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Interview: Travis Jonker, 100 Scope Notes

Elementary School Librarian Travis Jonker, 100 Scope Notes
Here’s another in my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers. Today I report my interview with Travis Jonker (abbreviated “TJ” below), who blogs at 100 Scope Notes . As you will see from the interview, Travis is an elementary school librarian; he also happens to be a pretty funny guy, so you won’t want to miss the interview.  I laughed out loud at least once!  The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Travis’s blog, 100 Scope NotesClick here for the previous interview in this series, with Barbara Bietz of Jewish Books for Children.

Q: I understand you are an elementary school librarian.  Can you tell me a bit of the story of how you decided to take up that profession?

TJ: I followed the classic three step program:

1. I found that I hung out in libraries a lot. Public, school, college – I’ve visited and staked out my territory in them all. I can’t imagine how much time I would have spent in libraries if they circulated Jughead Double Digests when I was growing up. I think we would have had a From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerFrom the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg situation (except, you know, with a library instead of a museum). Continue reading →

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Review: Seeds of Change, by Jen Cullerton Johnson

Seeds of Change, Jen Cullerton JohnsonTitle: Seeds of ChangeSeeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson
Author: Jen Cullerton Johnson, ill. Sonia Lynn Sadler
Genre: Picture book
Age Category: 6-to-8-years

In honor of Earth Day I reviewed Seeds of ChangeSeeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson, by Jen Cullerton Johnson.  This book is already much decorated, having garnered the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration, and a place on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List for children’s feminist literature, among other awards.

Seeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson

Johnson’s Seeds of ChangeSeeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson traces the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2004.

As a young girl, Wangari grew up in rural Kenya where she learned a deep appreciation and respect for the natural environment.  The great mugumo trees earned a special place in her heart: they provided a home for monkeys, birds, and geckos; tasty fruit for humans and elephants; and a shady resting place for Wangari’s Kikuyu ancestors. Continue reading →

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Finding the Best Children’s Books: Reviews, Lists, and Blogs

Image of the John Newbery medal, the best children's books

The John Newbery medal

Today I wrap up my series on how to choose children’s books by pointing to a number of book lists and other resources that can help adults find some of the best children’s books. Relying on the opinions of those who put such lists and resources together is of course not a fool-proof way to find the best children’s books, but it can be a very quick way to zero in on some that are probably good.  Such lists and resources should not replace your own judgment about children’s books—which I hope has been refined a bit over the course of this series (mine has!)—but they can be a helpful supplement.  Before launching into the resources, I should probably also state the obvious: the children’s librarian at your local library is also a fantastic source of recommendations and information on children’s books.  Don’t forget him or her.

If you would like to read this article series from the beginning, click here for “How to Choose Children’s Books”.  For the previous article in the series, “Disney Princess Books: Commercialism in Children’s Literature,” click here.

Lists of the Best Children’s Books

The first kind of resource that can help you find great children’s books quickly is a book list.  There are many great book lists out there, but here are some of my favorites: Continue reading →

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Disney Princess Books: Commercialism in Children’s Literature

Disney Princess Collection, Disney Princess Books
In this penultimate article in my series on how to choose children’s books, I will address the issue of commercialism in children’s literature. Specifically, I will offer some advice on avoiding overly commercial children’s literature, and why parents ought to do so. I will use Disney Princess books—and the Disney Princess CollectionDisney Princess Collection, Disney Princess Books in particular—as a concrete example of an important kind of books I think adults should avoid exposing children to.

If you would like to read this series from the beginning, click here for the first article, “How to Choose Children’s Books”.  For the previous article in this series, “Choosing Children’s Books with Educational Themes,” click here.

Disney Princess Books: Reasons to Avoid Them (and Their Ilk)

I think Disney Princess books are a prime example of the kind of overly commercialized children’s literature that adults ought to avoid when choosing children’s books.  Why?  Glad you asked: Continue reading →

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Choosing Children’s Books with Educational Themes

children's educational books: Dr. Seuss's ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!
Perhaps the most obvious way a children’s book can have developmental value for a child is by its ability to educate about a certain topic.  As the child reads the book, she learns something via the content of the book.  In this post I will discuss the place of educational themes in rendering a children’s book developmentally valuable, and I will offer some advice on choosing children’s educational books.  Educational themes might be understood as a complement to attractive themes, which contribute to the subjective appeal of a children’s book.

