Back to School Picture Books

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As we head back to school we often focus on those going for the very first time. Pre-schools are pretty ubiquitous these days but kindergarten is still a big step; often the first time that kids are gone every day, sometimes for a full day including lunch and naps. It seemed appropriate to start our lists out with a book focusing on this important milestone.

Planet Kindergarten book review

A nameless explorer is preparing for his biggest mission yet, a journey to Planet Kindergarten. His parents help him gather supplies, get a check-up and assure him he is ready so off he goes!  His new commander (teacher) and crew (fellow students) have to work together to meet the objectives of the flight plan (daily schedule) and test all the equipment before lunch, naps, and the end of the mission.

Failure is not an option, so with a positive attitude and a little hard work he finds a way to succeed and even continues training to return again the next day.

A mixture of fantasy and reality play out in this fun tale that kids will enjoy with bright, busy graphic illustrations to capture every reader’s imagination.

 

Planet Kindergarten

Written by: Sue Ganz-Schmitt

Illustrated by Shane Prigmore

Number of Pages: 32

Publisher: Chronicle Kids, 2014

Age Range: 3-7

Rating: 4/5

And if you enjoy this one, there’s a second in the series, Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, as well.

Schools First Day of School book review

I don’t know that anyone else has ever written a first day of school story from the point of view of the school (though a few of my favorites feature teachers and faculty that are reluctant to start a new year.) This one is a subtle delight and pulls off the feat quite nicely.

A new building built over the summer is cared for by a kindly Janitor who does his best to explain to the school just what a school actually is. The school is a bit nervous to be filled with children and when the first day arrives there are children everywhere.  It’s more than the school knows quite how to handle though it enjoys watching the kids explore the playground and learn. It’s disheartened to overhear a couple of kids complain that they hate school and its nerves set off the fire alarm by mistake. But for the most part the day passes uneventfully and when the janitor returns that afternoon the school decides it would probably be okay if the janitor invited everyone back again tomorrow.

Children’s own fears about starting a new school or going for the first time are lovingly portrayed by the anthropomorphized school. And the childlike illustrations show the basic ins and outs of a school day from a few perspectives. Kids will appreciate and relate to both.

 

School’s First Day of School

Written by: Adam Rex

Illustrated by: Christian Robinson

Number of Pages: 32

Publisher: Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 2016

Age Range: 3-7

Rating: 4/5

This is My Home This is My School book review

Another subject that doesn’t get quite as much play as it probably should is homeschooling. What if your home and school are the same place? Jonathan Bean tackles that very topic in his great little autobiographical (ish) picture book.

A typically busy day of homeschooling is slightly frenetically illustrated from sun up to sun down. The boy narrator explains how his mom is his teacher (dad plays a role too, teaching shop and acting as phys ed coach), and all the rooms (and his yard) are classrooms. They go on field trips, visit the library, eat in the cafeteria, have show and tell, and do homework just like everyone at a school would.

The best part is an author’s note follow-up that tells the reader about his experiences being homeschooled and includes pictures of his family’s school in action. For those of you who homeschool it’s a wonderful resource for making connections to someone else’s school experience.

 

This is My Home. This Is My School

Written and Illustrated by:  Jonathan Bean

Number of Pages: 32

Publisher:Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015

Age Range: 4-8

Rating: 4/5

 

Who have you got headed back to school this year? How are you helping them prepare for the big day?

Picture Book Review ~ The Street Beneath My Feet

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When I was little I used to spend hours poring over the illustrations in the books on our shelves.  Some of my favorites were the Richard Scarry books with all their little labeled worlds filled with intricate details and happenings in every nook and cranny of the page. I also loved to look through the various National Geographic resources my parents had bought through the years, especially the atlases. We had books showing pictographs of every country’s revenue, imports and exports, flags, national symbols and so on. There was one that had cellophane overlays showing either the cities and landmarks or the natural topographical features over the outlines of the countries or showing relative sizes of the various planets, moons, and constellations within the solar system. I was entranced by this huge world of ours and how vastly different (or similar) places so far from each other could be. I think that’s probably where I first got the travel bug thought I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.

If you’ve got any readers in your house who can relate to my description above then you’ve absolutely got to get your hands on this book. From it’s gorgeous embossed cover to the flipped layout to the inside-out and back again format there’s a lot to take in and hours’ worth of discussion and study to be had.

