Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer
Winnie is not your stereotypical picture book heroine. She is industrious, creative, and she has a penchant for slimy things that eat chicken droppings. She is an expert on everything worm, thanks to the hours she spends studying them, rescuing them, and racing them.
Now, Winnie has a dilemma. She needs a new wagon, her efforts at repair being stop-gap at best. She’d love to win some prize money at the local fair, but there are no prizes for worms. Only for corn crops, chicken eggs, and puppy litters.
No matter. Winnie also knows a thing or two about business. Look for a need and fill it. And, as the saying goes, if you can make money doing what you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.
Winnie Finn is a great example of childhood ingenuity and resilience, as well as a role model for delaying gratification and setting goals. With her worm farm and her diligence, she helps her neighbours achieve their dreams, and then she shares in their success.
New wagon, here she comes!
Adding to the story and character building, the illustrations by Ard Hoyt are cartoony and quirky. He fills in the gaps that must be left out from a picture book manuscript, such as the fact that Winnie’s parents own a flower shop, and that Winnie isn’t all tom-boy. She likes a bit of bling too. Plus, Ard likes to put a few sight gags into his work, letting Winnie’s cat provide some background comic relief.
Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer was selected for the 2014 Illinois Reads literacy initiative. Carol Brendler is also the author of Not Very Scary, and the novel Radio Girl. Check out her web page.
by Michael Ian Black
Illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Not plain, yet simple, this book is FUN!
A little girl, let’s say a precocious 4, beautifully rendered with simple wood-cut lines, is bored, bored, bored, blahhhhh, bored. And so is the disagreeable potato she has befriended.
“What do you like to do?” asks the little girl. The potato makes a suggestion. But, seeing how flamingos are scarce, she must do her best to entice the spud with other distractions.
She demonstrates games and tumbling, to no avail.
So she must resort to her imagination.
Finding the ballerina and lion tamer banal, the starchy little antagonist goads the child on, each new page turn revealing more and more elaborate scenes that fill with detail, colour, and emotion, until she’s HAD IT with the tuber’s bad attitude, and storms off.
Dynamic use of text layout and vibrating line work make this picture book a funny and entertaining read, but the funniest bits come from the incorrigible potato.
In The Garden
by Peggy Collins
Published by Applesauce Press
This is a joyous concept book that takes us through three seasons and the life cycle of the backyard garden. It stars a preschool-aged boy who is discovering the wondrous changes that happen between putting seeds in the ground and enjoying the fruits of his labours.
This book is full of big, bright illustrations. Each mixed media drawing teems with life, every page crawling with the little and large creatures that we share our small corners of paradise with. The art is cartoony and exaggerated, fun and energetic.
The writing is full of gentle humour, in a voice that is easily grasped by young children, but still holds appeal for the adults doing the read aloud. And it has some lovely observations that reflect a real understanding of the way a little person sees the world.
Teachers, use it in units that explore life cycles, plants, the interaction between man and the environment, and our food sources. It is also great for studying descriptive language, and text features like the creative use of font colour and size.
Collins has another book in this series called In The Snow, and several others that she has authored and/or illustrated. Her blog is listed in the side menu.
Reading Chapter Books
Reading chapter books is different from reading picture books. At the heart of it, there are two reasons to read fiction: comprehension and entertainment. To help your child/student understand and enjoy chapter books, there are a few things to think about.
First, chapter books are more complicated than picture books. Many picture books are simply concept books. This means there is no story. There are just some ideas about a topic, like counting or feelings. Chapter books are almost always stories, and the reader has to know how a story is put together. So, the reader has to know about the setting, the characters, and the time. The reader also has to know about story beginnings, middles, and ends. As well, in chapter books, the problem and solution part of a story is very important, and it takes much longer for the problem to be fixed. Many chapter book series are quite formulaic, even beyond the typical progression of the story arc in a novel. Beginning and reluctant readers will often latch onto a series because this familiarity makes reading each successive book easier.
Second, there can be two stories that happen at the same time. This means that there are two problems to think about, and sometimes two main characters. Keeping these problems straight can be hard for people just starting to read chapter books.
