Three Bears in a Boat, by David Soman

UnknownWhen Dash, Theo and Charlie accidentally break their Mama Bear’s very special blue seashell, they decide that the only way to save their skins is to find her a new one before she finds out.  So they set off in their sailboat on an epic journey to a distant island rumored to have just what they need.  But after searching from the deepest ocean to the highest tree to the darkest cave, the 3 bears find no trace of a blue seashell and are forced to make their grumpy way back home.  However, the return voyage proves to be much rougher than they bargained for, and Dash, Theo and Charlie end up huddled together in their little boat, wishing for nothing more than to get safely home so they can give their Mama Bear a hug and tell her the truth.

We picked this book up at the library last week and I knew the minute I saw it that I would love it.  The picture on the front is just what I love the most in children’s book illustrations.    It’s just beautiful, something I would love to have on my walls, and something that just draws me in and leaves me daydreaming.  It really evokes emotion for me- nostalgia and adventure, homesickness and comfort, longing and joy- all at the same time.  David Soman is an artist, and it’s the art, even more than the story, that I find so intriguing about Three Bears and a Boat.  My girls were really drawn to the pictures as well.  There’s one where the bears are underwater, looking for the seashell, and an octopus is looking on indignantly with 2 of its tentacles on its hips.  My 4 year old dies laughing every time.  All that being said, the story is really beautiful, too.  I have 3 kids, and they all seem to have their unique role in adventures and playtime and mishaps, just like Dash, Theo and Charlie.  They make mistakes, they try to set things right, they get in over their heads, and they always come running home with pretty words and penitent hearts.  And, being a mother, I always look at each one, hug them very, very tight, kiss the tops of their heads, and forgive them.  But sometimes they don’t get any dessert.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

To find of list of David Soman’s books, visit his Goodreads site.

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Starfall.com

UnknownThis is another departure from my usual format, because this website, starfall.com, is really a ‘learn to read’ site, and not a simple database of stories like I usually review.  Doing a synopsis and review of one of the stories would be like reviewing a teacher’s lesson plan, which is an interesting exercise, but not really the focus of this blog.  So once again, I find myself focusing more on the website than on any particular story.  Starfall.com is a very professional, well-established teaching aid for all subjects, but you need to have a membership and pay fees to access the full array of tools, games, and activities available.  If you go to the main homepage and stick to the 4 main categories (marked, conveniently, 1, 2, 3, 4) everything is free, but it is the same professional quality as the rest of the site.

The 4 categories of stories are divided by reading level, starting at beginning phonics for kids still learning their ABCs (not really stories, more activities), gradually progressing in difficulty and ending with longer books with varied vocabulary and a variety of interesting topics.  These highest level stories are still for very early readers- kindergarten and first grade.  There is a lot of repetition, few words on each page, animated illustration to hold kids’ attention.

First things first, what I like about this site.  It is a very good, phonics based tool for teaching kids to read in the context of stories.  The progression from level 1 to level 4 is natural and logical, and every story or activity is really geared to engage young learners and get them interested in using their newly acquired  skills in fun ways.  Illustrations are bright, engaging and interactive, with lots of ways to click to have things read aloud or to have animations activated.  At each level, kids can work pretty independently with just a little instruction.  Even my 3 year old could navigate the activity once I got it started for her.  This is really great because 3 year olds love repetition, and although I want to be there when she is initially presented with information to guide and instruct her, I don’t really need to hover over her should while she listens to a list of words that start with ‘A’ and watches an alligator chomp on an apple over and over again.  I also love the variety of topics that have been chosen for the level 4 stories, which include plays, Greek myths, folk tales and nonfiction stories with color photographs.  They are all really engaging and interesting for the age group they’re designed for.  I will definitely be using this site as a resource with my 4 and 3 year old daughters as they learn to read.

Alright, things that I don’t particularly care for.  What Starfall.com really wants is for people to buy memberships, and who can blame them?  Their teaching tools are top notch, and they are being very generous by offering these ones at no cost.  The problem for free loaders like me is that on every page, there are at least a couple (sometimes even dozens) of widgets trying to direct you to games, lessons, and activities that you would be able to use if you were paying for them, but which, for now, are only tantalizing reminders of what you can’t afford.  If your child is working independently, it is all too easy for them to start clicking on stuff that takes them away from their appointed activity.  This is frustrating for them and time-consuming for you as you try to get them back on track.  The only other thing I will mention is that these stories, even the highest level ones, are teaching tools, not fine literature.  They’re not great couch cuddling bedtime classics.  Their job is to teach kids to read and help them have fun while they’re doing it, and they do it very well.

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My Blue Bunny Bubbit, by Maggie Smith

UnknownThere’s nothing like having a special friend who is almost exactly your age, who understands everything you are thinking and feeling, who has great ideas, is stuffed with kisses, and is perfect for snuggling up with at bedtime.  It’s even better if he was a gift made by your Grandma Nonni, who can sew anything.  For one little girl, her blue bunny, Bubbit is all this and more.  And when her parents tell her that a new baby is coming to her family soon, Bubbit knows just how she feels.  Together they worry, then get excited, then help prepare, until the big day arrives and Grandma Nonni comes to stay while everyone else goes to the hospital.  Of course, it’s Bubbit who has the idea to make a surprise for the new baby, but it’s the little girl and her Nonni who plan, cut, sew, and fill it with kisses.

