Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This Blog Post Was Brought to You by the Makers of the Venn Diagram

My mom and I took the kids to see The Tale of Despereaux on Monday afternoon. Altogether we had four kids with us. They all enjoyed the popcorn. Apologies to the movie theater staff for the copious amounts left on the floor! All four kids enjoyed the movie, although they found it sad and scary at parts. Of the six of us, only my daughter and I had read the book. On the drive home, Hayden spent a good deal of time listing the differences between the book and movie. In her opinion, the book was better. She felt the movie was less frightening than the book. Roscuro gets too sympathetic a treatment in the film according to my pint sized critic. The council meeting was different in the film. The circumstances of how Miggory Sow ended up at the castle are different. Her list went on and on. At the same time, there were many similarities. Hayden was emphatic that it was a good thing Despereaux kept his extremely large ears for the film version. She was so strong on this point I imagine she might have stalked out of the theater had a small eared mouse appeared on the screen. The best part of the comparison Hayden made is that it piqued my sons' curiosity about the book. Perhaps they will want to read it. It also got my older son to comment how amazing it is that Kate DiCamillo could write two books so different as Because of Winn Dixie, which he has read, and The Tale of Despereaux.

By the way, did you know there was an actual John Venn? He introduced his diagrams back in 1880, or so my friends at Wikipedia tell me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Plea for Help

Dear Internet,

I am in desperate need of your assistance! Please help me find a book that will convince my nine year old son of the importance of nicely written thank you notes. It would be perfect if the book illustrates how writing such notes will make a boy taller, faster, better at video games, or something similar. He has not been convinced by arguments about good manners and writing practice. It need not be long. In fact, brevity would be welcomed so said boy can get back to doing the "millions of other better things" he could be doing in lieu of writing thank you notes. It would be helpful, but not necessary, if the book could stress the importance of good penmanship. No one expects the flourishes and sketches produced joyfully on thank you notes by a certain eight year old girl we know, but legibility is always appreciated.
If you know of such a volume, please alert The Book Bench ASAP.
Gratefully (and desperately),
Christine Burt

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

This blog is intended to be about the things my family is reading. Sometimes my posts are only tenuously linked to our reading. This one isn't about our reading at all. Well, how about this? Let me say I am glad my husband and I didn't stay home and read last night. We went to see Slumdog Millionaire, and we both loved it. It is visually stunning, breath taking at times. It is, by turns, exhilarating, painfully sad, raw, and wonderful. I can honestly say it is the best movie I have seen in at least eleven years. (We were out for our eleventh wedding anniversary.) Wait, I can connect this a little closer to reading. Slumdog Millionaire is based on a book, Q & A, but I don't think I want to read it. I want the story to stay in my brain exactly as it is.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Warm Little Tree to Share

This small book, Little Tree, written by e.e. cummings and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray, is so sweet and warm that I actually expect the pages to be warm to the touch like a mug of cocoa or a slice of buttery toast. The text is e. e. cummings' lovely poem in which a child addresses a Christmas tree. It begins, "little tree, little silent Christmas tree, you are so little, you are more like a flower." The boy goes on to wonder if the tree was sorry to leave the green forest, and comforts it with offers of a hug and a kiss and decorations. He says "look the spangles, that sleep all the year in a dark box, dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine." He tells the tree to put up its arms to be dressed and he and his sister will sing Noel.
The gentle words are matched with soft illustrations which depict a young boy and girl bundled up against the cold bringing a little tree home from the lot, decorating it, and setting it in their front window for passersby to admire.
I've had my copy of this book for nine or ten years, and I've read it over the years to students and my own children. I've never focused on the setting. A recent visit to my son's suburban kindergarten class gave me another way to discuss it. The teacher was talking to the students at circle time about books that are set in cities and apartments. Apartment living seemed so glamorous to that group of five year olds. They mentioned two of my favorites, Knufflebunny and Corduroy. When we took Little Tree out this year, we talked about the setting. My kids think it is set either in Hoboken, NJ or my brother's Brooklyn neighborhood. It started us wondering how people in different parts of our country and world might decorate for the holidays. Isn't it great when an old favorite can inspire new conversations?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pop Go the Holidays

