David Karp: The Mastermind behind Tumblr

Written by Karen Latchana Kenney

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In an age when everyone has at least five email addresses and many people have a personal blogs, some applications and websites continue to outshine all the others. Tumblr is right up there with Facebook and Microsoft in name recognition, at least among those familiar with coding. Tumblr is described as a short-form blog in which the owner can post pictures, chats, or songs – more than Twitter and less than Facebook. Even as a child, David Karp, Tumblr’s founder, showed amazing talent for programming and for coming up with innovative ideas. He worked as an intern at the age of fourteen and had his first real job at UrbanBaby at sixteen. Because of his age, he avoided contact with those he worked with and even secretly worked for a New York company from Tokyo for a while. With the money David made at UrbanBaby, he was able to start his own company, Davidville. Tumblr was launched as part of this company in February 2007. Today, with over 50 billion entries, it’s grown into a major force on the internet.

Written at a fourth grade reading level, the text chronicles the career of a man who was very young when he started taking the world by storm. That fact alone should appeal to kids. This is a part of series called “Gateway Biographies,” with an interesting collection of inspiring people. For added value, the author includes a table of contents, timeline, source notes, bibliography, web sources, and index. Kids curious about the internet can easily create reading activities with the sources listed and a little supervision.

  • David KarpTITLE: David Karp: The Mastermind behind Tumblr
  • AUTHOR: Karen Latchana Kenney
  • PUBLISHER: Lerner Publications Company
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • EDITION: Hardback, 2013
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-1285-9
  • GENRE: Biography, Internet
  • LEXILE: 740

Native Americans: A Visual Exploration

Written by S.N. Paleja

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Despite some effort to provide culturally diverse education for students, information on Native Americans is largely ignored or just plain nonexistent. In this ambitious text, the author provides an excellent overview and beginning point for learning about the first North Americans. Each page uses graphics to provide information and should capture the attention of fourth graders with numerous charts, graphs, and timelines. Naturally, the author begins with where the people came from and when. He gives a great explanation of the land bridge called Beringia and how and when it disappeared. He also shows that many groups used shoreline exploration rather than overland routes for migration. The various climate zones in which the groups lived and the names of the tribes are discussed, as well as the types of shelters they constructed, the community structures and the food they ate. A particularly striking graphic of the many uses for the bison is shown. The reader learns about environmental impact, the diverse languages of Native Americans, their spiritual beliefs, and their inventions. When Europeans entered the picture, looking for riches, the lives of Native Americans changed drastically. The author explores their current situation and possible future.

With all the infographics presented, the author implicitly suggests further reading activities, such as drawing more detailed maps over smaller regions. This is a dispassionate treatment of the overall subject, which affords a great opportunity to learn the true facts. The extensive bibliography and index make it easy for the curious reader to continue study of the topics introduced. The publisher’s website (www.annickpress.com) has more about the book, the author, and the publisher.

  • Native AmericanTITLE: Native Americans: A Visual Exploration
  • AUTHOR: S.N. Paleja
  • PUBLISHER: Annick Press
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • EDITION: 2013
  • ISBN: 978-1-55451-485-4
  • GENRE: History, Native American Affairs
  • LEXILE: 1070

Boxcar Children: The Boardwalk Mystery

Written by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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Another lively mystery with the Alden family.  The Alden children, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, could have still been living in their boxcar but long ago Grandfather took them in.  Now they have a habit of solving mysteries everywhere they go.  This summer, Grandfather took them to New Jersey to visit Mr. Hanson, one of his good friends.  Mr. Hanson bought an amusement pier along the New Jersey shore.  He said he always wanted to own one.  His children, Wendy and Will, were not so happy.  They missed their friends in Colorado.  Even worse, pranks and practical jokes were ruining business at Mr. Hanson’s amusement pier.  There are even rumors that the rides at the pier are not safe.  Each time one of the Alden children help repair or clean up after the pranks, they gather one more clue about what is really going on.  They noticed spatters of paint on Wendy’s shoes like the red paint used for mean messages.  There is the angry Mrs. Reddy, who used to own the pier and she complains about how badly Mr. Hanson is running the pier.  There is Mr. Cooke, who owns all the other amusement piers on the shore and wants this one, too.  The Alden children each have their own talent, especially Benny, whose talent is to get into trouble.  One by one they put the clues together and see how all those people played a part in the pranks.  Violet has an idea that might save the pier if they can stop the pranks.

This mystery is the right length and complexity to intrigue young middle grade readers.  The clues are laid out well, hinting at the underlying motivation of the characters.  These updated stories use the familiar characters to engage a new generation of readers.  The reading level is a solid fourth grade and it is a good length for a class read aloud.  Use early in the fourth grade year.  Have the students keep a list of clues like the Alden children do as a reading worksheet and see who can solve the mystery first.

