Books for Women’s History Month: Finding Them

Today, I’m beginning a little series on finding, reading, and using excellent books for women’s history month. Today, we’ll focus on the finding. Later this week, I’ll share some of my favorites, and give you some ideas for how to use them at home, at school, and maybe even in more random situations.

women's history children's books

Here’s a little secret: I don’t like the non-fiction history books that you’re ‘supposed’ to like. That David Adler A Picture Book of… series? I think it’s dry, completely unengaging, and historically questionable. Of course, that series is a far sight better than the If You Were There When… series, which seems like a cartoon gone wrong. (These are just my personal opinions, of course. I’m sure there are kids out there who love these two series, and probably some kid somewhere won’t read anything else.)

My preference, particularly when it comes to books about Very Famous Historical People, is to identify one or two really great books about that person. I think it is well worth an investment of your time to find and pre-read a whole stack of books, and then select the very best to actually use. Sure, situations arise where you have to grab the book closest to your hand, but 95% of the time, you probably can use just a bit of prior planning and find some hidden gems.

What does this look like in reality? It means you can’t just google the name of a Very Important Historical Person, and then buy the first children’s listing that pops up on Amazon. It means you can’t just head over to the local big box bookstore and snatch the first thing you see. Listen to me carefully: you might luck out and grab something fantastic. You also might waste $8.95, unintentionally impart historically inaccurate information to the next generation, and make history a lot more boring or irrelevant than it needs to be.

Jefferson Meme

Image source

The truth is that most of the time, you don’t need your children (or students) to memorize every detail of a Very Important Historical Person’s biography. There are probably some ‘big ideas’ about that person, his/her contributions to society, and his/her background that you want to stick with your children. Thus, you don’t want a book that reads more like an encyclopedia entry than quality children’s literature. As kids get older, this changes a little bit, but on the whole, I’ve found that quality children’s books can be the best introduction to a person or event.

It’s also essential to remember that perceptions of people and events change over time – as they should! Our world never stands still, and I, for one, am grateful not to be living in 1776. (If you’re wondering why, that would have me disenfranchised, probably impoverished, and close to blind – mama loves her corrected vision.) This means that the historical books you loved as a child – I’m looking at you, d’Aulaire biographies and Little House on the Prairie – might not be appropriate for modern children without a healthy dose of explanation.

Here’s my point: take the time to find the very best books for whatever or whomever you’re trying to study. Emphasize depth and great ideas over breadth and trivial knowledge. Then, if you discover you have a mini-historian in your house or classroom, you’ll know that you’ve provided a firm foundation on which s/he can build additional knowledge. There is precious little that will stand between a mini-historian and his/her acquisition of better and greater knowledge about an interesting subject, so don’t fret.

Proust Book quote

Image source


Poetry Books for African-American History Month

Well, we lost February somewhere in the fog of crazy weather and illness, so I’m woefully behind in sharing resources with you for African-American history month. We work hard as a family to tell the fullest version of America’s story possible, so that means we purposely go beyond the Great White Men version of events when we talk about things from the past.

Nonetheless, I still see the value in Carter G. Woodson’s effort to recognize the contributions of African-Americans (and Africans in America), so February continues to matter around these parts. There’s an amazing collection of online exhibits here, at the official African-American History month site, hosted by a consortium of libraries, museums, and institutions you’ve heard of.

Today, I’m sharing some poetry resources. These are works by African-American authors and poets, and most are illustrated by African-American artists.

african american history month books, black history month books

Ashley Bryan’s magnificent ABC of African-American Poetry (IndieBound/Amazon) shares snippets of poems from a variety of authors. Some names are familiar, and some are not. The subject matter varies widely, as well, with some poems being more appropriate for older elementary students, and others perfectly fine for preschoolers. At home, I don’t read this book straight through. Instead, we talk about the illustrations, and then select four or five poem excerpts to read together.

black history month book, books for african american history month

Some of the poems also showcase great African-Americans, or the African-American experience, so they make for a double-whammy of excellence. I think these lines from Eloise Greenfield perfectly summarize Harriet Tubman, and could make a wonderful introduction to a study of her life and work.

black history month book, books for african american history month

And how can you not love Ashley Bryan’s illustrations? I saw him read and speak once, and his work matches his personality. He exudes light and happiness, and he works that spirit into his books, even when the subject matter is darker and more serious. Children are drawn to his work, with good reason.

african american poetry, black history month books

Langston Hughes’ The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems (IndieBound/Amazon) contains a selection of Hughes’ poems appropriate for elementary-aged children. Inside, you’ll find some favorites, like Dream Variation, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Stars. You’ll also see some poems you probably haven’t read before, and find yourself having a hard time deciding which selections to share.

