Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Secret Agent Jack Stalwart

Recently Ben discovered the Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series by Elizabeth Singer Hunt at the library.  Jack Stalwart is a nine-year-old Secret Agent for the GPF.  His older brother, Max, went on a secret mission and has disappeared.  In Jack's quest to find Max, he finds himself transported to countries all over the world solving mysteries.  The series has been named a "must read" for boys by the British Education Secretary.

Currently, there are fourteen books in the series taking Jack everywhere from Nepal to the Arctic to France.  It does not seem that the books necessarily need to be read in order, and we started with The Pursuit of the Ivory Poachers which takes place in Kenya.  The plot of the book was pretty simple.  Jack arrives in Kenya and learns that someone is illegally poaching elephant tusks.  Eventually, he finds the culprit.  The excitement of the story lies in all the secret gadgets Jack has at his disposal to help him get out of trouble and outsmart the bad guys.  As this book was set in Kenya, it also had a lot about animals which Ben enjoyed - and it sparked a discussion about poaching and endangered animals (also started back when we read Danny the Champion of the World).

We've just started on The Search for the Sunken Treasure set in Australia (a country/continent Ben loves thanks to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day).  In this one, Jack investigates the disappearance of a diver off the Great Barrier Reef.  Since we've been focused on maps and geography lately, these books have been an unintended supplement to our work, and Ben has enjoyed looking at the world map on his wall as we read through the books and talk about Jack's travels.

Ben went a little crazy checking out books this week, so we also have Japan, Cambodia, and Great Britain adventures to look forward to in the upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mixing Colors

My son has had a recent interest in mixing colors - while painting and drawing with crayons.  He likes to ask what happens when you mix certain colors or how to make other colors.  In an effort to help him better understand how this works, we've checked out a few books about color mixing.  Some of the ones we've enjoyed are:

Colors for Zena by Monica Wellington

Mix it Up by Herve Tullet

Monsters Love Colors by Mike Austin

Magic Colors by Patrick George

We've also done some work with the color wheel to help the kids gain a better visual of how the colors are all related to each other.  I'm also always on the look-out for children's books with vibrant colorful illustrations just so we can be exposed to different ways to use color.  Exploring color has been a fun uplifting exercise!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Spy Storytelling

My kids love books where the goal is to search for a given object.  Some of their favorites include:

I Spy
Can You See What I See?
Where's Waldo
Look & Find Disney Friends
I Spy Art Series, which includes:
     -  I Spy An Alphabet in Art
     -  I Spy Shapes in Art
     -  I Spy Colors in Art

Often, all the kids want to do is find the images they're looking for and then turn the page.  But sometimes, I can get them to linger on a page for long enough to start talking about what is going on in a given scene, what the people are doing, why the objects are there in a given way.  I particularly like the Can You See What I See? books for this because each page of the book follows a story along.  For example, in Toyland Express, the reader follows the train from creation in the toy shop, to the toy store, to the home of a child opening it in a brand new box, to abandoned in the attic, to refurbished and played with all over again.  Because these book tend not to have too many words (the I Spy books do usually incorporate a small rhyme), they are wide-open for children to use their imaginations to start learning how to tell a story.

Recently, our friends at Carrots are Orange and An Everyday Story introduced us to another set of books that are in this category:

Welcome to Mamoko
The World of Mamoko in the Year 3000
The World of Mamoko in the Time of Dragons

The Mamoko books are written by the same people who wrote another favorite I recently shared, Maps. They are wordless books intended to promote storytelling in children - at the front is a page with a number of characters that appear throughout the rest of the book.  Then, as you flip through the pages you can choose to look at the scene as a whole or follow a given character through the book.  While it is fun just to search for each character on a page, slowly my kids started to get the idea of telling the story of each character - including interesting funny backstories.  Here is an explanation by the authors of the books and explaining their thinking behind their creation:  We had so much fun getting know the world of Mamoko.  We can't wait for more to come!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

As we make our way through the month of giving thanks, we have been exploring a lot of Thanksgiving themed books.  When I brought home Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? by Dr. Seuss from the library, Ben immediately recognized it as a book they had from his class.  He thought the image of the man telling his story from atop a prickly cactus was hilarious.

