Review (Plus)

Review (Plus): Not Quite Black and White

Bookshelf Blurb: Colors explode among the black and white, and the rhyming found throughout makes it outta sight!

NotQuiteBlackAndWhite_9780062380661_d6d08America’s Review: Primary colors are usually the focal point in children’s books, but Jonathan Ying and Victoria Ying take their readers on an adventure beyond primary colors to a range in colors not often taught: lavender and maroon. The colors are illustrated through animals doing the mundane to being dancing divas, which is a wonderful way to pull in prior knowledge of readers to help them learn one new trait instead of multiple ones. The animals are in black and white, and the new color appears on objects that the animal is either wearing or using to do a motion.

I tested this book as a read-aloud, which worked really well. A rhyme on each set of pages provides a cadence to the words and a sing-song quality to the book. My voice was going up and down without even trying to change my voice or be silly, which I really liked. It allowed my audience to be more engaged with my words and learn the colors with the silly animals who were Not Quite Black and White.

In the Classroom:  Since the authors have used the normal colors along with some outside the norm, this is a perfect opportunity for first graders–who have already grasped the colors–focus on the spelling of the words and grouping them into categories.

Read the story to your students. Have the students identify which colors are in the book. You could do this one of two ways: You could have your students spell the color words as you read or you could have the words already on a worksheet. Once you complete the story,  have your students cut the words into subcategories. Divide them into the family of the color to which they belong. They can focus on the categories and also on learning to spell more words. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.1.5.A)

Purple = lavender
Maroon = Red

Not Quite Black and White by Jonathan Ying, illustrated by Victoria Ying (HarperCollins | 9780062380661 | September 6, 2016)

Review (Plus): ‘They All Saw a Cat’

Bookshelf Blurb: I know how I see a cat. You know how you see a cat. Now we can know how other animals see a cat through their animal eyes, but at the end of the story, you have to ask, how does a cat see a cat?


America’s Review: Each animal has a different visual perception of the world around them. The illustrations created by Brendan Wenzel in They All Saw a Cat display the unique view of a cat through a variety of species. As a cat prows through the world with his whiskers, ears and paws, the animals see him in a variety of ways: as colorful dots as a bee has a limited vision, or in the colors they are themselves–black and white like a skunk. The worms merely see a dark shadow cross their path as they are under ground and the cat is passing them above on the ground. Each different animal sees the cat as a friend, foe, or possibly a mere part of the passing scenery.

With each turn of the page, the reader is given the opportunity to also see how the cat is viewed. It isn’t until the end of the story, when the reader is asked the simple question, how does the cat view himself?

In the classroom: As you turn the pages of this book, you can ask your young reader (actually this book would be a great read for the middle school age as well as the elementary audience) why the cat is viewed in this manner? The illustrations differ from page to page, so the discussion should vary base on the drawings given on the pages associated with the different species.

The given perspectives of how the different animals “all saw a cat” leads itself to a simple classroom discussion: how do we see ourselves verse how others view us? Ask multiple questions defining “others.” Others can be peers, teachers, parents, family members, etc. Do these perspectives differ based on the environments of our relationships?

At the conclusion of the book, your audience will have differing opinions on how the cat views itself. Will the cat see itself as a shadow, as spots, as a black and white vision? These answers can also reveal how your reader views themselves. These discussions (or journal entry for your older audience) can allow you a different perspective of your student. Sometimes this type of story can open discussions that aren’t answered through  a direct morning question, “How are you?” Fine is a common answer, but with a story about a cat and views of animals, you may find a different answer.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle Books | 9781452150130 | August 30, 2016)


Review (Plus): ‘Towers Falling’ by Jewell Parker Rhodes

TowersFalling_9780316262224_99601Bookshelf Blurb: 9/11 devastated our nation and for 15 years, children have been born who have no idea of how this event united people from sea to shining sea. History comes alive through three best friends who live in Brooklyn, NY in 2016.

Ms. America’s Review:

As I listened to the laughter and shouts of joy coming from my two children who were happily watching bombs bursting in air, I realized how innocent and free these 9- & 11-year-old boys were. I watched my 9-year-old place a whirly-bird on the ground and then take off running for his life as he knew the fuse would soon blow. Once he was a safe distance away, he turned back to watch the firework launch into the air and explode in a multitude of lights above his head. I didn’t turn to watch the show, but instead turned to watch his angelic, innocent face and see his eyes reflecting the glow of the night.