This post is part of a continuing series on how to choose children’s books.  To read the series from the beginning, click here for “How to Choose Children’s Books”.  For the prior article in the series, “Stories of Virtue: Character Building Stories,” click here.

Children’s Educational Books: Importance of Developmental Stage

There is no mystery to how children’s educational books can contribute to a child’s development: books with educational themes simply help a child learn something she didn’t know about before.  The key, then, to choosing children’s books with educational themes is to make sure the themes of the book fit with the child’s stage of cognitive, physical, and emotional development. Continue reading →

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Interview: Barbara Bietz, Jewish Books for Children

Jewish Children's Books, Like a Maccabee, Barbara Beitz
Here’s another in my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers. Today I report on my interview with Barbara Bietz (abbreviated “BB” below), who blogs at Jewish Books for Children. As you will see from the interview, Barbara is a children’s author and has a special place in her heart for Jewish Children’s Books.  The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Barbara’s blog, Jewish Books for Children; its focus on Jewish children’s books makes it a unique and important member of the kidlitosphere.  Click here for the previous interview in this series, with Monica Edinger of educating alice.

Q: I understand that you write children’s books.  How and when did you decide to become a children’s author?

BB: I have always enjoyed writing and did quite a bit of academic and technical writing. From the time I was young I would write poems and stories but was afraid to share them with others.  Finally, I took a class on children’s literature with Alexis O’Neill. In the safe environment of a critique group I gradually became brave enough to share my work. Over the years I have met some wonderful writers in classes and workshops. Writing is a passion but it is also a skill that needs to be developed and nurtured. Continue reading →

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Children’s Book about the Civil War: The Storm Before Atlanta

Children's Books about the Civil War, The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen SchwabachChildren's Books about the Civil War, The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen Schwabach
Title: The Storm Before AtlantaChildren's Books about the Civil War, The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen Schwabach
Author: Karen Schwabach
Genre: Middle-Grade Historical Fiction
Age Category: 9 – 12 years

Children’s Book about the Civil War: The Storm Before Atlanta

The Storm Before AtlantaChildren's Books about the Civil War, The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen Schwabach is a children’s book about the Civil War.  The book opens in 1863, with the Northern and Southern United States locked in conflict. Eleven year old Jeremy DeGroot is determined to die gloriously for his country as a drummer boy in the Union Army, believing that this will have him immortalized as a hero. After a few long train rides and some quick thinking, Jeremy finds himself marching into battle with the 107th New York Volunteer Infantry, and thinks he’s achieved his life’s ambition. However, Jeremy quickly learns that the real life of a soldier bears little resemblance to the songs of glorious battle and valiant death that originally inspired him.

The Storm Before AtlantaChildren's Books about the Civil War, The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen Schwabach also introduces us to Dulcie, a young escaped slave who is determined to find herself as part of a Union army regiment. In doing this, Dulcie hopes to gain her freedom and eventually locate her mother and father, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Alongside these two protagonists we also meet Charlie, a Confederate soldier who wears the uniform of an enemy, but acts like a friend. But Charlie also carries a closely guarded secret, one that will affect Jeremy and Dulcie profoundly. Continue reading →

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Interview: Monica Edinger, educating alice

educating alice monica edinger

"What a curious feeling!" said Alice, "I must be shutting up like a telescope!" And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high.

Here’s another in my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers. Today I report on my interview with Monica Edinger (abbreviated “ME” below), who blogs at educating alice and the Huffington Post. As you will see from the interview, Monica is a teacher and an author, and she has worked around children’s books for a long time.  She has even served on the Newbery Medal committee. The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Monica’s blog, educating alice; it is one of the most widely read and respected blogs in the kidlitosphere. Click here for the the previous interview in this series.

Q: How and when did you become interested in thinking and writing about children’s books?

