Thursday, August 17, 2017

Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal'd by Mary Losure

When most of us think of Isaac Newton, we think about an apple falling on his head and his formulating his law of gravity and his three laws of motion. But there is much more to his life and Mary Losure has written an extraordinary, well-researched biography of Isaac Newton, beginning with his childhood and a mother who essentially abandoned him as a young boy. 

Born on December 25, 1642, Isaac, a loner, spent much of his childhood living in a third floor room in an apothecary’s home in an English village called Grantham. His father was dead, and his mother remarried a man who didn’t want Isaac in the house. Isaac lived in a world dominated by Puritans, but one that still held many mysteries about the physical world and he spent much of his time pondering these mysteries and studying alchemy in the hope of creating a philosopher’s stone, believing such a stone would hold the answers to all his questions. As a result of his studies, he had to teach himself advanced mathematics, inventing what he called fluxions, a precursor to modern calculus, along the way. 

Eventually, Isaac ended up at Trinity College Cambridge, where he remained as a mathematics professor after his student days ended. Still a loner, and still studying alchemy, he continued his experiments there, still hoping to create a philosopher’s stone.

Sent home from Cambridge because of the plague in 1665-66, Isaac spent much of his time wondering about the rules that govern the paths moving objects took through space, paths he could calculate using fluxions. But what, he wondered, kept the moon on its path? But it was much later that the answer finally came to him, and again, using fluxions, he developed his three laws of motion, laws that would later be called Newtonian Physics.

I majored in philosophy as an undergrad, and we studied some Newtonian ideas, and I never really thought Isaac Newton was a terribly interesting person. However, Losure has given his life an interesting spin by referring to him most of the time as a alchemist/magician and focusing on his alchemical interests and experiments, one of which resulted in fireworks that lit up the night sky when he was still a boy. Much of what Losure writes is speculation based on what facts there are about Isaac Newton’s life. She has done this in part by presenting a believable picture of the kind of world Isaac lived in, adding real depth to her biography of this illusive magician/scientist. In fact, Newton still has the distinction of being the world’s greatest alchemist, and one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Losure has included copious reproductions of illustrations throughout the book, some by Isaac, some from other sources, but all from the time of Isaac’s life. There is also a Bibliography and list of Works Consulted for the very curious who might want to explore Isaac Newton’s life and/or times in more depth.

I have to admit, I put off reading Isaac the Alchemist for a long time despite the many wonderful reviews I had read about it, and am I sorry I did. This is probably one of the most compelling, interesting and accessible scientist biographies I’ve ever read. I think that whether your young readers are interested in science or magic (alchemy), or just big Harry Potter fans who already know about the philosopher’s stone, they will find Isaac Newton’s life and times as fascinating as I did.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to my by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Blog Tour: The Real Us by Tommy Greenwald

Eight-grader Calista Getz has always been the prettiest and most popular girl in school. And she’s also a pretty nice person, even if she has somehow ended up being friends with stuck up, superficial Ellie and Ella. And Calista still likes to play soccer. Laura Corbett used to be Calista’s best friend, but that seems to have changed now, though they still play on the soccer team together. But Laura has a weight problem that makes her the brunt of mean jokes, some made Ellie and Ella, straining what it left of her friendship with Calista. Damian White is an artist and a longer who has been watching Calista, fascinated by her ever since she gave him a tour of the school when he was a new student the year before. Damian also has hyperhidrosis, which causes him to sweat excessively. Small wonder his is also obsessed with drawing pictures of deserts.

The new school year has begun and Monday is pretty uneventful. Just lots of talk about the First Week Dance. Naturally Ellie and Ella think Calista should go with Peter Toole, best looking boy in the school and basically nice guy.. Later, at soccer practice, Laura accidentally hurts Calista during a scrimmage.Uh-oh…

Tuesday, Calista wakes up to her first pimple, right smack in the middle of her nose and in her panic, she pops it. So she puts her mother’s concealer on it and and covers it with a bandage. At school, she begins to break out in hives from the concealer, and runs into Damian in the nurse’s office, where he goes to change his shirt a few times a day. Later at lunch, Calista finds out that Peter doesn’t want to go to the dance with her now that she isn’t perfect. And to make matters worse, Damian accidentally smacks her in the nose with his elbow, causing bleeding. swelling and black and blue eyes. And superficial friends Ella and Ellie turn on her.

