Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Alike and Different series by Lisa Bullard, illustrated by Renee Kurilla

While social studies tends to get the short shrift these days, diversity is a topic that still comes up in the curriculum quite often. Cloverleaf (Lerner) has a new series out that seems just right for the elementary school classroom:

My Clothes, Your Clothes     My Family, Your Family
9781467760300               9781467760294

Whew! My head was almost spinning at how inclusive these tried to be - which, of course, is part of the point of the series. Different types of families (not just in that particular title), different races, religions, cultures, gender roles, even types of schools. Fortunately, Bullard (and Kurilla in her illustrations) manage to integrate them all without it appearing forced. Kids can spot a didactic book a mile away!

This series, outlining some of the ways we are the same and different, also includes title about food, homes, language, and religion. Judging from these two, every possibility is presented in a completely positive light. On the one hand, if you were a teacher wanting to start discussions about diversity in a class, you probably wouldn't want to even hint that there are right and wrong ways to have a family, so positive is good. On the other hand, you may very well have kids in your class from divorced parents who do NOT get along swimmingly, so they may have a hard time identifying with these characters. Just something to be aware of, however you use the books.

I liked Kurilla's illustrations a bit more than some of the other artists Cloverleaf has used - diverse, but not as cartoony. Each title includes an art project at the end, which would be suitable for a classroom or home. Since my review copies are paperback, we will be ordering the whole series in hardcover soon, because I predict they will circulate frequently!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: From Strawberry to Jam by Lisa Owings

From Strawberry to Jam

This title is part of the popular Start to Finish series from Lerner. There are at least 30 titles in the series right now, all around a second grade reading level. All have bright, glossy photographs paired with short paragraphs of text, explaining the basic steps in production for that particular item.

Basic is an operative word, here - these aren't something you could use to, say, make and can your own jam, or produce your own table salt from ocean water. I have made a can or two of jam in my time...

and saw a couple minor errors in photographs. The point of the series, however, is to give kids an overview of how some of the things they may buy in stores come to be, while working on reading skills - sequencing and vocabulary are strong in this series, and a smart teacher will jump on the chance to have kids write their own how-to books. 

As usual with Lerner, the binding is excellent, and the 'extras' - glossary, index, resources for additional information - are well done and appropriate for the level. Overall, I highly recommend the series for school or public libraries.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: Barnyard Kids - A Family Guide for Raising Animals, by Dina Rudick

Barnyard Kids: A Family Guide for Raising Animals

I feel really bad about this one. Not about the book itself, or even about my review of it. What I feel badly about is that it sat on my review pile for so long! I wanted to make sure I had enough time to really sit down and look at this one, and...well, when do we ever have enough time for anything, moms?

Most of the time, books are sent to e seemingly at random, but I specifically asked to see this title. Many of our friends here have farms of varying sizes, and there are several large ranches in the area. Two of my kids are in 4H, and members of our club have everything from pigs and cows to an extremely tame rat who steals my hoop earrings at meetings. Kids have been working family farms and dabbling in pet rabbits for centuries - so, you would think there would be a good variety of books about farm animals at their level.

Nope. Fiction, sure. Junior readers that tell you a baby sheep is called a lamb, and you should give it food and water, sure. Nonfiction geared towards upper elementary readers, with actual instructions and useful information? Not so much.

The Introduction and Foreword of Barnyard Kids caught my attention right away. In the Introduction, Rudick gives a basic overview of considerations you will need to make before deciding what type of animal, and how many, you might want to raise. Each of the chapters goes into more detail about what particular animals require, but it's nice to start the book with those questions in mind, hopefully prompting readers to keep an open mind rather than just skip to reading about the animal that strikes their fancy the most. I could immediately see this being of use to a family starting off in 4H or a Vo-Ag program, and unsure of how to get their feet wet.

In the Foreword, Ben Holmes, founder of The Farm School, outlines the history and goals of that program - which I had never heard of before! I will let readers click on the link to get more information about The Farm School, but what is pertinent here is that Rudick spent a year on what is called Maggie's Farm, and this book is written out of what she learned there. It is also worth noting that the Forword itself may add kindling to a new family's fire to get their kids involved with farming in some big or small way.

I paid most attention to the chapters on chickens, goats and rabbits, since those are animals I have raised myself (the book also includes pigs, sheep, cows and horses). I found the text to be just the level I've been looking for - about a 5th grade reading level, with actual meaty information you can use. In fact, I almost immediately found out something I didn't know - chickens can't swallow! Rudick explains why, clearly enough that a young reader could, say, explain it to a judge when she is showing her chickens at the county fair. 