ME: I have always been interested in children’s books.  Drawing and art was what I did as a kid and so in high school I consciously decided that when I grew up I was going to be a children’s book illustrator.  I worked on a number of projects, most notably illustrations for Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle and J.R.R. Tolkien’s  short story, “A Leaf by Niggle” [in The Tolkien ReaderThe Tolkien Reader, by J.R.R. Tolkien].  In college and after (say, when I was in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer) I continued to do art—fairy tales, Kipling’s The Elephant’s ChildRudyard Kipling, The Elephant's Child, and a few chapters of another favorite book, Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.  I had an agent or two and took my work around, got a few nibbles, Continue reading →

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Stories of Virtue and Vice: Stories and Character Development

Aesop's Fables, Character Building Stories of VirtueAesop's Fables, Character Building Stories of Virtue
Stories can have a powerful influence on the formation of character and values in children.  As such, the potential for character formation via stories is an important criterion for adults to consider when selecting books for children.  In this article, I will describe how stories of virtue and vice can shape character in children, and I will offer some advice on choosing children’s books with character-building stories.

This article is an installment in my continuing series on how to choose children’s books, which begins here.  In the previous article in this series I discussed the question of how adults should handle mischief in children’s books.

Stories of Virtue: Character-Building Stories

Historically, story telling for children has been a feature of most cultures.  Often, this story telling has had the purpose, at least in part, of forming the character of children.  Aesop’s FablesAesop's Fables, Character Building Stories of Virtue and Grimm’s Fairy TalesGrimm's Fairy Tales, Character Building Stories of Virtue are good examples of character-building stories, i.e., traditional stories that have aimed at developing character in children.  As I noted in “Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters”, the success of books like William Bennett’s The Book of VirtuesThe Book of Virtues, by William J. Bennett, Character Building Stories of Virtue suggests that many in our contemporary culture also recognize the connection between stories of virtue and character formation in children.  This connection with character formation is part of what can give stories developmental value for children. Continue reading →

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Criteria for Choosing Books for Children: Mischief

Olivia by Ian Falconer cover artOlivia by Ian Falconer cover art
Mischief is a very common feature of children’s books.  But is reading about mischief good for kids?  In this article I will discuss the developmental value (or disvalue) of mischief in children’s books, as one of several criteria for choosing books for children.  I will try to distinguish benign mischief from pernicious mischief, and to give adults some guidance on choosing or avoiding books that feature mischief.

This article is an installment in my continuing series on criteria for choosing books for children.  For the last article in this series, “Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters”, click here.  To read the series from the beginning, click here for “How to Choose Children’s Books.”

Criteria for Choosing Books for Children: Mischief

So, what do I mean by “mischief” in children’s books?  By “mischief” I mean intentional behavior by the characters in the book that strays, to some extent, from what is appropriate or good.  The function of mischief in children’s books is generally to elicit laughs.  Some examples will help clarify what I mean. Continue reading →

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Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters

The Book of Virtues, by William J. Bennett, cover artThe Book of Virtues, by William J. Bennett, cover art
Today I continue my (lately dormant) series of articles on how to choose children’s books.  In the last article in this series, “The Complexity of Children’s Stories and Social Development”, I discussed the “developmental value” of complex stories for children.  Specifically, I argued that children’s books with complex plots and characters can promote important aspects of child development, such as reasoning abilities and memory.

In this article I will discuss a further feature that can give children’s books developmental value, namely exemplary characters. By “exemplary characters” I mean characters—fictional or non-fictional—that exhibit traits or activities that we hope for our children to value and embody in their lives.  In this article I will explain how exemplary characters can encourage character development in children, and how adults can identify such characters in choosing books for children.

If you would like to read this series from the beginning, start with “How to Choose Children’s Books”. Continue reading →

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Children’s Literature Guide: Elizabeth Kennedy, About.com

Elizabeth Kennedy, About.com Children's Books, a children's literature website

Elizabeth Kennedy, About.com Children's Books

Here’s another in my series of interviews with bloggers at children’s literature websites. Today I report on my interview with Elizabeth Kennedy (abbreviated “EK” below), who blogs at the children’s literature website About.com Children’s Books. Elizabeth is one of the hardest working children’s literature bloggers you’ll meet.  In this interview she shares some great insights on helping reluctant readers to embrace reading, and the impact of e-readers on children’s literature. The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature websites. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Elizabeth’s blog (link above). Click here for the the previous interview in this series.