Let’s face it, middle school can be drama personified until everyone works out who they really are and how to really be that person. What makes this book really interesting is seeing how how everything works out Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I love how Tommy Greenwald created main characters who defy stereotypes resulting in a much more interesting story. Normally, Calista who have been more like Ellie and Ella, but despite being so pretty, she is a smart, kind, and not afraid of getting dirty and sweating on the soccer field. 

The Real Us covers the first week of school, up to the First Week Dance. Each day is narrated in the first person, alternatively by Calista, Laura and Damian, so the reader experiences how each one feels about the same set of events. Normally, I don’t like multiple narrators, but it really worked here, probably because there wasn’t a lot of descriptive passages, yet you really get a complete picture of what is happening.  

A word about the adults in The Real Us - they really don’t give in to any of the middle school shenanigans that are going on. Calista’s mother tells her the pimple isn’t the end of the world, and makes her return to school on Wednesday despite the way her face now looks; the nurse sends her back to class because she is, after all, still a student. The art teacher doesn’t care what Calista looks like when she is asked to pose with Peter Toole for a poster for the dance, a poster drawn by Damian; and the soccer coach treats her like the other players, seeing her as a good player, not a pretty girl. I loved these adults. 

 The Real Us is a book every middle grade student should read. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from the publisher, Roaring Brook Press/mackids

Be sure to visit the other stops on The Real Us Blog Tour:
August 7      Ms. Yingling Reads                    review
August 8      Maria's Melange                         author interview
August 9      Log Cabin Library                      review
August 10    Diary of a Happy Librarian        review
August 11    Always in the Middle                 author interview
August 14    Randomly Reading                     review
August 15    One Great Book                          review
August 16    Unleashing Readers                    giveaway
August 17    Mr. D. Reads                               interview
August 18    Tommy Greenwald                     giveaway

Meet the author:
Tommy Greenwald is the author of the Charlie Joe Jackson series as well as its spin-offs and the Crimebiters! series and is now looking forward to his next challenge.

Find Tommy on Twitter @tommygreenwald

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Chester and Gus by Cammie McGovern

Chester, a chocolate lab, would have been a perfect service dog except for his fear of loud noises. Unable to be certified, Chester is chosen by the parents of a 10 year-old nonverbal boy with autism named Gus, hoping that Chester’s help, Gus will be able to attend public school. At first, Gus won’t even let Chester near him, but slowly allows to the dog near him. For his part, Chester knows he has found the person he was meant to be with.

Gus’s mother Sara is desperate for her son to be able to go the school with other children, and acting out of that desperation, she deceptively presents Chester as a certified service dog to the school’s principal. Placed in a classroom, Chester is a hit with the other students who basically ignore Gus. But not everyone is happy about having Chester around. A boy named Ed resents not being allowed to bring his dog to school, and the other fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Palmer, doesn’t want a dog distracting students and disrupting school routine. One bright spot for Gus is Mama, a cafeteria worker who loads the dishwasher and who simply accepts Gus for who he is.

But when it comes to light that Chester is not really a certified service dog, the principal tells Sara he can no longer accompany Gus to school until he is certified. But on Chester’s last day of school, he and Gus get separated during a fire drill, Gus is found in a closet unconscious and later diagnosed as having a seizure. Kept home from school for a few weeks, when Gus returns without Chester, he is badly beaten up by Ed, the class bully.

Sara decides to have Chester certified as a seizure response dog, and calls Penny, the person who originally trained him. But Penny has always had other ideas for Chester; convinced that he is an unusually intelligent dog, she wants to teach him to read and has not intention of returning Chester to Gus. 

 Will Chester ever return to his person, Gus?    

Chester and Gus is a story that will certainly pull at your heartstrings, particularly because the narrated point of view is done by a dog who connects with the boy for whom he was chosen. I thought this anthropomorphism was a particularly effective literary strategy for a book that is concerned with the limits of communication in order to be understood. Chester may understand much of what is going on with Gus, but he has no way of telling anyone. Gus can communicate with Chester, but not with the rest of the world. It feels like a real catch-22 and McGovern really has presented this frustrating situation successfully without resorting to being too ridiculous. 