Feeling my stare, he turned to look at me, then asked, “Mommy, are you crying?”

I shook my head, wiping away tears, and explained, “This reminds me of the book I am reading about a time you weren’t alive to know about. It was a time that made us realize our freedom comes at a price.” He knew I was upset, not an angry kind of upset, but one of pure sadness. He sat down beside me as his brother took his turn blowing something up and asked me again, “Why are you crying about a book?”

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a book of truth. It will make the adult readers pause and tell the young reader in whose hands this book should belong, exactly the time and place they were the moment they learned that suicidal terrorists flew planes into four US locations: the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and into two of the largest buildings in New York City: The Twin Towers.

Jewell Parker Rhodes won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award for her book Ninth Ward and I hope to see her recognized again for her ability to tell the story of 9/11 through the words of a homeless 10-year-old girl, Deja.

After her family of five have been evicted from their home, Deja has to learn to embrace who she is despite her ailing father, a working mother and her two younger siblings. On the first day of school she meets Ben, who is also new and has just moved to Brooklyn from Arizona, and Sabeen, a young Muslim student who has lived in NY all of her life. The three children are in Miss Garcia’s homeroom where this unlikely friendship forms between a white boy, a black girl and a Muslim girl.

Within the first few days of school, Miss Garcia informs her students they will be working on a class unit learning about the absence of the towers which they could see from their classroom windows 15 years ago. Deja is unaware of this event, and through the friendship of Ben and Sabeen, she soon learns of the devastation and ruin. She has to learn how this affected our nation, but also how this event is the reason her father can no longer hold a job or maintain sanity.

Fifteen years has passed since this attack occurred, but to many people, this tragedy will forever be a part of their life. Freedom is given to us in the United States, but present day children do not realize how freedom can be taken away in mere moments. Pass this book on to our youth. Teach them a moment of history through the perspective of one of their 5th grade peers….Deja learns more about herself and her family through our history of 9/11.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | 9780316262224 | July 12, 2016)

Review (Plus): The Crown’s Game

Bookshelf Blurb: Two magicians are vying for the title of Imperial Enchanter despite their admiration for each other and the romantic affection that slowly grows between them. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner of The Crown’s Game and they must fight to the death… or figure out a way to best the game.

TheCrownsGame_9780062422583_8fbe0America’s Review: From the first page, the reader learns that even before Tsardom there was a need for a magician of indisputable power–one who will yield unimaginable magic within themselves–and the game would alleviate any question as to who this person was. History dictates the Tsar of Russia must have an Imperial Magician to help maintain order in the kingdom by using the elements of wind, fire and nature. There can only be one Imperial Magician to yield the power of the earth and in the event two are born of the same year, The Crown’s Game was invented to ensure the mightiest would prevail. In 1825, such a tragedy occurs: two magicians are born and they must fight to the death in The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye.

I was drawn into The Crown’s Game by the unique history given in the prelude of a magician so powerful they are to help the Tsar of Russia–and the date–1825. As the first chapter unfolds, the stage is set in a wooded area on a small Russian island where young Vika is being tested by her father, and mentor. To save herself from destruction, her father has created this test to measure her skills as a magician. Instantly, I was drawn to the wit, self-preservation and strength found in our protagonist. She exudes a toughness found in few; not a nasty mean girls attitude, but instead one that offers humility and beauty.

After meeting Vika, the reader is given a new perspective in the next chapter through, Nikolai, a young man who was orphaned and has been serving as an apprentice to a mean, vindictive woman, Galina.   Not only is Galina a self-serving woman who realizes that the talent Nikolai possesses will one day be tested, but she also knows it will be matched against her brother’s daughter/mentee in the Crown’s Game. She is Vika’s aunt.

Galina took Nikolai in to her household, but taught him to be reliant on no one and to take care of himself using only his magic. To fend for himself Nikolai finds himself on the street gambling with other young ruffians when he first encounters his best friend, Pasha, who he helps not get taken advantage of on the streets as Nikolai soon discovers Pasha’s truth–he is the heir to the Tsar.

