Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's On My Nightstand: February 28

Like last month, I am just going to post photos of what our nightstands look like right now.  Here's a peek at recent reads, what we're reading now, and what we're looking forward to.  You can also check out my sidebar for lots of my book lists.  (I love lists!)

You can check out more What's On Your Nightstand posts here at 5 Minutes for Books.

my nightstand, including reading with kids & DVDs
kids' nightstand
bottom shelf of kids' nightstand

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book #8: Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

I'm on a roll with great nonfiction this year!  What's a good follow-up to Henrietta Lacks, a very readable, page-turning nonfiction book?  Well, Amelia Lost, a YA biography of Amelia Earhart, impressed me just as much.

Candace Fleming makes Amelia's story so compelling. After a brief piece titled "Navigating History," she starts the book with the coast guard's wait for Amelia in the Pacific Ocean.  After we read about this particular landing for a rest/refuel stop -- it's a tricky one on an island in the Pacific, and so was carefully planned -- we learn that she hasn't arrived when expected, and they are beginning to worry.  Yikes!  We know the ending to this, don't we?  Or we at least know the mystery.

Then we jump all the way back to Amelia's birth and early life.  Surprisingly, Fleming makes this story just as compelling as the disappearance.  Lots of photos and quotes from Amelia and others help her story zoom along.  Fleming alternates chapters about Amelia's life with chapters about her disappearance, and this back and forth works extremely well.  I hated to put the book down, even though I knew how it would end.  There were lots of surprises and facts that were new to me, however.

Amelia was a unique, complicated, admirable, and extremely human person.  I think Fleming really got to know the whole Amelia while working on this book, and I could feel her excitement in sharing the story of this fascinating person with us.  I highly recommend watching the video on Candace Fleming's website, where she discusses how she works on a biography.

I look forward to reading more of Fleming's works.  Ben FranklinEleanor RooseveltThe LincolnsP.T. Barnum!  What an interesting group of people to explore.  I can't wait.  And I am excited to see who she will bring to us next.

Happy Nonfiction Monday!  Be sure to check out more great nonfiction today at The Children's War.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Picture Books: Cybils Fiction Finalists

My kids and I recently read all of the Cybils Fiction Picture Book finalists, and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I already wrote about Press Here and Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? here in this post, but thought I'd write a bit about the others.

Me...Jane, a picture book biography of young Jane Goodall, won the Cybils Award for this past year.  It's truly a beautiful book, using different kinds of art:  cartoonish drawings with soft (water?)color; engravings from the 19th and early 20th century depicting animals, natural objects, and more; a few photos of Jane; and some drawings and puzzles created by Jane herself when she was young.  My kids really liked it, and I've been meaning to take a look at Dr. Goodall's Roots & Shoots program with them.

I Had a Favorite Dress reminded me of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (except that it's about a modern-day girl!)  When this girl discovers her favorite dress has become too small, her mother helps her cope with the loss by making it into a shirt instead.  It then becomes a tank top, then a skirt, etc.  I think all three of us were intrigued to see how this story would end.  And it's a very sweet ending.  The illustrations are cheerful and fun, imitating child's art a bit, and incorporating stitching for some of the words.

Blackout is such a fun story.  A family and their neighbors in the city experience a blackout.  What do they do when the phone, computer, and video games no longer work?  They find some fun to experience together, of course!  And what do they do when the lights come back on?  Another sweet ending.  The artwork is fun, sometimes using a comic book style to tell the story, sometimes using a lovely two-page spread picture.  My kids loved it, and we vowed to have some family "blackout" nights together.

I Want My Hat Back is big like a picture book, but written like an early reader; it did win a Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor.  It's a lot of fun to read aloud, and I was giggling from the start at the simple language reminiscent of Dick and Jane, but with a sardonic yet silly humor behind it all.  My kids were a bit shocked at the ending, but eventually were won over by it.  The simple drawings have a goofy humor to them, too.

The Princess and the Pig was a book they read again and again.  This story, where a princess switches places with a pig in a far-fetched accident, had them laughing and spotting little details in the illustrations and trying to guess what would happen next.  I loved the play with fairy tales; different characters would make assessments of the crazy situations, decisively announcing, "It's the sort of thing that happens all the time in books," while holding a famous one, like Puss in Boots or Thumbelina.  The illustrations are always fun and sometimes stunningly beautiful.

