Four Books by Christy Jordan Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

two picture books and two companion chapter books share the true story of a girl caught in the tension of change when traditions meet modernization

lots to think about for elementary, middle grade and adult readers – a important story to know

162768598585187What do you do when something that you have wanted so badly is nothing like what you thought it would be?  How can something like school and the people who run it be so thoughtless and cruel?  Those are things you will wonder when you read When I Was Eight and the chapter book version of the same story, Fatty Legs, about the Inuit girl who left her village to go to the outsiders’ school.  At first Oleman was excited to be there because she so wanted to learn to read.  Quickly her excitement turned to dread and fear.   Everything she loved was taken from her.  They cut her hair.  They changed her name.  They put her in scratchy, thin, uncomfortable clothes.  They made her speak only French and English and forced her to do endless chores with little food.  The sisters who ran the school took everything Inuit away from the girls in their charge.  When I Was Eight tells the first part of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s story.  Not My Girl and A Stranger At Home tell the second part. 

1870657111482930Eventually the ice melted in the bay and the rivers and the summer was long enough for a boat to travel up the Mackenzie River to bring Margaret home.  After two years at the school, Margaret couldn’t wait to be with her family again in Tuktoyaktuk.  When she arrived, however, everything had changed.  She no longer knew the Inuit words she needed to talk to her family.  Her uniform and canvas shoes were impractical from Artic life – even in the summer, and her stomach was now unaccustomed to the rich and fatty foods she had once so well loved.   Though she was home, she felt like an outsider. 

Now Margaret/Oleman was afraid she didn’t fit anywhere.  She was neither part of the Outsiders’ world, nor part of her family.  Fortunately, family is just that – always a place to come home to and eventually Oleman finds her place.  She comes to feel at home again with her sisters and her parents and her dogs.  But, once change happens it stays.  Not My Girl and A Stranger At Home helps us think about change; how we learn and grow to understand more about other people and ourselves through our experiences.   We all have choices.  We can see differences as weird and bad – something to get rid of so we are all the same.  Or we can see differences as interesting and wonderful – something to celebrate so we are richer because we are unique.   These are great books to read as a family.  There is so much to wonder about and consider – even the questions left unanswered are important.



Plant a Pocket of Prairie

18778015Plant a Pocket of Prairie by Phyllis Root begins, “Once prairie stretched for thousands of miles an ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky, home for bison and elk, prairie chickens, borrowing owls, five-lined skinks, Plains garter snakes and Ottoe skipper butterflies.  Almost all gone now to farm and town and city even before we knew all the things a prairie could do.”  The book shares the life that could once be found in Minnesota’s native prairie – life of all kinds great and small.  Full of “what -ifs”  this book suggests that we pay attention to the habitat around us, understand it and care for it.  We will never be able to recreate the prairie we have lost – but we could plant a pocket and see what comes because of it.  And what would happen if the “pockets” grew together?  There’s no telling who will come.

The information contained in the end pages of this book are what makes it invaluable to intermediate and middle grade readers.  Focused solely on the prairie, the information can be applied to all habitats and ecosystems.  What ecosystems are threatened where you live.  What is there, and what can you do to understand the interdependence of plants and animals as a way of keeping it from slipping away.   The fact I found most striking in the end pages is that the 40% of the United States was once covered by prairie.  Now there is less than 1% of the prairie left and that makes it the most endangered ecosystem in the world.  Reading Plant a Pocket of Prairie makes you rethink about the impact of modernization and how we barge in without really knowing the impact or cost.  There is a reason this book base been talked about and reviewed so often.  There is something for every reader to thinking about.  Enjoy!

