Author Archives: shelfelf

merry and happy

gryfflesI have been absent from here for so long it feels strange to be back. Life has run away with me, and along the way there has been reading, but also some contemplating about what the future holds for me and blogging. For now, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We will see what it brings!

Wishing you peace, love, extra thick books, and full plates of cookies this holiday season.

xo

The Elf

go hug a dog: if dogs run free – illustrated by Scott Campbell

if dogsI have discovered that spending your day with many three, four, and five-year-olds results in an intense desire to read Books for Grown Ups. So my pleasure reading has consisted pretty much entirely of adult books since the beginning of September for the first time in years. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I’m enjoying my time in Grown Up Reading Land. This will explain why – for the moment at least – you’ll be seeing a steady stream of picture book reviews here at Shelf Elf.

if dogs run free is illustrator Scott Campbell’s quirky interpretation of Bob Dylan’s song. Here’s the beginning:

If dogs run free, then why not we
Across the swooping plain?
My ears hear a symphony
Of two mules, trains,
and rain.
The best is always yet to come,
That’s what they explain to me.

It’s hard to really sum up what Dylan’s song is about; certainly a younger audience will probably experience some “huh?” moments with these lyrics, and have some trouble teasing a take home message out of the words. Probably something along the lines of, enjoy life (the best is always yet to come), be yourself (just do your thing), and love each other ([true love] can cure the soul, it can make it whole). Or maybe even, “Dogs are awesome.”

The thing is, Campbell’s illustrations are so full of energy and joy and kooky-ness that it hardly matters if Dylan’s text doesn’t come off as made for picture book interpretation. It’s the pictures that convey the spirit of the song more than anything. A little girl and her brother and their trusty pooch race all over the place together, meeting dogs wherever they go and having a blast no matter where they are and what they’re doing. The important thing when reading this book is not to over-think things, and I know that most kids are pretty good at this. I imagine they will get a kick out of the crazy canine action on every page. It’s the sort of picture book that has so much detail in the illustrations that every time you read you are going to notice something new.

A whimsical ode to childhood and dogs, if dogs run free will leave readers grinning and glad to be alive.

(Warning: sure to inspire feelings of “I want a puppy” in small people. Parents, don’t say I didn’t tell ya).

if dogs run free is published by Atheneum.

I was abducted by a not-so-tiny kindergarten army and I’ve finally made it back home

photo-7I’ve missed this place. I’ve missed having a moment to breathe and think about something other than how to be a kindergarten teacher. With September almost over, I’ve seen and heard and done things I never imagined seeing and hearing and doing on a daily basis until now. For example, last week I barely avoided getting my brand new pair of sparkly ballet flats puked on by one of my most adorable students. Being stylish in kindergarten is dangerous, I’m telling you. By the end of the year I could very well make a go of it on the road as a stand up comedian with some of the stories I have to tell.

It is as crazy as you imagine it might be to spend everyday with 28 three, four, and five-year-olds. A lot happens. There’s giggling. Sometimes there’s crying. There is making things with glue and colouring and building. There is writing and painting and listening and chatting. There are puppet shows and play-dough self-portraits and wonder walks. These are very full days.

And you know what? My kids love stories. In all honesty, stories have helped me get through the past few wild weeks without losing my marbles. Here are just a few of the books we’ve read this month – thank goodness for them:

I hope to be able to get back to proper posting here at the Elf in the weeks ahead. For now I leave you with a few more pictures of my class. Kids sure make beautiful art. Oh, and I’m thrilled to say I’m part of an amazing team of bloggers on the Cybils Fiction Picture Book Team this year – something to look forward to in the dead of winter. All those books will suit me (and my kindergarten army) perfectly.

artists

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MAKE FRIENDS: A Year with Friends, by John Seven

withfriendsWhy hello there.

I have been a very busy lady for someone who is technically “on holiday.” Holiday, schm-oliday. When I haven’t been: a) learning about teaching Kindergarten, b) reading about teaching Kindergarten, c) dreaming about teaching Kindergarten, d) hunting and gathering at garage sales so that I have stuff with which I can teach Kindergarten, I have been doing Absolutely Nothing. (Okay, there has been some cocktail-drinking and BBQ-eating and extremely lazy watching of mindless television, but that’s about it. Barely any reading at all. I can’t stay awake folks. It’s a problem). And so it has taken every tiny bit of resolve I could scrape together to get in front of this computer screen and attempt to string a few sensible words together.

