It’s that time of year again when we review the best back-to-school books. For 2019 there are many so we’re going to present them over several days.
FLIGHT SCHOOL Written and illustrated by Lita Judge (Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)
Award-winning author illustrator Lita Judge’s sweet story is now available in board book format and is as charming as ever, and Penguin is just as precious.
There are all kinds of schools but one thing they have in common is that people, or in this case, birds, attend so they can learn things. Enter Penguin. He’s come to Flight School to learn to fly. The teacher tries to point out that Penguin, who claims to have “the soul of an eagle” is a penguin and therefore cannot take to the skies like his classmates. Penguin remains unconvinced.
Attempt after funny attempt, the persevering Penguin fails at flying while his classmates “took to the wind.” He is heartbroken and considers giving up. Fortunately for him, Flamingo figures out a way to get the bird soaring … even if it’s not a permanent solution and that suits Penguin just fine. With its adorable, expression-filled art and upbeat message, Flight School is a reminder of how rewarding it can be to follow your dreams and how friends can help.
Bunny and his forest friends are back for more good times in Bunny’s Book Club Goes to School. In this 40-page picture book, Bunny’s library buddy, Josie, confides in her animal pal that school starts the following week and she’s worried she won’t make any friends.
Bunny hatches a plan to go to Josie’s school to be a friend for her and along the way he runs into Porcupine. Porcupine wants to come with Bunny so the two carry on toward Josie’s school. As the pair journey on, the group gets larger as more and more forest friends want to join in.
Soon there’s Bunny, Porcupine, Bear, Bird, Mouse, Raccoon, Frog, Squirrel and Mole. Nine buddies for Josie. As they hunt for Josie, first Squirrel, then Bird, Mouse and Bear become distracted in various classrooms. I can’t blame them. The basketball game, the music room, and cafeteria were indeed tempting places to be, but Bunny is determined to find his friend.
With everyone gone, (yes, Porcupine “dipped into the art room, and now he was stuck”), Bunny carries on by himself. Alone in the school library, Bunny is impressed. He is eventually joined by the gang. They see Josie through the library windows enjoying her classmates at the playground. When the critters head outside, the fun multiplies. They, too, easily make friends and are happy for Josie, and for themselves.
Silvestro’s hopeful and humorous story is a great one to share at back-to-school time. Mai-Wyss’s lovely water-color illustrations depict a diverse group of children where all look welcome. I noticed a wheelchair ramp in front of the school and a young boy in a wheelchair playing ball with a friend. Bunny and his furry friends provide a gentle reminder for any child starting school that quite often they’re not the only ones interested in making new friends.
It is so easy and entertaining to read Chris Van Dusen’sIf I Built a School, which follows the first in the series, If I Built a House. Between the nod the artwork makes to the “Jetson’s” TV show and the rollicking rhyme that accompanies every spread, I could easily see children re-reading this picture book again and again every back-to-school season.
Jack, the picture book’s narrator, has a fantastic imagination and tells the playground aide, Miss Jane, just what type of school he’d build instead of the plain school where we first meet him.
This school is beyond your wildest dreams and I’m not sure I’d get any work done there because I’d be too busy zooming through clear transportation tubes from towering pod building to towering pod building. Then there are the floating “hover desks” that resemble bumper cars, one of my favorite amusement park rides. Holograms of historical figures teach lessons and in gym the basketball court is a trampoline! At lunchtime, well you’ll just have to see for yourself, but it’s like a robotic automat that serves up any type food, “simple or weird—from PB & jelly to squid lightly seared.”
I pored over every single spread so as not to miss a single thing Van Dusen designed. That includes a sweet blue-nosed, black and white pup who features in almost every illustration along with several disabled characters, one a child in a wheelchair and the other a dog with wheels supporting his back end. The gym and recess illustrations are terrific and, together with younger readers, parents can read the story aloud then help point out all the different activities kids can get up to. If you’ve got a child with an active imagination or one who’s looking for STEAM inspiration, you’ve come to the right book!
See Chris at the Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, GA on Saturday, August 31st. And check out his blog to find out about September visits that may be close to where you live.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Here’s a link to last year’s roundup of the best back-to-school books 2018.
The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.
Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.
Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.” Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.
Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.
Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.
The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.
This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.
By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions changed the course of American history
I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!
Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.
Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician” who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.
As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.
With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here. Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.
Some kids returned to school in August. Have yours? Maybe your children are getting ready to begin the new school year after Labor Day. In other words there’s still time to read about and buy the latest books covering the entire school experience. Today’s titles range from first days and school staff to pet pandemonium. Don’t forget to also check out our Back-to-SchoolRoundup Part 1.
