Monday, October 22, 2007


Simon, Seymour. 2006. Horses. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060289449

Plot summary
Seymour Simon shows through this book the importance of the horse to our society. He gives the reader the "basic" information like how much a horse might weigh or the different breeds of horses, but he also examines how functional a horse is and how much humans and horses need each other.

Critical analysis

This photo essay book is visually appealing. Each page uses photographs of horses either as the background or beside the text. Sometimes there are many horses together or the picture is a silhouette of horses on the prairie or close up shots of the horse. Seymour Simon begins at the beginning "during the Ice Age" (1) to show what horses have meant to humans. When Simon discusses a horse's teeth, the accompanying photograph is a close up of a horse with its mouth wide open. The reader can see what actual horse teeth look like.

The book is organized by topic. With each turn of the page, Seymour Simon gives the reader a better understanding of horses. On one page Simon discusses the vocabulary used with horses. "A young mare is called a filly, and a young male is called a colt" (10). The sentences are simple and informative. Simon does not talk down to the reader and still is able to thoroughly explain the concepts. "The Shire is the biggest of the English coldbloods. It weighs as much as 2,200 pounds, more than the combined weight of all the students in your class" (19). Simon discuss every aspect of a horse from the look of them, how it walks, and special jobs the horse performs. "In jumping or steeplechasing competitions, horses and riders jump over barriers or obstacles" (22).

There are no page numbers which makes citations more difficult, but it also relaxes the reader to enjoy the pictures and the text. The book is colorful and lively. It invites the reader to keep turning the pages to learn more about horses.

This book does not contain any reference aids, such as a table of contents or index.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST: "Simon has pulled together a variety of information to give children a concise but memorable, even dignified picture of the magnificent beast and how its relationship to humankind has evolved and changed."

HORN BOOK: "Although captions would have supported points in the text better, the crisp photos in the book showcase the beauty of the species."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Children will pore over the photos and garner enough information from the text to make this book a popular introductory choice."


*Have a guest visitor bring a horse to school so students can see one in person (especially if in a non-rural school district). If possible, arrange for student photos with the horse. Students then write about their experience with the real horse and how this book prepared them to see one in person. What did they learn from the actual visit? What was different about the horse they saw and the ones they read about in the book?

*Create a clues game (similar to the inside flap of this book) to introduce another book by Seymour Simon. Students will have a fun time guessing what topic the next book will be. Read the book to the students.

*Other animal books by Seymour Simon:

Simon, Seymour. Spiders. ISBN 0060891033

Simon, Seymour. Big Bugs: SeeMore Readers Level 1 ISBN 1587172658

Simon, Seymour. Whales. ISBN 0060877111

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Actual Size

Jenkins, Steve. 2004. Actual Size. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618375945
Plot Summary
Reading about animals and actually seeing them are two different things. Steve Jenkins uses a very creative way to give readers information about animals that helps show what they actually look like. He creates a visual of the animals and includes a caption of size (usually height and/or weight). He tries to include on the page only what fits (the eye of the giant squid or the tongue of the giant anteater) to help the reader "see" the animal in its actual size.

Critical Analysis
The concept of this book was interesting because Steve Jenkins includes as a visual just what would fit on the page of this over sized book (measuring 12" tall). Each illustration is a collage of cut and torn paper. This gives the illustration texture (the earthworm looks segmented; the tiger looks fuzzy; the gorilla's hand looks leathery).

The limited text on each page introduces the reader to the particular animal without overwhelming the reader with too many facts.

Each animal shown has some kind of measurement caption showing how much it weighs or what the total length of the animal is or how big a specific part of the animal is. Included are two animals, the saltwater crocodile and the Goliath frog, that require a fold out page to show their sizes. The picture I liked the best was the Alaskan brown bear because it looked so real. The paper collage illustration made the bear look like there was actual fur in the book and a glint of a reflection in the eye.