This edition contains beautiful black and white illustrations by Brian Pinkney, which manage to complement Hughes’ work without overshadowing it. They echo the stillness found in many of the poems, I think. That stillness sort of inspires you to select a few poems, read them, and revel in them for a minute, rather than racing through the entire anthology in one sitting.

african american history month books, black history month books

If, like me, you have a soft spot for The Negro Speaks of Rivers, then you’ll want to locate this book-length rendering, with illustrations by E. B. Lewis. (IndieBound/Amazon) This poem, which Hughes wrote at age 17 (!), tells the story of African-Americans by linking it to the rivers of Africa and the Americas. Lewis’ illustrations sweep the reader through history along with the poem, including some of our country’s lowest and highest points.

{A little note: if you’re using this with younger children or in a classroom setting, make sure you take the time to explain that ‘Negro’ was once the respectful term for people of African ancestry, so that’s why Langston Hughes used it in his poem. Today, it is not a word that we consider respectful, but we still use it in historical context as appropriate.}

black history month books, african american history month books

Finally, one of my favorites from my classroom days: Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love. (IndieBound/Amazon) My students adored this book. Most of them had it memorized because we read it so often. The little girl in whose voice the poem is written – perfectly illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist – does an amazing job of telling us all about the things she loves. These are everyday sorts of things, and the sorts of things like foods and voices that allow all children to make some meaningful connections.

african american history month books, black history month books

The poem is excerpted from this longer collection, Honey I Love and Other Love Poems, which is also worth adding to your library. The illustrations are by Leo and Dianne Dillon, if you need any further convincing. (IndieBound/Amazon)

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Newbery 2014: They made a great choice.

If you follow Read It, Make It! on Facebook, you probably saw my announcement last week that author Kate DiCamillo won the 2014 Newbery Medal. Again. Some people have all the luck talent.

I had not yet read Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, but the recent snowpocalypse gave me the chance to accomplish that goal. I first read about this novel when I was writing my previous DiCamillo post on Mercy Watson, because Mercy’s website included a little promo.

Flora and Ulysses

From that promo, I had expected Flora and Ulysses to be aimed at a slightly younger audience than it actually is. While the language is not exceptionally difficult, and the style (short chapters, choppy dialogue, brilliantly expressed characters) could be ideal for younger readers, the overall theme will definitely resonate more effectively with the middle-grades crowd.

The plot is best described as quirky. Flora, comic-book obsessed daughter of divorced parents, witnesses the transition of squirrel Ulysses into a superhero. The fact that this is the product of a super-powered vacuum seems almost believable. Once transformed, Flora and Ulysses develop an instant bond, and Flora becomes determined to help Ulysses realize his new-found potential.

Flora and Ulysses

The cast of characters, including the neighbor’s precociously difficult great-nephew, is what made this book the most compelling to me. By the story’s end, each character is exposed as being multifaceted, and there is something within each character that I think almost any child could find relatable. While the plot’s trajectory might seem standard – problems find solutions, here – the character development is sensationally different than much of what you see in modern young adult fiction.

While DiCamillo gets the award, the book would not be what it is without the graphic and illustrative contributions of K. G. Campbell. Portions of the story are told in comic-book style, and those illustrations are key parts of the book. Those little bursts of graphic novel make the storytelling in Flora and Ulysses unique, and usually add a bit of humor.

Flora and Ulysses

The book screams to be added to the top of the list of books that might engage reluctant readers. It would also make a great mentor text for character development and description.

I dusted off my graphic organizer skills, and came up with these, both of which would work at home or at school to help readers decipher the ways that an author can put together a characterization.