Pasha dreams beyond the walls of his father’s kingdom and often escapes his guards to wander amongst the pheasants. He invites Nikolai along on his adventures and through the years these two become the best of friends–until the fateful day when they wander into the woods of a small island not far from the capital of St. Petersburg where they discover a girl with wild red hair surrounded by fire, creating a shield of ice to protect herself from injury. Nikolai has never confided in his friend his own abilities, but knows he has just discovered his opponent in the game for which he has been training his entire life. He also knows he is besought with the beauty and magnificence of the one person in the world who can relate to the magic that flows in his veins.

These fateful moments allow the two boys to discover this beautiful, courageous young magician. It is this moment which causes Pasha to go home and learn about the Crown’s Game all while trying to discover the identity to the young woman who has captured his heart. As Pasha sits reading about the game, the kingdom is under assault with gossip of wars and traders. Pasha’s lack of leadership prompts Pasha’s sister, Yuliana, to insist their father, the Tsar, must commence The Crown’s Game as Pasha is not a strong enough ruler without an Imperial Magician by his side.

The Crown’s Game begins and the two must battle to the death for there can only be one Imperial Magician as governed by the rules of the game. The Tsar has placed a unique twist to the game; they must complete magical feats for Pasha’s upcoming birthday in which he will become the new Tsar. As Nikolai and Vika make their moves, it is clear they must find a way to change the rules or destroy the other magician who has won their love.

In the Classroom: In the AP English classroom, students are reading, studying, reviewing and analyzing the great literary classics. In their junior and senior years, students could read War and Peace, Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina. These are ‘heavy’ reads offering a plethora of literary traits, but also allow you to create a Russia Themed Unit. Russian History–a complicated past of Autocratic views, the Rise of Moscow, Ivan the Terrible, Romanov Dynasty, Alexander the Great, the Cold War, to modern era problems.

The Crown’s Game offers researched information about the Tsar, his kingdom and the arising problems of the 19th Century. In her Author’s Notes, Evelyn Skye, has told her readers this is historical fantasy, but also states she has done her research for times, places and events in her story. As an English teacher I have read all of the AP reads mentioned above and the fantasy offered in The Crown’s Game allows the reader to grasp more of the context of the time and place than the words offered by Tolstoy. I am comparing apples to oranges here, but if you can get both books into the hands of your readers they will enjoy the adventure found in both while walking away with a more in-depth picture of Russia. All while assigning your student a research paper based on one of the books, the history or the people. This assignment may inspire them as it did Evelyn Skye!

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye (Balzar + Bray | 9780062422583 | May 17, 2016)


Review (Plus): Flora and the Peacocks

Bookshelf Blurb: Without words, the story of Flora and her two new peacock friends is told through beautiful interactive illustrations.

Flora and the Peacocks_9781452138169_43aacAmerica’s Review: Molly Idle has created another wonderful masterpiece with her new book, Flora and the Peacocks. Each book by Idle uses bright, airy and beautiful pictures to convey the story. This book needs no words to express the confusion found amongst friends when they discover three can be a crowd. Flora dances among them, with them, and individually. The three must learn to dance together otherwise their friendship may dissolve, and no one–not even a bird–wants to be left alone.

What I loved the best about this book (besides the storyline) was the ability the reader has to coax out the peacocks’ large feathers. Interactive flaps throughout the story allow the peacocks to transform into the majestic birds they are! The colors are extremely vibrant hues of aquas and blues. It is simply stunning.

In the Classroom:

There are two states not following Common Core State Standards. I happen to live in one of them: Indiana. So, for this book, I decided to stay local and follow a reading standard for our state instead of the CCSS as I usually do. This one focuses on reading levels for the elementary school classroom: RL.4.1 Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

Before reading Flora and the Peacocks, mark the story in three places indicating the beginning, middle and end. While reading, stop after the beginning of the story and discuss the characters’ feelings. What words describe the characters at this point in the story?  How did the illustrations show us this?  Continue this procedure for the middle and end of the book. Ideas can be recorded on a class chart to compare and contrast how the characters changed throughout the story. For your higher levels or as a challenge in the younger levels, students can work independently or with a partner to discuss and record the characters’ feelings and actions as the story progresses.

Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle (Chronicle Books | 9781452138169 | May 3, 2016)