My girls love this story.  I think all little girls have a sense that there is something special about their stuffed animals, that they feel and speak in ways that their other toys can’t.  Even though my girls’ stuffed animals don’t get played with as much as the Legos or the ponies, there is always weeping and wailing if I suggest thinning out their collection.  This story really speaks to their belief that those stuffed animals are not just things, they are their friends, they are understanding and comforting and encouraging.  (My husband does not understand this at all, but he has never been a little girl, after all.)  I love that the little girl in the story wants to give her new brother that same kind of friend.  For her, it really is the most special and powerful gift she could give him, and it shows that she’s developed a real empathy for him as a person who feels and needs like her.  It’s an important shift in perspective for new siblings.

Another thing I like about this book is the celebration of doing things by hand, of really giving something from the heart that you created from scratch.  These days, grandmas like Nonni, who can look at a picture, create a pattern, and whip up a stuffed elephant in a day, are pretty rare.  I know they exist, I just don’t know where to find them.  Most of us don’t have them in our family.  Even my mother, who makes my daughters look like expensive renaissance princesses for Halloween, wouldn’t attempt a stuffed elephant modeled after a picture on the wall.  But in a world where we can find just about whatever we want pre-made at the click of a button, it’s nice to stop and remember that the amount of yourself that you put into a gift adds more to its value than anything else.

To find out if this book at your public library, visit World Cat.

Maggie Smith also has a great website.  (She’s not the same Maggie Smith as the actress, by the way, just in case you were curious.  I know I was.)

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My Online Reading

UnknownFor this post, I have decided to give a general review of the website myonlinereading.com, instead of focusing on a specific book like I usually do.  Mostly this is because all the books on this site are very, very short, and I always feel a little silly writing a synopsis that is longer than the book itself.  I believe this is an Australian website, and it has lots of books to choose from.  There isn’t much information on the site about who wrote the books or made the site, it’s pretty much just the books.  They are organized into a bunch of different categories, like people, creatures, mysteries, and disasters.

Alright, first let’s talk about what I liked about this website and its books.  First of all, it’s free.  There is no membership or login, there are no annoying ads or confusing buttons to click that lead you away from the site.  You just choose a category, click on a book, and read it.  There are silly stories and ones that are more informational, and it’s easy to differentiate between them from style of the illustrations and the title.

As I said before, these stories are all very, very short, so I recommend this site for kids who are on the cusp of becoming independent readers.  During this past school year, I volunteered at my daughter’s first grade class once a week.  Often I would spend the whole 2 hours just listening to kids read.  One little boy was a native spanish speaker, and he made good progress throughout the year, but everything was just a little bit more difficult for him.  When I read with him, he had a very predictable cycle- first he would read diligently, sounding out unfamiliar words and noticing how the text related to the pictures.  Then he would start taking long pauses between sentences, looking around the room and up at the ceiling.  Then he would pause between words, guessing what they were instead of sounding them out.  Finally, he would stop altogether and put his head on the desk.  Finished.  Sometimes, even a 10 page simple book was too much for this kid, especially if it was boring.  He needed short, light stories, and he needed lots of them so he could gain vocabulary and recognize it in a variety of contexts.  No parent wants to spend money on these types of books, because they are only useful for a very short window.  And it is a pain to lug tons and tons of them back and forth from the library.  These ones are free, and they don’t clutter your house.

Now for what I don’t care for.  These aren’t high quality stories.  Lots of them end abruptly and almost none of them have any kind of moral.  Some of them even rub me a little wrong, like the one about the mom who laughs so loudly that her daughter’s friend gets embarrassed and leaves and the mom just laughs harder.  The nonfiction ones are so condensed that you only get a couple of factoids and then it’s over.  The illustrations are very generic, although they are bright, and they help the story move along.  Basically, if you’re looking for great literature, this is not the place to go.

Lastly, there are a couple of things that are neither bad nor good, just a little unique.  It’s an Australian site, so occasionally there are issues with word usage and spelling in the stories.  I like that kind of thing as long as I’m reading with my kids, because it’s an opportunity for a cultural discussion.  The other thing is that some of the stories, particularly in the ‘disasters’ category, are kind of bizarre.  There is one on the Hindenburg and one on Agent Orange, for example.  You may like that, you may not.  Go check it out, see if it would be helpful for your early reader.

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Heather Fell In the Water, by Doug Macleod & Craig Smith

UnknownHeather is a nice girl who just wants to visit a Japanese tea house, or a farm, or even just take a walk without getting wet.  But where ever she goes, Heather always falls in the water!  She is getting fed up with it, and her parents are getting worried that someday she will fall in really deep water and be in really deep trouble.  Those water wings she wears all the time won’t help her get away from a shark in the ocean, after all.  Finally, Heather agrees to spend one day at the pool to see if the water really hates her as much as she thinks it does.  To her surprise, when she gets in the water on purpose, she has a really great time!  Her newfound knowledge gives her courage and she learns to swim, dive, and race in the water like a champion.  And her parents are so proud of her, that in their enthusiasm… they fall in the water.