Wanna know my kids' favorites?  When asked to vote, they couldn't decide between I Want My Hat Back and The Princess and the Pig.  They announced it was a tie.

And then they asked me to read them both again.

Be sure to check out the other Read Aloud Thursday posts at Hope Is the Word.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book #7: The Scorpio Races

We chose The Scorpio Races as a winter group read on the Reading Circle (see link in my sidebar).  Each season, we choose three or four books to read and discuss together, and we almost always include a young adult novel.  When we read about Maggie Stiefvater’s newest, about a community that holds deadly races on water horses every year, we were curious.

I hadn't heard of the myth of water horses before. Stiefvater jumps right into the story, letting her characters’ voices describe their community, the water horses, and their experiences with the races.  Gradually, as I got to know the characters and the island of Thisby, I settled into their world and accepted their life and their choices.  I grew to understand the beauty, danger, and mystery of the water horses, and I felt like they were real.   I think it worked to let us get to know this place and its people (and animals) slowly, through their words and actions, instead of having a narrator set up the world for us at the beginning of the book.

I really liked the story.  It made me think about what it might be like to live in a remote area in a small community, what people do in order to survive, and what human beings find attractive and beautiful about danger and mystery.  Also, it made me want to go horseback riding again.

The two main characters are nicely drawn -- interesting and likable.  I could also picture many of the minor characters in my mind.  I found them and their choices all very believable.

I listened to parts of this book on audio, and I enjoyed actually hearing the characters’ voices.  The Scorpio Races won a Michael L. Printz Honor this year, and its audiobook won an Odyssey Honor.

Maggie Stiefvater explains her (long!) process of writing this novel here on her website, and I found it fascinating.  She also includes a book trailer, with pictures she drew and music she wrote and performed.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next from her.  (It looks pretty cool!)

I haven’t yet read the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, but I think I will.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Book #6: Half Magic (Edward Eager)

Still, even without the country or a lake, the summer was a fine thing, particularly when you were at the beginning of it, looking ahead into it. There would be months of beautifully long, empty days, and each other to play with, and the books from the library. ~ Edward Eager, Half Magic

Our local, independent used bookstore has a birthday club, and both of my kids signed up for it before they had to close the list.  Each year near their birthdays, one of the owners sends them a book and a $5 gift card in a packing envelope she decorates herself with beautiful drawings.  We fill out a card every few years with some of their favorite books, and she picks out a book just for them based on what she knows about their reading tastes.

Half Magic is the book that came in the mail for Felix this year.  Skye had read it several years earlier and remembered enjoying it, so they both requested it as our next read-aloud.  What a lovely, magical book!  We all enjoyed it tremendously.

As you can see from the above quote, the book is definitely a fun one for book lovers.  Eager thought E. Nesbit (who I have yet to read) was the greatest children's author of all time, and he admires other books, too, like The Wizard of Oz.  He references these directly and indirectly in his own stories.  In the first chapter of Half Magic, we learn that this summer, Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha have read all of E. Nesbit's books but one, and they are finally able to check out her last one from the library, The Enchanted Castle.  They read it aloud together over the next two days, and upon closing the book, Martha, the youngest, asks:
"Why don't things like that ever happen to us?"
"Magic never happens, not really," said Mark, who was old enough to be sure about this.
Don't be so sure, Mark! we all thought on reading this.  Just look at the title of the book you are in!

Of course, the children soon find some magic, and proceed to experiment with it.  Each chapter describes a magical adventure they have, and I love Eager's chapter titles:  How It Began, What Happened to Their Mother, What Happened to [insert each child's name here], How It Ended, and How It Began Again.

Eager's writing style reminded me immediately of Jeanne Birdsall and her Penderwicks books, which Skye and I love.  After reading Half Magic, I think Felix may be ready for them soon, too.  Goody!  Jeanne is definitely a fan of both Eager and Nesbit; she posts quotes from both of them on the pages of her website, including this one from Eager's Seven-Day Magic:
“Why couldn’t she have lived forever?” said Abby, taking that best of all Nesbit books, The Enchanted Castle, down from the shelf and looking at it with loving eyes. “We’ve read all of hers, and nobody seems to do books like that anymore.”
So, like most good books, we not only enjoyed this one, but have added many more to our To Be Read list, including all of Edward Eager's books, some E. Nesbit, The Penderwicks (again), and The Wizard of Oz, which Felix says he wants to read next.  Can't wait!