A Year with Friends. Gosh this is a pretty wee book. It practically sings Kindergarten. It’s a journey through the year, a celebration of the seasons and the great outdoors starring two kids and their furry sidekick pets. The text is perfectly simple: “January is time for rolling down hills. February is time for snuggling. March is time to hold on to your hat. April is time to get messy…” Each idea is open enough to leave kids room to ponder, and the wonderfully bright, expressive artwork showcases the children taking charge of their own experiences and making their own fun. I like that most of the activities are outdoors. The kids are busy chasing things and making things and having those many small adventures that constitute the best kind of childhood. This is a cosy read, a perfect introduction to the pleasures of different times of year and friendship and simple things. A Year with Friends is understated and just right. I’ll be trying it out on the little people sometime this fall.

A Year with Friends is published by Abrams Appleseed.

(P.S. The husband and wife team have a fun website. They seem like cool folk!)

PLAY: How To, by Julie Morstad

how toSo, do you sometimes go through phases of feeling disconnected from life, like you’re observing things, but not really a part of what you see going on around you? The end of the school year often does this to me, as the summer inches closer. I’m always surprised that I don’t feel pure elation the closer the school holiday gets. Instead it’s mostly just plain exhaustion and glazed-over-ness.

The other day I was walking home in a daze in the rain after a super long day. It was really coming down and I had too many bags and a too-small umbrella and I was getting soggier and grouchier with every step. “Grumble grumble,” I thought as I squelched step by step closer to home. And then I saw her. A kid, probably six years old, wearing a pink raincoat and matching rubber boots. She was leaping around in the rainwater that was rushing down the street like a mini river in the sidewalk gutter.  She couldn’t have been more delighted – or delightful to watch.

That little moment woke me up. I may be bone tired right now, but deep down, I know I’m ready for a summer that’s full of the simple happy things life has to offer: popsicles, cool park grass, the scent of warm pine needles, dog kisses, lake sunsets, books (lots and lots), music in the kitchen, cat naps (with cat), movies, late nights hanging around with friends and family. Who knows, perhaps I’ll fit in a little puddle jumping?

In September, I’m going to be surrounded by many small puddle-jumpers as I start the process of magicking myself into a Kindergarten teacher, and I’m pretty sure that my students’ energy and curiosity and wonder will inspire me everyday. So, to get in the spirit of things, all summer long I’ll be reviewing a whole lotta picture books. These will be the books I plan to use next year during my first year in Kindergarten. In the weeks ahead, I’ll share some of the best books I can think of that explore, define, and celebrate some of the big ideas I hope will be central to daily life in my classroom. Today, I’m starting things off with the theme of PLAY, and “how to,” a simply gorgeous book by Julie Morstad. Continue reading

The definition of dramedy: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

henrylarsenI’ve been in a reading rut the past couple of months, and Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is one of the books that finally pulled me out of it. If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. It is both heartbreaking and funny-bone-tickling – and when I tell you what it’s about, you’ll probably find the promise of funny hard to believe.

Thirteen-year-old Henry and his family face the unthinkable when his older brother Jesse takes his father’s hunting rifle to school one morning and kills the bully who has been making his life a living hell for months. Henry’s family moves to a new city in an attempt to “start over” and there Henry begins seeing a therapist. The therapist wants him to keep a journal. At first Henry thinks this is stupid. Eventually, the journal becomes a place for him to share his thoughts about his new situation, including what he thinks of the oddball group of nerds he finds himself hanging out with at school, and his new neighbours in their apartment building. Henry tries as hard as he can to make sure what happened to his family stays a secret, but it isn’t easy keeping something so awful and life-changing in the past.

It’s Henry’s voice that really gets you and makes this book memorable. Nielsen excels at capturing the mix of emotions Henry feels – crushing sadness and guilt and anger – but she also makes it clear that Henry is a pretty hilarious boy. I loved how Henry speaks in “Robot Voice” when his therapist (or anyone else) tries to get him to talk about anything painful. It is funny, but also incredibly touching, because it’s something so true to what a kid would likely do to protect himself emotionally in such a situation. You can tell that Henry is one bright kid.

