Wednesday, August 30, 2006


As we celebrate the theme of school stories this week, let's not forget these oldies-but-goodies, most of which have the added perk of being available in paperback!

IN ENGLISH, OF COURSE by Josephine Nobisso, illustrated by Dasha Ziborova (Gingerbread House)
The members of Josephine's classroom all seem to come from somewhere else, and are called upon in turn to talk about where their families are from. But when it's Josephine's turn, she is not sure she has enough English under her belt to explain that her parents are architectural engineers from Napoli, Italy. Her limited language leads her into uncharted farm territory, where with the help of her teacher she is able to share an extravagant reminiscence about a cow, told with a lot of body language. This hilarious and honest book explores both the insides and the outsides of an extremely intelligent child who is just gathering the tools she needs to make herself understood. The splashy collage illustrations appropriately reflect the wild amounts of information that are being sorted through, along with the style and spirit of the story's heroine. ESL students and teachers will cheer here, but any child will empathize with Josephine's earnest attempt to share the best of herself with her class. "Sometimes native-speaking people underestimate the talents, dignity and wit of newcomers to a country," the author muses in her postscript. All of these attributes come through loud and clear in one of the more endearing characters and accurate classroom narratives to appear in children's literature in a long time. This book has won so many accolades, its getting hard to see the cover! (6 and up)

PUNCTUATION TAKES A VACATION by Robin Pulver, illustrated by Lynne Rowe Reed (Holiday House)
Poor Mr. Wright plods along, trying to teach about punctuation marks, but when the frustrated fellow suggests "let's give punctuation a vacation," the underappreciated notations take him up on it, hopping a plane and leaving the class in a lurch. It turns out that writing is so hard to understand without those funny dots and dashes! When postcards arrive with crytic signatures, can Mr. Wright's students (and yours) figure out who each one is from? Leave it to clever Robin Pulver to take something as pedestrian as the period at the end of a sentence and infuse it with her signature zing. This attractive, funny book earns exclamation points all the way, and is a teacher's dream come true. Overheads of the illustrations will bring grammar lessons to life (unscramble the badly behaved punctuation in Mr. Rongo's room!), and children will love preparing their own punctuation postcards for a trip abroad to the bulletin board! Language arts has never been so lively. If you're going to talk about what everyone did over summer vacation, this might be a fun place to start. (7 and up)

COYOTE SCHOOL NEWS by Joan Sandin (Henry Holt)
Marvelous storytelling timeline following twelve students who attend the Coyote School. The tales of Monchi and his family living between Tucson and the Mexican border are told in fast-moving anecdotal style, describing exciting events like the Fiesta de Los Vaqueros (the big annual rodeo) and breaking open the Christmas pinata, as well as more everyday events like a visit from the nurse to the school and an attempt at a baseball game…who let the cattle out! Each vignette is perfectly accented by a page from "The Coyote School News," inspired by actual newsletters written by Arizona ranch country schools between 1932 and 1943. Besides this unique treatment, lovely watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations, both big and small, help bring the school year to life. By the last day, readers will have a very clear picture of a school that they will surely wish they could attend. And qué bueno, there's no way your own estudiantes will not be inspired to create their own classroom newsletter after reading this book! (7 and up)

LITTLE BROWN BEAR WON'T GO TO SCHOOL! by Jane Dyer (Little, Brown)
Every child has those days where they simply don't want to go to school, and Little Brown Bear is no exception. "I want a job," he complains, and sneaks off in puruit of one instead of going to class. It seems he doesn't have the aptitude to work at at the restaurant, the contrsuction site, the knitting or the barber shop. Is there any place where his skills match the job he has to do? This gentle watercolor illustrations feature a menagerie of animal characters that makes the story extra fun. The story plays on the fantasy of so many children to work as the grown-ups do, while celebrating the special work that children do every day. Don't be absent for this one! (5 and up)

LEON AND THE SPITTING IMAGE by Allen Kurzweil, illustrated by Bret Bertholf (Greenwillow)
Leon's lack of fine motor skills is landing him in hot water with his new teacher, the odd Miss Hagmeyer, a Medieval throwback who has an almost deranged obsession with sewing. In order to pass, the children must create stuffed "animiles" (stitch count not to exceed four s.p.i., or stitches per inch, mind you), culminating in a master piece at the end of the year. The story takes quite a fantastic turn midsection, though, when Leon makes a doll of his teacher and discovers that he can control her every move by using it. The book brims with mystery (is Miss Hagmeyer's hair really held on with velcro? What are all of those funny eyeballs she keeps locked away? And what on earth is The Hag doing with all those stuffed animals?) and ends on a sharp note of revenge, both of which are extremely appealing to the dark side of middle-graders. The story's great strength, however, resides in Hagmeyer's willingness to redirect her curriculum based on the best of what she has to share. The fact that this one teacher's passion, for all the controversy she stirs up, is able to transform her students, makes this book an inspiration for all classroom teachers to stand and deliver their lessons through the filter of the best in themselves. A highly unusual classroom read. Plus, I just loved staring at those endpapers covered in eyeballs…and I could swear they were staring back. (10 and up) If you like this one, check out the science-fair themed sequel, LEON AND THE CHAMPION CHIP.

And since I promise a new book-a-day, check out funnyman Dan Gutman's THE HOMEWORK MACHINE (Simon & Schuster). Told from a variety of POV's, including police interviews (!!!), this is a story of a wish come true, and as is the case with many wishes that come true, it has gone awry in ways that were hard to predict. A young computer mastermind tries to lose his "nerd" status by demonstrating his marvelous machine, and its use and consequences reveal the sometimes serious backstories of four students (such as the need for one boy to connect with his father on duty in Iraq, and a girl's coming to terms with deciding who her friends are or following the crowd). It's like a modern-day Danny Dunn mixed with the devices of a good old-fashioned problem-novel. While some may find the situations and resolutions a little pat, this straightforward storytelling that will make this book a success and a delight to discuss with reluctant readers. (9 and up)

On a personal note:
Thanks to Junko Yokota of National Louis University for recommending to me the most amazing website,, which features shareware that allows you automate your personal collection of books! That means, teachers, you can scan in your classroom collection, beep-beep-beep, and look things up and check things out, just like a real library, only interfacing with snazzy Mac graphics! Good gravy, I am absolutely over the moon with this program, it's even better than a homework machine in my book! I can't wait to zap everything in sight.

Check in tomorrow, I'll have news about the PlanetEsme Bookroom!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

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