Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Learning Made Fun!

Review by Colleen Mondor

My School in the Rain Forest is collection of reports from thirteen unconventional school experiences around the world. In alphabetical order, author Margriet Ruurs presents accounts about school in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya, Nepal, Australia and other locations in a personal style that brings the reader face to face with individual students—potential fellow classmates—of their age. The schools are so dramatically different, from a boarding school castle in Scotland to a monastery in Myanmar, that it quickly becomes obvious that where everything seems conventional in the United States it is actually limitlessly possible around the world. Not all of the places are perfect, and poverty is clear in more than one case and threats very real in others. But the children are so exuberant and determined; so dedicated to learning no matter the circumstance, that readers will find themselves charmed. Ideally it should prompt not rededication to the textbooks for those turning the pages but rather a deeper curiosity about all children around the world and what their lives are like. That would be the true payoff for Ruurs and the biggest reward for those who reach for an atlas or map so they can start planning their future journeys to some of these destinations.

Awakening the Dragon: The Dragon Boat Festival by Arlene Chan takes a look at the history and pageantry behind the annual race. From the myth of the River Dragon and the death of poet Qu Yuan, Chan tracks the uncertain origins of the festival and then the race itself. (It dates to the Han dynasty in around 202 BCE.) Using two-page spreads she writes of Qu Yuan's drowning, traditions to bring good fortune and "feed" the River Dragon and finally, the training of the athletes who paddle the boats and how they find balance and teamwork between the drummer, paddlers and steersman. Fans of crew races will see a lot of similarities although the decorated boats with the dragon heads are certainly far more colorful than sports fans are accustomed to. Illustrator Song Nan Zhang captures all the excitement of the final race as well as the brilliance of the spectacle as Chan writes about the modern races which continue to pay homage to Qu Yuan and the River Dragon. Homeschoolers will, of course, like this one but it's a solid classroom addition as well and a no-brainer when learning about Chinese history and traditions or international sporting events.

The first thing one notices about the book Voyage: Ocean is that it is shaped like a porthole with a nifty heavy duty cover that using Velcro actually snaps shut just as a porthole should. While this has nothing to do with the book's stellar content, it has everything to do with author John Woodward and the DK designers making sure it sells itself as the complete title it hopes to be: "A full-speed tour of the oceans."

Divided into sections exploring each of the earth's oceans as well as the planet itself (currents, tides, coasts) and "ocean resources," Voyage: Ocean is a solid title for middle grade readers ready for an overview that has lots of little bits of odd info and DK's trademark stunning photographs. Readers learn where a specific ocean is located, its size and idiosyncrasies as well as things like Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance becoming trapped in the Southern Ocean (including an iconic photograph) and the only marine iguanas in the world who live in the Galapagos Islands in the Eastern Pacific (again with cool photo). It certainly has an environmental bent—oil spills are discussed, along with marine reserves and the threat to the Maldives from "rising sea levels caused by climate change." But in the same breath Woodward happily discusses SCUBA equipment, bizarre deep sea creatures and porcelain treasure recovered in 1999 from the Chinese ship Tik Sing which sank in 1822. What I found was an innovative package (the book includes a poster, fact cards on sea animals, ocean activities, etc. and a sheet of stickers) and a book that will easily hold the interest of curious readers. There are a lot of directions to go in after paging through this one—which is ideal as it will help narrow the focus of those who want to learn more while allowing general readers to maintain their interest. Yet again, DK has shown a way to improve on their nonfiction catalog; nicely done.

Add another general encyclopedia to your shelves with Kingfisher's recent Explore. With chapters on Space and the Stars, Body Science, Science and Technology and Communication, Explore breaks a bit from the traditional child encyclopedia mold by focusing more on people and technology than is typical in the genre. While there are certainly expected sections on plants and animals and human history, it is the pages on topics like robotics, entertainment, sports physiology and religious ceremonies that will likely surprise and inspire. The authors discuss money, international organizations, architecture and print communication (with everything from Gutenberg to manga included) in this rapid fire collection of everything and anything that is interesting about the world. You get hundreds of jumping off points in Explore - which is the point of any decent encyclopedia—but I have to admit that these points are off the beaten path. Curiosity is something that needs to be fed regularly with rich intellectual material that includes a variety of topics; Explore accomplishes that with all the visual style and design gravitas that one expects from Kingfisher. Gift-giving grandparents take note of this one—perfect reading for any ten to twelve year old that wants to know more of absolutely everything.

Leaning more in the direction of picture books, the collection of poems in Elise Knight Bruno's Punctuation Celebration are about exactly what the title suggests: commas, periods, question marks and everything else that makes a sentence easy to understand. Illustrator Jenny Whitehead uses a realistic drawing style as children purchase "two doz. eggs today, one lb. of cheese, And nonstick spray at the Delany St. Café." (All the periods are in red so stand out.) Each poem begins with an explanation of how the punctuation mark is used, ("The commas is common/And commonly used/To separate clauses/With essential pauses"), and then several stanzas of examples follow, which is critical as most early readers will not have a clue what some of those rules mean (separate clauses?). Things do get funny and again the illustrations perfectly complement the text as the children make their way through one example after another. Punctuation Celebration will likely need to be read many times before all the rules stick, but that's no hardship. The kids are a kick, the rhymes compelling and the examples make sense while still maintaining a kid appropriate level of silly fun. If you have a young one confused about quotation marks (or dashes, or semicolons, etc.) then give this helpful title a try.