And she has really captured Sara’s desperation for her son to be part of the world so well, but also the resistance from people who don’t understand or care about autistic children being able to gain some level of independent. When I was teaching, I didn’t run into too many Mrs. Palmers, but there were some who just couldn’t be flexible. 

Two things did bother me. While I could understand Sara’s motives, I didn’t like her deceiving the principal to get what she wanted. And I felt that Ms. Cooper, the teacher’s aide assigned to Gus, never really noticed what was going on with him at school, and she certainly should have been reprimanded for not staying with him during the fire drill. Instead. blame fell solely on Chester’s head for abandoning Gus.

Writing a book about an basically nonverbal autistic character isn’t an easy thing to do, but McGovern has succeeded at giving the reader a glimpse into what life is like for the children and their families.  

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gone Camping: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

In Gone Fishing, Sam and his younger sister Lucy has some sibling issues to work out on a fishing trip with dad. Now, they're back. This time they are going on a camping trip with dad, and while both kids are really look forward to this, as the trip gets closer, Lucy is feeling some apprehension - after all, she doesn't like the dark, and there are all those night critters that could crawl into their tent.

Then, all packed and ready to go, dad wakes up sick on the morning of the trip and has to stay home with mom. But rather than cancelling the trip, much to Sam and Lucy's disappointment, Grandpa has agreed to take over, adding to Lucy's anxiety. After all, he be a little absent minded, on the other hand

"...Grandpa's funny, shares his candy, drives, can barbecue
Maybe we'll still have fun without Mom, Dad, or the canoe."

But Grandpa actually turns out to be lots of fun, as the three campers do all the usual camping things like pitching the tent, building a campfire and cooking weenies and bean over it, and enjoying that favorite campsite dessert - S'mores.

But as bedtime draws closer, Lucy's fears begin to worry her again:

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Mighty Mars
In the sky among the stars. Ruby planet, bold and bright
Here's my wish this camping night. Let me be alert and strong
And keep the bears where they belong."

But leave it to Grandpa to provide just the right thing to help Lucy with her fears - a gumdrop that will keep away the bears. Little did Lucy or Sam expect that the thing that would keep them both awake would be neither excitement nor fear, but their Grandpa. Luckily, however, sleep catches up with the kids and next thing they know, it's early morning. Lucy has (sort of) conquered her nighttime fears and they are ready to enjoy a whole day of camping fun before heading home.

Using a variety of poetic forms, Wissinger has certainly captured the excitement, fun and fears of camping in the forest, where it can feel too dark and scary. Just as she did in Gone Fishing, Wissinger traces each aspect of the camping trip with its own poem in the voice of either Lucy, Sam, or Grandpa, beginning with packing up the equipment to returning home, safe and sound.

Gone Camping explores a nice range of emotions and themes from disappointment, anger, and fear to excitement, realizing that Grandpa can be lots of fun given the chance, and most importantly, facing and overcoming childhood fears. For Lucy, the camping trip is a real milestone.

At the back of the book, Wissinger has included a section called Provisioning for Poetry where she discusses rhyme and rhythm, and how rhythm patters come from syllable combinations, and how line lengths come from rhythm pattern combinations. There is also a section called Poetry Techniques which includes a variety of literary terms, and a section on Poetic Forms and Stanza Patterns.

Mathew Cordell's lively colorful pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations go far in capturing just what each poem is saying, using facial expression and bodily gestures, as well as Lucy's fears - did you catch that red fox running along side Grandpa's car as they enter the woods?

Looking at the poems in both Gone Fishing and Gone Camping, I can see where they are a wonderful resource for teachers teaching their students about poetry in a fun, lighthearted, yet relatable way.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Here is a fun craft project that kids can do in connection with Gone Camping. It's a camping scene kids can cut and paste onto a piece of construction paper or card stock and put a picture of themselves into the middle of the campsite. You can find the free printable color template at Simply Learning

Used with permission of Kaitlyn at Simply Learning

Monday, July 31, 2017

2017 Picture Book Summer Reading Roundup

Summertime is the perfect time for some fun picture book reading and here is a roundup of some of our favorite books that we have been repeatedly reading this year:

And Then Comes Summer by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Jaime Kim
2017, Candlewick Press, 32 pages, age 4+