We start out with a young child walking along the city street wondering what’s happening below him, just out of sight. The illustrations lead us down through a maze of sewer pipes and storm drains, electric cables and phone wires down to the bugs, rats, and microorganisms that make up the first layers of topsoil. Then we venture farther down on our own archaeological dig past bones and coins and pottery. Next there’s discussion of the various layers of clay, rock (igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic all get their chance to shine), coal, caves with underground water, until we make it to the earth’s core.

Then our pages start folding the other direction (take a look at my post on Instagram for a better idea of how this works) and we head back out from earth’s fiery center to learn in more detail about minerals, fossils, the dinosaurs, and how plants and other creatures use the soil. When we make it back above ground we can see how the things happening beneath us can affect the world we see around us.

There’s so much here it’s almost impossible to take it all in in one reading, making it an ideal one to re-visit before a trip to the museum or a rock collecting adventure. Perfect companions for Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, The Skies Above My Eyes by the same duo, or Zommer’s Big Book of Bugs or Big Book of Beasts.

The Street Beneath My Feet

The Street Beneath My Feet

Written by: Charlotte Guillain

Illustrated by: Yuval Zommer

Number of Pages: 20

Published by: words & pictures/Quarto, 2017

Age range: 4-10

Rating: 5/5

Street Beneath My Feet detail

Picture Book Review ~ What If

What If

What If?

Written by: Samantha Berger

Illustrated by: Mike Curato

Number of Pages: 32

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Age Range: 4-10

Rating: 5/5

A young artist is compelled to create, drawing and writing everything her heart and mind can conceive. But what if her pencil disappeared, how would she create then? She’d fold her paper until she’d found a way to make her stories appear. And what if the paper was gone too? Well, she’d find another way to tell her stories and create something for the world to see. She takes us through 8 or 9 other options including sculpting, singing, dancing and simply holding everything in her mind. But she knows no matter what she’ll always find a way to create and tell her story.
The powerful message is told in simple rhyming couplets and the illustrations are stunning. But I absolutely loved the note from the author and illustrator about how the story came to be. A flood forced Berger to evacuate her apartment and she was unable to create the way she usually did and she had to think outside the box using found objects and unconventional tools to make her art. This experience is replicated in the book and inspires the creators in us all to keep creating!
This is the perfect vehicle for beating off any summer boredom. Grab your favorite child and all the goodies you can find (head outside, raid the craft room, the world is your oyster!) and start creating whatever strikes your fancy. And I’d love to see your results. Post them down in the comments for us all! Happy reading/creating!
What If book review

Adult Non-Fiction Book Review ~ The Devil in the White City

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As a teacher I was constantly guiding kids to make connections while they were reading. You can connect the text to yourself, other books, or the world around you. Does the book remind you of something you’ve seen or somewhere you’ve been? Something you’ve experienced? Another book you’ve read or movie you’ve watched? A good connection can make any book stay with you for a lifetime and can be key to making a child into a life-long reader. This is the glory of bookclubs and discussions, fandoms, alternate adaptations and more. Your connections being shared with others strengthens the initial connection and helps you to internalize the story, themes, sympathize with the characters and more.
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As an adult with an absolutely horrid memory when I can make connections with a book it helps it stick in my brain a bit longer which is always a plus. One of my favorite ways to make connections is to see the location or subject in person if possible. (An excuse to travel…never a bad thing, right?)
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Several years ago I read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson with a bookclub and was enthralled by the way he told the parallel stories of the architecture, organization, and creation of the vast modern fairgrounds for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and the tale of H.H. Holmes, a young doctor, psychopath and serial killer. The advancements and transformation of a swamp to the brilliant White City juxtaposed with the dark, seedy underbelly of those same advancements is masterfully handled and kept me riveted from first page to last. It was one of the books I convinced my husband to read with me after we got married and he was just as enthralled. So much so that when we had some frequent flier miles to use up we planned a trip to Chicago to see the buildings, grounds, and history first hand.
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We spent several days wandering the city, eating amazing food and catching a performance of Hamilton (which was also absolutely amazing, and lead to an interest in the founding fathers and other book readings…the best connections tend to lead to more connections!) But we made a point to visit the fairgrounds (the only original building left has become The Museum of Science and Industry) and study the work of the architects who were so influential to the area.
Museum of Science and Industry
Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first part of his career in the Chicago area and worked with Daniel Burnham (the architect of the Flatiron Building in New York and architect of many of the exposition buildings) who worked with Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of Central Park and planner of the exposition) to bring the fair to life.
Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House
These amazing stairs are located in The Rookery, a building designed by Burnham where Wright worked for years.
Stairway in Rookery
We also sampled the brownies at the Palmer House hotel. They were created there under the direction of Bertha Palmer to be served at the exposition. She wanted a portable snack that women could eat with their gloves on. Deliciously chewy topped with cherry ice cream! (Other foods that were introduced at or evolved from the fair include Cracker Jacks, Shredded Wheat, pancake mix, chewing gum, Cream of Wheat, and Vienna Beef hot dogs.)
Palmer House brownie
It was a fascinating time and an even more fascinating book. I highly recommend both the book and the city! And I’d love to hear about your own book connections and field trips!
Devil in the White City book review

