38 posts categorized "Nonfiction" Feed

House: 5 First Words Board Books: Michael Slack

Book: House: 5 First Words Board Books
Author: Michael Slack
Pages: 14 pages each
Age Range: 3-5

HouseBoardBookI don't normally review board books. But my daughter and I both thought that House: 5 First Words Board Books, illustrated by Michael Slack, was exceptional. It arrives as a box, hinged on the left-hand side, so that you can open it like a book. The outside of the box displays the exterior of a house, with a cut-out for the upstairs window. Inside, five little chunky board books are laid out face up, representing five locations in a house (and matching what you see on the cover of the box, like you are now peeking inside). The rooms consist of living room and bedroom upstairs, and bathroom, kitchen, and garage downstairs. 

The living room is the largest room (twice the width of the others) and drew us in first. Each page contains a simple labelled illustration of something that you might find in the living room: sofa, coffee table, computer, art, window, etc. The final page spread shows all of the items assembled together in a view of the whole room, with the text "living room". The other books follow the same general pattern. The bedroom is, as you would expect, a child's bedroom, so the illustrations include things like an easel and crayons. The kitchen has a high chair. The garage has a tricycle. It's definitely a family home. 

Although not specifically mentioned, a black cat makes a cameo in the final spread of each book. The cat is somewhat mischievous, hiding in a drawer, flushing the toilet, and getting behind the wheel of the car. My daughter and I found the presence of the cat a nice detail, and something to guess about as we read each book ("What will the cat be doing here?"). 

Slack's illustrations have a graphic design quality to them, with bold colors and simple shapes, and a robust two-dimensionality. The couch, for instance, is a flat shape with thick black lines delineating the seat, sides of the arms, and cushion divider. There's some texture to the green shape and the black lines, but it's more an abstract representation of a couch than anything else. I think this works in terms of being kid-friendly. You can tell what everything is, and the illustrations are highly accessible. I see this as a book that will make preschoolers want to try their hand at drawing household objects. Or perhaps they'll try abstract art, because the art in the living room is delightful. 

The whole package of House is simply satisfying. The way the books fit together in the box and the way the interior and exterior of the box reflect and augment what's going on in the book, works. The labels of the objects are simple and appropriate, and the illustrations are cheerful and straightforward, with just a hint of whimsical detail. My daughter would have flat-out adored these books when she was about three, and even at eight she was utterly charmed. We are at the stage of giving away a lot of books, but this one is already dear to our hearts, and going on our keep shelf. Highly recommended! This would be a wonderful gift for any preschooler. 

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Publications for Kids from the US Government Bookstore

This summer I received a packet of books and interactive booklets from the US Government Publishing Office (GPO). Basically, the GPO has an online bookstore where you can purchase children's books (and adult books) that have been published by various government agencies.  Who knew? They actually have a Government Book Talk Blog where you can learn about the books, with posts often keyed to holidays and other relevant events. You do have to buy the books from the government (via website, phone, at their retail store in Washington, etc.). But they have some cool stuff. 

WhereIsBearThey sent me a couple of paperback picture books from the CDC that were designed for parents to help understand their children's developmental milestones. They are include lots of prompts for parents to interact with two and three year olds, and they have little "Milestone Moments" on each page to tell parents what to expect as their children's literacy develops. These types of books are not really my sort of thing, but the two that I received (Where Is Bear?: A Terrific Tale for 2-Year Olds and Amazing Me: It's Busy Being Three) were cute, and certainly put together with attention to detail. I could see value in, say, distributing them as part of a Reach Out and Read type program. You can read more about them here

JuniorPaleontologistThey also sent me several softcover activity booklets from the National Park Service, a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet for Haleakala, a Junior Paleontologist Activity Book for Ages 5-12, a Junior Ranger activity guide for California-Zephyr, and a Junior Ranger Night Explorer booklet for the Midwest Region. The website shows various others, for all sorts of activities and locations. These activity books would, I think, be extremely handy for keeping a child busy when visiting a National Park. They are chock full of word searches, board games (where you just use a pebble or something for playing pieces), fill in the blank quizzes, journal entries, and connect the dots. They have clearly been extensively researched and are full of details about the topic at hand. Here's one example:

"Native Hawaiians are incredible scientists. Scientists learn best by just watching, hearing, and feeling how things around them interact. They observe many things: rocks, plants, birds, air, sun, stars, and much more. Pre-European contact Hawaiians did not have a written language. They had to memorize everything that they learned." This is followed by questions like "Think of ways you can help yourself memorize things without writing them down." 

Some of the content is more fact based, while some of it leans towards passing on positive messages about National Parks, nature, etc. The Haleakala one has required activities that you need to do. If you do them you can get a park ranger to sign your certificate. The Junior Paleontologist one was more general, without the associated certificate. I think my daughter will enjoy working with this one from home. 

HaleakalaMy general impression of the activity books was that they all had a LOT of content, and could keep kids busy in the car for quite some time. They are lightweight but are full color, and sturdy enough to survive a road trip. If I were headed to a National Park or other landmark I would consider checking online ahead of time for associated publications. At the very least, if saw said publications in the visitor's center on checking in, I would definitely pick one up. We'll keep the Haleakala one for our next trip!