This lyrical ode to summer captures everything that is wonderful about this favorite season. Once school is out and cubbies are cleaned of cookie crumbs, “the days stretch out like a slow yawn,” according to our narrator, an unnamed boy in a blue striped shirt. Summer is filled with lemonade stands, hide-and-seek, biking, parades, fireworks and ice cream. Summer is topped off with a family trip to the lake for fishing, old friends and, of course, a campfire to cozy around. Brenner has managed to encapsulate the essence of the perfect summer, evoking memories of my own childhood and that of my Kiddo. Jaime Kim’s acrylic and digital illustrations are done in a happy summer palette of greens, blues and yellow, with lots of Johnny-Jump-Ups sprinkling the pages like sprinkles on an ice cream cone. This is the book that reminds me each time I’ve read it to the kids just how much and why I love summer (as do my young readers).

Jabari Jumps written and illustrated by Gaia Cornwall
2017, Candlewick Press, 32 pages, age 4+

A child’s very first jump into a pool can be an exciting moment though often it is not without a little trepidation beforehand. Now that Jabari has finished his swimming lessons and passed his swim test, he tells his dad that today is the day he is going to jump off the diving board - after all,  he’s not the least bit scared. But as Jabari approaches the ladder leading to the board, some of his bravado seems to fade, as the lets other kids go ahead of him as he thinks about what kind of dive to do. Sensing his fears, dad suggests doing some stretches. But when Jabari decides to jump the next day instead, wise dad tells Jabari it’s OK to be scared, and offers just the kind of advice his son needs. Does Jabari jump? You bet he does. I loved this book. Cornwall has absolutely caught that milestone moment in a child’s life when they do something they are afraid of doing and it works out better than they ever expected. What a feeling! I also love the tender relationship between Jabari and his very patient dad. The pencil, watercolor, and collage illustrations really reflect Jabari’s experience, from the height of the diving board to the depth of the water, and every moment in between. 

Think Cool Thoughts by Elizabeth Perry, illustrated by Linda Bronson
2005, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 32 pages, age 4+

It seems this summer has been particularly hot all over the country. In this picture book, Angel, 7, is also suffering with the heat, unable to sleep at night, and not even after her mother tells her to think cool thoughts. In the morning, Angel’s mom and visiting Aunt Lucy start reminiscing about sleeping in the roof another summer when it was too hot, and sure enough, that night a mattress, sheets and pillows are carried upstairs and outside. That night, Angel slept on the roof between her mother and her aunt, and when she wakes, something’s different. Angel realizes she isn’t hot anymore, just as cooling raindrops begin to fall. After a scramble to get the bedding inside, Angel, mom, Aunt Lucy all return to the roof to simply let the welcome rain cool them down. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who actually did sleep on the roof of their building on a hot summer night, but I suppose it could happen, though beyond a fanciful picture book, I wouldn’t recommend it. And I did like this book. It is a nice family story about pulling together to solve a problem while creating tender memories. Linda Bronson acrylic and oil stylized illustrations are perfect for a story about hot nights in colors that go from hot reds to cool blues. A charming story for the dog days of summer.  

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever written and illustrated by Marla Frazee
2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages, age 6+

This is a delightful tongue in cheek picture book about two friends, James and Eamon, who are signed up for a week at Nature Camp and who will be staying with Eamon’s grandparents Bill and Pam during camp. Bill is a real nature lover whose biggest desire is to go to Antarctica, but try as he might, he just can’t get “Jamon” (as he called the boys) interested beyond the coffee ice-cream icebergs with hard chocolate sauce on top that Pam gives them to eat. And when Bill invites Jamon to see a penguin exhibit, the boys opt for quiet meditation in front of video games in the basement. Careful readers will soon notice that all the text and illustrations plus speech balloons tell two different stories. The title of this book, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, may seem rather ironic, but once camp is over and the boys have so free time, they decide to do something especially for Bill, so may the title isn’t so off-base after all. Complimenting the story are Frazee’s humorous illustrations that really brings out the boy’s close friendship, their energy, their interests and disinterests, all of which will probably remind you a of few boys you may know. It is also a wonderful intergenerational story that I suspect all elicit a chuckle or two from grandparents recognize themselves in Pam and Bill.