Byrd and Igloo – a polar adventure

Byrd & Igloo: A Polar Adventureby Samantha Seiple

a 175 page expedition to both Poles and back by a man and his dog

for intermediate readers and beyond

The story begins in January, 1926 on a pouring, bitterly cold day in Washington D.C.  Walking home from work, Maris Booth found a shivering puppy. She knew if she didn’t take him home he would die.  She snuck the puppy into her apartment and then into work.  She cared for him, but knew he couldn’t stay cooped up day after day.  The puppy was independent and determined just like, Maris realized, Robert Byrd.  She had read about Byrd and his daring goal to be the first person to fly over the North Pole.  Booth called Byrd and convinced him that this dog could go anywhere he could and would be a reliable companion on any trip.  Unsure at first, Byrd finally relented and thus began the five year friendship of a man and dog who traveled pole to pole together.

The puppy, soon named Igloo, was devoted to Byrd.  Igloo was left behind at the base and did not fly over the North Pole with Byrd on that first expedition – and he made sure that was the last time. Igloo went everywhere with Byrd.  He learned to deal with vicious sled dogs, wore a fur suit and booties to deal with the bitter cold of the Pole and was as dedicated to Byrd as Byrd was committed to the success and safety of each person in his crew.

Early aviation was exciting, dangerous and unknown.  Combined with the polar exploration and the growing science of the time, the true story told in Byrd & Igloo shares this interesting point in history.  The adventures of Igloo, a strong-willed, devoted, best friend, traveling along side the polar explorer from North Pole to South Pole, with Boston in between are exciting ones.  Igloo was quite a dog.  His adventures were many!

The book is illustrated with photographs of the expeditions to help readers picture that era.  Read it.  You’ll be glad you did


Wild Boy

Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyronby Mary Losure

a piece of history we should all try to know better and understand

This book tells the incredible story of this historical boy – why was he there, how could he survive, what did he wish?  Reading Mary Losure’s, Wild Boy – the Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron helped me answer these questions and then think of more.  The book is incredibly well researched (look here) and beautifully written to tell the story of a life. Where gaps exist in the record, Mary Losure does a masterful job of putting the pieces together so readers have a complete understanding of what this wild boy must have seen and felt during his exposure to the civilized world.  One he must surely have been cast aside from.

As you read you have to wonder about what people and life was like at the turn of the 18th century.  Curious, fearful, scientific, superstitious – whatever combination was  held, the wild boy was captured repeatedly and watched.  He was transported halfway across the country of France in the name of science. But it was through this name, that his humanity was oft times forgotten. (It does seem that we tend to destroy a lot of things in this name.)

As the story unfolds we are able to see Victor grow and change.  We are able to learn as he learns.  We are able to see how he is seen and treated over the course of his lifetime.  And, if we choose, we are able to look inside and ask ourselves what is kind and just. Do we take the time to accept and understand the differences in people around each day?  Do we take time to appreciate our gifts – the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, the music of rain?  Sometimes this book is troubling and sad.

After dinner, both boys and girls were let out to play in separate parts of the garden.  When he saw the other children the wild boy ran and hid.

Sometimes he crouched in the Institute’s attic behind a pile of old building materials.

But when rain pattered on the roof and everyone else went inside, the wild boy often crept into the garden, to the tiny, formal reflecting pond that sat among the flower beds.  He would circle the pond several times, then sit by it’s edge and rock himself back and forth as the rain dimpled the surface of the pond.  He’d gaze into the water, toss in a handful of dead leaves, and watch them drift.

But it is also full of hope, endurance, friendship and care. This book immerses you in the growing story of Victor’s life as he changes from boy to man.  Though he find a place, he is always kept on the outside, and never fully recognized as human by society.

That was then, but this is now. Could this story happen today?  Wild Boy – the Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron will make you question just how civilized our world really is.  Have we changed? When you consider the contemporary story, The Dogs in Winter by Bobbie Pyron you’ll have to say, “no” or “not much.”   Mary Losure does a wonderful job sharing and highlighting the incredible strength of human spirit and the importance fleeting glimmers of kindness have in a person’s life.

Read Wild Boy – the Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron and wonder.

