Wednesday, December 21, 2011


By Todd H. Doodler

(Blue Apple Books, 2011)

Say the word underwear and kids laugh. Every single time. Say long underwear and kids say, “Eww!” or “Gross!” Children just don’t like the longer version. They don’t buy into its practicality. It just looks funny...and not in the ha-ha sense.

Todd Doodler has created a book to make long underwear cool. On a “snow, blow-y winter day”, Bear and his animal friends decide to go outside to play in the snow. They put on all the sensible outerwear: mitts, hats, scarves and coats. Off they go to sled down a hill, throw snowballs and catch snowflakes on their tongues.

Bear decides to make a snowman, but his friends feel that the figure needs to be accessorized with more than sticks and a carrot. Bear dresses the snowman in his own winter gear until bear is left standing in the snow in long underwear. Soon all the animals want a pair. Yes, long underwear is the hot item for cold days.

Doodler’s illustrations are bright and appealing for young viewers. The animals’ appearance and simple movements make them look like they come from videogames. Kids can pick their favorite animal from Skunk to Hedgy to a large blob I presume is Bigfoot.

Simple book, simple concept. Long underwear is essential on cold days and nights. Perhaps after reading this book, your own preschoolers won’t complain when they have to put on a pair.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I’m guilty.

I hold onto my library books for too long. I stop in every weekend to return a few and checkout more than a few. Yet for some reason, there are other books that sit at home. They are ones that I thought might be interesting, but I still haven’t opened. I conveniently renew them online. The initial three-week loan extends to six. Often, I take advantage of the second renewal, thus keeping a book for up to nine weeks.

I’m not talking so much about novels. The neglected stack is mostly picture books. I can’t explain my library-condoned book abuse. The best I can do is compare these books to mustard or mayonnaise. I do not know why, but in my family no one ever bothered to flit a knife way down into the bottom of the jar to scrape out the final product that might complement one, two, even three more hotdogs. If the jar sat on the fridge shelf for another week, it might as well sit there for another year. No one would touch it. We might open a new jar or simply go without. Double up on ketchup and relish.

The renewals don’t matter. The books won’t get read. Still, I hold onto them just in case. I am not completely callous. Occasionally, I feel a pang of guilt. If I keep Merry Christmas, Splat for the maximum term, no child will get to enjoy it during the Yuletide season. Abominable!

Just admitting this ghastly habit of mine helps. I have a stack of books due tomorrow. I can again renew them online, but instead I resolve to go sift through them tonight, read the ones that still pique my interest and load the rest in the car. I shall no longer be the library scrooge!

Why must every book have the same renewal period? I am one of the shrinking number of people who still rents DVDs. Some are one-night rentals, others can be had for three days and my tried and true favorites can be kept for a full week. I do follow the rules. If the newest books had shorter terms, I would get to them sooner. The shorter term ups the impression that they are must-reads. Give me no renewal option for the newbies to the collection. This is just the kind of nudge I need.

I have worked with my school librarian to launch a One-Night Reads program, a small-scale change to book checkouts. We selected ten newer, highly appealing picture books for which we wanted to create a greater buzz. This year, we are trying to get the books in fifty homes. Next year, we’ll select new titles and aim for one hundred home visits. Students are keen. They vote for which books they hope to have a chance to take home for a night. Names are announced each morning and as books are picked up or delivered, the student grin broadly as classmates say things like, “You won!” As an increasing number of students read these books, there are more common discussions about these particular stories and characters. These books have status. The love for reading increases.

Quicker returns will not work for all books. As a browser, I may shy away from 1Q84, Wonderstruck and other massive tomes. A librarian, of course, can determine which books require full reading terms even as a recent arrival. More work at a time when deep cuts are being made to library funding? Yes. Still, the result is a positive one. Shorter terms for newer titles will get books read more and bring us back to the library sooner to pick more books. No guarantee that the books will be read, but we do increase the chances. We have to stop treating each book the same.

I cannot be the only one who would welcome a rule change, can I? What do others think?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Written by Andrew Clements

Illustrated by Mike Reed

(Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For young children, waiting ten minutes for the cookies to bake can be agonizing. The forty candles on a birthday cake is unimaginable. Picking up fifty-two scattered playing cards after an abandoned game of Go Fish is an arduous task that may require a few breaks before completion. How do they make sense of bigger numbers? How do they understand one million?

Kids do like big numbers. They just need some support in making sense of them. (When I taught math, I often put a dollar sign in front of a larger calculation task. Suddenly, a task that seemed too hard became an exciting challenge for future bankers.)

Popular children’s book author Andrew Clements has decided to give more meaning to larger numbers in A Million Dots, a nonfiction picture book beautifully illustrated by Mike Reed. He starts with one dot, easily overlooked unless pointed out at the center of a page. “One dot is not very many. It’s only one, and that’s just one more than none.” After showing arrays of dots to represent 10, 100, 500 and 1,000, the book takes off on a journey to 1,000,000. Dot grids are superimposed on Reed’s digital illustrations. At the bottom of each page, Clements highlights a numbered dot on the page. With a splash of yellow surrounding a fact box for the number 1,860, he informs us that, “A person must climb 1,860 steps to walk to the top of the Empire State Building.” If you scan the picture, Dot Number 1,860 is circled in yellow.

The dots accumulate from page to page. Some facts are informative. “More than 265,000 different kinds of moths and butterflies live on Earth.” Others are seemingly randomly constructed, but the illustrations complement the contrived fact. “It would take 464,000 school-lunch cartons of chocolate milk to fill a 20-by-40 swimming pool. (Please pass the straws.)” Clements knows what topics will appeal to kids. In addition to chocolate milk, he imagines loading baseballs onto semitrailers, weighing a group of T-rex dinosaurs and hauling cars to junkyards.

