Friday, October 26, 2007


Bibliographic Data:
Title: The Tarantula Scientist
Author: Sy Montgomery
Illustrator: Nic Bishop
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date:
ISBN: 0-618-41799-3

Plot Summary:
Sam Marshall, an arachnologist, leads the reader through the jungles of French Guiana in search of tarantulas. This colorful and humorous informational book laces vignettes of Sam's adventures with facts, figures, illustrations, and explanations regarding all types of spiders but focusing on tarantulas in particular. Montgomery is able to offer what could be dry and boring information in a palatable and entertaining way by interweaving the anecdotes of Marshall with basic fact. The captions for the beautiful illustrations offer further explanation and add to the air of authority the book carries.

Critical Analysis:
As I have said before, I'm not a fan of nonfiction, but I was truly amazed and engaged reading this text. My eight year old son and I read the book from cover to cover and spent quite a bit of time commenting on the various illustrations, the commentary, and laughing at some of Marshall's misadventures (such as walking into a wasp's nest while searching for tarantula holes.)

Not only does the book offer information on spiders, but it also includes information on Marshall himself. In one vignette, Marshall reveals his struggles in college and how research on desert and jungle tarantulas turned his views regarding education and science, in particular, around. "Once I understood that anybody can do the process... that was the thing that totally changed my life!" (Montgomery, 2006, p. 26)

This book also explains the scientific process in detail to the reader but in an interesting way. For example, in one section, Marshall explains how he observed and experimented with a hypothesis regarding why a Goliath birdeater tarantula would molt onto a silk mat. What Marshall hypothesized was that fly larva were parasites that would be trapped by the silk mat. His subsequent testing proved his hypothesis and readers can follow along with this experience in an interesting anecdote rather than reading a research study.

The photographs are simply amazing. The detail as well as the color make this book pop up and engage the reader. While not all of the photos are to scale, these pictures offer detail to a reader that might only appear with use of a magnifying glass or microscope. I was completely intrigued to flip through the book to glance at the illustrations and I found that animals that can appear frightening are really fascinating.

Approximately eighty pages, this book is chockful of fun, facts, and arachnids. I would recommend it highly and I'll probably read it again to catch information I missed the first time!

Editorial Reviews:
School Library Journal
Grade 5-10-Superb color photos abound in this spectacular series addition. Readers follow the career of Sam Marshall, tarantula scientist extraordinaire, from his "Spider Lab" at Hiram College in Ohio to the rain forests of French Guiana as he hunts for, finds, and studies the creatures he loves so well. The conversational text contains as much spider lore as scientific investigation and provides a cheerful look at a dedicated scientist. (The fact that he did not do well in school may encourage those late bloomers who have not yet found their passion in life or believe it to be far beyond their academic grasp.) Informative, yes, but even more important, this is a vivid look at an enthusiastic scientist energetically and happily at work, both in the field and in the lab, questioning, examining, testing, and making connections. A treat, even for arachnophobes.
Patricia Manning, formerly at Eastchester Public Library, NY
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Gr. 4-7. Montgomery and Bishop, who worked together on Snake Scientist (1999), team up once again to deliver another fascinating slice of the natural world. This time they venture to the French Guiana rain forest, where they follow arachnologist Sam Marshall on his quest for his favorite quarry: tarantulas. Enthusiasm for the subject and respect for both Marshall and his eight-legged subjects come through on every page of the clear, informative, and even occasionally humorous text. Bishop's full-color photos, which concentrate on detail, not scale, are amazing--Marshall coaxing an elusive tarantula into the open or bringing readers literally face-to-face with a hairy spider. The section on students' research seems tacked on, but it adds an interesting sidelight to the book, which is longer and richer in both text and illustrations than others in the Scientists in the Field series. Readers will come away armed with facts about spiders in general and tarantulas in particular, but even more important, they'll have a clear understanding of how the answers derived from research become the roots of new, intriguing questions.
Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Invite an entomologist or arachnologist to the classroom to share live bugs and spiders with students.

