Review: Steam Train, Dream Train


Steam Train, Dream Train
by Sherri Duskey Rinker
Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Published by Chronicle Books (April 16, 2013)
Ages 4-6

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
I recently picked up a copy of Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker because I’ve discovered I’m a fan of the illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld. Much like he does in Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, Lichtenheld captures the feeling of the story and elevates the entire experience of Steam Train, Dream Train.

When the steam train pulls into Night Falls station, the happiest-looking animal crew gets to work loading the cars with toys, balls, sand and more. Each item is placed into its proper train car, and when the train is all loaded up, the animal crew begins to tuck themselves in for the night. The train pulls out of the station and then it is time to say, “Goodnight.”

Steam Train, Dream Train is a lovely story with rhyming text that subtly calms the mind with the loading of each car. The illustrations are both colorful and soothing – the perfect balance between engaging and dreamy that makes for a good bedtime story.

What’s your favorite bedtime story? Share with me in the comments section.

Click here to read my review of Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews.

Review: Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast


Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast
by Josh Funk
Illustrated by Brendan Kearney
Published by Sterling Children’s Books (September 1, 2015)
Ages 5+

My Rating: 5 Stars

Review:
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast by Josh Funk is set to be released on Tuesday, September 1st. I unwittingly stumbled upon my “advance copy” at the local bookstore over the weekend. The cover art is what caught my eye. It was also hard to ignore the delicious title that said, “Hey, I’m going to be funny. Pick me up.”

Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast, the best of pals, are hanging out in the fridge when along comes their neighbor, Miss Brie. She tells them there is only one drop of syrup left. Suddenly, the best pals begin to race each other to the bottle of syrup – leaping over beets, getting stuck in chili, climbing up celery and scrambling through the fridge to reach the coveted last drop of syrup. Will competition destroy Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast’s friendship?

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast is very entertaining. The fast-paced race to the finish line moves the story quickly, and the rhyming text, with antics at every page turn, is a pleasure to read. The illustrations are colorful, quirky and delightful.

In the end, a lesson in sharing is learned, but how they learn it is too fun for me to give away.

Goodreads Giveaway: If you go to the Goodreads page for Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast between now and August 31st, you can enter to win a copy of the book.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews.

Review: Stick and Stone

Stick and Stone
by Beth Ferry
Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
Ages 4-7

My Rating: 5 Stars

Review:
I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately, so when I saw Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry on The New York Times Best Sellers list for children’s picture books, I was immediately interested. Unlike several of the books on the list that have had a lengthy stay, such as Press Here by Hervé Tullet, Stick and Stone has, so far, only been on the list for two weeks (Aug. 9 & Aug. 16), and it fell off the list this week. That seems like a shame, since Stick and Stone is a wonderful example of how stories that are just a word or two or three on each page can have great meaning.

Stick and Stone are at first alone, but they soon become great friends. Stick stands up against Stone’s bully, and Stone gets Stick unstuck. Together they make a great pair.

The rhyming text is poignant and straightforward. The illustrations are welcoming and humorous, and they capture the emotion of the story with great skill. They have a lovely simplicity and symmetry that bring out the glow and wonder of the budding friendship and the sadness of the hard moments. Stick and Stone feel like characters you’d want as your friends.

I really enjoy how Stick and Stone shows how to be a friend and that being and having a friend can make life sweeter.

There is only one line that made me cringe a little when I first read it, even though in the context of the story it makes perfect sense. The line is, “Alone is no fun.” Granted, Stone is sitting on one end of a see-saw looking sad. A see-saw really is no fun by yourself, but I often fear that our culture sends the message that being alone is no fun a little too much. After all, being alone can sometimes be the best thing for us, and many of us have to learn in adulthood how to be comfortable with being alone. Some of us even crave alone time. I don’t think the line takes anything away from the story. It belongs there. I just hope there are enough messages out there that say it’s okay to be alone, and that sometimes it’s good to be alone.

Do you have a favorite friendship story? Let me know in the comments section.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews.

Research Roundup: Storytelling, Vocabulary and the Developing Brain

Research Roundup is a new series where I’ll be highlighting and offering links to recently published research and articles on the hot topics of reading, literacy, education and child development.

Link: “Two-Year-Olds with Larger Oral Vocabularies Enter Kindergarten Better Prepared
This article, posted on psypost.org, provides an overview of an analysis published in the journal Child Development, which looked at the link between vocabulary at age 2 and academic and behavioral functioning at the start of kindergarten.

Link: Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories
Published in the journal Pediatrics, the research looks at the effect of exposure to reading at home on activation of the brain area associated with narrative comprehension and mental imagery.