And just to point out the wide variety of government agencies producing children's publications, the last booklet in my packet was Understanding Marine Debris: Games & Activities for Kids of All Ages, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This has a glossy cover and a black and white interior with sturdy pages. There's everything inside from coloring to dot to dot to Mad Libs. This one is, as you would expect from the title, fairly didactic in terms of the content ("How your packed lunch can make less trash", etc.), but it's been my observation that many kids love this sort of thing. They can use the knowledge against their parents and show how smart they are ("Mommy, the book says you should be using reusable grocery bags", or whatever). I also thought that they did a nice job of keeping the activities fun. Which is the point, of course. 

Bottom line: the US Government Publishing Office has a wide range of publications designed to inform and educate kids (and parents). If you are looking for activity books for your kids on some particular topic (a trip you are taking, a point you want to make to them about the environment, etc.), their website would a good place to start. And if you are out in a Visitor's Center somewhere, take a look at the kids' publications. I think you'll be surprised by the level of effort that's gone into making them entertaining. 

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute: KJ Dell'Antonia

Book: How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute
Author: KJ Dell'Antonia
Pages: 320
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction (Parenting)

HappierParentI rarely review books for adults on this blog, but KJ Dell'Antonia's new parenting book How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute inspired me to say a few words. I've read and enjoyed a number of Dell'Antonia's articles over the years, and so was interested to hear her voice in book form. I've also been on something of a personal quest to be happier in my own parenting, so this book had the potential to be a good fit.

I was not disappointed. It seems that Dell'Antonia, working (journalist) mother of four children, has been on a similar quest for quite a while. She read extensively on parenting, talked to a variety of parents and other experts, and conducted a survey. Her emphasis for the book is on changes that parents can make to their parenting styles, hacks of various sorts, that will make the parent happier. And happier parents will, she believes (as do I) ultimately lead to happier kids. 

Dell'Antonia cites a number of books that I had already read and enjoyed, like How to Raise and Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haimes, It's OK Not to Share by Heather Shumaker, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. I felt early on in the book that KJ and I we were philosophically aligned, and I marked a number of other books for future reads. I also got a kick out of the fact that two of the parents she cited were people that I knew (Marjorie Ingall and Jason Kotecki), at least in the sense of having met them in person and shared a meal. 

Anyway, How to Be a Happier Parent consists of chapters dedicated to each of nine parenting areas that Dell'Antonia and the people she talked with have found to particular sources of unhappiness or stress for parents. She starts with getting everyone out of the house in the morning and progresses through things like enforcing chores, mediating between siblings, and monitoring homework.

Her basic approach is guided by a set of ten mantras for happier parents that she explains early in the book and then repeatedly refers back to. For instance: "What you want now isn't always what you want later" (you have to take the long view when doing things like enforcing chores, even when being the fun, easy parent is more appealing in the short run). I especially liked "You do you", as in, you don't have to be the Pinterest-perfect parent, your family can do what your family likes.

I highlighted passages in basically every chapter (except for the one on siblings, which I skipped because my daughter doesn't have siblings). In truth, a lot of the recommendations in the book consist of things that I already believe, like staying as far out of your children's homework assignments as you can and using natural consequences to teach them to pack their backpacks properly (by refusing to bring something to them later). But there's a difference between believing philosophically in doing something and actually doing it. And for me, at least, there's value in repetition and the validation of hearing advice that you in your heart want to hear. (Like "you do you.")

The piece of advice that stood out the most for me, and that I feel like could actually change how I do things, was regarding discipline. The general idea is to treat discipline not so much as enforcement but as teaching kids how to enact certain behaviors. And to remind yourself that it takes kids a long (long, long, long) time to learn things sometimes, so you just have to keep repeating yourself over and over again. You should try to do this without beating yourself up over having failed to get this across in the previous 100 times, which will help in staying calm. Here's a section of the text on this that I highlighted:

"“but you’re not here just to stop him in the moment.” You’re here, she says, to teach your child to make the right choices for himself, so offer that option first, even if it seems as if he should know better by now. Some things take a lot of saying...

That whole sequence of connecting, teaching, and then, if necessary, ending a behavior is one you will repeat again and again, especially with a younger child, so make your words positive ones, even if the behavior is anything but. “If I’m going to say it a hundred times,” says Faber, “I figure it might as well be something I want my child to learn.”...

That kind of repetition is where a lot of us fall down. Consistency is hard, and it’s especially difficult when we’ve become so accustomed to an on-demand world...

When we accept discipline as a long-term teaching process, it gets easier. Instead of thinking, I’ve asked him hundreds of times to do this and he still doesn’t do it, parents who are happier in their disciplinary role think something more along the lines of I’ve asked him a hundred times and I’ll ask him a hundred more and that’s how we get there." (Chapter 7)

I'm going to try to remember this. I think it will help. And really, that's why I read parenting and other self-help type books. I'm looking for those ideas that resonate with my own personal philosophy and that might, if implemented, help in some way. 