Ask students to find the steps of the scientific process in a read aloud of one of the experiments described in the book.


Bibliographic Data:
Title: Seymour Simon's Book of Trains
Author: Seymour Simon
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: February 19, 2002
ISBN: 978-0060284756

Plot Summary:
In a very interesting but simplistic format, Simon juxtaposes a full color photograph with a paragraph or two explanation of different train types (steam, diesel, electric) and various types of storage cars (boxcar, gondola, hopper, tank cars, etc.) The text is easy to understand and contains basic information regarding trains in the United States and a few other locations in the world.

Critical Analysis:
I enjoyed reading this book to my four-year-old son who is a Thomas the Tank Engine addict and who loves to watch the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad trains which are based in our hometown of Saginaw, TX. The information was easy for him to understand, the photographs were large and colorful, and the text wasn't overly informative or boring.

I found the book predictable in its format, a very comforting element to a young child who wishes to revisit a familiar topic, but I also found it to be less informative than other informational books on the same topic. In some regards, I found myself comparing this to Donald Crew's Freight Train, a basic concept book, and thinking that it would be a good follow up to that text. I have found DK's The Big Book of Trains to be more informative and more colorful.

I also found this book to be Eurocentric in its presentation of trains. Simon mentions the TGV, but does not offer an explanation of what this abbreviation means (Train Grande Vitesse) and while he mentions electric trains, he neglects to mentions maglev trains or the Japanese Bullet Train that travels faster than nearly every other train on the planet.

I would recommend this book to introduce more information on trains, but I would progress to another book with more information such as The Big Book of Trains for specific examples, more pictures, and a more global viewpoint.

Editorial Reviews:

Publishers Weekly
In Seymour Simon's Book of Trains, the author dedicates one spread each to various kinds of trains, with a full-color photograph on one side and, opposite, a couple of paragraphs describing it. He covers everything from old-fashioned diesel trains to subways that run on electricity to France's TGV (with speeds of between 200-300 mph). A series of spreads on the freight train details different kinds of cars.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

School Library Journal
School-Grade 4-Trains and individual freight cars are displayed in glorious full color in this oversized book. Simon offers information on different types of these machines from the earliest steam locomotives to France's TGV, which can reach speeds of 300 miles per hour. The section on freight trains delves into each car from boxcars to the now-obsolete caboose. The sharp pictures cover half of each spread. One small complaint is that while the TGV and Japan's bullet trains are mentioned, they are not pictured. But never mind. Even preschoolers will be drawn in by the large, abundant photographs. Another winner from a popular author.
Anne Chapman Callaghan, Racine Public Library, WI
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Have students read book and then "train spot" for a weekend or a week. Create a graph of the various types of trains, cars, and other related transportation items that they saw.


Bibliographic Data
Title: An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
Author: Jim Murphy
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: June 23, 2003
ISBN: 978-0395776087

Plot Summary
This eleven chapter Newbery Honor Book recounts the horror of the yellow fever epidemic that held the city of Philadelphia in its grasp in the summer and into the fall of 1793. The disease that chased thousands out of the City of Brotherly Love also succeeded in shutting down the Pennsylvania and federal governments. In this novel, Murphy tells the tale of the baffled physicians, the dedicated Free African Society nurses and caregivers that remained to help the ill and dying, and the middle class citizens who risked imprisonment for their choice to serve on city government and keep the city moving.

Critical Analysis
I am not at all a fan of nonfiction books. However, I really enjoyed reading this novel. From the beginning, Murphy sets out to create a setting that honors the reality of the situation while drawing the reader in and hooking him in the dire situation. The descriptions of characters such as Benjamin Rush paint a colorful portrait of the individuals who fought the dreaded disease. "He was passionate and outspoken in his beliefs; no matter what the subject... Along with his beliefs went an unimaginable amount of energy. Despite a persistent cough and weak lungs... he worked from early in the morning until late at night..." (Murphy, 2003, p.12) The book also includes drawings of various characters, when available that lend to the shaping of that person in the reader's mind.