Each chapter has four scetions: In "What Makes Them Tick",  Rudick discusses food and water needs, hygiene, instinct, and social needs of the animals (bullying chickens, a pig's love of routine, etc.).

In "What Makes Them sick", we have, quite obviously, signs and causes of illness, vaccination needs, basic medical supplies, etc. "Where Do They Live?" addresses housing - giving both general needs and some specific suggestions.

"What Can They Give" covers everything from meat or by-products you might think of (eggs, wool) to some you might not - the usefulness of pig poop, for example. 

Chapters also include a Q & A for topics that weren't covered in each section, such as different breeds of each animal, and whether it can be housed with other animals (goats and chickens together are a great idea, especially if you aren't keen on scooping up goat poop). Finally, a two-page spread details the daily/weekly/monthly chores associated with each animal, which may keep some of us from getting in over our heads. 

The photographs are wonderful, but occasionally misplaced - for example, opposite the Introduction, which talks about the benefits raising animals can bring, we have someone toting a crate of potatoes. What kind of chicken lays those, exactly? The diagrams and fast facts give good additional information, in keeping with the flow and age level of the text.

Overall, i was very pleased to be able to add this title to our collection, and hope to find more like it. This appears to be Rudick's only book so far - perhaps she will consider stand-alone books for each animal, maybe adding more details on different breeds, medical care, and showmanship? Just a thought!

If you have any sort of farming community in your area (or if those baby chicks at Tractor Supply are calling to you), I highly recommend purchasing a copy (published by Quarry Books). 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sing and Dance in Your Polka Dot Pants - and win a book while you're at it!

Last week I shared part of an interview with Eric Litwin, author of the first four Pete the Cat books, and now the new Nut Family series. Today is the official release date of the second book in that series, Sing and Dance in Your Polka Dot Pants.

The Nuts: Sing and Dance in Your Polka-Dot Pants

With Pete the Cat being such a huge hit, I couldn't help but take note when Litwin - twice - called this book "probably the best thing I have ever written." Better than the instant story time classic, Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes? This I had to see.

The Nut Family books are illustrated by Scott Magoon (SpoonMostly MonsterlyThe Boy Who Cried Bigfoot, etc.) Bright colors, large characters that work well when holding the book up for a crowd during story time, plus plenty of smaller details to pick out when reading with a little one on your lap. Magoon is...a very punny guy. Teachers could do an entire series of lessons just on the nut references he works into the illustrations! (My favorite is the nutellaphone).

As I shared last week, Litwin writes with beginning readers in mind. A former teacher, he says, "I found that my students learned to read more effectively when my content/books had music and was engaging. So I set out to create books where music and literacy come together." The result was the first four Pete the Cat books published by HarperCollins, and now the Nut Family series from Little, Brown.

In Sing and Dance in Your Polka Dot Pants, the musical part takes center stage. Like most kids, Hazel loves to sing and dance, and she loves her polka dot pants - but, like many families, everyone is just too busy to join her. (As I told Eric, I am very grateful neither parent was occupied on Facebook, because I feel guilty enough). Not a heavy message, though - Hazel doesn't give up, she just keeps on enjoying herself. Finally, she is joined by super cool disco dancing Grandma - who has her own polka dot pants!

Soon everyone is joining in...including the readers. Litwin and his crew (including an entire team of Nutty Complimenters) are hosting a dance video contest. Learn the moves on the web site, or make up your own (and you have to check out this ADORABLE video of the first entry, on Youtube or on Litwin's Facebook page.)

Submit your entry by November 2, and you have a chance to win a copy of the book, poster, or even a visit to your school by Eric Litwin himself! If you are local, you are more than welcome to join us at the Alamogordo Public Library this Saturday at 10AM, while we film our attempt.

So, was this the best thing he has written so far? You decide: Litwin has sent us an autographed copy to give away to one lucky reader. All you have to do is comment below with an example of how YOUR family is nutty. (Don't deny it -  here is a whole year's worth of our family's nuttiness for inspiration. Or commiseration. Something like that.) I will announce a random winner Thursday, October 1, so don't wait too long!

"But wait!" (she says in her best infomercial voice) "There's more!"