Link: Storytelling Skills Support Early Literacy for African American Children
Research from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the oral storytelling skills of African-American preschoolers were a predictor of emergent literacy in kindergarten.

Pre-reading skills, such as oral vocabulary and visualization, play a crucial role in subsequent cognitive development, academic success and life outcomes. The more we understand about specific learning mechanisms, the better we will be at helping little ones reach their full potential.

Do you have something to say about the studies above or about other research on child development? Leave a comment in the section below.

Review: Briar Rose


Briar Rose
By Jane Yolen
Published by TOR Teen, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. (August 1992)
Ages 16+

My Rating: 4 stars

Review:
I picked up a copy of Briar Rose by Jane Yolen on a recent trip to Play the Game Read the Story. Perhaps it was because of the location (it was sitting on a shelf full of sci-fi and fantasy) and the fact that the book is referred to as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that I thought I was going to be reading a fantasy. I did read the back cover where it says the word Holocaust a couple of times, but for some reason I still thought it would be part fantasy. It turns out to be more of a mystery, an uncovering of a secret family history and a look at the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Since she was a baby, Becca has loved hearing her grandmother – Gemma – tell the story of Briar Rose. Just before Gemma dies, Becca promises her that she will unlock the truth behind her grandmother’s claim: I am Briar Rose. No one in the family knows Gemma’s real name or where she was born because she never talked about it. While Becca’s sisters suspect their grandmother might have been senile, Becca doesn’t believe this and is compelled to follow the leads that are found in a box kept secret by the grandmother until her death. Becca’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother brings her to Poland where she uncovers horrifying truths about the inhumanity of the Holocaust.

The first part of Briar Rose feels like a good mystery. Who is Gemma? Could she really be Briar Rose? Is the fairy tale real? Yolen alternates chapters to bring you back and forth between the present day and past moments of Becca’s childhood when Gemma tells the story to Becca and her sisters. This helps bring home the idea that the story of Briar Rose is Gemma’s story, whether or not it is truth or fairy tale. It also develops the main character, Becca, as the only one in the family who understands this.

Becca’s questions are answered when she finally finds a man willing to talk about Chelmno, the Nazi extermination camp, which Becca believes has something to do with her grandmother. The man isn’t just any man. He is a part of Gemma’s story, and when the voice of the book changes to his voice, the entire tone turns very dark. We see the horrors of the Holocaust through his eyes.

It is difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, but I will say that the author highlights the fact that there were several groups of people in addition to Jews who were targeted by the Nazis, including Gypsies and homosexuals. I imagine that many would like to censor a book like this, which is eerily ironic given its topic.

While Briar Rose ended up being something entirely different from what I was expecting, I am glad that I read it. Some might say the gruesomeness was unnecessary, but I think it is exactly the point. It is a difficult truth told through the vehicle of a fairy tale, which feels a little strange at times and a little bit genius at others.

The main warning I would have for Briar Rose is that the language complexity of the book felt like it could have fallen within the range of a middle-grade reader, but the content in the second section might be too disturbing for some at that age. I suggest reading it yourself before giving it to anyone younger than the book’s suggested minimum age of 16. It only took me approximately 9 hours total to read, and I’m a slow reader.

One aspect that might have been more developed, is the odd romance that starts to take shape between Becca and Stan, an editor at the newspaper she works for. It feels like Becca has a wall up in most of her relationships – except for the one with her grandmother. This makes sense when it comes to her sisters because it makes her relationship with Gemma stand out as something a little different, but it also makes the budding romance feel almost fake – like it is only there to move her from plot point to plot point. And, it feels like Stan starts to “drive the bus” a couple of times, when it really should have only ever come from Becca and her desire to find the truth.

Overall, I recommend Briar Rose as a read for teens and adults because the possibilities for human cruelty should never be forgotten.

To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.

— Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews. The commission that I make through Amazon helps me maintain this blog without other types of advertising. 

A Little Support for Teachers and Students Goes a Long Way

Educating kids takes a lot of resources, and the mind-boggling truth about classroom education is that teachers and students don’t always get the resources they need. Innovative teaching sometimes requires funding that doesn’t come from the school district through our tax dollars. Children from less-advantaged homes often struggle to bring in basic supplies needed for instruction. This is where creative funding solutions can make a big and direct impact. Here are a few ways teachers can get what they need to teach their students.

DonorsChoose.org
Teacher’s looking to fund their classroom projects and regular folks who want to help their local schools or help fund a particular educational goal should check out DonorsChoose.org. It is a simple way to give back in amounts as small as $1, and it’s a great way for teachers to enhance classroom learning.