The Plant Hunters

The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the EarthTrue Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth

by Anita Silvey

The Plant Hunters begins: “One got eaten by tigers in the Philippines: one died of fever in Ecuador: one drowned in the Orinoco River; one fell to his death in Sierra Leone. Another survived rheumatism, pleurisy and dysentery while sailing the Yangtze River in China, only to be murdered later. A few ended their days in lunatice asylums; many simply vanished into thin air.” From that beginning you simply have to read why and how all those things could happen to people how love plants. Plants!? Well, that was just in the past – in the beginning when people were exploring the world and mapping things out you think, and then you keep reading. Yes, it was in the past, but perhaps not as far back as you think and it is still going on. Not with such dire consequences, but still with risk and danger and sacrifice.  I love plants and am very interested in them. It is interesting to think about the role of plants in our world’s development and history.  We might take them for granted, but their importance to our survival is clear.

It is interesting to learn of how plants were identified in the past and how they were named and catalogued. It is even more interesting to know how they were valued and smuggled and secreted from place to place for pleasure, profit and gain. You can visit arboretums to see how these collections have developed and been cared for all these years.  It makes you wonder about the plants that still wait to be discovered today. Silvey tells us: “Today’s ‘plant geeks’ share the traits of those who came before them: a love of the natural world, the thrill of discovery and travel, and a dedication to botany and science.” They are going on exciting adventures in search of the “beautiful, unusual, useful or rare plant.” It could even be you.

Wondering About Knowing…

I started wondering – how do you learn about new things you know nothing about?  In fact, do you learn things if you know nothing about them to begin with?  I’m lucky to be a teacher and a book lover.  I spend a part of each day reading about books – new and old  and about the authors and illustrators who create them.  As I read all of these reviews I think about how these books might fit in with the things going on in our classroom.  We are working to understand ourselves as learners and as members of a learning community.  We are working to learn how we are connected to history and past explorations.  We are trying to expand the ways we express ourselves individually and collectively as we grow to see ourselves as productive members of our global community.

Picture books are important tools for opening doors in your mind to information and ideas.  They are brief, but complete windows onto new things – and once you’re aware of possibilities they are more likely to develop into something richer and more complex.  Here’s a collection of recent informational picture books written for intermediate and middle grade readers – snapshots of information to open your mind.

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri RousseauThe Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markle  Henri Rousseau is a toll collector in Paris.  He is forty.  He wants to be a painter.  He wants to capture the glory and beauty of nature.  He can not afford a teacher and so he sets out to teach himself.  He studies.  He practices. He learns of an exhibition and decides to put his art on display.  His work is ridiculed by the experts.  They say his work is childish; something even cavemen would ignore, but he does not give up.  He paints what he loves, what he sees, what he imagines and what he feels. He keeps at it.  For twenty years the art critics berate his technique and ability, but finally one year other artists begin to notice the love , the story and the light captured in each piece.  In time his work is notice and not laughed at.  Finally Henri Rousseau is allowed to become what he has dreamed of becoming – an artist.  Can you imagine the courage and effort, the determination and persistence required for him to succeed? For twenty years or more he was mocked and jeered at – what an amazing person he must have been.  I would very much like to have him as my friend.

Faith: Five Religions and What They ShareFaith – Five Religions and What They Share by Dr. Richard Steckel and Michele Steckel does exactly what the title says.  Illustrated with current photographs, it shares information about Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.   With so much unrest in the world centered around belief and doctrine it is important for us to understand how closely related our beliefs, the origins of our faiths and underlying tenets of these religions are.  Certainly each is different – but just a certainly, they are the same.  Faith explores sacred texts, common acts of worship, charity, symbols and clothing. It helps us understand the rituals and celebrations that lead to a common belief – treat others as you would like to be treated.  It is a beautiful books to see.  It shares the richness of diversity, while at the same time honoring the individuality of one’s faith.


Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose: Growing Up On Mount RushmoreHanging off Jefferson’s Nose – Growing up on Mount Rushmore by Tina Nicholas Coury tells the story of Lincoln Borglum, the son of the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who designed the great monument on Mount Rushmore.  Mount Rushmore is amazing.  It is stunning to see and imagining the enormity of the accomplishment is mind-boggling.  And then you read the book and realize there is so much more involved – investigating the stability of the rock, creating two-story models so the 500 men working on the project would know the dimensions they were working on, keeping the crew safe and warm all year.  It wasn’t a fair weather project.  Stairways, scaffolding, dynamite, starting over, taking care of the men, taking care of the Lakota tribe, adjusting and readjusting the design, losing your father, being commissioned as head sculptor and dedicating fourteen years of your life to see a project through to its end.  I don’t think you’ll see any sculpture in the same way once you read this book. It is such an amazing feet of engineering and art created by an entire community dedicated to one task and doing something they believed in.  Lincoln was 15 when his father began the project.  He was 29 when he finished the project for his father.  Just imagine.

Once you get reading you’ll find more to pique your interest.  Here are a few that I have found in the last few weeks as our class works to uncover and discover possibilities:  Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor, Leo-Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth by Jon Chad, I Could do That!  Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote by Linda Arms White or For the Birds – the Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Peggy Thomas

The Great Molasses Flood

The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919Boston, 1919

by Deborah Kops

Babe Ruth had just helped the Red Sox win the world series.  World War I had ended the previous November. The battle against Spanish Influenza was over and the schools had reopened.  Soda fountains had reopened, people were out on the streets and it seemed as though life might just finally be returning to normal.

In the North End, between the elevated railroad tracks and the Paving Yard, stood a huge steel tank.  It dominated the skyline.  In mid-January it had received another shipment and was now full with 2,319,525 gallons of molasses.  That weighed as much as 13,000 Ford cars – a sizable weight.  During the war the molasses had been made into alcohol that was used for making ammunition.  Now it was being distilled into rum by the company that owned the tank, the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA).

January 1919 was a time of change.  The troops would be coming home and efforts were being made to make that as soon as possible.  Only one more state was needed to ratify a constitutional amendment for Prohibition to begin. Commercial Street was a busy place. Business was was bustling in and out of the North End.  Passengers made there way between North and South Station.  Firemen worked in the firehouse.  The fireboat was there.  It was laundry day, and being surprisingly warm on the 15th, many lines were full. The North End Park was nearby.  People of all ages were out enjoying the unseasonable warmth.   Children snuck in and around the tracks collecting what wood they could find to use at home to keep warm and to cook.    When they passed by the tank they’d  scrape off some of the sticky goo that oozed from between the seams.  It wasn’t like candy, but it was sweet enough.

The day was off to a great start.  Around noon folks heard a devastating blast.  The tank split open and  a wave of thick brown glue barreled through the North End, sweeping up or wiping out everything in its path.  The force of the molasses swept buildings off their foundations, slammed people against trestles and curbs or trapped them for long hours under debris and sludge.  Not everyone was lucky enough to escape the tide as it chased them down.  The whole area was awash with the sticky, brown goo that soon turned to fetid fermenting ooze- the devastation great.

How had it happened?  Was it a bomb?  Had Anarchists, unhappy with the outcome of the war, planned this attack?  Boston had been bombed a couple years before.  Was it an accident?  How would city clean-up and rebuild?   Would they?   How could the loss of businesses, livelihoods, homes and lives be repaid?

From this event of devastation and disaster nearly 100 years ago there are many lessons to be learned and many parallels to be drawn between similar happenings today.  I knew nothing of the molasses flood until a read of this book.  Once aware, I began noticing references to it everywhere.  You’ll be interested to read of the people affected by this blast – their lives were never the same and were never better.  This point in our history is a pivotal moment.  We should be looking to see how can we use this information to ensure the same does not happen to people caught in disasters in the present.   I don’t think we have yet.  Read The Great Molasses Flood and see what you think.  UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, is credited with a quote:  “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when are you going to have the time to do it right again?”  I know I can’t stop a deluge of molasses, but thoughtfulness always matters, big or small.  There aren’t many do-overs in life.