Just in case you missed the announcement a couple weeks back, the Nut Family is not the only new thing Litwin has up his sleeve. Scholastic has picked up the rights to the Groovy Joe series - at least three picture books, plus board and novelty books. Tom Lichtenheld (E-Mergency, Yes Day, Everything I Know About Pirates, etc., etc.) will be illustrating, and Litwin says, "I love the kind of ragamuffin image he has created." Judge for yourself:

Litwin has already recorded a song for the first book, in which Groovy Joe brings back the Watusi (Check it out here, or ask your grandmother). In this case, of course, it's the WAGtusi. I am guessing the puns won't be limited to the Nut Family. Something to look forward to for the fall!

In the meantime, get your disco groove on, and let's start seeing those comments and videos!

***Two quick notes on the book giveaway: I can only ship to the US, and if you choose to comment anonymously, you'll need to give me some way of getting in touch with you if you win!***

Friday, September 18, 2015

Early Christmas Shopping, Anyone?

Oh, stop yelling at the computer screen, I know it' September - I'm offering you a good deal, here.

Last year we made up our own t-shirts for the Summer Reading Program, and everyone liked them so much, we had a few extra made. We are pretty much selling them at our cost - $5 each if you come in and buy them here, $10 each if you would like them shipped to you.

They come in black print on red, orange, yellow, light green, light blue, and purple.

Some colors are unavailable in some sizes. In children's sizes we have:
Small (size 6/8)
Medium (size 10/12)
Large (size 14)

In adult sizes we have:
XXL (only a few left!)

Roll them up and stuff them in a stocking - or, wrap them around a couple books and tie with a big pretty bow. Better yet, get a basic superhero mask and use that to tie up the package!

If you are interested in ordering some through the mail, e-mail me at, and we'll get you set up!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Polka Dots, Reviewers, Video Stars, Nutty Families, and Eric Litwin!

As a blogger/reviewer/librarian, I get my share of form e-mails sent by publicists trying to sound personal. Earlier this week I got one from a "local teacher" who thought I should order this great poetry book that all the teachers in her school loved. Here's the thing - while I don't know every teacher in the district, I do know a lot of them, and I know how to Google. No teachers in this district by that name...BUT, the same publishing company has a book they are promoting whose main character has that exact name...and someone with that name has been writing glowing reviews of that publisher's books.

So, no, I won't be buying that particular paperback poetry collection.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago I received an e-mail that started like this: 

"Are you the Ami that does, "A Mom's Spare Time?"  I wasn't able to find an e-mail address for you on your website, but a quick search for a librarian in New Mexico with the name "Ami" turned you up! "

Huh...I don't think this was a form letter.

 It was, in fact, a very nice e-mail from a very nice lady named Becky, who happens to be the Executive Assistant to Eric Litwin - yes, the author of the four original Pete the Cat books - that Eric Litwin! 

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons

She wanted to let me know about the new series he has out, The Nut Family, and wondered if I might be interested in interviewing him.

Well, let me just think about that for approximately .2 seconds.

Teachers and librarians have loved Pete the Cat since he was first self-published by Litwin and illustrator James Dean.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes

The call-and-response, easy sing-along lines, and humor make the first four books great read-alouds - and adults get a kick out of lines like, "No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song...because its all good."

The critics? The big name reviewers? Hated it. From School Library Journal: "there's not much here to get excited about." From Kirkus: "awfully hard to relate to."

Fortunately, children don't read Kirkus or SLJ. Neither do many bloggers, myself included. The Pete the Cat books authored by Litwin have received an impressive 18 awards for literacy between them, and - this part makes me giggle - not long after that terrible review from SLJ, I Love My White Shoes was named #20 on SLJ's Top 100 Picture Books

I was sad when the authorship changed, and remember reading something about Litwin being a musician - I assumed he had gone off to pursue a career in music instead. This brings us back to that e-mail from the nice lady named Becky, and why it took me only .2 seconds to type back a resounding "YES!!!"

In the first book of his new series, Bedtime at the Nut House, we meet Mama,  Wally and Hazel Nut.  

The Nuts: Bedtime at the Nut House

Mama says it's time for bed, but Wally and Hazel would rather play, jumping on their trampraline (yes, the puns are everywhere), or going down the slide from their window to a giant ball pit. (Note to self: install slide and ball pit soon, because that looks like loads of fun.) Bedtime struggles are pretty universal - my kids are masters at the art of stalling - so I don't think anyone will be able to say these are hard to relate to.

Much like the original Pete the Cat books, we have repeating lines (Then Big Mama Nut in her Mama voice said, "all little nuts need to go off to bed!") that will have kids in a story time automatically 'reading' along. My kids love books like this at home as well, because they increase their confidence in their own reading skills - and that is exactly what Litwin is going for.