What do you do when you love pets so much that you can’t imagine going to school without one? That’s Bartholomew Bott’s dilemma in No Frogs in School. Monday meant frogs much to his teacher’s dismay. Tuesday turned out to be super for bringing in his salamander. Once again, Mr. Patanoose, was not amused and banned all amphibians from being brought to school. It worked out to bring Horace the hamster to school on Wednesday, but once on campus things didn’t go so well. Mr. P added rodents to the banned list. On Thursday Sylvia the snake had a turn and scared some classmates. Naturally no reptiles were allowed after that fiasco! In fact for Friday’s show and tell, the teacher specified that kids could bring in anything “But no more of YOUR pets.” That’s when Bartholomew had a brilliant idea. He’d bring in Rivka the rabbit who could be EVERYONE’S pet! And that made all the kids and even Mr. P happy. Kids can be so literal and LaFaye has taken this childlike characteristic and woven it into a cute and colorful tale. I give Bartholomew a lot of credit for persevering to get his beloved creatures to accompany him to school. When that didn’t work, he found an even better solution, a class pet to please all.
LaFaye’s created a clever story about a clever youngster that will appeal to pet-loving kids everywhere. This year ’round read is infused with subtle humor that is complemented beautifully by the illustrations. From the kitty in the fish bowl to a sandwich eating duck, the first spread by Ceulemans gives readers a great idea what fun the multiple media artwork has in store. I laughed upon finding a sock puppet peeking through the classroom door in the second spread that I’d somehow missed during my initial reading. I appreciated all the attention to little details whether that is a student about to eat a shovelful of dirt or Bott’s slippers. Pick up a copy today and enjoy!
In Fairy’s First Day of School, the action starts off before the title page with a speech bubble “Wake up,” as a lady bug calls out to a sleeping fairy. Over breakfast Mama fairy explains how things will go on the first day of school which in this case means the entire routine we all know so well—swan school bus, teacher greeting, classmates meeting, circle time, show and tell, centers, recess, lunch, nap time, story time, and home—but with wings and fairy things!
This delightful twist on what children should expect on their first day works so well with the fairy angle. All the tiny things are gem-toned and appealingly illustrated. And all the activities are ideal for winged little ones such as art center, tooth center and spells center. Just remember your wand for cleaning up any messes made. It’s so much fun playing hide-and-seek behind toadstools, dining on “a petal-and-dewdrop sandwich” and eating one human-sized sprinkle for dessert. Just imagine having story time in a bird’s nest and you’ll understand how charming and enchanting this fairy-take on the first day of school is. Not’s whimsical illustrationscombined with Heos’ magical language and fun premise make one reading simply not enough.
The first thing I noticed when I read the contents page of School People, an interesting new collection of school-themed poems, is how many different jobs there are. Fifteen fabulous poems run the gamut from bus driver and crossing guard to teacher, principal and librarian and lots more important professionals in-between. I especially like that the nurse, custodian and lunch lady are also included. Even the building itself has been included. “School’s Story” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, the first poem in the anthology, is a warm and welcoming one beginning with “I am waiting – come on in! / Welcome to this house of brick. / Enter whispers, whistles, signs, / footsteps, fossils, notebook lines.”
While I was never a P.E. enthusiast as a student, I have to admit Charles Ghigna’s “Coach” felt upbeat and its ending, “life is a gym / come- / have a ball”, is terrific. So is the accompanying artwork by Ellen Shi. In it she’s presented the instructor with students from what would likely be the ball’s perspective, down low and looking up, with students’ faces fixed on the coach, replete with whistle in her mouth, hands gesturing, all under an afternoon sky. Hopkins shares the magic a librarian brings to their position, the one person I credit with turning me into a reader when I had all but given up on books as a second grader.
Notable poet names you’ll recognize, as Hopkins often includes many of them in other collections, are Ann Whitford Paul, Alma Flor Ada, J. Patrick Lewis, Joan Bransfield Graham, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Renée LaTulippe plus others new to me such as Robyn Hood Black, Michele Krueger, Matt Forrest Esenwine, Darren Sardelli, and Irene Latham. Shi’s illustrations, done digitally, are cheerful, energetic and cover a range of emotions from the sadness of an ill child at the nurse to dramatic student performers in theater class. School People, an ideal read aloud, is a fitting tribute to the variety of important individuals whose roles throughout a typical school day help shape our children’s learning experience.
Even dinosaurs get starting school jitters, in fact, maybe even those who are actually little girls pretending to be dinosaurs.
“Do you think there will be other dinosaurs in my class?” asked Ally-saurus. “I think you’re going to make a lot of new friends,” said Mother.