Jenkins includes a visual index at the back giving more specific information about each animal. This information tells the reader about the habits and habitat of the animals featured in the book. It discusses camouflage techniques the animal might use to ward off being eaten by other animals. Even though there is more detail about each animal, the index is not overwhelming to the reader. There are just enough interesting facts about each animal that the reader is satisfied.

The illustrations are a great visual instead of just the text stating a dimension. The reader gets a true understanding of how large or small an animal is.

Review Excerpts
HORN BOOK: "The relative sizes are accentuated by the white backdrop and are grounded by the straightforward information that accompanies the creatures."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Mixing deceptive simplicity with absolute clarity, this beautiful book is an enticing way to introduce children to the glorious diversity of our natural world, or to illustrate to budding scientists the importance of comparison, measurement, observation, and record keeping. A thoroughly engaging read-aloud and a must-have for any collection."

*Using this book as a springboard, have students research one of the included animals to find out more about that specific animal.

*Taking the information from this non-fiction book, students can create a fictional piece (i.e., short story) or a poem about a specific animal. The story must be factual, but some creative license is allowed.

*Have students measure things in the classroom (furniture, posters, knick-knacks, supplies, etc.) and replicate part of it (by drawing or collage or other art medium) onto a standard sheet of paper. How much will fit? What is important to include to help a reader understand the item in its entirety? Write some text for the item and give dimensions. Collect the class' drawings and bind together to form a Book of My Classroom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An American Plague

Murphy, Jim. 2003. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395776082

Plot Summary
A strange thing happened one fall in Philadelphia. People started dying and it was unclear why. The streets were full of sewage, animal carcasses and "noxious bubbles to foul the air" (2). The number of deaths at first seemed small and contained. However, the fever soon spread to all parts of the city, forcing the closure of businesses, trade and even the federal government. This deadly disease ravaged Philadelphia, but the lessons learned and improvements made are beneficial even today.

Critical Analysis
The text of this book reads like a story instead of just a textbook summary of facts and figures thrown out at the reader. The words create a vivid picture of the events and people of Philadelphia in 1793. Each of the eleven chapters layered more of the story about this plague ravaging through Philadelphia. The vocabulary was simple and accurate. This would not be a book to read to younger children, but a third grader (or older) could read and understand the book. With exception to Chapter 10, most chapters averaged ten pages in length. The 12 point Times New Roman font helps highlight the graphics and headings of the chapters and is not too small for younger readers.

I enjoyed reading about the people involved with helping fight the plague. I did not realize that there were so many people living in Philadelphia in 1793, nor did I know that the Free African Society was instrumental in helping the city survive. "Volunteers from the Free African Society were the first to enter the homes of most fever victims" (50). When many people fled the city, this group of volunteers stayed to help. As I read this, I wondered if Jim Murphy was writing some "revisionist history" but when he cites later in the book a book that was published during the time by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two elders of the Free African Society, my skepticism faded. The reference makes me want to explore this subject further.

At the beginning of each chapter, there is an illustration, usually a newspaper reprint of the time connected to what the chapter is about. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 begin with a list of the dead. "No one would ever know precisely how many Philadelphians died of yellow fever in 1793. Many of those who traditionally kept such count--ministers, sextons, and city officials--had either fled the city or been ill themselves" (101). Other illustrations are scattered through the book to reinforce the text. These illustrations are not Murphy's original work, but mostly lithographs borrowed from outside sources depicting the people involved with helping; some pictures are street scenes of the time or other newspaper reprints. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone of the time (1793-1795) with the exception of the last chapter which begins with an epigraph from 2001. Each chapter also begins with a specific date, as if the reader is reading the news of that day.

Within the text, Murphy includes diary entries from citizens and doctors trying to help the afflicted; newspaper headlines or articles from the papers in Philadelphia; first hand accounts of what people experienced and saw during this year of death. These sources give credibility to Murphy's account of 1793.