So, even as someone who has read a lot of books on related topics, I found How to be a Happier Parent useful. This book is not for the mother who is looking for validation in her quest to get her child into Stanford at all costs, or for the father trying figure out how to push his lazy child to practice more so that he can get that football scholarship. (Though these parents could learn a lot if they did read it.) But if you are a busy parent and you are looking for some tips on taking a deep breath, slowing things down, taking off some of the pressure and enjoying your family more, this is the book for you. Highly recommended! 

Publisher: Avery  
Publication Date: August 21, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Off Topic: Seeking a Diversity of Ideological Viewpoints

This post is off topic from the types of things I have traditionally shared on this blog. But it's something that is resonating with me right now. Feel free to ignore if it's not of interest to you.

I'm not particularly concerned about the whole Facebook / Cambridge Analytica thing: I have always been careful about what I share in Facebook, just in case. But what I am concerned about is the way that Facebook and other sites allow, even encourage, people to retreat into their own ideological bubbles. Most of us don't do this on purpose - we just tend to have friends who come from similar backgrounds and have similar viewpoints to our own. If we follow a news outlet, whether via television, podcast, or radio, or newspaper or magazine, we follow the one that makes us comfortable.

But the result of this is an ever-increasing polarization of the country. It's not just that people don't agree with one another's viewpoints - it's that they often can't even fathom how someone else could think the way that they do. This phenomenon has been building for a while, but obviously there was a sharp increase after the 2016 Presidential election. The social media sites build on this by showing is ever more of the kids of things that we like and share. Often they show us even more extreme versions, to the left of the right, as some have documented recently. 

Many people are fine with this, of course, and that is their choice. But for various reasons, I am NOT fine with this for myself. Here are some some things that I've been doing:

  • When possible, I read two newspapers every day. The San Jose Mercury News is biased to the left (as are most mainstream newspapers), and contains local news and weather that I like to keep up with. Even when I'm traveling, I still try to read it online. The Wall Street Journal is biased somewhat to the right, and also contains much more in-depth national and international coverage than the local paper.  Since reading both papers (something I've been doing for several years), I've noticed which stories are covered in which publication, and which are ignored. This can be fascinating. 
  • I also subscribe to news magazines covering a range of perspectives, and of course find similar patterns of inclusion and omission. 
  • I read Hillbilly Elegy, and highly recommend it for increasing understanding of those who are not "coastal elites." I'm reading other nonfiction titles about being more skeptical in the consumption of news and data, too. 
  • Recently, I've been attempting to ideologically diversify my Twitter feed (this would be pretty much impossible for me on Facebook). I'm following a range of news sources and personalities there. I also have carefully created a (private) list of fewer than 100 news sources. I find that skimming through the tweets for this smaller pool of people and news outlets gives me the variety in viewpoints that I am seeking. Sometimes this is disconcerting, as when there are highly varied reactions to the same event. But it is working for me. I often have to stop and think: "OK, who is saying this?". It's making me a more skeptical consumer of news, something that I think is important in this day and age. 

This is all obviously time-consuming, and it has certainly cut into my blogging. Generally speaking, I'm more interested right now in news and politics than in talking about individual books (though I love reading books more than ever). I'm more fired up about threats to freedom of speech than I am about the need for more diverse books (though I'm happy to see those numbers increasing, and glad that other people are championing it). I am more concerned about the educational system (testing, homework, and practices that sap students' joy of learning) than I am about, well, a lot of things (though I'll always care deeply about growing bookworms). In all of these areas, I've found that it's extremely helpful, though not always comfortable, to broaden the ideological perspective of what I'm reading. So that's what I'm trying to do. 

I'm not sure where all this is going to lead, in terms of my blog. I'll do another post about that soon, once I figure a few things out. Meanwhile, I welcome your feedback. Do you prefer to stay in your ideological bubble, or do you try to reach out? Do you think that it's hopelessly naive to try to understand how the people on the other side of the issues think? Do you think that I'll just end up with a headache from reading too many different opinions? Time will tell.... Thanks for reading!

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Two Points on iGen and the Critical Importance of Kids Reading for Pleasure

IGenRecently I read the book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us by Jean Twenge. It's about the generation of kids born between roughly 1995 and 2010, a generation Twenge dubs iGen, is different from previous generations. Twenge relies on analysis of several surveys of high school kids and young adults that have been asking the same questions for many years, supplemented by interviews with junior high, high school and college kids. I was interested in this book in part because my daughter falls right at the tail of the time window, and also because my company has been looking to hire students graduating from college (the other end of the iGen window). 

There are a lot of interesting ideas and conclusions in the book, and I do recommend that people give it a look. The take home message for me is that I want to put off getting my daughter a smartphone for as long as possible, while encouraging her to continue participating in sports and spending time in person with other kids. Because these things are all associated with more positive outcomes. 

But what I want to talk about specifically today is two points that the book makes regarding reading for pleasure. In Chapter 2, there's a section of the book titled "Are Books Dead?" Sadly, Twenge's conclusion is that reading for pleasure, while not dead, is in decline among today's kids. She notes that:

"In the late 1970's, the clear majority of teens read a book or a magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day. Because the survey question was written in the 1970s, before e-readers existed, it does not specify the format of the book or magazine, so Millennials or iGen’ers who read on a Kindle or iPad would still be included... 