Yuyi Morales is one of my favorite writers (and illustrators) and her very delightful trickster tale, Just a Minute was a big favorite in my house last year. That duel of wits between a grandmother and death was quite smart and funny and punctuated by Morales' trademark colorful yet muted illustrations that fill the pages from corner to corner. Her most recent book, Just in Case is a sequel of sorts to Just a Minute but stands alone just fine as another challenge to death completing his appointed rounds. (I should point out that death is a delightful skeleton who is not the least bit frightening and will appeal in a big way to kids.)

This go-round Senor Calavera (death) is out to attend Grandma Beetle's birthday (the heroine from the earlier title). Unfortunately he can not decide the right gift to bring and through the advice of Zelmiro the Ghost (Santa Claus in appearance sans the beard) goes through a long list of funny possibilities. It is the gifts that introduce the learning aspect of the story as they are added through the Spanish alphabet ("un Acordeon", "Bigotes," "Cosquillas", "Un CHiflido" etc.) Non Spanish speakers will likely stumble over the few unfamiliar letters (CH for example) but through pronouncing the words and their immediate English translation ("Un CHiflido. A whistle he trapped in a bag.") they will pick up the differences and similarities in the two languages and easily grasp a word (or sound) or two.

As the gifts are presented Zelmiro keeps coming up with reasons to add a few more and poor Senor Calavera tries to make room for everything on his bicycle. By the end it is very nearly impossible to keep moving and "Oh no. Watch out Senor Calavera! Oh dear! Poor Senor Calavera. All of his beautiful presents—ruined." Zelmiro has a final idea (and trick up his ghostly sleeve) and the ending is excellent as Senor Calavera brings Grandma Beetle the best gift of all.

I can't stress enough how gorgeous the illustrations are in Just in Case; they pop off the page and turn up the excitement of the story several notches. It is also, as always, lovely to see children drawn in so many different hues and to have older heroes who exhibit no small amount of wit and humor. Any child studying Spanish should follow Yuyi Morales; she is a grand storyteller who makes both language and story equally significant in her tales.

In Sue MacDonald Had a Book author Jim Tobin uses a clever variation of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" to introduce the significance of the five vowel sounds. In this case, Sue (drawn with t-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes and purple backpack, blonde pigtail swinging and large inquisitive eyes ever on the lookout by illustrator Dave Coverly) had a book ("A E I O U") and everything was going well. Then "A grabbed E and said 'We're free!' and I and O followed off the pages and U was left to say "Gee, guys, I don't know." Then he disappeared as well. Sue was left with a book that could not be read and so the very determined little girl set off to find the critical letters: "Sue MacDonald had chased her A. A E I O U."

In the pages that follow Sue chases a train, goes hunting in a jungle, hitches a ride on a hot air balloon to save I "from a life of crime" and hits the sewers for O. The search for U takes her from a football game to Katmandu but she is victorious and then, with vowels back in place the book with all of its words is saved and "With A and E and I,O,U, see if you can read them, too."

Sue is a very plain faced determined tomboy who strikes me as the Lara Croft of the kindergarten set (with no guns of course). Nothing stops her from finding her missing vowels and her spunky attitude is smart rather than cloying (Dora does get annoying after awhile, doesn't she?). By the end, the repetition will have drilled the five letters into the heads of readers and they will have their vowels down as well as an idea of how critical they are. Sing-alongs are a tried and true method for teaching and the point is well proven here with Tobin's text. He gets the job done and then some; it would be nice to see Sue return for another grammatical adventure in the future.

Author Kathleen Kudlinski takes readers through a colorful history of astronomy in her fun title Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System!. From the very beginning with illustrator John Rocco's colorful spread of a ship sailing off the mythical edge of the world, Kudlinski skewers the many incorrect theories about the solar system. From Galileo to Newton (both of whom are oddly not identified in the text), the path of scientific discovery is paved through those who make big leaps that are often denied by many others and then take years to be proven. Did the Martians dig canals? Is Pluto really a planet? These are questions that had to be considered and proved through research and technological advances. Kudlinksi's tongue-in-cheek writing style keeps the big questions grounded in humor and Rocco's illustrations are always funny—especially the one for poor Pluto. Bit by bit they take readers into the present with space travel, the launch of the Hubble telescope and a final delightful spread of children of the future visiting an orbiting space history museum. A final page includes a timeline of events from the book (and the names of the people involved) All in all it is a quick turn through hundreds of years of scientific discovery that has such a breezy style that even those who have never considered the heavens will find reading it a pleasure.


Punctuation Celebration
By Elisa Knight Bruno
Illustrated by Jenny Whitehead
Henry Holt 2009
ISBN 0-8050-7973-4

Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book
By Yuyi Morales
Roaring Brook 2008
ISBN 1-59643-329-9

Sue MacDonald Had a Book
By Jim Tobin
Illustrated by Dave Coverly
Henry Holt 2009
ISBN 0-8050-8766-4

Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System
By Kathleen Kudlinski
Illustrated by John Rocco
Dutton 2008
ISBN 0-525-46979-7

My School in the Rain Forest
By Margriet Ruurs
Boyds Mill Press 2009
ISBN 1-59078-601-7

Awakening the Dragon: The Dragon Boat Festival
By Arlene Chan
Illustrated by Song Nan Zhang
Tundra Books 2007
ISBN 0-88776-805-7

Voyage: Ocean
By John Woodward
DK 2009
ISBN: 0-75664-548-9
126 pages

By Sean Callery, Clive Gifford, and Dr. Mike Goldsmith
Kingfisher 2008
ISBN 0-7534-6269-0
313 pages


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