Q: I understand that you studied both English literature and children’s literature while in college.  What spurred your interest in children’s literature?

EK: My interest in children’s literature grew from the time I read The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden as a child.  It was the first book I had ever read during which I felt that I was actually there: seeing what was going on, feeling what the characters were feeling.  Like a lot of kids, I had a somewhat difficult childhood and found great comfort Continue reading →

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Read Children’s Books Online: Big Universe

Big Universe Logo: Read Children's Books Online
If you haven’t noticed, computers are transforming books and publishing.  For example, e-readers like Amazon’s KindleAmazon Kindle e-reader and Apple’s iPad—along with the e-books that such e-readers allow people to read—are all the rage.

Another development in the digital publishing revolution is the growing availability of digital children’s books for reading online.  One website at the forefront of this movement is Big Universe, which allows kids to read children’s books online.  Today I offer a review of Big Universe.  To conduct this review I made use of a rigorously selected focus group.  Well, okay, my 9-year-old daughter fiddled around on the site for a while, but she was very helpful!

Read Children’s Books Online: Big Universe

Big Universe is a website that offers three main features.  First, the site makes available a digital library—including fiction and non-fiction offerings—that allows kids to read children’s books online.  The library has digital books for children of kindergarten age through eighth grade, in a wide range of categories and themes, such as action & adventure, animals, birds & insects, chapter books, classics, friendship, graphic novels, humor, religious, and transportation.

Big Universe’s reader interface is very slick: when you read a book, you can turn pages either by clicking on the arrows below the book, or by grabbing the edge of the page with the cursor and peeling it back as if you were reading a real book.  Pretty cool.  My focus group also liked the little Continue reading →

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Mockingjay: Summary and Review

mockingjay by suzanne collinsmockingjay by suzanne collins
Title: Mockingjaymockingjay by suzanne collins
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Young Adult Fiction (Books for Teens)
Age Category: 16 to 19 years +

Today I finish my series on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogyhunger games trilogy by suzanne collins with a summary and review of the much anticipated, and much hyped book for teens, Mockingjaymockingjay by suzanne collins.  In this Mockingjay summary and review I will discuss the ending of the book/series in the last section of this post (I can’t resist, given some of the controversy in the blogosphere), so if you don’t want to spoil it, skip that part.  I will not give away anything important in the “Summary” or plot synopsis, so those parts are safe.

Mockingjay: Summary of Review

Mockingjaymockingjay by suzanne collins is a stunning finish to an amazing trilogy.  I loved every minute of it, and so will most teens.  Collins masterfully brings resolution to the central tensions and conflicts of the story, including the struggle between the Districts and the Capitol, and the love triangle between Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne.  However, since the over-arching theme of the series is war, the close of the trilogy is appropriately untidy—indeed tragic—in certain ways.  Such untidiness helps to communicate what I take to be Collins’s central message: there can be hope and joy on the other side of war, but never a complete return to the way things were.  War changes things.  Permanently. Continue reading →

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Cynthia Leitich Smith: Children’s Book Author Interview

Cynthia Leitich Smith face graphic

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Here’s another in my series of kidlitosphere blogger interviews. Today I report on my interview with children’s books author and blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith (abbreviated “CLS” below), who blogs at Cynsations.  Cynthia is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author, and is a member of the faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. Program in Writing for Children and Young AdultsCynthia’s official author website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her blog, Cynsations, was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/young adult publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites in the kidlitosphere. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Cynthia’s blog (links above), her fantastic website, and the other children’s books resources she mentions in the interview. Cynthia Leitich Smith, ladies and gentlemen!

Q: How and when did you become interested in writing children’s books?

CLS: I’d just graduated from law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and took a clerkship at the Department of Health and Human Services in the loop in Chicago. I’d been haunting local bookstores and begun reading children’s and YA books.

Then after the Oklahoma City Bombing, Continue reading →

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