My mother grew up near the ocean, and I think that is the main reason why she felt so strongly that my 5 sisters and I should learn to swim at a young age.  Even when my dad was in medical school and we had no extra money, she dragged us all out to the YMCA and spent endless Saturdays congratulating us on our newly developed talent at blowing bubbles and kicking or stepping tentatively off the diving board.  None of us are Olympic champions or anything, but we are all grateful that we can be safe and confident in the water.  That is the long story of why I like this book- it doesn’t just encourage kids to stop being afraid of the water, it teaches them that when they learn how to be safe in the water, that’s what takes the fear away and makes it fun.

Also, the illustrations of Heather going everywhere in the water wings are hilarious.  There is one picture of Heather sitting up in bed, trying to go to sleep, with those enormous water wings propping her arms straight out to the sides, that just kills me every time.  My kids stop me every time we get to the part of the book where Heather realizes that the water wants to be her friend because there is a big smiley face hidden in the water, and they just love the idea of the water smiling at them.  The always want to make sure I see it and love it as much as they do.  And I always do.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Craig Smith has a great website, as does Doug MacLeod.

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Domestic Chicken And Other Feathery Tales, by Hilary Archer

UnknownMost of us think chickens are pretty straightforward.  They peck, they roost, they taste delicious with carrots and potatoes, and we have no qualms about stealing their equally delicious eggs.  But Hilary Archer sheds new light on the secret lives of chickens, a complex and sophisticated society teeming with rich culture and depth of tradition.  In this enlightening work, we learn of the domestic chicken, the chicken club, the organic chicken, and the elusive battered chicken.  Find out what’s really going on in the hen house after hours.  Or maybe you shouldn’t- you’ll never look at your chicken pot pie the same way again.

Domestic Chicken and Other Feathery Tales is available for free on iBooks.

This story is right up my alley.  I have a deep history with chickens, and as soon as I saw the title of this story, I knew that I would love it.  It’s written in verse, but it’s good verse, not cumbersome or unnatural.  It’s a great example of verse that makes a story more amusing and musical and fun, not awkward and stilted.  I love the puns, I love the whole concept of revealing the secret world of chickens.  To be completely honest, however, my kids did not warm to this story as I hoped they would.  They really liked the pictures of the domestic chicken with the apron on, the fancy chickens at the club being all snooty, and especially the fried chicken all sunburned at the beach.  But there are just too many words and too few pictures for kids my age to get into it.  And they didn’t get the jokes about the hippy organic chicken or the cowboy free range chicken or the boxer battered chicken.  I can’t quite tell if it would be a big hit with a 10 or 12 year old, or if it’s just story that’s a little old for the little kids and a little young for the big kids.  One thing is certain, I liked it, and I’ll probably read it again, by myself, maybe under my bed covers with a flashlight, giggling.

Hilary Archer has a website mostly about her illustrations.

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The Diggers are Coming, by Susan Steggall

UnknownWhen a new construction project needs to get underway, it takes an army of people and machines, working together, to get the job done.  Wreckers and planners, mixers and tippers, bulldozers and cranes all show up and do their thing.  “They shave and shift and shove,”  “they tumble and twist and turn,” and “they rattle and roll and roar.”  With all that racket and jumble of activity, it’s hard to imagine anything actually getting built!  But in construction, you have to create a little chaos before you build something beautiful.  And at the end of the this book, the people who are coming find brand new homes waiting for them- “Everything’s done and they’re here to stay.”

So first of all, what kid doesn’t love a construction site.  I have girls, and I will be the first to admit that they are not quite as in love with trucks and trains as my nephews, no matter how much I encourage them.  But when we pass a construction site where things are getting knocked down and flattened and poured, it is nearly impossible to drag them away.  Once when my oldest was about 3, a building was getting demolished near our apartment, and we had to plan an extra half hour on our walk to the grocery store just to stop and watch the machines do their work.  So any book about a construction site is a great idea, in my opinion.

I’d like to talk about 2 things that I particularly like about this book.  The first is the great use of alliteration.  One of the things that makes construction site and machines so appealing to little kids is that they are noisy and dirty on purpose!  Susan Steggall manages to keep a very consistent flow of alliteration going through the whole book, which mimics the hectic din of people and machines in the story.  You really have to enunciate to wrap you mouth around her phrases, but it doesn’t end up feeling stretched or contrived, just crisp and busy, just like it should.  The other really effective thing she does is to manipulate her text size, style, and placement to create that construction site feeling.  She puts one bold letter in the middle of a word, or she rolls her text along the big wheel of a tractor, and she never puts more than two lines of verse next to each other on the page.  This means that you have to be a little more careful as you read not to get things out of order, but she doesn’t go over the top with it.  It is just enough, I think, to make the text itself a contributing part of the story, mirroring that rough and tumble, noisy and dirty feeling that kids like so much.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Visit Susan Steggall’s website to find out more about her and her work.

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