I also appreciated that Nielsen doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff in this book. She makes you think about whether or not you’d be like the people in the community who shut out Henry’s family after this tragedy. She makes you sympathize with Henry when he goes to visit the victim’s sister and her dad turns Henry away, horrified, at the same time as you kind of understand where the father is coming from in the moment. Nielsen doesn’t sugar coat, but there is nothing inappropriate in the content for an intermediate reader. She handles the subject matter with perfect sensitivity. I think kids and adults will appreciate her honest but thoughtful scrutiny of this mature and intense topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen is a book that should make you think about stories you’ve heard in the news a little bit differently. It’s very sad in places, but I promise, there will be moments when you laugh out loud. In my opinion, it takes a unique writer to offer readers such great dramedy. 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is published by Tundra Books.

For Graduates, big and small: The World is Waiting for You

world

It’s graduation season, for students little and big. Barbara Kerley’s The World is Waiting for You would make a lovely read aloud for classes getting ready to make a big leap into Grade 1 (or even Grade 9).  It’ll make a nice companion to Oh the Places You’ll Go, which seems to be the tried and true book when it comes to celebrating graduations.

Barbara Kerley has written spare but beautiful text to accompany stunning, full-page photography from National Geographic. The images are amazing – even breathtaking – with many action shots and close-ups that grab your attention and invite you to really linger on each picture. Here’s how it starts:

“Right outside your window there’s a world to explore. Ready?

Follow that path around the next bend. Who knows where it might lead?

Make a splash. Get a little too wet. Dive in…”

The pictures really do take center stage here, with the words positioned unobtrusively in the corners or else laid out cleanly on plain white pages facing the giant photographs. There’s a clever pattern in the way the photos have been selected and arranged too. It alternates between a photo of a child doing something (exploring a river) with an adult doing a similar activity, often in his/her job (oceanographer diving with dolphins). I like how this invites kids to see their experiences of the world as being as important and authentic (and cool!) as the things adults choose to do in their day-to-day lives.

The World is Waiting for You should make readers want to race outside, away from screens and desks, towards all of the adventures to be found out there in the wide world.

The World is Waiting for You is published by National Geographic.

Growing up sweet: Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine

rosie sprout

Naturally, my thoughts have shifted in a very Kindergarten direction since I found out that’s what I’ll be teaching next year. My list of Ideas / Things to Figure Out is getting longer by the minute, not to mention my list of picture books I love and want to “do cool things with” next year.

Pretty close to the top of that list is this lovely little treasure: Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine, by Allison Wortche. It is darling. It makes me smile and feel warm and fuzzy, and as a teacher, I can say that it’s a pretty fair representation of life in a typical classroom.

In Rosie’s class, it’s all about Violet. Violet is the fastest, the loudest, the fanciest, the Best. Everything Violet does seems to turn out perfectly, and Violet is not shy about soaking up the limelight. Sweet little Rosie is tired of hearing about it. So when Ms. Willis announces that they will each be growing their own plants in little pots, all of the kids (Rosie included) get ready to see VIolet be the best in the world at gardening. When the first pea sprouts appear, it would seem that Violet’s is off to a speedy start. But when Violet gets the chicken pox, Rosie has to make a choice. Will she sit by and let Violet’s plant wither, or will she do what’s hard but what is kind?

This one could’ve easily turned into a story that was unbelievably sweet and simplistic. I think Rosie’s reaction to Violet is really true to life. Violet drives her crazy, and Rosie quietly stews about it. When she sees Violet’s plant is growing faster than everyone else’s, Rosie dumps soil on top of it. Also, there’s a cute twist at the end that every teacher – and grown up – will smile about, because it’s not a happily ever after ending, it’s a true one. The only thing I wish was different is the fact that the teacher doesn’t really seem to do much in the way of guiding VIolet to become a little more tolerable and sensitive. The teacher comes off as quite passive in the situation. However, since the story is from Rosie’s perspective, perhaps it’s realistic that she wouldn’t necessarily observe her teacher’s response to Violet.