Flora and Ulysses Graphic Organizer

Download the Flora and Ulysses – Characterization Graphic Organizer.

The idea here is that readers will recognize that there are no clear-cut villains or heroes in this book. Instead, there are characters with both positive and negative characteristics, whose actions are not always what they might seem. By listing each type of trait and the describing how those traits combine to form a more complex character, readers can begin to synthesize their knowledge of real human behavior with that of characters in books.

Graphic Organizer for Flora and Ulysses

Download the Flora and Ulysses Character Study Graphic Organizer.

On a more basic level, this outline lets readers describe a chosen character, or select more than one character to compare. Obviously, you could just draw the outline of a person, but for readers who might find that more challenging than the actual character analysis, it can help to have a picture to start.

Readers can list character traits and typical activities on related parts of the outline. For example, Flora’s mother – an author – might be described as such on her hands, which she uses for typing. Once the traits are listed, readers could write a short character sketch or participate in a discussion about the ways that the different characters’ strengths and skills came together to let them solve the problems in the novel.

 To be honest, this is the sort of book that I’d love to share with just the right student or young friend. The graphic portions of it would make it a difficult read-aloud for a whole class, but it will definitely strike a chord with many, many readers. Please let me know what happens if you find it to be a perfect match for somebody in your part of the world!

{The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchasing using them, Read It, Make It! receives a small commission. Thank you!}

A book for Chinese New Year.

We aren’t Chinese, nor do we have close Chinese friends, so we don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year. However, I found an amazing little book the other day, and I thought you might like to know about it.

A New Year's Reunion

A New Year’s Reunion, by Yu Li-Qiong with pictures by Zhu Cheng-Liang, tells the story of one family’s new year celebration. The family’s father works far away, and only travels home once a year for the holiday. During the course of the story, young Maomao must both readjust to having her father home and come to terms with the fact that he will leave again shortly.

While the traditional New Year’s customs are a part of the story, they are not its focus. Instead, the book focuses on the family’s relationship and everyday life in the town where the family lives. There are fireworks, rice cakes, and a dragon parade, but the family also repairs their home and makes a snowman.

The pictures tell as much of the story as the text. There is a gentle quality to the paintings that enhances the book’s overall tone. They also do a marvelous job of combining the traditions of the New Year celebration with the trappings of modern life. The image of the mother packing the father’s suitcase to leave again is particularly moving.

A New Year's Reunion

There are no pat answers here, no magical income sources that keep the family together. A New Year’s Reunion tells the very true story of families where a parent works far away. For that reason it has the potential to connect with many children who face separation due to work in this country, including those in military families and migrant farming families.

A New Year's Reunion

Our girls loved this book. Even though we don’t face the challenges of having a parent working far away, there is still plenty of familiarity in the story. They particularly liked this illustration of the family snuggled together. If you like warm stories of family life,  A New Year’s Reunion is definitely worth checking out, and my guess is that it will become a favorite for you, as it has for me.

{The book link in this post is an affiliate link. Purchases made using it earn a small commission for Read It, Make It!}


Vintage Book Wednesday: More Soviet Pop-Up Magic

Last week, I shared an amazing vintage Soviet children’s book that I found in a used book store.

Who's That? (Soviet Pop-Up Book)

Today, I’m sharing the companion to that book that I bought at the same time. It was published later – in 1984 – by the same company in Moscow. It’s a great deal simpler than Early, Early in the Morning, with the illustrations being the focal point.

Who's That? (Soviet Pop-Up Book)

Each page show a mother animal and her offspring, and the text simply gives their names. “Sow and piglets” or “cow and calves,” for example. The animals pop from the page, and are depicted in an idyllic farm setting. My favorite detail is probably the very European haystacks on the cow page.

Who's That? (Soviet Pop-Up Book)

Compared with the previous book, these illustrations are sedate. There are no wild psychadelic colors, and no stereotypically Russian characters. Instead, there are soft tones and sweet details of plants, farm buildings, and extra critters. The paper engineering is confined to the animals, and nothing moves.

Who's That? (Soviet Pop-Up Book)

I’m still on the prowl to learn why these books exist, but I did read online that there were Soviet books published in English for audiences in India. I wonder if these were part of that? Don’t worry – the research continues.