Further, each chapter begins with an excerpt from the newspaper accounts of the time. These clippings help to support the author's points regarding the news reports of the day. In a later chapter, Murphy discusses the issues that surrounded the printing business due to the lack of imports arriving and the problems that arose for publishers. Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette, for instance limited fever never, avoided obituaries, was vague about the spread of the disease, and never mentioned the rise in the crime rate perhaps because Freneau had to limit himself to one page rather than his usual four to eight. (Murphy, 2003)

Overall I would highly recommend this book. It was balanced in its praise of the positive choices and in its criticism of choices that would impact the city of Philadelphia and the country for the short and long term. Additionally the author offered a balanced accounting of those who stayed to assist the ill and those who fled. This author was more generous in his accounting of the events than was publisher Matthew Carey, an individual who sat on the emergency council of twelve that ran the city of Philadelphia during the crisis. Carey published A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia... in which he openly criticized the Free African Society nurses for raising their prices to an almost usurious price. In his criticism, Carey neglected to mention the bidding war by the whites in the area which caused the price "gouging" and as a result generated the first African American written response to accusations in the United States.

Due to the graphic nature of the illness and some of the information contained in the book, I would limit exposure to this topic to children sixth grade and above. While none of the book is grotesque, the description of yellow fever symptoms that arise accompanied by the veracity contained in the book might best be evaluated by children who have a basis in history and are able to understand the events within the context in which they occurred.

From School Library Journal
Grade 6-10-If surviving the first 20 years of a new nationhood weren't challenge enough, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, centering in Philadelphia, was a crisis of monumental proportions. Murphy chronicles this frightening time with solid research and a flair for weaving facts into fascinating stories, beginning with the fever's emergence on August 3, when a young French sailor died in Richard Denny's boardinghouse on North Water Street. As church bells rang more and more often, it became horrifyingly clear that the de facto capital was being ravaged by an unknown killer. Largely unsung heroes emerged, most notably the Free African Society, whose members were mistakenly assumed to be immune and volunteered en masse to perform nursing and custodial care for the dying. Black-and-white reproductions of period art, coupled with chapter headings that face full-page copies of newspaper articles of the time, help bring this dreadful episode to life. An afterword explains the yellow fever phenomenon, its causes, and contemporary outbreaks, and source notes are extensive and interesting. Pair this work with Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful novel Fever 1793 (S & S, 2000) and you'll have students hooked on history.
Mary R. Hofmann, Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
Gr. 6-12. History, science, politics, and public health come together in this dramatic account of the disastrous yellow fever epidemic that hit the nation's capital more than 200 years ago. Drawing on firsthand accounts, medical and non-medical, Murphy re-creates the fear and panic in the infected city, the social conditions that caused the disease to spread, and the arguments about causes and cures. With archival prints, photos, contemporary newspaper facsimiles that include lists of the dead, and full, chatty source notes, he tells of those who fled and those who stayed--among them, the heroic group of free blacks who nursed the ill and were later vilified for their work. Some readers may skip the daily details of life in eighteenth-century Philadelphia; in fact, the most interesting chapters discuss what is now known of the tiny fever-carrying mosquito and the problems created by over-zealous use of pesticides. The current struggle to contain the SARS epidemic brings the "unshakeable unease" chillingly close.
Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

1. Use excerpts from the book as a springboard for class discussion and comparison/contrast assignment based on early American government.

2. Have students take positions and debate whether Congress could have constitutionally been moved out of Philadelphia, arguing the viewpoints of Jefferson, Madison, and Adams.

3. Introduce a unit on health and wellness and the importance of sanitation. Ask students to evaluate the sanitation conditions at the beginning of the novel with later improvements. Use the maps provided and have students develop a sanitation plan for the city that might have relieved some of the disease's progress.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Bibliographic Data:
Title: Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Sister Went Crazy
Author: Sonya Sones
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books
Publication Date: February 2001
ISBN: 9780064462181

Plot Summary:
This is, according to the author's website, an autobiographical account of what happened when her older sister was hospitalized due to her mental breakdown. The author reflects on her own feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety, and nostalgia as she walks through the text.