The Devil in the White City

Written by: Erik Larson

Number of Pages: 447

Publisher: Crown, 2003

Age Range: Adult

Rating: 5/5

Young Adult Book Review ~ Truly Devious

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When I was working at the library I spent a good part of my day reading the new books that came in in order to be able to recommend them to patrons. I breezed through multiple picture books a day and then at least one middle grade and one young adult book each week besides taking books home for my personal reading. I wish I had that kind of time to devote to reading these days but no such luck. And unfortunately it’s been the young adult books that have slipped by the wayside. And with the diminished numbers I’ve not found as many amazing books to shout about. But this one redeemed everything. I couldn’t put it down.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter disappeared from the millionaire’s lavish mountaintop retreat and private school in Vermont. His wife’s body was eventually found but not before he’d paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom. His daughter remains missing and while someone confessed there were too many questions left unanswered and the case remains cold to this day.

Enter Stevie Bell, high school junior, who has been admitted to the Ellingham academy because of her obsessive interest in the case and in studying detective work. Her classmates are equally focused on their various pursuits; an artist who’s spent the bulk of her life in a commune, an internet video star, an inventor/engineer, an author and more. But they’re not all the innocent students they’d like each other to believe and when one of them ends up dead Stevie is forced to question her instincts and everything she thinks she knows.

Told in alternating chapters between Stevie’s day in/day out routines at school and flashbacks to the events of 1936 I was riveted from page one. Be warned, there is no conclusion in this volume. This is the beginning of a trilogy so you’ll have to wait (but hopefully not too long!) before getting all the answers.

Truly Devious book review

Truly Devious
Written by: Maureen Johnson
Number of Pages: 416
Publisher: Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books, 2018
Age Range: 12+
Rating: 4.5/5

Middle Grade Book Review ~ Calling All Minds

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Temple Grandin book reviewLast week I had the great opportunity of hearing Temple Grandin speak at our local library. She’s an absolutely amazing individual with so many experiences that she has used to influence the world around her in positive ways. (Anyone unfamiliar with her, please check out her website. But a quick run-down: she was born in 1947, is on the autism spectrum and has gone on to revolutionize autism awareness, humane livestock handling and more.) She’s recently published a children’s book and has been touring to promote it.

I wanted to include the book review with the presentation highlights and now that I’ve finished reading it here are the takeaways.

First of all, watching/hearing her speak you get a great feel for who she really is.  She’s got a no-nonsense approach to her speaking that makes her message seem all the more genuine, and she was truly passionate about it. She reiterated the idea that we (society, parents, schools) need to do away with labels. Labels get in the way of who kids really are and what they need. People like Einstein, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs were most likely on the spectrum but because they weren’t given labels that got in their way they were each able to eventually succeed. Today kids are labeled in an effort to get them what they need but it’s often the opposite that happens. The labels become their identities and those identities are limited and handicapping.

She also talked a lot about screen time and other daily habits. Kids spend so much of their day in front of screens or being told what to do that they are missing out on opportunities to explore the world around them. They need to be given exposure to arts, technical classes, music, tools, and more so they can find out what interests them and explore how to incorporate those interests into their lives. They need to be given responsibilities, taught patience and how to work (think paper routes and dog walking.) They need to be allowed to tinker and build and experiment and fail and try again. Problem solving is becoming a lost art.

She encouraged kids who are lonely or being bullied to find groups with shared interests. She encouraged the adults to make changes one home, classroom or school at a time and then start a local movement writing and sharing what happened and what worked. I think everyone left feeling optimistic about the future and how they could help.

Her enthusiasm is infectious but if you don’t have a chance to see her in person you can watch some of her TED talks, or the fantastic HBO movie based on her life, or read her book!