There Might Be Lobsters by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Laurel Molk
2017, Candlewick Press, 32 pages, age 3+

The beach and the ocean can be a scary sight when you’re just little dog like Suki. But his owner Eleanor is determined to get her dog on the beach and into the ocean for some fun, despite all the excuses he might be able to think up to avoid the beach. After all, you can’t be too careful, and there might be lobsters. After being carried to the shore’s edge, and even with his favorite toy, Chunka Munka, by his side, Suki is scared - of the big beach ball, the salty, wet waves, lobsters. So, Suki just sits on the beach watching everyone else having a good, until, uh-oh, a big waves comes and take Chunka Munka right out to sea. Will Suki find his courage and be able to save his faithful companion before he sinks to the bottom of the sea, lost forever? Yes he does, and Suki feels pretty good about it, too. This is a wonderful story for kids who might be feeling a little trepidation about the beach and the ocean, especially after rooting for Suki to save Chunka Munka. Readers will find plenty of humor in Molk’s semi-silly watercolor, acrylic, pen and ink illustrations, and maybe even a few lobsters, but it’s all in good fun. Pay particular attention to the sea gulls doing exactly what sea gulls do - stealing people’s food all through the story. Do let your young readers count the number of times sea gulls succeed.

Sneakers, the Seaside Cat by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Anne Mortimer
1955/2005, HarperCollins, 32 pages, age 4+

Kids can join Sneakers, a very curious black and white cat, as he discovers all the interesting things to explore on his first visit to the beach with his boy and his parents. The seaside, Sneakers discovers, is a virtual smorgasbord of sensory experiences, from the smell of the fish in the ocean, to the cold, wet water on his paw; from the sound the seagull’s scree to sharp feel of the crab’s claw, there are just so many wonders. And then the fog rolls, big gray clouds hiding the sun. Margaret Wise Brown has really captured the way an animal must perceive the world without the benefit of language, and it is a great book for introducing and getting kids to talk about how they experience the world with regard to their own senses. Sneakers also is a bit of a rapscallion that is sure to amuse young readers. The lovely watercolor illustrations by Anne Mortimer also capture and reflect the wonder, the surprise and the curiosity of Sneakers’ different moods and feelings. Sneakers, the Seaside Cat may have been written in 1955, but it is a gentle story still holds up for today’s children.

The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Wendell Minor
1992/2017, Charlesbridge, 32 pages, age 3+

How do you describe the seashore to a person has never been there? Make it a sensory experience, but using descriptive language instead of actual sensory experience. When a young boy asks his mother what the seashore is like, she begins with the break of day and the changing colors of sky and water as the sun come up. At the beach, there are treasures for him to explore - shells, seaside creatures, a gulls lost feather. The cold ocean “makes you skin feel like peppermint” and the noonday sun tires you out. In the afternoon, there is an airplane to run after, twirling in the sand, and the walk home. After a wonderful, busy day, it impossible to stay awake to even notice the on/off beam of the lighthouse. Zolotow’s lyrical descriptions perfectly reflect the sights and sounds of a day at the beach, transporting mother and son so vividly that it almost feels as though they had been there. Added to this imaginary experience are Minor’s soft gouache and watercolor illustrations in a palette of blues and yellows that will leave the reader with the sensation of hot sun and sand countered with the coolness of the ocean’s water. This reissue is a welcomed delight.

The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
2001, Richard Jackson Books, 32 pages, 3+

The excitement of an anticipated visit from relatives living far away is almost of summertime tradition and Rylant understands this completely. Driving from Virginia in an old station wagon with an ice chest full of pop and bologna sandwiches, a carload of relatives drive all day and night to arrive at their destination, where they are heartily welcomed by…their relatives.  After lots of hugs and even a few tears, the relatives go inside the house, welcomed with a big family style feast. And they stay, for weeks, helping out in the garden and fixing things and sleeping wherever there was spot. Then it was time to pack the ice chest and return to Virginia. The relatives missed their relatives, but they also knew, they would visit with each other again next summer. This has been a favorite in my family since my Kiddo was little and there was a lots of relative visiting back and forth, and all so reminiscent of this book. In fact, I’ve never read it to a child who didn’t have relative stories to add to our discussion. They usually love the illustrations of the family meal and the sleeping arrangements, even if that isn’t their experience. Gammell’s jolly color pencil illustrations done in a colorful summertime palette of bright colors add so much to the whimsy and fun of the text. This book came out in 1986, but, like Sneakers, it also holds up well for today’s readers. 

What are some of your favorite summertime stories?
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