Critical Analysis:
This book has some interesting points, particularly for a student struggling with depression or anxiety or with a parent or sibling struggling with these issues. One poem that struck a chord with me was "Snapshot" which describes the author's nostalgia as she recalls a particular photograph. "You didn't look crazy/at all back then./I wish you could be eight/again." The author is struggling with her feelings of frustration that her life and her sister's were normal and she is expressing her desire for normalcy. Certainly this poem can touch anyone who is having an "off" day - not just a person experiencing the roller coaster ride that is associated with manic depression and bipolarism.

However, this text is a fairly mature one and it deals with a difficult subject matter. For example, the poem "Mass Pike" describes the father's breakdown as they are driving down the road. While the father collapses emotionally, the rest of the world continues as it did before. "and we weep with him/while cars filled/with happy families/whiz past."

One Christmas eve, 13-year-old Cookie's big sister has a nervous breakdown: a wild-eyed Jewish girl wearing only a nightgown," she rushes out the door to Midnight Mass. Following this manic moment, the sister is institutionalized. This haunting novel, told entirely in Cookie's first person poems, is the story of what happens in the wake of this emotional disaster. Some of it is heartbreakingly predictable - Cookie is terrified that she will have a breakdown, her former friends shun her, her parents' marriage begins unraveling. But there are wonderful surprises, too: Cookie is introduced to photography and finds in it an opportunity to heal herself and her sister: a new boy comes to school, and he and Cookie fall in love. The poems - some as short as five lines, none longer than three pages - have a cumulative emotional power that creeps up on the reader, culminating in a moving, unexpected line or phrase: "I blink/and there you suddenly are/inhabiting your eyes again...and I'm feeling all lit up/like a jar filled/with a thousand fireflies." Such small moments become large in the context of their promise of healing and the demonstration of life's power to continue. Based on Sones' own family experience, this novel-in-verse shows the capacity of poetry to record the personal and translate it into the universal.—Michael Cart

School Library Journal
An unpretentious, accessible book that could provide entry points for a discussion about mental illness - its stigma, its realities, and its effect on family members. Based on the journals Sones wrote at the age of 13 when her 19-year-old sister was hospitalized due to manic depression, the simply crafted but deeply felt poems reflect her thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams during that troubling time. In one poem, the narrator fears that "If I stay any longer/than an hour/...I'll see that my eyes/have turned into her eyes/my lips/have turned into her lips..." She dreads having her friends learn of her sister's illness. "If I told them that my sister's nuts/they might act sympathetic/but behind my back/would everyone laugh?" and wonders what she could have done to prevent the breakdown. All of the emotions and feelings are here, the tightness in the teen's chest when thinking about her sibling in the hospital, her grocery list of adjectives for mental illness, and the honest truth in the collection's smallest poem, "I don't want to see you./I dread it./There./I've said it." An insightful author's note and brief list of organizations are included. —Sharon Korbeck, Waupaca Area Public Library, WI.
In a story based on real events, and told in poems, Sones explores what happened and how she reacted when her adored older sister suddenly began screaming and hearing voices in her head, and was ultimately hospitalized.

Kirkus Reviews
Individually, the poems appear simple and unremarkable, snapshot portraits of two sisters, a family, unfaithful friends, and a sweet first love. Collected they take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister's slow recovery. To a budding genre that includes Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1997) and Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade (1993), this book is a welcome addition.

From the author's own website: "But when I told my sister about the book, she was thrilled. She said, 'A book like this could be used in schools to open up discussions about mental illness.' My sister and I are hopeful that the people who read Stop Pretending will come away from the experience feeling more compassion for the victims of mental illness. "

What Is Goodbye? (Genre: Poetry)

Bibliographic Data:
Title: What Is Goodbye?
Author: Nikki Grimes
Illustrator: Raul Colon
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children
Publication Date: April 1, 2004
ISBN: 0786807784

Plot Summary
Two children, Jerilyn and Jesse, express their feelings about the death of their older brother Jaron in this short text. Each child expresses his or her feelings a different way and in a different manner. The book's poems track the children throughout a year of loss, beginning with the initial news and ending with a new family portrait.