By 2015, one out of three high school seniors admitted they had not read any books for pleasure in the past year, three times as many as in 1976. Even college students entering four-year universities, the young people presumably most likely to read books, are reading less (see Figure 2.4)...

This huge decline flatly contradicts a 2014 Pew Research Center study cheered by many in publishing, which found that 16-to 29-year-olds were more likely to read books than older people. Why the difference? The Pew study included books read for school assignments, which younger people are of course more likely to have. Thus it committed the classic mistake of a one-time study: confusing age and generation. In the data here, where everyone is the same age, iGen teens are much less likely to read books than their Millennial, GenX, and Boomer predecessors."

There's a graph. Twenge shows similar results for reading magazines and newspapers. She posits (after looking at data showing that teens are not spending more time on homework or other extracurricular activities) that this decline is due to teens spending so much time on smartphones that reading time is basically squeezed out. She also shows that this decline in time spent reading coincides with a decline in SAT scores, especially in writing and critical reading (though of course it is impossible to directly claim causation). She expresses concern that as today's teens head into college, reading long textbooks will be extremely difficult for them, and suggests changes that may be necessary to accommodate the iGen'ers. 

So that's point 1: Teens today are reading less, at least in part because they are spending a lot of time on smartphones.

For the second point that I'm interested in sharing, we turn to Chapter 4 of iGen: Insecure: The New Mental Health Crisis. In this chapter, Twenge shares a range of demoralizing statistics about how today's teens are more emotionally fragile, more lonely, and more prone to depression and suicide. She looks at a variety of survey data and attempts to discern causes, applying a two-part test to possible causes: "(1) it must be correlated with mental health issues or unhappiness and (2) it must have changed at the same time and in the correct direction." She finds: 

"Time spent doing homework fails both tests; it’s not linked to depression, and it didn’t change much over that time period. TV watching is linked to depression, but teens watch less TV now than they used to, so it fails test number two. Time spent on exercise and sports is linked to less depression, but it didn’t change much since 2012, so they fail test number two, too.

Only three activities definitively pass both tests. First, new-media screen time (such as electronic devices and social media) is linked to mental health issues and/ or unhappiness, and it rose at the same time. Second and third, in-person social interaction and print media are linked to less unhappiness and less depression, and both have declined at the same time as mental health has deteriorated.

A plausible theory includes three possible causes: (1) more screen time has led directly to more unhappiness and depression, (2) more screen time has led to less in-person social interaction, which then led to unhappiness and depression, and (3) more screen time has led to less print media use, leading to unhappiness and depression. In the end, all of the mechanisms come back to new-media screen time in one way or another. By all accounts, it is the worm at the core of the apple."

You'll have to read the book for the full details of which studies Twenge is referencing and how she comes to these conclusions. But what particularly struck me (as will not surprise regular readers) is that reading print media, like participating in sports and spending time with friends, was associated with positive mental health outcomes. So that's point 2. 

So here's what we have: teens are spending less time reading for pleasure, and this decline is associated with negative mental health outcomes. What this says to me is that encouraging kids to enjoy reading is even more important than I already thought. Reading for pleasure has so many benefits: improved vocabulary, increased empathy, and improved math skills, to name a few. And now, it seems, it may also be tied to mental health and happiness. 

To all parents reading this, I implore you: put as much focus as you can on making sure that your kids ENJOY reading. Don't worry about their reading level, or how many graphic novels they read, or whether or not they make spelling errors when they write. If you help them to ENJOY reading, they will eventually read, and many good things will follow. You'll be helping them academically in the long run. You'll be giving them hours of pleasure in the short run. And you'll be doing something that appears to protect against ills like anxiety and depression. If that's not worth doing, I don't know what is. 

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook.


Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History: Walter Dean Myers and Floyd Cooper

Book: Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History
Author: Walter Dean Myers
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Pages: 40
Age Range: 5-9

FrederickDouglassFrederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History is a picture book biography written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. In straightforward fashion, it traces the life of a man named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, born a slave in Maryland, who eventually (changing his name along the way) becomes a writer and leader of the abolitionist movement, as well as an advocate for women's rights. Myers gives particular focus to Frederick's quest to learn to read. His owner's wife starts to teach him, but her husband fears that learning to read will "make (Frederick) unfit to be a slave." He's right about that, in fact, and Frederick eventually escapes to Massachusetts. 

This is a very text-dense picture book that refers (though it doesn't dwell upon) to mature matters, including the fact hat Frederick was beaten for arguing with his master. I think it's more suitable for kids in elementary school than earlier. Reading it with kids will of course spark discussion about slavery, the causes of the Civil War, early women's rights, and the militant abolitionist John Brown. Like this:

"When he was nineteen, Frederick fell in love with a free black woman, Anna Murray. But he was a slave and could not be with her as he chose. The lure of freedom because almost unbearable, but to try to escape was a risky business. Slaveholders did not want to lose their precious "property." When slaves who tried to escape were caught, they were often punished severely.

Frederick new he had to take the chance!"