Introducing Ally-saurus, an enthusiastic, pig-tailed little girl with an active imagination. At first it seems that making friends will not be easy. None of Ally-saurus’ classmates chomp their snack with fierce teeth or “ROAR!” like she does. Instead they eat quietly much to Ally-saurus’ surprise. She was expecting everyone to be wild about dinos just like her.
Torrey cleverly uses black and white plus a lot of shading in his illustrations so the snippets of color that he adds stand out and really a make a statement. For example, a pink tail and ridges crayoned onto Ally-saurus throughout the book indicate that Ally is imagining herself as a Stegosaurus. Later, Robert is the first classmate to get his hint of blue color as he imagines himself to be an astronaut when he and Ally-saurus cut out nameplate designs for their cubbies. During a lesson on the weather followed by one about letters, three princesses begin voicing their opinions as gold crowns and dresses are outlined on them.
Then, at lunchtime Ally-saurus is told by these princesses that:
“These seats are saved for princesses, not dinosaurs,” said Tina. “You’re not a real princess!” roared Ally-saurus. “You’re not a real dinosaur,” said Tina. “Then why am I eating dinosaur food?” asked Ally-saurus. “That’s baloney!” said Tina, and the other princesses giggled.
Ally-saurus is left to sit alone elsewhere until she is joined by several other students, all eager to share what they enjoy pretending to be. “Soon the whole table was roaring and chomping.” It isn’t long before Ally-saurus and the kids from her lunch table are running around during recess playing make-believe and having a blast. Ally-saurus realizes too that dinos and princesses can find common ground over pretend cups of tea.
Best of all, in the school library, (my favorite place), Ally-saurus along with her classmates discover there are books about all kinds of things … including bunnies. And guess who’s got a pink bunny tail and bunny ears drawn on when she hops out of bed the next morning? Note: There’s an unassuming little bunny lamp on a night table in the last illustration. Plus, Torrey has cleverly covered the endpapers in front with dinos and at the back with bunnies, something I only noticed on the second read! That’s sure to make children want to go back again and again to look for more details.
Add Ally-saurus & the First Day of School to your back-to-school list for an ideal picture book to share with youngsters. It’ll help them realize they’re not the only ones who get nervous starting school. It’s also a great way to start the conversation about the give and take necessary to form and keep friendships.
From England comes I Wonder Who? by Anton Poitier with illustrations by Sophia Touliatou (Kane Miller, $12.99, Ages 3-7).
Part lift-the-flap, part pop-up and part die cut, this colorful interactive animal concept book will engage your youngsters and be just as enjoyable for you to share with them.
The playful depiction of animals from caterpillars to whales complements the questions:
“I wonder who has eaten the page?”
“I wonder who has made a big splash?”
Though little ones may not be able to read the replies, they’ll use the clues and discuss with parents who could possibly be hiding behind each flap and not even realize the pre-literacy and language skills they’ll be developing. Being a cat owner, my favorite scene is the one with a ripped page. Which one will be your child’s favorite?
Another treat: In every scene there are some cute birds to be found, adding yet another activity to this fun busy book.
NOTE: Since the book is from England, in one scene with an elephant, “currant buns” are mentioned, so it would be helpful for parents/caregivers to know that a currant bun is sweet and full of raisin-like berries.
Play and Learn with Wallace: Giant Workbook by Roger Priddy is reviewed by Rita Zobayan.
Summer is lots of fun for children, but it can also mean learning loss for some students. This might be especially true for students gearing up to enter kindergarten. Play and Learn with Wallace: Giant Workbook(Priddy Books/Macmillan, $12.99 Ages 3 and up) with content created by Ellen J. Bretherton, has over 300 activities that work on tracing, pen control, cutting and pasting, the alphabet, phonics, numbers 1-20, times table, days/months/seasons, colors/shapes/patterns, and telling time (both analog and digital).
Wallace the dog joins our young learners and helps them throughout the book. He’ll let them know what they need to do, such as “follow the direction of the arrows” or “paste the cutouts into the white squares.”
Number recognition is presented in fun games such as Matching Socks where you draw lines between socks or Bone Hunt where you match the dogs to their bones using number pairs.
For phonics, children will trace each letter and then draw a line to connect the sound to the picture that it begins with. They can also play Which Letter? where they look at each picture and then circle the letter that makes the starting sound.
Full of bright illustrations and photographs with multicultural persons, the Giant Workbook is engaging, as well as educational. The reward chart is a bonus. My youngest child has greatly enjoyed working her way through this book and hasn’t complained at all that this is “work.” I don’t think there’s a more positive review than that.