Critical Analysis
This is an excellent text for a child who is experiencing a loss. Because the text is written from two voices or viewpoints, it offers a child different visions of grief and loss. I especially think that the opening poem, "What is goodbye/Where is the good in it?/One leaves/and many hearts/are broken./There must be/a better arithmetic/somewhere." is an excellent example of the hole that is left when a beloved person or pet is lost. According to Morin and Welsh (1996) by the time an individual has reached adolescence, it is likely that he or she has been exposed to death. Some adolescents encounter it through a personal loss, such as the death of grandparents, parent, or even a peer. However, even those who have not experienced a direct loss, have some experiences and perceptions of death. It is virtually a universal experience to be exposed to the sensationalized treatment of death through the media such as television, movies, lyrics, and even video games such as Mortal Kombat.
Further, I think that the poem "Mad" which expresses Jerilyn's frustration about her dead sibling and how she wishes he had never been born could be used for bibliotherapy for a student who has experienced a recent loss and needs to release his or her anger.

Morin, S. M. and Welsh, L.A. (1996). Adolescents' perceptions and experiences of death and grieving. Adolescence, (31) 123.

From School Library Journal
Grade 3-8–Grimes's novella in verse is a prime example of how poetry and story can be combined to extend one another. When their brother dies, Jerilyn and Jesse cope with the anger, confusion, and the silence that grief brings to their family. Jesse's rhyming verse faces his older sister's free-verse comments on her experiences. When Jesse hits a home run in a league game soon after his brother's death, he glows, "I took off around the field,/legs pumping like lightning!/I slid into home plate clean./Man, I'm so cool,/I'm frightening!/...What am I supposed to do,/spend each minute crying?/I wish I could please you, Mom,/but I'm sick of trying." Jerilyn muses, "It's his right to smile,/isn't it?/To be delirious?/So what if I don't understand?/This ghost town,/draped in shadow,/is desperate for/a few more watts of light." Grimes handles these two voices fluently and lucidly, shaping her characters through her form. Col√≥n's paintings in muted colors combine imagism with realism to create an emotional dreamscape on nearly every page. The clean design combined with the book's short, easy pace and small size give readers a comfortable place from which to listen to the characters as they make their way from "Getting the News" to "Anniversary," and finally to "Ordinary Days." The book closes with a poem in two voices, and Jesse and Jerilyn come together for a new family photograph. "Smile!"–and readers will. Fans of Vera B. Williams's Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (Greenwillow, 2001) will appreciate this powerful title.–Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Booklist
Gr. 4-8. At the funeral for her older brother, Jaron, Jerilyn is furious that "no one tells the truth": "Dead is dead. / Not 'gone away.' / Not 'lost.' / Not 'on a journey.' / Not 'passed.'" Her younger brother, Jesse, is angry, too, but he's mad at Jaron: "You left me . . . I hate you for that!" In poems that alternate between voices, Jerilyn and Jesse describe their complicated, private thoughts as they grieve for their beloved brother. Grimes often chooses rhymed couplets for Jesse's voice, and the singsong sounds and tight rhythm create a young tone that's indicative of Jesse's age but, nonetheless, feels distractingly at odds with the somber subject and raw emotions--feelings that Grimes gets just right. Moving and wise, these are poems that beautifully capture a family's heartache as well as the bewildering questions that death brings, and they reinforce the message in Grimes' warm author's note: "There's no right or wrong way to feel when someone close to you dies." Gillian EngbergCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


Use as a starting point of bibliotherapy for a child experiencing a loss.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It's Raining Pigs And Noodles (Genre: Poetry)

Bibiliographic Data
Title: It's Raining Pigs and Noodles
Author: Jack Prelutsky
Illustrator: James Stevenson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: 2000
ISBN: 006029194