I do have one quibble about the book. The text skips over the fact that British sympathizers bought Douglass' freedom from his owner. This information is included in a timeline at the end of the book, as is the text of the document officially freeing him. But as I was reading the book I found it odd that this wasn't mentioned. I'm sure that Myers had a reason, but to me it was confusing. The timeline is helpful, though. 

I was quite pleased with Cooper's illustrations, rendered in erasers and oils on board. The old-fashioned sepia tones transport readers to the time of the story. We see Frederick as mostly serious throughout the book, but it's a picture of him as a boy enrapt as the mistress of the house reads to him that tugs at the viewers heart. 

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History covers a lot of historical ground, educating young readers about Douglass himself, as well about America in the 1800s. Myers does a nice job, I think, of humanizing Frederick, while keeping the story focused on the facts. This, I think, is the right balance for a book for younger readers. His focus on the power of words also comes through without being didactic, and delivers a more powerful message about education because of that restraint. Frederick Douglass would be a strong addition to any library's biography collection. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Charles Darwin's Around-the-World Adventure: Jennifer Thermes

Book: Charles Darwin's Around the World Adventure
Author: Jennifer Thermes
Pages: 48
Age Range: 5-8

CharlesDarwinAroundTheWorldCharles Darwin's Around the World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes is a nonfiction picture book focused on a five-year voyage that Charles Darwin took as a young man that strongly influenced his scientific discoveries. Charles, chosen to be the naturalist aboard a ship mapping measurements of South America in 1831, writes about his wondrous findings and collects various natural specimens. The book describes some of Charles' key discoveries at various points along his voyage, while rendering Charles as a real, accessible person to young readers. We learn about Charles' sea-sickness, for example, and how he felt when he experienced his first earthquake. 

Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Thermes' writing:

"Charles dug up bones of ancient sloth-like creatures, including a giant Megatherium, buried on the beach. How many of these huge creatures once roamed the earth? Why had they disappeared? 

He studied the rocks and tried to figure out how steep cliffs and flat plains were formed. Was it possible that the shape of the land affected the animals' survival?" 

Thermes' illustrations are detailed, with labeled maps interspersed between images of Charles and his experiences. A map on the book's end pages shows Charles' journey as a whole, with an accompanying timeline. Although the main text is fairly detailed in and of itself, there are also end notes, sources, fun facts, and recommendations for further reading. There is a LOT here to keep an interested elementary-schooler reading and studying. My six-year-old was utterly engaged in Charles' story, though we did not pore over map in detail. 

Charles Darwin's Around the World Adventure is top-quality narrative non-fiction, featuring a likable historical figure, interesting plant and animal facts, and well-mapped journey. This is a book that belongs in libraries and classrooms severing first through third graders, everywhere. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: October 4, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Noah Webster & His Words: Jeri Chase Ferris + Vincent X. Kirsch

Book: Noah Webster & His Words
Author: Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrator: Vincent X. Kirsch
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

NoahWebsterNoah Webster & His Words, written by Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch, is a picture book biography of the man who compiled the first American dictionary. We learn that Noah was born in 1758, expected to be the next in a long line of Webster farmers. But Noah wanted to be a scholar, and the world is more literate today thanks to his efforts. 

The book follows Noah through the major events in his life, as he goes to college, becomes a schoolteacher, starts working on his first speller, marries, and so on. I hadn't realized the patriotic underpinnings of Webster's work prior to reading this book, and found reading about Noah's motivations quite uplifting. Here's the first hint:

"In October 1781, King George's soldiers SURRENDERED [verb: gave up] at Yorktown. The war was over at last! America was free and IN-DE-PEN-DENT [adj.: not controlled by others]. THat gave Noah an idea. He would write the schoolbooks for America, beginning with spelling. "I will write the second Declaration of Independence," Noah wrote to a friend. "An American spelling book!"

I quite like the way Jeri Chase Ferris incorporates dictionary-like definitions right into the text. This both reinforces the subject of the book and makes a fairly text-dense book more accessible to new readers. I also like the way she uses a slightly old-fashioned tone to her writing, to suit the time period. Not so much as to make the book inaccessible to modern kids, but just enough to give a flavor, though the use of words like "Alas". The text is rendered in an old-fashioned-looking font, also, furthering this impression. Even the author and illustrator bios at the end of the book follow these conventions, complete with definitions. This made me smile. 

Vincent X. Kirsch's illustrations show somewhat oddly proportioned people (see cover image above), but I think he does capture Noah's scholarly, well-intentioned character. I think that kids will appreciate seeing how Noah ages over time as the book progresses. The muted color scheme also support the historical, bookish feel of the book. The brightest thing on many pages is Noah's blue-backed speller". 

I only had one nit about the text. There's a sentence: "Over the next ten years Noah wrote six more schoolbooks for children and had several children of his own." The "several" seemed imprecise in a biography. I had to consult the end matter to see how many children Noah and his wife did have, to satisfy my own curiosity [8]. I'm guessing that the children arrived over more than those ten years, and this was too complex to explain, but it took me out of the story. This is, however, my only complaint about a solid, interesting, well-written book.  

A handy, illustrated timeline at the end of the book fills in details for those who are interested in extra facts, and should make Noah Webster & His Words a useful reference title for elementary school kids. A bibliography includes both primary and secondary sources [providing a good opportunity to introduce this concept to kids.]