  • Boxcar ChildrenTITLE: Boxcar Children: The Boardwalk Mystery
  • AUTHOR: Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • PUBLISHER: Albert Whitman, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 134 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-8075-0802-2
  • GENRE: Mystery, realistic fiction
  • LEXILE: 420

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet

Written and illustrated by Andrea Cheng

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The story of Dave is both inspirational and tragic, set in a period of time that no one should be allowed to forget.  Through Etched in Clay, Andrea Cheng masterfully presents a piece of this history to readers at the fourth grade level and above.

Born in 1801, the courageous man at the heart of this story became known as “Dave”” after he was purchased at a slave auction when he was seventeen.  At first, Dave was responsible for dredging clay from the bottom of the river for the Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory in South Carolina.  Before long, he took to the wheel and became one of the most accomplished potters in the region.

Etched in Clay follows Dave’s life through many hardships as he is bought and sold four times, has two wives taken from him, and then loses his leg after being hit by a train.  Throughout all of this, Dave learns to read and then write, despite laws prohibiting slave literacy.  He risks being beaten, maimed or even killed to teach other slaves to read and refuses to be silenced – leaving evidence of his bravery by signing his name and the date on his pots, and often etching them with words and poems.

Told from multiple points of view in free verse poems, Andrea Cheng weaves together the few known facts of Dave’s life with imagined details to form a compelling narrative.  This is complimented by sparse wood cuts and an afterword that provides additional information on Dave, life in South Carolina after the Civil War, and Edgefield pottery.

Today, Dave’s pots are prized by collectors and housed in museums.  He has been the subject of other books, most notably Dave the Potter, a Caldecott Honor winning picture book written by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier.  Etched in Clay digs deeper into his story, with an intense richness of time and place, packaged for an older audience.  It presents a jumping off point for deeper discussion about slavery, the civil war, poetry, and pottery while at the same time challenging comprehension as readers reach for their dictionary – to understand lamentable, disenfranchised, magnanimous, sagacity, concatenation– and attempt see the world through the eyes of Dave.

  • Etched in ClayTitle: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet
  • Author and Illustrator: Andrea Cheng
  • Publisher: Lee & Low Books Inc.
  • Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge
  • Book Length:  104 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-58469-137-2 (hardback)
  • Genre: historical fiction, social studies
  • Lexile Score: 790

SPI : Shadow Paranormal Investigators – The Case of the Dark Shadow

Written by T.J. Bonham 

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SPI The Case of the Dark Shadow is an intriguing story for 4th through 6th graders interested in mystery. The book offers the 4th grade reader some challenging language and an unusual plot, but older readers should have no problem with the language and comprehension of this paranormal mystery.

The story grabs the reader from the first chapter by describing emotions common to students who have experienced loss, change, and the fear of starting at a new school. This will offer teachers many opportunities to discuss coping mechanisms for students.

The rest of the story is full of mystery and fun as the character and her friends battle a sinister dark shadow that threatens to harm a ghost hunter and her family. Interwoven in the mystery of the dark shadow is the emotional side of living with a parent deployed during war, another real life situation that kids this age are living with.

A book for middle grade readers that includes real life situations that engage the reader will only serve to encourage students to keep reading, but a book that also includes “outside the box” topics, like ghosts and the paranormal, can broaden their scope of interest and be just what the teacher ordered for the reluctant reader. Teachers can use this as a classroom book read aloud or together because of the topic, the mystery, and the overall interest to boys or girls.

SPI would be a great addition to the 4th to 6th grade classroom library. The book can be used as an adjunct to reading advancement, comprehension, and writing lessons for students in these grades, making it useful for teachers working with state reading guidelines. And books that have excellent plots and story lines are always appreciated by teachers who prepare students for state testing involving reading passages for comprehension and understanding.

  • SPITitle: SPI:Shadow Paranormal Investigators (The Case of the Dark Shadow)
  • Author: T.J. Bonham
  • Publisher: Schiffer Publishing,Ltd.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7643-4132-8
  • Pages: 111
  • Reviewer: Terri Forehand
  • Lexile: 810

Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight

Written and Illustrated by Marthe Jocelyn

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The charming art projects in this book are like Random Acts of Kindness meet Street Art.  The sneaky part is to surprise people, either family or friends even strangers, with a bit of art to make them smile.  The projects are made from materials that most everyone has or can easily find.  They are meant to be seen in public places.  They are meant to be fun.  The book maintains this message of spreading laughter and friendship, but it does explicitly state at the beginning that “sneaky art is NOT: mean, defacing, ugly, hurtful, messy or permanent.”  The book describes “sneaky lettering”, which involves using letters from a variety of sources and “getting sneaky”, which means finding a sneaky spot, knowing when to place your art in its spot and figuring out how to get it there without getting caught.  Like street art, it is not meant to be permanent, so the author urges the reader to take a picture to remember their artwork.  The final advice?  “Don’t make anyone mad—make them laugh!”  All the projects are easy to make and have a hip and funky look to them that will appeal to everyone.  The difficulty levels vary, however, so some projects could be made by a much younger child, which means the projects could be shared with younger students or siblings.