The ultimate Christmas book to me is a pop up book. We've all seen pop up versions of The Night Before Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas and the like. Pop up books make great gifts as well. Robert Sabuda is, of course, the master of the holiday pop up book. My daughter has his version of Alice in Wonderland, a gift from her aunt and uncle, that is a source of endless wonder and fascination to her. He has a great segment floating around the internet from Martha Stewart's show where he teaches Martha to make a pop up Christmas card. Although you kind of always get the sense that Martha is not being taught anything new by anyone and could have figured it out on her own. It was educational to me though. Anyway, since pop up books say Christmas to me and I love all of you for stopping by at this busy time of year, but I don't know where you all live to send you gifts, this video is my little Christmas present to you. I've picked up this book ABC3D at the bookstore and played with it. It's addictive, I warn you. Happy viewing!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Six or seven inches of snow fell in my neck of the woods yesterday. And I do mean woods. We are incredibly blessed to live in a house in the woods. Those woods are especially beautiful to me in fog and snow. My kids are more interested in the snow. They spent hours yesterday sledding, making snow angels, and clomping through the woods in their snowboots. I did some shoveling and took a few pictures, but spent most of the day indoors, enjoying looking out the window at flying flakes and laughing children. When I was outside though, the kids and I recited bits of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." We keep a magical picture book version of it in our living room. The illustrations by Susan Jeffers really capture the peaceful quiet of the poem. When I went looking for a picture of the book's cover to post, I found this page from the book first. It should give you a good idea of how excellent the illustrations are, and it contains my favorite bit from the poem, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Here's wishing you a snow day soon!

Friday, December 19, 2008

What The World Eats for Foodie Friday

This is a long post, but I cannot restrain myself. This book is too amazing to be brief.
Back when I was teaching high school English literature, creative writing, and journalism, a social studies teaching friend of mine and I used to say we could easily use The New York Times in place of textbooks to teach our courses. I don't think this was a lack of humility on our parts; rather we felt the Times provided such a daily wealth of material that we'd have more than enough from which to lesson plan. Sometimes at lunch we'd point out articles or features that would be great to use in other disciplines as well, let's say an article from the Science Times section for a health class. It was a fun mental exercise.
Recently, I've come across a book that I am convinced every school teacher in America, from kindergarten through high school could make use of. It wouldn't substitute for a textbook, but it would be a wonderful supplementary material. What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio could easily be used to help teach biology, chemistry, math, nutrition, geography, sociology, writing, public speaking, art, music, economics, world languages, health, and much more.
What the World Eats is a child friendly version of 2005's Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Peter Menzel took stunning photographs and Faith D'Alusio wrote the informative text for this gorgeous book in which they visit 25 families in 21 countries to document what each family eats in a typical week. Each chapter begins with a photograph of a family surrounded by their groceries for a week. To look at those 25 portraits alone is fascinating. My children and their friends who have picked up this book immediately begin comparing the diets of these families to their own. They quickly notice that families from countries with lower incomes rely heavily on grains, fruits and vegetables. They easily see that families from wealthier countries consume more meats, dairy products, packaged foods and beverages.
Each chapter includes interviews with the families and detailed grocery lists, broken down by type, cost, and quantity. Each chapter places the featured country on a world map and presents facts such as population, average income, and life expectancy. There are also photos of the families obtaining the food (whether at a supermarket, open air market, or on a seal hunt), preparing it, and eating it. This too is quite enlightening to young readers.
As I've said, What the World Eats would make a great addition to any classroom library, but it would be equally at home on a coffee table or older child's bookshelf. Its information about nutrition and the global economy are timely and valuable, and the photographs are truly captivating.
My son happened to read the author blurb on the book's jacket and is very excited to check out another book by Menzel and D'Alusio, winner of the 1999 James Beard Award for References and Writings on Food. It's called Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects. Talk about a catchy title!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Well Stuffed Stocking

I love an old school Christmas stocking. Not one with an orange and some penny candy from the general store. That's a little too old school for me. I really feel Santa and the elves were at the top their stocking stuffing game in the 1970s. During that decade, my older brothers and I were always sure to find a candy cane, a Matchbox car (pink for me), an interesting coin like a silver or half dollar, a ChapStick, probably some Silly Putty or a bouncy ball, and various other small fun items in our stockings. That is exactly the kind of stocking I hope my kids will receive this year on Christmas morning, fat with hands on fun, and thin on electronic gadgetry. I imagine Santa might round out their state quarter collections with Hawaii. We'll see. They'll probably also each get a book or two. That's how Santa has been doing it for the 2000s. There have board books, easy readers, and first chapter books. One year, Dan Gutman's Miss Holly is Too Jolly was quite popular. His entire My Weird School series is terrific for first and second graders. If Santa wants to go old school, he might throw in a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys for the older kids. For my kindergartner there are several Christmas and wintry Geronimo Stilton and Jigsaw Jones books he could choose. New in paperback this year is Megan McDonald's holiday offering from the Judy Moody and Stink collection, The Holly Joliday. Santa has so many paperback books to choose from, but if he asked my advice, I would suggest Bart King's The Pocket Guide to Mischief. It is the perfect size to fit in the toe of a stocking, it is full of fun, and has a retro look and feel that make it seem like it belongs in one of those 1970s stockings that thrilled me so.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oops! and Who Knew?

