Tea Time Tuesday (March 8, 2016)

coffee-cup-817483_1280Tea: Individual choice today! Mom was too tired to make a pot.

Books: We’re continuing our poetry discussion in lit class; today was an aural exploration of some different poetry techniques–I should have taught rhyme scheme this way at the high school level!

  • Narrative poem: Casey at the Bat
  • Free verse poem: “Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni (we used to live there!) contrasted with a couple of Silverstein samples that had great rhythm (but no rhyme scheme)
  • Rhyme scheme: selections from Florian’s Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars; Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant; “Green” from Hailstones and Halibut Bones
  • (these were totally off the cuff, as it were. I just grabbed a handful of the books we had from the library for our poetry unit and winged it)

Friday Barnes, Girl Detective


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Friday Barnes, Girl Detective (Friday Barnes #1) by R. A. Spratt. Roaring Brook Press, 2016. 216 pages.

What It Is: middle grades mystery + humor

What It’s About: Friday Barnes, youngest child of rather eccentric, academic parents, solves a crime and earns a whopping $50,000 in reward money. She spends it all on tuition, room, and board at an elite private school, sure that this new school will be a better fit for her own intellect. Friday quickly realizes that private school culture is a world of its own, complete with fashion musts, litigious parents and the money to hire lawyers, and plenty of intrigue and mystery. Her fellow students and teachers quickly realize Friday is the go to girl for solving their little mysteries, so Friday starts to earn some extra cash in return for using her superior reasoning powers on others’ behalf.

What Works/Doesn’t Work: Humor, black-and-white cartoon illustrations sprinkled throughout, and plenty of mini-mysteries keep the reader hooked in this fun novel. Friday and her roommate, Melanie, have a quirky, funny little friendship that leverages both girls’ eccentric talents. The plot is over the top, like most mysteries, and that adds to its charm.

Don’t expect this to be an intellectually stimulating, “deep” novel; it’s not. But it IS very fun reading and offers girls a detective of their own to line up with the humorous boy detectives a la Brixton Brothers, Encyclopedia Brown, and their ilk. If we’re comparing heroines to Sherlock Holmes, I like this gal Friday more than Enola Holmes. Not so much “girl power,” and more sheer skill and pluck.

What I Think: Offer this to your intermediate readers (3rd-5th grade) and up for some fun reading, especially for those who enjoy mysteries, want humor in the mix, and need a bit of illustration power to help them along.

To Catch a Cheat


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To Catch a Cheat (Jackson Greene #2) by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine, 2016. 256 pages.

Casing the Joint: Fun middle grades read in the vein of Ocean’s 11

The Plan: Jackson Greene (renowned for his clever heists) and his cronies find themselves framed: a faked video shows that they were the ones who snuck into the school over the weekend and flooded the bathrooms. The villains bargain with Jackson: they won’t turn the video in if Jackson and his group steal an exam. There’s more than meets the eye, however, and the stakes are raised.

The Sting: The first Jackson Greene book was a lot of fun, and this one continues the trend nicely. Characters are nicely diverse, pacing is excellent (definitely a page turner), and the plot is clever. Jackson and his love interest add some humor and relational angles that middle schoolers will totally resonate with. And Jackson’s friendship with Charlie undergoes some strain that is handled quite realistically.

The entire book is concerned with stealing an exam and pulling various tricks in order to do so. On the surface, this may seem quite the nefarious plot without redeeming qualities. However, the heist is over the top (nobody could pull this off in middle school), and the plot forms the base for a very fun read that is pure entertainment. Both guys and girls will enjoy this one, and it’s refreshing to have a nicely diverse cast of characters that aren’t simply a historical lesson on racism or the Civil Rights or immigration or some other “problem.”

Tea Time Tuesday (3/1/16)



Today’s tea time round-up:

(We’re in the midst of studying poetry and the solar system amongst other various pursuits)

  • Various tea as chosen by the constituents
  • Leftover pumpkin muffins and some nuts
  • Books! Selections from Jump Back, Honey: The Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (illustrated by some amazing artists! Pinkney, Ringgold, etc.); Selections from Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars by Douglas Florian (terrific book that works with poetry AND space); Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Burleigh and Colon. All picture books today, and everyone enjoyed them.

Just a reminder that “tea time” doesn’t have to be a big deal; my kids and I’ve been doing this for YEARS off and on. Some weeks we make it; some we don’t.

Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took On the World


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Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World by Kathy Lowinger. Annick Press, 2015. 144 pages.

The Warm-Up: A well written, well researched account of the Jubilee Singers using the experience of Ella Sheppard as the focal point. The Jubilee Singers were the former slaves who were the first students at Fisk University.