CHS/National Agriculture in the Classroom Grant
The other day I was reading the Cornell Small Farms Program e-mail newsletter and came across a $1,500 grant opportunity for teachers with plans for classroom projects that “use agricultural concepts to teach reading, writing, math, nutrition, science and/or social studies.” The deadline for proposals is September 15, 2015. Click here for more information. Additional resources for teachers can be found at the National Agriculture in the Classroom website.

Other Grants
For examples of the many grants available to teachers and schools, check out this short list at Teach.com.

New to Grant Proposal Writing?
If you’ve never written a grant proposal before, here are a few resources that may help:

Grant Writing for Teachers and Administrators

Granted!: A Teacher’s Guide to Writing & Winning Classroom Grants

The Insider’s Guide to Winning Education Grants

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews. The commission that I make through Amazon helps me maintain this blog without other types of advertising. 

How are the Kids?

“How are the kids?” A nice conversational question. But, let’s be serious for a second. How are the nation’s kids doing?

Each year, The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes a report called the KIDS COUNT Data Book. The publication uses 16 indicators in 4 categories (economic well-being, education, health and family and community) to assess the overall well-being of our nation’s children. It also ranks the states to provide insight into where improvements are needed.

As you might imagine, this year’s report focuses on the economic recovery and the lingering effects of the recession.

The child poverty rate has remained stubbornly high. At 22 percent in 2013, it was still several percentage points higher than before the recession.

— The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2015). KIDS COUNT Data Book. Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from www.aecf.org.

Sometimes statistics can make your eyes glaze over. But, when you stop and understand that this means nearly a quarter of our nation’s children live in disadvantaged conditions – it is alarming. The report offers some hope – that the statistics regarding job creation and the economic recovery have improved since the latest available data for the 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book. That’s encouraging, and I look forward to seeing the child well-being data as it comes out over the next 2 years. However, just waiting around for the economic recovery is not really an answer. Even with a full economic recovery, poverty and inequality will still exist, unless we take action.

We must renew our commitment to one of our nation’s primary values: Individuals who are willing to work hard should be able to provide for their families. We don’t need to accept the current proliferation of low-quality jobs as inevitable.

— The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2015). KIDS COUNT Data Book.

It seems like common sense that poverty and inequality play a major role in outcomes for children.

Children raised in low-income families have less access than their higher-income peers to enriching early experiences, such as high-quality preschool, books and a rich language environment at home.

— The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2015). KIDS COUNT Data Book.

Yet, too often poverty and inequality feel overlooked in discussions about education. We talk a lot about teachers, tests and school budgets. These are all important pieces to the puzzle, but the puzzle cannot be completed without talking about economic inequality. Is it that we simply can’t imagine fixing the economic inequalities that exist today? Is it easier to blame low-income parents for not providing a rich home environment than it is to help them tackle the extra burdens they face every day?

The best way to facilitate optimal outcomes for today’s children is to address their needs, while providing tools and assistance to their parents.

— The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2015). KIDS COUNT Data Book.

There are a lot of great teachers out there doing what they can with the resources they have. And, there are educational innovators trying to change things for the better. But, what can we – mere citizens – do to improve the outlook for our nation’s children?

Here are a handful of ways you can make a difference:

1. Write to your legislator
Your ideas do matter. All it takes is one great idea voiced to someone in power. Yes, the letters we send to our politicians are read. Plus, more people speaking up about inequality, education and child well-being improves the chance that the politically powerful will pay attention.

2. Volunteer
There are many opportunities to volunteer at the local level – in schools and libraries and with local charities that address specific needs in your community. Are you great at math? You could become a tutor. Interested in improving your city’s literacy rates? There’s probably a group you can join that’s working on it, and they likely have a website.

3. Start a non-profit
Is no one in your town working on the issue that’s important to you? Start your own group. Here is a link to a helpful blog post at the U.S. Small Business Administration titled How to Start a Non-Profit Organization.

4. Stay involved with your kids and encourage them to help others
The first 3 ideas probably seem like they require a large time commitment, and in the case of starting your own non-profit, that’s very true. The easiest thing we could do, however, is to look at how we treat each other. Are we sending the message to our kids to help others when they are in need? If your child came home and talked to you about a classmate who was struggling at school or at home, would you largely ignore it or would you help your child find a way to help their classmate?

In what ways do you help improve the lives of our nation’s children? Teachers and parents – what is the most helpful thing an individual could do to help you make improvements in the lives of the children you care for? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.