This past week, we've read the book several dozen times, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it.  The gist is that we should all consider ourselves incredibly lucky because out there in the crazy world there are many many other people who are much more unfortunate than we are.  This is a tricky lesson.  On the one hand, I certainly agree that we should all count our blessings and be grateful for what we have.  But on the other hand, I'm not sure this should be simply because there are other people who have it worse than us.  And, I also think that even though there is probably always someone who does have it worse, we all have the right to be sad or feel unhappy about things once in awhile.   Grief and sadness aren't comparative emotions

That being said, Ben is three years old, so I don't think he needs a comprehensive analysis of the message.  He appreciates the basic idea - that we all have so much to be grateful for - and loves the illustrations and rhymes and silly made up words.  Which brings me to my next dilemma with Dr. Seuss.  I love Dr. Seuss.  I loved him so much as a child and have so many fond memories or working out his stories, falling in love with the characters, and simply treasuring his words.  But, one of the things I have been emphasizing with Ben is to "use his words" - to be clear about his emotions and needs.  One thing he does when he is shutting down is start making up words.  I see it as a screen - something to distract from his need to address his feelings.  So, we're working hard on finding ways to enjoy silly words - like many children, Ben has always had a fascination with language, repeating words, making rhymes- and I want him to continue this love of words.  But, not at the expense of learning to communicate with his real words.  A struggle that is a bit off point and not truly relevant to this book - but a reminder that we find our lessons and encounter our challenges in the oddest of places.  This won't stop me from bringing Dr. Seuss into our home, but it is a reminder for me to be more mindful of it when I do.

Free Choice?

When I make a trip to the library with my kids, I let them pick out a few books on their own, and then I pick out a few I think they might like (or some of my old favorites that I hope they might like).  It is easy to allow them to choose their own children's picture books because while some of those books might not be my favorite, in general they don't depict anything too offensive or objectionable.  Chapter books, however, are another story.  When Ben and I first started reading them together a few months ago, I made all the choices.  I have gravitated toward my favorite childhood authors like Roald Dahl and E. B. White.  A couple month ago, Ben chose a Flat Stanley book - I was excited to learn about Flat Stanley, and I appreciated Ben's participation in choosing what we would read in the evenings.

But then...a couple weeks ago at the library, Ben brought me two paperback chapter books that he wanted to check out:  Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom and The Dark Knight: Batman Undercover.  My first (unspoken) reaction was to suggest that he pick something else, that maybe these books had themes I did not particularly approve of.  But, when I looked at his excited face, I knew I could not go the route of teaching him that reading is awesome - as long as you let other people tell you what to read.  I want him to investigate and explore on his own, and to have the confidence that he can choose what he wants (of course, there is always a line with this, but I didn't think this was the line).  So, we borrowed the books.

And then we read them...and let me just say that these stories are (in my opinion) terrible.  But, Ben loved them.  I think he liked the excitement of reading something that he kind of knew he wasn't quite ready for.  The plot was a little complicated, but the villains we SO COOL.  And there was FIGHTING in the books.  Needless to say, the stories engendered a lot of discussion.

I still don't know if I'm going down the right path.  He learns a lot at school from the older kids about superheroes and weapon play and all that - I don't think the books are the biggest corrupting force in his life.  I also know that maybe I don't need to contribute to it by reading these books to him.  But for now, I'll keep slipping my choices in there and give him the freedom to choose the others.  I hope, in time, his interests will change, but his love of reading will stay with him.

Here are a few articles I've found on line on the topic:
Parents 'must let their children choose what to read'
Want your kids to read?  Let them choose their own books
How to Motivate Students By Letting Them Choose Books

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Maps

I have previously mentioned Ben's love of maps - he loves looking at where things are in relation to each other, seeing where people live, and what is going on in different places.  We recently discovered this awesome book - Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska.  Maps is an over-sized atlas with intricate illustrations of continents and countries.  Within each map is information about the landscape of the given place, along with historical and cultural information, as well as detail about the types of plants and animals that live there.

I left the book out on our coffee table for Ben to discover.  It is so huge, there was no way he could miss it.  He has enjoyed flipping through it on his own and studying the illustrations and then asking me various questions about which country he's look at, why there are certain things in the country, whether we have those things where we live, etc.  It has been fun conversation starter in that way.  He has also enjoyed just flipping through each page and trying to figure out if there is some sort of drawing of a car on the page (Italy, Germany, and Japan were the favorites in this category).  He has let me sit down with him and actually read some of the factual information, but right now I think the visual sensory overload is so great that he's enjoying just having the book to himself.

Ben is learning about Africa in school right now (Egypt is his favorite African country), as well as about volcanoes, so this book has been a great compliment to those lessons. There is also a page in the back with a picture of the flags from each country and he has liked flipping from the country page to the flag page to show me where they are the same.  I'm looking forward to more discoveries as we continue to explore this book in the coming weeks!