The Melody: Lowinger gives a fairly thorough account of Sheppard’s life as a whole. The main thrust of the book, though, is the rise and success of the Jubilee Singers. Lowinger doesn’t mince words about the racism and prejudice these brave young people faced, nor does she hide the brutality towards and injustice of the slaves in the U.S. prior to, during, and after the Civil War. The South wasn’t the only bastion of hate and bigotry, and the Civil War didn’t immediately solve all the problems. Lowinger also offers information on various Jubilee Singers and those that helped the Singers. A biography of Ella Sheppard, yes, but this is also a terrific social history of the U.S. during the mid-1800s that is more than a slave narrative, a cry for abolitionist causes, or an account of the differences between the South or the North.

The Applause: Well done, Ms. Lowinger! More emotional connection with Shepherd and her fellow singers might have been too much for middle school and high school readers, but she offers sophisticated writing, well researched information, lyric to old spirituals, and plenty of maps, photographs, and other memorabilia reproductions to interest any reader age 10 and up. Lowinger also alludes to the Christian faith of Shepherd and some of the others without making this a main focus. Those who don’t share Shepherd’s faith will not be offended, but those of us who do very much appreciate this aspect!

Note for concerned parents: there is some heavy content in this book, as is fitting with the subject material. One historical image (not a photograph) shows a mob beating a black man to death. Scenes like this, references at the beginning to male masters taking their female slaves to bed, and the like make this a book better suited for upper middle grades and up if you are dealing with sensitive young readers.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever


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Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy. Clarion, 2015. 144 pages.

The Patient: Middle grade/YA nonfiction about medicine and three medical pioneers in the 1940s

The Surgery: Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon (and white man), Vivien Thomas, Blalock’s research assistant  (and African American man), and Helen Taussig, “blue babies” doctor (and white, partially deaf woman) team up to pioneer truly amazing heart surgery for babies and children suffering from “Blue Baby” syndrome, a condition in which oxygen isn’t being efficiently distributed throughout the body because of a heart defect.

The book tells much of the back story of the team: the racism and sexism that faced Thomas and Taussig, the general timeline leading to the meeting of the team and their placement at Johns Hopkins, and basic, related medical events and technology of the time period.

The Outcome: Murphy handles his subject well, using Thomas as the primary lens through which we experience the story. Blalock wasn’t as much of a racist as many of his fellow Southerners, but he still demonstrated plenty of unconscious moments of prejudice even while he stood up for his right-hand man and clearly tried to treat him with dignity. Thomas’s limitations due to his race and the time period are heart-breaking because he was clearly very talented and the key to the success of the surgery. Taussig faced her own struggles as a female doctor during a time when there were very few; her growing deafness only added to her challenges.

What impressed me the most, though, was the clear theme of the value of all human life: each person, regardless of race or gender, has distinct gifts and can make notable contributions. Even more, even babies who are about to die are worth the effort it took for the research team to pioneer the surgery and perform the surgery.

End matter is excellent: thorough source notes with further explanations, image credits, and an index

The Recovery: Due to the photographs (some are graphic–of things such as lynchings) and the medical terminology and descriptions (especially for the squeamish!), this is best for upper middle grades and YA audiences. A terrific addition to a school or public library, this would make a fascinating nonfiction read for a biology class. Even grown-ups will find this one engaging.

Night on Fire


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Lit_Night on FireNight on Fire by Ronald Kidd. Albert Whitman and Co., 2015. 288 pages.

What It Is: Historical Fiction set in 1960s Anniston, AL

What It’s About: Billie Sims has her eyes opened to the latent prejudice around her when the Freedom Riders’ bus gets mobbed at its stop in Anniston (her home town). She starts to see how she has been [unintentionally] racist towards her family’s maid, particularly as she gets to know Jarmaine, the maid’s daughter. The girls end up sneaking off to ride a bus to Montgomery so they can see the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. in person. That night, they are part of the infamous scene where a mob traps the congregants of First Baptist Church along with the Freedom Riders and MLK.

What Works: This particular event (the mob at the bus in Anniston) doesn’t get a lot of press in the Civil Rights-related works for middle grades, and it’s worth bringing it to our attention. The church members’ demonstrated faith in Montgomery is also notable. Historically, the African American community has often found strength to persevere from their Christian faith, and that doesn’t come through in very many novels. The girls’ trip together was a nice touch, too. Neither of them could have made that trip without the other; both of their races were required for the different situations.

What Doesn’t Work: The writing style is a bit clunky at times, veering into telling instead of showing. This happens a lot in first person narratives, particularly when the author is trying to communicate a particular “message.” Billie’s awareness of her own prejudice feels a little heavy-handed. In addition, I kept thinking of a book like Stella By Starlight or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in which the main characters are African American instead of white. Seems to me it’s worth hearing that side of the story to balance out these little white “messengers of change.”

What I Think/Recommend: I would very much love to see a middle grades narrative nonfiction piece about these events, and since the author actually had some interviews with Janie Forsyth (a white girl mentioned in the book) and the African American organ player’s son, it seems to me that there’s a good start to such a book. Either way, Night on Fire is a fine addition to a library’s holdings on similar-themed books.

