Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire by Cindy Neuschwander

Is it didactic, a story built specifically to teach a lesson about fractions? Absolutely.

Do some of us prefer our mathematics lessons encased in a story? Yes, indeed.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And for some people, math equals medicine.

The Sir Cumference books are designed to engage young readers who like knights and ladies fairs and castles and to teach them a bit of math on the sly, so to speak. This latest Sir Cumference book is all about fractions. Sir Cumference and Lady Di of Ameter go to visit their friend the Earl of Fracton at the annual Fracton Faire. At the fair, they purchase cloth and cheese and other stuff in fractional parts, and a group of thieves target the market. However, the Earl and Lady Di and Sir Cumference use fractions to catch the bandits.

The ending is a bit lame. (The thieves get away, but the loot they took from the merchants at the fair is recovered.) Everyone lives happily ever after, and fractons later become known as fractions. Nevertheless, this story would be a memorable and gentle introduction to or review of the subject of simple fractions.

Other Sir Cumference books are:
Sir Cumference and All the King’s Tens (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the First Round Table (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the Roundabout Battle
Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map
Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi
Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter
Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland
Sir Cumference and the Sword in the Cone
Sir Cumference and the Off-the-Charts Dessert

Another “living math” picture book that I picked up at the used bookstore is The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns. (Ms. Burns wrote two of the books in the Brown Paper School series, Math for Smarty Pants and The I Hate Mathematics Book!, and her name is on a series of math education books from Scholastic for preschool and primary readers, Marilyn Burns brainy day books.) The Greedy Triangle is about a triangle with a busy life who nevertheless becomes bored with doing the same old triangular things. With the help of a shapeshifter, our triangle tries out life as a quadrilateral, a pentagon, and a hexagon, then several other shapes all the way up to a decagon. But, of course, then the old life of a triangle starts to look good, and our shape-shifting shape asks for one last change.

I think this kind of “didacticism” is a just fine. Stories make math so much more interesting. Then again, I was usually the only one in my math classes who actually liked story problems best. Unadorned numbers make me cringe.

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My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Young Sami and his family escape from the bombing of his Syrian neighborhood and go to live in a refugee camp, but Sami had to leave his pigeons behind. As others in his family and in the camp begin to make a new life for themselves, Sami cannot think of anything other than his beautiful birds.

The artwork in this lovely picture book uses “plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media” to create a sense of beauty in the midst of war and desolation. Even young children can sympathize with Sami and his loneliness and depression as he tries to adjust to a new home without any of the things or people he had to leave behind in Syria, and especially without his pet birds. And I can picture young readers being inspired to use clay and painting and other mixed media to create their own pictures and art that perhaps speak to the losses that they have experienced themselves.

The book would even be a good art therapy book for older children and young adults. The use of literature, art and nature in helping people to cope with loss and with trauma is well-established by now, and this book would be a window for those who don’t understand much about the sadness and grief that refugees experience and a mirror for those who have experienced war or disaster firsthand.

“In 2015, looking for resources to explain the Syrian Civil War to her own children, Suzanne (Del Rizzo) came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with the wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp.” She wrote My Beautiful Birds in response to that article.

The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaele Frier

I would like to read I Am Malala, the book that Malala Yousafzai wrote about her own life and her activism on behalf of the education of girls around the world. Until I get around to reading that book, however, this picture book biography, translated into English from the French, gives a basic overview of Malala’s efforts and of her sacrifice for the cause of girls’ education and women’s rights.

I learned that Malala’s father is an educator himself and that he supports Malala’s efforts to protect and extend the rights of girls to have an education.

I learned that Malala was only fifteen years old in 2012 when Taliban extremists boarded her school bus and shot her three times. She was able to travel to England for medical treatment at a hospital in Birmingham where she was able to make a full recovery.

I learned that in 2014, when she was seventeen years old, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And the book also includes some quotes from Malala herself:

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when were in Swat, the nor of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens.”

“It does not matter the color of your skin, what language do you speak, what religion you believe in. It is that we should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other.”

This beautiful book is wonderful tribute to Malala Yousafzai, and it’s a good introduction to her life and work for elementary age children.

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12 Children’s Books of 2017 That I Want to Read

Descriptions are from Goodreads.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder. “About nine children who live on a mysterious island. On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleep in their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them—and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.” (May)

The Problem Children by Natalie Lloyd. “Seven strange siblings, all born on a different day of the week, and the neighbors who keep trying to tear their family apart.”

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart. “Jonathan Grisby is the newest arrival at the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys — an ancient, crumbling fortress of gray stone rising up from the ocean. It is dark, damp, and dismal. And it is just the place Jonathan figures he deserves. Because Jonathan has done something terrible. And he’s willing to accept whatever punishment he has coming.” (January)

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy. “Set in the spice-filled markets and curtain-drawn homes of 1991 Iraq and told through the eyes of 12-year-old Ali, a boy preoccupied by real-life dictators and video game villains, this book offers a glimpse into the everyday realities of growing up under the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.” (Spring)

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli. “Cammie O’Reilly is the warden’s daughter, living in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Prison. But she’s also living in a prison of grief and anger about the mother who died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. And prison has made her mad.” (January)

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberley Willis Holt. “Twelve-year-old Stevie’s world changes drastically when her parents are tragically killed and she is forced to live with her estranged grandfather at his run-down motel.” (March)

The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff. “Winnie’s last day of fourth grade ended with a pretty life-changing surprise. That was the day Winnie s parents got divorced, the day they decided that Winnie would live three days a week with each of them and spend Wednesdays by herself in a treehouse smack between their houses, to divide her time perfectly evenly between them. It was the day Winnie s seed of frustration with her parents was planted, a seed that grew and grew until it felt like it was as big as a tree itself.” (May)

The Song of Glory and Ghost (Outlaws of Time #2) by N.D. Wilson. (April)

Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai. “13-year-old Nadia and her family flee Aleppo, Syria, for Turkey in the wake of the Arab Spring.” (Fall)

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin. (January)

The Sweetest Sound by Sherri Winston. “For ten-year-old Cadence Jolly, birthdays are a constant reminder of all that has changed since her mother skipped town with dreams of becoming a star. Cadence inherited that musical soul, she can’t deny it, but otherwise she couldn’t be more different – she’s as shy as can be. When Cadence’s singing ability comes to the attention of her entire church family, she must decide what to do.” (January)

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla. “Life has been unraveling since Charlie’s war journalist father was injured in Afghanistan. And when Dad gets sent across country for medical treatment, Charlie must reluctantly travel to meet him. With his boy-crazy sister, unruly twin brothers, and a mysterious new family friend at the wheel, the journey looks anything but smooth.” (January)

Each of these sounds intriguing in its own way: an island, community-building, road trip, Middle Eastern settings, a church community(!), and nonfiction about a sports hero who was also Native American. Do any of these upcoming middle grade titles sound good to you?