The instructions are told with a laughing, conspiring tone that makes it fun to read.  This would be the perfect book for those units on how-to books or even a Character Counts unit that talks about Random Acts of Kindness, using the projects as a literacy activity.  The book has a spiral binding, allowing the book to stay open as one does the projects.  There is a Sneaky Art Activity Kit on the publisher’s website: (http://www.candlewick.com/book_files/0763656488.kit.1.pdf).  The reading level is 4.8, but the instructions are easy for all readers.

  • Sneaky ArtTITLE: Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight
  • AUTHOR and ILLUSTRATOR: Marthe Jocelyn
  • PUBLISHER: Candlewick, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 54 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5648-5
  • GENRE: How-to, crafts projects
  • LEXILE: 720. Reading level 4.8

Pip and the Twilight Seekers – Book Two of the Spindlewood Tales

Written and Illustrated by Chris Mould

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If your students like dark and scary, there is plenty in this one to creep them out. In the walled city of Hangman’s Hollow, Jarvis, the evil city warden, looks for children. He is tall and skinny with a hook instead of a left hand. He hates children and is determined to get rid of them all. Not only have children been outlawed in the city, Jarvis, instead of locking them up, sells them to the woods folk in the magical forest at the edge of town. Witches and strange animals drool at the sight of tender human children. Jarvis has recently had a bad experience. Three children escaped from him (Pip and the Woodwitch Curse, book one of the Spindlewood trilogy) and he is driven by rage to find them again. Pip, Toad and Frankie are now hiding in an inn called Deadman’s Hand. They are cozy and warm by the fire and have plenty to eat, but they know that they are hunted. In addition, a mysterious wooden doll has the ability to tell children’s locations if a person knows how to ask properly. Jarvis knows how. When the doll falls into his hands, he finds the children with ease. Again he confronts Pip, Toad and Frankie. Jarvis almost captures the three, but then the townspeople attack him. They are fed up with his devious ways. Pip knows where the captured children are in the wild wood and talks the other two into rescuing them. The result is a hair-raising chase out of the woods. Even though the children return to Hangman’s Hollow, they know that Jarvis is still out there.

Even as scary as I found this book to be, it would be a good story for those older reluctant readers who need a compelling read. The chapters are short, the print is big and the illustrations make this look like a graphic novel. Story details are not clear, although there is some explanation in the excerpted part at the end. Because the setting is so vivid, literacy activities, such as making a diorama or a visual representation of the “world”, would extend the story in an interesting way.

  • Pip and the Twilight SeekersTITLE: Pip and the Twilight Seekers
  • AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Mould
  • PUBLISHER: Albert Whitman, 2011
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 170 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-8075-6553-7
  • GENRE: Fantasy
  • LEXILE: 790

Pip and the Wood Witch Curse: A Spindlewood Tale (Book One)

Written and Illustrated by Chris Mould

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Book One of the “Spindlewood Tales,” is the exciting and gripping adventure of an abused orphan, Pip. About to be sold, literally, to a ship’s captain, Pip seizes the opportunity to escape, only to land in a worse situation. Pip is delivered into the legendary village of Hangman’s Hollow, where the townspeople and the creatures of the forest fight over possession of the children. Children are forced to hide lest they be imprisoned by the forest dwellers. When Pip trudges through a heavy snow, his tracks set in motion a whole series of events: chases through the city streets and through the woods, flying accusations, and battles. He wanders past the local tavern, where the tavern keeper snatches him, keeps him safe, and introduces him to his own son. Pip and the son, Toad, set out to rescue a girl rumored to be hiding.

For timid fourth-graders this may be best as a read-aloud since the subject matter is a bit scary. But it should be fine for most independent fourth-grade readers. While Pip and Toad venture forth with little trepidation, they do encounter girl who is paralyzed by terror. However, readers can learn lessons. Things can always be worse, and they can always work at improving their own situations. Also, it seems that even the most innocuous objects can be malevolent. The trees harbor witches. A wooden doll is in fact a malicious soldier from the civil war. Even the birds–though not all of them–report back to the evil creatures.