As this is an American publication, there are no Metric figures but that is not a major issue. The book is intended to give children some sense of seemingly gigantic numbers. It is not a tool for teaching pounds or kilograms.

Since the facts are not connected to one another, children may lose interest unless supported while reading the book. I would suggest reading each fact aloud and having children try to visualize the fact topic on their own before repeating the statement while showing the illustration. Allow time to talk about each fact. Jot down each number on a pad or on a blackboard so the reader/listener can track how the numbers are growing.

As a teacher, I would bring out the book on another occasion during math class. Help students create number lines from 0 to 1,000,000, marking every hundred thousand. Assist them in estimating where each featured number falls on the line and then mark each line with a key word from the trivia fact (e.g., moths for 265,000; toothbrush for 839,500). This will help them get a better sense of scale while also allowing the facts to stick a little longer.

I also loved teaching pointillism in art classes. Sometimes students would feel overwhelmed in painting or drawing so many dots. (Tip: Snipping off the cotton end of a q-tip and dipping the remaining straw in paint had more appeal.) A Million Dots would be a wonderful resource to pull out when introducing pointillism and for “comforting” students with the assurance that their finished work needn’t have nearly as many dots.

In sum, A Million Dots is a great literature connection to mathematics and to random, yet interesting trivia.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Written by Jenny Offill

Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2007)

This is one of those dangerous books. In the wrong hands, it will bring new, sparkly ideas to any already sparkly minded boy or girl. Pity the younger brother, the mother or the teacher of that child. Fortunately, most readers will chuckle as they live vicariously through the curious mind of the protagonist (antagonist?).

At home, this girl wears her pink robe; at school, she is the only one who arrives in uniform: buttoned to the top yellow blouse and plaid skirt. But she is neither prim nor girly—at least, not in the stereotypical sense. What makes her really stand out are the black galoshes she clomps around in and the unkempt hair, complete with a tuft that intentionally sticks straight up with the help of a rubber band. This is a girl who, in her desire for sameness, will always be different.

The book is exactly what the title states, a list of intriguing ideas acted out but once. Jenny Offill’s text grabs us from the first page spread: “I had an idea to staple my brother’s hair to his pillow. I am not allowed to use the stapler anymore.” Naturally, she moves on to restricting her sibling with glue. This is a child who requires an ever-expanding set of site-specific rules.

Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations which combine pen-and-ink drawings with digital media are highly engaging. She perfectly captures the girl’s expressions such as her delight and concentration when trying to walk to school backwards. There are extras on the pages (e.g., the pen stain on the principal’s shirt; the cover page of a report on George Washington that somewhere along the way changed to an obviously more compelling assignment on beavers).

At times, the writing loses some zing through its too literal yin yang between the idea and the new rule. For instance, “I had an idea to walk backward all the way to school. I am not allowed to walk backward to school anymore.” The action and reaction are realistic. This seems to be a child who cannot generalize some of her learning. Still, the amusing ideas warrant more creativity in the writing.

I have not read this book aloud to any class due to one of the pages (which, I suppose, I could easily skip). We see the girl doing a handstand along with the words, “I had an idea to show Joey Whipple my underpants.” Yes, this may be true to life, but it strikes me as creepy to have the school principal playing it for laughs with a young audience. I would love to know other people’s thoughts. Feel free to post a comment.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Written by Sharon Creech

Illustrated by Harry Bliss

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2001)

Hard to believe I have waited so long to blog this book. This title should be prominently displayed in every school library and in every principal’s office.

Mr. Keene is the principal of Fine Elementary School. He marvels at all the wonderful things that happen there. The children learn amazing things. The teachers instruct in amazing ways. He cannot contain his excitement and his pride. He cheerily pronounces, “Aren’t these fine teachers? Aren’t these fine children? Isn’t this a fine, fine school?”

And how nice it is to hear a principal speak so positively!

Mr. Keene decides you can’t have too much of a good thing. Imagine, if students are thriving so much at school, then the only possible way for things to be better is—this is where I pause during a reading—to have MORE school. Hooray for school on Saturdays! And since I am a principal, I always comment on what a fine idea Mr. Keene has. I jump up and grab a pencil and paper to jot down this wonderful idea as some students are intrigued, others horrified.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Since students learn even more with school on Saturdays, Mr. Keene takes the more is better principle to the next level...and then the next. Everything is fine!

My audience laughs and squirms as I continue to jot down all Mr. Keene’s fine ideas.

Thankfully for us all, author Sharon Creech prominently features another character in A Fine, Fine School. Tilly is a student at Fine Elementary. She has a younger brother and a dog named Beans who do not go to school. With all Tilly’s time spent in school, there is less time to be with her brother and Beans. It is up to Tilly to help Mr. Keene see things from another perspective.

This book always entertains students. They can all connect to the subject. They can all imagine being Tilly’s classmates. And, yes, they can easily imagine me implementing Mr. Keene’s ideas. After all, I do go on and on about the wonderful students and teachers at my school.

Sharon Creech has come up with a golden story. The illustrations by Harry Bliss add to the humor. Indeed, this picture book is a terrific example of how the pictures don’t just illustrate the words; they add to the story. Here, Bliss provides visual details, from the attention grabbing Post-its on Tilly’s backpack on the cover (e.g., “MASSIVE TEST ON YOUR BIRTHDAY”; “GYM TEST TODAY”) to the antics of children on the bus and in the classroom. The dog, Beans, is a scene stealer wherever he appears. Call attention to the extras in the first drawings and students will eagerly act as picture detectives for the rest of the book, eagerly pointing out and laughing at their discoveries.

I am sure every reviewer makes the obvious statement: This is a fine, fine book. However, that undersells it. This book is one of my personal treasures. The sentiment is one that I hope to honestly convey at every school where I work.