Be sure to check out the other Read Aloud Thursday posts at Hope Is the Word.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Book #5: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and books like this encourage me to give more of it a try. I think this has to do with the way Rebecca Skloot tells this story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book about science and medicine, law and ethics, American history and race relations. Skloot takes us along with her as she learns about HeLa cells and their origin.

In her introduction, Skloot describes how she first heard about the HeLa cells in a community college biology class when she was 16. Her teacher was explaining cell division and how normal cells can become cancer cells. He then wrote HENRIETTA LACKS on the board, and announced that Henrietta's cells helped us to understand how cancer cells work.

From the book:

Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer…. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.

“Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler [Skloot’s professor] said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice.

Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.

“HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.

Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.

As the other students filed out of the room, I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story.

I followed Defler to his office.

“Where was she from?” I asked. “Did she know how important her cells were? Did she have any children?”

“I wish I could tell you,” he said, “but no one knows anything about her.”

(You can read more of this excerpt from the book here.)

These questions stayed with Skloot, and inspired her to pursue this story. Over the next 20 years, she worked to find answers to her questions, spending the last ten years doing intensive research. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks describes her research process, her experiences writing the book, and the many people she met and got to know.

I am very excited to hear this book is being adapted into a Young Reader’s Edition; I think my daughter would find it fascinating and touching. Rebecca Skloot’s website is wonderful, with lots of resources for teachers and students, including more photos, audio clips from Rebecca’s interview tapes, information about her writing process, video of HeLa cells dividing, and more.

Everyone I know who’s read this book feels the same way I did: Read it!

Friday, February 03, 2012

Book #4: Thirteen Reasons Why (+ Dear Bully)

Since it's Poetry Friday, I’m going to start this post off with a little poem from this young adult novel:

If my love were an ocean,
there would be no more land.
If my love were a desert,
you would see only sand.
If my love were a star –
late at night, only light,
And if my love could grow wings,
I’d be soaring in flight.

This book really touched my daughter.  We both read it for the teen book group I co-lead at our neighborhood library, and I'm really looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about Thirteen Reasons Why when we meet this weekend.  It's a difficult read, telling the story of Hannah Baker, in her own words.  It's the story of why she committed suicide.

Skye is only twelve, and so I wondered how she’d handle reading about such a painful topic. She read it on her own, and we discussed it every day or two. She was usually a little ahead of me in the story, and she’d tell me a bit of what was coming up (being careful to ask if I minded spoilers.) One day, she said, “Hannah wrote this beautiful poem, Mom. Want me to say it for you?” And she recited the poem above – she’d memorized it. It was lovely to hear it in her voice! She admired Hannah’s ability to describe a great big love, as well as her talent with rhyme and rhythm. She found the poem to be both happy and sad, expressing a bittersweet feeling.  In the book, Hannah makes fun of her poem a bit, but I love its innocence and pure beauty, and I love that my daughter saw that, too.

After reading this book, I requested Dear Bully from the library, which I had heard about on on Lee Wind’s blog. It’s a book of stories, poems, and essays about bullying, written by 70 young adult authors. They describe their own experiences and observations, as well as their hopes and dreams. Some are from the point of view of the victim, and others describe what it’s like to be the bully. Still more discuss being someone on the sidelines, watching the bullying, unsure of what to do about it.

Skye loves this one, also. She hasn’t come to any finite conclusions about bullying because of it – she’s still baffled by and angry with those who do it, and confused about how we can stop it. But both Dear Bully and Thirteen Reasons Why have certainly provided lots of opportunities for discussion between us. I think both books encourage and empower kids to speak out about bullying they experience or observe, and know that they aren’t alone in their feelings.  I think it's also a great book for adults to read.

A huge thank you to Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, and Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, editors of Dear Bully, for taking on these important topics to help our teens. Be sure to visit their websites – click on their names for the links – as there are some wonderful things there.

And for more poetry this Friday, head over to Karissa’s blog, The Iris Chronicles.