Patrice Barton’s illustrations are just wonderful. They are full of soft tones and have an expressive messiness to them that I just love. Each picture is packed with energy and emotion, just like a classroom full of kids this age really is.  

I am already thinking about how this book could have a place in a unit on plants, and growing things – not to mention growing good kids!

Maybe we could grow wheatgrass eggheads:

eggheads

(Here’s a post that shows you how - just add googly eyes and you’re done!)

I know this for sure. I plan to pack my class full of adorable, so Rosie Sprout should fit right in.

Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine is published by Knopf.

The Elf breaks her silence with a dramatic update…

It’s been quiet here on the Shelf for a while – too long. I get pretty antsy when I’m not keeping this little place current.

So here’s the story.

Man, am I:

photo 1

Why? It’s a long story. There have been changes brewing in my job over the past month, changes I hadn’t seen coming and probably wouldn’t have thought could lead to things I really wanted. Let’s just say that I haven’t felt so stressed for a long while. On Friday this week everything was finally resolved, and I confess that first, I was a little bit:

photo 2-2

But that passed quickly, and now I finally feel:

photo 3-1

Here’s the scoop. Next year, I won’t be a teacher librarian anymore, but I will sure be needing a lot of brilliant books close at hand, particularly this one… Continue reading

A Canine Charmer: The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

moscowdogsI’ve been reading a whole lotta dog books lately, mostly about how to train a terrier who is smart enough to open his crate from the inside using only his lips. We are all learning in our house (admittedly, some of us faster than others). So when Rachelle Delaney’s new middle grade novel, The Metro Dogs of Moscow, snuck to the top of my TBR pile, I was powerless to resist. A mystery… starring a dog… a terrier type dog? Of course I jumped at it (a little bit like a certain naughty hound I wrangle on a daily basis).

This quick read is chipper and charming, just right for young readers who are beginning to get their feet wet with longer chapter books. Here’s the premise. JR (short for Jack Russell) travels the world with his person, George, who works as a diplomat. Sounds exciting, right? JR doesn’t see it that way. Now that they’ve landed in Moscow, JR is beginning to get tired of the roving life. He wants to stay in one place, and more than anything, he wants to go off leash for a while and really have a chance to live a little. Then one night, all it takes is an open window and just like that, JR runs off into the city, leaving his drab days in the dust. He meets The Coolest Dogs Ever, aka the Metro Dogs of Moscow. These amazing, street-smart strays show JR the sites and they also fill him in on a mystery that is affecting their crew: strays are disappearing all over the city. JR doesn’t turn back, and soon enough, he is wrapped up in an adventure he will never forget.

It’s hard to resist a book with such a motley collection of canine stars. Before you can say Kroshka Kartoshka (delish stuffed hot potatoes), JR will skip his way straight into your heart, circle around a couple of times, and lie down there to stay for a while. The opening bit, when JR experiences some inner turmoil over having done A Very Bad Thing, completely cracked me up. Any dog owner knows how it goes. Dog does A Very Bad Thing. Dog feels Really Awful. You are Very Mad at Dog. Then, before you know it, somehow, said Bad Dog is curled up with you on the couch and you are holding his rawhide chew for him so that he can enjoy more fully. How? Why? Now that is a doggy mystery.

Joking aside, Delaney must be a dog person. Her dog characters are not just cute, they are nicely differentiated and memorable. The Russian setting comes to life as the hounds tear all over the city, racing to solve the mystery before more of their friends disappear. There’s a classic feel to this story. I don’t know if it’s the shape of the story that makes it seem like a timeless adventure for children, the warm atmosphere, or the lightness Delaney imbues throughout. Whatever the magic, it really works. You could put this in the hands of just about any young reader and chances are, they’d gobble it up. It is the kind of book I would have adored when I was nine or so. I will be finding many nine year olds to read it very soon.

FYI, JR made me think of two Jack Russell’s on film. Cosmo, from the most wonderful movie, Beginners, and Uggie from The Artist. Check out their cuteness:

Also, here’s a lovely interview with Rachelle by Vikki, over at Pipdreaming.

The Metro Dogs of Moscow is published by Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Canada.