Noah Webster & His Words is a picture book biography done right, from the choice of an important historical figure to the selection of anecdotes and facts to the choice of fonts. It belongs in primary school libraries and classrooms everywhere. As for me, I gained a new appreciation for Noah Webster, and for the importance of dictionaries in making America the distinct country it is today. Highly recommended!

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Rae Pica

Book: What If Everybody Understood Child Development? Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives
Author: Rae Pica
Pages: 160
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction

What If Everybody Understood Child Development? by Rae Pica is a collected series of essay about education from the perspective of what kids need developmentally. Being more an essay collection than a structured book, it's a little bit repetitive when read straight through, and lacks any overall conclusion. However, the essays make many, many excellent points. I highlighted passage after passage. Rather than attempt to directly quote my many highlights, I'll share some general themes, Pica's points paraphrased into my own words:

  • All kids are unique, and their needs are not served by one-size-fits-all educational standards (particularly when those standards are written by people who have not worked with kids). Kids learn at different rates, and pushing them to learn before they are developmentally ready is counter-productive. This applies in particular to expectations that kids must be reading by the time they leave kindergarten.
  • Kids, especially young kids, learn best through play and when they can be active. When we take away play, and push kids to learn at ever-younger ages, we are taking away their childhood, and negatively impacting the adults who they will become. 
  • Kids need freedom to take risks, and learn what they can and can't to. "Bubble wrapping" them is detrimental. 
  • We should be talking with girls about things that they are interested in and things that they DO, instead of praising them for how cute they are. In general, we should avoid the empty "good job" sort of praise for all kids. 
  • Excessive testing is hurting kids and teachers. Schools should be teaching kids how to learn, rather than trying to just fill them with facts. 
  • Schools should be restoring both gym and recess. Kids need informal time for play and movement, as well as more formal instruction about exercise and fitness. There are academic as well as physical benefits to this. Recess should never be withheld as a punishment.  
  • Homework is not beneficial for elementary school kids, and is in many ways harmful, particularly because it can (and does) turn kids off of reading for pleasure. 

If any of these themes pique your interest, I recommend that you pick up a copy of What If Everybody Understood Child Development? and search the table of contents for the relevant topics. 

I especially like that at the end of each chapter, Pica includes a set of actions that teachers can take in support of that topic as well as a set of links to further information/research. Although this book is clearly written for teachers, a number of the actions, and certainly the references, are relevant for parents, too. The references include quite a few BAM Radio Network articles and interviews, where Pica is an organizer and featured blogger, but many other sources are also included, from TED talks to newspapers to books and blogs, most with URLs. 

What If Everybody Understood Child Development? would be a great book to give to any parent or teacher you know who is uneasy about aspects of our current educational system (excessive testing, lack of play-based or individualized learning, etc.) but having difficulty articulating the problems. Rae Pica has been reading and thinking about these topics as an educational consultant for more than 30 years. She has strong opinions, most of which resonated with me as a parent and as a person who has started reading much more recently in these areas. Pica clearly cares deeply about the welfare of kids. I wish that education policy-makers and school administrators everywhere understood more about these issues, which they would if they would read What If Everybody Understood Child Development?. If only...  

Publisher: Corwin
Publication Date: May 6, 2015
Source of Book: Purchased on Kindle

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Beyond Measure: Vicki Abeles

Book: Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation
Author: Vicki Abeles
Pages: 304
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction

Beyond Measure is a new book by Vicki Abeles, a mom and former Wall Street lawyer who created a documentary called The Race to Nowhere, about problems with the educational system in the US. In this new book (there is also a new movie called Beyond Measure), Abeles shares ideas and solutions for parents and educators that she has distilled from talking with people around the country (including at community showings of Race to Nowhere). The idea is to build something of a grassroots movement to fix problems in the system, such as excessive homework, excessive testing, and hyper-competitive college application processes. 

For me, Beyond Measure was the right book at the right time. Over the past couple of years I've read a number of books that Abeles references (Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Excellent Sheep, Mindset), and others that touch on similar issues (Why Don't Students Like School, The Me, Me, Me Epidemic and How to Raise an Adult). I've been giving a lot of thought to how children learn and become capable adults.

I've also been struggling with the fact that my five-year-old daughter, one trimester into kindergarten, is already complaining about certain aspects of school. I know that some degree of complaining about school is normal and inevitable, of course, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so soon. 

I've also been in need of a new direction for my blog, and had already decided to try to put more of a focus on the joy of learning. Beyond Measure was the first book that I read after deciding on this path, so I flagged a lot of passages. It is basically a call to arms to remake, in ways small and large, the US educational system, to turn out kids who are creative problem-solvers, rather than robots who can spit out rote answers. It's also a defense against school and community pressures that are making kids sick from stress.

Rather than attempt to review this book, what I'll do is summarize, and share some of the passages that I highlighted from each chapter. I hope that these passages will inspire some of you to pick up the book yourselves.

