetry Month in the News option at the first screen

Friday, April 15, 2011

On The Road Again With Ike

Few books capture the age old disdain that dogs have for cats (and cats for dogs) better than those penned and pictured by Mark Teague.  Ike LaRue first made an appearance in Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School.  On its heels was Detective LaRue:  Letters from the Investigation followed by our canine hero running for office in Letters from the Campaign Trail:  LaRue for Mayor.   This spring the newest episode, LaRue Across America: Postcards from the Vacation, leaves little doubt in readers' minds that no dog gives his own special slant to a story quite like Ike.

The "tail" begins with headlines in The Snort City Register/Gazette proclaiming that due to the heat wave Leona Hibbins has been hospitalized leaving her cats without care.  Her neighbor Gertrude LaRue steps foward to take the frazzled felines with her and Ike on a road trip across the United States.  It seems that the cruise line does not allow cats on board thus the change in plans much to the chagrin of Ike.

What ensues is a series of postcards from Ike to Mrs. Hibbins describing in great detail all the reasons that her cats would be far better off anywhere than with Ike and Mrs. LaRue:  You know that she has never been a skillful driver.  What if the car breaks down in some hideous wasteland?...We have departed, and things do not look hopeful.  It seems that the same awful heat which caused your own collapse has left your cats ill-tempered and unmanageable...I know that the cats would like to turn back, too, but they are so contrary they refuse to take my side.  Only you can end this fiasco!

 As in the previous books what Ike writes or views in his mind does not coincide with what is truly happening in the story.  And that is exactly what makes these tales so laugh-out-loud funny.  By using two page spreads, Teague's  illustrations show Ike's view in black and white and actual events in color increasing readers' hilarity at the disparity between the two.  His attention to detail especially the expressions on the dog and cats steps up the laughter a notch or two.

 As I have said before nothing makes a book more alluring than endpapers which begin the story.  In this case viewers are treated to a full color map of the U.S.A. with Ike's trip mapped out highlighting those special points of interest along the way.  The book's jacket does not mirror the book's front and back cover just adding to the overall attraction.  Mark Teague has another winner in this "paws-itively" perfect package.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spring Break Benefits-National Book Award

The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America. 

This year the five finalists for the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature were Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, Dark Water by Laura McNeal, Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia.  In an earlier post, November 8, 2010, I reviewed the outstanding Lockdown.   This past week during spring break I was fortunate to read the winner, Mockingbird as well as another of the finalists, Ship Breaker.

It is said that Paolo Bacigalupi is an up and coming writer in the genre of science fiction.  In the past six years he has been nominated for and won numerous awards in his field.  For his first young adult novel, Ship Breaker, he won the American Library Association, Michael L. Printz Award.  This award has been given annually since 2000 for books that exemplify literary excellence in Young Adult literature. 

Ship Breaker takes readers into a nail biting adventure that portrays a dark, gritty but believable future set along America's Gulf Coast area.  Groups living in a town of shacks scavenge for valuable metals and parts on beached oil tankers along the shore.  Nailer, due to his size, is able to crawl into areas where others dare not go.  It is a dog eat dog existence to say the least with work crews pitted one against the other; at times it is even worse between members of the same work crew despite having sworn a blood oath.  Within  the first few chapters Nailer has fallen into an unknown oil reserve within the depths of a ship. Trying to swim in what could be a fortune Nailer fears his death is imminent.
 Nailer's heart suddenly beat faster.  If this was some room accidentally filled with oil, then there had to be doors.  But they'd all be down below the surface.  He'd have to dive down and risk not making it back up.  Dangerous.  You'll drown anyway.  Sloth's not going to save you...You're dead already...It was a curiously liberating thought.  He really had nothing to lose...He dove...Nailer redoubled his efforts.  Gold and blue and red pulses filled his vision.  The wheel turned again, loosening.  He was frantic for air, but he stayed down, fighting the urge to kick for the surface, turning the wheel faster and faster until his lungs were heaving.  He launched himself upward again, hope running wild as he surfaced. 
To make his life even more edgy Nailer lives in constant fear of his own drug-addicted father's abusive treatment. 
After a storm that lasts two days Nailer and a crew mate, Pima, are out and about when they make a startling discovery; a shipwrecked clipper ship.  Among the wreckage it appears that those still on board are dead until a teenage girl barely breathing is found.  Her assurance that she is worth more alive than dead presents Nailer with a dilemma.  His conscience says keep her alive to collect more wealth than he can imagine.  Life has taught him that her death could also bring him great wealth from the wrecked ship.  Is she telling the truth about her identity?  Can they allude the group that is seeking her death?  Will the ruthless behavior of Nailer's father cost him his life?   
Readers will immediately be snagged by the descriptive action and events that unfold in this frightening and at times violent view of Nailer's world.  It is the mix of characters; those whose trust is tenuous at best, those who will murder as  justifiable means to a wealthy end and those whose values transcend their life circumstances, that make this work of Paolo Bacigalupi award worthy. 