Books about Building.

We’re getting a new roof today. It’s exciting, in that we won’t have to worry about leaks. It’s unexciting, in that it’s a very expensive way to make a lot of noise. Nonetheless, we’re grateful for it!

Since I’ve had shingles on the brain, I thought I’d share a few of our favorite books about tools and building things. There are many on the market, but my favorites don’t involve licensed characters.

books about building

We’ll start with the classic: The House that Jack Built. This is my favorite version of the old rhyme, which is not surprising given its darling vintage illustrations. My girls have fun identifying all the tools, and completing the rhyme on each page. It’s also an entertaining way to show children the construction of a building, literally from the ground up.

books about building

Taro Miura’s gorgeous Tools used to be my go-to first birthday gift, until it got harder to find. Each spread shows the tools used by one particular professional. The images are large and graphic, with the item’s name shown beside it in a bold typeface. The variety of tools depicted in the book is exceptional, and pretty much guaranteed to make your preschooler look like a genius the next time you need a locksmith.
books about building

For the younger crowd, Daddy and Me is one of my favorites. Typical of Karen Katz’s style, this lift-the-flap board book tells the story of a child and father building a doghouse. Each tool is shown in use in sequence during the doghouse’s construction. The book is short, sweet, and straightforward, making it ideal for the short attention spans of the very youngest readers.

books about building

Finally, a book from the non-fiction giant Gail Gibbons. How a House Is Built describes the building of a modern house from start to finish. It explains not only the structural construction, but also the installation of systems that make a contemporary home safe and comfortable. If your child is a Lego fiend, this is a great book to take that sort of thinking just a bit farther.

{The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, Read It, Make It! receives a small commission. Thank you!}

Vintage Book Wednesday: Soviet Pop-Up Book

I’ll bet you read that title and were expecting a little waving Lenin, weren’t you?

As you may have noticed, Russian culture and I have had a long and enduring relationship. I blame Anna Karenina and an outstanding college history professor (hi Dr. Ramer!). A Russian expedition is on my bucket list, and if there’s a Chagall painting in a museum, I will find it, by smell if necessary.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that when I saw this amazing little pop-up book at McKay’s in Knoxville, I had to have it. Since it was less than a dollar, it’s not like I made a risky investment.

soviet children's book

What was surprising was what I found on the back: a 1977 copyright from the Soviet Union. Apparently, in the late 70s, someone collected a few Russian nursery rhymes, had them translated, and made English-language pop-up books. This is before glasnost, so I don’t think it’s some sort of public relations ploy. My limited Google research has not led me to any easy answers about why these were published, but believe me – I’m curious!

The translator’s name is Dorian Rottenberg, who was, according to Wikipedia, “a noted translator of Russian literature, specializing in the translation of poetry and children’s books.” That’s all it says, but I want to know more! He translated a lot of Mayakovsky, but other than that, I’m not recognizing much of his work.

paper engineering

Anyway. Enough geeking out. This book is GORGEOUS. The colors are kind of a crazy combination of traditional eastern European tones and psychedelic 70s neon. While the translations can get kind of bizarre, and the rhyme schemes are sometimes forced and sometimes ignored, the actual nursery rhymes seem kind of sweet to me. Maybe I just like variety?

paper engineering

And, of course, they pop up! All of the pages have some sort of paper engineering, so the books are interactive. Clara, in particular, is drawn to them, and I let her use them knowing I risk a cardiac episode every single time. I mean, they’re Soviet-era, right? It’s not like they’re what we would call sturdy…

paper engineering

This one is my favorite. The dog and puppy slide under everyone’s feet, and the according moves back and forth. There’s a babushka! There are flowers that would be a perfect fit for Marcia Brady’s bedroom! And the rhyme isn’t half bad, either.

I have one more of these books to share with you next week, in my Russian kiddie lit lead-up to the Olympics. In the meantime, I would love to know if there are more of these, or what their history might be. Why were the Soviets publishing English-language children’s books???

Help Wanted: Personal Paleontologist

Y’all. This is how I feel when Bethany asks me a dinosaur-related question:

Clara hollers.

