Thursday, May 28, 2015

Learning from Picture Books - The Man With the Violin

I really admired the unique way the illustrator told the story along with the author in this picture book. I’m so glad I was introduced to this story through the nominations for the Blue Spruce Award and my school librarian. It’s really a picture book for all ages, not just children.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Kathy Stinson & Dusan Petricic

This gorgeous picture book is based on the true story of Joshua Bell, the renowned American violinist who famously took his instrument down into the Washington D.C. subway for a free concert. More than a thousand commuters rushed by him, but only seven stopped to listen for more than a minute. 
In The Man With the Violin, bestselling author Kathy Stinson has woven a heart-warming story that reminds us all to stop and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.

Dylan is someone who notices things. His mom is someone who doesn't. So try as he might, Dylan can't get his mom to listen to the man playing the violin in the subway station. But Dylan is swept away by the soaring and swooping notes that fill the air as crowds of oblivious people rush by. With the beautiful music in his head all day long, Dylan can't forget the violinist, and finally succeeds in making his mother stop and listen, too.

Vividly imagined text combined with illustrations that pulse with energy and movement expertly demonstrate the transformative power of music. With an afterword explaining Joshua Bell's story, and a postscript by Joshua Bell himself.

The Man With the Violin, written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Dusan Petricic, was first published by Annick Press, Toronto in 2013.

My thoughts as a writer:

The opening line drew me right in. I could tell this was going to be a meaningful story. One of the lovely aspects of this story is that although there’s an underlying message about “paying attention” and it lingers with you after reading, it is never once mentioned in the text.

The language of the story really captures the contrast of the noisy subway and the lyrical music, but it’s really the partnership of the text and illustrations that make this book so successful. Through the creative use of colour and line, the illustrator brings out the contrast between the bustle of the subway and the peaceful moments in the music.

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a story that may need some discussion during or after reading. I really liked the notes about Joshua Bell and the Postscript written by Joshua Bell. It’s wonderful to have the itunes link included to be able to actually play the music from the story. There is a lot to talk about in the illustrations, and especially about how the illustrator uses line and colour.

Although the age-range for this book is listed as 5-8, older students might also appreciate the meaning behind this book. They might also think about the different ways the author used words to convey different feelings and sounds.

Themes: creativity, culture, appreciating the world around you
Ages: 5 – 8
Grades: K - 3

Possible activities for students:

- create art using line and colour while listening to different types of music
- talk or write about a time that they noticed something interesting that others overlooked
- watch this video about the story behind the book with the author and the illustrator 
- discuss this quote from author Kathy Stinson: “The world’s not a bad place if we pay attention a little bit more.”

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, consider checking out the list of Perfect Picture Books, put together by author Susanna Leonard Hill.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Space Case

This is an absorbing read for kids who are fascinated by space and like mysteries. I was hooked on it and didn’t want to put it down. I discovered this book through the list of “new books” at my local library and put in a hold request. It was worth the wait!

Here’s the Amazon description:
Stuart Gibbs

Like his fellow lunarnauts—otherwise known as Moonies—living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon.

And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time—and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games.

Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, Dash finds out, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies—a secret someone just might kill to keep...

Space Case (Moon Base Alpha) by Stuart Gibbs, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2014.

My Take:

Dash is a character that would be fun to hang out with because of his realistic observations about the moon base, his persistence in wanting to solve the mystery and, most of all, his likable personality. This book was intriguing and funny at the same time. I especially liked the excerpts from a fictitious manual called “The Official Residents’ Guide to Moon Base Alpha” at the beginning of each chapter.

As a writer, I want to read this book again. There’s a lot to learn from here about the execution of an intriguing concept. The voice of the main character draws you into the story world and the mystery. Details unfold at just the right time to keep you wanting to read more.   

Opening Line:

“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.”


“It’s not like in the movies, where everyone just jumps into their spaceships and flies off whenever they want. Launching a rocket is immensely complicated. It’s, well…rocket science.”

“Unfortunately, even after six months I was still mastering low gravity. I flew much farther than I’d expected, crashed into the wall, and tumbled back down to the floor.”

Other Info:

Stuart Gibbs lives in Los Angeles, where he also writes for TV and movies.  

Space Case is the first in a series, so we can expect more space adventures with Dash. Stuart Gibbs writes two other series, the FunJungle series and the Spy School series. Can't wait to read all of those! I read Belly Up a few years ago and really enjoyed that one too.

On his blog, Stuart Gibbs talks about why he writes more than one series: “…there’s too much fun stuff to write about.  I love writing, but the idea of only doing one series over and over and over again isn’t that appealing…I like the idea of jumping around between worlds.”

For more, visit Stuart Gibbs’ website.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: The Most Magnificent Thing

Since I have two daughters that love to create things, I really loved this story about creativity and persistence. And I especially liked the doggy assistant!

Here's the summary from

Award-winning author and illustrator Ashley Spires has created a charming picture book about an unnamed girl and her very best friend, who happens to be a dog. The girl has a wonderful idea. "She is going to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing! She knows just how it will look. She knows just how it will work. All she has to do is make it, and she makes things all the time. Easy-peasy!" But making her magnificent thing is anything but easy, and the girl tries and fails, repeatedly. Eventually, the girl gets really, really mad. She is so mad, in fact, that she quits. But after her dog convinces her to take a walk, she comes back to her project with renewed enthusiasm and manages to get it just right.