"Everything I do is done with an intention," he told me. As a teacher, Litwin was dismayed to see students react to a new book, or to learning to read, with very little enthusiasm. They were frustrated, and many already felt like reading was something they just couldn't do.

He sees an over-reliance on limited methods as part of the problem. "For many years, our toolbox has had two tools in it: sight word recognition and phonetic awareness." Those are good tools, he says, but compares it to thinking we can fix everything with just a hammer and a screwdriver. Children also learn to read through prediction, rhyme, rhythm. He incorporates all of those things into his books, and while he says getting good reviews and selling a lot of books is nice, it is more important to him that they become a staple in the classrooms.

I have to admit, I was excited to hear him say all this. In our college education classes (and Litwin has a Masters degree in education), we learn that all of these things are important to reading development. Google "Pre Reading Skills", and it's right there. Children's books need to be more than just putting some silly words with brightly colored pictures, and story time is more than just sitting in front of a group of kids, reading a book out loud. Teachers know it, librarians know it, parents know it. Publishers...well, we're going to say that someone at both Scholastic and Little, Brown knows it, because they were smart enough to snap Litwin up!

If you look at the covers of Litwin's books, you'll see that they all have a note such as "link to downloadable song". He says, "I found that my students learned to read more effectively when my content/books had music and was engaging. So I set out to create books where music and literacy come together."

 That makes sense. I still know my different types of dinosaurs thanks to the songs I learned in Barb Smith's 4th grade years ago. Songs are catchy. Songs are fun. Songs have rhythm and rhyme, which help with both reading AND math skills. Why don't we use music more than we do? Okay, why don't "I" use music more than I do? Is it because I can't sing? (I really can't). Kids don't care! Any of Litwin's books can be read straight through, but they are so much more fun sung. You can make up your own tunes, or hear any of them on his web site. I have a two word warning for you, though:

Ear. Worm.

These songs are so catchy and rhythmic and fun, they will stay in your head all. day. long. Ohmigosh, what an idea - teaching kids in a way that sticks with them! We read I Love My White Shoes in story time last week, and all weekend I caught myself putting everything to the same tune. "I love my chocolate...I love my chocolate..." Awesome, I'm practicing reading skills myself! Then I listened to the first Nut Family book on line, and was dancing the 1-year-old around, singing, "You're nuts! You're nuts! You're nuts! You're nuts!" Those pale in comparison, however, to Litwin's latest...

The Nuts: Sing and Dance in Your Polka-Dot Pants

The book isn't even out yet, and my kids already know the song. It's fun, it's catchy, and it is never going to leave my head.

I did get a preview of the text yesterday (okay, you know it's going to be a good day when an author is reading his newest, unreleased book to you over the phone). It's a great simple story, just as universal in theme as the bedtime struggle. And look at the cover. There's a disco ball. And a downloadable disco dance. Do I really need to go on?

Of course I do, because there's also a contest! 

Hazel Nut wants to sing and dance, but everyone is too busy to join her. Super-hip, disco dancing Grandma Nut to the rescue! Soon everyone can't help but join in...and you can, too!

Litwin and his team are inviting anyone, young or old, alone or in a crowd of a thousand, to submit a video of themselves doing the Polka Dot Pants Dance. Full contest information can be found here. You can also find the (super easy) movements to the dance at that web site, or Litwin says you can make up your own. Personally, I think the disco point is a must, though! 

If you are local, I have even better news for you: a gentleman with a bit more technological know-how than I have has agreed to help us put together a video here at the library! Just check out the moves online, then show up here at 10:00 AM Saturday, September 26. Wear polka-dots or bright colors, and be ready to get your groove on!

Possible prizes include:
  • A limited edition Polka-Dot Pants Dance Poster
  • The book The Nuts, Sing and Dance in Your Polka-Dot Pants
  • Wonderful and plentiful compliments from our own Nutty Complimenters Team
  • A live performance, at your school, from author Eric Litwin.

If you would like to pre-order the second book (or order the first), check out this link. In the meantime, check back here on Tuesday, September 22 for more from my interview with Litwin, more on what he has coming up, and another contest you can enter! 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Oh, My...

I just have to make a quick post before adding more items to my Christmas wish list...The Pioneer Woman's new line has officially launched today on, and I can't believe she kept this one a secret for so long:

The Pioneer Woman Charlie 9.6" x 5.8" x 10.04" Cookie Jar

Yes, it's a Charlie shaped cookie jar.

(The link on "this one" will take you to a page to order it, and the link on "Charlie" will take you to my review of his first book - which is still on my first blog! Time to migrate some posts! After I finish shopping...)