The picture I put up yesterday of Lang Lang's book was of a different book by Lang Lang. That's right; he's got more than one out. I wrote about Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles, but accidentally used a photo of Lang Lang: Playing with Flying Keys which is also an autobiography. This one was written with Michael French for a 9 to 12 year old audience.

Monday, December 15, 2008

My Husband and I: Like a Couple of Teenagers

Actually, my husband and I aren't very much like teenagers. Caring for a pair of sick kids, getting the Christmas decorations up, and dealing with a broken water tank made us seem more like a couple of grumpy old men this week. However, we each read biographies that would make good reading for teenagers. Bill read Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles written by the pianist Lang Lang with David Ritz. Bill found the story of this world renowned musician fascinating and said he learned a great deal about modern Chinese history and culture as well. It seems that Lang Lang's intense relationship with his father is at the heart of the book. I just finished The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts written by Tom Farley, Jr. and Tanner Colby. It too presents a successful performer affected by a complex father-son relationship. This is a funny and incredibly sad story which of course ends with Chris Farley's death from a drug overdose. It includes over a hundred interviews with Farley's family, friends, and coworkers, including his three brothers, David Spade, and Chris Rock. The interviews are pieced together seamlessly to make The Chris Farley Show read in an easy, chronological way.
My husband and I found ourselves telling bits of our books to each other and discussing the themes of fame and success over the last week or so as we read our separate books. Given the right book at the right time, that is how teenagers can act.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

T-Shirt Reader

I'm a fan of the well written t-shirt. It's an art form, really, to get a reaction such as a chuckle or an amen from as few words as can fit on the average t-shirt. I tend to like subtler ones that make you think, such as my son's t-shirt which says "Hockey" followed by a picture of an oscillating fan. Marathons (which I've cheered at , not competed in) are often good venues for clever ones, such as this on the back of a pink shirt, "If you can read this, you're being beat by a girl" or "Run like there's a sale at Kate Spade." But recently I got a big laugh out of a less subtle t-shirt that teacherninja at linked to. It hearkens back to the musical one hit wonder of the early 1990's by Sir Mix-A-Lot and reads, "I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie." I think Santa needs to drop that under my tree, perhaps with some fat David McCullough tome to carry around in order to prove the point.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fannie in the Kitchen on Foodie Friday

One of the first recipes I learned to make on my own was the one my mom uses to make peanut butter cookies. It comes from Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Baking Book, and for years, the page of that recipe was marked by a piece of plastic. I think it was the corner my mom cut off a bag of brown sugar, one of that recipe's ingredients. It makes the most delicious peanut butter cookies I've ever tried. I always assumed that Fannie Farmer was a made up name like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, and it wasn't until I read this wonderful picture book, Fannie in the Kitchen, by Deborah Hopkinson, that I learned differently. It is a sort of historical fiction picture book about Fannie Merritt Farmer who is responsible for creating modern recipes with standardized and levelled measurements. Rather than tell Fannie Farmer's entire life story, Hopkinson creates a story about Fannie working as a mother's helper and teaching Marcia, the daughter of the house, to cook and deal with the birth of a new baby in the house. Hopkinson does include that Farmer went on to write a book of recipes and to teach at the Boston Cooking School. Fannie Farmer's actual cooking tips are sprinkled throughout the book and an easy to follow recipe for griddle cakes is included at the end.
I must mention the excellent illustrations by Nancy Carpenter. They perfectly capture the feeling of the late 19th century. They have both a sense of authenticity and fun.
This is, to be honest, a book that will appeal more to girls than boys. The eight and 38 year old girls in my house just love it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Great is This Cover?!

Sometimes you see a book's cover and you just have to read the book. I know absolutely nothing about this book except that I cannot wait to get my hands on it!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

God Bless Reading Teachers, Every One!