Third, the length of a chapter book needs good memory skills, so that the story events and details can be remembered for the whole time it takes to read the book.
Fourth, depending on the book, there can be a lot of extraneous, superfluous, and diverting information that the reader has to filter through. The more descriptive the writing, the more outside of the reader’s experience, and the more purposely obtuse details (in the case of mystery and suspense), the more difficult (and one might argue more enjoyable) the read.
The increased complexity and depth of chapter books makes them a challenge, but the plot complications, older subject matter, and rich language make them an experience for all young readers to aspire to. And each experience makes the next one better.
Here are some tips for kids reading chapter books.
Talk about what you are reading as you read. When you talk about your reading, you give your brain extra practice remembering what happens. This will help to keep the whole story in the memory for the whole time it takes to read the book.
Visualize (picture) the characters and setting as you read about them. The pictures will help you remember these important parts of the book.
As you start each chapter, think about what you read in the chapter before. This is really good if you have just picked the book up again after a break. If you can’t remember what happened before, reread the last few paragraphs you read, to remind you.
Make sure you understand what is happening. Books are supposed to make sense. If things don’t make sense, you probably read something wrong, or remembered something wrong (or you’re reading a badly written self-published book – or a badly written professionally published book authored by a “celebrity”). Go back and reread the part that is confusing you. If that doesn’t help, reread the part that makes you think the new part is confusing. For example, if you read a part that says your character is angry at his friend, but then you read a part where he and his friend are happily playing together, maybe you missed something, or misunderstood something you read. Read both sections again, to figure it out.
Always remember that the character has a problem to solve. If you think about that problem and how everything that is happening helps to solve the problem or makes the problem worse, the story will be easier to remember and more enjoyable to read.
I am in awe of Mem Fox. I find that she has an almost solitary voice in a market glutted with books that star TV characters and snotty brats, and almost devoid of any kind of positive adult/child relationships. Fox does not write books for the sole purpose of entertaining children. Her books handle weighty topics and convey deep messages.
WGMcP is about a young boy, barely in school, and his relationship with the folks who live in the old age home next door. He and his neighbours have a mutual appreciation, despite, or maybe because of living at the far ends of time’s ever swinging pendulum. But he has the greatest connection with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper (who also has four names).
Poor Miss Nancy has lost her memory, an idea that makes no sense to WGMcP. What kind of a friend would he be if he didn’t help her find her memories again? If only he knew what a memory was, so he knew what he was looking for.
With the counsel of his wise neighbours, Wilfred learns the nature of memories, and he sets about collecting objects that he thinks fit the bill. A warm chicken egg, some sea shells, a puppet, a football, and a medal are all presented to Miss Nancy, one by one.
And this is where you start to cry.
Conditions like Alzheimer’s and Dementia touch us all more and more. Beautifully written, Fox uses the special and necessary relationships that can form between children and adults to present the topic gently, giving parents and teachers a resource that will provide opportunities to discuss and learn about the effects of what is happening to their loved ones.
The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi Based on the poem by Mary Howitt Published by Simon & Shuster Caldecott Honor Book Mary Howitt’s cautionary tale about falling for the flattery of strangers was first published in 1829. I’m not sure how many iterations it has seen since it was first released, but this version is really something to behold. DiTerlizzi made an interesting choice in doing the illustrations in radiant black and white, making it stand out against the super-saturated colour usually found in the children’s book department. The mixed media artwork is exceptionally detailed, right down to the lashes on the damsel fly’s innocent eyes. Yes, an anthropomorphized damsel fly, attired in a long flapper dress and cloche, is the protagonist and inevitable victim of a mustachioed, slick-haired, sweet talking spider with, shall we say, an appetite for the ladies. Set in a creepy victorian dollhouse full of furniture that looks suspiciously like it once lived under a tree stump, the poem is brought to life with melodrama and gravitas. And the entire thing is framed beautifully in the style of a 1920s silent movie, with title cards and all. The only thing missing is the guy playing piano off to the side as you read. Of course, Howitt’s words are wonderful. They are full of great visuals and some chilling metaphors. And she really managed to create a fantastic allegory for stranger danger. Teachers looking to teach about poetry, descriptive language, and metaphor will find this book invaluable. It is also excellent for those who want to encourage their students to fill their artwork with detail. It goes without saying that lessons about personal safety and street proofing can’t be avoided when reading this book with a class. P.S. Last year was the 10th anniversary. Here is a link for the artist’s blog post about. Go to his parlor.