I found it interesting some of the tactics people used to protect themselves from this perilous death. "Strong-smelling substances, such as vinegar, be sprinkled on handkerchiefs and held to the nose to ward off the fever" (27). People wore vinegar soaked clothes to visit sick friends and family. "'Others placing full confidence in garlic, chewed it almost the whole day; some kept it in their pockets and shoes'" (qtd. in Murphy 27).

Jim Murphy includes a "Sources" section that is "a select list of sources, arranged by broad subject categories" (141). The book also contains an index to help the reader locate information within the text without having to read the entire book first. For doing research using this book, the index is helpful.

One thing I found distracting about the book was the last chapter. Reading this book, I've felt immersed into 1793, and then the writing shifts to 1858 and moves to present day. The last chapter discusses the research that's been done with yellow fever and how there still is no cure for it. The last two paragraphs shift from a third person narration into a first person sermon. I found this entire chapter to distract from the story of Philadelphia.

This book received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor and a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST: "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."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "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."

*Read other accounts of the yellow fever and compare it to Jim Murphy's story. One example of historical fiction about yellow fever is Laurie Halse Anderson's book Fever 1793 (ISBN 0689848919).

*Research other diseases the ravaged society through the years. Make comparisons of what resulted from the disease. Have a health care professional come and talk to the class about different diseases that people once feared or those that are in the current news.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems

George, Kristine O'Connell. 2002. Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems. Ill. by Debbie Tilley. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0618152504

Plot Summary
Kristine O'Connell George captures the life of the first year in a middle school through the voice of a young girl. George creates clever poems about the day to day trappings of those awkward middle school years and the experiences that students face during this time of development.

Critical Analysis
Kristine O'Connell George creatively transported me back to those three challenging years of my life--middle school. Through her poetry, George shows the timeless experiences that middle school holds through the voice of a young girl. While reading, I wasn't sure of when these poems took place until almost half way through the book, there was a reference to email in the poem "So Much Better Than I Expected" (45).

The imagery George shows through her poetry is accurate. The reader can see what is important to the narrator. She uses rhyme in some of her poetry, but many are free verse. Either way, the images are timeless. These experiences that George shows in her poetry show careful observation of life in middle school. In the poem "Group," George shows how friendships form, "Friday night is our first official United Nations Slumber Party." Since I went to a middle school with a variety of people, I could relate to this poem and thought the name of the slumber party was cute.

In the poem "Network, " the reader gets a sense of urgency by the use of space in the poem. "Late breaking news" is spread out to four lines, and the "news" is squished together. The reader gets a sense of how important this information is because it must be shared very fast.

One of my favorite poems from this book is called "Un-Tied Tongue" because I often have this experience. George shows through her diction and visually that our words do get tied up in our mouth. "I knock chotato pips off the runch loom table. My mind scrambles like a gabble scrame, and I even mangle his name" (60).

Will boys understand these poems? Most are universal experiences, but what about when the girls are giggling in the bathroom at the dance waiting to be asked by a boy (47)? It is hard for me to see if a boy will understand this one.

In "Zach's Watch" the narrator observes her fellow classmate giving an eighth grader information about his watch. George concludes by stating that the eighth grader doesn't give Zach "the time of day" (56). This is one example of how George uses puns and humor in this collection.

Although I did not play flute, I appreciate George's haiku about playing it. In the beginning of the book, the flute "is broken" (24) and then it "suffers severe case of laryngitis" (30), but as the year progresses, the narrator does get "a few flutelike notes" (44) from the flute and finally recognizes a tune "After a few notes, this song seems familiar. Twinkle little star?" (58). I think anyone who has tried to play an instrument feels the same as the narrator about her flute.

No subject is off limits to George. She writes about young love in "Does He or Doesn't He" by sharing the note passing experience and what is next. "Does he like me? Well, he kind of does. Now what?" (54). In "Growth and Development," George writes about that movie. I remember watching that movie. George captures the moment perfectly when she writes that the girls "then peek to see if anyone else is really watching that movie" (69). The experience is universal.