In truth, I was pretty obsessed with dinosaurs at her age, so I get the attraction. (Of course, back then, we didn’t have Dinosaur Train.) I also went to preschool at a museum that had a huge exhibit of dinosaur fossils, so I was seeing ‘real’ dinosaurs every week.

Not only is she obsessed, and not only does she have lots of questions, but it turns out that lots of things that I learned about dinosaurs have been disproved. It also turns out that some of the more out-there theories from my childhood have gained a lot of traction thanks to improved DNA research and whatnot. That whole birds are dinosaurs thing? Yeah, there’s a lot of evidence to support it. Have you looked at a chicken’s foot lately? Maybe we should have noticed the link sooner…

Anyway, finding quality dinosaur books has been quite the challenge. I desperately need these books, because Bethany lapped me in dinosaur knowledge months ago, so I need to find ways to feed her addiction and teach myself some new information. Equally, I wanted something reasonably accessible to a non-reading four year old. These are the two we’ve invested in so far, but I’m definitely on the prowl for more. Suggestions GLADY accepted!

First Big Book of Dinosaurs

This was one of the first books I found, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Little Kids’ First Big Book of Dinosaurs, by National Geographic, contains all the best features of quality non-fiction. It has a visual table of contents, index, sidebars, and (very importantly) a useable pronunciation key for every single dinosaur. It also has the accuracy and detail you’d expect from National Geographic.

It’s rather encyclopedic in approach, though the dinosaurs are listed by size, not alphabetically. It also shares cases where scientists are currently unclear or unsure about a particular fact, which I love. The scientific vocabulary is there, but it’s not so overwhelming that preschoolers lose interest. My favorite feature is that each dinosaur is shown in a tiny graphic so that its size is relative to a human’s size. This makes things much more clear than just saying that something was 65 feet long – how long is that, anyway?

great dinosaur book for preschoolers

I hesitated to buy this book because Bethany is so sensitive and the cover is frightening. Fortunately, I plunged ahead, because this one has a lot of information about geologic time, fossils, paleontology, and other creatures living at the time of dinosaurs – it can answer a lot of questions that I can’t.

Discover More: Dinosaurs does have a fair number of pages dedicated to specific dinosaurs, but it goes into detail in other areas that the National Geographic book doesn’t address. It has spreads dedicated to types of fossils (including coprolites, always a favorite), types of skull structure, the excavation of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, and modern relatives of dinosaurs.

Both books mix computer-generated illustrations with photographs to make the dinosaurs seem as real as possible without unnecessary gore. Some of the dinosaurs are, obviously, pretty frightening, so my sensitive kiddo skips certain pages. That is also part of the appeal of both books; you can read a page here and a page there without losing any sort of thread or overall story. Heck, that’s the way I prefer to read books like this!

In light of the fact that we don’t know a paleontologist (though you’d best believe I’m now a fan of Dr. Scott on Facebook), I’m going to keep looking for more great books. Feel free to share the ones you love! In the meantime…

T Rex

{The book links in this post are compensated affiliate links. If you make a purchase using them, Read It, Make It! receives a small commission. Thanks!}

Mercy Watson. I love her.

And… it’s Thursday. And… the blog has been a little quiet. Sorry about that! To apologize, I’ll share a great series of early chapter books that you can probably find in triplicate at your local library.

Last summer, one of the prizes for our library’s summer reading program was a book. The kids got to pick their own books from a cart, but our awesome librarian stood alongside them and ‘encouraged’ them to make age-appropriate and high-quality choices. Bethany chose a book called [amazon text=Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride&asin=0763645052].

early chapter book

It’s longer than our usual read-alouds, but the girls loved it so much that we read the entire thing in one sitting. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the genre – early-reader chapter books that are longer than Henry and Mudge, but still have large type and frequent illustrations. The storyline is hilarious, the characters are fairly shallow but still engaging, and the illustrations are just plain enticing.

This is actually the second book in the series, but you can read any of them without having read the previous books. In [amazon text=Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride&asin=0763645052], Mercy, a pig living with human parents, goes for a ride in a convertible as she does every Saturday. However, this is the Saturday when she finally achieves her goal of driving the car herself.