Plot Summary

This is a collection of children's poetry. Some are shape poems such as Zigzag (a poem shaped in a zigzag style) and I'm Caught Up in Infinity (a poem shaped like the infinity symbol and seemingly having no beginning and no end) and others are poems about childhood experiences such as Why Do I Have to Clean My Room? and I Ate a Tooth This Morning. However, whatever type of poem, children will relate to the amusing illustrations as well as the everyday events that take place in the poetry of this book. Some of the poems are purely nonsensical, such as The Sniffing Snutterwudds which are creatures that have a dozen noses but shut down their smelling when a skunk appears.

Critical Analysis
This book, like many others by the same poet-author will tickle the fancy of the young and the old. For children, Prelutsky raises the inevitable questions and issues of childhood. For example, in the poem Why Do I Have to Clean My Room? the young narrator questions the necessity of cleanliness. After all his room has bits of clay stuck to the walls, which he scarcely notices, week-old apple pie under the bed, pizza in the corner, and a drums and a basketball that he "almost never trips upon."
Shape poems such as I Am Shrinking, in which the text gets progressively smaller and smaller until it nearly disappears on the page will engage children and encourage them to attempt to read to find out the end... that is if they can read print that tiny!
However, my favorite poem is Hello and Good-Bye in which the poem begins in a standard print font but progressively lightens until it nearly disappears on the line "Good-bye!" The narrator in the poem ponders whether he or she exists, and when the question "It also seem I am not there.../perhaps I am not anywhere" the poem and the narrator begin to fade away on the page.

Review Excerpts
Publishers Weekly
Following A Pizza the Size of the Sun, the reigning czars of silliness are back on the warpath, wreaking poetic havoc with yet another deliciously sly volume. The titles alone are a treat: "Never Poke Your Uncle With a Fork"; "I'm Ironing My Rhinoceros"; "Waffles Give Me Sniffles." Prelutsky trips the light verse fantastic across territory that's familiar yet fresh. He gleefully descends to the depths of gross-out humor ("Worm puree, oh hooray!/ You're the dish that makes my day"), engages in nimble wordplay ("There's no present like the time," he notes in "I Gave My Friend a Cuckoo Clock") and once again proves himself king of the final one-two punch (a knight confesses to ineffectuality in an ode closing with this couplet: "My name is famed through all the land/ I'm called Sir Lunchalot"). The sassy selection of nonsense rhymes and puckish poems will further endear Prelutsky to his many fans. Meanwhile, partner-in-crime Stevenson peppers the pages with his inimitably impish sketches, from pigs in kilts on stilts to fleas on a circus trapeze. Hats off to these two glorious goofballs! Ages 5-up. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

School Library Journal
K-Gr 6-Another felicitous collaboration from this team, full of the joy of words and whimsical images. Though the format, size, and type of content is similar to the duo's other books, the verse is fresh and catchy with sparkling wordplay and unexpected rhymes, and Stevenson's line drawings project the humor with verve. Included are the usual poems about weird animals and unusual children, a dragon, yucky food, fantastic experiences in everyday situations, and quite a few clever shape poems. There is even a disappearing one that actually vanishes off the page. All but two of the selections are new. As in the previous books, a wide variety of typefaces and printing tricks are utilized to create an imaginative and entertaining look. Wonderful tools for teachers, the poems boast impeccable rhythms and rhymes and strongly appeal to a child's sense of humor, whether read aloud or independently.-Judith Constantinides, formerly at East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library, LA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

The Christian Science Monitor - Karen Carden
When kids feel silly, outrageous thyming poems can be great companions. Poet Jack Prelutsky and illustrator James Stevenson have teamed up again to offer more camraderie. It's Raining Pigs and Noodles is their fourth volume of funny, clever and just plain goofy verse...most kids will love it.

  • Read the poem I'm Caught Up in Infinity and have the students develop a mathematical poem.
  • Read the poem What Oinks? and have students develop poetry riddles.