One of the most touching poems to me was "That One" in which George examines the school bully. The narrator overheard a conversation that she wasn't supposed to hear and learned that the boy who scares them so much "is coming to school hungry, sleeping in the garage to hide from his dad, who hasn't seen his mom in two years" (64). George sets these stanzas apart from the rest of the poem. It gives the reader a visual sense of how the bully is apart from the group.

Debbie Tilley does a good job reinforcing the text with her illustrations. On each page, there is a wavy vertical line and circles all over indicating that movement of a stream. Sporadically in the book are four double page illustrations. These pencil illustrations are like photographs of what happens in the hallway, the lunchroom, the band hall and the classroom. The subjects of the illustrations are clever. For example, in the hallway illustration, one student must stand on a stack of books to reach the top locker. This shows how Tilley understands the physical development of a middle school student as well as the irony of the "short kid" getting the top locker.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the poems that George created to expose the middle school experience. These are tough years, and George does not treat them dismissively. She understands and respects the trials that middle school students face and humorously gives these experiences voice.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Readers facing this upstream swim can get their feet wet here, and those toweling themselves off afterwards will find much they can relate to in this engaging volume."
THE HORN BOOK: "George's poetry is unpretentious and down-to-earth; the voice is believably that of a twelve-year-old."


Look at Kristine George's website at for a class discussion guide and related activities

*Acrostic poem: have students write a poem using their name (see "SNOB" page 41).

*Have students take photos of different aspects of their school life (lockers, eating in the cafeteria, pep rallies, students reading, etc.). Have students pick one photo and write a poem about the picture.

*Do some free writing about the daily experiences one faces. How can those thoughts be turned into poetry?

Related books: Bagert, Brod. Hormone Jungle: Coming of Age in Middle School. ISBN 0929895878

Ambrosini, Michelle. Poetry Workshop for Middle School: Activities That Inspire Meaningful Language Learning. ISBN 0872075176

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Florian, Douglas. 1998. Insectlopedia. San Diego: Harcourt. ISBN 0152163352

Plot Summary
Each of the twenty-one poems in this book is a mixture of information and humor about a particular insect. The poems are stand alone and follow many forms, but the theme of this collection is insects.

Critical analysis
Douglas Florian is the poet and artist of this clever collection of poetry. He infuses science, art and poetry to interest the reader about insects. There is a table of contents to help the reader find a poem about a particular insect. The illustrations are wonderfully created incorporating the subject of the poem, sometimes the letter that the insect starts with and such details that part of reading the book is reading the pictures. For example, in the poem "The Dragonfly," Florian's drawing shows a reflection of a dragon in the dragonfly's eyes.

The spacing in the poetry indicates movement. In "The Army Ants," the reader sees the marching by the placement of the opening words "left" and "right." My favorite poems are the concrete examples like "The Inchworm." The poem illustrates the subject--an inchworm. In "The Whirligig Beetles" poem, the text is circular imitating the beetle's movement.

Florian infuses humor with his poetry. In "The Praying Mantis," there are puns included to show the insect prays (preys) and swallows "religiously" what it catches. Florian suggests in the poem "The Crickets" that the annoying sound crickets make is really them playing music for free. In "The IO Moth," Florian states that the moth's eyes "ward teachers."

The text is on one side of the book and the illustration is on the opposing side. The page numbers are discreetly on the border of the page in the middle. They are not distracting to the reader but allow for finding a specific poem.

The language Florian uses is simple and employs sound devices that calls for reading out loud. However, the pictures must be shared with the audience. The pictures are part of the experience. In "The Caterpillar," Florian makes "pupa" and "super" rhyme. Some of the words he uses are made up but fit the poem. In "The Daddy Longlegs," poem, Florian asks how the legs are so long, and he uses the phrase "spiderobic exercise" which puts a humorous image in the reader's mind.