I've rewritten Tiny Tim's famous line for the title of this post because people who teach others to read give a priceless gift. We've been quite blessed in this family that my children have become strong, enthusiastic readers thanks to some awesome teachers. They are also much more sophisticated (?), reflective readers than I ever was at their age. I think that is in large part due to the way reading is taught in our school district. My kids have greatly benefited from mini lessons, reading workshops, and reading conferences with their teachers. While reading Raymond and Graham Rule the School the other night, my son said, "I can make a text to text connection between the character of Mrs. Gibson in this book and Spud Murphy in The Legend of Spud Murphy." Their reading lessons at school have given them the vocabulary to make text to text, text to self, and text to world connections. While they would still love when Spud Murphy "accidentally" gives Marty an I LOVE BARBIE hand stamp and when Graham shaves off his eyebrow, their reading is more meaningful when they make connections about these incidents. They are active readers, and I am so grateful for it. As I wrote yesterday, Raymond and Graham inspired my daughter to read a version of A Christmas Carol (nicely retold by Pamela Kennedy and illustrated by Carol Heyer). Now, no two books could be more different, but Hayden has learned from her teachers that reading one can enrich her appreciation of the other, and that inspired today's blog post. My son Aaron suggested that I attempt to make a plum pudding so they can eat it and make a text to self connection to both books, but they don't need that meaningful of a reading experience.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Raymond and Graham Rule the School

My kids and I needed a good book that they would all agree on for our nightly shared reading. Usually if a book is funny, they will all agree on it. I had heard about Raymond and Graham Rule the School by Mike Knudson and Steve Wilkinson a few months ago. It looked both good and funny so it would be perfect for us. Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting my hands on a copy. So, we read and enjoyed other books. Just as we finished one and planned to start reading a Christmasy chapter book, a copy of Raymond and Graham arrived for me at my library through an interlibrary loan. Since it is pretty short (136 pages) we decided to read it before the Christmas book. No one regrets the decision! What a fun book this is!
Best friends Raymond and Graham have been waiting for the fourth grade, their turn to rule East Millcreek Elementary School, for years. Only it doesn't turn out to be quite the perfect year they had imagined. There is an accidentally shaved off eyebrow, an embarrassing role in the school's production of A Christmas Carol, and a weekend of diarrhea brought on by way too much prune eating. Not surprisingly, the diarrhea humor was a big hit with my boys. My daughter chuckled along too and was inspired to read a picture book version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The chapter we are currently on, "A Sick Plan" involves Raymond attempting to catch a cold from a sick girl in his class. It is revoltingly hilarious.
I have a sense that the next book in the series, Raymond and Graham:Dancing Dudes, would be a welcome find under the Christmas tree for any one of my kids.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Foodie Friday: Gingerbread Round Up

(Gingerbread house picture courtesy of the Burt children)

For me, two of the most enjoyable activities in the weeks before Christmas are baking gingerbread cookies and decorating gingerbread houses. The smell of ginger, cloves, and cinnamon in the house and all of that candy to nibble is a little bit of heaven. It's nice to complete such an afternoon with reading some version of the gingerbread man story. There are many to choose from, but they all provide the satisfaction of seeing that impish, trash talking cookie get his comeuppance in the end. Here are three we've had fun reading over the years.

The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett is as beautifully illustrated as all of her other books. There is a twist at the end; the gingerbread baby isn't eaten by a fox, but gets what's coming to him all the same for his mischief and taunting. It's worth noting that Jan Brett has a great website with many fun activities and printable pages at

The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski remains true to the classic storyline, but is set in New York City. He eludes his captors by jumping off a fire escape, riding the E train and so forth, but eventually meets up with a fox in Central Park.

The Gingerbread Man by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Barbara McClintock is a good retelling which comes with a recipe. I just love a book that comes with a recipe!