The book is part memoir, part science text book, part how-to manual encouraging it’s readers (geared to an upper middle grade but really anyone can benefit) to dig in, experiment and create something. She begins talking about her own experiences, her frustrations in school, her different ways of seeing things, her supportive teachers and family members that all encouraged her to invent things that made her life a little bit easier. From there she gets into the scientific background of the subject and then the hands-on how-to for the reader to experiment for themselves.  For example, in her chapter on paper she gives you a brief history of the invention and uses of paper, the printing press, typewriters, scissors, and crayons, and biographical sketches of Gutenberg, Fibonacci, Christopher Sholes (who patented the ‘typewriting machine’) and more. She’s got diagrams and photographs of the machines and processes and instructions for making your own paper, cutting paper snowflakes, growing crystals, building a kaleidoscope and making a water bomb (essentially a paper water balloon.) And that’s just chapter one!

It’s well organized, informative, fascinating and chock-full of fabulous ideas. You could easily formulate a summer school or home school science curriculum around the book and have more than enough information to keep you busy for months! And because there’s a little something for everyone (science, history, social studies etc.) you’ll be hard pressed to find a reader who won’t enjoy it. Highly recommended!

Calling All Minds book review

Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor

Written by: Temple Grandin

Number of Pages: 228

Publisher: Philomel/Penguin Random House, 2018

Age Range: 8-14

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Check out this past post for another great book about Temple Grandin.

Middle Grade Book Review ~ Bob

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

I think if you asked, most adults would confess to having imaginary friends or to knowing someone who had one. But what if those imaginary friends weren’t so much imaginary as simply forgotten? Then you might have a story something like this. Olivia has traveled to her grandmother’s house in Australia for only the second time in her life. She was five when she was first there nearly 6 years ago but she can’t seem to be able to remember anything about that visit. Until she gets to her upstairs room and opens the closet to find Bob.

Bob is a small greenish creature who looks a bit like a zombie and has been dutifully living in the closet since Livy ushered him inside six years ago and promised him she’d be right back. Now that she’s finally returned the two friends have a lot of catching up to do. Slowly things start to come back to Livy and she realizes Bob’s magic both made her forget and is now helping her to remember. But they haven’t been able to figure out just who (or what) Bob is or how to help him get back home (wherever that might be) or how to help her grandmother who is going to lose her farm because of the years long drought they’ve been experiencing. It’s not until Livy and Bob are lead to a well while searching for a neighbor boy that’s gone missing that they find all the answers.

There’s something sweetly magical about this little tale. It feels like it could be loosely based on a folktale but seems to be something original, from the minds of two award-winning authors. I’d love to know more about their process of writing this story. It’s told from both Bob’s and Livy’s points of view so perhaps each took charge of one of the characters. However it came to be its utterly charming and deserves wide readership. Check it out!

Bob book review

 

Bob

Written by: Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

Illustrated by: Nicholas Gannon

Number of Pages: 201

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2018

Age Range: 6-10

Rating: 4/5

Looking for more suggestions for books about imaginary friends? Try the brilliantly executed The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat, or Patricia Polacco’s Emma Kate.

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Middle Grade Book Review ~ Zinnia and the Bees

Summer is just around the corner which means summer reading can begin! And because you can never have too many middle grade books to read here’s a great one to get everyone started.

Zinnia Flossdrop is not having a good summer.  It all started when she was sent to detention on the last day of school for yarn bombing the school mascot with her older brother and then coming home to find that said older brother had up and left. Now her mother, Dr. Flossdrop (a dentist) has adopted a mangy dog as her latest project, refuses to discuss Adam’s disappearance, and insists Zinnia do something to make herself useful.  But she can’t. The other complication in her life is in the form of bees, a whole hive of them that have taken up residence on Zinnia’s head and it’s all she can think of. (Can you blame her?!)

Enter Birch, the nephew of Zinnia’s next-door neighbor who has come to stay for the summer and considers himself something of a naturalist. But Zinnia doesn’t want to admit she needs his help, or even speak to him at all, convinced he will betray her just like everyone else has.

Told from both Zinnia’s and the bees points of view, you get a bit of a science lesson regarding the inner workings of a hive as well as the inner workings of Zinnia’s mind. A tad unrealistic, obviously, but also a sweet little story of friendship, trusting others (and yourself) and a reminder that just like the bees we all have a part to play in making this world a bit sweeter.

