Tag Archives: grades 3-5

[Y] The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

29 Apr

The “Year of” books always seem to be Chinese-related, even though the same zodiac system is used throughout East Asia at least. I remember last year for A to Z, I wanted to do what I thought was “The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson” for “Y,” but then when I was looking it up, I realized that the title was actually In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. This year, I bought a bunch of books by Grace Lin, and luckily, two of them actually did start with “(The) Year of.”

The Year of the Dog is the book I wished I had when I was growing up. It is just an ordinary book about a Taiwanese American girl growing up in a community with very few Asians. While I grew up in a pretty diverse community, a lot of the things Pacy (Grace) experiences are close to my heart, especially her confusion about the difference between Taiwan and China. I remember not knowing the difference until 3rd grade, when I did a report on China because I thought we were Chinese.

“But I’m not really Chinese either. It’s kind of confusing. My parents came from Taiwan. Some people thought Taiwan was part of China. So then calling me Chinese was kind of correct. Other people thought Taiwan was a country all by itself, so then I should be called Taiwanese. It didn’t help that my parents spoke both Chinese and Taiwanese.” (p. 18 of the paperback version)

My parents are staunchly on the Taiwan as a country side, so they were upset when I identified as Chinese at school, but I thought Lin’s explanation of the dilemma is pretty straightforward and apolitical, like her mother’s answer to her question about what to say when people ask her what she is: “‘You tell them that you’re American,’ Mom told me firmly.” (p. 19)

I also related to her experiences around other Taiwanese American kids, because although I speak Taiwanese and Mandarin, I was a Twinkie wannabe because the other option would’ve been a FOB, and I was born in America so being a Twinkie seemed like the cooler thing to be.

There were also things that I learned about Taiwanese culture that I didn’t know because what gets passed down to the second generation is usually a little spotty, so everyone ends up learning different things. In light of my last A to Z post on xxxHolic, it was interesting how almost everything in this book was translated into an English equivalent because this book is completely geared toward the general American audience, while xxxHolic is obviously for people with some knowledge of Japanese culture (although it can be enjoyed by people who do not). Although, just like in my family, Lin uses a mixture of Chinese and Taiwanese at home, so she uses both for the few words she romanizes and defines in context. My favorite of her translations is “flaky dried pork” for “rousong” or “pork floss” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rousong), which is always something I have a hard time describing to people who have never had it (although we usually eat the fish version at home).

A must-read for all Taiwanese American kids, but it is also a great entryway into learning about Taiwanese culture for kids of other backgrounds. I haven’t read Lin’s other books yet, but they’re waiting for me on my shelf!

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter Y.

[L] Leonardo da Vinci by Kathleen Krull

13 Apr

(This was first written for my History of Youth Literature class.)

Leonardo da Vinci by Kathleen Krull

Leonardo da Vinci was written by Kathleen Krull, the 2011 Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. Nonfiction Award Winner for Body of Work. The book itself was named CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Book of the Year, included on other notable lists, and received rave reviews.

When I first downloaded the eBook, I was expecting something more like the biographies of presidents that my students had to read last month for nonfiction month in the AR-based reading program at their school. The book I saw had a lot of pictures, but it read more like an encyclopedia or textbook than a story. It also had long, convoluted sentences with bigger words than necessary that made it hard for my students to understand.

On the other hand, Krull uses simple prose that reads like a novel, and the book itself feels much less like a typical (in my mind) nonfiction book and more like a book that I would normally read. I had to return some books anyway, so I ended up going to the library and checking out the physical book before I even had a chance to start reading the eBook. The only thing about the book that made me feel like it was a nonfiction book instead of a novel (other than the title) was the “Giants of Science” series name written across the bottom of the volume. Otherwise, the design of the book itself seemed very much like that of a middle grade historical fiction novel.

Although I don’t generally think of myself as a nonfiction fan, I can see myself reading a lot more of these narrative biographies after reading this book. It’s been a long time since I read a nonfiction book I couldn’t put down, but I had a hard time leaving for work today because I didn’t want to stop reading. I loved being able to read about what da Vinci was like as a person, and all the talk of his inventions reminded me of my visit to the da Vinci exhibition when it was in L.A. a few years ago. There was even a shoutout to my favorite of his inventions, a portable bridge made of sticks that could be fitted together when the army got to a river and then taken apart again afterwards. (As part of the exhibition, we got to try to put the bridge together ourselves and even walk over it once we were done.)

I do worry about the false impressions of people’s lives that narrative versions can give, though, even after reading this well-researched, well-written book. I think Krull did a great job of writing about the bad parts of da Vinci along with the good, but because of the lighthearted-tone of the book as a whole, I felt like it was playing down the bad and emphasizing the good. The overall effect made da Vinci and his life seem better than they really were.

Even so, I would definitely recommend this to all kids, even those who don’t usually like nonfiction (or maybe especially to them). I was only a few chapters into the book when I started planning ways to use these types of books in my lessons. I might not use this one in particular, but Kathleen Krull has written a lot of books (and from some of the other reviews in class, she’s not the only one who has written engaging nonfiction for kids).

I also loved the illustration on the cover by Boris Kulikov with da Vinci as an old man trying to fly with wings made of pages from his notebooks. The expression on his face is hilarious to me for some reason. (There was one illustration that caused a little bit of a disconnect to me with da Vinci writing “Notebook” backwards in English even though he was supposed to only know Italian and eventually Latin, but I understand how the illustration is trying to give students an idea of what da Vinci was doing using what they are familiar with.)

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter L.

[REVIEW] Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

26 Jan

I remember buying all of the books in the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar (including Sideways Arithmetic) from my Scholastic book order at school. I loved how they made me laugh when I read them because they were so silly.

I wanted to do Sideways Stories from Wayside School with my third grade book club class last year, but I couldn’t find it at home, so I went to the library and borrowed a copy. The next week, half of my class received the book as a Christmas present from their teacher at school (they all had the same teacher). I guess she thought they would enjoy it, too. And we were both right. Most of the kids, even those that did not normally enjoy reading (i.e., the boys), had started reading the book during snack time. They were laughing so hard that they had to show their friends what they were reading. I had never seen most of them so excited about a book before.

Just what was in this book that made the kids laugh so hard? They were probably laughing at the kid with the raincoats, but I liked the nonsense of school life that this books brings to light. Like the story of the three Erics, where one Eric was called “Fat” because the other two actually were fat, even though “Fat Eric” was actually skinny.

All the short vignettes that make up this book have something to say about life and human nature. My favorites are the one about the boy who couldn’t help but pull the two beautiful long pigtails in front of him (always made me want to pull pigtails ever since I read this as an elementary schooler) and the boy who smiled and smiled all day. Everyone wanted to know why, but he wouldn’t tell them. Finally, he said, “You need a reason to be sad. You don’t need a reason to be happy.”

I was surprised to find such profound insight in a book for kids, especially one that was just supposed to be funny. I doubt most kids would understand some of them until they are older, but there are some playground truths that kids understand already, which may be part of why they find the book funny.

Can be read with interest by at least second to fifth grade, although once middle school hits, the kids might feign disinterest just for the heck of it. That’s okay, because Sachar writes great books for middle schoolers and high schoolers, too. Contains: Gross things, scary teachers, nonsensical school.