I received this book from Albert Whitman in return for a fair review.



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Hillary by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Raul Colon. Schwartz & Wade, 2016. 40 pages.

What It Is: A picture book biography about Hillary Rodham Clinton

What It’s About: Hillary Clinton! Although Winter begins with Hillary’s childhood, the majority of the book is about her life as an adult. Winter emphasizes Hillary’s accomplishments, particularly the ones in which she is the first to do something (either as a woman or the First Lady in particular) or rises to overcome significant obstacles.

What Works: Winter’s text is dispassionate in a good way. I’ve seen accusations of propaganda and that it’s not exciting enough (ironic that those have both come up). However, when you are writing a book about a major Presidential candidate during the campaign season, a more dispassionate tone will bring more bipartisan readership. Additionally, Winter humanizes Hillary a bit more than similar books, showing her real life obstacles (fatigue, balancing work/family, etc.). Colon’s art is a bit static–the snapshot effect in a sense that captures an event frozen in time. It’s a good accompaniment to the tone of Winter’s text.

What Doesn’t Work: The opening sequence lauding Queen Elizabeth, Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter and then… Hillary… feels a bit disjointed and smacks of hagiography (although Hillary isn’t presented as a saint, per se). Additionally, given that this book has just been published and some of Hillary’s less saintly actions have been in the public eye for some time (ahem, the issue of her email comes to mind), a bit more nuance in the text would have been helpful. Additionally, there is scant end matter: no bibliography, no documentation. (There is an author’s note.)

What I Think: Of the three Hillary picture book bios I’ve read, I like this one the best for its dispassionate tone. It’s a good starting point to learn more about this remarkable woman, whether or not you agree with her politics.

What I Recommend: Use this book with older elementary students to discuss presidential candidates and history, the growth in women’s rights, and to learn more about this particular presidential candidate in particular. Challenge your students to find out information about Hillary that is not in this biography that might offer a bit more balance to the picture.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead


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Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Balzer + Bray, 2016. 40 pages.

What It Is: A picture book biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton

What It’s About: Ostensibly a picture book biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this book is championing all the noteworthy things Hillary’s accomplished as a girl/woman. Attention is given to Hillary’s childhood, adolescence, college, and professional life.

What Works: The illustrations are *amazing.* Pham did serious research and peoples the backgrounds with key historical figures. Reading the illustration notes at the end is an education in itself! The illustrations, saturated in bold colors, pop and dance off the page. Hillary is a bright spot of red on nearly every page, regardless of her age. The primary colors are prominent throughout, a nice artistic choice to show Hillary’s patriotism (and an interesting change from many of Hillary’s public appearances where she is notably NOT in red or blue).

What Doesn’t Work: The text! There are folks who are wild over this book, but this is propaganda, folks. I think this book will turn away all non-Hillary lovers (particularly Republicans) and win wild acclaim from many Democrats. That might be part of the author’s intent, but it’s not a solid choice for a picture book biography that should present a more balanced view of its subject.

What I Think: This book is worth tracking down as a lesson in phenomenal illustration. That is definitely its strong suit.

What I Recommend: Regardless of your politics, this is an interesting book to examine in terms of propaganda. For younger children, it’s an okay introduction to Hillary herself as it’s young child friendly (short text and vibrant illustrations). But please pare it with a more balanced view. It would be a fine choice for a school or public library to have on hand.

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig


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Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Schwartz and Wade, 2016. 44 pages.

What It Is: Part historical fiction and part picture book biography about Beatrix Potter

What It’s About: Beatrix Potter kept copious journals as a child, writing them in a secret code. She also loved to draw and paint. Hopkinson takes stories and anecdotes from the journals to recreate a story based on the truth. She changes some facts (such as Potter’s age) to make the story more engaging. Essentially, Potter (a young child in Hopkinson’s version) borrows a guinea pig to paint it. Tragedy strikes, and the guinea pig owner is not happy.

What Works: The format of this book is lovely. Voake’s illustration style, although looser and less precise than Potter’s, is still reminiscent of Potter’s, especially in the palette used. Hopkinson’s text is charming, taking the form of a letter to the reader much like Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit started out. Solid back matter includes a select bibliography, source credits, plus a mini biography of Potter complete with photographs.

What Doesn’t Work: I’m on the fence about the tweaking Hopkinson did with the facts. Making Potter a young girl instead of a 20-something year old woman certainly makes the story of the guinea pig more interesting to children. And I think Hopkinson keeps the spirit of Potter’s childhood intact. And yet, can we call this a biography if it changes significant details?

What I Think: I like it. This is a lovely little picture book to share with children who are enjoy Potter’s own stories. Hopkinson humanizes Potter, and children will enjoy this story even if they don’t know who Beatrix Potter is.

What I Recommend: Share this with the children in your life as a read aloud, especially with ages 3-8. Encourage the older children to look up extra information on Potter. A must buy? Probably not; check with your local library first.