It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room.  Hurt.  Trying to fly every time the heat pump turns on with a click and a groan and blows cold air onto the sheet and lifts it up and it flutters for just a moment and then falls down again.  Still.  Dead.  These are the words that begin Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. 
Caitlin's brother has been killed in a shooting at his middle school.  The chest in the living room that was his Eagle Scout project has been covered by their father, never to be finished by he and Devon.  Catlin feels the lose of her brother differently from others.  She has Asperger's.  Devon helped her make sense of a multi-textured world that for her is either only one way or the opposite.  The gray of outside is inside.  Inside the living room.  Inside the chest.  Inside me.  It's so gray that turning on a lamp is too bright.  It should be black inside and that's what I want so I put my head under the sofa cushion where the green plaid fabric smells like Dad's sweat and Devon's socks and my popcorn and the cushion feels soft and heavy on my head and I push deeper so my shoulders and chest can get under too and there's a weight on me that holds me down and keeps me from floating and falling and floating and falling like the bird.
This is just not a story about a young girl with Asperger's who has to deal with the death of her brother.  It explores how a community deals with this tragedy, how it has touched the individual students in her class at school and how her father coups with his loss and this special child in his care. It speaks to the issues that children with this condition have to face on a daily basis; brilliant about many things but unsure or uncomprehending about other life skills that many take for granted.  Erskine's use of language is so skillful that readers become Caitlin feeling her hopes, frustrations, thought processes, sadness and sense of her place in a complex and confusing environment.  Readers will also develop a compassion and empathy for Caitlin and those persons that are part of her day to day life.
While some feel that Erskine is trying to cover too many topics at one time, I feel that she beautifully placed all her parts with purpose and a preciseness that was designed to picture a sincere, true and heartfelt vision of the world in which all her characters lived.  How fortunate that we readers can pick up this piece of art, take it with us and view it at our leisure instead of having to see it framed hanging in a museum. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Priceless Polacco

 Time and time again her characteristic, artistic style will catch your eye.  Time and time again her words will make a mark on your heart.  Time and time again her message will give you pause.  It will change the way you think. There is no illustrator or author quite like Patricia Polacco.

Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln is her third book that gives readers a window into the American Civil War.  It was preceded first by  Pink and Say and followed by January's Sparrow.  Each of these tales has a distinctive approach as to what readers will take away regarding the events of this time in history.

In this newest book Polacco introduces us to Michael and Derek riding the Amtrak Limited on its way to Washington, D. C. with their Grandmother.  During a stop at Harpers Ferry they meet a good friend of hers, a Mr. Portufoy, director of the Civil War Museum.  After trying on Union uniforms he invites them to walk through a door into a game.

They are going to Antietam just after the battle.  Everything they encounter will be as if real.  They are not to tell anyone about who they really are or the time period from which they come.

 Mr. Portufoy gives them a gold watch cautioning them to return to the door one hour after the watch chimes before sunset.  They are swept into this historic game as assistants for the studio of renowned photographer Mathew Brady.   Before long they are gazing across the battlefield horrified by the pall of death which stretches as far as their eyes can see.

Realizing that somehow they have traveled back in time and this is real, the two boys are overwhelmed by fear and sadness.  It is President Lincoln that lends them comfort.  For this gesture of kindness they break a promise offering the President hope for a better future by producing a treasured keepsake from a pocket.

True to her gift as a storyteller, Patricia Polacco adds just the right twist at the end along with a letter to her readers offering more explanation about this Battle at Antietam.  I love your books, Patricia Polacco.  You feed your readers' souls.

Follow her web site above to gain further information about all her books and the upcoming Meteor Festival 2011 in Union City, Michigan.  This event most assuredly will be informative, interesting, inspiring and just plain fun.  Road trip!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is It April Yet? Yes, It Is. Let The Countdown Begin.

During April National Poetry Month is just what the doctor ordered for spring fever.  After returning from spring break our students love to use the weeks until May to journey into the realm of poetry in its many forms when they come to the library media center.  No day this month is more fun than Poem In Your Pocket Day on April 14, 2011.  On this day people celebrate and share their favorite poems by carrying them around and reading them aloud.  Or they get copies of their favorite poems and leave them for others to find and enjoy.  Poets.org a site from the American Academy of Poets has many helpful ideas for educators not only for this day, the month of April but anytime that a unit on poetry is being offered. 

With reference to an earlier post on March 31, 2011 about the new eBook only titled PoetryTagTime this reader must say that the poems are simply delightful.  Each author's poem represents their own particular style and take on an idea.  Their explanations for the poems that they created are engaging which will lead to more poems being created by readers of all ages. The PoetryTagTime blog has oodles of fantastic suggestions and ideas as promised.