The author-illustrator presents some beautiful and vivid drawings of the settings and many of the characters. They add a lot to the feel of being there.

  • Title: Pip and the Wood Witch: A Spindlewood Tale Book One
  • Author: Chris Mould
  • Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Hardcover: 155 pages
  • ISBN: 0807565482
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Lexile: 720L

Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves

Written by Andreas Schroeder

Illustrated by Remy Simard

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Readers on the 4th grade reading level and up who like adventure and action will enjoy the drama and intrigue in Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves! Presented  in chapters this 166-page text provides stories of famous historical robberies. Each chapter presents one robber, an in-depth look at one of their heists, and briefer descriptions of their other crimes. From a team of thieves who stole the Mona Lisa to an individual who hijacked a plane and parachuted as an escape, Robbers! illustrates the creative approaches criminals have taken.

But Robbers! doesn’t only highlight illegal successes. Through stories of criminal mistakes, such as a pair of thieves who didn’t know how to fly their get-away plane to a team who forgot to run the dishwasher (and thus left numerous fingerprints for police to use), this book shows how crooks get caught. Robbers! details criminal techniques such as how to case a bank, how to run pearls over your teeth to determine if they are genuine or fake, and how to act your way through a situation to bluff authority figures. This is information some adults may not want in the hands of young readers so this book might not end up on third grade reading lists; on the other hand, the stories do teach the values of attention to detail, careful work and determination and the book might intrigue risk-seeking students who need practice with their reading skills. A book that highlights criminal action could glorify the thieves or show them as villains. Robbers!, however, presents these histories with a non-judgemental tone. The book concludes with a robber-turned-good – the story of Willie Sutton, a bank-robbing addict who eventually turned his energies to helping banks improve their security.

Each story is accompanied by brief cartoon-style illustrations placed in-line with the text. This presentation style requires the cartoon caption to be read as a part of the main text and may confuse some readers, but the illustrations themselves help lighten the book. Every spread includes at least one illustration and some pages include a call out note with additional information. Backmatter includes a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, an index and further reading. Unfortunately all of the books listed in the further reading are at least twenty years old, so may be out-dated and hard for young readers to access.

  • RobbersTITLE: Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves
  • AUTHOR: Andreas Schroeder
  • ILLUSTRATOR: Remy Simard
  • PUBLISHER: Annick Press
  • REVIEWER: Heather L. Montgomery
  • EDITION: Paperback: 166 p.
  • ISBN: 978-1554514403
  • GENRE: Nonfiction, History
  • LEXILE: 1230GN

Greenhorn

Written by Anna Olswanger

Illustrated by Miriam Nerlove

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Imagine being an elementary school boy. You are forced to move to a new country. You are thrown into a boarding type school. You know no one. You have no family. You have only one possession.  You are a Holocaust survivor.

Now imagine again being an elementary school boy. You attend a boarding school filled with bullies. You talk about your father all the time. You have a significant speech impediment.

You just met Daniel and Aaron.

Greenhorn is a short read at only forty-eight pages, but huge issues are found within those pages. While it seems that the Holocaust would be a major theme here, it really comes across as just a background issue. The more intricate themes are about bullying, belonging, self-discovery and friendship.

What is brought forth immediately, and throughout the book, is the name calling and bullying that was common for the 1940’s Brooklyn. I was taken back by this while in the read, but after realizing that is what life was like in that time, it came together for me. Linked, as a result of the bullying from other students, Aaron (has a speech impediment) and Daniel (the Holocaust survivor) find a friendship. Its that sense of belonging in a group that helps these characters survive their time within the school.

I can’t divulge what’s in the box. No spoiler alert here. Just read the book.

Not being Jewish, or knowing much about the Jewish culture, I found it hard to understand many of the words used. However, there is a vocabulary list of these words and I would strongly recommend having the students learn those before reading. It will definitely enhance the readers comprehension of the events. The illustrations enhance the reading material and give fourth grade readers a nice break within the pages. The publisher, NewSouth, has made an extensive Discussion Guide for families and Classroom Guide for teachers (http://www.newsouthbooks.com/greenhorn). When you are ready to introduce the Holocaust to your students, Greenhorn will bring the students in gently.

  • GreenhornTitle: Greenhorn
  • Author: Anna Olswanger
  • Illustrator: Miriam Nerlove
  • Publisher: NewSouth Books
  • Reviewer: Ann H. Norris
  • ISBN: 1588382354
  • Edition: Hardback, 48 pages
  • Genre: History, Relationships
  • Lexile: 870
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