As you can probably imagine, fairly predictable hijinks result, and there’s even the involvement of two elderly neighbor sisters to liven things up. Because the plot is predictable, this is a great book for talking about basic reading strategies like predicting (duh), and making inferences. Not every detail is spelled out, and the illustrations are great for helping early readers make sense of what they’re reading.

early chapter book

After reading our previous Mercy selection about 4,987 times, we finally branched out at this week’s library trip. These were shelved with the Young Adult fiction (which surprised me), and were nestled right next to Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning modern classic [amazon text=Because of Winn Dixie&asin=0763644323].

We decided to start at the beginning of the series, and picked out [amazon text=Mercy Watson to the Rescue&asin=0763645044]. In this story, Mercy’s intense love for hot buttered toast allows her to become the ‘porcine wonder’ so adored by her parents, when she inadvertently causes the fire department to visit the neighborhood, thereby saving her parents from a dangerous situation.

If that sounds complicated, it’s not. I can’t recommend this series highly enough for independent reading by kiddos who have outgrown typical first chapter books. Equally, it’s a great family or classroom read-aloud for children as young as two or three. Clara, who is just two, LOVES it, and actually was the one to remind me to look for it at the library. “More Mercy Watson, Mommy!” How can you argue with that?

If your love for Mercy goes past the books, you’ll naturally want to serve up some accompanying hot buttered toast as you snuggle up to read. You might also ask your little readers to draw or write what they predict Mercy’s next adventure will be. There are four more books in the series, so you could draw this out for quite a while, or devour them all in a day or a week.

And for the truly devoted Mercy fans, you’ll want to check out her website, where you can visit a rendering of her neighborhood! There are also a few suggestions for teachers and parents, as well as a bit of background about the author and illustrator.

Would it be wrong for me to strongly, strongly, strongly suggest a Mercy Watson birthday party for next year?

{The book links above are affiliate links. If you make purchases using those links, Read It, Make It! receives a tiny commission. These books are easy to find at your local public or school library, too!}

Seriously – just give your kid a box.

This happened on Saturday. Bethany told me that she and Clara were building a clubhouse in the living room. I was doing dishes, so I told them to go for it.

free activity for preschoolers

Let me be clear – there was a bit of hesitation before I agreed to this. Bethany’s tendency is to hoard all things she touches, so I was afraid that this clubhouse would include every movable object in our house. Instead, she made a nicely contained clubhouse in a box. She also let her sister use it, which is not inconsequential. (Side note: do you see Clara’s discarded glasses just above the top right-hand corner of the box? She told us she took them off so she could go to sleep. Yeah, right.)

This consolidated and contained clubhouse should not be surprising, because Bethany’s current nesting phase typically occurs in laundry baskets. If I’m not careful, I have nowhere to put clean laundry, because she’ll have commandeered the baskets for her own personal nesting use.

free activity for preschoolers

This was the box that formerly held their outdoor seesaw. We had to keep this box for almost a month. This is what they did with it. They might have slept in here if we’d let them. Nothing fancy, but it sure did make them happy.

My point is this: you just never know what will work and what won’t work with kids. You can spend hours planning an awesome art project that your child will decimate in seconds. You can research beautifully designed math readiness activities for months, only to find out your child has a preference for the numbers two and seventeen, and will not do anything that does not involve those exact figures. Or, you can just let them have a great big box and make their own fun.

Sometimes, the path of least resistance isn’t so bad.

give your preschooler a box

If you’re looking for a book to edge this sort of fun along a little further, I’d recommend one of my favorites from Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge series. [amazon text=Henry and Mudge and the Long Weekend&asin=0689808852] has poor Henry and his big dog Mudge stuck inside due to wet, yucky weather. In a moment of brilliance, Henry’s mom suggests using appliance boxes to make a castle in the basement.

While their creation is certainly more amazing than what’s likely to come out of this house, it is the sort of thing that inspires my girls to use their imaginations and create something of their own. If you’re not interested in turning cardboard boxes into things, though, I’d skip this book. Its ability to encourage action in small children is pretty intense.

{The book link above is an affiliate link, and Read It, Make It! receives a small percentage of purchases made using it. However, this is an easy book to find at almost every library, if you’d like to give it a try to spur on some cardboard box building at your house.}