I enjoyed the white space that Florian uses in this book because it drew me to the illustrations. As I read the poems, I would examine the art to see how the text showed up in the pictures.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN of the CENTER for CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "While some of the verses scan better than they conceptualize, they're always neat and often quite witty indeed."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "The silly, imaginative verses about whirligig beetles and waterbugs (almost) match the exquisite pictures in playfulness and wit."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "These portraits build on the imaginatively integrated realistic and anthropomorphic images created in the text. There are other books of poetry about insects and lots of collections of humorous verses about animals but none match Insectlopedia."

*Create a classroom bug collection (maybe some alive specimens?) and write poetry that mimics the movement or visual appeal of the bug

*Create a collection of poetry based on another theme, such as reptiles or aquatic animals, and try to infuse scientific information, humor and visual clues with the poem

Other books by Douglas Florian:

Florian, Douglas. Mammalabilia. ISBN 0152050248

Florian, Douglas. Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs. ISBN 0152052488

Florian, Douglas. Beast Feast. ISBN 0152951784

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Out of the Dust

Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590360809

Plot Summary
This novel in poetic form spans two years of the protagonist's life. Billie Jo Kelby writes about both what is happening in her life (the losing of crops, her mom, and her love of playing piano) and world events (Dionne quintuplets, Franklin Roosevelt's speeches). She lives in a small Oklahoma Panhandle town where her father tries to grow wheat. Due to a terrible accident, she loses her mother, her unborn brother and terribly injures her hands. Through her struggles, she becomes stronger, and the story becomes one of hope and redemption, all rising out of the dust where Billie realizes that she "can stay in one place and still grow" (226).

Critical Analysis
I enjoyed reading this book so much that I read it in one day. I needed to see what would happen to Billie. I felt like I was with her and experiencing everything as she did. There was a rhythm to the reading. The images Karen Hesse creates of living in the Panhandle during the Depression are heart wrenching. Each poem is like reading a dated journal page of Billie's life. Most of the titles in the book were one word giving the reader a sense of what the poem would be about or the emotions that Billie was feeling.

The form the poems take show more than just what the words state. For example, in the poem "The Dream" (193), the visual space between the words mimicked playing a piano and allowed me to see Billie's hesitation of even touching her mother's piano.

At some points during the novel, I felt like I was drowning in the dust with her. "I waited for my father through the night, coughing up dust, cleaning dust out of my ears, rinsing my mouth, blowing mud out of my nose" (145). I also realized the symbolism of her continuing to live even though life didn't seem worth living. "I don't want to die, I just want to go, away, out of the dust" (149). She feels like she's suffocating because of her circumstances.

YA readers will be captivated by the vivid imagery of Hesse's writing. The book is not distracting because of the poetic form. The words do not rhyme, but the reader does not notice. The story is compelling. In one stanza of the poem entitled "Outlined by Dust," Billie remarks on her father's well being. "I can't help thinking how it is for him, without Ma. Waking up alone, only his shape left in the bed, outlined by dust" (112). The reader can see that she feels compassion and empathy for her father's loss.

The voice of the narrator is authentic. The obstacles she faces are not outlandish and over exaggerated. This is Billie's life and for two years, she shares it with us.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST (starred review): "A powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage and love."

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review): "Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine's shifting moods."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review): "Free-verse poems...allow the narrator to speak for her self much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose."


*Study how the farmers in Texas and Oklahoma were affected by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Compare how accurately Karen Hesse conveys these events in her novel.

*Have students keep a journal for a two or three week time period where they record their life in poetic form.

*Either copy one of Hesse's poems or one students wrote for themselves into narrative form. How does the structure affect the poem? How does the form affect the reading? Do you get the same imagery in narrative form?

*Read other novels in poetic form for exposure to this genre.

Related books:

Henderson, Caroline. Letters from the Dust Bowl. ISBN 0806135409

Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. ISBN 0517880946

Another novel in poetic form by Karen Hesse

Witness. ISBN 0439272009