Chapter 1: Sicker, Not Smarter (on how academic stress is making kids sick, and how kids need positive environments and novelty for proper brain development)

 "So, by emphasizing quantity over quality, and content over mastery of complex skills, our traditional educational model is missing crucial opportunities to enhance brain maturation at a critical time."

"We have, without really meaning to, transmitted to young people the idea that academic achievement is the most important way to measure their value as people, and that success in school exclusively assures success in life. Yet the Novel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has decisively put that notion to rest. Analyzing thirty-five years of data that chronicled children's lives from preschool into adulthood, Heckman and colleagues demonstrated that character makes more difference than IQ for economic and social success." 

Chapter 2: It's About Time (on how necessary it is to give your kids unstructured time, and not give in to community pressures for overscheduling)

 "We forget in the push for productivity that much of what is lost is what happens below the surface of free time. Building a fort, daydreaming, or inventing a game might seem like dreamy luxuries--but these idylls of childhood are far from idle. It's in these unstructured moments that children develop essential capacities for reflective thought, creativity, social skills, and self-control."

"To survive as an underscheduler in an always-busy world, you have to keep faith in the value of space and time, of allowing a child to explore the new interests to which an unplanned afternoon may lead."

Chapter 3: Homework: Take Back Our Nights (on how excessive amounts of homework, starting in elementary school, leave kids with too little time for play and family - Abeles is quite vehement on this subject)

"This supposedly wholesome practice--which has spiraled to such extremes that it shreds family life, steals children's chances to explore and play, and deprives growing minds and bodies of essential rest--does not even help students learn."

"As Race to Nowhere screened in communities across the country, parent after parent stood up and identified homework as one of the most malignant aspects of the race. They worried about how to get their teens to go to bed before one a.m., or grew heartsick watching the spark of curiosity fade from their kindergarteners' eyes."

"For those who want to truly reinforce learning, the best practice is to prescribe as little as possible--only occasional, personalized assignments that involve experiences that can't happen at school--and to allow the student's brain ample time to explore fresh ideas and absorb and process what it has learned that day."

"Finally, and perhaps saddest of all, I have seen over and over again that homework overload steals from young minds the desire to learn."

Chapter 4: Testing: Learning Beyond the Bubble (on the drive toward ever-increasing numbers of standardized tests, and the amount of classroom time that is spent preparing for them, with comparisons to Finland)

 "America now faces a choice. We can break the chains of standardization and embrace a kind of education that nourishes the creative thinkers and compassionate leaders of tomorrow. Or we can keep insisting on the same outmoded protocol, trying to quantify all knowledge and churn out "educated youth" like uniform items on an assembly line."

Chapter 5: College Admissions: Break Free from The Frenzy (on the levels to which students and families go in the quest for admission to a small set of elite colleges, and the role that colleges could play in improving things)

"A good life does not depend on a brand-name alma mater, nor is one guaranteed by an Ivy League acceptance letter. Either way, we're losing too much in its pursuit... The college admissions process is a Darwinian and soul-bruising contest that represents nothing of the great leap toward autonomy, independence, and adventure that it should."

"College professors widely report that too many freshmen arrive on their campuses profoundly averse to risk, not daring to try new subjects or endeavors that they can't be sure to ace. The traditional treadmill has stripped them of their spark."

"The greatest myth of all is that only a tiny handful of colleges are worth attending. And once you stop believing that, you can also stop believing that you have to kill yourself to get there--because the vast majority of schools out there truly want a diverse set of students, including interesting kids with Bs and Cs." (This point is also made, extensively, in How to Raise an Adult.)

Chapter 6: Teaching and Learning: This Way Up (on small-scale ways that schools could be--and are being--changed to better prioritize kids' health and learning)

"What would the ideal school look like? A kind of school that goes deep instead of wide, that capitalizes on children's particular strengths and tends to their weaknesses rather than putting them all through the same paces, and that asks every student to cultivate truly original ideas instead of mere right answers?.. Ultimately, a school focused on learning through vigorous, genuine inquiry would grow the kind of inventive thinkers and keen communicators that our children's futures will demand."

Chapter 7: First, Be Well (on higher level ways that school policies could be changed to better serve the overall wellness of students, such as later start times for high school, more in-school advisors, and less reliance on technology)

"(Palo Alto school board member Ken) Dauber advocates loudly for reduced homework, and also wants to see the schools change their schedules, complete finals before winter break, provide lessons in social and emotional skills, and more closely align the standard curriculum to individual students' needs." 

"I have come to see that this problem (maintaining balance), like every problem we've examined in this book, stems from twin plagues: our twisted vision of success and, related, a culture of busyness that has become synonymous with success itself... As we being to redefine success--for our kids and for ourselves--we must place wellness at its core... As parents, it is also time we reclaim the definition of successful parenting with wellness ranking first. "

Chapter 8: Action: How You Can Replace the Race to Nowhere (basically a summary of actions to take at home and in one's community to deter the "race to nowhere". If in a hurry, one could probably just read this chapter and get a lot of the meat of the book. It is a bit repetitive having just read the of the book.)

"Prioritize kids' social time. Time with friends--play for younger children, and hanging out for teens--is as essential to healthy growth as food and water. Protect social time from the myriad other "productive" obligations that would crowd it out."