These books are a yummy way to get into the holiday spirit and teach a lesson about the dangers of talking smack. Now, run, run, as fast as you can, and read a version of the gingerbread man!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kindergarten Math and Alcohol Consumption

My youngest son is currently in kindergarten. He has a fantastic teacher. She is creative, energetic, experienced, organized, and fun. She also encourages parents to come in and volunteer with the class. I love going in there even though it often requires a few Excedrin on the way out. Obviously, I enjoy getting a glimpse of my son's day. I also think it is smart of the teacher to use parent volunteers to work one on one with the kids on crafts or to make copies or cut out project pieces. freeing up her time for the important business of teaching. Recently I showed up in the class for my scheduled volunteering, but the classroom was empty. The kids must have been on their way back from gym or art class. I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room for a minute or two. I certainly wasn't going to try to wedge myself Goldilocks-like in one of the kids' chairs, and it probably would have been too much of an invasion of space to sit in the teacher's chair. I wandered around the room and ended up in the Math Center. It held various manipulatives, toy money and clocks, and some interesting books. My favorite was Sorting, part of the Math Counts series by Henry Pluckrose. It reminded me of the kinds of conversations I should be having with my kindergartner but sometimes forget about in the rush to get everything done. We could talk about the groceries and how to sort them. By color? By temperature? By size? How should we sort laundry? Another way to introduce those mathematical concepts of classifying, sets, and subsets is to play the old game "Which one doesn't belong?" That used to be my favorite part on Sesame Street (Sing it with me. "One of these things is not like the others...").

That same wonderful teacher who allows me to come volunteer and poke around her classroom bookshelves sent home a neat "Thanksgiving Math" assignment last week. It was designed to get the children to see the numbers in any situation, even Thanksgiving dinner. Some questions from the assignment:

*How many people were at your Thanksgiving dinner? Children? Adults? In all? (24, by the way)

*How many turkeys did you have?

*How much did the turkey(s) weigh?

*What was the house number where you ate?

*What time did you eat dinner?

*How many kinds of pies were there?

God bless my family, my sister-in-law's family, and friends who patiently helped Ethan with the homework and allowed themselves to be interviewed about their favorite part of the turkey for the Turkey Graph section of the assignment. Let me say this about them though, it's a good thing the "Thanksgiving Math" sheet didn't ask these questions:

*How many bottles of wine were finished? Red? White? In all?

* How many beer bottles went out to the recycling bin?

*How many sambuca shots were thrown back?

Had those questions been asked and answered honestly, Ethan's counting skills would have gotten a good workout but there might have been a decrease in my appearances on the parent volunteer schedule.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ridiculous Reading Memory

From seventh grade through high school graduation, I had tons of babysitting gigs. The hands down best was watching the two little boys that lived a few houses away from my family. First, because when the parents came home, the mom would pay me and I could walk home in less than sixty seconds. I could avoid the whole awkwardly quiet drive home with a dad. The second great thing about that house was that there was a sewing/storage room with walls of bookshelves that held hundreds of paperback romance novels. They were all bodice rippers featuring wealthy landowners, shipping captains, powerful businessmen and naive but passionate heroines. I would hustle those two boys into bed, pour a tall glass of Coke, fill a bowl with potato chips, and get reading for hours. It never bothered me that the story was always the same with just different settings and names. Nope, I was in it for the flirting, the heaving chests, straining breeches, bruising kisses, and tender embraces. Talk about guilty pleasures and escapist fiction! It was bliss!

This memory of mine was inspired by the Tuesday Writing Prompts over at

Monday, December 1, 2008

7 Ways We Used "The Night Before Christmas" and Not One of Them Was "Reading Material"

Thanksgiving is behind us, the lights are on our house, gingerbread houses have been decorated. It's time to start reading those classic Christmas books with the kids, right? Sort of. One of my children took Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Mary Engelbreit down from the shelf last week. We never got around to reading it, but we did use it in the following ways:

1. Lap Desk It ended up in the minivan (everything we own ends up in the minivan), and my daughter used it as a hard surface on which to write out her homework. That's right, homework gets done in the minivan also.

2. Artist's inspiration The same child who used it for homework also used it when looking for a model from which to draw Santa Claus.

3. Weapon The hard cover and substantial weight made it a good choice for my five year old when he chose something to pick up and whack his brother's butt with.

4. Object of delusion I kept telling myself it wound be the linchpin in a cozy evening of hot cocoa and snuggling together for a good book. Didn't happen.

5. Paper flattener It flattened a Thanksgiving drawing that came out of a backpack all wrinkled and "ruined" last Wednesday. After a few hours in this book, the drawing was good as new!

6. Bribe I tried in vain several times to say, "If you'll just ___________ or____________. we can drink hot cocoa and read some good books later. See #4- it didn't happen.

7. Upper arm workout Carrying this book along with other books, hockey equipment, and backpacks in and out of the car and up and down stairs hopefully provided my upper arms with some desperately needed definition.

A Merry December to all and to all a good night!

Check out more lists over at