For the early grades' exploration of character education, this funny book offers a perfect example of the rewards of perseverance and creativity. The girl's frustration and anger are vividly depicted in the detailed art, and the story offers good options for dealing honestly with these feelings, while at the same time reassuring children that it's okay to make mistakes. The clever use of verbs in groups of threes is both fun and functional, offering opportunities for wonderful vocabulary enrichment. The girl doesn't just "make" her magnificent thing -- she "tinkers and hammers and measures," she "smoothes and wrenches and fiddles," she "twists and tweaks and fastens." These precise action words are likely to fire up the imaginations of youngsters eager to create their own inventions and is a great tie-in to learning about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

The Most Magnificent Thing, written and illustrated by Ashley Spires was published by Kids Can Press in 2014.

My thoughts as a writer:

The author really captures the emotional experience of trying, being frustrated, getting angry, and then taking another look and going on (much like the process of writing). I loved the simplicity and power of the text in this story. One of my favourite parts was “She makes things. He unmakes things.” I especially liked the way the author gave the main character space to resolve her angry and upset feelings on her own, instead of having an adult step in with a solution. “Bit by bit, the mad gets pushed out of her head.”

The illustrations in this story go so well with the text. I love the expressions on the girl’s and the dog’s faces as they work on their project. There are lots of details that children can explore when looking at this book on their own.

My thoughts as a teacher:

As a teacher, there are so many ways to use this book! Young children will relate to the emotional side of the story, where the girl gets frustrated because her ideas don’t match up to her vision. I would love to use this to spark some discussion with students about ways to manage angry feelings – and draw their attention to the strategy of just walking away for a little while. 

The illustrations and style of art in this story would also be great for modeling an art style students could try to create their own work, using the technique of adding colour for emphasis or for the important parts of the story (perhaps comparing and contrasting with other books that use a similar style, such as Steve Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon?).

Themes: creativity, persistence, coping with frustration, angry feelings

Ages: 2 - 6

Some possible activities:

- provide recycled materials and encourage students to create their own “magnificent things”
- create a plan for a “magnificent thing” and make a list of materials needed
- have students think about a time when something went wrong, and how they solved their problem
- choose a favourite illustration from the story and discuss why they like it
- talk about the reasons why the illustrator chose her technique and use this style to create their own art 

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, consider checking out the list of Perfect Picture Books, put together by author Susanna Leonard Hill.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Forest of Reading Winners!

The Ontario Library Association has announced the winners for this year's Forest of Reading Awards.

In the middle grade category (Silver Birch), the winner is THE NIGHT GARDENER by Jonathan Auxier.

I didn't manage to read all the nominees for the 2015 Silver Birch Award, but I really enjoyed the ones I did manage to read. My favourites were:

SEPTEMBER 17 by Amanda West Lewis

ME AND MR. BELL by Philip Roy

In the picture book category (Blue Spruce), the winner was THE DAY MY MOM CAME TO KINDERGARTEN by Maureen Fergus and Mike Lowery. What a fun story!

I read (or have heard read aloud) most of the picture book nominees, and I'm so glad I didn't have to pick a winner, because they were all amazing!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - A Dog Called Homeless

It's May? How did that happen? I haven't read many middle grade books lately, so I don't have a new one to share with you today. Suggestions for books to read are always welcome! I'm especially interested in trying some funny MG books with magical elements, since that's what two girls at my school said they love to read. But since the story that I've been working on is a dog story, I'm going to "re-run" a favourite dog story that I reviewed before.

Here's the Amazon description:

Praised by Newbery Medal–winning author Katherine Applegate as "graceful" and "miraculous," this Schneider Family Book Award–winning novel tells how one girl's friendship with a homeless dog mends a family's heart.

Cally Fisher knows she can see her dead mother, but the only other living soul who does is a mysterious wolfhound who always seems to be there when her mom appears. How can Cally convince anyone that her mom is still with the family, or persuade her dad that the huge silver-gray dog belongs with them?

With beautiful, spare writing and adorable animals, A Dog Called Homeless is perfect for readers of favorite middle-grade novels starring dogs, such as Because of Winn-Dixie and Shiloh.

A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean, published by Katherine Tegen Books, 2012

My Take:

I really enjoyed this story, partly because I love stories with dogs in them. But this was much more than just a dog story. This story is about a girl learning to cope with the loss of her mother, trying to hold her family together, and finding her own voice. I loved the friendships Cally made with Jed, a homeless man, and Sam, a boy who is deaf and blind. I will definitely look for more books by this author! I read this one as an e-book from my local library.

I loved the way the author painted images with her words that connected to the feelings she created in the story. This was another story where every word counts.

Opening Line:

“Dad’s birthday, and I got up before anyone.”

Favourite quotes:

“Sometimes you just have to prove people wrong. Sometimes you just want someone to believe you’re more than they think you are.”

“Homeless smelled like a toy rabbit I had when I was little. I laid my head on him, forgot about the time.”

“I already knew then that Sam didn’t see things like we do, that the reason he leaned so close was that that was how the world talked to him—through his skin.”

Other Info:

Sarah Lean lives in Dorset in England with her family and dogs. She started writing when she was around ten years old, but she became a teacher before she started her writing career.

A Dog Called Homeless  is her first published novel. On her website, Sarah Lean says, “Inspiration is everywhere, just like stories. For me, the key is to just look, just listen, wherever I am.”

She has this advice for writers: “Expect to get it wrong, again and again. Practice is paramount, expect to learn, love learning.

Other Books by this Author:
Harry and Hope


Jack Pepper

The Forever Whale
A Horse for Angel

For more info, visit Sarah Lean’s website.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out author Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.