As a teacher and an aspiring children’s writer, I read a fair bit of children’s literature, though, ‘literature’ is not the word I would use to describe some of the drivel that’s been published lately. For example, I recently read a Middle Grade fantasy that was completely ridiculous in its entirety. It was populated by cliche characters and preposterous situations, and had absolutely no grounding in reality. It was one massive contrivance that made me angrier with every page turn.
But, I’m not interested in wasting a reader’s time with long descriptions of what not to read. Rather, I would like to share books that I enjoyed, so that I can promote good writing over the pulp fiction din that currently clangs from the presses of a desperate-to-sell publishing industry.
The first book I’d like to write about is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It is Middle Grade, which means it’s aimed at children in and around grades 3 to 6. There are several books in the series, including a prequel, and they seem to be doing well.
To impress upon you how much I enjoyed it, I read most of it over two days.
I will not give you a plot synopsis or spoilers, except to say that a handful of exceptionally gifted orphans are recruited to save the world.
I will tell you that the author knows his audience, as he gives exactly what they are looking for in an adventure. His characters are very relatable, despite being so unusual.
Some of the situations are over the top, but not beyond the stretch of a healthy imagination. And, though some of it is predictable to one with thousands of plot lines pinging in his head, much of it is fresh and inventive, and even surprising.
What I appreciated most, however, is that these children are not operating alone. These kids, who are all geniuses in their own right, in the middle of a perilous mission, still require adult support and guidance to get the job done without dying.
This author acknowledges that these kids are being put at risk, and he doesn’t belittle or diminish the danger at all. Also, he doesn’t just have the children dumbly stumble into the danger and decide to pursue the adventure because of some unwarranted, arrogant belief that they are superior to any adult, or, worse, out of boredom. Nor does he have them appeal to all the grownups, only to be ignored or abandoned (Shades of Jacob Two Two). They are recruited by adults, to do something adults can not do, and their abilities and strengths are all the more valued because of this.
One day I’ll write a post about just how ridiculous I think it is to exorcise positive adult influences from children’s books for the sake of empowering children. But for now, let me say that The Mysterious Benedict Society is a well written novel. It has a good, literally fantastic plot. It is written in elevated language, it includes some puzzles, and it demands some thinking from the reader. It has great characterizations (though a bit Dahlesque). And it has a couple of nice surprises at the end.
If I like it…
Oh, if only. Pray that the title isn’t just a clever marketing tactic.
I have always been interested in the study of intelligence. There are so many intense debates about natural ability, and teachability, and testing, and measuring. This book isn’t about any of that. It is about thinking better, and being more aware of who we are, how we think, and what is happening in the world around us.
Every year, John Brockman, via Edge.org, gathers together the thinkers of our era, and asks them a question. This Will Make You Smarter is a collection of answers to this one.
“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”
In each mini essay, one of today’s intelligentsia describes a concept in layman’s terms, and attempts to connect it to our everyday life, demonstrating how knowledge of this concept, or the practicing of that skill, will improve the way we think. The responses are varied, and some are seemingly contradictory. They have been grouped into overall themes to help the reader make some connections.
Now, just in case you think this might be too “sciency,” Brockman clarifies the question a bit. “Here, the term “scientific” is to be understood in a broad sense – as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe.” So, there is lots of philosophy to try to wrap your head around too.
Full disclosure. A few of these ideas are beyond me. So much for my 129 IQ. However, on the whole, the entries are interesting and thought provoking, and justify the effort to understand them.
I think that much of this book will eventually end up in my personal arsenal of intellectual weapons, to reload my pen and tongue, as it were. I will update this section with synopses of some of the entries, and the questions and ideas they provoke, as I work through the book.
But check it out yourself if the state of modern intellectual development is something you’re interested in exploring, or if you just want to get smarter.