"You, along with your fellow parents, students, educators, and community members, are the advocates the next generation needs." 

There are lots of examples in the book of individual schools and educators that have had success with various changes, such as eliminating homework at least some of the time, grouping kids of different ages in classrooms, and giving kids project-based assessments rather than focusing on tests. For me, things that I would like to work on at home that were reinforced by this book (these are generally things I already wanted to do -- that's how taking advice works, I think):

  • I want to protect my daughter's unstructured time as much as I can, including pushing back on busywork-type homework if this becomes necessary in later grades, and limiting her number of scheduled activities.
  • I want to try to keep my family off of the elite college application process rat race as much as I can. 
  • I want to support ways that my daughter can keep her spark of learning alive, by helping her to research the things that she's interested in, by potentially keeping her out of standardized testing if it becomes a problem, and by paying attention. 

I am sure that I will be talking about these issues, and others, as I go forward with my blog's new Growing Joyful Learners direction. I also plan to go back and share notes from some of the other books mentioned above, which I've been reading over the past couple of years. 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Source of Book: Purchased

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Austin, Lost in America: Jef Czekaj

Book: Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure
Author: Jef Czekaj
Pages: 40
Age Range: 6-9 (picture book for older kids)

Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure is a picture book that seems best suited to first through third-graders. Austin is a dog in search of a home. He breaks out of his pet shop and embarks up on a criss-cross country journey through all 50 states, looking for the one that feels best. As he visits each state (usually over less than a page), author Jef Czekaj shares tidbits about that state. Each spread also includes a small map of the state with the capitol labeled. 

The tidbits about each state are quirky things that kids are likely to find amusing or interesting, like: "Every year, Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the Strolling of the Heifers, a parade of cows down its main street." Austin is displayed in some scene that matches the tidbit (e.g marching down the street ahead of a pack of cows, waving a baton). 

There's also an over-the-top narrative tying together the facts about each state and indicating why that state isn't the right one for Austin. Like this:

"Florida had to be it! It was warm. It was sunny. Austin ate oranges. He sunbathed. He swam with manatees. This would be the perfect place to live. (Image of Austin with sunglasses on a beach)

He even got invite to a dinner party. (Image of an alligator opening the door for Austin)

But when he discovered that he was to be the main course, he knew it was time to go." (Image of Austin lying on a dining room table, surrounded by alligators and crocodiles)

Austin, Lost in America is vividly illustrated and full of unusual and or amusing facts. It is, however, rather lengthy for a picture book. I can't imagine that preschoolers would have the patience for it. I myself was a bit daunted at the idea of reading about each and every state, with only a minimal thread tying the different sections together. But I do think that for first to third graders who are interested in learning more about the United States, Austin, Lost in America offers a plethora of facts in a non-intimidating context. It's probably more a book to dip into occasionally than a book to read through, cover to cover. But it is a fun and informative ride across the country. 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton: Don Tate

Book: Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton
Author: Don Tate
Pages: 36
Age Range: 6-8

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate is pretty much the perfect companion to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, which was written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate. Both of these picture book biographies feature slaves who transcended their lot as well as circumstances allowed, and left behind inspirational legacies.

George Moses Horton was a North Carolina slave before (and during) the time of the Civil War. As summarized in an Author's Note, he "taught himself to read, sold poetry to college students, and published several books--all at a time when African-American literacy was discouraged, devalued, even outlawed in this country." Horton's story is remarkable, and true (Tate relied heavily on Horton's own autobiography). 

Tate convey's Horton's story directly. He doesn't shrink from details like the fact that Horton was separated from his family as a teenager, and didn't become free until he was sixty-six, but he doesn't dwell on them, either. We see George's despair when people try to free him, but his master refuses to sell, and his hopelessness when he has to return to the backbreaking work of the farm. But most of the time, his head is held high, as shown on the cover. 

The text in Poet is fairly dense, and the details of Horton's situation are unusual for the time period. Together, these things make Poet a better fit for slightly older kids - I would say six to nine, rather than for preschoolers. Here's a snippet (taken from a single page):

"George composed more than a dozen love poems a week, selling them for 25 cents each. Some paid him with fine suits and shoes instead of money. In time, George dressed as sharply as the students themselves.

With money, nice clothes, and newfound status, George felt freer than he ever had in all of his life.

But he was not free. He remained the property of his master. George continued to work on the farm during the week and visit Chapel Hill on the weekends." 

Tate's mixed media illustrations show George's emotions, through expressions and posture. We see him grow older throughout the book, but his appearance remains distinctive and consistent. My favorite illustration is one in which George is devastated at his master's refusal to sell him. Tate shows George's head in his hands, a poem streaming from his head (it's hard to describe, but quite powerful). 

A detailed author's note fills in gaps, as well as giving some background regarding the author's own initial reluctance to write about slavery, and why he changed his mind. A bibliography may inspire kids to further reading. 

Reading about a boy who had to teach himself to read by firelight, using a cast-off spelling book, at personal peril, ought to inspire kids of today who could read, but choose not to make the effort. One can only hope, anyway. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, belongs in libraries and classrooms everywhere. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (@PeachtreePub) 
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Advanc review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).Poet: The