Zinnia and the Bees book review

Zinnia and the Bees

Written by: Danielle Davis

Number of Pages: 232

Publisher: Capstone Young Readers, 2017

Age Range: 7-12

Rating: 3/5

What’s on your summer reading list?

Adult Audio Books Review ~ Psychological Thrillers

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

I tend to be more of a cozy mystery fan but give me the right mix of psychological thriller and a character I can care about and I’m sucked in. I’ve read a few of the latest buzzy reads (The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl etc.) and while I definitely enjoyed them they were also a little harder for me to read because of the violence, language, sexual content etc. that tended to be so pervasive or over the top that it sometimes took away from the story. (Yes, I get that life is ugly but I don’t need ALL the gory details!) I like my scary movies this way too. Give me a classic edge-of-your-seat nail biter over a twisted bloodbath any day. (Anyone see A Quiet Place? This is what I’m talking about. Such a great movie!) So, I’ve got two recent reads (or rather listens since they were both audio books) for you today. If you like some subtle twists and a classic feel to your thriller I highly recommend the following:

Depressed, alcoholic, heavily medicated Dr. Anna Fox, psychologist, is living alone in the townhouse she formally shared with her husband and daughter who have gone away under the pretense of a separation though she still talks to them frequently. Laid up and extremely agoraphobic after a serious car accident she spends the bulk of her time watching her neighbors through her camera’s viewfinder, playing online chess, watching old movies, or in a chatroom for agoraphobics where she offers her expert advice (though she rarely heeds it herself.)

Anna is highly unreliable and the characters she interacts with don’t come across much better. The cast is relatively small and the stage is reduced to her home and the square where she lives. None of her neighbors are what they seem but no one seems to believe Anna when she sees one of them stabbed to death in their living room. Full of homage to Hitchcock and other noir thrillers, Anna is the classic helpless heroine, handicapped by her situation but making a stand in the final scene. There aren’t a ton of surprises here but there are some twists and moments I didn’t expect and it kept me sucked in from beginning to end.

The Woman in the Window book review

The Woman in the Window (audio book)

Written by: A.J. Finn

Read by: Anne Marie Lee

Number of Pages: 448 (13 hours 41 minutes audio)

Publisher: William Morrow (print) HarperAudio (audio), 2018

Age Range: Adult

Rating: 4/5

 

Recently divorced, Peter Harper is a musician and composer in a creative crisis. He rents a secluded beach house in Ireland in the hopes of rediscovering his muse but it isn’t to be. He spends some time with his mysterious neighbors (who seem to have no traceable past and like to avoid questions) and the local townspeople, including a love interest who runs a shop and hostel in the village. But mostly he spends time alone. Then one night he’s struck by lightning coming home from a dinner party and suddenly he’s plagued by headaches and vivid nightmares that intensify when his children come for a visit. The line between reality and his dreams gets blurred beyond recognition and soon no one knows who or what to believe.

Last Night at Tremore Beach book review

The Last Night At Tremore Beach

Written by: Mikel Santiago

Read by: John Keating

Number of Pages: 320 (9 hours, 58 minutes audio)

Publisher: Atria Books/Blackstone Audio, 2017

Age Range: Adult

Rating: 4/5

 

 

What are your favorite mysteries or scary reads? Any you think I should add to my list?

Picture Book Review ~ Mela and the Elephant

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

I spent several months in Thailand teaching English to pre-schoolers at an international school and absolutely fell in love with the country and the people. Reading this sweet story (and the fantastic back matter) made me more than a little homesick. I want nothing more than to go back to wander the streets and wild places before ordering Pad Thai from a street cart and revel in the land of Smiles. Take a step into the wonder that is Thailand and enjoy this great little story.

 Mela and the Elephant book review

Mela and the Elephant

Written by: Dow Phumiruk

Illustrated by: Ziyue Chen

Number of Pages: 32

Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press, 2018

Age Range: 3-9

Rating: 4/5

Mela learns an important lesson when she heads out one day to explore the river near her home. She gets pulled downstream and off course by a big fish and then gets tricked by a crocodile, a leopard, and some monkeys as she tries to make her way home. Finally, a kindly elephant comes to her rescue and reminds her what kindness is all about.

Mela and the Elephant book review1

This book has all the flavor of a folk tale re-telling though it’s an original story. The author (a Thai native) provides a note about the country, its culture and customs in a detailed note in the back. Give it a read and let me know what you think! (And when you’re ready to start planning your trip to Thailand, give me a holler…I’ve got lots of tips and suggestions!)

 

Mela and the Elephant book review2